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Reviews for September 9th, 2022

Documentary Round-Up

      In the mildly engaging and illuminating documentary The Bengali Fatima Shaik, an African American woman living in New Orleans, travels India to investigate whether or not her grandfather, Mohamed Musa Shaik, owned land in a Calcutta village. She knows that he emigrated from India to America in the late 19th Century. Director Kavery Kaul follows Fatima along her journey as she asks questions to try to uncover the truth about her grandfather's past. Even when Fatima reaches dead ends in her quest, she doesn't give up. She's clearly determined, persistent and also unshy enough to greet local villagers to ask them for directions or to introduce herself to the family living at the property that belonged to her grandfather. The villagers live in poverty, and many haven't even seen an American before. The Bengali doesn't become a fish-out-of-water story per se, but it's still fascinating to learn about the culture and the food that look completely unrecognizable to Fatima--although, to be fair, it's surprising that she hasn't heard of Garam Masala, a common Indian spice that can be found in the US not only in Indian grocery stores in the , but also supermarkets like Whole Foods.

      What's missing in this doc is a broader scope and insight into larger issues, i.e. the xenophobia as well as the incompetent beaurocracy that Fatima encounters abroad. You don't learn enough about Fatima's life in New Orleans or how she's truly changed on an emotional and psychological level after she receives some closure at the end of her journey. Are there other people like Fatima who are also searching for their answers about their heritage? Probably, but this doc doesn't explore that concept, so it remains limited in scope and incomplete. At a running time of 1 hour and 12 minutes, The Bengali opens at Quad Cinema via Dada Films.

      Hockeyland is a compelling and illuminating glimpse into the world of high school hockey in the North Country of Minnesota. Director Tommy Haines focuses on two high school hockey teams: the Eveleth Golden Bears and their rival, the Hermantown Hawks. Instead of merely focusing on the underdog team, Haines follows both the underdogs, the Golden Bears, and the Hawks. Do you prefer to root for the underdog or not? It doesn't really matter because Hockeyland humanizes both teams while allowing the audience to get to know some of the players and their struggles--physical, mentally and emotionally. Even though the Hawks are the better team when it comes to their track record of winning playoffs, they, much like the Golden Bears, still have a lot of hard work to do to stay at that level. They're lucky to have Blake Biondi, their MVP, who has a bright future ahead of him. Every player deserves to succeed. They all deal with a lot of stress as they balance hockey with school work and family life.

      Director Tommy Haines opts for a more fly-on-the-wall approach to this doc rather than bombarding the audience with talking-head interviews. It's not as thorough as a Frederick Wiseman film; he probably would've extended the running time to 3 hours and made the pace much slower, though. To be fair, Hockeyland isn't as riveting as Spellbound--the ultimate sports doc--and, if you're not a huge fan of hockey, you probably won't be as engrossed in the hockey games between the two teams, especially the final one at the end of film. However, you'll learn a lot about what makes hockey so important to high school hockey players of Eveleth and Hermantown, and how it affects their lives. No matter what your hobby is, you'll be able to relate to their ambition, struggles and passion in some way. At a running time of 1 hour and 48 minutes, Hockeyland opens via Greenwich Entertaining in select theaters in Minnesota before expanding on September 16th to select theaters in Arizona, California, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Missouri, Nevada, North Dakota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Tennessee, Virginia, Washington and Wisconsin.

About Fate

Directed by Marius Balchunas

      Margot (Emma Roberts) expects her boyfriend, Kip (Lewis Tan), to propose to her while dining at Bennigan's, but he doesn't. Griffin (Thomas Mann) dines at Bennigan's with his girlfriend, Clementine (Madelaine Petsch), and proposes to her, but doesn't accept his proposal. Margo and Griffin paths cross twice until they're stuck spending New Year's Eve together. Griffin agrees to be Margo's guest at the wedding of her sister, Carrie (Britt Robertson), and to pretend to be Kip while hoping to make it in time for Clementine's New Year's Eve party.

