Monday, October 24, 2016

Movie with Abe: Men and Chicken

Men and Chicken
Directed by Anders Thomas Jensen
Released October 25, 2016 (DVD)

Sometimes a picture really is worth a thousand words, which, as it happens, is about twice the length of a typical review I write. I only saw the poster for this film after I finished watching it, but I think it summarizes it far better than I possibly could, though I’ll try my best in the ensuing several paragraphs. On the left, Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen appears with curly hair and a mustache, wearing a tie and caressing a chicken. On the right, another person is clad in a tie but his head has been replaced with an egg. It’s a fitting representation of this thoroughly odd, definitely original story of five misfit half-brothers who begin to question why it is they have so much trouble operating in normal society.

Gabriel (David Dencik) and Elias (Mads Mikkelsen) are brothers whose father dies at the opening of the film and leaves them a video will which alerts them to the life-changing news that he and his late wife were not their parents, but that they were the children of a mysterious scientist who is still alive and residing on a small Danish island called home by fewer than fifty people. Upon arriving to the home of their three half-brothers, Gabriel and Elias are greeted by animalistic, insular behavior and a very peculiar way of functioning and living. As they discover more about their past and the childbirth deaths of all of their mothers, the far more civilized Gabriel attempts to see if he can teach these adult boys how to truly act like people.

There is almost no part of this film that is not absurd, and it’s not as if those creative people behind the film are unaware of that fact. Writer-director Anders Thomas Jensen has written a number of fantastic Danish films, including “In a Better World” and “After the Wedding,” and a few American screenplays such as “The Duchess.” His latest project is most similar to his 2002 collaboration with “An Education” director Lone Scherfig, “Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself,” which presents a different way of looking at the world through the eyes of someone who has never found a place for himself in the world. That’s a fitting inspiration for this film, which finds five people of varying viability for human interaction all cooped up (pun intended) together in one large house.

Mikkelsen is a celebrated actor in Denmark who should also be known to American audiences for “Casino Royale” and for playing the title character in the TV series “Hannibal.” Here, he’s looser and sillier than ever before, leading a cast of actors playing a range of people, some despicable and all misunderstood. It’s a bizarre film more than anything, and the answers it probes for are relatively obvious from the start, which doesn’t detract from the experience and just makes it all the more individualistic. This film isn’t for everyone but it’s certainly something.


Friday, October 21, 2016

Movie with Abe: Moonlight

Directed by Barry Jenkins
Released October 21, 2016

We live in changing times, when societal norms are being transformed and so much of what was standard even just a few years ago is no longer seen as definitive. While progress has been made in many circles, there is still much to be done, and even though things have changed for some, distinct communities and culture are not as willing to adapt. That applies more than anything to sexual orientation and gender identity, for which deviation from heteronormativity can be extremely alienating. Barry Jenkins’ powerful new film explores that phenomenon for one lonely male throughout the course of his life.

At age ten, Chiron, better known as Little (Alex Hibbert), is a wide-eyed boy who knows that he is different from those around him in some way and expresses it most by saying little. His drug-addicted mother Paula (Naomie Harris) is hardly a fitting role model, and he instead spends plenty of time with Juan (Mahershala Ali) and Teresa (Janelle Monae), who provide more stable preparation for the future and fully accept Little as he is. At age sixteen, Chiron (Ashton Sanders) is tall, lanky, and the butt of all of his classmates’ jokes. Nearly two decades later, a hardened Chiron (Trevante Rhodes) looks totally different, and details on his transformation should be discovered when viewing the film.

There is a mesmerizing solitary feeling that runs through “Moonlight” in all of its time periods, tracking Chiron as a character who is never truly able to connect with those around him and find the place where he can fit in. thanks to Juan’s mentorship, Chiron is able to avoid, or at least prolong, a fate that befalls many of those in his community, staying off drugs and keeping himself out of serious trouble, instead opting not to defend himself from those who insult and taunt him. He’s a magnetic lead character whose story as portrayed in this film is truly engaging.

