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.
‘Aladdin’ review: Guy Ritchie’s live-action remake of the Disney classic isn’t exactly a whole new world
At this point, we’ve seen enough live-action reimaginings of Disney’s animated canon to know they don’t always concern themselves with breaking the mold. Their classics are classics for a reason – so if it ain’t broke, right? It should come as no surprise then that their adaptation of 1992’s Aladdin, for the most part, is very content to color inside the lines. Most of the proceedings will feel very familiar to fans of the original, so if you’re looking for a totally different take on it, you’re going to have to temper expectations. What we do get is a visually impressive, energetic adventure that could have spent a little more time on what new it does bring to the table.
Disney had a huge challenge out of the gate in conceiving this movie – how the heck do you recast the Genie, a role so iconically played by the late Robin Williams? Will Smith’s turn as the Genie, for all of its blue-tinged pre-release controversy, is largely a success. Crucially, Smith avoids the one thing that would have derailed the performance: trying to recreate the inimitable Robin Williams’ iteration of the character. Williams’ Genie was an amplification of the actor’s signature chaotic personality and Will Smith wisely steers far clear of trying to match that. This Genie relies on Smith’s charm, bravado, and the clear amount of fun he’s having playing the role. The story does give Smith’s Genie a little more depth than just being blue and hilarious, affording him a surprisingly fun and grounded subplot.
But does Smith get by on charm alone? It’s going to depend a lot on your opinion of Will Smith. While Robin Williams breezed through dozens of different voices and personas to bring the Genie to life, never letting us know what to expect, this version of the character very much feels like blue Will Smith (blue Hitch may be closer), so your mileage with the character is going to vary a lot based on how willing you are to accept that. While Smith does fine work, how reliant this Genie is on Smith’s personality does make you wonder if an actor pushing farther out of their comfort zone would have gotten us closer to the boundless creativity that made Robin Williams’ performance so memorable.
The one area that does feel like a clear improvement over the 1992 version is the characterization of Naomi Scott’s Jasmine, to the point where at times the movie feels like it’s more invested in her story than Aladdin’s. The princess feels more three-dimensional (pun not intended… nor apologized for) and she is given far more interesting ambitions this time around. Scott gives the character a dignity and drive that makes it easier to root for her than poor old Al. Both Jasmine and Genie’s newly fleshed-out arcs are welcome additions, but they do draw attention to how predictable and dated Aladdin’s story feels by comparison.
The supporting cast is hit-or-miss. While Nasim Pedrad and Billy Magnusson’s new characters end up being reliable for laughs, Marwan Kenzari’s take on Jafar is a letdown. Aside from a quick exchange about hating second place, it’s never very clear why Jafar is scheming for the Sultan’s throne, other than the fact that he’s just generally evil. The animated Jafar had real wickedness and darkness to him, but Kenzari trades that in for a creepy, ill-defined lust for power that never really excites. But he’s the one standing in Aladdin and Jasmine’s way and, dang it, we want them to be together!
Fans will be glad to know that Aladdin’s catalog of great songs are well represented here. Though “One Jump Ahead” proves to be a bit of a misfire early on, featuring a heavy emphasis on chase and action that doesn’t quite work, the rest of the numbers are a good time. “Friend Like Me” is the movie at its visual peak, and probably the closest the movie gets to recreating the magic of the animated film. One of the most pleasant surprises on the soundtrack is the new number written by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (Dear Evan Hansen), “Speechless”. Scott’s an able singer, and “Speechless” is a great showcase for that talent. The song won’t win any awards for subtlety, but in the context of Jasmine’s story, it really works.
On the visual front, Aladdin rarely disappoints. Agrabah feels vibrant and alive, most of all during “Prince Ali”’s grand entrance, and the surrounding desert is beautifully shot. The Cave of Wonders sequence in particular shows off Guy Richie’s skill at crafting an action set-piece, and everything from the mystical danger of that scene down to Aladdin’s parkouring all over Agrabah really moves with great pace under his eye.
One of the most pleasant surprises on the soundtrack is the new number written by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (Dear Evan Hansen), “Speechless”. Scott’s an able singer, and “Speechless” is a great showcase for that talent. The song won’t win any awards for subtlety, but in the context of Jasmine’s story, it really works.
‘Game of Thrones’ finale review: An epic final episode that corrects some major wrongs
Spoiler warning: this article is for people who have watched the Game of Thrones finale. Do not read on unless you have watched season eight, episode six: The Iron Throne.
And so, at last, after 73 episodes, untold millions of dollars and an estimated 200,000 slayings, it is all over – bar the shouting on the internet. Death came to Game of Thrones and everyone involved in its making threw up their hands and shouted “Yes! Finally! Today!”
We began the finale with Tyrion wandering the ash-strewn ruins of King’s Landing, scene of Daenerys’ handbrake turn into full-blown lunacy last week, lifting fallen bricks and confirming for himself, and viewers still clinging to hope, that the Lannister twins were indeed deceased beneath them. Having the Imp cry “This is an ex-Lannister! If it wasn’t buried under rubble it would be pushing up daisies!” would have been only fractionally less subtle a way to confirm what we all needed confirming before we could get on with the true business of the day; deciding who gets the Iron Throne, who gets to die and who gets a spin-off series.
