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Reviews for September 30th, 2022

Documentary Round-Up

      You don't have to be a fan of heavy metal to be captivated by the moving, intimate and provocative documentary Sirens about the band Slave to Sirens. They're not just an ordinary heavy metal band; they're all-female and from Beirut, Lebanon. With behind-the-scenes access to the band, director Rita Baghdadi captures the highs and lows of the band members while also informing the audience about how the group was formed back in 2015. Baghdadi focuses mostly on its founding members, Lilas Mayassi and Shery Bechara; the other members, Alma Doumani, Maya S. Khairallah and Tatyana Boughaba, are barely in it, so this isn't really a thorough documentary per se. Nonetheless, there's enough going on the personal lives of Lilas and Shery to add some dramatic tension to the film while humanizing both of them concurrently. They're not perfect; their flaws and struggles make them not only more interesting, but also relatable. The dynamics of their relationship remains compelling from start to finish. They're brave for bearing their souls in front of the camera. Most importantly, though, Baghdadi does a great job of showing their private moments--their "dirty laundry"---without being invasive or making the documentary feel voyeuristic. Sirens is ultimately a documentary about courage, perseverance, sexual identity, freedom and friendship. It's even more exceptional for being about female friendships specifically because that's something rarely explored in film, whether they're fiction or documentary. Sirens opens at Angelika Film Center via Oscilloscope Laboratories.

      Souls in Transit is a brave, powerful and eye-opening exposé about a human rights issue: Sayfo, a.ka. the Assyrian Genocide of 1915 when Ottomans massacred Christians. It's just as important to remember as the Holocaust and the Armenian Genocide. Director Aida Schläpfer includes footage of interviews with survivors, Ziyo Rhawi, Gorgis Shabo Afram, Sade Be Galle Saydeand Yahkub b'qasho Malke, who provide testimony of their experiences as children during the Souls in Transit sounds like the title of a horror film and, in a way, it is indeed a horror film, even more terrifying because it's real and still an issue today. What they witnessed and experienced will move you to tears as it rightfully should unless you're made out of stone. Bravo to director Aida Schläpfer for not sugar-coating anything and presenting the audience with the horrors of Sayfo in vivid details directly from the account of the survivors. She also interviews men and women like Feda Botrous, among others, whose lives and livelihoods remain at stake in Iraq because they're Christian. One family used to be rich, but now they are homeless and poor. Their struggles are heartbreaking. One of the interview subjects hits the nail on the head when he asks why the United Nations and Europe aren't doing anything to help the Christians in the east today. Are they not complicit in their murder and suffering?

      To be fair, it would've added more perspective to the doc if director Aida Schläpfer were to have interviewed a representative of the United Nations, but Souls in Transit nonetheless remains just as vital of a historical document as Claude Lanzmann's Shoah. Aida Schläpfer's compassion, empathy, determination, courage are palpably evident throughout her narration. That makes her a strong person and a great role model. She candidly admits at the end that there's a lot more information and documents that remain hidden from her and that she couldn't find. Her honesty is refreshing and a sign that she's a great journalist who's intellectually and emotionally mature, and cares about truth and justice. Truth and justice are an essential part of democracy, so what she ultimately cares about and strives for is democracy. The final shot of the sun shining near the horizon is very poetic. Poetry is often a protest for or against something. Souls in Transit is clearly a protest against hate, intolerance and violence. It's a protest for peace, love and compassion. At a running time of 1 hour and 17 minutes, Souls in Transit opens at Cinema Village via DA Production.

