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Reviews for September 8th, 2023

Documentary Round-Up

      Hello Dankness is an outrageously funny, bold and brilliantly subversive work of art.  Part political satire, part comedy, part musical, part documentary it's both difficult and unfair to classify in just one genre. The enigmatic Soda Jerk, an anonymous 2-person artistic team, assemble a collage of clips from a wide variety of films ranging from The 'Burbs to Home Alone. Have you ever wondered what the cinematic universe of American Beauty and Napoleon Dynamite would look like? Now's your chance. Soda Jerk edit the clips in ways that are both hilarious and clever while achieving a form of visual poetry albeit an unconventional form.. Poetry, after all, is a form of protest for or against something, so perhaps it would be accurate to describe Hello Dankness as a protest against fascism, and a protest for democracy and freedom---every kind of freedom, including artistic freedom which Soda Jerk enthusiastically embrace from start to finish. You'll enjoy it whether you watch it while high, drunk, clean and/or sober. Better yet, watch it with a group of friends. At a running time of only 1 hour and 10 minutes, Hello Dankness opens at Film Forum.


Directed by Michael A. Goorjian

      Charlie (Michael A. Goorjian), the only surviving member of his family who died in the Armenian genocide during World War I. In 1948, after living for most of his life in the United States, he returns to Armenia as part of Stalin's repatriation program. However, a series of misunderstandings gets him arrested for alleged cosmopolitanism and he gets thrown into an Armenian prison while he's accused of being a spy.

      Based on the premise alone, Amerikatsi sounds like it could be a gripping thriller set in a prison. That presumption would only be partially correct. The screenplay by writer/director Michael A. Goorjian does take place inside a prison, but it's more about how Charlie escapes his emotional prison, so-to-speak, by peering through the window of his prison cell and observing the daily life of people who lives directly across from his cell Those people happen to be a prison guard, Tigron (Hovik Keuchkerian), and his wife, Ruzan (Narine Gioryan). Tigron's home isn't visible right away; only when an earthquake strikes and knocks down a prison wall. What ensues is a blend of physical, offbeat comedy and tender drama. Writer/director Michael A. Goorjian deserves to be commended for taking such a serious subject matter and infusing it with comedy which makes the film more palatable albeit less hard-hitting and unflinching emotionally. He grasps the concept that comedy is often rooted in tragedy. However, he doesn't quite take the comedy and absurdity to the heights of Fellini. Of course, comparisons to Roberto Benigni's Life is Beautiful are inevitable, but, to be fair, the humor is more similar to Elia' Suleiman's style of humor like in The Time That Remains.Initially, there's some tonal whiplash between the two vastly different tones, but, eventually, Amerikatsi, finds its footing--it just takes some patience to get to that point.

      Michael A. Goorjian gives a solid performance in a complex role that's not easy to portray. The film's poignancy comes from his performance, though, not from the screenplay. Fortunately, there are no maudlin or melodramatic scenes; there are even some surprisingly understated and poetic moments. The pace moves slowly, at times a little too slow during the first half and during the third act, but those aren't major issues. At a running time of 1 hour and 55 minutes, Amerikatsi is a captivating, funny and tender tragicomedy with shades of Elia Suleiman's brand of absurdist humor.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by Variance Films.
Opens at Quad Cinema.

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe

Directed by Aitch Alberto

      Aristotle (Max Pelayo), a Mexican-American teenager meets another Mexican-American teenager, Dante (Reese Gonzalez), at a swimming pool during the summer of 1987 in El Paso, Texas. They become close friends throughout the course of the summer, but their relationship gets put to the test when Ari gets injured in an accident and Dante briefly moves to Chicago before returning to El Paso during the summer of 1988.

      Based on the novel by Benjamin Alire Sáenz, the screenplay by writer/director Aitch Alberto weaves an engrossing coming-of-age drama that also serves as a tender love story. Alberto wisely avoids turning the film into a sappy, clunky mess. Aristotle and Dante have a "meet cute" moment at the pool, but it's sweet without being saccharine. It's moving to watch how their friendship blossoms into something transcendent, so when they have their first kiss, the beat lands because it feels organic. Alberto should also be commended for giving both Aristotle and Dante unique personalities which makes them all the more human and relatable. She doesn't treat any of the characters as villains; they all feel like fully-fleshed human beings. The film takes its time to add layers of complexity to their relationship, i.e. during their time apart from each other and the way that Dante reacts to Ari's injury which sent him to the hospital. They correspond via letters, but their relationship does hit some road bumps and there's some friction between them. This isn't a fairy tale love story because it does have some emotional grit, although it's not quite as powerful and unflinching as Andrew Haigh's Weekend. At least it's not as contrived and sugar-coated as Love, Simon, though.

