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Reviews for September 15th, 2023

Documentary Round-Up

      Canary is an illuminating, but only mildly engaging documentary about Dr. Lonnie Thompson, a paleoclimatologist and glaciologist who studies the way that climate change has affected glaciers throughout the span of many years. Co-directors Danny O'Malley and Alex Rivest take a rather conventional approach to telling Dr. Thompson's story while combining talking head interviews with archival footage. You'll learn little about his childhood growing up in rural West Virginia, how he studied coal mining and eventually switched his focus of study to glaciers. Since discovering indisputable hard evidence of climate change, he's been trying to sound the alarm about global warming, but initially, his warnings fell on deaf ears. Despite his setbacks, i.e. health issues that required him to have a heart transplant, he continued to go back to the glaciers. He never gave up on his quest to investigate climate change nor his passion for glaciology and paleoclimatology. He's like a brave warrior who's justifiably compared to Indiana Jones. It's fascinating to learn how much money and effort it takes to get samples of glacier ice. It's not as simple as it sounds, and it takes heavy machinery that's not easy to transport. To be fair, Canary squanders its opportunity to be an exhilarating spectacle during the scenes on the glaciers. There's some breathtaking scenery, but not enough suspense or thrills to elevate the documentary above mediocrity. Even the interview with Dr. Thompason, his wife, who's also a scientist, and others are somewhat informative without being profound or cutting too deep. At a running time of 1 hour 44 minutes, Canary opens via Oscilloscope Laboratories at Village East by Angelika.

      Lift is a heartfelt and inspirational documentary about LIFT, a New York Theatre Ballet program that provides scholarships to homeless children who aspire to become ballet dancers. Director David Petersen follows the program's director Steven Melendez and three children from the program over a span of nearly a decade. The children are Yolanssie, Victor and Sharia, each of whom lives in poverty. Lift doesn't dwell on their struggles with poverty, though, but rather on the hope that LIFT provides them to escape poverty and to follow their passion to give them a brighter future. Melendez himself grew up in homeless shelters and joined the program during his childhood days, so he can relate to them. His compassion and empathy toward each of the kids is very evident in the way that he speaks to them without being condescending. There's a powerful scene where he sits down with Yolanssie to tell her a harsh truth about what will happen, according to statistics, if she continues to use violence against others to express her anger. That scene alone is the heart of the film and feels the most emotionally resonating. Fortunately, director David Petersen doesn't pry on any of the children's private lives----i.e., we never learn the root cause of Yolanssie's anger and issues with anger management---although you do get to meet their family members and to see what their living situation is like. Lift isn't quite as exhilarating as Mad Hot Ballroom, but at least it manages to be heartwarming and profound without being maudlin or preachy. At a running time of 1 hour and 27 minutes, it opens via Paramount Global Content Distribution at select theaters before hitting VOD on September 22nd, 2023.

Dumb Money

Directed by Craig Gillespie

      Keith Gill (Paul Dano), a YouTuber and Redditer, invests all of his life savings into GameStop's stock. He inspires others on Reddit, like Jenny (America Ferrera) and college students, Harmony (Talia Ryder) and Riri (Myha’la Herrold), to do the same. The stock price soon significantly rises making everyone who invested in the stock wealthier. Meanwhile, others like Gabe Plotkin (Seth Rogen), the CEO of a hedge fund, and billionaire Ken Griffin (Nick Offerman) lose a lot of money because they bet against the stock by short selling.

      Based on the book The Antisocial Network by Ben Mezrich, the screenplay by Lauren Schuker Blum and Rebecca Angelo, tells the story of the GameStop short squeeze from 2021 while keeping the audience engaged from start to finish. There are many characters, but the primary focus remains on Keith Gill who lives with his wife, Caroline (Shailene Woodley) and infant daughter. He has a brother Kevin (Pete Davidson), a DoorDash worker who struggles to make ends meet.  The plot becomes more gripping albeit concurrently more complicated when Vlad Tenev (Sebastian Stan), CEO of the app RobinHood, intervenes to prevent GameStop's stock from continuing to rise. The legal battles that ensue put Keith under a lot of pressure.

