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Reviews for November 3rd, 2023

Documentary Films


      Beyond Utopia is a gripping, heartfelt and unflinching documentary about families who secretly flee the oppressive North Korea with the help of a brave and compassionate pastor, Kim Seongeun. Director Madeleine Gavin first establishes how difficult and dangerous it is for North Koreans to escape the North Korean dictatorship. They put their lives at risk by embarking on a treacherous journey through the mountains of China toward safety. Not everyone makes it out alive. Beyond Utopia, with its pulse-pounding music score, unfolds like a suspense thriller which makes it feel cinematic as well as emotionally engrossing. It's not easy to watch nor should it be because the footage from the North Koreans' journey isn't a reenactment. That, along with the vivid accounts from the survivors, are harrowing and even palpably terrifying at times. Prepare for one of the most edge-of-your-seat and haunting documentaries of the year. It would make for a great double feature with the equally thrilling documentary The Abolitionists. At a running time of 1 hour and 55 minutes, it opens at IFC Center.


      Going to Mars: The Nikki Giovanni Project is an intimate, illuminating and well-edited documentary biopic about Nikki Giovanni, a poet, author and civil rights activist. Co-directors Joe Brewster and Michele Stephenson combine archival footage of Nikki Giovanni with contemporary footage of her as she looks back on her life. She discusses her most recent collection of poems called n A Good Cry: What We Learn From Tears and Laughter. Although she reveals her thoughts and feelings openly, she's candid up to a certain point and there are even some topics that she refuses to discuss. Fortunately, the filmmakers respect her boundaries which she has every right to have and, more importantly, to clearly set. Nikki Giovanni has clearly been through a lot throughout her life and has attained a lot of life wisdom that she generously shares. She comes across as witty, wise, articulate, emotionally mature, and even humble at times, i.e. when someone refers to her as being friendly and she doesn't think that that's an accurate word to describe herself. Throughout this captivating documentary, the filmmakers capture her personality, warmth and charisma so that you get a sense of what she's like as a human being, warts and all. So, bravo to the filmmakers for avoiding hagiography and for humanizing their subject while showing empathy toward her which is a truly remarkable achievement. Poetry is often a protest for or against something, though, so it's inspiring to discover someone who embraces the power of words as a peaceful form of protest. Where does the film's title come from? You'll learn about that within the first ten minutes. At a running time of 1 hour and 36 minutes, Going to Mars: The Nikki Giovanni Project opens at Film Forum via HBO Documentary Films.


      In the Court of the Crimson King: King Crimson at 50 a lively, amusing and intimate documentary about the rock band King Crimson. Director Toby Amies deserves a lot of credit for gaining access to the members of the band such as its founder/guitarist Robert Fripp, drummer Bill Rieflin, and guitarist Jakko Jakszyk, among others. The talking head interviews are very revealing about each member's personality. Some of them stand out more than others because of their sense of humor, wit and bluntness. If you're not previously familiar with the rock bond, this might not be a very satisfying documentary for you because Amies doesn't focus on their history; this isn't about their rise to fame nor is it thorough. What it does achieve, though, is something that's admirable: it humanizes the band members and provides a glimpse of what their relationships and rapport is like behind-the-scenes and through the years. Most of them could have easily been the main subject of a separate documentary, so In the Court of the Crimson King: King Crimson at 50 might be overwhelming and exhausting for those of you who are being introduced to King Crimson for the first time, but, either way, it's far from dull. At a running time of 1 hour and 26 minutes, it opens at Alamo Drafthouse in Manhattan via Monoduo Films.


