Thursday, August 25, 2016

Movie with Abe: Mia Madre

Mia Madre
Directed by Nanni Moretti
Released August 26, 2016

Films about filmmakers rarely serve as portraits of happy, fulfilled people. One of the main reasons for directors and writers to tell stories in cinematic form is that they’re trying to cope with or understand what’s going on in their own lives, either mirroring events or masking them entirely in a fantasy of some sort. Sometimes a filmmaker disconnects himself or herself so much from his or her project that there seems to be nothing in common between the two, and when do intersect or overlap it’s all the more glaring. “Mia Madre” presents one such scenario.

Margherita (Margherita Buy) is in the midst of making a major film about workers’ rights. Scenes are already complicated to shoot before the arrival of the American star, Barry Huggins (John Turturro), whose inability to speak Italian and lack of commitment to learning and nailing each line further frustrate things. At the same time, Margherita spends time running to the hospital to visit her sick mother Ada (Giulia Lazzarini) and struggling to accept the truth about her decline that her supportive brother Giovanni (Nanni Moretti) already knows. All of this stress predictably leads to Margherita turning inward to figure out where her life is headed.

“Mia Madre” is in many ways a very typical story about a professional overrun by personal troubles that threaten to take down both parts of her lives. What only stretches out the pain is that Ada is not unconscious or on death’s door. Instead, she is fully lucid and conversational and gradually begins to decline, mistaking her daughter for someone else and then apologizing as she realizes her error. That coupled with Barry’s seemingly deliberate forgetting of his lines makes for a very frazzled Margherita ready to come apart.

This film comes from director Nanni Moretti, whose last film was the entertaining “We Have a Pope.” Like in that film, Moretti casts himself in a supporting role, that of Giovanni, quietly steering the film in the right direction as the one truly stable thing in Margherita’s life. Buy, who won Italy’s equivalent of the Oscar for Best Actress, is terrific, displaying a range of subtle emotions throughout her performance. Lazzarini, who also took home a David di Donatello Award, turns in a strong and endearing portrayal of a declining matriarch. And then there’s Turturro, who could stick out like a sore thumb but instead portrays an American moderately more sophisticated and adjusted than might be expected. As a whole, this is an engaging and involving experience that is at the right times amusing and at others resounding.


Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Movie with Abe: Level Up

Level Up
Directed by Adam Randall
Released August 26, 2016

Films that define themselves only as thrillers expressly have just one intent: to enthrall. These aren’t the movies that double as dramas or include undead elements that could recategorize them as horror. These are the blockbusters that start the clock when the opening credits roll and then don’t let up until the hero hopefully saves the day and then relaxes until whatever post-film future hassles await him or her. The new British film “Level Up” isn’t hoping to be a modern-day one-person “Die Hard” or “Speed” - the aim here is just to provide nonstop action and little substance.

John McClane was ready to deal with a hostage situation, even on Christmas, because he was a tough New York cop. Matt (Josh Bowman) is not. He spends most of his time on his couch playing video games, rarely rising to the occasion and making something of the life that he shares with his far more successful girlfriend Anna (Leila Mimmack). Only a group of masked thugs literally breaking his door down and strapping a bomb to him can motivate him to get up off the couch and try to accomplish something, even if that something is doing a number of deplorable things to save the woman he loves who doesn’t always feel appreciated.

Though its scenarios and scenes change quickly, “Level Up” isn’t a terribly fast-paced film. Clocking in at just eighty-four minutes, this film instead emphasizes moments in which things explode and then spends at least two as long after finding its protagonist in a state of recuperation. Its title couldn’t be any more accurate - this all plays out as if Matt is trapped inside a video game. Each time he defies his instructions or does something unexpected, he has the opportunity to start again and make a new choice as the next challenge or threat presents itself.

The possibilities for creative filmmaking here were endless, and if this had actually mirrored a video game in its execution, it could have been pretty cool. There are definitely weird moments and strange things afoot, but it doesn’t have the resounding effect it could if it was programmed the way that Matt’s life was already playing out from his comfortable seat on the couch. Instead, it’s a generally unambitious and relatively unpleasant race to the end of a film that doesn’t bother to get to know its characters, assuming that someone being taken as a bargaining chip is reason enough to save them. Of course that’s how most would react, but even a little bit of substance in this mindless thriller might have been nice.


Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Movie with Abe: Is That You?

Is That You?
Directed by Dani Menkin
Released August 26, 2016

Films that employ a question as a title invariably take on the challenge of answering that question. This Israeli film, which debuted at festivals in Israel and the United States nearly two years ago and arrives in New York this week, takes its title from the simple phrase its protagonist uses to identify whether he has achieved his goal, which is to find the woman he loved who long ago was no longer part of his life. Best described as a meandering road movie, this harmless journey is filled with some decent if fleeting entertainment.

