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Reviews for September 2nd, 2022

Documentary Round-Up

      José Feliciano: Behind This Guitar is a captivating and well-edited documentary about singer/songwriter José Feliciano. Through archival and contemporary interviews, archival photos and concert footage, co-directors Frank Licari, Helen Murphy and Khoa Le do a great job of introducing the audience to José Feliciano and what makes him so iconic in the world of Latin music. You'll learn how he didn't let the fact that he was born blind become an obstacle for him in his music career; other blind musicians like Ray Charles inspired him to follow his heart and to pursue his dream. The filmmakers successfully capture Feliciano's warmth and charisma as he looks back at his life with retrospection years later. As socio-psychologist Erving Goffman astutely observed, everyone has a life front stage and backstage. José Feliciano: Behind This Guitar delivers what the title promises you: glimpse of what Feliciano is like behind the curtain, so-to-speak. Is he perfect? No. Nobody's perfect. He did have a major setback when a rendition of the National Anthem that he performed at the World Series in 1968 was met with backlash and his career began to wane. However, he did eventually make a comeback and performed the Anthem again to rapturous applause years later.

      Insightful interviews with other famous musicians like Carlos Santana and Gloria Estefan help to further cement José Feliciano as an icon and to help you to grasp what makes him so transcendent. His talent speaks for itself, beyond words, through his music alone. Just to listen and to watch him perform "Feliz Navidad" and the rendition of the Doors' "Light My Fire" during the concert footage is simultaneously exhilarating and joyous to behold. At an ideal running time of 1 hour and 40 minutes, José Feliciano: Behind This Guitar joins Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, a Journey, a Song as one of the best documentaries of the year. It's a lot more engrossing and grounded than the headache-inducing, over-edited and overlong doc Moonage Daydream coming out in a few weeks. José Feliciano: Behind This Guitar opens at Angelika Film Center.

      Loving Highsmith is an insightful documentary about the life and work of author Patricia Highsmith. Director Eva Vitija provides the audience with a glimpse into Highsmith's life through her diaries and journals read aloud by Gwendoline Christie. Highsmith's words are very intimate while revealing a lot about what she thought and felt. They also reveal her dysfunctional relationship with her abusive mother. Her novels, i.e. The Prince of Salt, Strangers on a Train and The Talented Mr. Ripley was adapted into Hollywood movies. Vitija incorporates interviews people who knew Highsmith, i.e. her friend and love Marijane Meaker, along with some archival footage of interviews with Highsmith about her specific themes in her novels. She comes across as intelligent, humble and soft-spoken in the interviews.

      To be fair, the fact that she preferred to live a quiet life is mentioned twice in this doc which makes it a bit repetitive. She wanted to live in privacy and even admitted that she can only write when she's completely alone. Her life wasn't perfect, and she had some obstacles along the way, so this doc isn't hagiographic per se, but it does come close. You'll learn about how she moved from France to the mountains of Switzerland where she suffered from the cold, sunless winters. Although Loving Highsmith isn't an extensive look at Highmith's work as an author, it's an insightful and engaging glimpse into her life which, by the end, humanizes her. She's more than just an author; she's a stront, intelligent and candid human being. It might change the way you look at her books as well as the films based on those books. At a running time of 1 hour and 23 minutes, Loving Highsmith opens at Film Forum via Zeitgeist Films.

      Our American Family is a heartbreaking and unflinching documentary about how generational substance abuse affects a family in Philadelphia. Linda lives in a house with her adult children, Chris, Nicole, Stephen and their stepfather, Brian. Linda's mother suffered from substance abuse, so Linda hopes that her children will not follow in her mother's footsteps, but, in reality, it's no easy task. Chris and Nicole both deal with substance abuse in their own ways. Fortunately, co-directors Hallee Adelman and Sean King O'Grady don't judge Linda and her family nor do they ask the audience to judge them either; they merely show the family interacting with each other inside their house and desperately struggling to break the cycle of substance abuse. This doc doesn't just focus on their pain and suffering.

