Monday, November 20, 2017

Movie with Abe: Get Out

Get Out
Directed by Jordan Peele
Released February 24, 2017

I really didn’t want to see this movie. I remember watching the trailer for the first time in theaters right around when all the big awards movies from last year were coming out, and I was so creeped out and uninterested that I would intentionally try to leave to use the bathroom when the trailer started to play before other films. Now, awards season is again upon us, and for some reason this film appears to be a frontrunner, first in the Comedy/Musical race at the Golden Globes and then eventually at the Oscars, and my desire not to see it wasn’t going to do much to change that, especially since that same hoping didn’t stop “Mad Max: Fury Road” from earning many top-tier awards nominations. After having seen it, I don’t feel particularly enlightened.

As the trailer indicated, Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) travels with his white girlfriend Rose (Allison Williams) to spend the weekend at her parents’ home. He meets Dean (Bradley Whitford) and Missy (Catherine Keener), who seem very nice if a little too aware of the fact that he’s black. As the budding photographer spends more time with them, he realizes that their two black employees – a gardener (Marcus Henderson) and housekeeper (Betty Gabriel) – are both acting very strangely, a thought he initially shakes off until he realizes that there is something horribly wrong in this secluded, white-dominated situation.

There’s a lot simmering behind what’s presented as fact and plot in this film, indicated early by Rose’s aggressive reaction to a police officer’s demand to see Chris’ license after they hit a deer when she was the one driving, signaling that she, unlike most white people, actively notices and combats the overt racism around her. The disturbing truth of what goes on in this film – which I won’t spoil even though it hardly seems surprising given how things begin – is something much darker and more sinister, meant to evoke conversation about how possible this kind of scenario could be since racism and segregation do still pervade today’s society.

The question of how well it works as a film taken at face value is a different one. People are rightly confused about why this film would be perceived as a comedy since to laugh at it is only to acknowledge the unfortunate state of the world, and it far better fits the definition of thriller or horror. Fearing the latter, I was relieved to find far fewer jump scenes than I had expected and even been warned of, though it still ranks as dark and disturbing enough to merit that classification. Kaluuya is indeed good, playing his role perfectly, and the rest of the cast succeeds as well.

Yet this film isn’t nearly as extraordinary in any sense as most seem to believe, and its function as allegory shouldn’t be lumped in with its cinematic quality, which is decent, off-putting, and unspectacular. Horror fans might enjoy it for a bit more braininess and social commentary than usual, but I see no reason why awards groups should be heaping nearly as much praise on it as I’ve seen throughout the year. It’s certainly not in the same category as “The Silence of the Lambs” or “Aliens,” two genre movies that scored with Oscar voters. I know that I’m likely in the minority here, but this film just didn’t win me over.

C+

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Movie with Abe: Loving Vincent

Loving Vincent
Directed by Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman
Released September 22, 2017

Vincent Van Gogh is easily one of the most well-known artists throughout history and across the world. Like so many, he was not appreciated in his time, and the fame he has gained comes almost entirely from after he died at a young age at his own hands. His work adorns the walls of many people’s homes and of art galleries all over the world, and this film chooses to use a medium close to his own to tell a story also set after his death that investigates just what it was that led to his untimely demise.

A year after Vincent’s death, a letter remains that must be delivered to his brother Theo. The postman Roulin sends his son Arnaud to try once again to deliver this letter after several failed attempts. What Arnaud, initially uninterested in the task he has been given, discovers is that there is much more to Vincent’s life and decline than he ever knew. Through pointed conversations with the people who spent time with Vincent in his final weeks, including doctors, hoteliers, and their families, Arnaud learns about who Vincent really was and how no one was really able to understand him.

This animated film begins with the impressive note that it was entirely hand-painted by a team of over 100 artists. If nothing else, this would be a startling feat which pays tribute to Van Gogh’s contributions to modern art by bringing to life his story with an art form that he surely could never have expected would have been popularized in this way. It’s a dazzling visual experience, enhanced with excitable dialogue delivered by the film’s voice actors, enabling these pictures to be just the storyboard for a moving narrative.