Ronnie (Alon Aboutboul) is sixty years old and works as a projectionist and finds himself released from his steady job with what he describes as a generous severance package, including a ticket to the United States. His first stop is his brother, who he hasn’t seen or spoken to since their mother’s death, and nostalgia prompts him to, with the aid of his technologically-inclined nephew, begin to search for Rachel (Suzanne Sadler), best defined as the one who got away. An almost directionless road trip gets even further off course when he meets Myla (Naruna Kaplan de Macedo), an aspiring filmmaker who barters her way out of tough spots by offering to make every person she speaks to the subject of her documentary, which conveniently enough is focused on regrets.

Ronnie’s quest to find the woman he loved seems destined to end one of two ways: either he’ll find her or he won’t. Whether they get to live out the rest of their lives together is a separate matter, but Ronnie seems to have grown lonely and solitary enough that the thought of being with someone he remembers fondly is substantially appealing for him to just get in a car and drive. Pairing him as a protagonist with Myla is effective because they’re both on journeys to discover something, with hers a more open-ended investigation into what exactly she’s trying to find. As a concept, this film works fine, but it’s far from the most vital cinematic export from Israel to reach the United States. Aboutboul and de Macedo are fun together on screen, and do a decent job carry this lighthearted drama, which is at times engaging but ultimately not terribly memorable.


Monday, August 22, 2016

Movie with Abe: Complete Unknown

Complete Unknown
Directed by Joshua Marston
Released August 26, 2016

Movies have a set period of time – usually between an hour and a half and two hours – to create a universe with living, breathing characters. There are those that take time to truly get to know a person, actual or fictional, over the course of their entire life, while other films focus on just one day, night, or week of someone’s existence. In most cases, the more you know and learn about a protagonist, the better. The new film “Complete Unknown” supposes the opposite, crafting a mysterious drama centered around a woman who personifies its title.

“Complete Unknown” has two main characters, Tom (Michael Shannon) and Alice (Rachel Weisz). Tom is a successful man with many friends, and he is at a turning point in his sometimes strained relationship with his wife, Ramina (Azita Ghanizada), as he considers moving with her to a new job across the country. As he celebrates his birthday, Tom meets the woman his friend Clyde (Michael Chernus) has started seeing recently. Alice is a charming, alluring find with many interests more than capable of sustaining living conversation with Clyde’s friends. But Tom seems acutely aware that there is something wrong, and little time passes before it is revealed that their stories are interlinked even though they haven’t seen each other in years, and she is most definitely not who she claims to be.

This is one of those films where it’s better to go in without knowing much, and even just providing a bit of a summary might detract from the experience. This reviewer saw the title and the cast and figured that was a good enough reason to check it out, and interested audiences should do the same. What can be said without giving too much away is that Alice is a fascinating character whose story merits such cinematic consideration, and Tom provides an effective standard, stable foil to her more unpredictable chameleon.

Weisz is a terrific actress who won an Oscar in 2005 for “The Constant Gardener.” After her supporting role in “Youth” last year and her eager portrayal of a free thinker in “The Lobster” earlier this year, this is a superb showcase for Weisz to really shine. Shannon, who is starring in so many films this year, is at his most quietly formidable best opposite her. Ghanizada, who starred on Syfy’s great series “Alphas” a few years ago, and Chernus, who does plenty of underpraised supporting work in film and on television, contribute to the ensemble in their roles, as do Kathy Bates and Danny Glover in a key extended scene. Joshua Marston, who made his feature film debut with “Maria Full of Grace,” has found another very interesting subject matter and created a film that is well-constructed and often engaging but ultimately unsatisfying, set on where it wants to start out but hardly as certain of where it wants to end up.


Friday, August 19, 2016

Movie with Abe: The People vs. Fritz Bauer

In theaters today is the award-winning German film "The People vs. Fritz Bauer," which may end up being the German selection for Best Foreign Film in this year's Oscar race. Check out my take on the film over at Jewcy.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Movie with Abe: A Tale of Love and Darkness

It's only fair that my review of Natalie Portman's feature directorial debut, "A Tale of Love and Darkness," was written for Jewcy. Portman pulls double duty in front of and behind the camera in this story of famed writer Amos Oz's childhood during the infancy of the State of Israel that's fully in Hebrew. Check out the review over at Jewcy.

