Come, Together (2017) ☆☆☆(3/4): A South Korean family in social/personal crisis

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I experienced growing uncomfortable feelings as watching South Korean film “Come, Together”. This is another gloomy drama about the harsh reality of the South Korean society, and it is often difficult to watch its main characters struggling with each own social/personal crisis. This is indeed a tough stuff, but it is worthwhile to watch thanks to mostly competent storytelling as well as good performances, and it surely earns a tentative sense of hope shown in the end.

The story is about one particularly hard week of an ordinary middle-class family. Han-na is a young girl who has prepared for college entrance examination again since her first failure, and she is quite disappointed to learn that she is placed on the waiting list instead of being fully accepted. That news also disappoints her parents Beom-goo (Im Hyeong-gook) and Mi-yeong (Lee Hye-eun) a lot. When they later have a dinner together in their apartment, Beom-goo inadvertently hurts his daughter’s feeling as openly talking about her disappointing examination result, and the awkward mood among them is palpable even though the camera steps back from their dinner table.

And then there comes another serious problem. On the next day, Beom-goo is fired from the company he has worked for 18 years, and he does not know what to do with this sudden unfortunate change, while facing mounting financial matters including the mortgage on his family’s apartment. After telling this bad news to his wife, he begins to spend most of his time in the apartment as being mired in sulky self-pity. When a delivery guy comes during one afternoon, he does not open the door just because he does not want to show his pathetic status to a stranger, and he also commits an act of cruelty on some of her wife’s precious plants just because, well, he is pissed off.

On one day, Beom-goo happens to get to know a man living right above him. While their first encounter is not very pleasant to say the least, Beom-goo comes to learn during their second encounter that the guy is actually not so different from Beom-goo, and that is the beginning of their odd relationship based on their mutual pity on each other. As they drink a lot together, they feel consoled a bit by each other, but that does not change their current status which does not have much prospect.

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While her husband keeps behaving like a bum, Mi-yeong tries to work harder than before as a saleswoman of a credit card company, but she only becomes frustrated when one of her latest clients is taken away by one of other saleswomen in her workplace. Watching Mi-yeong trying hard to persuade her potential clients, I could not help but think of a cousin working in the same field, and I came to think more about how hard she must work like Mi-yeong for more results. Sure, I was easily persuaded by her to get a new credit card for old time’s sake, but it was probably not so easy for her in case of her other clients.

Angry at that saleswoman who takes away her client, Mi-yeong attempts to get a moment of ventilation, but that only makes her circumstance worse than before, and she becomes more hostile to that saleswoman, who may look primmer than others but turns out to be as desperate as Mi-yeong. When some secret about that woman is revealed later in the movie, Mi-yeong decides to do something, but then her action eventually leads to an agonizing situation of sin and guilt.

As her parents are struggling with their respective matters, Han-na becomes more nervous about her uncertain position while desperately waiting for the call from a university in which she wants to enroll. At least, she feels consoled as being with her good friend who runs a small accessory shop, and she cannot help but envy her friend’s casual lifestyle. Rather than trying to enroll in a college, Yoo-gyeong (Han Kyeong-hyeon) decided to go her own way, and she looks happy and confident as reflected by her carefree attitude and her small but cozy residence, though she indirectly points out to her friend that her life is not all that good.

Through Yoo-gyeong, Han-na meets a girl who also happens to be on the same waiting list, and she becomes jealous because that girl is ahead of her on the list. As they drink together along with two lads during one late night, they become closer to each other, but Han-na finds herself tempted by some dark thought, and then there comes a difficult situation where she must make a moral choice on her new friend, who may be thrown into a serious danger if Han-na neglects her.

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There are a good number of intense dramatic moments as its main characters go down further into the dark pit of desperation and guilt, but the movie is not entirely devoid of warmth and humor. The scenes between Beom-goo and his neighbor are silly but melancholic, and there is also an unexpectedly humorous scene involved with a group of guys stuck inside a stalled elevator. The scenes between Hanna and Yoo-gyeong feel warm and gentle, and I like how their last scene suggests that their relationship may be more than friendship.

