Friday, May 20, 2016

Movie with Abe: Maggie’s Plan

Maggie’s Plan
Directed by Rebecca Miller
Released May 20, 2016

There are people who have plans and those who are happy to let their lives be steered by events beyond their control. There are levels to which those with notions of how their lives will go are set in their ways and are willing to see other forces interact with and affect that. The expression “Man plans, God laughs” is perfectly descriptive of one such planner, the protagonist in “Maggie’s Plan,” who seeks to have a baby on her own and finds her life thrown into chaos when she starts to fall for a married man.

Maggie (Greta Gerwig) is a wide-eyed young professor in New York City who has decided that she will ask a high school friend, Guy (Travis Fimmel), to donate his sperm so that she can start a family since she has found no luck in pursuit of a boyfriend or future husband. Just as she is beginning that process, John (Ethan Hawke), a fellow professor and novelist, enters her life. Maggie begins to read his work in progress and can’t get him out of her head, and he finds himself similarly transfixed, a fact complicated by his marriage to intimidating Danish intellectual Georgette (Julianne Moore). Maggie thought she would follow the road that was best, but all that is disrupted when she realizes she might have to take another path.

This film comes from Rebecca Miller, who is married to Daniel Day-Lewis and directs and writes films about as sporadically as her husband stars in them. This story, written by Miller and Karen Rinaldi, is a highly entertaining one that incorporates academia in a very effective way. John’s field is ficto-critical anthropology, which is equally pretentious and aggressively counterculture. The conversations these characters have border on absurd, but there is an intellectual grounding to all of them that enhances each scene greatly.

Gerwig has established herself as a respected independent actress, and it’s hard to imagine anyone else in this part as she inhabits yet another free spirit guided mainly by her desire to be her own person and hardly prone to any directing pulls that don’t align with her sense of self. Hawke has fun with a role that allows him to depart from his “Boyhood” archetype, and Moore in particular seems to be having a blast with a thick accent and exaggerated character. In supporting roles as Maggie’s friends, Bill Hader and Maya Rudolph contribute controlled comedy, and Fimmel makes an impression as the undeniably peculiar Guy. This film is a fun journey full of missteps with a strong script and committed cast, and a particularly clever second act.


Friday, May 13, 2016

Movie with Abe: Money Monster

Money Monster
Directed by Jodie Foster
Released May 13, 2016

There’s a lot to say about the economy. Especially in recent years, the general consensus is that it’s an unstable entity that is only made more volatile by manipulative and self-promoting actions taken by those with plenty of it who feel a burning desire to make more. Predictably, people get hurt, and there are outcomes that can’t be reversed. “Money Monster,” a flashy new film with three high-profile stars involved, dramatizes one potential implication as a man who believes that he has been misled by those in power and ruined his life in the process and is determined to make someone pay.

Lee Gates (George Clooney) is the host of a television show that serves as this film’s title in which he analyzes the economy and gives stock tips to viewers. The extent of his ridiculousness is made clear in the film’s opening scenes as Lee is seen dancing on stage with elaborate costumes and flanked by two dancing women, emphasizing the nature of his show as sensational and difficult to be taken seriously. He is guided and kept in line by his longtime producer Patty (Julia Roberts), who is forced to think fast to try to keep him alive when a disgruntled viewer (Jack O’Connell) shows up in the middle of a live taping with a bomb and a score to settle with the man who encouraged him to invest his life savings in a bad stock.

This is a film that stars two of the biggest and most well-known actors around and is directed by an actress who has now become a respected director. They all won Oscars for extremely dramatic roles that represent the higher tier of films in their respective genres. Clooney, Roberts, and Jodie Foster would seem like the perfect team to tackle a premise like this, especially on the heels of the success of “The Big Short” and the American intellectual public’s apparent craving for someone to blame for the country’s economic woes. While this film is undeniably engaging, it’s hardly the cinematic masterpiece that it could have been. The characters are too broadly drawn and the dialogue is uninspired, and while the film may have lofty ideas about the message it wants to send, it doesn’t convey them in the most technically competent way. Clooney is a capable talker and the versatile O’Connell does his best to make the human villain of the story credible, but as one member of the screening audience said while walking out behind me, this is a film that audiences will love and critics will hate. I can’t say I hated it, but this is a piece of entertainment much more than it is a quality film.


