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Reviews for September 1st, 2023

Beaten To Death

Directed by Sam Curtain

      Ricky (Justan Wagner) beats up Jack (Thomas Roach) to a pulp, but Jack escapes and discovers that his wife, Rachel (Nicole Tudor), has been killed. He runs to Ricky's neighbor, Ned (David Tracy), for safety. Little does he know that Ned plans on torturing him.

      Beaten to Death is a relentlessly gory and intense horror thriller in the vein of Wolf Creek. Writer director Sam Curtain and Benjamin Jung-Clarke should be commended for jumping right into the meat of the story while eschewing a first act as Ricky beats up Jack within the first few minutes. How did Jack end up there? Why is he getting beat up? Why and how did Ricky kill Jack's wife? The narrative flashes back to gradually answer those questions before flashing forward to the present, but it doesn't provide the audience with much backstory about Ricky and his wife or what their relationship was like before they ended up at Ricky's home. Beaten to Death checks all the boxes of a conventional horror thriller or Grindhouse film. A victim getting tortured in a home that happens to be isolated? Check! The villain happens to be very sadistic? Check! The victim thinks he has escaped, but more torture awaits him? Check! If watching someone suffering for roughly 90 minutes sounds entertaining to you, this film might be right up your alley. Anyone looking for a film with better-developed characters and a more imaginative story will be disappointed. Jack's struggles quickly become exhausting and overwhelming while also becoming very tedious. The filmmakers definitely don't shy away from dwelling on his pain and suffering nor do they leave anything to the imagination.

      The make-up effects and cinematography are among the film's strengths because they add to the grittiness. Some of the scenery looks breathtaking which contrasts with the film's dark tone. The blood and guts look very realistic in a way that makes it even more harrowing, creepy and disgusting. The violence isn't stylized at all. This isn't a film for audiences with a weak stomach. It's one of the most gory horror film since Terrifier 2, so if lots of gore is all that you're looking for in a horror film, you'll be easily pleased by Beaten to Death. Although this is an unflinchingly dark, disturbing and brutal horror film from start to finish, it's nothing more than that which makes it exhausting, vapid and shocking just for the sake of being shocking.

Number of times I checked my watch: 3
Released by Welcome Villain Films.
Opens in select theaters.

Don't Look Away

Directed by Michael Bafaro

      Frankie (Kelly Bastard) witnesses a group of criminals hijacking a truck before a mannequin kills them off one by one. After the incident, Frankie continues to see the evil mannequin that terrorizes her, her friend, Molly (Vanessa Nostbakken), her boyfriend, Steve (Colm Hill), and even her ex-boyfriend, Jonah (Michael Mitton).

      . The screenplay by writer/director Michael Bafaro and co-writer Michael Mitton keeps the plot lean and doesn't take any major risks, but that's forgivable because there are enough genuinely terrifying and creepy moments that elevate the film above mediocrity. To be fair, though, the premise isn't very original nor doesn't it have any surprises---it's essentially Child's Play, but with an evil mannequin instead of an evil doll and minus the dark comedy. Just as expected, Frankie's friends don't initially believe her when she tells them about the mannequin, but they change their mind eventually when it appears in front of them. Fortunately, the dialogue isn't cringe-inducing or unintentionally funny. Bafaro and Mitton avoid unnecessary subplots while keeping exposition to a minimum, especially when it comes to the possessed mannequin. Don't Look Away suffers from the same issue that Talk to Me also suffers from: not enough backstory about its supernatural elements. When the much-needed exposition does arrive, it's too little, too late and feels tacked-on. That said, the filmmakers do an effective job of trusting the power of the audience's imagination and providing room for psychological thrills and scares.  

      In terms of production values, Don't Look Away is very impressive as it combines camerawork, lighting, music score and editing to generate tension and atmosphere without bombarding audience over the head with excessive visual style. The filmmakers should also be commended for not including too many jump scares--there are indeed a few, but they're effective. It's also worth mentioning the effectively creepy design of the mannequin's face. Most of violence remains off-screen, so, again they rely on the audience's imagination to fill in the gaps. Don't Look Away is dark and foreboding, but without relying on blood and guts to generate scares. It's also fast-paced enough so that no scene overstays its welcome. At an ideal running time of just 1 hour and 21 minutes, Don't Look Away is palpably scary, atmospheric and thrilling. It's one of the best horror films of the year.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by Level 33 Entertainment.
Opens in select theaters.

