Saturday, November 22, 2014

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

The Sleepwalker (recommended): This Sundance feature from debut director Mona Fastvold is an intimate look at two couples and how they communicate and clash during one volatile weekend. Stephanie Ellis, as the eccentric and unpredictable Christine, is the film’s standout. Now playing at IFC Center. Read my review from Sundance.

They’re not new this week, but I can highly recommend both Interstellar and The Theory of Everything.

New to DVD

In Bloom (mixed bag): This 1990s-set drama, which was Georgia’s official Oscar submission for Best Foreign Film last year, has strong characters but not an effectively engaging story to match them.

The Wind Rises (highly recommend): In the height of Oscar season, I somehow neglected to write a review, but last year’s second-best animated film is a must see. This dazzling film comes from director Hayao Miyazaki, who presents a tale of a man obsessed with building planes who just happens to grow up in Japan in the run-up to World War II. It’s a visually stunning and extremely memorable, mature piece.

South Asian International Film Festival Spotlight: Dukhtar

I’m excited to cover a few selections from the second year in a row the South Asian International Film Festival, exhibiting films from India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and Nepal, which presents its eleventh year in New York City from November 17th-23th.

Directed by Afia Serena Nathaniel
Screening November 22 at 5pm

Pakistan’s official Oscar entry this year is this drama about a ten-year-old girl smuggling away from her home when she is promised as a child bride to a powerful and dangerous man. Allah Rakhi (Samiya Mumtaz) wants only to protect her young daughter Zainab (Saleha Aref) from having her childhood stolen from her, and those who want the marriage to go through will stop at nothing to get her back. Billed as both a drama and a thriller, this film is actually strongest in its more intimate moments, as Allah Rakhi and Zainab befriend Sohail (Mohib Mirza), a truck driver who initially demands that his stowaways depart but gradually proves to be a sympathetic and kindhearted guardian for them. This is female director Afia Nathaniel’s first full-length feature, a powerful look at one culture where physical escape is truly the only option for survival. While it’s not always firmly enthralling, this is an empathetic and worthwhile film.

Friday, November 21, 2014

South Asian International Film Festival Spotlight: Titli

I’m excited to cover a few selections for the second year in a row from the South Asian International Film Festival, exhibiting films from India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and Nepal, which presents its eleventh year in New York City from November 17th-23th.

Directed by Kanu Behl
Screening November 21 at 8pm

This drama, called “Butterfly” internationally, comes from India and presents the story of Titli, a young man caught up in a life of carjacking and petty crime who, as is often the case, wants to make a clean break. Titli is quiet and somber compared to his loud and abrasive brothers, who balk at the idea of him leaving and do everything they can to keep him where he is. The ensuing tale is about who Titli is as a person and what is important to him, since he already exists in a world where getting out isn’t a true possibility, but the idea of starting a new, untarnished life is undeniably appealing. This could be classified as a mobster drama in a different culture, one where thievery and side businesses don’t produce the kind of luxury they might in a wealthier country but instead just enable continued existence a base level. Titli’s story is interesting, but this film doesn’t quite come alive while telling it.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Movie with Abe: The Theory of Everything

The Theory of Everything
Directed by James Marsh
Released November 7, 2014

The intersection of science and emotion is an undeniably interesting place to dwell. Scientists, by nature, aren’t typically graced with excellent social skills, and therefore seeing the relationships they are able to build is particularly worthwhile. In the case of Stephen Hawking, the world’s foremost theoretical physicist, he managed to be charming enough to win the heart of Jane Wilde, a colleague at the University of Oxford, despite the pull of his studies. This science-centered love story inserts a considerably different hurdle, as a genius able to solve nearly any problem is faced with the impossible reality of not being able to control or solve his own deteriorating condition.