The three actors who portray Chiron were carefully selected and all have minimal acting credits, but they work together – separately – to create a tremendous illustration of a person fated to certain circumstances who diverges from the expected path without much of a loud voice. Harris, Ali, and Monae provide strong adult support, and André Holland is particularly excellent as a colleague of the adult Chiron. This poignant, stirring film is purposefully arranged and beautifully shot to create a captivating experience that’s more than likely to earn deserved attention come Oscar time.


Thursday, October 20, 2016

Movie with Abe: A Stray

A Stray
Directed by Musa Syeed
Released October 21, 2016

The word “stray” can have many meanings. Used as a noun, it indicates someone, person or animal, who is no longer part of wherever it is they came from, often also called homeless or friendless. As a verb, it means to wander or to go astray, sometimes from a religious course. The new film “A Stray” tackles every possible meaning, following a Muslim refugee from Somalia in Minneapolis who hits a stray dog and then finds himself with a new pet and nowhere to go, unsure of how to get back to where he and his new friend belong.

Adan (Barkhad Abdirahman) shouldn’t necessarily be described as a troublemaker, but he doesn’t always do the right thing in a given situation. After his mom kicks him out of the house, he is quickly thrown out of his new living space after offending his friends. Moving into the mosque seems like a smart idea for this devout Muslim, but it doesn’t take long for him to become saddled with a dog that isn’t deemed pure enough for the mosque, sending him again on an unknown path. There are plenty of places for Adan to go from moment to moment and day to day, but it’s hard for him to know where he’ll eventually be able to end up and know that he can truly stay.

Throughout Adan’s journey, there are many things that come into question. One thing that does not, however, is his faith. Adan might be a stray in so many senses of the word, but even though he is not permitted to stay in the mosque, he remains tethered to a strict observance and a connection to God that keeps him going. He half-jokingly asks if the dog is Muslim when he has food to feed it, and takes the legal aspects of his religion seriously even when his actions don’t reflect the same forethought and purpose.

Abdirahman, not to be confused with his fellow real-life Minneapolis Somali immigrant and Oscar-nominated “Captain Phillips” costar Barkhad Abdi, brings a sincere authenticity to Adan that makes him especially human. He’s far from the most formidable protagonist, but he represents a new generation of immigrant who fits in much better than his parents and ancestors would have, not assimilating but still becoming part of the culture. This film doesn’t move too fast but slows down just enough to present a compelling portrait of a lost young man with multiple avenues towards redemption.


Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Movie with Abe: In a Valley of Violence

In a Valley of Violence
Directed by Ti West
Released October 21, 2016

The western is a genre defined by violence. The climactic scene of any great western involves a fateful shootout in which the hero must defend his town or way of life from an enemy who threatens that. Even if the hero espouses nonviolence and attempts to resolve the situation diplomatically, inevitably guns come into play. A valley of violence is just the kind of place that should be found in a western, and Ti West’s involving, creative take on the classic story of a good man riding into town and being forced to clean up the mess that disguises itself as law and order has a most fitting title.

Paul (Ethan Hawke) is first introduced with his loyal dog as he stops to help a destitute preacher eager for aid in the middle of the desert, and, seeing his attempts at deception, robs him of his weapon and his supplies, warning him that they should not cross paths again. The drifter and his dog wander into the town of Denton, and it takes man of few words Paul little time to clash with Gilly (James Ransone), who gets away with just about anything on account of his father being the sheriff (John Travolta). After one of the town’s innkeepers, Mary-Anne (Taissa Farmiga), whose sister and fellow innkeeper Ellen (Karen Gillan) finds herself romantically tethered to Gilly, takes a liking to Paul, he realizes that this brief stopover in Denton will be far more permanent and impactful than he had originally planned.