The lead performers are engaging to watch as they carry the film together. Although Beom-goo is not a very sympathetic figure as frequently behaving like a jerk, Im Hyeong-gook conveys well his character’s anger and frustration, and we come to understand his character to some degrees. While Lee Hye-eun is terrific especially when her character comes to face the unexpected consequence of her hate, Chae Bin holds her own place well between her two co-performers, and Kim Jae-rok, Han Kyeong-hyeon, and Bae Jeong-hwa are also wonderful in their respective supporting roles.

“Come, Together” is written and directed by Sin Dong-il, who previously made “House & Guest” (2005), “My Friend & His Wife” (2006), and “Bandhoubi” (2009). Each of his previous films left a distinctive impression on me thanks to his good handling of story and characters, and “Come, Together” is no exception. Although it has several weak points including its rather contrived ending, I was involved in its main characters’ circumstances nonetheless, and their story made me think again of the ongoing social problems of the South Korean society. Will things get better for not only them but also many other South Koreans out there? I can only hope for that, to be frank with you.

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The Unknown Girl (2016) ☆☆☆(3/4): Who was that girl?

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In their new film “The Unknown Girl”, the Dardenne brothers tries a more conventional plot than usual while maintaining their typical dry realistic approach, but this mix is not entirely successful on the whole. While we get the vivid, authentic glimpses of hard social reality via its guilt-ridden heroine’s dogged pursuit of truth, the movie does not rise above our expectation in terms of plot and character, and the result is less compelling than the notable works of the Dardenne brothers.

In the beginning, the movie shows its heroine going through the last hour of her working time. Jenny Davin (Adèle Haenel) is a young doctor who works in a modest clinic near Liège, Belgium, and we observe her cool, exemplary professionalism when she deftly handles a sudden emergency in the waiting room. While she temporarily works there instead of an old doctor currently in a hospital due to his illness, she will soon move onto a prestigious private clinic a few days later, and it goes without saying that this job transition will considerably benefit her career.

Not long after her working time is over, somebody pushes a buzzer button outside the clinic, but Jenny flatly ignores it because 1) the clinic is officially closed and 2) she is more occupied with dealing with a young medical school student working for her as an intern. In her view, he does not have enough professional detachment unlike her, and, as a matter of fact, that emergency incident in the waiting room makes him have some doubt about his future career.

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In the next morning, she is approached by two cops who want to see the surveillance video from a CCTV camera at the front gate of the clinic, and then she comes to learn about a tragic incident which happened during the previous night. Under an unspecified circumstance, a young African immigrant woman died at a spot near the clinic, and, not so surprisingly, it is revealed that she was the one who pushed a buzzer button at that time. It is apparent from the surveillance video that she was desperately looking for help due to some unknown reason, and Jenny naturally feels guilty as thinking about how she could have prevented this tragedy.

After learning that there is not anything which can help identify the dead woman, Jenny becomes determined to find out who she was. First, she chooses to stay at the clinic instead of going to that private clinic, and she often asks her patients whether they know that girl or not. Her attempt seems futile at first, but then it looks like she may find her answer, though the people who may know something are not so willing to open their mouth in front of her.

This sounds like your average hard-boiled mystery plot, and there are indeed a couple of tense moments as Jenny continues to dig deeper into the case, but the Dardenne brothers keep everything calm and dry as the plot of their film leisurely moves from one narrative point to another. While she becomes more obsessed with finding out the dead girl’s identity, Jenny never neglects her work, and the movie gives us several good individual scenes as she handles various people living in her area. In case of an immigrant worker who cannot speak French, he does not want to go to a big hospital despite his serious injury mainly because he is afraid of being deported, and he does not seem to change his mind even though Jenny tries to persuade him as much as she can with a guy accompanying him. At one point, a female patient shows Jenny little gratitude for her house call, and that is one of a few amusing moments in the film.