The Equalizer 3

Directed by Antoine Fuqua

      Robert McCall (Denzel Washington), a government assassin, survives a gunshot wound with the help of a kind doctor, Enzo (Remo Girone), in a small village in Southern Italy. When he discovers that a local mafia is terrorizing the village, he ask for assistance from a CIA agent, Emma Collins (Dakota Fanning), while taking the law into his own hands to take down mafia which includes Vincent (Andrea Scarduzio) and his brother, Marco (Andrea Dodero).

      Screenwriter Richard Wenk keeps the plot simple and easy to follow with a fine balance of action, thrills and comic relief. The suspense and intrigue begins to wane once the villains and their motives are explained to the audience too early in scenes that suffer from clunky exposition and stilted dialogue. There are some witty quips here and there, but, for the most part, the dialogue sounds stilted albeit without being cringe-inducing or unintentionally funny. To be fair, most people don't watch an action thriller expecting brilliant dialogue unless they're watching a film by Quentin Tarantino. As a B-movie, The Equalizer delivers the goods without breaking any new ground or taking any risks. It's shallow, rarely plausible and not as bold or wildly entertaining as any of the films from the John Wick series, but at least it's mindlessly entertaining. If you're willing to check your brain at the door, you'll be in for a crowd-pleasing, action-packed ride with a satisfying ending, even if it can be seen from a mile away.

      Director Antoine Fuqua doesn't hold back on the blood and grisly gore. The action scenes are unflinchingly violent which might make some audiences squeamish, but it's not as disgusting or shocking as the gore in the recent Beaten to Death. The Equalizer 3 isn't as relentlessly grim as Beaten to Death, but it definitely earns its R-rating. None of the action scenes stand out like they do in the superior John Wick films. They're decently choreographed without anything that's exceptional or memorable beyond the grittiness. That said, the film is lucky to have Denzel Washington in the lead role because he exudes plenty of charisma and rises well above the mediocre screenplay. His warmth helps to make Robert McCall easier to like despite the fact that he kills and even tortures a lot of bad guys. Fuqua should be commended for keeping the running time below 2 hours without resorting to choppy editing. Too many films these days go on and on for too long, so kudos to him for grasping the concept of restraint. Yes, less is almost always more. If it were longer than 2 hours, it would've been exhausting. At only 1 hour and 43 minutes, The Equalizer 3 is an exhilarating white-knuckle action thriller.

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

Ernest & Celestine: A Trip to Gibberitia

Directed by Jean-Christophe Roger and Julien Chheng

      When Celestine (voice of Pauline Brunner) accidentally breaks the precious violin of Ernest (voice of Lambert Wilson), Ernest must travel to his hometown, Gibberitia, where Octavius (voice of Jean-Marc Pannetier) can fix it. He and Celestine discover a draconian law in Gibberita prohibits all music notes except for one and that daughters and sons must follow the career of their mothers and fathers.

      Ernest & Celestine: A Trip to Gibberitia matches the charm and delight of its predecessor, Ernest & Celestine, but its narrative feels overstuffed, undercooked and occasionally cloying. The screenplay by Guillaume Mautalent and Sébastien Oursel, Jean Régnaud assumes that you're already familiar with the previous film that establishes Celestine's relationship with Ernest. The former is a mouse, the latter is a bear. They also assume that you know how much Ernest's violin means to him. Within the first few minutes, Celestine accidentally trips and breaks Ernest's violin thereby setting the course for their titular adventure to Gibberitia. What seems like a simple tale turns into something with a far more dark undertone when they arrive at Gibberitia which is a dystopia. That's when the plot becomes slightly more complex and provocative, but with clunky "world-building" that bombards the audience with exposition before the story morphs into a full-on adventure film with a little comedy thrown in. The humor is more silly than funny, though, especially when Celestine and Ernest must disguise themselves. The third act feels rushed while trying to wrap up all of its subplots neatly, but it also feels a little cloying without fully earning its uplift.

