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Reviews for February 17th, 2017

Documentary Round-Up

      Keep Quiet is a riveting, provocative and alarming doc about Csanad Szegedi, an anti-Semite who learned that he's part Jewish and tried to undo his anti-Semitism by immersing himself in the Jewish religion. He was vice president of the extremist, right-winged political party, Jobbik, in Hungary, and even started the Hungarian Guard, a pro-Nazi paramilitary. Upon learning that his maternal grandmother hid the fact that she's Jewish and a Holocaust survivor from him, his anti-Semitism becomes uprooted---or does it? Rabbi Boruch Oberlander agrees to help him by teaching about the Jewish religion and its practices, including the tradition of circumcision which he undergoes. Oberlander finds the compassion within his heart to forgive and reform him while recognizing that he's still a bad person. Co-directors Joseph Martin and Sam Blair combine talking-head interviews with archival footage in a way that's well-edited and thoroughly compelling. They're very fortunate that Szegedi is such a candid, articulate and complex documentary's subject. You can really grasp his internal struggles as a wrestles with so many mixed emotions after discovering the truth about his grandmother. The most profoundly moving scene is when he visits a concentration camp with a Holocaust survivor who recalls the horrors that she experienced. Martin and Blair wisely keep their distance from Szegedi without passing judgement on him; whether or not his reform is genuine and whether he'll ever revert back to anti-Semitism is up for interpretation. The fact that neo-Nazism can still exist today is a harsh truth that will---and ought to---shock, anger and disgust you. Keep Quiet manages to be all the more timely, potent and terrifying given that America is getting closer fascism as democracy becomes increasingly eroded during the current Trump Administration. It opens via Kino Lorber at Lincoln Plaza Cinemas, and would make for an interesting double feature with The Believer, Ida and The End of America.

American Fable

Directed by Anne Hamilton

      Gitty (Peyton Kennedy), an 11-year-old girl, lives in rural Wisconsin with her mother, Sarah (Marci Miller), father, Abe (Kip Pardue), and older brother, Martin (Gavin MacIntosh). They're in danger of losing their farm because of the 1980s Farm Crisis. Three mysterious people enter Gitty's life: Vera (Zuleikha Robinson), a woman who meets with Gitty's dad, Jonathan (Richard Schiff), a man held hostage in her family's silo, and a woman dressed in black on horseback appears every now and then. Gitty climbs down to the silo to interact with Jonathan, and the more time she spends with him, the more her family's dark secrets gradually rise to the surface.

      Part coming-of-age story, dysfunctional family drama, Gothic horror and mystery/thriller, American Fable is the kind of film that describing its plot wouldn't really do it any justice. Writer/director Anne Hamilton infuses the film with metaphors and dream-like sequences that make you confused about what's really going on. There's nothing wrong with being confused, though, because most of it will make more sense by the third act that gets into pretty dark and disturbing territory. The screenplay combines so many genre elements, but, fortunately, it's integrated in a way that avoids turning the plot into an uneven, tonal mess. Hamilton wisely opts for a somewhat slow-burning pace which allows you to feel fully absorbed in the eerie, foreboding atmosphere created by the lighting, set designs, and the landscape. Kudos to Hamilton for trusting the audience's imagination, patience and intelligence while knowing when to leave something up for interpretation, i.e. the woman on horseback.

      Peyton Kennedy gives a breaththrough performance as Gitty. She's convincingly moving every step of the way which helps you to become engrossed throughout her and her family's ordeal. Gitty is the kind of character who's a bit precocious, but not in an annoying or over-the-top way like precocious kids seem like in some movies. Kennedy tackles the complex character of Gitty very well even during the emotionally intense scenes. In other words, thanks to her talents as an actress along with the sensitively-written screenplay, Kennedy manages to find the emotional truth of her character, a feat that even some older, more experienced actresses have yet to accomplish. At an ideal running time of 1 hour and 36 minutes, American Fable is a haunting, moving, intelligent and gripping allegory. It's far better than the dumb, shallow, clunky, overproduced and overlong Gothic horror film A Cure for Wellness that's opening wide today. American Fable would make for an interesting double feature with Roger Corman's House of Usher and Pan's Labyrinth.

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

Everybody Loves Somebody

Directed by Catalina Aguilar Mastretta

      Clara Barron (Karla Souza), an OB/GYN, lives in Los Angeles and struggles to find a steady boyfriend. When her parents finally decide to get married after 40 years of being together without a marriage license, Clara invites her co-worker, Asher (Ben O’Toole), to the wedding in Mexico and asks him to pretend to be her boyfriend so that her family won't look down on her for being single at her age. Daniel (José María Yazpi), her old flame, shows up at the wedding. She now has to choose between the very polite Asher or Daniel, who broke her heart when he dumped her years earlier.

