Menashe ***½|****

Menashe Lustig and Ruben Niborski in Menashe

Taking place entirely in the ultra-orthodox Jewish community in Brooklyn, Menashe is a gentle and heart-warming family tale that places us in an insular world that many of us have never experienced and still finds a way to connect and make it genuinely relatable. The film is not only a showcase for the rarely depicted Hasidic community but it also utilizes Yiddish, a language that audiences likely aren’t accustomed to hearing at length, as its primary method of communication. Its inclusion of authentic locations and real Hasidic actors lends a credibility that crucial for a movie like this to succeed and even though the story is small in scale, it’s no less absorbing and poignant than more ambitious work that’s come before it.

The title character, played by Menashe Lustig, is, to borrow a Yiddish term, a bit of a putz and can’t seem to navigate through the obstacles that life has thrown in his direction. Following the loss of his wife, his teenage son Rieven (Ruben Niborski) is mandated not by the courts but by the head rabbi in their community to live with Menashe’s disapproving brother-in-law Eizik (Yoel Weisshaus) and his family. Without the presence of his son in his life, he left to reside in a depressing studio apartment and slave away at his unfulfilling job at the local market, waiting for things to turn in his favor.

Menashe tries to step up and rise above his circumstances in small and big ways throughout the story but for one reason or another, the struggle always ends up being more than he can handle by himself. He feels pressure to re-marry, in part for the partnership but mainly so he can create a fitting household for his son, but in a brutally humorous scene which depicts an arranged blind date that goes sour in a hurry, it’s clear that there may not be another woman out there for him. A planned memorial for his late wife seems to be another occasion where he can prove to Eizik and his judgmental friends that he’s on the path to mensch-dom but even a “bachelor-proof” kugel recipe proves too much for Menashe’s culinary capabilities.

First time writer/director Joshua Weinstein crafts the perfect combination of situations in which to place his main character so that we can take in such a thorough and tender portrait of a struggling widower. It’s hard not to be empathetic to someone whose hang-ups constantly seem to be getting the better of him, especially when the person in focus is such a gentle soul by nature, and Weinstein plays these day-to-day dilemmas with just the right mixture of comedy and tragedy. Lustig and Niborski also have a playful chemistry that had echoes of the father-son relationship in Roberto Benigni’s Life Is Beautiful, even though the stakes in this story are decidedly much lower.

The production is rounded out with some exceptional technical aspects, including simple but effective camerawork and editing that never takes its eye off of our harrowed protagonist. The spare but gorgeous score, which introduces a lovely melody on violin that flows out over a quartet of strings, is the perfect way to musically encapsulate Menashe and within the first minute of it playing over the opening scene, the hair on my arms stood on end and soon goosebumps followed. Menashe is a small delight of a film about standing out in a closed group that doesn’t reward individuality and finding one’s own slice of happiness away from the overbearing constraints of society.

The Mummy *|****

Tom Cruise in The Mummy

There’s a moment early in the desperate and downright embarrassing Mummy reboot that achieves a level of meta resonance that only monumentally stupid movies can achieve by pure coincidence as opposed to genuine self-awareness. The film’s first big action setpiece finds Tom Cruise and Jake Johnson running rampant across Iraqi rooftops while avoiding insurgent gunfire and as they duo drops to the ground for cover, Johnson yells the same four words that Cruise’s agent should have invoked when he considered taking this role: “what are you *thinking*?” It was the same sentence that kept popping into my head many times while watching Cruise in The Mummy, which squanders just about every good opportunity that comes its way and indulges in a host of bad opportunities that could have been avoided with even a modest degree of common sense.

Cruise stars as Nick Morton, a brash soldier turned smuggler who gets in over his head when he accidentally uncovers the tomb of the ancient Egyptian princess Ahmanet (Sofia Boutella) with his partner Chris (Johnson) and chief archaeologist Jenny Halsey (Annabelle Wallis). While transporting the sarcophagus on a military plane, a massive wave of crows causes a violent crash that leaves no survivors with the exception of Jenny, who is parachuted off the plane before it goes down, and Nick, who is seemingly cursed by Ahmanet’s ghost. The pair team up with Dr. Henry Jekyll (Russell Crowe), head of a secret society called Prodigium whose goal is to rid the world of supernatural evil, to contain Ahmanet before her plans to unleash the Egyptian god Set on the world can be carried out.

