Saturday, August 1, 2015

Saturday Night Recommendations with Abe

Welcome back to a weekly feature here at Movies With Abe. I'm going to be providing a handy guide to a few choice movies currently playing in theatres as well as several films newly released on DVD and Netflix. I invite you to add in your thoughts on any films I haven’t seen in the comments below.

Due to a busy summer where TV with Abe has gotten far more of my attention, I’ll be taking the next three weeks to look individually at movies in theatres over the past six weeks, then those on DVD, then those on Netflix, as the best way to catch up and savor summer!

Now Playing in Theatres

Best of Enemies (highly recommended): This extremely engaging documentary chronicles the rivalry between Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley, Jr., intellectual pundits from complete opposite ends of the spectrum, who, after both have died, have their relationship analyzed for all to see, an effective and informative look at what happened when opposing opinions were presented in the same space rather than on different networks. Now playing at IFC Center and Lincoln Plaza. Read my review from Sundance.

The End of the Tour (recommended): This recreation of the time shared by an eager journalist and one of the most prolific authors in recent history who died far too soon is an interesting and immensely watchable portrait of two people with sharp, memorable dialogue. Jason Segel does a great take on David Foster Wallace in this appealing if unresounding film. Now playing at AMC Lincoln Square and Angelika. Read my review from yesterday.

Infinitely Polar Bear (recommended): I’ve never liked Mark Ruffalo more than in this endearing comedic drama, which I saw at Sundance 2014, of a bipolar father struggling to get a handle on raising his two young daughters alone while his wife attends school in another state. It’s a sweet, likeable story with just enough magic and some great performances. Now playing at Lincoln Plaza and Cinema Village. Read my review from Sundance.

Inside Out (highly recommended): I finally saw this animated comedy and I’m pleased to say that I very much enjoyed it. Amy Poehler and Phyllis Smith are just two of the many great voice actors to help animate this lovely story about the emotions at work within the brain of a young girl struggling to adapt to a difficult move. It’s charming and immensely likeable, and gets bonus points for being preceded by a terrific short, “Lava.” Now playing in wide release. My review will be up shortly.

The Overnight (highly recommended): This irreverent comedy was one of the funniest films I saw at Sundance this past year, thanks in large part to superb performances all around from Taylor Schilling, Adam Scott, Jason Schwartzman, and French actress Judith Godrèche as two couples brought together by their young children for an unforgettable wild night. Now playing at Village East Cinema. Read my review from Sundance.

Two Step (anti-recommended): This dark thriller brings together a young man who recently came into a large sum of money and a criminal more than ready to kill to get his hands on it. The premise might be interesting, but the film opts for a grim, unengaging style which might be presented as slow burn suspense but hardly comes off as positive or productive. Now playing at Village East Cinema. Read my review from Thursday.

Friday, July 31, 2015

Movie with Abe: The End of the Tour

The End of the Tour
Directed by James Ponsoldt
Released July 31, 2015

A few short words in a film’s title can say a lot. “The End of the Tour” gives its subject matter a certain finality, referencing not just the tour itself but the fact that it has ended or will soon end. It begins at a future point at which reporter David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg) learns via a casual phone call from a friend that author David Foster Wallace (Jason Segel) has died. This saddening news causes Lipsky to flash back to a time twelve years earlier when he convinced his boss to send him to Illinois to join Wallace at the end of a book tour, an unforgettable experience whose moments of conversation serve as the framework for this film.

Lipsky is introduced as a character in his own right, also the author of a successful novel though hardly receiving the same kind of accolades and worship as Wallace. Unsure of what he will encounter, Lipsky brings a copy of his own book along once he pesters his editor enough to send him on a fact-finding mission to interview the man and discover his story. Wallace is at first guarded, mostly a facet of his personality and the manner in which he speaks, and on a number of occasions remarks that he should write a book about Lipsky writing about him.

That analytical nature is central to this film, which consists mostly of scenes of Lipsky and Wallace talking, the former always at the ready with his tape recorder to hear Wallace expound on some aspect of his life which might be mind-numbingly boring if described by a less fascinating figure. The effect of Wallace’s dialogue is all the more impactful because we know how the story ends and that this tour is but a distant memory in the mind of present-day Lipsky.

