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Reviews for August 17th, 2018

Documentary Round-Up






      In Davi's Way, director Tom Donahue follows actor Robert Davi as he prepares to reenact Frank Sinatra's legendary 1974 concert, "The Main Event," in Madison Square Garden with the help of his assistant, Stevie Guttman. Davi talks candidly about his passion for singing and how he's actually a soft at heart despite being cast as villains because he looks like one. He's very picky about having the appropriate lighting and camera angles while being filmed which comes as no surprise given that he's an actor and cares about how he looks onscreen. You get to meet his family members who admit that Davi can be found singing at home very often. He gets angry and frustrated at Stevie at times. The most revealing moment, though, is when Davi meets up with a former casting director who provides insight into why Davi's career as an actor did not take off like he had wanted it to. Donahue not only captures Davi's sense of humor, wit and charisma, but also his emotional pain and struggles as an actor. By getting a glimpse of what Davi is like "behind the curtain", so-to-speak, Davi's Way avoids becoming a hagiography that you'd expect to find on Bravo!. It's a funny, illuminating and heartfelt documentary with just the right balance of style and substance. At a running time of 1 hour and 26 minutes, Davi's Way opens at Cinema Village via 2B Films.

      In Do You Trust This Computer?, directed by Chris Paine, is a shallow, repetitive documentary about advancement of modern technology and artificial intelligence. It argues that relying on technology is, essentially, a Faustian bargain, and then repeats that argument in different ways, without any profundity or revelations, ad nauseam. Paine include interviews with many professionals and inventors including Elon Musk who demonstrate the latest AI inventions. Not surprisingly, there's a clip with Hal from 2001: A Space Odyssey. Do You Trust This Computer? is the kind of doc that tries to invoke fear about our future, but offers too little insights and barely scratches its surface. It's slickly edited, but lacks a balance of opinions and begins to overstay its welcome around the 30-minute mark. In other words, it suffers from style over much-needed substance thereby leaving you feeling ultimately underwhelmed. Abramorama opens Do You Trust This Computer? at Cinema Village.


Alpha

Directed by Albert Hughes




      Tau (Jˇhannes Haukur Jˇhannesson) takes his 17-year-old son, Keda (Kodi Smit-McPhee), on a hunting expedition during the Ice Age. A buffalo attacks Keda and throws him off of a cliff, knocking him unconscious. Tau assumes that he's dead, leaves him there and returns home. When Keda regains consciousness, he goes on a treacherous journey back home while braving the elements of nature and befriending a lone wolf he names Alpha.

      A truly great survival adventure film should find the right balance between entertaining the audience and provoking them emotionally while having a character worth rooting for and caring about. Classic survival tales like Life of Pi, 27 Hours, Into the Wild, Cast Away, All is Lost and The Revenant are equally entertaining and heartfelt. The same can be said about Alpha. Director Albert Hughes and screenwriter Daniele Sebastian Wiedenhaupt wisely begin the film by developing the relationship between Keda and his family so that you're emotionally invested in Keda's life even before he's stranded in the wildnerness. His epic journey back home while struggling to survive the elements of nature is both a physical, emotional and spiritual journey. It takes not only a strong body, but also a strong mind to survive.

      Keda's journey can be seen as a metaphor for any struggles that teenagers must endure as they're put to the test and learn valuable lessons in life. The way that Keda bonds with and befriends Alpha is fascinating to watch and heartwarming without being cloying. The adventure scenes are intense, thrilling and exciting with breathtaking scenery that would be best experienced on the big screen. Fortunately, Hughes doesn't take the intense scenes too far. There's some grittiness, but its not nearly as gritty or gory as 127 Hours or The Revenant. This is the kind of rare Hollywood film that has as more emotional grit than physical grit. It's a mesmerizing story grounded in humanism, a truly special effect that money cannot buy.

      Bravo to the casting directors, Sarah Finn and Coreen Mayrs, for choosing Kodi Smit-McPhee to play Keda. The emotional burdens of Alpha lie on the shoulder's of Smit-Mcphee because he's in nearly every frame of the film. Alpha manages to be a wonderful showcase his tremendous acting talents. He exudes charisma from start to finish and handles the tender, poignant scenes with conviction while findinding the emotional truth of his role. He's engaging to watch even during the quieter moments of the film. The filmmakers and editor Sandra Granovsky should be commended for showing discipline because they keep the running time down to a lean 96 minutes that breezes by pretty quickly without dragging. If it were 3 hours, it would've become both tedious and exhausting. Tt has a perfect blend of Truth and Spectacle unlike most blockbuster that have a lot of Spectacle, too little Truth, and overstay their welcome past the 2 hour mark. Alpha is ultimately as exhilarating, heartfelt and riveting as Life of Pi.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by Columbia Pictures.
Opens nationwide.

