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.
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.
‘Us’ review: The latest horrifying nightmare from the mind of Jordan Peele is his best one yet
A little more than two years after the release of Get Out, the Oscar-winning directorial debut from Jordan Peele that served as a creepy, satirical social commentary about race relations in America, the writer-director is back again with Us, his audacious sophomore effort that so desperately wants us to know that, despite what we may think, we are our own worst enemies.
The film opens with a brief, chilling prologue set in 1986 before fast forwarding to the present day where we meet the Wilsons, an upper-middle-class black family visiting their Santa Cruz beach house for what is expected to be an idyllic summer getaway.
Santa Cruz also happens to be the hometown of Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o), who is as charming as she is overprotective of her family, which includes the fun-loving Gabe (Winston Duke), phone-tethered teenage daughter Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph), and mask-wearing young son Jason (Evan Alex).
Perhaps it’s her motherly instincts that cause her to be the way she is, but it’s probably more so due to the fact that she experienced a traumatizing incident as a child that still continues to haunt her to this day. And you can’t really blame her for that.
So when Gabe offers to take the family to the beach for the day, the site where Adelaide experienced her childhood trauma, she understandably refuses. But after some convincing from Gabe, she agrees to go, but only under the condition that they leave before nightfall.
Oddly enough, though, the moment the Wilsons arrive at the beach, a number of strange events and coincidences begin to unfold; we see a dead body being loaded into the back of an ambulance, a frisbee with a pentagram-like design land perfectly aligned with a polka dot on a beach towel, and a bloodied man standing motionless in the middle of the beach, hands out, as if he’s waiting for someone to come and join him.
These strange occurrences, in addition to Jason wandering off without telling Adelaide, put her on edge. And when the Wilsons arrive home that night, things don’t necessarily get any better. There’s a family standing in their driveway. Four of them. Who is it? It’s the Wilsons themselves.
While the concept of the evil doppelgänger is certainly nothing new to the horror genre, Us always feels wholly fresh and original, and never once dares to fall back on the typical genre tropes or clichés that audiences have grown so very tired of over the years.
Peele’s script, much like the one that won him an Oscar for Get Out, is wickedly smart, funny, and witty, and is packed with so many genuinely shocking surprises that you never fully know for certain when he’s going to be throwing another curve ball your way.
The cast acts it all out in such incredible fashion too, especially when you consider the fact that they’re pulling double duty here with dual performances. Nyong’o is particularly impressive though. Whether she’s playing the charming superheroine that is Adelaide or her terrifying, raspy-voiced doppelgänger, it’s hard not to rank her up there with Toni Collette in Hereditary as one of the best horror performances in recent memory.
By the time the Us is over, things may not be clear right away. And that’s OK. With all of the various imagery and symbolism spread throughout, there’s no doubt that this is a film that demands more than just one repeat viewing. But the main message at the heart of the film is evident, and it’s as important as ever—especially in Trump’s America.
‘Aquaman’ review: James Wan manages to deliver a satisfying underwater superhero origin story
Well, it appears that audiences will be forced to find another superhero to make the butt of a joke.
James Wan‘s Aquaman is a spectacular comic book film that proves itself a leap in the right direction for the DC Extended Universe. This incredibly well-crafted underwater adventure creates a spectacular world that truly has no match in visual delight, making it one of the most vibrant and colorful stories in the DC film series yet that demands to be seen in theaters. Flawlessly traversing genres and providing a little bit of something for everyone, Wan has given audiences the perfect comic book experience.
Aquaman is the story of Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa), the half-bred Prince of Atlantis, born to a surface-dwelling lighthouse keeper named Tom (Temuera Morrison) and the queen herself, Atlanna (Nicole Kidman). Arthur is raised knowing about his Atlantean heritage, but not aware that his half-brother Orm (Patrick Wilson) has been declared king in his absence. When Princess Mera (Amber Heard) seeks out Arthur to stop Orm from declaring war on the surface world, Arthur must reluctantly challenge him to claim his rightful throne as the king that the seven seas needs.
The pure passion for a character that was seen in Patty Jenkins’ direction of Wonder Woman in 2017 is similarly seen in how James Wan handled Aquaman. Wan embraces the fact that this fish-talking superhero has been a joke for decades, but instead of taking an unnecessarily dark look at this hero’s origin story, he has boundless fun with its potential. This film is the splash of creativity and liveliness that was desperately needed in the midst of audience’s other favorite heroes going through some rough times after a certain snap of the fingers. Where Wan exceeds most, however, is his ability to take this story in so many different directions without making it appear sloppy. It is quite difficult to place a genre on this movie, as it seamlessly transitions from science-fiction to comedy to horror to romance and everything in between without missing a beat. Throughout the film, Wan seems to take inspiration from his own experience in horror, as well as iconic franchises like Star Wars, Indiana Jones, and Lord of the Rings, just to name a few, while blending them all together beautifully.
