Friday, August 18, 2017

Joshua Z. Weinstein's MENASHE: Inside Brooklyn's Hasidic community, undercover

Likely, for non-Jewish viewers at least, to set Judaism back maybe 200 years, MENASHE -- the first full-length narrative film from Joshua Z. Weinstein (below, who directed the much better "Taxi Garage" episode from the documentary True New York) proves a very well-acted piece of utter nonsense. Other reviewers have suggested keeping an open mind regarding the film, but I would suggest a sieve or colander instead. TrustMovies admits he has little interest in or affection for the ultra-Orthodox Hasidic community, but he has certainly enjoyed and found worthwhile other films concerning this subject (A Price Above Rubies is one of these).

Menashe, however, is so thoroughly misjudged in terms of its plotting and especially its title character "hero," whose stupidity is such a complete turn-off  -- he quite literally does everything wrong -- that only the simple-minded could care much about him or what happens to him. This is not due to the actor, newcomer Menashe Lustig, shown above and below, who plays the title role (and quite well), but to the writer/ director's ham-fisted handling of it all. Really Mr. Weinstein, how did this poor schlub mange to even reach adulthood intact -- let alone marry, have a child and find any kind of permanent employment? I find it odd that critics would refuse to accept this sort of manipulative deck-stacking in even a silly rom-com -- but here, it's OK?

Well not by me. Menashe, both the man and the movie, seem to do just about everything to undercut themselves and any possible success that either might have. We can take a little of this, even a medium amount along the way. But when every last event smacks of stupidity and failure (culminating in a smoke-filled apartment that could have been avoided so easily and more helpfully for all concerned), red flags have arisen to the point of practically blocking out all else we see on-screen.

This is too bad because the remaining actors here are also excellent, in particular the boy, Reuben Niborski (above, right), who plays Menashe's son, and Mr. Weinstein has managed a couple of other odd feats, as well. For one thing, he has shot his film with the actors speaking in Yiddish, a language the filmmaker admits to not speaking nor understanding and that is almost never used in films. (Not to worry, there are English subtitles aplenty.) He also made his movie on the sly, since the Hasidic community does not permit cinematography within its bounds. So any scenes that involve the community at large were photographed surreptitiously.

While one might debate the ethics (or lack of them) involved here, Weinstein's inter-weaving of these scenes with those that are more intimate and could be shot elsewhere is impressive and pretty seamless. And as he draws fine performance from his entire cast, there is much to be impressed with in Menashe.

Yet, as the movie continues on its dour and tiresome way, it becomes increasingly a heavy slough. And its would-be happy (or at least happier) ending also seems suspect. Now, after all this, our hero decides to "get with the program"? OK. If you say so.

Is Menashe fair to the Hasidic community? No more nor less so that other films that have offered this slice-of-life up for appraisal. It is a community closed off and unwelcoming except to those who tow the line. And since that line includes the likes of "Women should not be allowed to have a driver's license" (an opinion that is voiced by a female yet!), most audiences, I fear, will not be positively impressed.

Or maybe, unlike that famous old Levy's Rye Bread commercial, you really do have to be Jewish, after all.

Meanwhile, Menashe, which has already opened in major cities, hits South Florida today at the following venues: in Miami/Fort Lauderdale area at the AMC Aventura, Tower Cinema and O Cinema Miami Beach; in the Boca Raton, Delray Beach, Lake Worth areas at the Regal Shadowood, Living Room Theater, Cinemark Palace, and the Movies of Delray and Lake Worth. Elsewhere across the USA, click here to find a theater near you.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

WHOSE STREETS? Documentarians Sabaah Folayan and Damon Davis answer the question

Here we are again, back in Ferguson, Missouri, and the death of Michael Brown and the aftermath of that death. Yet, as much as you may have heard, seen and read about young Mr. Brown and the city and peculiar culture of Ferguson (and TrustMovies saw, heard and read quite a lot about it during those fraught weeks following that August 2014 shooting), nothing has had quite the impact carried by the new documentary, WHOSE STREETS?, directed and co-produced by the team of Sabaah Folayan and Damon Davis (shown below, with Mr. Davis on the left).