Friday, August 12, 2016

Movie with Abe: The Tenth Man

The Tenth Man
Directed by Daniel Burman
Released August 5, 2016

Coming home is always a momentous occasion, one guaranteed to produce a variety of reactions from different people. When someone lives abroad and returns to a place where most locals rarely leave the city let alone the state or country, it can be a jarring adjustment for all parties involved. In “The Tenth Man,” an Argentinean man living in the United States returns to Buenos Aires and finds that easing back into the life he knew so well as a child is not the simplest of tasks, and his outlook on what he has and what he wants must shift accordingly.

As he prepares to leave for Argentina, planning to introduce his fiancée to his family, Ariel (Alan Sabbagh) gets repeated calls from his father, Usher (Usher Barilka), asking him to bring Velcro sneakers with him so that he can give them to a kid who is in the hospital. As is the case with any big trip, the minutia of an errand such as that can be lost in a sea of things to do and loose ends to tie up, and though Ariel tries and looks, he ultimately cannot find the requested pair of shoes.

Arriving in Buenos Aires, Ariel is immediately drawn back into the charity foundation that his father created, making new use of things left behind by those who no longer need them. Try as he may, he is unable to actually meet Usher face to face, constantly getting phone calls about the shoes and errand after errand, yet an audience proves elusive. Eva (Julieta Zylberberg), a religious woman who barely speaks, becomes an unlikely friend, and it feels in a way as if Ariel never left, once again depended upon to live his father’s legacy.

This film’s title and its Spanish title both have an interesting and layered meaning rooted in Jewish practice. “El rey del Once,” which means “The King of Once,” matches the film’s poster, which shows Ariel driving around the district of Once with a crown on his head in celebration of the festive Jewish holiday of Purim. “The Tenth Man” refers to the number of people needed to make a minyan, or quorum of ten Jews, required to recite certain prayers. Both titles represent an intriguing but unfulfilled connection to Judaism as it permeates the culture in Buenos Aires, something started and unfinished. The film, which follows Ariel as he explores his hometown, is equally interesting when it begins but also has trouble finding its eventual direction, unsure of what specifically it wants to achieve.


Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Movie with Abe: Finding Dory

Finding Dory
Directed by Andrew Stanton and Angus MacLane
Released June 17, 2016

If there’s a movie that’s been in the works for a long time, it’s this one. “Finding Nemo” was an Oscar-winning smash hit beloved by audiences of all ages when it was released in 2003, and many have been clamoring for a sequel since then. It took thirteen years, but it’s finally here, winning over all those who enjoyed the first one for the past month and a half. Like any sequel, it’s not quite as resounding or refreshingly endearing as the original, but it does a pretty great job of revisiting popular characters and accompanying them on their next great journey across the ocean to reunite a family.

Ellen DeGeneres earned much praise for her film-stealing vocal performance as Dory, the blue tang fish with short-term memory loss, in the original film, keeping everyone entertained with her upbeat attitude and tendency to repeat conversations, often getting distracted in the middle of a sentence. Giving her a vehicle of her own is a risky thing since she might have worked better as a supporting player, but fortunately it pays off very well with a delightful and heartwarming spotlight on Dory getting lost as a child and now, as an adult, starting to remember things that help her to get back to the family that she has just realized has to exist somewhere. Now, Marlin and Nemo are the ones helping her on this quest.

The ocean and the many creatures that live in it serve as the basis for the storyline in this film that does a more than suitable job of making creative use of its premise and surrounding. The incorporation of a conservatory and its aim to rehabilitate sea life and then put in on display for people to see is interesting and serves the story well, changing the perspective on what a zoo or aquarium actually means. The minimal science and educational value is woven seamlessly in to a sweet narrative that should easily please all ages.

As with any animated comedy, it’s the voices that make the real impact. Joining returning anchors DeGeneres and Albert Brooks as Marlin are Ed O’Neill, Kaitlin Olson, and Ty Burrell in crucial roles as the three people most instrumental in aiding Dory’s journey towards discovering who she was and where she came from. It’s clear that everyone is having fun, and it’s hard not to enjoy this movie when the spirit of adventure and excitement is so positively pronounced.


Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Movie with Abe: Wrestling Jerusalem

As promised, this summer has been sadly sparse on movies, but you can expect reviews of new films coming more frequently starting very soon. Right now, you can check out my take on the extremely intriguing and educational new documentary "Wrestling Jerusalem" for Jewcy. See it no matter how you feel or think you feel about Israel - it's worth it. Check out my article over at Jewcy.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Israel Film Center Festival Spotlight

I've been busy catching up on television over at, but check Jewcy every once in a while for articles, like my recent post about three premier Israeli films showing at the JCC Manhattan at the Israel Film Center Festival happening this week. Check out my article over at Jewcy.