Jinn (2018)


East meets west.

(2018) Drama (Orion) Simone Missick, Zoe Renee, Hisham Tawfiq, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Dorian Missick, Kelly Jenrette, Ashlei Foushee, Maya Morales, Upasana Beharee, Damien D. Smith, Horace Dodd, John Zderko, Emily Adams, Megan Clancy, Kobie Dozier, Matthew Excel, Gabriel Garzaro, Sara Kamine, Mike C. Manning, Fahad Olayan, Che Ladon, Evelyn Smith, Kat Purgal. Directed by Nijla Mu’min

We use the term “coming of age” blithely when it comes to movies, but in reality, it is no easy thing. It is often excruciatingly painful and difficult to manage even under perfect circumstances. As we all know, circumstances are rarely perfect.

Summer Jennings (Renee) looks to have a near-perfect life. A beautiful African-American girl in her senior year in high school, she is in love with dance and is hoping to get in to Cal Arts. Her mother, Jade (S. Missick) has been divorced from her dad for a while, but she has a great job as a local TV meteorologist. Summer has a dance team – a clique, really – and plenty of friends.

Jade feels like she’s missing something in her life and one day decides to go to a mosque. She is received warmly there, particularly by the Imam (Tawfiq) and after an afternoon of prayers and reading the Koran, decides to convert to Islam. At first, with the school talent show coming up, Summer barely notices but the more Jade gets into it, the more zeal she has. She insists that Summer also convert and Summer does, but Summer is exploring her sexuality, as teenage girls will, and trying to fit her new religion into the life she’s used to. Her attraction to Tahir (Harrison), the son of another single mom at the mosque (Jenrette) further complicates things.

First time writer-director Mu’min based the script on her own experiences growing up in Oakland (the story is transplanted to Los Angeles) and in the richly drawn Summer the experience shows. Renee is quite a find, rarely making a misstep in her performance, showing a lot of maturity in her body language and in her choices. She is definitely a talent to look out for.

There is a feeling of authenticity to the relationships Summer has and the choices that she makes. Summer is not always the ideal daughter – she can be casually cruel to her friends and her burgeoning sexuality causes her to make some poor choices, but Summer is basically a decent young girl trying to find herself amidst all the hormones and most teens will certainly see some common ground with their own experiences, particularly African-American girls but I think regardless of ethnic background, there is some insight to be had here even if you are not a teen any longer.

The movie treats Islam with respect, something that is kind of rare these days. It is portrayed here as a kind and compassionate belief system. Yes, Jade does tend to go overboard with the strict adherence but that tends to be true of any convert to a new religion. We do see Jade having to cope with her station’s reluctance to allow her on the air wearing a head scarf, but the anti-Islam hysteria that has swept the nation over the past 20 years isn’t referred to much, just obliquely.

This is a very good film, although it is bound to make a lot of far right sorts apoplectic. The title refers to a mythical creature that changes its form, and refers to Summer, who is throughout the film trying new looks, new hairstyles (you could make a drinking game out of the various colors she dyes her hair). That is another part of being a teenage girl, finding a look that expresses who they are. This movie ought to help some girls, searching for an identity, to bring their choices into focus.

REASONS TO SEE: Strong movie for teens, particularly African-American girls.
REASONS TO AVOID: Tends to lean towards the soap opera side.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity as well as sexual content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Dorian Missick, who play’s Jade’s ex-husband David, is married to Simone Missick (who plays Jade) in real life.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Google Plus, Microsoft, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/10/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 95% positive reviews, Metacritic: 70/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Waves
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
Rewind

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White Lie


There’s nothing worse than a bald-faced liar.

