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Reviews for December 9th, 2022

Documentary Round-Up

      Hidden Letters, is a reader's digest glimpse of Nüshu, a secret ancient language developed by peasant women in Jiangyong, China. Women oppressed by men used that language to communicate with other women who were also oppressed by men. Director Violet Du Feng doesn't spend much time focusing on the history of the language; you learn a little about the circumstances that lead to the development of the language. She focuses more on the struggle to preserve the language so that it's not forgotten. Xin Hu works as a tour guide in a Nüshu located in Jiangyong, and she also teaches the language. Another woman,  Simu Wu, spends her time trying to keep the language of Nüshu alive. Despite an important subject matter, Hidden Letters fails to find the right balance between entertaining the audience and provoking them emotionally as well as intellectually. It's mildly fascinating, but barely scratches the surface of its subject while leaving the audience underwhelmed. At a running time of just 1 hour and 26 minutes, Hidden Letters opens at Quad Cinema via Cargo Film & Releasing. There's nothing about it that makes it essential viewing on the big screen.

      Everyone has a life backstage and front stage, as socio-psychologist Erving Goffman once wisely observed. A truly great documentary biopic captures both while huamizing its subject.Loudmouth, a doc about Reverend Al Sharpton, shows what he's like frontstage while charting his rise to fame and his involvement in the civil rights movement throughout the years. During the contemporary interviews with him, he seems to be putting on a performance, so he remains frontstage. Director Josh Alexander does a decent job of combining interviews with Sharpton and archival footage to help the audience understand what makes him integral in the civil rights movement. However, he fails to humanize Sharpton or to show more of what he's like "backstage." Sharpton is smart, brave and determined, but, like all human beings, he has flaws. Loudmouth minimized and overlooks his flaws which makes it feel like he's being put on a pedestal. You'll learn very little that's new or surprising about Al Sharpton. Also, the 2 hour running time does feel overlong, although the film is slickly edited and fast-paced enough so that there aren't any parts that drag too much. Without being a warts-and-all doc, Loudmouth is ultimately hagiographic, underwhelming and incomplete. It opens in select theaters via Greenwich Entertainment.

      The Treasure of His Youth: The Photographs of Paolo Di Paolo is a lively, warm and illuminating doc about the work of Paolo di Paolo who photographed famous icons of Italian cinema in the 1950s and 60s. Anna Magnani, Sophie Loren, Marcello Mastroianni and Bernardo Bertolucci are among those who he was lucky to photograph while working for a magazine called Il Mundo. Using black-and-white cinematography, director Bruce Webber does a fine job of introducing the audience to Paolo di Paolo experiences as a photographer and what makes his photographs so significant. Di Paolo's photographs capture the zeitgeist of Italy during the 1950s and 60s. His daughter, Silvia, found a box containing his photographs two decades ago which was when she learned that he was a photographer. Now in his 90's, Di Paolo speaks very fondly of his memories from the 1950s and 60s. Bruce Webber has the same nostalgic fondness for that important time in Italian history and culture. Much of this doc feels hagiographic, but not excessively so. There are many film clips with Anna Magnani, Sophie Loren and Marcello Mastroianni, some of which go on for too long and make the film slightly unfocused and meandering; this is about Di Paolo's photographs, after all. Fortunately, that's just a minor, systematic issue. The Treasure of His Youth makes a strong case that Paolo Di Paolo deserves to be recognized and re-discovered as a photographer. He's not only a talented photographer, but also comes across as a humanist. His photographs are filled with warmth and humanity. At a running time of 1 hour and 45 minutes, The Treasure of His Youth opens at Film Forum via Little Bear Films.


Directed by Fernando Guzzoni

      18-year-old Blanca (Laura López), lives in a foster home run by Father Manuel (Alejandro Goic). A scandal rocks the country with allegations of sexual abuse against politicians and wealthy businessmen. As a key witness to the sexual abuse, Blanca's testimony is crucial to finding justice for the victims. Father Manuel guides and supports her, but inconsistencies soon appear in her testimony which ruin her credibility.

