Documentary Review: Up close and personal with an Israeli “Family in Transition”


Galit Tsuk prepares dinner as her youngest daughter looks on.

And in the bathroom down the hall of their flat in the small Israeli coastal city of Nahariya, Amit Tsuk puts on jewelry and makeup. She brought their four children into this world as their father. But now she has come out as a woman and in macho Israel, we’re invited into this story of a “Family in Transition.”

The Tsuks eventually gained a certain notoriety in their home country (Galit got a couple of books out of this), but Ofir Trainin‘s intimate film captures this couple and the extended family surrounding them as Amit transitions and everybody around her adjusts with varying degrees of success.

There’s crying, but that’s often over this or that relative failing to acknowledge Amit’s change, or embrace Galit’s decision to stick with her. The rest of the time, it’s just Amit’s hormones supplements doing their worst.

Trainin’s film, in Hebrew with English subtitles, begins with home movies of their wedding, singing an Israeli pop song about “Don Quixote, wake up for me and stay my hero.”

But Amit, a wounded combat veteran with more than a few tattoos, has been living a lie. Now she’s out, and even if the couple now look like sisters — or at least burly-girly cousins — even if their kids’ friends (some of them) shun them, even if their Orthodox relatives renounce them, even if jerk teens on the street yell homophobic slurs their way, Amit is going through with changing her sex.

Whatever Amit is going through, Galit is her rock. She bucks her up before a “coming out” birthday party — “Be strong.” She promises her love is unconditional. “I will love until I reach a point I can’t take it any more.” And she changes the subject to “I should lend Amit my tights and thermal stockings,”

We even travel with them to Thailand where Galit is Amit’s moral support during the operation and the grindingly long recovery. Galit is there applying makeup before Amit wakes up after the operation. We see them laugh together and can feel the love.

But their teen son Yarden tells the filmmaker he sees trouble on the horizon, and youngest daughters Agam and Peleg giggle over the teasing they get from classmates, laughing at their burden even as their parents show signs that the strain is about to send them to rabbinical court, where one goes to divorce in a quasi-theocracy.

Having snippets of so many different points of view makes this shortish film’s turn towards disintegration feel abrupt, not properly set up. The kids could feel it, so they say. But Trainin gets this from them after the fact. Either we don’t have time to root for them as a couple or they’re not just warm and inviting enough for us to do it without prompting.

And Trainin’s in-your-face camera reminds us, every now and then, that whatever the strain the family is under, it can’t have helped to have the unblinking video camera sharing the most intimate (almost) moments of this trying and traumatic time.

We even catch Galit giving the camera operator the stink eye. We can sense that whatever love story Trainin set out to make, the one the Tsuk’s provide isn’t going to be the one expected.


MPAA Rating: unrated, adult subject matter

Cast:Amit TsukGalit Tsuk

Credits: Written and directed by Ofir Trainin. Abramorama release.

Running time: 1:10

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Preview, the second trailer to “Alita: Battle Angel”

It’s a fangirl/fanboy magnet based on a graphic novel/manga, just in time for Valentine’s day.

So naturally the digital teen girl created for it has “big anime eyes.” Rose Salazar voice-acted (and motion captured?) the title role.

With Oscar winners Mahershala Ali, Jennifer Connolly and Christoph Waltz, a script that James Cameron took a whack at and Robert “Sin City” Rodriguez behind the camera, this thing is engineered to OWN February.


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Preview, “Song of Back and Neck” puts Paul Lieberstein of “The Office” in back trouble and in love with Rosemarie DeWitt

“The Office” actor wasn’t a star on a series that produced several of them, but Paul Lieberstein is following in John Krasinski’s footsteps by writing, directed and starring in his own vehicle.

“Song of Back and Neck” has Lieberstein playing a lawyer with epic back pain (look for director Paul Feig in a cameo as his doctor).DeWitt’s a client with the acupuncturist on speed dial.

Clark Duke and Chelsea Cook also star in this modest farce, opening in limited release at the end of Nov. 


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Movie Review: Ansel Elgort is “Jonathan” in indie sci-fi tale of memory, vanity and two souls in the same skull


Ansel Elgort makes subtle work of Every Actor’s Dream, the chance to play two characters in the same movie, in “Jonathan.”

It’s a downbeat and curious sci-fi drama about a young man whose identical twin wasn’t so much in the womb with him as in his actual body.

