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Reviews for December 2nd, 2022

Documentary Round-Up

      2nd Chance is a captivating, fascinating and ultimately enraging documentary biopic about Richard Davis, the inventor of the bulletproof vest. The company he founded, Second Chance Body Armor, Inc, ended up in hot water after knowingly selling bulletproof vests that were defective. Before that, he owned a pizzeria which went bankrupt. Who would've thought that a pizzeria owner would become the owner of a company that sells bulletproof vests? It sounds almost like the kind of satire found in a Christopher Guest movie. Director Ramin Bahrani is very lucky to have an interesting, complex documentary subject and, on top of that, the access to interviews with him. Although 2nd Chance does chart Richard Davis' rise and fall, it's not a hit piece on him nor does it veer into hagiography. Bahrani humanizes Davis up to a point although not enough to achieve a profound character study of a con artist/narcissist/liar. Davis comes across as someone who's not very reliable in terms of honesty and decency; he's full of himself and lacks introspection as well as accountability and empathy which shows his severe lack of emotional maturity. How did he end up this way? Every behavior is learned from somewhere. Bharani lets the audience judge Davis for themselves, at least. However, the film itself remains somewhat limited in scope and doesn't explore some provocative, timely themes related to the subject, i.e. gun control, that are among the many underexplored elephants in the room. At a running time of just 1 hour and 29 minutes, 2nd Chance opens at Village East by Angelika, AMC Kips Bay and Alamo Drafthouse in Manhattan via Showtime Documentary Films and Bleecker Street.

      Framing Agnes is one of the most underwhelming, clunkily-edited and shallow documentaries of the year that squanders its opportunity to shed light on trans history. It centers on the UCLA gender health study conducted by Harold Garfinkel in the 1960's. A woman who uses the pseudonym Agnes Torres, one of the trans women featured in the UCLA study, turned out to have falsely claimed to be cis-gendered male in order to get gender-reassignment surgery. Director Chase Joynt uses the transcripts from the UCLA study to re-enact the interviews with trans actors and also interviews the trans actors. There's very little insight about "Agnes Torres"; this isn't a documentary biopic about her, but background info about her, Harold Garfinkel and some of the trans women from the study are sorely missing. A truly great documentary has an interesting story to tell and finds some kind of depth--emotional and/or intellectual--to hook the audience. Framing Agnes fails at that, thereby leaving the audience hungry for a far more illuminating and provocative documentary. The reenactments are awkward when blended with archival footage and actual interviews with the trans actors who portray the trans women from the case study. At a running time of 1 hour and 15 minutes, which feels more like 2 hours, Framing Agnes opens at Film Forum via Kino Lorber.

      The Quiet Epidemic is an eye-opening, fair and balanced exposé about the cover-up of chronic Lyme disease in the US. Every coin has more than 2 sides: there's the sides, the ridges, the sides of the ridges, etc. Co-directors Winslow Crane-Murdoch and Lindsay Keys display their terrific journalistic skills by showing multiple perspectives on the issue. You'll hear from the experts who deny that chronic Lyme disease exists and from the experts who believe that it does. You'll also hear from people who suffer from chronic lyme disease who desperately need their voices to be heard. The Quiet Epidemic presents plenty of evidence that there is indeed a suppression of chronic lyme disease going on in the medical establishment. Some patients are misdiagnosed. One of the "smoking guns" is the alarming fact that bands 31 and 34 skipped when testing for Lyme disease; if those bands were part of the test, many more patients would test positive for Lyme disease. The filmmakers grasp that it's not enough for a documentary to make the audience angry or preach to the choir (I'm looking at you, Michael Moore!), although, to be fair, you have every right to feel indignant while watching this doc. Beyond enraging you, it's also insightful and moving as you learn about the experiences of the people who suffer from chronic Lyme disease. So, The Quiet Epidemic manages to be persuasive, provocative and heartfelt while finding just the right balance between entertaining the audience, provoking them emotionally as well as intellectually. At a running time of 1 hour and 42 minutes, it opens at IFC Center via First Run Features. You'll never look at Lyme disease the same way again.