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In spite of these human moments to appreciate, the Dardenne brothers’ screenplay sometimes demands our suspension of disbelief a little too much. For example, a certain sequence during the second half has one sudden situation so unbelievably followed by the other one that I momentarily became befuddled with what was going on the screen. As the movie approaches to the finale, we are served with more implausible coincidences, and then it throws another coincidence during the final scene, which may be poignant but does not add up much to the whole film.

Nevertheless, the Dardennes brothers draw good performances from their performers, who look natural and earnest in their unadorned acting. Adèle Haenel, who was one of the main characters in “House of Pleasures” (2011), quietly exudes her character’s growing determination in her engaging performance, and I think we can expect more interesting things to come from this talented, beautiful French actress. The supporting performers are believable as real human characters inhabiting their mundane world, and some of you may recognize the Dardenne brothers’ regular performers including Jérémie Renier, Olivier Gourmet, Fabrizio Rongione, and Thomas Doret, who apparently grows up a lot since his breakthrough turn in “The Kid with a Bike” (2011).

“The Unknown Girl” did not engage me much during my viewing, and that accordingly took me back to how much I have admired the Dardenne brothers’ exceptional filmmaking career. Since I watched “La Promesse” (1996), “The Son” (2002), and “The Child” (2005), they have kept impressing me with “Lorna’s Silence” (2008), “The Kid with a Bike” and “Two Days, One Night” (2014), but “The Unknown Girl” feels like a lesser work in comparison as somehow lacking the deep emotional power of their previous works. I am not so sure about whether the movie succeeds as much as intended, but this is still an interesting work to watch despite its noticeable flaws, so I recommend it with some reservation.

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Alien: Covenant (2017) ☆☆1/2(2.5/4): Same old monster horror

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“Alien: Covenant” gives us exactly what we can expect from another entry from the franchise which has lasted for more than 35 years since “Alien” (1979) burst upon us. Again, a group of characters in a big spaceship go to an unknown place and then come across something quite dangerous, and the movie works to some degrees while not having much awe or surprise for anyone familiar with its enduring franchise.

As shown from its prologue/main title scene, the movie is a sequel to “Prometheus” (2012), but it starts its story with a different set of characters. Several years after what happened in “Prometheus”, a big spaceship, named Covenant, is sent into the universe for the colonization of some inhabitable planet far away from the Earth, but a big radiation storm happens in the middle of its long journey, and its crew members have to wake up from their hibernation sleep for repairing the considerable damage caused by this unexpected incident. While this emergency is quickly ended and then everything is under control, they unfortunately lose their captain as well as some of the hibernating passengers in the spaceship, and Daniels (Katherine Waterson), a terraforming expert who is also the captain’s wife, is particularly devastated by that.

Meanwhile, there comes another unexpected happening. Not long after the repair of the spaceship is completed, a mysterious signal is detected, and they come to learn that the signal is being transmitted from a nearby planet, which is virtually unknown but seems to be as inhabitable as their destination planet. Despite Daniels’ reasonable objection, Oram (Billy Crudup), who becomes the new captain of the spaceship after the previous captain’s death, insists on checking up that planet just in case, so the spaceship soon heads for that planet.

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Of course, the planet gives them an ominous sign right from its very first appearance. The landing turns out to be quite difficult due to a big ion storm, and the area where they land is filled with disturbing gray silence. As Daniels points out at one point, there is no sign of animals although many plants not so different from the ones in the Earth grow well here and there, and Daniels and other crew members become more nervous when they come across the remnants of an alien civilization. As the camera looks around the open ground covered with many calcified bodies, you may be reminded of those exhibited bodies of Pompeii, and this unnerving sight further accentuates the increasing sense of menace around the screen.

Because it is already revealed in the trailer, it is not much of a spoiler to tell you that they are soon going to encounter that infamous creature of the franchise and some of them will be killed in one way or another. Once everything is set up for its horror mode during its second half, the movie throws a number of striking bloody moments at the audiences, and some of them will definitely make you cringe for good reasons.