Thursday, May 12, 2016

Movie with Abe: High-Rise

Directed by Ben Wheatley
Released May 13, 2016

The daily routines of a person’s life take them to many different places. Necessary errands like buying groceries, filling up gas, and going to the doctor facilitate human contact with those from other walks of like. Those who reside in the same building share certain traits but can also look nothing alike, and when the only thing they know is what immediately surrounds them, the world can begin to come crashing down, as it does in a magnificent way for the residents of a luxurious high-rise in this furious depiction of social chaos at its most outrageous.

Dr. Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston) is a man who says little and observes plenty, rarely contributing to the conversations around him and subsisting on not being noticed. His work involves the rather brutal examination of dead bodies, something that makes students queasy but doesn’t faze him at all. His move to the high-rise introduces him to a self-sufficient system in which he can even shop in the massive supermarket on the fifteen floor, leaving work as his only reason to leave the building. Robert watches as those around him begin to go to war – the rich on the top floors eager to quash the rebellious poor on the bottom floors – and everything devolves completely out of control.

Set in London in the 1970s, “High-Rise” boasts dazzling costumes and interior visuals. Those contrast greatly with the desolate nothingness of the outside world, devoid of much color with the high-rise looming alone above a giant parking lot and with little in the sky around it. Robert is seen at work and in the car, but otherwise, the high-rise is everything. The lavishness of what the high-rise provides despite the great disparity of wealth that separates its playboy intellectuals and working-class families is incredible, and the potential for destruction is immeasurable, yet the characters give it their all as they delight in ripping each other to pieces.

Hiddleston, best known to American audiences for playing Loki in the Marvel universe movies, has the right sedated aura to make Robert an almost nonexistent player in his own story, immune to the allure of the chaos and therefore able to best take it in as it rages around him. Standouts from the supporting cast include Jeremy Irons as the architect of the building, James Purefoy as a conniving upper-floor resident, Luke Evans as a committed liberal documentarian, and Elisabeth Moss as his neglected pregnant wife. The film’s visual style is an extraordinary asset, contributing just as much to its storytelling as its characters. This is an unsettling and wild journey, one that shows the true depths to which humanity can sink when given the opportunity.


Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Movie with Abe: The Lobster

The Lobster
Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos
Released May 13, 2016

Not everyone has an easy time finding love. That's why singles events tend to be very popular and so many people go on so many first dates. Some relationships work, and some don’t. Most societies encourage people to find love, but one oppressive dystopian future demands it, damning those who are unable to couple to a fate worse than being alone. That disturbing worldview is the premise for "The Lobster," in which finding a mate is far from optional.

David (Colin Farell) checks himself into the Hotel, a place where single people are given thirty days to find a partner. If they succeed, they are celebrated and sent to a happy life of tranquility. If they fail, they are turned into an animal of their choosing. As a way of extending their stay, guests at the Hotel take to the forest, where they hunt for Loners, those who have escaped and choose to live alone away from society.

Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos earned an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Film in 2010 for "Dogtooth," the story of three adult children who are taught so many incorrect and untrue things by their possessive parents to keep them from ever leaving the house. This film pairs well with that one, expanding such a frightening mindset into a whole community. It's a fervently engaging and unsettling concept that plays itself out very interestingly, finding people at their worst as they struggle to stay alive and to survive in this harsh reality.