“The Theory of Everything” begins as a whirlwind romance, with a young Stephen and a young Jane making eyes at each other at a party and then proceeding to have several captivating dates during which Stephen shows off his brainpower and Jane responds in kind by acknowledging his impressiveness without seeming too giddy. At the same time, Stephen is hard at work proving that time has a beginning and that he can trace it back to that scientific start. A sudden decline in his health reveals a debilitating and terminal illness which should kill him in less than two years, and as Stephen despairs, Jane steps in to show her enduring love and determination to keep him alive and functioning, continuing to make the world a more intelligent place.

This is a story about two people, a strong, supportive wife who would do anything for the husband she admires save for let him sit and sulk and not realize his potential. Its format is reminiscent of the terrific “A Beautiful Mind,” including a similar scene towards the start when Stephen and Jane gaze hopefully at the stars and their infinite nature. Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones deliver heartfelt, transformative performances. Redmayne displays a range of emotion with minimal but deliberate facial expressions and movements as Stephen’s state gradually limits his mobility. Jones exudes a bravery and drive that propels Jane to be the one to prop her husband up and make sure he wants for nothing. The two together are extraordinary, and they help to make this already stirring story even more magnetic and powerful. James Marsh, who won an Oscar for helming the documentary “Man on Wire,” has demonstrated himself to be capable of taking a true story and adapting it with great success into a narrative feature.


Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Wednesday Oscar Watch with Abe

Welcome to the first 2014 edition of this returning feature here at Movies with Abe, Wednesday Oscar Watch with Abe. It’s a bit early to be able to accurately predict the eventual Oscar nominees, but around this time, plenty of likely contenders are being released. I’ll be looking every Wednesday at the awards chances for all of the films released the previous week (in this case, the past three weeks). Additionally, to make up for lost time, I’ll also be taking a look at the films released earlier in the year, one month at a time. Chime in with your thoughts on the Oscar chances for these films in the comments section. Also, if I’ve missed any films from the previous months, please say so!

Films released October 31-November 14, 2014

Nightcrawler (October 31)
This film looked a bit too bleak and grim for Oscar, but Jake Gyllenhaal’s name has come up as a potential Best Actor contender (my most trusted source, Nathaniel at The Film Experience, is currently predicting him). I’d chalk it up to the same buzz he got for “Prisoners” which panned out to nothing.

Big Hero 6 (November 7)
I have yet to see this animated film, but I hear only great things and it seems like it’s the likeliest challenger to “The Lego Movie” for the Best Animated Feature trophy this year.

Interstellar (November 7)
Christopher Nolan’s last film – “The Dark Knight Rises” – didn’t earn any Oscar love, but the one before that, “Inception,” sure did. This should follow in the latter film’s footsteps, with guaranteed tech nominations and a likely Best Picture bid. Given Nolan’s history of being snubbed, a Best Director bid seems unlikely, but who knows?

The Theory of Everything (November 7)
Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones are sure things for their performances as Dr. and Mrs. Stephen Hawking, and this film will also be nominated for Best Picture. Director James Marsh, who won Best Documentary for “Man on Wire” a few years ago, has a good shot, and the film will surely also show up in Best Adapted Screenplay. Best Editing, Best Cinematography, and Best Makeup are possible too.

Beyond the Lights (November 14)
Gugu Mbatha-Raw is having a great year, and it’s possible that she’ll breakthrough for her performance in this film, though competing against herself in “Belle” probably means that she’ll have to wait for a less busy year with just one standout performance.

Foxcatcher (November 14)
Director Bennett Miller has been nominated for both of his previous films, “Capote” and “Moneyball,” both of which also earned Best Picture nominations and two acting nods apiece. That seems about right for this film, which shouldn’t have trouble getting in with an expanded Best Picture field. Miller won’t have as easy a shot but could still make it. Steve Carell is a likely Best Actor nominee, but hardly locked, and Mark Ruffalo has the best shot for his supporting turn over onscreen brother Channing Tatum, who won’t have an easy time breaking into the more crowded Best Actor race.

Rosewater (November 14)
Jon Stewart has won an awful lot of Emmys, so it’s fair to expect that having his name on a film might at the very least pique Oscar voters’ attention. I don’t think the film will be big enough, but he’s a dark horse contender for his reputation and for the film’s subject matter.

