A Murdered Man Seeks His Killer in “Dead on Arrival”

What would you do if you had less than 24 hours to live? In the schlock thriller Dead on Arrival, pharmaceutical sales rep Sam Collins (Billy Flynn) answers this the way characters in movies like this usually do: He embarks on a race against time alongside a heart-of-gold stripper to find out who’s behind his imminent death.

It all starts when Sam accepts an invite to a client’s orgiastic New Year’s Eve party. Little does he know that the night will feature plenty of T&A, shady mobsters…and (here my voice drops an octave) murder. After waking up next to one of the party girls, Sam hits the road and finds his body going into shock: He’s been poisoned and there’s, inconveniently, no antidote. With a straight face, a doctor tells Sam that he’s been murdered and leaves his still-living patient to grapple with the news. Sam flees, learning that his client was also murdered — with a more effective instrument.

Writer-director Stephen C. Sepher’s thriller is so convoluted that it’s hard to care about its trail of dead bodies. Inspired by Rudolph Maté’s D.O.A. (1949), this 2018 update leaves much to be desired — especially some pointed comments about Armenians and an obvious witch-doctor trope among other tone-deaf bits. Ultimately, the tired irony of Sam’s predicament as a guy who sells meds but struggles to cure himself fails to save Dead on Arrival.

Dead on Arrival
Directed by Stephen C. Sepher
Kingfisher Media and Vision Films
Opens March 23, Cinema Village

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“Dear Dictator” Is a Teen High School Comedy Starring Michael Caine as a…*checks notes* Murderous Strongman?

What happens when a disaffected teen with a penchant for platform boots becomes pen pals with a murderous dictator? Lisa Addario and Joe Syracuse attempt to answer this preposterous question with their lightly subversive teen comedy Dear Dictator. High school outsider Tatiana (Odeya Rush as a convincing wannabe rebel) pouts her way through the halls, trading barbs with the resident queen bees called the “Slushies” (a portmanteau of “sluts” and “lushes”). When a class assignment compels her to write a letter to a “hero,” she chooses General Anton Vincent (Michael Caine), the dictator of a tumultuous island country, because she “likes his style.” To her surprise, Anton writes back, and a sort of relationship develops — one that escalates quickly when a coup forces him to flee his homeland.

Caine dives into his Castro-esque role with aplomb as he and Rush attempt to salvage Dear Dictator from its increasingly random plot, which includes Anton seeking refuge at Tatiana’s house and becoming a de facto handyman who wins over Tatiana’s mom (Katie Holmes), a ditzy dental hygienist with a boss (Seth Green) who likes sucking toes. The naive teen and sly octogenarian later team up to start a revolution at the high school, a literal “coup d’eTatiana,” that has life-changing consequences. Although the filmmakers name-check and appear to draw inspiration from Mean Girls, they’ve missed the mark on truly biting satire, leaving Dear Dictator toothless and silly.

Dear Dictator
Directed by Lisa Addario and Joe Syracuse
Opens March 16, IFC Center


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Logan Lerman Plays a Writer Racked With Guilt in “The Vanishing of Sidney Hall”

In Shawn Christensen’s knotty mystery The Vanishing of Sidney Hall, a precocious writer courts tragedy by penning a roman à clef in which he conflates literary honesty with explicit, masturbatory confessionals that somehow ensnare the heart of the manic pixie dream girl next door (Elle Fanning). After exploiting a classmate’s death to pen a Pulitzer-nominated novel, Sidney (Logan Lerman) finds his life spinning out of control. Sidney’s guilt — about another fatal incident, his middling creative output, and his love life, of course — gets the better of him and he goes off the map. Little does Sidney know, his attempts to disappear are being closely watched.

Director Christensen favors dreamy shots of dusty libraries and desert horizons that, while beautiful, don’t make up for the contrived plot driving Sidney toward his destiny. The talented cast (including Michelle Monaghan, Nathan Lane, and the ever-charming Kyle Chandler) does what it can with Christensen and Jason Dolan’s time-hopping script, but it’s beyond them to save absurd drivel like, “We’ll sleep on the lay of the land.” The Vanishing of Sidney Hall fails to give its characters depth, leaving viewers with little more than a shallow white guy troubled by his fame.

The Vanishing of Sidney Hall
Directed by Shawn Christensen
Opens March 2, Village East


“Becks” Is an Understated Musical About Arrested Development

With Becks, directors Elizabeth Rohrbaugh and Daniel Powell have crafted an understated musical that really works, thanks to Alyssa Robbins’s heartfelt music and standout performances from the cast. Brooklyn singer-songwriter Becks (Lena Hall) has everything she wants: a moderately successful music career, a cute girlfriend, and a move to Los Angeles on the horizon. But after a brutal betrayal, she loses everything and moves back into her mom’s house in St. Louis, where her room remains unchanged from her teen years.

