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Reviews for September 16th, 2022

Documentary Round-Up

      Between 1940 and 1944, over 25,000 Jewish men and women came together as partisans to fight against the Nazis in the forests of Eastern Europe. The spellbinding, insightful and profoundly moving documentary Four Winters tells their story of courage. Director Julia Mintz interviews surviving partisans who recall their experiences during the World War II as they struggle to survive for four years and bravery fought against the Nazis. They shot Nazis, stabbed them, derailed trains, blew up a bridge and hid out in the woods while rationing food. One of the survivors, Faye Shulman, took photographs which are shown along with clips from Partisans of Vilna, a documentary from 1986 that's very hard to find on DVD and isn't streaming anywhere. Hollywood told a narrative version of the partisans in the film Defiance.

      The interviews here are filled with emotion and vivid details that will keep you at the edge of your seat. Even little anecdotes like the fact that they stored raw pork in the snow with salt because it doesn't spoil as fast as chicken or beef does. There was one woman, though, who refused to eat pork, so she was given chicken. In the most intimate and emotionally devestating interviews, one of the survivors recalls how she had to stab a Nazi even though she never killed anyone before. All of the interviewees are brave for talking about such traumatic moments in their lives. They show emotional maturity as they reflect on their actions. When it comes to the cinematography, interestingly, none of them are shown in full frame until the very end; while they're being interviewed, there's a lot of close up shots which adds to the intimacy and makes you feel like you're right next to them as they're speaking. At a running time of 1 hour and 36 minutes, Four Winters opens at Film Forum via New Moon Films. It's one of the most powerful and vital documentaries of the year.

      From the Hood to the Holler is an equally provocative and captivating documentary about Charles Booker, a political activist who bravely started a grassroots campaign in 2020 in hope of becoming the Democratic nominee in Kentucky. Despite very little money to fund his campaign compared to Amy McGrath who had millions for her campaign, he didn't give up his determination nor his optimism. Director Pat McGee balances Charles Booker's experiences on the campaign trail with his home life. Interviews with his family, including his mother, help to humanize him to show the audience what his life is like "behind the curtain", so-to-speak. His hopes and dreams of uniting the people of America and fighting political corruption reflect his compassion and decency. Through his interviews and footage of his speeches, he's clearly wise, eloquent and, above all, very strong innately. Sadly, it takes more than just innate strength, decency, courage and wisdom to win in politics. Money talks. It's not a spoiler to say that Booker lost to McGrath in the primary. He hasn't let his failure become an obstacle, though. He campaigned again and won the primary back in May 2022, so his persistence paid off. What's more important is that he worked hard and never gave up on his journey no matter what setbacks he encountered along the way. Every voice matters no matter how big or small. If there's hope for Charles Booker, there's hope for any decent political underdog to win and to make a difference in a world that desperately needs systemic change. At running time of 1 hour and 42 minutes, From the Hood to Holler opens at Cinema Village via Pat McGee Pictures.

      Gratitude Revealed is an enlightening, breathtaking and nourishing feast for the heart, mind and soul. Director Louie Schwartzberg covers a broad range of topics from patience to beauty. He includes many different perspectives from a variety of people ranging from film producer Brian Grazer to screenwriter Norman Lear to author Deepak Chopra all of whom provide their own profound insights. Each topic would have easily been the main topic of a separate documentary. Even when the documentary begins to meander from one complex topic to the next, it circles back to the overarching topic of gratitude. Schwartzberg provides the audience with many different ways to look at gratitude without judging or criticizing any of the perspectives. It's up to you, as a thinking and feeling human being, to decide on your own what to learn to help the garden of your soul grow, so-to-speak. If aphorisms were nutrients for the soul, watching Gratitude Revealed is the equivalent of taking multivitamins. Interestingly, one of the first topics discussed is curiosity, an essential "vitamin" to have that's difficult to attain and maintain within the hustle and bustle of our modern times.

      Juxtaposed with the kernels of wisdom, Gratitude Revealed has stunning, marvelous shots of nature which help to relax the mind as you're processing all of the insights. Many of the images are quite poetic. Poetry, after all, is a form of protest for or against something, so then the question is: What is Gratitude Revealed a protest for or against? It's a protest for inner peace, humanity and true happiness. Introspective and spiritual audiences will appreciate this documentary the most. As Pablo Neruda once wrote, "They can cut all of the flowers, but they can't stop the spring from coming." Gratitude Revealed can help the garden of your soul to heal and grow if you allow it to. It would make for a great double feature with Samsara and Human. At an ideal running time of 1 hour and 22 minutes, Gratitude Revealed opens at Village East by Angelika via Area 23a.

