gm Reviews for November 18th, 2022

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Documentary Round-Up

      There have been many documentaries about the pandemic lately, but none of them quite as powerful, provocative and illuminating as Bad Axe. The title refers to the small town in Michigan where director David Siev grew up. In 2020, he returned to Bad Axe to help his Cambodian father, Chun, and Mexican-American mother, Rachel, run the family restaurant, Rachel's. He also has an older sister, Jaclyn, and a younger sister, Raquel who help to keep the restaurant afloat as well. Bad Axe serves as a portrait of a family coming together to help each other during difficult times as they adapt to the pandemic like many restaurants had to. Then it takes a surprising turn and becomes darker as the family deals with racism and xenophobia that affects him and his family emotionally and psychologically. Yet, they manage to persevere without backing down despite the abuse and harassment that they endure after they choose to support the Black Lives Matter movement. Meanwhile, tensions arise within the family when David's parents don't take the proper precautions to stay safe from Covid-19. His father also struggles to overcome the painful memories of his experiences in the Cambodian killing fields. Director David Siev covers a lot of ground in this very timely, engrossing and intimate documentary. At a running time of 1 hour and 42 minutes, Bad Axe opens at IFC Center via IFC Films.

      Love, Charlie: The Rise and Fall of Chef Charlie Trotter is an illuminating, well-edited and unflinching documentary about world-renowned chef Charlie Trotter. Director Rebecca Halpern does a wonderful job of finding just the right balance between entertaining the audience, provoking them emotionally as well as intellectually. That's no easy task for any filmmaker, especially when it comes to documentaries. Some documentaries are limited in scope and/or dry and academic, but that can't be said about this one. Halpern deftly combines archival footage, interviews, letters and postcards to create a fascinating documentary portrait that avoids the pitfalls of being hagiographic. Its linear structure is conventional and unexceptional. However, the breadth of access to revealing insight about Charlie Trotter and how its edited together allows the audience to understand him better as a human being, warts-and-all. He was an arrogant bully, but there's much more to him than meets the eye. Director Rebecca Halpern captures all of that very effectively. You'll learn about his childhood, how he started working at restaurants like Ground Round, how he opened his own restaurant, Charlie Trotter's, with financial help from his father, how he rose to fame in the restaurant world and what made him so significant within that world. At an ideal running time of 1 hour and 36 minutes, Love, Charlie: The Rise and Fall of Chef Charlie Trotter opens at Quad Cinema via Greenwich Entertainment. It's as heartfelt and captivating as Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain.

      A Star Without a Star: The Untold Juanita Moore Story is an illuminating and genuinely heartfelt tribute to Juanita Moore, a Hollywood actress who deserves to be more widely recognized as an icon. Thanks to director Kirk E. Kelleykahn, her grandson, this documentary biopic accomplishes that feat with flying colors. Who is Juanita Moore? What makes her so significant? Why does she deserve to be an icon? A Star Without a Star answers those important questions through archival interviews with Juanita Moore and interviews with other actors and actresses, namely, Louise Fletcher, and Sidney Poitier. She's best known for her portrayal of  Annie Johnson in Imitation of Life which earned her a nomination for Best Supporting Actress. Despite being an immensely talented actress, she only had minor roles in subsequent films. Through her interviews, you get the palpable sense of her warmth, charisma and humanity. Bravo to Kirk E. Kelleykahn for allowing the audience to experience those wonderful qualities in her that make her as radiant as a bright star. It's equally sad and infuriating that she didn't have a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, even posthumously after her death in 2014. Repeated applications to give her a star were rejected. You'll learn a lot about how difficult, complicated, costly and unfair it is to get that coveted star. This doc is much more than just a biopic, it's also an eye-opening doc that tackles a timely human and civil rights issue that's still going on today: systemic racism in Hollywood. Out of the 2,740 stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame as of November 2022, roughly 5% are for black talent as of 2022. That statistic alone speaks louder than words and should make you feel indignant. A Star Without a Star: The Untold Juanita Moore Story persuasively argues that Juanita Moore deserves to be among those stars. She'll finally receive one in 2023, but it shouldn't have taken to so long. A running time of 1 hour and 30 minutes, it opens at Cinema Village.

