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Reviews for March 1st, 2019

Documentary Round-Up






      Sharkwater: Extinction is an alarming, illuminating and emotionally gripping expos on the endangerment of sharks as a result of shark finning and other actions that deplete the shark population. Director Rob Stewart provides audiences with an update to his film Sharkwater with new statistics and new information that show that nothing has been ameliorated since then. Did you know that sharks are used in cosmetic products and pet food? This isn't the kind of doc that just throws data at you and points the camera at a bunch of talking heads. Stewart clearly understands that in order to make a documentary to mainstream audiences, it has to also be entertaining and cinematic, not insightful and moving. He includes plenty of footage showing the unflinching horrors of shark finning. Images, after all, speak louder than words. It's quite enraging that fishermen are catching sharks in drift nets and killing them right in Santa Monica Bay, so it's not just an issue plaguing other parts of the world: it's a U.S. problem, too. Stewart is a true gift to humanity who should be commended for being a compassionate, fearless warrior who doesn't mind risking his life for a greater cause. He died in a diving accident during the making of this doc which makes it all the more poignant. So, forget about Captain Marvel and watch this powerful doc about the quest of a real-life hero, Rob Stewart, instead. Sharkwater: Extinction opens at Village East Cinemas.


Climax

Directed by Gaspar No




      A troupe of young dancers along with a choreographer, Selva (Sofia Boutella) and a DJ (Kiddy Smile), come together at a secluded warehouse for a drug and alcohol-fueled party that lasts a few days.

      To describe the Climax's plot or its characters for that matter would be a futile effort because writer/director Gaspar No doesn't provide much of either of those elements. What he does provide, though, is roughly 95 minutes of loud dance music, shaky cam, drugs, booze and, eventually, some violence. Those 95 minutes feel more like 4 hours because it all becomes repetitive and tedious very quickly. You learn nothing about the characters' backgrounds, so you never really get to know any of them nor do you end up caring about what happens to them when all hell breaks loose during the third act. In other words, No doesn't provide a window into the characters' heart, mind and soul.

      No and his director of photography, Benot Debie, know how to use many different camera angles to create a sense of chaos, i.e. by filming scenes upside down, but stylish and often dizzying camerawork alone isn't enough to hold someone attention unless they're very shallow. Climax even fails as an experimental film because there's nothing that makes it stand out nor does it push any significant boundaries. It's ultimately an exhausting, vapid, pretentious and nauseating assault on the senses. There's a lengthy scene with the DJ talking about ass-licking which is neither funny, witty nor bold. Kevin Smith does a better job at dirty language than No does. If Climax were campy or over-the-top, it could've been somewhat of a guilty pleasure instead of falling so flat.

      No's past films were memorable for their mesmerizing images, bold narrative choices and some shock value. Their style became a huge part of their substance, and they drew you in so that you were totally immersed in what you're seeing and hearing The opening credits of Enter the Void hooked you into the film right away and set the tone. Unfortunately, that doesn't happen in Climax. Instead, you see some video footage of the dancers on a small TV surrounded by VHS tapes of films that probably inspired Climax such as Un Chien Andalou, Andrzej Zulawski's Possession and Dario Argento's Suspiria. Climax doesn't even remotely hold a candle to any of those cult classic films. It's one of worst and most pretentious films since Darren Aronofsky's Mother!.

Number of times I checked my watch: 9
Released by A24.
Opens at Angelika Film Center.

Giant Little Ones

Directed by Keith Behrman




      Franky (Josh Wiggins) lives with his single mother, Carly (Maria Bello) and is on the high school swimming team with Ballas (Darren Man), his best friend. During his 17th birthday party, he and Ballas explore their sexuality by fooling around under the bed sheets in his room. The next day, Ballas ruins Franky's reputation at school by spreading a false rumor around school that Franky hit on him. Everyone looks at him differently incuding his girlfriend, Priscilla (Hailey Kittle), and he gets bullied by classmates. As he struggles deals with the aftermath of the incident with Ballas, his estranged father, Ray (Kyle MacLachlan), who's gay, re-enters his life and provides him with emotional support.

      Giant Little Ones is a genuinely moving and tender coming-of-age drama that explores many themes including friendship, family and sexual identity. The screenplay by Keith Behrman doesn't approach these topics in a black-and-white way like Hollywood films tend to do; Behrman understands the nuances of every day life, so many scenes ring true. Each of the characters feels lived-in with unique personalities without become caricatures. There's more to them than meets the eye and they each could be the protagonist in a seperate film that delves into their character arcs, i.e. Ballas' sister, Natasha (Taylor Hickson), or Franky's friend, Mouse (Niamh Wilson), who's struggling with her gender identity. Behrman wisely trusts the audience's imagination during the bedroom scene with Franky and Ballas under the covers; you don't see what they're doing because the camera remains above the sheets and it's very dark in the room, but perceptive audiences would be able to figure out what happened there based on the way Franky and Ballas interact by the poolside the following morning. It's those kind of subtleties and understatements that make Giant Little Ones rise above mediocrity. It also avoids becoming melodramatic or cheesy, so it's fortunately more along the lines of a John Hughes film than a Nicholas Sparks film.

