Like a male, Israeli version of ‘Mrs. Maisel’

Guy Nehama (Reshef Levi, center) with (from left): his sister-in-law and brother, Michal and Oren (Yuval Scharf and Shalom Michaelshwilli); wife, Tamar (Liron Weissman); boss, Arik (Eran Zaracovitz); and co-worker, Dana (Gala Kagen)

By Richard Ades

Reviewing TV isn’t usually my thing, but I couldn’t resist the chance to sample Nehama. I figured the Israeli dramedy might be a passable substitute for Shtisel, an addictive Jerusalem-set series whose third season has been delayed by the pandemic.

Well, the first thing I should say is that the hourlong newcomer bears little resemblance to Shtisel. While that show centers on Israelis whose lives are shaped by their ultra-orthodox beliefs, Nehama is about countrymen who are largely casual about their faith. It’s actually more like an Israeli version of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, as it also centers on an aspiring comedian: Guy Nehama (Reshef Levi), who wants to revive the standup career he gave up years ago when he became a family man.

One big difference between the two: While Mrs. Maisel seldom seems tied down by parenting duties thanks to her helpful parents and an amenable ex, Nehama finds his time constantly being monopolized by his five kids. This is especially true after he loses his wife, Tamar (Liron Weissman), in an accident that’s foretold in the series’ very first scene.

Actor Levi, who also created and co-wrote the series, portrays Nehama as a neurotic man prone to spasms of hypochondria and self-pity, paranoia and anger. When we first meet him, he’s basically Tamar’s sixth child, as he needs constant attention and reassurance—needs she meets with a mixture of patience, exasperation and humor. That makes things all the more difficult for Nehama when he must take over the parenting duties previously handled by his late wife.

While we watch Nehama struggle with varying success to meet these new obligations, we also learn more about the people around him, including married but childless brother Oren (Shalom Michaelshwilli) and co-worker Dana (Gala Kagen), who harbors a not-so-secret crush on her suddenly available colleague.

Thanks to flashbacks, we also learn new information about Tamar, who sacrificed herself more than Nehama ever knew. A particularly important development turns up in the sixth episode, the last one provided to reviewers.

Nehama has a few things in common with Shtisel. Both are alternately funny and sad, and both complicate their characters’ lives with soap opera-like dilemmas that are often of their own making. The new show’s mercurial title character is especially prone to bad choices, which may frustrate some viewers.

But hang in there long enough, and you’ll likely be sucked into its tale of a man who’s belatedly learning how to become an adult.

Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)

Nehama (in Hebrew with English subtitles) will be available in the U.S. beginning Oct. 15 on Topic, a screening service from First Look Media.

The uphill battle to safeguard federal lands

Local activists gather in Salt Lake City to protest the Trump administration’s boundary reductions to the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments. (Photo by Andrew Burr)

By Richard Ades

As if the upcoming presidential election weren’t momentous enough, a new documentary offers evidence that American’s public lands are on the line.

David Byars’s Public Trust is a beautifully photographed homage to the 640 million acres of wilderness that belong to all of us, as well as a concise history of the struggle to keep them that way. That history is brought up to date with an account of the Trump administration’s moves to exploit some of the most pristine and vital areas for commercial development.

Though a wide spectrum of activists, ranchers, government officials and others appear during the film’s 98 minutes, the face that’s seen most often belongs to journalist Hal Herring. Herring says he spent his youth hunting and fishing in northern Alabama, but he later traded in his shotgun for a computer so he could warn people about forces that sought to turn federal lands into money-making opportunities.

Byars makes the case that protecting and even extending public lands was a bipartisan issue for much of the 20th century, with the possible exception of Ronald Reagan’s presidency. Even in the 21st century, Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama both added new protected areas by declaring them “national monuments.”

When Donald J. Trump took office, however, he made it clear that his sympathies lay elsewhere. Not only have his secretaries of the interior been men with multiple links to the energy industry, but he’s showed no compunction about overturning protective measures instituted by his predecessors.