      Based on true events, the screenplay by writer/director tells a story that's gripping, provocative and heartfelt while also serving as a fascinating character study of a traumatized woman. Blanca has been through a lot of abuse throughout her life and remains indignant against those with money and power who got away with sexually abusing children. She's like a David going up against many Goliaths who, not surprisingly, deny the allegations against them and call Blanca and the victims a liar. The Goliaths are clearly narcissists who use the tactic of DARVO: Deny, Attack, Reverse the Order of Victim/Offender. Even when the victims recall details of their abuser's genitals, the abuser continues to deny what happened. Guzzoni does a great job of incorporating just the right amount of exposition while leaving the abuse itself left to the audience's imagination--and to the power of the words and testimony of the victims and Blanca. The scenes with the detailed testimonies are very poignant and unflinching on an emotional level. Everything seems simple and black-and-white until Blanca's credibility gets shattered and she's caught with lies which changes your perspective on her. She's no longer the same person you thought you knew at the beginning. It's around that point that the film loses a bit of emotional impact as it gets increasingly difficult to root for Blanca because she's hard to trust. What's the truth? What's fiction? The line has become too blurry. She not only lies to others in the film, but it's as though she's lying to the audience as well, so you'll feel duped by her. It also compels you to re-examine her relationship with the kind Father Manuel who agreed to be by her side and trusted her. The third act feels a bit rushed, much like the twist ending in the classic Hollywood film Primal Fear, but the scenes leading up to that "big reveal" are taut and emotionally devastating to breathe life into the film. Kudos to writer/director Fernando Guzzoni for humanizing Blanca and for not sugar-coating the film in any way; there's little to no levity, melodrama or schmaltz.

      Laura López gives a raw, breakthrough performance as Blanca. She's the film's heart and soul. Her brave, emotionally generous performance is captivating from start to finish, even when the screenplay has some shortcomings during the somewhat clunky third act. The pace moves slowly, but not too slowly. Although Blanquita is a thriller, it's not an edge-of-your-seat thriller per se; it's more of a slow-burning psychological thriller. Writer/director Fernando Guzzoni also deserves praise for keeping the film under 2 hours at just 1 hour and 39 minutes, a feat that too few filmmakers have pulled off this year. It's much more powerful and engaging than the cold, dry and bland Women Talking.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by Outsider Pictures.
Opens at Cinema Village.

Christmas Bloody Christmas

Directed by Joe Begos

      Tori (Riley Dandy) works at a record shop with her co-worker, Robbie (Sam Delich). On Christmas Eve, they get more than they bargained for when a robotic Santa Claus from an adjacent toy store malfunctions and goes on a killing rampage.

     After last week's Violent Night, along comes another dark and twisted Christmas movie, Christmas Bloody Christmas. The screenplay by writer/director Joe Begos blends sci-fi, horror and suspense with uneven results while repeating itself over and over, much like Terrifier 2. A wild concept alone isn't enough; the concept has to be well-executed and go somewhere surprising and interesting. Unfortunately, that doesn't happen here. The characters are boring and forgettable, and the dialogue is dull and witless. That said, the violence and mayhem begin early on, so the film doesn't waste any time nor does it veer into any tangents that involve friendships or romances. It's certainly lean and focused without meandering. However, it stretches its plot very thinly as the Santa robot continues to kill innocent victims. Tori isn't a very compelling heroine and she's not given much in terms of character development nor a personality, so it's hard to root for her when the film doesn't even treat her or see her as a human being. Even the Santa robot isn't very interesting beyond his strength and power as a killer robot. If there were some campiness or outrageous humor like in Shaun of the Dead, it would at least be a lot of mindless fun and a guilty pleasure, so it's a shame that the film takes itself too seriously. The third act lacks the element of surprise and risks needed to invigorate the film; you'll find it easy to predict what will happen to Tori and the Santa robot, but, ultimately, it doesn't really matter when you're not engaging much in whatever is happening on screen.

      Director Joe Bigos does include plenty of visual style with neon lighting, but it doesn't come close to turning into substance in the way that other directors like Dario Argento or Nicolas Winding Refn use neon-lighting. It feels headache-inducing and excessive at times, though, and also repetitive, much like the plot itself. If you're a fan of blood and gore that leaves little to the imagination, your thirst for that will be quenched, more or less, but the film doesn't really push any envelopes in that department like the very disgusting images in Terrifier 2. Fortunately, the running time of Christmas Bloody Christmas is under 2 hours which is a true blessing. At 1 hour and 27 minutes, it's relentlessly lean, intense and mean while OD'ing on style and quickly running out of steam.

