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Reviews for December 6th, 2019

Documentary Round-Up

      No Safe Spaces, directed by Justin Folk, is a vital, timely and alarming documentary about the increasing lack freedom of speech in America, an essential part of democracy. He follows comedian and podcaster Adam Carolla and radio talk show host Dennis Prager as they persuasively preach about importance of having an amalgam different viewpoints no matter how harsh or different they are. They and others, like Tim Allen, have been silenced by people with opposing viewpoints who are more willing to censor them and threaten their livelihood than to have a meaningful discussion. Even if someone has a "dangerous" viewpoint, it should be invalidated or disproved through discourse. Fortunately, No Safe Spaces isn't just a rage-inducing doc like those of Michael Moore or Dinesh D'Souza; it makes valid points that are related to human rights, a bipartisan issue. Folk also incorporates some humorous moments into the doc so that it's not too dry or academic. It would've been interesting, though, if he would've interviewed some sociopsychologics or critical thinkers like Noam Chomsky who would have a lot to say about modern society and to get to the bottom of why people choose to ostracize others who strongly disagree with them. How can anyone from this generation have a conversation or debate when they're too accustomed to texting and tweeting rather than having face-to-face conversations? Modern technology, after all, is a Faustian bargain. Critical thinking is a skill that schools rarely, if ever, teach students, so how can there be debates without that essential tool? Narcissism seems to be a major personality disorder plaguing our citizens and, especially, our political leaders, so people too often look at others as an extension of themselves. Then there's also the problem with herd mentality. The doc is fundamentally about the importance of democracy. The doc What is Democracy? delved much deeper into how democracy functions around the world and why it fails or succeeds while admitting the harsh truth there can never be such a thing as a full democracy. No Safe Spaces opens at AMC 34th St by Atlas Distribution.

      Midnight Family is a fly-on-the-wall documentary that shows how the Ochoa family operates their own private ambulance in Mexico City. There are only 45 government-operated ambulances in the city despite a population of 9 million. That statistic alone, which director Luke Lorentzen includes at the very beginning, is horrifying and alarming. Lorentzen follows the Ochoa family including patriarch Fernando, his sons Josué, Juan and a family friend, Manuel, behind-the-scenes inside the ambulance in the middle of night. Some patients don't have the means to pay for their services, but they still treat them and bring them to the hospital nonetheless. There's a very cinematic approach to Midnight Family that makes you feel like you're watching a fast-paced Hollywood thriller except what makes it all the more amazing is that it's 100% real. Lorentzen eschews backstories about the Ochoas, although you do learn about how they struggle to earn a living and remain on the poverty line. Are there other compassionate and brave families like theirs in Mexico City or other cities perhaps? This doc doesn't provide answers nor does it show you the scope of the issue of lack of emergency medical care around the world to provide some perspective. At least Midnight Family does do a great job of raising awareness of these real-life superheroes who deserve all the attention and financial support that they can get. At a running time of just 81 minutes, it's a gripping, thrilling and eye-opening doc. It would make for a great double feature with The Cave. Midnight Family opens at The Metrograph via 1091.

Little Joe

Directed by Jessica Hausner

      Alice (Emily Beecham) works as scientist at a company that creates new species of plants. She goes against protocol by secretly taking one of the plants home to her son, Joe (Kit Connor). The plant, which she names Little Joe, can make someone happy when they inhale its pollen. Bella (Kerry Fox), Alice's coworker, believes that inhaling the plant's pollen has dangerous consequences.  

      Little Joe has an intriguing premise that combines science fiction and philosophy with slow-burning suspense. Alice is an interesting character because what her actions are morally ambiguous. She wants her son to be happy like any good mother would, but concurrently she puts him as well as herself at risk because of the uncertainty of what might happen after he inhales the plant's pollen. Unfortunately, the screenplay by writer/director Jessica Hausner and co-writer Géraldine Bajard leaves a lot to be desired because its characters never really come to life. There's no witty nor profound dialogue. Without a window into the mind of the characters, it's hard to be emotionally invested in their lives.

      Moreover, the performances, even by Emily Beecham and Kit Connor are too dry and cold. If at least oone of the characters were to have any warmth, at least that would've provided some much-needed contrast and a hook for the audience, but having everyone seem icy keeps the audience at a large emotional distance from them. There moments of suspense are ephemeral and understated which doesn't help the film from escaping its lethargy. There's one scene that's effectively terrifying, though, because it leaves something horrific to the audience's imagination.

      The set design, sound design, musical score and cinematography are Little Joe's greatest assets. They provide plenty of style as they enliven the film and make it hard for the audience to look away. The design of the flower itself looks interesting because it has a somewhat menacing look to it. The style, essentially, becomes part of the film's substance, but that's not enough to compensate for the dull screenplay. At a running time of 100 minutes, Little Joe is stylish and provocative, but emotionally inert and ultimately underwhelming. 

Number of times I checked my watch: 3
Released by Magnolia Pictures.
Opens at Quad Cinema.
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