Eisenberg plays the same kind of character he always plays here, stepping back a bit from his nebbishy, awkward archetype to allow Segel to take center stage. The comedian, known best for his portrayal of Marshall on “How I Met Your Mother,” dives deep into the role of Wallace, getting to know him and nailing his mannerisms and affect. Ultimately, it is clearly Eisenberg and Segel on screen, but Segel’s take on Wallace is well worth a watch in this intriguing if not entirely satisfying remembrance of one mysterious magnetic man gone too soon.


Thursday, July 30, 2015

Movie with Abe: Two Step

Two Step
Directed by Alex R. Johnson
Released July 31, 2015

Money always complicates things. Coming into a large sum without any prior knowledge of its existence can produce highly different reactions in people, especially considering their history with money and what it means to them. Some embrace it with humility, almost unsure of what to do and how it could change their lives, while others don’t even stop to appreciate what has happened and merely move on to selfish motives. In the new dramatic thriller “Two Step,” two such drastically different people learn are faced with such a situation and interact in a disturbing and violent manner.

James (Skyy Moore) is a not a particularly motivated person, but he does have a kind heart. After being expelled from college, James heads home to the only family he has, his grandmother, who passes away soon after his arrival. His budding friendship with her old friend Dot (Beth Broderick) doesn’t distract him from the discovery that his grandmother was an unwilling participant in a money scam conducted by Webb (James Landry Hebert), who, even from within prison, calls people with older names and pretends to be their grandchildren in desperate need of money. James’ interest in making things right only leads Webb closer to him, with disastrous results.

At first, these are two separate stories, with Webb being released from prison only to learn that he owes more than he thought he did to some very angry people, and James dealing with the directionless nature of his life after his grandmother dies. Webb’s story is much darker, filled with instances of brutality and aggression, while James’ seems far more optimistic, especially as the bright and enthusiastic Dot enters his life. Dot’s role as a dance instructor provides the framework for the title of this film, a difficult interaction that proves excessively worrisome as it becomes ore complicated.

The allure of this film, according to critics who adore it, is that it is a stylized thriller true to its Southern origins. Its slow burn build does have the potential to make its finish even stronger, but the film never quite reaches a point of true satisfaction where everything that leads up to the explosion of its events feels like it has been given a proper payoff. It is unabashedly and unapologetically grim and unsettling, but that is not enough to make for a solid and memorable movie experience all on its own.


Friday, July 10, 2015

Movie with Abe: The Breakup Girl

The Breakup Girl
Directed by Stacy Sherman
Released July 10, 2015 on VOD

When a movie’s title names its central character based on a specific incident, it’s usually a reflection of the catalytic event that sparks the story and, by the end of the movie, might even prove to be irrelevant. In the case of “The Breakup Girl,” its protagonist, Claire (Shannon Woodward) gets hit with the devastating and completely unforeseen end of her relationship and must deal with the subsequent overwhelming attention from her family as the 29-year-old tries to get her life together. The announcement from her father that he has cancer can’t come at a worse time, as this breakup girl tries to cope and graduate to being identified as something more than a work-in-progress.

Woodward is an actress who showed great promise in her role as the daughter of two con artists on FX’s short-lived “The Riches,” and then stuck around “Raising Hope” for the duration of its run as an intelligent but unmotivated love interest. Her role here is much more akin to the latter part, as Claire stresses over turning twenty-nine and not having accomplished anything she has hoped for, something which her two sisters, Sharon (Wendi McLendon-Covey) and Kendra (India Menuez), and overbearing mother Joan (Mary Kay Place) remind her of constantly. Only her father (Ray Wise) seems happy to see her where she is, though his aloof attitude, which defines his outlook on his illness, makes it clear that she is her father’s son, unable to take like as seriously as it sometimes needs to be taken.

The sisters here are all remarkably different. Claire is stuck in place, not having done much and not set to do much in the future. Kendra’s career is just starting out, and though her theatric interests aren’t to everyone’s tastes, she is young and aspiring enough to get away with it. Sharon has achieved considerable success and worries about such things as what modification to make next on her house while her husband Steve (Joe Lo Truglio) yearns to make an emotional connection with his distant wife. These characters anchor a story that’s mildly engaging and interesting.