200 Meters

Directed by Ameen Nayfeh

      Moustafa (Ali Suliman), a construction worker, lives in the West Bank with his mother. His wife, Salwa (Lana Zreik), resides with their children in Israel, 200 meters away from his house. When his son, Majd (Tawfeeq Nayfeh), gets injured in a car accident, he desperately tries to visit him at the Israeli hospital. He turns to a smuggler, Nader (Nabil Al Raai), to help him illegally cross the border. him

      200 Meters is a thriller about the lengths that a father takes to see his beloved son. The screenplay by writer/director Ameen Nayfeh follows a linear plot structure with an ending that can be seen miles away, but it does have a few ephemeral scenes along the way that feel gripping. Nayfeh barely establishes the relationship between Moustafa, his son and his wife. Within the first ten minutes or so, his son gets injured in a car accident and Moustafa begins his treacherous journey to visit him after learning that he can't cross the border legally because his Visa expired. A teenager, Rami (Mahmoud Abu Eita), a Palestinian man, Kifah (Motaz Malhees) and a German journalist, Anne (Anna Unterberger), tag along with him. Again, Nayfeh fails to humanize any of the new characters whom he introduces. Unfortunately, this is one of those films where you can feel the wheels of the screenplay turning while the characters seem more like plot devices rather than fully-fleshed human beings. Who is Anne besides a journalist? Does she have a family back home? The plot itself is pretty simple and straight-forward with the potential of being provocative and complex. However, it rarely slows down to explore anything beneath the surface. A "slice-of-life" film is fine as long as it's emotionally engrossing, unflinching and powerful, but that can't be said about 200 Meters which just goes through the motions until its contrived, inevitable ending that's not profound or dark enough. Costa Brava, Lebanon and 1982 are examples of much sharper, bolder and compelling films that have a lot more to say about border conflicts and how it affects innocent human beings and families.  

      What helps to keep 200 Meters afloat are the moving performances. The film's heartfelt moments don't come from the screenplay, but rather from Ali Suliman's performance which adds much-needed emotional depth. It's disappointing that the shallow screenplay fails to let the audience get to know Moustafa or any of the others on his journey to cross the border. They all remain at a cold distance from the audience. At a running time of 1 hour and 36 minutes, 200 Meters is sporadically gripping and moderately engaging, but often vapid, toothless and underwhelming.

Number of times I checked my watch: 3
Released by Film Movement.
Opens at Quad Cinema.

Bones and All

Directed by Luca Guadagnino

      Maren (Taylor Russell), an 18-year-old high school student, comes from a family of cannibals. When her father (André Holland) suddenly leaves her alone, she goes on the run while trying to learn more about her craving to eat human flesh. She searches for her mother, Jannelle (Chloë Sevigny), who might have more answers. On her road trip across the Midwest, she meets another cannibal, Sully (Mark Rylance), and romances Lee (Timothée Chalamet), who happens to also be a cannibal.

    The screenplay by David Kajganich, based on the novel by Camille DeAngelis, combines coming-of-age drama, horror, romance, suspense and dark comedy. Genre-bending movies could work with a skilled screenwriter, but the mix of many genres here leads to tonal whiplash, clunkiness and unneveness. Bones and All takes place in the 1980's before the days of cellphones and the internet, back when people had conversations with one another that didn't involve texting. They got to know each other in person. It's initially refreshing to watch Maren and Lee connect and relate to each other over their emotional pains. Both of them are runaways and feel lost. They're struggling to make sense of who they are and how they fit in society. Unfortunately, the romance between them feels contrived. They make sense as friends, but as lovers? They've got a lot of emotional unpacking to do before they're even ready to be in a serious relationship. The plot already has enough tension when it comes to their search for their identity and to overcome their trauma, so the romance just feels like a tacked-on and distracting subplot that fails to resonate on an emotional level. Then there's the creepy subplot with Sully who becomes the film's villain. There's very little exposition about his backstory or how he ended up so cruel and sadistic. The plot meanders during the second act until Maren meets her mother who's in a mental hospital. One of the worst-written scenes with very lazy exposition, dull "world-building" and awkward use of comedy is when Maren and Lee meet yet another cannibal, Jake (Michael Stuhlbarg) who even explains the film's title with no room for interpretation in case you didn't already figure it out. That's an insult to the audience's intelligence. The over-the-top third act goes very dark, gritty and unflinching territory, but fails to pack an emotional punch or to trust the audience's imagination.

      Mark Rylance gives an effectively creepy performance that makes the most out of his underwritten role. Taylor Russell tries her best to rise above the weak screenplay, but barely manages to. She's much better in the more captivating, engrossing and profound movie Waves which is also a love story about people dealing with emotional pain and coming-of-age. Then there's Timothée Chalamet, who's miscast and lacks chemistry with Taylor Russell. That's most likely a problem that stems more from the screenplay than from their performances. The cinematography and soundtrack are the best elements of the film and add a little style and substance concurrently. You'll also find plenty of blood and gore, especially in the third act, which is more disgusting than horrifying while leaving nothing to the imagination. Prepare to squirm in your seat during those scenes or cover your eyes. Shock value alone isn't enough to recommend Bones and All. At a running 2 hour and 10 minutes, it's an overlong, toothless, meandering and clunky cannibal love story served with a heaping of tonal whiplash and dullness.