This film is in many ways a conventional western, but West’s take on it is also highly satirical and funny. Violence comes to Paul without him trying to attract it, and the bad guys are almost asking to be taken out as they walk all over their town and the people in it. Mary-Anne personifies goodness even more than Paul, and Ellen represents an in-between based mainly on her poor outlook on the world. Travolta’s sheriff knows how he likes to keep his town, and an unruly son who won’t listen to anyone is, in his mind, far better than a reckless random citizen or visitor who doesn’t play by the rules.

Hawke, who scored an Oscar nomination for “Boyhood” and was at serious risk of just playing the same part over and over again, finds a fabulous role in Paul, painting him as a carefree cowboy, just seeking to pass through with his own signature style. Farmiga and Gillan are both terrific, and Ransone has a superb frenetic energy that makes him just the right level of absurd. Travolta offers a detached take on the sheriff, just trying to get by without any ruckus. This entertaining, enthralling western spins a standard tale into something far more enticing with witty dialogue, strong cinematography and framing, and excellent use of a talented and capable cast.


Sunday, October 16, 2016

NYFF Spotlight: The Lost City of Z

I’m thrilled to be covering a number of selections from the 54th Annual New York Film Festival, which takes place September 30th-October 16th.

The Lost City of Z
Directed by James Gray
NYFF Closing Night Selection

No matter when it takes place, there is a certain excitement and sense of wonder that comes with exploration. In the present day, technology has advanced to the point where lands are no longer uncharted and travel from continent to continent takes almost no time. A century ago, however, there was still much to be learned about different regions of the world. In 1906, one British explorer mapping the Amazon came across what he thought might be the remnants of a civilization far older than his own and began a lifelong quest for answers that could greatly alter the findings of recorded human history.

Tasked with following the path of a river in Brazil to help quell international tensions in the region, eager young soldier Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam) is astounded by what he finds at the farthest reach of his journey: pottery in the middle of the jungle that indicates a people once lived there. Returning to his family in Europe, Fawcett spends minimal time with his wife Nina (Sienna Miller) and the children he barely gets to know, focused instead on going back to the Amazon in search of what he calls the “Lost City of Z” with equally curious fellow explorer Henry Costin (Robert Pattinson) at his side, charging ahead despite dubious support back home and a lack of belief that what they are looking for – a primitive civilization potentially more advanced than their own – could even exist.

Gray’s film runs a staggering two hours and twenty minutes, covering Fawcett’s twenty-year obsession with his fabled lost city, interrupted by the advent of World War I and eventually passed on to his eldest son Jack (Tom Holland). Much of the film’s runtime is spent on the river or in the jungle itself, as a white European does his best to seem nonimperialist and pay the societies they encounter a respect rarely afforded to them by people with his color of skin. Fawcett is a man far ahead of his time, undeterred by the limited thinking of his peers or the real dangers that lie ahead. It’s a compelling story that doesn’t often match its excitement in its presentation, finding solid moments on which to coast but not recreating that same enticement for the rest of the time. The cast, led by a determined Hunnam, do their job well, but the extraordinary charisma and sense of humor displayed by Gray in a press conference following the film are sadly seldom seen in this sometimes underwhelming epic.


Saturday, October 15, 2016

NYFF Spotlight: Elle

I’m thrilled to be covering a number of selections from the 54th Annual New York Film Festival, which takes place September 30th-October 16th.

Directed by Paul Verhoeven
NYFF Screenings

Paul Verhoeven is a Dutch director who has been making movies for over forty years. Sci-fi hits “Robocop” and “Total Recall” were relatively well-received in the United States, and the quality of his films went severely downhill from there with mixed reviews for “Basic Instinct,” “Starship Troopers,” and “Hollow Man,” and the truly terrible “Showgirls” in between. He made a critical comeback in 2008 by returning to his home country to make the campy Holocaust thriller “Black Book,” which most except this critic liked, and, fortunately, Verhoeven has now directed his finest film to date, an exceptional character study in French.