However, these moments also feel like same old things we have seen before, and the movie does not give us anything particularly new. While there is indeed an intriguing story part involved with two different android characters played by Michael Fassbender, that is eventually hampered by the predictable third act, and the finale does not work as well as intended because we already see it coming from the distance.

Furthermore, many characters in the film are not that distinctive, and it is a shame to see most of its notable cast members being stuck with their flat characters. Katherine Waterson, who has been more notable since her supporting role in “Inherent Vice” (2014), brings enough pluck and intelligence to her character, but her character still feels rather bland compared to Sigourney Weaver’s iconic character in “Alien” or Noomi Rapace’s character in “Prometheus”. While Billy Crudup does not have many things to do except usually looking glum, Danny McBride is surprisingly effective in his non-comedy role, and Demián Bichir and Carmen Ejogo are seriously wasted in their almost nondescript roles.

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In case of Fassbender, he surely has lots of fun with his dual role, and most of compelling scenes in the film come from his convincing duo performance. Whenever his two characters are on the same screen, we always tell the difference between them thanks to the subtle touches in his acting, and that is why his performance is alternatively chilling and poignant.

Anyway, “Alien: Covenant” is not a wholly bad movie at all thanks to the competent direction by Ridley Scott, a master filmmaker who has never made any truly awful movie during last 40 years. Even those missteps like “Legend” (1985), “Black Rain” (1989), “Hannibal” (2001), and “The Counselor” (2013) were not entirely without something good or interesting to mention, and the same thing can be said about “Alien: Covenant”. The movie is slick and smooth in terms of technical aspects, and I did enjoy how much it looks good on the screen. Jed Kurzel’s score effectively uses Jerry Goldsmith’s theme for “Alien” during a few key points in the film, and I could not help but feel a bit nostalgic as Goldsmith’s theme was played on the soundtrack.

On the whole, “Alien: Covenant” is one or two steps below “Prometheus”, which was not without flaws but admirable in its ambition and scope. That film was willing to reach for greatness, and I was entertained by that even though I experienced some disappointment in the end. In case of “Alien: Covenant”, it is just mildly disappointing, and that is all.

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My Life as a Zucchini (2016) ☆☆☆(3/4): Meet Courgette and his friends

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It is always delightful to watch simple, sweet animation films like “My Life as a Zucchini”, which was selected as the Official submission of Switzerland for the Best Foreign Language Film category of the 2017 Academy awards in last year and then was nominated for Best Animation Feature Film Oscar instead early in this year. Rather than merely driven by plot, the film leisurely doles out small, delicate moments to enjoy and appreciate, and I enjoyed how it deftly balances itself between humor and melancholy as effortlessly revealing its big heart.

The opening scene introduces us to our young hero and his unhappy domestic life. Courgette (voiced by Gaspard Schlatter), which means Zucchini in French, is a young boy living with his divorced alcoholic mother, and we see him spending time alone in the attic of his house. As shown from the numerous drawings in the attic, he is a smart, imaginative child, but he is mostly neglected by his mother, and she is going through her another alcoholic day in front of the TV in the living room.

And then one unfortunate incident happens. When a stack of empty beer cans he is trying to build is accidently crumbled, his mother becomes mad because of the resulting noise and then she promptly climbs up to the attic. Scared of his angry mother, he shuts down the attic door upon his mother’s head, and that inadvertently causes his mother’s death. Although it is not entirely his fault, he feels guilty about this, and he also misses his mother although the life with her has not always been happy.

At least, the adults who happen to be around him after his mother’s death genuinely care about him. Raymond (voiced by Michel Vuillermoz), a police officer in charge of this tragic case, is sympathetic to Courgette, and he takes Courgette to an orphanage located outside the city. The orphanage may look modest on the surface, but its staff members are kind and generous, and the other few kids in the orphanage are mostly nice except one boy named Simon (voiced by Paulin Jaccoud).