The Mummy is to be the first film in Universal’s Dark Universe, which is an attempt to incorporate vintage movie monsters like Frankenstein and Dracula into an all-encompassing franchise complete with cloying callbacks and Easter eggs that feel like product placement for the future film entries instead of clever bits of fan service. On a corporate level, this is Universal’s rebuttal to Disney’s Marvel Universe and Warner Bros’ DC Universe but the effort to emulate the world-building tactics used by those studios is as tacky as it is transparent. There’s something profoundly arrogant and cynical about making a movie that is as shamelessly mechanical and soulless as this while also presuming that the audience is already on board with more installments before they’ve even had a chance to experience the first entry.

Even if you strip away the context of Hollywood’s incessant addiction to franchise filmmaking, there’s still plenty in The Mummy that would qualify it as a total non-starter even if its mission was to just be a standalone popcorn flick. The script is nothing short of a disaster, rife with inane, ear-scraping dialogue so witless that it’s a miracle the actors could muster the courage to deliver the lines to one another and with characters so thinly written that they slip through one’s fingers like a fistful of sand. The director Alex Kurtzman is known primarily as a screenwriter for big budget fare like the Transformers and Star Trek series but in his first attempt at heading up such a spectacle, he fails to tell a comprehensible story or deliver any action sequences (save for the plane crash) that have any sort of momentum or vigor.

Still, much of the blame can rightly be put on Cruise, who turns in a charisma-free performance so listless that I wondered if he had been working through a concussion or two from bouncing around in zero gravity for his stunt work. I suppose it doesn’t help that he is saddled with a bumbling fool of a character who spends most of the story confused or defeated and the decision to misuse the talents of such a bankable star was likely embedded from the outset by executives at Universal who didn’t care if Cruise would be a good fit as long as the box office numbers could justify it. It’s too early to tell if they’ll learn their lesson this time around but if The Mummy is an indication of how the rest of the Dark Universe is going to play out, then we have a long dark road ahead of us.

It Comes At Night ***|****

Joel Edgerton and Christopher Abbott in It Comes At Night

It Comes At Night is writer/director Trey Edward Shults’ follow-up to his superb debut Krisha and stars Joel Edgerton as a former teacher named Paul who lives in a desolate house in the woods with his wife Sarah (Carmen Ejogo) and teenage son Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) as they fight against a mysterious virus that has seemingly wiped out most of humanity. A stranger named Will (Christopher Abbott) breaks into their house scavenging for supplies one night but after interrogating him, Paul learns that he has a family close by who are depending on him for survival. As a family man himself, Paul empathizes with Will’s situation and offers his house to the new family but seeds of mistrust and paranoia planted early on during their residency are eventually sown to devastating effect.

With its deliberate pacing and haunting imagery, It Comes At Night has discernible elements of both horror and thriller genres but the end result is something much more illusive and difficult to categorize with one neat label (this might explain why the marketing was a bit all over the place). There are some surprising scary moments and plenty of tense scenes as well but the film doesn’t move like any kind of conventional post-apocalyptic tale that we’ve seen so far, even if it does have a few of the genre’s nagging cliches. It’s defined more by mood and tone than any specific narrative choices as Shults casts a perpetual state of unrest across a cast of characters that seem to constantly be at wit’s end amidst increasingly dire circumstances.

While there are some clues early on as to what may be happening, there’s an intentional ambiguity to both the circumstances of the characters and the presumed threat that they are facing, which some will find maddening and others could find refreshing. I personally found myself at both ends of the spectrum while taking this movie in; I’m certainly not someone that needs to be spoon-fed exposition just to know what’s going on but I can also appreciate the need to set-up bits of background so that the payoffs can land more effectively. The push for more veiled storytelling seems to be built into the design of the film, as Shults has stated in interviews that he wanted the audience to know as much as the characters themselves know so that we can effectively feel like we’re a part of the story and not just experiencing it as passive viewers.