      The screenplay by Tiffany Paulsen follows the conventional romcom formula so closely that you can feel the wheels of the screenplay turning every step of the way. There's nothing inherently wrong with following a formula or with resorting to clichés as long as they're used well. There's also nothing wrong if you can predict the ending from a mile away because it's the journey to that ending that ultimately matters. Unfortunately, About Fate becomes increasingly cloying and preposterous once Griffin accidentally ends up in Margot's house which happens to be in an identical neighborhood with the same address as his. One minute she's about to call the cops on him and the next she asks him to come with her to her sister's wedding pretending to be Kip. She comes across as an emotionally needy, clingy and naive young woman. She and Griffin barely know each other, and their interactions during their adventures together don't reveal much about them beyond that they're destined by fate to fall in love. How does she feel about fate? How does he feel about it? How does she feel about love? How does he feel about it? About Fate neglects to see and treat its characters as human beings by allowing the audience to get to know them deeper like in Before Sunrise.

      Morevoer, Margot and Griffin's conversations lack emotional depth, and their banter doesn't have the spark found in far superior romcoms, i.e. the screwball Bringing Up Baby, the romcom drama Sleepless in Seattle or the wildly entertaining classic After Hours. This is one of those movies where you can leave to go to the bathroom, come back, and accurately guess what you've missed while away. Is it too hard to ask for a romcom to take a few risks? That said, Tiffany Paulsen avoids toilet humor---no one poops into a sink here (I'm looking at you, Bridesmaids!) or pees onto a crowd (I'm looking at you, Girls Trip!) or vomit jokes that are plaguing romcoms these days as they were the new "pie in the face." No one gets a pie in the face either in About Fate, but there is an inevitable fight sequence once the real Kip shows up at the wedding.

      Emma Roberts and Thomas Mann are fine actors with charisma, but their charisma remains muted because of the shallow and cheesy screenplay. Ricardo Pitts-Wiley and Rose Weaver have more chemistry as a very kind and loving married couple who Margo and Griffin meet while sharing their carriage horse on the way to the wedding. The pace moves briskly enough, and there's nothing exceptional about the cinematography, editing, lighting or anything else related to the production design. At a running time of 1 hour and 40 minutes, About Fate is a harmless and breezy, but bland, cheesy and witless screwball comedy.

Number of times I checked my watch: 2
Released by American International Pictures.
Opens at Village East by Angelika and on PVOD.


Directed by Zach Cregger

      Tess (Georgina Campbell) arrives at her Airbnb only to discover that someone else, Keith (Bill Skarsgård), also rented it, so the Airbnb reservation has been double-booked. With nowhere else to stay for the night, Tess agrees to sleep there, but when she and Keith get more than they bargained for when they go into the basement.

      The less you know about the plot of Barbarian, the better because the screenplay by writer/director Zach Cregger has a few dark twists and surprises up its sleeve. This is the third film of the year, after Gone in the Night and Alone Together, to begin with a double-booked Airbnb, but it's the better film of the three. Cregger does a fine job of incorporating just the right amount of exposition without revealing too little or too much for the audience. He also plays around with your preconceived notions and genre expectations. The scenes where Tess and Keith explore the basement are filled with nerve-wracking suspense and horror, most of which derive from the audience's imagination. What they precisely find there won't be revealed here, but it's worth mentioning that once the villain is revealed, there are still more shocks and surprises afterward. Cregger also has a great command of blending horror with dark comedy. Moments of comic relief are essential in a horror film because they give the audience a chance to take a break from all of the intensity. Otherwise, it's too exhausting and monotonous. Cregger grasps the concept that comedy is often deeply rooted in tragedy of which there's plenty here for most of the characters. Tess is the most likeable character although, admittedly, she does occassionally make dumb decisions that most characters in horror films do, i.e. going into the creepy basement. You'll be tempted to tell "No, don't go in there!" or "No, don't do that!" a few times.

