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‘Columbus’

3 stars

Cast: John Cho, Haley Lu Richardson, Parker Posey, Rory Culkin; Unrated, 1:44

This gorgeous, contemplative indie drama from first-time writer-director Kogonada follows two lonely, lovely young strangers — Casey (Richardson) and Jin (Cho) — who strike up a friendship over several days spent walking and talking their way around Columbus, Indiana.

Casey is a recent high school graduate and part-time librarian, who lives with her mother, a recovering drug addict. Jin is a book translator in his mid-30s who lives in Seoul, and has flown in to visit his sick father, a renowned architecture scholar who suddenly collapsed while touring the Indiana town.

Thanks to a wealthy benefactor who commissioned name-brand architects, Columbus has long been celebrated as an improbable Midwestern enclave of midcentury modern buildings — a public showcase for the splendors of Eero Saarinen, I.M. Pei and other leading architects of the time, hence the visit by Jin’s father.

Casey cares for her mom with a level of devotion that, as some friends point out, is holding her back from her own ambitions. Jin, meanwhile, hasn’t spoken to his father in more than a year, and the man’s condition looks serious enough that he might never again get the chance.

For Casey, the town’s beautiful buildings have been an inspiration and an escape from the troubles of real life; for Jin, a source of resentment and a reminder of a parent who paid more attention to his vocation than his child. Along the way we realize we’re watching a story about people who have tried, in very different ways, to avoid the burden of pain, even as shifting circumstances force them to reconsider their definitions of home.

The images in Columbus, beautifully lighted and meticulously composed by Elisha Christian, play ingenious tricks with depth, focus and perspective, framing Jin and Casey not just against stunning structures but through doorways, down corridors and even from the backseat of a car.

Richardson, so engaging in movies such as “The Edge of Seventeen” and “The Bronze,” and Cho, whose charisma warrants more leading roles like this one, make those spaces feel charged with meaning. What’s remarkable about Kogonada’s debut is that technique never overwhelms feeling. In fact, the Korean American director makes the two seem inextricably linked.

“What moves you, particularly, about a building?” Jin asks Casey in one scene, after she has carefully laid out the history of the one-story glass structure that once housed Columbus’ Irwin Union Bank. He’s trying to push her past a strictly intellectual response toward a more personal one.

But Kogonada understands there’s less of a difference than we might think between those, and he never lets us see where thinking ends and feeling begins.

— Justin Chang, Los Angeles Times

Ruben Niborski, left, plays Rieven, and Menashe Lustig plays his father, Menashe. (A24) 

‘Menashe’

3 stars

Cast: Menashe Lustig, Meyer Schwartz, Ruben Niborski, Yoel Weisshaus; PG, 1:21

Yiddish, a language once spoken by Jews almost everywhere, is used today largely by the ultra-orthodox in communities that insist on keeping outsiders at arm’s length.

Starring nonprofessional Yiddish-speaking actors from communities in Brooklyn’s Borough Park and Crown Heights neighborhoods, “Menashe” is filmed in that language, though director and co-writer Joshua Z. Weinstein did not speak it. It’s a gentle, melancholy father-and-son story that’s as notable for its evocation of its self-contained world as for its drama.

As written by Weinstein, Alex Lipschultz and Musa Syeed, “Menashe” is loosely based on the life experience of its star, Menashe Lustig, who has something of a YouTube presence in the Hasidic world.

The film’s Menashe is a cashier and man-of-all-jobs at a small local supermarket. Though diligent and sincerely religious, he is also hot tempered and disorganized, with the look of an unmade bed about him. If there is a way to screw up a situation, he will find it.

For Menashe, the word of his rabbi (convincingly played by Meyer Schwartz, a taxi driver in real life) is law to him. In a world where family is paramount, Menashe is a widower, and completely uninterested in remarriage — which is where things get complicated.

He is also the father of a pre-teen boy named Rieven (Ruben Niborski), and the cultural norm of this community mandates that children be raised in two-parent families. So Rieven lives with the family of Leah’s brother, Eizik (Yoel Weisshaus), a humorless, holier-than-thou prig who has visible contempt for Menashe’s shambling lifestyle.

But to try to raise Rieven in opposition to the community’s norms would risk his son’s expulsion from school and inflict pariah status on him. Desperate to prove himself a good citizen, Menashe asks the rabbi if he, rather than Eizik, can host a memorial for his wife, Leah.

Though all agree that “even a bear can learn to dance,” it isn’t so clear whether Menashe can be who he needs to be. That’s the central mystery in this slice of ultra-orthodox life story, and its look inside a world that is often hidden from view.

— Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times



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