The NYC Movie Guru: Reviews from a Movie Buff


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Highly Recommended Movies

Never Look Away

Directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck




      Kurt Barnert (Tom Schilling) studies at an art academy in East Germany where he meets Ellie Seeband (Paula Beer), a fashion student. He falls in love with her despite the disapproval of her domineering father, Professor Carl Seeband (Sebastian Koch), who was responsible for sending Kurt's aunt, Elisabeth (Saskia Rosendahl) to death years earlier. Kurt marries Ellie and moves with her to West Germany and further develops painting skills and passion while studying at the Kunstakademie Dusseldorf. However, his dark family history come back to haunt him.

      Based on the life of painter Gerhard Richter, Never Look Away is an enthralling and sweeping saga that's just as powerful and provocative as The Lives of Others. Writer/director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck begins the film by setting up the tragic events that led to Elisabeth's death as you're introduced to young Kurt (Cai Cohrs), Elisabeth's nephew. Those key scenes put the rest of the film in a very compelling and tragic context especially when Kurt meets his lover's father, Professor Carl Seeband. There's nothing dry or dull about the way that Never Look Away unfolds because the intelligent screenplay immerses you into the story from the very first frame and gets inside the head of its protagonist, Kurt Barnert. His romantic relationship with Ellie feels organic and their love of each other remains palpable throughout. It's equally fascinating to watch Kurt emerge as a very talented artist, but the film's most compelling aspect is how the tragedy from his childhood gradually rises to the foreground as Kurt comes to terms with harsh truths about Professor Carl Seeband.

      A less sensitively-written screenplay would've led to melodrama, distracting flashbacks and schmaltz, but Henckel von Donnersmarck steers clear of those pitfalls which is a testament to his skills as a filmmaker. Editors Patricia Rommel and Patrick Sanchez Smith wisely move the film at a leisurely pace which helps you to be more easily absorbed by many of the scenes and to pay close attention to the stylish cinematography by Caleb Deschanel and production design by Silke Buhr. It's refreshing to watch a film that trusts its audience's patience, emotions and intelligence with more emotional grit than physical grit. Admittedly, it would have been interesting were the film shot in black-and-white instead of color, but its color cinematography is nonetheless breathtaking to behold.

      Further enriching the film are the stellar performances by Tom Schilling, Sebastian Koch and Paula Beer. Schilling not only has good looks, but also exudes charisma which helps to make him a very appealing leading man. Sebastian Koch nails the role of Professor Carl Seeband with aplomb. Koch does indeed has charisma, but he's also convincingly tough and threatening without going over-the-top. There's no cheese to go with any ham here because none of the actors give a hammy performance which adds to the film's authenticity. In other words, Never Look Away find just the right balance of Truth and Spectacle while also finding Spectacle within its Truth. It's not an edge-of-your seat thriller, but rather a slow-burning, spellbinding and quietly poignant film. Despite the running time of 189 minutes, you never feel the weight of the lengthy running time which reflects precisely how entertaining the film truly is during its captivating beginning, middle and end. Prepare to be haunted and moved by the very powerful, wordless final scene. Never Look Away ranks as one of the best films of the year.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by Sony Pictures Classics.
Opens November 30th, 2018 in select theaters.

Green Book

Directed by Peter Farrelly




      Tony Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen), a.k.a Tony Lip, lives in the Bronx with his wife, Dolores (Linda Cardellini) and kids, while working as a bouncer at the Copacabana. When the Copacabana briefly closes, Tony is temporarily out of a job and desperately needs to make money to pay his bills. Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali), an African-American pianist in The Don Shirley Trio, hires him as his chauffeur for a concert tour in the Deep South. He will pay him in full as long as he successfully makes it to every concert on the tour. Tony hopes to be back to the Bronx in time to spend Christmas Eve with his family.

      Based on a true story, Green Book manages to transcend its genre to become an a genuinely warm, funny and provocative experience. On the surface, it's a buddy road trip comedy/drama, but, like most truly great films, it's ultimately so much more than the sum of its parts, so it would be unfair to lump it into any particular genre. The screenplay by Nick Vallelonga, Peter Farrelly and Brian Currie brims with warmth, tenderness and wit without becoming mawkish or lethargic. It also explores the topics of friendship, social class and racism during the 1960s in a way that avoids preachiness. Moreover, Viggo Mortensen gives one of the best performances of his career that finds the emotional truth of his role. Mahershala Ali is just as superb. They both have great chemistry together as Tony and Dr. Shirley gradually develop their friendship and platonic love of one another throughout their journey. On the one hand, their journey is a physical one, but, concurrently, it's also a spiritual journey where they both have a profound affect on each other. The evolving dynamics of their relationship remains fascinating, poignant and captivating from start to finish as they exchange quips, sarcasm and other forms of witty banter while getting to know each other in the process. Their rapport is similar to the rapport of Driss and Philippe from The Intouchables. If you loved The Intouchables, chances are you'll also love Green Book just as much.

      Green Book's greatest strength comes from the way that writer/director Peter Farrelly and the co-writers deftly blend comedy, drama and tragedy in an organic way. The Intouchables achieved that feat as did Muriel's Wedding, Ghost World, the underrated Shirley Valentine and the recent Can You Ever Forgive Me?. Much like those films, Green Book takes you on a roller coaster ride of emotions while also making you think and providing you with complex characters who feel lived-in and memorable. Tony curses, eats like a pig, says stupid things, isn't ashamed of stealing, has terrible writing skills, and speaks his mind even if it means being offensive, but underneath it all, he has a heart and a conscience. It's those likable and unlikable qualities of his that which makes him all the more human and compelling as a character.

