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Reviews for June 23rd, 2023

Documentary Round-Up

      Here.Is.Better. is a vital, heartfelt and inspirational human rights documentary about veterans struggling to cope with PTSD. Director Jack Youngelson follows four interview subjects, namely, Tabitha, Teresa, Jason and John as they candidly discuss how PTSD has affected their lives and how they have used therapy as a way to treat it and heal from it. Youngelson doesn't focus primarily on their suffering although he does provide them with the space to talk about their symptoms. The fact that they're capable of openly talking about such private emotions could inspire others to recognize their own symptoms and to not feel ashamed to talk about it as well. Putting emotionally painful thoughts and feelings into words is an important step and not an easy one. Here.Is.Better provides the audience with a beacon of hope for anyone else who also has PTSD by revealing the practical steps that subjects took in their journey toward healing from PTSD. This isn't the kind of documentary that's sugar-coated and overly optimistic, and it also avoids being preachy, maudlin and repetitive. If someone who watches it will be able to acknowledge their own struggles with PTSD, to relate to the subjects on screen, and to seek help without giving up, this documentary will have served its purpose. At a running time of 1 hour and 36 minutes, Here. Is. Better opens at Quad Cinema via Greenwich Entertainment.

      The Last Rider is a captivating, thrilling and well-edited documentary biopic about Greg LaMond, the only American cyclist to win the Tour de France. Blending archival footage of the 1989 Tour de France race and interviews with Greg LaMond, his coach, Cyrille Guimard, his teammates and his wife, director Alex Holmes captures what makes LaMond the moments that lead to him winning the Tour de France in 1989. What's missing, though, is more backstory about LaMond and his childhood which would've humanized him more. Truly great documentary biopics like Whitney and Man on Wire focus on both the subject's life and work in equal measure. The Last Rider focuses a lot on LaMond's work and what makes him an iconic cyclist, so it suffers from being somewhat hagiographic. That said, the interviews are fascinating and insightful, and the footage from the Tour de France race feels exhilarating. At least Holmes doesn't resort to just talking heads to tell LeMond's story because that would've made this doc too cold and dry. Instead, thanks to the slick editing, music score and the footage of the race, it feels cinematic. At a running time of 1 hour and 36 minutes, The Last Rider opens in select theaters nationwide via Roadside Attractions.

God is a Bullet

Directed by Nick Cassavetes

      Bob Hightower (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), a police detective, investigates the murder of his wife and the abduction of his teenage daughter which are connected to a dangerous cult. With the help of Case Hardin (Maika Monroe), a former member of the cult, and The Ferryman (Jamie Foxx), he goes undercover and infiltrates the cult to rescue his beloved daughter.

      God is a Bullet is essentially a tedious and dull version Taken with much more violence and gore that leaves nothing to the imagination. The screenplay by writer/director Nick Cassavetes has physical grit, but lacks emotional grit. You wouldn't believe that it's based on a book by Boston Teran because the characters are so underdeveloped, especially the women. The plot eschews a first act that would've introduced the characters and their relationships; instead dives into the meat of the story when Bob's wife gets killed and his daughter gets kidnapped and sold as a sex slave. What exactly is this cult? Are they merely a sex trafficking ring? There's not enough exposition. Who is The Ferryman? He's poorly introduced in a way that's confusing as though he were merely a plot device. What ensues is a by-the-numbers action thriller that becomes exhausting to sit through around the hour mark. It doesn't bother to stop to get to know Bob or any other character. Moreover, the dialogue is often bland and stilted, and there's a lack of levity which leads to tedium and monotone. Imagine No Country for Old men without the nuance, palpable tension, thrills and memorable characters. That's what it feel like to watch God is a Bullet.

      Maika Monroe gives a moving performance and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau is also impressive, but they're undermined by the vapid screenplay. They try their best to rise above it, but the screenplay simply doesn't allow them to breathe much-needed life into their roles. Moreover, there are scenes that last too long while hitting the audience over and over in the head with violence to try to shock them and disturb them. It works at first, but with diminishing returns. You can feel the weight of the running time from start to finish which isn't a good sign. At a running time of 2 hours and 35 minutes, God is a Bullet is a dark and gritty action thriller, but overlong, tedious and exhausting without enough emotional depth, nuance or palpable suspense.

