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Reviews for August 26th, 2016

Documentary Round-Up

      Dying to Know: Ram Dass & Timothy Leary is an electrifying and enlightening documentary about Ram Dass (formerly known as Richard Alpert) and Timothy Leary, pioneers in the fields of psychedelics and Eastern philosophy/spirituality. Leary and Dass met in Harvard during the 1960's when they taught psychology, and since then they became good friends---like in any friendship, there were some ephemeral rifts in their relationship. Director Gay Dillingham organizes the doc into chapters on Birth, Life, Death and Soul each of which is illuminating. The chapter on the topic of death feels the most provocative and compelling because, as Leary says so himself, it's a very taboo topic that's rarely discussed. Dillingham combines archival footage, including the final discussion she filmed between Ram Dass and Timothy Leary in 1996 before Leary succumbed to prostate cancer, along with interviews with Dr. Andrew Weil and Roshi Joan Halifax, a Zen Buddhist. Through the footage of Dass and Leary engaging in intelligent conversations, she captures their palpable bond of friendship and their platonic love of one another---in a sense, they were soul mates. Fortunately, Dying to Know isn't a dry documentary that merely bombards the audiences with information and talking heads. There's some animation, comic relief and voice-over narration by Robert Redford that helps to invigorate the film and to make it more cinematic so that you won't be tempted to ask "When is the exam??" once it's over. These topics, especially regarding death, are quite heavy, so the comic relief moments feel quite welcome. In other words, Dillingham finds just the right balance between entertaining the audience and provoking them intellectually as well as emotionally. Dying to Know will captivate and nourish the minds and souls of audiences both young and old. It opens at Landmark Sunshine Cinema via Abramorama. Equally vital, albeit more narrow in scope, is Black Women in Medicine , an hour-long documentary about the struggles of black women to succeed in the medical industry, and how they're treated compared to men while on the job. Crystal R. Emery shows that racism and sexism are obstacles that do indeed exist---4% of the industry are black women. By focusing on the experiences of a few of those women, Emery raises audiences' awareness of and humanizes those important human rights issues while simultaneously keeping a positive attitude that there is indeed hope out there for change and improvement. Black Women in Medicine opens at Cinema Village before its debut on TV. Floyd Norman: An Animated Life, about Floyd Norman, Disney's first black animator who was hired, fired and, eventually, re-hired by Disney, deals with another workplace-related issue plaguing our country: ageism. Norman had worked for Disney since 1956 and was fired in 2000 at the age of 65. Co-directors Erik Sharkey and Michael Fiore do a great job of informing that audience how Norman was, and still is, such a brilliant animator, as well as what made him a troublemaker. They're lucky that he's an interesting, articulate, warm and charismatic subject because that makes the interviews with him quite engaging. Interviews with his family members and Whoopi Goldberg, cartoonist Sergio AragonÚs, music composer Richard Sherman enrich the doc with their perspectives on Norman, but that's not enough. Sociopsychologist Irving Goffman once wrote that everyone has a life in front of the curtain and behind the curtain, so-to-speak. What the film lacks, essentially, is a more unflinching and moving peak "behind the curtain." It's a fine introduction to the life and work of Floyd Norman, but it merely scratches the surface of who Norman truly is as a human being. Floyd Norman: An Animated Life opens at Village East Cinema via Michael Fiore Films.

Ace the Case: Manhattan Mystery

Directed by Kevin Kaufman


Number of times I checked my watch: 5
Released by Gravitas Ventures.
Opens at Village East Cinema.

Complete Unknown

Directed by Joshua Marston


Number of times I checked my watch: 2
Released by IFC Films and Amazon Studios.
Opens at IFC Center and Lincoln Plaza Cinemas.

Don't Breathe

Directed by Fede Alvarez

      Rocky (Jane Levy), her boyfriend Money (Daniel Zovatto), and their friend Alex (Dylan Minnette) hatch a plan to steal $300,000 that a blind elderly man (Stephen Lang) has inside his dilapidated home. They get more than they bargained for when they enter the home and the elderly man turns the tables on them.