Spencer Shaver and Hal Herring paddle through the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in Minnesota. (Photo by Jim Hurst)

The documentary gives three endangered areas special attention. One is Minnesota’s Boundary Waters, which attract canoers and other nature-lovers to the state and create thousands of local jobs. Another is the Bears Ears area of Utah, considered sacred by Native Americans. Finally, there’s the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska, home to the caribou on which the Gwich’in people rely for their survival.

Each of these areas has its defenders, one of the most devoted being Bernadette Demientieff of the Gwich’in Nation. She and other activists are shown gathering support and debating critics in attempts to fight off intrusions by would-be exploiters with deep pockets. But their efforts begin to seem futile once the Trump administration puts its finger on the scales.

Educational, inspiring and, most of all, troubling, Public Trust is ultimately a call to arms against those who seek to steal our national heritage for the sake of a quick profit.

Rating: 4½ stars (out of 5)

Public Trust (no MPAA rating) is available via YouTube beginning Sept. 25, with more outlets to be added at a later date.

Seaside thriller centers on tale of modern-day slavery

Kea (Mony Ros) and Chakra (Sarm Heng) face the fishing trawler’s dictatorial captain (Thanawut Kasro) in Buoyancy. (Photos courtesy of Kino Lorber)

By Richard Ades

It’s fitting that I watched Buoyancy on Labor Day weekend. The film is about a boy whose quest for honest work turns him into a virtual slave aboard a Southeast Asian fishing trawler.

Though designed as a tense thriller by Australian writer/director Rodd Rathjen (making an assured feature-length debut), the film also documents a real-life tragedy that entraps thousands of boys and men who are simply trying to better themselves.

The protagonist is Chakra (Sarm Heng), a 14-year-old Cambodian who resents having to work in the fields for pay he’s then forced to turn over to his father. After hearing about the wages that can be made in Thai factories, he steals away one morning for a prearranged rendezvous with men who will smuggle him over the border along with other job-seekers.

There he meets a stranger named Kea (Mony Ros) who has misgivings about what they’re getting themselves into but needs to make money for his wife and family. Kea smells trouble when they’re ordered to board a ship that supposedly will take them to their factory, but by then it’s too late. He and Chakra are forced to join the beleaguered crew of a fishing boat captained by the brutal and dictatorial Rom Ran (Thanawut Kasro).

Sarm Heng as 14-year-old Chakra

Scenes aboard the trawler paint a picture of exhaustion and misery. Chakra and fellow crew members spend their days shoveling netfuls of tiny, wriggling fish that reportedly are bound for pet food. At night, the men eat meager bowls of rice before settling down to sleep on the floor of the ship’s hold.

Through it all, Chakra faces each task with the kind of dogged determination he apparently learned growing up in harsh poverty. He even curries favor with the captain by personally giving him the larger fish that occasionally end up in the net.

Others, however, are less resilient. In some cases, their bodies give out; in others, they attempt to escape or rebel against their captors. In each instance, the captain and his underlings maintain order by responding with ruthless and sometimes creative sadism.

The film’s largely silent scenes of day-to-day misery and casual cruelty, masterfully depicted by director Rathjen and cinematographer Michael Latham, capture the sense of numbing hopelessness anyone in that situation would feel. Anyone but someone as young and adaptable as Chakra, that is, who is gradually transformed by what he’s seen and endured. Despite being a fledgling actor, Sarm Heng handles the change with understated power.

A sad story with a climax that’s both exciting and disturbing, Buoyancy earns its stripes as a thriller without undermining the real-world tragedy it seeks to expose.

Rating: 4½ stars (out of 5)

Buoyancy (no MPAA rating) opens Sept. 11 via the Wexner Center’s virtual cinema series. For information, visit

Truncated ‘Copperfield’ is fun but not quite a classic

Enjoying a pleasant outing are (from left): Betsey Trotwood (Tilda Swinton), David Copperfield (Dev Patel), Mr. Dick (Hugh Laurie) and Agnes Whitfield (Rosalind Eleazar).

By Richard Ades

As luck would have it, I watched The Personal History of David Copperfield just weeks after rereading the original novel for the first time in decades.