Jonathan and “Jon” are trapped, but science and reason — in the person of Dr. Mina (Patricia Clarkson) — have found solutions.

They will live separate lives in the same tastefully Spartan apartment. One has dreams of a career, and will go to work and keep, rigidly, to a daylight-only schedule. The other will be the night owl/barfly, “having fun” until the wee hours.

They keep a shared video diary to keep track of who did what, and with whom, the day or night before. Neighbors, colleagues, women who might be interested are documented each late afternoon for one, each late night by the other.

“I ran into Sarah in the lobby and helped her with her groceries. So in case you see her, that’s why she loves you so much.”

Daytime Jonathan, called “Jay” by his sibling, is organized, studying French, a draftsman and rising star in architecture. Only he can’t put in the hours to make that big leap.

Slacker night owl “Jon” doesn’t do his share of the chores, doesn’t get in early enough for them to be rested and doesn’t share everything.

“Having a girlfriend’s against the rules,” and he knows it. But did he break it off as he said he would?

Enter the private detective. Organized Jonathan isn’t able to investigate on his own after hours, so enter Ross Craine (Matt Bomer). He’s puzzled about how one guy can be “both the client and the mark…a somnambulist or something?”

But he’s the one who figures out Jonathan’s being lied to. There’s a girlfriend, the bartender Elena (Suki Waterhouse). That’s upsetting to daytime Jay, because, well just because.

“Everybody has a routine.”

“Well, you run yours like a German train.”

First-time director/co-writer Bill Oliver takes this premise about as far as it will go, and in directions that we see coming the moment we meet Elena. A woman will come between them, seeing attractive traits in each despite their disparate personalities.

The melodrama that ensues only approaches something trippy and sci-fi in nature late in the third act. There’s no “Being John Malkovich” wit and whimsy to this, no “Dead Ringers” menace to raise the stakes and heighten the tension.

It’s almost entirely from straight-arrow Jonathan’s point of view, a mistake that dulls down the proceedings. The conflict feels low-stakes, even when life or death are involved.

“Jonathan” plays like an intellectual puzzle that isn’t challenging enough, an acting exercise that has everything but emotional connection and a tour de force robbed of its force by just lying there, inert when it should be picking up steam, cold when the characters and scenario should be heating up.


MPAA Rating: unrated

Cast: Ansel Elgort, Patricia Clarkson, Suki Waterhouse, Matt Bomer

Credits:Directed by Bill Oliver, script by Gregory Davis, Peter Nickowitz and Bill Oliver. A Well Go USA release.

Running time: 1:35

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Preview, “Toy Story 4” runs into the Elephant in the Room — “Why?”

Love the music. Judy Collins singing  “Both Sides Now.”

But this teaser doesn’t do anything to tease, really, the “Toy Story” movie that Disney-Pixar decided to made after the warm, dire, face-death-and-oblivion-itself send-off of “Toy Story 3.”

Whatever you want to make of the “Toy Story” universe, it’s impossible to see this as anything other than cynical.  Existential? Umkaaaay.

In any event, June 21, “Toy Story 4” will open, dominate the box office for weeks if not a solid month, and that’ll be that, right?

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Netflixable? Cuaron’s “Old (1970s) Mexico” comes back to life in “Roma”


The great Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón has made a long, sprawling and semi-autobiographical movie memoir for Netflix, filmed in black and white and titled “Roma” in homage to the Italian master of the personal, the wry and the whimsical.

But if you’ve followed Cuarón from “Y Tu Mamá También” through “Children of Men,” “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” and “Gravity,” you know “whimsy” and “wry” aren’t of interest to him. He substitutes layer upon layer of detail and dramatic incidents, large and small in this long, intimate and slow reverie.

In filtering Mexican history of the early 1970s through the lens of his own upbringing, he doesn’t find much that’s funny or satiric in that time, a country roiled by the aftershocks of the ’60s, an upper class family disintegrating, a big house and comfy lifestyle teetering into decline, all of it held together by an impoverished Mixtecan maid and nanny, Cleo.

A native of Oaxaca, Cleo (Yalitza Aparcio) is short, with Indian features. Always smiling, she sings the three little boys and little girl of the house awake in the morning, shepherds the big dog most everybody else ignores and keeps him from making a break for it whenever the gate opens and takes the abuse from the mistress of the house (Marina de Tavira) and her surgeon husband (Fernando Grediaga) about the piles and piles of dog feces littering the courtyard that serves as their carport.