      A huge part of what makes Barbarian so effective is the casting. Georgina Campbell gives a convincingly moving performance much like Jenny Ortega does in Scream 5. She makes it easy to root for Tess even though Tess isn't always bright. Bill Skarsgård gives a performance that's both charming and creepy; it helps that he previously played the villain in It because that iconic role alone makes the audience project their preconceived notions of whether or not Keith can be trusted. Who does Justin Long play? It's better that you find that out on your own when you watch the film. When it comes to the production values, Barbarian also excels. The cinematography, set design, and lighting combine to create a palpable eerie atmosphere. The superb and occasionally bold editing is also worth mentioning. For instance, there's an abrupt cut that suddenly introduces the audience to a new character in a moment that you least expect a jump cut. That abrupt cut manages to be almost as startlingly funny as the cut to Charlie Sheen in the Being John Malkovich. Just to be clear, Tess and Keith do not find a portal into the mind of John Malkovich here nor does the film reach that transcendent balance of bonkers and brilliance, but it's just as wildly entertaining. At a running time of 1 hour and 42 minutes, Barbarian is an equally terrifying and funny crowd-pleasing slice of horror comedy full of surprises. A new cult classic has awakened.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by 20th Century Studios.
Opens nationwide.

Beautiful Blue Eyes

Directed by Joshua Newton

      Joseph (Roy Scheider), a retired police officer and German Jew, travels to Germany to visit his estranged son, Ronnie (Scott Cohen) who lives in an apartment with his wife, Anna (Calita Rainford) and two sons. He believes that Ronnie's elderly neighbor, Ernst (Helmut Berger), is a former Nazi who murdered his family decades ago during the Holocaust before changing his last named from Volger to Shrader. With the help of his son, Joseph exacts his revenge on Ernst.

      Beautiful Blue Eyes is a gripping thriller that also works as an engrossing psychological character study. The screenplay by writer/director Joshua Newton begins with the experiences of Joseph during the Holocaust as the Nazis arrived to murder his family before flashing forward to the present day as Josepher travels by train to Germany. Newton doesn't reveal the details from Joseph's traumatic past all at once; he shows brief flashbacks of his painful memories as they come back to haunt him, including his baby sister who had "beautiful blue eyes". The boundaries that Joseph goes through to seek revenge on Ernst won't be spoiled here, but Joseph's rage, sorrow and pain feels palpable. He's indignant and determined. Fortunately, Beautiful Blue Eyes doesn't ask you to judge Joseph; just to experience him.

      Do two wrongs make a right? The film becomes even more suspenseful when there's uncertainty of whether or not Joseph has kidnapped the right man. As his son astutely observes, there could be many reasons why he changed his name from Volger to Shrader, and there could be many Germans with the last name Volger, so there's no guarantees that he's the Nazi who murdered Joseph's family. Then another neighbor, Frau Ganz (Anna Polony), who previously claimed to never have heard the name Volger before, shows up to tell Anna new information about Volger that adds even more suspense and uncertainty. Can Frau Ganz be trusted after she initially lied? To be fair, the last 10 minutes feel a bit rushed even though they're riveting. Without spoiling anything, Beautiful Blue Eyes remains unafraid to go into dark territory while also delving into the painful trauma that fuels Joseph's anger. He's fallible, like all human beings, after all, so kudos to writer/director Joseph Newton for seeing and treating him as a complex human being from start to finish. Also, Newton deserves to be commended for adding a few moments of comic relief which provides some much-needed levity.

      Roy Scheider gives a bravura performance as he sinks his teeth into the role of Joseph. He exudes plenty of charisma and gravitas. Much of the film's poignancy comes from his performance more than from the screenplay itself. The cinematography is fine, especially the black-and-white Holocaust scenes. Some of the editing, though, feels a bit choppy and clunky, to be fair. Also, there's a double-edged sword to the black-and-white cinematography: while it adds to the atmosphere and compliments the tone effectively, you never actually get to see the "beautiful blue eyes" of Joseph's baby sister. Why leave that to the audience's imagination in black-and-white? That's a minor issue that's forgivable and systematic, not systemic. At a running time of 90 minutes, Beautiful Blue Eyes is a taut, engrossing psychological thriller. It's a powerful, captivating and haunting swan song for the legendary Roy Scheider. It would make for a great double feature with The Debt, Arlington Road and the recent documentary Four Winters.

