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Reviews for February 3rd, 2017

Documentary Round-Up




      In the highly entertaining and illuminating documentary Saving Banksy, Brian Greif, an art consultant, wants to save one of Banksy's street artworks, the "Haight Street Rat," by having it displayed at a museum for free to both the public as well as to the museum. That task becomes easier said than done because in spite of the fact that Banksy artworks have been selling for millions of dollars at auctions. Director Colin Day follows Greif as he desperately tries to find a museum willing to display it in a gallery and how he carefully removes the artwork from the wall plank-by-plank. Day also provides some brief history of Banksy's controversial street art, interviews with gallery owners, art critics, and street artists like Ben Eine. You'll learn that city governments, like that of San Francisco, require that building owners remove Banksy's artworks which they merely call "graffiti" or pay hefty fines.

      Just like Exit Through the Gift Shop, Saving Banksy is stylishly edited with well-chosen music and a brisk pace which helps to invigorate it. It would have been great to have interviews with the mysterious Banksy himself, but even without an interview straight from the horse's mouth, there's a lot of insight and provocative questions asked about how to sell art while respective what the artist's wishes would be. You don't have to be an art buff to be engaged by this thoroughly captivating documentary. It opens via Parade Deck Films at Cinépolis Chelsea.


      A Good American centers on Bill Binney, an ex-NSA crytpo-mathematician who developed a computer program called ThinThread which collected data from around the world and analyzed its patterns between its many interconnections to help prevent future terrorist attacks. Binney clearly has a passion for math---just seeing how he looks while doing math-related work speaks volumes. Director Friedrich Moser uses CGI graphics to show how ThinThread interprets those interconnections while, according to Binney himself, protecting the privacy right of U.S. citizens. Despite that ThinThread was approved and highly recommended by his peers, Michael Hayden, NSA's director, pulled the plug on it and claimed that it would embarass the NSA because of how it outsmarts every system they've used until then. Instead, they used another program called Trailblazer which was much more profitable. After 9/11, the NSA used ThinThread, without Binney's permission, while removing its protections of citizen's privacy.

      ThinThread could have prevented 9/11 as well as other terrorist attacks if the NSA were to have implemented it. Binney tried to sue them, but they're goliaths with far-reaching powers. He and his colleagues recall in vivid details how their homes were raided by the FBI. It's really terrifying to know that NSA chose to undermine national safety because of greed, ego and, most likely, narcissism, a common mental disorder that seems to be running rampant among too many politicians, especially Donald Trump. Moser doesn't just bombared the audience with talking heads; he includes CGI graphics and renactments that make the film less dry and more accessible to laymen. Prepare to be riveted by this equally enraging, terrifying and eye-opening documentary. It would make for an interesting double feature with The Lives of Others. The Film Collaborative opens A Good American at Cinema Village.


American Violence

Directed by Timothy Woodward Jr.




     



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

The Comedian

Directed by Taylor Hackford




     



Number of times I checked my watch: 8
Released by Sony Pictures Classics.
Opens nationwide.

Growing Up Smith

Directed by Frank Lotito




      In 1979, Smith Bhatnagar (Roni Akurati), a 10-year-old boy, moves from India to a small Midwestern town in the U.S. with his father, Bhaskar (Anjul Nigam), mother, Nilani (Poorna Jagannathan), and older teenage sister, Asha (Shoba Narayanan). The move creates a huge culture shock for the Bhatnagar family as Smith struggles to fit in socially. He develops a crush on his neighbor, Amy (Brighton Sharbino), and, soon enough, her mother (Hilarie Burton) and father (Jason Lee) gradually befriend his parents despite their cultural differences.

      Based on a true story, Growing Up Smith comes close to being as engrossing as Mira Nair's The Namesake while being far more powerful than the schmaltzy and overrated film, Lion. The screenplay by Gregory Scott Houghton, Anjul Nigam and Paul Quinn blends comedy and drama in a way that's mostly smooth until something unexpected happens involving a hunting accident which feels a bit contrived and clunky. Roni Akurati is perfectly cast as Smith because he manages to be very charismatic. Smith is a very likable and amusing young boy, and his observations from the perspective of his adult self which book-ends the film are equally insightful and witty. It's very refreshing to see Jason Lee playing against type in a more serious role.

      Anyone who's ever immigrated to "The Land of Opportunity" will be able to relate to Smith and his family's struggles. Small yet meaningful details like how a teacher reacts to Smith bringing a yellow squash to class for Halloween instead of a pumpkin enrich the film. A barbecue with Smith and Amy's families together is played for laughs, mostly, but there are underlying truths lurking beneath the humor. Bravo to the screenwriters and to director Frank Lotito for grounding the film in humanism from start to finish. So what if Growing Up Smith is formulaic? As the late, great Roger Ebert once noted, it's more important how a film goes about its plot than what its plot is about. At least you'll find many scenes that feel warm, tender and heartfelt. Morever, the very last scene will bring you tears of joy unless you're made out of stone. At a running time of 1 hour and 42 minutes, Growing Up Smith, a crowd-pleasing delight, deserves to become a sleeper hit.



Number of times I checked my watch: 2
Released by Good Deed Entertainment.
Opens at AMC Empire.

Journey to the West: The Demon Strikes Back

Directed by Hark Tsui




     



Number of times I checked my watch: 2
Released by Columbia Pictures and Magnum Films.
Opens at AMC Empire 25.

Rings

Directed by F. Javier Gutiérrez




      Julia (Matilda Lutz) searches for her missing boyfriend, Holt (Alex Roe), and tracks him down at his college where, she learns, he has joined an experiment led by Professor Gabriel (Johnny Galecki). The experiment involves investigating a mysterious VHS tape. Anyone who watches the tape dies after 7 days unless they pass the tape along to someone else to watch it. Samara, a ghost, haunts the tape. New footage mysteriously gets added when the VHS tape is turned into a digital file. Julia watches the footage to save her Holt's life, and then the two of them go on a mission to uncover the mystery behind Samara and where she might be buried.

      The screenplay by David Loucka, Jacob Estes and Akiva Goldsman begins with a bang as someone on an airplane tells a fellow passenger that he's about to die because he watched the tape 7 days ago, but no one believes him until it's too late. That pre-credits scene hooks you right into the story and prepares you for what's going to happen to Julia and Holt. After a strong first act, Rings weakens during the second act which feels a bit tedious, dull and unsurprising, but the plot regains its momentum during the third act as twists begin to pile on as the backstory of Samara rises to the surface. Vincent D'Onofrio shows up in a convincingly creepy performance as blind man whom Julia and Holt hope will help them in their quest to locate Samara's remains.

      The real stars of Rings, though, are its visual effects, lighting and sound design/editing. Every little sound ranging from an umbrella opening to a truck speeding by or a dog barking generates a sensation of eeriness. If you were to watch this film on the small screen, the impact of those sound wouldn't be as noticable. There are plenty of images, i.e. cicadas, that look even creepier because of the impressive visual effects and well-chosen camera angles. Oh, and there's also a very memorable shower scene, although it doesn't come close to the terrifying shower scene from Psycho. At a running time of 1 hour and 42 minutes, Rings is not as scary nor as atmospheric as The Ring, but it's nonetheless creepy, suspenseful and an improvement on the sequel.



Number of times I checked my watch: 2
Released by Paramount Pictures.
Opens nationwide.

The Space Between Us

Directed by Peter Chelsom




     



Number of times I checked my watch: 7
Released by STX Entertainment.
Opens nationwide.

War on Everyone

Directed by John Michael McDonagh




     



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