      In Taming the Garden, Bidzina Ivanishvil, the former prime minister of Georgia, uproots century-old trees and transports them to his garden. That's the gist of what happens in this fly-on-the-wall documentary. Director Salomé Jashi eschews talking-head interviews, informational text or even any background about anyone. She lets the images and brief conversations among the people on screen speak for themselves without commentary. Images often speak louder than words, and that can be said about much of Taming the Garden. The images of nature look majestic and breathtaking, but watching the trees being uprooted and the land destroyed through excavation is tragic and horrifying. Essentially, this is a beautifully-shot documentary that also serves as an exposé of how the rich and powerful are selfish and lack respect for the environment. Around the hour mark, the doc starts to become repetitive. It's not nearly as powerful, balanced and haunting as the recent National Geographic doc The Territory. Director Salomé Jashi trusts the audience's patience a lot, especially since the pace moves very slowly, so she does at least deserve credit for taking that risk. At a running time of 1 hour and 32 minutes, which feels more like 2 hours, it opens at New Plaza Cinema via Big World Pictures before expanding to Laemmle Theatres in Los Angeles on October 10th and 11th.

      Three more docs also open today. They're very different in terms of subject matter as well as quality. Starting with the best doc among them, Buried: The 1982 Alpine Meadows Avalanche centers on the avalanche that killed 7 people in a Lake Tahoe resort called Alpine Meadows back in March 31st, 1982. Co-directors Jared Drake and Steven Siig blend news footage and talking-head interviews with the survivors of the avalanche as well as some reenactments. It's a gripping, cinematic and well-edited documentary which would be even more suspenseful for audiences not previously familiar with the incident. The filmmakers do a decent job of presenting the audience with the details of the avalanche including the blizzard that occurred before it. Jim Plehn, an avalanche forecaster, provides some fascinating insights from his perspective and recollections. The most poignant parts of the doc, though, are when the survivors candidly discuss how the event affected them and what they've learned from it. Although not quite as powerful and memorable as The Rescue and Touching the Void, Buried: The 1982 Alpine Meadows Avalanche comes close. It opens at Regal Union Square via Greenwich Entertainment.

      Nearby at the Quad Cinema, you'll find Art & Krimes by Krimes about Jesse Krimes, an artist who served 6 years in prison for selling drugs. While in prison, he used a variety of material like hair gel, newspapers and bed sheets to create a 40-foot mural that he smuggled out piece by piece. He saw the mural in its entirety when he was released from prison. There's nothing exceptional about this doc, but director Alysa Nahmias is lucky to have an interesting subject who's not afraid to open up emotionally in front of the camera to talk about his traumatic childhood and how he was inspired to create art. Art, after all, can be a way to channel one's emotions and to better understand them. It's a form of art therapy. Director Alysa Nahmias doesn't really explore the larger theme of art therapy nor does it show other artists similar to Krimes. He can't be the only ex-con who became an artist. So, this doc remains limited in scope, but it does shed some light on the healing power of art. It opens via MTV Documentary Films.

      Further downtown at DCTV's Firehouse Cinema, there's I Didn't See You There, the most unconventional and immersive doc of the week, but concurrently very tedious and nauseating one. Reid Davenport, a disabled filmmaker, uses a wheelchair to travel around Oakland, California. The camera remains from his perspective which puts the audience in his shoes. This isn't so much a documentary biopic about Reid Davenport; it's more of a snapshot of his experiences and struggles as a disabled man. You don't even get to see Davenport--only brief glimpses of his shadows and reflections, but you do get to hear his voice and hear how he reacts when he's angry and frustrated. He comes across as intelligent and candid while he makes some profound observations every now and then. I Didn't See You There is hard to watch at times because of all the shaky-cam, but kudos to Davenport for boldly breaking documentary convention through the film's intense visual style.


Directed Nicholas Stoller

      Bobby Lieber (Billy Eichner) works for the LGBTQIA+ Museum which is about to open if he can secure $5 million from investors to fund it. After a series of failed attempts to meet someone on dating apps, he meets Aaron (Luke Macfarlane) at a nightclub and spends time with him even though neither of them is emotionally available for a serious relationship.