      To be fair, much of Giant Little Ones's emotional depth comes from performances of its very well-chosen cast. Josh Wiggins is a natural talent and very charismatic without over-acting or under-acting. The speech that Franky's dad delivers at the end of film is almost as profound as the memorable one that Elio's dad gives in Call Me By Your Name. Although Giant Little Ones isn't as powerful as that coming-of-age film nor as haunting as the brilliant Boyhood, it's much more sensitively written and poignant than last year's Love, Simon. If you're looking for a warm, tender and genuinely heartfelt film that isn't loud, dumb and shallow like most Hollywood film (I'm looking at you, Captain Marvel), then Giant Little Ones is just the right antidote.

Number of times I checked my watch: 2
Released by Vertical Entertainment.
Opens at Angelika Film Center.

Greta

Directed by Neil Jordan




      Frances (Chlo Grace Moretz) works as a waitress at an upscale restaurant in New York City and lives with a roommate, Erica (Maika Monroe). One day, she finds a green purse on a subway and returns it to its owner, Greta (Isabelle Huppert), a piano teacher. Frances lost her mother while Greta grieves over the death of her husband. They exchange phone numbers and become friends, but their friendship quickly evolves into a toxic relationship when Greta resorts to harassing her and stalking her upon being ignored.

      Greta is essentially about a naive young woman who becomes the source of Narcissistic supply for malignant narcissist much like in Fatal Attraction. Greta has no shame in crossing emotional, physical and other boundaries because she knows she's about to lose her much-needed narcissist supply and she'll do anything to get it back. Frances makes the mistake of telling Greta that her friends nickname her "Chewing Gum" because she tends to always stick around, so Greta uses that statement for her own benefit after Frances tries to avoid her. Frances neglects to heed the advice of a police officer who tells her to simply ignore Greta; instead, when Greta shows up at Frances' workplace and just so happens to get a table in her waiting section, Frances confronts her which is exactly what Greta wanted her to so. Why doesn't Frances block her number? Why doesn't she ask another waitress or her manager to switch her to another section of the restaurant so that she doesn't have to deal with serving Greta? Or why doesn't she simply "grey rock" Greta when interacting with her at the restaurant?

      The screenplay by writer/director Neil Jordan and co-writer Ray Wright remains at least somewhat grounded in realism and understands the dark side of human behavior. Based on my own experiences with narcissists similar to Greta, it's very easy for a narcissist's victim such as Frances to be charmed by a narcissist and to give in to their constant hoovering tactics. As Hitchcock once wisely observed, you should always be cautious of the most charming person in the room. Huppert is perfectly cast in the titular role because she convincingly sinks her teeth into Greta's multifaceted emotional layers.

      Greta, like Norman Bates, is similar to a Russian doll which makes her all the more interesting: on the surface she may seem charming and confident, but deep down she has a lot of ugliness inside of her which includes sadness, loneliness, insecurity and anger. Although it's not 100% clear based on the film, she was probably not loved enough by her mother and father as a child. In many ways, she behaves like a child or even like a baby herself and goes through an "extinction burst" when she doesn't get what she wants from her supply. She's similar to Queene Anne in The Favourite. You can tell that there's an inner life within her even if the screenplay itself doesn't have much emotional depth. In other words, Huppert's terrific performance compensates for the screenplay's emotional shortcomings. Chlo Grace Moretz, among the finest young actresses of our time, is also well-cast and gives a raw, heartfelt performance without any hamming.

      It's fascinating to observe the dynamics between Greta and Frances even though some of it feels heavy-handed and contrived. If only Jordan were to have trusted the audience's intelligence and emotions more because there the dialogue at times comes across as too "on the nose" and suffers from overexplaining leaving much room for imagination. At least he doesn't resort to flashbacks, but there's one very cheap gimmick that Siskel and Ebert would've most likely have been annoyed by: a dream sequence (which won't be spoiled here). Greta lacks the subtlety and nuance found in Merci Pour le Chocolat, which also starred Huppert, or With a Friend Like Harry..., but it's nonetheless a wildly entertaining, gripping and wickedly funny psychological thriller as well as an intriguing character study. It's this generation's Fatal Attraction.

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

Styx

Directed by Wolfgang Fischer




     

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by Film Movement.
Opens at Film Forum.

Transit

Directed by Christian Petzold




     

Number of times I checked my watch: 2
Released by Music Box Films.
Opens at IFC Center and EBM Film Center.

The Wedding Guest

Directed by Michael Winterbottom




     

Number of times I checked my watch: 5
Released by IFC Films.
Opens at IFC Center and Landmark at 57 West.

We Die Young

Directed by Lior Geller




     

Number of times I checked my watch: 6
Released by Lionsgate Premiere and Grindstone Entertainment.
Opens at Cinema Village.
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