By William Wolf

THE INSULT  Send This Review to a Friend

The year 2018 is barely underway, yet with “The Insult,” opening January 12, we already have a powerful film that deserves to be remembered when at the end of the year critics begin looking at films for best lists. The film is from Lebanon and has been directed by Ziad Doueiri, who co-wrote the screenplay with Joëlle Touma.

Cleverly constructed, “The Insult” begins early in the film with an argument between two men, Toni Hanna (Adel Karam), a Lebanese Christian enthusiastic about right-wing rhetoric and owner of a car repair garage, and Yasser Salameh (Kamel El Basha), a Palestinian refugee and construction foreman living in Lebanon but working illegally.

An argument with racial, nationalistic and political undertones between the two men leads to blows, and an insult, in which Toni tells Yasser that Ariel Sharon should have wiped “you all out.” The confrontation escalates until it soars on a national scale, as the conflict opens up wounds involving various factions and deep-seated resentments again the Palestinian population, some 10% of Lebanon’s residents.

An apology is ruled out of the question by the combatants, and soon, as the issue is exploited by the media and as a case heads to court, the men become symbols of nagging old wounds and explosive resentments, with a key revelation surfacing.

Other personal issues also simmer, as when it turns out that the lawyers facing each other on opposite sides in the courtroom drama that rages are father and daughter. (An unnecessary diversion?) We also learn about the personal lives of the combatants involved, and see their human reactions. Each is proud, but we sense that they might be moving toward a resolution if only pride could be swept aside.

The strength of “The Insult” lies partly in its deft storytelling, but also as a revelation of the deep-rooted conflicts in Lebanon, and compels us to look at the situation there. Yet the film never loses touch with the men at the core. That is both as a result of the astute screenplay and excellence of the key actors who make their characters bitingly real. That includes Camille Salameh and Diamand Abou Abboud portraying the opposing lawyers.

“The Insult” is definitely a distinguished film to see in your early 2018 movie-going. It is another example of the Cohen Media Group’s dedication to acquisition of important films. A Cohen Media Group release. Reviewed January 9, 2018.

THE POST  Send This Review to a Friend

Not only is “The Post” my choice for number one film of the year (see The Best Ten Films of 2017), but it earns special applause because it is so very timely. It deals with the battle of the Washington Post for the right to publish the Pentagon Papers, which exposed government duplicity hiding knowledge that there was no hope of winning the Vietnam War. Fortunately, the battle for a free press was won, a lesson of the utmost importance given the attacks on the press coming from President Trump. At the time, 1971, it was President Nixon who fought—and lost—his battle to stifle the Washington Post, along with the New York Times, when the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the right to publish.

Ideology aside, “The Post” succeeds as an exciting, well-acted and directed film that makes the issues and personalities involved come vividly alive. It is top notch drama directed by Steven Spielberg with his well-proven expertise. Spielberg knows how to make a movie sparkle, and, even though we know the outcome, he creates suspense as the presses are prepared to roll if given the go-ahead signal. He emphasizes the old ways of setting newspaper stories in linotype, thus aiding depiction of the step-by-step process and dramatic buildup.

There are memorable performances that ignite the fire. Tom Hanks is superb as Ben Bradlee, the Post editor who navigates the need to get the story out. Meryl Streep, in yet another example of her acting prowess, is great as the Post publisher Katharine Graham. Streep projects the burdensome conflict of risking the paper just as business-wise it is on the verge of going public with a stock offering. Her facial expressions and manner reflect the anxiety attached, with instincts telling Graham that she must take a stand for press freedom and the paper’s reputation for honesty no matter the financial cost, while close advisors are telling her the opposite.

There is also a feminist aspect, emphasized in the screenplay by Liz Hannah and Josh Singer. Graham came into the position as publisher after her husband Philip’s death by suicide. The film shows how she is disdained as a woman in that position, and in her performance Streep slowly demonstrates how Graham must assert her power, a power that she never sought in the first place. There is a thrill when she gives the order to publish, both as a blow for press freedom and as a blow on behalf of a woman defying the advice of supposedly savvy men on her board. Director Spielberg knows how to extract the most out of such a situation.

The film also dramatizes how Graham must deal with those in government with whom she has been socially friendly when publication of the Pentagon Papers will damage their reputations. “The Post” is excellent in portraying the unease that mounts in this respect, notably with her friendship with then Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood).

