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15 Aug

Orna (Liron Ben Shlush) is a mother of three children who lends a helping hand to her husband, who is the chef at a restaurant. She is quite pleased with herself when Benny (Menashe Nov), a successful entrepreneur, hires her to work as his assistant on a luxury condominium tower. He remembers her from when he was her superior officer in the Israeli army.

Much to her surprise, Orna discovers that she has a gift for selling expensive real estate. Benny and his associates are impressed when she renames the building Lily Beach and convinces a French Jewish couple to buy into the large project. But her boss steps over the line when he praises her beauty and asks her to wear her hair down. When he impulsively kisses her, she begins to wonder whether her new job will last. Equally disconcerting is her husband’s jealousy over her spending more time with Benny than with him and their kids. Meanwhile, Benny keeps raising her salary, making it quite clear that he adores her.

Working Woman does not say anything particularly new about adultery and the power plays of womanizing men. But the excellent screenplay by writer and director Aviad, Sharon Azulay Eyal, and Michael Vinik, combined with the emotion conveyed by Liron Ben Shlush as Orna, does make this story very contemporary and pertinent in the #MeToo age.

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15 Aug

Those who have followed the controversial singing and songwriting career of David Crosby know that he marches to the beat of his own drummer. He staked out some important musical territory playing with The Byrds and then went on to work with the supergroups Crosby, Stills & Nash, and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young.

It is a miracle that this 77-year old survivor is still alive. He’s had three heart attacks and has eight stints in his heart. With sadness, regrets, and plenty of pain, Crosby discusses his self-destructiveness. For years he was addicted to heroin and cocaine, and he spent nine months in prison on drug charges.

A. J. Eaton directs this documentary about this aging hippie who is heading toward his seventh decade of recording. We catch a glimpse of his glory days singing “Ohio”, “Wooden Ships,” “Teach the Children,” and other hits. There are clips of recording sessions and concerts and behind-the-scenes conversations with his bandmates. In one touching scene, Crosby stands in the driveway of a house in Los Angeles’ Laurel Canyon and points out the room Crosby. Stills & Nash was formed.

Crosby’s emotions come to the fore when he recalls the death of Christine Hinton, his lover who was killed in a car crash. Another downer at this late stage in his life is that his best musician friends and band members have not spoken to him for years. He confesses that he is mostly to blame for this situation.

This documentary shows that Crosby does have some things going for him as he embarks on yet another tour and records a new album with some younger musicians. First is his wife, who provides him with a loving home he is overjoyed to come back to. Second is his willingness to be brutally honest with himself and his audience. And finally, there is his music. Given a choice of many options, he admits, he will always choose music.

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13 Aug

Our favorite TV detective show has always been Columbo. Peter Falk played a ragtag, seemingly absent-minded, and irritating homicide detective with the Los Angeles Police Department. Invariably criminal suspects would not know what to make of his beat-up raincoat, his habit of going off-topic, or his bumbling nature. Best of all was his habit of ending an interrogation by walking out the door and then re-entering to say, “Just one more thing.”

There are plenty of “more things” in this documentary about an investigation into the death of United Nations Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjold. In 1961, he was on his way to negotiate a cease-fire between UN forces and troops of the Republic of Katanga when his plane went down in the jungle; everyone on board was killed. At the time, the cause of the crash was ruled “pilot error.” But questions persist about whether the plane was actually shot down as part of a conspiracy to stop Hammarskjold.

At the time of his death, the Secretary-General was working to change the way African nations dealt with the rest of the world economically. He wanted to protect the new countries from the control of Western interests, especially the powerful mining companies. This took courage and moral statue, and Hammarskjold had both. To gain insight into his beliefs, as revealed in his spiritual writings in Markings, see our September 18th Naming the Days Feature. This quotation has the most relevance to his last days: “In our era, the road to holiness necessarily passes through the world of action.”

With the circumstances around Hammarskjold’s death still uncertain, Danish journalist and filmmaker Mads Brugger decided to investigate this cold case himself. He joins up with Goran Bjorkdahl, a Swede living in Africa, who has been conducting his own investigation into the mystery and has some ideas about who might be responsible for what he is sure was a murder. They interview people who claim to have heard shots or an explosion before the plane crashed and listen to a tape of a mercenary pilot bragging about his involvement.

Like two schoolboys given a chance to play Columbo, they ask complicated questions, follow clues that turn out to be dead ends, and come face-to-face with the iron-clad secrecy surrounding the international intrigue of the United States and Britain.

