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White Noise

Directed by Noah Baumbach




      Jack Gladney (Adam Driver) lives with his wife, Babette (Greta Gerwig), and four children, and works as a professor who teaches about Adolf Hitler. Denise (Raffey Cassidy), one of his daughters, discovers that her mother has been taking a mysterious experimental drug that isn't on the market yet. Meanwhile, after a train with toxic chemicals crashes and explodes, Jack's teenage son, Heidrich (Sam Nivola), does some research and convinces his family to flee for the lives from a potential "airborne toxic event."

      The problem with White Noise could stem from its source material, the novel DeLillo. Writer/director Noah Baumbach deserves credit for taking the daunting task and risk to write and direct the film version of a virtually unfilmable novel. He also hasn't made a film with such a huge budget that requires visual effects, so this is new territory for him. Sometimes risks pay off, sometimes they don't. Unfortunately, in this case, they don't pay off. With a more sensitive and focused screenplay, White Noise could've been a thrilling, moving and entertaining experience. Instead, it's unfocused, clunky and all over the place both tonaly and in terms of plot and genre. The dialogue tries too hard to be witty and awkward, but falls flat with some cringe-inducing scenes, i.e. a musical scene in a supermarket. There are too many subplots and characters without enough room to breathe to get to know any of them to be able to relate to them or care about them. Once the family hits the road to escape what may or may not be an apocalypse, the film becomes increasingly preposterous, undercooked and bites off more than it could chew. Sure, it's unpredictable, but it's also meandering and dull with heavy-handed, preachy messages thrown at the audience in the third act that seem tacked-on and shallow simultaneously. White Noise doesn't trust the audience's intelligence, emotions nore their imagination enough.

      The performances aren't strong enough to rise above the weak screenplay. Adam Driver is fine, but he's much better in Marriage Story which does a more profound job of exploring the relationship between a husband and wife. White Noise also deals with a married couple with issues, but they remain underexplored. It doesn't help that Greta Gerwig is miscast in her role as Jack's wife much like Anne Hathaway is miscast in Armageddon Time. There's a scene where she cries in bed in a way that feels hackneyed as though she were satirizing someone who's crying. Whatever beat she and Baumbach are going for there, it simply does not land. Don Cheadle also shows up as a doctor, but his role is underwritten, too, so he's wasted. The child actors, Raffey Cassidy and Sam Nivola, give the best performances in the film and manage to elevate it ever so slightly. At a running time of 2 hour and 16 minutes, White Noise is overlong, clunky and shallow whiling biting off more than it could chew. It's ultimately less than the sum of its parts.

Number of times I checked my watch: 3
Released by Netflix.
Opens November 25th, 2022 in select theaters before streaming on Netflix on December 30th, 2022.

Aftersun

Directed by Charlotte Wells




      Sophie (Francesca Corio), an 11-year-old girl, spends her summer vacation in a Turkish resort with her father, Calyn (Paul Mescal). 20 years later, she looks back on her memories of her father from that vacation through video taken from a camcorder.

      Writer/director Charlotte Wells grasps the fact that a movie's plot isn't as important as the feelings contained inside of it. Most people don't remember details of a plot anyway many years down the line unless they've seen the movie over and over. As Hitchcock astutely observed, some movies are like a slice-of-life while others are like a slice-of-cake. Aftersun is very much a slice-of-life with very little cake. Like in Boyhood, there are some scenes that play around with audiences' preconceived expectations of what will happen. For instance, when Sophie swims in the ocean, you might think that something bad will happen i.e., a shark attack or that she might drown. Your imagination will also be put to the test when Sophie wanders around the resort without her father in the middle of the night. Will she get kidnapped or hurt somehow? By often relying on the audience's imagination, Wells compels the audience to project from their own life experiences and their own fears. She also challenges you to rethink what's "cinematic." There are no action scenes here, no villain(s) or inspirational speeches or insights spoon-fed to the audience. Exposition remains kept to a minimum. Everything remains understated, even the emotions, until the powerful and haunting ending which won't be spoiled here.

      Francesca Corio gives a breakthrough performance as Sophie. She's a terrific child actor whose natural performance helps to further ground the film in realism. The same can be said about Paul Mescal. Neither of them under-act or over-act. It's rare to see a film where the performances are just as nuanced as the screenplay. The cinematography is also worth mentioning because it adds both style and substance without being overwhelming. There's some interesting use of symbolism that's left open to interpretation, i.e. the color yellow. Even the film's title, which refers to a cream used to moisturize the skin after exposure to the sun, can be seen as a metaphor---the sun can represent enlightenment, for instance. Bravo to writer/director Charlotte Wells for trusting the audience's emotions, patience, intelligence and imagination. She has a remarkable ability to take something mundane and turn it into something poetic, profound and deeply human. That's an impressive feat that takes a true humanist to capture. Patience audiences will be rewarded the most. At a running time of 1 hour and 36 minutes, Aftersun is a spellbinding, genuinely heartfelt and refreshingly un-Hollywood slice-of-life.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by A24.
Opens October 21st, 2022 in select theaters.