      It's moving to observe the relationship between Keith and his brother as well as the increasingly complex relationship between Keith and Caroline. There's a very well-written dinner scene with Keith, Kevin, Caroline and Keith's parents, Elaine (Kate Burton) and Steve (Clancy Brown), that reveals a lot about the family's dynamics. The subplot involving Gabe and his wife, Yaara (Olivia Thirlby), feels underdeveloped, but that's probably because there are so many characters and not enough time to develop all of their relationships. Dumb Money tries its best to include just the right amount of exposition without confusing the audience about financial terms. It doesn't quite treat the audience like they're stupid, but it does spoon-feed them more often than not. That said, the film doesn't unfold in a way that's dry, shallow or workmanlike. The screenplay brims with witty lines and a few surprisingly heartfelt moments without being cloying. Its greatest achievement is that it manages to see and treat the characters as human beings while providing enough of a window into their heart, mind and soul.

      Dumb Money has a terrific ensemble cast that allows for everyone on screen to have their own shining moment. The stand-out, though, is Paul Dano who effectively breathes life into Keith Gill so that you can grasp his emotional struggles when he's under a lot of pressure. Although the screenplay itself isn't emotionally unflinching, Dano's performance nonetheless compensates for that with his convincingly moving performance. Kudos to editor Kirk Baxter for seamlessly interweaving multiple subplots and characters without making the film feel disjointed, choppily-edited or clunky. The soundtrack is also lively and well-chosen without being intrusive.  Dumb Money is just as irresistibly entertaining as Air, BlackBerry, and Pinball: The Man Who Saved the Game. At a running time of 1 hour and 44 minutes, it's captivating and well-edited with just the right balance of humor, heart and suspense.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by Columbia Pictures.
Opens in select theaters. Expands wider on September 22nd and 29th.

A Haunting in Venice

Directed by Kenneth Branagh

      Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh) comes out of retirement in Venice to investigate a possible haunting at the mansion of Rowena Drake (Kelly Reilly). On Halloween, he and a mystery novelist, Ariadne Oliver (Tina Fey), attend a séance there to determine whether Joyce Reynolds (Michelle Yeoh), a psychic, can actually communicate with Rowena's dead daughter, Alicia (Rowan Robinson).

      Based on Agatha Christie's novel Hallowe'en Party, the screenplay by Michael Green suffers from lack of suspense and intrigue as well as poorly developed characters that are merely there as plot devices. Poirot and Ariadne both doubt the existence of the supernatural, but the séance where Joyce appears to be possessed by Alicia and even speaks in Alicia's voice complicates matters further. Then someone gets murdered and now Poirot has some sleuthing to do to figure out who's the murderer. Unfortunately, A Haunting in Venice loses steam very early and barely regains it in its convoluted third act. The mystery itself is neither fun, gripping, thrilling nor scary, not even on a psychological level. Moreover, the use of exposition feels lazy and clunky, especially with redundant flashbacks that attempt to provide a few brief glimpses of Alicia's backstory. The screenplay sorely lacks much-needed comic relief or any engaging characters. Even Poirot himself seems rather boring as an investigator this time around, although there's a line of dialogue at the very end that tries to add some depth to his role, but if feels tacked-on and too little, too late.

      A Haunting in Venice's major strengths are its production design and cinematography which create a somewhat eerie atmosphere through the set design, camera work and use of lighting. To be fair, though, the film tries too hard to be cinematic by including odd camera angles, i.e. an upside down shot of Poirot walking inside the mansion. Tina Fey is miscast as Ariadne and gives a bland performance, although she's not nearly as miscast and cringe-inducing as Gal Gadot is in Death on the Nile. Everyone else gives a decent performance, but they're undermined by the shallow screenplay---Michelle Yeoh, especially, is wasted in a small, forgettable role that'll make you wish you were watching Everything Everywhere All at Once again. At a running time of 1 hour and 43 minutes, A Haunting in Venice is very atmospheric, but also anemic while low on suspense, thrills and intrigue.

Number of times I checked my watch: 3
Released by 20th Century Studios.
Opens nationwide.