      Moonage Daydream is one of the most exhilarating documentaries of the year. Director Brett Morgen opts for an unconventional approach to a documentary biopic. If you're looking for a thorough, in-depth portrait of David Bowie or anything that's shocking, you'll be disappointed. Instead of merely mixing non-stop talking heads with concert footage, Morgen blends never-before-seen interviews with some concert footage, clips from a variety of films and some very trippy visuals. It's the equivalent of a long music video, so your mileage will vary depending on how big of fan you are of Bowie. This isn't the kind of doc where he explains the meaning of the music and lyrics. Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, A Journey, A Song does a better job of capturing its subject as a human being and as an artist without the over-the-top visual flair of Moonage Daydream. It let its subject, Leonard Cohen, and his music speak for themselves. In his interviews, Bowie comes across as intelligent, candid and very, very witty. His quips and sense of humor are often amusing.

      Director Brett Morgen goes more than a few steps further by using the stylish visuals to immerse the audience and create a sort of a hypnotic, fever-like dream for them. Around the 2 hour-mark, it leads the audience to ask, "When am I going to wake up?". Does it need to be 2 hours and 20 minutes long? No, it ends up exhausting the audience as though they were in a very loud concert. Some of the images, i.e. Bowie going up and down an escalator at night, are breathtaking, but get repeated, so they overstay their welcome the second time around, and lose their impact to boot. Admittedly, it's very hard to describe Moonage Daydream with words because it's unique and often transcendent beyond words, much like Bowie himself. Maybe you'll enjoy the film more while high. Either way, it's definitely a cinematic experience that should be watched on the big screen for maximum immersion. Moonage Daydream opens exclusively in IMAX theaters before expanding nationwide on September 23rd.

      Riotsville, U.S.A. is a tedious exposé that bombards the audience with archival footage of "Riotsvilles", fictionalized built by the U.S. military in the 1960's where police and military were trained to respond to civil disorder. Director Sierra Pettengill eschews a conventional documentary format by avoiding talking heads, but she also avoids delving into or discussing the images shown in depth. Instead, you're merely presented with the archival footage and images, some voice over-narration by Charlene Modeste and some captions to inform you of what you're watching. You'll learn that the catalyst for the creation of Riotsvilles was the 1967 Kerner Commission under President Lyndon B. Johnson. What about some context for a change? Or perhaps broader scope and insight that connects what happened back in the 1960's to current events. It seems as though Pettengill was so excited to have found access to the footage that she spends 99% of the time on that and nothing else. Footage alone isn't enough. Riotsville, U.S.A. feels too much like an oversimplified "show and tell" that barely scratches the surface of its subject and fails to examine it thoroughly from many angles and through experts. There must be someone alive today who participated in Riotsvilles. What do they have to say? Do their opinions not matter? Every issue has more than two sides. There are ridges, the sides of the ridges, the corners, etc. This lazy and pedestrian documentary only shows one side. It's the kind of dry and dull documentary that will compel you to ask, "When is the exam???". At a running time of 1 hour and 31 minutes, it opens via Magnolia Pictures at Film Forum.

      Still Working 9 to 5 is a fascinating, vital and eye-opening documentary about the making and significance of 9 to 5 and what it means today, over 40 years later. Co-directed by Camille Hardman and Gary Lane starts at the beginning by informing the audience how Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin, Dolly Parton and Dabney Coleman came on board to star in the iconic film. You'll also learn that Patricia Resnick, the film's co-writer, had a screenplay draft that was much darker before the co-writer/director Colin Higgins, who also wrote Harold & Maude, did a re-write that made it lighter and funnier. This "behind the scenes" portion of this doc would've been dull and pedestrian if it weren't for the lively and insightful interviews with the actresses as well as the people behind the camera. The anecdotes are amusing and revealing, i.e. when Lily Tomlin candidly explains how she initially refused to be in the film because of some of the lines that she thought were too childish. Co-directors Camille Hardman and Gary Lane are lucky to have her as well as Fonda, Parton and Coleman as interviewees because they bring a lot of insight, critical thinking and even a little wit to the film. Beyond the anecdotes, Still Working 9 to 5 also takes a macroscopic analysis of 9 to 5 while addressing the issue of women's rights and equality which is still pertinent today. You'll learn about some of the changes and progress for the womens' movement that have been made since 1980, but, as Lily Tomlin wisely states, more work has to be done. The fight for women's rights is still on-going. Still Working 9 to 5 is a step in the right direction because it grasps the fact a lot can be learned by examining the past head-on, critically and honestly. At a running time of 1 hour and 36 minutes, it opens at Cinema Village.