Armageddon Time

Directed by James Gray




      11-year-old Paul Graff (Michael Banks Repeta) lives with his mother, Esther (Anne Hathaway), who works as a home economics teacher, his domineering father, Irving (Jeremy Strong), a plumber, and older brother, Ted (Ryan Sell), in Queens, New York. At school, he befriends Johnny (Jaylin Webb), a black student, who deals with racism. Meanwhile, Paul develops a passion for art which his parents don't approve of, but his loving grandfather, Aaron (Anthony Hopkins), pushes him to follow his passion.

      Set in 1980, Armageddon Time is an uneven and dull coming-of-age film. The semi-autobiographical screenplay by writer/director James Gray deals with many universal issues like racism, dysfunctional families, financial woes and childhood dreams. Unfortunately, Gray doesn't take any of those ideas anywhere interesting. What do Ordinary People, Wildlife, Boyhood and The 400 Blows have in common? They're poignant, profound and captivating stories about the dynamics of families while also serving as coming-of-age tales. The characters have arcs and you learn a lot about them as the films progress. That can't be said about Armageddon Time which feels less and less interesting as the plot becomes increasingly unfocused and meandering. It barely scratches the surface of any of its themes and, instead, plays it safe as though it were scared to dig deeper and darker. Irving, Paul's father, for example, is clearly abusive both physically and emotionally to Paul, but the relationship between the two of them remains underexplored. Similarly, there's not much depth to the relationship between Paul and his mother, Esther, or his new friend, Johnny. The most interesting dynamic, though, is between Paul and his grandfather who becomes like a surrogate father and a great role model for him. It's ok for a movie to have very little that happens plot-wise because the feelings and thoughts within the plot are more important than the plot itself. However, Armageddon Time is emotionally and intellectually hollow without providing enough of a window into any of its characters' heart, mind and soul. Also, the third act feels too rushed, contrived and pat. On a positive note, the film avoids schmaltz and melodrama.

       The best aspect of Armageddon Time is Anthony Hopkin's strong performance as Paul's grandfather. He brings some gravitas to the film and, more importantly, his scenes brim with much-needed tenderness and warmth. Anne Hathaway, though, is miscast in the role of Paul's mother. She gives the weakest performance of the film, but, to be fair, the screenplay doesn't give her enough material to bring her role to life. The cinematography is fine with nothing exceptional about it, but there are pacing issues. The film moves slowly and then sluggishly before an ending that moves too quickly as though it were in a big hurry to reach some kind of closure to the story and to please the audience concurrently. At a running time of 1 hour and 54 minutes, Armageddon Time is a shallow, contrived and meandering coming-of-age-film that fails to pack an emotional punch and leaves the audience cold and underwhelmed.

Number of times I checked my watch: 3
Released by Focus Features.
Opens October 28th, 2022 in select theaters.




      In the documentary All That Breathes, two brothers, Nadeem Shehzad and Mohammad Saud, open a hospital for birds in their basement in New Delhi. Pollution has caused many birds, including black kites, to get sick and die. Director Shaunak Sen follows Nadeem Shehzad and Mohammad Saud as they treat the birds and nurse them back to life. They struggle to keep their hospital afloat and hope to find foreign funding to make their hospital bigger and better. They live in poverty with occasional blackouts, but they don't give up. Their love of animals is palpable. On the one hand, this documentary will make you happy to see compassionate people caring for sick animals. New Delhi is filled with many different animals who all depend on the environment to survive. The birds have even adapted to the polluted environment by using cigarette butts to repel predators. On the other hand, All That Breathes also serves as a potent wake-up call about the systemic issue of pollution in India. Just observing the images alone, you can easily see how polluted the land, water and air are. Birds fall from the sky on a daily basis. It's like watching a horror film, so if you're horrified, you have every right to be. Director Shaunak Sen also does a great job of showing how symbiotic the ecosystem is, plants, insects, birds and humans all live together. Pollution affects them all as do the effects of global warming. All That Breathes would make for a great double feature with the recent doc Invisible Demons now streaming on MUBI. At a running time of 1 hour and 31 minutes, it's an eye-opening, inspirational and powerful exposé with images that speak louder than words. It opens October 21st, 2022 at Film Forum via Submarine Deluxe.


Bones and All

Directed by Luca Guadagnino




      Maren (Taylor Russell), an 18-year-old high school student, comes from a family of cannibals. When her father (André Holland) suddenly leaves her alone, she goes on the run while trying to learn more about her craving to eat human flesh. She searches for her mother, Jannelle (Chloë Sevigny), who might have more answers. On her road trip across the Midwest, she meets another cannibal, Sully (Mark Rylance), and romances Lee (Timothée Chalamet), who happens to also be a cannibal.