The house, from its cluttered kids’ rooms to crumb-littered tables, is getting away from her and from her friend and confidante, Adela (Nancy García García) the cook.

Señor Antonio (Grediaga) grouses about the poop, and keeps arguing with his wife about this “conference” he is going to in Canada. That’s for the kids. He’s got a mistress and he’s leaving them.

Outside their gates, marching bands of teen scouts can’t gloss over a country on the brink of chaos. Students are taking to the streets, and all the matriarch (Verónica García) and others in the house can do is pray (in Spanish with English subtitles) “that this time the Army doesn’t shoot any of them.”

Mom is desperate for distractions, pushing the kids whom she has not told Daddy’s left into writing him letters “in Canada” to “please come home.” A holiday trip and family reunion in the country is chaotic, fun and dramatic in the under-supervised carelessness young and old display in a shooting party and the forest fire the careless use of fireworks sets off.


But Cleo has her own life, beyond light-hearted sprints to the market and the odd moment of pleasure the unruly, demanding children give her. She is easily seduced by the man-child Fermín (Jorge Antonio Guerrero), who impresses her with his martial arts sword-training bravado, nude and using a shower curtain rod for his sword. He’s cheap and fanatical about more than just martial arts, it will turn out.

Cleo? She finds herself pregnant in the middle of all this chaos, her responsibilities growing as every whim of Señora Sofia (Tavira) means more work and challenges for her.

Cuarón loses himself in recreating this world of vintage Fiats, Fords, VW Beetles and street vendors in a washed-out (video transfer?), limited contrast black and white.

The whistle of the traveling knife-sharpener, the bark of hawkers of candy, toys, clothes and tamales whirls through the soundtrack in ways that will give your Surround Sound a workout.

The roar of a protest brutally broken up by police, producing a riot, and the thunder of the Gulf of Mexico beaches near Veracruz are contrasted with the quiet banality of tedious, hard work — scrubbing poop-stained floors, hand-washing clothes on the roof, waking sleeping children or reining in an unruly dog.

Cuarón finds cruel fun at the expense of the cluelessly cruel Fermín, and laughs in the willfully bad driving of Sra. Sofia — who abuses cars as the man who paid for them is not there to stop her.

But as “Roma” slowly washes over us, you can’t help but notice how every scene — many of them long-takes — carries on long past its payoff, how a 135 minute movie tends to overwhelm a story with just half a dozen dramatic moments in it — bracing though they may be — and other drama left unseen, off screen.

It’s an indulgent film, almost by definition. The “Roma” title and Fellini connection park it in a ’60s-70s cinema of “La Dolce Vita” and “Swept Away,” “Last Year at Marienbad” and “The Go Between” — languorous films whose auteurs refused to cut for clarity and dramatic impetus.

“Roma” is arty and beautiful, but also a bit like sitting on a sofa while Cuarón flips through family photo albums, never narrating or over-explaining any single moment or image.

It’s perfect for Netflix (Dec. 14) as it all but invites you to pause it, or at times, just leave the room for a snack and come back in. It moves that slowly.

MPAA Rating:R for graphic nudity, some disturbing images, and language

Cast:Yalitza Aparicio, Marina de Tavira, Diego Cortina Autrey, Carlos Peralta, Marco Graf

Credits:Written and directed by Alfonso Cuaraon. A Netflix release.

Running time: 2:15

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Movie Review: Miners Will be Miners in “Prospect”


It’s a story as old as, well, shovels.

Wherever there’s something valuable under the ground, somebody will figure out a way to dig it up. Prospectors will find it, miners will get at it. And wherever there are prospectors, there are claim jumpers.

That’s the nugget of a plot of “Prospect,” a lean sci-fi adventure built on the same premise as “Outland” and “Avatar” and every science fiction TV show or movie that parks miners (“Dune,” “Star Trek,” “Star Wars”) in space. Because as long as humans are around, we’re going to need stuff dug up for us. And we’re  going to be greedy about it.

But co-writer/directors Christopher Caldwell and Zeek Earl, basing this on a short film they made a few years back, have surrounded that thin thruline with mountains of detail, from the space suits, spaceships, props and tech that all look as if they could have come off the shelf of Lowes (or FutureLowes), to the J-Pop of the future, future shorthand, slang and jargon.