Casablanca Beats

Directed by Nabil Ayouch

      Anas (Anas Basbousi), a former rapper, accepts a job teaching teenagers rap at a youth cultural center in Casablanca, Morocco. They live in a working class neighborhood called Sidi Moume with a high violence and crime rate. Anas hopes to inspire them to channel their anger and frustration to overcome their hardships.

      Casablanca Beats follows a conventional formula of inspirational teachers movies, but it follows the formula with its heart up its sleeve. The screenplay by writer/director Nabil Ayouch eschews a first act that would've provided a backstory for Anas. Within the first few minutes, he already becomes a teacher at the cultural center. By keeping exposition at minimum, Ayouch focuses on his interactions with the students. It's equally poignant, uplifting and poignant to watch the students start to grow and change through rap music. Anas awakens something within them that gives them the freedom to express their thoughts and feelings and, most importantly, to feel alive while being true to themselves. Outside of the cultural centre, they feel alienated and dehumanized. Gradually, Anas helps them to be introspective, an important quality in healthy human beings. In a way, his class is like a therapy session for both the students as well as the audience. Even if you're not into rap music per se, that's besides the point; healing can come from any form of artistic expression whether it's music, painting, film, writing or sculpture. Fortunately, Ayouch doesn't waste any time with unnecessary subplots nor does he delve into the family life of the students. Anas becomes like a surrogate brother or father or uncle to these kids who don't have anyone else to turn to. His final speech that he gives to them in the third act does veer a little toward preachiness, but it's heartfelt, honest, compassionate and empathetic. He's a great role model for them, like Erin Gruwell was to her students in Freedom Writers.

      The raw performances by Anas Basboubi as well as the actors and actresses who play the students helps tremendously to enliven the film as well as to keep it emotionally resonating. There are more than a few genuinely tender moments that tug at your heartstrings without being cloying, i.e. the final scene. Sure, it can be seen from a mile away, but there's nothing wrong with predictability. The musical sequences are a pure, unadulterated joy to behold. Ultimately, Casablanca Beats earns its uplift which is a true testament to the success of its sensitive, humanist screenplay. How will Anas change the future of these kids when they become adults and look back at their youth? That's up to the audience's imagination; this isn't the kind of film that flashes forward decades to spoon-feed the audience the answer to that question. A more important question is: How will Anas inspire and affect you, the audience, who's no more or less human than Anas or any of his students? At a running time of 1 hour and 41 minutes, Casablanca Beats is a powerful, genuinely heartfelt and inspirational testament to the healing power of art.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by Kino Lorber.
Opens nationwide.

God's Country

Directed by Julian Higgins

      Sandra Guidry (Thandiwe Newton), an African American who used to be a police officer when she lived in New Orleans, now works as a college professer in a small town in the American West. While still grieving the death of her mother, she faces harassment and bullying from local hunters, Nathan (Joris Jarsky) and Samuel (Jefferson White), who trespass on her property. She also has to deal with racism and an arrogant college dean, Arthur (Kai Lennox). Gretchen (Tanaya Beatty), one of her students, confides to Sandra that Arthur sexually abused her.

      God's Country is a psychological thriller about a woman who's burdened with her traumatic past. Sandra moves to the small, unnamed and seemingly idyllic town with a lot of emotional baggage. Writer/director Julian Higgins doesn't inform the audience right away what that baggage is particularly, but it gets revealed more gradually. Even during the opening scene when Sandra is cremating someone close to her, it's not entirely clear who that person is until later on. You also don't learn what subject Sandra teaches right away either. All around her, she's surrounded by bullies, creeps and jerks who all know each other in the small town. She confronts the bullies, but they continue to harass her. A local police officer doesn't do much to help her. She's alone, lonely and traumatized by her past in New Orleans. In a moving scene as she sits by a window with a colleague, she candidly explains to him her painful memories of being an ex-cop in New Orleans while experiencing Hurricane Katrina. She's frustrated, sad and indignant, but, most of all, she doesn't really have a good friend to talk to or any way to really channel her feelings. You might think that she's emotionally mature at first, especially how she stands up to Arthur with a passive aggressive remark about his bad back which silences him, but you'll be wrong by the third act when she crosses certain boundaries that won't be spoiled here.

