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Reviews for October 24th, 2014

Documentary Round-Up

      The Earth revolves around the sun, right? At least according to 16th Century cosmologist Nicolaus Copernicus, we live in a heliocentric universe. 20th Century cosmologist Carl Sagan even went to the extent of saying that Earth is insignificant in a galaxy that's among many other galaxies. Along comes the groundbreaking documentary The Principle, directed by Katheryne Thomas, which presents very compelling evidence that disproves the Copernican Principle and, ultimately, makes you feel happier to be living on Earth because it actually is a significant planet after all. Director Katheryne Thomas initially provides you with a wide range of perspectives from various scientist such as Michio Kaku, Max Tegmark and George Ellis, among others. Each of them is interviewed separately, but the things they say are sometimes at odds with one another which highlights how complex the issue of heliocentricity vs geocentricity. By including those different opinions, Thomas achieves something that too few documentaries acheive: fairness, balance and critical thinking without resorting to ad hominem against naysayers. The arguments for geocentricity are quite persuasive, and easy-to-follow with graphics and narration used in a lively way that makes it accessible to the laymen without being exhausting or too dry. The Principle ultimately finds just the right balance between entertaining the audience and provoking them emotionally and intellectually no matter what they believe in before sitting down to watch it. By the time it's over, you'll never look at the Copernican Principle the same way again. This is the kind of doc that you'll be talking about for weeks. Rocky Mountain Pictures opens The Principle at Marcus Addison Cinema in Chicago. At the IFC Center and Lincoln Plaza Cinemas, you'll find the RADiUS-TWC doc Citizenfour, among the most frightening and important films of the year. Director Laura Poitras travels to Hong Kong to meet whistleblower Edward Snowden who's known leaked many classified NSA documents including clear-cut evidence that the U.S. government has been spying on its citizens as well as individuals abroad, and has a "Watch List" of U.S. citizens. The corruption and subsequent cover-up goes all the way up to The White House, so it's no surprise that the U.S. government wants Snowden to be arrested. The U.S. government is essentially like a bully that has finally finally been exposed. Shame on the government for being part of corruption and covering it up! One can only wonder what other corruptions it's trying to hide. Poitras wisely steps back and lets Snowden do the talking without judging him. Regardless of whether you think that Snowden is a traitor, patriot or both, Citizenfour humanizes him in a way that brings out his charisma, intelligence, honest and warmth. His observations about the status quo of America, although harsh, are very apt, especially when he says that the relationship between citizens and government isn't the "Electorate-Elected" but rather "Ruled and Rulers." Implicit in that is that we're living in a police state much like Germany was in the early 1930s. Yes, it could be worse, but it could be a lot better. It's very easy to lose democracy, but to gain democracy it takes whistleblowers like Snowden. Every U.S. government official should undergo mandatory mental health evaluations before continuing to run this country to the ground with their corruption. Chances are that many if not all of them probably suffer from various degrees of Narcissistic Personality Disorder which explains why they can't handle criticism when their ego has burst and their lying has been exposed thanks to Snowden, a modern-day Daniel Ellsberg. Why not give up a little of liberty for the sake of security, you ask? For that answer, I turn you over to one of America's Founding Fathers, Benjamin Franklin, who said, "Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary security deserve neither liberty nor safety." Part of what makes this doc so effective, though, is that while it's filled with many enraging facts, it's all presented rather calmly without trying to tell you how to feel. We should be thankful that Snowden contacted Poitras to meet up with her and not with the so-called "journalist" Michael Moore who's always too angry and heavy-handed in his approach to sensitive topics. In other words, Poitras is a true journalist. For the sake of democracy, every American should watch this documentary, especially before Hollywood waters down Snowden's story by turning into a dumbed-down biopic at some point. It would make for a very interesting double feature with The Lives of Others. In 2012, Matt Rutherford became the first sailor to circumnavigate the Americas alone and non-stop. His 27,077-mile journey in his 27-foot sailboat is cronicled in the doc Red Dot on the Ocean. Director Amy Flannery balances the footage of the Rutherford's voyage with background information about his troubled childhood was like. Fortunately, both his childhood and his voyage are compelling. He suffers from two disabilities: dysgraphia and ADHD. Before he could even legally drive, he had a bout with the law when he took his parents' car for a drive in the middle of the night. During his stay at a boarding school for at-risk children, he discovered that he actually likes learning and, upon looking at an atlas in library, he realized that he could visit many countries by sailing the high seas. Thus began his new passion for sailing. The way that he changed his life 180 degrees after being a street punk feels quite inspirational and poignant. Red Dot on the Ocean does have its fair share of thrills to boot during the footage from the voyage as Rutherford battles the forces of nature, especially in the rough waters of the Northwest Passage where one tiny error can lead to imminent death. This doc would probably make for an interesting double feature with Maidentrip from earlier this year. It opens at the Quad Cinema.