The Inventor

Directed by Jim Capobianco

      Leonardo da Vinci (voice of Stephen Fry) struggles to work as an artist and inventor in Italy where Pope Leo X (voice of Matt Berry), who refuses to let him study human anatomy. Instead, he moves to France and joins the French court where he has more freedom to work, experiment and invent things with the support and friendship of Princess Marguerite (voice of Daisy Ridley).

      The screenplay by writer/co-director Jim Capobianco eschews a standard biopic approach by throwing the audience right into the latter stage of da Vinci's life and oversimplifies his struggles. Combining the drama with some witty dialogue and musical numbers results in a tonally uneven and occasionally clunky animated film. It's not thorough or profound enough to enlighten adults about Leonardi da Vinci as an artist, inventor and human being nor is it funny or imaginative enough to keep children entertained, so it's hard to watch this film without wondering, "Who is this made for?" There are too many scenes outside of the musical numbers that feel dull, dry and pedestrian. Unfortunately, none of the characters, not even Leonardi da Vinci, truly come to life. Perhaps if The Inventor were more zany, bold and hilarious like the delightful A Town Called Panic or as profound and surprisingly dark as The Painting it would've elevated above mediocrity.

      The Inventor major strength is its stellar animation style. The combination of stop-motion animation and 2D animation makes for an often dazzling visual spectacle that will mesmerize audiences young and old. It's too bad that the story and screenplay aren't as imaginative and resonating as the animation. The voice actors are decent and the pace moves briskly enough, but without an engaging enough narrative, the film does begin to overstay its welcome around the 1 hour mark. At a running time of 1 hour and 32 minutes, The Inventor is mildly engaging, occasionally witty and amusing with stunning animation, but also somewhat clunky and dull.

Number of times I checked my watch: 3
Released by Blue Fox Entertainiment.
Opens in select theaters.

Outlaw Johnny Black

Directed by Michael Jai White

      Johnny Black (Michael Jai White) seeks to avenge the death of his father, Bullseye Black (Glynn Turman), by hunting down his murderer, Brett Clayton (Chris Browning), but he ends up a fugitive from the law and goes on the run instead. He joins Reverend Percival Fairman (Byron Minns) on his way to Hope Springs where he expects to marry Bessie Lee (Erica Ash).

      The screenplay by writer/director Michael Jai White and co-writer Byron Minns deserves credit for trying to blend the genres of Western, action, comedy and satire. Unfortunately, the result is tonal mess with lackluster execution that's neither funny nor thrilling enough. There are more than a few attempts at outrageous, but they often fall flat. The plot itself doesn't chart new territory as it feels like the kind that you'd expect from a Western B-movie which would've been fine if it were leaner, tighter and focused, especially in terms of finding the right tone. The romantic subplot involving Johnny Black's romance with Bessie is contrived, dull and clunky. Moreover, none of the characters, not even Johnny Black, are well-written or memorable enough to make any kind of impact or to stand out.

      Outlaw Johnny Black does have stylish cinematography and solidly choreographed action sequences, but beyond that there's nothing exceptional about its production values. The performances range from decent to over-the-top and annoying, especially during a cringe-inducing scene where one of the characters starts shrieking at another character which won't be spoiled here. That scene goes on and on while overstaying its welcome. Speaking of which The editing sometimes feels choppy while other times there are scenes like the aforementioned one that go on for way, way too long. There's nothing fun about tedium, exhaustion nor feeling the weight of a film's lengthy running time. At 2 hour and 10 minutes, Outlaw Johnny Black is an overlong, unfunny and tonally uneven mess. It doesn't come close to the exhilarating and bold Django Unchained during its more serious moments and doesn't even hold a candle to hilarious Western satire classic Blazing Saddles or the recent Go West.

Number of times I checked my watch: 4
Released by Samuel Goldwyn Films.
Opens in select theaters.


Directed by Adil El Arbi & Bilall Fallah

      Kamal (Aboubakr Bensaihi) lives in Belgium with his mother, Leila (Lubna Azabal), and younger brother Nassim (Amir El Arbi). He decides to go to Syria to help war victims, but instead gets forced to join ISIS. Nassim ends up also joining ISIS, so Leila travels to Syria to desperately search for her beloved sons.