      If you judge Sandra, you probably wouldn't like her very much based on the choices that she makes. Why judge her, though? Why does every character have to be likeable? Why not just experience her and learn from her what not to do? She's a human being, after all, and a very flawed one who has serious issues. She's far from a good role model. God's Country doesn't offer any solutions to her systemic problems nor does it have to because they're very complex. Perhaps they're problems that will never have solutions. What God's Country does accomplish effectively is to show what can happen when someone who's mentally and emotionally unstable gets pushed to the edge. You probably don't think that she's doing the right thing in the end, but, in Sandra's mind, she thinks that she is, indeed, doing the right thing. Why does she think that? That's left for the audience to interpret on their own.  

      Thandiwe Newton gives a nuanced and moving performance as Sandra. She breathes life into the role even during the quieter moments without over-acting or under-acting. Speaking of quieter moments, writer/director Julian Higgins knows how to use moments of silence to convey a lot of meaning through the visuals alone. The landscape becomes a character in and of itself while adding style and atmosphere that becomes part of the film's substance. The slow pace is refreshing and helps the audience to become more absorbed in the film, so kudos to Higgins for knowing where to trust the audience's patience. Patience, after all, is usually rewarding. In a way, what happens at the end of God's Country is reminiscent of the end of the film Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles. Sandra and Jeanne are essentially cut from the same cloth. Fortunately, this film isn't over 3 hours long. At a running time of just 1 hour and 42 minutes, God's Country is a mesmerizing, gripping and engrossing psychological thriller. 

Number of times I checked my watch: 2
Released by IFC Films.
Opens at IFC Center.

I Am Like You

Directed by Haik Kocharian

      Sean (Curtis Butterfield), a teenage boy, lives with his mother, Joelle (Terra Mackintosh), and bonds with his best friend, Lucky, a wolfdog. Lucky gets separated from Sean and into the hands of Dennis (Johnathan Hyett) who abuses her. Susan (Stacy Edwards), a veterinarian, rescues and tries to save the injured Lucky.

      I Am Like You is yet another drama unfolds in an achronological fashion. Like the recent Hold Me Tight, the non-linear structure distracts from the narrative momentum rather than enhancing it. It's as though writer/director Haik Kocharian didn't find any tension inherent in the story itself. Why the need to jump back and forth between Sean bonding with Lucky and Lucky getting abused and then rescued? It's not confusing, just frustrating while needlessly overcomplicating the film, especially for younger audiences. To be fair, at least the screenplay isn't as atonal and awkward as Shepherd: The Story of a Jewish Dog that blended family drama, inspirational dog movie and the Holocaust with very disappointing results and subpar performances. The tone in I Am Like You remains more or less somber and bittersweet without getting maudlin. There are plenty of heartbreaking moments, so if you're a dog lover and owner, it might be very hard to watch. Kocharian doesn't shy away from going into dark territory and showing its characters, including Lucky, struggle emotionally and physically. You'd have to be made out of stone not to be moved by those scenes, especially when Susan tries to unite Lucky with Sean. Admittedly, though, characters are not fleshed out enough for them to have much depth, though, but the non-linear plot structure makes it hard to be fully absorbed in their lives. Just as you begin to get to know one of the character more, i.e. Sean, the film flashes forward or back to another character. I Am Like You isn't as emotionally resonating as Hachi: A Dog's Tale nor is it as haunting as the White God. It ends with a scene with a preacher giving a speech that feels tacked-on and too on-the-nose without leaving much room for interpretation for the audience. Also, would it hurt to include just a little comic relief or some kind of levity to counterbalance the story's heaviness? Otherwise, it leads to monotone and tedium.

