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Reviews for June 1st, 2018

Documentary Round-Up

      The Doctor from India is a mildly illuminating documentary about the work and life of Dr. Vasant Lad, an Ayurvedic practitioner who brought the Indian medical practice of Ayurveda to the U.S. in the 1970s and founded The Ayurvedic Institute in New Mexico in 1984. He believes that Ayurveda, a holistic treatment, in combination with allopathy, such as surgery would be ideal because Ayurveda is preventative care while allopathy merely treats the symptoms. Director Jeremy Frindel provides background information on Dr. Lad's childhood through his academic studies and his spread of the Ayurvedic practice in the West. He interviews Dr. Lad himself along with his colleagues while showing glimpses of his family life and a brief explanation of how he met his wife. You also get to see him treating some of his patients---he's even able to detect the heartbeat of a patient's mother without the mother being there. So, he's not just a holistic healer, but also a psychic. While all of that information is interesting, there's not enough insight into Dr. Lad's innate struggles. He seems so calm as though he were the Pope. How does he channel his anger? What makes him angry for that matter? Perhaps he needs to be asked more challenging questions to bring his innate feelings out to the surface. Those who are skeptic about Ayurvedic medicine won't walk away from this doc convinced of the power and effectiveness of Ayurveda. In other words, The Doctor from India is too narrow, one-sided and preaches to the choir. It's a decent introduction to Dr. Vasant Lad, but it's not balanced nor profound enough to rise above mediocrity. It opens at Quad Cinema through Zeitgeist Films.


Directed by Baltasar Kormákur

      In 1983, Peter (Jeffrey Thomas) and Christine (Elizabeth Hawthorne) hire Tami Oldham (Shailene Woodley) and Richard Sharp (Sam Claflin), her boyfriend, to ferry their sailboat from Tahiti to San Diego. It's all smooth-sailing until their boat enters the rough waters of Hurricane Raymond. The elements of nature damage their boat and leaves Richard, the love of Tami's life, injured in the middle of the South Pacific.

      Part survival adventure, part romance, Adrift is similar in structure to the survival adventure Wild, the screenplay by Aaron Kandell, Jordan Kandell and David Branson Smith, based on a true story, tells the narrative non-linearly by beginning with Tami searching for Richard after the hurricane hits their boat and then flashes back to show how they met before flashing forward to their tragedy at sea. The overrated, exhausting and shallow Dunkirk also followed a non-linear structure, but failed to bring any of its characters to life or to generate emotions. Adrift, on the other hands, allows you to get to know Tami and Richard both of whom do come to life so that you care about them as human beings. The way that the screenwriters inform the audience of Tami's vegetarianism is both witty and amusing. There are other brief moments, such as Richard's marriage proposal to Tami, which provide some levity to counteract the intensity of the survival adventure scenes. There's a twist in the third act which won't be spoiled here, but it's worth mentioning that it's integrated organically into the screenplay without insulting your intelligence.

      If director Baltasar Kormákur and the screenwriters were just to focus on the survival tale at sea, Adrift would've been exhausting. They balance the film's dark and light elements without going too far in either direction except for a gory scene showing a Richard's leg wound that leaves nothing to the imagination. The romantic scenes work well because you can feel the chemistry between Tami and Richard. That chemistry derives, in part, from the screenplay, but mostly from the acting talents of Shailene Woodley and Sam Claflin. Both of them previously starred in sappy romances that required a heavy dose of insulin: Woodley in The Fault in Our Stars and Claflin in Me Before You.

      Adrift, fortunately, requires much less insulin than The Fault in Our Stars and Me Before You as it skirts that line between being sweet and saccharine. At times, it crosses that line into the realm of schmaltz, i.e. when Tami and Richard gaze into the horizon while commenting on the sun setting or making out on a beach. Those scenes, among many others, are beautifully shot, though, with breathtaking visual poetry that compensates for the cheesy screenplay. Woodley and Claflin's convincingly moving performances also help to elevate the film. Although Adrift doesn't reach the emotional depths of the classic romantic tragedy Love Story, it's still a thrilling, exhilarating and genuinely heartfelt experience that often finds right balance between entertaining the audience and provoking them emotionally. It would make for an interesting double feature with Wild, All is Lost, and the documentary Maidentrip

Number of times I checked my watch: 2
Released by STX Films.
Opens nationwide.


Directed by Simon Baker

      In 1970s Australia, 13-year-old Pikelet (Samson Coulter) and his friend, Loonie (Ben Spence), live by the coast and have a burgeoning passion for surfing. They meet Sando (Simon Baker), a former pro surfer, and persuade him to be their surfing mentor. Sando has a wife, Eva (Elizabeth Debicki), who's career as a professional skier recently ended after a serious accident. While Sando goes out of town with Loonie, Pikelet secretly develops a relationship with her.

