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Films I Neglected to Review: All The Hits
by Peter Sobczynski

Please enjoy short reviews of "All In: The Fight For Democracy," "The Broken Hearts Gallery," "Chuck Berry: The Original King Of Rock 'N' Roll," "I Am Woman," "Jimmy Carter: Rock & Roll President, "Rent-A-Pal" and "Sibyl."

"All In: The Fight for Democracy" is a film from co-directors Lisa Cortes and Liz Garbus that essentially offers viewers two separate, though intertwined, documentaries for the price of one. In one, the focus is on Stacy Abrams, the former Georgia House Minority Leader whose ultimately failed run for governor--a bid that fell short amidst accusations of widespread voter suppression tactics aimed at the African-American community and spearheaded by her competitor, Brian Kemp, via his position as Georgia's then-Secretary of State--transformed her into a national political figure and a crusader for voter's rights. The other takes a broader look at the tactics that have been employed since the earliest days of the United States to keep people from exercising their right to vote, ranging from poll taxes to literacy tests to suspect voter roll purges to acts of violence that include cold-blooded murder. (If the film had been made just a couple of months later, the current post office slowdown would have almost certainly made the cut as well.) Both storylines are well-done and informative (though its unabashedly progressive slant may lead some conservative viewers to feel otherwise) but while watching it, I couldn't help but think that they each might have been more effective if they had been spun off into their own separate films. The life story of Abrams alone could easily fill up an entire film and leave viewers wanting more--even those who did not think that she quite had what it took to earn a spot in the recent Democratic VP derby will no doubt come away from this film impressed by her life story and considerable achievements. (Her story about the first time she was denied entry into the Georgia governorís mansion is especially powerful and moving.) Likewise, an expanded take on the history of voter suppression could have easily added more details about our country's sad history in that regard and how those traditions continue on today. Of course, "All In" is not a particularly objective film but that is not really what it is trying to accomplish. Instead, it is designed to make viewers angry about the myriad ways in which their constitutional right to vote has been trod upon throughout the decades and determined to do everything they can to prevent it from happening again. In that regard, it is an undeniable success.

The new rom-com "The Broken Hearts Gallery" is one of those films where most reasonably attentive viewers will be able to more or less accurately predict every twist and turn that writer-director Natalie Krinsky has to offer before the screening has even begun. After losing both her boyfriend and her job as an assistant in a chic New York art gallery at the same time and in a humiliatingly public manner, Lucy (Geraldine Viswanathan) hops into a nearby car, assuming that it is the Uber she orderer, and when the driver, Nick (Dacre Montgomery), cannot convince her otherwise, he gallantly drives her home. After this initial meet cute, they run into each other again and it turns out that Nick is trying to fix up an old building to reopen as a boutique hotel. A collector of artifacts from her previous relationships, she spontaneously nails the recent ex's necktie to the wall and proposes that a section of the hotel be transformed into a gallery space in which others can contribute their own artifacts and stories as a way of moving on with their own lives. Do I need to tell you whether or not the friendship between Lucy and Nick develops into anything stronger? Do I need to tell you if there is a point where, just when everything seems perfect, things between them crumble in the face of misunderstandings and the returns of old flames? Do I need to tell you if there is a finale involving the kind of grand gestures and perfectly worded speeches that never quite work out in real life? Do I need to tell you if Lucy and Nick both have close friends who seem to have no other purpose in life other than to offer the occasional wry observation about what the two of them are doing?

So the film as a whole is slick and glib affair that has a few nifty one-liners (especially an amusing jab at Marie Kondo) which do not quite offset the rather mundane nature of the rest of the material, which tries to shift into a slightly more serious tone in the second half without much success. And yet, while "The Broken Hearts Gallery" never quite achieves takeoff velocity, it does have a couple of elements that prevent me from dismissing it entirely. For starters, even though this is a film that does not have an original bone in its body, Krinsky invests the material with a surprising degree of unexpected and unalloyed sincerity throughout--there is not a cynical bone in its body and at this particular place and time, that attitude proves to be surprisingly refreshing. The other good thing on display--make that great--is the smashing and utterly endearing performance by Viswanathan as Lucy. Over the last few years, she has been stealing scenes left and right in projects like "Blockers," "Hala," "Bad Education" and "Miracle Workers" and in this film, her highest profile project to date, she knocks it out of the park by adding a jolt of purely irresistible personality to otherwise routine material in much the same way that Julia Roberts did in "Pretty Woman." Although the most familiar name in the credits for most people going into "The Broken Hearts Gallery" will no doubt be Selena Gomez, who served as one of the executive producers, it is Viswanathan whose praises they will be singing afterwards and while she may not be able to completely rescue the film from its basic innocuousness, she certainly helps make it come across as far more watchable than it deserves to be.