    The screenplay by David Kajganich, based on the novel by Camille DeAngelis, combines coming-of-age drama, horror, romance, suspense and dark comedy. Genre-bending movies could work with a skilled screenwriter, but the mix of many genres here leads to tonal whiplash, clunkiness and unneveness. Bones and All takes place in the 1980's before the days of cellphones and the internet, back when people had conversations with one another that didn't involve texting. They got to know each other in person. It's initially refreshing to watch Maren and Lee connect and relate to each other over their emotional pains. Both of them are runaways and feel lost. They're struggling to make sense of who they are and how they fit in society. Unfortunately, the romance between them feels contrived. They make sense as friends, but as lovers? They've got a lot of emotional unpacking to do before they're even ready to be in a serious relationship. The plot already has enough tension when it comes to their search for their identity and to overcome their trauma, so the romance just feels like a tacked-on and distracting subplot that fails to resonate on an emotional level. Then there's the creepy subplot with Sully who becomes the film's villain. There's very little exposition about his backstory or how he ended up so cruel and sadistic. The plot meanders during the second act until Maren meets her mother who's in a mental hospital. One of the worst-written scenes with very lazy exposition, dull "world-building" and awkward use of comedy is when Maren and Lee meet yet another cannibal, Jake (Michael Stuhlbarg) who even explains the film's title with no room for interpretation in case you didn't already figure it out. That's an insult to the audience's intelligence. The over-the-top third act goes very dark, gritty and unflinching territory, but fails to pack an emotional punch or to trust the audience's imagination.

      Mark Rylance gives an effectively creepy performance that makes the most out of his underwritten role. Taylor Russell tries her best to rise above the weak screenplay, but barely manages to. She's much better in the more captivating, engrossing and profound movie Waves which is also a love story about people dealing with emotional pain and coming-of-age. Then there's Timothée Chalamet, who's miscast and lacks chemistry with Taylor Russell. That's most likely a problem that stems more from the screenplay than from their performances. The cinematography and soundtrack are the best elements of the film and add a little style and substance concurrently. You'll also find plenty of blood and gore, especially in the third act, which is more disgusting than horrifying while leaving nothing to the imagination. Prepare to squirm in your seat during those scenes or cover your eyes. Shock value alone isn't enough to recommend Bones and All. At a running 2 hour and 10 minutes, it's an overlong, toothless, meandering and clunky cannibal love story served with a heaping of tonal whiplash and dullness.

Number of times I checked my watch: 3
Released by United Artists Releasing.
Opens November 18th, 2022 in select theaters.

Corsage

Directed Marie Kreutzer




     

     



Number of times I checked my watch: 2
Released by IFC Films.
Opens December 23rd, 2022 in select theaters.

Decision to Leave

Directed by Park Chan-wook




      Hae-jun (Park Hae-il), a police detective, lives in Busan with his wife, Jung-an (Lee Jung-Hyun). He investigates the mysterious death of a man who might've been pushed off of a cliff or committed suicide. As he interrogates the man's wife, Seo-rae (Tang Wei), the prime suspect, he becomes romantically involved with her.

      The screenplay by writer/director Park Chan-wook has a little Hitchcockian suspense, but it suffers from an overwrought, tonally uneven plot that becomes increasingly convoluted. It veers more toward the erotic thrillers of the 80's and 90's like Dressed to Kill and Basic Instinct rather than classic Hollywood noirs from the Golden Age of Cinema like The Big Sleep or even dark thrillers from the 90's and 00's like Seven, The Usual Suspects and Insomnia. Like the cop that Al Pacino played in Insomnia, Hae-jun also has insomnia issues that affects him psychologically. Can Seo-rae be trusted? Can Hae-jun trust his own judgement after she successfully seduces him? Park Chan-wook seems more concerned about trying to make the plot more intricate by complicating it with various subplots, including a separate murder investigation. A lot goes on within the plot, yet very little actually sticks, even the romance between Hae-jun and Seo-rae. The plot also jumps many years at one point later in the second act to introduce a new character--there's a general rule about storytelling that it's rarely a good idea to introduce a new character late in a story. There's nothing wrong with confusing the audience as long as it serves the story in some clever way without sacrificing entertainment value. Unfortunately, that can't be said for Decision to Leave. None of the characters are relatable or fully fleshed out, so it's hard to care about anyone or what happens to them. Also, there's not nearly enough comic relief and the film takes itself too seriously at times.