(2019) Drama (Film Forge) Kacey Rohl, Amber Anderson, Martin Donovan, Thomas Olajide, Connor Jessup, Sharon Lewis, Christine Horne, Darrin Baker, Zahra Bentham, Shanice Banton, Spencer Glassman, Hershel Blatt, Carolina Bartczak, Matthew Owen, Dedra McDermott, Julia Knope, Tameka Griffiths, Deborah Tennant, Jamilah Ross, Lanette Ware. Directed by Yonah Lewis and Calvin Thomas

“O, what a tangled web we weave/when first we practice to deceive” said Scottish author Walter Scott and he had the right of it. As we have seen from the behavior of our President, eventually the truth shall find you out, something that as parents we try to instill in our children. It doesn’t always work.

Katie Arneson (Rohl) is a campus celebrity at her Ontario university. Majoring in dance, she is managing to keep up her studies despite undergoing chemo treatment for an aggressive cancer that she has been fighting for a couple of years. She has received some help from charitable events held in her honor to help defray her expenses but it is a daunting task to face, particularly when your mother is deceased and your father isn’t a part of your life anymore. She is determined to survive, however and the truth is that the only thing that could stop Katie from beating cancer is the fact that she doesn’t have it.

That’s right; she’s made the whole thing up, fooling her professors, donors, classmates and even her girlfriend Jennifer (Anderson) who has been one of her staunchest supporters. However, a foundation supplying a much-needed grant that will ensure that her education is paid for is requiring some medical information which of course she doesn’t have. Her solution is to find a doctor willing to falsify records for her and she finds one in Jabari Jordan (Olajide) but first she needs to meet his price to supply the documents, which means she has to approach her father Doug (Donovan) for the two thousand needed – and let’s just say he is skeptical about her state of health and as it turns out, has good reason to be.

The movie has an almost thriller-like tone and the reason is largely Rohl, who takes a part that is absolutely unsympathetic and manages to turn the audience in her favor. Even as we hate what she’s doing, we still root for her not to get caught. A Hollywood production might have had her discovering the error of her ways and making amends but thank God for independent films because the director team of Lewis and Thomas don’t go that route. Rather, they explore the repercussions of her actions.

The largely discordant score gets intrusive at times, but this is offset by the fine eye of the directors and cinematographer Christopher Lew who utilize bleak, wintry backgrounds, cold grey skies and sterile hospital/doctor’s office environments (often overexposed to further highlight the bleakness of the environment) to give a sense of the world Katie inhabits. She desires the money she’s getting out of it, of course – a girl’s gotta eat, even if they ARE on chemo (sort of) – but moreover she desires the attention, the sympathy, the feeling of being enveloped by caring people, something she never apparently got from her Dad who eventually blows the whistle on her, causing her world to crash down around her.

The ending is actually pretty nifty although it is stretched out a bit too long by the writer-directors, but aside from that quibble the movie is a fine piece of cinematic work. It hasn’t gotten the attention of a distributor despite having played at last year’s Toronto Film Festival, but something tells me that sooner rather than later that is a situation that will be remedied. In the meantime, seek it out at your local film festival.

REASONS TO SEE: A timely subject in the era of “alternative facts.” Morbidly fascinating.
REASONS TO AVOID: The nifty ending is dragged out a bit too long.
FAMILY VALUES: The film contains profanity and some sexual situations.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Katie Arneson wasn’t based on a specific person but is an amalgam of a number of high-profile cases.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/14/20: Rotten Tomatoes:100% positive reviews: Metacritic: 78/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Lie
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Over the Rainbow

Putzel


So long and thanks for all the fish.

So long and thanks for all the fish.

(2012) Romantic Comedy (Stouthearted) Jack Carpenter, Melanie Lynskey, John Pankow, Susie Essman, Jarlath Conroy, Armando Riesco, Allegra Cohen, Steve Park, Adrian Martinez, Fred Berman, Fran Kranz, Ashley Austin Morris, Sondra James, Robert Klein (voice), Elizabeth Masucci. Directed by Jason Chaet

 Florida Film Festival 2013

There are those who believe that the most Jewish place on Earth is Manhattan’s Upper West Side, Israel notwithstanding. There is some credence to that. It certainly remains the center of what most Americans think of as American Jewish culture and it is my understanding that most American Jews regard it with some fondness, even if they have never lived there.