    Although the wheels of the screenplay can be felt turning throughout the formulaic film, writer/director Catalina Aguilar Mastretta includes enough heart and soul to turn it into a pleasant and harmless romantic comedy. So what if the plot can be easily predicted? There's nothing wrong with a film being predictable. As Roger Ebert once wisely observed, it's more important how a film goes about its plot than what its plot is about. Clara comes across as someone who's as witty and likable as Bridget Jones. Even though Daniel seems like an asshole compared to Asher, he has likable qualities that redeem him and make him a potential suitor for Clara. It's easy to grasp what Clara saw in him years ago and why she wonders whether or not to give him a second chance. Mastretta moves the film along at an appropriately brisk pace without any scenes that drag. Fortunately, the blend of romance and comedy in Everyone Loves Somebody channels Richard Curtis much more than it does Nicholas Sparks. Mastretta avoids schmaltz or distracting subplots while keeping the plot focus, lean and engaging. Clara's mother has a few profound words of wisdom toward the end that add some depth.

      Karla Souza gives a charming performances that radiates with warmth. It's also quite impressive that she can alternate between speaking English and Spanish very fluently without a hint of an accent. Asher is the kind of role that Hugh Grant used to play back in the day, so kudos to Mastretta for picking Ben O’Toole because he's just as charismatic as Hugh Grant. The most interesting character in the film, though, is the scenery. Clara's parents live in a house along the ocean which provides plenty of breathtaking shots of the ocean. At a running time of 1 hour and 42 minutes, Everybody Loves Somebody manages to be a breezy, delightful and endearing romantic comedy. It's a perfect date movie. Bridget Jones's Diary would make for a great double feature with it.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by Pantelion Films.
Opens nationwide.

Fist Fight

Directed by Richie Keen


***I will try to watch it when it hits VOD.***

Number of times I checked my watch: ???
Released by Warner Bros. Pictures.
Opens nationwide.

From Nowhere

Directed by Matthew Newton


***Full review coming soon***

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

The Great Wall

Directed by Zhang Yimou

      William (Matt Damon) and Tovar (Pedro Pascal), expert archers, travel through China to find "black powder" a.k.a. gunpowder. They battle mysterious, vicious creatures called Taotei before General Shao (Zhang Hanyu) and his army capture and imprison them. General Shao and Commander Lin (Jing Tian) realize that they can use them to help defeat the Taotei, so William and Tovar see that as an opportunity to escape imprisonment from inside the Great Wall.

      Dull, tedious and vapid, The Great Wall is yet another shallow, mind-numbing and overproduced Hollywood B-movie masquerading as an A-movie. Matt Damon gives one of the worst performances of his career perhaps because the dialogue he's given sounds so stilted that even he couldn't enliven it. Willem Dafoe's talents are wasted in the few forgettable scenes he has. Screenwriters Carlo Bernard, Doug Miro, and Tony Gilroy eschew character development, wit and emotional depth which would have been acceptable if they also didn't eschew fun, excitement and suspense. Lord of the Rings merged action, story and characters in a much more captivating way; The Great Wall merely bombards audiences with action sequence after action sequence while expecting them to care about what they're watching when there's no reason for them to care about it at all. It's the equivalent of watching a video game on a big screen. Even the 3-D adds nothing that generates entertainment value or palpable thrills.

      It's easy to that most of the budget went to the visual effects which are plentiful. A few aerial shots are breathtaking, but that sensation is ephemeral before yet another uninspired action sequence. Anyone who still considers CGI effects to be "special effects" are either myopic, shallow, unctuous or have never seen a modern tentpole movie before. The visual effects in The Great Wall are expensive and dazzling, but are there's nothing special about them; they're merely standard. It's too bad that the movie has nothing else left to offer beyond those standard effects. Zhang Yimou keeps the running time at only 1 hour and 43 minutes which is commendable, but it feels more like 2 hours. Perhaps it will please shallow audience members of which there are many---after all, we're living in shallow times not unlike the Romans did during the 100 Days of Games before The Fall of the Roman Empire. This movie is, sadly, part of our "Bread and Circuses." The Great Wall ultimately suffers from all spectacle and no truth, even beneath all of the spectacle.