      The screenplay by writer-director Nicholas Stoller and co-writer Billy Eichner brims with razor-sharp wit, funny one-liners, and observational humor without trying too hard to please the audience. It's self-aware, yes, like many films are these days, but not excessively. Stoller and Eichner have a knack for understanding human nature because of the way that they treat Bobby and Aaron as human beings and explore their relationship in a way that feels true-to-life. Bobby comes across as candid, emotionally mature, intelligent, but also a little insecure at times. He's also confident, yet sensitive. Aaron may seem perfect at first, but he's far from it and has his own insecurities and issues that he has yet to confront until he meets Bobby. Their relationship unfolds organically with all the ups and downs that some modern relationships have. Aaron, for instance, enjoys having threesomes and open relationships, but Bobby isn't really into that. Not surprisingly, he gets jealous when he catches Aaron with someone else outside of a club. One of the most revealing scenes about Aaron, though, is when Bobby meets Aaron's parents and Aaron tells him to behave in a way that goes against his true self. Bobby has every right to be mad at him for dehumanizing, belittling and offending him. Whether he chooses to forgive him for it and, if so, how he forgives him won't be revealed here, though, but it's worth mentioning that it feels true to Bobby's character. Between all of the relationship drama, there's plenty of comedy, so be prepared to laugh. There are some of which references pop culture and classic movies that the film has fun poking fun at, i.e. Brokeback Mountain, You've Got Mail, Sleepless in Seattle and When Harry Met Sally..... There are also some very funny cameos by Debra Messing, Ben Stiller, Jodie Foster and Amy Schumer.

      Every actor and actress in Bros from Billy Eihchner and Luke Macfarlane to the supporting roles, like Dot-Marie Jones who plays one of Bobby's co-workers at the LGBTQIA+ Museum, are very well-cast. They're all having a great time on-screen, and, most importantly, the audience can palpably sense that. Everyone gets a chance to shine, so this is a true ensemble. Billy Eichner and Luke Macfarlane have wonderful chemistry together. They bring a lot of warmth and charisma to their roles, and they help to make it easy to root for Bobby and Aaron to be together. The music score and soundtrack are well-chosen and compliment the film's tone very effectively. The pacing is also fast enough without being too fast, and no scene feels too long or drags. At a running time of 1 hour and 55 minutes, Bros is funny, heartfelt and refreshingly honest. It's a crowd-pleasing delight, and destined to become a new romcom classic. Surprisingly, there are no outtakes during the end credits. Perhaps there will be some in the DVD's bonus features.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by Universal Pictures.
Opens nationside.

Dead for a Dollar

Directed Walter Hill

      Martin Kidd (Hamish Linklater) hires Max Borlund (Christoph Waltz), a bounty hunter, to find his wife, Rachel (Rachel Brosnahan), who's gone missing. Elijah Jones (Brandon Scott), a buffalo soldier, allegedly kidnapped her, but little do Martin and Max know that Elijah is actually her lover and that she hopes to escape with him to Cuba with the help of Tiberio Vargas (Benjamin Bratt), a Mexican gangster.

      Just reading the premise alone, Dead for a Dollar sounds like it could be a gripping Western thriller. Writer/director Walter Hill and co-writer Matt Harris keep the plot easy-to-follow and just right to the meat of the story within the first ten minutes. Right away, you'll know what the conflict is, who the good guys are and who the bad guys are. Unfortunately, the film takes a steep nosedive after that and meanders with a few poorly-developed subplots. This is one of those cases where there are too many characters and no one to connect with on any level. Worst of all, there's no one to really root for, not even Rachel, Martin or Max. Rachel and Martin are husband-and-wife, but Hill and Harris don't even bother to show what their relationship is like. It's as though their relationship is merely there as a plot device. Sure, her kidnapping should rightfully be a plot device, but why sideline their relationship? The same can be said about Rachel and her new lover, Elijah, which falls flat, too. Max has an enemy, Joe Cribbons (Willem Dafoe), who just got out of prison. His subplot is clunky and under-developed. Of course, there are shootouts, which is what anyone would expect in a Western, but they're not very exciting or thrilling. There's also too little wit, comic relief or any scenes that stand out for that matter. Dead for a Dollar is one of those B-movies that seems to be just going through the motions without taking any risks.