Farell is an intriguing choice to play the lead of this dark, dark comedy, tempering his enthusiasm to create an unfriendly, matter-of-fact man set on achieving his goals without much drama. Rachel Weisz serves as an effective narrator, humorously detailing David's thoughts and adding her opinions to his experience. John C. Reilly, Ben Wishaw, and Jessica Barden contribute memorably as other guests at the hotel, and Olivia Colman and Léa Seydoux both turn in strong performances as the quietly tyrannical rulers of the Hotel guests and the Loners, respectively. Calling this film a comedy disregards its extremely troubling nature, though moments are considerably more wickedly entertaining than “Dogtooth,” while its effects aren't quite as haunting or potent. Still, it's a massively interesting film which paints a truly horrifying picture of what dating could become if it gives in too much to what society wants and expects.


Friday, May 6, 2016

Movie with Abe: Dough

In case you missed it, head over to Jewcy to read my take on "Dough," which opened last week and tells the story of a kosher bakery in London with a special ingredient. I enjoyed it a lot - click here to read the review!

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Movie with Abe: A Bigger Splash

A Bigger Splash
Directed by Luca Guadagnino
Released May 4, 2016

Vacation – or holiday, as it is called in Europe – can mean many things. Even those on the same trip or in the same place may have completely different perspectives on the time they are spending away from the real world. There is a state of mind that comes with being purposely cut off from regular routines that can lead people to do crazy things they would otherwise not do simply because the repercussions are not the same and they are not messing with their normal lives. “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas” is an expression for a reason, and it applies to so many locales.

Fiennes and Swinton in the film

“A Bigger Splash” finds two of its protagonists, Marianne (Tilda Swinton) and Paul (Matthias Schoenaerts), living peacefully in Pantelleria, an Italian island described by those involved with the film as a gateway between Europe and Africa, attached to the former but more similar in culture to the latter. Marianne is a singer who has recently had surgery on her throat. As a result, flashbacks to scenes of her very loud career contrast strongly with her present state of silence. Record producer Paul doesn’t make much more noise, and the two spend their time together relaxing and working, far from the hubbub of metropolises. The arrival of their boisterous friend Harry (Ralph Fiennes) and his young daughter Penelope (Dakota Johnson) means an unwelcome infusion of drama, energy, and excess that disrupts the calm serenity of their lives.

Swinton discusses the film

This film, which serves as a remake of sorts of the 1969 film “La Piscine,” is not heavy on plot. Its primary focus is on the relationships between its characters, a complicated dynamic for just four people. Marianne and Harry used to date, and the fact that Harry introduced Paul to his new girlfriend has only increased his jealousy and inability to get over her. His recently discovered daughter certainly catches Paul’s eye, and there are even undertones that the promiscuous Harry is sexually attracted to the daughter he never knew for most of her life. Away from the prying eyes of society, there is no need for judgment, but there is still an enormous amount of awkwardness to be experienced, with foreboding secret feelings ready to bubble over. Even Marianne’s celebrity status merely means respect from those who recognize her rather than constant harassment by paparazzi.

Guadagnino discusses the film

Discussing the fact that this film and his next project are based on existing material, director Luca Guadagnino shares an uncommon sentiment: there is too much emphasis put on the value of originality. There is no issue with reusing stories and characters because there is also no limit to the level of creativity possible. Some defining aspects, like Marianne’s inability to speak, weren’t even in the original conception of the film, yet the process of making it led to an energizing and intriguing way of looking at a character defined by her voice when she can’t speak.

Fiennes discusses the film

Swinton is an actress known for challenging and bizarre roles ranging from “We Need to Talk About Kevin” to “Snowpiercer,” and here she turns in what may well be her most normative performance yet. She does a masterful job with pointed looks and deeply emotive mannerisms of conveying all that Marianne wants to say but either cannot – or chooses not to – say. Schoenarts, who recently appeared in “The Danish Girl,” keeps his native accent and, just as much as Swinton, lets unspoken long glances seem volumes. Contrasting them deeply is the usually mellow and villainous Fiennes, who speaks more than everyone else in the film combined, incessantly going on about his many exploits and conquests to an uninterested audience. Guadagnino reveals that Fiennes was cast because of his talkative turn in “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” a role in which Fiennes’ character lets his ego motivate him to a standard of professionalism rather than just boast. Johnson follows her more silent costars in saying less, and her limited verbal interactions are all the more fascinating and poignant because their inconsistencies indicate just how much of an enigma she really is, seemingly so mature one moment and childlike the next.