Number of times I checked my watch: 7
Released by Universal Pictures.
Opens nationwide.


Directed by So Yong Kim

      Sarah (Riley Keough) lives with her 3-year-old daughter, Jessie (Jessie Ok Gray), and husband, Dean (Cary Joji Fukunaga), who's traveling for work very often. While Dean's away on a business trip, Sarah goes on a road trip with her free-spirited best friend, Mindy (Jena Malone), along with Jessie. They develop feelings for one another during the road trip and end up getting physically intimate before Mindy suddenly leaves back home all of a sudden. Three years later, Mindy's about to get married to Leif (Ryan Eggold), but Jessie still has feelings for Mindy which may or may not be requited.

      A more appropriate title for Lovesong would be It's Complicated because that sums up the relationship between Sarah and Mindy to a tee. Are they good friends who merely had a meaningless connection with one another for one night? Or are they more than just good friends? A good lover is a good friend, but a good friends is not necessarily a good lover. For the three years since Mindy had left Sarah, they barely kept in touch with one another, but that doesn't mean that they weren't on each other's minds while not in contact. Why didn't they see each other more often? What's the relationship like between Mindy and her mother, Eleanor (Rosanna Arquette), who questions Mindy's decision to get married. Writer/director So Yong Kim and co-writer Bradley Rust Gray trust the audience's intelligence by leaving Sarah and Mindy's complex relationship up for interpretation. If this were a French movie, there'd be sex, nudity and lots of wine-drinking, but none of that is really needed in Lovesong because it would've been too distracting.

      Like a truly great film, Lovesong has just enough truth and spectacle. "Where is the spectacle?" you ask. No, it doesn't have any car chases, explosions or superheroes nor does it need to because there's enough spectacle within its truths---if you're willing to look beneath the surface. One could compare the film to Moonlight because both films are about a friendship that suddenly turns physical, but Lovesong is more powerful and organic than Moonlight, and far less pretentious. The three-year gap in the plot here makes narrative sense without affecting any dramatic momentum while in Moonlight the not one but two leaps forward were distracting.

      Both Keough and Malone give raw performances that make the chemistry between Sarah and Mindy all the more palpable. They both find the emotional truths of their roles and are very well-cast. Kudos to Kim and Gray for grounding Lovesong in humanism, a truly special effect, for not spoon-feeding the audience, and for not tying everything up so neatly at the end which would have made it too Hollywood. The third act, where other dramas usually fall apart or fall flat, feels poignant, bittersweet and refreshingly true-to-life like the rest of the film.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by Strand Releasing.
Opens at Village East Cinema.

My Name is Emily

Directed by Simon Fitzmaurice

      Emily (Evanna Lynch), a precocious 16-year-old, lives in a foster home after her dad, Robert (Michael Smiley), gets institutionalized. Arden (George Webster), a boy at her school who has a crush on her, agrees to drive her across the country to free her father from the mental institution.

      Writer/director Simon Fitzmaurice begins the film on a very lyrical note as Emily explains, through voice-over narration, the valuable insights that she gained from her father who's a writer. The first act effectively establishes Emily's relationship with her father and how he ended up losing his mind upon the death of his wife. Clearly, there are a lot of dark, complex, deeply issues going on in her family life, and her father's philosophies have a strong impact on her way of thinking. The transition from a somber drama to an exhilarating road trip that's relatively lighter in tone feels a bit sudden initially, but that feeling subsides eventually. It would be safe to say that Emily goes on two different kind of journeys: an emotional one and a physical one. The emotional journey is far more profound than the physical journey, so it's quite fortunate that Evanna Lynch was cast as Emily because she tackles the emotional burdens of her role with aplomb. Emily's relationship with Arden gradually blossoms into a romance as they spend time with one another during their road trip, so it's interesting to observe the evolving dynamics of that relationship.

      Fitzmaurice should be commended for smoothly blending comedy and drama while grasping that comedy is often rooted in tragedy and that true enlightenment doesn't arrive without some kind of struggle. He has experience struggles of his own because of his ALS, and it's easy to tell that a lot of passion and thought went My Name is Emily because it's filled with many profound kernels of wisdom that helps you to look at your own life in a different way. The majestic beauty of the Irish countryside coupled with the exquisite cinematography adds a layer of visual poetry to the film. At a running time of 1 hour and 40 minutes, My Name is Emily is a wise, tender, heartfelt and captivating journey that's well worth taking.

Number of times I checked my watch: 2
Released by Monument Releasing.
Opens at Cinema Village.
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