      To be fair, though, there is a slight voyeuristic aspect to watching footage of the family in their home. However it ultimately provides inspiration for others while serving as a poignant cautionary tale and a powerful wake-up call. It's fascinating and even uplifting to watch Linda try to help her children and to be there for them. She comes across as someone with deep trauma and flaws, but also someone who's innately strong, honest and good-natured. Without preachiness, Our American Family helps others by giving them hope that positive change and growth is indeed possible, and that they should never give up. As Pablo Neruda's poem wisely states, "They can cut all of the flowers, but they can't stop the spring from coming." At a running time of 1 hour and 28 minutes, Our American Family opens via Giant Pictures at Cinema Village.


Directed by Ben Parker

      Anna (Harriet Walter) captures a neo-Nazi, Karl (David Alexander Parker), who broke into her home. She drugs him and holds him hostage while recalling to him her experiences in 1945 during World War II as a Russian intelligence officer when her name was Brana Vasilyeva (Charlotte Vega). She and her fellow Russian soldiers were on a mission to transport the coffin containing the remains of Adolf Hitler to Joseph Stalin in Russia. German soldiers, nicknamed "Werewolves" tried to get ahold of the coffin themselves to bury Hitler. Lukasz (Tom Felton), a Polish man serving in the Werewolves, develops a friendship with Brana that she still remembers years later.

      Burial is a fictional re-imagining of a historical event. The screenplay by writer/director Ben Parker isn't as wildly imaginative nor as bold as Inglourious Basterds, but it's nonetheless a captivating tale. Parker bookends the film with the the elderly version of Brana who changed her name to Anna. The way that he introduces Anna by showing her turn the tables on Karl is a great way to hook the audience and make you wonder where her aggression comes from. Your answer will come shortly as she talks about her intense mission in WWII. What begins as a home invasion movie turns into a war thriller that's even more terrifying than what Anna does to Karl. Burial doesn't shy away from depicting the horrors of the war as well as the violence. There's no comic relief nor does there need to be; this isn't a Tarantino movie, after all. It's a grim, gritty and thriller with some psychological horror to boot. Once Lukasz arrives and befriends Brana, the film becomes increasingly complex and surprisingly moving because of how he helps her despite being a German soldier. There's so much tension within the WWII story that the wrap-around story isn't really needed, so it feels tacked-on while leaving a lot of unanswered questions about what Anna's life was like between WWII and the present day. What she does to Karl makes you look at her from a different perspective at first, but then after you learn about what she went through and how it scarred her emotionally, you'll at least understand her actions more even if they're morally questionable. Fortunately, Parker doesn't jump back and forth between the two timelines in Anna/Brana's life, so the present-day story doesn't become too distracting. There's also no point during the film where it goes into bonkers territory; there are no Nazi zombies, werewolves or anything supernatural. He also doesn't rely on narration; he simply shows the WWII events and then flashes back to the present-day at the end. It's a straightforward and conventional approach, but effective.

      The performances are decent, especialy Harriet Walter's performance. What truly stands out in the film is the creepy, foreboding atmosphere created by the lighting, camerawork and the landscape of the forest. Some of the shots of the forest are very eerie which causes Burial to walk a fine line between horror and thriller. The violence and gore looks quite realistic and graphic, so it's all the more horrifying for that. Despite being often intense, Burial never becomes exhausting nor does it become nauseating---kudos to writer/director Ben Parker and his DP, there's no use of shaky cam as a means of generating tension. The tension always comes from the story itself. At a running time of just 93 minutes, Burial is a gripping, thrilling and unflinchingly gritty psychological horror film.