Even if the lack of clues were to leave one frustrated, it’s difficult to deny that It Comes At Night is masterful on nearly every technical level but especially in the lighting and location work, which contribute greatly to the ominous feeling of dread that is inescapable during the course of the movie. The decision to cast each scene primarily with either daylight or with limited illumination from lanterns is integral to creating a feeling of hopelessness, as every setting seems to be coated with the very thing that we’re taught to distrust. The set design of secluded stronghold seems to be maximized for discomfort as we witness characters crouch down just to make it through certain doorways or huddle closely together so that they can fit as one on top of the same bed.

In his first two features, Shults has demonstrated a deeply personal brand of filmmaking that is all too rare even in independent cinema but while Krisha seemed to have a more cathartic sense of purpose, it’s hard to tell exactly what he’s trying to say with this new venture. It’s a sorrowful tale about the terrors of facing the unknown and the darkest impulses that infect human nature but the kind of heartfelt connection to the material that was so evident in his debut is now shrouded by this nightmarish filter. Despite some of these more esoteric misgivings, It Comes At Night is an effective arthouse horror-thriller that will no doubt have people talking (and hopefully thinking) long after the credits roll.

Wonder Woman **½|****

Gal Gadot in Wonder Woman

After a tease of an appearance in the generally awful Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, DC has now given Wonder Woman a proper introduction into their Extended Universe with a standalone film that properly honors the principles behind the character even when it’s frustratingly conventional in its execution. While Wonder Woman is obviously groundbreaking as a female-led entry into a movie genre dominated by male protagonists, it feels slavishly devoted to the plot devices and story beats that we’ve seen in better superhero films over the years. Patty Jenkins hasn’t directed a feature since 2003’s Monster and like that masterpiece, she again builds the architecture of the film around a magnetic lead performance from an actress who’s fiercely committed to the material.

The actress in this instance is Gal Gadot, returning in the title role as we learn more about her backstory as Diana on the magical island Themyscira, where she grew up training to become a powerful Amazonian warrior even though her mother Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen) warns her of the corrupting nature of war. After World War I pilot Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) crashes on the coast of their sacred island, Diana saves his life and vows to venture into the mortal realm with him in order to stop the god of war Ares, who she believes to be behind the worldwide conflict. Meanwhile, the nefarious German general Ludendorff (Danny Huston) assists chemical expert Dr. Maru (Elena Anaya) in developing a more potent form of mustard gas that’s able to penetrate through the gas masks of Allied soldiers.

What’s most important in a movie that deals with such an iconic figure is that it does justice to the original conception of the character and thankfully, Wonder Woman certainly does not fall short in that category. Her essence is perfectly captured in an excellent Gadot performance filled with a sense of endearing innocence and naïveté but also with an unwavering loyalty to the guiding principles that she feels will make the world a better place for everyone. The original juxtaposition of a character who regards humans with an unbridled sense of empathy and wonder against the backdrop of the ugly trench warfare of WWI that showcases mankind at its most brutal was a brilliant way to conceptualize and in some ways re-contextualize Wonder Woman for the big screen.

While the core concept and conflict remains strong throughout its lengthy runtime, Wonder Woman has basic issues in pacing and plotting that are evident even from the opening scene, which introduces a modern-day framing device that never pays off and then transitions into a sluggish first act that manages to hit just about every trope associated with superhero origin stories. When the action picks up, the fight scenes are generally well managed but the computer generated effects don’t mesh as well as they should and Jenkins makes liberal use of the speed ramping film technique that producer Zack Snyder has done to death in his superhero entries. His influence is also felt throughout the film’s final showdown too, which is a slightly more palatable rehash of the interminable macho beat down present in 2009’s Man of Steel.

Marvel comparisons seem inevitable when discussing superhero movies these days and with its fish-out-of-water story set amongst a World War backdrop, it’s hard not to see echoes of Thor and especially of Captain America: The First Avenger in this DC entry. Plot elements aside, the more vital impact that Marvel has had on this series revolves more around this film’s overall feel and tone, which eschews DC’s predilection for self-serious and dour storytelling in favor of a lighter and more humane touch. Wonder Woman undoubtedly represents a step in the right direction for DC’s universe (though I’m sure I’m in a very limited minority of those who approved of Suicide Squad) and though it has its flaws as a standalone film, at least it strengthens the foundation of a crucial Justice League member.