Act of Killing opens at the Landmark Sunshine Cinema via Drafthouse Films. In 1965, the Indonesian
military committed mass murders against anyone who was allegedly part of the Communist Party. Death squads
killed nearly 500,000 people one by one between 1965 and 1966. Neither of the murderers have been punished
yet. One of the death squad leaders is Anwar Congo who killed roughly 1,000 communists with his hands using
a piano wire. Director Joshua Oppenheimer persuades him to tell his story by filming him reenacting murder
scenes together with his fellow murderers, i.e. Adi Zulkadry, who are still alive and unremorseful until
this very day. To call this documentary terrifying would be an understatement. You will not believe your
eyes as you watch Congo acting out the murder scenes so effortlessly with meticulous attention to detail
from his vivid memories of those events. Sure, those events haunt him---he is human after all--but what can
be said about his moral conscience or his lack of one, for that matter? Can you trust anything that Congo
says in front of the camera to make him seem even remotely repentant? Oppenheimer wisely lets the
reenactments and the interviews with Congo speak for themselves. Prepare to be shocked, disgusted, enraged
and emotionally devastated by The Act of Killing. It's the most terrifying film in years. Yet another frightening, enraging doc opening this week is Blackfish directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite. Have you ever watched orcas performing tricks at SeaWorld? They may look adorable and seem content, but there's much more to those killer whales than meets the eye. Tilikum, an orca born in 1984, killed a Sealand of the Pacific orca trainer, Keltie Byrne, in 1991. It was then sold to SeaWorld where it killed two other people, namely, Dawn Brancheau and civilian Daniel P. Dukes. SeaWorld claims that Tilikum attacked and killed Dawn because it was provoked by her ponytail thereby laying the blame on her. The footage of the attack provided in this riveting, well-edited doc, though, shows that it was not her ponytail that led to the attack. Cowperthwaite wisely doesn't dwell on those tragedies; instead she gathers interviews with former SeaWorld trainers, witnesses to the attacks and others who help you see to the big picture, so-to-speak, to understand how inhumanely Tilikum had been treated by SeaWorld. Its separation from its mother, which had a huge impact on it, will break your heart. Current employees of SeaWorld declined to interviewed, so make of that what you will. After watching this alarming doc, you'll never look at an orca or SeaWorld the same way again. Blackfish opens via Magnolia Pictures at Landmark Sunshine Cinema and Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center. At the Quad Cinema via the high quality distributor Menemsha Films, there's the equally heartbreaking and heartwarming doc Nicky's Family about Sir Nicholas Winton, a.k.a. The British Schindler, who rescued 669 Jewish Slovak and Czech children in Czechoslovakia before World War II officially broke out. He forged documents to expedite the children's transportation to England where they were adopted by kind families. Director Matej Minac combines interviews with Nicholas Winton and the children he rescued along with archival footage and reenactments. The interviews Winton highlight how smart, articulate and generous he is as a human being. He has always been a true mensch, hero and inspiration---why can't the same be said about our politicians? While the subject of the holocaust is quite sad and heavy, Nicky's Family makes it easily accessible for all ages by not showing or describing the events that took place in the concentration camps in graphic detail. Minac provides you with just enough history so that even a child can understand the context of Winton's heroism. Unless you're made of stone, you will not be dry eyed by the time the end credits roll as you witness how Winton's heroism has been inspiring children around the world to do heroic deeds. At a running time of 1 hour and 36 minutes, Nicky's Family finds just the right balance between entertaining the audience and provoking them emotionally and intellectually.
Girl Most Likely
Imogene (Kristen Wiig), a failed playwright, has a boyfriend, Peter (Brian Petsos), who's more successful than her. When he dumps her, she fakes a suicide to get his attention, but instead ends up in a psychiatric ward and into the care of her gambling-addicted mother, Zelda (Annette Bening), in Ocean City, New Jersey. Zelda has rented out Imogene's room to a young guy, Lee (Darren Criss), has a live-in boyfriend, George aka The Bousche (Matt Dillon), an undercover government operative, or so he claims. Meanwhile, Imogene's brother, Ralph (Christopher Fitzgerald), still lives at home and hasn't yet left Ocean City even though he's already an adult. When she discovers that her father she never met is alive, she and Ralph decide to find out where he lives and to visit him.