      The performances range from wooden to mediocre. Christoph Waltz is a great actor, but he's saddled with stilted dialogue and gives a performance that lacks emotion here. Perhaps the material is to blame for that. Willem Dafoe and Hamish Linklater also give flat performances. At least their performances match the film's overall dullness and lethargy. None one has any chemistry on-screen which is disappointing given the talented cast. Even the scenery and cinematography don't add much in terms of style or eye-candy. Moreover, the pacing feels uneven and, at times, sluggish, so the running time of 1 hour and 54 minutes feels more like 3 hours. In a double bill with A-movies like 3:10 to Yuma and Unforgiven, Dead for a Dollar would be the vastly inferior and forgettable B-movie.

Number of times I checked my watch: 3
Released by Quiver Distribution.
Opens at Cinema Village and on VOD.

God's Creatures

Directed by Saela Davis and Anna Rose Holmer

      After being away for many years, Brian O’Hara (Paul Mescal) returns to his hometown, a small Irish village, and reunites with his mother Aileen, (Emily Watson), father, Con (Declan Conlon), Erin (Toni O’Rourke) and Paddy (Lalor Roddy), who's suffering from Alzheimer's. Aileen works as a supervisor at a seafood packing plant and steals oyster seedlings to help Brian start an oyster farm. She lies that he was at home with her when when he's accused of sexually abusing her coworker, Sarah (Aisling Franciosi), whom he used to date.

      God's Creatures is a taut, intelligent psychological thriller. The screenplay by Shane Crowley takes its time to introduce the audience to Aileen and her dysfunctional family. Brian suddenly returns from abroad without warning. His arrival sets a course of events that break the family apart little by little. Without flashbacks, Crowley incorporates just enough exposition so that you understand what causes Brian to become estranged from his family. What remains intentionally unclear and up to the audience's imagination is what he was doing while he was away. It's also initially ambiguous whether or not he can be trusted and has good intentions. That question gets answered eventually when he's charged with sexual abuse. Once again, Crowley trusts the audience's imagination by not showing what happened after Brian met Sarah at a local pub. Through his behavior and the behavior of his mother in the aftermath, it's easy to connect the dots and to figure out what really happened. He's a human being after all and feels a sense of guilt as well as fear. His mother loves her son and wants to help, so she lies to keep him from being convicted. Her theft of the oyster seedlings is merely a foreshadow of the big lie that she tells for him while it also serves as proof that she has no shame in crossing legal boundaries. She's a human being, too, and Crowley as well as co-directors Saela Davis and Anna Rose Holmer see and treat her as such.

      God's Creatures isn't really a crime thriller; there's a brief police interrogation scene, but, for the most part, the film focuses on the psychological and emotional effect that the crime has on Brian and Aileen. In one of the most powerful and heartbreaking scenes, Aileen cries in the shower with her back to the audience. You don't see her crying, but you hear her crying. That moment speaks volumes about the pain and suffering that she's going through as a mother and as a human being. She feels guilty, fearful and frustrated, too. What would a good parent do? Isn't it a parent's job to protect their child from harm? Fortunately, God's Creatures doesn't ask you to judge her. You can, if you want to, but it's far more emotionally rewarding to just experience and observe her. She's a fascinating character whose complexity and conscience makes her all the more human and relatable.

      Emily Watson gives one of her most raw and heartfelt performances since Angela's Ashes. She conveys so much emotion just through her facial expressions, particularly her eyes. She's just as mesmerizing to watch as Tilda Swinton is in The Deep End or Sissy Spacek in In the Bedroom, two films which would pair very well with this film. The silent moments in God's Creatures are as powerful or even more so than the scenes with dialogue. The set design, weather, lighting and landscape come together to add to the film's melancholic tone. Then there's the score and use of red color that creates a foreboding tone as though the film might veer into the supernatural, i.e. with demonic possession. Fortunately, it doesn't go in that direction, but the visuals do indeed become poetic. Poetry, after all, is a form of protest for or against something. In this case, it's up to the audience to decide what the film is protesting for or against. Perhaps it's a protest for love and against hate or perhaps it's for truth and against lies. Either way, it's very thought provoking. The slow-burn pace makes it easier to absorb the scenes, so kudos to the filmmakers for trusting the audience's patience. At a running time of merely 1 hour and 34 minutes, God's Creatures is a taut, intelligent and genuinely heartfelt psychological thriller.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by A24.
Opens at Angelika Film Center and on VOD.