The documentary's sense of vivid immediacy comes via the footage videoed during the time immediately after the shooting and beyond, as Ferguson residents -- some of them activists and civic leaders, most of them just inhabitants -- take to the streets in grief and anger as, slowly, the history of this mostly black city-under-siege come to light. Yes, the movie is too long and too repetitive (more judicious editing could have easily snipped ten to fifteen minutes), but its power and timeliness is unassailable. Unless, of course, you're one of those who marched (or would have liked to) for white supremacy last week in Charlottesville.

The angle taken by Ms Folayn and Mr. Davis is direct and personal. As one elderly protestor notes early on: "We're not doin' this just to be rantin' and ravin'. We want to talk about this issue." The issue, of course, turned out to be about much more than Brown's death, which was a horrible outcome of the continued suffering that residents of Ferguson have experience down the decades. (The Federal investigation into this showed quite clearly the injustice at work here.)

In addition to Ferguson residents, we also hear from the police, the Missouri governor, and even from that weak sister, President Obama. The media coverage -- we see prevaricator Brian Williams and Fox News, among others -- was often garbage, as it remains today, but some of the witnesses and residents proves compelling, in particular a young father whose CopWatch camera captures quite a lot (until the lease on his apartment is refused renewal by the corporation that owns the building), a young mother and her daughter (who isn't so happy about all her homework), and a young woman whose chant, "We will continue to fight for our rights!" proves a rallying cry for a neighborhood.

These people and others help bring the movie to sad and angry life. When a second young man -- Vonderrit Myers -- is also killed in October 2014, the movement, as one protester explains, is "re-energized."  The film is full of angry, poignant moments -- from the chant of "This is what Democracy looks like!" (if only) to a demonstration leader advising the local clergy to "Get up off your ass and join us!" to a young man who explains, "I gotta live here when they (the media) leave."

The single shot of the face of a lone black policewoman during the demonstrations may be worth the entire movie, and by the time we get to the non-indictment of Darren Wilson (the police officer who shot Michael Brown) and the riots/protests begin once again, you will more than understand how the Black Lives Matter movement arose of out of these -- and so many other -- deaths of unarmed black men and women.

From Magnolia Pictures and running a little long at 100 minutes, Whose Streets? opens tomorrow, Friday, August 18, here in South Florida exclusively at the O Cinema Wynwood. Wherever you live around the USA, click here to locate the theaters nearest you.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

With WIND RIVER, Taylor Sheridan writes and directs another fine where's-the-justice? movie

One of last year's best films, Hell or High Water, turns out to have been no fluke, as its first-class writer, Taylor Sheridan, is back this year with another top-notch movie that is again all about trying to obtain a little justice from people and things -- think corporations, society, America -- that are quite unwilling to provide it. Hell or High Water tracked the banking industry in Texas, while Sheridan's new one WIND RIVER, which the writer has also directed, is set on an Indian reservation in Wyoming, where the malfeasance has dribbled down from another sort of corporate entity into its employees.

If Mr. Sheridan (shown at left, who also has had quite a lengthy career as actor) is not quite up to the level of the two directors who have filmed his other screenplays -- David Mackenzie and Denis Villeneuve -- he has nonetheless done a very respectable job, and often more than that. He captures with great strength and tact the the pain and grief surrounding a death in the family (two families, actually), as well as handling the mystery and thriller elements very well, too. In fact, his movie's single action scene is one of the best we've witnessed in a film in quite some time.

This extended scene (above) is by turns surprising, suspenseful, shocking and as full of violent action as a connoisseur could want. But it is in the quiet, thoughtful moments that Sheridan's poise and accomplishments are also evident, never more so than in the film's final scene, as our hero (one of them, anyway, given a deep, quiet and full embodiment by the excellent Jeremy Renner) and his Indian friend (another wonderful performance from Hell or High Water's Gil Birmingham) sit in the snow, below, as they quietly talk and ponder.

Sheridan's stars here are Renner and Elizabeth Olsen, below, making further good on the predictions of a long and starry career made at the time of this actress' earliest appearances on film. These two work so well together, even as their characters keep their appropriate and professional distance, that I hope we'll see them together in other films again soon.

Mr. Sheridan's deepest concerns appear to be with the longing for and journey toward justice. In Hell or High Water, this is fraught with ironies and sadness. Here it is more direct but no less difficult. Wind River is a depressing movie -- what film about American Indians worth its salt would not be? -- but it is so well conceived and executed that I doubt you will be bored for even one moment of its 107-minute running time. The film is alternately sad and darkly funny, surprising and lively, thrilling and doleful.