      The production values look slick with atmospheric cinematography and some breathtaking settings. Beyond that, though, Decision to Leave doesn't have enough style to compensate for its screenplay's shortcomings. Occasionally, the editing feels choppy with awkward and abrupt transitions between scenes, so it's poorly-edited. Some scenes last too long, i.e. the final scene. So, pacing issues add to the film's clunkiness. The performances are fine with no one giving a weak performance. With an excessive running time of 2 hour and 18 minutes, Decision to Leave is a cold, clunky and overwrought thriller. At least it's better than the painfully dull Amsterdam.

Number of times I checked my watch: 3
Released by MUBI.
Opens October 14th, 2022 at Angelika Film Center.




      In the gripping and provocative documentary Descendant, director Margaret Brown investigates what happened to Clotilda, an illegal slave ship that carried slaves from Africa to Alabama back in 1860. At the start of the documentary, the remnants of the ship have not been found yet. That's the hard evidence needed to prove that the ship existed. The descendants of the slaves who arrived on Clotilda lives in Africatown, Alabama. This documentary serves as an exposé about America's dark past. The people of Africatown deserve to know the truth which has been hidden for many years. Descendant isn't just a documentary about truth, it's also about democracy. Director Margaret Brown does a terrific job of humanizing the descendants as they desperately search for the truth and demand answers about what exactly happened to the ship and why it's been hidden from them. What follows is a heartfelt and captivating journey that finds just the right balance between entertaining the audience and provoking them emotionally as well as intellectually. It's also very well-edited without any padding or moments that feel dry or dull. At a running time of 1 hour and 49 minutes, Descendant opens on October 21st, 2022 at IFC Center via Netflix.


Enys Men

Directed by Mark Jenkin




     

     



Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by NEON.
Opens TBA.

EO

Directed by Jerzy Skolimowski




      A donkey named EO entertains crowds at a circus with his trainer, Kasandra (Sandra Drzymalska). They get separated after animals rights activists protests and he goes on a journey to different places, i.e. a farm, and meets people from different walks of life including a countess (Isabelle Huppert).

      EO is the kind of film that's hard to describe with words. It's an experience and one that requires some patience, an open mind and an open heart. Writer/director Jerzy Skolimowski and co-writer Ewa Piaskowska eschew conventional storytelling by having a non-human protagonist and keeping plot to a bare minimum. Who needs a complicated plot anyway? What's ultimately important are the feelings that a film contains within the plot. EO's journey is like an emotional roller coaster ride. The filmmakers do a terrific job of making you feel what he feels even though he's just an animal. How he's anthropomorphised becomes part of what makes the film so increasingly engrossing. You'll find yourself caring about him just like any human protagonist and you'll want him to be reunited with Kasandra whom he's happiest with. If you're a patient audience member, you'll be rewarded the most with some thrilling sequences that have to be seen to be believed. In a way, it's like a coming-of-age film with a donkey. It's moving, funny, intense, sad, joyous and suspenseful all at once. So, not only does EO capture animal nature, but it also captures human nature, warts and all.

      The cinematography, sound design, lighting, and music score are all exquisite. They add plenty of style which becomes part of the film's substance. One particular tracking shot bathed in red looks hypnotic and even a little bit trippy. It's a stunning moment which, combined with the soundtrack, adds an element of surprise and unpredictability that elevates the film significantly. If you're a fan of the always-reliable Isabelle Huppert, you'll have to wait until the last 20 minutes. At a running time of just 1 hour and 28 minutes, EO is a mesmerizing, exhilarating and poignant journey.

Number of times I checked my watch: 0
Released by Janus Films.
Opens in select theaters on November 18th, 2022.

The Eternal Daughter

Directed by Joanna Hogg




     

     



Number of times I checked my watch: 2
Released by A24.
Opens TBA.

The Inspection

Directed by Elegance Bratton




      25-year-old Ellis French (Jeremy Pope) was kicked out of the house by his homophobic mother, Inez (Gabrielle Union) when he came out to her at the age of 16. In 2005, decides to join the U.S. Marines where he encounters more homophobia and must stay in the closet because of the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" military policy which allows LGBTQ people to serve in the marines as long as their sexual orientation remains private.

