Bra Boys - Directed by Sunny Abberton.
Narrated by Russell Crowe, this well-edited and lively, yet poorly synthesized documentary focuses on the Bra Boys, surfers from Mauruba, Australia who became a violent gang and got into trouble with the law. Two of the surfers/gang members, Jai and Koby Abberton, actually went through a trial for allegedly murdering a drug dealer. Director Sunny Abberton, who’s also one of the Bra Boys, wisely provides the audience with some historical background about the rise of the surf culture in Australia. It’s clear that the Bra Boys come from a troubled home and, despite partaking in riots, there’s more to them than meets the eye. Unfortunately, the interviews with them don’t allow you to truly get to know them, though. Sunny Abberton tries to debunk the negative stereotype that the media has brought to them, but he fails to look at both sides of the story thoroughly enough. The most essential part of documentaries about individuals is to show what they’re like “backstage” rather than “frontstage” where they’re merely putting on a performance, so-to-speak. More open and honest interviews would have helped to get that “backstage” access to the Bra Boys that’s sadly missing and to lead to a better synthesized and provocative conclusion. Number of times I checked my watch: 4. Entertainment Value: Moderate. Spiritual Value: Low. Released by Slowhand Releasing. Opens at the Quad Cinema.
Chaos Theory - Directed by Marcos Siega.
Frank (Ryan Reynolds), a self-help guru and author of The Five-Minute Efficiency Trainer, goes through a midlife crises when he has an argument with his wife, Susan (Emily Mortimer), and leaves the house to a hotel bar where he flirts with a sexy woman (Sarah Chalke). On his way back home, he ends up driving a woman (Jocelyne Loewen) in labor to the hospital, where he’s confused as her baby’s father. When Susan believes that Frank cheated on her and had a baby with another woman, chaos ensues. Meanwhile, Frank learns that he’s impotent, so the 7-year-old daughter he’s raising with Susan can’t be his own. Screenwriter Daniel Taplitz does a superb job of making the character of Frank complex and interesting. Frank tries micromanages every part of his day without tardiness and following a “to-do list”, which sounds a lot like Will Ferrell’s character in Stranger Than Fiction except without him having to hear an author’s voice talking to him in his head. The one day that Frank’s order in life changes, he finds chaos, but within chaos there’s also some order---that’s the essence of the “chaos theory”. While the comedic scenes manage to be funny and refreshing, the dramatic ones occasionally feel contrived and bland, especially toward the third act. Much of the screenplay, though, includes witty and thought-provoking dialogue that never gets too preachy. What makes it all work, though, is Ryan Reynolds who has a lot of fun with his role and it clearly shows, especially through his impeccable comic timing. He manages to make Frank quite likable and quirky enough so that you’re immersed in the story without feeling bored. Number of times I checked my watch: 1. Entertainment Value: Moderately High. Spiritual Value: Moderately High. Released by Warner Bros. Pictures. Opens at the Landmark Sunshine Cinema.
Dark Matter - Directed by Chen Shi-Zheng.
Based on a true story. Liu Xing (Liu Ye) travels from his homeland, China, to a university in America where he joins the cosmology research team headed by Professor Jacob Reiser (Aidan Quinn). He struggles to adapt to Western culture while proposing a theory about “dark matter” that goes against the theory of his professor. Meanwhile, Joanna Silver (Meryl Streep), the professor’s wife, occasionally mentors and encourages him to pursue his research further. Despite an imaginative plot and a provocative look at the tensions within academia, none of it really goes far enough to be powerful or surprising. Aidan Quinn gives a strong performance as Liu’s smarmy professor who always likes to be in control. Unfortunately, Liu Xing doesn’t have enough material here to truly stand out here as a student who eventually loses his mind. Writer/director Chen Shi-Zheng fails to get you into Liu’s head so that you know what he’s feeling throughout his experiences and interactions until he finally snaps. Shi-Zheng also underuses the talents of Meryl Streep, who rarely shows up onscreen even though she’s considered part of the cast. With poor character development and contrived subplots that fail to be moving or engaging, the plot completely falls apart in the over-the-top third act. The details of what happens won’t be spoiled here, but keep in mind that it’s depressing, too sudden and unsatisfying given where the rest of the film was headed. Number of times I checked my watch: 6. Entertainment Value: Moderate. Spiritual Value: Low. Released by First Independent Pictures. Opens at the Village East Cinemas.
The Dhamma Brothers - Directed by Andrew Kukura, Jenny Phillips and Anne Marie Stein.