      Max Pelayo and Reese Gonzalez have palpable chemistry which makes it easy for the audience to root for Aristotle and Dante to be together. Neither of them over-acts or under-acts, so their natural performances help to ground the film in realism. The cinematography is pretty decent with great use of music and editing which help to make the film feel more cinematic, so writer/director Aitch Alberto finds the right balance between Truth and Spectacle, but, most importantly, finds the Spectacle within the Truth, a.k.a. humanism, a truly special effect. At a running time of 1 hour and 36 minutes, Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe is a warm, tender and genuinely heartfelt love story. It would make for an interesting double feature with Lukas Moodysson's Show Me Love.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by Blue Fox Entertainment.
Opens nationwide.

El Conde

Directed by Pablo Larraín

      Augusto Pinochet (Jaime Vadell) has been a vampire living in an isolated mansion for the past 250 years with his wife,  Lucía (Gloria Münchmeyer), his butler, Fyodor (Alfredo Castro) and his children, Manuel (Diego Muñóz), Luciana (Catalina Guerra), Mercedes (Amparo Noguera) and Aníbal (Marcial Tagle). However, he's ashamed of the world seeing him as a thief, so stops drinking blood because he prefers to die. That changes when he meets Carmencita (Paula Luchsinger), a nun, who arrives to do the accounting of his estate.

       Part political satire, part dark comedy, part horror, the screenplay by writer/director Pablo Larraín and co-writer Guillermo Calderón brims with wit and tongue-in-cheek humor. Logic isn't among the film's strengths, but that's okay because, as Hitchcock once wisely observed, imagination is more important than logic. El Conde has plenty of imagination from beginning to end. Its premise never feels like it's stretched too thinly nor does it run out of steam because there's always something surprising or refreshing around the corner. With a less sensitive screenplay, it could've been a tonally uneven mess, but, fortunately, it establishes its off-kilter, darkly comedic tone from the get-go and maintains it until the end. As the plot becomes increasingly complex and new characters, like the nun and Pinochet's mother---Margaret Thatcher!--are introduced, it also becomes more zany and outrageously funny without ceasing to be thought-provoking and clever. The last line of the film is one of the most funny last lines since the one at the end of Barbie, another smart and entertaining satire.

      Beyond its well-written screenplay, El Conde also boasts mesmerizing black-and-white cinematography with a few exhilarating, dreamlike shots of Pinochet flying. The cinematography only changes to color at the end, but it remains stunning to behold. The performances are all terrific and everyone gets a chance to shine, especially Gloria Münchmeyer who plays Pinochet's wife and Alfredo Castro who plays his butler. There's plenty of blood and gore, so this isn't for audiences with a weak stomach because the filmmakers don't leave the brutality of the violence to the audience's imagination. To be fair, though, the fact that it's in black-and-white makes it less disgusting and shocking, though. The film is very well-paced without any dull scenes or scenes that overstay their welcome despite that the setting takes place primarily inside Pinochet's mansion which becomes like a character in itself. At a running time of 1 hour and 50 minutes, El Conde is one of the most razor-sharp, biting and wickedly funny vampire movies ever made.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by Netflix.
Opens at IFC Center and The Paris Theatre.


Directed by Karim Ouelhaj

      Martha (Eline Schumacher) works as a cleaner and lives with her brother, Félix (Benjamin Ramon), who follows in his father's footsteps by becoming a serial killer.