Films released June 2014

The Fault in Our Stars (June 6)
Shailene Woodley was nearly an Oscar nominee a few years ago for “The Descendants,” and I’m fully confident that she will be in the future. This film might not be Oscar voters’ tastes, but you can bet that Woodley is going to show up on more than a few ballots.

Obvious Child (June 6)
Jenny Slate is an up-and-coming actress with a proven comedian record, but this film needed to land in a much, much bigger way for her to make it her Oscar debut. A Golden Globe nomination is more realistic, and I’m not so sure that’s guaranteed either.

Snowpiercer (June 27)
I’ve read some buzz about Tilda Swinton being a contender for this film, which I have yet to see, but I don’t think this one is going to place at all, even though it should garner some technical votes. A sci-fi success like this doesn’t tend to be Oscar-friendly.

Begin Again (June 27)
Keira Knightley is everywhere this year, and it makes sense that she might at least earn some Golden Globe attention for her role in this film. Costar Mark Ruffalo, also having a big year, could too, though an Oscar nomination for him is impossible. Director John Carney’s “Once” earned one nomination – and on win – for Best Original Song, and I think this film has the best chance of showing up in that race, possibly with a few nominations.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

South Asian International Film Festival Spotlight: X

I’m excited to cover a few selections for the second year in a row the South Asian International Film Festival, exhibiting films from India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and Nepal, which presents its eleventh year in New York City from November 17th-23th.

Many directors
Screening November 17 at 8pm

This audacious project is a fitting film to introduce this year’s SAIFF lineup as its Opening Night selection. This Indian film comes from eleven different filmmakers, all of whom tackled the same storyline but from their own vantage points and fitting their own genres. That makes for one very schizophrenic experience – alternately engaging and alienating, hard to latch on to but gripping when one of the film’s eleven chapters really works. Like any film made up of vignettes, some are stronger than others, and it’s those that focus on direct, one-on-one conversation, particularly a chapter with a mock job interview, that prove most memorable and effective. Its brave construction makes for a fragmented experience, one that does manage to traverse a wealth of genres and themes but not in any coherent manner. The film’s tagline reads “Is man meant to stick to one woman? Is film meant to conform to one genre?” Those questions may be answered both in the negative here, but it’s a response that hasn’t been fully worked out just yet.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Movie with Abe: Interstellar

Directed by Christopher Nolan
Released November 7, 2014

Christopher Nolan is, without question, an ambitious filmmaker. Most recently, he revived the Batman franchise with the immensely popular Dark Knight trilogy, and he helmed an Oscar Best Picture nominee with the dream-centric “Inception.” He has shown a clear enthusiasm for science fiction and for merging scientific concepts that are both factual and fictional. Now, he’s headed into space with a 169-minute exploration of what the future might look like, a recognizably epic and momentous journey that’s fully worthy of its intimidating runtime.

“Interstellar” begins in a dystopian future that isn’t too far off from the present, though resources have been depleted considerably and Earth’s inhabitants are subject to increasingly bad dust storms. Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) has found himself to be a farmer in this new world order despite his past job history as a pilot. His daughter’s curiosity leads him to an opportunity to return to his old life and possibly even save the world, piloting an extremely daring NASA mission to find a new inhabitable planet for the people of Earth.

“Interstellar” spends its first act on Earth, and the departure into space is a thoroughly satisfying one. On the heels of last year’s “Gravity,” this is another look at the magnificent universe that’s both mesmerizing and terrifying in its absoluteness. The sheer magnitude of this mission – which is known from the outset to likely take years if not decades, particularly with the inconvenient nature of certain gravitational systems to slow time down considerably – is not lost, and the four astronauts who undertake it understand the importance of what they’re doing, especially as those they left behind continue to see circumstances worsen.