In case you haven't realized it according to the plot description above, Imogene's family is quite dysfunctional. It would also be safe to say that her mother and, as it turns out, her father suffer from narcissism. Screenwriter Michelle Morgan and co-directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini have chosen to tell this story through a blend of amusing comedy and light drama with more emphasis on comedy and uplift rather than delving into the darkness and psychological issues that lurks beneath it. That combination works fine enough to be marginally diverting thanks the fine performances by the actors and actress, each of whom is well-cast even those in the supporting roles. In other words, the fine performances, especially by Annette Bening and charismatic Kristen Wiig, barely compensate for the screenplay's lack of depth.
The systemic problem of Girl Most Likely is that when it starts to get serious and complete Imogene's character arc, it does so in a rather facile, contrived and overly simplistic fashion. Even Zelda's character arc isn't particularly believable for that matter because the toothless screenplay doesn't flesh out the evolving dynamics between Zelda and Imogene organically and thoroughly enough. Both of them could use a lot of therapy, or could have had a lengthy, profound discussion together or Imogene could have at least run far away from her toxic, narcissistic mother, but neither of those logical events transpire. Instead, you get a fairy-tale, Hollywood ending that's too rushed and, most significantly, unearned.
Ways to Live Forever
12-year-old Sam (Robbie Kay) lives with his mother (Emilia Fox), father (Ben Chaplin), and younger sister (Eloise Barnes) in the suburbs of England. He has been diagnosed with leukemia, but that does not deter him from living life to the fullest. To make the most out of the time that remains, he creates a video diary and writes a to-do list of everything that he wants to accomplish before he dies. Those tasks, among others, include seeing a ghost, watching horror movies, being a teenager, kissing a girl, walking up the down escalator, and riding an airship. His good friend, Felix (Alex Etel), who's also a cancer patient, helps him in his quest to accomplish each task. Gretta Scacchi plays Sam and Felix's tutor, Ella Purnell plays Sam's love interest, and Phyllida Law shows up as Sam's grandmother.
Ways to Live Forever, based on the novel by Sally Nicholls, is the rare come-of-age film that brims with warmth, wisdom, wit and pure, unadulturated poignancy. Writer/director Gustavo Ron combines drama, tragedy, romance, comedy and magical realism in a way that's quite smooth, wholesome and effective without any signs of unevenness or contrivance. With a less human and sensitive screenplay, it could have turned into schmaltzy Lifetime movie-of-the-week territory or an uneven mess, but instead it feels authentic, organic and thoroughly engaging from start to finish. Robbie Kay, who's also the narrator, anchors the film with his convincingly moving performance as Sam. The same can be said for Alex Etel whom you may remember from Millions and The Water Horse. Each actor/actress gets a chance to shine here, so this is a true ensemble. There's no "bad guy" here---even the imminent death for Sam and Felix is just a part of life. Most importantly, though, Ways to Live Forever boasts a complete and believable character arc both for Sam as well as for his father.
One minute you'll be laughing, one minute you'll be crying, but you'll never feel manipulated because the laughs and tear-jerking moments are well-earned and you truly care about the characters. As the film progresses, it becomes more complex and even a little dark, yet there's always some form of levity to balance the dark elements so that they don't feel too heavy-handed. There are also some very nifty animated sequences that further invigorate the film. Moreover, Sam comes up with "Questions Nobody Answers" and ponders each of those profound questions maturely and intelligently, so expect to be more enlightened by the time the end credits roll. Like a true coming-of-age classic, if you watch this film again a decade or so later, you might notice, grasp and perhaps even relate it more.
At an ideal running time of 1 hour and 35 minutes, Ways to Live Forever is a wise, heartwarming, uplifting and inspiring coming-of-age film for the entire family. Itís one of the best films of year.