The timing turned out to be a mixed blessing.

It made it easier to keep up with the dozens of characters who appear in even this condensed version of Charles Dickens’s rambling classic. But it also made it clear that director/co-scripter Armando Iannucci has trimmed more than length off the story. He’s also trimmed most of the drama and even much of the comedy.

To be sure, Dickens wrote a fair amount of padding into David Copperfield—probably for financial reasons, as it first appeared in serial form. But the length allowed him to create an engrossing, semiautobiographical tale of a life filled with tragedies, triumphs and, most of all, indelible characters.  

In Iannucci’s defense, nothing short of a miniseries could have done the novel justice. Since he limited himself to a two-hour running time, he settled for a fast-paced and colorful encapsulation of the story tied together with narration delivered by an adult version of the title character (Dev Patel).

Like the novel, the film begins with his birth to a young widow (Morfydd Clark) on the night his eccentric Aunt Betsey (Tilda Swinton) pays an unexpected visit—and subsequently leaves when the baby disappoints her by being a boy. With the help of two adorable actors (Ranveer Jaiswal and Jairaj Varsanji) who portray David as a youth, it then recounts the bad luck that befalls him when his mother marries the dictatorial Murdstone (Darren Boyd).

Soon running afoul of his stepfather’s sour temper, David is exiled to a London bottling factory, where he toils his way into adulthood. It’s only after a family tragedy that he finally rebels, running away and throwing himself on the mercy of the aunt he’s never met. When Betsey mercifully takes him in, he at last finds himself on the road to happiness and success, though his journey will be marked by setbacks and detours galore.

David (Dev Patel) delivers a lecture on the story of his life.

With an Englishman of Indian descent playing David, it’s obvious that the film is employing nontraditional casting. For example, it makes no attempt to explain why Betsey’s financial adviser, Mr. Whitfield (Benedict Wong), is Asian, but his daughter Agnes (Rosalind Eleazar) is Black. This kind of colorblind casting is more common in modern theater than in film, but most viewers will quickly catch on.

What may be more puzzling to fans of the novel is why some characters seem so divorced from their literary counterparts. One is David’s former schoolmate, Steerforth (Aneurin Barnard), who bears no resemblance to the dangerously handsome and effortlessly popular aristocrat Dickens describes. Nor does the film’s Uriah Heep (Ben Whishaw) look anything like the book’s cadaverous conniver.

Of course, those unfamiliar with the book won’t notice such things. On the other hand, they might notice that the film never engages their emotions all that much. It just doesn’t have time to develop the personal tragedies or interpersonal relationships that might have sucked them in.

The flick is a little better at reflecting some of Dickens’s most obvious comedy: Aunt Betsey’s ongoing feud with donkeys, or the kingly obsession that bedevils her friend Mr. Dick (Hugh Laurie). Subtler humor, though, is missing.

With an engaging cast and a breezy style, David Copperfield is a pleasant enough diversion. It’s only in comparison to its source material that it falls short.

Rating: 3½ stars (out of 5)

The Personal History of David Copperfield (PG) opens Aug. 28 at select theaters.

Psychoanalyzing the most powerful man on earth

By Richard Ades

Political commentators have spent nearly four years trying to understand why Donald Trump spreads lies, ignores constitutional norms and otherwise fails to act like the president of the United States. In a new documentary by Dan Partland, mental health experts take on the challenge. (Visit the Free Press website for the rest of this review of #Unfit: The Psychology of Donald Trump.)

Teaching self-respect one drumbeat at a time

River City Drummers
Members of Louisville’s River City Drum Corp hold forth in a typically spirited number.

By Richard Ades

“Black arts matter!” Ed “Nardie” White declares early in River City Drumbeat. That’s the central message of the documentary, which focuses on the institution White created nearly three decades ago to help young African Americans forge their own future.

The River City Drum Corp teaches Louisville youngsters how to make and play drums in routines featuring African-inspired rhythms and spirited choreography. But the group’s real purpose, it’s clear, is to give them a sense of purpose and a sense of direction when it comes to mapping out their lives.

