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Reviews for September 14th, 2018

Documentary Round-Up

      In the political documentary American Chaos, director James D. Stern travels to Red States to interview Trump supporters months before the 2016 presidential election. He wants to try to grasp what their thought process is which led them to being pro-Trump. Initially, he promises the audience that he'll just let the subject talk without arguing with them, but eventually he realizes that he can't commit to that promise given what they say. So, he does, on occasion, question them and engages them in conversations which is when the documentary starts to become more engaging---and also frightening because of how misguided and misinformed many of the Trump supporters are. Unlike Michael Moore, Stern has a calm demeanor during his interviews without a shred of condescension. Refreshingly, he treats his subjects with respect; it's the subjects themselves who end up putting their foot in their mouth more often than not. If you're not a Trump supporter, prepare for many face-palm moments. It's hard to believe that smart people can be capable of saying such dumb things and showing signs of racism, but such is the harsh reality of life. Those who voted for Trump are eerily similar to the Good Germans of Nazi Germany. American Chaos, ultimately, isn't as enraging nor as comprehensive as Michael Moore's upcoming Fahrenheit 11/9, but, after a slickly-edited 90 minutes, at least you'll get a glimpse into the mindset of Trump supporters. Sony Pictures Classics opens American Chaos at the Quad Cinema.

      Like many great documentaries that rise well above mediocrity, Science Fair finds just the right balance between entertaining the audience and provoking them intellectually as well as emotionally. Co-directors Cristina Costantini and Darren Foster follow nine teenagers who compete in the annual International Science and Engineering Fair. The film has a effective structure that's similar to Spellbound's structure: the filmmakers immerse the audience in the lives of the students and introduce them to the students' family members while showing how each teenager prepares for their science fair project leading up until the big day of the science fair. Costantini and Foster don't spend too much time on the science behind the students' projects; they have a more humanistic approach to filmmaking instead which makes the film feel genuinely warm and heartfelt. Each of the nine students has enough screen time for you to grasp their individual personalities, hopes and dreams. You also get a palpable sense of their passion for science along with their frustrations and stress that comes with their diligence and preparation. Moreover, there's not a single scene within Science Fair that feels dry or lethargic. The cinematography, editing and pacing contribute to the film's cinematic style---fortunately, this is the kind of doc that has both style and substance to boot. There's even some comic relief which provides much-needed levity. By the time the teenagers present their work at the International Science and Engineering Fair during the gripping final half hour, you'll find the film to be a captivating, crowd-pleasing delight. It's as irresistibly entertaining, inspirational and emotionally engrossing as Spellbound. You don't have to be into science to be entertained, moved or enlightened by Science Fair. It's one of the best documentaries of the year. National Geographic Documentary Films opens it at The Landmark at 57 West.

      The Dawn Wall is a thoroughly captivating, spellbinding and mesmerizing documentary about Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson, two rock climbers who bravely ascended The Dawn Wall together in Yosemite National Park. It took them just 8 days to complete their dangerous free climb up the vertical rock formation known as El Capitan. Co-directors Josh Lowell and Peter Mortimer spend an equal amount of time providing audiences with the fascinating backstory of both Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson along with how they met. Caldwell experienced many hardships throughout his life including a near-death experience when rebels held him and his wife hostage in Kyrgyzstan which he describes in vivid detail. He also suffered an injury to his finger during an accident and went through a divorce, but he never gave up his passion for rock climbing. His perseverance is uplifting and inspiring. The filmmakers have a great sense of how building a strong narrative because first they introduce us to their subjects, allowing us to get to know them in the process and become emotionally invested in their lives before focusing on their arduous ascent up The Dawn Wall. They also wisely provide just enough information to the audience about the technical aspects of rock climbing so that they can follow along during the reenacted footage of the climb. You'll also learn how The Dawn Wall got its name. The scenery looks breathtaking, majestic and awe-inspiring thanks to the exquisite cinematography which makes this doc a must-see on the big screen. At a running time of 100 minutes, The Dawn Wall is just as exhilarating, suspenseful and heartfelt as Touching the Void. It opens via The Orchard at Quad Cinema.

Don't Leave Home

Directed by Michael Tully


Number of times I checked my watch: 3
Released by Cranked Up Films
Opens at Alamo Drafthouse Cinema in Brooklyn.

The Predator

Directed by Shane Black


Number of times I checked my watch: 4
Released by 20th Century Fox.
Opens nationwide.

Unbroken: Path to Redemption

Directed by Harold Cronk

      After returning to his home in California from World War II, Louis Zamperini (Samuel Hunt), suffers from Post-traumatic stress disorder. He's haunted by the memories of being tortured by the Corporal Mutsuhiro Watanabe (David Sakurai), while in captivity at a Japanese POW camp during the war. To drown his sorrows, he turns to alcohol. In hopes of getting sober, he vacations in Miami where he meets Cynthia Applewhite (Merritt Patterson). They quickly fall in love, get married and move in together to home in Los Angeles. Louis still struggles with PTSD and alcoholism, though, which threatens to break apart their marriage. When Cynthia introduces him to Billy Graham (Will Graham) and his Los Angeles Crusade of 1949, Louis has the chance to ameliorate his life and to save his marriage by turning to his faith in God instead of to the bottle.

      Unbroken: Path to Redemption is a heartfelt, tender drama that's essentially two love stories rolled into one: Louis' love of his wife and his newfound love of God. In Unbroken, Louis underwent a grueling physical ordeal in the Japanese POW camp. He survived his battles overseas, but upon returning home, that's when he faces emotional, mental and spiritual battles. The screenplay by Richard Friedenberg and Ken Hixon, based on the novel by Laura Hillenbrand, focuses on Louis' innate struggles and how he overcomes them. The essential expository information about his past is cleverly, effectively and efficiently shown through newspaper clippings during the film's first few minutes before delving right into Louis' return home.

      It's somewhat surprising how quickly Louis and Cynthia fall in love with one another and get married. The filmmakers don't spend too much time on their courting scenes, but a little goes a long way. You can sense a lot about Cynthia based on the way that behaves toward him when they went out on a first date to the movies. When Louis runs out of the movie theater while watching a newsreel that triggers his PTSD, she follows him out of the theater and stays with him. That scene alone conveys precisely how loving and compassionate Cynthia is as a human being. He's very lucky to have her in his life, through thick and thin. Their marriage feels real because it has bumps along the way. Director Harry Cronk and the screenwriters don't shy away from showing some emotionally intense scenes. When Louis' PTSD and alcoholism rises to the surface again, it causes a rift between them, but neither of them comes across as caricatures; they're just human beings trying their best to overcome their struggles.

      The cinematography, costume design, set design and lighting combine to further enrich the film's authenticity for the time period without going over-the-top. There's a soft glow to the lighting that radiates a sense of warmth. The filmmakers should also be commended for the way they used flashbacks to Louis' experiences in the POW camp because they never felt excessive, clunky nor intrusive when it comes to the narrative momentum. They also wisely keep the running time down to a palatable 98 minutes without any scenes that drag or that turn lethargic. Once Louis discovers his faith in God near the third act, that's when the film starts to get a bit preachy and feel slightly contrived, but underneath its surface, it still has a warm, beating heart along with moving performances by Samuel Hunt and Merritt Patterson.

Number of times I checked my watch: 2
Released by Pure Flix.
Opens nationwide.
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