This artistic feat is easily the film’s signature asset, but the tale it tells proves to be just as engaging. The film’s title feels purposeful since Vincent is a figure seen only a few times throughout the film yet so crucial to all of its development. Just a year after his death, those who met Vincent and tried to comprehend how he saw the world haven’t been able to get him out of their heads. So many years later, Van Gogh’s mark on the world has only been amplified, and this tribute to his artistry and to his life is a mesmerizing and beautiful journey.

B+

Friday, November 17, 2017

Movie with Abe: The Breadwinner


The Breadwinner
Directed by Nora Twomey
Released November 17, 2017

English-language movies set in Afghanistan are usually war dramas - that’s just the nature of the recent conflict. A number of these are documentaries detailing the daily life filled with violence and the Western influence that has been felt in an underdeveloped country. Scripted films exist but are rarer, and usually feature an excerpt of a battle or tour as part of a larger narrative. This may well be the first animated film that takes place in Afghanistan, offering a unique perspective on the country’s society and culture with the aid of its imaginative format.

The film opens with a man named Nurullah being scolded by Taliban members for having his young daughter Parvana out with him on the streets of Kabul since women are not supposed to be out of the house and must be covered entirely at all times if they are. When Nurullah is arrested by the Taliban, Parvana tries to go out and earn for her family, a job that turns out to be impossible due to her gender. When she cuts off her hair and pretends to be a boy, however, she finds that she has considerably more success, leading her closer to being able to go find her father and try to get him freed from his unjust imprisonment.

This is hardly a story for children, but there is an enormous sense of wonder in its protagonist that helps to give it an uplifting feel among unimaginable circumstances for a child to have to endure. It’s no surprise that an extremely mature, bright-eyed child is the focus of the latest film from Irish animation company Cartoon Saloon, which previously produced “The Secret of Kells,” co-directed by Twomey, and “The Song of the Sea.” Stepping away from Ireland to a distant land made up much more of desert proves to be a very worthwhile move, one that tackles a complex and harrowing culture ruled by extremism and terrorism through a child’s eyes.

This film splits its time between Parvana’s life experiences and the recounting of mystical stories to her sister, which play out in vivid form. They are interspersed with the grittier moments of reality that ground Parvana’s hopes of finding her father and achieving a better life. Her determination and ability to see light in a dark world is matched by this film’s colorful interpretation of the black-and-white nature of its setting, a fitting follow-up to its studio’s previous productions.

B+

Thursday, November 16, 2017

DOC NYC Spotlight: One of Us


One of Us
Directed by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady
Released October 20 on Netflix

Religion has the potential to be oppressive. While many find comfort in the fact that they can pray to a higher power, others get lost and overwhelmed by the preoccupation with sticking to a strict set of regulations. Breaking with an observant community is rarely easy, and in some cases the limited experiences that those who choose to leave have had make their exodus and subsequent immersion into secular society extremely difficult, especially if those within the community try their hardest to make sure that getting out is far from an easy process.

The Hasidic community in Brooklyn, New York is an extremely insular culture that stresses devotion to God as a way of uniting its people in the wake of unthinkable loss during the Holocaust. There are many rules and guidelines in place designed to prevent outside influence from the likes of the Internet and those who do not dress modestly. Women are married off at a young age to men chosen by their families, and usually have many children. This documentary follows three people who make the tough choice that this life is not for them: Etty, a mother caught in an abusive relationship, Ari, a teenager who is trying to overcome addiction, and Luzer, an aspiring actor.

Filmmakers Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady were Oscar-nominated a decade ago for their documentary “Jesus Camp” about evangelical Christians. Now, they’ve returned to the subject of religion to tackle Ultra-Orthodox Judaism. Like their previous film, this one doesn’t paint the Hasidic community in any sort of light that resembles positivity. One subject does comment that it can lead to a fulfilling life for others, but most of what is presented focuses on the miserable and unenlightened side of this inescapable society that stifles individuality and creativity.