The film's poster

This film has a certain dazzling look and feel that takes the utmost advantage of its destination setting. The actors describe how the physical beauty of the place was complemented by strong winds and an air that doesn’t come through on screen but which added immensely to the experience of making the film. Its tone is initially casual and in no rush to get anywhere, and it experiences some strange shifts throughout that make it immensely intriguing if not completely satisfying.


Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Talking Tribeca: The Last Laugh

Head over to Jewcy to read my take on "The Last Laugh," a documentary that showed at Tribeca about whether it's okay to make jokes about the Holocaust. Click here to read it.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Talking Tribeca: A Kind of Murder

I’ve had the pleasure this year of screening a number of selections from this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, which took place April 13th-24th.

A Kind of Murder
Directed by Andy Goddard
Festival Screenings

Films often tell more than one story, and while they may seem to be unconnected at first, figuring out how they are related is a big part of a film’s exposition. “A Kind of Murder” begins with two parallel stories, one of a man whose wife has been found murdered at a bus rest stop and the other of a man whose wife drives him crazy. The former’s situation entices the latter, who moonlights as a crime novelist, and the line between fact and fiction is hard to decipher in this dark, brooding drama set in the 1960s.

Walter Stackhouse (Patrick Wilson) is an architect who lives in a beautiful, spacious home that he designed. He hosts lavish parties with his wife Clara (Jessica Biel), but it is evident that, despite the presence of many people around her, she latches on only to Walter’s extended conversation with an attractive young woman, Ellie Briess (Haley Bennett). Her jealous behavior infuriates Walter, who is no angel given the fact that he does indeed lust for an affair with Ellie, anything to get him away from his possessive and sometimes suicidal spouse. His fascination with the unsolved case of the murdered Helen Kimmel and her husband (Eddie Marsan), the prime suspect, leads to events that seem to suggest that Walter is going to kill his wife too.

This is a film that very much frontloads its plot, with its title giving away a good portion of the film’s events and leading to the big question of what crime exactly both Walter and Kimmel have committed if they are indeed innocent of the actual physical murder of their wives. Aside from short, spoken protests, neither man does much to argue for his innocence with his behavior. Kimmel is a man who keeps to himself and seems not to enjoy conversation with anyone, and Walter is a boastful, social man who couldn’t be any less interested in his wife. The dogged, aggressive nature of the detective (Vincent Kartheiser) in hot pursuit of both of them is just about the only thing that makes either of them sympathetic.

Wilson spent time recently in the past on the other side of the law hunting criminals in the second season of “Fargo,” and while he was an endearing hero there, he can definitely play the part of the smarmy smooth talker. Marsan is a talented actor extraordinarily suited for this role. Kartheiser makes the eccentric and passionate Detective Corby hard to forget, giving the film three layered characters, none of whom can be described as likeable. While it presents interesting questions and intriguing characters, this film doesn’t do a great job of taking them anywhere, leading to a middling and unexciting resolution.


Monday, April 25, 2016

Talking Tribeca: Always Shine

I’ve had the pleasure this year of screening a number of selections from this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, which took place April 13th-24th.

Always Shine
Directed by Sophia Takal
Festival Screenings

The best films in a given genre work hard to expand upon typical tropes and other recognizable features and formats, experimenting and transforming expectations into something more. Such efforts often please fans of that genre and also attract those who are not usually part of that group. “Always Shine,” at first glimpse, is a film about two actresses taking a weekend away from Los Angeles and traveling to Big Sur. Close-up audition takes, creepy music, and frantic scrolling opening titles indicate that this story of friendship is a much more intense and frightening adventure.