      The autobiographical screenplay by writer/director Elegance Bratton is a profoundly moving story about a young man who struggles to escape his toxic relationship with his mother. To call his mother a parent would be inaccurate because she doesn't love him unconditionally for who he truly is. She kicked him out of her house when he was still a child; if it happened when he was 18, an adult, that would've been slightly different, but would've still made her look just as terrible as a parent. Ellis has no one to turn to who can advocate for him and stand up for him until he joins the Marines. There, he befriends his fellow marines and bonds with them, a bond much stronger than he had with his mother. They become like a surrogate family to him and keep him emotionally stable, but he's still traumatized and has a lot of emotional baggage to unpack. After all, he's a human being. Bravo to Elegance Bratton for seeing and treating him as a sensitive human being. Ellis comes across as vulnerable, yet he becomes stronger and stronger through time. His decency makes him a strong person because decency is and will always be a strength. This isn't a war film per se, but it's more about Ellis' inner emotional battles. In one of the film's most heartbreaking scenes, he reunites with his mother who, not surprisingly, hasn't changed one bit; she's even worse. The screenplay doesn't really delve into what makes her so abusive to begin with. Perhaps her own mother and father didn't love her unconditionally. Perhaps she hates herself and is merely projecting when she emotionally abuses her son. She's a very unlikable human being with no redeeming qualities, at least on screen. Sadly, there have been and still are many people like her along with people who enable her. Is she merely a product of a much larger, systemic issue? The Inspection doesn't really explore that nor does it preach any messages. The Inspection ultimately about a human being who learns to get away from hate and to love himself. As the poet Pablo Nerudo wisely observes, "They can cut all of the flowers, but they can't stop the spring from coming." It's enlightening and inspiring to watch Ellis blossom as a human being.

      As the wise actor Gene Jones once told me in an interview, it's not easy for an actor to play decency. That's a testament to Jeremy Pope's breakthrough performance as Ellis. He portrays his decency very naturally with tenderness, grace and warmth. Like Elegance Bratton, Jeremy sees and treats Ellis as a human being from start to finish. That makes the film emotionally resonating even when the screenplay is a bit on-the-nose at times. Gabrielle Union also gives a strong performance that deserves to be praised while making the most out of her role. At a running time of 1 hour and 34 minutes, The Inspection is a genuinely heartfelt, honest and captivating story about the importance of unconditional love, compassion and empathy for others as well as for oneself.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by A24.
Opens November 18th, 2022 in select theaters.

The Novelist's Film

Directed by Hong Sang-soo




      Junhee (Lee Hye-yeong), a novelist, visits the bookstore of her old friend, Sewon (Seo Younghwa), who used to be a novelist himself. She also interacts filmmaker friend, Park Hyo-jin (Kwon Hae-hyo), Later, at a park, she bumps into an actress, Kilsoo (Kim Min-Hee), who introduces her to a filmmaker, Gyeong-woo (Ha Seong-guk). Junhee wants to write a story for Gyeong-woo and Kilsoo to turn into a film.

      Writer/director Hong Sang-soo has a knack for writing nuanced and tender stories that somehow involve filmmakers and filmmaking. His films are laidback and more than the sum of their parts because there's not much of a plot, but a lot going in spite of that. In The Novelist's Film, he still hasn't lost that knack. The plot seems aimless on the surface, but there's substance beneath it, much like in Eric Rohmer's cerebral films. It's tempting to say that "nothing happens" since there's no action, no villains, no  loud arguments or big twists. This isn't the kind of movie that relies on twists, suspense or anything over-the-top. Like with most of his films, Hong Song-soo keeps everything understated and natural. He has a great ear for dialogue that sounds true-to-life. As Hitchock once wisely stated, some films are a slice-of-life while others are a slice-of-cake. There's very little cake in The Novelist's Film. It's mostly a slice-of-life that trusts your intelligence, patience and emotions. It gradually rewards your patience as you become more and more engrossed and enchanted with these characters who feel like fully-fleshed human beings. There are even some brief moments of comic relief that will surprise you, so there are, indeed, surprises, but they're small ones that you'll appreciate because they help the film to avoid turning monotonous and dry.

      All of the performances are natural and reflect the nuanced screenplay. It's also worth mentioning the mesmerizing black-and-white cinematography with a few instances of color toward the end. Those moments of color are a little surprising at first, but they're not distracting. The fact that he keeps the running time of less than 2 hours shows that he has restraint as a filmmaker. At a running time of 1 hour and 32 minutes, The Novelist's Film is wispy, nuanced and enchanting.

Number of times I checked my watch: 2
Released by The Cinema Guild.
Opens October 28th, 2022 at Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center.

Saint Omer

Directed Alice Diop




     

     



Number of times I checked my watch: 2
Released by Super.
Opens TBA.

She Said

Directed by Maria Schrader




      Jodi Kantor (Zoe Kazan) and Megan Twohey (Carey Mulligan), journalists for the New York Times, investigate sexual assault claims against Harvey Weinstein. They report back to their superior, New York Times executive editor Dean Baquet (Andre Braugher) while they try to find Harvey's victims to get statements on record from them.

