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Reviews for August 28th, 2015

Documentary Round-Up

      I Touched All Your Stuff follows Christopher Kirk, a computer technician from Michigan who met a mysterious Japanese-Colombian woman, whom he only refers to as "V", in Brazil. V seduced him into a long-distance relationship where they chatted over the internet and, soon enough, he agreed to book her a flight so that they could meet in Los Angeles where she was meeting a mysterious "friend." He suspected that she might be a prostitute, but he thought that wasn't very likely. Little did he know until much later that she was actually involved in the drug smuggling business, or at least that's what he tells the camera and filmmakers from jail. What he does know for sure, through his online surveillance of her, is that she has many boyfriends from all around the world. When he learned of that and confronted her, she manipulated him into forgiving him and making him think that he's her true love. Co-directors Maíra Bühler and Matias Mariani withhold key information about Kirk until the last 20 minutes or so of the doc, so they string you along as you listen to Kirk provide his side of the story which makes him look like a naive, gullible and emotionally needy person who has a lot of growing up to do. They, therefore, essentially turn the doc into a quietly suspenseful mystery instead of a provocative/investigative one that would've dug up something truly revealing. In other words, they put the burden on you to listen to Kirk and then make up your own mind about him based on his friends' testimony about about how he's a pathological liar. How much of what Kirk says is the truth and how much of it is a lie? Again, that's up to you to decide. Perhaps the most revealing or surprising thing you'll learn where the title of the doc comes from. I Touched All Your Stuff works best as a simple cautionary tale against seductive con artists. It would make for an interesting double feature with Catfish and (Dis)Honesty. Cinema Slate opens it at Cinema Village. My Voice, My Life, directed by Ruby Yang, is the kind of doc that appeals more to the heart and soul than to the mind. It centers on teenagers at a Hong Kong school for the under-privileged who come together to put on a musical show. Some of the teenagers have physical handicaps, i.e. blindness, while others have behavioral issues that had impeded them from doing well in school in the past. It's quite poignant to watch as each teenager struggles to overcome the limitations of both their physical and mental impediments to accomplish something meaningful in their lifes. Yang shows jumps back and forth between each teenager as she shows their battles as they prepare for the show. There's not much in terms of exposition, so you don't learn a lot about the teenagers, although you do briefly find out how one of them became blind and how another led a troubled childhood. Ultimately, you're left with more questions than answers, like, "What more can be done to better protect troubled/disabled youth?" or "How do we find the resources to open more schools like the one featured in the film?" It would have been interesting to explore the stressful daily lives of the teachers as well to make the doc well-rounded---each day probably takes an emotional toll on them to a certain degree. Despite the doc's lack of insight, there's no denying how well it tugs at your heartstrings. If you don't at least get misty-eyed during the footage of the show itself toward the end, you must be made out of stone. My Voice, My Life opens at Cinema Village via CINEMAflix.

The Second Mother

Directed by Anna Muylaert

      Val (Regina Casé) works has worked a live-in nanny for a wealthy São Paolo family, Barbara (Karine Teles) and her husband Carlos (Lourenco Mutarelli), for the past thirteen years. She cooks and cleans for them, and has taken care of their teenage son, Fabinho (Michel Joelsas), ever since he was a toddler, so she's like a second mother to him. Ironically, though, Val hasn't quite been around for her own daughter, Jessica (Camila Márdila), who's estranged from her and lives with relatives in Pernambuco. When Jessica arrives to move in with her mother while in pursuit of a degree in architecture, she didn't expect that her mother doesn't have her own home to live in. The more time that Jessica spends there, the more the upper and lower class lifestyles clash with one another, especially when she swims in the family's pool.

      Writer/director Anna Muylaert has woven a tender, moving drama that's grounded in humanism from the first scene to the very last scene. It deals with very relatable, universal topics such as parenting, class struggles, love, compassion, freedom and forgiveness. Muylaert should be commended because not a moment veers into melodrama or too much schmaltz nor does the film get preachy or heavy-handed. It's sweet, warm and uplifting while remaining honest, poignant and true-to-life (with the exception of the brief use of slow-motion in the scene when Jessica swims in the pool for the first time). She also balances the delicate drama with just the right amount of comic relief. Each character is interesting because you can sense they have inner lives. The dynamics of their relationships are also compelling, especially between Val and Jessica. Even though Barbara comes across as not particularly nice when it comes to how she treats her help, she's not one-dimensional or even close to a villain; she's a complex human being who's just treating the lower class like she was raised to do. Perhaps one day she'll look back at the way she treated Val and regret it or maybe not.

      Regina Casé gives a genuinely heartfelt performance that also helps to anchor the film in realism. She brings a lot of charisma, warmth and tenderness to her role. It's quite amazing how she tackles a role that has such a wide variety of emotions in such believable way. You can sense that there's frustration inside Val that she bottles up inside, but the way she deals with it shows how wise and mature Val truly is when it comes to taking finally control of her life. Casé deserves an award for Best Actress come Oscar time. At a running time of 1 hour and 54 minutes, The Second Mother is warm, wise, tender and profoundly human. It's an uplifting crowd-pleaser that earns every moment of uplift.

