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Directed by Kogonada

      Casey (Haley Lu Richardson), works at the library and has a passion for architecture. She still lives with her single mother (Michelle Forbes), in Columbus, Indiana (not Ohio), but grapples with the decision of whether or not to finally leave her hometown. Jin (John Cho), the son of an architecture professor, meets Casey and the two of them gradually form a friendship with one another as they converse. He also has a potential love interest in an older woman (Parkey Posey), his father's colleague, while Gabriel (Rory Culkin) flirts with Casey.

      Columbus is a complex, wise, and profoundly human drama with a deceptively lean premise. Writer/director Kogonada, unlike many modern directors, trusts the audience's intelligence, imagination, and patience concurrently. He understands the power of quiet moments and how slow, but not sluggish, pacing can allow patient audience members to fully absorb the poetic images and thought-provoking dialogue. Fortunately, the dialogue itself feels organic without any stiltedness or pretensiousness; there's one conversation about attention span that veers into pretension as the film becomes self-aware, but that moment is ephemeral. Columbus' emotional hook, though, is Casey and Jinn. Casey finds herself at a major turning point in her life as she toys with the possibility of unchaining herself to her mother, so-to-speak. Their relationship may not seem toxic at first, but its dysfunction and toxicity gradually rise to the surface. As the saying goes, the bird has to leave the nest at some point if it wants to learn how to survive autonomously.

      Casey's relationship with Jin also can be found in the gray area: are they merely friends or more than just friends? Jin, just like Casey, goes through a turning point in his life as well: his estranged, gravely ill father might pass away soon, and he's unsure of whether or not to romance his father's colleague whom he always had a crush on. By the end of the film, both Casey and Jin make crucial decisions as they've each undergo an epiphany with the help of each other. Kogonada doesn't tie every subplot neatly with a bow, so you'll find a few unanswered questions lingering after the end credits role, but that's alright because this isn't the kind of film that spoon-feeds its audience as it were a baby. In other words, it's a movie for adults. Do you remember the days when films for adults used to rule the marketplace? Sadly, those days are long-gone, so it's refreshing when a film like Columbus comes along to remind you of the good 'ole days of American cinema.

      Perhaps not surprisingly, architecture plays a big role in Columbus, so perceptive audiences members will have a lot to feast their eyes on as the camera lingers on an interesting-looking building with an equally interesting interior design. Can the architecture be seen as a metaphor for something? If so, then for what? Kogonada leaves those answers up to you. It would probably make a difference if you see the film on the big screen to fully immerse yourself in the set design and cinematography; unlike some dramas, it would lose some of its visual power on the small screen. At a running time of 1 hour and 44 minutes, Columbus is quietly moving, provocative, and refreshingly understated. It's the most wise and visually striking film since La Sapienza which also used architecture in a compelling way.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Now playing at IFC Center.

Marie Curie

Directed by Marie Noelle

      Marie Curie (Karolina Gruszka) and her husband, Pierre (Charles Berling), received the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1903. Pierre, who was also her research partner, died in a tragic accident leaving her with research that she had to complete on her own and with their two children to take care of. She continued to do research while developing a forbidden romance with Paul Langevin (Arieh Worthalter), a married scientist, which became a scandal just when she was about to receive a Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1911.

      Karolina Gruszka gives a bravura, tour de force performance as Marie Curie. She manages to find the emotional truth of her role while opening window into the character's soul. That window, so-to-speak, would not have existed were it not for the well-written, sensitive screenplay by writer/director Marie Noelle and Andrew Stroll which remains in humanism, a truly special effect, from start to finish. Bravo to them for not overstuffing the film with every stage of Marie Curie's life; they focus on Marie Curie during her adult life, on her human relationships, and on her psychological state of mind, although you do get a bit of a glimpse of her brilliant mind at work. It's interesting to observe how the filmmakers trust the audience's imagination by not showing certain crucial scenes, i.e. the death of Pierre. In other words, you experience his death from Marie's perspective and remain engrossed by the emotional grittiness instead of being shocked by physical violence.