In the first scene of “Elle,” Michèle (Isabelle Huppert) is brutally attacked and sexually assaulted by an unknown assailant. Wary of the police because of negative treatment she received when, years earlier, her father was arrested for perpetrating horrific crimes, Michèle keeps the assault to herself and immediately returns to work as the head of a video game company. As she navigates relationships with all the men in her life, including her son Vincent (Jonas Bloquet), her ex-husband Richard (Charles Bering), her best friend’s husband Robert (Christian Berkel), and her attractive married neighbor Patrick (Laurent Lafitte), she takes her own steps to find the man who attacked her and take control of her life.

At a NYFF press conference after the film, Verhoeven noted that this film couldn’t be made in America. Though adapted from a French novel by American screenwriter David Birke, this is a distinctly European film that pushes boundaries in a number of ways. It’s far from a typical revenge story, and its extensive use of sexuality amplifies and makes it extremely layered and complex. There are a staggering number of plotlines all in focus at the same time, and it’s a magnificently functional film that gives devoted attention to all of its characters, no matter how minimal.

Huppert, who is anchoring this film and another NYFF selection, “Things to Come,” is exceptionally suited for this role, self-assured and confident in some moments and completely vulnerable and susceptible to those around her at others. Most of all, she seizes on the film’s unexpected opportunities for humor in her perception of those with whom she interacts. She is surrounded by a tremendous ensemble, including all four men previously mentioned, Anne Consigny as Michèle’s best friend and business partner Anna, and Alice Isaaz as Vincent’s monstrous pregnant girlfriend Josie. This is far from a conventional film, but the tremendous combination of a highly skilled and entertaining cast, a sharp script, and attentive direction make this a very creative, memorable, and engaging film.


Friday, October 14, 2016

NYFF Spotlight: 20th Century Women

I’m thrilled to be covering a number of selections from the 54th Annual New York Film Festival, which takes place September 30th-October 16th.

20th Century Women
Directed by Mike Mills
NYFF Screenings

An expression like “20th Century Women” suggests that every century creates a certain type of woman. The expectations and roles of the female in American life have changed over the years, and the twentieth century was definitely dynamic enough that each decade could have its own type of woman. Mike Mills’ very fun new film finds one very singular independent woman doing her best to raise her teenage son and, in doing so, seeks the assistance of two extremely different “20th century women” to ensure that he enters the real world of adulthood with his head screwed on straight and a proper outlook on life.

Dorothea Fields (Annette Bening) is a woman who knows how she likes things. At age forty, she gave birth to a son, Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann), and tries to teach him values as a single mother. She rents out two rooms in their Santa Barbara home, one to a carpenter, William (Billy Crudup), who does most of his work on the house itself, and the other to a hip young artist, Abbie (Greta Gerwig). When she realizes that she is not totally capable of guiding Jamie through life, she enlists the help of Abbie and Jamie’s friend Julie (Elle Fanning), who sleeps over every night yet refuses to indulge a sexual relationship with her best bud, to raise her son and steer him in the right direction.

Mills’ previous film was the wonderful “Beginners,” which in 2011 won Christopher Plummer a Best Supporting Actor for playing a gay widower who comes out at the age of seventy-five, based on Mills’ own father. That film was full of whimsical narrations to frame the story in a creative way, and his latest project uses delightful title cards to fill in the histories of its main characters and, occasionally, to cite works of literature that have influenced them. It all contributes to a wholly entertaining and enjoyable experience with some truly memorable characters.

Bening is already generating Oscar buzz for her portrayal of a mother passionate about what she wants to do and completely unaware of how she is perceived by the rest of the world, a very focused and funny performance. Gerwig plays a role similar to the one she usually has but fits in well with the ensemble, as does Fanning, who, at age eighteen, has already delivered her share of strong turns. Crudup and Zumann round out a very talented cast, all of whom are clearly having fun in this energetic, heartwarming, and sincerely funny film.