Christmas With the Campbells

Directed by Clare Niederpruem

      Jesse (Brittany Snow), recently dumped by her boyfriend, Shawn (Alex Moffat), agrees to spend Christmas with Shawn's mother (Julia Duffy) and father (George Wendt), in Ketchum, Idaho, while he's far away at an important job interview. Their nephew (Justin Long) arrives and flirts with Jesse.

      The screenplay by Barbara Kymlicka, Vince Vaughn and Dan Lagana suffers from cringe-inducing dialogue and clunkiness with no surprises, wit and laughs. They don't even bother to develop the relationship between Jesse and Shawn before he dumps her out-of-the-blue. Soon after, his mother insists that she still come over to spend Christmas with his family. Why couldn't she say, politely, "No, thanks."? Shawn's mother knows that they've broken up, so why would she offer to invite Jesse to begin with? She should know better unless she has ulterior motives. Jesse should also know better. Does she not have any friends to spend the holidays with? What about her family? Once she arrives in small-town Idaho, the film becomes a contrived mess with annoying characters who are more caricatures than fully-fleshed human beings, i.e. a mean, gossiping woman who refers to Jesse as a slut. Why is she so nasty and bitter? Because the screenplay requires her to be that way. Perhaps it's the pot calling the kettle black, but this isn't the kind of film that's remotely interested in being a character study in any way, shape or form. From the moment that Jesse meets the charming nephew, the ending can be seen from a mile away, so it's a long slog to get to that point. You can leave to go to the bathroom without pausing the film and return while predicting precisely what you've missed. Any guess whether or not Shawn will surprise his family by showing up all-of-a-sudden? Any guess which guy Jesse will choose to be with? It doesn't really matter because none of the scenes or relationships ring true. The screenplay also tries too hard to generate laughter with awkward, sexual humor that, but it falls flat more often than not. Are you supposed to laugh when Mrs. Campbell says to Jesse that Shawn gets his wild sexual side from her? How would she even know that he has a wild side? Is there incest going on? At the very least, there's covert incest since the way that Mrs. Campbell talks about her son's sexual life feels very icky. At least the screenplay doesn't resort to cliches by having someone end up with cancer like in The Family Stone, but Christmas With the Campbells is just as hackneyed.

      The ensemble cast can't save Christmas With the Campbells. Brittany Snow and Justin Long have very little chemistry together which is more because of the lazy, shallow screenplay. That said, it's refreshing to see Justin Long in a movie that's not a horror film, i.e. Barbarian and House of Darkness. There are no villains here, but there's also very little of anything that holds the film together. George Wendt is much better in the underrated film The Climb that's far more profound, warm, smart and funny. At a running time of 1 hour and 28 minutes, which feels more like 2 hours, Christmas With the Campbells is a contrived and painfully unfunny romcom low on laughs while high on cringe and schmaltz.

Number of times I checked my watch: 4
Released by RLJE Films.
Opens at Cinema Village and on VOD.


Directed by Antoine Fuqua

      During the American Civil War, Peter (Will Smith), a slave in a Louisiana plantation, gets separated from his wife, Dodienne (Charmaine Bingwa), and children when he's sold off to the Confederate Army to help them build a railroad. When he hears about Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, he goes on the run with other slaves while Jim Fassel (Ben Foster), a slave hunter, pursues them.