      Pay or Die is an enraging, eye-opening and heartfelt documentary about the high price of insulin. The title initially sounds like hyperbole, but co-directors Rachael Dyer and Scott Alexander Ruderman prove that it's very accurate. They focus on a family whose diabetic son died after he rationed his insulin, on mother and daughter who lost their home because they had to use their rent money to pay for insulin, and on a young woman who's diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes. They also interview experts who explain the price of insulin skyrocketed to unaffordable prices in the US. You'll learn why insulin is needed and the scary fact that it's needed by patients very often each day. Not surprisingly, the high prices have a lot to do with Big Pharma and their mission to maximize profits while they perceive its effect on human lives as an externality. What Pay or Die doesn't mention is that what Big Pharma does when it comes to profits happens to be what Economics and Business Management students are taught in school, so it's a systemic problem that goes beyond Big Pharma. What about ethics? What about morals? At least through the candid interviews with diabetics who are suffering from the issue of unaffordable insulin, anyone who watches this documentary will be sure, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the effect of the high price of insulin on human lives should not be an externality when it comes to Big Pharma's profits. Pay or Die doesn't dwell on its subjects' suffering and despair, though. It also sheds light on the activism that led to pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly to cap the price of insulin at $35 per month which is a major stepping stone that provides a glimmer of hope. At a running time of 1 hour and 30 minutes, Pay or Die opens at IFC Center on Wednesday, November 1st via MTV Documentary Films.


      Shot in the Arm is a provocative and timely, but incomplete documentary about vaccine hesitancy. Director Scott Hamilton Kennedy interviews Dr. Paul Offit, Dr. Peter Hotez, and Dr. Anthony Fauci, all of whom are pro-vaccine. He also interviews those who speak out against vaccines like Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., and also includes footage of anti-vaxxer Del Bigtree who held a rally against the COVID vaccine on January 6th, 2021, not far from the Capitol riots. Both RFK and Del Bigtree aren't shown in a positive light, but at least RFK gets the chance to answer some questions in an interview. He claims to not be anti-vaxx and denies that he told people not to take a vaccine, though. He deserves to be the focus of a separate documentary that could do a better job of unraveling his arguments because, unfortunately, it's hard to follow RFK's logic in this particular documentary which almost villainizes him as well as Del Bigtree. Meanwhile, the pro-vaccine experts seem like saints by contrast.  Shot in the Arm has as much nuance as a Michael Moore film while it looks down on the documentary Vaxxed: From Cover-Up to Catastrophe. There are more than 2 sides to a coin, though: there's the corners, the ridges, the sides of the ridges, etc. What about the public's waning faith and confidence in Dr. Fauci? What about those who aren't anti-vaccine, but want to be guaranteed safer vaccines than the current one? Dr. Paul Offit makes an argument that sounds logical at first: that the COVID vaccines led to less severe COVID illnesses and few hospitalizations. However, what if that were circumstantial? Shot in the Arm asks tougher questions to RFK than it does to Dr. Paul Offit or Dr. Fauci, so this isn't ultimately a very fair and balanced documentary. At a running time of 1 hour and 29 minutes, it opens at Angelika Film Center via Black Valley Films.

All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt

Directed by Raven Jackson

      Mack (Kaylee Nicole Johnson) grows up in Mississippi with her sister, Josie (Jayah Henry), father, Isaiah (Chris Chalk) and best friend, Wood (Preston McDowell) while grieving the death of her mother Evelyn (Sheila Atim). As a young adult (now played by Charleen McClure), she visits Wood (now played by Reginald Helms Jr.) and Josie (now played by Moses Ingram) before she (now played by Zainab Jah) returns to her later in her adulthood.

      Writer/director Raven Jackson deserves to be commended for her unconventional, minimalist approach to telling the story of Mack that spans decades of her life. She eschews a plot with narrative momentum and keeps the dialogue very sparse which feels frustrating at first, but makes sense in hindsight. As a director once told me in an interview, talk is cheap. The film jumps back and forth through different time periods of Mack's life with only a few significant events along the way, her mom's death and her getting pregnant, that shape her as a human being. Very little happens on the surface, but there's a lot more going on beneath the surface, so Jackson relies a lot on the audience's imagination while trusting their emotions. Those are very admirable and rare qualities to be found in a first-time filmmaker that channels other filmmakers who embrace the power of nature like Terrence Malick and Carlos Reygadas, although All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt isn't as captivating as Reygadas' films.

