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Reviews for June 21st, 2013

Documentary Round-Up

      The Lottery of Birth, opening at the reRun Gastropub, argues that the more we understand what keeps us from being truly free, the more we'll be able to escape from the clutches of those impediments. In only 1 hour and 17 minutes, co-Raoul Martinez and Joshua van Praag analyze the impediments with the help of many intellectuals, such as environmental activist Vandana Shiva and historian Howard Zinn, who provide a lot of insight via talking heads. They talk a lot, but they also say a lot about aspects of our life, such as our economy, religion and education "system" that essentially turn us into complacent slaves who aren't aware that there are better alternatives. To become an autonomous, critically-thinking individual is easier said than done in a world that's filled with corrupt governments, stupidity, passivity, apathy and simple-mindedness. This doc traces the suppression of our critical thinking to the school system (if you even want to call it a system) which biases us with politicized education that omits whatever is needed to be omitted to prevent students from learning about the harsh truths of their country---i.e. that Christopher Columbus was an invader who mass-murdered the Native Americans; he's more like a terrorist than a hero in reality. Very few people are able to see the big picture because they're not provided with it or conditioned to searching for it. I'm reminded of a dentist who once asked, "What does evolution have to do with anything?" Some monkey he is! The Lottery of Birth will make you realize that there are many more monkeys like that dentist. It won't, however, persuade any of those philistines to think differently because it preaches to the choir more often than not and includes too many long quotes from scholars without explaining who those scholars are---sometimes just citing name isn't enough. A philistine would find too much to chew on and become confused given the many topics covered here even though they are separated into chapters. For everyone else, though, who values democracy, evolution and critical thinking, this will be music to their ears. Over at the Quad Cinema this week there's the doc Somm, released by Samuel Goldwyn Films. Director Jason Wise follows four individuals, namely, Dustin Wilson, Brian McClintic, Ian Cable and DLynn Proctor, who aspire to become Master Sommeliers. That top rank can only be achieved by passing a challenging three-part exam which includes blind-wine tasting. You watch as the four young men prepare for the exam and meet regularly together to practice their blind-wine tasting skills. It certainly takes a lot of diligence to study for an exam that only 10% of students pass. While there's a mild amount of suspense to be found as you're waiting to see whether or not each of the four young men will pass the exam, you'll occasionally find yourself bored by the repetitive nature of watching them prepare over and over. Perhaps more background info about each sommelier would have been helpful to give it more of a human story. Somm does teach you, though, about how complex and complicated wines can be. There's much more to wine than meets the eye, nose and tongue, and youíll certainly never look at a sommelier the same way again.


Directed by Alex Winters

      Downloaded charts the rise and fall of music file-sharing program Napster which was created back 1999, long before Myspace and Facebook even existed. Shawn Fanning and Sean Parker were merely college students when they formed the popular, controversial program. Given that profit is the bottom line in most if not all of the music industry, Metallica and Dr.Dre both sued Napster when they discovered that their songs were circulating through the peer-to-peer program. The RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America) soon sued them for copyright infringement and the company was shut down officially in 2001. Was it fair for the music industry to sue Napster? Yes, because the law prohibits copyright infringement. Is the law fair? That's a whole other question that depends on whom you ask. Shawn Fanning and Sean Parker don't see it as fair because they think the industry should've found ways to adapt instead of fighting change--everything evolves, after all, and the public approved of the evolution given how many people joined Napster to share music with their others.

      What's inherently wrong with sharing after all? Very few things in life are black-and-white, and neither are the issues explored in this provocative documentary. Fanning and Parker claim that they didn't expect the program to do so well nor did they expect the lawsuits, the latter probably out of naivety. Director Alex Winter does a decent job of providing you with the basic facts about Napster's rise and fall while including slick editing and some brief moments that serve as comic relief, but what makes this doc truly worth watching and compelling is its current interviews with Fanning and Parker who have remained brilliant and resilient until this very day. Downloaded isnít exactly your warts-and-all documentary, but, to be fair, it would probably take decades until the founders of Napster will be able to gain more perspective and to grasp all the lessons and insights from their Napster days.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by VH1 Rock Docs.
Opens at the Village East Cinema.

World War Z

Directed by Marc Forster

      Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt), a former UN employee, lives with his wife, Karin (Mireille Enos), and two young daughters, Constance (Sterling Jerins) and Rachel (Abigail Hargrove), in the suburbs of Philadelphia. He and his family learn on the news that some kind of epidemic has been spreading and causing panic and chaos around the world. Martial law has officially gone into effect. As they fley via their car, they get stuck in traffic and cross paths with zombies. Luckily, because of his prior government job, Gerry uses his connections to gain access to a battleship where they seek refuge during the global crisis. The U.S. president has been killed, and all the major cities around the world are terrorized by the zombies. It's now up to Gerry to find a cause and cure for the epidemic which becomes a task that's easier said than done.

      Based on the novel by Max Brooks, World War Z is a terrifying thriller that delivers the goods. Not only does director Marc Forster pump up your adrenaline with the many zombie action sequences, but he also grounds the film in enough realism to make this more than your average mindless blockbuster. On the surface, it's mankind-against-zombie story, but at its core, it's about one father's desperate, heartfelt struggle to save his family and mankind using his intelligence. Precisely how he uses his intelligence won't be spoiled here, but he does travel as far as Jerusalem to gather information.

      Gerry's journey is a mental as well as a physical one, and Brad Pitt has just the right acting chops to pull off the role convincingly. He carries the emotional weight of the film and adds some charisma to boot. Some of the supporting actors David Morse, the underrated Peter Capaldi, and newcomer Daniella Kertesz also shine albeit their time onscreen is rather ephemeral.

      Forster wisely doesn't include much blood-and-guts, so there's nothing to gross you out or shock you. Instead, he allows your imagination to fill in those gaps which is much more frightening and powerful. This also allows you to focus your attention more on Gerry's efforts to get to the bottom of the epidemic crisis once and for all. Fortunately, the plot remains coherent and avoids the trappings of exposition which many films suffer from. In other words, you won't have to wait impatiently for the mayhem to begin because the first zombie attacks can be found onscreen within the first ten minutes. Itís also worth mentioning the lack of awkward tonal shifts. Thereís virtually no comic relief; the vast majority of the film maintains a serious tone. Admittedly, you'll find a few contrived turns of events along the way that require suspension of disbelief given how unrealistic they are even within film's internal logic, but those minor, forgivable setbacks in what's otherwise an intelligent, riveting and terrifying thriller.

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

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