The supporting cast is first-rate, especially Matthew Rhyson as Daniel Ellsberg as “The Post” follows his theft of the papers and the secrecy involved. The film also clarifies the complexity of the issues—difficult to do in a movie—such as the possibility of being prosecuted for collusion with the New York Times. There is also newspaper competitiveness, depicted by Bradlee wanting to get a scoop ahead of the Times and the sense of urgency that reverberates in the Post’s newsroom.

Newspaper tales have long had a role in movie history. The most pertinent in relation to “The Post” is the 1976 film “All the President’s Men.” The new film carries on the tradition in grand style and must be viewed as a major contribution to today’s need to preserve press freedom in face of the drumbeat of assault. A 20th Century Fox release. Reviewed December 21, 2017.

THE FINAL YEAR  Send This Review to a Friend

Director Greg Barker’s take on the wind-down of the Obama administration comes across as a thoughtful elegy to a civilized way of government. It is a sad reminder of a bygone period that has given way to the uncivilized depths of the Trump administration bent on undoing everything good about what the Obama presidency attempted to accomplish.

Barker captures the pall that set in when Trump was surprisingly elected after all the expectations that Clinton would become the first woman President, and the sadness of dismantling the Obama administration to make way for the new one.

But the buildup to the momentous events consists of following the dedicated work of key officials in the Obama years. We get a portrait of John Kerry as Secretary of State, striving to solve world problems. We see Samantha Power, Ambassador to the United Nations, in her role. We also get a picture of the important Susan Rice, serving as National Security Advisor, and there is Ben Rhodes, Deputy National Security Advisor.

Collectively this portrait of Obama officials demonstrates a special caliber of public service, in contrast to the mishmash of what we have seen in this first year of Trumpism. Director Barker has succeeded in giving us an abundance of detail as well as insight into those on whom he focuses.

At times the film proceeds in routine fashion, but the total effect emerges as strong when we observe the sad ending to an era that marked the service of the first African-American President. Whatever the shortcomings, his administration was, as seen in “The Final Year,” dedicated to creating better lives for those most in need. Perhaps such a time will come again one day. A Magnolia Pictures and HBO Documentary Films release. Reviewed January 19, 2018.

THE BEST TEN FILMS OF 2017  Send This Review to a Friend

The films on this list have been selected from among those released in New York theaters during the year and are listed in order of preference.

1. THE POST

THE SHAPE OF WATER

LAST FLAG FLYING

THE OTHER SIDE OF HOPE

THE DIVINE ORDER

BOMBSHELL: THE HEDY LAMARR STORY

THE SALESMAN

1945

I, TONYA

THEIR FINEST

Other outstanding films of 2017 listed in no special order include: Graduation; Darkest Hour; Faces Places; Molly’s Game; The Women’s Balcony; Lady Bird; Foxtrot; Menashe; A Fantastic Woman; Dunkirk; Beatriz at Dinner; Call Me By Your Name; Downsizing; Aftermath; Afterimage; Wonder Wheel; Wonderstruck; The Florida Project; Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri; Stronger; Maudie; Mudbound; Victoria & Abdul; First They Killed My Father; Harold and Lillian: A Hollywood Love Story; Detroit; The Big Sick; The Promise; In the Fade; Wind River; Jane; The Unknown Girl; BPM (Beats per Minute); The Midwife; The Fencer; Indivisible; Footnotes; My Journey Through French Cinema; The Ticket.

VAZANTE  Send This Review to a Friend

A grim look at aspects of slavery and economics in 1821 Brazil has been provided in “Vazante,” directed by Daniela Thomas, who wrote the film with Beto Amaral. The atmosphere of the time and place is caught effectively in black and white cinematography, and the film zeros in on personal stories simmering explosively.

The setting is the landscape of Brazil’s Diamantina Mountains. Antonio, played by Adriano Carvalho, is a farmer on a run-down property he received in a dowry. He has been on a trading expedition, and upon returning, is informed of a tragedy. His wife has died in giving birth, as has their child.

There is a slave population on the land, which will lead to a dramatic complication. Antonio wants a new wife, whom he finds in Beatriz, portrayed by Luana Nastas, the very young niece of his late wife. The film is efficient in giving us a portrait of class life on the land and the hardship both of the slaves who toil there and Antonio, who must struggle to survive.

Beatriz is attracted to Virgilio, played by Vinicius Dos Anjos, a spirited a young slave, and one can suspect from the outset that something devastating will occur from the forbidden relationship. Eventually Antonio is delighted to learn that his new wife is pregnant and is hopeful that this time all will go will with the birth. In the predictable plot, a shock is coming.