Becks, played with a devil-may-care slacker attitude by Broadway vet Hall, is the type of thirtysomething who leaps before she looks, which clashes with the very mindful lifestyle her pious mother (Christine Lahti) has crafted since her children left home. As Becks seeks refuge outside the house, her (first and last) high school boyfriend (Dan Fogler) serves as her friend, whiskey-pouring sage, and patron — the bar he owns doubles as a place for her to gig and earn tips. Soon, someone catches her eye: Elyse (Mena Suvari), the bi-curious wife of her high school adversary. When Elyse hires Becks for guitar lessons, things get complicated.

Hall’s performance in particular is strong, both as a singer and actor, and her chemistry with Lahti’s nun-turned-mom adds an intimate, barbed layer of family drama. Unfortunately, the story stumbles when it comes to surprises: Becks runs headlong into a predictable set of problems in this story of arrested development.

Directed by Elizabeth Rohrbaugh and Daniel Powell
Blue Fox Entertainment
Opens February 9, Village East Cinema


Whitney Cummings’s “The Female Brain” Is an Overwrought Rom-Com About…Well, Take a Guess

Neuroscientist Julia has a hack for just about everything: She guzzles Soylent, and she’ll reject a potential mate because his brain scans show a lack of empathy. Director and co-writer Whitney Cummings stars as the not-looking-for-a-man scientist at the center of this overwrought rom-com based on the pop-science book by Louann Brizendine. We meet Julia as she’s presenting her research on — wait for it — the pesky, fickle female brain. In her study, Julia delves into the minds of couples who are dating, newlyweds, and long-term spouses. But things get complicated when she can’t hack the feelings that she develops for one of her subjects. Does Julia fall prey to the psychologist’s fallacy — or will she nail the science behind what makes people tick?

Cummings and Neal Brennan’s script makes for an earnest, if slightly uneven, combination of info and laughs that skews a bit too Psych 101. Cutaways purport to reveal the science behind behavior, punctuating scenes of the couples as they bicker, spice things up, and test boundaries. Still, despite its strong cast (including Sofia Vergara, Cecily Strong, and James Marsden), The Female Brain has trouble making its characters more than one-dimensional. (Beanie Feldstein stands out as Julia’s bubbly, overmedicated millennial assistant.) Instead, it offers a myopic, heteronormative look at romance that spends a lot of time playing up women’s impulses for laughs before conceding that these instincts are actually kind of a good thing. Its creators’ hearts may be in the right place, but that’s not enough to save The Female Brain from overthinking it.

The Female Brain
Directed by Whitney Cummings
IFC Films
Opens February 9, IFC Center
Available on demand


Powerful Basketball Doc “Shot in the Dark” Unpacks Hardships On and Off the Court

“Fuck ball,” coach Louis Adams tells his team at the start of Dustin Nakao Haider’s powerful documentary Shot in the Dark. “We’re not talking about basketball.” Rightly so: One of his teen players has just been shot at a party days before a big game.

The doc chronicles a year in the life of a high school basketball team on Chicago’s West Side. There, Coach Lou carries an untenable load of stress as the de facto father figure and mentor for many young men. Rising star Tyquone Greer compares growing up in gang territory to quicksand — once you’re caught, “it’s hard to get out.” One of his friends and teammates, Marquise Pryor, knows this well. The first time we hear Pryor’s voice, he’s calling Greer from jail after getting caught with a gun on a rival gang’s turf.

From doctors appointments and jail visits to neighborhood parties and tearstained farewells, Nakao Haider’s ace camera team — especially Benjamin Vogel — have significant access to Lou and the team. (It may help that Dwyane Wade and Chance the Rapper are among the doc’s executive producers.)

Riveting game clips round out the doc without overtaking its focus. This isn’t some feel-good documentary about glory on the court. It’s about survival. Shot in the Dark does well to remember that sobering fact throughout its lean run time. Everyone here is fighting for their lives, passing by the memorials of dear friends and trying to get out of the neighborhood. It’s a vital, intimate snapshot of a handful of people who have been touched by gun and gang violence.

Shot in the Dark
Directed by Dustin Nakao Haider
Fox Sports Films
Opens January 26, Cinema Village


Dito Montiel’s “The Clapper” Fails to Rouse Applause

There are plenty of odd jobs in Hollywood, and with the comedy The Clapper, Dito Montiel tries to give some humanity to the hordes of paid, in-studio audiences who smile and applaud their way through infomercials.

Eddie Krumble (Ed Helms) and his friend Chris Plork (Tracy Morgan) make a meager living clapping for products in TV studios. When a late-night talk show host takes notice of Eddie’s seeming omnipresence throughout the circuit, Eddie’s world gets turned upside down. His girlfriend, Judy (Amanda Seyfried), an animal-loving gas station attendant, cuts their budding romance short and disappears when he goes viral. After several missteps, Eddie uses his newfound late-night fame to try to find Judy and profess his love to her.

With The Clapper, based off of Montiel’s 2007 book, Montiel wants to answer some big questions: Who are the everyday people doing showbiz grunt work? What’s the price of fame? How do late-night shows find new bits for every damn show? Unfortunately, the film fails to make those answers interesting, believable, or even funny.

