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Reviews for September 29th, 2023

Documentary Round-Up

      Carlos: The Santana Journey is a heartfelt, captivating, warts-and-all documentary biopic about the iconic musician Carlos Santana. Through candid interviews with Carlos himself, interviews with his family and colleagues, archival footage and concert footage, director Rudy Valdez captures what he's like behind-the-curtain, so-to-speak. You'll learn about his rise to fame, his struggles with him, the first time he tried drugs, and the inspiration for his music. Beyond that, though, this documentary allows him to talk about his emotional pain from his traumatic childhood which included sexual abuse. Valdez saves that darker part of his life for later on in the film, but avoids dwelling on it or prying too much into the private details. Carlos is very brave for talking about it in front of the camera. By the end of the documentary, you won't look at his music the same way again and will feel like you've met someone who's not only talented, but very warm, intelligent, emotionally mature and flawed which makes him all the more relatable. Bravo to director Rudy Valdez for avoiding hagiography and for humanizing a music icon. At a running time of 1 hour and 27 minutes, Carlos: The Santana Journey opens in select theaters via Sony Pictures Classics.

      Narrated by Laura Dern, Woody Harrelson, Jason Momoa, Rosario Dawson, Danny Glover and Ian Somerhalder, Common Ground persuasively argues that regenerative agriculture, a type of farming that focuses on the health of the soil, is superior to conventional agriculture. Regenerative farming uses no pesticides, herbicide or tilling. It uses cover crops to protect other crops as well as the soil. Also, animals graze the soil which also helps to improve the soil's health. Co-directors Joshua and Rebecca Harrell Tickell do an effective job of presenting the information about regenerative farming in a way that's clear, concise and engaging. They don't bombard the audience with a bunch of graphs and statistics or talking heads; they actually go to farms and talk to farmers who provide valuable insights about regenerative farming while showing you clear-cut evidence of its benefits by comparing their farms to conventional industrial farms. The ways that they contrast are undeniable and shocking.

      Common Ground briefly sheds light on the harmful effects of herbicides, namely, Roundup which has been linked to Cancer and led to lawsuits against Monsanto, now known has Bayer. It's enraging that the same company that produces the cancer-causing herbicide is also invested in producing the medicine that treats that very same cancer. The documentary doesn't dwell on that topic though. Instead, it provides the audience with sustainable, environmentally-friendly solutions through regenerative farming. Admittedly, though, the filmmakers make regenerative farming seem like it's a perfect solution. You learn about its many advantages, but what about its disadvantages? It's not as black-and-white nor as simple as it seems, so with different perspectives, this doc would've been more balanced. After all, there's more than just 2 sides to a coin: there's the sides, the ridges, the sides of the ridges, etc. Nonetheless, those are minor issues. Common Ground is ultimately a step in the right direction for the sake of the environment, human rights, public welfare and, above all, evolution. It's also well-edited and exquisitely shot in a way that highlights the majestic quality of nature. Co-directors Joshua and Rebecca Harrell Tickell find just the right balance between entertaining the audience and provoking them emotionally as well as intellectually. At a running time of 1 hour and 45 minutes, Common Ground is one of the most powerful, illuminating and vital wake-up calls since Food, Inc. It opens at Village East by Angelika via Big Picture Ranch.

      Fire Through Dry Grass is a heartfelt, eye-opening, intimate and enraging documentary about the Reality Poets, a group of black and brown disabled artists who live in a nursing home called Coler on Roosevelt Island in NYC. They document their struggles and mistreatment during the pandemic when their nursing home was turned into a hospital for covid patients which put their lives at risk. Meanwhile, the government lied about the number of covid-related deaths at Coler by claiming that it's lower than the actual number. Faculty were reusing gowns and N95 masks which were in low supply. It's heartbreaking to hear how the Reality Poets and others at the nursing home were treated so inhumanely as though they were animals. They were quarantined without being let out for a while which made them feel like they were in prison. The psychological effects of being quarantined will be relatable to many people. One of the Reality Poets explains how he misses sitting on a bench near the water and smoking a cigarette while enjoying the view of Manhattan from Roosevelt Island which looks even nicer at night. Co-directors Andres Jay Molina and Alexis Neophytides do an effective job of humanizing the Reality Poets through candid interviews and footage from the Poets' experiences during the pandemic. There are some bird-eye view shots of Coler that provide more scope and make the film feel more cinematic. It's inspiring to observe how the Reality Poets channeled their sadness and indignation through a powerful form of protest: poetry. At a running time of 1 hour and 29 minutes, Fire Through Dry Grass open at Firehouse: DCTV’s Cinema for Documentary Film.