All the subsidiary characters come to vital life, too, and this is not easy, I suspect, for a relatively new filmmaker to achieve. Sheridan's writing is unusually on the mark, however, giving us lots of info with little verbiage.

From The Weinstein Company, the movie opened in New York and L.A. a week or two back and hits South Florida this Friday, August 18 -- in the Miami/Fort Lauderdale areas at AMC's Aventura Mall 24, Coral Ridge 10, Sunset Place 24, and Weston 8; at the Cinebistro at Cityplace, Dolphin Mall 19 Theatre, Miami Lakes 17,  Cinemark Paradise 24, Cinepolis Grove 13, Cinepolis Deerfield 8, Deerfield Beach,  Gateway 4, IPIC Intracoastal, The Landmark at Merrick, and Regal's Oakwood 18, Kendall Village Stadium 16 and South Beach 18. In West Palm Beach and Boca Raton, you find it at AMC's CityPlace 20, The Movies of Delray, Downtown 16 Cinemas Palm Beach Gardens, Cinemark's Palace 20 and Boynton Beach 14, Cinepolis Jupiter 14, IPic Entertainment Mizner Park 8, Regal Shadowood 16 and Royal Palm Beach 18. Wherever else you reside in our large, and increasingly Trump-dumbed-down country, click here to find the theaters nearest you.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Time, memory, mortality, character converge in Michael Almereyda's MARJORIE PRIME

It's the future, right, so this must be sci-fi? Yes, but writer/director Michael Almereyda has more on his mind than space ships, aliens, replicants or time travel. His latest film (his last one, the personal-history/documentary, Escapes,  just opened a few weeks back), MARJORIE PRIME, is more concerned with the way we use the latest technology we're given, and then -- as in Spike Jonze's wonderful Her, and the British TV Black Mirror segment, Be Right Back -- goes just a few steps beyond where we currently find ourselves and into quite a new world. This world looks a lot like our own, yet allows us to do so much more -- the end results of which are both helpful and maybe not so. With new technology comes new challenge.

In my last review of Mr. Almeyerda's work, I noted how empathetic this director, pictured at right, so often is. Here, that empathy extends to the "Prime" of the title (there are, it turns out, a number of these). A "Prime" is a kind of holographic creation of a recently deceased person, whom those left behind -- wife, husband, daughter, whoever -- can use to assuage the grief, guilt and any of those many feelings/problems that remain unresolved once a loved one has died. The first Prime we meet in the film is Walter, Marjorie's late husband, embodied here by actor Jon Hamm (shown at left, above and below), as a younger version of the man. Marjorie herself (played by Lois Smith, shown at right, above and below) is now aged and suffering from off-and-on dementia.

The film's other leading characters are Marjorie's adult daughter (Geena Davis, below) and her husband (Tim Robbins, further below), who clearly have mixed feelings about this use of a Prime, even if, as it does indeed appear, this is helpful to mom.

Almereyda, who both wrote and directed, gives us movies that are always intellectual feats. This one is just such a film -- and even more so than usual, I would say. It is supremely elegant and quiet, full of discussion about the uses and mis-uses of memory, along with how it works. Characters' memories allow us to see flashbacks of certain important moments, as well as to better understand the ongoing relationship between these four people, one of whom, Walter, exists almost only as a Prime.

Along the way, two other characters also become Prime, which makes for some surprise and further investigation (of mortality and grief, among other things). In Jonze's Her, the "machine" develops feelings, personality and much else that we might call human. Almereyda's Primes seem to do so, as well, but on a much less obvious scale and manner.

While the filmmaker and his creations are subtle and never push for our sympathy, they do empathize with our human feelings and failings -- and very well, too. Yet the film itself is rigorously unsentimental.

The performances are striking, intensely specific and deeply felt. The ensemble works beautifully together, keeping us ever on our toes as we watch and listen intently, calibrating who these people are -- both humans and their Primes -- and how much the latter are becoming, or at least mimicking quite beautifully, the former. All the actors are terrific, but Mr. Robbins, ever under-rated, is as good here as I have seen him.

The movie's final scene is one of great beauty, sadness, and surprise. You will wonder at it in both amazement and acceptance. Almereyda, like Jonze, seems non-judgmental (hence, perhaps, his great empathy), and unlike Black Mirror's Charlie Brooker, he does no finger-wagging. In any case, he has come up with one of the most unusual films of the year -- a must-see, I think, for thinking audiences.

