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Reviews for June 25th, 2021

Documentary Round-Up

      Kenny Scharf: When Worlds Collide, directed by Max Basch and Malia Scharf, is a compelling and informative introduction to the life and work of Kenny Scharf, a painter, installation, sculpture and street artist. He moved from LA to NYC in the late 70's to study art at SVA, and befriended other famous artists, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring and Andy Warhol, who became his mentor. His bright and colorful artworks reflect his love for cartoons like The Jetsons and The Flintstones. Most importantly, though, Scharf embraces his inner child through his artwork, and this doc highlights the importance of embracing it as a human being and as an adult. He's clearly not afraid to show his goofy side which is displayed through the artwork. Through archival footage and interviews, you'll learn about his early life during his childhood up until his big move to NYC where he contributed to the 80's art scene. Even though one of the co-directors, Malia Scharf, is his daughter, the doc avoids being hagiographic because it does include some criticism of his artwork by art critics--i.e., that his art his too simplistic and doesn't leave much to the imagination. As one expert astutely observes, Kenny Scharf didn't have the exclusivity that other artists had because he was so easily willing to paint on other people's belongings, such as their cars. Any opposing viewpoints in documentaries feels like a breath of fresh air, so directors Malia Scharf and Max Basch should be commended for that accomplishment. They also don't shy away from including Kenny Scharf's struggles as an artist and, albeit briefly, how the AIDS epidemic and deaths of his artist friends, affected him. It's also interesting to watch him creating his contemporary artworks and to know that he's still painting to this very day. His perseverance, passion for art as well as for his inner child are very palpable in Kenny Scharf: When Worlds Collide. At a running time of just 1 hour and 17 minutes, it opens via Greenwich Entertainment at Cinema Village and virtual theaters.

      Against the Current, directed by Oskar Pall Sveinsson, is an equally thrilling and poignant doc about Veiga Grétarsdóttir, the first person to circumnavigate Iceland against the current in a kayak in 2018. The title serves as a double entendre because Veiga goes against the current during her trechurous physical journey around Iceland and bravely goes against the current as a transgender woman. Her journey is very much a spiritual one. Sveinsson blends interviews with Veiga as well as her ex-wife along with breathtaking footage from the kayak journey itself. Veiga comes across as brave for speaking so candidly about her emotional struggles. She and others discuss her battles with depression and suicidal ideation. Although the doc does veer into that dark territory, it doesn't dwell on it, so it never feels exploitative. Above all, this is a film about a human being who persevered and discovered herself while enduring a lot of emotional and psychological pain and trauma. Her openness and honesty about what she went through during her childhood and her current emotional battles reflect how emotionally generous, mature and humble she is. She's very fortunate to have loving, supporting friends around her who want what's best for her, including her ex-wife whom she became friends with after becoming transgender. While watching Against the Current, you can't help but want to give her a big, warm hug. The fact that she learned how to love and appreciate herself is inspirational and heartwarming, so in a way, she gradually learned how to give a big, warm hug to herself. As Whitney Houston once wisely sang, "Learning to love yourself, it is the greatest love of all." At a running time of 1 hour and 27 minutes, Against the Current is a triumph. It opens at Quad Cinema via Zeitgeist Films and Kino Lorber.

F9: The Fast Saga

Directed by Justin Lin

      Dom (Vin Diesel) and Letty's (Michelle Rodriguez) peaceful time together on their farm gets interrupted when their pals, Tej (Chris 'Ludacris' Bridges), Ramsey (Nathalie Emmanuel) and Roman (Tyrese Gibson), show up out of the blue to inform them that Mr. Nobody (Kurt Russell) has been kidnapped and a device that could destroy the world has been stolen. They recruit Dom's brother, Jakob (John Cena), to help them on their mission to travel the globe (and beyond) to save the world from the evil plans of Cipher (Charlize Theron).

      Trying to make sense of F9: The Fast Saga's plot would be like trying to make sense of what happened before the Big Bang. Very little logic can be found and the more you pay attention and ask questions, the less anything makes sense. Writer/director Justin Lin and co-writer Daniel Casey throw plausibility right out the window and don't look back, unless you include the excessive number of flashbacks to Dom and Jakob's younger days on the race track. Helen Mirren briefly shows up again, but it's Charleze Theron who has some of the better lines and scene-stealing moments. Just as expected, the action scenes are big, loud and long, so if you're watching it on the big screen, it'll be quite an intense experience for your eyes and ears. Unfortunately, for anything other than your eyes and ears, like your heart, mind and soul, F9: The Fast Saga has nothing to offer even though it does try, but epically fails, to generate some tender moments of bonding between the friends and family. The humor falls flat because the jokes are lame and silly for the most part. The only time it succeeds at being funny is when it goes absolutely bonkers during the last hour. Without revealing precisely how the plot goes bonkers, the best way to describe it is that it's something you should ideally watch while you're high or drunk. Trying to experience it, or any part of the movie for that matter, while clean and sober, wouldn't be as fun.

      None of the main actors give more than decent performances. Vin Diesel has a little charisma, but doesn't quite hit the right notes during the dramatic scenes. It's no help, of course, that the shallow dialogue doesn't breathe much life into his or anyone else's roles, though. The real star of the movie are the action set pieces and CGI effects. You can definitely see where the production's budget went. Does F9: The Fast Saga really have to be 2 hours and 25 minutes? Probably not, but, again it needed to show off its big budget somehow. Hitman's Wife's Bodyguard is a better example of a dumb, over-the-top action comedy thriller that doesn't overstay its welcome. Both films are batshit crazy, but F9: The Fast Saga goes on far too long and becomes exhausting past the 90-minute mark. 

