The 1986 nuclear disaster in Chernobyl was an inside job. Conspiracy theory or conspiracy fact? In The Russian Woodpecker, Fedor Alexandorich, a theater designer who's equally bright and crazy, sets out to prove the latter by interviewing former members of the Soviet government. Through the interviews, he learns that there's the possibility that a currently deceased government official may have ordered the destruction of the power plant in Chernobyl and a radio-transmitter called Duga-3, a.k.a. The Russian Woodpecker, in order to cover-up the Duga-3's failure. It's great that Alexandorich asks bold questions to his interview subjects, some of whom he himself observes as looking uncomfortable. He seems to have made up his mind about the existence of a cover-up from the beginning which no true journalist would or should do---in other words, he doesn't keep an open mind like a good journalist would. That's excusable, but when it comes to the documentary, directed by Chad Gracia, it could have used more analysis of the information that Alexandorich uncovers instead of merely following him around as though the film were entirely on his side. Every coin, after all, has more than two sides: it has the ridges, the sides of the ridges, the corners, etc. Without vetting the information, The Russian Woodpecker feels incomplete and will make it hard to sway those who have latched onto the government's version of the Chernobyl disaster. Therefore, by the end of the film, the cover-up remains a merely conspiracy theory albeit a fascinating one that wouldn't be surprising if it were true. The verdict is still out there. FilmBuff opens The Russian Woodpecker at AMC Empire 25. Also opening at AMC Empire, there's the profoundly moving doc Thao's Library. Director Elizabeth Van Meter struggles to cope with the suicide of her younger sister, Vicki, who was the youngest pilot to ever fly a plane from the east coast to the west coast of America. She undergoes a form of catharsis when she meets Thanh Thao Huynh, a.k.a Thao, a young woman living in Vietnam with birth defects as a result of exposure to the toxic chemical Agent Orange during Vietnam. Thao uses a wheelchair to get around and has soft bones that can easily break if she were to fall. She has turned lemons into lemonade by making the most out of her time: she tutors young students, and has created a small library for the kids in her village to expand their minds even further. Elizabeth Van Meter travels all the way to Thao's village in Vietnam and, with the help of a translator, the two form a genuine, symbiotic friendship. She generously raises the money to help Tao fulfill her dreams by building a huge library in the village, a task that proves to be quite difficult, yet fruitful. Fundamentally, Thao's Library is about how a strong friendship between two compassionate individuals from very different cultures can be so productive and life-changing. It's quite poignant and uplifting to observe how they ameliorate each other's lives in profound ways that both will cherish forever. Van Meter should be commended for restoring the audience's faith in humanity through this documentary, and for being so candid for sharing her feelings on camera about the loss of her sister with the audience. In no way does Thao's Library become a vanity project or navel-gazing doc; it's quite the contrary. Everyone, young and old, should watch this documentary and feel inspired to do something kind to those in need. War-hungry politicians, especially, would learn that the world would be a better place if they were to create instead of destroy. Tab Hunter Confidential, a documentary about the one-and-only Tab Hunter, remains highly entertaining from start to finish because Tab Hunter turns out to be quite a charismatic, honesty, warm and wise subject matter. He knows how to tell stories from his life articulately with plenty of vivid details. Director Jeffrey Schwarz takes a generally standard approach to the film's format by combining archival footage and talking head interviews with Tab Hunter and his friends/colleagues, i.e. John Waters and Debbie Reynolds. Everyone has a life backstage and a different life front-stage in front of the curtain, so-to-speak (at least that's what sociopsychologist Erving Goffman once states). Tab Hunter Confidential provides you with a peak behind that Tab Hunter's curtain in a way that's not exploitative or too invasive like the tabloids, so Schwarz deserves kudos for avoiding that. The doc also works well because it moves along at a brisk pace as it moves along from one lively anecdote to another. The real question about the effectiveness of a biographical doc is whether you learn more about the subject and/or see him in a new light by the time the end credits roll. Fortunately, the answer to that question in the case of Tab Hunter Confidential is "Yes." Could it have been more insightful and thought-provoking? Probably, but at least you get a captivating peak behind Tab Hunter's curtain that will make you tempted to read to the autobiography. The Film Collaborative opens it at Village East Cinema.