      Breath is a mildly engaging coming-of-age drama, but it takes too long to get to the most interesting, complex, and meaty part of its story: the love triangle between Pikelet, Eva and Sando. The screenplay by first-time writer/director Simon Baker and co-writer Gerard Lee, based on the novel by Tim Winton, treads water during the lengthy first act that reminds audiences over and over about how much Pikelet and Loonie love the thrill of surfing. Although it's great that Baker and Lee trust the audience's patience and use surfing as well as the ocean as a metaphor, perhaps they trust it a little too much because it's hard to watch so many surfing scenes without wondering when something new---anything other than surfing--is going to happen. Once the love triangle kicks into gear around the hour-and-half mark, Breath finally gains some much-need dramatic momentum as some of its darkness rises above the surface. A more tightly edited first act and more focus on the aftermath of the love-triangle would've made for a much more engaging experience.

      Newcomers Samson Coulter and Ben Spence both give moving, natural and nuanced performances that help to ground the film in realism and to provide it with heartfelt moments. Coulter excels especially during the scenes with Eva toward the end because he convincingly sinks his teeth into wide range of complex emotions. Baker should be commended for what he avoids doing as a first time director. He avoids schmaltz as well as going too far when it comes to the film's darker themes. Admittedly, some of the voice-over narration tends to over-explain and feels a bit preachy. There are some sex scenes, but they're shown in a tasteful instead of a shocking way. If only those scenes were to blend well with the beginning of the film because the tone goes into a totally different direction. The first half of Breath is family-friendly, but monotonous and meandering; the 2nd half is much more engaging and more for adults. It's better, though, for a film to have a weak first half and a strong second half rather than the other way around like when it comes to last year's disappointing film, Downsizing, which started on such a high note for the first hour before taking a very sharp nosedive. Breath does win your heart over by third act, but it takes a tedious, overlong first act and a lot of patience to get there.

Number of times I checked my watch: 3
Released by FilmRise.
Opens at Village East Cinema.

A Kid Like Jake

Directed by Silas Howard

      Alex Wheeler (Claire Danes) and her husband, Greg (Jim Parsons), have just moved into a new apartment in Brooklyn with their four-year-old son, Jake (Leo James Davis), who's experimenting with gender identity by fixating on Disney princesses. The process to get him enrolled in a private school becomes an even more difficult task when Judy (Octavia Spencer), the director of Jake's preschool, suggests to them that they should include his gender identity experimentation in his school applications. Greg works as a shrink who's analyzing a woman (Amy Landecker) with marriage problems. Alex gave up her job as a lawyer to raise Jake despite the disapproval of her mother, Catherine (Ann Dowd). Meanwhile, Alex and Greg go through their own marital issues as tensions between them gradually escalate.

      There's nothing that's Hollywood about A Kid Like Jake. There are no car chases, explosions, fights or alien abductions to be found yet it's 100x more captivating, wise and emotionally engrossing than Avengers, Deadpool 2 and Solo combined. The sensitive, intelligent screenplay by Daniel Pearle, based on his play, tackles many topics ranging from parenting to gender identity in a nuanced, understated and organic way. Every scene feels grounded in reality without any contrivance or stiltedness. Even though there are many supporting interesting supporting characters and subplot, the film remains focused on the dynamics between Alex and Greg without feeling overstuffed or undercooked like too many modern American indies feel. Pearle and director Silas Howard know when to trust the audience's intelligence and emotions without hitting them over the head. Not a single scene overstays its welcome.

      Another part of A Kid Like Jake's strengths is that there's more to it than meets the eye. Alex and Greg's marriage seems fine at the beginning, but much like in Ordinary People, cracks in their marriage start to show up as they deal with financial woes and Jake's gender identity. It's both interesting and true-to-life that Greg struggles to keep his marriage afloat despite that he's a therapist. Perhaps, like some therapists, he became a therapist to work out his own psychological issues. Although the plot might seem like it's quite heavy, it never feels that way because Pearle knows how to balance the drama with just the right amount of comic relief without leading to clunkiness or unevenness. The characters feel lived-in and complex rather than like caricatures while their character arcs are believable. It's very rare for a film to have a strong third act that doesn't tie up everything too neatly yet it leaves you satisfied.

      It's also worth mentioning the terrific production values. Many scenes are well-shot with stylish lighting and set design that contribute to the film's richness and substance. Yes, sometimes style can become substance. The same can be said for the use of music by Roger Neill which never feels intrusive. Despite its origins as a play, the film never feels stuffy or stagy; there's a cinematic quality to it. This is a drama that actually looks and sounds great on the big screen unlike many dramas that work better on the small screen. Moreover, everyone is well-cast, and Claire Danes gives one of the best performances of her career. Like a truly great film, A Kid Like Jake has just the right balance of Truth and Spectacle. Its Spectacle can be found within its many Truths if you're perceptive enough to look beneath the surface.

Number of times I checked my watch: 0
Released by IFC Films.
Opens at IFC Center.


Directed by Leigh Whannell


Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by BH Tilt.
Opens nationwide.