      Based on a widely-known true story, the screenplay by Rebecca Lenkiewicz follows the investigative reporting of Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey in a dry, procedural fashion. The plot mainly focuses on the two journalists while they're at work with very little emphasis on their life at home with their family. You don't learn much about their backstories or what makes them so brave. She Said follows in the footsteps of All the President's Men, but without the slow-burning suspense and emotional depth found in that classic 70's thriller by Alan J. Pakula. For a movie about women being abused and dehumanized, it's ironic that the film does a poor job of humanizing any of the female characters. Jodi and Megan aren't even given much of a personality nor is their friendship explored. They're the least interesting characters, too. The most interesting ones are the victims themselves, i.e. Laura Madden (Jennifer Ehle) and Zelda Perkins (Samantha Morton). Not surprisingly, Harvey Weinstein (who's only shown once facing away from the audience) denies everything and hires a lawyer to represent him. This isn't the kind of movie that shows both sides of the battle; it's only about the heroic journalists and victims without even trying to show Harvey Weinstein's perspective. Yes, he's a monster, but he's human concurrently. There's also no scenes with Ronan Farrow who's very significant in exposing the truth about Harvey Weinstein through his New Yorker article. He's mentioned briefly, but that's all. She Said remains limited in scope, conventional and not quite as biting as it could've been with a sharper and bolder screenplay. The third act feels underwhelming and anticlimactic because it ends just when the case against Harvey Weinstein was the strongest, so you don't even get to see Harvey's downfall.

      Carey Mulligan and Zoe Kazan give fine performances as do Patricia Clarkson and Andre Braugher who portray their superiors at the New York Times. The best performances, though, come from the supporting roles: Samantha Morton and Jennifer Ehle. Their scenes are the most powerful moments of the film and help to add much-needed poignancy in an otherwise dull film. There's nothing exceptional when it comes to the cinematography, lighting or set design; there's not much style here like there is in the far superior All the President's Men. Also, it's too brightly lit more often than not as though the filmmakers were too scared to make the movie feel gritty, so it looks more like a made-for-TV movie instead. Even Spotlight has better cinematography and editing. At a running time of 2 hours and 15 minutes, She Said is mildly engaging and only occasionally moving, but too dry, shallow and pedestrian to pack an emotional punch.

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

Stars at Noon

Directed by Claire Denis




      Trish (Margaret Qualley), a journalist, moonlights as a hooker to make ends meet while on an assignment in Nicaragua. At a hotel bar, she meets and begins a romance with Daniel (Joe Alwyn), a young man who claims that he works for an oil company.

      Based on the novel by Denis Johnson, the screenplay by writer/director Claire Denis and co-writers Léa Mysius and Andrew Litvack is a mess that squanders many opportunities to turn the film into a romance, thriller or even an engaging character study. Despite the mystery surrounding Daniel's true identity and the corruption that Trish investigates in Nicaragua, Stars at Noon generates very little intrigue and suspense. The plot loses steam early on around the 30-minute mark and doesn't regain any of it at any other point. The relationship between Trish and Daniel becomes less and less interesting as it progresses. They have sex, talk, have sex, talk and then have sex again. Even when Trish learns that Daniel's life might be in danger, the plot remains lethargic with only a few sporadic moments of mildly engaging scenes. There's also just one brief instant of comic relief when Trish communicates with her magazine editor (John C. Reilly) via Skype and he's very forward about how much he can't stand her and wants nothing to do with her. The audience feels the same way but for different reasons: she's a boring character with a bland personality. It's often easier to get inside a character's head while reading a book and much more difficult to do that while watching a movie. To accomplish that, it takes a skilled screenwriter that knows how to see and treat the character as a human being. Unfortunately, the screenwriters fail to construct enough of a window into the heart, mind and soul of Trish, so they dehumanize her while leaving the audience cold. Daniel doesn't fare any better. The screenplay also breaks a pretty big rule when it comes to storytelling: don't introduce a new character late in the game. Guess what? Stars at Noon does precisely that later in the third act when Trish and Daniel meet a CIA agent (Benny Safdie). By then, neither the plot nor the characters are compelling enough to hold your interest, so it's hard to care about what happens to anyone on screen or what new twists will transpire within the plot.

      Margaret Qualley gives a decent performance, but it's nothing exceptional. She's undermined by the shallow screenplay that fails to breathe life into her role. The same goes for Joe Alywn who lacks chemistry with Margaret Qualley. There are many sex scenes with nudity, so this is definitely a film for adults. It's too bad, then, that there's physical nakedness on screen, but not much emotional nakedness. Blue is the Warmest Color is a better example of a film that combines nudity and sex with poignancy in a much more organic and effective way. Although the film is set in Nicaragua, the setting doesn't become enough of a character in and of itself, even once the film veers into a brief adventure through the jungle. Moreover, this is yet another film that overstays its welcome past the 2 hour mark and, in turn, becomes a chore to sit through. Yes, in case you're wondering where the title comes from, there's a blink-and-you'll-miss-it scene where you'll see stars in the sky at noontime. What that means in terms of its symbolic meaning remains the film's most thought-provoking mystery that's left for interpretation. At a running time of 2 hours and 18 minutes, Stars at Noon is an anemic, meandering and overlong bore that's neither gripping, intriguing nor emotionally engrossing. 

Number of times I checked my watch: 4
Released by A24.
Opens October 14th, 2022 in select theaters.

