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The Innocents

Directed by Anne Fontaine

      After the end of World War II, Maria (Agata Buzek), a nun from a Polish convent, pleads for help from a doctor, Mathilde Beaulieu (Lou de Laage), at a French Red Cross hospital. Mathilde agrees to break protocol by visiting the convent where she learns that a group of nuns have been quarantined because they're pregnant. The nuns, as it turns out, where impregnated after Soviet soldiers had raped them. Mother Abbess (Agata Kulesza) makes it clear to Mathilde from the get-go that she doesn't want news of the pregnant nuns spreading in order to protect the reputation of the convent. Samuel (Vincent Macaigne), Mathilde's supervisor, also gets involved in the treatment of the pregnant nuns, and concurrently develops an affection for Mathilde.

      Based on a true story, The Innocents is a quietly powerful, poignant, well-acted and captivating drama that feels organic thanks to the sensitive screenplay by writer/director Anne Fontaine, Pascal Bonitzer, Sabrina B. Karine and Alice Vial. Even though the bulk of the story takes places inside one setting, the convent, the film doesn't feel stuffy or stagey. The characters seem like they're lived-in human beings rather than plot devices to move the plot forward. In other words, don't be surprised if you feel emotionally invested in the lives of Mathilde and the nuns.

      The fact that The Innocents also avoids become maudlin, preachy and melodramatic is another testament to the strength of its screenplay. It doesn't shy away from depicting the darker elements of the story while not going too dark at the same time. The very well-cast actor Vincent Macaigne provides some of the film's much-needed, ephemeral comic relief. The cinematography and set designs are superb as is the gentle, non-intrusive musical score. Even though the ending change to a somewhat more upbeat and uplifting tone, it's one that earns its uplift. The Innocents would be an interesting double feature with Ida and Of Gods and Men.

Number of times I checked my watch: 0
Released by Music Box Films.
Now playing at Angelika Film Center and Lincoln Plaza Cinemas.

The Nice Guys

Directed by Shane Black

      In 1970s Los Angeles, Two private investigators, Holland March (Ryan Gosling) and Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe) team up to search for a missing young woman, Amelia (Margaret Qualley). They must also investigate what an alleged suicide of a porn star has to do with Amelia's disappearance. What they do know is that Amelia runs an environmental protest group. After questioning the protestors, they learn Amelia can be found at a party hosted by a porn producer, so they infiltrate the party in search of Amelia. Holland's brave and precocious young daughter, Holly (Angourie Rice), tags along with her father and Jackson throughout their investigation.

      Although the plot becomes increasingly convoluted as the film progresses, the screenplay by writer/director Shane Black and co-writer Anthony Bagarozzi includes plenty of witty dialogue and banter between Holland and Jackson that's often concurrently funny and clever. Gosling and Crowe, both immensely charismatic and talented actors, have great chemistry together, and it's a lot of fun to watch them play off of each other. Rarely has a buddy comedy worked so well when it comes to finding the right tone while blending genres. Black and Bagarozzi do a great job of combining comedy, action, noir and suspense without any unevenness. Yes, the running time is nearly 2 hours, but it breezes by like 90 minutes so you don't actually feel its weight like with most Hollywood films. Lesser talented writers would have turned the film into atonal, boring mess. It's so refreshing to hear dialogue in a modern Hollywood film that does not make your ears bleed or result in the loss of your brain cells. On an aesthetic level, the cinematography, set design, lighting and costumes look authentic for the time period and provide some style.

      If you're looking for substance, though, there's not much of that except for the crackling dialogue between Holland and Jackson. Whenever Gosling and Crowe are onscreen together, which is thankfully quite often, The Nice Guys becomes truly captivating. The more you think about the details of the plot, though, the less it makes sense, especially when it comes to the bizarre and confusing motivations of Amelia's mother, Judith (Kim Basinger), a District Attorney. Just like in L.A. Confidential, Basinger's screen time is too brief, but she makes the most out of the material that she's given. It's worth mentioning that Angourie Rice delivers a breakthrough performance as Holland's daughter. As long as you suspend some of your disbelief for 2 hours, sit back to hear the witty, crackling dialogue, and feel the palpable chemistry between Holland and Jackson, you'll find The Nice Guys to be a wildly entertaining ride.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by Warner Bros. Pictures.
Now playing nationwide.