Daenerys was looking confident about her position, with a jaunty speech to her followers (“Blood of my blood! You have given me the Seven Kingdoms!”) and the speedy arrest of Tyrion for treason. Jon looks pained. Possibly because of the mindless destruction and mass murder carried out by his lover-aunt. Possibly because he’s trying to do a sum involving odd numbers in his head. Dear, sweet, useless Jon. People have berated the writers for many things over the show’s run, but they surely deserve some recognition for managing to sell Kit Harington as a convincing candidate for kingship.
Jon visits Tyrion in prison, where the Last Lannister tries – as Arya does just before – to convince Jon that as a fellow Targaryen with a claim to the throne, the woman atop the dragon might just attempt to do him harm in the near-future. “That’s her decision,” says Dumbo. “She is the queen.” Tyrion adds that she’ll probably go after Sansa and Arya, too, which seems to cause scales to fall from Jon’s eyes, and prompts just about the only bit of action in the finale.
In this generation’s Buffy/Angel moment, Jon kills Daenerys for the greater good. Drogon makes his feelings about this development clear by melting the Iron Throne with dragon fire and flying off with her corpse. “That’s no good!” shouts Jon after him. “T’throne’s just a symbol. Tha’s got a lot more work to do before tha can usher in an age of representative democracy!” No, he doesn’t. But the actual script doesn’t try much harder. After Jon is arrested offscreen by the Unsullied, the lords and ladies of Westeros convene to decide what must be done. They decide to … choose a ruler from among them. Just like that. Grey Worm, made Dany’s Commander of All War Things in the wake of her dragon nuking King’s Landing, makes no objection. No word on who gets to tell the Dothraki. Bagsy not me.
Samwell wonders whether the people should have a say in who gets to govern them. Oh, but the guffaws can be heard across the Narrow Sea! So that’s that possibility as dead as a White Walker run through with Valyrian steel.
Tyrion nominates –
Bran. Or Bran the Broken, as he is dubbed. Westeros is very ableist, as you might have suspected after the six seasons it took for anyone to cobble together a wheelchair for him. It’s a callback to the ancient figure of Bran the Builder, who raised The Wall, founded Winterfell and was the first King of the North, but still. Bran. Bloody Bran. He will rule over only six kingdoms, because Sansa declares the North will become independent once more. Which again, everyone seems fine with. Tyrion becomes Bran’s Hand but Grey Worm insists that Jon be punished by returning to the Night’s Watch. Fair does. Might as well look permanently pained somewhere; it makes sense. And he’ll never realise there’s no reason for the Night’s Watch to exist any more.
Arya is taking a gap year to go travelling “west of Westeros”, an unmapped region rumoured to contain the Mountains of Spin-Off Potential. Our last sight of the whole shebang is Jon setting off into the super-north with the Free Folk.
There’s no doubt this season has been a rushed business. It has wasted opportunities, squandered goodwill and failed to do justice to its characters or its actors. But the finale just about delivered. It was true to the series’ overall subject – war, and the pity of war – and, after doing a lot of wrong to several protagonists last week, did right by those left standing. Whether the million signatories to the petition to remake the entire final season, or the majority of the estimated 45 million around the world due to watch the last episode, will agree – who knows. When you play the Game of Thrones, you win or you die. Overall, I think, it won.
‘John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum’ review: A wildly fun kick-shoot-fight-repeat spectacular
“Prepare for war,” someone who knows Latin will tell you, if you ask about that subtitle, though it’s hardly necessary intel: In these gloriously dumb—but remarkably well-staged—gun-fu flicks, the war is already here, and it lasts for an entire film.
Maybe others prefer it when Keanu Reeves talks; for me, he’s more effective when he moves. John Wick’s somber suit-clad NYC assassin has become his signature role, stripping down Speed and The Matrix into something John Woo sleek. Mob thugs killed his pet pit bull in the first installment. Those guys are long gone. Though this latest John Wick adventure brings on the usual distractions—Ian McShane’s fastidious boutique-hotel proprietor, Lawrence Fishburne’s booming king of the Bowery underworld, Halle Berry’s lady with vicious dogs that leap straight for the crotch—mostly these characters stay out of the way of the main attraction.
Instead, we’re here for the rigorously conceived, blessedly coherent action showdowns, the work of director Chad Stahelski (also Reeves’s longtime stunt double and choreographer). Stahelski is a fight-scene Fosse and Reeves is his Gwen Verdon: Parabellum takes the hall-of-mirrors high style of the second film and pushes it into overdrive. (Those who live in glass-walled galleries shouldn’t throw anything at Wick.) The level of hard-R-rated bloodletting is so delirious, you’ll ignore how bad it is for you.
A closed Manhattan Bridge is the perfect site for a sword duel on speeding motorcycles. Put Wick on a horse and he’s more of a menace than John Wayne on a grouchy day. In one battle, so many knives are flung, a corpse is used as a pincushion. It’s the golden age of…something—please don’t make us explain it.