Number of times I checked my watch: 0
Released by Oscilloscope Laboratories.
Opens at The Paris Theatre and Angelika Film Center.


Directed by Raphaël Neal

      High school students Damien (Martin Loizillon) and Pierre (Pierre Moure) murder a random stranger one morning. Their goal is to test a theory they learned in their philosophy class that crimes need a personal motive in order for the criminal to feel guilty, but without a personal motive, there's no feeling of guilt. The only person who can suspect them of the crime is Zoe (Julie-Marie Parmentier), a woman they bumped into as they dashed out of an apartment after the murder and left behind a glove that she picked up.

      Based on the novel by Leslie Kaplan, Fever works more as a character-driven, psychological drama than a riveting, plot-driven crime thriller a la Tell No One. Although you do hear the sounds of a crime being committed within the first minute, writer/director Raphaël Neal and Alice Zeniter avoid showing you images of the crime taking place, so they wisely leave it up to your imagination. Events don't necessarily transpire precisely as you would predict they would, especially after one of the boys struggles to contain his guilty conscience while in class at one point. That unpredictability makes the film more engaging and fascinating for the most part except for the somewhat underwhelming, incomplete third act that leaves more to be desired. Fortunately, the performances by Martin Loizillo and Pierre Moure are both convincingly moving, so they somewhat compensate for the screenplay's shortcomings when it comes to emotional depth.

      Fever raises provocative issues regarding Hannah Arendt and her theory about Eichmann and "the banality of evil," but it doesn't have the teeth to delve into them enough so that you have a lot to digest by the time the end credits roll. It will, though, make you tempted to read more about Hannah Arendt's controversial writing and to contemplate why she might be still relevant and controversial today. So, perhaps, a fitting double feature to go along with Fever would be Margarethe von Trotta's Hannah Arendt.

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

Memories of the Sword

Directed by Park Heung-Sik


Number of times I checked my watch: 2
Released by Well Go USA.
Opens at AMC Empire 25.

Turbo Kid

Directed by François Simard, Anouk Whissell and Yoann-Karl Whissell


Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by Epic Pictures Releasing.
Opens in select theaters.

War Room

Directed by Alex Kendrick

      Elizabeth (Priscilla Shirer), a real estate agent, suffers from a stale marriage with her cheating husband, Tony (T.C. Stallings), a workaholic pharmaceutical rep who had just lost his high-paying job. Tony isn't exactly a good father because he's rarely around to bond with his daughter, Danielle (Alena Pitts). When Elizabeth meets an elderly lady, Miss Clara (Karen Abercrombie), through work, she openly shares her marital problems with her. Miss Clara volunteers encourages her to pray more as a solution to her problems. She even jokingly serves her lukewarm coffee as a metaphor for Elizabeth's lukewarm attitude toward praying to the Lord. According to Miss Clara, she shouldn't fight against her cheating husband, but fight against Satan instead using prayer. She pursuades her to create a "war" room which serves as her spiritual battleground, and finds the goodness within her heart to continue meeting her to help her ameliorate her life.

      The screenplay by writer/director Alex Kendrick and co-writer Stephen Kendrick has its heart in the right place, and sends its message about the power of prayer both loudly and clearly. What's most important is how that message gets conveyed. In the case of War Room, it's conveyed through the relationship between Elizabeth and Miss Clara, who guides her to religious enlightenment through her wisdom and, in some cases, her sense of wit. To be fair, the film does get a bit preachy and heavy-handed at times, but if you're willing to overlook and forgive that flaw, you'll find yourself deeply moved and captivated by Miss Clara's genuine compassion.

      The true heart and soul of the film is actress Karen Abercrombie, who somewhat resembles Ruby Dee. Every time she's onscreen, the film glows with warmth and vitality. She gives an emotionally radiant performance that will touch the deepest recesses of your heart, even if you're not very religious. Yes, some of the plot does feel cliched, especially toward the ending that's a bit too "neat", but even within cliches there are some truths to be found. The solutions to some people's marital problems might beyond just prayer, and some troubled marriages might not even have any kind of solution, but for others, prayer could at least serve as stepping stone toward finding spiritual/religious enlightenment and peace within oneself and others while soothing ones pain and warding off evil spirits like Satan concurrently. If that sounds corny, well, sometimes life can be indeed corny. War Room doesn't quite delve into any gray area nor does it have any nuances. Its solution comes across as rather black-and-white and oversimplified, but War Room is nonetheless captivating, tender, heartfelt and can lead to many interesting discussions if you open your mind and heart to it.

Number of times I checked my watch: 3
Released by TriStar Pictures.
Opens nationwide.

Z for Zachariah

Directed by Craig Zobel


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


Directed by Mora Stephens


Number of times I checked my watch: 2
Released by Alchemy.
Opens at Village East Cinema.
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