This searing exposé lives mostly in darkness, permitted access to the community only by those who still associate with Luzer, whose break wasn’t nearly as bad as the other two protagonists, and who still answers the question “Are you one of us?” in the affirmative. This film finds itself at its most intriguing part when it explores what remnants of Jewish observance and practice still comfort its wounded refugees and how their feelings towards anything that resembles what they knew remain incredibly complex. As a story of three people trying to build a new life for themselves with no support, this is an eye-opening and affecting chronicle of what it’s like to leave a community that doesn’t pay much heed to the outside world.

B+

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

DOC NYC Spotlight: Zero Weeks

I’m excited to have been able to screen a few selections from DOC NYC, America’s largest documentary festival, which presents its eighth year in New York City from November 9th-16th.


Zero Weeks
Directed by Ky Dickens
Festival Screenings

There are many political issues that are at the forefront of the public conversation in the United States today. For every proposed bill or highlighted social injustice, there are any number of opinions on all sides of the aisle. One topic that surely garners spirited arguments for and against it also affects the greatest number of people, regardless of income or background and objectively stands in stark contrast to the policies employed by so many other countries: paid sick and paternity leave.

This fact-filled documentary begins by citing Papua New Guinea as literally the only other country in the world that requires employers to offer zero weeks for those for work for them to care for themselves, a sick loved one, or a newborn. How this practically plays out and affects people is covered in great detail, with the systems in place in other countries broken down and simplified. Inevitabilities like the statistic that one in five people in the United States will be 65 or older in 2025 are brought up to showcase why it’s crucial that this must be addressed.

Following a few subjects makes this film’s point all the more emphatic, with the particular case of an expectant mother whose twin children were born three months early and died right away given just three days per deceased family member to take off from work, with each paperwork- and mourning-filled day so unfathomably unbearable. The fact that fathers should be given time off as well is cited as most important because it destigmatizes the need for women to have time off and thus appear less stable as potential employees. Stories about expectant parents turning to crowdfunding their maternity leaves are especially jarring when the math of a small paycheck deduction to create a large fund for employers to cover whatever they need is clearly detailed.

The arguments made in this film have clearly won over this reviewer, but what’s even more impressive is how the complexities of how this affects people across the country are analyzed. There is no clear villain other than the governing policy itself, since those responsible for their employees at small companies explain that they cover whatever leave they offer from their own pockets, often at their own losses. This less than uplifting documentary serves as an exceptionally constructed and vitally important call to action.

B+

DOC NYC Spotlight: Standing Up

I’m excited to have been able to screen a few selections from DOC NYC, America’s largest documentary festival, which presents its eighth year in New York City from November 9th-16th.


Standing Up
Directed by Jonathan Miller
Festival Screenings

Introducing this review is best done by using the opening line of the film’s summary: An Egyptian lawyer, a couch-surfing comedian, and an Orthodox Jew walk into a comedy club… and end up in a documentary. While standup comedy is usually funny, the journey to get there is often far more serious, and that’s what this film humorously explores, selecting three unlikely budding comics who are all trying to break into the business. While their stories aren’t all that similar, as juxtaposed here, it’s an insightful and entertaining survey of the stand-up landscape and what it takes to make it in comedy.

David Finklestein is an Orthodox Jew who wears a suit and a black hat all the time, and most of his routines begin by him commenting sarcastically on how well he fits in with the rest of the people in the room. Sara Parks is living paycheck to paycheck, which is why she holds down a job as a custodian and saves her jokes for the comedy clubs after hours. Raafat Toss is a personal injury lawyer who wants to try something new and decides to give comedy a shot despite not having any experience in the format.

These three subjects are all compelling because of what they have going against them and how they try to overcome those obstacles. David’s observance often gets in the way of his comedy life, since he can’t perform in shows on the Sabbath and isn’t accustomed to going to bars or other social scenes because of his religious upbringing. Sara is committed to making this work even though, as she describes in one joke, she often looks at rats in the city eating scavenged food, jealous of the generous portion they’ve been able to procure that she can’t eat. And Raafat, always affable at work, bombs miserably during his first set, leading a subsequent comic to confirm that he shouldn’t quit his day job.

