Friday, December 2, 2016

Movie with Abe: Jackie


Jackie
Directed by Pablo Larrain
Released December 2, 2016

There’s a saying that art imitates life. In the case of film, that can be very true since films are made to look like the times and people that they portray. Some films cast actors who can embody the energy of a historical figure or celebrity even if he or she doesn’t look the same, and others focus on recreating events in the most evocative and recognizable way possible. “Jackie,” which casts Natalie Portman as the polished, presentable, and popular first lady, takes the latter approach, recreating a memorable time with extraordinary attention to detail and especially to looking the part.

Portman plays the world-famous Jackie Kennedy, a presidential wife defined by her poise and her beauty. Jackie’s most formative moments are framed by an interview with a journalist (Billy Crudup) a few short weeks after the assassination of her husband. Footage of Jackie filming a tour of the White House, which she decorated, and the immediate aftermath of JFK’s assassination offer an insightful look into who Jackie was and how she wanted to be perceived, especially following the untimely death of her partner in popularity at the height of his presidency.

This film’s title is purposeful in its singular use of Jackie’s first name, featuring Jackie as a woman on her own rather than chronicling her courtship with JFK or the second marriage for which an “O” is commonly added to her name. Like “Lincoln,” this film chooses not to explore Jackie’s life as a whole but instead to latch on to a crucial, transformative time for her. She puts on an act for the cameras and reveals her true self in her darkest and deepest moments, shedding light on the person she was as related specifically to her final days as first lady. It’s an intriguing portrait but does leave something to be desired regarding all that came after in her later years.

Portman is a skilled actress who made her directorial debut this year with the Hebrew-language “A Tale of Love and Darkness.” She won an Oscar for “Black Swan” and here presents a complete mimicry of Jackie’s voice and mannerisms, so carefully calculated and staged to evoke memories of the real Jackie. She is a magnetic centerpiece for this colorful and contemplative film, one which is ominously and distractingly scored as it presents Jackie’s glamorous life fated for tragedy.

B

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Movies with Abe: Israel Film Festival


I had the privilege while I was in Los Angeles before Thanksgiving to attend two back-to-back screenings at the 30th Israel Film Festival. Check out my take on the Ophir-nominated films "Beyond the Mountains and Hills" and "One Week and a Day" over at Jewcy.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Jewcy Interviews: Supergirl


No, it shouldn't be confused with the CW superhero show I review over at TV with Abe (though that is surprisingly relevant) - this interview, conducted and written for Jewcy a few days ago, is with the director of an uncontroversial, affirming documentary about a young Orthodox girl who has become a powerlifting champion.

Check out the interview over at Jewcy!

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Jewcy Interviews: Disturbing the Peace


This seems like an especially fitting time for a documentary about people on opposite sides of a very bitter conflict coming together in the name of peace. I had the privilege to chat with Stephen Apkon, founder of the Jacob Burns Film Center in Westchester, about his new film, "Disturbing the Peace," about Israelis and Palestinians finding a nonviolent way to coexist.

Check out the interview over at Jewcy and catch the film at Lincoln Plaza or Landmark Sunshine tomorrow.

Friday, November 4, 2016

Movie with Abe: Loving


Loving
Directed by Jeff Nichols
Released November 4, 2016

The civil rights movement holds a very recent place in United States history, and for all the racial inequality that still exists today, such discrimination and hatred were also legal as little as fifty years ago. Segregation was a common practice enforced by many states, and those who refused to be confined to where the society of the day told them they needed to be were dealt with harshly. “Loving” tells the story of a black woman and a white man whose love for each other was simple, and not even the ways of the times were going to stop them from being together.

Mildred (Ruth Negga) and Richard (Joel Edgerton) are introduced already deep into their relationship in 1950s Virginia. Their families are well aware of their romance, and Richard in particular spends plenty of time with people of color, treating them no differently than he would anyone else. When they decide to go to Washington, D.C. to get married, they proudly hang their marriage license on the wall in the home that Richard builds for his wife and the baby they have on the way. Determined to oppress them and prevent any divergence from backwards social norms, the local police arrest the couple and do their very best to keep them apart, ultimately prompting a legal battle involving high authorities to force the state of Virginia to accept the validity of their union.

Jeff Nichols is a director known for his distinctly creative storytelling, with just four feature films to his name, including the chilling “Take Shelter” and the hypnotic “Mud.” This film, based on real events, marks his most normative film yet, still a devotional character piece but one that chooses a magnetic story as its focal point rather than a framing style or worldview. Colorful art direction and purposeful cinematography, as well as a poetic score by Nichols’ regular composer David Wingo augment a compelling tale of love over all. Aussie Edgerton and Negga, best known for her role on action TV series “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D,” are hardly conventional choices for these roles, and Negga’s performance speaks considerably louder than Edgerton’s as she conveys the passion for living the life she wants to that Mildred had. In the supporting cast, comedian Nick Kroll proves a peculiar choice to play lawyer Bernie Cohen, and the film’s lighthearted moments are plentiful. This is a beautiful story about the triumph of love, perseverance, and acceptance, one that’s sweetly told in a good if not great film.

B

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.

B-

Friday, October 21, 2016

Movie with Abe: Moonlight


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 AndrĂ© 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.

B+

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.

B

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.

B+

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.

B