      Based on the true story of Gordon, a.k.a. "Whipped Peter", Emancipation isn't really a biopic per se; it's more of a snapshot of Peter's life as a runaway slave yearning to be free. The screenplay by Bill Collage focuses on Peter's treacherous journey as he braves the elements in the swamps of Louisiana while desperately struggling to stay alive. It's essentially a war film with Peter as the hero, Jim as the villain, and the swamps are the battleground.  Emancipation captures the grit and intensity that Peter endures which makes the film thrilling at time, but it fails to provide enough of a window into Peter's heart, mind and soul. You barely watch him spend time with his family before he's separated from them within the first 15 minutes. He seems more like a plot device that's just there to move the plot forward; without humanizing him enough, it's hard to be emotionally invested in his journey, so the beats don't quite land. This film's systemic problem is similar to Till and Harriet's systemic problem: it's pedestrian and barely scratches the surface of its heavy subject matter and provocative themes. Is it too much to ask to get to know Peter more as a human being? Why dehumanize him? He doesn't have much of a personality, and the shallow dialogue doesn't really help to bring him to life either. The same can be said about his relationship with fellow slaves which falls flat. Jim, the slave hunter, is the villain and he remains a villain throughout the film with no nuance or anything that humanizes him either; he's cartoonish, pretty much. Also, there's not nearly enough levity, so the film becomes monotonous around the hour mark.

      In terms of production values, those are among the film's major strengths. The black-and-white cinematography looks exquisite and breathtaking while adding some scope and moments that feel exhilarating on a palpable level. There's even a hint of some faded brown and green colors on occasion, so it's not always black-and-white. Will Smith gives a moving performance that somewhat compensates for the screenplay's lack of emotional depth. Ben Foster also gives a pretty good performance while making the most of his underwritten role as does Charmaine Bingwa who plays Peter's wife, Dodienne. At a running time of 2 hours and 12 minutes, Emancipation is a sporadically thrilling and intense journey, but monotonous and shallow while failing to pack an emotional punch.  

Number of times I checked my watch: 3
Released by Apple TV+.
Opens at Regal Union Square.

Guillermo Del Toro's Pinocchio

Directed by Guillermo Del Toro and Mark Gustafson



Number of times I checked my watch: 2
Released by Netflix.
Opens at at IFC Center.


Directed by Lee Jung-jae

      KCIA Foreign Unit Chief Park Pyong-ho (Lee Jung-jae) and Domestic Unit Chief Kim Jung-do (Jung Woo-sung) desperately search for a North Korean spy, known as Donglim, who's plotting to assinate the country's president. There must be a mole in the government because Donglim leaks highly classified information publicly.

      Hunt sounds like it could be an edge-of-your-seat spy thriller and, for some of the time, it does indeed achieve that feat. However, the screenplay by writer/director Lee Jung-jae leaves a lot to be desired. Plotwise, it's very intricate and complex which is fine. Jung-jae has a lot of trust in the audience's intelligence with very little time spent on exposition, so it requires you to pay close attention, perhaps too much, to follow it. It's just as dry, though, as Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. The plot becomes both confusing and dull as the audience is bombarded with twists and turns. There are too many characters and none of them are particularly interesting or memorable. Sometimes plot-driven films can be entertaining if they're fun and/or suspenseful, but the suspense wanes after the 5th or 6th plot twist as the plot becomes complicated and confusing. Imagine Inception, but without any thrilling or gripping scenes. Even Decision to Leave has more suspense and holds the audience's attention more effectively. The overarching question that the audience has throughout the film isn't "Who's the mole?", but "Who cares?" Hunt barely lets the film and the audience breathe, so it's easy to feel exhausted and perhaps even a bit nauseated. Heat is a better example of a crime thriller with a brain that takes more risks that pay off while treating its characters like human beings. Hunt does have action scenes, but they're not very exciting when the audience isn't remotely invested in the plot nor in any of the characters' lives. Is it also too much to ask for a little comic relief for a change to break the tedium? Why keep the audience at such an emotional distance from the characters?

      Unfortunately, the cinematography doesn't add enough style to enliven the film or to provide it with much-needed substance. The performances are decent, but no one really gets a chance to shine because they're undermined by the vapid, lifeless screenplay. The pacing is fine, for the most part, and there are some briefly exciting action set pieces. However, you can really feel the weight of the film's running time, especially around the 90-minute mark. Writer/director Lee Jung-jae trusts the audience's patience too much. At a running time of 2 hours and 11 minutes, Hunt is a convoluted, dull and exhausting spy thriller with an intriguing premise, but lackluster execution. If it were part of a double feature, Heat would be the A-movie and this would be the vastly inferior B-movie.

