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Reviews for September 8th, 2017 br>
Documentary Round-Up

      The topics of wildlife conservation and wildlife hunting might seem pretty black-and-white and simple, but they're far from simple in the documentary Trophy. Co-directors Shaul Schwarz and Christina Clusiau show you the many different sides of the coin by interviewing a wide range of subjects including anti-poachers, big game hunters, a rhino farmer, a wildlife officer, and a safari owner. Philip Glass (no, not the famous music composer) teaches his son how to hunt wild animals such as lions, elephants, buffalo, rhinos, and leopards. He justifies his actions by stating that humans have the biblical right to kill animals because God gave man dominion over the animal kingdom. Hunting has also been a family tradition for him. John Hume runs a rhino farm, but remove the rhinos' horns. There's a brief segment exploring the black market horn trade. In Las Vegas, the big game industry hosts a convention called Safari Club International where people can book hunting trips and to purchase hunting gun. The fact that they claim that they're concurrently conserving wildlife is a testament to their hypocrisy. How the NRA is intertwined in all of this is a whole other matter. Then there are Africans who want to conserve wildlife, but they're ok with killing lions because the lions kill their cows.

      Kudos to the filmmakers for not passing judgement on any of its subjects and for not making them seem like villains. Just when you think you might dislike one of the hunters, you realize that they are human beings after all and they might even have a little bit of a conscience somewhere. Hopefully, they'll seek a lot of therapy when they end up with a crisis of conscience. You'll also see unflinchingly gory scenes of big game hunting and poaching which will probably shock you and disgust you just as it should if you still have your morals intact. At a running time of 1 hour and 48 minutes, Trophy is a captivating, provocative, and refreshingly well-balanced documentary that's equally heartbreaking, disturbing, and enraging. It opens via The Orchard at Quad Cinema.

      The most emotionally powerful doc of the week and one of the best docs of the year is Twenty Two. It sheds light on the traumatic experiences of Chinese women who were captured, tortured, and raped by the Japanese during World War II. They're known as "comfort women," but, as you learn, that euphemism is not how they're referred to in China: they were sex slaves. The film's title represents the number of women who survived their ordeal at the time of filming----that's 22 women out of 200,000! Director Guo Ke-Yu interviews many of the elderly survivors who vividly, courageously, and candidly recall their abuse even if makes some of them cry on camera. One of the survivors explains how her legs still hurt from the abuse she had suffered years ago. Another survivor talks about how she shot and killed Japanese men and was grazed by a bullet on her head. Had the bullet actually struck her head, she would've died. Listening to the survivors' words feels profoundly moving, haunting and spellbinding much like in the doc Shoah. The cinematography and wintry landscape also adds some depth to the film; one particular shot the changes from a snowy landscape to a green, summer landscape is both beautiful and poetic. If Twenty Two doesn't move you to tears, then you must be made out of stone. Hopefully it will be recognized come awards time. It opens at AMC Empire via China Lion Film Distribution.

Memoir of a Murderer

Directed by Won Shin-yeon

      Byung-soo (Sol Kyung-gu), an elderly man suffering from Alzheimer's, has been murdering bad people throughout his life, but he's ceased his murder spree for the past decade. He lives with his daughter, Eun-hee (Seolhyun), and jots down his thoughts in a diary in case he'll forget them. After getting into a minor car accident with Tae-joo (Kim Nam-gil), a police officer, he immediately suspects that Tae-joo might be a serial killer based on his suspicious behavior and mysterious blood on his car. As the saying goes, it takes one to know one. Byung-soo asks his friend at the local police station to investigate him. Tae-joo ends up in a romance the the daughter of Byung-soo, but Byung-soo does not remember that he's the same potentially malevolent guy from the accident.

      Based on the novel by Young-ha Kim, Memoir of a Murderer is a taut, intriguing, and engrossing crime thriller with plenty of clever twists and turns. Director Won Shin-yeon wastes no time by creating a foreboding atmosphere that hooks you right away during the very first scene. Although the plot is complex, it's not complicated if you pay close attention. The film remains suspenseful from start to finish because you're always wondering whether or not the protaginist, Byung-soo, can trust his memories or if he's merely being paranoid about Tae-joo who clearly as something to hide. Even though Byung-soo had committed immoral actions and, therefore, isn't exactly likable, he's not a completely bad person on the inside: he does love his daughter and wants to protect her, after all. It's his flaws that make him an interesting character. Tae-joo is quite cunning and doesn't make it easy for Byung-soo to prove that he's a murderer, so it's exhilarating to them battle each other much like De Niro and Pacino in Heat. Fortunately, the third act, where many films tend to fall apart, keeps your eyes glued to the screen throughout all of the action and twists, none of which will be spoiled here.

      At a running time of just under 2 hours, Memoir of a Murderer feels like a cross between Seven, Memento, Heat and Insomnia. Sure, there have been many crime thrillers in the past, but, so what? You can look at films like you look at thumbs or like you look at thumbprints. This particular film has a different thumbprint compared to other crime thrillers. It's unflinchingly dark, unpredictable, and riveting.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by Well GO USA.
Opens at AMC Empire 25.

