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Reviews for January 20th, 2017

Documentary Round-Up

      In They Call Us Monsters, Jarad Nava, Juan Gamez, and Antonio Hernandez are teenage inmates at Sylmar Juvenile Hall in Los Angeles. What makes that such a big deal? According to California law, the U.S. injustice errr...justice system treats people aged 14-17 as adults when being sentenced for their crimes. Are they really the monsters that our justice system try to make them out to be? Director Ben Lear does a great job of humanizing each of the three teen inmates. Yes, they're flawed human beings who have made serious mistakes, but they're willing to try to be better people. A screenwriting instructor, Gabe Cowan, teaches them how to write a screenplay based on their own painful life experiences as a form of artistic catharsis. Given the traumatizing events and adult content that they had to endure growing up without proper parental guidance, you can sense that they're essentially a product of their environment. The fact that Antonio readily admits that he doesn't regret committing his crime shows you just how much of a failure the U.S. justice system is when it comes to treating the mental health of their inmates to give some hope of rehabilitating them. These are kids, after all. Should we judge them the same way that we judge adults whose brains are fully developed? Regardless of what your opinion on that matter is, there's no denying that kids deserve a chance to become better people and to rehabilitate given the opportunity. Merely locking them away in prison for life and making them feel like monsters is not a solution for the systemic, socioeconomic issue of crime that's been plaguing our country for years. Kudos to Lear for gaining access to the inmates inside the prison, for stepping back without making the documentary about himself, and for not taking any sides of the issue. Instead, he merely presents it to you with all of its complexities intact and no easy solutions. Matson Films opens the eye-opening, heartfelt and illuminating doc They Call Us Monsters at Village East Cinema. Leonard Cohen: Bird on a Wire is a behind-the-scenes glipse of the iconic musician, Leonard Cohen, during his 1972 European Tour. Director Tony Palmer blends concert footage with footage of Cohen in between the concerts, in some cases while he's being interviewed on an airplane by a journalist. If you've ever wanted to get to know Cohen's thought processes and feelings as a human being, now's your chance. Palmer captures his charismatic personality, his humility and warmth on camera. He's the kind of musician who never let fame get into his head---and he's not comfortable with being famous. There's even some footage of a potential groupie desperately trying to seduce him. Regardless of whether or not you're a fan of Leonard Cohen's music, you'll be captivated by this documentary. Leonard Cohen: Bird on a Wire opens Wednesday, January 18th at Film Forum.

The Axe Murders of Villisca

Directed by Tony E. Valenzuela


Number of times I checked my watch: 4
Released by IFC Midnight.
Opens at IFC Center.

The Red Turtle

Directed by Michael Dudok de Wit

      A young man becomes shipwrecked on a deserted tropical island with only crabs, birds and turtles. His attempts to build a sturdy raft are futile. Everything changes when he spots a red turtle that destroys his raft. What happens when the two cross paths will not be spoiled here so that your surprise won't be ruined because it takes the film onto a whole new level.

      Beautifully animated with 2D animation, The Red Turtle is equally enchanting, poetic, sad, breathtaking and mesmerizing. Writer/director MichaŽl Dudok De Wit and co-writer Pascale Ferran boldly choose to keep the film dialogue and narration-free similar to the survival tale All is Lost. The images don't need words because they speak louder than words; words, after all, are cheap. Even though you'll find lots of pretty colors and some cute crabs that provide a little comic relief, this is by no means a kid-friendly movie because it goes into somewhat dark, somber territory and it has leisurely pacing. The story may seem simple on the surface, but it grows increasing complex beneath the surface as it progresses. Despite that there's virtually zero backstory to the nameless man, you'll still end up caring about him as a human being.

      Dudok De Wit deserves to be commended trusting the audience's patience and intelligence. He deftly combines realism and surrealism in way that's clever, imaginative and, most importantly, unpretentious. If he were to have included more surrealism, it would've been over-the-top and distracting. The quietly powerful ending fills you with so many emotions ranging from happiness to sadness that it will surely haunt you for quite some time, unless you're made out of stone. In only 82 minutes, The Red Turtle manages to tell a captivating and refreshingly wordless story that's engrossing, surprising and unforgettable. It's among the best Animated films in recent years.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by Sony Pictures Classics.
Opens at Lincoln Plaza Cinemas and Landmark Sunshine Cinema.


Directed by M. Night Shyamalan


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

Staying Vertical

Directed by Alain Guiraudie


Number of times I checked my watch: 2
Released by Strand Releasing.
Opens at IFC Center and Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center.

Trespass Against Us

Directed by Adam Smith


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

We Are the Flesh

Directed by Emiliano Rocha Minter


Number of times I checked my watch: 6
Released by A24 Films.
Opens at Cinema Village.

XXX: The Return of Xander Cage

Directed by D.J. Caruso

      Xander Cage (Vin Diesel) comes out of exile to help the NSA retrieve Pandora's Box, a dangerous hacking device, from the hands of Xiang (Donnie Yen). The device was used to take down a sattelite that killed NSA recruiter Augustus Gibbons (Samuel L. Jackson). Joining Xander Cage's mission are Nicks (Kris Wu), Tennyson Torch (Rory McCann) and Adele Wolff (Ruby Rose). Toni Collette plays NSA chief Jane Marke, and Nina Dobrev plays Becky the Techie.

      XXX: The Return of Xander Cage is often dumb, silly and shallow, but it's still a lot of fun on a purely visceral level as long as you're willing to check your brain at the door and to suspend your disbelief (a lot!). Screenwriter F. Scott Frazier keeps the plot simple and lean, although he does include a double crossing or two along the way. From the very first frame, Frazier wastes no time in getting into the meat of the story and hooking the audience while avoiding banal exposition. The way he introduces the characters, i.e. Xander Cage, is quite exciting and witty. Much of what happens plotwise, though, seems more like an excuse for another action set piece.

      Fortunately,the action sequences are well shot, thrilling and wildly entertaining. This is the kind of film that doesn't take itself too seriously nor is it ashamed to flaunt its shallowness: there are plenty of cool cars, explosions, car chases, sexy babes and gun fights on display to please action film afficionados. Does any of it feel new or refreshing? No, but at least it's not insipid like the recent lackluster James Bond films. If it were over 2 hours, though, it would have overstayed its welcome and been too exhausting instead of exhilarating. At a running time of 1 hour and 45 minutes, XXX: The Return of Xander Cage is mindlessly entertaining and a rush of pure adrenaline that's best experienced on the big screen.

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