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

Brahmastra Part One: Shiva

Directed by Ayan Mukherjee

      Junoon (Mouni Roy) desperately wants an Astra called Brahmastra, a powerful weapon that was broken into 3 pieces. Shiva (Ranbir Kapoor), a DJ, falls in love with Isha (Alia Bhatt) while dancing with her at a Diwali festival. He has no idea who his mother and father are, but he does discover that he has the superpower of fire that he has yet to learn how to use. Guru Aravind (Amitabh Bachchan) helps him to harness that fire power and tell him about who his parents really are. Shiva goes on a quest with Aisha to find the 3 pieces of Brahmasta while battling the evil Junoon with his superpower.

      Brahmastra Part One: Shiva is both a thrilling spectacle and a superhero origin story. The screenplay by Ayan Mukherjee takes a while to get going as it spends a lot of time with exposition and introducing all of the characters. The exposition, though, is often clunky with some over-explaining that occasionally takes away from the narrative momentum. Once Shiva goes on his quest, after the mysterious suicide of a scientist, Mohan Bhargava (Shah Rukh Khan), the film becomes more gripping as Shiva's purpose and objective is more clear. There's nothing left to the imagination here, and the dialogue often sounds stitled and dull, so if you're expecting a brainy action adventure, you'll be disappointed. It follows the basic concept of most superhero movies with a villain that wants to dominate the universe and, of course, a MacGuffin that everyone wants to be in possession of. The MacGuffin in this case is the Brahmastra. What elevates Brahmastra every so slightly is that the plot doesn't just center around the MacGuffin. Shiva wants to discover who his parents are and to learn about his identity. The scene where he learns that, though, with the help of Guru Aravind is a bit clunky. At least the action scenes are exhilarating even though the plot and the characters, especially the villain, are pretty much cookie-cutter and one-note. The romantic relationship between Shiva and Isha falls flat with some contrived and corny scenes. Not surprisingly, most of the action sequences can be found in the last hour after the intermission.

      If all you need is thrilling action and plenty of CGI to keep you entertained, Brahmastra Part One: Shiva delivers the goods. A few of the CGI effects look a bit fake, especially the final one, but that's okay. Realism isn't what the film is going for anyway; it's a dazzling albeit over-produced spectacle that offers pure escapism. Of course, no matter how much Shiva runs, jumps or falls, his hair never gets messy and remains neatly combed. It's worth mentioning some well-choreographed musical dance numbers that are exhilarating to behold. To be fair, you can feel the weight of the running time of 2 hours and 45 minutes around the 2 hour mark as the film suffers from a few too many false endings. Just as you think the film will end, it keeps going and ultimately overstays its welcome.

Number of times I checked my watch: 3
Released by Star Studios.
Opens nationwide.

Dos Estaciones

Directed by Juan Pablo González

      Maria Garcia (Teresa Sánchez) owns Dos Estaciones, a tequila factory in Jalisco. She suffers financial hardships when a plague kills the agave crops that her factory relies on to produce tequila, so she hires in assistant, Rafaela (Rafaela Fuentes), to help get her finances in order in hopes of saving the company. Her closest friend is her hairdresser, Tatín (Tatín Vera), who's in the process of renovating her salon.

      Dos Estaciones is a gently moving character study of Maria Garcia, a woman who faces adversity. She has two kinds of adversities to deal with. The first adversity is her desperate struggle to keep her company afloat after the plague hits her agave crops and a flood damages her factory. Her other adversity is more complex and challenging for her: to deal with all of the mixed emotions of anger, frustration, sadness, loneliness and fear going on inside of her. Writer/director Juan Pablo González and co-writers Ana Isabel Fernández and Ilana Coleman do a wonderful job of getting inside Maria's head with few words so that you can get a sense of what she's feeling. There's no voice-over narration and very little exposition, but if you pay close attention, you'll learn some details about Maria's past, like all the hard work that she had put into plants that she shows Rafaela.  The filmmakers should be commended for trusting the audience's emotions and for understanding the concept that less is more. Not a single scene feels maudlin, contrived or heavy-handed. There's a sense of melancholy, but it's not overstated. Also, there are no unnecessarily subplots, i.e. no romance between Maria and anyone onscreen. Bravo to the filmmakers for seeing and treating Maria as a human being from start to finish. In her own way, she's going through the process of grieving the loss of her factory well before it closes and grieving her hopes and dreams. She has to come to terms with the harsh truth that there's nothing that she can really do to save the company no matter how hard she tries.