      Bravo to the filmmakers for including some nuance, subtlety and quiet moments that allow the film to breathe while adding some layers of depth. They also refrain from relying on distracting flashback just for the sake of exposition and spoon-feeding the audience. For instance, when Dr. Shirley mentions to Tony about his estranged brother, there's no redundant flackback that shows Dr. Shirley interacting with his brother. It's refreshing to watch a Hollywood movie that actually trusts your intelligence, patience, imagination and emotions for a change. The running time 2 hours and 10 minutes flies by without a single scene that drags or feels unnecessary. Most importantly, the moments of crowd-pleasing uplift are well-earned. The filmmakers should also be commended for including a very witty and funny line of dialogue at the very end of the film which leaves you feeling elated. Green Book is the rare major studio film that has a palpable heart, mind and soul. It's one of the most powerful films about friendship since The Intouchables. With just the right amount of positive word-of-mouth, it could become huge hit and a new American classic that will be watched over and over. I've seen it twice and can vouch that it's even better the second time around.

Number of times I checked my watch: 0
Released by Universal Pictures.
Opens November 21st nationwide.



      Like many great documentaries that rise well above mediocrity, Science Fair finds just the right balance between entertaining the audience and provoking them intellectually as well as emotionally. Co-directors Cristina Costantini and Darren Foster follow nine teenagers who compete in the annual International Science and Engineering Fair. The film has a effective structure that's similar to Spellbound's structure: the filmmakers immerse the audience in the lives of the students and introduce them to the students' family members while showing how each teenager prepares for their science fair project leading up until the big day of the science fair. Costantini and Foster don't spend too much time on the science behind the students' projects; they have a more humanistic approach to filmmaking instead which makes the film feel genuinely warm and heartfelt. Each of the nine students has enough screen time for you to grasp their individual personalities, hopes and dreams. You also get a palpable sense of their passion for science along with their frustrations and stress that comes with their diligence and preparation. Moreover, there's not a single scene within Science Fair that feels dry or lethargic. The cinematography, editing and pacing contribute to the film's cinematic style---fortunately, this is the kind of doc that has both style and substance to boot. There's even some comic relief which provides much-needed levity. By the time the teenagers present their work at the International Science and Engineering Fair during the gripping final half hour, you'll find the film to be a captivating, crowd-pleasing delight. It's as irresistibly entertaining, inspirational and emotionally engrossing as Spellbound. You don't have to be into science to be entertained, moved or enlightened by Science Fair. It's one of the best documentaries of the year. Now playing at The Landmark at 57 West vis National Geographic Documentary Films.


Alpha

Directed by Albert Hughes




      Tau (Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson) takes his 17-year-old son, Keda (Kodi Smit-McPhee), on a hunting expedition during the Ice Age. A buffalo attacks Keda and throws him off of a cliff, knocking him unconscious. Tau assumes that he's dead, leaves him there and returns home. When Keda regains consciousness, he goes on a treacherous journey back home while braving the elements of nature and befriending a lone wolf he names Alpha.

      A truly great survival adventure film should find the right balance between entertaining the audience and provoking them emotionally while having a character worth rooting for and caring about. Classic survival tales like Life of Pi, 27 Hours, Into the Wild, Cast Away, All is Lost and The Revenant are equally entertaining and heartfelt. The same can be said about Alpha. Director Albert Hughes and screenwriter Daniele Sebastian Wiedenhaupt wisely begin the film by developing the relationship between Keda and his family so that you're emotionally invested in Keda's life even before he's stranded in the wildnerness. His epic journey back home while struggling to survive the elements of nature is both a physical, emotional and spiritual journey. It takes not only a strong body, but also a strong mind to survive.

      Keda's journey can be seen as a metaphor for any struggles that teenagers must endure as they're put to the test and learn valuable lessons in life. The way that Keda bonds with and befriends Alpha is fascinating to watch and heartwarming without being cloying. The adventure scenes are intense, thrilling and exciting with breathtaking scenery that would be best experienced on the big screen. Fortunately, Hughes doesn't take the intense scenes too far. There's some grittiness, but its not nearly as gritty or gory as 127 Hours or The Revenant. This is the kind of rare Hollywood film that has as more emotional grit than physical grit. It's a mesmerizing story grounded in humanism, a truly special effect that money cannot buy.

      Bravo to the casting directors, Sarah Finn and Coreen Mayrs, for choosing Kodi Smit-McPhee to play Keda. The emotional burdens of Alpha lay on the shoulders of Smit-Mcphee because he's in nearly every frame of the film. Alpha manages to be a wonderful showcase his tremendous acting talents. He exudes charisma from start to finish and handles the tender, poignant scenes with conviction while findinding the emotional truth of his role. He's engaging to watch even during the quieter moments of the film. The filmmakers and editor Sandra Granovsky should be commended for showing discipline because they keep the running time down to a lean 96 minutes that breezes by pretty quickly without dragging. If it were 3 hours, it would've become both tedious and exhausting. Tt has a perfect blend of Truth and Spectacle unlike most blockbuster that have a lot of Spectacle, too little Truth, and overstay their welcome past the 2 hour mark. Alpha is ultimately as exhilarating, heartfelt and riveting as Life of Pi.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by Columbia Pictures.
Now on DVD/VOD.

Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again

Directed by Ol Parker




      After the death of her mother, Donna (Meryl Streep), Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) invites her three potential fathers, Harry (Colin Firth), Sam (Pierce Brosnan) and Bill (Stellan Skarsgĺrd) along with Donna's former bandmates, Tanya (Christine Baranski) and Rosie (Julie Walters), to the re-opening of the Bella Donna Hotel located on the Greek island of Kalokairi. She split up with her boyfriend, Sky (Dominic Cooper), who now lives in New York City. Back in 1979, Donna (Lily James), graduated college with her best friends/bandmates Rosie (Alexa Davies) and Tanya (Jessica Keenan Wynn), and first met the younger versions of Bill (Josh Dylan), Sam (Jeremy Irvine) and Harry (Hugh Skinner).

      Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again is the rare sequel that suprasses the quality of the original film. The first Mamma Mia! was shallow with awkwardly choreographed musical numbers and an excrutiating singing by Pierce Brosnan, but it did have some campiness and comic relief. Writer/director Ol Parker includes more campiness, more comic relief while delighting audiences with exhilarating musical dance numbers that are well-choreographed and better integrated into the plot. Although the screenplay isn't profound and the relationships onscreen are contrived without explored in depth, it does have offer plenty of witty quips and a few surprisingly poignant scenes to boot. This is the kind of film that's so irresistibly entertaining and joyous that you'll be able to forgive and forget any of the weaknesses in the screenplay. Beneath its uplifting surface that includes beautiful scenery, you'll find some darker and even tragic elements, but Parker just gently hints at them without dwelling on them. A few tender, melancholic ABBA songs feel genuinely moving while never becoming maudlin. Most importantly, Parker manages to find just the right tone for the film without any unneveness or clunkiness. Fortunately, the many flashbacks never feel distracting or lazy; many of the transations between 1979 and the present are actually quite clever, i.e. through the use of a painting.

      A huge part of what makes Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again so much fun, though, is its wonderful cast, both young and old, each of whom brings palpable charisma to their roles. The three actresses chosen to play the younger versions of Donna, Rosie and Tanya not only resemble the older versions physically, but also personality-wise. Lily James is absolutely radiant onscreen from start to finish. Credit should also go to casting director Nina Gold who has a knack for finding the right actors for every role. Not a single film of hers was ever miscast. Even the smaller roles, i.e. the security guard at the dock and the owner of a bar/restaurant, get a chance to shine and make a big impression while providing comic relief. Just as expected, the scene-stealing Julie Walters and Christine Baranski have some very funny lines as well. Parker does a great job of introducing the characters, but the most memorable introduction is that of Cher in the third act. Yes, the film breaks a screenwriting rule that a new character shouldn't be introduced late in the game, but that's forgivable. Hopefully, she'll have a bigger part in the next Mamma Mia!. With its running time of 1 hour and 54 minutes that flies by like 90 minutes, Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again never overstays its welcome. It's a warm, funny, exuberant and unabashedly campy crowd-pleaser. Please be sure to stay for a hilarious scene after the end credits.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by Universal Pictures.
Now on DVD/VOD.

Eighth Grade

Directed by Bo Burnham




      13-year-old Kayla (Elsie Fisher) struggles with insecurity, loneliness and alienation as she's about to graduate middle school. She expresses her thoughts and feelings in videos that she posts on YouTube. Her widowed father, Mark (Josh Hamilton), raises her all on his own and lets her attend a pool party celebrating the birthday of her classmate, Kennedy (Catherine Oliviere). A high school junior, Olivia (Emily Robinson), spends a day with her to as part of a shadowing program to give her a sense what life is like for a high school student in hopes of making her transition between middle school and high school easier.

      Like many great coming-of-age movies that came before it, Eighth Grade defies both genre and plot. To describe its plot wouldn't do it any justice because it's not really about its plot; it's fundamentally about the emotions found at its core. Writer/director Bo Burnham gets inside the mind of Kayla just like Truffaut did with Antoine, Richard Linklater did with Mason and Terry Zwigoff and Daniel Clowes did with Enid. Not since Boyhood has there been a film that captures adolescence with such unflinching honesty. Every single scene rings true, so don't be surprised if feel as though you were watching a documentary. The film's emotional truth not only derives from its organic, nuanced screenplay, but also from its raw, breakthrough performance by Elsie Fisher. She's a revelation and actually becomes Kayla, so, from start to finish, you forget that you're observing someone who's acting. Burham wisely understands that the more specific a story is, the more universal it becomes, so kudos to him for including many details about Kayla and her life with her dad, friends and classmates. Her video diaries on YouTube do break the fourth wall, but not in a lazy or contrived sort of way, i.e. voice-over narration. You don't have to be an eighth grader nor a female to relate to Kayla. Anyone who's ever gone through a turning point in their life while struggling to navigate through an ocean of mixed emotions ranging from excitement and joy to frustration, anxiousness, loneliness and confusion will be able to relate to her. Eighth Grade should be mandatory viewing for all eighth graders.

      Eighth Grade, like Boyhood, teases the audience with a few scenes that almost veer into very dramatic territory. Just when you think some "big spectacle" will happen to Kayla, it doesn't. A timely, provocative scene involving a school shooting drill might lead some audiences conditioned by Hollywood to incorrectly believe that it's a foreshadow and that there will have to be a violence school shooting later on in the film. A scene with Kayla in the backseat with an older teenager also cleverly subverts one's expectations. The film is filled with many small moments that are so much more than their sum. The film's "Spectacle" can be found within its truth, so there is indeed perfect balance of Truth and Spectacle. Anyone who complains that "nothing happens" in the film isn't pay much attention or looking beneath its surface. Although the cinematography and music add plenty of style and substance, but there's also plenty of substance when it comes to the profound message about being true to yourself. Fortunately, Burnham doesn't allow any cheesiness, preachiness or pretension to seep in. At a running time of just 94 minutes, Eighth Grade, is a genuinely warm, tender and wise coming-of-age film that ranks among the great coming-of-age films like Boyhood, Ghost World and The 400 Blows. It deserves be become a sleeper hit that will be on many top 10 lists at the end of the year.

Number of times I checked my watch: 0
Released by A24 Films.
Now playing in select theaters.

Incredibles 2

Directed by Brad Bird




      After using their superpowers to defeat the Underminer, Bob Parr (voice of Craig T. Nelson), his wife, Helen (voice of Holly Hunter), his wife, and three children, Violet (voice of Sarah Vowell), Dash (voice of Huckleberry Milner) and baby Jack-Jack (Eli Fucile) along with their family friend, Lucius (Samuel L. Jackson), get into trouble with the government when their battles caused destruction in the city. Superheroes now banned, so they have no choice but to move into a motel and live in poverty. Their luck changes when they meet Winston Deavor (Bob Odenkirk), the CEO of DevTech, and his sister, Evelyn (voice of Catherine Keener), the brains behind DevTech. Winston promises to boost their public image and moves the Parr family into a mansion equipped with lots of modern gidgets and gadgets including an Elasticycle. Helen rides the Elasticycle when she tries to find the whereabouts of a mysterious new villain called Screenslaver.