      The performances are fine and natural despite being undermined by a dull screenplay that fails to breathe life into any of the characters. The pace moves slowly, sometimes too slowly. While it's refreshing for a filmmaker to trust the audience's patience, writer/director Haik Kocharian trusts it too much. Younger audiences might get fidgety, especially around the 90-minute mark knowing that there's 38 more minutes left. Also, the film is over-edited with excessive flashbacks and flash forwards. Why can't filmmakers trust that their narrative is cinematic enough to sustain the audience's attention? A few flashbacks would be fine, but the number of flashbacks here show a lack of restraint--the same lack of restraint that Matthiew Almaric shows in Hold Me Tight or Christopher Nolan in Dunkirk. At a running time of 2 hours and 8 minutes, I Am Like You is occasionally moving, dark and heartbreaking, but monotonous and overlong with a non-linear style gets in the way of its substance.

Number of times I checked my watch: 3
Released by CINEMAflix.
Opens at Cinema Village.

The Retaliators

Directed by Bridget Smith and Samuel Gonzalez Jr.


      Pastor Bishop (Michael Lombardi) lets his teenage daughter, Sarah (Katie Kelly) borrow the car to attend a Christmas party. After she gets murder on her way there, he hunts down her killer, meets a crooked cop Jed (Marc Menchaca), and uncovers dark underworld.

      The Retaliators is a lean, mean horror thriller. The screenplay by Darren and Jeff Geare wastes no time setting up the horror elements with a prologue that shows what looks like zombies dragging people out of a car in the woods. Then the film flashes back to introduce the Pastor Bishop and his daughter before she gets murdered by the villain. Just when you think that The Retaliators will become Death Wish as Pastor Bush tries to track down her killer, it suddenly turns into a torture porn film with shades of Saw and a little bit of Dawn of the Dead. The tone remains serious throughout, for the most part, with very little comic relief or dark comedy like in Shaun of the Dead. There is, though, plenty of action and grisly blood and guts that leaves nothing to the imagination. The plot makes less and less sense as it progresses, so if you're looking for something brainy and brilliant, you'll be disappointed. This is a B-movie after all. Realism gets thrown out of the window by the time the end credits roll, but there's still a morsel of it left. The villain isn't given much of an interesting backstory. How did he end up so evil? What about the lines that Jed and, inevitably, Pastor Bishop cross? Pastor Bishop seems cut from the same cloth as the father that Liam Neeson plays in Taken. Fundamentally, The Retaliators is much darker and violent than Taken, and also much more bonkers in the third act. The filmmakers don't take the level of bonkers very far enough to turn the film into a guilty pleasure crowd-pleaser, though.

      The cast is pretty solid, especially Joseph Gatt as the viscious thug, Ram Kady, who Jed kidnaps and holds hostage while torturing him. The torture scenes will make you squeamish, but they're not nearly as imaginative or shocking as the torture scenes in Saw. If it were to have an R-rating instead of being NoT Rated, it would definitely earn its R-rating, so if you have a weak stomach, this might not be the horror thriller for you because it's much more visceral than psychological horror. The pace moves briskly enough and there's rarely a scene that drags. At a running time of 1 hour and 37 minutes, The Retaliators is a very dark, twisted and mindlessly entertaining horror thriller.

Number of times I checked my watch: 2
Released by CineLife Entertainment.
Opens in select theaters nationwide.

Running the Bases

Directed by Marty Roberts and Jimmy Womble

      Luke Brooks (Brett Varvel), a small town high school baseball coach, lives with his wife, Jessica (Gigi Orsillo), and teenage son, Joshua (Brendan Carl Reimer). He named Joshua after his brother (Braylon Brown) who suddenly died from a heart defect while playing baseball during their teenage years. Since then, in honor of his brother, Luke has a tradition of praying and running the bases. When he gets a job offer at another high school, he and his family relocate. A city ordinance prohibits anyone from publicly displaying religion in city parks. The school's superintendent, (Todd Terry) Michael Jamison, gets Luke into trouble for mixing religion into his new coaching job after he discovers a bible in the room of his son, Ryan (Justin Sterner), a player on Luke's baseball team.

      The screenplay by writer/director Marty Roberts and Jimmy Womble begins with some exposition about Luke's childhood days, his passion for baseball, and his relationship with his brother, Joshua, before tragedy strikes and Joshua dies. Joshua's death has a huge impact on the rest of Luke's life. In a way, this film is not just about love, faith, compassion and family, but also about how to handle grief. Luke handles it and heals from it through his faith in Jesus and by keeping his tradition of running the bases. His main obstacle is Michael, the superintendent, who has no respect for Luke's faith. Fortunately, the filmmakers don't paint Michael as a villain. Yes, he's mostly unlikable and immature for the way he treats Luke, but he has a lot of emotional pain which makes him, ironically, similar to Luke. The main difference is that Michael hasn't found a way to heal from his pain and, instead, projects his anger and frustrations unfairly and unreasonably toward Luke. What did Luke do to him to deserve Michael's contempt? Nothing. Michael has contempt for himself, ultimately. There's a very moving scene in the third act where Michael opens up and shows some signs of introspection, so he's not really a terrible person.

