American Jesus, a doc that opened Wednesday at IFC Center via Glass Eye Pix, sheds light on modern Christianity in America by interviewing a variety of people who outside of the mainstream. Did you ever imagine mixed martial arts can combine with the Christian faith? How about cowboys or bikers? Or ex-cons? How about a snake handler who had once let a church member succumb to snake poisoning because that was her preordained time to go? Director Aram Garriga steps back and lets you decide what to make of this potpourri of eccentric religious folk. Are some of them crazy/absurd/extreme? The merging of commercialism and politics with Christianity is also explored albeit not as profoundly as it could have been. Think of American Jesus as a less preachy Religulous, but just as outrageously entertaining. Opening this weekend at the Quad Cinema via DigiNext is The American Nurse which follows five nurses as they go about their daily routines at work. Director Carolyn Jones puts a human face on the vital professional of nursing nurses. Each of the nurses profiled here is hard-working, bighearted and, most importantly, very honest about what the led them to become a nurse. Naomi Cross works tirelessly as a birthing nurse. Jason Short is a home health nurse while Sister Stephen, Director of Nursing at a nursing home, raises farm animals to bring to elderly residents as a form of therapy. Brian McMillion, a former Army medic, war veterans. Then there's Tonia Faust, a nurse at Louisiana State Penitentiary's hospice. Each of them has more than meets the eye and has endured hardships in the past---as the saying goes, what doesn't kill you, makes you stronger. These courageous, kindhearted men and women come across as heroes and they deserve to be appreciated for what they have to go through day in and day out. At an ideal running time of 1 hour and 19 minutes, this moving and humanizing documentary will forever change the way you look at nurses. Also opening this weekend are two docs about senior citizens. The first, Next Year Jerusalem centers around eight nursing home residents from the Jewish Home for the Elderly in Fairfield, Connecticut. They embark on a pilgrimage to Israel which turns out to be quite a life-changing event for them by the time they return to the nursing home 10 days later. Director David Gaynes gives a rather light and breezy approach to the subject matter while spending the bulk of the 72-minute running time on the days before the pilgrimage. Those scenes have the most gravitas because each of the eight residents shares his or her own kernels of wisdom about life (or death for that matter). They're all full of life and warmth which helps to make this doc quite charming and moving. Gaynes is lucky to have one particular resident who has a great sense of humor when it comes to how he was once a Don Juan with the ladies back in his youth. Be sure to stay through the end credits for a stinger with that resident to find out whether or not he successfully found a lady in Israel. First Run Features opens Next Year Jerusalem at the Quad Cinema. Over at the Cinema Village is Cyber-Seniors (distributed by Area23a), a charming and amusing albeit ultimately underwhelming doc about senior citizens who join a special program that brings young people to their homes to teach them the basics of using the computers. They learn everything from turning the computer itself on to using Facebook, YouTube and checking email. Watching the young teachers instructing their old students is heartwarming. Not surprisingly, some of the seniors give up when they become frustrated while others persist and succeed in learning it all. Saffron Cassaday adds a little suspense via a competition for the highest number of Youtube hits for a video that each seniors makes. Yes, the YouTube videos are funny and cute, but those are all potatoes. Cassaday focuses too much of the doc on the YouTube competition so the cuteness wanes and soon the doc loses steam. Perhaps Cassaday doesn't ask enough questions or doesn't stop to ask enough important ones that dig beneath the surface. Essentially, there's not enough meat on Cyber-Senior's bones because by the time the end credits roll, you'll be yearning for more insight about the provocative and timely subject matter of the adaption to modern technology.
Godzilla, the King of the Monsters, emerges from the bottom of the Pacific Ocean to try to annihilate two radiation-hungry kaiju (giant monsters) who have hatched and threaten to destroy mankind. The kaiju's destination for their destruction: San Francisco. Bryan Cranston plays Joe Brody, a scientist at a nuclear power plant based in Tokyo where he had lost his wife (Juliette Binoche) during a tragic accident at the plant 15 years earlier. He has struggled to find the cause of the accident and knows that the Japanese government must be covering something up, but now that the kaiju have shown up, he's about to find out the truth. His son, Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), just so happens to be a U.S. soldier who is put to the test once Godzilla and the kaiju begin their mayhem. Ford desperately tries to reach his wife (Elizabeth Olsen) and young son (Carson Bolde) who live in San Francisco. Dr. Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) and Dr. Graham (Sally Hawkins) also show up to debrief Admiral Stenz (David Strathairn) about the situation aboard an U.S. aircraft carrier.
Fortunately, the action sequences with Godzilla and the other kaiju feel thrilling on a purely visceral level. The CGI effects look top-notch and awe-inspiring. How's the 3D, you ask? There are at least a handful of scenes where the 3D truly adds to the experience, particularly a breathtaking one where you see soldiers parachuting over San Francisco. The 3D also helps during the scenes of destruction. If you're looking for a summer blockbuster that delivers pure escapism for 2 hours without overstaying its welcome, Godzilla won't disappoint you.
Director Gareth Edwards should be commended for opening the film with an intense scene that hooks you right away without spoiling any of the fun and excitement that arrives later on. The screenplay by Max Borenstein does have its fair share of exposition, but it's necessary for you to understand what's transpiring. References to the crucial first scene get repeated so that you're not confused. Unlike the 1998 remake, this version remains serious and not overly dumbed-down, so don't expect to lose too many brain cells---as long as you can suspend some disbelief. While you won't find any memorable or witty lines, at least the dialogue is serviceable and doesn't cross into unintentionally humorous territory. Actors like Ken Watanabe and Brian Cranston add some ephemeral gravitas while Aaron Taylor-Johnson carries the physical and emotional burden of the lead role quite well, but the real star of the film is the King of the Monsters himself.
