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Reviews for November 17th, 2023

Documentary Films


      Beyond the Aggressives: 25 Years Later is a heartfelt, intimate and engrossing documentary that sheds light on the lives of trans men, namely, Trevon, Kisha, Octavio, and Chin twenty-five years after they were the subjects of the documentary The Aggressives. Director Daniel Peddle interviews them to allow the audience to get a sense of what they've been through and are still going through since then. Their introspection and emotional maturity shines throughout the film as they discuss their struggles in front of the camera. So, there's a voyeuristic quality to the documentary because you'll feel like you're eavesdropping on a private conversation. One of them deals with immigration issues and another with fertility issues. There's nothing exceptional about the film's style, structure or editing, but what it lacks in style, it compensates for in its candid interviews which are filled with kernels of wisdom and insights about the experience of being trans. It's not necessary to watch the original film, The Aggressives beforehand because the first few minutes include a recap, but if you watch this sequel first, you'll be tempted to watch the original afterward. At a running time of 1 hour and 20 minutes, Beyond the Aggressives: 25 Years Later opens at Quad Cinema via Showtime Documentary Films.


      The Disappearance of Shere Hite is a provocative, illuminating, warts-and-all documentary about Shere Hite, a sexologist, feminist and researcher who wrote about female sexuality. Director Nicole Newnham does a decent job of introducing Shere Hite to audiences who might be unfamiliar with her, so you'll learn about what makes her significant as well as controversial in her research work in female sexuality. She's best known for her book called The Hite Report which came out a few decades after Alfred Kinsey's The Kinsey Report. Her book on male sexuality, The Hite Report on Male Sexuality is lesser known---an audience member on Oprah's show unfairly criticise Hite for not asking men about their sexual life. Hite's controversy arises from the conclusions that she made from her surveys that claimed that women can't always orgasm from penetrative sex. The mass media criticized her study for being unscientific. As the archival footage shows along with interviews with people who knew her, she didn't handle criticism well. To be fair, The Disappearance of Shere Hite follows a conventional, linear approach to chronicling Hite's rise and subsequent fall, so there's nothing exceptional about its style nor its structure. However, it's well-researched with plenty of insights about Hite and her personality without being hagiographic. There are even some surprisingly funny moments like a talk show with her and David Hasselhoff on "The Mike Douglas Show" where she displays her wit and snarkiness. At a running time of 1 hour 56 minutes, The Disappearance of Shere Hite opens at IFC Center via IFC Films.


      Down in Dallas Town is a fascinating and eye-opening, but overstuffed documentary about the aftermath of the JFK assassination for the past 60 years. Director Alan Govenar deserves credit for packing a lot of information as he juggles other topics including the synthetic drug K2, homelessness, gun violence, and the iconic Poloroid photograph that Mary Ann Moorman had taken of the JFK assassination back in 1963. He also includes blues, gospel, norteño, and calypso music between the street interviews and the interviews with Moorman. Down in Dallas Town is very wide in scope, but bites off more than it could chew. Each of the topics could have easily been the main topic of separate documentaries and deserve to be, especially the segments with Mary Ann Moorman and her Poloroid photo which is the most compelling. At least it's not as dull, meandering, unfocused and clunky as the recent documentary This Much We Know nor does it overstay its running time of merely 73 minutes. Down in Dallas Town opens at Cinema Village via First Run Features.


      The Stones and Brian Jones is an engrossing and well-edited documentary biopic on Brian Jones, the founder of The Rolling Stones. Director Nick Broomfield combines archival footage, voice-over narration and concert footage with interviews of Jones' bandmate, Bill Wyman and his family members to tell the story of his rise and fall. In terms of its content, this documentary doesn't reveal a lot about Brian Jones, so it's not a thorough documentary biopic. However, it does provide you with a glimpse of Jones' struggles that led to his downfall including his drug and alcohol addiction without judging him or excusing him either. He was lonely, stressed, frustrated and lost, but didn't know what to do with all of his emotional pain nor did he know whom to turn to for support. Broomfield does a decent job of humanizing Jones in a way that avoids becoming hagiography or dull. At a running time of 1 hour 33 minutes, The Stones and Brian Jones opens at Quad Cinema via Magnolia Pictures.


