Tag Archives: B

MENASHE

Producer: Alex Lipschultz, Traci Carlson, Joshua Z. Weinstein, Daniel Finkelman and Yoni Brook
Director: Joshua Z. Weinstein
Writer: Joshua Z. Weinstein, Alex Lipschultz and Musa Syeed
Stars: Menashe Lustig, Ruben Niborski, Yoel Weisshaus, Meyer Schwartz, Yoel Falkowitz
Studio: A24 Films

B+

Documentarian Joshua Z. Weinstein turns to fiction filmmaking with considerable success in “Menashe,” a seriocomic tale of a widower in a Hasidic Brooklyn community who struggles to keep his son with him without having to marry again. Poignant, but shot through with welcome touches of humor, it opens a door to an unfamiliar culture, and does so with honesty and heart.

Portly Menashe Lustig plays the title character, a burly, perpetually unkempt bear of a man whose wife Leah recently passed. A browbeaten cashier, deliveryman and general maintenance guy in a kosher market, he’s the father of Rieven (Ruben Niborski, who looks astonishingly like a young Joseph-Gordon Levitt), who’s alternately charmed by his father’s affection and embarrassed by his out-of-control persona.

Menashe is being pressured by his rabbi (Meyer Schwartz) to remarry, since their community’s practice is that a child must be raised in a two-parent household. If he doesn’t, Rieven will have to move in with his uncle, Leah’s brother Eisik (Yoel Weisshaus), an inflexible but well-off fellow whose opinion of his brother-in-law is hardly positive. Menashe goes on dates arranged for him by the matchmaker, but the one we catch a glimpse of does not go at all well. It’s evident he really doesn’t want to get married again—indeed, he tells a fellow begging on the street that he’d be better off without a wife—and it becomes clear that his relationship with his late spouse was not idyllic (managing to have only a single child was one major problem). Still, unless he takes another wife, Rieven will have to go live with Eisik and his family.

One can’t help but sympathize with Menashe, especially because Eisik is such a stick, but at the same time you have to admit that the fellow is kind of a screw-up. He’s apparently in constant debt to his brother-in-law, and after an accident with a delivery of fish that, in truth, was his fault, you’re likely to believe that the exasperation of his punctilious boss is probably well-grounded. It isn’t that he doesn’t try to clean up his act, especially when it comes to the customary memorial meal for Leah that Eisik wants to host at his home but Menashe insists on having in his tiny cramped apartment. All does not go well, of course, but the rabbi is tolerant of the lapses. Nevertheless his decree about remarriage stands, and Menashe will have to conform or lose his son.

Weinstein makes use of his documentary roots to tell this small but touching story in almost fly-on-the-wall style, with cinematography by him and Yoni Brook that seems spontaneous rather than carefully planned. He also refrains from overexplaining things, preferring to let details of the Hasidic lifestyle to remain somewhat opaque. That’s true of the celebrations—one around a large bonfire—that father and son participate in, but also in a scene as slight as the one in which they select a painting to hang on the wall for the memorial dinner. (Most of the choices are portraits of rabbis.) The result is untidy, but that’s somehow appropriate for a picture about an untidy man.

Lustig rivals Zero Mostel’s Tevye as Menashe, and pulls off in nicely understated style a scene in which he bares his soul in a late-night conversation with a couple of the store’s Hispanic workers, while Niborski captures Rieven’s combination of love for his father and sadness about his antics perfectly. Schwartz and Weisshaus similarly nail the right notes, the former of amiable authority and the latter of prissy rectitude.

The end of Weinstein’s film doesn’t tell us how things will end up for Menashe, but it suggests that he’s going to keep on trying, and you’ll probably walk out of the theatre wishing him—and his son–well.

