AFI FEST 2023: Four capsule reviews
Top left: 'Me Captain'; top right: 'Memory'; bottom left: 'Albert Brooks: Defending My Life'; bottom right: 'Menus-Plaisir - Les Troisgros.' | Photos courtesy of AFI Fest

Memory: Can love conquer all?

Writer/director Michel Franco’s moving Memory is one of AFI FEST 2023’s most memorable movies. Jessica Chastain plays Sylvia, who works at an adult daycare facility and is first glimpsed in an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting where the recovering ex-drinker participates in a 12-step program in Brooklyn. At a subsequent high school reunion, Sylvia has a strange encounter with Saul (Peter Sarsgaard), whom she goes on to (wrongly) accuse of having sexually abused her when they were students. As it turns out, Sylvia has a history of incestuous sexual molestation, which likely triggered her substance abuse. Saul, too, has his own afflictions.

To make a long story short, Memory poses the question as to whether or not two damaged souls can overcome their troubles through contact, closeness, connection and communications. Chastain and Sarsgaard will likely—and most deservedly—be Oscar contenders for their poignant performances as suffering individuals reaching out for love and solace, despite the slings and arrows of dubious “well-meaning” relatives. The supporting cast, too, is well-directed, with Jessica Harper as a harpy of a mother; Merritt Wever (of Nurse Jackie) as a sister striving to be supportive; and Brooke Timber as a teenaged daughter who is in-the-know about how love may just be the cure-all.

Beautifully acted over the course of 100 minutes, Memory sometimes seems like a slice of life, about real people with real problems, trying to figure it all out and find happiness and meaning in their lives. Don’t miss it!

Menus-PlaisirLes Troisgros: Bon appetit!

If Memory offers filmgoers a slice of life, Frederick Wiseman’s Menus-PlaisirLes Troisgros is, with its running time of four hours, the cinematic equivalent of a 10-course meal. Ironically, despite its length (likely AFI FEST 2023’s longest title), Menus-Plaisir was one of only a couple of films playing at this year’s film fête that requested critics to only file capsule reviews of it at this time. So, to honor the veteran documentarian’s wishes, here goes:

This is a 240-minute homage to the Troisgros dining dynasty that exhaustively covers their 3 Michelin star restaurants in France. With his usual cinema vérité verve, Wiseman exhaustively takes us behind the scene, from the dining rooms to the kitchens, where all of the magic happens, and beyond—to the dairies and farms where cheeses are produced, vegetables and fruits grown and animals raised, before finding their way to the tables of the elegant establishments for very fine (and very pricey) dining and imbibing of bottles of vino, some worth thousands of euros each.

Strangely, important exposition as to who, what and where we’re seeing onscreen only makes a brief appearance towards the very end. And as the aging chef discusses retirement with one of his older clients while they’re served supper, we get a glimpse into where Wiseman’s at now—and that it may not be time yet to say “au revoir” to this venerable 93-year-old filmmaker and his work. Watching Menus-PlaisirLes Troisgros unspool is often like observing real life. Those into Wiseman’s painstaking cinematic techniques will probably be enthralled (as I was), while more impatient viewers may wish the director had learned how to say “cut!” Either way, this documentary will make you hungry—for food and film.

Me Captain (Io Capitano): Fantastic voyage

In this gripping feature based on a true story, Italian director/co-writer Matteo Garrone takes us behind the scenes of the immigration crisis rocking Europe. Viewers are used to seeing these desperate migrants in battered, barely seaworthy boats at the end of their quests but, as Garrone told festival goers, in Me Captain he “put the camera on the other side… Their journey is an adventure, this is the reverse shot of what we see in Europe,” with epic odysseys that have resulted in “27,000 people dead,” due to their risky search for better lives against all odds.

In Seydou (Seydou Sarr) is a 16-year-old Senegalese dreaming of leaving his life in the former West African French colony far behind in order to migrate to Italy, where he imagines fame and fortune await him as a pop singer. Sneaking away from his loving mother and family, Seydou pays the African equivalent of “coyotes”—people traffickers—and crosses Senegal, then, eventually, the dangerous Sahara Desert by truck and foot, ending up enslaved and imprisoned in Libya.

When he finally sets sail for Italy in a rickety, overcrowded ship, the adolescent finds that he’s forced to be the pilot of it for a perilous journey that makes Ulysses’ jaunt across the Mediterranean look like a hop, skip and a jump by comparison. Me Captain is a tremendously powerful film that tells the migrants’ and refugees’ side of the story. What the movie doesn’t tell us is why Seydou and so many like him are willing to undergo such hazardous, arduous journeys to seek better lives. Senegal has been independent for 60 years now; why can’t it provide adequately for citizens like Seydou? Is it because of the IMF? French neo-colonialism? The Senegalese national bourgeoisie? I don’t know the answer, but that’s clearly another film—probably a documentary.

Albert Brooks: Defending My Life: High-larious!

You don’t have to be Jewish to love Albert Brooks: Defending My Life and its real Jewish humor. And oy vey! oh boy! we—all of us—can use some levity now to help us get through these grim war-torn times. Directed by Albert Brooks’s longtime friend and fellow comedian, Rob Reiner, this nonfiction biopic covers the career and offscreen existence of the actor, standup comic, writer and director, whose birth name is actually (no kidding!) Albert Einstein.

Interwoven with Reiner’s interview with his subject, this 88-minute documentary includes copious clips from movies Brooks has appeared in and/or written and directed, including his Oscar-nommed role in 1987’s Broadcast News, 1985’s Lost in America, and 1991’s Defending Your Life. There are moments from many of his singularly offbeat, often hilarious, routines that Brooks performed on TV variety shows hosted by tube luminaries such as Ed Sullivan, Steve Allen, Johnny Carson and David Letterman. The talking heads who offer commentary are a who’s who of contemporary American comedy, from Jon Stewart to Chris Rock to Larry David,  Judd Apatow, Ben Stiller, Sarah Silverstein, etc. It would be indefensible to miss Albert Brooks: Defending My Life, good fun from the first to final frame.

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Ed Rampell
Ed Rampell

Ed Rampell is an LA-based film historian and critic, author of "Progressive Hollywood: A People’s Film History of the United States," and co-author of "The Hawaii Movie and Television Book." He has written for Variety, Television Quarterly, Cineaste, New Times L.A., and other publications. Rampell lived in Tahiti, Samoa, Hawaii, and Micronesia, reporting on the nuclear-free and independent Pacific and Hawaiian Sovereignty movements.