      Images speak louder than words in All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt. Writer/director Raven Jackson maintains a sense of almost documentary-like realism while shooting breathtaking, poetic scenes of nature and, also human nature. Poetry is often a form of protest for or against something. So, what is this film a protest for or against? That's left for the audience to interpret on their own without any over-explaining from the filmmakers---except for the scene that briefly explains the meaning of the title. Seemingly simple close-up shots of hands being held with fingers intertwined are beautiful and poignant, although they're repeated a little too often while the camera lingers on them for too lon. There are many refreshinly quiet and serene moments, though, so bravo to Jackson for understanding the power of silence. She also trusts the audience's patience because she moves the film at a very slow pace which takes a while to get used to. Patient audience members will be rewarded with a meditative, poetic and mesmerizing emotional journey.

Number of times I checked my watch: 2
Released by A24.
Opens in select theaters.

Glisten and the Merry Mission

Directed by Cory Morrison

      Cinnameg (voice of Julia Michaels), an elf, helps Santa (voice of Chevy Chase) to manufacture toys at his workshop, but when she notices that some children will not receive their Christmas presents, she tries to fix the workshop's production efficiency issues so that every child will get a present. Meanwhile, her daughter, Marzipan (voice of Trinity Bliss) embarks on an adventure to find Glisten, a magical snow deer.

      Glisten and the Merry Mission is a harmless and amusing adventure. The screenplay by co-writers Temple Mathews and Sharon Price John has a plot that's only mildly engaging for adults, but at least it'll keep kids entertained for the most part. Wit and humor aren't among the film's strengths, to be fair. There's also not enough "world-building", so the film feels like it throws a lot of characters and ideas together, but doesn't take them anywhere interesting. The liveliest character is Grizz (voice of Michael Rapaport) who's not a fan of Christmas. At least the plot remains easy-to-follow and doesn't get too complex or dark. Beneath its story, there's a palpable heartbeat and a positive message about believing in the magic of Christmas which kids will appreciate.

      The 2D animation is bright and colorful, but nothing exceptional beyond that. The voice-overs are decent and the same can be said about the music score. Moreover, the pace moves briskly and the running time is kept under 90 minutes, so the film doesn't overstay its welcome. Despite the plot's shortcomings, Glisten and the Merry Mission is nonetheless sweet, charming and pleasant without becoming dull, too preachy or cheesy. Kids will love it.

Number of times I checked my watch: 2
Released by Samuel Goldwyn Films.
Opens in select theaters nationwide.

The Marsh King's Daughter

Directed by Neil Burger

      Many years after she and her mother escaped from her abusive father, Jacob Holbrook (Ben Mendelsohn), during her childhood Helena Pelletier (Daisy Ridley), has settled down to lead a peaceful life with her husband (Garrett Hedlund) and daughter (Joey Carson). When she learns that Jacob, a.k.a. The Marsh King, has escaped from prison, her peace is disrupted and she fears for her life as Jacob remains on the run from the law.

       Based on the novel by Karen Dionne, the screenplay by co-writers Elle Smith and Mark L. Smith could've either turned the film into an engrossing character study, a gripping suspense thriller or combination of both. Unfortunately, it's neither of those despite the potential. Helena is a complex character who's been through a lot because she learned at a young age that he father had raped and kidnapped her mother, but that was before she developed a bond with him while living out in woods. He taught her a lot, so, naturally, it's not easy for her to process her mixed emotions when he escapes from prison. She probably has Stockholm Syndrome to a certain degree. What might happen if he finds her? It comes as no surprise that they'll never be able to have a healthy relationship. The flashbacks to Helena's childhood are clunky and repetitive while the dialogue suffers from either being too on-nose or stilted with little to no levity. You can feel the wheels of the screenplay turning which is not a good sign because it also means that none of the characters come to life and the bond between Helena and Jacob falls flat. The exposition is incorporated in a way that feels lazy while omitting key portions of Helena's life, especially when Helena and her mother escape Jacob after he kills someone and gets arrested. The Marsh King's Daughter doesn't delve enough into Helen's heart, mind and soul, though, so it dehumanizes her while keeping her at a cold distance from the audience.