This mildly fascinating documentary focuses on inmates serving time in Donaldson Correctional Facility who come together for ten days to practice Vipassana, a Buddhist teaching (or Dhamma) which requires them to meditate. Co-directors Andrew Kukura, Jenny Phillips and Anne Marie Stein do a decent job of showing the prisoners doing Vipassana and discussing how they feel about it. What’s crucially missing, though, is more information about the practice of Vipassana itself for those previously unfamiliar with it. None of the interviews allow you to get to know the prisoners enough so that you’re moved by their ultimate “enlightenment.” Moreover, it’s not quite clear how precisely they’ve changed other than by calming down and feeling remorseful for their criminal acts. Will the positive effects of Vipassana last a long time for them or will they go back to their old ways? How has it affected the relations with their family, especially once they finally become paroled? The Dhamma Brothers raises these and other though-provoking questions, but, during its too brief running time of 76 minutes, it fails to adequately answer them. For a much more insightful and enlightening documentary about Vipassana, please check out Doing Time, Doing Vipassana, which is available for purchase (click here). Number of times I checked my watch: 3. Entertainment Value: Moderate. Spiritual Value: Low. Released by Balcony Releasing. Opens at the Cinema Village.
Never Forever - Directed by Gina Kim.
In Korean and English with subtitles. Sophie (Vera Farmiga) lives with her Korean-American husband, Andrew (David McInnis). When she find out he has a low sperm count, Sophie has a sexual affair with Jihah (Jung-Woo Ha), an illegal immigrant from Korea. Vera Farmiga’s brave performance as Sophie enlivens the otherwise by-the-numbers plot. Everyone else, especially David McInnis, gives a mediocre performance at best. Writer/director Gina Kim wisely focuses the story on Sophie and allows the audience to empathize with her despite her unethical decision to cheat on her husband. Some scenes feel a bit melodramatic and contrived, but whenever Vera Farmiga comes on screen--which is quite frequently--she adds much-needed authenticity and raw emotion. As for the sex scenes, none of them are particularly graphic in nature, although there’s plenty of nudity, but the superb cinematography and editing generally makes it erotic rather than pornographic. Unfortunately, the drama feels too rushed in the final third of the film and it looses its momentum. At least Vera Farmiga keeps your eyes glued to the screen with her radiance and utter conviction. Number of times I checked my watch: 2. Entertainment Value: Highly Moderate. Spiritual Value: Moderate. Released by Arts Alliance, Vox3 Films and NOW Films Productions. Opens at the Landmark Sunshine Cinema.
Prom Night - Directed by Nelson McCormick.
Donna (Brittany Snow) attends prom with her boyfriend, Bobby (Scott Porter), best friend, Lisa (Dana Davis), and a few other high school friends. Meanwhile, a killer who murdered her family three years earlier, search for her a hotel where the prom takes place. Anyone who watches this PG-13 remake of the 1980 film and who has watched any other recent remake, such as One Missed Call, The Eye, The Grudge and Pulse, knows not to expect much in terms of acting or plot. The only suspenseful element to the plot is in what order the victims will die and how. In Prom Night, most of the victims die offscreen and experience unbelievably quick deaths. Director Nelson McCormick does a great job of creating an eerie atmosphere through set design, lighting and the musical score. Why can’t there be a horror/thriller with smart characters rather than bird-brained ones who yell “Are you there?!?” into a dark, empty room when they should know better. The cops assigned to the investigation seem just as dumb. Moreover, screenwriter J.S. Cardone reveals who the killer is from the very beginning of the film, which evaporates any real suspense and leaves too many scenes that feel tedious. At least there’s some unintentional humor, pretty-looking actresses/actors and hilariously stupid plot holes to keep you somewhat entertained, as long as you suspend your disbelief and check your brain at the door. Number of times I checked my watch: 6. Entertainment Value: Moderate. Spiritual Value: None is required or desired. Released by Screen Gems.
Remember the Daze - Directed by Jess Manafort.
In 1999, a group of suburban teenagers chill, party and, essentially, act like normal adolescents at the start of their summer vacation. Julia (Amber Heard) will be going off to college soon and has a boyfriend, Pete (Douglas Smith) while her younger sister, Angie (Brie Larson), is about to graduate middle school as Holly (Alexa Vega), who flirts with an older teen, Bailer (John Robinson). A trio of friends, Dylan (Khleo Thomas), Felix (Chris Marquette) and Mod (Sean Marquette) drive around town trying to get high and hopefully hook up at a party. Meanwhile, Brianne (Melonie Diaz) has feelings for her best friend, Dawn (Lyndsy Fonseca). What could have easily been a convoluted mess of a plot full of clichés, instead turns out to be an absorbing, refreshing and, most importantly, an honest and true-to-life. Writer/director Jess Manafort wisely doesn’t rely on sex, profanity or violence as a means of entertaining the audience. Instead, she allows the plot to flow organically as the teens interact with one another and behave just like teenagers normally do in suburbia. None of the characters seem annoying or over-the-top like Jonah Hill’s character in last year’s overrated Superbad. The well-written, nuanced screenplay brings each character to life without any stilted dialogue or contrivances. Jess Manafort truly cares about her characters and it shows. It’s also quite refreshing that Manafort doesn’t forget that these teenagers actually have a home and parents living there to interact with as well, which adds even more realism. What makes it all gel together, though, is the talented ensemble cast who know how to act with conviction. Each young actor and actress especially, rising star Amber Heard and the underrated Melonie Diaz, has their own moment to shine within this wise, invigorating and honest depiction of American teen life. Welcome to this generation’s Dazed and Confused. Number of times I checked my watch: 0. Entertainment Value: High. Spiritual Value: High. Released by First Look Pictures and Freestyle Releasing. Opens at the AMC Loews Village 7.