      The performances are solid all across the board from Brett Varvel who exudes charisma to Todd Terry who handles the role of Michael without giving a hammy performance. The younger actors are pretty great too, especially Raphael Ruggero as the teenage version of Luke, and Justin Sterner who's also terrific in the recent, equally wonderful faith-based movie Lifemark. Although Running the Bases is indeed a faith-based baseball movie, it doesn't fall into the trappings of too many faith-based movies: it has a lot to say about faith and isn't afraid to be sentimental at the right moments, but, concurrently. it never becomes preachy or corny along the way. This film is, fundamentally, about human beings going through innate struggles and learning how to grow and heal from their pain. Some grow and heal it faster than others. Bravo to co-writer/directors Marty Roberts and Jimmy Womble for treating the characters like human beings from start to finish rather than as caricatures. At 2 hours and 7 minutes, Running the Bases is a grand slam! It's a warm, captivating and genuinely heartfelt journey well worth taking.

Number of times I checked my watch: 2
Released by UP2U Films.
Opens nationwide.


Directed by Ti West

      Pearl (Mia Goth) lives alone with her ailing father (Matthew Sunderland) and overbearing and overprotective mother, Ruth (Tandi Wright), who doesn't support her dreams of becoming a dancer in the movies. Meanwhile, her husband remains overseas fighting in World War I. She rebels against her mother by going to the cinema and befriending a projectionist (David Corenswet) before she develops a lust for killing.

      While X is a pure horror film, Pearl is more of a psychological character study with horror elements. Writer/director Ti West and co-writer Mia Goth don't include horror right away, but gradually build up to it as Pearl descends further into madness. On the inside, she's lonely, depressed, insecure, frustrated and emotionally needy. It's easy to see how she ended up that way when you meet her narcissistic mother. The apple didn't fall very far from the tree. The relationship between her and her husband overseas is barely even a subplot. How did they meet? What does he see in her? What's their relationship like when they're together? The answers to those questions are left to the audience's imagination. Instead of padding the film with flashbacks or going off on a tangent, Pearl remains lean and focused on Pearl's increasingly psychotic behavior while humanizing her a little. She's more of a complex and deeply troubled human being like Norman Bates than just a pure villain. There are no surprises except for a few brief jump scares, i.e. when the projectionist comes over her house, but this isn't the kind of movie that relies on surprises and shocks to entertain the audience. The suspense is, more often than not, Hitchockian. It derives from the anticipation of Pearl's inevitable killing spree. Pearl doesn't ask you to judge her, just to experience her and try to understand what she's feeling and thinking before she goes completely off the rails. There's a little comic relief in the form of dark comedy, but not a lot; this much more serious and less bonkers than Barbarian, after all. In one of the film's surprisingly moving scenes, Pearl goes on a long rant where she opens up to her sister-in-law, Misty (Emma Jenkins-Purro). It's a scene that could've easily dragged and become melodramatic, but instead it's powerful, profound, poignant and very revealing about the dark side of Pearl's humanity.

       Mia Goth gives one of the best performances of her career, especially during the monologue scene in the third act. She handles the nuances of her role very effectively, especially the way she conveys Pearl's fragility beneath the surface. Thanks to Goth, Pearl has an inner life that the audience can peer into. It's unpleasant and disturbing, but that's part of what makes Pearl an interesting character. Ti West makes great use of cinematography, lighting and color which add both style and substance. The violent scenes, when they do arrive, have blood that looks a little brighter and stylized than normal blood, so it lessens the ick-factor. There's also a great use of split screen in a scene toward the end, but this isn't the kind of movie that goes overboard with its visual style nor does it rely on it to create tension. Ti West wisely grasps that the tension can already be found in the story itself as well as from emotional struggles of Pearl. At a running time of 1 hour and 42 minutes, Pearl is creepy and surprisingly moving with Hitchcockian suspense.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by A24.
Opens nationwide.