Throughout this exploration of these comedians and their lives, the opportunity to really get to know these three people and what it is about telling jokes that makes them want to do it so much. Their relationships with other people and with themselves are covered in detail, including David’s worry that he is the butt of his own jokes and Raafat’s determination to let his children do what they want rather than feel pressured to go into particular field. It’s a fun and affirming film that doesn’t sugarcoat success but does a fine job of showing the high points and the low points along the way.

B+

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

DOC NYC Spotlight: Playing God

I’m excited to have been able to screen a few selections from DOC NYC, America’s largest documentary festival, which presents its eighth year in New York City from November 9th-16th.


Playing God
Directed by Karin Jurschick
Festival Screenings

There have been many mass shootings and terrorist attacks in the news lately, which represents an unfortunate state of today’s world. What transcends all political views on how to prevent such things from continuing to happen is the fact that there are those left behind seeking some sort of closure – and often more than not – in the wake of what has already happened. Something that is likely to only be considered in the face of unbelievable tragedy and loss is what the value of someone’s life is to those who have been left behind to go on without them.

Placing a dollar value on the victims of terrorist attacks, public disasters, and other similar events is a responsibility shouldered often by lawyer Ken Feinberg. Originally known for determining what should be awarded to Vietnam veterans exposed due to Agent Orange, Feinberg has worked to calculate what should be given to those affected by major catastrophes such as Deepwater Horizon, Sandy Hook, and the Boston Marathon bombing. Serving as the “special master” for those who survived or lost someone on September 11th, 2001 put him in the spotlight in a big way, earning the ire of many for the precise nature of how he works to financially measure trauma.

Feinberg makes for a fantastic film subject, since he’s not at all shy about speaking to the camera. He believes firmly in what he does, citing the math behind something like reducing pension funds gradually since the money is going to run out one way or another and his plan means that the bottom won’t fall out abruptly and completely at some point. He describes his work as “part divinity, part psychiatry, dealing with real people who died or were injured or suffered loss.” He cites staggering statistics, like the fact that over one million claims for all fifty states and other countries were filed after the BP oil spill, and over half were rejected. Feinberg’s reading of the law is also subject to controversy, particularly his understanding that undocumented workers were due compensation after September 11th.
This film won’t provide any reassurance to those distraught with how things stand in society today, but it does offer remarkable insight into the complexity of how responsibility is taken, even if not directly, for events seemingly not in the government’s control. Feinberg stands by an ethical approach to his work, but he’s most concerned with facts, repeating that people need to offer proof for what was being earned prior to someone’s death or severe injury, and also compelled by the big picture, like how much someone would have made much later in their career had it not been cut short by some event to determine financial compensation due. There’s a lot to it, and this film, which is hardly optimistic, offers a very interesting introduction to a surprisingly important conversation.

B+

DOC NYC Spotlight: Spiral

I’m excited to have been able to screen a few selections from DOC NYC, America’s largest documentary festival, which presents its eighth year in New York City from November 9th-16th.


Spiral
Directed by Laura Fairrie
Festival Screenings

Anti-semitism is on the rise - it’s an established and unsettling trend. With the incitement of hate from so many powerful leaders, it’s no surprise that people are turning against each other and communities are becoming divided on particularly potent issues. Triggering incidents all around the world are inspiring people to rise up against each other, both in large public demonstrations and in isolated attacks on minority communities. Tracing the roots of these violent and hateful acts is complicated, and in this case, the research takes a questionable turn in trying to address the problem.

France is the country with the world’s third-largest Jewish population, and it also is home to a large Arab and Muslim population. A lawyer, teacher, and family are the film’s main subjects in France, all discussing their discomfort witnessing a shooting outside a Jewish school in Toulouse and the murder of patrons at a kosher supermarket and their doubts about whether Jews can continue to live in France. Deeply disturbing content is presented, including clips of propaganda videos that assert how malignant and dangerous Jews are.