Beasts of No Nation
Bridge of Spies
Tom Hanks stars as James Donovan, an insurance attorney hired by the U.S. government to negotiate the release of a captured Soviet spy, Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), whose plans was shot down over Russian during the Cold War. He leaves his wife (Amy Ryan) at home while going overseas to do the most challenging work he's ever done in his career.
Although Bridge of Spies begins intriguingly, it merely teases audiences with the promise of nail-biting suspense initually when someone unknown shoots at the windows of James Donovan's home while his wife and children are inside. Those feelings of paranoia and suspense goes away quickly and never comes back. Instead, the film becomes a slow-burning drama that holds your attention with strong perfromances by Tom Hanks and, most impressively, by Mark Rylance. This is very much a quiet, sophisticated drama for adults which alone is quite refreshing given that too many Hollywood films nowadays are made for teenagers and can be turned into a video game. In other words, it feels like an old-fashioned Hollywood film. The camerawork, set designs, lighting and music are all exquisite. Where Bridge of Spies becomes weaker is when it comes to how dry and pedestrian its plot feels. There's not enough comic relief, and the characters' actions become less thought-provoking as the film progresses. As with many Oscar-bait films, this one also suffers from overstaying its welcome at a bloated running time of 2 hours and 22 minutes.
Ma (Brie Larson) has been held in captivity
inside a 10 foot by 10 foot shed with her 5-year-old son, Jack (Jacob Tremblay). Her captor, Old
Nick (Sean Bridgers) enters the shed every now and then to have sex with Ma. The more that Ma tells
Jack about the outside world, the more she's tempted to finally escape the shed, so she and Jack
hatch a plan together.
Room begins in
the second act when Ma has already leaves a number of years in the shed since Old Nick had kidnapped
her at the age of 17. There's very little sense of the outside world at first except for a small
skylight window above them. By throwing you right into the 2nd act, director Lenny Abrahamson and
screenwriter Emma Donoghue provide you with a captivating hook so that you know precisely what the film is about
and who the main characters are without having your time wasted. You gradually learn why they're there as the film progresses. The
scenes inside the shed capture the claustrophobia and horrors of what it's like for Ma and Jack to
be trapped in there---it's as much of a mental trap as it is a physical one.
The second half of the
film feels quite poignant and tender as it shows the aftermath of Ma and Jack's escape and reunion
with her mother (Joan Allen) and father (William H. Macy) as she struggles to adjust to her new
freedom. Many scenes will tug at your heartstrings and cause you to shed some tears, but,
fortunately, Room is the kind of tearjerker that genuinely earns its tears. In one particularly
well-shot scene, Ma cries upon seeing Jack, but Abrahamson and Donoghue choose to mute out the
mother's cries and screams thereby trusting your imagination as an audience member. Had the sounds
been shown, it would have been overwhelming; instead it's quietly powerful.
The heart and soul of Room lies in its heartfelt
performances by Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay, both of whom are Oscar-worthy. They actually seem
like mother and son throughout the film, and the emotions that they convey through their
performances are quite palpable. Not since Dakota Fanning in I Am Sam has there been a child
actor with as much potential and talent as Jacob Tremblay. Hopefully, he'll get more opportunities
to showcase his talents in the future after this breakthrough role.
Room is also the kind of film that can be seen as an allegory
similar to the one about the people chained to a cave wall who venture outside once they become
unchained and head toward the sun (enlightenment) in The Republic by Plato. The enlightenment
that Ma and, especially, Jack experience upon their liberation can represent any kind of
enlightenment that one might experience throughout life. Given that we live in the Age of Stupid or
the Age of Technology, perhaps we're all still trapped inside that shed or chained to the cave wall
so-to-speak, and we have yet to experience true enlightenment. Ultimately, with its solid writing,
directing, editing and acting, Room is one of the best films of the year. Don't be surprised
if you'll find it on many Top 10 lists.
In 1984, Steve Jobs (Michael Fassbender) launched the first Macintosh computer. Four years later, he launched NeXT, and in 1988 he launched the first iMac. Behind-the-scenes drama includes with his programer Andy Hertzfeld (Michael Stuhlbarg, his marketing guru (Kate Winslet), Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen), Apple CEO John Sculley (Jeff Daniels). Meanwhile, Chrisann Brennan (Katherine Waterston) desperately wants him to meet with his estranged daughter, Lisa (Makenzie Moss), whom he won't even acknowledge is his own daughter.