Pursuit of Freedom

Directed by George A. Johnson

      Anna (Jessica Koloian) lives in Ukraine with her husband, Razmig (Mike Markoff) and her three children, Armen (Brayden Eaton), Siran (Tenley Kellogg), and Hovan (Elias Kemuel), as well as her mother, Anastasiya (Mimi Sagadin), and father, Sergei (Paul Kandarian). When Razmig owes money to local gangsters, they kidnap Anna and force her to become a prositute in the red light district of Amsterdam. Anastasiya (Mimi Sagadin) drives Armen, Siran and Hovan to Armenia where they can hide out with their aunt, Ovsanna (Anna Terry), who lives in poverty. A few years later, Anna gets sick with cancer and ends up in a hospital where a kind nurse, Naomi (Sharonne Lanier), helps her locate her children with the assistance of Bill (Robert Amaya), an American pastor, Bedros (Stelio Savante), an Armenian missionary, and Bedros' wife, Anoush (Robia Scott).

      Based on true events, Pursuit of Freedom is an engrossing and riveting story about faith, hope, family and love during times of adversity. Writer/director George A. Johnson deftly balances the suspense and intrigue with just the right amount of heart without being cloying. Interestingly he doesn't begin with the moment of kidnapping right away; he begins with a scene at a church after the kidnapping and with a brief scene where Anoush receives a phone call before flashing back to introduce the audience to Anna and her family in Ukraine. The first few minutes of the film will make more sense later on. Fortunately, Johnson maintains a linear structure while going back and forth between Anna's perspective and the perspective of her children. Had he used a non-linear structure the entire time like in the recent I Am Like You or Hold Me Tight, it would've just been confusing, frustrating and unnecessary. There's enough conflict within the narrative itself, so kudos to Johnson for recognizing that. He also includes enough comic relief to counterbalance the heavy subject matter through some scenes with Bill who joins Bedros on his quest to find Anna's kids. Although he doesn't dwell on the 3 years of Anna's traumatic experiences as a prostitute in the red light district, he trusts the audience's imagination to fill in the gaps. He's brave for shedding light on the horrors of human trafficking as well as emotional struggles of that its victims and their families face in the afterman. The legal red tape that Anna has to go through just to see her kids again is equally infuriating and eye-opening.

      To be fair, some of the dialogue is on-the-nose and preachy, i.e. when Anna asks the nurse point-blank to explain to her the cross, and the nurse replies with a list of what the cross means and that some people who wear the cross can be bad people. Has Anna really never seen a cross before in her life except on her kidnappers? That scene feels a little clunky. The third act feels has some Capra-esque moments where nearly everyone who Anna and Bedros meet happen to be kindhearted and compassionate, i.e. Agent Jirar (Garry Nation) who admits that he has kids of his own, so he can relate to Bedros' plea for help from him. Again, that scene has some on-the-nose dialogue which means you can feel the wheels of the screenplay turning. In an over-the-top and clunky scene, Anna goes into a furious rage and throws some of the items on the desk of her case worker (Johnny Halloran) who then says that he could sue her for that before offering to help her. Despite those minor flaws, it remains suspenseful and engrossing.

      The performances are terrific from the leading roles to the supporting roles. Jessica Koloian gives a raw, genuinely heartfelt performance that captures Anna's emotional pain and sorrow while opening a window into her heart, mind and soul. There's one particularly powerful scene where you can grasp what Anna is going through psychologically when she imagines her kids being mad at her for being away from them for so long. The child actors are equally superb, and their scenes will tug at your heartstrings. The editing is also well-done without choppiness as it changes from Anna's perspective to Bedros' perspective to the kids' perspectives, and the pace moves briskly enough. At a running time of just 1 hour and 35 minutes, Pursuit of Freedom remains gripping and captivating while brimming with warmth, compassion and tenderness.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by Vision Films.
Opens at Village East by Angelika and on VOD.

See How They Run

Directed by Tom George

      In 1950s London, Leo Köpernick (Adrien Brody), an American film director, is expected to direct the film version of the Agatha Christie play, The Mousetrap. During a performance of the play at London's West End, someone murders Leo backstage and places his corpse on stage. Inspector Stoppard (Sam Rockwell) and Constable Stalker (Saoirse Ronan) arrive to investigate the murder. The suspects include Mervyn Cocker-Norris (David Oyelowo), Richard Attenborough (Harris Dickinson) and the theater's owner, Petula Spencer (Ruth Wilson).