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Although Courgette initially does not get along well with other kids in the orphanage, he comes to learn that they are also unhappy in each own way. While Simon has been separated from his addict parents, the father of Ahmed (voiced by Raul Ribera) is currently in prison, and Béatrice (voiced by Lou Wick) may never meet her mother who was deported out of the country. In case of Jujube (voiced by Elliot Sanchez), his mother was sent to a mental hospital, and Alice (voiced by Estelle Hennard) looks all the more heartbreaking after Courgette comes to know a bit about her terrible past.

While they all hope that they will have a family someday, it is apparent that they are already a family together, and the film serves us with a number of warm, innocent moments generated among Courgette and his new friends. When a girl named Camille (voiced by Sixtine Murat) comes to the orphanage, Courgette finds himself attracted to her, and there is a poignant moment as these two young kids come to realize that they are not so different from each other as two kids struggling with their respective misfortunes.

Meanwhile, the relationship between Courgette and Raymond grows day by day as Courgette sends letters and pictures to Raymond. When Raymond later visits the orphanage again for checking up Courgette, it is apparent that he has become a father figure Courgette has never had since his father was gone, and they eventually come to spend one weekend together. Although the situation becomes a little problematic as Camille accompanies them for avoiding her greedy, despicable aunt, they all enjoy themselves together, and Courgette and Camille feel like being at home when they come to Raymond’s cozy house, where he has lived alone while growing various plants.

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The mood of the film becomes a little tense later because of Camille’s aunt, but the director Claude Barras, who adapted Gilles Paris’s “Autobiographie d’une Courgette” with his co-writers Céline Sciamma, Germano Zullo, and Morgan Navarro, steadily maintains the overall gentle attitude of his film. Casually rolling along its episodic plot during the short running time (66 minutes), the film takes its time in building up individual scenes, and they are filled with details to notice even though they look plain and simple at first.

Like “Kubo and the Two Strings” (2016), “My Life as a Zucchini” is a stop-motion animation film, and I admire the enormous efforts put into every individual shot in the film. The characters may look broad and exaggerated on the whole, but they often feel more emotional than expected as the film gradually immerses us in its world, and that accordingly makes us involved more in the its characters’ emotional matters. At one point, Courgette and his friends happen to spot a mother and her child from the distance, and the following silent moment speaks volume about their thoughts and feelings even though their faces do not seem to signify anything.

Along with recent notable animation films such as “Kubo and the Two Strings”, “The Red Turtle” (2016), “April and the Extraordinary World” (2015), and “Your Name” (2016), “My Life as a Zucchini” provides us something different from usual digital animation films. I think its strong points will be appreciated more by adult audiences, but kids may also enjoy its gentle simplicity, and I’d love to hear opinions from them.
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Denial (2016) ☆☆☆(3/4): History on Trial

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As far as I can see from “Denial”, David Irving is a vile piece of work. He is a bullying propagandist who has no qualms about humiliating and discrediting others through lies and falsification, and any decent person cannot help but shake their heads with disbelief as watching him. He seems to care only about all the attentions he receives for his loathsome arguments against the Holocaust, and his egoistic behaviors and wily manipulations of the media will probably remind you of that orange-face scumbag currently residing in the White House.

While Irving in the film is wonderfully played by Timothy Spall with fascinating hatefulness, the center of the movie is actually Deborah Lipstadt (Rachel Weisz), an American Holocaust scholar who was sued along with Penguin Books by Irving for libel in 1996. Rather than settling with him outside the court, Lipstadt decided to fight against Irving at the court, and their legal battle certainly drew lots of attention at that time.

The opening part of the movie shows us the first direct encounter between Irving and Lipstadt in 1994. When she is in the middle of her speech in an auditorium of Emory University, Georgia, she is suddenly interrupted by Irving, and he keeps pushing his points against her in front of many audiences. She adamantly refuses to engage in an argument with him because she knows too well that it is futile to argue with a Holocaust denier like him, but he exploits her response as much as he can, and there is nothing she can do about that.