      In terms of animation, Ernest & Celestine: A Trip to Gibberitia, again, follows its predecessor with the same animation style using watercolor. The result makes the colors look somewhat washed-out, but with palpable warmth that would've been harder to capture through CGI animation. The pace moves quickly, sometimes too quickly, so there are pacing issues, especially in the third act that seems like it's in a hurry to get to the end credits. At least Ernest & Celestine: A Trip to Gibberitia is harmless and mildly engaging without overstaying its welcome at a running time of 1 hour and 20 minutes, but it lacks the magic, brilliance and emotional depth that would make it a transcendent animated film like Ratatouille, Spirited Away or even the recent Puss in Boots: The Last Wish.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by GKIDS.
Opens at Village East by Angelika.


Directed by Babak Jalali

      Donya (Anaita Wali Zada), an Afghan immigrant, lives in Fremont, California, and works at a fortune cookie factory in San Francisco. She has trouble sleeping, so she sees a psychiatrist, Dr. Anthony (Gregg Turkington), in hope of getting stronger sleeping pills, but he persuades her to visit him again for therapy sessions.

      Fremont is not a great title for a film that's not really about the city of Fremont nor does the city become a character in itself. The screenplay by writer/director Babak Jalali and co-writer Carolina Cavalli doesn't have much of a compelling plot or even narrative momentum. There are no villains nor does Donya have a potential love interest until she meets Daniel (Jeremy Allen White), a character who shows up in the third act. Jalili and Cavalli break the rule of storytelling by introducing a new character late in the game. Had he been introduced earlier, Donya's relationship with him could've been explored more. At least they somewhat develop the friendship between Donya and her co-worker Joanna (Hilda Schmelling). As a comedy, Fremont, isn't quite funny per se, but there's some offbeat, gentle humor in the interactions between her and her psychiatrist. Donya struggles to assimilate in a new country while escaping her traumatic experiences back in her home country, Afghanistan, but there's very little discussion about her traumatic past nor do the filmmakers resort to flashbacks, so they leave a lot to the audience's imagination. The screenplay doesn't have much that's profound or provocative to say about America like the recent War Pony or Anchorage nor does it go into dark or unflinching territory like those two aforementioned films that are much more powerful and searing.

      Fremont has two major strengths: mesmerizing black-and-white cinematography and Anaita Wali Zada's genuinely moving performance. There are some very well-shot scenes that provide some visual poetry without hitting the audience over the head with symbolism. Also, the film moves at a leisurely pace that's in no hurry to reach the end, so patient audiences will be rewarded the most. It's also not a very lengthy film, so just when it begins to grow tedious, the end credits roll. At a running time of 1 hour and 31 minutes,  Fremont is an understated, nuanced character study of a lonely and lost young Afghan immigrant.  

Number of times I checked my watch: 3
Released by Music Box Films.
Opens at IFC Center.


Directed by Pushan Kripalani

      Anamika (Kalki Koechlin), a young woman, lives in the UK with her elderly mother, Sadhana (Deepti Naval), who has dementia. Their relationship is put to the test when Anamika confronts her about toxic behavior from her childhood that still traumatizes her during her adulthood.

     The screenplay by writer/director Pushan Kripalani and co-writer Arghya Lahiri begins as story about a daughter who takes care of her mother who refuses to acknowledge how serious her dementia is or to do anything about it. Sadhana would rather stay home instead of going to a nursing home for professionals to take care of her. Anamika spends so much of her time taking care of her own mother that she neglects to take care of her own emotional well-being. That changes when she has flashbacks to a moment from her childhood involving a goldfish that her mother flushed down the toilet. The screenplay takes too long to get to that key piece of exposition, so it meanders until then and feels repetitive. Ordinary People does a better job of incorporating exposition about the protagonist's traumatic memory that haunts him, specifically how he witnessed his brother drowning. Goldfish informs the audience too late about what truly haunts Anamika from her past in a heavy-handed and clunky scene where she confronts her mother and tries to get her to acknowledge her actions. Sadhana seems like an emotionally immature narcissist not unlike Beth in Ordinary People, but Anamika seems like she's stuck parentifying her mother---in other words, the roles have been reversed. Does she realize how unhealthy it is for her to be around her mother? Does her mother not only acknowledge her actions, but also the consequences of her actions? Is her mother truly capable of introspection? How does Anamika know that her mother won't continue to gaslight her and abuse her again? Dementia can often make narcissists even worse. The filmmakers try to give Sadhana a character arc as though she has suddenly changed into someone who's remorseful, but it doesn't feel organic. The same can be said about Anamika's healing from her childhood trauma. The ending, while heartfelt, leaves more questions than answers while failing to dig deeper unflinchingly into the mother's relationship with her daughter and vice versa.