From FilmRise and running 97 minutes, Marjorie Prime opens this Friday, August 18, in New York City at the Quad Cinema, in the Los Angeles area at Laemmle's Playhouse 7  and Monica Film Center, in San Francisco at The Roxie, in San Rafael at the Smith Rafael Film Center, and in Arlington, MA, at the Regent Theater.  The following Friday, it will open in another ten venues. Click here (then scroll down) to view all currently scheduled playdates, theaters, and cities.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Soderbergh's back -- with the smart, fast, funny but low-key frolic, LOGAN LUCKY

Steven Soderburgh (shown below) said goodbye to movies a few years back -- but not to cable TV, for which he'd already directed Behind the Candelabra and soon would oversee The Knick. Now, like Frank Sinatra and his many good-bye concerts and recordings, the filmmaker is back. And if his latest -- LOGAN LUCKY -- is any indication, he's simply gotten all that much better during his flirtation with those premium channels. Over the past couple of decades, TrustMovies has been up-and-down regarding Soderburgh's work. Some of his most successful -- those Oceans movies and especially Traffic (his mediocre remake of one of the best-ever British television series) and the more recent Magic Mike -- have been among my least favorites.

Logan Lucky, I think, is one of Soderburgh's best. Maybe the best. Among this filmmaker's biggest strengths is his ability to match his style (never a hugely showy thing) to the particular atmosphere and content to which he's currently involved. Thus we get the Oceans movies' gloss, The Underneath's noir-osity, The Good German's sense of time and place, Erin Brockovich's documentary feel, and Haywire's speedy, lo-calorie smarts. Though Logan Lucky is a heist movie (as were the Oceans), it is set in what we might fondly call the redneck territory of NASCAR racing, among the lower-, middle- and upper-classes of our nation's no-one-would-mistake-them-for-classy citizens. Hence, his film, which is supremely well-written (though it is credited to one, Rebecca Blunt, the IMDB says that this name is likely a pseudonym), has the slow-but-sure look, feel, sound and movement of that down-home place and people. The movie may take it sweet time to unfurl, but, boy, does it deliver 'dem goods!

It also gives Channing Tatum (above) another great role to inhabit, which he does in spades, playing the careful, caring dad who, like so many Americans these days, is having employment trouble. (That's the sweet young actress, Farrah Mackenzie, above, who plays his daughter.)

To solve our hero, Jimmy's, financial problems, he and his Iraq War-wounded brother, Clyde (another fine job in another unusual role by Adam Driver, above, left), conspire to rob the NASCAR racetrack vault. This is of course ridiculous, but so cleverly is the convoluted screenplay conceived and executed, with Soderburgh taking just enough time to explain what we need to know when we need to know it, that we're suckered in and then hooked from beginning through the very exciting heist itself, and on to the to the film's funny climax and quite fabulous, if quietly ironic, denouement.

Along for the ride is such a huge and mostly memorable cast that I don't begin to have time to list them all. But, in the movie's biggest hoot of a joke, the end credits herald the "introduction" of an actor by the name of Daniel Craig. Yes, that classy Brit-and-Bond-ish Daniel Craig, above, in a role the likes of which you will not have seen this very capable performer previously essay. Hillary Swank (below) makes a very late-in-the-game entrance, too, and she provides a good deal of quietly determined fun.

I hope this movie is a huge success, but I do have some doubts. Its heist plot is so complicated that I fear a mainstream American audience may not be able to easily or properly follow it. So concentrate, please. There are plenty of funny, exciting, clever moments along the way to keep you occupied, as well as all those name actors popping up and doing their smart thing smartly.

From Bleecker Street and Fingerprint Releasing (Soderbergh's own firm, which you can read more about by clinking the preceding link), Logan Lucky opens nationwide this Friday, August 18. Here in South Florida, you can see it all over the place: In the Miami area at the AMC Sunset Place 24 Theatres, AMC Hialeah 12, AMC Aventura Mall 24, AMC Tamiami 18, AMC Pompano Beach 18, Cobb Dolphin Cinema, Cobb Hialeah Grand 18, Cobb Miami Lakes 17, CMX Brickell City Center, Cineopolis Grove, Regal The Falls, Regal Oakwood, Regal Kendall Village 16, Regal Westfork, Regal Southland Mall, and Regal South Beach 18.