Director Thomas, both in her co-written screenplay and in the sweep of her direction, has a lot on her mind. In her look at the civilization (or lack of it) in the period covered she is shedding a light on slavery, the status of women, the men who rule and Brazilian history. The plot may be formulaic in its leading toward tragedy, but the overall vision is perceptive. Although “Vazante” is a sad film, it is also enlightening and very well-made. A Music Box Films release. Reviewed January 12, 2018.

IN THE LAND OF POMEGRANATES  Send This Review to a Friend

Producer-director Hava Kohav Beller has done a great service to the cause of peace with her engrossing, illuminating documentary “In the Land of Pomegranates.” By recording the conversations that took place at a meeting between Palestinians and Israelis, Kohav demonstrates the possibilities of coming together on a personal level with understanding of each other’s biases and impressions. If only this could become the case in the real world of Middle East troubles.

The set-up that intrigued Beller was a retreat in Germany for Palestinians and Israelis invited to take part in a project called “Vacation from War.” They had regular contact as they lived in the same place and met to discuss their respective views. There is an overriding feeling that if only it could come down to basic personal human relationships, things could change for the better.

But there is a lot to overcome. The Palestinians in general see themselves as victims, and the Israelis have a totally different conception of the facts. But as they argue, discuss and speak person to person, one’s hopes are raised dramatically. Unfortunately, they are not the ones making the decisions, as the powers that be are locked into the political and often violent hostilities that have endured as a pattern.

Beller also goes outside of the discussions to focus on others who have various viewpoints and experiences in concrete situations. One of the most moving sequences involves a Palestinian mother who takes her ill son to an Israeli doctor. He saves the boy’s life. It is an affirmative example of what could be the norm if only there were regular peaceful interchange.

One comes away encouraged by the possibilities, but also discouraged because those in control are far from the relationships deemed possible, as the daily headlines make clear.

The title of the film is symbolically double-edged. On the one hand the pomegranate is a fruit of the land that symbolizes rejuvenation and rebirth. But it is also a word used for hand grenades. The lingering question: Which will it be for Palestinians and Israelis?

Beller’s film is to be strongly recommended for the light it sheds and for the hope it raises for a future, if only there could be a political breakthrough. Her important movie is a welcome contribution to the need for greater dialogue and further movement toward the peace process. A First Run Features release. Reviewed January 3, 2018.

IN BETWEEN  Send This Review to a Friend

A different view of life in Israel is entertainingly offered in “In Between,” a film by a Palestinian-Israeli female writer-director, Maysaloun Hamoud, who caused a stir with her take on three Palestinian women roommates. She reportedly received death threats for her candid zeroing on in on their lives with no holds barred.

The three women sharing living quarters are Laila, played by Mouna Hawa), a criminal lawyer who is fun-loving and a habitué of the Tel Aviv club scene; Salma, portrayed by Sana Jammelieh, who aspires to be a disc jockey while earning a living as a bartender, and Nur, enacted by Shaden Kanboura, who is a rather shy Muslim religious student.

The film follows the lives of all three. Laila has a boyfriend who on the surface accepts her lifestyle. Salma falls in love with a woman. Nur is in the most difficult situation. Her financé Wissam, portrayed by Henry Andrawes, is upset with her roommates, who, he believes, are leading Nur astray from Muslim orthodoxy and expected wifely duties with their free-wheeling lifestyle.

In a way, Nur’s situation is the most interesting. Her boyfriend is abusive with his demands that she move and follow strict Muslim rules. He is controlling and ultimately violent, and she has to summon the courage to decide for herself who she should really be and what kind of a life she wants to lead.

Although the film at times seems cluttered, it basically is a fascinating study of the three women, clearly from the point of view of a woman writer and director. Hamoud dares to look at each of her central characters in the framework of existing conditions and biases.

How they navigate the Tel Aviv scene and their personal relationships make for a good story, often with humor as well as with dramatic intensity, and Hamoud enables us to become involved with her characters.

“In Between” is clearly a film that’s different and with a unique perspective. The acting is uniformly good, whether by the three women or those in their lives. A Film Movement release. Reviewed January 5, 2018.

DJANGO  Send This Review to a Friend

Showcased at the 2017 Rendez-vous with French Cinema, “Django,” directed by Étienne Comar, is a compelling drama about famed jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt.