      Part of what makes Marie's character so compelling and even inspirational is her perservance after her husband dies. You do get to see her going through the process of grieving and suffering, but she doesn't let that get in the way of her passion for science. Not only does she learn to overcome her grief, she also learns to stand her ground and to fight for her rights as a woman in a male-dominated field. Not only did she want to be treated and recognized fairly as a woman, but also for her husband to be recognized equally without him being excluded. She's a true "wonder woman." That doesn't mean that she's not fallible, though, especially when it comes to engaging in a relationship with colleague who's still married, but that doesn't make her any more or less likable; she's just a fallible human being who follows her heart's desire. Everyone can relate to that in some way.

      The exquisite cinematography and stylish editing help to enrich the film even further while make it more cinematic and atmospheric concurrently. The pace moves briskly; this is by no means a slow-burning or lethargic biopic. Every scene feels vibrant. One caveat, though, is that the use of split screen during one scene goes a bit too stylistically and takes away from the realism, but, fortunately, it's a very minor, ephemeral, and forgivable flaw. Much of the visuals look haunting, symbolic and breathtaking without being pretentious. At an ideal running time of 1 hour and 40 minutes, Marie Curie, is mesmerizing, heartfelt and powerful with an Oscar-worthy performance by Karolina Gruszka. It's one of the best films of the of the year.

Number of times I checked my watch: 2
Now playing at Angelika Film Center and Lincoln Plaza Cinemas.

      The American Media & The Second Assassination of John F. Kennedy is a searing, enraging, and eye-opening documentary about how Jim Garrison, New Orleans' District Attorney from 1962-1973, had set out to prove, using the American justice system, that the CIA was actually behind the assassination of JFK on November 22nd, 1963, and that the mainstream media was responsible for covering up the truth with fake news/propaganda. Essentially, the mainstream media were like "Good Germans." Garrison was far from a Good German, though, as he dared to question the Warren Commission report which included very weak and even fabricated evidence that pointed to Lee Harvey Oswald as the lone gunman. He was not afraid to kick the hornet's nest, so-to-speak. The CIA wanted the public to believe that the bullet that killed JFK entered through the back of his head instead of the front like expert pathologists had observed but were suppressed. No one in the media questioned why JFK's motorcade route's plan was changed at the very last minute or why the car's bubble top was removed---or who made those decisions to begin with.

      Director John Barbour blends archival footage from his 3-hour interview with Jim Garrison as well as video of the Zapruder tape, interviews with witnesses, and clips which show concrete evidence of how the mainstream media mislead the public with false information. There's even a clip of Noam Chomsky making a very callous statement about how little he cares about the JFK assassination or who was behind it. It's very suspicious that many witnesses and people related to the investigation died of "suspect" suicides after the assassination while no witnesses died during other well-known investigations like the O.J. Simpson murder case. Bravo to Jim Garisson and John Barbour for being true patriots, unlike the mainstream media who's has been and still is in bed with the U.S. government. The government is essentially a pimp while the mainstream media serves as its prostitutes. Media figures, i.e. Dan Rather, who helped the government spread misinformation to cover-up the truth about JFK's assassination became more wealthy and successful.

      The film's running time of 2 hours and 10 minutes might seem a bit lengthy at first, but it does cover a lot of ground, and there's never a dull moment to be found. The crisp, fast-paced editing also helps to enliven the film. The narration by Barbour himself is humourous and witty at times---humor, after all, is a great way of hooking audiences. In other words, he manages to find just the right balance between entertaining the audience and provoking them emotionally as well as intellectually just like a truly great documentary ought to do. By the end of the film, you will never look at the mainstream media nor the CIA the same way again. Consider it your patriotic duty to see The American Media & The Second Assassination of John F. Kennedy. The film can now be found on Amazon VOD.

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.
Now playing at Lincoln Plaza Cinemas and Cinema Village.

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.
Now playing at select theaters. Opens in September 2017 at Lincoln Plaza Cinemas.
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