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Reviews for September 23rd, 2016

Documentary Round-Up

      Seed: The Untold Story, co-directed by Jon Betz and Taggart Siegel, tackles the important issue of seed biodiversity. 94% of seed varieties have disappeared since the last 100 years, and some varieties are even endangered. Betz and Siegel include interviews with activists, i.e. Jane Goodall, Vandana Shiva, Andrew Kimball (Executive Director of Center for Food Safety), and farmers such as Emigdio Ballon and Will Bonsall. The beginning of the doc is pretty light and simple as it focuses just on the diminishing of seed varieties and what's being done to protect seeds from extinction while promoting biodiversity. It gets darker and more enraging as well as complex when it sheds light on the horrors of the infamous Monsanto, a corporation that has no shame in patenting seeds and in spraying toxic pesticides on crops. It would be very ironic if anyone working for Monsanto were religious because it's a corporation that's essentially playing God. The fact that they sue small farmers when their patented seeds end up in their farm which can happen easily, i.e. via birds or wind that carry it there. Monsanto lies and values their profits more than public welfare. Hitler would have been proud of such corporations. Not surprisingly, none of executives from Monsanto is interviewed in the film. It'd be interesting to see what those executives' grandchildren or great grandchildren will think of them while watching this doc. Although the future of our planet does not look promising given all the corporate greed, there is still hope thanks to education programs that teach valuable lessons about seeds to younger generations. Knowledge is power. Don't forget that David eventually beat Goliath with merely a slingshot. Seed: The Untold Story has to potentional to inspire audience to pull that slingshot. At a running time of 1 hour and 34 minutes, it's the most essential, illuminating and enraging film since Food, Inc.. Collective Eye Films opens it at Cinema Village. The Ruins of Lifta, co-directed by Menachem Daum and Oren Rudavsky, follows Daum, an Orthodox Jew from Brooklyn, as he walks with a Palestinian man, Yacoub Odeh, through Lifta, a Palestinian village in Jerusalem that has been left in ruins ever since the Arab-Israeli war in 1948. During that war, Palestians were expelled by the Israelis from their homes in Lifta. There are plans to tear down the ruins and build high rises there instead, but Daum and Odeh, the head of the Coalition to Save Lifta, are desperate to preserve the remaining structures of the village. Daum gives tours around Lifta to people who aren't even aware of its existence. The Ruins of Lifta soars on an intellectual level when Daum and Odeh converse with one another---it's only then the the documentary becomes almost as powerful as Promises or as shocking or anger-inducing Budrus. At a brief running time of only 1 hour and 17 minutes, it's not as extensive as the recent doc The Settlers that's more informative and even terrifying, but at least it humanizes the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and helps to promote intellectual discussion about a controversial, timely, and complex issue. The tongue, after all, is more powerful than the sword. First Run Features opens The Ruins of Lifta at Lincoln Plaza Cinemas. The doc The Lovers and the Despot, directed by Robert Cannan and Ross Adam, plays like a smart Hollywood thriller because it has the elements of suspense and intrigue. In 1978, North Korean agents kidnapped South Korean actress Choi Eun-hee and forced her to meet dictator Kim Jong-il, a huge fan of cinema. Meanwhile, Choi's husband, Shin Sang-ok, a film director, ended up being kidnapped by North Korean agents as well when he went searching for Choi. If you're not familiar with the story, it's best that I don't spoil what happens to Choi and Shin after they're both kidnapped. The events have twists and turns along the way along with some unexectedly offbeat comedic moments. In other words, The Lovers and the Despot feels like a roller coaster ride. The directors wisely focus on the experiences of Choi and Shin with the help of archival footage, audio recordings of Kim Jong-Il, and interviews with Choi and her adopted children, Jeong-kyun and Myung-kim. Fortunately, this isn't one of those non-stop talking head docs. There's not a dull moment to be found because the details of the story itself are quite fascinating. At a running time of 1 hour and 38 minutes, The Lovers and the Despot is thoroughly thrilling, captivating, gripping and well-edited. It opens via Magnolia Pictures at Lincoln Plaza Cinemas and Landmark Sunshine Cinema.

Closet Monster

Directed by Stephen Dunn


Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by Strand Releasing.
Opens at IFC Center.

The Dressmaker

Directed by Jocelyn Moorhouse


Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by Broad Green Pictures.
Opens at Angelika Film Center and AMC/Loews Lincoln Square.


Directed by Andrew Neel


Number of times I checked my watch: 2
Released by The Film Arcade and Paramount Home Entertainment.
Opens at Angelika Film Center.

The Magnificent Seven

Directed by Antoine Fuqua


Number of times I checked my watch: 2
Released by Columbia Pictures.
Opens nationwide.

My Blind Brother

Directed by Sophie Goodhart


Number of times I checked my watch: 3
Released by Orion Pictures and Starz Digital Media.
Opens at Village East Cinema.

Queen of Katwe

Directed by Mira Nair

      Phiona Mutesi (Madina Nalwanga) lives with her mother, Harriet (Lupita Nyong’o) in an impoverished, rural town in Uganda. She learns to master her skills in play chess with the help of her chess coach, Robert Katende (David Oyelowo). Despite the odds, Robert starts a chess club filled with local kids from the town and raises money to enter the club in an upcoming tournament. Phiona chooses to leave home to travel overseas for the chess tournaments while learning to assimilate to new cultures.

      Everyone loves a heartfelt underdog story, so it's quite fortunate that Queen of Katwe feels warm, tender and deeply human. Director Mira Nair knows how to lift the audiences' spirits and to make the most out of the locations with plenty of vibrant colors---her depiction of African culture here is just as rich and invigorating as her depiction of Hindu culture in Monsoon Wedding. She's also great at making her actors shine. Newcomer Madina Nalwanga gives a charismatic breakthrough performance, and David Oyelowo is also superb as well as Lupita Nyong'o. The other chess players in the club add some well-needed comic relief with their witty sense of humor. Don't be surprised if she shed a few tears of joy as you become emotionally invested in the life of Phiona even if you can predict what happens to her. So what if Queen of Katwe is predictable? At least it follows its formula with enough genuine warmth to lift it up from banality.

      The film's main weakness comes from the screenplay by William Wheeler which suffers from being cloying, contrived and lacking subtlety as though Wheeler were afraid to trust the audience's intelligence and imagination too much. For example, when Robert explains a moment from his childhood to Phiona, the film flashes back to show you what Robert is talking about rather than just relying on the power of his words and the power of the audience's ability to imagine those words. Any of the film's depth doesn't come from the screenplay, but rather from the convincingly moving performances. It's forgivable, though, that Queen of Katwe shies away from the darker, grittier elements of life in Uganda because otherwise it wouldn't be so family-friendly. To be fair, though, the metaphors of how chess reflects the struggles and perseverance within one's life are quite inspirational and heartwarming. Mira Nair is the perfect director for such a film because her films are always brimming with humanism, and she's filled with humanism herself---it takes a humanist to make a film with humanism, a truly special effect.

Number of times I checked my watch: 2
Released by Walt Disney Pictures.
Opens in select theaters. Expanding nationwide on September 30th.


Directed by Nicholas Stoller and Doug Sweetland


Number of times I checked my watch: 3
Released by Warner Bros. Pictures.
Opens nationwide.
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