      Writer/director Fede Alvarez and co-writer Rodo Sayagues keep the film lean without wasting much time in the first act. They even open the film with a scene of the elderly man dragging Rocky's body down the street to give you a little taste of what's to be expected before flashing back to show Rocky's unstable home life. Once she, Money and Alex break into the elderly man's home, that's when the suspense starts kicking into gear as well as the everything you'd expect from the average horror film: Teenagers who make dumb decisions? Check! Creepy old man who has a twisted dark secret? Check! A vicious dog that tries to attack the teenagers? Check! Jump scares? Check! Victims easily walking around after being seriously injured? Check! Logic thrown out the window? Check! Unfortunately, the only thing that comes closest to a surprise is that fact that Alvarez doesn't include as much grizzly gore as you'd expect.

      None of the characters are remotely likeable, but that's alright. Perhaps the most interest character onscreen is the camera itself. Alvarez uses clever camera angles, lighting, set design and sound design to create a very foreboding and creepy atmosphere. Would Don't Breathe work on a small screen? Probably not, unless you have a very good sound system and a large screen. This is the kind of film you should watch on the large theatrical screen in order to maximize your exposure to the intricately designed sights and sounds. There's one particularly memorable sequence when two of the teenagers are put into the blind man's shoes when the lights get turned off as he chases them. If only the screenplay were half as clever and imaginative as the sound and visual design!

      At a running time of 1 hour and 28 minutes, Don't Breathe is a very ordinary horror thriller without any shocking twists or surprises. If you're looking for an extraordinary, memorable and smartly-plotted horror film, check out the French film Inside starring Beatrice Dalle. Even 10 Cloverfield Lane is more satisfying and surprising with its refreshingly intelligent female protagonist, unlike the one in Don't Breathe. Or, better yet, watch 1967 film Wait Until Dark with Audrey Hepburn.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by Screen Gems.
Opens nationwide.


Directed by David Hunt

      In 1994, Brandon Burlsworth (Christopher Severio) defied the odds by becoming an official member of the Arkansas Razorbacks football team. He was overweight at first, but he eventually lost weight and built up his muscle mass while reaching even more triumphs: he was selected for the All-American team. Life at home wasn't easy for him because of his alcoholic father, Leo (Michael Parks). At least his mother, Barbara (Leslie Easterbrook), was there for him as well as his older brother, Marty (Neal McDonough).

      Everyone loves a good underdog sports story. Classic ones like Rudy, Hoosiers, Miracle, The Blind Side and Remember the Titans all have a major trait in common: they are about human beings first and foremost. Fortunately, Greater ranks up there with those classics because writer/director David Hunt and co-writer Brian Reindl keep the film focused on Burlsworth's life while showing the audience the the social, familial and innate struggles that he had to go through Burlsworth was picked on for his weight by his teammates and came from a dysfunctional family, but he studied hard, trained hard and kept his faith in Christianity which helped him to persevere and become an American hero.

      Hunt and Reindl do a great job of unmasking the human being behind the American hero in a way that's family-friendly and inspirational without being cloying or excessively preachy, although it does somewhat skirt that delicate line toward the end with the narration that explains the inspiring, uplifting messages quite simply and explicitly. That's forgivable because the uplift is well-earned. Who doesn't want to feel great about life and inspired with kernels of wisdom every now and then? So what if the plot is formulaic? Every film follows some kind of formula; it's more important how follows it. At least Greater never becomes clunky and dull like last year's My All-American.

      Christopher Severio gives a solid performance in the lead role and caries the emotional burden of his role with conviction. The same can be said for the supporting actors and actresses each of whom helps to add to the film's authenticity and sense of humanism which is its greatest strength. I've written it before in past reviews, but I'll write it again because it's important: humanism is a truly special effect in modern American cinema because it's so rare while CGI should be re-labeled as standard effects. Although the running time is 2 hours and 10 minutes, it breezes by like 90 minutes. Ultimately, Greater is the best underdog sports movie since The Blind Side. It will make you stand up and cheer!

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by Hammond Entertainment.
Opens at Regal E-Walk and select theaters nationwide.

Hands of Stone

Directed by Jonathan Jacubowicz


Number of times I checked my watch: 4
Released by The Weinstein Company.
Opens at nationwide.