      The screenplay by writer/director Karim Ouelhaj looks at the dark side of human nature, but it's tediously grim, pointless and exhausting. Those are similar systemic ailments that also plague the recent horror/thriller Beaten to Death. Throughout the course of the film, the audience learns very little about Martha and Félix except that they come from a very dysfunctional family and have a deceased father who was a notorious serial killer. Martha gets harassed at work and raped by some of her co-workers. Not surprisingly, when it comes to Félix, the apple didn't fall very far from the tree because he soon goes on a killing spree and kidnaps a woman, holds her hostage and tortures her. You learn very little about the victim, too, so she becomes just a plot device like in Saw. However, Félix is not even remotely as interesting or memorable as a villain as Jigsaw. Megalomaniac could've either been a nail-biting thriller, a dark, psychological character study or both simultaneously. Those two genres aren't mutually exclusive. Instead, it's nothing but dark and eerie with no character to connect with on any level. It doesn't bother to get to know Martha or Félix, so they remain strangers to the audience. Moreover, there's no comic relief or any form of levity which means that the film gradually becomes monotonous and dull with very little narrative momentum.

      The cinematography is fine with stylish use of lighting that adds some grittiness and creepiness, but nothing more than that. The film's visual style doesn't compensate for its lack of substance. The performances are decent, but nothing exceptional. Moreover, too many scenes drag and overstay their welcome with uneven pacing that's sometimes too slow. There's some gore, but, fortunately, Ouelhaj leaves some of the brutal violence to the audience's imagination. This isn't A Serbian Film, after all, so it doesn't really push the envelope like that depraved cult classic. At a running time of 1 hour and 58 minutes, Megalomaniac is overlong, tedious, vapid and exhausting.

Number of times I checked my watch: 3
Released by Dark Star Pictures.
Opens at Cinema Village.

My Animal

Directed by Jacqueline Castel

      Heather (Bobbi Salvör Menuez) lives in a small town with her father, Henry (Stephen McHattie) and alcholic mother, Patti (Heidi von Palleske). She strikes a relationship with Jonny (Amandla Stenberg), a new girl in town. Little does Jonny know that Heather is secretly werewolf.

      The screenplay by Jae Matthews falls flat as a horror thriller, character study and romance. Heather comes across as an interesting character because she comes from a broken home, she's alienated and a social misfit---similar to the teenagers in The Perks of Being a Wallflower. She and Jonny hit it off right away and, soon enough, they're in a sexually-charged relationship. Not surprisingly, Heather's dark secret about being a werewolf---which is no secret to the audience---affects their relationship. My Animal doesn't offer nearly enough exposition about Heather's werewolf curse except that she inherited it from her father. The screenplay neglects to explore the relationship between her and her father, though. Why keep the audience at such a cold distance from Heather? There's clearly a lot going on inside of her, i.e. love, anger, sadness and fear, but the film doesn't go dark and deep enough to allow the audience to understand how emotionally mature and introspective Heather is as a human being. Jonny also remains an underdeveloped character. She's seductive and beautiful, but what does Heather see in her beyond their physical attraction? If you're not a fan of horror, you'll be pleased to know that My Animal doesn't have a single scary moment. It's not as cheesy, dumb or contrived as Twilight, but it nonetheless squanders its opportunities to be a powerful love story or a profound portrait of someone struggling with their sexuality.

      My Animals has a few elements that keeps it at least mildly entertaining. Firstly, there's the strong performances by Bobbi Salvör Menuez and Amandla Stenberg who try their best to rise above the dull screenplay. They do have chemistry together, but not enough to elevate the film above mediocrity. Secondly, there's the exquisite cinematography with stylish use of lighting and color that become part of the film's substance as well as providing some atmosphere. Thirdly, the music score is lively and well-chosen. To be fair, though, at times, the film's style does go a little too far while bombarding the audience with trippy visuals. Just like the recent film Piaffe, My Animal is repetitive with its use of visual poetry. Less is more. Why not trust the audience's intelligence more for a change? At a running time of 1 hour and 40 minutes, My Animal is a stylish, but shallow and heavy-handed love story.

Number of times I checked my watch: 3
Released by Paramount Global Content Distribution.
Opens at Alamo Drafthouse in Manhattan and on VOD.

The Nun II

Directed by Michael Chaves

      In 1956, Valek (Bonnie Aarons), a demon, terrorizes a French boarding school. The Catholic Church sends Sister Irene (Taissa Farmiga) and Sister Debra (Storm Reid) to investigate.