Tár

Directed by Todd Field




      Lydia Tár (Cate Blanchett), the chief conductor of a German Orchestra, gets caught in a scandal that threatens to end her successful career and her upcoming book launch. She lives with her partner, Sharon (Nina Hoss), and has an assistant, Francesca (Noémie Merlant), at work.

      Tár is a mesmerizing psychological study of a tyrant's downfall. The screenplay by writer/director Todd Field opens with an interview between a host and Lydia Tár which makes it clear that she's at the top of her career, very famous and, most importantly, very full of herself. She's an arrogant, stubborn, myopic, determined perfectionist who lets no one get in her way or disagree with her. In other words, she's a textbook narcissist. On the surface, she appears strong and confident, but, like most narcissists, she's wearing many masks. On the inside, she's weak, emotionally immature and lonely. Perhaps she even hates herself. Field offers no voice-over narration, but what he does offer are many private moments with Lydia Tár where her masks get unraveled gradually and you can grasp what she's thinking and feeling. Even though she's unlikable given the way that she treats everyone around her as inferior to her, including Sharon, she's still a human being.

      What remains unclear, though, are which events from her childhood shaped her personality in her adulthood. Was she raised by narcissists? Was she perhaps sexually abused as a child? On the one hand, it's okay to leave some things to interpretation, but Lydia's childhood shouldn't be one of those things that are unexplored. A small hint about her childhood would've been tremendously revealing about her current behavior. Nonetheless, Field does a great job of allowing the audience to get a glimpse of her heart, mind and soul, especially during a provocative, chilling dream sequence which is around that time that the film veers ever so slightly into the realm of psychological thriller. It's an exhilarating emotional journey with an understated ending that will linger in your mind for a while and compel you to re-watch the film.

      There's no denying at this point that Cate Blanchett is among the best actresses of our time. She's up there with the wonderful actresses from the Golden Age of American Cinema like Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. Tár gives Blanchett a huge platform to showcase her tremendous acting talents. She's spellbinding to behold as she sinks her teeth into the role of Lydia Tár so convincingly. You'll forget that you're watching Cate Blanchett. That says everything you need to know about how great she is as an actress. It's her best performance since Blue Jasmine. Nina Hoss also deserves to be commended for a moving and nuanced performance as Lydia's lover, Sharon. The music, sound mix, editing and cinematography are also exquisite. The first few minutes, though, are bizarre, though, because they're just the end credits slowly appearing on the screen. What's the purpose of that other than to subvert your expectations and to be unconventional? That's not very clear and feels distracting, especially since there still are credits at the end of the film. Fortunately, despite a running time of 2 hours and 38 minutes, you barely feel the weight of the long running time. Expect many Oscar nominations.

Number of times I checked my watch: 2
Released by Focus Features.
Opens October 7th, 2022 in select theaters before expanding October 14th, 2022.

Till

Directed by Chinonye Chukwu




      Mamie Till (Danielle Deadwyler) lives with her 14-year-old son, Emmett (Jalyn Hall), in Chicago. Emmett spends the summer of 1955 visiting his cousins in Mississippi where he whistles at a white woman, Carolyn Bryant (Haley Bennett), who works at Bryant’s General Store. A few days later, he's found dead in the Tallahatchie River. Mamie seeks justice for her beloved son's brutal murder and lynching.

      Writer/director Chinonye Chukwu and co-writers Michael Reilly and Keith Beauchamp tell the true story of Emmett Till's lynching with a linear, straight-forward plot that doesn't really break any conventions or take any risks. The screenplay seems to be going through the motions as it introduces Emmett's life with his mother in Chicago during the early scenes before he travels to Mississippi where he gets into trouble for whistling at a white woman. Till then focuses on his mother's perspective and her journey to find the truth about what happened to Emmett, who killed and tortured him, and to bring them to justice. She has an uphill battle with the help of Medgar Evans (Tosin Cole), eventually. The filmmakers leave the events that happened to Till when he was tortured and lynched to the audience's imagination. Instead, they show his brutally beating corpse when his mother sees it for the first time. That image alone is emotionally devastating and speaks louder than words. Unfortunately, you never really get to know any of the other characters besides Mamie, but that's okay because her journey to justice is also an emotional journey that humanizes her. You can feel her emotional pain. To be fair, though, this is the kind of film that resorts to heavy-handedness with some preachy dialogue that almost feels cheesy at times. It tries too hard to tug at the audience's heartstrings. It's the equivalent of banging the keys of the piano too hard. You can sense the wheels of the screenplay turning. Nuance and subtlety can't be found here, unfortunately.