Where this film appears to veer off course is in its focus on an Israeli settler moving to his family to land that he deems is “where we belong” and the Palestinian mayor who lives nearby and must contend with this invasive colonialism. Showcasing one reason cited by those who express anti-Semitism that supports their cause creates a false equivalency by suggesting that this a legitimate and defendable defense for that hatred. French comedian Dieudonné, who has been fined repeatedly for anti-Semitic statements and routines, is also interviewed in depth, which at first seems to show just how offensive his material is until it becomes clear that he’s just as much of a dynamic subject as this film’s Jews who face persecution in France.

There’s a greater theme that this film appears to be going for, which is that xenophobia and anti-Islamism are just as prevalent as anti-Semitism. Yet that goal is not achieved, since the research and conclusions covered here don’t investigate that assertion and instead try to rationalize anti-Semitism as a reasonable response to events going on in another country used to demonize an entire people. There are some interesting notions and arguments presented here, but the entirety of this experience is one that’s far less responsible and compelling, concerned more with finding answers than addressing issues.

C+

Monday, November 13, 2017

DOC NYC Spotlight: Elish’s Notebooks

I’m excited to have been able to screen a few selections from DOC NYC, America’s largest documentary festival, which presents its eighth year in New York City from November 9th-16th.


Elish’s Notebooks
Directed by Golan Rise
Festival Screenings

It’s difficult to get to know someone after they’re gone. Yet, naturally, there are things that people might not know that come to light only after a relative or loved one has passed, which may make the mourning process that much more painful since what could have been said when someone was alive might have greatly impacted the relationship in a positive way. Learning that someone wasn’t at all what you thought they were can be extraordinarily affecting and transformative, and that’s just what this insightful and unique documentary does.

Elisheva Rise, described as emotionally distant, was the mother of seven children. After her death, they discovered that she kept journeys written from the perspective of each of her children for many years, documenting the events in their lives as told not by her but by them. Elish’s grandson Golan opted to have these journals read aloud by their alleged authors, speaking the words written in their names while reading them for the first time, connecting with a mother who clearly had a lot more to say to her children than she did when she was alive.

The mere existence of Elish’s notebooks is fascinating in itself, and the conclusions her children reach while reading them are mesmerizing. Each of the children feels differently about what they read, though they are united by a disbelief that their mother could have kept these diaries for so long without them knowing. One son comments on the remarkable self-reflection it requires for a parent to process a simple thoughtless action that their child has done and ascribe their thought process rather than reacting in anger to a temper tantrum or other ungrateful behavior. Each child, now an adult, learns a great deal about themselves from readings these writings penned in their name.

The construction of this documentary does its already compelling subject justice, since viewers get the opportunity to know each member of the family by the way that they read words that aren’t their own but are meant to recount the details of their lives that they may or may not remember. Golan makes the bold choice not to have any of them interact on screen but rather to focus on the relationships each of them individually had with their mother and how this startling discovery has changed what they thought they knew. The experience of getting to know this family proves to be very memorable and completely engaging.

B+

DOC NYC Spotlight: A Better Man

I’m excited to have been able to screen a few selections from DOC NYC, America’s largest documentary festival, which presents its eighth year in New York City from November 9th-16th.


A Better Man
Directed by Attiya Khan and Lawrence Jackman
Festival Screenings

Over the past few months, numerous allegations have been put forward accusing a number of professionals in the entertainment industry of sexual misconduct, harassment, and assault. These disturbing revelations have been met with, for the most part, denials from the accused and promises that whatever inappropriate behavior did happen has already been corrected or will be through therapy or treatment. Confronting an abuser of any kind is an extremely difficult feat, and few would be willing to sit across from those they know they have hurt and respond only when prompted to do so.