      See How They Run isThe screenplay by Mark Chappell takes a while to get going as it introduces the characters and sets up the meat of the story involving the murder of Leo. The darkly comedic tone also takes a while to find its footing. Many of the jokes don't land during the first thirty minutes. When Leo gets murdered, you're supposed to laugh at the way he's murudered, but it's not very funny. Once Stoppard and Stalker begin their investigation, See How They Run picks up a little steam as they banter with each other. Their rapport is funny in an offbeat, dry sort of way, Stalker's frequent quips lead to a few chuckles. Neither she nor Stoppard are even remotely as irresistibly entertaining as Benoit Blanc from Knives Out. Beyond the sporadically funny humor, though, there's really not much that holds your attention. The murder mystery becomes increasingly convoluted and dull, and the third act has a twist that's not very surprising. The use of flashbacks feel clunky and get tiresome; it works in Knives Out, but not here. Also, most of the characters here are forgettable and poorly developed. There are also two scenes where the film breaks the fourth wall in a way that seems lazy, tacked-on and like it's trying too hard to connect the film with the audience.

      See How They Run is lucky to have such a fine cast because, otherwise, it would sink into a lethargic bore. Saoirse Ronan has great comedic timing and generates the most laughs while shining the brightest. The always-reliable Sam Rockwell is also superb, but he's funnier in other dark comedies like Seven Psychopaths. The pacing moves quickly at first and then slows down before picking up again during the rushed third act which leads to some uneven pacing. The production design looks fine, but the editing tries too hard to make the film look cinematic with some overly-edited scenes, i.e. the scenes with split screens. At a running time of 1 hour and 38 minutes a mildly engaging a whodunnit that pales compares to the funnier, zanier and wittier Knives Out, but at least it's not as cringe-inducing as the recent Death on the Nile remake.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by Searchlight Pictures.
Opens nationwide.

The Woman King

Directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood

      In 1800s Africa, General Nanisca (Viola Davis), trains the Agojie, a group of all-female warriors, to defend the Kingdom of Dahomey from the nefarious Oyo general, Oba Ade (Jimmy Odukoya), who's kidnapping and enslaving the women of Dahomey. Izogie (Lashana Lynch) and Nawi (Thuso Mbedu), who develops a romance with Malik (Jayme Lawson), are also among the warriors of Agojie. John Boyega plays Ghezo, the King of Dahomey.

      The screenplay by Dana Stevens has just the right blend of thrilling action, well-written female characters and a suspenseful, heartfelt story to go along with it. The narrative has a lot going on beneath its surface. It's not just about women who come together to fight and save enslaved women; it's also about how they conquer and heal from trauma. General Nanisca has a tragic backstory that humanizes her because it provides the audience with some insight into where her rage and emotional pain comes from. Stevens doesn't dwell on those painful memories nor does she flash back to show them, so she leaves just enough for the audience's imagination to allow them to care about General Nanisca. The same can be said about Nawi who, in the initial scenes, angered her father by not marrying a much older man who she's not attracted to. A revelation later in the second act, which won't be revealed here, adds more depth to Nawi as well as to General Nanisca. The way that that revelation is presented with the flashbacks feels slightly heavy-handed, though, and the flashback is redundant, so the filmmakers hold the audience's hand a little too tightly at that point. To be fair, the male characters are underwritten, especially King Ghezo who gives a few compelling speeches, but doesn't have as strong of a backstory as the female characters. Fortunately, the third act boasts exhilarating action sequences that will make you stand up and cheer before a tender, heartwarming and refreshingly understated scene that earns its uplift.

      Viola Davis gives a bravura, tour de force performance as General Nanisca. She finds the emotional truth of her role as much as she did in her breakthrough performance in Doubt. Even when The Woman King starts to veer toward melodrama and schmaltz, Davis turns it away from that and makes her scenes feel genuinely heartfelt. Thuso Mbedu is also superb and gives a breakthrough performance. So, the film's emotional resonance ultimately comes from the performances, not from the screenplay. Moreover, the music score is superb without being overbearing, and cinematography is filled with stunning, picturesque shots of nature that add visual poetry as well scope. At a running time of 2 hours and 15 minutes, The Woman King is a triumph. It's an exhilarating, empowering and rousing epic adventure grounded in humanity.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by TriStar Pictures.
Opens nationwide.