      Teresa Sánchez gives a nuanced, tender and heartfelt performance brimming with warmth and charisma. Even during the silent moments, her face, especially her eyes, convey a lot of emotion which show a glimpse of Maria's fragility. She's both strong and fragile concurrently. Sánchez, like the filmmakers, sees and treats Maria like a complex human being which makes it easier for the audience to do the same.  If you've ever faced adversity, you'll be able to relate to Maria to a certain degree. When it comes to the cinematography, director Juan Pablo González shoots many scenes very naturally while giving the audience the impression that they're watching a documentary; you might forget that you're watching a fictional narrative film more often than not. Most impressively, though, González trusts the audience's patience because of how he incorporates moments of silence while moving the film at a slow pace. Patience is often rewarding, so if you're a patient audience member, Dos Estaciones will ultimately reward you. At a running time of 1 hour and 39 minutes, Dos Estaciones is genuinely poignant, captivating and refreshingly understated. 

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by The Cinema Guild.
Opens at IFC Center.

Hold Me Tight

Directed by Mathieu Amalric

      Clarisse (Vicky Krieps) lives with her husband, Marc (Arieh Worthalter), and their children, Lucie (Anne-Sophie Bowen-Chatet) and Paul (Sacha Ardilly). One day, she wakes up early, takes the car, and abandons them all of a sudden.

      The screenplay by writer/director Mathieu Amalric, based on the play "Je Reviens de Loin," takes a simple story that deals with grief, love and family, and overcomplicates it with a non-linear structure that remains elliptical. "What's this movie about?", "Where is this movie going?", "What's happening?", "Why does Clarisse abandon her family?" are among the questions you'll ask and find very few answers until the third act. By then, though, your patience might wear thin as the film jumps back and forth in time. Just as you begin ever so slightly to feel engrossed by one scene, it jumps in time yet again, so it becomes an increasingly distracting, repetitive and annoying gimmick that takes away from the narrative momentum significantly. Moreover, it keeps the audience at a cold distance from Clarisse because, unless she has short term memory loss like the protagonist in Memento, the audience knows less Clarisse does until the "big reveal." Why do that to the audience? While it's okay to trust the audience's patience, Almaric goes too far and trusts the audience's patience too much. Clarisse has enough going on inside her on an emotional level to propel the film, but structure makes it hard for the audience to get inside her head. It's as though Almaric were trying too hard to f*ck with the audience's mind and to generate mystery as well as suspense, but instead he creates a frustrating experience. Michelangelo Antonioni's L'Avventura and Last Year at Marienbad are far more engaging mysteries that also work more effectively as mindf*cks.

      Hold Me Tight's greatests strengths include the raw performance by the always-reliable Vicky Krieps, the occasionally dreamlike cinematography, and the terrific sound design which becomes like a character in and of itself. The editing, though, is a whole other matter. More often than not, the editing feels choppy and the film feels over-edited. Although that does indeed create a cinematic experience, it suffocates the emotional depth, so, basically, the film's style gets in the way of its substance. At a running time of 1 hour and 37 minutes, which feels more like 2.5 hours, Hold Me Tight is a headache-inducing and frustrating mindf&ck that leaves the audience cold.

Number of times I checked my watch: 4
Released by Kino Lorber.
Opens at Angelika Film Center and Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center.

House of Darkness

Directed by Neil LaBute

      Hap Jackson (Justin Long) picks up Mina Murray (Kate Bosworth) at a bar and drives her home hoping to get laid. He comes over to her house and chats with her in the living room by the fireplace before her sister, Lucy (Gia Crovantin), arrives.