23 Blast

Directed by Dylan Baker

      Travis Freeman (Mark Hapka), a high school football player in small-town Kentucky, develops an eye disease that renders him blind. Despite that the school's athletic director (Timothy Busfield) doesn't want Travis to go return to playing football, Travis nonetheless keeps his dream alive of being a football player. His father (Dylan Baker) encourages him to re-join the team, although his mother (Kim Zimmer) initially sides with the athletic director's sentiments. Her feelings change when she and her husband, along with Travis' mobility coach (Becky Ann Baker), confront the athletic director in his office and threaten to sue. Travis' love interest, Ashley (Alexa PenaVega), and best friend/teammate, Jerry (Bram Hoover), remain on his side while he beats the odds rejoining the football team.

      Based on a true story, the screenplay by Bram and Toni Hoover does tend to simplify much of Travis' story and resorts to cliches and predictability more often than not, but there's nothing inherently wrong with cliches or predictability for that matter as long as the film follow its formula with its heart and brain intact. Fortunately, 23 Blasts does have enough of genuinely heartfelt moments and an inspiring messages about faith (in oneself and in the Lord), perserverance and confidence, so its heart and brain indeed remains intact which makes the film a triumph at least when it comes to those essential elements. It's also very family-friendly and harmless, despite the PG-13 rating, so children will probably enjoy as much or perhaps even more than adults, especially if they can overlook the occasionally stitled dialogue.

      The scenes that stand out the most in terms of emotion are the ones off the football field, especially the brief interactions between Travis and his mobility coach as she gradually helps him to learn how to get around on his own without her being by his side. It also helps that Becky Ann Baker gives among the best performances in the film. The football scenes, though, are quite exhilarating to watch and will make you stand up and cheer. First-time director Dylan Baker, along with editor Matt Mayer, wisely keep the pace moving along briskly and the running time down to 1 hour and 38 minutes---if it were past the 2 hour mark, it would overstay its welcome and probably go off in unnecessary tangents. 23 Blast is ultimately exhilarating, wise and genuinely heartfelt. It's perfect entertainment for the whole family!

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by Ocean Avenue Entertainment.
Opens at AMC Empire 25.

Force Majeure

Directed by Ruben Ístlund


Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by Magnolia Pictures.
Opens at Angelika Film Center and Lincoln Plaza Cinemas.

John Wick

Directed by Chad Stahelski and David Leitch

      Still grieving the loss of his cancer-strick wife (Bridget Moynahan), former hit man John Wick (Keanu Reeves) seeks revenge against the Russian mobsters who killed his puppy and stole his vintage 1969 Mustang. Little do Iosef (Alfie Allen) and his father, Viggo (Michael Nyqvist), the mob boss, know that John Wick will stop at nothing to exact revenge.

      While John Wick has a rather lean, simple plot, it does offer plenty of visual style and atmosphere to compensate for the lack of substance. Often style without substance can become dull and tedious, but in this case it's a lot of fun thanks to co-directors Chad Stahelski and David Leitch who add plenty of pizzazz with stylish lighting, camera angles, and well-choreographed, gritty action sequences. The cinematography will probably remind you of the cinematography in Only God Forgives which would make for a great double feature with John Wick. This is the kind of film that would probably lose much of its impact if seen on the small screen given the impressive sound and visual effects. Seeing it with a crowd that cheers Wick on during his many revenge kills happens to be part of what turns the film into a guilty pleasure---just be sure to take a long shower afterward.

      To be fair, though, the dialogue is quite silly and contrived, but that doesn't make the film any less entertaining on a palpable level. Moreover, the running time of 96 minutes ensures you that it never overstays its welcome. Keanu Reeves, in top form, still has what it takes to be a leading man and looks quite debonair, exuding just as much charisma as he did in The Matrix. It's refreshing to see someone other than Liam Neeson in a revenge thriller!

Number of times I checked my watch: 2
Released by Summit Entertainment.
Opens at nationwide.


Directed by Lynn Shelton


Number of times I checked my watch: 2
Released by A24 Pictures.
Opens at AMC/Loews Lincoln Square and AMC/Loews Village 7.

Tiger Lily Road: The Movie

Directed by Michael Medeiros


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