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‘Menashe’ review: It’s a father-son tale like you’ve never seen before

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To be completely honest, whenever I attend a film festival, I usually don’t have the highest of expectations when walking into some of the movies being shown there. For the most part, a lot of them are from first-time filmmakers who are fresh out of school and looking to sell their movie to potential distributors. However, that certainly isn’t the case with Menashe, which I was lucky enough to catch at the 17th edition of the Phoenix Film Festival this past weekend.

Menashe, which had its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival back in January and was acquired by A24, the indie studio behind the likes of best picture-winner Moonlight and fellow hits such as The Witch, Ex Machina, and Green Room, tells the story of a grocery store clerk who is desperate to maintain the custody of his son Rieven after his wife passes away. Sure, you’re probably thinking, “we’ve seen that story a thousand times in other movies.” But Menashe is something different, and much more special.

Joshua Z. Weinstein, who also co-wrote Menashe with Alex Lipschultz and Musa Syeed, took to the New York Hasidic community in Borough Park, Brooklyn, to give this unique father-son tale an authentic glimpse into the lives of these ultra-Orthodox jews who, seemingly, live in a much different world from our own. Their tradition-bound culture clearly states that a mother must be present in every home and, with that, Rieven is due to be adopted by his strict, married uncle, who does not have much respect for Menashe and believes that he never properly cared for his wife or his son.

Thankfully, for Menashe, the local Rabbi is generous enough to give our main character a chance to spend just one week with Rieven before the memorial for his wife which will be held in Menashe’s small, yet somewhat cozy-looking apartment that is complete with two beds and a small kitchen, as well as a tiny box which serves as a tiny little home to a chick he gifts to his son early on in the movie. It doesn’t take long for us to realize that, without his son, Menashe practically has nothing in his life.

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Menashe’s dead-end job pays next to nothing while his harsh manager lectures him about forgetting to mop up the floors at the end of the night, and things only get worse when he destroys $1,000 worth of fish during a delivery after the doors of his van fly open. Despite the incident, Menashe still builds up enough courage to ask his boss for a loan for his wife’s memorial, to which his superior responds with a number of vicious remarks that ultimately send him on his way back home empty-handed.

One of the first films to be performed entirely in Yiddish in nearly 70 years, except for one brief scene where Menashe decides to down a 40oz bottle of Malt Liquor with his Puerto Rican co-workers in the stock room of the grocery store, Menashe certainly isn’t your typical father-son tale. In the beginning of the film, we get the sense that, while Rieven loves his father, their relationship isn’t on the best of terms since the death of Menashe’s wife. There’s no hostility, but something isn’t right, especially when Menashe comes to pick up his son from school and Rieven refuses to get into the vehicle until his father offers him a gift.

Throughout the story, we see the relationship between Menashe and Rieven blossom into a warm, loving relationship while light is finally shed on a notoriously private community where smartphones and televisions are practically non-existent. It’s authentic in the sense that we see how these people live their lives from day to day whether it’s spent praying, drinking, or working a dead-end job with an asshole manager. For 81-minutes, it truly feels as if you’re living in the New York Hasidic community—Weinstein perfectly captures that world in a way that has never been done before.

Menashe shows a way of life that is so different from our own, yet, somehow makes itself relatable in terms of family, community, and connection.

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‘Golden Exits’ review: Alex Ross Perry delivers shrugging misogyny and asshole hypocrisy

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Golden Exits

“Nick’s been a bad boy.” This line, a form of self-evasive parody worthy of a bad comedy sketch, appears somewhere amidst the cacophony of Golden Exits, still sticking out as an egregiously distasteful line. Still, the phrase feels right at home in the filmography of Alex Ross Perry, New York’s newest canonically petulant, neurotic, virulent cinephile child. Lambasted at Sundance and reclaimed as divisive at Berlinale, Perry’s newest, Golden Exits, finally rumbles into theaters, over a year later. When I first walked out of the film at BAMCinemafest back in June of 2017, I found myself irked and puzzled. After seeing the film a second time (albeit at home), it soured even further. This is the year’s heretofore weakest film. 

Perry’s previous work has been some combination of derivative fan-fiction and willfully misguided and lame experimentation, but it has remained wickedly engaging and even smart (“Hang on while I put my head in this sweater.”) Golden Exits continues Perry’s fascination with facial expressions, the power of the close-up to distort reality. Here is where the film’s most prominent strengths lie. Robert Greene’s editing is, once again, a marvel, conjuring empathy between shots, appropriate for a film where absence breeds its strongest artistic current. Sean Price Williams‘ cinematography is an incredible feat, a world lived-in, aging millennial/Gen-X aesthetics. Yet these end up supportive measures, in service of a peculiar and horrid work.