      rom the very first frame, it's clear that Mina has sinister motives and that Hap will be too gullible and naive to avoid being seduced by her. She charms him, but there's more to her than meets the eye. Writer/director Neil LaBute skips the moment when Hap meets Mina at the bar and dives right into their flirtations in the car as he drives her home. The audience knows very little about him other than that he's separated from his wife, who's not shown on screen, and he works in finance. There's even less known about Mina other than that she knows how to seduce Hap, but LaBute saves the exposition about her true motives for the over-the-top third act. The dialogue often sounds stilted and witless, and Hap and Mina's chemistry falls flat. He doesn't seem very bright or perceptive, so it's no surprise that Mina takes advantage of that. When she finally reveals her true intentions, it also comes as no surprise. The lights go out and more bizarre events happen that won't be spoiled here. There's a brief scene that's foreboding and somewhat creepy, but then LaBute pulls the rug from under the audience in a rather cheap and lazy way that's unintentionally funny. When Mina tells Hap a scary tale, there's no denying  in which direction House of Darkness will head toward. Everything transpires precisely how you imagine it would with no surprises. The third act tries to push the envelope with some gore that's shocking and disgusting, though, but it's far from being horrifying on a palpable level. Dario Argento's Suspiria is a much more gripping, chilling and terrifying slice of gothic horror.

      Justin Long and Kate Bosworth give decent, but not exceptional performances. They're undermined by the shallow screenplay which doesn't help to breathe life into either of their roles. The lighting and set designs do add some style and atmosphere, but not enough to really stand out. That said, LaBute does deserve credit for a gory, bloody climax that boldly leaves very little to the audience's imagination as the film veers inevitably into sci-fi and torture porn. If only it didn't take itself so seriously, perhaps it would've been more fun. Or if LaBute would've fleshed out its story and characters more, it would've been more compelling. At a running time of 1 hour and 29 minutes, House of Darkness is a dull gothic horror film that lacks palpable scares and suspense. It's just as forgettable and unimaginative as The Invitation.

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

The House of the Lost on the Cape

Directed by Shin'ya Kawatsura

      Yui (voice of Mana Ashida), a teenager, runs away from her abusive father.  Hiyroi (voice of Sari Awano), a young girl, lost her parents in a car crash and the rest of her family after a tsunami and earthquake. The two girls meet each other for the first time at a shelter and befriend a mysterious elderly lady, Kiwa (voice of Shinobu Otake) who claims to be their grandma. Kiwa brings them to a house overlooking the sea. The house, known as a Mayoiga, has healing powers. Hiryoi hasn't spoken since the tragic events that killed her family. Meanwhile, she, Yui and Kiwa deal with supernatural evil creatures that pose a threat to them.

      Based on the novel by Sachiko Kashiwaba, The House of the Lost on the Cape is a beautiful, heartwarming allegory about grief, compassion and friendship. The screenplay by Reiko Yoshida doesn't dwell on Yui or Hiyroi's traumatic past. It begins in the aftermath of the trauma when they go to the shelter where they meet Kiwa. In many ways, Kiwa becomes like a surrogate parent and grandparent to them. She tells them stories of the evil creatures which serves as cautionary tales and prepares them to battle the creatures when they show up near the house. The plot doesn't really have any surprises, but that's okay because what it does have is an emotional journey for Yui and Hiyroi. Their innate battles as they confront their emotions and overcome their feelings of loss are far more compelling than their battles with the evil creatures. The subplot involving those creatures feels clunky, distracting and unnecessary because there's enough tension arising from the main plot. Fortunately, those scenes come later and are ephemeral. Kiwa's provides a lot of life wisdom to Yui and Hiyroi which helps them to grow up similar to how Maude helped Harold grow and heal from his emotional pain in Harold & Maude, so The House of the Lost on the Cape is almost as profound and enlightening.

      The 2D animation in The House of the Lost on the Cape  looks bright, warm and colorful. It's somewhat reminiscent of the breathtaking animation in Miyakazi's Spirited Away. Director Shin'ya Kawatsura keeps the film moving at a leisurely pace that's not too slow or too fast. What's most impressive, though, is the use of symbolism which makes the film thought-provoking and more than the sum of its parts. To be fair, though, the metaphors are the same as the ones in Harold & Maude, but they're worth repeating. As poet Pablo Neruda once wrote, "They can cut all of the flowers, but they can't stop the spring from coming." This warm, wise and wonderful anime film captures the essence of that poem. 

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by Eleven Arts.
Opens at Regal Union Square.