The Hollars

Directed by John Krasinski

      John Hollar (John Krasinski) returns home to his father, Don (Richard Jenkins), and brother, Ron (Sharlto Copley), when his mother, Sally (Margo Martindale) learns that she has an advanced-stage brain tumor. Ron meets his ex-wife, Stacey (Ashley Dyke), with whom he has two adorable little kids, but she and her new husband don't quite welcome his visit warmly. Complicating matters even further, John bumps into ex-girlfriend, Gwen (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), and his father struggles to keep his plumbing business afloat financially. Gwen just so happens to be married to his childhood classmate, Jason (Charlie Day), who just so happens to be Sally's nurse at the hospital. Oh, and did I mention that John's current girlfriend is expecting a baby?

      Every year there are always at least a few dysfunctional family dramedies with cancer thrown in as a plot device to bring everyone together. The Hollars has so much going on with so many characters that it ends up biting more than it could chew. The screenplay by Jim Strouse feels both overstuffed and undercooked. Each actor and actress tries their best with the material that they're given. Margot Martindale, one of the best actresses of our times, and the always-reliable Richard Jenkins both give superb performances that rise above the weak material. A separate film altogether could have been made about just their characters and marital issues.

      Unfortunately, when it comes to blending comedy and pathos, that's where the screenplay struggles the most and ends up being neither funny nor genuinely heartfelt. Too many plot strands come together in the third act in a way that feel contrived rather than organic. Moreover, the overly manipulative musical score pounds you over the head about how you should be feeling. If only the Strouse were to have trusted the audience's intelligence and patience. The pace moves so fast that it's hard to become truly absorbed in any given scene. Yes, there are a number of sad moments (don't be deceived by the film's poster artwork that makes it look like a very upbeat dramedy), but while Strouse should be commended for going into dark territory, he doesn't go deep enough. Much of the film feels like a Lifetime movie-of-the-week with good acting. If you're the kind of audience member that likes your hand not only held, but also squeezed tightly from start to finish, you might end up somewhat teary-eyed by the end of The Hollars. Everyone else, though, will roll they eyes at the corniness and implausibilities despite the stellar cast. The running time of 88 minutes feels more like 2 hours. It's almost as cringe-worthy, clunky and painfully contrived as The Family Stone.

Number of times I checked my watch: 3
Released by Sony Pictures Classics.
Opens at Landmark Sunshine and Lincoln Plaza Cinemas.

I Am Not a Serial Killer

Directed by Billy O'Brien

      John Cleaver (Max Records), a borderline sociopathic teenager, lives with his mother, April (Laura Fraser), in a funeral home where he had developed a fascination with cadavers all of his life. He could be on the verge of becoming a serial killer, and he's seeing a psychiatrist, Dr. Neblin (Karl Geary). He keeps his killer instincts at bay by trying to be kind to those around him, i.e. by shoveling snow for his neighbor (Christopher Lloyd). Meanwhile, there's an actual serial killer on the loose in the small town, so John takes it upon himself to investigate the killings.

      To both achieve and maintain a tone that blends drama, mystery, horror and sci-fi with a little dark comedy thrown in is no easy task, but writer/director Billy O'Brien and Christopher Hyde achieve both with flying colors. The film know when to take itself seriously and when not to. Beyond that, it also boasts a strong, rich story and intelligent characters instead of merely having impressive sound design, cinematography and dumb characters like in the vapid and unimaginative horror thriller Don't Breathe. The most interesting characters are the ones who are flawed, troubled and mysterious like John. There's more to him than meets the eye which makes him all the more compelling as a character. He's also surprisingly likable thanks to the charismatic peformance by Max Records. Christopher Lloyd is also well-cast as John's creepy neighbor.

      It's hard to categorize I Am Not a Serial Killer into one particular genre. Thanks to the clever and well-written screenplay, O'Brien and Hyde avoid turning the film into an uneven, atonal, over-the- top and campy mess. Once the third act twist arrives, the tone changes a bit, but it's still fun and engaging in a tongue-and-cheek sort of way without derailing the film. It also features an inventive use of a classic song from the 70's. A note to my readers: please avoid reading Michael Atkinson's unprofessional, irresponsible review in the Village Voice because it somewhat spoils the third act's surprise. At a running time of 1 hour and 44 minutes, which feels more like 1 hour, I Am Not A Serial Killer deserves to become a cult classic.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by IFC Midnight.
Opens at IFC Center.

