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Reviews for September 6th, 2019

Documentary Round-Up

      In Heading Home: The Tale of Team Israel,


Directed by Simon Hunter


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

IT Chapter Two

Directed by Andy Muschietti


Number of times I checked my watch: 8
Released by Warner Bros.
Opens at Quad Cinema.

Ms. Purple

Directed by Justin Chon


Number of times I checked my watch: 4
Released by Oscilloscope Laboratories.
Opens at Quad Cinema.

Promise at Dawn

Directed by Eric Barbier

      Romain Gary (Pierre Niney), a famous writer living with his wife, Lesley Blanch (Catherine McCormack), recalls his younger years as he was growing up with his overbearing Jewish mother, Nina (Charlotte Gainsbourg), in Poland and later in France. He survived WWII and poverty while his mother encouraged him to become a writer. She worked as a tailor and struggled to make ends meet as she encountered antisemitism.

      Promise at Dawn tells a story that sound like it could be a sweeping, engrossing drama, but it mostly falls flat with contrivance. The screenplay by writer/director Eric Barbier and co-writer Marie Eynard bites off more than it could chew as it covers a lot of ground from the events of Romain Gary's life with his mother. They had a toxic relationship which affected Gary's romantic pursuits with other women perhaps because he seemed like a surrogate husband for his mother. They're almost as close as the mother and son in Louis Malle's Murmur of the Heart or last year's far more nuanced drama Wildlife.  Also, Charlotte Gainsbourg over-acts as though she were in a soap opera. Could she use some cheese with all that ham? You can feel the wheels of her performance turning. The same can be said the screenplay. There's too much use of narration by Gary to fill in the gaps while leaving no room for interpretation. It's as though the screenwriters don't trust the audience's intelligence or emotions enough and try to tell them what to think and feel more often than not. Over-explaining is among the film's systemic flaws.

      On a positive note, the cinematography, set design, lighting and costume design all look superb and add authenticity, but not nearly enough to compensate for the weak screenplay. The brief comic relief works most of the time while feeling clunky occasionally. Moreover, the wraparound story taking place during Gary's later years in Mexico that bookends the film fails to back an emotional punch, especially because the relationship between Gary and his first wife remains unexplored. It feels like unnecessary padding that could've easily been omitted. At a running time of 2 hours and 10 minutes, Promise at Dawn is concurrently an overwrought, undercooked and underwhelming biopic. 

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

Satanic Panic

Directed by Chelsea Stardust


Number of times I checked my watch: 5
Released by RLJE Films.
Opens at IFC Center.

Strange But True

Directed by Rowan Athale

      Ronnie (Connor Jessup) died while on prom night date with his girlfriend, Melissa (Margaret Qualley). Five years later, Melissa turns up at the home of Ronnie's mother, Charlene (Amy Ryan) and his brother, Philip (Nick Robinson), claiming that she's pregnant with Ronnie's baby. Charlene's ex-husband, Richard (Greg Kinnear), is a doctor whom Charlene suspects of hiding a secret love affair with Melissa when she notices on his bank statements that he paid Melissa money. Meanwhile, Melissa persuades her neighbors, Bill (Brian Cox) and his wife, Gail (Blythe Danner), to become her godparents.

      Strange But True Screenwriter Eric Garcia and director Rowan Athale know how to withhold just enough information from the audience to keep them at the edge of their seat asking many questions starting with, "Is the explanation for Melissa's pregnancy natural or supernatural Is there a supernatural or natural villain? Will this be like Rosemary's Baby? What is this movie really about?" One minute you might think the film will veer toward the supernatural and the next you'll think otherwise. It's that tug of war that makes Strange But True such a gripping experience. Bravo to the filmmakers for trusting the audience's imagination. In that sense, this can be seen as a horror film where much of the horror is inside the audience's mind.

    &nbs Garcia and Atahal do a great job of building Hitchcockian suspense because they take relatable characters living seemingly ordinary lives and put them in increasingly intense situations. There's more to each character than meets the eye which is what makes them all the more compelling. Incorporating flashbacks can be tricky because they run the risk of diminishing a film's dramatic momentum and resulting in clunkiness, but thanks to the sensitive screenplay, the flashbacks to Ronnie's prom night work quite effectively sans clunkiness as you begin to wonder whether those moments can somehow unlock the present-day mystery. The less you know about the plot, the better because it has many twists and turns up its sleeve as you also question whether or not you can trust certain characters.

      The entire cast, even the supporting actors, give convincingly moving performances that ground the film in authenticity. Nick Robinson is just as charismatic as he was in Love, Simon, and Margaret Qualley is very-well cast as Melissa bringing rawness and tenderness to her role. The third act, which won't be spoiled here, works because by then you're already emotionally invested in the character's lives, so you care about whether or not they'll die. Fortunately, the third-act twist has the right amount of exposition told in the right way that it makes sense with a little suspension of disbelief thrown in. After all, this is not a 100% slice of life nor does it have to be, but there's just enough realism and internal logic so that it doesn't feel implausible like some M. Night Shyamalan endings. At a lean running time of 96 minutes, Strange But True is a taut, provocative and moving psychological thriller.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by Lionsgate.
Opens at Cinema Village.
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