The most dramatic path leads to up-close encounters with a secret paramilitary death squad based in South Africa, who among other horrible deeds inspired by white supremacy were involved in a monstrous scheme to inject the AIDS virus into black Africans. Just when they are about to give up on piecing their puzzle together, they come across a key player who has no qualms about telling all.

Cold Case Hammarskjold is a chilling and well-told account of a conspiracy that will have you sitting on the edge of your seat and shaking your head with astonishment.

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12 Aug

The quiet power of The Sweet Requiem creeps in like an aftershock. The film’s brief 91-minute running time is spotted with stretches of painful silence and tense threats of potential violence, but what first appears to be building to a sort of revenge fantasy subtly transforms into a profound study in compassionate connection. Along the way, directors Ritu Sarin and Tenzing Sonam don’t sugarcoat the past and current pain of their characters, refusing to ignore the lasting effects of trauma. While the beats of their film meander in ways that don’t always propel consistent momentum, the end accumulation offers an authentically shadowy hope that affirms, even as it haunts.

Dolkar (Tenzin Dechen) is a Tibetan refugee now living in a bustling Delhi exile community, having migrated as a child with her family on a treacherous journey through the Himalayas. Shifting between her childhood memories and current reality The Sweet Requiem does not force a message. Instead, the film’s plot drifts much like Dolkar herself, moving back and forth between beautifully photographed but staggeringly suspenseful glimpses into her childhood odyssey and shadowy scenes of her current life working at a Delhi threading salon and moonlighting as an activist with a human rights organization devoted to aiding Tibetan Buddhist refugees.

But Gompo’s reasons for his behavior years ago are more complicated than Dolkar can know, and the film’s most enduring themes play out through the unearthing of Dolkar and Gompo’s parallel embodiments of their obligation to family, both in life and in memory. Both characters are stoic in demeanor, but as the plot unravels, the ferocious loyalty of each roils underneath even their most placid glances, mirroring one another in devastatingly genuine humanity. Thanks to the increasingly intimate intensity of these inner lives, the film often feels like a thriller, even as it has very few obvious stock thrills on display. And by the time Dolkar decides how she will confront Gompo, every silence is saturated with anxiety, which packs the film’s surprising final moments with nearly unbearable beauty.

Those who come to The Sweet Requiem with scant knowledge of the decades of history of Tibetan migration will not leave this compact story armed with soundbites, facts, or figures, but they will leave with a renewed empathy for those who must make such journeys and endure such painful memories. If this invitation to empathy can open audience’s hearts even wider to the plights of those who must migrate and encourage deeper participation in fights for human rights worldwide, The Sweet Requiem’s mightiest gift might last far longer than its short running time.

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12 Aug

The tagline for Lulu Wang’s deceptively deep meditation on shifting family dynamics, differing cultural norms, and continuing self-discovery declares that The Farewell is “Based on an actual lie.” The cunning whimsy of this statement threads through the entirety of this sweet, funny, and effortlessly moving tale of a dying grandmother, a devoted granddaughter, and an entire Chinese family attempting to retain control over how to say goodbye as the reality of death threatens to snatch that control from their hands. But, even with a lie as its basis, truth undergirds every scene of this simply remarkable film.

Billi (Awkwafina) lives in New York City, the daughter of two Chinese immigrant parents (Tzi Ma, Diana Lin), but she maintains an active telephone relationship with her grandmother Nai Nai (Shuzhen Zhao) in China. By the time the audience witnesses one of their characteristically loving and rushed conversations, it’s already obvious that Nai Nai is very ill, and it’s soon revealed that she only has a few months to live. But when Billi gets the news from her parents, they beg her to keep it a secret from Nai Nai, though everyone else in the family knows.

Billi is wary of this lie and of the family’s fabricated plan to use the wedding of Billi’s cousin Hao Hao (Chen Han) in China as a veiled way for the family to gather around Nai Nai one last time without her knowing why. Billi is also broke and freshly rejected from a Guggenheim Fellowship. But, with her future in New York in question and her love for her grandmother among the only things keeping her afloat, Billi decides to join the festivities, promising to help support the ruse.

What follows is a collection of intimate family snapshots, visions of good food, raucous table conversation, and rituals that range from the individually quirky to the communally meaningful. As Billi, who left China when she was only six, discovers the country her parents left behind, including the common practice of keeping terminal diagnoses from patients, she also discovers how deeply her Nai Nai and her Chinese roots lie within her bones.