“I love how weird you are, you know?” Eddie tells Judy earnestly. “You’re, like, totally wacky like me.” The Clapper unsuccessfully attempts to be sincere and embrace the absurdity of its characters’ lives, but like Eddie’s confession, everything feels forced. It’s an interesting premise, but The Clapper doesn’t live up to its namesake.

The Clapper
Written and directed by Dito Montiel
Momentum Pictures
Opens January 26, Cinema Village


“Saturday Church” Finds a Young Man Finding Himself at the West Village’s Vogue Balls

Damon Cardasis’s excellent feature debut, Saturday Church, is a sensitive look at a young man’s exploration of his identity and sexuality. Ulysses is a black, genderqueer fourteen-year-old whose father recently died. His loving but overworked mother enlists strict Aunt Rose to help care for Ulysses and his little brother. But Rose, a devout Christian, scolds Ulysses for trying on his mother’s clothes. His mother, too, pleads with Ulysses to stop stealing her panty hose, failing to understand the yearnings of the young aesthete.

Ulysses flees this homophobic Bronx home life to a queer haven of vogue balls in the West Village. Near Christopher Street, Ulysses finds kindred spirits who invite him to Saturday Church, a community program for queer youth. His new, chosen family accepts him quickly, but not everything is rosy for Ulysses. After being kicked out of his house, he has a chance encounter that evolves into a heartbreaking dose of reality.

Amid the film’s despair is a whimsical element that feels a little out of place: musical numbers that pop up when Ulysses has a surfeit of emotion. They’re beautiful swells of mental escapism within the mind of a teen who’s all too eager for acceptance, but these numbers appear so suddenly after dramatic moments that they can be jarring.

Actor Luka Kain deftly carries Ulysses’s pain on his slim shoulders, perpetually hunched until Ulysses receives his first swipe of glittery pink lip gloss. Then, Kain and Ulysses positively glow — and so does the rest of the cast, a talented and LGBTQ-inclusive group of performers. With Saturday Church, Cardasis has crafted a beautiful story about young, queer people of color championing one another and finding themselves.

Saturday Church
Written and directed by Damon Cardasis
Samuel Goldwyn Mayer
Opens today, Village East Cinema


All’s Fair in Love and Workplace Training Scenarios

There often comes a point when creatives must reconcile dreams with reality: Have things fallen into place? Or is the road to self-actualization still littered with obstacles? In Dim the Fluorescents, playwright Lillian (Naomi Skwarna) and actress Audrey (Claire Armstrong) reckon with the latter.

Director Daniel Warth’s first feature follows the duo as they make the best of their sole paying gig: role-playing workplace training scenarios. Although Lillian and Audrey are stuck dramatizing difficult customers and sexual harassment for handfuls of office drones, these besties dream up demos like it’s their opening night on Broadway. But when they score a corporate gig that allows for a seven-minute opus in front of hundreds, their symbiosis sours.

Warth and Miles Barstead’s screenplay dives heartily into the drudgery of the creative process, despite the occasionally distracting Wes Andersonian effect in both the earnest script and the performers’ delivery: Skwarna embodies Lillian like the Torontonian love child of Max Fischer’s pretentious neurotic and Margot Tenenbaum’s chain-smoking playwright. The film’s examination of the artistic grind is promising, but Dim the Fluorescents clocks in at over two hours, proving tiresome at times. Luckily, Skwarna and Armstrong’s quirky chemistry keeps the lights on in this overlong debut.

Dim the Fluorescents
Directed by Daniel Warth
Opens today, Cinema Village



The Coming-of-Age Mystery “Kepler’s Dream” Is Sweet Without Being Too Saccharine

In Amy Glazer’s coming-of-age mystery Kepler’s Dream, a precocious girl tries to make sense of her splintering family. Eleven-year-old Ella (Isabella Blake-Thomas) has a lot on her shoulders: Mom’s in chemotherapy, Dad’s mostly out of the picture, and Ella herself has been carted off to her paternal grandmother’s house for the summer. Even worse, she’s never met matriarch Violet von Stern (Holland Taylor), who has a reputation for being a haughty hard-ass.

Based on the 2012 YA novel by Juliet Bell, Kepler’s Dream is a study in family dynamics that’s sweet without being too saccharine. A city kid who doesn’t know a palomino from a pinto, Ella shows up to her grandmother’s New Mexico home in a cartoonish cowboy hat, inspiring snark from the locals. She slowly assimilates to her new surroundings, which she nicknames “broken family camp” — a ranch full of high-priced first editions where peacocks and barn swallows roam freely under a sky smattered with constellations.

Blake-Thomas gives Ella equal parts spunk and curiosity, the perfect foil for Taylor’s character, a rare book collector who has no time for the kid’s “likes,” “ums,” and “yeahs.” In a deliciously savage scene, Violet scolds Ella: “Don’t be a Philistine!” But when one of those books goes missing, Ella channels Nancy Drew in an attempt to save a family friend from taking the blame. With charming source material, Glazer brings a feel-good puzzler for young audiences from page to screen.

Kepler’s Dream
Directed by Amy Glazer
Leomark Studios
Opens December 1, AMC Empire 25