Woodward is a fine lead, and it would be great to see her get parts like this again in the future. Place and Wise are well-cast, and Truglio, who is usually used for exaggerated comic relief, shines in a role that doesn’t necessarily even ask as much of him as he gives. Timm Sharp, who was a major player on HBO’s “Enlightened,” has a small part that could have used more screen time and development. This movie as a whole is a moderately inviting look at a short snippet of one young woman’s life that might well be worthwhile but never quite catches fire and sparks the way its title suggests it could.


Friday, July 3, 2015

Movie with Abe: Jackie and Ryan

Jackie and Ryan
Directed by Ami Canaan Mann
Released July 3, 2015

There’s something about music that makes romance inevitable. A scene in the 1975 Robert Altman film “Nashville” comes to mind in which multiple women smile during a performance by Keith Carradine’s Tom Frank because they think that he is singing specifically to them that illustrates the power of music to connect people. When it’s just two people bonding through a shared passion and talent for music, it’s considerably less complicated, but it can still involve complicated people facing their own struggles while trying to find love with each other, which is the premise of the new drama “Jackie and Ryan.”

Ryan (Ben Barnes) is a familiar character, described most easily as a drifter, hopping trains to travel around the country, playing his guitar for money wherever he goes. He arrives in Ogden, Utah, checking in on the woman his friend has impregnated and her young child. He springs into action when he witnesses Jackie (Katherine Heigl) being injured in a minor car accident, and driving her back home leads to a dinner with her disapproving mother and bright-eyed young daughter, and the start of something much bigger than a chance meeting.

A love for music is a major part of what brings Jackie and Ryan together. Jackie is in the midst of a miserable custody battle, with her rich New York husband trying to take her daughter away from her. Jackie struggles to find work, interviewing for positions that are unfunded and couldn’t have possibly worked out, with local people gushing over her past as a famous musician, a distant memory that can’t help to support her in her current state. Jackie is at a place far removed from a former success, whereas her new friend is just at the start of what could well be a fruitful career.

The setup here isn’t something new – there have been a number of films, especially in recent years, about romances beginning as a result of a musical connection of some sort. Its Utah setting enables the story to be blanketed in a calm snow, which is nice, and its characters, save for Jackie’s vicious offscreen ex, are all pleasant and sweet-natured. Heigl, famous for her TV work on “Grey’s Anatomy,” and Barnes, who played Prince Caspian in the Chronicles of Narnia films, are decent, able leads who help this relatively endearing story come to life.


Friday, June 19, 2015

Movie with Abe: Manglehorn

Directed by David Gordon Green
Released June 19, 2015

Movies always risk inheriting the conditions of their main characters, which can include their outlook on life, their demeanors, and the energy they put into the things they do. While this can be effective, it can also be cripplingly uninviting. In “Manglehorn,” the title character lives his life in a way that is far from put-together, with little taking him from moment to the next. The film adopts that same approach, which is inherently problematic since it proves to be far from engaging.

Al Pacino has been acting for decades, earning Oscar nominations more than forty years ago for early roles in films like “The Godfather” and “Dog Day Afternoon” and finally winning twenty-three years ago for a career-topping performance in “Scent of a Woman.” Since then, Pacino has made his mark mostly in TV movies on HBO, portraying a dying gay man, Dr. Kavorkian, and Phil Spector. His films have been less commendable, and the image of Pacino sitting with a cat in his lap and a tired expression on his face on this film’s poster doesn’t recommend its quality above the usual level of Pacino’s projects lately.

“Manglehorn” begins with little dialogue, letting the loneliness of Manglehorn’s life sink in. The local locksmith cares for his cast, who he learns requires surgery, the way that many care about other people. He laments to those around him, particularly his unreceptive adult son (Chris Messina), about how he lost the love of his life, who happens not to have been his ex-wife but instead the woman he wishes he had pursued. It’s easy to see that Mangelhorn has regrets and that he wishes his life was different, but there’s not enough here to form a complete story that serves as interesting enough in its own right.

There’s a certain look that has shown up in Pacino’s eyes in some of his more eccentric performances of late signifying a certain zaniness and commitment to character. While the poster for this film could have indicated that it would be appropriate here, Manglehorn is spared that kind of mannerism. His story may not be exciting, but at least the lead performance is appropriately muted and not over-the-top where it easily could have been. Pacino’s latest film is a decent but unengaging look at getting older and looking back on life that hardly ranks as a must-see.