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

Empire of Light

Directed by Sam Mendes

      In the early 1980s, Hilary (Olivia Colman) works as a manager at Empire Cinema overlooking the ocean. Mr. Ellis (Colin Firth), her superior, coerces her into a sexual relationship in his office. Meanwhile, a new employee, Stephen (Micheal Ward), arrives at the theater and develops a friendship with Hilary.

      The screenplay by writer/director Sam Mendes covers a lot of ground as it merges many subplots together. There's Hilary's toxic relationship with Mr. Ellis, Hilary's blossoming friendship---or is it a romance?--with Stephen, Stephen's struggles with racism, Stephen's emerging passion for cinema, his relationship with the theater's projectionist, Norman (Toby Jones), and, lastly, Hilary's battle with mental illness. Despite so many different subplots and many characters, the film somehow comes together by the end, but it takes a lot of patience. Some characters, like Mr. Ellis and Norman, are underdeveloped caricatures at best. Fortunately, both Hilary and Stephen remain interesting, complex characters worth caring about. It's equally captivating and engrossing to observe how their relationship evolves into something that's hard to define. They're both flawed and struggling with emotional pain, so perhaps their connection derives from that shared pain. Hilary isn't always likable or emotionally mature for that matter, but she's not a bad person per se. Mr. Ellis, on the other hand, does seem like a terrible person and a wolf in sheep's clothing. In one of the film's surprisingly tender scenes, Hilary interacts with Stephen's mother in a way that subverts your expectations of what their interaction will be; just when you think they'll have a heated, loud argument and fight, they don't. So, Empire of Light avoids becoming maudlin, heavy-handed and overwrought. By staying understated and nuanced, it gradually, gently pulls you in under its spell without hitting any of its notes too hard.

      Olivia Coleman gives another heartfelt performance in Empire of Light. She breathes life into her role and allows for you to care about Hilary on an emotional level even when she's not behaving in likeable ways. Sam Mendes' screenplay provides a window into Hilary's heart, mind and soul, so Coleman's ability to open that window fully and jump into it is a testament to her strengths as an actress. She's terrific and truly grounds the film in humanism and even warmth at times. The same can be said of Michael Ward. In terms of cinematography, Empire of Light is a triumph with a few mesmerizing shots that add both style and substance through visual poetry, i.e. a rooftop scene with Hilary and Stephen. The oceanside setting also adds some depth and atmosphere. Moreover, music score is also superb without being heavy-handed or intrusive. At a running time of 2 hours, Empire of Light is mesmerizing. It's a genuinely warm, heartfelt and tender film.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by Searchlight Pictures.
Opens in select theaters.

The Sparring Partner

Directed by Ho Cheuk-Tin

      Henry Cheung (Yeung Wai-lun) stands trial for the murder of his parents. His friend, Mak Pui-tung (Angus Tong), also gets charged for the murder. The nine members of the jury must decide their fate. Allen Chu (Michael Chow) is the chief prosecutor; Wilson Ng (Jan Lamb) represents Henry as his defense lawyer, and Carrie Yau (Louisa So) represents Angus.

      Based on a true story, the screenplay by Frankie Tam, Oliver Yip and Thomas Leung is wildly entertaining and suspenseful. What sounds like an easy case for the prosecutor to win turns out to be much more complicated and challenging than he could've ever imagined. What makes the film a cut above your average courtroom thriller is that it shows the case from many different perspectives: the prosecution, the defense teams, the defendants and the jury. That's a double-edged sword, though, because while the multiple viewpoints adds a layer of complexity to the film, it does make it a little unfocused and some of the characters remain underdeveloped. To be fair, the trial itself isn't anything along the lines of 12 Angry Men nor are the jury's meetings as captivating and provocative when they deliberate. If you're unfamiliar with the justice system in China, you might be a little lost because there are 9 jury members there, not 12. There are probably other differences, too, that you'll catch between the Chinese and American justice systems. The Sparring Partner assumes that you're already familiar with it. At times, it becomes a psychological character study of two men who are mentally ill and psychotic. There are no big twists like in Primal Fear or A Time to Kill, but the film does come close to the level of entertainment found those gritty and intense 90's crime thrillers.