He is impressively played by Reda Kateb. The film, set mainly along Lake Geneva in the French town of Thonon, concentrates on Reinhardt’s opposition to the Nazi persecution of his Romani people during World War II. Cécile de France has a colorful role as his friend and muse, a woman who fights the Nazis into whose confidence she has worked her way.

Reinhardt’s music becomes a major part of the film, as one would expect, but in that realm there are also revelations that his talent went beyond his playing and encompassed his skill as an orchestra leader as well. That aspect of his musicianship is less generally known.

The film combines the renown of Reinhardt with the tension of opposition to the Nazis, and in particular, Django’s dedication to helping the Romani people in the face of persecution. It thus cements his ethnic connection and helps define his life. Reviewed January 5, 2018.

PHANTOM THREAD  Send This Review to a Friend

Writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson has created a movie with sumptuous style as its language. He has also created a 1950s British dress designer of haute couture, Reynolds Woodcock, played by Daniel Day-Lewis in what he says is his farewell acting display, who is a self-centered tyrant. His design of a dress for royalty must achieve perfection, but as a person he is a royal pain in the ass and impossible to live with. Anyone wanting to be his mistress or wife would have to have a masochistic streak in being willing to suffer his whims and vicious temper tantrums.

The part, of course, is designer-made for actor Day-Lewis, who captures every aspect of Woodcock and his wicked personality. The story built around the character and artistry in the world of fashion is filmed with visual splendor. There is meticulous attention to detail with fabulous looking dresses created by the master and stitched by a large staff laboring against deadlines in the London mansion that is both Woodcock’s workplace and residence.

The plot takes hold when Woodcock is smitten by Alma, a waitress from Luxembourg played with remarkable effectiveness by Vicky Krieps. She becomes his model and muse, as he imports her into his home. Alma is no shrinking violet. She is determined to become his controller and wife, and she slyly and sexily sets about her scheme. The task is not easy. Woodcock likes everything just right, from the way meals are prepared to the way his every command is respected and obeyed, and he is firm in his desire to be mostly left alone, apart from occasional forays into his version of intimacy.

There is also Woodcock’s sister Cyril, portrayed with an icy chill by Lesley Manville, who is a business partner and overseer. She is totally disapproving of Alma, and there are scenes in which if the looks that Manville delivers could kill, Alma would quickly become a corpse.

The ups and downs in the relationship between Woodcock and Alma, including her conniving and his outbursts, sometimes with affection, other tines with cruelty, but always with excellent acting on both their parts, constitute much of the film.

My problem in sitting through “Phantom Thread,” which is visually seductive, is that Woodcock is such a dislikable bastard that watching his behavior becomes a chore. It’s more interesting to watch Alma, not for her character, but because of Krieps’s performance. There is hollowness to the screenplay despite the skill with which the film is directed by Anderson, and the ending leaves one feeling that the future will hold just more of the same.

One thought you might come away with: Beware when eating mushrooms. A Focus Features release. Reviewed December 30, 2017.

MOLLY'S GAME  Send This Review to a Friend

An electric performance by Jessica Chastain drives “Molly’s Game,” based on the true story of a woman who ran into the law for running high stakes poker games played by celebrities who could afford to buy in. Writer-director Aaron Sorkin, certainly realizing Chastain’s potential, peppers the film with fast-paced dialogue and action tailor-made for her talent.

Sorkin based his film on the book that the real Molly Bloom wrote with the expansive title, “Molly’s Game: From Hollywood’s Elite to Wall Street’s Billionaire Boys Club, My High-Stakes Adventure in the World of Underground Poker.” The title just about sums up the film version’s plot.

First we see Chastain struggling to find herself, from a doomed sports career to working at a seedy club. Eureka—she is discovered by Jeremy Strong as a guy who needs help running a poker game with high stakes. Molly has found her calling.

She learns the ropes and becomes a tough gal who can deal with men as a no-nonsense woman who knows her stuff and is a clever manipulator. Is this women’s lib? Yes, in a strange sort of way. Chastain invests Molly with precision and power, and Sorkin’s smart screenplay is at her service as she runs games in both Los Angeles and New York.

Of course, we know that the law is always lurking and Molly will be targeted. How does she fare? See the movie to find out and in the process enjoy being taken into the gambling world with much detail and the tension that goes with betting huge sums of money.

One thing is certain: Chastain gives one of the stellar performances of the year in the leading actress category. A STX Films release. Reviewed December 25, 2017.

  

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