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Reviews for November 24th, 2023

Documentary Films


      Billion Dollar Babies: The True Story of the Cabbage Patch Kids, narrated by Neil Patrick Harris, is a captivating, illuminating and well-edited documentary about the Cabbage Patch Kids. Director Andrew Jenks charts the rise of the iconic dolls starting in 1977 and interviews its founder, Xavier Roberts. He also interviews news anchor/reporter Connie Chung who looks back at her memories of the Cabbage Patch craze and how it led to what's now known as Black Friday. The dolls are unique which is what makes them stand out among other dolls. The documentary gets much more compelling, though, when Jenks shifts focus to the legal battles between Xavier Roberts and Martha Nelson Thomas, a folk artist who accused Roberts of plagiarizing her designs for her Doll Babies which he then used for making the Cabbage Patch Kids. That part of the film makes it feel less like an infomercial and more like a fair and balanced documentary, as it should be, because both Xavier Roberts and Martha Nelson Thomas get a chance to share their side of the story. At a running time of 1 hour and 34 minutes, Billion Dollar Babies: The True Story of the Cabbage Patch Kids opens at Look Cinemas 57th Street via Abramorama.


      The Secret Cities of Mark Kistler is a fascinating, heartfelt and inspirational documentary biopic on American artist Mark Kistler. He's known for his educational 80's show "The Secret City" where he portrayed a fictional character, Commander Mark, while instructing children how to draw in 3-D, and for his 90's show "Mark Kistler's Imagination Station." He taught his 12 Fundamental Laws of Drawing which includes Foreshortening, Placement, Size, Overlapping, Shading, Shadow, Contour, Horizon, Bonus, Practice and Attitude. So, not only does Kistler provide inspiration to children, he also gives them useful, practical skills. Director Jason Corgan Brown does a great job of introducing the audience to Mark Kistler, so you'll get a sense of what makes him important in the art world. Brown combines archival footage with contemporary interviews of Mark Kistler himself. Kistler comes across as intelligent as well as a talented artist and educator who understands the power of the artist's imagination. He knows how to make learning how to draw a fun and exciting experience for kids. The Secret Cities of Mark Kistler captures Kistler's passion for drawing along with his warmth, charisma, kindness and sense of humor. He deserves to be as well known as Bob Ross. Even if you've never heard of Mark Kistler before, you'll be glad that you did after watching this eye-opening documentary. At an ideal running time of 1 hour and 23 minutes, The Secret Cities of Mark Kistler opens at Village East by Angelika via Laser Beam Releasing.


      Smoke Sauna Sisterhood is a warm, tender and unflinchingly honest documentary about women who gather in an Estonian smoke sauna in the middle of a forest. Director Anna Hints films them as the women discuss intimate details from their lives, including some painful, traumatic memories. They're each brave women not for being physically naked in front of the camera, but for being emotionally naked and showing their strengths and vulnerability. They bond through laughter and through their candid recollections from their past. There's a voyeuristic aspect to watching Smoke Sauna Sisterhood because you feel like you're sitting with these women and eavesdropping on their private, intimate conversations.

      However, the positive side to that aspect is that when the women open the window into their heart, mind and soul while showing introspection and emotional maturity, they inspire audience to do the same. The camerawork reflects that intimacy because the camera is often very up close to the women while, interestingly, leaving their faces off-camera. It's refreshing to observe people in a place where they feel safe and comfortable enough to be honest with each other without anyone judging them. The conversations wouldn't be as profoundly human if they were to interact through social media instead. In between their conversations, director Anna Hints includes images of billowing smoke which provides the film with visual poetry. At a running time of 1 hour and 29 minutes, Smoke Sauna Sisterhood opens at IFC Center via Greenwich Entertainment.


      They Shot the Piano Player is a suspenseful, illuminating and engrossing documentary about the mysterious disappearance of Francisco Tenório Júnior, a Brazilian piano player, in 1976. Co-directors Fernando Trueba and Javier Mariscal frame the documentary around the fictional story of Jeff Harris (Jeff Goldblum), a journalist/author who's researching Bossa Nova for an upcoming book. Upon his research process in Buenos Aires, he stumbles upon the mystery of Francisco Tenório Júnior and, soon enough, changes the topic of his book as he investigates his disappearance. They Shot the Piano Player takes about 30 minutes or so before it dives into the mystery, so until then, it's much lighter, yet just as fascinating. That's when the film begins to kick its suspense and intrigue into full gear while also shedding light on the history of Latin America and the dictatorships during the 1970s---specifically, a political campaign known as Operation Condor. It's unflinching in its details of the torture that prisoners like Júnior endured. Trueba and Mariscal should be commended for their unconventional approach to telling Harris and Júnior's stories by using very lively animation which makes the film feel more cinematic, invigorating and visually stunning. At a running time of 1 hour and 43 minutes, They Shot the Piano Player opens for a one-week Oscar-qualifying run at Village East by Angelika via Sony Pictures Classics.