      Incredibles 2 has quite a number elements that make it a truly great animated films: a suspenseful story, thrilling action scenes and lively characters, plenty of laughs, and a big heart to boot. Writer/director Brad Bird clearly understands that comedy is derived from tragedy because, during the film's first act, the Parr family are on the brink of homelessness. The dynamics within their family changes when Bob stays at home to take care of the kids. By grounding the film in realism with great attention to details, especially when it comes to distinguishing between each of the characters unique personalities, he makes them universal and relatable. Yes, they have superpowers, but they feel more human than characters in some live action films do. Violet behaves exactly like a teenagers would typically behave. The same can be said for Dash, Helen, Bob and even the scene-stealing baby, Jack-Jack, who's in the process of discovering his own superpowers. Much like Brad Bird's classic animated films, i.e. The Incredibles and Ratatouille, the witty and clever screenplay doesn't forget to entertain adults and children equally; it doesn't talk down to adults. To be fair, it takes roughly half an hour of exposition, none of which is dull or boring, for the film to reach its full momentum, but the patience that it takes to get to that point is well worth it. After all, without a least a little bit of exposition, audiences would be too confused and the film's comedic and emotional beats wouldn't land as effectively as they do, for the most part, during the second and third acts. Even though some of the action scenes toward the end feel generic without wowing the audience, at least there's always the visually stunning CGI to keep audience's engaged during those scenes. This is the kind of animated film that everyone can enjoy as much as they enjoyed The Incredibles a decade ago. Don't be surprised if Incredibles 2 gets nominated for Best Animated Feature later this year. There's a very charming, wise and heartfelt animated short preceding it called, Bao, directed by Domee Shi, that makes for a very fitting double feature.

center>Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by Walt Disney Pictures.
Now on DVD/VOD.

Who We Are Now

Directed by Matthew Newton




      Beth (Julianne Nicholson), freshly released from prison for manslaughter, struggles to regain custody of her 10-year-old son, Alec (Logan Schuyler Smith), who's now under the custody of her sister, Gabby (Jess Weixler) and Gabby's husband, Sam (Scott Cohen). She gets drunk at a local bar where she meets Peter (Zachary Quinto) and has sex with him, but refuses to give him her phone number to go beyond being a one-night stand. Carl (Jimmy Smits), Beth's laywer, has a new young lawyer, Jess (Emma Roberts), working at his law firm. Jess and Beth meet at a nail salon that Beth works at and strike a friendship with one another.

      The screenplay by writer/director Matthew Newton feels poignant and thoroughly engrossing. Much like Richard Linklater, Newton clearly has a very sharp ear for natural dialogue and knows when to include pauses without causing the film to become lethargic. This is a slow-burning drama, but no scenes drag. He also knows how to incorporate exposition in a realistic way and when to trust the audience's intelligence. A lesser talented filmmaker would've bombarded the audience with all of the details of Beth's tragic past right away when she asks Vince (Jason Biggs), a restaurant manager if he wants her to elaborate on her manslaughter conviction when she bravely admitsit. Vince doesn't want her to elaborate. Instead Newton withholds that key information until it all rises to the surface in the third act. Newton avoids 2 tropes which makes the film truly refreshing: there's no musical score, flashbacks nor any voice-over narration. By omitting music, with the exception of a jazz band playing music at a bar, he demonstrates that he trusts the audience's emotions, a quality that's rarely found in modern American filmmakers with the exception of Linklater.

      Who We Are Now is a warm and wise character study with complex characters, even when it comes to the small roles, i.e. Vince, Peter, and Beth's mother, Alana (Lea Thompson). Beth remains a fascinating character because she's fallible like human beings are. She's vulnerable yet courageous. She has likable qualities and unlikable qualities, but that makes her all the more interesting, real and relatable. Words cannot adequately describe just how radiant and mesmerizing Julianne Nicholson's performance truly is here. She finds the emotional truth of Beth's role and carries it with her from start to finish. Her performance is just as powerful as Gena Rowlands' performance in A Woman Under the Influence. Bravo to Newton for providing a window into Beth's soul, and bravo to Nicholson for opening that window so widely. One can only imagine how challenging it might've been to shake this role off emotionally. If there were any justice, she would be nominated for Best Actress this awards season. Newton and Nicholson ultimately achieve something far more valuable than any accolades can achieve: they help to ground the film in humanism, a truly special effect that money cannot buy. If you were to remove the plot, you'll find a palpable heart, mind and soul in its center. Who We Are Now will be held for a second week at Cinema Village because of popular demand, and it deserves to become a sleeper hit with strong word of mouth. It would make for an interesting double feature with A Woman Under the Influence, Funny Ha Ha and A Kid Like Jake.

Number of times I checked my watch: 0
Released by FilmRise.
Now on VOD.

A Kid Like Jake

Directed by Silas Howard




      Alex Wheeler (Claire Danes) and her husband, Greg (Jim Parsons), have just moved into a new apartment in Brooklyn with their four-year-old son, Jake (Leo James Davis), who's experimenting with gender identity by fixating on Disney princesses. The process to get him enrolled in a private school becomes an even more difficult task when Judy (Octavia Spencer), the director of Jake's preschool, suggests to them that they should include his gender identity experimentation in his school applications. Greg works as a shrink who's analyzing a woman (Amy Landecker) with marriage problems. Alex gave up her job as a lawyer to raise Jake despite the disapproval of her mother, Catherine (Ann Dowd). Meanwhile, Alex and Greg go through their own marital issues as tensions between them gradually escalate.

      There's nothing that's Hollywood about A Kid Like Jake. There are no car chases, explosions, fights or alien abductions to be found yet it's 100x more captivating, wise and emotionally engrossing than Avengers, Deadpool 2 and Solo combined. The sensitive, intelligent screenplay by Daniel Pearle, based on his play, tackles many topics ranging from parenting to gender identity in a nuanced, understated and organic way. Every scene feels grounded in reality without any contrivance or stiltedness. Even though there are many supporting interesting supporting characters and subplot, the film remains focused on the dynamics between Alex and Greg without feeling overstuffed or undercooked like too many modern American indies feel. Pearle and director Silas Howard know when to trust the audience's intelligence and emotions without hitting them over the head. Not a single scene overstays its welcome.