Number of times I checked my watch: 3
Released by WayWard Entertainment.
Opens nationwide.

I'll Show You Mine

Directed by Megan Griffiths


Number of times I checked my watch: 4
Released by Gravitas Ventures.
Opens at Cinema Village.

Loren & Rose

Directed by Russell Brown

      Loren (Kelly Blatz), a young filmmaker, dines at a restaurant with Rose (Jacqueline Bisset), at a restaurant to discuss a role for her in his next film. Over the course of six years of meeting at the same restaurant, their friendship blossoms.

       he screenplay by writer/director Russell Brown brims with wit, wisdom and genuine tenderness. The dialogue has a natural flow that feels compelling without any dull moments, so Brown has a great ear for dialogue. The only flaw, albeit a minor one, is that there's no short pause before Rose says the word "feelings" during one of her conversations with Loren. See Shirley Valentine for an example of how  organic a pause can be if added before the word "feelings." Anyway, going back to this film, Loren and Rose have 3 meetings at the restaurant---one for an appetizer, one for a main course and one for dessert. During the first meeting, the conversation between them remains light, much like the food itself, as they get to know each other. During their second meeting, that's when their conversation becomes deeper and more revealing about each of them. Bravo to Brown for providing a large window into the heart, mind and soul of Loren and Rose and for trusting the audience's emotional intelligence to peer through that window. Much like the recent film Sanctuary, there's a voyeuristic aspect to the film as though you were eavesdropping on the private conversations of two strangers. However, by the second time they meet, they're no longer strangers to the audience, but fully-fleshed human beings.

      In my interview with Zachary Wigon, the director of Sanctuary, he keenly observed that. "Not all movies feel voyeuristic even though, categorically, the art form itself is voyeuristic. In order for a movie to feel voyeuristic, you have to believe that what you're watching is really happening.In order for a movie to feel voyeuristic, you have to believe that what you're watching is really happening. It's only if you believe that what you're watching is really happening that you feel a little bit like, 'Oh gosh! I'm actually spying on the private, intimate moments of these real people. I'm looking at something that I'm not supposed to be looking at!'" Wigon goes on to say that, "When you're able to have a situation where the emotional lives of these characters are totally plausible to the viewer, I think that's probably what generates this feeling of voyeurism." So, the voyeuristic aspect of Loren & Rose is ultimately a testament to how real it feels and how emotionally invested the audience is in the lives of Loren and Rose. In a way, it can be seen as a love story albeit a platonic one. What makes it transcendent, though, is that it also reveals a lot to the audience how Rose views herself. She's emotionally mature, candid and vulnerable yet concurrently blunt and her quips are often pithy. There's a palpable rage boiling inside of her from all of her life experiences, some of which were traumatic for her, but she still treats Loren with compassion and empathy which shows that she's a decent human being. Meanwhile, Loren proves to be a good listener which is a great quality to have.  

      Jacqueline Bisset gives a tour de force performance as Rose. She deserves to be praised for giving a warm and emotionally generous performance. By opening the curtain to peer into Rose's inner feelings "backstage", so-to-speak, and to display Rose's introspection so effectively, she encourages the audience to also open their own curtain and to be introspective, too. This is the kind of movie, like Mass and Sanctuary, that rewards introspective audiences. Writer/director Russell Brown trusts the audience's patience because Loren and Rose's conversations unfold gradually as does their deep connection. He also includes some visual poetry at the end which is quite profound. Poetry, after all, is often a form of protest for or against something. Without any preachiness or schmaltz, Loren & Rose manages to be a witty, wise and profoundly human protest for friendship, love and compassion. Filmmaker François Truffaut once observed that a truly great film should have the right balance of Truth and Spectacle. With Loren & Rose, Brown has found that balance and, more importantly, he has also managed to find the Spectacle within the Truth. It's also one of the best movies for foodies since Big Night.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by Wise Lars.
Opens at Quad Cinema.