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

Gigi & Nate

Directed by Ben Parker

      Nate Gibson (Charlie Rowe) spends the 4th of July weekend with his mother, Claire (Marcia Gay Harden), sister, Katy (Josephine Langford), grandma (Diane Ladd) at their vacation home in North Carolina while his workaholic father, Dan (Jim Belush), is on his way their by airplane. The vacation takes a tragic turn when Nate suddenly develops amoebic meningitis after jumping into a lake. The disease leaves him paraplegic and needing round-the-clock care in his Nashville home. Claire brings Nate a service animal, Gigi, a capuchin monkey, but she clashes with an animal rights activist, Chloe (Welker White) who strongly opposes Nate having a capuchin monkey as service animal.

      Gigi & Nate The systemic issues come from the sugar-coated screenplay by David Hudgins, based on a true story, that tries too hard to please the audience while cramming so many subplots together. Firstly, there's Nate's struggles with his debilitating disease. Secondly, there's the relationship between him and Gigi. Thirdly, there's battles between his family and the animal rights activist, Chloe (Welker White). Each of those subplots could've been the main plot of a completely different film. Together, it's the equivalent of watching a few films all at once. If the dialogue weren't so stilted, cheesy and preachy, perhaps it would've at least been just a mediocre, dull movie instead of a clunky, saccharine Lifetime disease-movie-of-the-week. There are too many characters none of whom, not even Nate, feel like lived-in, fully-fleshed human beings. The monkey is cute and has a few amusing scenes interacting with Nate, though, but Gigi & Nate, despite the title, doesn't really explore the relationship between the two profoundly enough. The relationship between him and his family also falls flat. The worst part of the film, though, is when the activist shows up. She's over-the-top and cringe-inducing, so it's no surprise that her scenes feel heavy-handed. A far more poignant, tender and wise movie about a young man who uses a less conventional method to heal is The Music Never Stopped--in that wonderful film, he healed through music, particularly the music of the Grateful Dead. Every beat that fails to land in Gigi & Nate succeeds to land in The Music Never Stopped.

      The performances are fine, but no one gets enough of a chance to truly stand out. Marcia Gay Harden tries her best to rise above the lazy screenplay and, occassionally, succeed to add some heartfelt moments through her performance alone, but those moments are ephemeral. The editing feels choppy more often than not, especially in the beginning with some abrupt editing when Nate and his family go back to their Nashville home and the movie skips years ahead. What happened in between all of those years? Are they not important? Then it skips again when the family moves to another state at the end of the very rushed and contrived third act. At a running time of 1 hour and 54 minutes, far too long for a family film, Gigi & Nate bites off more than it could chew. It's a schmaltzy, clunky, overstuffed and uncooked mess.

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

Peter von Kant

Directed by François Ozon

      Peter von Kant (Denis Ménochet), a film director, lives with his assistant, Karl (Stéfan Crépon). One day, his friend and muse, Sidonie von Grassenabb (Isabelle Adjani), an actress, introduces him to a young aspiring actor, Amir (Khalil Gharbia), whom he falls in love with. Amir moves in with him, but their relationship becomes rocky and Peter turns to alcohol to drown his sorrows.

      The screenplay by writer/director François Ozon, based on Rainer Werner Fassbinder's film The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, makes it very obvious from the very beginning that Peter von Kant has serious emotional and psychological issues. He's a talented director, but when it comes to his relationship with people in his life, that's a completely different matter. He's instantly possessive of Amir from the minute he sets his eyes upon him. He even promises to pamper him, so, like a true narcissist, he knows how to groom his victim. He's not truly generous, though, because he's just giving Amir those materialistic things to feel better about himself. Everything that Peter gives Amir, including money, comes with strings attached. Once Amir starts sleeping with other men and admits it, Peter's rage begins to rise to the surface and he takes out his anger on Amir. In many ways, Amir is Peter's narcissist supply, so it makes sense when he wants to leave the relationship. Peter doesn't make it easy for him, though.He eventually, inevitably, exhibits behavior that's essentially "extinction burst"---like a baby who cries and screams to get attention because they don't know how else to communicate what they want.