Bypassing the more artificial structures of, say, Listen Up Phillip, Perry is not an adept enough writer to juggle so many characters. Beyond the frankly ludicrous dialogue is a more overarching slack in the narrative. The sisters are shrill and lonely, the men callous and silly – which improperly serves to excuse their ill behavior. It most neatly falls into narratives: An art world Western, where Emily Browning’s foreigner Nina saddles up as the cowboy, and a ruthlessly inane and inconsequential—even by the film’s own dramatic standards—tale of infidelity.

The film’s total lack of people of color, or New York citizens outside the very narrow artistic and socioeconomic status, is less an issue to this relentlessly closed-off world, but that the film lacks any philosophical perspective, further amplifies the pain of this gorgeous folly. This is a view of a New York dead zone, cut off from those outside the film’s orbit, even geographically. It’s a block that spans an entire world but remains crushingly claustrophobic. The screen feels insulated and privileged, a compendium of techniques without soul, tracing out a diagram of the actor’s faces and postures without ever offering psychological insight. There is an apathetic attitude to the actor’s experiences, a strained auteurist arrogance.

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The work is not a collaboration with its performers or even an exploitation of their craft. Rather, it’s totally disconnected from the dramatics at play, tethered to a weak script with a camera whose compositions sketch out a totally irrelevant vision. That same distortion of which Perry is so fond remains, but without the absurdism that gave it purpose. 

Lily Rabe, an actress with an immense amount of dexterity and range, is saddled with a ton of verbose and stupid dialogue and handles it masterfully, emerging unscathed and leaving the lackluster film in her wake; in a film designed as an intricate series of limp-dick domestic disputes, her words gain a sharpness and prickly balance so sorely missing elsewhere. Emily Browning is perhaps on the other end of the bell curve in this regard, which is a shame, as Perry re-contextualizes this uncertainty as a sexualized wistfulness. The film offers many instances of observing Browning wandering, yet the film never seeks anything beyond the cleavage below her lip-bite, partially obstructed by lengthy hair strands to give the illusion of depth.

That the film leaves its male characters to mere caricatures seems to function as an excuse for its deep-seeded grossness. The camera leers at the female characters, transforming the female bodies into crude aesthetics. Its women are catty and desperate and the film, abject and plain, nurtures a deep contempt for them. Perry’s relative restraint, after the puzzle-box density of Queen of Earth’s image, face pressed against the screen, can be admirable. Yet it reveals an insecurity with the classical, something Exits desperately need. Laid bare, the visual formalism is dull and ineffective.

Golden Exits believes itself to be Rohmerian, though perhaps it more closely resembles Ibsen (if we are being generous). Rohmer allows for the sort of cutting and heavily structured spaces of banality that a film as inexplicably plot-heavy as Golden Exits has no interest in, nor the capability to sustain. The film settles instead for a particularly distasteful kind of venom. Linklater, with the phenomenally bland Before trilogy, misread Rohmer’s talkiness and controversial politics from an easy romanticism; Perry, on the other hand, makes his hyper-articulation as evasive and anxious, a refusal to acknowledge beyond towards the more troubling and guarded traits of character. It resembles the worst of cinephilia’s tendencies, the shrugging misogyny and asshole hypocrisy, the window dressing philosophy that everyone is equally bad and flawed built to ignore and, by extension, indulge. It is a high melodrama without a hint of consideration, dismissing emotionality in favor of barbed-wire gladiator battles that say nothing. Golden Exits is a work that pro ports to be of sin, but ultimately offers the moral equivalent of a puddle.

Where the hell was Chloë Sevigny, anyway?

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‘Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool’ review: Annette Bening shines in this flawed Gloria Grahame biopic

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Annette Bening and Jamie Bell

Annette Bening is captivating in the role of former Hollywood starlet Gloria Grahame in Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool, which follows the Oscar-winning actress in her later years as she develops a relationship with Peter Turner (Jamie Bell), an aspiring actor from England who falls head over heels for the fading star the moment he lays his eyes on her in the North London guesthouse where they are both lodging.

Based on the memoir of the same name by Turner, Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool, which first premiered at the Telluride Film Festival last year, is as stunning as it is romantic, though, beyond the wonderful performances by Bening and Bell, whose chemistry sparks the moment they begin to interact with each other, there isn’t much here that we haven’t seen before—the film just feels too basic and too generic.