"Chuck Berry" comes billed as "the first-ever feature length documentary devoted to the life of the singer/songwriter/guitarist widely considered the 'Granddaddy of Rock and Roll." Seeing as how it was made in 2018, a year after Berry's passing at the age of 90, I suppose that it does qualify but any film trying to chronicle the life of the musical icon is going to wind up being compared to "Chuck Berry Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll," Taylor Hackford's brilliant look at Berry's life and career as he prepares for a pair of 60th birthday concerts with a band led by Keith Richards, a film that remains one of the best rock documentaries ever made. Jon Brewer's film never comes close to topping that earlier work but it does lay out a reasonably complete look at his groundbreaking career through the use of archival footage (including numerous clips from the Hackford film) and new interviews colleagues, fellow musicians and members of Berry's family, most notably Themetta, his wife of 62 years in what I believe is the first extended interview that she has ever given. (In one of the most memorable moments of "Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll," Hackford begins to talk to her on camera but get shut down by Berry very quickly.) Although there is not much here that will come across as new or revelatory to most students of rock history, it does offer a basic understanding of who he was, the struggles that he had to overcome throughout his career and the astonishing degree to which he became one of the true architects of the dominant musical force of the 20th century and beyond. Brewer does make a couple of mistakes--he has included some highly stylized dramatic reenactments that feel as if they came from a direct-to-video "Sin City" sequel that coexist uneasily with the straightforward documentary material and when the subject turns to some of the darker moments of Berry's life, such as his various stretches in prison and the ugly scandal involving cameras in the bathroom of a club he owned, are only briefly mentioned before being pushed to the side. If you are looking for a documentary that comes as close to explaining the importance of Chuck Berry and his incredible musical output, "Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll" remains the gold standard but as a companion piece that fills in some of the blanks regarding the years since that one was made, "Chuck Berry" is a reasonably satisfactory bit of cinematic motorvating.

There are at least three different potential movies to be found within "I Am Woman," a new biopic on the life and career of Seventies era singer and feminist icon Helen Reddy, and the problem is that director Unjoo Moon and writer Emma Jensen have elected to focus mostly on the least interesting of the bunch while leaving in just enough of the others to make the whole thing exceptionally frustrating to most viewers. What we have here is a standard-issue musical biopic--the sort that "Walk Hard" brutally skewered years ago--that follows the ambitious Australian singer (Tilda Cobham-Hervey) from when she arrives as a single mother in New York seeking fame and fortune to finding it in the face of incredible industry sexism with the help of her manager/husband Jeff Wald (Evan Peters) to nearly losing it all thanks to his financial mismanagement and coked-up lunacy, all of which is conveyed through clumsily written scenes featuring broad characterizations (after watching Peters go through his strident paces, one longs for the kind of quiet restraint that Eric Roberts showed in "Star 80"), dialogue that is too on-the-nose for its own good and what could politely be deemed a certain lack of fidelity to the historical record. At the center of it all, Cobham-Hervey is decent enough but since her speaking voice is markedly different from what is heard on the songs she is lip-synching, the illusion of reality that is often the key to the success of this type of film is constantly being shattered every time the music kicks in.

By comparison, the two other plot lines that are fighting for space here are infinitely more intriguing. One involves Reddy's friendship with fellow Australian Lillian Roxon (Danielle Macdonald), a music journalist who would go on to pen the first encyclopedia of rock & roll written by a woman. Although this thread is not without its own lack of subtlety (as evidenced by the Camille-level coughing fits that Lillian deploys from practically the first moment we see her), the scenes between the two have a spark and energy that is lacking elsewhere. Hell, I wouldn't have minded taking Reddy entirely out of the equation and making it about a woman battling industry sexism to write about a subject that was itself rife with sexist attitudes, a notion that I contend sounds infinitely more intriguing than just another biopic. The other potentially interesting notion that is mostly kept to the background charts the growth of the Women's Rights movement of the era, which adopted "I Am Woman" as its anthem, and how her successes and failures mirrored those of the movement as it culminated with the efforts to pass the Equal Rights Amendment. The idea of a film exploring the often entwined nature of politics and popular culture using Reddy and the ERA could have made for an interesting companion piece to the recent "Mrs America" but it is all but thrown away here. Look, if all you want is a by-the-numbers biopic that offers all the required surface details and nothing more, you may be perfectly satisfied with "I Am Woman," especially if you are already a Helen Reddy fan. As for myself, I cannot claim to be much of a fan of her music as a whole but even I think that she and her legacy, artistic and otherwise, deserve more than what they have been given here.