Several scenes explain the real dangers these kids face growing up in neighborhoods with a liquor store on each corner and nearly omnipresent gunfire. In the saddest of these, White recalls the granddaughter he was unable to save from a dangerous lifestyle that resulted in her senseless death.

Directed by Marlon Johnson and Anne Flatte, the 94-minute documentary unfolds in a style that sometimes seems slow and meandering. However, patient viewers will be rewarded with insights into the philosophy that inspired White through the years—and in turn has inspired many of the youngsters who fell under his influence.

River City Drumbeat White
Ed “Nardie” White founded the River City Drum Corp nearly three decades ago.

Spread chronologically over several months, the film follows White as he prepares to turn over his leadership role to one of those grownup youngsters: Albert Shumake, a deejay who is willing to reorder his life to keep the group going. In the process, we learn about the important role White’s late wife, Zambia, played in both men’s lives. It was she who served as Albert’s cheerleader when a teacher told him he would never amount to anything, and it was she who convinced White that the drum group was too important to abandon.

By introducing us to some of the ensemble’s soon-to-be former members—all of them high school seniors with college in their sights—the film demonstrates that Zambia was right.

Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)

River City Drumbeat may be streamed from Aug. 14 through Sept. 10 via Columbus’s Wexner Center ( A 72-hour rental is $12. For other viewing opportunities, visit

A burned-out town struggles to return to life

A firefighter faces the deadly Camp Fire in an early scene from Rebuilding Paradise.

By Richard Ades

The first 10 minutes of Rebuilding Paradise are harrowing.

Ron Howard’s documentary is mostly about the aftermath of the November 2018 “Camp Fire” in Paradise, California, but first it shows us the fire itself. With the help of cellphone and dashcam footage, it recreates people’s terror as they attempt to escape a wildfire that engulfed their town only minutes after originating on a nearby hillside.

In one particularly hair-raising moment, we find ourselves inside a vehicle barreling along a road that has turned into a fiery obstacle course. Meanwhile, the air is so filled with smoke that the day appears to have turned to night.

The danger is real, we learn. By the time the fire is brought under control, 85 residents of Paradise are dead. Of those who survive, most have lost their homes, along with schools, municipal buildings and services.

Following this terror-stricken beginning, Howard’s documentary evolves into a month-by-month account of attempts by residents and officials to revive a community that has been largely destroyed. The result is a film that’s sincere and warmhearted.

And, it must be said, just a little dull.

Part of the problem is Howard’s focus on what a close-knit and beautiful community Paradise was, which made its loss so tragic. Though it undoubtedly was beautiful, being located in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, it’s hard for those of us who never lived there to share the residents’ nostalgia.

Then again, let’s face it: A big part of the film’s problem is its timing. Much as we want to be sympathetic to the day-to-day challenges faced by the survivors, we can’t help being reminded of our own day-to-day challenges due to a health disaster that shows no signs of winding down.

This is particularly difficult when the film focuses on the tireless efforts of school superintendent Michelle John to keep local classes in session and to give the 2019 seniors a bona fide graduation ceremony. With the benefit of hindsight, we can’t help thinking that it’s all for naught because the following school year will be 10 times as difficult in Paradise and everywhere else.

Howard also tries a bit too hard to show individuals’ community spirit and even heroism. Or maybe it just seems that way because of our own, mid-2020 perspective. Having witnessed some of our own fellow citizens refusing to even slap on a mask to promote the general good, we know all too well that not everyone reacts to disaster in a selfless way.

Is the film looking at the Camp Fire aftermath with rose-colored glasses? The question comes up in relation to one of its most heroic figures, Matt Gates, a police officer who works to raise spirits through efforts such as organizing a Christmas tree-lighting ceremony. Then, late in the film, we suddenly learn that Gates and his wife have separated. Why? We’re never told, maybe because Howard doesn’t want to tinge his warm portrait of the town with a hint of negativism.

