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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.


Bros

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.

Smile

Directed by Parker Finn




     

     



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

Vesper

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.