Walter (Carpenter) lives there. Actually, very few people call him Walter – everyone calls him Putzel – little putz – and have done since he was a young kid. Walter has ambitions. Walter has dreams. He works at Himmelstein’s and everyone knows that for smoked fish, Himmelstein’s. His Uncle Sid (Pankow) is running the place but Sid has no kids and Walter wants to inherit the store so bad he can taste it and let’s face it, it tastes like lox.

Walter’s wife Willa (Cohen) has left him. She’s been cheating on him with the amiable Hector (Martinez) who doesn’t see the problem. Walter also has a phobia – he’s incapable of leaving the Upper West Side. When he gets to the boundary, he freezes up. It’s like an invisible force field that prevents his egress into the murky waters beyond. Here there be dragons.

Still, Walter is pretty sure things will eventually go his way. Sid is talking about retiring with his wife Gilda (Essman) to Arizona, and the good-hearted Gilda has always treated Walter like the son she never had, particularly as Walter’s parents both passed away when he was very young. Walter is determined to show he deserves to inherit the store – in fact, who else is there? Song (Park), the Korean blade man who cuts the fish and loves what he does but he isn’t family. Neither is Tunch (Berman) who loves the fish a little too much.

A monkey wrench is thrown into Walter’s plans with the arrival of Sally (Lynskey), a sweet and fragile barmaid who dreams of being a dancer. Sid promptly falls head over heels for her and suddenly his plans to retire with Gilda to Arizona are thrown into chaos. Walter realizes that if he is to inherit the store and achieve all his dreams, he’ll have to sabotage Sid and Sally’s relationship but the more he tries to get them to do the right thing, the more he realizes that he’s in love with Sally.

This is sweet-tempered and slightly neurotic. If you didn’t know better, you’d swear this is some lost Woody Allen movie from the 70s that was strangely transplanted into the 21st century. While not in the same league as Allen’s best work of the era, it is at least comparable and those who love Manhattan and Annie Hall will do back flips when they see this – at least those who aren’t using walkers these days.

The cast is solid and charming to a man (and woman). Lynskey, who has become a highly in-demand actress on the indie circuit, seems destined to break into mainstream success. She’s pretty, has terrific comic timing, and is able to convey strength and vulnerability with equal ease. She reminds me very much of Zooey Deschanel at a similar place in her career.

I’m not sure if Carpenter is Jewish or not but he certainly captures the idiosyncrasies of a nice Jewish kid from the Upper West Side nicely – the sense of humor, the romantic awkwardness – the sex scene with Walter and Sally may be the un-sexiest sex scene ever filmed and yet the most authentic –  and the inner decency. If he’s a bit neurotic, well, it kind of goes with the territory.

I was also impressed with the work of veteran actress Susie Essman who plays the kind Gilda – maybe the most level-headed character in the movie. She seems to be the soul of the family here and Essman, who has always been an actress who conveys warmth and caring, is tailor-made for the role.

Even if you don’t have lox running through your veins or a soul of gefilte fish you can still find plenty of reasons to love this charming, quirky movie whether it is for the moments of unexpected inappropriateness or the sweet charm that never gets cloying, like too much Manischewitz wine. Given the solid performances and the overall environment created, this can appeal to the Jewishness in all of us.

REASONS TO GO: Charming and gives a good sense of the Upper West Side. Funny and offbeat in places.

REASONS TO STAY: Occasionally inappropriate for younger audiences. May confound goyim.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is some foul language and some sexuality, some of it with fish.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Lox is a fillet of brined salmon (although commonly confused with smoked salmon which is a different dish entirely) and the name is derived from the Yiddish word for salmon, laks.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/10/13: Rotten Tomatoes: no score yet. Metacritic: no score yet.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Apprenticeship of Dudley Kravitz

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: This is Where We Live and further coverage of the 2013 Florida Film Festival!