In a break from the general positivity, Rebuilding Paradise points out that there are culprits here as well as victims. The main culprit is Pacific Gas & Electric, whose failure to maintain its power lines caused the spark that set off the deadly fire. More generally, the culprit is poor forest management, which makes the area vulnerable to wildfires due to young growth that burns quickly.

More generally still, as the film notes briefly, the culprit is climate change. Yet no fingers are pointed at those who’ve ignored the problem and have even gone out of their way to deny it exists.

To pick out the most obvious example: Donald Trump is shown talking about his post-fire visit to the town—which he accidentally calls “Pleasure”—but the film doesn’t report his odd theory that wildfires like this could be prevented if California just raked out the forest floors once in a while. Nor does it mention the administration’s ongoing attempts to undermine environmental regulations.

Perhaps the film’s sponsor, National Geographic, is afraid of unnecessarily aggravating the Trump administration. Or perhaps director Howard is more interested in the personal rather than the political. Whatever the reason, the result is a portrait of loss, courage and perseverance that—due to reasons both in and beyond the filmmaker’s control—comes off as needlessly bland.

Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)

Rebuilding Paradise (PG-13) is available beginning July 31 through VOD outlets or Columbus’s Gateway Film Center (

Love, loss and friendship in the shadow of war

Summerland Alice
Gemma Arterton as reclusive writer Alice Lamb in Summerland (Photo by Michael Wharley/Flying Castles Ltd.)

By Richard Ades

Alice Lamb doesn’t care much for people, and she especially has it in for children. So when she’s asked to take in an adolescent boy who’s fled German bombing raids, she agrees only because she’s given no other choice.

That’s the setup of Summerland, a drama set on the cliff-strewn coast of England during World War II. Written and directed by Jessica Swale, it spins its tale of friendship and lost love in a way that’s pleasant and beautiful but a bit too contrived to ring true.

Partial spoiler alert! Viewers may find some of the film’s contrivances easier to accept after a last-minute revelation places them in context. But until then, our sense of reality is challenged.

For starters, we simply don’t believe that Alice (Gemma Arterton) is as misanthropic as she seems. True, the writer lives alone in a seaside home and rails against anyone who dares to interrupt her work, but her angry words seem like mere affectations when spoken by this young woman with the pretty, unlined face. Thus, when a London evacuee named Frank (Lucas Bond) finds refuge under her roof, we have no doubt she’ll eventually warm up to him. The only question is when and how.

A series of flashbacks explain Alice’s lonely and bitter existence. At some time in the past, she found a soulmate in the form of warmhearted Vera (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), but their relationship apparently hit a snag. Back in the “present,” she eventually confides this loss to the inquisitive Frank, who reacts in a way that’s surprisingly mature for both his age and his era. She’s moved, while we’re given one more reason to doubt the tale’s authenticity.

More convincing than the friendship between Alice and Frank is the one Frank develops with his stubbornly individualistic classmate, Edie. That’s partly because Edie is wonderfully portrayed by Dixie Egerickx (star of an upcoming remake of The Secret Garden), but mostly because the two aren’t forced to mold their characters to suit the movie’s plot points.

Speaking of which, Alice and Frank soon begin discussing bits of the folklore that Alice studies and writes about, including “floating islands” and “Summerland,” a kind of pagan paradise. These inevitably make their way into the story, as do developments that are rather too convenient to be believed. (Second spoiler alert! But then, maybe they shouldn’t be, according to the aforementioned revelation.)

With a soaring score by Volker Bertelman and gorgeous seaside cinematography by Laurie Rose, Summerland is a lovely way to spend an hour and 40 minutes. Just don’t expect to see anything that bears much resemblance to real life.

Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)

Summertime (PG) is available from VOD outlets beginning July 31.


Former ‘Moonie’ struggles to move on

Blessed Child Cara Jones 1
Cara Jones (center) is married in one of the Unification Church’s typical mass weddings. Her marriage later ended in divorce.

By Richard Ades

In the 1970s, the country was struggling to recover from the dual tragedies of the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal that toppled the Nixon presidency. That helps to explain why so many Americans were attracted to the “Moonies,” a Korean-born cult that promised to unite and heal the world.