      Daisy Ridley gives a decent performance that adds a modicum of poignancy which the screenplay sorely lacks. Ben Mendelsohn makes the most out of his role, but he's undermined by the vapid screenplay, so he doesn't really have much of a chance to shine here. The cinematography is fine albeit nothing exceptional while the editing is occasionally choppy, especially when the film flashes back to Helena's memories from her childhood. At a running time of 1 hour and 48 minutes, The Marsh King's Daughter is a dull, shallow and underwhelming psychological thriller.


Number of times I checked my watch: 3
Released by Roadside Attractions.
Opens in select theaters nationwide.


Directed by Christopher Zalla

      Sergio Juarez Correa (Eugenio Derbez) arrives in Matamoros, Mexico to teach sixth graders at Jose Urbina Elementary School where students often underperform while living in a life of poverty and violence. Through his unconventional teaching methods, he tries help his students, Nico (Danilo Guardiola Escobar), Paloma (Jennifer Trejo), and Lupe (Mia Fernandez Solis), to conquer their adversity and to excel at school.

      Based on an article by Joshua Davis, the screenplay by writer/director Christopher Zalla follows a conventional formula for movies about inspirational teachers. In terms of plot, it has no surprises. However, there's nothing inherently wrong with following a formula or predictability as long as it hits all the right beats. Fortunately, Zalla avoids schmaltz, preachiness and melodrama. He doesn't just develop the character of Sergio, but also delves into the lives of Nico, Paloma and Lupe each of whom struggles in their own way. By humanizing them, he allows the audience to be emotionally invested in their lives and want Sergio to help them succeed. The bond between Sergia and the students feels organic and genuinely heartfelt. There are a few small, but powerful scenes that will bring tears to your eyes, i.e. when Paloma goes to the library to ask for books on astronomy to pursue her passion for it after Sergio encourages her to pursue it. There are also some kernels of wisdom that will nourish your heart, mind and soul. Although Radical gets into dark territory at times, it's not too unflinching or emotionally devastating. In other words, writer/director Christopher Zalla knows how to ground the film in humanity without any heavy-handedness. He also wisely includes just the right amount of comic relief. It's refreshing to see such a compassionate, decent and empathetic character like Sergio on screen. He's up there with Arthur Chipping from Goodbye Mr. Chips, Ellen Grewell from Freedom Writers, Sylvia Barrett from Up the Down Staircase, and John Keating from Dead Poets Society.

      Eugenio Derbez gives one of the best performances of his career. He's usually known for his comedic roles, but here he demonstrates his versatility as he sinks his teeth into a dramatic role bringing plenty of warmth and charisma. The child actors are also terrific, especially Jennifer Trejo in the role of Paloma. The wonderful music score is also worth mentioning as well as the pacing which doesn't move too fast or too slow, so you can feel absorbed by the story without feeling rushed. At a running time of 2 hour and 5 minutes, Radical is a genuinely heartwarming triumph. It will inspire you while making you laugh, cry and cheer.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by Pantelion Films.
Opens nationwide.


Directed by Ira Rosensweig


Number of times I checked my watch: 4
Released by XYZ Films.
Opens at Regal Union Square before hitting VOD on November 10th, 2023.

The Tunnel to Summer, the Exit of Goodbyes

Directed by Tomohisa Taguchi

      Kaoru Tono (voice of Ouji Suzuka), a high school student, falls in love Anzu Hanashiro (voice of Marie Iitoyo), a transfer student, while they both discover a magical tunnel that grants wishes in exchange for many years of their life.

