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Reviews for April 2nd, 2021

Documentary Round-Up

      The Truffle Hunters is a gentle and breezy documentary about septuagenarian and octogenarian men who forage for Alba truffles in the forests of Piedmont, a region in the Northwest of Italy. Co-directors Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw eschew the talking-heads format, for the most part, and instead use a more fly-on-the-wall approach. They even use footage from a camera attached to a dog that runs through the forest, so this is clearly not a conventional documentary. It's a whimsical, quiet and slow-burning film that captures the majesty of nature while providing a little insight about the different facets of the truffle market. Not only does The Truffle Hunters show the relationship between the men and truffles, but also between some of the men and their dogs along with their wives, one of whom does not want her husband to go out at night to search for truffles, but he subversively ignores her and sneaks out anyway. It's equally sad and funny how someone's love of truffle hunting can affect their marriage. Of course, there are also mouthwatering scenes of people eating food, such as eggs and pasta, with truffle shavings, so this isn't the kind of film to watch while very hungry. At a running time of just 1 hour and 24 minutes, The Truffle Hunters is a charming, fascinating and refreshingly delightful documentary. It opens at Film Forum via Sony Pictures Classics.

French Exit

Directed by Azazel Jacobs


Number of times I checked my watch: 3
Released by Sony Pictures Classic.
Opens at Angelika Film Center.

The Girl Who Believes in Miracles

Directed by Rich Correll


Number of times I checked my watch: 3
Released by Atlas Distribution Company.
Opens in select theaters.

The Man Who Sold His Skin

Directed by Kaouther Ben Hania

      Sam Ali (Yahya Mahayn) falls in love with Abeer (Dea Liane) and expresses his desire to marry her on a Syrian train, but she has other plans because her mother is forcing her to marry a rich diplomat, Ziad (Saad Lostan). After getting so excited that he yells about a revolution, Sam gets arrested and thrown in prison before he escapes to Beirut where he works at a chicken factory. Abeer marries Ziad and moves to Belgium. When he crashes an art exhibition for free food, he meets a successful contemporary artist, Jeffrey Godefroi (Koen de Bouw), and his assistant, Soraya (Monica Bellucci). Jeffrey gives him a very tempting offer: to allow him to become his new art project by tattooing his back in exchange for the visa that will allow him to travel anywhere that he wants to, all-expenses paid. He signs the contract without even consulting with a lawyer and, soon enough, he's staying at fine hotels and ordering caviar when he's not Skyping with Abeer or his mother (Darina Al Joundi) who doesn't approve of his newfound fame. Complications arise when Sam realizes he's being exploited by Jeffrey and isn't quite as free as he'd like to be.

      Based on a true story, the screenplay by writer/director Kaouther Ben Hania has an intriguing premise about people who feel trapped and dehumanized by a sort of prison without bars. Sam's prison is his deal that he made with Jeffrey which allowed him to be treated like an object. He's like one of the chickens in the factory that he works at. Abeer feels stuck in her forced marriage with Ziad. Jeffrey may not know or admit it, but he's also imprisoned in a way by greed, power and fame while exploiting Sam for the sake of art. On the surface, Sam is the center of attention when it comes to Jeffrey's artwork, but he's really not; Jeffrey merely uses him to gain more attention for himself. Unbeknownst to the naive Sam until much later on, Jeffrey is selfish, arrogant and narcissistic. Like a true narcissist he grooms Sam with plenty of food and more while continuing to abuse him and make sure that Sam remains dependent on him. Soraya is in many ways Jeffrey's enabler. Admittedly, the film's metaphors are at times rather obvious and over-explained like when Jeffrey refers to himself as Mephistopheles, the demon from Faust. Some of the dialogue is a bit on-the-nose without trusting the audience's intelligence enough to decipher the meanings on their own. Also, the third act, which includes a twist, feels a bit rushed and contrived.

      Fortunately, The Man Who Sold His Skin's strengths outweighs its weaknesses. It remains compelling if it doesn't offer many answers or explore its themes profoundly. In a way, it's like Eyes Wide Shut without the risqué and ambiguity because it holds the audience's hand more often than not which makes it more accessible and less divisive than Kubrick's film, but less bold and rewatchable than Eyes Wide Shut. The cinematography, lighting, set design, costume design and use of music are all stylish and well-chosen while also becoming part of the film's substance. At a running time of 1 hour and 44 minutes, The Man Who Sold His Skin is a provocative trip down the rabbit hole of art and commerce. Besides the more cerebral Eyes Wide Shut, it would probably make for an interesting double feature with Alice in Wonderland.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by Samuel Goldwyn Films.
Opens at Angelika Film Center, Village East and City Cinemas 1,2,3.

Shiva Baby

Directed by Emma Seligman


Number of times I checked my watch: 0
Released by Utopia.
Opens at Quad Cinema.

The Unholy

Directed by Evan Spiliotopoulos

      Gerry Fenn (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), a journalist desperate to make a comeback, arrives in a small Massachusetts town to investigate the mystery of a mutilated cow. Instead, he ends up investigating much more bizarre mystery after he finds and destroys a fern doll he finds in a nearby tree: Alice (Cricket Brown), the deaf niece of Father Hagan (William Sadler), experiences a visitation from the Virgin Mary and can suddenly hear, speak and perform miracles like healing people's illnesses. Bishop Gyles (Cary Elwes) arrives to exploit the miracle while Monsignor Delgarde (Diogo Morgado) investigates whether or not they're actually miracles. Gerry befriends Dr. Natalie Gates (Katie Aselton) and suspects that something much more sinister might be at play that actually has nothing to do with the Virgin Mary.

      Writer/director Evan Spiliotopoulos includes a brief prologue set in 1845 that's creepy, disturbing and terrifying while serving as a foreshadow of the dark events to come. When you see the tree where Gerry finds the fern doll that has the date February 31st, 1945, you know that it has something to do with the intense prologue. Unfortunately, the suspense dissipates quickly as the film becomes repetitive and lacks surprises because of the prologue that spoils the surprises. Gerry is surprised, though, but the audience isn't, which makes it hard to connect with him as he investigates the mysterious events surrounding Alice. If only those events were mysterious to the audience as well. The performances are decent, and Jeffery Dean Morgan is well-cast as is William Sadler, although they're all undermined by the dull screenplay.

      Without enough gripping or truly horrifying scenes, the second act feels like a slog as you wait for the inevitable events in the third act, but even when those events do finally arrive, it's not scary enough to make as much of an impact as the prologue does. Also, there's not enough comic relief after the first act which includes an amusing, witty joke about Metallica. Were the film to have maintained that kind of tone that blends horror with comedy instead of just abandoning that tone, it would've been more entertaining.  Why not give the audience more wit through the rest of the film? At least The Unholy doesn't suffer from any bad laughs though, but it could've used a smarter screenplay with more suspense and psychological horror. As far as PG-13 horror movies go, there have been worse ones and there have been better ones than The Unholy. Its problems don't stem from the lack of gore, but rather from the lackluster, uninspired screenplay that doesn't go anywhere interesting with its premise. As Roger Ebert once wisely observed, the true star of a horror movie is the horror. In the case of the Unholy, its star doesn't shine brightly enough.

Number of times I checked my watch: 3
Released by Screen Gems.
Opens in theaters nationwide.