Europe Raiders

Directed by Jingle Ma




      Two rival bounty hunters, Lin Zaifeng (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai) and Wang Chaoying (Yan Tang), unite along with the CIA and the Mafia to find the Hand of God, a box that contains a WMD (Weapon of Mass Destruction), which Sophie (Du Juan) has stolen for nefarious purposes. Sophie refuses to give the Hand of God back unless Rocky (Kris Wu) is released from prison.

      Writer/director Jingle Ma deftly combines action, suspense, thrills and intrigue with just the right amount of witty dialogue and comic relief. He hooks audiences right away with a prologue that sets the film's tone and introduces the characters of Lin Zaifeng and his family members before flashing forward several years. The less you read about the plot of Europe Raiders the better because it has many surprising twists and turns up its sleeve. Jingle Ma also does a great job of handling exposition, a very tricky part of writing a screenplay that could derail a film if it's not handled expertly. Fortunately, there's just enough exposition to keep you from losing track of what's going on without insulting the audience's intelligence or boring them with excessive exposition. The third act's twists, which won't be revealed here, are clever and work within the film's internal logic. The use of flashbacks are also incorporated effectively without diminishing the dramatic momentum. Ma moves the pace along briskly and includes well-choreographed, exhilarating action scenes that will keep your eyes glued to the screen.

      Europe Raiders greatest strength is that it offers both a compelling plot and interesting characters that have more to them than meets the eye. The villain, Sophie, is not a cookie-cutter, cartoonish villain. She not merely a villain who wants to cause destruction around the world to gain power; she actually has a backstory that's interesting and makes her all the more human despite her malevolent actions and flaws. Each of the actors and actresses is very well-cast ranging from Tony Leung Chiu-Wai to Yan Tang, Du Juan and Kris Wu. The dynamics of Lin and Wang's relationship remain captivating to watch as they evolve. They both have some wonderful rapport and chemistry together, i.e. a during scene in a car where they show off one of their high tech gadgets to each other. At an ideal running time of 100 minutes, Europe Raiders is a gripping, crowd-pleasing and explosive thrill ride that's enormously entertaining. If you liked Mission: Impossible--Fallout, you'll love Europe Raiders. Please be sure to watch it on the big screen with a large crowd.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by Asia Releasing.
Opens at AMC Empire.

We the Animals

Directed by Jeremiah Zagar




      Jonah (Evan Rosado) lives with his mother (Sheila Vand), father (Ra˙l Castillo), and brothers, Manny (Isaiah Kristian) and Joel (Josiah Gabriel). His sexual identity and imagination awaken during one hot summer.

      We the Animals is the kind of coming-of-age drama that's not driven by its plot because it doesn't really need one. A plot, after all, is just a construct; it's more important that emotions and other intangible elements can be found within the plot. Fortunately, We the Animals remains focused on its atmosphere and its young protagonist, Jonah. You do learn a little about his dysfunctional family, i.e. his abusive father, but there are no villains to be found here. The screenplay by writer/director Jeremiah Zagar and co-writer Daniel Kitrosser, based on the novel by Justin Torres, successfully gets inside the head of Jonah so that you can sense what he's thinking and feeling even without words. The images, some of which are quite hypnotic and haunting, combined with the exquisite musical score, magical realism and stylish camerawork speak volumes louder than words. The editing and cinematography help to make the film feel very cinematic.

      Zagar and Kitrosser should be commended for what they've avoided doing. We the Animals never becomes pretentious, lethargic, preachy, maudlin or heavy-handed. It also avoids the use of flashbacks and doesn't judge its characters; it treats them as human beings. In turn, it's easy to be thoroughly engrossed in the life of Jonah because every scene is grounded in humanism. You can actually feel the warmth during many scenes. At a running time of 92 minutes, We the Animals is a captivating, visually stunning and genuinely moving experience. It's even more emotionally resonating than Moonlight which would make for an interesting double feature.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by The Orchard.
Opens at Angelika Film Center and Landmark at 57 West.
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