At times, it feels as if The Farewell will tip into an all-out comedy. At other times, it feels as if it will plunge into heavier depths of drama. It’s a wonder that it consistently keeps a balance between the two, seesawing between humor and heart in a delicate dance that never strays from the specifics of its story, yet also succeeds as a universal ode to life, death, and every delightful and devastating moment in between.

Throughout the deceptive antics, every family member has a moment to reveal their own ugly and beautiful truths, whether it be through a wordless, withering glance, a drunken dance move, or a surprising weeping outburst. But the center of the story belongs to Billi and Nai Nai, two women at the opposite ends of the life cycle and worlds apart, both seeking health and happiness in ways they can’t always articulate, but that they feel deep within their souls. And the knowledge that this relationship is based on film director Wang’s real-life relationship with her own grandmother adds further poignancy to the poetry.

When Billi learns the intriguing reasons that family members in China shoulder the dread of terminal diagnoses themselves instead of telling the patients, this cultural question of communal weightlifting versus individual suffering deepens the proceedings significantly. Wang and her characters interrogate the possibility of some lies being “good” in the face of death, and the interrogation is truly compelling. No solid moral is offered, but as the film moves toward its close, it offers a simple and surprising celebration of authenticity.

There is no question that lying can unspool beyond the control of the liars, but when The Farewell’s final moments burst forth, there is nothing but abundant truth filling the screen.

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09 Aug

Every December we announce our choices of the Most Spiritually Literate Films of the Year. In the excitement of the end-of-year releases, many critics overlook the films released in the first half of the year. Yet the “off-season” yields some surprising and inspiring movies. So we are giving you a preview of our best films lists at mid-year.

And Breathe Normally
Directed by Isold Uggadottir
A moving story that showcases the need for openness and hospitality in our increasingly constricted world.

American Heretics: The Politics of the Gospel
Directed by Jeanine Butler, Catherine Butler
An educational and intriguing exploration of progressive Christians attempting to reclaim the radical potential of their faith.

Angels Are Made of Light
Directed by James Longley
An engaging documentary about Afghanistan’s youth that activates our empathy.

The Best of Enemies
Directed by Robin Bissell
A remarkable film of hope, daring, and vision.

The Biggest Little Farm
Directed by John Chester
The hopeful story of a natural farm built on biodiversity and a recognition of interconnections, impermanence, and transformation.

For Sama
Directed by Waad al-Kateab, Edward Watts
A heart-wrenching and unflinching documentary filmed by a young mother and citizen journalist living through the siege of Aleppo, Syria.

Directed by Ljubomir Stefanov, Tamara Kotevska
A heart-stirring eco-documentary about a nurturing female beekeeper in Macedonia.

Directed by Patrick Creadon
Fascinating documentary about a religious leader who was a master of human relations.

Directed by Benjamin Gilmore
A powerful story of a soldier seeking to make amends who turns his enemies into friends.

Knock Down the House
Directed by Rachel Lears
A brisk and meaningful look at four women running to change American politics.

The Last Black Man in San Francisco
Directed by Joe Talbot
A uniquely affecting meditation on race, gentrification, and belonging.

The Lavender Scare
Directed by Josh Howard
Another shocking and horrific expose of American hatred and ignorance.

Light of My Life
Directed by Casey Affleck
An extraordinary and deeply spiritual drama about the power of stories and the parent-child bond.

Little Woods
Directed by Nia DaCosta
A bleak but edifying slice of small town drama in the midst of an opioid crisis.

Mary Magdalene
Directed by Garth Davis
A creative, relevant, and reverent film about Mary Magdalene, a deeply spiritual woman for all ages.

Directed by Olivier Assayas
A dramedy about all the ways digital technology is shaking the book publishing world to its core.

The River & the Wall
Directed by Ben Masters
A remarkable documentary that gives us hope that young people documenting the consequences of a border wall will make a difference.

Directed by Paddy Breathnach
Moving drama about a suddenly homeless family dealing with the challenges of this increasingly common situation.

Sea of Shadows
Directed by Richard Ladkani, Sean Bogle, Matthew Podolsky
A documentary that unreels like an action thriller to tell the story of attempts to save the vaquita porpoise from extinction.

Sorry Angel (Plaire, amer et courir vite)
Directed by Christophe Honore
An exquisite exploration of unexpected love in a time of illness and loss.

Directed by Christian Petzold
An elusive but effective exploration of migration and liminal space.

Woman at War
Directed by Benedikt Erlingsson
A watershed Icelandic film which will speak to the hearts and minds of all committed women who are working toward the creation of an ecological world.