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Two years later, Lipstadt gets a call from Penguin Books. She is notified that Irving filed a libel suit against her and Penguin Books, and she soon comes to learn that the situation is not as simple as she thought at first. Because the trial will be held in Britain, the burden of proof lies with the defendant instead of the suitor, and that means Lipstadt and her lawyers must prove that Irving lied about the Holocaust as she described in her book published by Penguin Books.

Fortunately, her lawyers are pretty good ones. Anthony Julius (Andrew Scott), who is going to be her solicitor, explains his legal strategy to her, and he also advises her not to testify at the court because that is not only unnecessary but also risky. Putting her at the center of the court is exactly what Irving wants, and they will not let that happen at any chance. In fact, all she needs to do is attending the trial and watching her barrister Richard Rampton (Tom Wilkinson) do the job on her behalf.

Having its heroine in a rather passive mode like that, the screenplay by David Hare, which is based on Lipstadt’s book “History on Trial: My Day in Court with a Holocaust Denier”, often becomes deficient in narrative momentum, but this problem is compensated by several good moments in the film. The Auschwitz sequence feels obligatory at first, but it is presented with somber, haunting quality as Lipstadt and other characters look around the remains of the concentration camp, and we also hear a bit about that outrageous pseudo-scientific report by Fred A. Leuchter, which has been the basis of Holocaust denial since its publication. While the courtroom scenes have predictable dramatic points, they are effectively delivered with aplomb, and we come to feel more of the importance of the trial shown to us.

It also helps that the movie has talented performers who can instantly draw our attention right from their first appearance. Although she is mostly required to look exasperated or frustrated during many scenes in the film, Rachel Weisz fills her role with considerable amount of righteous spirit, and Adam Scott ably functions as a cool counterpart to her character during their scenes. While Timothy Spall is suitably slimy as demanded, Tom Wilkinson is terrific when his character calmly and mercilessly corners Spall’s character during one courtroom scene.

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The movie is directed by Mick Jackson, who has been known for several notable TV films and theatrical films including “Threads” (1984), “The Bodyguard” (1992), and “Temple Grandin” (2010). While it was made more than 30 years ago, “Threads” is one of the most terrifying films about nuclear war, and I still tremble whenever I recall many of its frighteningly realistic moments including the very last shot. “Temple Grandin”, for which he won an Emmy, is a very moving drama based on the life of Dr. Temple Grandin, and I have treasured that film for giving me several powerful moments of elevation.

Compared to “Threads” and “Temple Grandin”, “Denial” is less special due to Jackson’s workman-like storytelling approach, and there are some weak parts which could have been improved or discarded. Most of minor supporting characters in the film are bland and superficial, and the part involved with a Holocaust survivor feels rather redundant although it is sincere and respectful at least. There are also several blatant visual moments throughout the film, and one brief shot suddenly showing the bad weather outside a window is too obvious to say the least.

Nevertheless, I think the movie is still worthwhile to watch considering its subject which has become more relevant during recent years. We have seen the alarming social/political rise of people as deceitful and despicable as Irving, and the movie reminds me again of why we must not step back from their virulent lies. The movie is imperfect in parts, but it does make its points anyway, so I recommend it with some reservation.

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Menashe (2017) ☆☆☆(3/4): A slice of Hasidic life from Brooklyn

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Sometimes movies can transport you to worlds unfamiliar to us, and “Menashe”, which was shown at the Sundance Film Festival early in this year and was recently screened at the Jeonju International Film Festival, is one of such cases. While its specific world and people are quite alien to most of us, it comes close to us via the universal elements of its gentle, intimate human drama, and we come to know and understand its struggling hero as rooting for him more than expected.