Half of a Yellow Sun
Million Dollar Arm
JB Bernstein (Jon Hamm), an L.A. sports agent, comes up with a seemingly crazy idea: to travel to India in search of potential major league baseball recruits among India's many cricket players. Many young Indian men show up in hopes of being recruited and of winning the top prize, $1,000,000. Rinku (Suraj Sharma) and Dinesh (Suraj Sharma) throw the fastest pitch of them all and, soon enough, JB flies them to Los Angeles for the first time in their lives away from their family. Tom House (Bill Paxton), a pitching coach, agrees to help them hone their pitching skills. They have a long way to go before they can impress a wealthy investor (Tzi Ma). Lake Bell plays Brenda, JB's next door neighbor and love interest. The comic relief arrives with the help of Alan Arkin as Ray, a retired baseball scout, and Pitobash as Amit, JB's assistant who doesn't mind working for free. Rounding out the cast is Aasif Mandvi as JB's business partner.
Would it be safe to call Million Dollar Arm predictable? Yes, at every turn, but does that make it any less genuinely heartwarming, uplifting and wholesome? No. There's nothing inherently wrong with a film being predictable or following a standard formula; it's more important how director Craig Gillespie and writer Tom McCarthy follow that formula. McCarthy keeps the darker elements and complexity at bay by not focusing too much Rinky and Dinesh's lives nor on their culture clash upon arrival in America---there are some instances of culture clash initially, but they're used for comedic effect. Fortunately, the comedic scenes don't outshine the dramatic ones nor do they feel uneven. There's a breeziness to many scenes that keep your spirits up. You'd truly have to be a curmudgeon to not forgive the film for being at least somewhat sugar-coated and lighthearted.
Don't expect much in terms of surprises except for the amount of charisma and sweetness onscreen. Jon Hamm is just the right actor for the lead role because he has that quintessential charisma and "everyman" quality that's also found in Tom Hanks. Moreover, you might find it refreshing to see a Hollywood film that can't be turned into a video game: it has human beings with no superpowers and there aren't any villains in sight. The running does clock at 124 minutes which could have been trimmed down a bit because the film does feel a tad overlong, but that's a minor quibble.
All-in-all, everything about Million Dollar Arm makes it an ideal sports drama for the entire family. It's also pleasantly diverting antidote to the many loud, shallow and action-packed summer blockbusters.
A Night in Old Mexico
Robert Duvall stars as Red Bovie, a Texan ranch owner who loses his ranch to the bank and must immediately move out. Unable to handle the pressure and grief as a result, he resorts to suicide. Just as he's about to pull the trigger inside his barn, someone knocks on his barn door. That "someone" just so happens to Gally (Jeremy Irvine), his grandson whom he had never met before because he and his son have an estranged relationship. Red behaves a bit hostile toward Gally and doesn't believe that he's his grandson at first, but, soon enough, he and Gally hit the road for some fun times, including singing and dancing, across the border in Mexico. An aspiring nightclub singer, Patty Wafers (Angie Cepeda) joins them along the way. Complicating matters, their lives are at stake because they accidentally ended up with $150,000 that happens to be drug money that gangsters are now desperately looking to retrieve.
Part drama, part thiller, A Night in Old Mexico doesn't quite go far enough in either direction. Screenwriter Bill Wittliff plays it safe because he oversimplifies the relationship between Red and his grandson while keeping more or less it on the back burner. There would have been much more depth were that relationship explored further. On a positive note, Wittliff avoids using flashbacks thereby leaving room for imagination and focusing on the present scenes.
The gangsters come across as your typical cardboard cut-outs of movie villains. As for the character of Red, he's the most interesting and well-developed one among everyone else onscreen especially because he's been through a lot of painful throughout his life including divorce. It's no wonder that he's often bitter/cranky and tries to escape from his pain through booze and women; he wants to have fun instead of facing reality. While the dialogue fails to scratch below the film's surface, what compensates for that is the well-nuanced performance of Robert Duvall who's among the greatest actors of our time. He's a true revelation here and it's a testament to his impeccable talent as an actor that he's able to rise above the mediocre, contrived screenplay. Very few American actors can achieve that so successfully, so kudos to him, and bravo to director Emilio Aragón and casting director Ed Johnston for choosing him in the lead role.
Adam (Ian Duncan), a videographer, films his girlfriend Jill (Caitlyn Folley), an artist, in the nude and having sex with him. They break into an abandoned hospital in hopes of using it as an art gallery. The hospital is haunted, but neither Jill nor Adam realize that there's a ghost roaming around there, even when strange sounds and sights can be seen and heard.
SX_Tape, yet another entry in the "found footage" genre, delivers some scares, but not enough in terms of surprises or cleverness. You'll always feel like you're one step ahead of the rather dumb and one-dimensional protagonists. Director Bernard Rose achieves most of the terrifying moments thanks to the setting design and lighting design in the dark, dilapidated hallways and rooms of the hospital which are reminiscent of the locations in Saw.
If you're afraid of the dark and of claustrophobic places, chances are you will be frightened and your heart will be racing more often than not even though you won't care much about the characters. After all, as Roger Ebert once wisely stated, in horror films the horror itself is the star. That's part of what horror films don't need big stars in them. Also, SX_Tape adheres to the basic found footage film rule: never cast anyone recognizable. Given that neither Caitlyn Folley nor Ian Duncan are well-known actors, that helps to make suspension of disbelief a lot easier. To be fair, though, the film does grow tedious and monotonous toward the end, but at least it doesn't leave you with a bad aftertaste like after the lazy, abrupt ending of The Devil Inside.
A Short History of Decay
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