Directed by Danny Boyle
An imaginative movie about the magic of the Beatles’ music.

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09 Aug

Charlie (Martin Freeman) has a rare and incurable condition called cataplexy that causes him to lose control of his muscles or faint whenever he is overcome by joy. To cope, he moves through his day deliberately avoiding anything that might make him happy. He listens to sad, dirge-like music through headphones while walking to work and avoids people with cute babies or dogs. As he leaves his job at the library, a co-worker tells him that the CDC has confirmed the measles outbreak is spreading. To counteract seeing something good, he mumbles words like Darfur and Syria. When he engages in a favorite pastime, riding a merry-go-round, he has to make sure he is strapped in.

So imagine his dismay when he meets Francesca (Morena Baccarin), a beautiful and enthusiastic woman who is obviously attracted to him. On their first date, he faints when she invites him up to her apartment and ends up in the ER. He tries dating a sweet but boring woman (Melissa Rauch) while his brother (Jake Lacy) romances Francesca. But it’s clear who has captured his heart. Can Charlie risk loving Francesca, even it means, as he tells her, they can never go together to the beach where someone might be playing catch with a golden retriever?

Martin Freeman, best known for playing Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit and Dr. John Watson in the Sherlock series, has a rather serious demeanor that belies his gifts as a comedian. He makes Charlie’s situation believable (and actually, it is based on a true story). Best of all, this story will encourage you to make your own lists of what makes you happy. Here’s a good spiritual practice to try: As you go through your day, notice those things that elicit a smile, a laugh, or a surge of delight in you — and be grateful.

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08 Aug

In the heart-stirring drama Leave No Trace, a father, most likely a military veteran suffering from PTSD, and his teenage daughter are living off the grid in a 5,000 acre woodland just outside Portland, Oregon. He has home-schooled her and taught her the essentials of surviving in the wilderness. It is morally edifying to watch the differences between the two of them as strangers shower them with acts of kindness, generosity, and compassion.

Light of My Life is another portrait of a loving relationship between a father and daughter living on the outskirts of society. Casey Affleck plays Dad, whose rigorous rules and rituals provide safety and shelter for his 11-year old daughter Rag (Anna Pniowsky). A pandemic has killed nearly all the world’s females, including Rag’s mother, and now she poses as a boy to avoid attracting attention.

“I would ask you to remember only this one thing,” said Badger. “The stories people tell have a way of taking care of them. If stories come to you, care for them. And learn to give them away where they are needed. Sometimes a person needs a story more than food to stay alive. That is why we put these stories in each other’s memories. This is how people care for themselves. ”
― Barry Lopez, Crow and Weasel

In the wonderful opening scene of Light of My Life, Rag and Dad are getting ready to go to sleep in their tent. He tells her a beautifully improvised, playful, and humorous Noah’s Ark tale which is designed to give her the courage to carry on despite the dangers which may lie ahead. She asks him questions as he goes along, revealing that she is growing up to be an inquisitive, reflective, and intelligent woman. In other scenes, the two discuss ethics and morality and how they are played out in history. And he tells her stories about the way things used to be and how much she is loved. All this is important knowledge to have in their desperate, unbalanced, dystopian world.

Trying to stay under the radar and avoid men who are looking for females takes almost all this father and daughter’s time. Wherever they stop to sleep, they set up safe places for some of their things, map out escape routes, and practice “red alerts.” Their preparations prove valuable when some violent men come to an empty house they have discovered. Worried about the severe winter just around the bend, Dad decides to take Rag to a house up north that he lived in as a child. But when they finally arrive there, the place is inhabited by three evangelical Christians.

Affleck wrote and directed this story and plays Dad. He has said, “As a filmmaker, I’m drawn to stories that highlight our shared humanity. The timeless story of a parent dedicated to his child above all else is one I hope everyone can relate to in a personal way. . . . I was grappling with all the myriad, complex concerns that all parents have. How does a parent learn that he cannot protect his child from every danger in the world, but that his job is to prepare her to protect herself? How can a parent have the courage to let go of their child when danger is so constant and horrific?”

Light of My Life is a deeply spiritual movie which doesn’t turn away from the reality that the world – both in the story and in our times — is a place of conflict, danger, and constant warfare, and women are the most vulnerable. Yet there is light here. As Rag assumes more responsibility, she proves that hostility can be replaced by gentleness. The word “gentle” comes from the Latin “genttills’ which means “belonging to the same family.”