      The screenplay by co-writer/director Adil El Arbi, co-writer/director Bilall Fallah and their co-writers, Jan Van Dyck and Kevin Meul, is a gripping and unflinching psychological thriller that also works as a genuinely heartfelt portrait of a dysfunctional family in crisis. The filmmakers do a wonderful job of humanizing Kamal, Leila and Nassim to allow the audience to understand what's going through the mind of Kamal, Leila and Nassim and to grasp what they're feeling. Kamal is a rebellious young man who's troubled, but also impressionable and naive. He doesn't join ISIS willingly. The narrative eventually shifts from Kamal's perceptive to Nassim and Leila's perceptive. However, it doesn't feel disjointed, unfocused, or contrived because the characters are seen and treated as fully-fleshed human beings, warts-and-all. You won't agree with Kamal or Nassim's bad decisions, but you'll understand what leads to them. Kudos to the filmmakers for showing empathy toward them without villainizing them. The last 30 minutes or so are the most harrowing and difficult to watch, although without being heavy-handed. The scenes leading up to the intense third act are just as suspenseful. There are even some surprising, bold and unconventional musical numbers that, initially feel awkward and bizarre, but, once you get used to them, they're quite exhilarating.

      The performances of Aboubakr Bensaihi, Amir El Arbi, and Lubna Azabal are all convincingly moving and natural which helps to ground the film even further in authenticity and to keep audiences immersed in the characters' lives. Most importantly, though, the emotionally generous performances allow the audience to have empathy for Kamal, Leila and Nassim, so the beats land during the emotionally devastating and haunting third act. The editing is superb with interesting cuts to musical numbers which feel a little abrupt at times, but those are minor, forgivable flaws that aren't systemic. The lyrics of the songs are very illuminating and even somewhat poetic. Poetry, after all, is a form of protest for or against something. At a running time of 2 hours and 13 minutes, Rebel is a powerful, gripping and genuinely heartfelt protest against war.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by Yellow Veil Pictures.
Opens at IFC Center.

The Retirement Plan

Directed by Tim J. Brown

      When her husband, Jimmy (Jordan Johnson-Hinds), gets into trouble for stealing a hard drive from criminals, Ashley (Ashley Greene) puts the hard drive inside the backpack of her young daughter, Sarah (Thalia Campbell), and sends her on a plane to the Cayman Islands where Ashley's estranged father, Matt (Nicolas Cage) resides. Soon enough, the crime boss Donnie (Jackie Earle Haley) and his lieutenant, Bobo (Ron Perlman), kidnap Sarah and travel to the Cayman Island to retrieve the stole hard drive.

      The Retirement Plan has everything you would expect expect from a Nicolas Cage and Ron Perlman movie: wildly entertaining action scenes, dark comedy and some of Nicolas Cage's iconic Cage Rage. The screenplay by Tim J. Brown offers more than that, though, because it has a few surprisingly profound and moving scenes between all of the action and suspense. Bravo to Brown for seeing and treating the characters as complex, flawed human beings. There's more to Matt than meets the eye. Yes, he's an assassin, but also a bad father who's emotionally mature enough to acknowledge that he's a bad father. He also knows how to talk to his granddaughter, Sarah, without getting angry at her when she asks him why he has two names. Then there's Bobo who turns out to be well-educated in Shakespeare and has a very interesting reply when Sarah asks him how he ended up a bad guy. One of Matt's friends (Ernie Hudson), despite being a supporting character, is also humanized in a surprisingly profound and poignant scene where he talks about death and how Matt has been desensitized to it throughout the years. A scene later in the third act proves that Matt is a good friend and perhaps not so desensitized to death and suffering after all. To be fair, The Retirement Plan does get silly and preposterous at times, and the plot itself is pretty conventional, especially with the inclusion of a MacGuffin. However, it's very well-executed and much funnier, whittier and more entertaining than The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent.

      Nicolas Cage is in top form. This is the kind of role he excels at, and it shows from start to finish without him going overboard with Cage Rage like in the recent Sympathy for the Devil. The same can be said about Ron Perlman, Jackie Earle Haley, Ernie Hudson and Lynn Whitfield, each of whom has their own chance to shine here. Thalia Campbell is a superb child actress and has a few terrific scenes with Ron Perlman. The action scenes are well-choreographed with some thrilling set pieces, i.e. one that takes place on a balcony. Of course, the scenery provides some eye candy. It's also worth mentioning that the smooth editing doesn't feel choppy and that the film moves along with an appropriately brisk pace. At a running time of 1 hour and 43 minutes, The Retirement Plan is a funny, exhilarating and crowd-pleasing action comedy.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by Falling Forward Films.
Opens nationwide.