Perhaps its Matt Greenhalgh’s script or Paul McGuigan’s direction, but there’s something about Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool that causes the first hour or so of the film to feel unbearably boring, making it difficult to feel invested or even care about its rather predictable story that ends with inevitable tragedy. It feels as if the actors are doing most of the work in this film, and they do the best they can with what they have available.

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That being said, the film is still magnificent from a visual standpoint. Ula Pontikos’ magical cinematography, which utilizes lighting and color so effectively, is wonderful to soak in, while editor Nick Emerson flawlessly takes us back and forth between flashbacks and the present with such efficiency. And, oddly enough, despite the unauthentic look of the rear-projection used to transport Bening and Bell to cities such as New York City and Malibu, it makes Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool feel like one of the old Hollywood movies the real Grahame would’ve starred in back in the day.

By the time the film is over and the end title track, “You Shouldn’t Look At Me That Way,” written and performed by the great Elvis Costello, begins to play, you’ll probably wish that Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool had more to offer than just powerhouse performances and nice filmmaking techniques rather than a typical, by-the-books premise; especially one about someone as interesting and eccentric as Grahame.

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‘Call Me by Your Name’ review: Luca Guadagnino’s intoxicating gay love story is one for the ages

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Call Me by Your Name

From the moment the opening credits appear in Luca Guadagnino’s intoxicating new film Call Me by Your Name (scored to the sweet, melodious sounds of “Hallelujah Junction – 1st Movement” by John Adams), you know you’re in for a very special treat; a treat that will leave you thinking about the film you’ve just watched for hours upon end, like it did for me. It’s lush, erotic, riveting and, above all, simply delightful.

Based on the acclaimed first novel by André Aciman, and adapted for the screen by James Ivory (who cameos in the film, alongside producer Peter Spears), Call Me by Your Name transports its viewer to a sun-soaked Northern Italy in 1983 and follows Elio Perlman (Timothée Chalamet), an awkward, horny, not-so-average 17-year-old who enjoys transcribing music, reading books, swimming at the local river, and going out at night, as he describes to Oliver (Armie Hammer) in one scene. The latter is a chiseled, charming 24-year-old American graduate student staying at Elio’s parent’s (Michael Stuhlbarg, Amira Casar) gorgeous 17th-century villa as the annual summer intern tasked with helping Mr. Perlman, a professor specializing in Greco-Roman culture.

Elio appears dumbstruck by Oliver’s charisma early on in the film, invoking feelings of fascination, or perhaps even obsession, drawing him closer to the tall, sophisticated blond man that just seemingly waltzed into his own tiny little lazy world, surrounded by the walls of his parent’s villa. However, soon enough, we realize Elio isn’t the only one plagued with these feelings—Oliver feels just the same—and they share an amorous kiss on the side of a dirt road, surrounded by towering green grass and no one but themselves.

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“No, no, no. I know myself,” Oliver says after pushing Elio away when he comes in for a second kiss. “We’ve been good. We haven’t done anything to be ashamed of and that’s a good thing. I want to be good, OK?” Though, Elio doesn’t take this too seriously, as he places his hand on Oliver’s crotch, grabs it a few times, and asks him, “Am I offending you?” It’s a cutesy, playful moment, and is really just the beginning Guadagnino’s masterful tale of first love.

Oh, how wonderful it is to watch Sayombhu Mukdeeprom’s (who also shot Guadagnino’s upcoming Suspiria remake) stunning 35mm cinematography as he captures a summer that will change the lives of Elio and Oliver forever; riding bike rides around the town square, indulging in luscious breakfasts under the sun, engaging in secret meetings on the villa’s balcony, smoking cigarettes while discussing European history, and, yes, for those of you who’ve read the book, making love to peaches. It’s a relaxing, peaceful, spellbinding film with no real antagonist other than time and Oliver’s impending departure.

Chalamet, a young, new, fresh face in the world of Hollywood, who also appears in this year’s Lady Bird and Hostiles, delivers what is undoubtedly the best performance of the year in Call Me by Your Name as Elio, while Hammer, perhaps best known for his work in The Social Network and The Man from U.N.C.L.E., proves just how much range he truly has an actor in the role of Oliver; the two are an impressive dynamic duo, and it’s hard to even imagine anyone else playing as their characters. And, just when you’ve thought Stuhlbarg’s wise Mr. Perlman has stolen the show with a riveting, heartfelt speech to his son during the final act of the film, Chalamet swoops in with a silent, delicate close-up under the end-credits that will, undeniably, give you chills, if not tears.

Call Me by Your Name is a modern gay love story for the ages.

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