      Another part of A Kid Like Jake's strengths is that there's more to it than meets the eye. Alex and Greg's marriage seems fine at the beginning, but much like in Ordinary People, cracks in their marriage start to show up as they deal with financial woes and Jake's gender identity. It's both interesting and true-to-life that Greg struggles to keep his marriage afloat despite that he's a therapist. Perhaps, like some therapists, he became a therapist to work out his own psychological issues. Although the plot might seem like it's quite heavy, it never feels that way because Pearle knows how to balance the drama with just the right amount of comic relief without leading to clunkiness or unevenness. The characters feel lived-in and complex rather than like caricatures while their character arcs are believable. It's very rare for a film to have a strong third act that doesn't tie up everything too neatly yet it leaves you satisfied.

      It's also worth mentioning the terrific production values. Many scenes are well-shot with stylish lighting and set design that contribute to the film's richness and substance. Yes, sometimes style can become substance. The same can be said for the use of music by Roger Neill which never feels intrusive. Despite its origins as a play, the film never feels stuffy or stagy; there's a cinematic quality to it. This is a drama that actually looks and sounds great on the big screen unlike many dramas that work better on the small screen. Moreover, everyone is well-cast, and Claire Danes gives one of the best performances of her career. Like a truly great film, A Kid Like Jake has just the right balance of Truth and Spectacle. Its Spectacle can be found within its many Truths if you're perceptive enough to look beneath the surface.

Number of times I checked my watch: 0
Released by IFC Films.
Now on VOD.

Book Club

Directed by Bill Holderman




      Four friends, Diane (Diane Keaton), Vivian (Jane Fonda), Sharon (Candice Bergen) and Carol (Mary Steenburgen), deal a variety of issues after reading Fifty Shades of Grey as part of their book club. Diane copes with become a widow and develops a romance with a pilot, Mitchell (Andy Garcia), who has his own plane. She also has to decide whether or not she wants to move into the basement of one of her daughters. Carol is stuck in a sex marriage; her husband, Bruce (Craig T. Nelson), seems to care more about fixing his motorcycle than in having sex with her. On the other hand, Vivian, the owner of a hotel, has had plenty of sex, but hasn't settled down with anyone yet. That might change when she meets Arthur (Don Johnson). Sharon, a judge, hasn't dated anyone since getting divorced nearly 2 decades ago. Her ex-husband, Tom (Ed Begley Jr.), is about to marry a much younger woman. Her friends persuade her to place an ad on a dating site, and ends up finding 2 dating prospects, George (Richard Dreyfuss) and Derek (Wallace Shawn).

      Book Club is the perfect antidote to summer's blockbusters because there are no explosions, car chases, gun fights nor any archenemies to be found. It's fundamentally about human beings undergoing a coming-of-age during their golden years. Their battles are emotional and psychological rather than physical; fight with words instead of with guns or knives. Writer/director Bill Holderman and co-writer Erin Simms do a great job of introducing Diane, Vivian, Sharon and Carol within the first 10 minutes so that you can easily grasp what they're struggling with, their unique personalities, and their strong bond of friendship as well as their rapport. The kind of humor found in Book Club is the rare kind because it doesn't go for lowbrow, gross-out, bottom-of-the-barrel humor. There are no vomit jokes (I'm looking at you, Blockers!), poop jokes (I'm looking at you, Bridesmaid!) or peeing jokes (I'm looking at you, Girls Trip!). You'll find plenty of wit, quips and innuendos with a dash of slapstick and screwball comedy.

      Admittedly, though, there's a cheap Viagra joke that goes on for too long, but it begins with a hilarious scene where a police officer pulls Carol and Bruce over while he's under the influence of Viagra. That scene almost rivals a certain laugh-out-loud scene in Parenthood a wife (also played by Mary Steenburgen) and husband (Steve Martin) get into a car crash while she goes down on him. Unlike most modern romantic comedies, though, Book Club, is the kind of romcom that actresses from the Golden Age of Hollywood, i.e. Katharine Hepburn, Lucille Ball, Barbara Stanwyck, Zasu Pitts, Doris Day, among others, would've probably been very happy to star in. Jane Fonda, Mary Steenburgen, Candice Bergen and Diane Keaton are all well-cast, though, and provide plenty of charisma onscreen. They give marvelous performances. Seeing them together in this is a pleasure to behold and makes the film irresistibly entertaining.

      If you look beneath Book Club's comedy and lightheartedness, you will find a beating heart and some kernels of wisdom. Fortunately, the screenplay never becomes preachy, although it does have a few moments of corn straight from the cob, but those are forgivable flaws. Comedy, after all, is rooted in tragedy, so it makes sense that each of the four friends has something that they're struggling with. They're human beings, after all. Even though they're grown-ups, that doesn't mean that they don't have more growing up to do or lessons to learn. The third act feels like a fairy tale that's slightly contrived and pat, though, i.e. a brief scene with Diane standing up to her daughters doesn't involve them having an actual conversation. However, not every film has to have 100% realism. There are different degrees of realism, and audiences are allowed to suspend their disbelief every once in a while as long as they don't have to check their heart, mind or soul at the door. At a running of 104 minutes, Book Club is a feel-great romantic comedy that will warm your heart. It's the rare funny, charming and delightful Hollywood film that baby boomers can just sit back, relax and enjoy with a group of friends and some chardonnay. It's a warm, wise and wonderful film that would make for an interesting double feature with Shirley Valentine, Year By the Sea, Finding Your Feet, Parenthood, and Moscow, Belgium.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by Paramount Pictures.
Now on VOD.