      What helps to keep Goldfish afloat are the moving performances by Kalki Koechlin and Deepti Naval. They add much-needed emotional depth that can't be found in the screenplay. That said, there are pacing issues. The film moves at a sluggish pace for the first hour until Anamika confronts her mother when the pace picks up before it slows down again and then picks up. The very end, in particular, which won't be spoiled here, feels rushed and anticlimactic. At a running time of 1 hour and 43 minutes, Goldfish is a mildly engaging and poignant, but meandering and undercooked portrait of a dysfunctional family. In a double feature with Ordinary People it would be the inferior B-movie.

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

The Good Mother

Directed by Miles Joris-Peyrafitte

      Marissa (Hilary Swank), still grieving the death of her husband, has more tragedy to deal with when her estranged son, Michael (Madison Harrison), a drug addict, ends up killed. While investigating his murder, she forms a connection with Michael's girlfriend, Paige (Olivia Cooke).  

       Another week, another disappointing, overstuffed B-movie masquerading as an A-movie. The screenplay by writer/director Miles Joris-Peyrafitte and co-writer Madison Harrison has the added bonus of being convoluted and unfocused as well. A lot goes on within the plot, yet very little actually sticks. Marissa's murdered son had been estranged from her and battled drug addiction. His girlfriend, Paige, announces that she's pregnant. Meanwhile, Marissa has another son, Toby (Jack Raynor), who happens to be a police officer. There are enough subplots and conflicts here for at least four different movies. The Good Mother could've been an engrossing character study, a gripping thriller or both. The two elements aren't mutually exclusive. Unfortunately, it's neither. The plot becomes increasingly dull and preposterous as it progresses with very little forward momentum and comic relief, so it gradually becomes more and more lethargic and monotonous. At least there are no bad laughs. Even Eye for an Eye has more thrills and suspense than this turkey. What is a "good mother", anyway? How good of a mother is Marissa? How good of a mother does Marissa think she is? The film doesn't even bother to explore the meaning behind its interesting title.

      Hilary Swank gives a mediocre performance with some hamming, i.e. during the scenes where Marissa is crying, but she's undermined by the sophomoric and vapid screenplay. No one manages the shine. Moreover, the flashbacks to Marissa's memories with her son are not only clunkily edited, but also not very illuminating. The cinematography is fine, though, without any use of shaky cam to generate tension. If only The Good Mother were half as entertaining, provocative and moving as the Korean film Mother or The Deep End. At a running time of 1 hour and 29 minutes, The Good Mother is an underwhelming, meandering and anemic misfire. 

Number of times I checked my watch: 4
Released by Vertical Entertainment.
Opens nationwide.

King of Killers

Directed by Kevin Grevioux

      Just when Marcus Garan (Alain Moussi) has quit working as a hitman, Drakos (Frank Grillo), a mysterious man from Tokyo, convinces him to do one more job. If he kills another ruthless hitmen and survives, he'll get $10 million which he could use to pay for the heart surgery of his beloved daughter, Kimberly (Zoe Worn). Little does he know until he arrives in Tokyo that Drakos has set him up to battle many other hitmen.

      The screenplay by Kevin Grevioux, based on his graphic novel, has a wafer-thin and dull plot that's just an excuse to get to the meat of the story: the action. King of Killers is, essentially, the equivalent of a lengthy video game, but not a very fun or imaginative one. Like many action films these days, it's hard to watch it without thinking about better action films like John Wick and The Raid. The plot also reveals its biggest twist early-on when you learn that Drakos had tricked Marcus and the other hitmen to gather together at one location for an ultimate battle for his own pleasure. After that point, the film just becomes a repetitive and uninspired action-packed film. The action scenes come with diminishing returns. They're mildly entertaining initially, though, but that excitement gradually wanes. Also, it's hard to root for Marcus because he's just as bland as the villain, Drakos. King of Killers worst sin is that it starts to feel exhausting around the hour mark with very little levity or anything to enliven the film beyond the action scenes.