      The last half-hour of Peter von Kant, admittedly, is difficult and heartbreaking to watch as Peter continues to be abusive and to alienate and lash out at everyone in his life including his mother, Rosemarie (Hanna Schygulla). Wisely, Ozon doesn't sugar-coat Peter's emotions. He does a great job of providing a window into Peter's heart, mind and soul to allow the audience to grasp what he's like beneath the surface. On the surface, he seems confident, arrogant and stubborn, but innately, he's a weak, lonely, insecure, vulnerable, emotionally needy human being who lacks emotional maturity. At the same time, Ozon doesn't ask the audience to judge Peter. Despite how unlikable and abusive Peter is, he's not portrayed as a villain nor as one-note caricature; he's a complex and deeply flawed human being. Bravo to Ozon for showing that he clearly understands human nature while showing some compassion and empathy toward Peter, warts and all.

      Denis Ménochet is very well-cast in the lead role. He gives a raw performance that tackles the emotional complexities of the role with conviction. Like Ozon, Ménochet grasps human nature as well as he opens the window of Peter's heart, mind and soul to the audience. It's also an emotionally generous and brave performance. The supporting actors give solid performances, especially Khalil Gharbia, Isabelle Adjani and Stéfan Crépon, but they don't get enough of a chance to shine, and their characters aren't really fleshed out enough. The focus remains on Peter von Kant from start to finish which makes the film a compelling character study that would probably also work as a play. At a running time of just 1 hour and 24 minutes, Peter von Kant is a fascinating, genuinely heartfelt and empathetic portrait of a narcissist.

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

Waiting for Bojangles

Directed by Régis Roinsard

      When Georges (Romain Duris) meets Camille (Virginie Efira) at an outdoor cocktail party on the French Riviera in the 1950's, they instantly fall in love, get married and live a carefree life together. A decade later, they're residing in a Paris apartment with their 10-year-old son, Gary (Solan Machado Graner), and both dance together to the song "Mr. Bojangles" at night. Camille's bipolar disorder gets worse and affects her relationship with her family.

      The screenplay by writer/director Régis Roinsard and Romain Compingt is an awkward blend of offbeat, whimsical comedy, romance and psychological drama. The comedic elements work mostly well initially, and there's some amusing playfulness to the banter between Georges and Camille when they "meet cute". Their whirlwind romance feels like a fairy tale as does their lifestyle once they get married. When the film tries to get beneath their seemingly happy lives to dig deeper into the darker elements, i.e. Camille's mental illness, that's where it comes up short. Georges and Camille remain at a cold distance from the audience, and their characters eventually become grating like nails on a chalkboard during the whimsical scenes. Then there's the family friend, Charles (Grégory Gadebois), who befriends Gary and becomes like a surrogate member of his family, but the relationship is underexplored, so the attempts at emotional resonance during the third act fall flat. Moreover, many scenes heavy-handed and overstay their welcome while testing the audience's patience. Waiting for Bojangles does deserve credit for a refreshingly un-Hollywood, dark and somewhat bold ending that doesn't try to please the audience, though, but that's not enough to make it rise above mediocrity and overcome its clunkiness. It also has very little to say about mental illness or dysfunctional families.

      Romain Duris and Virginie Efira give lively performances, and their charisma helps to enliven the film ever so slightly. There are pacing issues, too. Within the first ten minutes, a lot happens and the pace moves too quickly before it slows down. Then it moves too slowly and meanders as Camille's behavior becomes increasingly erratic. Some scenes, especially around the 90-minute mark begin to drag, and the ending feels too drawn out. At a running time of 2 hours and 4 minutes, which feels more like 3 hours, Waiting for Bojangles is mildly amusing, but often uneven, clunky and tedious.  


Number of times I checked my watch: 3
Released by Blue Fox Entertainment.
Opens at Quad cinema.