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

God Exists, Her Name is Petrunya

Directed by Teona Strugar Mitevska

      Petrunya (Zorica Nusheva), a 32-year-old unemployed woman, lives in Macedonia with her abusive mother, Vaska (Violeta Shapkovska), and father, Stojan (Petar Mircevski). Even when she tries to find a job at a factory, the factory boss sexually harasses her before belittling her for being unattractive. On her way home, she notices a religious ritual where men gather in a river to try to catch a cross which a priest, Father Kosta (Suad Begovski), throws at them. She jumps into the river, catches the cross, and takes it home with her, angering many people who don't think that she has any right as a woman to participate in the ritual and to keep the cross. The police show up at her home to arrest her and bring her to the police station for an interrogation. Meanwhile, a journalist, Slavica (Labina Mitevska), reports on the story for the local TV station.

       God Exists, Her Name is Patrunya has an intriguing premise that raises provocative issues about religion, feminism and human rights. What's more important than a film's ideas is what a film does with its ideas and where it takes them to. The screenplay by writer/director Teona Strugar Mitevska and co-writer Elma Tataragic doesn't take the issues it raises far enough, so it feels as toothless as last year's overrated Nomadland. No film has to answer the questions that it poses to the audience per se, but it should at least present the audience with enough perspectives and insight to provide them with food for thought to answer the questions themselves. Once Petrunya reaches the police station to be interrogated, that's when God Exist, Her Name is Petrunya takes a bit of a dramatic nosedive and becomes tedious before reaching an ending that's contrived and unearned. Petrunya has clearly suffered so much dehumanizing abuse from others including emotional, sexual and psychological abuse, so it's a shame that the screenplay doesn't design enough of a window into her heart, mind and soul. How does she find the inner strength to stand up to others and for herself? What thoughts and feelings are she grappling with innately? What she's going through at the station and everything that led up to it is pretty traumatic for her, but the filmmakers neglect to explore that profoundly. Her interactions at the station with the police officers lack suspense and eventually become lethargic.

      Zorica Nusheva gives a solid performance that's undermined by a weak, contrived and vapid screenplay. Her acting feels natural and even provides a little nuance that the screenplay lacks. Any modicum of emotional depth comes from her, not from the screenplay. Although the filmmakers do include some interesting use of symbolism, including a final shot that's poetic and thought-provoking, it's not enough to add much-needed substance to the film. At a running time of 100 minutes, God Exists, Her Name is Petrunya is a well-acted, but lethargic and underwhelming story that fails to pack an emotional or intellectual wallop.

Number of times I checked my watch: 3
Released by 1844 Entertainment and Outsider Pictures.
Opens at Cinema Village.

Sun Children

Directed by Majid Majidi


Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by Strand Releasing.
Opens at IFC Center.

Werewolves Within

Directed by Josh Ruben

      Finn Wheeler (Sam Richardson) arrives at the small town of Beaverfield just in time when some kind of creature, possibly a werewolf, happens to be terrorizing the townspeople. They include the mailwoman, Cecily Moore (Milana Vayntrub), Joachim Wolfson (Harvey Guillen) and his husband, Devon (Cheyenne Jackson), an innkeeper, Jeanine Sherman (Catherine Curtin), Emerson Flint (Glenn Fleshler, Marcus (George Basil) and his wife, Gwen (Sarah Burns), and Trish Anderton (Michaela Watkins) and her husband, Pete (Michael Chernus). Dr. Judy Ellis (Rebecca Henderson) studies the samples that she collected from the murder scenes to determine whether or not the murderer is human.  

       Werewolves Within wastes no time with a prologue showing someone getting murdered in the woods by a mysterious killer before flashing forward 29 and a 1/2 days later. That's just a foreshadow of the horror to come, although the screenplay by Mishna Wolff leans more toward dark comedy than horror. The film's tone blending is effectively established when Finn Wheeler gets introduced to the audience as he's driving to Beaverfield while leaving his girlfriend at his hometown. He hasn't realized yet that his relationship with her has ended, but his new love interest at Beaverfield, Cecile, sets him straight. Even though Wolff does include a plot Werewolves Within, as well as a subplot involving an oil pipeline being built in the town, this isn't the kind of film that needs much of a plot to begin with because it doesn't take itself too seriously.  

      On the one hand, it's a who-or-what-done it which generates a little suspense until the twist gets revealed later on. Even if you can figure out the twist early on, you'll at least have some dark comedy to rely on as entertainment. The plot itself isn't as clever or brilliant as the plot of Knives' Out, but the characters are just as eccentric and off-the-wall. Some of the scenes are a little trippy and crazy in a refreshing sort of way, like a dance number that won't be spoiled here. There's also some campiness that works as a guilty pleasure, but sometimes the film tries too hard to be campy. You won't find too many scenes that palpably scary, although it does have a few scary scenes, so as long as you're not expected a straight-up werewolf horror movie like An American Werewolf in London or Wolf, you won't leave disappointed.  

      Much of the film's comedy and campiness comes from the talents of the cast who work well together. Sam Richardson and Milana Vayntrub have great chemistry together as Finn and Cecily, and their banter is often quite funny. Finn and Cecily are reminiscent of a couple from a screwball comedy: they argue and don't like each other at first, but you just know that they're into each other despite their friction. Director Josh Ruben keeps most of the gore off-screen thereby leaving it to the audience's imagination. He makes the most out of the wintry landscape which adds some atmosphere and style. The pacing feels just right without a scene that overstays its welcome. Although it's based on a video game, it doesn't have wall-to-wall action or feel tedious or monotonous for that matter. At a running time of 1 hour and 37 minutes, it's one of the best horror comedies since Shaun of the Dead. It could even become a cult classic some day. 

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by IFC Midnight.
Opens at IFC Center and July 2nd, 2021 on VOD.