Directed by Kevin Peeples

      David (Raphael Ruggero), a high school senior, lives with his adoptive parents, Jimmy (Kirk Cameron) and Susan (Rebecca Rogers). When he turns 18, his biological mother, Melissa (Dawn Long), contacts him through social media. He faces the difficult decision of whether or not to meet her and, eventually, his biological father, Brian (Lowrey Brown). Melissa and Brian give have him up for adoption when they were teenagers.

      Based on a true story, the screenplay by writer/director Kevin Peeples, co-writer Alex Kendrick, and co-writer Stephen Kendrick has just the right balance of humor and heart. With a less sensitive screenplay, this could've turned into a maudlin, clunky and contrived film like the recent Gigi & Nate, but, fortunately, it does fall into those pitfalls. The filmmakers treat the characters compassionately like human beings. There are no villains. Even Melissa and Brian who gave David up for adoptions aren't treated as villains or stock characters. Melissa seems like someone who's decent and emotionally mature. Case in point: she contacts David through social media first and doesn't pressure him to reply to her nor does she emotionally blackmail or coerce him either. She shows signs of introspection, regret, remorse, empathy and, above all, love. Likewise, David's adoptive parents, Jimmy and Susan, are great role models for him because of how they handle the news of Melissa contacting David. They're up there the best example of parents in cinema much like the wonderful parents that Stanley Tucci and Patricia Clarkson play in Easy A and J.K. Simmons and Cara Seymour play in The Music Never Stopped.

      The way that Jimmy talks to David upon discovering the news is very beautiful and moving. It also shows that he's a good parent. The same can be said about Susan, although there's a brief moment when she meets Melissa in the second act when she seems slightly angry and unhappy, but her feelings make sense because she just heard Melissa and David agreeing to go skydiving together. It's not quite clear though what's behind her brief anger at that moment. Is she scared that Melissa would take David away from her? Or perhaps she's a little angry that David is focusing his attention on Melissa? Perhaps she thought that she could handle that key moment emotionally, but she wasn't truly ready? Either way, she's a human being and is entitled to her feelings. Despite the heavy topics that Lifemark explores, the filmmakers maintain a light tone that doesn't become heavy-handed. Nate (Justin Sterner), David's good friend, has relationship issues of his own to deal with. He provides much of the film's comic relief in a way that doesn't lead to unevenness and that doesn't turn Nate into a stock character either. Most impressively, the flashbacks scenes to the younger versions of Melissa, Brian, Susan and Jimmy work without being confusing, unnecessary or distracting from the narrative momentum.

      The performances are all terrific with no one under-acting or over-acting. Everyone is well cast, even the actors who play the younger versions of Melissa and Brian. Justin Sterner has great comedic timing as Nate. He and Raphael Ruggero, who plays David, have chemistry together because you can feel that David and Nate are good friends. David is lucky to have such decent human beings around him in his life. Decency, after all, is a huge strength, so hopefully one day he'll look back at his childhood and appreciate it. At a running time of 2 hours, Lifemark is a genuinely moving, inspiration and captivating journey.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by Fathom Events.
Opens nationwide.


Directed by Petr Jákl

      During the 15th Century, Lord Boresh (Michael Caine) hires Jan Žižka (Ben Foster), a warrior, to kidnap the fiancée, Lady Katherine (Sophie Lowe), of Lord Rosenberg (Til Schweiger), the ally of King Sigismund of Hungary (Matthew Goode). King Sigismund and King Wenceslas of Czech (Karel Roden) both want to become the new emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, so Lord Boresh hopes that the kidnapping of Lady Katherine will deter King Sigismund from his desire to become emperor.

      The plot synopsis above sounds lean and simple, but the way that it's executed in Medieval turns it into a convoluted and dull experience. The screenplay by writer/director Petr Jákl and co-writers Petr Bok, Marek Dobeš and Michal Petruš has too many characters none of whom are developed enough, so it's hard to root for anyone, even the protagonist, Jan Žižka. This is one of those movies that cares more about moving the plot forward and using its characters as a plot device rather than in stopping to let the film breathe and to allow the audience to get to know the characters. The scenes introducing the characters and the same can be said about the expositional dialogue. Unfortunately, there's very little wit and comic relief, and too few rousing thrills. To bombard the audience with a lot of action isn't enough to hold their attention unless they're too easy to please. The action, though, gets exhausting after a while. It makes Medieval feel more like a video game rather than a film. Then there's the contrived, underexplored relationship between Žižka and Lady Katherine. It's just as shallow as the relationship between Amleth and Olga in The Northman. Therefore, the beats don't land in the third act, and no tears get shed while the characters' lives remain at stake. The Last Duel is a much more entertaining, fun and exhilarating medieval story than Medieval, a film just as unimaginative as its title.