CROWN HEIGHTS

Producer: Nnamdi Asomugha, Natalie Galazka and Matt Ruskin
Director: Matt Ruskin
Writer: Matt Ruskin
Stars: Lakeith Stanfiekd, Nnamdi Asomugha, Natalie Paul, Skylan Brooks, Amari Cheatom, Marsha Stephanie Blake, Nestor Carbonell, Zach Grenier, Bill Camp, Josh Pais Yul Vasquez, Luke Forbes and Bryan Tyree Henry
Studio: IFC Films

B

An innocent man is convicted of murder and suffers years of imprisonment before new evidence frees him. Unhappily that story has become increasingly common in recent times—and it’s one that has been depicted in films before, both pure documentaries and docu-dramas. So “Crown Heights” tells a sadly familiar story, but it does so well.

Colin Warner (Lakeith Stanfield) was a teen when he was arrested in 1980 in the titular neighborhood of Brooklyn. An immigrant from Trinidad, he was no saint: he’s shown stealing a car, which he wrecks when his owner chases him down. But he was certainly not responsible for the killing of a black man in broad daylight, as police detectives (the more aggressive of them played by the reliable Zach Grenier) claimed. Nonetheless in 1982 he was found guilty by a nearly all-white jury, along with the brother of a man the victim had earlier shot, on the testimony of a frightened teen (Skylan Brooks) who’d been pressured by the police to identify the shooter after he claimed, falsely, to have seen the killing. The verdict came despite the supposed witness’ stumbling testimony under questioning by the prosecutor (Josh Pais)—and a more spirited defense than such stories usually show from Warner’s lawyer (Nestor Carbonell). The judge (Ron Canada) sentenced him to the minimum possible—fifteen years.

(Matt Ruskin’s script, it should be noted, simplifies this a bit here. There were actually two trials, the second held after the first resulted in a mistrial.)

The opening act of the film, also directed by Ruskin, portrays all this in grimly, grittily matter-of-fact style, though Ben Kutchins’ cinematography periodically employs hand-held camerawork to emphasize the immediacy of the events. That tension continues as Warner enters prison to serve out a term that is extended when he strikes out against an abusive guard. This section of the picture depicts the brutality of his incarceration—and the rigidity of a parole system that refuses even to hear his protestations of innocence—economically, cleverly ticking off the passage of time with inserts of news footage featuring Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and George Pataki as they successively made political hay out of “tough on crime” pronouncements.

Gradually, however, the focus shifts to Carl King (Nnamdi Asomugha), Warner’s close friend, who is determined to get him freed even after his initial appeal is rejected. The film goes on to show Warner’s self-training in the law through use of the prison library, and his romance from behind bars with Antoinette (Natalie Paul), a former neighbor who remembers him as a considerate young man. But it centers increasingly on King’s obsession with his friend’s case, which goes so far that it even threatens his own marriage (and bank account) and continues after Warner loses hope once another appeal is bungled. By becoming a process server, King gains access to the legal system, and enlists one of his employers, a lawyer (Bill Camp, excellent) with zeal almost equal to his own, in the search for exculpatory evidence that eventually results in the reversal of Warner’s conviction. The final credits include the obligatory shots of the real people involved, with a remarkably forgiving Warner returned to center stage. (The fact that Warner received $2 million in compensation is not mentioned.)

“Crown Heights” ends with Warner’s release, but it is a scalding portrait of a miscarriage of justice for which it places blame squarely on police and prosecutors willing to resort to the most appalling means to secure easy convictions, a circumstance that, it’s implied, continues into the present (when high bail, overworked public defender offices and a plea bargaining system designed to encourage confessions even when they’re false, are prevalent). It is, however, also a celebration of friendship and commitment in terms of King’s unyielding support—which is connected to the character’s observation that what has happened to Warner could just as easily happen to him. Like Kathryn Bigelow’s “Detroit,” Ruskin’s film may be a period piece—Kaet McAnneny’s production design and Meghan Kasperlik’s costumes reflect that nicely—but it has obvious contemporary resonance.

Stanfield portrays Warner with a simmering intensity that makes his occasional outbursts all the more compelling, and Asomugha brings quiet resolve to King; the supporting cast is also excellent, though some of the authority figures—the cops and guards—are given little shading. Paul Greenhouse’s skillful editing and Mark Degli Antoni’s pulsating score add significantly to the impact.

“Crown Heights” sometimes comes off like a TV docu-drama, but a particularly solid one.