In Ft. Lauderdale it will play the AMC Coral Ridge 10 Theatres, Classic Gateway, Silverspot Coconut Creek, Cineapolis Deerfield, Cinemark Paradise 24, Thunderbird Drive-In, Paragon Ridge Plaza 8, Regal Magnolia Place, Regal Cypress Creek, Regal Broward 12, Regal Sawgrass.

In West Palm Beach/Boca/Delray and further north areas, look for it at the Living Room Theater, Regal Shadowood 16, Movies of Delray 5/Movies of Lake Worth, Cinemark Boynton Beach 14, AMC City Place 20, Cobb Downtown at the Mall Gardens, Paragon Wellington 10, Regal Royal Palm Beach 18, Regency Square 8, AMC St Lucie 14, AMC Indian River 24 , Palm 16, Regal Treasure Coast Mall 16, Majestic 11, Cinepolis Jupiter 14. Normally, I'd provide links for the all these many theaters, but I need to get to bed by midnight for an early day tomorrow....

Wherever you live across the USA, to locate a theater near you, click here

The reason we love French films: Diastème's sparkling THE SUMMER OF ALL MY PARENTS

Looking for some real sophistication? The sort that casts a wide, maybe wild but also smart and true eye on family dynamics, including parenting, discipline, love, trust, caring and, what the hell, good old humanity itself in so many of its surprising guises. Then of course, you would probably want a French film. Your search is over, as the 2016 delight titled (for the American market, at least) THE SUMMER OF ALL MY PARENTS, has just arrived on DVD last week. The French title, Juillet août, which translates simply as July-August, is much simpler and more appropriate, too, as this small-but-sterling movie deals with a pair of siblings who spend one summer month with their mom and step-dad, and the next one with their father.

The film is directed and co-written by a fellow named Alain Dias, who has now evidently re-christened himself as the single-monikered Diastème (shown at right). Under whatever name, the guy would certainly seem to know what's he's doing, for he's given us an unusual look at a typical "fractured family." But this time, what may initially appear to be the usual clichés soon morph into something quite a bit richer, stranger, more truthful and compelling. How Diastème and his co-writer Camille Pouzol achieve this sneaks up on you via characters who grow slowly and rather quietly, in every case, into something more and better than you will have expected.

Summer/Parents is first of all a movie about character. And growth. That younger sibling, Laura, played with just the right combo of insecurity and ferocity by the terrific little actress, Luna Lou, above, right, and below, left) is coming to terms with late maturation, a lot of anger issues, and the possibility of boarding school. Her gorgeous older sister, Josephine, acted by Alma Jodorowsky (above, left, and below, right -- and, yes, she's the granddaughter of a certain Alejandro), is a young woman discovering what is perhaps her first major love.

Unfortunately that love is for a hot-looking young man (Jérémie Laheurte, above, center) who is a member of a small but somewhat smart criminal group. Meanwhile mom (Pascalle Arbillotbelow, right) and stepdad (the fine and funny Patrick Chesnais, below, left) are having their own problems -- physical and monetary -- which eventually spills over to the rest of the family.

By the time August arrives, and the two girls get to Normandy and their very hands-on father (Thierry Godard, below, whom you may recognize from his roles in French TV's police/justice series Spiral and the WWII occupation tale, A French Village), events have taken quite a turn.

How all this resolves is handled with such intelligence and delicacy, avoiding melodrama while offering up a most interesting brand of conflict-resolution that I suspect you will be both charmed and warmed by the insight and kindness on hand.

Along the way, you'll get a very special scene of a girl's first menstrual cycle, a criminal henchman with surprising sense of morality to offset his aroused sexuality, a jewel heist, a teen pool party and lots more -- each of which stands the typical cliché on its head.

If this is not a great film (and I don't think it is), it is still such a very good one that it makes a must-see addition to anyone's list of films about family dynamics. Quiet, smart, funny, believable and full of a sincerity that is never naive, it will, I'm pretty certain, make my extended list of "best movies" come year's end.

Arriving on DVD last week via First Run Features (which most often deals in documentaries but in its choice of narrative films, offers almost consistently some little-known but very worthwhile gems), The Summer of All My Parents, in French with English subtitles and running a just-right 97 minutes, is available now -- for rental, purchase (and probably before too long) streaming.