Number of times I checked my watch: 3
Released by United Artists Releasing.
Opens in select theaters.


Directed by Jerzy Skolimowski

      A donkey named EO entertains crowds at a circus with his trainer, Kasandra (Sandra Drzymalska). They get separated after animals rights activists protests and he goes on a journey to different places, i.e. a farm, and meets people from different walks of life including a countess (Isabelle Huppert).

      EO is the kind of film that's hard to describe with words. It's an experience and one that requires some patience, an open mind and an open heart. Writer/director Jerzy Skolimowski and co-writer Ewa Piaskowska eschew conventional storytelling by having a non-human protagonist and keeping plot to a bare minimum. Who needs a complicated plot anyway? What's ultimately important are the feelings that a film contains within the plot. EO's journey is like an emotional roller coaster ride. The filmmakers do a terrific job of making you feel what he feels even though he's just an animal. How he's anthropomorphised becomes part of what makes the film so increasingly engrossing. You'll find yourself caring about him just like any human protagonist and you'll want him to be reunited with Kasandra whom he's happiest with. If you're a patient audience member, you'll be rewarded the most with some thrilling sequences that have to be seen to be believed. In a way, it's like a coming-of-age film with a donkey. It's moving, funny, intense, sad, joyous and suspenseful all at once. So, not only does EO capture animal nature, but it also captures human nature, warts and all.

      The cinematography, sound design, lighting, and music score are all exquisite. They add plenty of style which becomes part of the film's substance. One particular tracking shot bathed in red looks hypnotic and even a little bit trippy. It's a stunning moment which, combined with the soundtrack, adds an element of surprise and unpredictability that elevates the film significantly. If you're a fan of the always-reliable Isabelle Huppert, you'll have to wait until the last 20 minutes. At a running time of just 1 hour and 28 minutes, EO is a mesmerizing, exhilarating and poignant journey.

Number of times I checked my watch: 0
Released by Janus Films.
Opens in select theaters.

The Inspection

Directed by Elegance Bratton

      25-year-old Ellis French (Jeremy Pope) was kicked out of the house by his homophobic mother, Inez (Gabrielle Union) when he came out to her at the age of 16. In 2005, decides to join the U.S. Marines where he encounters more homophobia and must stay in the closet because of the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" military policy which allows LGBTQ people to serve in the marines as long as their sexual orientation remains private.

      The autobiographical screenplay by writer/director Elegance Bratton is a profoundly moving story about a young man who struggles to escape his toxic relationship with his mother. To call his mother a parent would be inaccurate because she doesn't love him unconditionally for who he truly is. She kicked him out of her house when he was still a child; if it happened when he was 18, an adult, that would've been slightly different, but would've still made her look just as terrible as a parent. Ellis has no one to turn to who can advocate for him and stand up for him until he joins the Marines. There, he befriends his fellow marines and bonds with them, a bond much stronger than he had with his mother. They become like a surrogate family to him and keep him emotionally stable, but he's still traumatized and has a lot of emotional baggage to unpack. After all, he's a human being. Bravo to Elegance Bratton for seeing and treating him as a sensitive human being. Ellis comes across as vulnerable, yet he becomes stronger and stronger through time. His decency makes him a strong person because decency is and will always be a strength. This isn't a war film per se, but it's more about Ellis' inner emotional battles. In one of the film's most heartbreaking scenes, he reunites with his mother who, not surprisingly, hasn't changed one bit; she's even worse. The screenplay doesn't really delve into what makes her so abusive to begin with. Perhaps her own mother and father didn't love her unconditionally. Perhaps she hates herself and is merely projecting when she emotionally abuses her son. She's a very unlikable human being with no redeeming qualities, at least on screen. Sadly, there have been and still are many people like her along with people who enable her. Is she merely a product of a much larger, systemic issue? The Inspection doesn't really explore that nor does it preach any messages. The Inspection ultimately about a human being who learns to get away from hate and to love himself. As the poet Pablo Nerudo wisely observes, "They can cut all of the flowers, but they can't stop the spring from coming." It's enlightening and inspiring to watch Ellis blossom as a human being.