Number of times I checked my watch: 4
Released by Magnet Releasing.
Opens at Quad Cinema.

Nr. 10

Directed by Alex van Warmerdam

      Günter (Tom Dwispelaere), a theater actor, has an affair with a fellow actress, Isabel (Anniek Pheifer), the wife of the play's director, Karl (Hans Kesting). Meanwhile, he receives strange messages that have something to do with the events that lead to him being found in the forest at the age of 4 and raised by a foster family.

      From Triangle of Sadness to The Menu to White Noise to Everything Everywhere All at Once, Alienoid and Bones and All, there have been many bold films this year that have gone completely bonkers, and Nr. 10 proudly joins the club. The screenplay by Alex van Warmerdam begins as a dry dark comedy about infidelity before it veers into a completely different direction that won't be spoiled here. He keeps the exposition to a minimum, so prepare to be equally confused and intrigued by the events that transpire to Günter. Some questions that you'll have initially like, "Why does Günter's daughter have just 1 lung?", will be answered eventually and require your patience until the third act, but others remain unanswered as the film bombards the audience with new revelations and twists. Who are the mysterious people communicating with Günter? What do they want from him and why? Bizarre, twisted and elliptical are words that come to mind during those scenes. It's not always fun or thrilling to try to figure out what's going on. However, once the "big reveal" arrives, it'll keep you at the edge of your seat as your previous questions get answered. Before you know it, though, the film leaves you with even more questions, so that makes for a frustrating experience. Perhaps it's best if you just check your brain at the door without taking the movie too seriously because by the time the end credits roll, it's slightly undercooked and less than the sum of its parts. That said, the fact that you know as much as Günter does throughout the film means that you're confused when he's confused, so you're on the same wavelength as his

      The performances are all pretty good with no weak performances which helps to ground the film in realism before it the plot goes off the rails. Writer/director Alex van Warmerdam keeps the pace moving slowly until the third act that picks up the pace a little, but, for the most part, this is a slow-burn that takes its time to reveal what it's really about. He trusts the audience's patience which is refreshing, while keeping the running time at 1 hour and 40 minutes. If this were 2 hours or longer, it would've overstayed its welcome unless it expanded more on some of the ideas presented in the balsy, bonkers third act.

Number of times I checked my watch: 2
Released by Alamo Drafthouse Films.
Opens at Alamo Drafthouse theaters.

The Quintessential Quintuplets Movie

Directed by Masato Jinbo

      During their last year of high school, one of five sisters, Itsuki (voice of Inori Minase), Nino (voice of Ayana Taketatsu), Miku (voice of Miku Ito), Ichika (voice of Kana Hanazawa) and Yotsuba (voice of Ayane Sakura), the titular quintuplets will be the lucky girl to marry their tutor, Futaro (voice of Yoshitsugu Matsuoka). He will let them know which of them he'll choose to marry at the end of the high school's post-graduation festival.

     The Quintessential Quintuplets Movie is made for audiences who are already familiar with the manga series that it's based on. Everyone else will be wondering what the big deal is and who's who because the screenplay by Keiichiro Ochi eschews exposition and assumes that you already know who the quintuplets are beforehand as well as their relationship with Futaro. The plot doesn't have much tension or mystery: the only mystery is which of the sisters Futaro will choose to marry. Ochi separates the film into 5 chapters with each chapter showing one of the sisters spending time with Futaro and falling in love with him. It's a sweet, light and tender story at times, but also somewhat cloying and very light; don't expect to shed any tears. You don't really have enough of a chance to get to know any of the sisters to care about the outcome, though. Also, they seem very desperate to be with Futaro, but the film doesn't even bother to establish a reason why other than that they're infatuated with him. He's been their tutor for a while, apparently, which sort of explains why they're emotionally attached to him. However, they're just teenagers with a schoolgirl crush on a guy. Is he the only decent guy around? Some scenes are amusing, but, for the most part, there's very little that's witty and/or funny except for the third act that's slightly humorous, although also silly concurrently. What makes these quintuples "quintessential"? Is there any purpose for that word other than for the sake of alliteration? Perhaps only those of you familiar with the manga series can answer that because it's not clear in this particular film. Why alienate audiences unfamiliar with the manga series?