The movie is set in the Hasidic community of the Borough Park neighborhood in Brooklyn, and the opening scene shows another mundane working day for Menashe (Menashe Lustig), a portly Hasidic guy who works as a clerk in a grocery shop of his neighborhood. After his working hour is over, he goes to a meeting presided over by one of the rabbis in his neighborhood, and we observe him clumsily trying to recite passages from a Judaistic scripture along with others in the meeting.

After its ethnic background is succinctly established during these two early scenes, the movie lets us get to know more about Menashe. He has been widowed for several months, and he lives alone in his small apartment because he is not allowed to live with his young son Rieven (Ruben Niborski) due to the religious rule of their community. The second marriage can solve this problem, but he is not so eager to have his second wife. During his arranged meeting with a potential match, he brusquely tells her that he does not want to marry for now, and that is the end of their awkward conversation.

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Rieven is currently in the custody of Menashe’s affluent brother-in-law Eizik (Yoel Weisshaus), who frequently clashes with Menashe as Menashe attempts to spend more time with his son. As a successful real estate businessman, Eizik can provide a far more stable environment for Rieven, and that may be the best for Rieven’s future, but Menashe really wants to live with his son. As he admits later, his married life was not so happy because he never wanted marriage from the beginning, but his son has always been a small light in his meager life, and that is evident whenever he is with his son. Although his attempts to get closer to his son are strained to say the least, Rieven is happy to be with his father, and Menashe is determined to show to Eizik and others that he can be a father good enough to take care of his son alone.

However, things do not go well for him due to not only bad luck but also his human flaws. When the aforementioned rabbi allows Menashe to live with Rieven for a week before the memorial day of his dead wife, Menashe is happy to get a good chance for proving himself to others around him including his son, but he only finds himself fumbling and bumbling many times. When he happens to wake up late in the morning, he has nothing to give his son for breakfast except coke and leftover cake. During one evening, he takes Rieven to a drinking party, and he soon comes to neglect his son as drinking a little too much.

It can be said that Menashe is a classic case of flawed loser, but the movie emphasizes with its desperate hero through small human moments to observe. He may be pathetic as living without much prospect, but he does try hard for what he wants, and that is why it is often sad and melancholic to watch him inadvertently letting down not only others but also himself. When he insists on holding the memorial ceremony for his dead wife at his apartment, we can clearly see a disaster from the start, and we are not so surprised when his another failure happens later, but we also sense how much he feels hurt by his latest failure.

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The director Joshua Z. Weistein, who wrote the screenplay along with Alex Lipshultz and Musa Syeed, did a competent job of generating the vivid sense of close-knit community around his characters. Thanks to the unobtrusive visual approach by Weistein and his co-cinematographer Yoni Brook, the movie is imbued with documentary-like quality, and we often feel like being an unseen observer during many scenes in the film as noticing small and big details from time to time. In case of one small scene, we happen to hear a conversation between two minor female characters, and that tiny moment says a lot about how tradition can stifle people sometimes.

The non-professional cast members of the movie, who mostly speak Yiddish throughout the film, bring a considerable degree of authenticity to the movie. Menashe Lustig is amiable and sympathetic in his unadorned performance, and he and young performer Ruben Niborski click together well as father and son on the screen. Yoel Weisshaus is effectively unflappable as Menashe’s disapproving brother-in-law, and Meyer Schwartz is also memorable as a rabbi who turns out to be more compassionate than he seems.

“Menashe” is a modest low-key character drama which takes its time in unfolding its rather simple plot, and you may feel impatient during its 82-minute running time, but this is an interesting film which not only fascinates us with its very specific ethnic background but also engages us via its universal story. In my inconsequential opinion, it is more engaging than your average blockbuster films, and I recommend you to give it a chance for experiencing something different.

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The Student (2016) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4): A fanatic boy in the classroom

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Darkly absurd and compelling, Russian film “The Student” disturbs us during its many fierce rhetorical scenes, which will grip your attention regardless of your opinion on religion. Here is an adolescent boy who suddenly starts to drive himself into religious extremism, and it is quite disturbing to watch his descent into fanatic behaviors, but the movie keeps holding our attention as coolly observing this unnerving progress accompanied with serious consequences.