Before the Sunset

Directed by Hiroshi Akabane


Full review coming soon

Number of times I checked my watch: 2
Released by Freestyle Digital Media.
Opens in select theaters.

The Blind

Directed by Andrew Hyatt

      Phil Robertson (Aron von Andrian) recalls to his friend, Big Al Bolen (Connor Tillman), he met his wife, Kay (Amelia Eve), as a teenager (now played by Matthew Erick White) in 1960s Louisiana and how she (now played by Brielle Robillard) inspired him to conquer his inner demons and to win his battles against alcoholism through faith and learning to love God.

      Based on a true story, the screenplay by writer/director Andrew Hyatt and co-writer Stephanie Katz begins during Phil's adult years when he's on a hunting trip with his friend before the film flashes back to his teenage years. The non-linear structure allows the audience to observe not only how Phil reflects back on his youth, but how introspective he is as an emotionally mature adult. Even though he's telling his story to his friend, he's letting you, the audience, hear about it, too. Fortunately, The Blind doesn't sugar-coat Phil's alcoholism, emotional pain and the relationship with his father nor does it shy away from getting into dark territory. His romance with Kay never feels cheesy; it feels grounded in authenticity, so their relationship is explored in a way that's emotionally resonating without trying too hard to tug at your heartstrings. The same goes for Phil and Kay's journey toward loving God and embracing their faith. Although this is a film about an emotionally wounded man who's saved by his love of God, it's ultimately about how he learns to unconditionally love himself in the process. He's lucky to have a loving, caring wife who's compassionate, patient and empathetic. She's a great role model of a human being and a wife. Through faith, compassion and love, she helps him to grasp the wisdom behind Pablo Neruda's poem, "They can cut all of the flowers, but they can't stop the spring from coming." It's equally uplifting and inspirational to observe how Phil overcomes his adversities and how the garden of his soul flourishes. He learns how to remove the weeds like hatred from his garden and to plant the seeds of faith, compassion and love.

      The performances by Aron von Andrian, Amelia Eve, Matthew Erick White and Brielle Robillard are tender and convincingly moving without anyone over-acting or under-acting. Kudos to the filmmakers for designing the window into Phil's heart, mind and soul and for Aron von Andrian and Matthew Erick White for opening that window widely with their emotionally generous performances. Everything feels natural including the performances. Moreover, the editing between the present day and flashbacks aren't distracting nor clunky.This isn't a dull, preachy or schmaltzy biopic like the recent film The Hill nor does it overstay its welcome. At a running time of 1 hour and 48 minutes, The Blind is a genuinely heartfelt, honest and inspirational emotional journey well worth taking.

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

Blow Up My Life

Directed by Abigail Horton & Ryan Dickie

      Jason (Jason Selvig), recently fired from his job at a pharmaceutical company, discovers on the computer of his colleague, Gary (Davram Stiefler), that the company secretly allows a glitch in an app that causes customers to take a higher dose of opioids which leads to their opioid addiction. His cousin, Charlie (Kara Young), a hacker, helps him to expose the truth and to collect more evidence while they both go on the run and risk their lives.

      Co-writers/directors Abigail Horton and Ryan Dickie do a great job of maintaining suspense in a plot that's filled with twists and turns. The film dives right into the meat of its story within the first ten minutes as Jason loses his job and uses Gary's laptop computer where sees the shocking revelations that the pharmaceutical company has been trying to cover-up while putting consumers' health at risk. What happens when Jason confronts Gary about the cover-up won't be spoiled here, but the filmmakers should be commended for going into dark territory. The plot becomes increasingly gripping and complex as it progresses without being too convoluted or confusing. It also avoids tonal unevenness and distracting subplots, i.e. Jason doesn't get involved in a romance with anyone, which would've turned the film into a meandering mess. Focus and narrative momentum are essential in any great crime thriller, so it's fortunate that Blow Up Your Life has those essential elements. It's not as grounded in realism nor as poignant as Alan J. Pakula's paranoid thrillers from the 70s nor is it as bold as Arlington Road, but at least it doesn't bombard or exhaust the audience with too much action or try to tack on preachy messages. It also ends with a scene that trust the audience's imagination similar to the last shot of Triangle of Sadness.

