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The Women's Balcony

Directed by Emil Ben-Shimon




      Zion (Igal Naor) and his wife, Ettie (Evelin Hagoel), belong to an Orthodox community in Jerusalem. When they attend the Bar Mitzvah of their grandson at the synagogue, the balcony where the women pray at collapses all-of-a-sudden, injuring the rabbi's wife and leaving the rabbi so depressed that he's unable to continue working. Ultra-Orthodox Rabbi David (Avraham Aviv Alush) steps up to the plate as the new rabbi and creates a rift in the community after requiring women to observe modesty rules, i.e. covering their hair. He also gets rid of the women's balcony when the synagogue re-opens. The women refuse to obey Rabbi David, and raise money to build a new balcony, but that task becomes easier said than done when he stands in their way of reaching their goal.

      The Women's Balcony effectively establishes its gently comedic tone from first few scenes as Ettie and Zion arrive at their grandson's Bar Mitzvah. Etti realizes that she forgot to bring candy that's supposed to be thrown from the balcony as part of the tradition. The tragic collapse of the balcony and the conflicts that arise in the aftermath are balanced by the many humorous, witty scenes found throughout the film. Screenwriter Shlomit Nehama clearly understands that comedy is derived from tragedy as she blends both with a light touch. Each of the characters feels like complex human beings instead of one-dimensional caricatures. Ettie and her friends, Margalit (Einat Saruf) and Ora (Sharon Elimelech), have different personalities that make them distinguishable, unique, and true-to-life.

      Even though the plot takes mostly predictable turns, so what? It still offers some satisfying surprises along the way. For instance, Etti's delicious fruit salad, which you might consider to be insignificant at first, becomes something much more meaningful in the third act. As Ebert once wisely observed, what a film's plot is about is not as important as how the film goes about its plot. Fortunately, Nehama grasps the importance of grounding The Women's Balcony in humanism from start to finish. She wisely avoids preachiness, schmaltz and lethargy. The fact that the screenplay never becomes tonally uneven is yet another testament to its many strengths. The ending is uplifting, but it earns its uplift.

      A large part of the film's warmth and charm comes from the well-chosen actresses who portray the women who bravely battle against the new rabbi's fundamentalism. Evelin Hagoel shines the brightest, but the other actresses also get their own chance to radiate warmth and charisma. At an ideal running time of 1 hour and 36 minutes, which feels more like 1 hour, The Women's Balcony is a crowd-pleasing, charming delight brimming with genuine warmth, wit, humor, and tenderness. If only more films were to have such rich and lively roles for older women! It's a cause for celebration!



Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by Menemsha Films.
Opens May 26th, 2017 at Lincoln Plaza Cinemas and Quad Cinema.

Year by the Sea

Directed by Alexander Janko




      Joan Anderson (Karen Allen) decides to rent a house along the beach on Cape Cod after her husband, Robin (Michael Cristofer), relocates to Kansas because of work and her two adult children finally move out of house. She hopes to begin writing again while finding peace of mind far away from her family. John Cahoon (Yannick Bisson), a fisherman, befriends her and agrees to hire her, temporarily, at his local fish market. When she meets Joan Erikson (Celia Imre), who's grieving the loss of her husband, psychologist Erik Erikson, Joan Anderson's quest to find true happiness and to get to know herself officially begins.

      Based on the memoir by Joan Anderson, Year by the Sea is an enchanting, warm, wise and profoundly moving film brimming with humanism, a truly special effect that's rare to find these days in American films. Writer/director Alexander Janko finds just the right balance between entertaining the audience and provoking them emotionally as well as intellectually. Many scenes feel relatable and ring true. Janko also knows how to introduce characters in a way that's compelling, i.e. how Joan Anderson meets Joan Erikson in a dream-like sequence on the foggy shores of Cape Cod. Right away you're able to grasp how witty and wise Erikson is. Janko handles the many scenes of Anderson attaining enlightenment gracefully without veering into preachiness. He also avoids turning the emotionally resonant scenes into sappiness.

      Anyone who calls Year by the Sea conventional or formulaic isn't paying close enough attention to the many little surprises that come along, including a revelation about Joan Anderson's literary agent, Liz (S. Epatha Merkerson), and how Anderson doesn't yield to the temptations of cheating on her husband, Robin, even though she could have if she wanted to. The way that she helps a waitress, Luce (Monique Curnen), to deal with her abusive, alcoholic husbands speaks volumes about how kind, selfless and considerate she is as a human being. Janko includes other telling details about her Anderson's character like when her husband suddenly laughs at something that he thought about. Instead of acting offended or shocked by saying "Stop laughing!", she asks him, with genuine compassion and a healthy dose of curiosity, "What's so funny?" Small, beautiful scene like that are part of what makes Year by the Sea such a treasure behold.

      The scenery of Cape Cod becomes a character in itself with many awe-inspiring shots that would be best experienced on the big screen. The well-chosen music also helps to enrich the film. Moreover, each of the supporting characters feels lived-in, complex and interesting enough to even be turned into a protagonist. Although Anderson's husband does have flaws, he's far from a villain and has many redeeming qualities. The same can be said for Luce's abusive husband (Tyler Haines). Even the homeless man who shows up at the fish market to receive free food from John has an interesting backstory about how he became homeless. Janko clearly understands that the more specific a story is, the more universal it becomes. He also finds the right balance between light and dark elements---yes, many scenes are uplifting, but there's also some gentle, underlying sadness and tragedy lurking beneath the surface. Just like life itself, it would be difficult and unfair to lump Year by the Sea into a genre.

      The talented Karen Allen anchors Year By the Sea with her radiance. She gives the best performance of her career, and Janko allows for her shine thanks to the beautifully-written screenplay. It's also quite refreshing for a modern film to have such a complex role for an actress, and to watch a film that can't be turned into a video game or that doesn't rely on sex or violence as a means of entertaining the audience. In a less sensitively-written film, the character of Joan Anderson would have had no inner life; in Year By the Sea you can grasp her inner life from start to finish which makes the film all the more exceptional, poignant and unforgettable. At a running time of 1 hour and 54 minutes, which breezes by like an hour, Year by the Sea is a life-affirming, breathtaking, and inspirational film that will nourish your heart, mind and soul. It's the perfect antidote to Hollywood's blockbusters. What a triumph! It would make for a great double feature with Under the Tuscan Sun, 45 Years and Muriel's Wedding.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by Real Women Make Waves.
Opens Friday at select theaters.
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Avi Offer
The NYC Movie Guru
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