Deep Sea

Directed by Tian Xiaopeng

      Shenxiu (voice of Wang Tingwen), a young girl, goes on a cruise with her father, brother and stepmother. When the ship goes through a storm, she ends up in a magical world under the sea with a mythical creature, Hijinx, and Nanhe (voice of Su Xin) the chef of an underwater restaurant.

      Writer/director Tian Xiaopeng blends fantasy, thrills and drama together in a genuinely heartfelt story. Shenxiu goes on a journey beneath the sea that's filled with wonder and surrealism as she meets bizarre characters like Nanhe. She also undergoes an emotional journey as she recalls her memories with her mother. Xiaopeng does a great job of "world-building" without confusing the audience. Although, to be fair, once Shenxiu enters the undersea world, a lot happens and it doesn't always make sense at first. However, eventually, with more exposition, it becomes clearer what's going on. Despite the many fantasy elements, Deep Sea tackles a wide range of topics like sadness, hope and dreams, among others, which makes it all the more human and relatable. It's unafraid to go into darker territory and to move the audience to tears without being too maudling. The ending, which won't be spoiled here, brims with poignancy, tenderness and profound wisdom that will nourish your heart, mind and soul. Writer/director Tian Xiaopeng should be commended for providing a warm heartbeat beneath Deep Sea's surface.

      One of Deep Sea's major strengths is its dazzling 3D animation which adds plenty of visual poetry. Some scenes are awe-inspiring and transcendent beyond words. Images speak louder than words, after all. Clearly, a lot of passion and talent can be found in the animation. The voice actors and actresses are terrific, and the well-chosen music score adds both style and substance. The film's story serves as a powerful, lyrical allegory, so it's much more than the sum of its parts. Deep Sea's ultimate triumph, though, is that it finds the right balance between Truth, or humanism, and Spectacle. At a running time of 1 hour 52 minutes, Deep Sea is an exhilarating, genuinely poignant and profound emotional journey. It's one of the best animated films of the year.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by Viva Pictures.
Opens in select theaters.

Due Justice

Directed by Javier Reyna

      Max (Kellan Lutz), a lawyer who's also a military veteran, seeks to avenge the death of his wife and his brother, Jerry (Manu Intiraymi), and to rescue his kidnapped daughter.

      The screenplay by writer/director Javier Reyna suffers from a meandering, unimaginative and increasingly dull plot. Despite a premise that sounds like it could be gripping and intense, it leaves a lot to be desired in terms of its execution. The audience doesn't get much of a chance to spend time with Max and his family before he goes on the hunt for the criminals who killed his wife and kidnapped his daughter. There's a distracting subplot with a police detective, Santiago (Efren Ramirez), whom Max doesn't trust. The stilted, bland and witless dialogue makes this a chore to sit through, and the clunky flashbacks don't help matters either.Due Justice takes too long to even become remotely suspenseful as it wastes too much time with filler that doesn't develop any of its characters in a compelling way. Once the over-the-top ending arrives, it offers no surprises, palpable thrills or intrigue. There's nothing wrong with throwing logic and plausibility out of the window as long as it's entertaining, but Due Justice doesn't even manage to accomplish that bare minimum requirement of a B-movie.

      Unfortunately, Due Justice doesn't have enough charisma in its actors that could've invigorated the film. It desperately needs someone with energy, panache and charisma like Nicolas Cage. No one stands out among the cast members nor do they rise above the vapid screenplay. There's nothing exceptional about the cinematography, music score or anything else that could've added style to compensate for the film's lack of substance. Even the action scenes are uninspired and poorly shot. At a running time of 1 hour and 37 minutes, which feels more like 3 hours, Due Justice is a dull, anemic and meandering bore.

Number of times I checked my watch: 3
Released by Saban Films.
Opens in select theaters.