      Blow Up My Life is well-edited with impressive production values that make the film feel more cinematic. The pace moves briskly, but not too fast. Moreover, the filmmakers don't rely on shaky-cam to add tension because they understand that there's enough tension found within the story. They also deserve kudos for keeping the running time under 2 hours which shows that they grasp the concept that less is more and they have restraint, a quality that's not easy to find in many filmmakers these days. At a running time of 1 hour and 20 minutes, Blow Up Your Life is a gripping, dark and invigorating crime thriller.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Opens at AMC Empire 25.

Deliver Us

Directed by Federica Di Giacomo

      When Sister Yulia (Maria Vera Ratti) allegedly gives immacculate birth to twins, Father Daniel (Lee Roy Kunz) and Cardinal Russo (Alexander Siddig) arrive from the Vatican to investigate her claims that one of the twins is the Messiah and the other is the anti-Christ.

      Deliver Us is yet another horror movie with an interesting premise, but poor execution. The screenplay by writer/co-director Lee Roy Kunz and co-writer Kane Kunz doesn't waste any time with an intense prologue that foreshadows the imminent supernatural horror. That intensity doesn't diminish much after that strong opening scene, but intense doesn't always mean scary. What the filmmakers succeed in achieving, though, is a very grim sense of dread. Deliver Us doesn't shy away from being shocking and disturbing. However, like The Nun II, it quickly becomes monotonous, dull and repetitive without providing enough palpable scares. Subtlety and nuance isn't among the film's strengths. Neither are character development and exposition which are often clunky. Is it too much to ask for some comic relief? At least The Pope's Exorcist managed to add some levity at times while giving the priest a personality that humanizes him. The same can't be said about Father Daniel who's a very bland, forgettable character. This is the kind of movie where the characters never come to life; they're just there as plot devices to move the plot forward. In other words, you can hear the screenplay turning every step of the way which is not a good sign. There are too few surprises and a convoluted third act that's not nearly as bold, thrilling, clever or terrifying as it could've been with a more sensitive and intelligent screenplay.

      Much like The Nun II, Deliver Us has impressive production design and cinematography that add plenty of visual style and atmosphere. The violent scenes are unflinchingly gory and icky, so this isn't the kind of horror film for audiences with a weak stomach. Blood and guts isn't enough, though, to elevate a horror film beyond grossing out or shocking the audience. It takes a much more skilled filmmaker to combine those elements with palpable scares through psychological horror which Deliver Us sorely lacks. Without the audience being emotionally invested in any of the characters' lives, it's hard to care about what happens to them, so the beats don't quite land during the third act. The performances are decent at best with no one getting much of a chance to shine, but, as Roger Ebert once wisely observed, the true star of a horror film is the horror itself. Unfortunately, the horror doesn't shine too brightly here either. At a running time of 1 hour and 43 minutes, which feels more like 2 hours, Deliver Us is gritty, foreboding and atmospheric, but monotonous, convoluted and low on scares.

Number of times I checked my watch: 4
Released by Magnet Releasing.
Opens in select theaters and on VOD.

Fair Play

Directed by Chloe Domont

      Luke (Alden Ehrenreich) and his girlfriend, Emily (Phoebe Dynevor), live together in a New York City apartment, but must keep their relationship a secret because they work at the same hedge fund. She's a trader and he's an analyst. Their risks of getting caught increase when they get engaged.