Directed by Sylvia Chang, Joan Chen and Shaohong Li



Number of times I checked my watch: 2
Released by China Lion Film Distribution.
Opens at AMC Empire 25.


Directed by Parker Finn

     Dr. Rose Cotter (Sosie Bacon) works as a therapist at a psychiatric hospital. A patient commits suicide in front of her after giving her a creepy smile. After that incident, she starts to experience hallucinations which interfere with her work, so her boss, Dr. Morgan Desai (Kal Penn), gives her some time off for her to relax and unwind. Her fiance, Trevor (Jessie T. Usher), worries about her increasingly erratic behavior which her psychiatrist, Dr. Madeline Northcott (Robin Weigert) tries to help her deal with. Meanwhile, she seeks the assistance of Joel (Kyle Gallner), her ex-boyfriend, a police officer, to investigate mysterious a series of interconnected suicides that might be part of a curse.

      The screenplay by writer/director Park Finn is an amalgam of many different horror films from ranging from It Follows to Donnie Darko, but it does offer some effective chills and thrills up its sleeve. There's nothing wrong with heavily borrowing from other films or resorting to cliches as long as they're used well and the ideas are taken somewhere interesting. Smile begins with some suspense, but the suspense slowly dissipates as the scares become repetitive and Rose goes off the rails. Of course, no one believes her at first, especially Trevor who thinks that she's just crazy and questions whether or not they should settle down together and get married. Of course, Joel does end up believing her. Why? Because the plot requires him to. He seems like too much of a pushover because he basically does whatever she asks him to do, i.e. look up the police records of someone who committed suicide. Are her hallucinations all in her mind or something truly paranormal? That's the main question that makes Smile at least marginally compelling during the first hour. Once it starts answering the question with clunky exposition, that's when it loses steam. Finn plays too many tricks on the audience which soon becomes tiresome and, in some cases, even unintentionally funny. There are many jump scares, so if that's what you're looking for in a horror thriller, then you'll be more than satisfied. Unfortunately, the third act, which won't be spoiled here, takes a nosedive with yet another scene that pulls the rug from under the audience, but by then it's not nearly as surprising or clever as intended.

      Besides excessive jump scares, Smile also overuses its visual style, i.e. with many upside-down shots shown to create a sense of unease. The first upside-down shot is effectively creepy, but after that the creepiness wanes. There's plenty of gore which is fine, so at least the film doesn't hold back on that, although it does leave little to the imagination. The moving performance by Sosie Bacon is what helps to hold your attention the most, though. She looks very much like a young Barbara Hershey and tries her best to rise above the mediocre screenplay. Fortunately, she succeeds more often than not. The underrated Kyle Gallner is also superb, and the same can be said about Robin Weigert. It's also worth mentioning the terrific sound design which adds both style and substance, i.e when Rose opens a can of tuna for her cat. The running time, though, does approach the 2-hour mark and feel like it could've been a leaner, tighter 90-minutes with a less meandering second act. At 1 hour and 55 minutes, Smile is uninspired and tedious, but well-acted and occasionally scary.

Number of times I checked my watch: 2
Released by Paramount Pictures.
Opens nationwide.


Directed Kristina Buozyte and Bruno Samper

      In a post-apocalyptic world, Vesper (Raffiella Chapman), a 13-year-old girl who has bioengineering skills, lives with her disabled, father, Darius (Richard Brake), on the outskirts of the Citadel. Darius was paralyzed while fighting in the Citadel army, so now he remains bedridden and communicates through a drone that hovers near him. Jonas (Eddie Marsan), Vesper's tyrannical uncle who sells childrens' blood to the Citadel. Through trading, he gives Vesper the essential bacteria needed to keep her father alive. Camellia (Rosy McEwen), a mysterious woman, crashes nearby. Vesper provides her with shelter and takes care of her. She hopes that Camillia can help her and her father to reach the Citadel.