      As the wise actor Gene Jones once told me in an interview, it's not easy for an actor to play decency. That's a testament to Jeremy Pope's breakthrough performance as Ellis. He portrays his decency very naturally with tenderness, grace and warmth. Like Elegance Bratton, Jeremy sees and treats Ellis as a human being from start to finish. That makes the film emotionally resonating even when the screenplay is a bit on-the-nose at times. Gabrielle Union also gives a strong performance that deserves to be praised while making the most out of her role. At a running time of 1 hour and 34 minutes, The Inspection is a genuinely heartfelt, honest and captivating story about the importance of unconditional love, compassion and empathy for others as well as for oneself.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by A24.
Opens in select theaters.

The Last Manhunt

Directed by Christian Camargo

      In 1909, Willie Boy (Martin Sensmeier) accidentally shoots and kills the father, William (Zahn McClarnon), of his lover, Carlota (Mainei Kinimaka). He and Carlota go on the run from Sheriff Wilson (Christian Camargo) and his posse.

      Based on a true story, the screenplay by co-writers Thomas Pa'a Sibbett and Jason Momoa has the potential to be a gripping, exhilarating Western. The premise alone sounds like it could turn into an exciting adventure. The execution of that premise, though, leaves a lot to be desired. Sibbett and Momoa know where to take ideas from, but not where to take ideas to. In order to keep the audience emotionally invested, they have to establish the love between Willie Boy and Carlota. That's really the core of the film and the glue that's supposed to hold it together. It's also what leads to William's disapproval of their relationship and motivates both Willie Boy and Carlota to stick together like Bonnie and Clyde while on the run from the law. William has every right to disapprove of Willie Boy because Carlota is only 16 and Willie Boy is much older. He justifiably wants to protect his own beloved daughter from a toxic relationship. Unfortunately, it's hard to buy the love between Willie Boy and Carlota because the screenplay doesn't bother to develop their romance because it's in too much of a hurry to get to the cat-and-mouse chase through the desert. None of the characters come to life. Is it too much to ask for to humanize at least one of them to let the audience root for them? Is it too much to ask to give them a personality or some witty banter for a change? Even rooting for the bad guy can be acceptable as long as it's fun and thrilling albeit a guilty pleasure. There's no pleasure or fun in watching The Last Manhunt. The tone is kept to a very grim and occasionally melancholic one with no wit, levity or anything to invigorate the film. The Last Manhunt loses dramatic momentum and introduces other boring, underdeveloped characters, Randolph (Mojean Aria), a journalist, and Hyde (Raoul Max Trujilo).Every film, regardless of the genre, needs at least a little bit of comic relief or something to engage the audience with on some level. Otherwise, it becomes exhausting, monotonous and tedious. That's precisely what happens here and becomes a systemic issue that the film never recovers from.

      None of the actors manages to rise above the weak, lifeless screenplay, so no one gets a chance to shine. The only character that stands out is one that's neither human nor able to be directed: the scenery. Director Christian Camargo includes many majestic shots of nature to try to add poetry, but he tries too hard to be poetic and repeats too many shots which eventually lose their visual poetry. Also, the pace moves too slowly--at times it feels like it's crawling at a snail's pace with moments of silence that contribute nothing of substance. The Last Manhunt, at a running time of 1 hour and 43 minutes, which feels more like 3 hours, is a sluggishly-paced, anemic and underwhelming Western low on suspense and excitement.

Number of times I checked my watch: 3
Released by Saban Films.
Opens at Cinema Village and on VOD.

She Said

Directed by Maria Schrader

      Jodi Kantor (Zoe Kazan) and Megan Twohey (Carey Mulligan), journalists for the New York Times, investigate sexual assault claims against Harvey Weinstein. They report back to their superior, New York Times executive editor Dean Baquet (Andre Braugher) while they try to find Harvey's victims to get statements on record from them.