      The screenplay by writer/director Chloe Domont combines suspense, romance, drama and thrills with mixed results. It begins promisingly as Like and Emily seem like they're in love and their future together looks bright, but there are few signs that their relationship will crack and crumble. Those signs become major red flags when you learn that they're risking their careers by working at the same hedge fund which is against their company's policy. Did they never hear of the mantra, "Don't shit where you eat."? They have an arrogant, sleazy boss, Campbell (Eddie Marsan), who makes work more difficult for them, but he has no clue about their relationship and nor does their co-workers know. Emily complicates matters when she announces her engagement to her mother over the phone. Before you know it, Emily's mother plans an engagement party and won't cancel it despite Emily's protests. What starts as an honest and psychologically thrilling portrait of a toxic relationship between two narcissists turns into an increasingly dark thriller that takes a sharp nosedive during the third act when Fair Play essentially feels like a Skinamax movie. When Domont leaves room for interpretation and trusts the audience's emotions during the first hour of the film, it's an engrossing experience. As Luke and Emily become more and more unhinged, the film goes off the rails while straining credibility. There's too much on-the-nose, stilted dialogue and a very cringe-inducing joke about incest that leaves a bad taste in one's mouth much like the very last scene. It's okay to take risks and to have an un-Hollywood ending, but as long as it comes with internal logic, it's merely subversive just for the sake of shock value. Instead, Fair Play's third act feels cheap, lazy and overwrought.

      Alden Ehrenreich and Phoebe Dynevor give raw performances that elevate the film above mediocrity while providing it with some emotional depth that the screenplay lacks. They're both terrific together, so Fair Play is lucky to have them in the leading roles. Eddie Marsan is also well-cast and makes the most out of his supporting role of a hedge fund boss. The cinematography is slick albeit not enough to stand out when it comes to visual style. The most clunkily edited scene, though, is an important one: the engagement party. A cut to the next scene afterward feels too abrupt while leaving too many questions unanswered about Emily's family in the aftermath of an incident that occurs at the party. For a much smarter, organic and witty portrait of a toxic relationship, see Shortcomings or, if you're into watching couples bickering, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?.

Number of times I checked my watch: 2
Released by Netflix.
Opens at IFC Center and The Paris Theatre.

The Kill Room

Directed by Nicol Paone

      Patrice (Uma Thurman), a struggling gallery owner, agrees to help Gordon (Samuel L. Jackson), a crime boss masquerading as a bakery owner, and a hitman, Reggie (Joe Manganiello), with a money laundering scheme.

      The screenplay by Jonathan Jacobson has a few witty and hilarious moments, but they're far and few between. There's a lot of potential for big laughs that never end up coming. A Yiddish-speaking baker who's secretly a crime boss sounds funny. So does a hitman who makes art using the plastic bags that he uses to kill people. A gallery owner who secretly takes drugs isn't that funny, though. The less you think about the logistics of the plot, the better because it makes very little sense and is not very surprising. Unfortunately, the The Kill Room doesn't take enough risks and plays it too safely more often than not. It could've been zanier, bolder and much more witty, especially in the banter between Patrice and Gordon which falls flat. For a much more outrageously funny dark comedy, see Eating Raoul which is far superior to this often limp comedy.

      Uma Thurman and Samuel L. Jackson give lively performances and have some fun in their roles, but the screenplay doesn't give them enough material to let their comedic skills shine. They've both been better in superior action comedies that are hard to ignore while watching this one, i.e. Pulp Fiction, The Long Kiss Goodnight and Kill Bill. The pace moves briskly enough and at least the running time doesn't clock past the 2 hour mark like the recent Outlaw Johnny Black, so it doesn't overstay its welcome. There's nothing exceptional about the production values to elevate the film above mediocrity. At a running time of 1 hour and 38 minutes, The Kill Room is a mildly engaging, but often limp dark comedy that's only sporadically funny with too little wit.

Number of times I checked my watch: 3
Released by SHOUT! Studios.
Opens in select theaters.


Directed by Soi Cheang

      A veteran cop, Cham Lau (Lam Ka Tung) and his partner, Will Ren (Mason Lee) investigate serial killings in Hong Kong. Wong To (Cya Liu), a criminal responsible for his wife’s car accident that left her comatose, agrees to help Cham find the serial killer.