The Intervention

Directed by Clea Duvall

      Four couples gather at a mansion in Savannah, Georgia: Jessie (Clea DuVall), who owns the mansion, and her partner, Sarah (Natasha Lyonne), Annie (Melanie Lynskey) and her boyfriend, Matt (Jason Ritter), Lola (Alia Shawkat) and Jack (Ben Schwartz), as well as Jessie's sister, Ruby (Cobie Smulders) and her husband Peter (Vincent Piazza). Little do Ruby and Peter know that the true reason for the get-together is so that their friends can persuade them to divorce because they believe that they're stuck in an unhappy, stale marriage that's past the point of being saved.

      Dramas used to lead the American box office back in the day, but suddenly we're stuck with shallow, CGI-infested tentpole films made for $100 million or more that lack a heart, mind and soul. Along comes the low budget American drama The Intervention that has plenty of heart, mind and soul---in other words, it humanism, a truly special effect. Adults used to drag their kids to the movies, but most of the time, their kids have to drag them to the movies nowadays. How refreshing it is to watch an American film that's for adults, that can't be turned into a video game. and where no one gets eaten by zombies for a change! In The Intervention, the plot, just like life itself, is simply complex: a group of friends/couples come together, talk about issues that they've been bottling up inside them, and experience epiphanies within the course of a weekend.

      Writer/director Clea Duvall, in her directorial debut, does a great job of keeping you engaged by this very human story because she brings the complex characters to life with the help of the naturally talented actors and actresses onscreen. No one over-acts or under-acts. Yes, the film is talky and could be turned into a play, but it never feels stuffy. Duvall balances the drama with just the right amount of comic relief/levity. Each of the characters is flawed in their own way which makes them relatable. With the exception of Lola whom Jack had just met, everyone feels like they've been friends for a while. Kudos to Duvall for tackling the issues of love and friendship so astutely. It's captivating to watch the relationships gradually evolve, and to observe the different character arcs. Most importantly, though, the third act, where most dramas tend to fall apart, actually works effectively while remaining plausible, honest and mature like the rest of the film. At an ideal running time of 90 minutes, is engrossing, wise, funny and well-acted.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by Samuel Goldwyn Films.
Opens at Village East Cinema.

Is That You?

Directed by Dani Menkin

      After he gets fired from his job as a projectionist, Ronnie (Alon Aboutboul), a 60-year-old living in Israel, travels all the way to America to find is long-lost childhood sweetheart, Rachel. He encounters a few quirky strangers along the road trop in search of Rachel. One of those strangers, Myla (Naruna Kaplan de Macedo), a film student making a documentary film, tags along with him for the remainder of the journey.

      Is That You? mights as well take place on another planet because very little that happens to Ronnie seems plausible, and none of the human beings behave like human beings would in real life; it's as though the characters are merely there to move the plot along forward. The dialogue written by writer/director Dani Merkin and co-writer Eshkol Nevo feels very stilted with too many eye-rolling "conveniences" that require a suspension of disbelief. Each of the strangers whose door Ronnie knocks on greets him politely and invite him inside their home rather quickly without hesitation. Tedium soon sets in as he gets closer and closer to finding Rachel, but by the time he gets very close, it's difficult to care about Ronnie as a human being because the lazy, clunky screenplay doesn't bring him to life. The same can be said about the character of Myla, especially the way she suddenly joins Ronnie.

      Is That You is the kind of film that moves from Point A to Point B without any grounding in palpable realism or humanism or anything that would lead to emotional resonance. You can feel the wheels of the screenplay turning every step of the way which is another sign of the script's weakness. Moreover, the comedic attempts fall flat, and the ending leaves you feeling underwhelmed. Its running time of 80 minutes feels more like 2 hours.

Number of times I checked my watch: 4
Released by Hey Jude Productions.
Opens at Cinema Village.