      The animation looks fine and colorful, but nothing that elevates the film above mediocrity. It doesn't even remotely hold a candle to the breathtaking animation style of Miyazaki. Not a single scene feels exhilarating on a visual level; it's bland for the most part. What's very frustrating, though, is that the film clocks past the 2 hour mark, so the plot feels like it's stretched too thinly. Tighter editing could've easily brought the running down to a lean and breezy 90 minutes. Sometimes a 2 hour plus running time can be justified if there's enough substance and plot to maintain the momentum, but that can't be said for this film. At a running time of 2 hours and 15 minutes, The Quintessential Quintuplets Movie is harmless and tender, but cloying, overlong and bland.

Number of times I checked my watch: 4
Released by Crunchyroll.
Opens in select theaters.

Violent Night

Directed by Tommy Wirkola

      Mr. Scrooge (John Leguizamo) and his team of mercenaries hold the Lightstone family hostage including Gertrude (Beverly D’Angelo), Bert (Alexander Eliot), Trudy (Leah Brady), Linda (Alexis Louder), Jason (Alex Hassell), Aliva (Edi Paterson), Morgan (Cam Gigandet), to rob them of millions of dollars. Little does he know that Santa Claus (David Harbour) has arrived to kick some ass.

      Violent Night is a B-movie horror action comedy in the vein of Krampus and Bad Santa. Unfortunately, the inane screenplay by Pat Casey and Josh Miller doesn't know what to do with its concept and turns it into a repetitive unfunny mess with very little wit and few surprises. It's also the third film this year after Triangle of Sadness and Babylon that includes vomiting to try to make the audience laugh in disgust---it happens early on right before the title card to let the audience know what kind of movie they're about to watch. More vomiting doesn't occur, but the attempts at humor fail as a mix of lowbrow, slapstick and dark comedy. There's also a line thrown in that makes it very clear that the film is paying homage to Home Alone. The villains are boring and so is their motive--wow, so they want money to get rich! Who would've guessed that?? So original and imaginative! What will they even do with the money once they have it? How did Mr. Scrooge end up resorting to a life of crime anyway? Trudy, a young girl, gets a walkie-talkie from her dad as a Christmas present and she's told that it's a direct line to Santa Claus. Yes, you guessed it, the real Santa Claus ends up communicating with her. He's mean, strong and as powerful as a superhero. There's little to no backstory about him either with a few mentions of his estranged relationship with Mrs. Claus. Even as a guilty pleasure, Violent Night doesn't go far enough with its humor nor does it take enough risks story-wise. what follows is a dull experience knows where to take ideas from, but has no clue where to take ideas to.

      The performances range from weak to decent; David Harbour doesn't even come close to being as funny as Billy Bob Thornton from Bad Santa. Despite the ensemble cast, no one really has a chance to shine. The action scenes are well-choreographed though which is no surprise because it's the same team who choreographed the action in John Wick. If all it takes are cool kills for you to be entertained, then this is the film for you. Someone gets electrocuted and set aflame with nothing left to the imagination. It's more gory and disgusting than scary. That, too, becomes repetitive with diminishing returns. If the running time were 80 or 90 minutes, Violent Night would've been a lean and mean B-movie. Instead, at an overlong 1 hour and 41 minutes, it feels exhausting and bloated.

Number of times I checked my watch: 4
Released by Universal Pictures.
Opens nationwide.