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Reviews for July 24th, 2015

Documentary Round-Up

      A documentary is (often) as interesting as its subject, so it's quite fortunate that The Outrageous Sophie Tucker has singer Sophie Tucker as its subject because she's not only immensely talented, but also charismatic, sexy and full of pizzazz. There was more to her than meets the eye when it comes to her private life which she kept very private---that probably wouldn't be as easy to accomplish nowadays compared to when she was famous back in the early 20th Century. Director William Gazecki makes the most out of archival footage of Tucker singing, photos, and modern-day interviews with Barbara Walters, Tony Bennett, Carol Channing along with biographers Lloyd and Susan Ecker. Much of it does feel like hagiography, but that's forgiveable because there truly is a lot to celebrate about Tucker---and she deserves to be more widely known by today's audiences. After all, Bette Midler inspired by her in many ways, and one can see the similarities. You will learn a little about Tucker's love life and her bisexuality, although thankfully Gazecki does not pry too much about those aspects of her life. The reasons why she didn't rise to stardom as an actress in Hollywood are quite interesting. If you've never heard of Tucker before, don't be surprised if this doc will make you curious to hear more of her songs. At a running time of 1 hour and 36 minutes, it's a delightful, toe-tapping and illuminating tribute to Sophie Tucker. Someone ought to make a biopic of her very interesting life and career. Menemsha Films opens The Outrageous Sophie Tucker at Cinema Village.

American Heist

Directed by Sarik Andreasyan


Number of times I checked my watch: 5
Released by Lionsgate Films.
Opens at AMC Empire.

Big Significant Things

Directed by Bryan Reisberg

      Craig (Harry Lloyd), a 20something young man, is in the process of moving with his girlfriend from New Jersey to a new house in San Francisco. Before the big move, though, he takes a road trip, solo, down South to clear his head. He often stops along the way to look at objects that are labeled as "the world's largest," i.e. a frying pan and rocking chair. Meanwhile, his girlfriend calls him every now and then.

      Aimless and often dull, Big Significant Things has a lot in common with its protagonist. Both the film and the protagonist feel like an unfinished rough draft---messy and with half-baked ideas. It's hard to tell whether or not to like Craig because writer/director Bryan Reisberg doesn't give you enough about backstory about him. You do know that Craig can be an asshole to others, especially to his girlfriend whom he lies to about the the road trip. She thinks that he's going on a business-related trip for his marketing job. He even has the nerve to tell tourists visiting the site of the "world's largest frying pan" that there are 7 more of that exact same object around the country thereby ruining their experience. At least they're wise enough to ignore such a narcissist.

      Harry Lloyd gives a decent performance, but he doesn't have enough to work with---it's like a plant trying to grow in soil that's not rich enough for it to fully blossom. Perhaps Big Significant Things would work better as a short. However, even at 84 minutes, it gets repetitive and overstays its welcome. It does, though, end on a very interesting, though-provoking note, but by then it's too-little-too-late. If only the scenes preceding that ultimate scene were as potent and compelling.

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

Five Star

Directed by Keith Miller


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

Frank the Bastard

Directed by Brad Coley


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

Jack Strong

Directed by Wladyslaw Pasikowski


Number of times I checked my watch: 5
Released by Level 33 Entertainment.
Opens at Arena Cinema.

Jian Bing Man

Directed by Da Peng

      Da Peng (Da Peng), a popular TV host, is desperate to make more money, so he seizes the opportunity when Mr. Wang (Liang Chao), a crime boss, offers to pay him millions for making a movie. He gives him one condition, though: he must persuade actress Du Xiaoxiao (Yuan Shanshan) to star in the movie. Da Peng's plans to make that movie don't quite pan out. Instead, he secretly shoots a cheaper version of the film on the streets of Beijing with a new script involving and alien and a superhero, Jian Bing Man.

      Jian Bing Man manages be a lot of delightful fun because the film never takes itself too seriously. Much of the humor is absurd and silly, i.e. when Jian Bing Man throws chopped-up scallions at an oponent during a fight, but it's imaginative and all done in a tongue-in-cheek style that works quite well as long as you suspend your disbelief and check your brain at the door. Da Peng (who also directs the film) seems to be having a great time onscreen. He's quite charismatic and has great comedic timing to boot. Action fans will be pleased to see a cameo by Jean Claude Van Damme. To be fair, if you understand Chinese, you might grasp more of the subtle humor and cultural references, but the same can be said for any foreign comedy. At a running time of 1 hour and 45 minutes, Jian Bing Man is a refreshing and amusing comedy worth seeing with a large audience.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by Asia Releasing.
Opens at AMC Empire.