Maximum Truth

Directed by David Stassen

      A wealthy woman, Mary Jo (Beth Grant), hires Rick (Ike Barinholtz), a lawyer-turned-political consultant, to destroy the reputation of Antonio (Max Minghella) who's running for congress. He teams up with Simon (Dylan O’Brien) to search for any dirt on Antonio.

      The screenplay by writer/director David Stassen and Ike Barinholtz brims with razor-sharp dialogue and offbeat humor with its tongue set firmly in its cheek. From the very first scene, the film establishes its comedic tone which it maintains without any tonal unneveness. Strassen and Barinholtz grasp that comedy is often rooted in tragedy and that it helps if it's at least somewhat grounded in realism. Yes, Rick and Simon are over-the-top characters, but they're not a huge stretch from the reality of politics. It's within the realm of possibility that there could be political consultants cut from Rick and Simon's cloth. Most comedies these days run out of steam at some point, but that doesn't happen here. Fortunately, Maximum Truth manages to be consistently funny without feeling repetitive, trying too hard to be funny, or resorting to the lowest common denominator. The jokes won't be spoiled here, but it's worth mentioning that most of them land. To be fair, Maximum Truth isn't as brilliant, irreverent or quotable as In the Loop, but at least it's better than most lame attempts at comedies these days. Yes, I'm looking at you, No Hard Feelings, The Blackening and Paint.

      Ike Barinholtz and Dylan O'Brien give hilarious performances and make for a great comedic duo. Their comedic timing is impeccable and, most importantly, they handle the more subtle, dry humor very effectively. The supporting cast members are fine, but it's the well-cast leads who are the true MVPs. No one steals the show from Barinholtz and O'Brien. The pace moves briskly enough without any scenes or jokes that overstay their welcome. At an ideal running time of 1 hour and 31 minutes, Maximum Truth is a refreshingly witty, funny and razor-sharp political satire. It will leave you in stitches.

Number of times I checked my watch: 2
Released by Momentum Pictures.
Opens at Village East by Angelika.

No Hard Feelings

Directed by Gene Stupnitsky

      32-year-old Maddie (Jennifer Lawrence) struggles to make ends meet while working as an Uber driver. When her car gets repossessed, she decides to answer an ad that Allison (Laura Benati) and her husband, Laird (Matthew Broderick), posted searching for a woman to "date" her awkward 19-year-old son, Percy (Andrew Barth Feldman). If she succeeds at taking his virginity, they'll give her a Buick.

      No Hard Feeling doesn't work as a coming-of-age film nor as a raunchy sex comedy. If you can imagine American Pie without the warm apple pie and much fewer laughs or a dull and toothless version of There's Something About Mary, you'll get an idea of what it's like to watch this disappointing comedy. The screenplay by writer/director Gene Stupnitsky and John Phillip resorts to lowbrow humor which is fine if it were funny or witty, but it's not. Everything that There's Something About Mary gets right, No Hard Feelings get wrong. There's even an unfunny sight gag similar to when Ted in There's Something About Mary got his balls stuck in the zipper--in this case, someone's penis gets stuck inside a finger trap. Unlike Mary in the superior Farrelly brothers' comedy, Maddie comes across as a rude, obnoxious, shallow and consistently reckless person. She's beautiful, but with a toxic personality which is part of the film's systemic issue. Percy's overbearing, controlling parents are toxic, too, and it's doubtful that they'll ever truly change.

      Unfortunately, there aren't enough laugh-out-loud funny lines, and some jokes, i.e. Maddie's struggles to correctly pronounce "Laird" go on for too long. The physical comedy isn't very funny either, i.e. when Maddie breaks down a door while enraged. Is that supposed to be funny? Are we supposed to laugh when she gets punched in the throat and can barely breathe? Or how about when she tries to attack some teenagers on the beach while completely naked? About Schmidt is much more bold and hilarious with its use of nudity in the iconic hot tub scene. Even There's Something About Mary also tries to push the envelope with nudity, but at least it's funny. It's also unfunny when Maddie cracks a homophobic joke and unsuccessfully tries to take her foot out of her mouth while partygoers film her on their iphones. You'd think that they'd post the recording of her homophobic joke on social media, but, alas, they don't, so there are no consequences for their actions. Why do they all film her if they have no plans on doing anything with the video? It makes no sense, even within the film's internal logic. Then there's the schmaltzy, contrived Hollywood ending that does not, in any way, shape or form, earn its uplift.