      The screenplay by co-writers Kin Yee Au and Kwan-Sin Shum maintains suspense from the first few minutes that establish the film’s dark tone and don’t waste any time diving right into the meat of the story. Cham must find the serial killer on the loose in Hong Kong who, for some reason, cuts off his victims’ left hand. All of the victims are female. The plot becomes increasingly complex with twists that won’t be spoiled here, but it’s worth noting that the screenwriters have a great handle on exposition. They know precisely how much information to withhold from the audience and how much to inform them so that they’re not too confused while also keeping them intrigued without insulting their intelligence. There are some thrilling action sequences that invigorate the film. That said, what’s missing from Limbo is much-need levity. It’s consistently grim which becomes monotonous and exhausting at times.

      The performances are decent without anyone giving a dull performance. The film’s major strength, is its black-and-white cinematography and set designs which add to the film’s grim atmosphere. There’s plenty of unflinching violence and gore that’s quite horrifying and unpleasant. Limbo doesn’t leave much to the imagination. Also, while there’s some visceral, physical grit there’s not enough emotional grit. It’s not quite as brilliant or surprisingly poignant as Heat. There are some pacing issues with some scenes moving to slowly while others, like the action scenes, moving very fast. Those are minor, systematic issues, though. At a running time of just under 2 hours, Limbo is a visually stunning, spellbinding and gripping crime thriller in the vein of Seven and Zodiac.

Number of times I checked my watch: 2
Released by Capelight Pictures and MPI Media Group.
Opens in select theaters.


Directed by John Stalberg Jr.

      Jake Rosser (Aaron Eckhart), an LAPD police officer, goes on the hunt for the criminal gang responsible for killing his beloved K-9 dog, Ace. Leland (Stephen Lang), a police dog trainer, gives him a new K-9 named Socks. Meanwhile, he sparks a romance with his neighbor, Mia (Penelope Mitchell).

      The screenplay by writer Carlyle Eubank suffers from a clunky, unfocused and increasingly dull plot. Muzzle is a B-movie, but not a fun one like John Wick which it doesn't even hold a candle to. Both films are about a man seeking revenge against someone who killed his dog. The similarities end there, though. It doesn't quite work as an action thriller nor as a character study of a man who's struggling with traumatic events from his past. Eubank does a subpar job of incorporating exposition, especially during the third act which introduces a new character. None of the characters come to life which would've been fine if the action scenes were thrilling or exhilarating, but they're far from exciting on a palpable level. Is it too much to ask for a little comic relief or some sort of levity? Is it too much to ask to give Jake a personality? He's going through a lot emotionally, but the film neglects to explore his emotional pain because it's too busy moving the plot forward or going off on unnecessary tangents like Jake's relationship with Mia that take away from the film's narrative momentum. Without creating enough of a window into Jake's heart, mind and soul, Muzzle dehumanizes him and makes it hard for the audience to care about him. It also fails to establish the bond between him and his dog, Ace, before it gets killed, so the beats don't land as strongly as they could have when he seeks revenge.

      Unfortunately, none of the performances help to invigorate the film because they're all undermined by the vapid screenplay. That said, the film's one and only strength is its gritty cinematography, lighting and use of color that provides it with some atmosphere. However, this isn't the kind of film where the visual style compensates for the lack of substance. The editing feels choppy at times while some scenes last too long, so pacing issues ensue. At a running time of 1 hour and 40 minutes, which feels more like 2 hours, Muzzle is lackluster and overwrought while sorely lacking in palpable thrills and suspense. In a double feature with John Wick, it would be the inferior B-movie.

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

Paw Patrol: The Mighty Movie

Directed by Cal Brunker

      A meteor crashes into Adventure City leaving behind powerful crystals that give superpowers to the Paw Patrol, Chase (voice of Christian Convery), Rubble (voice of Luxton Handspiker), Marshall (voice of Christian Corrao), Zuma (voice of Nylan Parthipan), Rocky (voice of Callum Shoniker) and Skye (voice of Mckenna Grace). They must harness their superpowers to save Adventure City and to stop an evil scientist, Victoria Vance (voiced by Taraji P. Henson) from taking the crystals away from them.