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08 Aug

After the Wedding is a subtle and sophisticated remake of a 2007 Danish film directed by Susan Bier, a daring and creative genius who likes to take on thorny ethical issues. That drama revealed the tricky paths of compassion and the strange and unexpected places it can take us. We gave it an S & P Award as one of the Most Spiritually Literate Films of 2007.

In writer and director Bart Freundlich’s (World Traveler, Trust the Man) remake, he has switched the genders of the two lead characters and given them free play to draw out the complications of each woman. Theresa (Julianne Moore) is an accomplished media mogul in New York who is about to sell her company. Isabel (Michelle Williams) is an idealistic soul who has dedicated her life and soul to running an underfunded orphanage in Calcutta, India.

Theresa signals that she might make a large philanthropic gift to the orphanage but only if Isabel flies to New York to present their proposal herself. At the meeting, Theresa indicates she may need a few days to think over the size of her grant. In the meantime, why doesn’t Isabel come to the wedding she and her husband Oscar (Billy Crudup) are hosting for their daughter Grace (Abby Quinn)?

The plot thickens and many secrets and festering resentments are revealed and explored after Isabel locks eyes with Oscar. She also is taken aback by Grace’s improvised wedding toast. Instead of enjoying the luxurious setting and the festive grandeur of the wedding capped off by a wondrous fireworks display, the four lead characters begin an arduous journey into the past complicated by guilt, loss, regrets, false memories, and judgmentalism.

Although Freundlich’s version of After the Wedding lacks some of the ethical intensity of the original, it doesn’t fall into the trap of pitting the people of privilege against the sacrificing do-gooder. Rather, it gives the audience an emotionally literate look into what all the characters are going through. In one unforgettable scene, Julianne Moore as Theresa lets loose a scream of despair, anxiety, and questioning that seems to come from her gut and her heart. It epitomizes how deeply we can feel both our fate and our choices.

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06 Aug

Aretha Franklin barely speaks a word during the running time of Amazing Grace, the finally released concert documentary of her 1972 two-night appearance at Watts’ New Temple Missionary Baptist Church. But her superlative singing and the occasional close-up on her forever focused face speak volumes about this astonishing artist’s talent and faith. Franklin proves, song after song, that an artist of her caliber has the potential to ignite hearts and minds with uncommon prophetic power.

Filmed when the Queen of Soul was just on the cusp of turning 30 and capturing her voice and presence in raw, top-notch form, Amazing Gracehas been lost to history for nearly half a century. Though the sound recording of these live sessions comprises Franklin’s best-selling album, the film itself, with its out-of-sync audio glitches botched by the then-young director Sydney Pollack, was rendered unreleasable for decades. But music producer Alan Elliott has now matched the picture and sound as closely as possible, and this performance for the ages is now available to shake the rafters and stir the soul.

As with most sonic spiritual experiences, it is best to simply allow the music and majesty of Franklin’s performance to wash over the viewer (and listener). She is accompanied by Reverend James Cleveland and the Southern California Community Choir, and bolstered by a proud mid-concert sermon by her father Reverend C. L. Franklin and shots of rapturous, attentive audience members. The film is more an electric church service, a sacred revival, than it is an informative documentary. It reveals no new information about the artist herself, yet it invites the audience into a relationship that feels deeper than information-sharing or even storytelling; it creates ritual and reminds the willing that there is meaning beyond what can be expressed in words.

The fact that this chronicle has been lost for so long only adds to its current potency. Watching it and listening to it (for it feels like these two things become one sense while in the grip of Franklin’s performance) conjures a specific time and place, a specific culture and people, while also agilely speaking to a universal human desire to encounter the divine, to praise the Universe with joyful shouts and quiet hums, and to seek new horizons of communal potential. Franklin and her collaborators created something for a relatively small audience over those two nights, with the thought that it might reach a broader audience eventually, but the fact that this broader audience is only seeing it now, decades later, heightens the entire enterprise to mythological proportions. It truly feels monumental, even as it never once loses its very touchingly human quality.

Without ever making overt political statements or proffering a specific point of view, Amazing Grace still packs a punch that needles the soul. In its current state, the film is content to allow Franklin’s performance itself and the story of its wandering path to release to combine in a kinetic celebration of Gospel music, the Black church, the resurrection of a long-lost moment, and the unshakable faith of a people. It rises as a testament to Franklin’s devotion to her roots, to her calling, and to her hopes for a future fueled by faith, sustained by community, and led by voices that refuse to be silenced.

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