      Vesper is a mildly engaging sci-fi thriller that suffers from the same issues as Dune: Part One suffers from: it excels at world-building while lacking suspense, thrills and emotional depth. The screenplay by writer/directors Kristina Buozyte and Bruno Samper and co-writer Brian spends too much time with exposition to show the audience Vesper's bioengineering skills, her relationship with her father, her uncle and, lastly, Camillia. This is one of those movies that has an intriguing premise that sounds like it could be an exhilarating epic, but it's poorly executed and meandering. A lot goes on beneath the surface, especially its social commentary about dystopian societies run by the powerful elite. However, the screenwriters barely scratch that surface. There's a modicum of suspense when Vesper meets Camillia who turns out to be someone other than what Vesper thought she is initially. The way that Camillia's true identity gets revealed feels clunky. Vesper's uncle, Jonas, is the closest character to a villain, but he's one-dimensional and not very interesting as a character, unfortunately. The elites inside the Citadel remain off-screen and left to the audience's imagination, but with all the exposition of everyone outside the Citadel, the lack of exposition of the powerful elites makes the film feel incomplete and less captivating---imagine if The Wizard of Oz, for instance, didn't show the Wicked Witch of the West or the Wizard of Oz himself. Also, Vesper's tone is too monotonous without enough levity, so tedium sets in around the hour mark. It's disappointing that the filmmakers don't manage to allow the audience to get to know Vesper enough so that they can care about her as a human being. They seem too concerned with world-building, but the plot loses steam early on while leaving the audience cold.

      On a purely aesthetic level, Vesper is a visual marvel to behold. The set design, CGI and practical effects along with the make-up design provide a lot of eye candy. You can turn the sound off and just gaze at the breathtaking images. Stunning visuals alone, though, aren't enough to hold the audience's attention for too long. Dune: Part One is also a visual spectacle albeit one that's much more exhausting at 2 and 35 minutes. The performances in Vesper are mediocre at best without enough emotional poignancy to compensate for the screenplay's lack of emotional depth. At a running time of 1 hour and 54 minutes, Vesper is a visually stunning spectacle, but emotionally hollow, tedious and underwhelming.

Number of times I checked my watch: 3
Released by IFC Midnight.
Opens at IFC Center and on VOD.

Wolf Pack

Directed by Michael Chiang

      A young medic (Aarif Rahman) joins an elite team of merceneries to stop terrorists from detonating a bomb at a natural gas pipeline. Max Zhang plays the mercenaries' leader who could help him to learn more about how and why his father died.

      Wolf Pack is like Top Gun minus any unnecessary romantic subplots. Writer/director Michael Chiang keeps the plot lean without much padding except the first act that introduces the protagonist as an army medic. He's then misled into joining the mercenaries and that's when he's told precisely what his mission is. There's nothing left to the imagination or that's thought-provoking, but that's okay because the film does deliver some thrills. There are plenty of action scenes, although they're not nearly as gripping or exhilarating as the scenes Top Gun or Mission: Impossible. The villains are boring and one-dimensional. Moreover, the dialogue is often stilted and dull without enough comic relief except at the very end when someone makes a comment about the villain's decision to explode the pipe line with a bomb. The flackbacks feel clunky and distract from the film's narrative momentum every time they're shown. They're also redundant and pandering because a character explains what's happening while that something is happening in the flashback. Then there's the brief backstory involving the medic and his father which doesn't generate as much poignancy as it attempts to.

      The cinematography is alright with no single scene that stands out. The same can be said about the action scenes' choreography. When it comes to the acting, though, it ranges from mediocre to very wooden and cringe-inducing, especially the actors who play the villains. The pace moves quickly, so at least there aren't too many pacing issues. The second act drags the most, but the third act is the most thrilling. At a running time of 1 hour and 45 minutes, Wolf Pack is a lean, occasionally thrilling slice of mindless entertainment.

Number of times I checked my watch: 3
Released by Well Go USA.
Opens at AMC Empire 25.