      Based on a widely-known true story, the screenplay by Rebecca Lenkiewicz follows the investigative reporting of Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey in a dry, procedural fashion. The plot mainly focuses on the two journalists while they're at work with very little emphasis on their life at home with their family. You don't learn much about their backstories or what makes them so brave. She Said follows in the footsteps of All the President's Men, but without the slow-burning suspense and emotional depth found in that classic 70's thriller by Alan J. Pakula. For a movie about women being abused and dehumanized, it's ironic that the film does a poor job of humanizing any of the female characters. Jodi and Megan aren't even given much of a personality nor is their friendship explored. They're the least interesting characters, too. The most interesting ones are the victims themselves, i.e. Laura Madden (Jennifer Ehle) and Zelda Perkins (Samantha Morton). Not surprisingly, Harvey Weinstein (who's only shown once facing away from the audience) denies everything and hires a lawyer to represent him. This isn't the kind of movie that shows both sides of the battle; it's only about the heroic journalists and victims without even trying to show Harvey Weinstein's perspective. Yes, he's a monster, but he's human concurrently. There's also no scenes with Ronan Farrow who's very significant in exposing the truth about Harvey Weinstein through his New Yorker article. He's mentioned briefly, but that's all. She Said remains limited in scope, conventional and not quite as biting as it could've been with a sharper and bolder screenplay. The third act feels underwhelming and anticlimactic because it ends just when the case against Harvey Weinstein was the strongest, so you don't even get to see Harvey's downfall.

      Carey Mulligan and Zoe Kazan give fine performances as do Patricia Clarkson and Andre Braugher who portray their superiors at the New York Times. The best performances, though, come from the supporting roles: Samantha Morton and Jennifer Ehle. Their scenes are the most powerful moments of the film and help to add much-needed poignancy in an otherwise dull film. There's nothing exceptional when it comes to the cinematography, lighting or set design; there's not much style here like there is in the far superior All the President's Men. Also, it's too brightly lit more often than not as though the filmmakers were too scared to make the movie feel gritty, so it looks more like a made-for-TV movie instead. Even Spotlight has better cinematography and editing. At a running time of 2 hours and 15 minutes, She Said is mildly engaging and only occasionally moving, but too dry, shallow and pedestrian to pack an emotional punch.

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


Directed Tim Sutton

      Cole (Colson Baker), a successful musician, goes on a music tour before going on a downward spiral with drugs, booze and women as he fights his emotional demons. He has an ex-girlfriend, Mae (Megan Fox), a daughter, Rose (Avery Tiiu Essex), an assistant, Ilana (Maddie Hasson), a manager, Ray (Scoot McNairy), and a wild party girl, Bub (Ruby Rose).

      To call Taurus fun would be a form of schadenfreude because it's not fun at all to watch someone suffering and making bad decisions that are self-destructive. The screenplay by writer/director Tim Sutton throws the audience right into the height of Cole's fame as he's about to hit rock bottom. He has no real friends or anyone he can open up to. Everyone around him seems to be terrible role models. That's no excuse for his behavior, but it explains it and the fact that they're enabling him. Sutton does a fine job of showing Cole's wild behavior and suffering unflinchingly. Clearly, something traumatic is plaguing him, but Sutton withholds that precise event until later on in the film when Cole briefly confronts it. Unfortunately, when it comes to character development, that revelation is too little, too late. Until that point, Taurus hits the audience over the head with Cole's suffering and aimlessness which eventually becomes repetitive. Cole is lost and lonely despite his wealth and all of the materialistic things that he has, but nothing in his life has much intrinsic value to him---he even neglects his daughter, for instance. Like many people, he's searching for meaning and structure in a chaotic environment. Taurus basically bombards the audience with the chaos of Cole's life without getting inside his heart, mind and soul enough. He has a conscience, but to what degree is left up for interpretation. What's also unclear is whether or not he's truly capable of being introspective. There are glimpses of introspection, but not nearly enough to allow the audience to get to know Cole underneath all of the masks that he puts on, so-to-speak. As socio-psychologist Erving Goffman wisely observed, life is like theater: everyone has a life front stage and backstage. Taurus barely lets the audience go backstage in Cole's life, so he remains a stranger to the audience when the end credits roll. Perhaps he's a stranger to himself, too, but that's not something the film bothers to explore either.

      Colson Baker is a charismatic actor who deserves a more profound screenplay that gives him more of a range of emotions and more to chew on while allowing him to be more emotionally generous with the audience. He's capable of that, he just needs the right role to showcase his acting abilities and dig deeper into his character's psyche. The screenplay does nothing more than scratch the surface. In terms of cinematography, lighting and editing, it's quite visually stylish, but visual style alone isn't enough to propel the film or to compensate for its lack of depth. At a running time of 1 hour and 38 minutes, Taurus is a vapid, tedious and often monotonous descent into the chaos of life. It suffers from style over substance. Wise poet Pablo Neruda once wrote, "They can cut all of the flowers, but they can't stop the spring from coming." Taurus dwells too much on Cole's cut flowers and in the wintertime, but not enough on how he'll tend the garden of his soul during the inevitable springtime.

Number of times I checked my watch: 3
Released by RLJE Films.
Opens at Alamo Drafthouse in Manhattan.