As with “Inception,” technology and science are incorporated in a terrific way, even if it may blur the line between the possible and the truly theoretical. Among the film’s best elements is TARS, a robot superbly voiced by Bill Irwin who has both the ability to be sarcastic and to adapt very quickly to whatever situation he needs. Oscar winners McConaughey and Anne Hathaway are well cast as two equally determined astronauts with strong motivations for succeeding in their mission, and the supporting cast includes standout turns from Jessica Chastain, Mackenzie Foy, and an “American Beauty” actor not seen in a long time, Wes Bentley. The film is full of exciting moments and dazzling effects, creating a suspenseful, gripping, and all-involving experience. The film takes a questionable step towards its conclusion but everything else, including the film’s final scene, is completely satisfying and a sign that Nolan can excel at whatever feat he sets his mind to.


Sunday, November 16, 2014

Movie with Abe: Beside Still Waters

Beside Still Waters
Directed by Chris Lowell
Released November 14, 2014

A lake house is a perfect setting for an ensemble film, be it a comedy or a drama. When that home has deep resonance for its guests and brings back nostalgic feelings of their childhood, it can be even more impactful. In “Beside Still Waters,” that sense of longing for better days is exponentially enhanced by the fact that this final gathering of friends comes in the wake of the car accident death of its new owner’s parents, mournfully underscoring an otherwise celebratory reunion filled with soap-worthy romantic entanglements.

This film marks actor Chris Lowell’s debut as both cowriter and director. Most people will recognize him from his role as a shirtless receptionist on “Private Practice” or from his recent stint as an idiotic brother on “Enlisted.” I remember him, however, from his debut role on ABC’s extremely short-lived “Life As We Know It,” where he played a teenage photographer in a relationship with Kelly Osborne. That classic hilarious show was all about sex and relationships, and it’s no surprise that his first time behind the camera should be similar.

“Beside Still Waters” doesn’t waste much time in bringing its characters together from the varied places they are in life, starting with Daniel (Ryan Eggold), who has to cope with his parents’ unexpected and untimely death and also with his ex Olivia (Britt Lower) making the questionable decision to bring her new fiancĂ© Henry (Reid Scott) along with her. The rest of the guest list includes a couple and a newly famous reality TV star (Brett Dalton). Romance, seduction, secrets, and betrayal predictably follow.

This is an original story about young people that feels genuine, but there’s nothing particular about it that makes it uniquely memorable or enduring. These characters all feel like variations of different archetypes, each offering a piece of a given personality and helping to show how contrasting attitudes and career experiences can mesh together. This is a specific and fleeting snapshot of their lives that permits only a brief opportunity to try and understand their motivations for their actions on a given weekend. The film’s tone is one of loose, unserious fun later made far more consequential once the weight of decisions and actions have sunk in. Lowell does seem to have interesting things to say, and his next feature has the potential to be a more lasting realization of the themes he has begun to explore here.


Saturday, November 15, 2014

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

Beside Still Waters (mixed bag): Actor Chris Lowell’s directorial debut is an interesting and entertaining film about childhood friends reuniting at a lake house, but it’s not a groundbreaking or particularly compelling story in its own right. Now playing at Quad Cinema. My review will be up tomorrow.

Foxcatcher (mixed bag): Bennett Miller’s third feature film, following “Moneyball” and “Capote,” is an intriguing look at an eccentric billionaire and the two wrestling champions he takes an interest in, but its story arc isn’t as compelling or fulfilling as it should be. Steve Carell’s transformative performance, on the other hand, is more worthwhile. Now playing at AMC Lincoln Square, Landmark Sunshine, and Regal E-Walk. Read my review from NYFF.

The Homesman (anti-recommended): Tommy Lee Jones’ second time behind the camera is about as bleak and uninviting as his first, “The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada.” If watching his disgruntled drifter and Hilary Swank’s buttoned-up Midwesterner transport three crazy women across territorial lines sounds appealing, go ahead and check this one out. Read my review from Thursday.

Rosewater (recommended): Jon Stewart’s directorial debut isn’t something you might expect from him, but it does dramatically spotlight the story of one journalist imprisoned in Iran. Its story and star Gael Garcia Bernal are its strongest assets. Now playing in limited release. Read my review from yesterday.