The Shape of Water

Directed by Guillermo Del Toro




      Sally Hawkins gives a bravura performance as Elisa, a lonely mute who works as a janitor at a top secret government laboratory. Her closest person that she could call a friend is her neighbor, Giles (Richard Jenkins). Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) had found a a mysterious amphibious creature (Doug Jones) in the Amazon and tortures it in lab. He hopes to have it killed for research; Dr. Robert Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg), a scientist, prefers to keep it alive. When Elisa develops a friendship with the creature that blossoms into a romance, she persuades her coworker, Zelda (Octavia Spencer), to help her to free it from captivity.

      To lump The Shape of Water into one particular genre wouldn't be fair because, like most great films, it's many things all at once. It's part sci-fi, romance, suspense thriller, horror, action, drama, and, briefly, it even veers into musical territory. That combination could've easily resulted in an uneven, clunky, chaotic mess if it weren't for the intelligent and organic screenplay by writer/director Guillermo Del Toro and co-writer Vanessa Taylor. Del Toro and Taylor ground the film in so much humanism, a truly special effect, that you can feel the palpable passion and chemistry between Elisa and the creature while feeling empathy for both of them. Their romance is just as enchanting as that of Beauty and the Beast. Bravo to the filmmakers for bravely not shying away from showing their sex scene. That scene feels tender without becoming creepy or unintentionally funny.

      Even the supporting characters in the film feel lived-in Colonel Strickland may seem like a villain, but he's given a backstory that makes him more of a victim of a dysfunctional, abusive family which explains why he's so sadistic and domineering. Giles goes through his own struggles as well: he's a closeted homosexual and, like Elisa, is lonely. Every little detail in the film helps to enrich the story: even the key lime pie turns out to be something significant to the story. The same goes for eggs which Elisa feeds the creature while gaining his trust. The filmmakers clearly understand that the more specific a story is, the more universal it becomes.

      The Shape of Water recalls classics like E.T., King Kong, Beauty and the Beast, and Creature from the Black Lagoon, but it finds its own identity without making you feel like it's derivative. After all, it's not important where ideas are taken from, but rather where they're taken to. Fortunately, the film never runs out of momentum, imagination nor its humanism. It also has a strong beginning, middle and end without any scenes that drag or that last too long. Although it's visually stylish like all of Del Toro's films, it also has plenty of substance beneath the surface. In other words, like all truly great films, The Shape of Water has a perfect blend of Truth and Spectacle thereby making it one of the best films of the year. The running time of 2 hours flies by like 90 minutes.

Number of times I checked my watch: 0
Released by Fox Searchlight Pictures.
Now on VOD.

Coco

Directed by Lee Unkrich and Adrian Molina




      Miguel (voice of Anthony Gonzalez), a 12-year-old boy, has a passion for music and secretly plays his guitar to the music of his idol, musician/actor Ernesto de la Cruz (voice of Benjamin Bratt). Abuelita (voice of Renée Victor) strictly forbids anyone in the family to play music ever since Miguel's great-great-grandfather abandoned his great-great grandmother, Mama Coco (voice of Alanna Noel Ubach) and great-grandmother Mama Coco (voice of Ana Ofelia Murguia), to pursue a music career. After he sneaks into a mausoleum during the Day of the Dead festivities and steals a guitar belonging to Ernesto de la Cruz, Miguel and his cute dog, Dante, end up crossing over the Land of the Dead where he meets the shady Héctor (voice of Gael García Bernal), who serves as his guide, along with deceased relatives. Miguel needs his family's blessings in order to escape the Land of the Dead and seeks the help of Héctor, but first he has to help Héctor who will disappear unless his loved ones on Earth remember him.

      Coco, the new Pixar film, is an exhilarating and enchanting adventure. The screenplay by Adrian Molina and Matthew Aldrich has just the right blend of humor and heart with complex characters who seem true-to-life, whether they're likable or not. Even the film's most villaneous character isn't really a villain, but a flawed human being. Just when you think the story will be going in a certain direction, it offers some surprises up its sleeve. The twists will not be revealed here, but it's worth mentioning that the film becomes increasingly poignant as it progresses. Miguel is a hero well worth rooting for and caring about. He comes from a dysfunctional family and struggles to pursue his dreams of becoming a musician, so he's relatable to anyone who's ever had a dream. The screenplay also succeeds in finding an terrific blend of light and dark elements while avoiding schmaltz or being too scary. Many scenes are delightful and uplifting, but, like in any great Disney movie going back to Bambi, there are some sad ones as well when some dark themes rise to the surface. You'll undergo a roller-coaster ride of emotions throughout Coco which makes it among the Best Animated films of the year.

      On a purely aesthetic level, Coco is a marvel to look at with its dazzling display of colors. If you think that Land of the Dead would be a depressing place to be, think again. It's got plenty of lively characters and breathtakingly beautiful locations that will leave you in a sense of awe. The filmakers have created a world with plenty of attention to detail that reflects their wonderful imagination. Kids will be thrilled to admire all of the eye candy while joining Miguel on his journey. Adults will have the added bonus of appreciating the film's layers of emotional depth and profound messages about family which culminate in a third act that will bring you to tears---unless you're made out of stone. Kudos to the filmmakers for making an animated film that doesn't just have great CGI, but also a compelling story with memorable characters grounded in realism. At a running time of 1 hour and 49 minutes, Coco is a perfect holiday treat for the entire family. It would make for an interesting double feature with Coraline for kids and What Dreams May Come for adults.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by Walt Disney Pictures.
Now on VOD.


1945

Directed by Ferenc Török




      In a Hungarian village during August of 1945, Árpád (Bence Tasnádi), a pharmacy manager, is about to marry Kisrózxsi (Dóra Sztarenki), a peasant, who's truly in love with her ex-boyfriend, Jancsi (Tamás Szabó Kimmel). Árpád's mother, Anna (Eszter Nagy-Kálózy), grasps that Kisrózxsi doesn't love her son and . Meanwhile, a two Orthodox Jews, Hermann Sámuel (Iván Angelus) and his son (Marcell Nagy) arrive at the village via train while carrying two boxes which may or may not contain perfume for the pharmacy that they had once owned before WWII. The villagers have plundered the property and valuables of Jews during WII, so they're not too happy to see the Sámuels upon their arrive. Some, like Bandi (József Szarvas), a drunkard, feels remorse and shame for his plundering. Even the village priest (Béla Gados) possesses stolen goods from Jews.