      Unseen is an engrossing and unflinching documentary about Pedro, a blind, undocumented Mexican who aspires to become a social worker in the United States. He immigrated to the US when he was slightly over the age of 16 which means that he narrowly missed becoming eligible for the DACA program which requires applicants to have entered the U.S. before they turned 16. Director Set Hernandez Rongkilyo follows Pedro throughout the course of 6 years as he faces many struggles as a blind undocumented immigrant. Learning Braille isn't easy for him and he has a tough time reaching the correct classroom at a college where he's pursuing a degree in social work. Unseen's often blurry cinematography makes it an= bold, experimental film while the visual style concurrently immerses the audience in Pedro's perspective so that they can get a sense of how he experiences the world around him. It ultimately puts a human face on an important human rights issue while providing some hope and inspiration for those in Pedro's situation. At a running time of 1 hour and 29 minutes, Unseen opens at DCTV's Firehouse Cinema. It would make for an interesting double feature with The Blind Man Who Did Not Want to See Titanic.


      The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill, directed by Judy Irving, is a charming, delightful and captivating documentary about a homeless man who forms a strong relationship with parrots in the famous Telegraph Hill of San Francisco. The stars of this beautifully-shot documentary are the parrots. They have more personality than one would expect. If there would be an Oscar for best performance by animals, these parrots would be a shoo-in! One of the most amusing scenes is when a parrots bobs its head to the rhythm of music. The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill is filled with so many vibrant colors that it's sure to delight adults and children alike. The resounding message is that animals--particularly birds---should be cared for as if they were human. They feel pain and loneliness just like me and you do. You will never look at a bird the same way again. If you're a bird-lover, this is a must-see. The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill originally opened on February 11th, 2005 at the Angelika Film Center. It re-opens at New Plaza Cinema in New York City via Shadow Distribution.

America's Family

Directed by Anike Tourse

      ICE raids the home of Marisol Diaz (Anike Tourse) and her husband, Jorge (Mauricio Mendoza), while they celebrate Thanksgiving with their children. They deport their son, Koke (Ricardo Cisneros) back to Mexico and send Marisol to a detention center. Meanwhile, Jorge finds sanctuary at a synagogue. It's up to their American-born children, Valentina (Jailene Arias), Emiliano (Emmanuel López Alonso) to reunite their family.

      The screenplay by Anike Tourse begins when Marisol immigrates  to the US from Mexico and raises Koke with her second husband husband, Jorge, before having more children. Then it flashes forward when Koke grows up and she has two more children, Emiliano and Valentina, who's disabled and suffers from epilepsy. Valentina narrates the story which, fortunately, doesn't suffer from excessive narration. Emiliano happens to work for a lawyer, so hopes he can help his family to be together again. Writer/director Anike Tourse should be commended for connecting each family members' story in a way that doesn't feel confusing and for raising awareness of a vital and timely human rights issue. However, America's Family does feel a little clunky while the dialogue is often on-the-nose and occasionally stilted with not nearly enough levity. Also, there are too many characters, so just when you start to become compelled by a character in one of the subplots, it jumps to the next and then back and forth which means that it's hard for any of them to come to life. It's ambitious, but also risky to intertwine stories together because it takes a sensitive screenplay like those of Robert Altman to make it feel seamless and captivating. Each of the stories of the Diaz family members has enough conflict to propel their own separate film. Out of all of the stories, though, Jorge's story is the most interesting because of how he befriends a compassionate rabbi. With more focus on and perspective from one or two characters rather than on all of the Diaz family, America's Family would've been more engaging.

       The performances are decent with no one under-acting or over-acting. Concurrently, though, none of the actors or actresses manages to rise above the mediocre screenplay. The film's emotional depth comes much more from the performances rather than from the screenplay. The pace moves briskly enough while the editing is fine without being choppy. At a running time of 1 hour and 43 minutes, America's Family is heartfelt and timely, but overstuffed and clunky.


Number of times I checked my watch: 3
Released by CHIRLA Liberty Films.
Opens at Village East by Angelika.

Fallen Leaves

Directed by Aki Kaurismäki

      Ansa (Alma Pöysti) meets Holappa (Jussi Vatanen) at a karaoke bar and go out on a first date to the movies together, but she questions whether or not to continue seeing him after learning that he's an alcoholic.

      The screenplay by writer/director Aki Kaurismäki brims with wit and gentle humor as it explores Ansa and Holappa's blossoming romance. They're both single and lonely, but Ansa seems a bit timid at first. There's more to them than meets the eye which makes them all the more interesting as characters. Not a lot happens plot-wise and there are no villains except for Holappa's alcoholism which threatens to cause a rift between him and Ansa. Fallen Leaves doesn't go into dark or unflinching territory when it comes to Holappa's struggles as an alcoholic nor does it have anything profound or new to say about love or relationships. This isn't anything that comes close to Before Sunrise or the underrated Moscow, Belgium. However, Kaurismäki does a decent job of maintaining a light, breezy tone while avoiding clunkiness and schmaltz. He even includes a few surprises along the way, i.e. the particular film that Ansa and Holappa go to on their first date which you probably won't be able to easily predict. The third act is charming while earning its uplift even though it doesn't take any major risks.