New to DVD

Happy Christmas (recommended): Anna Kendrick is perfectly charming as an immature screwup who has difficulty being an adult when she stays with her brother, his wife, and their baby. Director Joe Swanberg gives a great companion performance in this enjoyable comedy.

Now on Netflix Instant Streaming

Nebraska (recommended): This quiet black-and-white Best Picture nominee tells an endearing, surprisingly funny tale of an older man with a fading memory who embarks to reclaim the prize money he believes he has won and experiences a true life journey on the way to find it.

Pirates of the Caribbean (highly recommended): Before this turned into a franchise that wasn’t even worth watching, this first film, which earned an awesome and well-deserved Oscar nomination for Johnny Depp’s maniacal lead performance, was a tremendous accomplishment in entertainment and bringing fantasy to life in the most terrific way.

Quartet (recommended): This 2012 Golden Globe nominee for lead actress Maggie Smith’s performance is actually an extremely competent and worthwhile film, featuring superb performances from Smith, Tom Courtenay, Billy Connolly, Pauline Collins, and Michael Gambon as senior citizens in a home for retired musicians. Dustin Hoffman’s directorial debut is an endearing hit.

Siddarth (recommended): This drama, which I screened as part of last year’s South Asian International Film Festival (this year’s begins on Tuesday), is a stirring and emotional story about a man who goes to great lengths and personal sacrifices to track down his missing son in India.

Tasting Menu (recommended): This food movie isn’t all about its appetizing dishes, but instead offers up a handful of fun and involving storylines that, for the most part, come together in a positive and enjoyable format.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Movie with Abe: Rosewater

Directed by Jon Stewart
Released November 14, 2014

Venturing into a new genre is always a challenge, and audiences often have a hard time accepting that a performer or filmmaker is equally capable of making one kind of film as the one for which they are most known. To some, Jon Stewart is still the guy from “Big Daddy,” while most at least acknowledge the more intellectual comedian host of “The Daily Show” on Comedy Central. Making a dramatic film about the arrest and torture of a Canadian-Iranian journalist in Iran in the aftermath of the controversial 2009 elections is a big leap from political satire, but it’s clear that this is the kind of topic that matters most to Stewart.

”Rosewater” tells the real-life story of Maziar Bahari (Gael Garcia Bernal), who traveled from London to Iran in 2009 to cover the elections. What he found was enormous national support for Mir-Hossein Mousavi, the primary opposition candidate to sitting president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. When the election results come in, however, it’s Ahmadinejad who is victorious, and by a suspiciously large majority. Staying with his mother (Shohreh Aghdashloo), Maziar awakens to find government authorities have come to question him, and he soon lands in a cell, blindfolded, interrogated, and told that he is a spy. At first, he responds with laughter at the notion and soon realizes that circumstances are much more serious than he could imagine.

“Rosewater” has a meta moment in which Jason Jones, a regular player on “The Daily Show,” portrays himself, reenacting a segment with the real Bahari just prior to the election in which Jones pretends to be a “spy correspondent” speaking with Bahari, who jokingly confirms his identity as a spy. Stewart uses an altogether different tactic to expose the ridiculous of world events here, demonstrating how Bahari’s interrogation includes such outlandish and clearly made-up claims yet that’s what actually goes on in the world. The film isn’t immune to humor, of course, highlighted by Bahari’s attempts to have fun with his interrogator, making up lengthy stories about famed sexual massages in New Jersey to pique his interest.

Bernal is the perfect actor to play Bahari, who at a press conference for the film demonstrated the same kind of fusion of likeable and knowledgeable personality that makes his attitude towards his circumstances considerably sunnier and more optimistic than another journalist’s might be. Stewart has told an important story in this film, and while it’s not that drama doesn’t suit him, he’s not yet the most finessed filmmaker, using a few tropes such as hallucinated relatives and fast editing that don’t lend themselves to the most well-rounded film. Bernal and this film’s message, however, remain powerful, as wrapped up in this decent if unextraordinary film.