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Reviews for January 3rd, 2020

Documentary Round-Up






      Advocate is compelling documentary about Lea Tsemel, a Jewish-Israel lawyer who defends Palestinians accused of terrorism. She understands the harsh truth that the justice system in Israel is rigged against Palestians, so she tries her best to provide her clients with fair trial. Co-directors Rachel Leah Jones and Philippe Bella´che get full access to Tsemel at her office. You get to see how hard-working, articulate, blunt and assertive she is as well as smart, stubborn and persistent. She loses one of her assistants who quits after she tells him to "eat shit," so she's not someone who can tolerate bullshit. From the very beginning, Tsemel makes it clear that she cares about human rights. Part of her job is getting to know her clients and their families thereby humanizing them. She's a true humanist in every sense of the word and isn't afraid to be open-minded. It's too bad, then, that she's living in world that's close-minded and dehumanizing.

      The filmmakers are very lucky to have such compelling subject because Tsemel remains thoroughly fascinating. The same can be said about her childhood which explains how and why she has empathy for Palestians. Not surprisingly, her opponents and critics have used many harsh words to try to put her down, but according to archival footage from a televised interview with her, she takes their harsh criticisms as a compliment. She and her husband suffered a lot---her husband was even imprisoned and she became his lawyer. The fact that she continues to represent Palestinians despite always losing the cases is a testament to her unwavering optimism. Is that optimism realistic or naive? That's something left to the audience's intelligence to debate. It would've been interesting, though, had the filmmakers broadened the film a little by including the viewpoints of other brave, controversial critical thinkers like Norman Finkelstein who's known for comparing the Israeli occupation of the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza to the Nazi's occupation of Jews during WWII.

      Fortunately, the filmmakers don't pry into Tsemel's private life too much; you learn just enough about her marital life and the impact of her work on her children. They also wisely don't judge her or take sides; they film her mostly with fly-on-the-wall footage mixed with interviews and refreshing use of animation that makes the film more cinematic. At a running time of 108 minutes, Advocate is a provocative and empowering documentary about Lea Tsemel, a brave human rights lawyer fighting for justice, empathy, fairness and, above all, democracy. She's a gift to humanity. Advocate opens via Film Movement at Quad Cinema.


The Grudge

Directed by Nicolas Pesce




      áIn 2004, Fiona Landers (Tara Westwood) returns from Tokyo to her home in small town of Cross River, Pennssylvia where her husband, Sam (David Lawrence Brown), and young daughter, Melinda (Zoe Fish) who also reside there. She brings back with her the curse of a ghost that haunts anyone who enters the home. In 2005, Faith (Lin Shaye) and William (Frankie Faison) buy the house with the help of real estate agents, Peter (John Cho) and his wife, Nina (Betty Gilpin). They also suffer from the ghost's haunting. In 2006, Detective Muldoon (Andrea Riseborough) and her partner, Detective Goodman (Demian Bichir), enter the home to investigate a murder and also get tormented by the ghost.

      If you haven't figured it out by now, The Grudge has a plot that has too many characters, subplots and attempts at horror that quickly become repetitive with diminishing returns. Writer/director Nicolas Pesce tries to add some oomph to the film by telling the story non-linearly, but he barely introducing you to the characters and their dilemmas before quickly moving on to the ordeals of another couple at a different time. Pesce doesn't trust the audience's imagination, patience nor intelligence because everything can be easily telegraphed and there's nothing that's even remotely subtle. Did I mention that Peter and Nina's unborn son might have Adrenoleukodystrophy (ALD)? Or that Faith and William hire Lorna (Jacki Weaver) for an assisted suicide?

      There's so much going on in The Grudge, yet barely any of it sticks on any level. It's no fun to see great actors like Weaver, Riseborough and Bechir struggling to rise above such inane material that gives them too little humanism to work with. Even a horror film should be grounded in at least a little bit of realism, but in this case nothing really rings true, so there are no emotions at stake and it's hard to root for any of the characters. There's also not nearly enough comic relief, a element that's required in any horror film.

      Unfortunately, the most important star of the film, the horror, leaves you feeling underwhelmed as you learn very little about the evil ghost except that it continues to haunt and kill anyone who enters the house. The CGI effects aren't very impressive, and the brief scenes of gore look more disgusting than scary. Perhaps if Pesce were to have developed fleshed out the ghost more and offered new ideas, surprises, campiness or anything that would've enlivened it, The Grudge would've at least been guilty pleasure to sit through. To be fair, Pesce does include some stylish lighting and cinematography, although the editing does feel choppy occasionally. At a running time of 93 minutes, The Grudge an overstuffed, uncooked and underwhelming remake that's high on atmosphere, but too low on scares, suspense and intrigue.

Number of times I checked my watch: 4
Released by Screen Gems.
Opens nationwide.
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