Blessed Child is a documentary by and about a woman who was raised in a Moonie family and found the religion a comfort and an inspiration—until it wasn’t. Then it became an impediment to her happiness and threatened to drive a wedge between her and her devout parents.

Directed by Cara Jones and filmed by her brother Bow, the doc is a gentle yet wrenching portrait of a family that was at first united and later divided by the Rev. Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church.

An early voice-over explains the church’s unique ideology. Moon believed in the power of marriage to help the world overcome sin and prejudice. Accordingly, he regularly organized mass weddings of couples he’d personally “matched,” often with the express purpose of combining people from different ethnic and religious backgrounds. He also discouraged premarital relations, being convinced that sex was the “original sin” that had driven Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden.

Moon’s belief system appealed to idealistic young people like Cara’s future father, Farley Jones, who converted in the ’60s. Farley then persuaded a Catholic girl named Betsy to join up, and the two married (after being matched by Moon) and proceeded to raise four sons and a daughter in the Unification Church.

Contemporary interviews and home movies reveal that the family became something akin to Moonie celebrities after Farley was named president of the faith’s American branch. So prominent were they that young Cara began to hope she eventually would be matched with one of Moon’s own sons. It’s probably not a coincidence that her faith began to wane when she wasn’t, instead being paired with a man who felt more like a younger brother than a husband. But by the time her marriage ended in divorce, it also had become clear that Moon wasn’t quite as pure and angelic as he’d seemed.

While it spends sufficient time explaining the eccentricities and shortcomings of the Unification Church, Blessed Child’s main theme is the lasting effect it’s had on former members like Cara. Long after leaving the church, many still struggle with feelings of failure and regret that make it difficult to get on with their lives. And it’s all the harder for people like Cara whose parents remain true believers.

If the documentary has one weakness, it’s that Cara’s central tale is almost overshadowed by that of her brother Bow. As a boy who realized early on that he was gay, Bow couldn’t feel at home in a faith devoted to heterosexual marriage. And yet he was—and apparently still is—as susceptible as anyone to its idealistic vision of a world united by love and acceptance.

Blessed Child takes us on an engrossing journey as it relates Cara’s efforts to heal old wounds and come to terms with her past. Even so, the closing credits may leave viewers with a nagging question: But what about Bow?

Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)

Blessed Child (no MPAA rating) is available beginning July 17 on iTunes, Google and Amazon.

Love in the time of coronavirus


By Richard Ades

In a recent “Dilbert” cartoon, the hapless title employee talks about his hope of hooking up with a woman he’d met through virtual contract negotiations—even though, as it turns out, he’s seen only the part of her face that wasn’t hidden by a mask, a shower cap and an eye patch.

For those who lack a regular partner, a pandemic-induced quarantine is hardly the ideal environment for romance. And yet, people can’t turn off their libido simply because it’s not convenient. Recently, the New York City health department acknowledged this fact by releasing guidelines for how to deal with intimacy while minimizing the risk of contracting COVID-19.

One suggestion it missed: Have a romantic encounter while separated by a thick window several stories above the street. That’s the situation described in Squeegee, an 11-minute film written and directed by Morgan Krantz.

It begins as Lori (Amy Rutherford), a well-dressed executive, is rushing to her downtown office building. Once she’s inside, an assistant (Emily Jane King) tries to corral her for a meeting with waiting guests, but Lori tells her to stall them. She then locks herself in her office and, oddly, uses a spray bottle and tissues to wipe off the window.

In a moment, we see why. A young window washer (played by Blair McKenzie, who actually cleans windows in real life) lowers himself into view outside her office. After efficiently doing his job with water and a squeegee, he waits expectantly. Soon the two are carrying on what apparently is an ongoing relationship involving playful flirting and even a bit more.

Though clearly made in pre-quarantine times, Squeegee could not be timelier. Its depiction of romance under the constraints of social distancing—“social” possibly having more than one meaning here—results in a film that’s funny, sexy, sad and even a bit profound.

Rating: 4½ stars (out of 5)

Squeegee (recommended for mature audiences) is available on Vimeo.