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Documentary Round-Up

      The Internet's Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz democracy. Aaron Swartz, a brilliant computer programmer who helped to develop RSS and was part of the Hacktvist movement, downloaded academic journal articles from the digital library JSTOR. He was soon charged with wire fraud and the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act which led him to face a maximum of 35 years in prison and $1 million in fines before he committed suicide in 2013. Like other Hacktivists, Swartz believed in the freedom of information which is essential to democracy and equality. JSTOR, however, charges a fee for accessing the articles thereby making them inaccessible to those who don't have the financial means to accessing them. Director Brian Knappenberger combines archival footage of Aaron Swartz with interviews with Swartz' family, friends and others including World Wide Web founder Tim Berners-Lee each of whom help to paint a picture of what Aaron was like and what was going through his head. No one knows, though, even the U.S. government, what he was going to do with the JSTOR articles that he had downloaded. It's pretty clear what U.S. Attorney Carmen M. Ortiz, who headed the prosecution against Swartz, was intending to do by going after Swartz: she wanted to set an example of him in order to prevent future hacktivists from following his path. Swartz's father admits that that's what prosecutors told him in person. No one from the Justice Department, MIT or JSTOR agreed to be interviewed, so we don't get to hear from their side of the story (after all, every store has multiple sides with many shades of grey), but their silence speaks louder than words about their cowardice. Ortiz' prosecution of Aaron Swartz sounds Orwellian in nature because she suppressed someone who sought for freedom of information and, ultimately, democracy. How simple-minded is she for thinking that his case is as black-and-white as "stealing is stealing"? She and assistant attorney Stephen Heymann of the DOJ are fundamentally draconian, fascist bullies to say the least and they're at least partly responsible for Aaron Swartz's suicide. If this were 1930s Germany, Ortiz and Heymann would probably work for Adolf Hitler. The Internet's Own Boy is a potent, frightening and poignant reminder of how easy it is to lose democracy in modern day America, and how challenging yet important it is to fight for it. It should be mandatory viewing for every American citizen, and would make for a great double feature with a doc called The End of America. How close are we to a dictatorship like in Egypt, China or, worse, Nazi Germany given how our government is willing to turn against ordinary citizens who fight for democracy? Only time will tell. For now, you can find George Orwell rolling in his grave. Film Buff and Participant Media open The Internet's Own Boy at the IFC Center.

Begin Again

Directed by John Carney

      Gretta (Keira Knightley) and Dan (Mark Ruffalo) have a few things in common: they both have a passion for music, they're both lonely, and both have faith in one another. She broke up with her musician boyfriend, Dave (Adam Levine), while Dan is separated from his wife, Miriam (Catherine Keener). After quitting from the record company that he helped to create with his business partner (Mos Def), Dan goes to a local New York City pub where he sees Gretta singing and persuades her to let him produce her album for a very low cost. Their new business venture not only builds Dan's financial hopes up, but also helps to improve his relationship with his 14-year-old daughter, Violet (Hailee Steinfeld), as she spends time with him and Gretta---and even plays an instrument as part of the album.

      With Once, writer/director John Carney proved that he had knack for unpretentious romantic dramas about true-to-life people who are passionate about music. With Begin Again he proves that he still has that knack intact. Every drama, whether it be romance or plain drama, should be grounded in some form of realism; it doesn't need total realism a la Eric Rohmer's film's, though. Good chemistry or rapport between characters are very important as well. Fortunately, Begin Again has that to offer because of a very well-chosen casts of actors. The chemistry between Gretta and Dan feels quite palpable throughout. Will they be just business partners, friends or more? That's a question that might be in the back of your mind while Gretta and Dan create their album together, and you might find yourself pleasantly surprised by the answer which won't be spoiled here. A few other surprises include how Carney inventively incorporates flashbacks so smoothly without distracting from the narrative flow. Admittedly, the scenes involving Dan's former record company aren't quite as organic or believable as the rest of the film because of too many "conveniences" mostly likely happen only in Hollywood movies, but those are minor issues that can easily be forgiven with a little suspension of disbelief. What separates Begin Again from most romantic dramas from Hollywood---of which there are sadly too few around these days---is that its characters seem lived-in, complex and likable despite their flaws. Even Gretta's ex, a cheater, has redeeming qualities that humanize him. Morever, Carney adds just the right amount of comic relief without going overboard or catering to the lowest common denominator like Obvious Child does.

      Rule number one: Any film with Catherine Keener is at least very good. Rule number two: All rules were made to be broken except for rule number one. Begin Again, like any film with Catherine Keener, has the kind of special effects that are rare in Hollywood: wit, intelligence, warmth, charisma and, above all, humanity. Kudos to Keener and her agent for always selecting films with beautifully-written screenplays (i.e. last year's Enough Said) that feel have a well-balanced blend of commercial and art-house qualities. Begin Again is the first great American film this year that can't be turned into a video game. It deserves to become a sleeper hit.

Number of times I checked my watch: 0
Released by The Weinstein Company.
Opens in select theaters.

The Break-Up Guru

Directed by Chao Deng


Number of times I checked my watch: 4
Released by China Lion Film Distribution.
Opens at AMC Empire.


Directed by Magnus Martens


Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by Doppelganger Releasing.
Opens at Cinema Village.

Radio Free Albemuth

Directed by John Alan Simon


Number of times I checked my watch: 2
Released by Freestyle Releasing.
Opens at Quad Cinema.


Directed by Richie Mehta


Number of times I checked my watch: 0
Released by Zeitgeist Films.
Opens at Lincoln Plaza Cinemas.


Directed by Bong Joon Ho


Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by Radius-TWC.
Opens at Angelika Film Center and Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center.

They Came Together

Directed by David Wain


Number of times I checked my watch: 0
Released by Lionsgate.
Opens at Cinema Village and AMC Empire 25.

Transformers: Age of Extinction

Directed by Michael Bay


Number of times I checked my watch: 5
Released by Paramount Pictures.
Opens nationwide.

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