      None of the performances manage to rise above the weak screenplay. That's not the actors' fault; it's the screenwriters' fault because they fail to provide enough of a window into any of the characters' heart, mind and soul. Is it too much to ask to humanize at least one character? The always-reliable Michael Caine is underused here and disappears for too long before reappearing in the third act--of course, only when Lord Boresh is needed to move the plot forward. Every great film is grounded in realism;Medieval is grounded in too clunky exposition and tedious action. Even the action scenes aren't anything to write home about, especially compared to the thrilling action scenes in classic epics like Braveheart and Gladiator. The costume designs are fine, though, as is the cinematography which has a few breathtaking shots. At an excessive running time of 2 hours and 6 minutes, which feels more like 3 hours, Medieval is exhausting, tedious and vapid despite a fine cast.

Number of times I checked my watch: 4
Released by The Avenue.
Opens nationwide.

Speak No Evil

Directed by Christian Tafdrup

      While vacationing in Tuscany, a Danish family, Bjørn (Morten Burian), his wife, Louise (Sidsel Siem Koch), and their daughter, Agnes (Liva Forsberg), meet and befriend a seemingly nice Dutch family, Patrick (Fedja van Huêt), his wife, Karin (Karina Smulders), and their son, Abel (Marius Damslev). A few months later, the Dutch family invites the Danish family to their countryside home in Holland for a weekend getaway.

      Speak No Evil is a relentlessly dark and twisted tale that will make you want to take a long, cold shower afterward. The screenplay by writer/director Christian Tafdrup and co-writer Mads Tafdrup doesn't dive right into the horror elements nor does it foreshadow them, but if you've seen horror films in the past, it's obvious what will happen after the Danish family visits the Dutch family in their home. Of course, the home happens to be isolated. Of course, despite barely knowing the Dutch family, the Danish family agrees to spend a weekend with them. Louise does seem hesitant at the idea, but her husband persuades her to go. Once they arrive, the question isn't "What will something bad happen?", but "When will something bad happen?" For the most part, the thriller and horror elements remain psychological. Christian and Mads Tafdrup trust the audience's imagination at first as Patrick behaves increasingly creepy. Unfortunately, plausibility gets thrown out of the window when the Danish family decide to continue to stay at the Dutch family's home despite the fact that they feel uneasy there after Patrick crossed a boundary that shouldn't be crossed. They seem too easily convinced to stay there which makes them not very bright. It's a parents' job to protect their child from harm both from themselves and from others.

      Why does the Danish family not leave right after the first major red flag that puts their daughter in harm? The third act, which won't be spoiled here, does go into very dark and bitter territory. If you like your coffee served black and no sugar, Speak No Evil could be your cup of tea---or coffee, rather. There's little to no levity or comic relief, but most disappointingly, the film neglects to explore the dark side of human nature. It certains shows the dark side, but it doesn't provide the villains with enough of a backstory that humanizes them, so they stay villains. What's their motive? Even Jigsaw in Saw has a motive and backstory. Why leave that to the audience's imagination? It makes the film seem lazy and shallow.

      The performances are all solid and natural which helps to keep the audience emotionally involved in the Danish family's ordeal. No one over-acts or under-acts. Director Christian Tafdrup opts for a slow burn with a gritty atmosphere. He makes the most out of the landscape, set design and lighting to create a slight sense of dread. The violence, when it finally does arrive, is quite disturbing, depraved and sickening, but by then the audience already expects it to arrive, so it's not really that shocking, surprising or scary. Horror films from the early 2000s like Wrong Turn and Wolf Creek are much more suspenseful, shocking and terrifying. At a running time of 1 hour and 27 minutes, Speak No Evil is a monotonous and underwhelming psychological thriller that has very little to say about evil or human nature.

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