      In terms of plot alone, the screenplay by co-writers Ian Goldberg, Richard Naing and Akela Cooper has nothing new or surprising to offer. A prologue sets up the story by showing some of Valek's mayhem at the boarding school before cutting to the Catholic Church trying to convince Sister Irene and Sister Debra to travel there to find out what's going on. By then, the audience already knows for sure that the demon nun has returned, so they're a step ahead of the two nuns sent to investigate. It takes them a long time to figure out what Valek actually wants and how she ended up terrorizing the boarding school, including its staff members, namely, Kate (Anna Popplewell) and Maurice (Jonas Bloquet). Of course, just as expected, there's a MacGuffin---an item that the demon wants which the two nuns have to find before it's too late. The dialogue is stilted with very little comic relief, and the expositional scenes are clunky which means that you can hear the screenplay turning as the filmmakers spoon-feed the audience. They leave nothing open to interpretation which is an essential quality that elevates most horror films and can turn them into a classic---just as Lars Von Trier who explained that to me when I interviewed him for Antichrist. That said, there are some palpably terrifying scenes and a few exhilarating ones. Moreover, the filmmakers avoid relying on excessive jump scares to entertain the audience. It's too bad that the narrative isn't as impressive as the scares.

      Taissa Farmiga gives a dull and wooden performance that fails to breathe any life into her role, especially during the contrived scenes that are supposed to be moving. Anna Popplewell and Suzanne Bertish are terrific, though, even in their smaller, poorly developed roles. Popplewell has a well-acted albeit brief scene where her character, Kate, tells one of her students politely, but firmly to mind her own business when she eavesdrops on her conversing with Maurice. The true star of the film,though, is the production design which effectively uses lighting, camera work, set design and color to create a foreboding and eerie atmosphere. There are more than a few visually breathtaking scenes which won't be spoiled here. Also, the film has a few very gruesome kills with some blood and guts, it's great that it doesn't shy away from being physically gritty or disturbing---it makes the most out of its R-rating, although it's not nearly as bloody as Evil Dead Rise. At a running time of 1 hour and 50 minutes, The Nun II is visually stylish and atmospheric with some palpable scares, but it's also overlong, unsurprising and unimaginative.

Number of times I checked my watch: 2
Released by Warner Bros. Pictures.
Opens nationwide.

Rotting in the Sun

Directed by Sebastián Silva

      Jordan (Jordan Firstman), a popular social media influencer, arrives in Mexico City to work on a project with a filmmaker, Sebastián (Sebastián Silva), at his apartment. When Sebastián goes missing, Jordan suspects that the cleaning lady, Vero (Catalina Saavedra), might be behind his disappearance.

      The screenplay by writer/director Sebastián Silva and Pedro Peirano begins as a story from the perspective of Jordan, a filmmaker who has reached rock bottom, feel depressed and desperately needs work when he first meets Jordan on a nude beach. Then, after a tragic event that won't be spoiled here, it switches to the perspectives of Vero and Jordan. The audience knows early-on why Sebastián has gone missing and who's responsible for his disappearance, so they're already many steps ahead of Jordan who doesn't know the truth. Instead of turning the film into a nail-biting Hitchcockian whodunit or a Benoit Blanc mystery, the filmmakers take it in a completely different, less conventional direction when it becomes a provocative character study with a touch of dark comedy and moral ambiguity. When will Jordan discover the truth? What will happen when he discovers it? Will the person responsible for Sebastián's disappearance get away with it? More importantly, will he or she have a moral conscience? The answer to that last question is, yes, as it turns out, which makes the film all the more compelling while changing the way you'll look at the villain. The less you know about the plot, the better because it does actually have a few surprises despite the general lack of Hitchcockian suspense.

      Catalina Saavedra stands out the most among the fine cast because she has the most complex and well-written role. Fortunately, not only does the screenplay provide her with the space to bring her character to life, but she gives a nuanced performance that humanizes the character even further. One of her best scenes, though, is at the very end when she delivers a very moving speech. The film does have some pacing issues because it's slow at first as it takes its time to get to the meat of the story, but once Sebastián disappears, the pace picks up a little bit. The opening and closing credits are quite stylish and imaginative, but beyond that, there's nothing exceptional about the film in terms of its visual style nor is there anything shocking or bold about its full frontal nudity in the first act. At a running time of 1 hour and 49 minutes, Rotting in the Sun is a provocative and surprisingly poignant dark comedy.

Number of times I checked my watch: 2
Released by MUBI.
Opens at IFC Center.