Paris


Paris

Romain Duris contemplates his mortality.

(2008) Romantic Drama (IFC) Juliette Binoche, Romain Duris, Fabrice Luchini, Albert Dupontel, Francois Cluzet, Karin Viard, Melanie Laurent, Gilles Lellouche, Julie Ferrier. Directed by Cedric Klapish

The heartbeat of a city is often inaudible to those who live in it and are caught up in the dull roar of their daily lives. Those who are able to hear it often bestow a love upon their city that nothing can shake.

Director Cedric Klapish is one of the lucky ones who know the rhythms of Paris intimately. Renowned for such films as L’auberge espagnol, Klapish is a master of finding the intricacies of life and breaking them down into simple stories.

Pierre (Duris) is dying. He is a dancer whose heart is giving out. Without a transplant, he will inevitably die. His sister Elise (Binoche) who has just endured a heartrending divorce, moves in with him along with her two children so that she can better care for her brother who grows weak easily.

Mostly he stares down at the city from his apartment balcony, observing the comings and goings in the neighborhood with the immense Rungis open-air food market, or in the many cafes that serve as the living rooms of Paris. And there are so many stories to tell, like the middle aged professor of history (Luchini) who falls deeply for one of his students (Laurent), sending her anonymous text messages worthy of de Bergerac (if Cyrano were alive today, do you think he would text fair Roxanne?) while navigating a difficult relationship with his brother Philippe (Cluzet), who being married with children and with a successful business seems to have much more than the professor does, even though he is hosting a television program on the history of the city.

There’s also a highly opinionated baker (Viand) who against her better judgment hires a West African worker who turns out to be much more than she bargained for. There’s a very civilized divorced couple whose lives are drifting apart, and who, they find, are terrified of the prospect.

If an American director had been given this material to direct, he would have intersected these lives, making sure they all interrelated because that is all the style these days. Klapish ignores the temptation in favor of making their lives parallel. The only time they come close to interacting is during one of the final scenes when one of the characters is being driven down a road in a taxi and passes them all along the way at various points in his route. It is a marvelous scene in which Klapish seems to be commenting about the fragile connections we have.

The cast is marvelous, all of them well-known in France. Binoche is in my mind the epitome of the French woman; smart, sexy and compassionate with a wonderful sense of irony. It is my studied opinion that as French women become older, they become more alluring. That is the opposite of Hollywood’s way of thinking; as American women get older they become disposable and marginalized. She is wonderful here, not one of her greatest performances but definitely a good one.

Duris also lends dignity to the role of the dying dancer. He’s not well-known in the U.S. but he’s a marvelous actor who has worked with Klapish throughout his professional life. He doesn’t reveal a lot going on with Pierre, but neither does he milk the pathos. He just hits all the right notes and gives the character dignity without relying too much on sympathy.

Klapish uses Paris as a backdrop and rather than dwell on the familiar sites, or go to grandiose with the imagery, he prefers to show the human side of Paris, allowing us to see the everyday lives of Parisians with an insider’s eye. There is a beauty to the look of the movie that is much more subtle, like an impressionist portrait in many ways.

Chicago Tribune critic Michael Phillips compared this to Love, Actually and he’s right on the money, although it’s a subtle comparison – the central theme in that film is love and here it is life, although a true Parisian would argue they are one and the same. Here, one sees the heart of Paris through the eyes of someone who loves the City of Light very much – and instills in those who watch the same feelings.

WHY RENT THIS: The central story is riveting and this slice of Parisian life is worth consuming. 

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Too many threads, not all of them absolutely necessary.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some rough language and sexuality here, and some thematic issues that are a little bit heavy.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Romain Duris’ sister is noted pianist Caroline Duris.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $23.3M on an unreported production budget; the movie made money.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

TOMORROW: Dear John