Thursday, June 18, 2015

Movie with Abe: The Face of an Angel

The Face of an Angel
Directed by Michael Winterbottom
Released June 19, 2015

When an event occurs and receives major press coverage, the news ends up spreading and more people around the country and world become aware that it has happened. After some time, the story compounds itself and those reporting on it often become a part of it. “The Face of an Angel” uses different names but tells the story of Amanda Knox, an American exchange student arrested and wrongly convicted for the murder of her British roommate while studying in Italy. Knox’s alter ego Jessica Fuller (Genevieve Gaunt) is not the star of this film, however. For their roles in the story, a top journalist and visiting filmmaker become the subjects of this cinematic account of the media sensation.

Thomas (Daniel Bruhl) is a renowned filmmaker looking for his next big project following an ugly public divorce in Hollywood. He arrives in Italy and connects with Simone (Kate Beckinsale), a freelancer who has extensively covered the case. His interest in Jessica and her story only grows over the course of the film as he uncovers inconsistencies and surprises that suggest that not all the facts are known and that there is deep darkness hidden beneath the surface. His dedication to making a film that tells the truth is met with trepidation by his backers, who want a movie audiences can get behind and where they don’t need to work out its ending for themselves.

Seeing this story from the twice-removed perspective of a filmmaker hearing about it from a journalist who has covered the event is meant to add both mystery and depth, and while the former is achieved, the latter is not since it lacks the necessary pull to compel viewers to watch attentively. The film is like Thomas’ planned film, not eager to divulge facts or explain what actually happened, but instead to present things as they are, intriguing, suspicious, and uncertain.

German-raised Bruhl is experimenting with English-speaking roles with various success, triumphing in “Rush” and in most other instances failing to get worthwhile parts that permit him to use his talents. Thomas is prickly and devoid of many positive qualities, making him a difficult stand-in for the audience on this investigative journey. Beckinsale made for a compelling reporter in “Nothing but the Truth,” and adds little here. Director Michael Winterbottom, who has helmed projects as diverse as “The Look of Love,” “The Killer Inside Me,” and “A Mighty Heart,” has made a film that should be interesting but unfortunately takes the wrong approach to entice its audience.


Saturday, June 13, 2015

Saturday Night Movie Recommendations with Abe

Welcome back to a weekly feature here at Movies With Abe. I'm going to be providing a handy guide to a few choice movies currently playing in theatres as well as several films newly released on DVD. I invite you to add in your thoughts on any films I haven’t seen in the comments below. Understandably, some weeks will have considerably fewer releases to address than others.

Now Playing in Theatres

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (highly recommended): It’s difficult to convey just how awesomely creative and engaging this film, which took home both the Audience Award and Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, where I tried to see it but didn’t get in, is. The child and adult actors are equally excellent, and it’s hard to match this film’s wondrous style and dialogue. Now playing at AMC Lincoln Square, AMC 34th St, and Regal Union Square. Read my review from yesterday.

New to DVD

Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem (highly recommended): This Israeli film very deservedly earned a Golden Globe nomination last year for Best Foreign Film. The third feature from sibling directors Ronit and Shlomi Elkabetz is a staggering and enormously compelling account of one woman’s lengthy battle to earn a religious divorce from her husband. It’s very well-written, balancing humor and devastation terrifically with fantastic performances from all in the cast.

Rich Hill (recommended): This documentary, which took home the Grand Jury Prize at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival, is an honest, involving portrait of three young boys facing tough circumstances but proudly talking about their lives to an interested camera.

Now on Netflix Instant Streaming

Kidnapping Mr. Heineken (mixed bag): The story of the 1980s abduction of beer magnate Freddy Heineken by a group of criminals is an inherently fascinating tale, but it doesn’t translate to gripping cinema that way that it should despite a strong cast including Jim Sturgess, Sam Worthinton, Ryan Kwanten, and Anthony Hopkins.

Nightcrawler (recommended): Jake Gyllenhaal, who earned Golden Globe and SAG nominations for his performance, is terrific as a creepy budding video journalist with a fascination for the more grotesque side of Los Angeles. It’s an unsettling and haunting film that is equally captivating and hard to shake.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Movie with Abe: Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl
Directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon
Released June 12, 2015

Whether a story is simple or complex in its innate nature, there are many ways to tell it and to transform it into something of considerably more or less depth. “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” is about a boy finishing up high school and the circumstances that send him on a particular path, and starting with its lengthy title, this film takes anything but a conventional approach. The self-identified protagonist, Greg (Thomas Mann), Earl (RJ Cyler), and the dying girl, Rachel (Olivia Cooke), are players in a wildly entertaining and engaging story that turns out to be far more electric and fascinating than its premise might suggest.