Only You

Directed by Hao Zhang

      Fang Yuan (Tang Wei), a veterinarian, has been told twice by fortune tellers that her soul mate will be a man by the name of Song Kunming. Just as she's about to marry Xie Wei (Xie Dongshen), a dentist, she receives a call from a man claiming to be Song Kunming who lives all the way in Italy. She takes a chance and travels there only to discover that Feng Dali (Liao Fan), the man who called her, lied to her being Song Kunming.

      If you've seen the American version of Only You from 1994, you already know what to expect plot-wise, but the bar might be set a little too high because the 1994 film was very tender and charming. This Chinese remake also has its fair share of charming and tender moments, although not nearly as much as the original. Director Hao Zhang does his best to provide you with a fresh take with a few changes, i.e. replacing the source of its protagonist's message of destiny (a Ouiji board) with a different source (a fortune teller). The film is very well-case because Tang Wei and Liao Fan both have great chemistry together while one can see why Fang Yuan seems bored of her fiance, Xie Wei. Ultimately, despite being inferior to the original, 2015's Only You nonetheless manages to be an enchanting romantic drama that would make for a perfect date night.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by China Lion.
Opens at AMC Empire.


Directed by Christian Petzold

      In post-WWII, Nelly (Nina Hoss), a German-Jewish nightclub singer, returns to Berlin after surviving the Holocaust, but now has a surgically reconstructed face because of her injuries. Her husband, Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld), used to be a pianist before the war, and now works as a busboy at a nightclub called Phoenix. When Nelly meets him, he doesn't recognize her, although he does think that she resembles his wife whom he assumes has died. Matters get complicated when he asks her to pretend to be his wife so that he can collect her inheritance.

    Phoenix combines mystery, suspense, noir and drama in a way that's consistently compelling. Will Johnny recognize Nelly? What might the consequences be if he were to recognize her as his wife? Those questions will keep you at the edge of your seat as the story takes unpredictable twists and turns along the way. Nelly learns a dark secret about Johnny, and her reactions to that, which won't be spoiled here, are even more unexpected. Some of the film feels operatic and a bit stagey, as if you were watching a very interestingly-lit play, though. Morevover, thee third act, ends on a rather disappointing note because it's too sudden and, without enough closure, it leaves you with too many open-ended questions that makes the film feel incomplete.

      On a purely aesthetic level, Phoenix looks precisely like a noir film should with an interesting use of chiaroscuro, colors and set/costume designs. It would really benefit you if you were to see the film on the big screen to better appreciate its cinematography and pay attention to the details. Phoenix's greatest asset, though, is the infinitely talented Nina Hoss who sinks her teeth into the role with aplomb and is quite radiant. She's as good of an actress as Charlotte Rampling, and elevates the film because she convincingly captures Nelly's complex emotions through body language. Phoenix can best be described as a taut, atmospheric, engrossing and slow-burning noir thriller that's often unpredictable.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by Sundance Selects.
Opens at IFC Center and Lincoln Plaza Cinemas.

The Piper

Directed by Kim Gwang-tae

      After the Korean War, Woo-ryong (Ryu Seung-ryong) and his son, Nam-su (Lee Jun), trek to Seoul in hopes of getting his sick lungs treated at a hospital there. Along the way, though, they stop at a village that has a serious rat infestation. Woo-ryong agrees to work there to earn enough money to continue on his voyage, and also agrees to use his mysterious piper to get rid of the rats. While befriendly the village shaman, Mi-suk (Chun Woo-hee), the village chief (Lee Sung-min), a despot, sees Woo-ryong and his son as his enemies because they're a threat to his sense of order in the village.

      The Piper has its fair share of thrills and goes into surprisingly dark territory for a fable, but it takes its time to get to those moments of thrills. The evolving dynamics between Woo-ryong and the village chief remain quite interesting throughout, especially when Woo-ryong exacts revenge against the chief. The relationship between Woo-wyong and his son isn't explored enough, though, to leave you truly engrossed on an emotional level. However, the performances by Ryu Seung-ryong and Lee Sung-min are quite convincing. What also helps to elevate the film is the breathtaking cinematography that brings out the beauty of the natural surroundings. It would be safe to say that the land becomes of character in itself, in a way. Any film where land becomes a character should be watched on the big screen to fully appreciate the visuals. Do keep in mind, though, that The Piper might be too scary and intense for kids, but adults will be mildly captivated.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by CJ Entertainment.
Opens at CVG Cinemas in Los Angeles.


Directed by Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano


Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by Broad Green Pictures.
Opens at select theaters.


Directed by Antoine Fuqua


Number of times I checked my watch: 2
Released by The Weinstein Companye.
Opens at select theaters.


Directed by Kris Swanberg


Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by The Film Arcade.
Opens at select theaters.
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