Level Up

Directed by Adam Randall


Number of times I checked my watch: 5
Released by FilmBuff.
Opens at Cinema Village.

Natural Selection

Directed by Chad L. Scheifele


Number of times I checked my watch: 2
Released by Breaking Glass Pictures.
Opens at Cinema Village.

Sea of Trees

Directed Gus Van Sant


Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by A24 Films.
Opens at Village East Cinema.

Southside With You

Directed by Richard Tanne


Number of times I checked my watch: 2
Released by Roadside Attractions.
Opens in select theaters.

Time Raiders

Directed by Daniel Lee

      Wu Xie (Han Lu), the owner of an antique shop who comes from generations of tomb raiders, searches for the mysterious tomb of the Snake Empress. Qiling (Jing Boran), a warrior, joins him on his quest. Meanwhile, mercenaries serve as their nemesis as they also search for the same tomb. The team of mercenaries are hired by a very wealthy man named Henrix (Vanni Corbellini).

      Although Time Raiders has spectacular visual effects and a few thrilling scenes, it's mostly an overlong and tedious film that could have used either a more campy screenplay or a smarter one. The most memorable and scariest sequence is the one where Wu Xie and Qiling get attacked by flesh-eating bugs that look somewhat like spiders while exploring the tombs. How they end up surviving will surprise and amuse you. If only the rest of the film were just as fun. The dialogue sounds clunky and awkward more often than not, but, to be fair, who goes to see an action/fantasy adventure for the dialogue? Henrix comes across as a bizarre character, and his character arc isn't particularly believable. The acting of the non-Asian actors are wooden and unconvincing, but it's mostly the weak screenplay that fails them. Once the action-packed third act arrives, the film becomes somewhat headache-inducing with a few bad laughs along the way. At a running time of 2 hours and 4 minutes, which feels more like 3 hours, Time Raiders is just as dull, cringe-inducing and disappointing as Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull.

Number of times I checked my watch: 3
Released by Magnum Films.
Opens at AMC Empire 25.


Directed by Kim Seong-hun

      While on his way home with a cake for his daughter's birthday, Jung-soo (Ha Jung-woo) drives through a poorly-constructed tunnel that collapses and traps him inside his car. All he has are 2 water bottles, the birthday cake and a cell phone to survive. Meanwhile, Dae-kyung (Oh Dal-su), the commander of the rescue team, desperately tries to have Jung-soo rescued by drilling into the tunnel from above. Lee (Doona Bae), Jung-soo's wife, anxiously waits for any news about the rescue mission.

      More happens than the plot description above, but in order to maximize your enjoyment of Tunnel, those plots points will not be spoiled. The screenplay by writer/director Kim Seong-Hun wastes no time getting to the meat of the story---within the first 5 minutes, Jung-soo is already trapped inside the tunnel. There have been a number of survival films about people being trapped somewhere, including Daylight, Buried, 127 Hours and The 33. Despite that The 33 is based on a true story and Tunnel isn't, the events that take place in Tunnel actually feel more believable than the ones in The 33. Seong-Hun deftly maintains suspense from the second that the tunnel caves in to the very last frame. He cunningly opens the film with a shot of what looks like a tunnel, but it's actually a small water pipe instead. That opening scene prepares you for all of the surprises to come. Knowing when to jump back and forth between scenes inside the tunnel and the rescue team along with Jung-soo's wife above ground is tricky because it risks the diminishment of the film's momentum, but, fortunately, thanks to the sensitive screenplay and terrific editing, the transitions between both scenes work. Each of the performances, especially Ha Jung-woo's, is convincing without any hamminess. Having a charismatic actor as the lead helps tremendously.

      Tunnel's greatest strength, though, is when it comes to what it avoids doing: there's no schmaltz like in The 33, reliance on shaky cam or unnecessary tangents. It earns each and every emotion in a way that feels organic. Moreover, the balance between the intensity of Jung-soo's ordeal and the brief lighter moments prevents the film from turning into an exhausting, monotonous experience like in Buried. Although Tunnel is 127 minutes long, you never actually feel the weight of the running time. If only Hollywood's blockbusters could be even half as gripping, smart and emotionally engrossing!

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by Well Go USA.
Opens at AMC Empire 25.