Satanic Hispanics

Directed by Alejandro Brugués, Mike Mendez, Demián Rugna, Eduardo Sánchez & Gigi Saul Guerrero

      While being interrogated for a series of brutal murders of Latinos, a man only known as The Traveler (Efren Ramirez) tells the police detectives about supernatural and horror tales that might have something to do with the murders.

      Satanic Hispanics is a horror anthology with a very mixed bag of short films.The stories include demons, vampires and zombies, among other evil entities.  Some stories are serious, some are darkly funny and campy like the vampire short while others, like the final short, go over-the-top. Unfortunately, the wrap-around story about The Traveler is distracting, although it does provide a few chuckles, but it takes away from the film's narrative momentum as the audience waits for the next short.

       The only thing connecting the shorts in terms of themes is that they're about Latinos, so the film does deserve credit for living up to its title.  The change in tones from one short to the next causes tonal whiplash, though. There's plenty of blood and guts, so if that's all it takes to whet your appetite for horror, then you'll at least be satisfied on that level, but not much more than that. None of the manages to be particularly scary, hilarious, clever, imaginative enough, but at least none of them overstay their welcome.

Number of times I checked my watch: 3
Released by Epic Pictures.
Opens in select theaters.

Waiting for the Light to Change

Directed by Linh Tran

      Kim (Joyce Ha), Amy (Jin Park), Jay (Sam Straley), Lin (Qui Chi), and Alex (Erik Barrientos) spend a week together during a getaway at a house by the beach. The relationship between Amy and her best friend, Kim, gets put to the test when Amy declares that she has a crush on Jay, Kim's boyfriend.

      Despite a screenplay with three writers, namely, writer/director Linh Tran and co-writers Jewells Santos and Delia Van Praag, Waiting for the Light to Change has a dull plot with everything remaining understated including the emotions and character development. A lot remains unsaid between Kim and Amy at first, but it's inevitable that their friendship won't be the same because Amy still has feelings for Kim's boyfriend. Not surprisingly, that also affects Kim's relationship with Jay. The screenplay eschews a first act while also eschewing flashbacks which is admirable. However, it would've been interesting to explore Kim and Amy's relationship with more depth. They both seem like strangers to the audience and, by the end, they still remain at a cold distance. The screenplay's systemic issue is that it fails to provide enough of a window into any of the characters' heart, mind and soul. A lot takes place in the imagination of the audience, rather than on-screen, so this is far from the kind of cerebral and very poignant movies about relationships that Eric Rohmer makes. He knows how to take something that's filled with Truth or humanity and to find the spectacle within it. In other words, he takes something mundane and turns it into something profound. Richard Linklater, Andrew Bujalski, Hong Sang-soo and Kenneth Lonergan are also filmmakers who excel at it. While it's refreshing to see a drama without violence, supernatural elements or thrills thrown in, the same can't be said about the filmmakers of Waiting for the Light to Change, unfortunately. The lack of comic relief leads to a tone that feels melancholic, but also somewhat monotonous and lethargic.

      The performances are decent and, like the film itself, understated and nuanced. However, they're undermined by the very bland, witless screenplay. The filmmakers trust the audience's patience, which is fine, but they trust it too much. Static scenes and characters staring off into the distance doesn't always make for an engrossing experience. Some scenes overstay their welcome and drag. Also, there are too many pauses between some lines of dialogue which feels clunky and frustrating. The cinematography is exquisite, though, and the scenery adds some visual poetry, but not enough to compensate for the film's lack of substance. At a running time of 1 hour and 29 minutes, which feels more like 3 hours, Waiting for the Light to Change is well-shot, understated and poetic, but emotionally hollow, dull and lethargic.

Number of times I checked my watch: 3
Released by Freestyle Digital Media.
Opens at Quad Cinema.