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Reviews for October 17th, 2014

Documentary Round-Up

      Watchers of the Sky, directed by Edet Belzberg, tackles the potent topic of genocide, originally coined by Polish-Jewish lawyer Raphael Lemkin in 1943. Lemkin had made a very sound argument that the crime of murdering millions of people should have more severe punishments than the murdering of a few people. It's one thing to convince others of the the term "genocide", but another thing to have it enforced around the world. His quest to enforce the punishment of those who commit genocide and to have countries implement the new law against genocide is quite fascinating, poignant and even a little suspenseful. Belzberg includes interviews with a variety of subjects who have been working hard to follow Lemkin's path and to continue his legacy: Emmanuel Uwurukundo, a UN Refugee Agency Field Director, Ben Ferencz, a former Nuremberg prosecutor, Luis Moreno Ocamp, Chief Prosecutor of the ICC, and Samantha Power who serves as a U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations and whose book "A Problem From Hell: America and the Age of Genocide" inspired this well-researched documentary. Each of these individuals' struggles could have easily been explored in separate documentaries because they're filled with so many illuminating facts and emotionally-charged moments, so combined them all in one doc feels equally informative, emotionally devastating and exhausting, but never boring. Some animated sequences invigorate the film creatively and also help to provide some variety from all of the talking heads. In case you're wondering where the title of this doc comes from, rest assured that you'll find out during the last few minutes of the film. Music Box Films opens it at Lincoln Plaza Cinemas. A Requiem for Syrian Refugees documents the plight of Syrian refugees in Kawergosk, a United Nations Camp located in Northern Iraq. They have been displaced by civil unrest in Syria with little to no hope of ameliorating their lives if they were to stay at the camp site. As one of the refugees perceptively states, they've been used as polital pawns instead of like human beings. Fortunately, director Richard Wolf has come along to humanize them. In crisp, black-and-white cinematography, you see the refugees waiting in long lines to receive their meager supply of food at a distribution center, sitting in their tents while looking through photos on their cellphones from their home back in Syria, and singing or dancing together. The camp even has a barber shop and a place that sells falafel and shawarma, and, in one particularly surprising scene, the refugees celebrate a wedding. Wolf lets them not only talk about their suffering, but also their hopes and dreams for their future. The women yearn to go back to school to further their education. It would be great if Wolf were to film these individuals a few years later to show their progress. At a running time of only 71 minutes, A Requiem for Syrian Refugees is filled with heartbreaking moments and unflinching humanity while shedding light on an important human rights issue. Lobodocs opens it at the Quad Cinema.


Directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu

      Riggan Thompson (Michael Keaton), a wash-up actor who was once a huge star two decades ago when he played the lead in the superhero film "Birdman." He gets a chance to experience a resurgence of his career by writing, directing and starring in the Broadway play adaptation of Raymond Carver's "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love" which is will soon have its opening night. Egos clash between him and his co-star, Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), while his daughter/assistant, Sam (Emma Roberts), fresh out of rehab, has more than a few harsh words for him. To top it all off, Riggan communicates with his alter-ego, Birdman, his girlfriend, Laura (Andrea Riseborough) admits to him that she's pregnant, Sylvia (Amy Ryan), his ex-wife, re-emerges, and there's some tension between Shiner and co-star Leslie (Naomi Watts). Shiner happens to also flirt with Riggan's daughter concurrently. Besides Sam, the main voice of wisdom and reason amidst all of the chaos in Riggan's life is his lawyer/friend, Jake (Zach Galifianakis).

      By far the strongest elements of Birdman, the Closing Night film at the festival, are its strong performances and the way that the talented actors play off of each other. Michael Keaton gives one of the best performances of his career as does Edward Norton, but the real stand-out here is Emma Stone who anchors the film with pure, unadulturated tenderness and really knocks it out of the ballpark despite that she's in a supporting role. The way that she convincingly displays sadness, anger and frustration when she confronts Riggan is one of the few emotional highlights of the film. If her character were there protagonist instead of Riggan, Birdman would have been much more emotionally engrossing. Hopefully she'll be recognized come Oscar time. Another great "performance" (so-to-speak) is that of the camera which becomes a character of it own as it captures the intensity of the days leading up to play's opening night. You truly feel like you're right there witnessing all of that chaos.

      The screenplay by writer/director Alejandro González Iñárritu and co-writers Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris Jr. and Armando Bo feels uneven, but it could have turned into more of a convoluted mess given that it combines the very different genres of dark comedy, drama, satire and magical realism. It pokes fun of actors, Hollywood and Broadway while at the same time it attempting to balance that with more serious moments, i.e. during Sam's confrontation with Riggan and the brief interactions between him and his ex-wife. Could Birdman have been more biting, surprising and subtle? Yes. Much of the film hits you over the head, i.e. the inclusion of Riggan's alter-ego or Riggan's confrontation with a vicious theater critic (Lindsay Duncan) at a bar. The critic's monologue, while honest and compelling, goes on for too long and explains too much when less could have been more. Even the jazzy drum musical score, gets a bit repetitive eventually. Jabs at pop culture, i.e Justin Bieber, come across as rather facile, obvious and cheap. The same can be said for an initially comical scene that lasts too long where Riggan locks himself out of the theater with just boxer shorts on. Birdman wants to be both poignant/realistic and darkly comical/satirical concurrently, but those two roads don't meet smoothly nor do they go far enough thereby preventing Birdman from even coming close to being a masterpiece. The ending, though, which won't be revealed here, does somewhat compensate by briefly allowing for some ambiguity and, most importantly, room for interpretation.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by Fox Searchlight.
Opens at AMC/Loews Lincoln Square and Angelika Film Center.

Dear White People

Directed by Justin Simien


Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by Roadside Attractions. Pictures.
Opens at AMC/Loews Lincoln Square and Regal Union Square 14.

Eternity: The Movie

Directed by Ian Thorpe


Number of times I checked my watch: 4
Released by VFRPR.
Opens nationwide.
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