      The screenplay by writer/director Cal Brunker and co-writer Bob Barlen captures the magic of Paw Patrol: The Movie by finding the right balance between action and comedy with a few surprisingly heartfelt and inspirational moments along the way. The plot is easy-to-follow for kids and has just enough sight gags to keep them entertained and laughing. It's zany and silly, but not too zany or too silly. Mayor Humdinger (voice of Ron Pardo) and his cats are a good example of that delightful zaniness and silliness. It's also sweet and tender without being saccharine, inspirational without being preachy, and exciting without being exhausting. The witty dialogue and tongue-in-cheek humor will keep adults engaged. Meanwhile, kids will cheer Skye on as she's tasked with landing a plane on her own on a runway that her other Paw Patrol members create for her to land on in Asteroid City. That's one of the most exhilarating and thrilling scenes in the film. Fortunately, the villain isn't too scary nor is she boring. She actually has something in common with Skye because they both can relate to how small and insecure they feel. A flashback to a traumatic event from Skye's past explains a lot about her emotional struggles which makes her a true superhero, and leads to a briefly suspenseful scene in the third act where the beat lands when something happens to Skye which won't be revealed here. It's equally empowering and enlightening to watch how she overcomes her obstacles, learns the importance of having self worth and believing in herself no matter how small she is.

      The CGI animation in Paw Patrol: The Mighty Moving is colorful and dazzling with a lot of attention to detail. Like in most animated films, the water looks photorealistic. Most importantly, the filmmakers animate the characters in a way that provides them with some personality while even anthropomorphizing the Paw Patrol in the process. The pace moves briskly enough so that there's no dull moment or scenes that overstay their welcome, i.e. the flashback to Skye's traumatic past which makes its point efficiently without dwelling on it or hitting the audience over the head. In other words, the filmmakers trust the audience's emotional intelligence which is quite a commendable feat. At a running time of 1 hour and 32 minutes, Paw Patrol: The Mighty Movie is a triumph. It's an exhilarating, captivating and inspirational adventure for the whole family with just the right balance of action, comedy and heart.

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

Story Ave

Directed by Aristotle Torres

      Kadir (Asante Blackk), a teenage graffiti artist, still grieves the death of his younger brother. When he tries to rob an MTA conductor, Luis (Luis Guzmán), they strike up a friendship instead.

      Story Ave is a heartwarming and genuinely poignant coming-of-age story that avoids being preachy and schmaltzy.  The screenplay by writer/director Aristotle Torres and co-writer Bonsu Thompson introduces Kadir as a troubled, delinquent teenager who comes from a dysfunctional figure. He doesn't have any good role models in his life, yet, or anyone to guide him on the right path. That changes when he meets Luis who becomes his mentor after Kadir tries to rob him. Like Kadir, there's more to Luis than meets the eye. He's a decent human being, but he's struggling with emotional pain while grieving the death of his son. There's a particularly heartfelt scene where Luis sits down with Kadir for dinner and they gradually bond. Luis provides Kadir with a small light in a dark tunnel, so-to-speak, while encouraging him to express himself and channel his emotions through art. They're both experiencing a coming-of-age, and it's equally fascinating and moving to watch how they grow as they each tackle their emotional pain head-on. The dialogue feels natural as do their interactions without any heavy-handedness, over-explaining, tonal unevenness or unnecessary subplots. Bravo to the filmmakers for seeing and treating Kadir and Luis as complex human beings, warts-and-all, which makes them relatable. Story Ave could've easily turned into a dark and gritty crime thriller with a less sensitive screenplay. .

       Asante Blackk shines in a convincingly moving performance that finds the emotional truth of his role . Luis Guzmán is also superb while exuding palpable warmth and charism. and gives one of the best performances of his career. He deserves more meaty lead roles like this one. The cinematography, use of lighting and color are also worth mentioning because they provide visual poetry while also making the film feel more cinematic at times. The pace moves at just the right speed and the editing feels smooth without any choppiness. At a running time of 1 hour and 34 minutes, Story Ave is a profound, engrossing and inspirational protest for friendship, compassion, kindness, hope and resilience. It would make for an interesting double feature with another film starring Asante Blackk, Landscape with Invisible Hand.

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