      Alma Pöysti and Jussi Vatane have palpable chemistry together and great comedic timing while also handling the emotional complexities of their roles. Their natural and convincingly moving performances ground the film in authenticity. The use of music is also worth mentioning because it enlivens Fallen Leaves while also providing some substance. Writer/director Aki Kaurismäki moves the film at an unhurried paces that, fortunately, isn't too slow. He also keeps the running time under 90 minutes which shows that he has restraint as a filmmaker and grasps the concept that less is more. At a brief running time of just 1 hour and 21 minutes, Fallen Leaves is a charming, witty and tender love story.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by MUBI.
Opens at Angelika Film Center.

The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes

Directed by Francis Lawrence

      Coriolanus Snow (Tom Blyth) mentors Lucy Gray Baird (Rachel Zegler), a musician from District 12, to prepare her for the 10th Hunger Games while falling in love with her.

      Based on the novel by Suzanne Collins, the screenplay by co-writers Michael Lesslie and Michael Arndt blends with action, romance and musical numbers with very lackluster results. The heart of the film is the love story between Coriolanus and Lucy, but it often feels cheesy and contrived, so the beats don't land when they're together or when they're apart and longing for one another. The dialogue ranges from stilted to dull and on-the-nose with very little wit or comic relief, although the supporting character Lucky (Jason Schwartzman) has some amusing scenes with dry humor, but they're far and few between. None of the relationships between any of the characters are fleshed out compellingly, even between Coriolanus and the tyrannical villain, Dr. Volumnia Gaul (Viola Davis). Exposition feels clunky and lazy while the narrative momentum wanes during the dramatic scenes. The action scenes are thrilling at first, but they come with diminishing returns and it's hard to care about the outcome when none of the characters truly come to life. The most intense scene is an ephemeral one where someone has to grab an important piece of paper among venomous snakes that will bite the person unless they're familiar with their scent. Beyond that scene, The Hunger Games offers very little in terms of suspense, thrills and excitement as it merely goes through the motions.

      The performances are decent, but even the talented Rachel Zegler fails to rise above the very weak screenplay. She and Tom Blyth have little to no charisma together, and it's hard to avoid recalling her in a much more engrossing love story, West Side Story. On their own, the musical numbers are among the film's most delightful scenes, but they feel misplaced and sometimes cringe-inducing when juxtaposed with action, romance and dramatic scenes surrounding it. That said, Viola Davis is the film's MVP and shines the most with her over-the-top performance. The production values are impressive with stylish production design and cinematography. However, the editing feels choppy at times while other times there are scenes that last too long, so pacing issues are among the film's many weaknesses. It's not a good sign when you can feel the weight of the running time that clocks nearly 3 hours. At a bloated 2 hours and 45 minutes, The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes is an anemic, meandering, clunky and overlong bore.

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

May December

Directed by Todd Haynes

      Elizabeth Berry (Natalie Portman), a Hollywood actress, arrives at the seaside home of Gracie Atherton-Yoo (Julianne Moore), a woman who she'll be playing in a biopic. Gracie lives with her husband, Joe (Charles Melton), and children off the coast of Maine. She was involved with him in a scandal when she had sex with him when he was in seventh grade before she eventually married him.

      The screenplay by Samy Burch teases the audience with psychological thrills from the minute that Elizabeth arrives at the home of Gracie to prepare for her role an upcoming biopic. Exposition is kept to a minimum, at first, but soon Gracie's dark, scandalous past gets revealed which changes the way you look at her and explains why she's old enough for her husband to be misconstrued as her son. The more that Elizabeth gets to know her, the more it's clear that she's a malignant narcissist. Screenwriter Samy Burch has a good grasp of human nature as she turns the film into a character study and doesn't shy away from shedding light on the dark side of human nature. There's a scene where Gracie is crying in bed like a baby which speaks louder than words about how infantile and emotionally immature she is. She also victim-blames Joe for coming onto her when he was a child and tries to convince him that he was the abuser, not her. Like a textbook narcissist, she used the tactic of DARVO when confronted about her actions and the consequences of her actions: Deny, Attack and Reverse the Order of Victim/Oppressor. She's an absolute trainwreck. Just when you think that Elizabeth is a decent human being, she suddenly crosses a boundary. Joe is the most decent person among them, so it's unfortunate that the screenplay doesn't develop his character enough because there's so much going on inside of him. May December effectively toys with the audience's imagination because at any given moment during the third act, it could veer into much darker, crime thriller territory. Whether or not that happens won't be spoiled here, but it's worth mentioning that the evolving dynamics between Elizabeth and Gracie remain compelling.