Thursday, October 13, 2016

NYFF Spotlight: The Settlers

Earlier this week, I wrote up a lengthy piece about "The Settlers," a layered documentary playing at the New York Film Festival about Israeli settlements. Head over to Jewcy to read the article and visit the NYFF page to learn more about the film.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

NYFF Spotlight: Aquarius

I’m thrilled to be covering a number of selections from the 54th Annual New York Film Festival, which takes place September 30th-October 16th.

Directed by Kleber Mendonça Filho
NYFF Screenings

Most people live in a few places over the course of their lives, moving from one city to another, or even crossing state and international lines as they go through different stages, steps, and careers. Some do stay in the same city or town their entire lives, and later in life, even those who have moved frequently often remain in one place as they get older. It’s not easy to persuade someone who has spent years in the same house or apartment to consider relocating, and such attempts to do so tend to be futile and only provoke further stubbornness.

In “Aquarius,” Clara (Sonia Braga) is first introduced at age thirty, partying in 1980 and celebrating the seventieth birthday of her favorite aunt. Her husband thanks all those in attendance for supporting the family as she has battled cancer the previous year, and the film then jumps ahead to the present day, when Clara, retired after a successful career of writing music, is the sole remaining resident of the famed Aquarius building. The construction company sends smiling emissaries to knock on her door with a colorful brochure about their plans once the final obstacle in their way is removed, which encourages her to stand her ground and defend the home that she wants to continue calling her own.

Clara is interviewed as soon as the film arrives at the present by an intrepid journalist, who asks her, among other things, how she feels about the Internet and music being so readily available. Her answer is boiled down in a headline to “I love MP3s,” but it does represent an adjustment to modernity that many in her field of her age wouldn’t normally make. Clara maintains positive relationships with her adult children and plenty of friendships, and staying in her home is just another element of continuing to live a rich life and experience the world as she desires. She’s a formidable lead character.

Braga is a respected Brazilian actress who appeared in a handful of American films thirty years ago and plays a major role in the new Netflix series “Marvel’s Luke Cage.” Braga, who is hardly wanting for memorable parts, has found a career-topping role in Clara, and she responds with exuberance and commitment, carrying the film with her modest and confident energy. The film runs two hours and twenty-two minutes but remains engaging due to an impressive reliance on its story and its actors to take the film wherever it needs to go, which proves more than worthwhile.


Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Movie with Abe: Do Over

Do Over
Directed by Ryan Francis
Released October 11, 2016

Who wouldn’t want to have a second shot at getting it right the first time? That sentiment could apply to nearly anything in life, but in this case, it’s all about losing your virginity on prom night. While hardly the most sophisticated subject, this comedy doesn’t pretend to be anything it’s not, laying all its cards on the table as four friends who haven’t necessarily gone too far try to recapture the glory of high school and rewind their sex lives back to where they started, for whatever it may be worth.

“Do Over” opens in a bar with a long conversation among reunited friends. Sean (Drew Seeley) has just moved back to his hometown after making it big in the tech industry, and he is warmly greeted by his old friends Anthony (Jonathan Bennett), Ryan (Zack Lively), and Angela (Amy Paffrath). Their conversation is full of nostalgia for a time long gone since the other three haven’t moved very far since then, and it naturally turns to the fateful night where they all lost their virginity. Egged on by Angela, Anthony and Ryan decide to contact the women they slept with for a second shot, and Sean can’t resist the opportunity to contemplate reconnecting with Gina (Gina Field), who he still can’t stop thinking about after thirteen years.

What ensues is a silly series of interactions as the three men search for the women they aren’t so sure they wowed. A combination of overeager matches all too willing to engage spiritually, awkward attempts to restart relationships, and shocking revelations that cause immense soul-searching leads the three men in totally different directions. It may not be the most intellectual or complicated film, but it is a fun, often entertaining, and generally enjoyable riff.