      Based on the manga series by Mei Hachimoku, the screenplay by writer/director Tomohisa Taguchi bites off more than it could chew. It's part love story, part sci-fi movie and part drama about grief, dreams and following one's passion.  Kauru and Anzu have a "meet cute" moment at a bus stop before he learns that she's the new student at his high school. He comes from an emotionally abusive home and has yet to overcome the grieving process after his sister died. How did she die? Why did his father become so abusive? Eventually those questions get answered albeit late in the overstuffed, undercooked plot. Not surprisingly, Kaoru's wish is to have his sister back. There are flashbacks to the moments before her death, but not nearly enough scenes to establish their strong bond, so the beats don't quite land as strongly as he yearns to see her again. Anzu's wish is a bit more practical: she wants to find the inspiration to become as talented at creating manga as her grandfather, a relatively unknown manga writer. The exposition about her relationship with her toxic father is poorly developed through clunky exposition that arrives too late in the film. Then there's the mystery about the magical tunnel that grants wishes. Unfortunately, writer/director Tomohisa Taguchi does a subpar job of "world building" while barely scratching the surface of the film's many themes and ideas. The third act, which can be seen from a mile away, feel cheesy and rushed with an uplift that's unearned.

      The Tunnel to Summer, the Exit of Goodbyes' greatest strength is its dazzling, colorful animation, especially during the dreamlike scenes inside the tunnel. The use of 2D animation comes with the bonus of much-needed warmth which would've been diminished if it were CGI animation instead. There are pacing issues, though. The first act moves too slowly before the pace picks up a little and then the third act moves too quickly as though it were in a hurry to reach its conclusion.  The film's systemic issues are that it doesn't breathe enough life into its scenes and suffers from a plot that runs out of steam too early. At a running time of 1 hour and 23 minutes, The Tunnel to Summer, the Exit of Goodbyes is visually stunning and occasionally moving, but often clunky, overstuffed and undercooked. 

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by IFC Films.
Opens in select theaters nationwide.

What Happens Later

Directed by Meg Ryan

      Bill (David Duchovny) bumps into his former lover, Willa (Meg Ryan), while stuck at an airport during a major snowstorm. They reconnect over the course of one night.

      The screenplay by writer/director Meg Ryan and her co-writers, Kirk Lynn and Steven Sietz, based on his play, Shooting Star, is funny, witty and genuinely heartfelt. What Happens Later eschews a first act as it introduces the characters of Bill and Willa when they run into each other at the airport, so it doesn't waste time with any filler. You gradually get to know them while they catch up with all the new events in their lives since they were in a relationship together two decades earlier. A lot has happened since then. Bill got married, became a lawyer and has a teenage daughter. Willa is currently single while he's stuck in a stale marriage and has a rocky relationship with his daughter who dreams of becoming a dancer. "Are you going on a journey or on a trip?", she asks him when they reunite at the airport. That's a very good question that reveals her emotional maturity as well as her curiosity. He doesn't understand the difference, so she explains it to him: a trip is when you merely travel from one destination to another while a journey is when you travel with a spiritual goal in mind. He replies that he's going on a trip---a business trip, to be more accurate. What is her true purpose for traveling? That won't be spoiled here, but it does add layers of depth and complexity to the film. Interestingly, What Happens Later avoids flashbacks while relying a lot on the power of the audience's imagination to fill in the gaps. Even the photo on Willa's driver's license that Bill observes and she pokes fun at remains unseen from the audience's perspective. The dialogue sparkles with witty banter between Bill and Willa which is reminiscent of the banter between Susan and David in Bringing Up Baby.  They're both very different in terms of their personalities, yet they connect in ways that are relatable and profoundly human. By the end of the film, they're no longer strangers to the audience.