      The performance from top to bottom are all superb, even those in the smaller parts like the jury members. Yeung Wai-lun is very convincing as a deranged man; he's creepy, almost like Hannibal Lecter except he doesn't eat his victims. The pace moves briskly, although it does slow down a bit during the second act. Also, there's one very lengthy scene with Henry's mother during the trial when she cries over and over. It's a maudlin, over-the-top and clunky scene that overstays its welcome--almost like that scene that goes on and on in Jaws where the mother of shark victim goes on an angry tirade against the mayor. If you're arachnophobic, you'll have a tough time watching the final scene that leaves nothing to the imagination, although it does somewhat help you to get inside of Henry's mind. At a running time of 2 hours and 15 minutes, The Sparring Partner is a taut, intense and gritty crime thriller, but overlong and occasionally heavy-handed.

Number of times I checked my watch: 2
Released by Well Go USA.
Opens at AMC Empire.

The Whale

Directed by Darren Aronofsky

      Charlie (Brendan Fraser), a college professor, lives alone and teaches an online writing course through Zoom. He keeps his camera off because he's afraid of what his students would think of him if they knew that he's morbidly obese at 600 lbs. Liz (Hong Chau), a nurse, visits him and insists that he goes to the hospital after diagnosing him with a heart issue that could kill him imminently, but he refuses to go. He continues to pig out on junk food like pizza which her often orders without even opening the door to meet the pizza delivery man (Sathya Sridharan) . He invites his estranged, rebellious teenage daughter, Ellie (Sadie Sink), over, but she's hesitant to reconnect with him. He offers her money to keep visiting him and agrees to help her write her essays for school. Meanwhile, a missionary,  Thomas (Ty Simpkins), stops by every now and then and ends up befriending Ellie.

      Based on the play by Samuel D. Hunter, the screenplay by writer/director Darren Aronofsky doesn't waste any time by throwing the audience right into the life of Charlie when he's at his lowest point. He's depressed, toxic and has hit rock bottom. How did he end up that way? What traumatic event(s) are tormenting him? He clearly needs a lot of help, but lacks the inner strength to seek it and get better. Without using flashbacks, The Whale gradually reveals the answers to those questions as you learn about Charlie's past, i.e. his relationship with his ex-wife, Mary (Samantha Morton), and key details about Liz's life.  

       The screenplay doesn't leave much to the imagination when it comes to showing Charlie's physical struggles just to move around and get into bed. Those scenes are particularly heartbreaking. Most importantly, though, Aronofsky opens enough of a window into Charlie's heart, mind and soul to humanize him. He's unlikable and deeply flawed, but very, very human. The same can be said about Liz, Ellie, and Thomas who become more interesting and complex characters as the plot progresses. To be fair, The Whale does feel like a play and has a wafer-thin plot; 99% of its setting takes place inside Charlie's house. However, as a character study, it's a genuinely moving and haunting experience. Aronofsky doesn't cut any corners to make The Whale a pleasant watch. It's not supposed to be pleasant. Like Requiem for a Dream, The Whale isn't afraid to go into dark territory and to explore the dark side of human nature. There are only a few brief moments of comic relief. If you're a compassionate, empathetic person, you'll feel sorry for Charlie and want him to be happy. He deserves to be happy. It's too bad that no one taught him about the poem by Neruda, "They can cut all of the flowers, but they can't stop the spring from coming."

      Brendan Fraser gives a raw, brave performance. It's, by far, the best performance of his career. He sinks his teeth into the role of Charlie with utter conviction and gets lost in the role both physically (thanks to a well-designed prosthetic) and emotionally. Charlie clearly has a lot of emotions to deal with on the inside including rage, sadness, regret, despair, hope and a little bit of joy. Fraser tackles those emotions effectively while finding Charlie's emotional truth. That's a real triumph. Hong Chau is  superb, as always, and makes the most out of her supporting role. The cinematography has some style, such as the aspect ratio that makes the film look more intimate as though you were watching a documentary. There's also some interesting use of symbolism, i.e. pigeon that shows up by the window a few times, and the story of Moby-Dick by Herman Melville. Bravo to Aronofsky for trusting the audience's patience, intelligence and emotions. At a running time of 1 hour and 57 minutes, it's an unflinching, heartbreaking and haunting emotional journey.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by A24 Films.
Opens in select theaters.