      Shot in breathtaking black-and-white, 1945 is a mesmerizing, quietly moving, and enthralling film. From the very first frame til the last, writer/director Ferenc Török and co-writer Gábor T. Szántó gradually build suspense without going over-the-top. You can sense that something will happen upon the arrival of Hermann Sámuel and his son; just the way that the villagers glare at them speaks louder than words. Bravo to Török for trusting the audience's patience by moving the film at a slow pace to allow for them to absorb each scene better. The elements of thriller and horror can be found beneath the surface in an understated way, so you'll find psychological horrors and slow-burning thrills which resonate emotionally for more than any cheap palpable thrills and horrors can. Provocative themes like that of shame, forgiveness, and anti-Semitism are explored in a gentle way that avoids heavy-handedness, schmaltz, and preachiness.

      1945's greatest triumph, though, is the sense of humanism that the filmmakers have managed to capture onscreen. Each and every character rings true, and a lot of emotions are generated even without words. That's a testament to not only the sensitive and intelligently-written screenplay, but also the convincingly moving performance. The film's cinematography alone is a wonder to behold with exquisite use of lighting and poetic imagery, i.e. the haunting final shot that symbolizes so much more than just the billowing smoke. Why can't more films be shot in black-and-white? The black-and-white cinematography compliments the film's atmosphere and tone very effectively much like it did in Son of Saul and The White Ribbon. It would be ideal to watch 1945 on the big screen to be fully enraptured by its sights and sounds as well as its humanism, a truly special effect which money cannot buy. Like a truly great film, 1945 has a perfect blend of truth and spectacle. It's one of the best films of the year.

Number of times I checked my watch: 0
Released by Menemsha Films.
Now playing in select theaters.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer

Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos




      Dr. Steven Murphy (Colin Farrell), a heart surgeon, lives with his wife, Anna (Nicole Kidman), and two kids, Kim (Raffey Cassidy) and Bob (Sunny Suljic). He befriends a mysterious teenage, Martin (Barry Keoghan), who lives with his mother (Alicia Silverstone). Martin holds a grudge against Steven for a something immoral that he had done in the past. He tells Steven that if he does not kill one of his family members, they will all become paralyzed and die one by one. Soon after he gives him that ultimatum, Bob experiences paralysis and refuses to eat while at the hospital.

      Writer/director Yorgos Lanthimos and co-writer Efthymis Filippou have woven a narrative that transcends genre and even plot description. To lump it into one genre wouldn't be fair. Seen as a horror film, it has slow-burning, psychological horror. As a drama, it's a very dark, though-provoking parable about sins, revenge, and the human conscience or lack thereof. Everything from the music score to the camera angles, set design and lighting create a very eerie, foreboding mood. mother! also tried to use stylish visual and sound aesthetics to generate a similar mood, but it quickly became dull, pretentious, and tedious. The Killing of a Sacred Deer, on the other hand, grips you from the very first frame until the very last. The opening grotesque shot is quite a bold way to hook the audience. The film not only has style, but also some substance and something profound to say about humanity under its stylish surface. You constantly wonder where the plot will be headed toward as it goes further into dark territory. Between the drama and psychological horror scenes, there's also some dark, dry humor which works well as comic relief.

      Part of what makes it so compelling is that the characters are written in a way that makes them complex human beings even though they're cross moral boundaries and, in the case of Martin, act bizarrely. It seems like Steven has it all at the beginning: a nice house, a good wife and kids, and a successful job. However, just like in the film Ordinary People, the dysfunctional elements gradually rise to the surface, and Steven, like Beth in Ordinary People, struggles to put the pieces of the broken plate back together, so-to-speak. Martin is merely the catalyst who forces Steven to open his eyes and face the sins of his past. Perhaps Martin symbolizes as Steven's moral conscience.

      The best kind of horror films are the ones that allow you to use your imagination. Kudos to the filmmakers for not only trusting the audience's intelligence and patience, but also their imagination while leaving a lot to interpretation. Nothing is as simple as it seems which makes it all the more intriguing. The ending, which won't be spoiled here, could've easily become a silly mess like in mother!,is it's quite solid and satisfying in a non-Hollywood way. It's also very fortunate that everyone onscreen is at the top of their game. Barry Keoghan gives a breakthrough performance---he was also great in Trespass Among Us, but here he truly gets a chance to shine. Colin Farrell gives a solid performance, as usual, and Nicole Kidman hasn't been better since Birth which would make for an interesting double feature with The Killing of a Sacred Deer. Todd Haynes' Safe and The Shining would also pair well with it.

      Fortunately, this isn't one of those movies where you can feel the weight of the running time or feel the wheels of the screenplay turning. There's so much going on that you might even be tempted to see the film again to appreciate all of its intricate layers. At a running time of 121 minutes, which feels more like 90 minutes, The Killing of a Sacred Deer is chilling, provocative, and mesmerizing. It's one of the best films of the year.

     

Number of times I checked my watch: 0
Released by A24 Films.
Now on VOD.

American Satan

Directed by Ash Avildsen




      Johnny Faust (Andy Black), the lead singer of a new rock band called The Relentless, moves to the Sunset Strip along with his band members, Leo (Ben Bruce), Lily (Jesse Sullivan) and Vic (Booboo Stewart), and band manager, Ricky (John Bradley), in hopes of rising to fame. When he meets the enigmatic Mr. Capricorn (Malcolm McDowell), he makes a pact with him that brings his band instant success and fame, but it comes with more than a few sacrifices. The band signs a deal with Elias (Mark Boone Junior), the head of a record company, and hires Hawk (Bill Goldberg) as their tour manager---when the shit hits the fan, Hawk becomes the fan, so-to-speak. Soon, The Relentless get involved in debauchery---sex with groupies, drugs, booze, and a little violence. The only two people in his life who try their best to help Faust are his girlfriend, Gretchen (Olivia Culpo), his mother (Denise Richards), and Gabriel (Bill Duke), a mysterious man.