      Fortunately, Danielle Deadwyler's emotionally-charged, convincingly moving performance compensates for the conventional, shallow screenplay. The film's poignancy comes from her performance, not from the screenplay. When it comes to the production values, though, they're a little too slick with too much bright lighting that makes it look like a TV movie. Moreover, the music score feels overbearing and distracting at times which is a sign that the filmmakers don't trust the audience's emotions enough. Why try so hard to tell the audience how to feel when they can figure out how to feel through the performances? That said, Mamie Till's speech in the courtroom scene is incredibly powerful, captivating and unforgettable. At a running time of 2 hour and 10 minutes, Till is over-produced, by-the-numbers and heavy-handed, but genuinely heartfelt. It's elevated tremendously by Danielle Deadwyler's breakthrough, Oscar-worthy performance.  

Number of times I checked my watch: 2
Released by United Artists Releasing.
Opens October 14th, 2022 in select theaters before expanding wide on October 28th, 2022.

Triangle of Sadness

Directed by Ruben Östlund




      Carl (Harris Dickinson), a model, goes on a luxurious yacht cruise with his girlfriend, Yaya (Charlbi Dean), a model and social influencer. Other guests on the ship include Jarmo (Henrik Dorsin), Winston (Oliver Ford Davies) and his wife, Clementine (Amanda Walker), Uli (Ralph Schicha) and his wife, Therese, (Iris Berben) and Dimitry (Zlatko Buric) and his wife, Vera (Sunnyi Melles). Among the crew, there's Alicia (Alicia Eriksson) who works under the chief steward, Paula (Vicki Berlin), and Abigail (Dolly De Leon), the toilet manager. The ship's captain, Thomas (Woody Harrelson), must show up for the Captain's Dinner, but he's drunk and refuses to come out of his room no matter how many times Paula tells him to. The guests get immediately stricken with a food-borne illness when the seafood spoils after Vera requests that the crew stop working and take a dip in the pool.

      To describe what happens during the rest of the plot after the guests get food sickness would be to ruin the film's many surprises. Writer/director Ruben Östlund once again hits the ball out of the ballpark with a witty, honest and very funny glimpse of the dark side of human nature. He begins by introducing Carl to the audience through his absurd and shallow experiences as a model. A fashion show has texts on a screen with social commentary that will become more relevant as the film progresses. Then it cuts to an expensive restaurant where he has an argument with Yaya over why she didn't make an effort to pay the bill despite promising to pay for the next meal. Their bickering continues in the hotel and, eventually, on the ship when Yaya flirts with a shirtless member of the crew (Timoleon Gketsos) while they lay out in the sun. A lot happens within the first thirty minutes, and that's even before the guests get sick. Each guest has his or her own unique personality and specialty. They all love to brag about their wealth and success in the world of capitalism.Triangle of Sadness is a black comedy, but with a lot of tragedy beneath the surface. It has a lot to say about capitalism and, occasionally, it's very blunt and unsubtle about its observations, i.e. when the crew chants "Money!" over and over. Other times, it's more subtle and nuanced, like with the look on Dimitry and Carl's face as Yaya and another woman flirt with Jarmo at a bar on the ship.

      Ruben Östlund has a knack for writing dialogue that's organic, full of pith and a wicked sense of humor. There's also a few sight gags that lead to some uncomfortable humor that will make you stop and think about why you're laughing. This isn't an ordinary comedy by any means. Concurrently, he keeps the audience in suspense as the film goes in directions that you least expect it to. Moreover, he trusts their intelligence and imagination to be able to connect the dots because he omits a scene when a crew member gets fired, but it's implied when he's waving goodbye to his coworkers as he's seen being taken off the ship in a speedboat. Without spoiling anything, Triangle of Sadness remains a brilliant, razor-sharp social commentary and a perceptive commentary on human nature even during the third act.

      Every actor and actress, from the lead roles to the supporting roles, is well-cast and gives a wonderful performance with terrific comedic timing. It's hard to choose just one stand-out performance, but if necessary, Dolly De Leon gives a breakthrough performance that's as great as Yalitza Aparicio is in Roma or Hong Chau in Downsizing. Zlatko Buric is also superb. He and Woody Harrelson play off of each other very well during a scene when they're drunk together. If you pay attention, you'll notice many interesting details that provide the film with more depth, i.e the book Ulysses that Carl reads on the ship or an even smaller detail that serves as a foreshadow: the sound of flies on the first day that the guests arrive on the ship. Like in Force Majeure writer/director Ruben Östlund grasps and shows the entire spectrum of human nature from the light side to the dark side. Making the audience laugh while making them think and feel is no easy task, but he accomplishes it with flying colors. At a running time of 2 hours and 30 minutes, Triangle of Sadness is bold, provocative and wickedly funny.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by NEON.
Opens October 7th, 20222 in select theaters.

Will-o'-the-Wisp

Directed by João Pedro Rodrigues




     

     



Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by Strand Releasing.
Opens TBA.


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Avi Offer
The NYC Movie Guru
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