      Jennifer Lawrence is miscast here. In an interview I had with David O. Russell for American Hustle, he keenly observed that Jennifer Lawrence is reminiscent of Carole Lombard. He's right. She's charismatic and beautiful like that iconic Golden Age actress. So, would Lombard fit in a role like this? Probably not. Lowbrow comedy doesn't suit Lombard nor does it suit Lawrence either. She simply doesn't have the comedic timing necessary for a raunchy comedy that lacks subtlety and wit. The films of the Golden Age sparkle with witty dialogue that's sorely missing here, so Maddie is a role that's beneath Jennifer Lawrence. Moreover, there are pacing issues with the last 30 minutes slowing to a crawl and meandering while the narrative momentum wanes concurrently and the film runs out of steam. Also, why are there no outtakes? That's practically a prerequisite in most raunchy comedies. At a running time of 1 hour and 43 minutes, No Hard Feelings is mostly unfunny, witless and asinine. In a double feature with There's Something About Mary, it would be the vastly inferior B-movie.

Number of times I checked my watch: 3
Released by Columbia Pictures.
Opens nationwide.

The Procurator

Directed by Alan Mak


Number of times I checked my watch: 2
Released by China Lion Film Distribution.
Opens at AMC Empire 25.

Revoir Paris

Directed by Alice Winocour

     Mia (Virginie Efira) survives a terrorist attack at a bistro in Paris. Three months later, she has yet to overcome her traumatic experience. She befriends other survivors including Thomas (Benoît Magimel) and Félicia (Nastya Golubeva) while desperately searching for the man who saved her life during the attack.

      The screenplay by writer/director Alice Winocour and her co-writers, Jean-Stéphane Bron and Marcia Romano, is an emotionally devastating psychological character study of a woman struggling with survivor's guilt, grief and PTSD after surviving a terrorist attack. It's best if you watch the movie cold without knowing what happens during the terrorist attack. What begins as a night out with her boyfriend, Vincent (Gregoire Colin), turns into a nail-biting thriller after he cuts the date short and she goes to the bistro alone. The terrorist attack doesn't happen right away, but when it does, it comes as a shock. A few months after the attack, she's confused, sad and angry while still in the process of making sense of her wide range of emotions. Not surprisingly it affects her relationship with Vincent. Other survivors are going through their own emotional pain and confusion, including one woman who puts the blame on her for her loved one's death while accusing her of being selfish during the attack. Revoir Paris isn't easy to sit through emotionally. It examines its heavy topics head-on without any sugar-coating. Wincour and her co-writers could've omitted the scene of the terrorist attack itself, but chose not to, which is quite bold. It also effectively puts you in Mia's shoes from the very first frame to the last one so that you can empathise with her and understand where her emotions come from even if you can't relate to her experience. Bravo to the filmmakers for seeing and treating Mia and the other characters as human beings and for seeing and treating the audience as human beings concurrently.

      Virginie Efira, one of the best French actresses of our time, gives a convincingly moving and nuanced performance. She bravely opens the window into Mia's heart, mind and soul while making her feel true-to-life during Mia's vulnerable moments and her stronger ones as well. It's no easy task for an actress to bare her naked emotions in front of the camera, so that's a testament to Efira's skills and emotional generosity as an actress. Writer/director Alice Winocour trusts the audience's emotions and patience although not so much when it comes to their imagination because of the fact that she doesn't choose to omit the intense terrorist attack scene. At a running time of 1 hour and 45 minutes, is a profoundly moving, unflinching and haunting emotional journey.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by Music Box Films.
Opens at IFC Center.