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Reviews for September 20th, 2019

Documentary Round-Up

      Two enraging documentaries open this weekend. The first, Always in Season, is a heartbreaking exposé of modern racism in North Carolina. Police claim that a teenager, Lennon Lacy, committed suicide when he was found hanging from a swing set in 2014, but his girlfriend and family members believe that he was lynched. A proper, thorough police investigation was never made. Director Jacqueline Olive traces the history of lynching and also sheds light on two other incidents of racism when blacks were murdered. In many ways, Always in Season can be seen as a horror film about America's racist past and how nothing has fundamentally changed since then. It's a cry for justice and, ultimately, democracy. Unfortunately, the film isn't well-edited because as it goes back and forth between the story of Lacy and the other two stories, so it loses focus too often on the more intriguing mystery of Lacy's murder/suicide. A far more powerful, moving and focused documentary exposé that covers similar ground is Neshoba. Always in Season opens at Metrograph. The second doc is Where's My Roy Cohn about the unlikable Roy Cohn, a lawyer who also worked as Senator Joseph McCarthy's chief of staff. Director Matt Tyrnauer charts Cohn's rise to power with no surprises along the way, so if you don't like Roy Cohn before watching this doc, you still won't like him afterward, but at least you'll know why. You'll also learn how he paved the way for another toxic person's rise to power, Donald Trump. Tyrnauer doesn't explore enough about Cohn behind that curtain, although there's a glimpse of his relationship with his abusive father, his affairs with men, and his battled with AIDS which he kept as a secret. Cohn comes across as an ugly person on the inside without seeming like a villain; he's got serious issues bottled up inside him that he probably never dealt with, so he's very flawed. Much like the director's prior films, Where's My Roy Cohn doesn't feel like a dry, academic documentary thanks to the stylish editing and archival footage that's more than just talking heads. At a running time of 97 minutes, it's a searing, enraging and electrifying documentary. It opens at Film Forum and Landmark at 57 West via Sony Pictures Classics.

Ad Astra

Directed by James Gray

      When mystery energy surges coming from Neptune threaten to wipe out all of mankind, Roy McBride (Brad Pitt), an astronaut, agrees to travel through space to Neptune on a top secret mission to save planet Earth from destructing. In turn, he might also save H. Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), his father, who may or mot not still be alive alone in a spacecraft on Neptune after he went missing while working the Lima Project.

     Ad Astra boasts mesmerizing visuals and a convincingly moving performance by Brad Pitt which compensate for the screenplay's shortcomings. Writer/director James Gray and co-writer Ethan rely on too much narration that spoon-feeds the audience and doesn't trust the their emotions nor their intelligence enough. If 2001 were made for modern times without room for interpretation, it would look something like Ad Astra. Perhaps the filmmakers were afraid to confuse the audience too much which would mean taking risks. There's one confusing scene, though, with involving a killer monkey that feels uneven because it shows too much gore and there's not enough exposition that makes it clear why the monkey is behaving in such a way. Maybe it's one of the monkeys from another Brad Pitt vehicle, 12 Monkeys. At least the filmmakers trust the audience's patience, though, because the pacing is mostly a slow burn except for the thrilling opening scene and an action sequence on the moon. The scenes that work best are the ones when Roy speaks candidly about his feelings to an app that serves as his psychologist. You learn a lot about his relationship with his father as he recalls moments from his past. It's the bond between father and son that represents the heart of the film and helps Roy's journey to be not only a physical one, but also en emotional one. However, the parent-child relationship isn't as moving is it is in the superior sci-fi films, Contact and Interstellar.

     Unfortunately, Ad Astra forgets to treat its supporting characters like human beings. They're just there to move the plot forward. In fact, when Colonel Tom Pruitt (Donald Sutherland) first shows up, he introduces himself in a contrived why by explaining that he's there to assist Roy before even providing Roy with his name. That's a very stilted way to introduce a character to the audience. There aren't enough scenes, though with Roy's wife (Liv Tyler), Eve, so their relationship doesn't feel as real or poignant as it should have been, and the beats don't quite land during the brief scenes with her. Ruth Negga briefly shows up too as Helen Lantos who states rather explicitly how she empathizes with Roy because of their similarly traumatic past. Blink and you'll Natasha Lyone is a cameo that's almost as funny as the cameo of Charlie Sheen in Being John Malkovich. Comic relief is also an element that Ad Astra struggles with because there's not nearly enough of it nor does the dialogue have much in terms of wit. The filmmakers are very lucky to have Pitt as their star because he's as charismatic and talented as actors from the Golden Age of Hollywood.

Number of times I checked my watch: 2
Released by 20th Century Fox.
Opens nationwide.

Corporate Animals

Directed by Patrick Brice

      Lucy (Demi Moore), CEO of Incredible Edibles, brings eight members of her staff to New Mexico for a corporate team building exercise. Brandon (Ed Helms), their guide, leads inside a cave where they must struggle to survive when the cave collapses. The trapped employees include Jess (Jessica Williams), Aidan (Calum Worthy), May (Jennifer Kim), Billy (Dan Bakkedahl), Freddie (Karan Soni), among others.

      Corporate Animals aims for dark comedy and satire, but falls flat on its face with a sophomoric, asinine, and painfully unfunny screenplay. Screenwriter Sam Bain simply tries too hard to be quotable, shocking and gross without much in terms of wit, and he also forgets to develop any of the characters' backstories. When the employees start eating one of their colleagues, that's when Corporate Animals becomes very disgusting, low brow and anything but fun. Bain and director Patrick Brice leave nothing for the imagination and show plenty of gore albeit very fake-looking gore. There's not a single character to root for, although that might've been the intention, but none of them are remotely interesting. Lucy seems more like a cartoonish villain than a human being. The same goes for her employees. The characters are as unpleasant as the ones in Climax and La Grande Bouffe, equally pointless and dreadful films. If the film were campy or witty or the least bit funny, at least it would've been a guilty pleasure.

      Comedies with cannibalism could be an amalgam that works like in Eating Raoul. That cult classic, which ought to be more well-known, isn't afraid to be offensive, bizarre and shocking, but it has a warm beating heart beneath its surface, a witty and clever screenplay, and well-written characters which, unfortunately, Corporate Animals sorely lacks. It would've most likely worked better as a short because it stretches its premise too thinly and the attempts at dark humor quickly become repetitive. Even at a running time of just 85 minutes, it overstays its welcome and leaves you with a really bad aftertaste. You would have to be a dumb and shallow masochist to enjoy it.

Number of times I checked my watch: 8
Released by Screen Media Films.
Opens at Village East Cinema.


Directed by Dan Berk and Robert Olsen


Number of times I checked my watch: 2
Released by Gunpowder & Sky.
Opens at Regal E-Walk.
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