"Jimmy Carter: Rock & Roll President" is the second documentary in as many months to take a cinematic look at the presidency of Jimmy Carter, though this one is far less harrowing in tone than "Desert One." Here, director Mary Wharton examines Carter, his unlikely election and tumultuous presidency largely through the popular music of the era that he genuinely embraced and and the musicians who saw in him a kindred spirit. At a time when rock music was still looked upon with great suspicion by many, Carter cultivated friendships with the likes of the Allman Brothers and Bob Dylan that were born out of a genuine love and admiration for their work but which also allowed him to tap into the support of their young fan bases for his surprise election to the presidency in 1976. This story is conveyed through spectacular archival footage (including one priceless bit in which Carter joins Dizzy Gillespie on stage at one of the many concerts put on in the Rose Garden) and new interviews with Carter and such musicians as Willie Nelson (who evidently smoked pot with one of Carterís sons during an overnight stay in the White House), Roseanne Cash (who talks of her parents and their relationship with Carter, whom June Carter Cash claimed was a cousin) and even Dylan himself turns up to offer some only slightly enigmatic thoughts. Since the focus on this film is primarily on the music, those seeking a full accounting of the Carter legacy may find it to be a little on the slight side when it touches on the weightier aspects of his presidency. However, when the focus is on the music and how it came to be a not inconsiderable influence on Carter's worldview and a method he used to help build understandings with other countries, "Jimmy Carter: Rock & Roll President" is an occasionally fascinating and always genial work that help brings new understanding to the man and his legacy.

Set in 1990, "Rent-A-Pal" opens with David (Brian Landis Folkins) signing up with a video dating service in the hopes of landing a girlfriend. As he is 40 years old, is not particularly attractive and serves as the sole caretaker for his mother (Kathleen Brady), who is suffering from dementia, while living in her basement, this attempt does not go particularly well. He soon comes across an odd bargain bin VHS tape called "Rent-A-Pal" and when he plays it, it displays Andy (Wil Wheaton), a soothing and friendly sweater vest-clad host who is meant to simulate a few hours of companionship, including conversations with pauses built in for the flesh-and-blood participant to respond. It sounds ridiculous, of course, but after initial skepticism, David finds himself taken by it and soon regards his "conversations" with Andy as the one respite from his otherwise grueling and unfulfilling existence. After a while, though, the talks with Andy begin to take a darker turn and when David unexpectedly meets and charms Lisa (Amy Rutledge), a fellow caretaker who agrees to go out on a date with him, Andy proves to be fairly hostile to the arrival of a friend who does not require any tracking knob adjustments, so to speak.

This film from debuting director Jon Stevenson contains an intriguing premise, good performances from the main actors and a screenplay that manages to find a way to balance a certain amount of sympathy for David without in any way minimizing his eventual actions or behavior during the creepy conclusion. The problem, however, is that most viewers will grasp early on that we are watching the story of a man whose mind is gradually disintegrating into insanity and at 108 minutes, it simply goes on too long for its own good and there are a number of stretches (especially towards the end) that just end up belaboring the point. This is one of those films that could have easily been cut down to an hour and become an extremely effective episode of some genre-based anthology series--imagine it as a retro-themed episode of "Black Mirror"--without losing much on anything in the process. Still, "Rent-A-Pal" does have some provocative ideas and plenty of ambition going for it and while the end result does not quite make the grade, it will leave those who do watch it curious as to what Stevenson comes up with the next time around.

As Justine Triet's "Sibyl" opens, the titular character (Virginie Efira), a therapist with a drinking problem, decides to finally make a break from her practice, dropping all but a couple of patients, in order to finally knuckle down and write a novel. While struggling to get anything written, she finds herself fascinated by the problems surrounding her newest patient, Margot (Adele Exarchopoulos), a young actress who is having an affair with the co-star (Gaspard Ulliel) of her latest movie who just happens to be the boyfriend of their director (Sandra Huller), and begins surreptitiously using her story as inspiration for her book. When Margot's situation becomes exponentially complicated, she winds up virtually ceding control of her life's decisions to Sibyl and even has her brought out to the film's increasingly contentious set with predictably disastrous results. Although this description might make it sound like a classical door-slamming farce, Triet has elected to weave scenes of wackiness with more serious-minded moments in ways that may remind some viewers of "Toni Erdmann" (a sensation underscored here by the presence of Huller, who was that film's star). However, while I can see how this might have worked as a straight comedy or drama, the combination of the two tones never quite gels into a satisfying whole and it all just runs out of steam after a while. Still, there are some inspired moments here and there--at one point, Sibyl actually finds herself directing a scene in order to keep the project from imploding--and the performances from Efira, Exarchopoulos and Huller (the latter pretty much stealing every one of her scenes) are good enough to keep your interest even as the film as a whole is failing to do the same.


link directly to this feature at https://www.efilmcritic.com/feature.php?feature=4262
originally posted: 09/11/20 03:07:21
last updated: 09/11/20 03:55:11
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