      King of Killers has some visual flair during some of the action sequences, but, for the most part, its visual style isn't exceptional.his is yet another B-movie that has many chances to go bonkers to take the action to whole other level, but it doesn't---it chickens out. While The Equalizer 3 has the charisma of Denzel Washington and John Wick 4 has the charisma of Keanu Reeves and Ian McShane (as well as wonderful production design), this film doesn't have any actor or actress whose charisma manages to shine in any scene. There's not a single memorable action set piece from start to finish. At a running time of 1 hour and 32 minutes, which feels more like 2 hours, King of Killers is an exhausting, unimaginative and dull B-movie.

Number of times I checked my watch: 4
Released by Lionsgate.
Opens at Cinema Village and on VOD.


Directed by Kevin Casanova Abrams

      17-year-old Marisol (Esmeralda Camargo) lives with her aunt, Carmen (Liana Mendoza) and cousin, Jaime (Max Pelayo), and looks forward to going to college with a scholarship that she recently received. After another teenager, Justin (Theo Taplitz), falsely accuses her of injuring him at a party, she goes on a run. Meanwhile, she discovers that she's undocumented.

      The screenplay by Claire Audrey Aguayo combines thriller, drama, coming-of-age and sociopolitical commentary. Unfortunately, it bites off more than it could chew and suffers from a clunky dialogue, not enough exposition and heavy-handedness. There's no doubt that Marisol is innocent of the crime that Justin accuses her of committing against him nor why he has chosen to falsely accuse her: she rejects his flirtations at the party. Suddenly, her life gets turned upside down because she's accused of a crime that she didn't commit and she learns that she's undocumented concurrently. That's a lot for Marisol to deal with on an emotional level, but the screenplay barely explores her emotional struggles. Nor does Marisol question her aunt about how she hid the fact that she's undocumented from her. Why would she trust her aunt afterward? It makes no sense, especially when her aunt advises her to run from the law and not return home until the dust settles. How could the dust settle if Marisol runs away? How does that not make Marisol look suspicious in the eyes of the law? Anyway, the film becomes a contrived mess when Justin behaves very aggressively as though he were an over-the-top villain. There's nothing nuanced about his role or about how racist he is. The film isn't very effective as a thriller because it generates very little suspense. If it were to focus more on Marisol's emotional journey, it would've been a more poignant and powerful coming-of-age story instead of such an underwhelming one.

      Esmeralda Camargo gives a very moving performance that brings much-need emotional depth to Marisol that can't be found in the shallow screenplay. Even during the many heavy-handed scenes, she manages to add authenticity and to bring humanity to the film. Theo Taplitz gives an hammy and awkward performance, though, but, to be fair, his role is written that way, so it's most likely not his fault. The editing feels choppy at times, especially as the film jumps back and forth between Marisol's perspective, Carmen's perspective and, briefly, Justin's perspective, but without developing each character enough to allow them to truly come to life. At a running time of only 1 hour and 31 minutes, Marisol is overstuffed, undercooked and clunky, but elevated by Esmeralda Camargo's genuinely heartfelt performance.

Number of times I checked my watch: 3
Released by Alpine Labs.
Opens at Village East by Angelika.

The Mountain

Directed by Thomas Salvador

      Pierre (Thomas Salvador), an engineer from Paris, travels to the French Alps for works, but decides to camp alone on the mountains while escaping from his work and familial duties. He flirts with a kind woman, Léa (Louise Bourgoin), who works as a chef at a mountainside restaurant.

     The screenplay by writer/director Thomas Salvador and co-writer Naïla Guiguet blend drama, romance, adventure and sci-fi with uneven results. It takes a sensitive screenplay to combine those genre-bending elements together effectively, so it's disappointing that very little in The Mountain actually sticks. The screenwriters do a poor job of designing a window into Pierre's heart, mind and soul. He remains an enigmatic stranger to the audience from start to finish. There's no voice-over narration, which is commendable, but without a way into Pierre's inner life, he's a boring character who's just a plot device. The first half of the film feels like a more heavy-handed version of the superb French film Time Out which is also about a middle aged guy who's stuck in a midlife crisis. That film is a much more profound and poignant character study than The Mountain. Why do so many films these days go bonkers? Once the film morphs into a bizarre sci-fi movie with no exposition, it takes a steep nosedive. Moreover, the relationship between Pierre and Léa feels contrived. What does she see in him? How does she feel about her job? What do they have in common? Is it just physical attraction or more? You get a glimpse of Pierre's relationship with his family when he meets his mother (Martine Chevallier) and brother (Andranic Manet) for lunch. Not surprisingly, they disapprove of his new lifestyle---his mother asks Pierre what he'll do to make ends meet now that he's fired. That's a valid question that he answers very vaguely. That scene could've been more illuminating about Pierre's intentions and emotional state, but it squanders that opportunity to add much-needed depth which is very disappointing.