They’ve loaded a lot onto a movie that didn’t need it, but the co-directors of “In the Pines” never spoil this teen-girl-holds-her-own-against-cutthroats thriller.

Jay Duplass and Sophie Thatcher (TV’s “Chicago Med”) are  a father and daughter out for a quick score in “The Green,” on  “The Fringe.” They’ve gambled all on a pod drop flight onto this forested, verdant but toxic moon where some subterranean critter is an alien oyster that produces its own version of pearls.

The “gems” look like amber sealed in ambergris.  Harvesting it is tricky, as like everything else on this planet, the gall bladders this stuff is found in are so acidic that the wrong cut in removing it ruins the gem.

Damon (Duplass, usually a writer/director but last seen as an actor in “The Oath”) is teaching Cee (Thatcher) the ropes. She’s a tough but timorous teen, inclined to play it safe, make the quick trip in and out taking just enough to clear their debts.

Dad is looking for “The Queen’s Lair,” a treasure trove of the gems. The promise of that is all he has to offer to save his life when claim jumpers led by Ezra (Pedro Pascal of “Narcos” and “Game of Thrones”) get the jump on him.

Ezra is a chatterbox straight out of a Charles Portis (“True Grit”) novel, trafficking in the arcane futuristic argot that shows off his polysyllabic propensity and faux genteel affected affection for the sound of his own voice.

“I am not fond of intrigue,” he purrs, when Damon tries to bargain out of his gun-point (guns are called “throwers”) fix. “I elect to believe you more out of desire than common sense.”

But risks are taken by those with nothing to lose, and as Ezra is fond of putting it, “Words and metal flew.” He finds himself the last murderer standing in a Mexican Deep Space Standoff with Cee.

They need each other to get home, or at least into orbit for pickup.


“Prospect” plays, first scene to last, like a Western, with our unhappily-linked couple facing a harsh environment, little hope of rescue and peril from ex-miners who have Gone Native (Andre Royo), soldiers with an agenda of their own and a seething mistrust that no charming word out of Ezra’s duplicitous mouth can soften Cee toward him.

“You killed my father!”

“That is…technically true.”

There’s horse trading, without horses, shootouts with a sadistic Russian mercenary woman, fortunes grabbed and dropped and a little field surgery when injuries take their toll.

Western or sci-fi Western, “Prospect” never sets its sights higher than violent, quasi-poetic B-movie and as such does not disappoint.

Thatcher is properly plucky, and Pascal makes a firm bid for “The Next Michael Shannon” status — a villain with genuine malice in his heart, menace in his eyes and a veritable dictionary in his mouth.


MPAA Rating: R (violence)

Cast: Sophie Thatcher, Pedro Pascal, Jay Duplass, Andre Royo, Anwan Glover

Credits: Written and directed by Christopher Caldwell, Zeek Earl. A Gunpowder & Sky release.

Running time: 1:38

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Preview, “Zoo” goes for a “Shaun of the Dead” zombie comedy vibe

First off, though, they REALLY needed a more original title than “Zoo.” Seriously.

Check out IMDb’s listings for that title. 

Anyway, after a little hunting, the proper link to the film this trailer comes from is here. 

It played the right festival (“Sitges”) but this English language Danish farce has no firm release date. Yet. Zombie movies always get released.

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Preview, In Florida we fear gators, when plainly “Crocodylus” is the real problem

Filmed not too far from me, in the swamps and C-movie horror haven of Mount Dora, Florida. And Oakland Park and Miami.

My first thought on glancing at the trailer was, “Is this Australia?” Odd accents abound in “Crocodylus.”

January 1, the world sees for itself.

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Next Screening: Cuaron’s “Roma,” not “Fellini Roma”

But yeah, it’s “Fellini-esque,” or promises to be. Plainly the inspiration for it, and thus its title, comes from Federico. 

This black and white personal epic (growing up in Mexico City and environs in the ’70s) looks expensive, but it wasn’t. “Roma” is just the sort of high minded “art” content Netflix is smart spending its money on.

They may get more first weekend traffic from their half-hearted sci-fi or horror, but the genres where there is a niche they can fill — indie dramas and romances, rom-coms — are what I hope they’ll throw money at.

Alfonso Cuaron is the most prestigious “brand name” director they’ve rewarded so far. This looks wonderful. Comes to Netflix next month, and it has awards season pretensions, too.

Unlike that Coen Brothers “Buster Scruggs” bust.

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