Comic book purists will be very satisfied with this film as well, as Wan has certainly done his research on that front. Aquaman is a perfect culmination of the Aquaman mythos that has been constantly built upon since his first appearance in 1941. Paired with an undeniably catchy, synth-pop soundtrack, the balance between this character’s original story and its modernity for the current scene in cinema is fantastic. Since the character of Aquaman was introduced in 2016’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and brought back for last year’s Justice League, he has evolved to truly make his own film the best entry into this shared universe. There still exists a bit of Zack Snyder’s signature polish in this movie as he is an executive producer, but not much of his directorial influence is seen, which is undoubtedly for the best. Wan was the greatest possible choice to helm this character’s wild solo film in its vividly royal, underwater setting, making for a picture perfect fantasy adventure.
David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick and Will Beall’s script is the one unfortunate aspect of this film that fails to deliver the same amount of epic quality. This type of story has been told before and much of the dialogue throughout this film was consistently weak. While effective, the majority of this script is full of tropes and one-liners that can venture into painful and cheesy screenwriting territory. The surprising benefit of this, however, is how self-aware the writing is. These two screenwriters knew that they were writing a film about one of the most ridiculed heroes in pop culture history and because of that, the story does not take itself too seriously. This film knows that it doesn’t have to pretend to be something that it’s not and it has no need to try either. Knowing there is nothing to lose means that the writers are simply there to please moviegoers with a purely entertaining story. Despite the generic writing, Momoa, Heard, and the rest of the ensemble have an absolute blast with their characters. Each actor and actress emits passion and energy through their performances and it is obvious that they put so much care and effort into creating something special.
This film is wonderfully done in all of its technical parts as well. The colors and visuals that entranced the world of the undersea kingdoms were simply stunning as visual effects supervisor Kelvin McIlwain has a tremendous eye for not just beauty, but fantasy world-building too. While DC’s previous films have had quite a lack of color and even Marvel films stick to a certain grading, this movie breaks that formula in the most appealing ways possible. The fight choreography, coordinated by Jon Valera, was very exciting and brilliantly utilized the different powers and abilities that the various characters had. These action sequences were also aided by the very fluid cinematography from Don Burgess; his use of wide shots and lots of twisting of the camera created some mesmerizing scenes. Regardless of how much CGI was used throughout this movie, there were also many fantastic shots that aimed to establish the absolutely wild tone of whatever genre Wan was switching to next.
Aquaman is an unapologetically fun thrill ride that is the epitome of a great adventure movie. James Wan holds nothing back in terms of gorgeous visuals and relentless entertainment value and the entire cast and crew make this underrated superhero one of the best fantasy films ever. There’s also a scene where an octopus plays the drums, so make of that what you will.
‘Roma’ review: Alfonso Cuarón’s black-and-white family drama is nothing short of a masterpiece
As someone who has long championed Alfonso Cuarón‘s 2006 dystopian thriller Children of Men as being the best film in the Oscar-winning Mexican filmmaker’s career, I was astonished when I slowly began to realize about halfway through watching Roma, Cuarón’s latest offering, that my opinion about Children of Men was no longer the same.
Roma, Cuarón’s semi-autobiographical black-and-white love letter to his hometown of Mexico City and the women who raised him, is arguably his best work to date for an assortment of different reasons, mostly because it’s a stunning achievement not only in Cuarón’s personal filmography, but rather cinema as a whole.
Set in the early 1970s in the bustling, upper-middle-class neighborhood of Colonia Roma, Cuarón’s most personal project to date follows the day-to-day life of Cleo (played extraordinarily by newcomer Yalitza Aparicio), who is based on Cuarón’s actual real-life nanny, Liboria “Libo” Rodríguez, to whom the film is dedicated to.
Cleo is relatively quiet and mostly keeps to herself as she does chores around the house of the family she works for like picking up laundry, cleaning up dog poop, and making sure all of the bedrooms in the house are tidy. She even puts the children to bed late at night and is there to wake them up bright and early in the morning when it’s time to start getting ready for school.
In her off hours, Cleo enjoys gossiping and reminiscing with Adela (Nancy Garcia), the family’s cook, and going to the local movie theater with Fermin (Jorge Antonio Guerrero), a martial-arts enthusiast with whom Cleo shares somewhat of a distant relationship with—a relationship that will eventually set them even further apart as the film goes on.
It’s somewhat of a shame that not every person will have the pleasure of experiencing Roma, which is currently playing in theaters in select cities before launching globally on Netflix later this month, the same way I did, in a theater, to fully absorb Cuarón’s masterpiece for the remarkable piece of work that is truly is.
Cuarón’s exquisite 65mm black-and-white photography beautifully captures every detail that comes into frame, making excellent use of long takes and wide shots, while Cuarón’s equally impressive editing allows the story to unfold with an incredible amount of patience, yet it does so with efficiency, never letting the film lag for even a second.
There’s also something to be said about Skip Lievsay’s marvelously complex sound design, whether it’s the sound of a splash of water hitting the ground or gunshots ringing out as a student protest turns deadly, and Eugenio Caballero’s meticulous production design, which utilizes sets that are so simple, yet so intricate at the same time.
A film that is packed with an overwhelming amount of beauty, emotion, and intimacy, Roma is a mighty impressive feat on the part of Cuarón and evidently sets forth a new standard when it comes to this type of personal filmmaking. Or perhaps just filmmaking in general.
Roma’s limited theatrical run is currently ongoing in select cities including New York, Los Angeles, and London. Find out if it’s playing in your city here. The film will launch globally on Netflix on December 14.