      Thomas Salvador gives a dull and wooden performance that's not very emotive. Is that supposed to mean that Pierre is depressed and lacks the emotional maturity to express his feelings? It's unclear because the audience doesn't get to sense what's going on inside of Pierre's heart, mind and soul. He remains at a cold distance from the audience which contrasts from the warmth that comes from Léa, or, more accurately, the actress who portrays her, Louise Bourgoin. She, too, isn't given enough material to breathe life into her role, but she does her best. The pace moves slowly which is fine because a film like this benefits from being a slow-burn. If only it had more emotional depth and insights. At a running time of 1 hour and 53 minutes, The Mountain is a meandering, shallow and underwhelming misfire that's ultimately less than the sum of its parts.


Number of times I checked my watch: 3
Released by Strand Releasing.
Opens at Quad Cinema.

Nandor Fodor and the Talking Mongoose

Directed by Adam Sigal

      n 1935 London, Dr. Nandor Fodor (Simon Pegg), a parapsychologist, travels with his assistant, Anne (Minnie Driver), to the farm of Mr. Irving (Tim Downie) and his wife (Ruth Connell), to investigate their claims of a talking mongoose, Gef (voice of Neil Gaiman).

      Nandor Fodor and the Talking Mongoose suffers from the same ailments as The Haunted House. Both films squander their many opportunities to turn their concept into a fun, clever and suspenseful adventure. The screenplay by writer/director Adam Sigal does a subpar job of introducing Nandor Fodor to the audience. He's not a very interesting character and, at times, he's actually a bit grating. Initially, he doesn't believe that the talking mongoose exists because there's no hard evidence, but he doesn't give up and soon questions his own skepticism. There's a modicum of humor, i.e. when he and Anne arrive at the farm and misconstrue that their hosts are referring to them as husband and wife. However, the witty banter found in that scene is ephemeral and can't be found in other scenes, so it just teases the audience with the hope of some comedy. The film's systemic issue is that it's tonally uneven, much like The Haunted Mansion. At times it's silly and bizarre and other times it takes itself too seriously while trying and failing to be provocative.  Just when you think the film will take some risks and go bonkers, it doesn't.

      Simon Pegg gives a decent performance, but this isn't a great role for him because it barely utilizes his comedic chops and doesn't give him much to do even the third act that has Dr. Nandor Fodor undergo epiphanies as part of his character arc. None of what happens to him feels true-to-life, though, so it's hard to believe that he truly changes after his investigation of the talking mongoose at the farm. Minnie Driver is wasted in a forgettable role while Christopher Lloyd briefly shows up as another parapsychologist who's nothing more than a plot device and yet another poorly-introduced character. At a running time of 1 hour and 36 minutes, which feels more like 2 hours, Nandor Fodor and the Talking Mongoose is a tonally uneven and bland mystery that runs out of steam while remaining too low on laughs, wit or surprises.

Number of times I checked my watch: 4
Released by Saban Films.
Opens at Quad Cinema and on VOD.


Directed by Sahar Mosayebi

      After her husband nearly beats her to death, Elham (Taraneh Alidoosti), a young Iranian woman, divorces him and moves in with her mother, Azar (Armik Gharabian) and father, Saeed (Masoud Karamati). She decides to follow her passion for swimming and hopes to be the first Iranian woman on record to swim in open water in handcuffs. However, Nazar (Mahtab Keramati), who governs women's sports in Iran, refuses to allow Elham to be recorded because, legally, women cannot compete in swimming competitions. Elham refuses to cave into her, though, and befriends a compassionate hotel owner, Mahaal (Mahtab Nasirpour), among other kind-hearted people, who encourage her to not give up her dream.