The Sinking City: Capsule Odyssey

Directed by Stephen Ng Hon-Pong and Nero Ng Siu-lun

      Chi-hin (Pakho Chau Pak-ho), a young man who makes a comfortable living with an internet job, leaves the fancy apartment that he shares with his girlfriend and moves into an apartment shared by 4 other roommates.He's hoping to pay his debt by changing his lifestyle---without informing his girlfriend. The room they share is called a space capsule, which is one big room subdivided into different living spaces. His roommates include a variety of colorful individuals including Fung (Babyjohn Choi Hon-yick), Ming (Louis Cheung Kai-chung), Sui-cheung (Bob Lam Shing-bun), and his landlord, Shing (Andrew Lam Man-chung). Chi-hin learns how to live with these lowlifes, one of whom is a gangster and another who's an ex-con.

      No, The Sinking City is not a disaster film or sci-fi movie about a city that sinks, but it's nonetheless difficult to classify it in one particular genre. Writers/directors Stephen Ng Hon-Pong and Nero Ng Siu-lun blend comedy, drama, action and satire with mixed results. Some of the humor is quite funny, but most of it is silly and lowbrow. One thing's for sure, though, the plot becomes increasingly outrageous and unpredictable. The less you know about the plot before you watch it, the more you'll be able to be surprised and enjoy it as a guilty pleasure. What raises keeps the film engaging besides its unpredictability and lunacy is its lively characters each of whom could easily be the protoganist in a seperate film. You'll have to see the third act to believe it, but fans of Tarantino-esque violence will indeed be pleased.

Number of times I checked my watch: 3
Released by Magnum Films.
Opens at AMC Empire 25.

Year by the Sea

Directed by Alexander Janko

      Joan Anderson (Karen Allen) decides to rent a house along the beach on Cape Cod after her husband, Robin (Michael Cristofer), relocates to Kansas because of work and her two adult children finally move out of house. She hopes to begin writing again while finding peace of mind far away from her family. John Cahoon (Yannick Bisson), a fisherman, befriends her and agrees to hire her, temporarily, at his local fish market. When she meets Joan Erikson (Celia Imre), who's grieving the loss of her husband, psychologist Erik Erikson, Joan Anderson's quest to find true happiness and to get to know herself officially begins.

      Based on the memoir by Joan Anderson, Year by the Sea is an enchanting, warm, wise and profoundly moving film brimming with humanism, a truly special effect that's rare to find these days in American films. Writer/director Alexander Janko finds just the right balance between entertaining the audience and provoking them emotionally as well as intellectually. Many scenes feel relatable and ring true. Janko also knows how to introduce characters in a way that's compelling, i.e. how Joan Anderson meets Joan Erikson in a dream-like sequence on the foggy shores of Cape Cod. Right away you're able to grasp how witty and wise Erikson is. Janko handles the many scenes of Anderson attaining enlightenment gracefully without veering into preachiness. He also avoids turning the emotionally resonant scenes into sappiness.

      Anyone who calls Year by the Sea conventional or formulaic isn't paying close enough attention to the many little surprises that come along, including a revelation about Joan Anderson's literary agent, Liz (S. Epatha Merkerson), and how Anderson doesn't yield to the temptations of cheating on her husband, Robin, even though she could have if she wanted to. The way that she helps a waitress, Luce (Monique Curnen), to deal with her abusive, alcoholic husbands speaks volumes about how kind, selfless and considerate she is as a human being. Janko includes other telling details about her Anderson's character like when her husband suddenly laughs at something that he thought about. Instead of acting offended or shocked by saying "Stop laughing!", she asks him, with genuine compassion and a healthy dose of curiosity, "What's so funny?" Small, beautiful scene like that are part of what makes Year by the Sea such a treasure behold.

      The scenery of Cape Cod becomes a character in itself with many awe-inspiring shots that would be best experienced on the big screen. The well-chosen music also helps to enrich the film. Moreover, each of the supporting characters feels lived-in, complex and interesting enough to even be turned into a protagonist. Although Anderson's husband does have flaws, he's far from a villain and has many redeeming qualities. The same can be said for Luce's abusive husband (Tyler Haines). Even the homeless man who shows up at the fish market to receive free food from John has an interesting backstory about how he became homeless. Janko clearly understands that the more specific a story is, the more universal it becomes. He also finds the right balance between light and dark elements---yes, many scenes are uplifting, but there's also some gentle, underlying sadness and tragedy lurking beneath the surface. Just like life itself, it would be difficult and unfair to lump Year by the Sea into a genre.

      The talented Karen Allen anchors Year By the Sea with her radiance. She gives the best performance of her career, and Janko allows for her shine thanks to the beautifully-written screenplay. It's also quite refreshing for a modern film to have such a complex role for an actress, and to watch a film that can't be turned into a video game or that doesn't rely on sex or violence as a means of entertaining the audience. In a less sensitively-written film, the character of Joan Anderson would have had no inner life; in Year By the Sea you can grasp her inner life from start to finish which makes the film all the more exceptional, poignant and unforgettable. At a running time of 1 hour and 54 minutes, which breezes by like an hour, Year by the Sea is a life-affirming, breathtaking, and inspirational film that will nourish your heart, mind and soul. It's the perfect antidote to Hollywood's blockbusters. What a triumph! It would make for a great double feature with Under the Tuscan Sun, 45 Years and Muriel's Wedding.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by Real Women Make Waves.
Opens at Lincoln Plaza Cinemas.
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