Beth (Caitlin FitzGerald) is first seen reading lines for a horror film, and is told repeatedly after she pauses that the part she is reading for contains extensive nudity. She is relatively quiet and rarely speaks up, but she has a sweet nature that seems to make people like her. Her friend Anna (Mackenzie Davis), on the other hand, is considerably more boisterous and unfiltered, usually cast in louder and bolder parts than the innocent girl running for her life. It is clear that Beth has achieved more success in their field than Anna, and Beth’s casual downplaying of the mediocre nature of her latest role, while perfectly well-intended, does not sit well with Anna, setting the stage for a foreboding build-up to an explosion of emotions far removed from the rest of civilization.

“Always Shine,” which is probably most accurately described as a psychological thriller, sets itself up as a horror movie from the start, with frequent flashing images laced with fear and death accompanied by short, high-pitched musical notes designed to make the spine tingle. Even when the two are sitting together in a crowded restaurant before they leave for their trip, the mood is tense and dark. For this particular story, that works well, but the film does seem unnecessarily dreary and brooding at times. That’s all in the service of its path to a trippy transition and a mind-boggling ending that has probably delighted some but left this viewer far from satisfied.

There are a few supporting actors who appear throughout the film, but this is a two-woman show. These two actresses have very different styles, and those work well to create a complex friendship for their characters that is based largely on a craft which unites but also divides them. FitzGerald, who stars in “Masters of Sex,” does a strong job of firmly establishing Beth’s discomfort and general squeamishness, while Davis, who stars in “Halt and Catch Fire,” holds nothing back in the most terrific and compelling way as Anna refuses to let Beth get away with silently usurping her. This is a strange and disturbing film, one that may entice but one that it is also perplexing and off-putting at the same time.


Talking Tribeca: Special Correspondents

I’ve had the pleasure this year of screening a number of selections from this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, which took place April 13th-24th.

Special Correspondents
Directed by Ricky Gervais
Festival Screenings

Journalism can be one of the bravest professions. Getting the story, and more importantly exposing the truth to a wide audience, can require entering dangerous territory and putting one’s life at serious risk. That isn’t usually the premise for a comedy, but apparently it can be. In “Special Correspondents,” a cocky radio reporter and his eager sound engineer are sent to Ecuador to cover a worsening political situation, but their plans change when their tickets and passports are lost, leading them to shack up across the street from the radio station and do their best to pretend that they are actually reporting live from a war zone.

As odd couples tend to be, our two protagonists couldn’t be any more different. Frank Bonneville (Eric Bana) walks around like James Bond, posing as a detective to get a major scoop and acting like a rock star despite really being a radio host. Ian Finch (Ricky Gervais) is a kindhearted technician whose wife Eleanor (Vera Farmiga) hates him, and he is often prone to unintelligent decisions and choices. When Frank decides to bring Ian along to Ecuador, he can’t regret his choice quickly enough, as Ian’s bumbling results in a preposterous plan to make up news and make it seem like it is the real thing.

Predictably, this film hinges on a considerable amount of suspension of disbelief, compounded by the fact that Frank and Ian decide that a hideout directly across the street from the radio station, which means that they can see the reaction to their false reports, was the smartest plan. As a grander statement on society and the digestion of news, however, this film has plenty of mildly intellectual things to say. Its most memorable instance of parody is when Frank decides to make up a source so that he will have some credibility and other news outlets immediately report that they too have been in touch with this totally false person.

Australian actor Eric Bana hasn’t always found the right roles in American films, and this part is a pretty good fit for him, allowing him to have a great time being a cocky jerk who unintentionally starts to turn into a nice guy as the film goes on. Gervais has, as usual, cast himself as a good-natured, idealistic man who gets walked all over by most people, one of his two typical archetypes. This isn’t Gervais’ first time behind the camera or as the author of a script, and unlike his racy Golden Globes routine, this moderately R-rated (or TV-MA, since this is a Netflix original film premiering on the streaming service this Friday) movie contains some swearing but still feels a bit simplistic and censored, which is a shame given its potential for raunchiness. It’s a fine parody that does contain some funny moments, but there’s nothing extremely memorable about it.