      Based on a true story, Orca is a heartfelt, inspiration and captivating emotional journey. The screenplay by Tala Motazedi takes an underdog sports drama and turns it into a character-driven and engrossing story. Its greatest achievement is that it avoids melodrama, schmaltz, and any distracting subplots. Elham's traumatic experiences with her husband, who's not depicted in the film, aren't actually shown, but they're alluded to so that the audience can grasp that they're an integral part of Elham's emotional and psychological state. Kudos to director Sahar Mosayebi and screenwriter Tala Motazedi for seeing and treating Elham as a human being, warts-and-all. She comes across as a decent human being who learns how to conquer adversity and remain determined to do what she feels is moral as well as true to herself. She's also emotionally mature which makes her a great role model unlike Nazar who comes closest to being the film's villain---it would've been great if the audience were to learn more about Nazar's backstory to understand why a woman would treat another woman with such lack of empathy. Is Nazar, perhaps, jealous of Elham? That's one possibility that the filmmakers leave to the audience to interpret. To be fair, some of the dialogue, especially during the scenes with Nazaar, does sound a little too on-the-nose, but that's a forgivable flaw. Elham's emotional journey both as a human being and as an Iranian woman feel just as palpably engaging as the exhilarating scenes of her swimming.

      Taraneh Alidoosti gives very moving and tender performance as Elham while opening the window into her heart, mind and soul for the audience. Her emotionally generous performance anchors the film even further in authenticity. The cinematography, editing and music score are also impressive without letting the visual style get in the way of the film's substance. A truly great filmmaker not only finds just the right balance between Truth and Spectacle, but also to find the Spectacle within the Truth---within the humanity. Director Sahar Mosayebi and screenwriter Tala Motazedi accomplish that feat without being preachy. They even find some visual poetry in the breathtaking, dreamlike underwater sequences where Elham swims with what looks like an Orca whale. Poetry is often a form of protest for or against something. Orca is a protest against hate, intolerance and dehumanization, and a protest for love, compassion, freedom, democracy and happiness. It's a triumph.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by Blue Fox Entertainment.
Opens in select theaters.

Zombie Town

Directed by Peter Lepeniotis

     Mike (Marlon Kazadi), a high school student, lives in Carverville and works at the local movie theater. The town is named after a reclusive horror filmmaker, Len Carver (Dan Aykroyd), who resides there. Carver announces that he's premiering his new movie at the theatre. Soon enough, Mike ends up with the film reels at the theater and decides to secretly show it to his crush, Amy (Madi Monroe), to impress her. Little do they know that the projection of the film will cause an ancient curse to awaken and turn residents of Carverville into zombies.

      Based on the novel by R.L. Stine, the screenplay by writer/director Peter Lepeniotis and his co-writers, Michael Samonek and Michael Schwartz,does a great job of setting its offbeat comedic tone during the first 10 minutes with witty, tongue-in-cheek humor that's unafraid to be a little zany. Secondly, it maintains that tone and combines it with some thrills and suspense. Thirdly, it remains focused on its main plot and introduces the important characters efficiently without spending too much time on exposition or going off on tangents. You learn early on, for example, that Len Carver decided to retire from filmmaking years ago. Why? That remains a mystery until it gets revealed at the right time during the third act. The horror elements aren't very scary and not all of the comedic attempts land, but that's okay because this is a film that's geared more toward families like Disney's recent Haunted Mansion.  Unlike Haunted Mansion, though, Zombie Town doesn't turn into a tonal, disjointed mess nor does it become lethargic, maudlin or dull for that matter. The film doesn't take itself too seriously which makes it more fun and diverting. More importantly, it finds just the right balance between entertaining older and younger audiences.

      Zombie Town is very well-cast with actors, like Dan Aykroyd, who have a lot of fun in their roles and give amusing performances. Even the supporting actors like Henry Czerny, who plays a theater owner, and Bruce McCulloch, who plays a police officer, get a chance to shine with a few witty zingers. It's great to see Chevy Chase and Dan Aykroyd together, albeit briefly, in a few scenes which won't be spoiled here. The pace moves briskly enough and the music score is lively and well-chosen. Moreover, the film doesn't overstay its welcome at a running time of 1 hour and 32 minutes. Ultimately, Zombie Town is a delightful, funny and zany horror comedy satire brimming with wit and tongue-in-cheek humor. Please be sure to stay through the end credits for mid-credits scenes.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by Viva Pictures.
Opens in select theaters.