Jimmy Vestvood: Amerikan Hero

Directed by Jonathan Kesselman

      Jamshid Fakhreinpour (Maz Jobrani) wins the Green Card Lottery in Tehran which allows him to move to America with is mom (Vida Ghahremani). He gets wrongfully labeled as a terrorist by the U.S. mainstream media, particularly Hank Shannity (Matthew Glave) of Kox News Channel, after a YouTube video of him waving a burning American flag in Tehran. Unbeknownst to the media, he was waving the flag to show his joy of winning the Green Card Lottery, and it became engulfed in flames through a series of accidents. Upon arrival to America, he finds a job as a security guard at a Los Angeles supermarket while aspiring to fulfill his dreams of becoming a private investigator. With the help of his seventh cousin, Leila (Sheila Vand), he gets business cards for his P.I. business and changes his name to Jimmy Vestvood. JP Monroe (John Heard), a smarmy businessman who's secretly an arms dealer hoping to start WWIII, pays him to spy on his wife to find proof that that she's cheating on him with an Arab.

      Co-writers Maz Jobrani and Amir Ohebsion fearlessly take many satirical jabs at politics as well as the media. Unlike in many modern politically incorrect comedies (i.e. The Brothers Grimsby and Neighbors 2), the jokes here rarely fall flat, and the laughs keep coming even if some of them are indeed lowbrow. This is the kind of comedy you'll want to watch more than once just to catch all of the humor that you might have missed the first time around. Maz Jobrani just the right actor for the role because he has impeccable comedic timing---he's even funnier than Sacha Baron Cohen was in Borat. Most impressively, though, director Jonathan Kesselman and the co-writers make great use of the supporting characters to allow them to have plenty of laugh-out-loud moments as well, i.e. Jimmy's mom or his Persian boss (Marshall Manesh) at the supermarket.

      What makes Jimmy Vestvood so successful as a comedic satire is that lurking underneath its raunchiness and bite, there's some kernels of harsh truths and critiques to be found. The mainstream media in America could, realistically, wrongfully accuse a foreigner as a terrorist based on a random Youtube video without vetting it in any way, shape or form like true journalists would do. They'll then use any images/videos as propaganda to make America look great while increasing our fears about Muslims and other foreigners. America is essentially an empire, a superpower---the joke in the film about the US's international code being # 1 for a reason is quite fitting). When a corrupt character (who won't be spoiled here) gets off on a technicality despite his many wrongdoings ends up as Vice President of the United States, that's also something that could happen in America. Fortunately, all of these messages aren't preached in a heavy-handed way; they're buried under a lot of comedy. Bold, raunchy and biting, Jimmy Vestvood is one of the most outrageously funny comedies in years. Please be sure to stay through the end credits for an additional scene.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Now playing at Village East Cinema.

A Monster With a Thousand Heads

Directed by Rodrigo Plá

      Sonia Bonet (Jan Raluy) refuses to tolerate a broken healthcare system that doesn't allow life-saving medical care to be provided for her ailing husband, Memo (Daniel Cubillo). She's mad as hell, and just can't take it anymore. With a gun hidden in her purse, she drags along her teenage son, Dario (Sebastián Aguirre), to the hospital to try to confront Dr. Villalba (Hugo Albores) who's been ignoring her phone calls. She even goes to the extent of showing up at his home to wait for him there before displaying the gun to him when he refuses to help her husband who can die at any minute without the much-needed treatment that her current health insurance doesn't cover. All she needs to to have the treatment approved as part of the health coverage, but that takes more than one signature as it turns out, so she goes up through the chain of command in the healthcare system to get what she wants without being afraid to use her gun.

      Although the plot sounds like a standard vigilante crime thriller, the way that director Rodrigo Plá and screenwriter Laura Santullo tell the story is refreshing, intelligent and thoroughly riveting. From the get-go, it's easy for the audience to empathize with Sonia. You probably won't agree with her choice of using violence (or perhaps she had no other choice), but you'll definitely grasp the root causes of her anger, pain and desperation. Plá and Santullo wisely build the tension gradually instead of introducing the gun in the first scene. Once the gun is introduced, though, the tension rises. Kudos to Plá for selecting Jana Raluy in the role of Sonia because she's a very talented actress and gives bravura performance.

      In many ways, the camera becomes a character in itself in a way because of the interesting angles. Plá let the camera get too close to Sonia, so there's almost always a distance and sometimes even a different perspective during a key moment, i.e. from someone in his parked car in a garage or from the perspective of the maid in the kitchen who can hear Sonia and Dr. Villalba yelling at one another. Santullo and Plá should be commended for trusting the audience's and for what they decided, consciously or not, to omit from the film. There's no voice-over narration, no Tarantino-esque violence/gore (this is nothing like Kill Bill, after all), no subplots that go off into a distracting tangent, no melodramatic scene, no traditional third act, and no overlong running time---it's only 1 hour and 14 minutes, shockingly, so it doesn't overstay its welcome nor does it become exhausting. A Monster With a Thousand Heads is ultimately a lean, gripping, exhilarating and refreshingly intelligent thriller.

Number of times I checked my watch: 0
Released by Music Box Films.
Now playing at Film Forum.
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