Greg begins by introducing himself as the film’s narrator, setting the stage for what could be a perfectly standard story in which he is a floater in the school who can easily latch on to any social group because he has no close ties with any of them. Almost immediately, however, the film’s imaginative style takes hold, as Greg is prone to picturing what happens in his real life in more abstract ways, including the use of Claymation to illustrate such things as the hold that attractive girls have on unsuspecting teenage boys by showing a chipmunk being trampled by a moose. Greg also exercises his creativity by making friends with his coworker and friend Earl, parodying well-known films with absurd variations such as “2:48pm Cowboy” and “A Sockwork Orange.” Greg is forced to take his life a bit more seriously when his mom makes him spend time with Rachel, who has just been diagnosed with leukemia, and a wonderful and unexpected bond of friendship begins to form.

Guiding Greg through his final year of college is a commitment to every aspect of his life, not just with Earl and Rachel, both inarguably terrific characters in their own right. The casting of the adults is particularly commendable, choosing excellent actors with mostly television backgrounds to fill important roles that might seem insignificant if put into less capable hands. Connie Britton and Nick Offerman are Greg’s parents, his mother concerned only about his bright future and his father living in his own world, populated most strongly by excessively odd foods. Jon Bernthal is the maniacal, inspirational teacher who allows Greg and Earl to spend most of their time in his office watching classic films. Molly Shannon is Rachel’s mother who shamelessly flirts with Greg every time he comes over, a glass of wine permanently grasped in her hand. The adult actors are matched by the four young protagonists. Katherine C. Hughes’ “hot girl” Madison is far more sophisticated than she might seem, even if her role can be boiled down to a moose stepping on an unsuspecting chipmunk in the wild. The charming Cooke is wonderful as Rachel, mature well beyond her years but still unwaveringly human and real. The hilariously deadpan Cyler, who plays Earl, finds a way to deliver every line as if it’s the signature moment of the movie. And then there’s Mann, who holds it all together with a lead performance that recognizes that he may not be the most prominent player in his own story.

The inventiveness of “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” is not consistent in its format, which may prove frustrating for some viewers. When the frame tilts as a young Greg and young Earl walk down the street, it seems like that might be a device used again during the film, yet it’s not. Fortunately, there are so many moments of blistering creativity throughout that repeating styles is not necessary. The film is not immune to conventional drama either, as some scenes are presented in a more normative cinematic format with the expected staging and accompanying music. The sum of its parts are more than worth the price of admission, and this film is a deeply involving, engaging, and entertaining ride all the way through its gut punch of a finale, easily ranking as one of the best films of the year.


Saturday, June 6, 2015

Saturday Night Movie Recommendations with Abe

Welcome back to a weekly feature here at Movies With Abe. I'm going to be providing a handy guide to a few choice movies currently playing in theatres as well as several films newly released on DVD. I invite you to add in your thoughts on any films I haven’t seen in the comments below. Understandably, some weeks will have considerably fewer releases to address than others.

Now Playing in Theatres

Nothing to report this week – it’s not the time of year where I see too many movies, but I’ll have a few to review over the next few weeks.

New to DVD

Camp X-Ray (recommended): Kristen Stewart got serious in this Sundance 2014 hit in which she plays a Guantanamo Bay guard who befriends a detainee, portrayed by Payman Maadi from “A Separation.” Maadi is terrific and Stewart performs ably enough in an uncomfortable film that is occasionally right on target.

Now on Netflix Instant Streaming

Fishtail (mixed bag): I’m not even sure what to say about this sixty-one-minute documentary that I saw at the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival, which focuses on a ranch in Montana. What I remember most is watching a cow give birth, which aside from being just peculiar is hardly the most enthralling thing to watch.

Hits (mixed bag): There is something truly clever and insightfully hilarious about actor David Cross’ directorial debut, which I saw at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival. Matt Walsh and Meredith Hagner are great as a father and daughter whose worldview is decidedly skewed in this comedy that diverges a bit too much from any coherent direction.