      The music score does a lot of work to generate tension because it feels like the kind of score you would expect from a crime thriller. It's just as intense and unexpected as the score in Shiva Baby. The use of dark, off-kilter comic relief helps to break the tension every now and then. The performances by Natalie Portman and Julianne Moore are superb. They play off of each other very well and sink into their roles convincingly without over-acting. Charles Melton is radiant with his charisma and nuanced performance that adds some poignancy even when the screenplay lacks it. The pace moves at just the right speed without being too slow or too fast. At a running time of 1 hour and 53 minutes, May December is electrifying. It's a wickedly funny, taut and provocative psychological thriller.

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


Directed by Eli Roth

      One year after a deadly stampede on Black Friday at her family's store, Jessica (Nell Verlaque) and her friends must fight for their lives when a serial killer wearing a John Carver mask terrorizes the town of Plymouth, Massachusetts.

      The screenplay by Jeff Rendell doesn't take itself too seriously. By opening with a prologue with the Black Friday stampede, the film sets the darkly comedic tone early on without wasting any time with unnecessary padding. Everything that Five Nights at Freddy's and Winnie the Pooh: Blood and Honey gets wrong, Thanksgiving gets right. The story remains lean with just enough suspense, surprises, scares and thrills. Jessica makes for a likable character worth rooting for, much like Sidney in Scream. It's refreshing to see a main female character in a horror film who's actually clever instead of a dumb one, i.e. in Barbarian. Case in point: a scene at a hair salon where she fights the masked killer. Fortunately, the kills don't feel repetitive and there are even some very bold choices which won't be spoiled here. Also, there's no tonal unneveness or clunkiness. The third act's twist works in hindsight, although there's some lazy over-explaining that leaves no room for interpretation. To be fair, Thanksgiving doesn't reinvent the horror comedy genre per se nor does it have sparkling dialogue, but it's nonetheless a wildly entertaining horror comedy in the vein of Scream.

      As Roger Ebert once wisely observed, a horror film doesn't need a big star because the horror itself is the star. So, it's an added bonus that the actors and actresses are pretty decent, especially Nell Verlaque. Gina Gershon makes the most out of her smaller role, and Patrick Dempsey is very well-cast as the town's sheriff. Just as expected, Eli Roth delivers the goods when it comes to blood and guts. Be prepared for some stomach-churning gore that doesn't hold back. It's disgusting at times, but often funny in a very dark and twisted way. That's part of what makes Thanksgiving such a guilty pleasure. At a running time of 1 hour and 46 minutes, it's a wickedly funny, crowd-pleasing and exhilarating horror comedy.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by TriStar Pictures.
Opens nationwide.

Trolls Band Together

Directed by Walt Dohrn

      After pop star twins, Velvet (voice of Amy Schumer) and Veneer (voice of Andrew Rannells), kidnap and imprison Floyd (voice of Troy Sivan), Branch (voiced by Justin Timberlake), Floyd's estranged brother, must reunite with his other siblings, John (voice of Eric Andre), Clay (voice of Kid Cudi), and Spruce (voice of Daveed Diggs) to save him.

      The screenplay by Elizabeth Tippet is a mildly engaging blend of comedy, action and musical numbers. The plot isn't very imaginative nor exciting, though, and the dialogue sorely lacks wit while trying too hard to use puns related to 90's music groups. The jokes get stale pretty quickly from repetition. There are too many characters, a lot going on, yet very little actually sticks. A truly great animated film finds a way to entertain younger and older audiences, but Trolls Band Together fails to accomplish that essential goal. Most of the scenes feel silly and amusing at best while none of them are exhilarating like in the recent Paw Patrol which has more warmth, poignancy and effective humor than this shallow, dull and forgettable animated film.

      If right colors are all that you need to keep you entertained, then Trolls Band Together will at least keep you engaged with its bright, colorful CGI animation. However, beyond that, there's nothing to write home about. The musical scenes don't add much in terms of entertainment value or any other kind of value either. They're choppily edited and distract from the film's modicum of narrative momentum. Moreover, the frenetic pacing and action sequences quickly become exhausting. At a running time of 1 hour and 32 minutes, which feels more like 2 hours, Trolls Band Together is harmless, but bland, witless, tedious and emotionally hollow while failing to entertain audiences both young and old simultaneously.

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