Street Kings - Directed by David Ayer.
Tom Ludlow (Keanu Reeves), an LAPD Detective suspected for killing his former partner, Terrence (Terry Crews), must prove his innocence by investigating who actually murdered him. Another detective, Paul (Chris Evans) joins him in the investigation which leads both of them into the dangerous world of drugs and into the potential of corruption within the police department. Forrest Whittaker delivers a strong performance as Captain Jack Wander who tries to keep Tom on a tight leash as does Captain James Briggs (Hugh Laurie), assigned to investigate Tom. The plot feels much like treaded water with few surprises, especially for anyone who has seen classic crime dramas such as L.A. Confidential, Chinatown or Dirty Harry..Keanu Reeves is well-cast here and gives a decent performance, but his role of Tom Ludlow isn’t particularly interesting enough to stand out. Co-screenwriters James Ellroy, Kurt Wimmer and Jamie Moss at least include a little suspense along the way, although too often the characters explain their intentions out loud, which is quite insulting to the audience’s intelligence. Other than a pulsating soundtrack that adds some tension along with fast-paced editing, director David Ayer offers very little in terms of imaginative characters or refreshing/smart ways to put together and solve the ho-hum murder mystery. Number of times I checked my watch: 2. Entertainment Value: Moderately High. Spiritual Value: Low. Released by Fox Searchlight Pictures.
The Take - Directed by Brad Furman.
Felix (John Leguizamo), an armored-truck driver, hunts for Adell (Tyrese Gibson), the man who held him hostage during a heist and shot him, along with his co-workers who died. After spending time at a hospital and in bed while his wife (Rosie Perez) takes care of him, it takes him a while to recall the details of the event because of memory problems. Bobby Canavale plays an FBI agent willing to leave the case open even though all the evidence at the scene-of-the-crime point to him. What follows is a rather schizophrenic film that begins with many character-driven scenes that allow for many terrific performances, especially by Rosie Perez and John Leguizamo. Suddenly, screenwriters Joshua and Jonah Pate shift gears from drama to action, but without any suspense because the audience—and, eventually, Felix, knows who’s the real criminal. That leaves very little to hold your attention and too many scenes that feel tedious. On a positive note, director Brad Furman does a great job of creating a sense of intensity through gritty cinematography and lighting. If only he could have maintained the strong character development and compelling dramatic elements to move the plot along with more suspense, The Take would have been much more powerful and surprising. Number of times I checked my watch: 3. Entertainment Value: Highly Moderate. Spiritual Value: Moderate. Released by Destination Films. Opens at Clearview 62nd and Broadway.
Young & Restless in China - Directed by Sue Williams.
In English and Mandarin with subtitles. In this mildly fascinating, yet somewhat unfocused documentary, nine young Chinese men and women discuss the way their lives have been affected by China’s rapidly growing capitalistic economy. Each worker, such as Ben Wu and Xu Weimin struggles to earn a living in a culture that’s fixated on money/profit rather than more important values such as love, health and happiness. For example, Wang Xiaolei, a deejay, got deceived in an online relationship with a girl whom he gave a lot of his money to and disappeared after promising to move in with him. He asked other girls what they look for in a guy and the first thing they said was “money”. The there’s Zhang Jingjing, a public-interest lawyer defending Chinese individuals left homeless because of the Summer Olympics taking place in Beijing. Another woman works at a factory for very little money. Through the many interviews and footage of the nine different Chinese workers, director Sue Williams does a great job of showing how difficult and complicated their lives have become as they try to balance their family and love life while often overworking. However, it would have been helpful to focus more in-depth on just three or four of the workers rather than nine, which is rather overwhelming and doesn’t allow for enough insight so that you truly get to know them and their background. It would also be interesting if Sue Williams were to interview sociologists or economists who could come up with viable solutions to the socioeconomic problems facing country. How are the problems different from those in other industrialized countries such as the United States? A better synthesis of all the evidence/observations from the individuals’ lives would have led to more illuminating/insightful conclusion. Number of times I checked my watch: 2. Entertainment Value: Highly Moderate. Spiritual Value: Moderate. Released by International Film Circuit. Opens at the Cinema Village.