In the beginning, it seems to be a simple problem involved with the swimming class in a high school attended by its young problematic hero. Veniamin (Pyotr Skvortsov) refuses to participate in the swimming class just because of his Christian belief, and his divorced mother is flabbergasted and exasperated by her son’s weird behavior. It seems they were not particularly religious before, but now he is inseparable from the Bible, and he frequently quotes the Bible whenever he makes his points.

While ridiculed by his schoolmates, he adamantly pushes his belief without any compromise, and that certainly causes headaches for the teachers of his school. When Elena (Viktoriya Isakova), a biology teacher who is evidently the most progressive teacher in the school, is about to give her students sex education, Veniamin promptly goes into an aggressive mode as spurting out the passages from the scripture as usual, and he even takes off all of his clothes in front of Elena and other students. When she later tries to teach evolution in her classroom, he causes another commotion while wearing a furry gorilla suit, and this scene is alternatively tense and absurd especially after the principal comes into the classroom.

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Virtually standing for everything Veniamin opposes, Elena sees that something must be done for stopping his potentially dangerous crusade, but, to her frustration, the principal and other teachers in the school are not so serious about that, and they are even willing to bend to his demands. Even though he still does not participate in the swimming class, the principal has female students wear ‘more appropriate’ swimsuits instead of bikinis. At one point, the principal suggests that Elena should teach both evolution and creationism in her classroom, and you may be reminded of those recent debates on whether religious belief should be treated equally along with science in American school classrooms.

As he continues to go on his way, Veniamin naturally clashes with the priest in the school. Although it is clear that he is not very pleased about how Veniamin does not tolerate anything which does not look right in his single-minded viewpoint, the priest rather admires Veniamin’s fervent faith and does not entirely disapprove of his extremism. From that moment, you can probably see how religions can often sanction fanatics in one way or another in the name of more expansion and influence.

And he comes to find his first disciple from Grigoriy (Aleksandr Gorchilin), a cripple boy who is frequently bullied at the school. Like any lonely, alienated kid, Grigoriy does not hesitate at all when Veniamin approaches to him, and we get an amusing moment when they attempt a faith-healing on Grigoriy’s disability. As they spend more time together, it turns out that Grigoriy wants something more than faith from Veniamin, and that leads to a very unpleasant outcome later in the movie.

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Meanwhile, Elena becomes more preoccupied with her conflict with Veniamin. For arguing against him, she spends a lot of time in reading and analyzing the Bible, and that accordingly affects her relationship with her boyfriend, who is incidentally one of the teachers in the school. The more she sticks to her position, the more she becomes frustrated with the absurd circumstance surrounding her, and it increasingly looks like there is nothing much she can do about that.

While the movie evidently sides with Elena, the director Kirill Serebrennikov, who adapted a German play by Marius von Mayenburg for his film, steadily maintains its detached attitude, and some of you may feel impatient because it never fully explains the origin of Veniamin’s fanaticism. Was it caused by his unhappy household environment? Or was it resulted from his fear of sexuality, as suggested by one brief scene involved with one female student?

Despite that elusiveness, the movie is intense and engaging enough to maintain the level of interest for us, and Serebrennikov and his cinematographer Vladislav Opelyants give us a good number of long-take scenes to admire. Thanks to Opelyants’ deft use of handheld camera, we usually feel like being around the characters in the film, and it surely helps that the movie is supported well by its performers. While Pyotr Skvortsov is sullenly electrifying, Viktoriya Isakova is excellent as his opponent, and Aleksandr Gorchilin and other supporting performers are also solid in their respective roles.

“The Student”, which won François Chalais Prize at the Cannes Film Festival in last year, is not a comfortable film to say the least, but this is an intelligent piece of work with some thought-provoking sides, and its subject is more relevant to us now considering how much our world has been affected by extremism during recent years. This is indeed a tough stuff, but you will not forget its dark dramatic power easily after it is over.

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