      American Satan is the kind of film that to describe it would not do it enough justice. On the one hand, it's an refreshingly unpredictable amalgam of drama, sci-fi, comedy, satire, parable, and romance with stylish editing and cinematography. The screenplay by Ash Avildsen and Matty Beckerman brims with razor-sharp wit and wickedly funny, tongue-in-cheek humor. Avildsen and Beckerman clearly grasp the ins-and-outs of the music industry while poking satirical jabs at it. The film pops with energy and even a little bit of campiness. The camp element mostly comes from the casting. Scenery-chewing Malcolm McDowell from A Clockwork Orange is very well cast and has a lot of fun in his role. Mark Boone Junior has terrific comedic timing. Jesse Sullivan oozes with charisma.

      Fortunately, the filmmakers do a great job at getting inside the head of the protagonist, Johnny Faust. Part of what makes him such a compelling and relatable character is because he's very flawed and not an entirely decent human being. A character who's 100% decent would be unrealistic and boring to watch---and according to some actors, it's even tougher to play decency. Musician-turned-actor Andy Black has the acting chops to sink his teeth into the lead role and to find the character's emotional truth. Yes, there are also some sex scenes with nudity, you'll get to see Faust during an even more intimate moment: when he's crying. It's equally captivating and moving to watch how his character evolves through the film and how he learns valuable lessons.

      Beneath the surface, American Satan has some heart and soul as well as provocative messages about inflated egos, the price of fame, creative struggle, the battles with one's inner demons, self-discovery, and the sacrifices that artists go through, i.e., selling their artistic soul. "Creativity takes great sacrifice and struggle" and "fame has a price" are messags that mother! also explored through symbolism and dark themes, but this film does it with more wit and depth without veering into pretentiousness, preachiness or lethargy. At a running time of 1 hour and 51 minutes, which feels more like 90 minutes, American Satan is a smart, wickedly funny, and biting satire that deserves to become a cult classic.

Number of times I checked my watch: 0
Released by Sumerian Films.
Now on VOD.

Year by the Sea

Directed by Alexander Janko




      Joan Anderson (Karen Allen) decides to rent a house along the beach on Cape Cod after her husband, Robin (Michael Cristofer), relocates to Kansas because of work and her two adult children finally move out of house. She hopes to begin writing again while finding peace of mind far away from her family. John Cahoon (Yannick Bisson), a fisherman, befriends her and agrees to hire her, temporarily, at his local fish market. When she meets Joan Erikson (Celia Imre), who's grieving the loss of her husband, psychologist Erik Erikson, Joan Anderson's quest to find true happiness and to get to know herself officially begins.

      Based on the memoir by Joan Anderson, Year by the Sea is an enchanting, warm, wise and profoundly moving film brimming with humanism, a truly special effect that's rare to find these days in American films. Writer/director Alexander Janko finds just the right balance between entertaining the audience and provoking them emotionally as well as intellectually. Many scenes feel relatable and ring true. Janko also knows how to introduce characters in a way that's compelling, i.e. how Joan Anderson meets Joan Erikson in a dream-like sequence on the foggy shores of Cape Cod. Right away you're able to grasp how witty and wise Erikson is. Janko handles the many scenes of Anderson attaining enlightenment gracefully without veering into preachiness. He also avoids turning the emotionally resonant scenes into sappiness.

      Anyone who calls Year by the Sea conventional or formulaic isn't paying close enough attention to the many little surprises that come along, including a revelation about Joan Anderson's literary agent, Liz (S. Epatha Merkerson), and how Anderson doesn't yield to the temptations of cheating on her husband, Robin, even though she could have if she wanted to. The way that she helps a waitress, Luce (Monique Curnen), to deal with her abusive, alcoholic husbands speaks volumes about how kind, selfless and considerate she is as a human being. Janko includes other telling details about her Anderson's character like when her husband suddenly laughs at something that he thought about. Instead of acting offended or shocked by saying "Stop laughing!", she asks him, with genuine compassion and a healthy dose of curiosity, "What's so funny?" Small, beautiful scene like that are part of what makes Year by the Sea such a treasure behold.

      The scenery of Cape Cod becomes a character in itself with many awe-inspiring shots that would be best experienced on the big screen. The well-chosen music also helps to enrich the film. Moreover, each of the supporting characters feels lived-in, complex and interesting enough to even be turned into a protagonist. Although Anderson's husband does have flaws, he's far from a villain and has many redeeming qualities. The same can be said for Luce's abusive husband (Tyler Haines). Even the homeless man who shows up at the fish market to receive free food from John has an interesting backstory about how he became homeless. Janko clearly understands that the more specific a story is, the more universal it becomes. He also finds the right balance between light and dark elements---yes, many scenes are uplifting, but there's also some gentle, underlying sadness and tragedy lurking beneath the surface. Just like life itself, it would be difficult and unfair to lump Year by the Sea into a genre.

      The talented Karen Allen anchors Year By the Sea with her radiance. She gives the best performance of her career, and Janko allows for her shine thanks to the beautifully-written screenplay. It's also quite refreshing for a modern film to have such a complex role for an actress, and to watch a film that can't be turned into a video game or that doesn't rely on sex or violence as a means of entertaining the audience. In a less sensitively-written film, the character of Joan Anderson would have had no inner life; in Year By the Sea you can grasp her inner life from start to finish which makes the film all the more exceptional, poignant and unforgettable. At a running time of 1 hour and 54 minutes, which breezes by like an hour, Year by the Sea is a life-affirming, breathtaking, and inspirational film that will nourish your heart, mind and soul. It's the perfect antidote to Hollywood's blockbusters. What a triumph! It would make for a great double feature with Under the Tuscan Sun, 45 Years and Muriel's Wedding.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by Real Women Make Waves.
Now on VOD.
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Avi Offer
The NYC Movie Guru
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