Blind Ambition
Went into the spirited documentary BLIND AMBITION fully expecting it to be a narrative feature and after seeing it, I’m just waiting for the announcement that it is Hollywood bound.  The story of four Zimbabwe immigrants living in South Africa that enter The World Wine Blind Tasting Championships, becoming the first team from their country to do so, is perfect fodder to get a dramatization from a big studio and I spent much of the film casting it with stars who would likely play the colorful characters featured in Warwick Ross and Rob Coe’s doc.  Though fairly mannered in terms of documentary beats (you can see every roadblock, stumble, phoenix rise, etc. coming from several vineyards ahead) Ross and Coe suck you in early on by introducing you not just to the men that make up the Zimbabwe team but to their families in South Africa and back in their homeland.  Ross and Coe even manage to find a quasi-villain of the piece, the men’s rotund, past his prime, and mostly deaf French coach, and make him a wee bit lovable.  It needs a change in title ASAP but otherwise this is audience-pleasing ready for release.

Dating & New York
The rom-com gets a millennial overhaul in DATING & NEW YORK, a charming as all get out bit of whimsy set in the “city than never sleeps but sleeps around a lot” and featuring a trio of winning performances from Jaboukie Young-White, Francesca Reale, and Brian Muller and one outright barnburner.  That would be the riotous Catherine Cohen playing the “best friend” character but taken to a different level with the right mix of acerbic wit and honest worldly wisdom.  Director Jonah Feingold could turn the volume down on that score (the city never sleeps because it needs earplugs) and opt for less straight-forward shooting at times, but of all the Ephron-esque attempts to examine friendships with benefits in recent memory this one gets closest to the bullseye.  Those smart folks over at IFC just snapped this one up so keep an eye out for its release in the near future. 

Liza Anonymous
The theater nerd in me is what instantly attracted me to a short like LIZA ANONYMOUS.  Shows like Dead to Me have explored how imposters can infiltrate a recovery or support group but @aubreysmyth’s likable small bite short takes it a step deeper, but thankfully not darker. In fact, it could have been easy for this one to slide into a grody place as we follow Liza (Danielle Beckmann) through her attendance at weekly meetings for addicts and the varying personalities she takes on while there.  When she’s caught, it initially exposes truth comically but then dovetails into a sweet message of forgiveness and acceptance of self…which is often the same end result of the sessions Liza fakes her way into.

P.S. Burn This Letter Please
Now available on Discovery Plus and screening at this year’s festival, P.S. Burn This Letter Please is a striking documentary about the lives of a group of gay men in 1950s New York City.  The letters found in the storage unit of a late Hollywood agent provide the entry point for directors Michael Seligman and Jennifer Tiexiera to bring the audience into the underground drag scene of that era. A far more dangerous time to live for the LGBTQ+ community, through interviews with people that lived it or knew people that died for it, the wealth of information is top-notch.  However, it gets repetitive and at 105 minutes the doc begins to feel long after some time.  Essentially, it becomes the same story over and over again (which is sort of life, right?) and while I feel the doc could use some trimming, it’s hard to lose the interviews with the men that survived the onslaught of AIDS in the 80s and watched their friends and loved ones die.  Worth a watch, but be prepared to feel the squirm around the 75-minute mark.

All My Friends Hate Me
Poor Pete, he’s having a terrible birthday weekend in All My Friends Hate Me by the time he starts getting chased through the woods by an axe-wielding psychopath.  Oh, I’ve started my capsule review too far into this cheeky UK comedy with a dash of horror thrown in on top of some thrills.  Don’t worry, I didn’t give away too much of director Andrew Gaynord’s unpredictable yarn and I definitely didn’t reveal why Pete would be running away from his birthday party in the first place.  After all, a stay at a luxe mansion owned by the parents of his college friend for his celebration sounds like the perfect getaway…until a last-minute addition to the guest list changes the group dynamic for the worse.  Co-writer and star Tom Stourton nicely threads the needle of his performance in a way that has us tossing Pete our pity one moment and pretending we don’t know him the next.  The script keeps changing direction so much that it’s next to impossible to nail it down, much less figure out quite where it’s headed, until it reveals its endgame.  Quirky, maddening (in a good way), and increasingly ominous with a sufficient payout for your time, this is one to keep an eye on.

The Novice
Isabelle Fuhrman’s performance in 2009’s very underrated horror film Orphan still is sort of burnt onto my brain, so I didn’t need a lot of encouragement to buy that her character in THE NOVICE, a college freshman that joins the school rowing team, is a little, er, dark.  A sport not greatly captured on film, director Lauren Hadaway shows how rowing crew demands both physical and mental alacrity and only those operating at the top of their game will move ahead.  Used to being the best and punishing herself physically for anything less, Alex (Fuhrman) leaps headfirst into crew with the intent on moving to the elite varsity squad as quickly as possible.  In competition with her former novice friend, Alex tunes out all other aspects of her life and own physicality in her focus on winning.  Despite obvious comparisons to Black Swan and Whiplash (both of which are favorable and true), Hadaway’s The Novice is visually rich in the storytelling department with razor sharp editing (from Hadaway) and has Furhman turning in a devastatingly haunting performance.  It’s the type of superior work in indie cinema that should be hand delivered to awards voters over the next six months to ensure they see it, remember it, recognize it.

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