       According to François Truffaut, a great film has a perfect balance between Truth and Spectacle. What Happens Later is a sparkling romantic comedy that's grounded humanism, a truly special effect, while it finds the Spectacle within its many Truths, a.k.a. its humanity. That feat is similar to what Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf also accomplishes through its dialogue. There are small moments that speak volumes about Bill and Willa's past relationship, i.e. when Willa says to him that he's the only one that she allowed to call her Wilhelmina. Other small moments reveal a lot about their personality, like when Bill goes to get coffee without asking Willa if she wants any coffee, but he returns with precisely the kind of coffee that she likes which she happily accepts, so he's not as selfish as you may have initially thought. Why did they break up? That's among the questions that the film explores with honesty. Kudos to writer/director Meg Ryan and to her co-writers for seeing and treating Bill and Willa as complex human beings, warts-and-all, and for showing empathy toward them without judging them. In turn, they encourage the audience to empathize with Bill and Willa as well. It's wonderful to encounter two decent human beings who are capable of being introspective and compassionate. Refreshingly, there are no villains (except for Mother Nature who's just doing her job), no scenes with violence, no toilet humor, and a plot that doesn't go bonkers like too many films these days do nowadays, although there is some offbeat humor. The airport announcer (voice of Hal Liggett) is among the film's many highlights that provides comic relief. The film remains focused without meandering or becoming tonally uneven. It's sweet without being cloying, funny without going over-the-top, and poignant, wistful and beguiling without being maudlin or heavy-handed.  

      Meg Ryan and David Duchovny are magic together. They both exude charisma and have palpable chemistry while Bill and Willa banter and quip with each other. It's also worth mentioning the terrific production design that turns the airport into a character in and of itself, so the film's style becomes part of its substance. There's a beautiful, poetic, dreamlike scene where Bill and Willa sit down at a table while heavy snow falls outside of the window beside them. Another memorably heartwarming moment is when Bill and Willa dance together. The music is very well-chosen. Moreover, the pace moves at just the right speed without any scenes that overstay their welcome. At a running time of 1 hour and 43 minutes, What Happens Later is enchanting, witty and delightful. It's a warm, funny and tender journey well worth taking. See it with someone you love.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by Bleecker Street.
Opens nationwide.

Where the Devil Roams

Directed by Toby Poser, Zelda Adams & John Adams

      Steven (John Adams), his wife, Maggie (Toby Poser), and daughter, Eve (Zelda Adams), work as traveling circus sideshow performers while going on a murder spree.

      Set during the Great Depression, the screenplay by co-writers/directors John Adams, Zelda Adams and Toby Poser is a shocking and bold, but tedious blend of horror, dark comedy and surrealism. Imagine a Rob Zombie film crossed with a Guy Maddin film and you'll get an idea of what it's like to watch Where the Devil Roams. The filmmakers deserve credit for taking an unconventional approach to making a horror film. It's even somewhat experimental at times. However, while it does indeed go bonkers, it runs out of steam around the hour mark because the plot doesn't go anywhere interesting. Repeated flashbacks to Steven's traumatic experiences in the war that left him with PTSD become redundant after the 2nd flashback. Moreover, attempts at dark comedy and offbeat humor don't always land. Much of the film just feels cold, mean-spirited and bizarre just for the sake of being bizarre.

      The best aspect of Where the Devil Roams is its visual stylish cinematography that combines color and black-and-white. It's gritty, atmospheric and well-edited. Clearly a lot of effort was put into the production design, and it paid off. There's plenty of blood and guts, so this isn't the kind of film that leaves much of the imagination except for a few scenes where the kills are off-screen. If you have a weak stomach, prepare to be disgusted by some of the gory scenes, i.e. when a soldier's arm is sawed off. Unlike Poor Things, which is even more brilliant, audacious and bonkers, Where the Devil Roams remains shallow while lacks emotional depth. It's ultimately less than the sum of its parts. In a double feature with Poor Things, Where the Devil Roams would be the inferior B-movie.

Number of times I checked my watch: 2
Released by Yellow Veil Pictures.
Opens at Alamo Drafthouse in Manhattan.