Two decades ago, Attiya Khan was involved with Steve, a man who presented in a friendly manner to her friends but would subject her to tremendous violence and physical abuse in the privacy of their home. Khan describes being scared even to look up while at school for fear that he might think that she was staring at another man and take out his jealousy on her when they left that public space. Years after their relationship ended, Khan approached Steve and asked him whether he would be willing to talk about the brutal truths of their relationship on camera, and was surprised when his answer was yes.

This is a truly extraordinarily and unparalleled experience, one which finds Khan interviewed on camera about the specifics of what Steve did to her as he sits next to her, reacting silently to the many horrible things that he hears. Much of it is deeply distressing, but Steve never tries to deny anything or explain something away, admitting instead that he doesn’t remember the extent of it or that it did happen exactly as she said. This is an incredible forum for both of them to confront the truth of what happened without seeking commentary or defense from either side but instead grappling with the irreversible and the unforgettable.

This is a highly upsetting but deeply important film, one that features an opportunity for someone to gain unexpected healing from talking about the worst things that she has experienced. There is much to be gleaned from the fact that these conversations were able to take place, and it speaks to the crucial work that Khan does to help support those who have suffered abuse. It will surely be triggering for many and should therefore be viewed with caution, but this is an exceptional and extremely powerful experiment.

B+

Sunday, November 12, 2017

DOC NYC Spotlight: Island Soldier

I’m excited to have been able to screen a few selections from DOC NYC, America’s largest documentary festival, which presents its eighth year in New York City from November 9th-16th.


Island Soldier
Directed by Nathan Fitch
Festival Screenings

Loss in war is a universal notion. It can be experienced differently based on the location, the conflict, and the circumstances of death, but the mourning process that families go through when they learn that a loved one has been killed in action can occur in any place. The pride of serving one’s nation is also a strong factor that often plays into both a soldier’s drive to enlist and the comfort a family might feel after learning of their sacrifice. When serving a nation that doesn’t quite recognize you as a citizen, that sentiment because complicated and can lead to even more difficulty coping with a death or a traumatic experience in combat.

The Federated States of Micronesia, a grouping of over six hundred islands in the Western Pacific Ocean, became a United States territory at the end of World War II and an independent nation decades later. Its affiliation with the United States permits its citizens to serve in its Armed Forces, and the great discrepancy in wealth – the starting salary in the army is nine times the average annual income in Micronesia – have led to a large number of Micronesians enlisting, despite a distinct lack of services, including both emotional and financial support, for those who return home and for the families of those who do not.

This film centers on a few families in the Micronesian state of Kosrae, covering the difficulty of returning for those who served in Afghanistan alongside other Americans and the devastation of a family whose son never made it home. The distance they travel to go fight in war is felt most in the relationship that they have with the United States from afar, unable to benefit from financial subsidies of healthcare costs or even to have any access to veterans’ affairs’ services on the island.

The notion that, as expressed by one mother, “we don’t vote, but we can serve and get killed” is deeply felt by those interviewed in this film, which also surveys the aspiration of the reality that this nation was set up to eventually sustain itself, with United States aid ending in less than a decade. The symbolism of having no voice is conveyed powerfully when a man goes to ask a question in an informational session only to find that the microphone has been turned off and no one even knows he is trying to speak. This film serves as a tribute to those whose service and sacrifice it portrays, and an unanswered challenge to the complexity of this nation’s situation.

B

Jewcy Interviews: Destination Unknown


I had a chance to speak with the director, producer, and 92-year-old subject of "Destination Unknown," a documentary about Holocaust survivors which opened this past Friday. Head over to Jewcy to read what I found to be a very enlightening conversation with some impressive people.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

DOC NYC Spotlight: Armed with Faith

I’m excited to have been able to screen a few selections from DOC NYC, America’s largest documentary festival, which presents its eighth year in New York City from November 9th-16th.


Armed with Faith
Directed by Geeta Gandbhir and Asad Faruqi
Festival Screenings

With rising political tension in the United States, the subject of people in enemy countries – and even which countries are considered enemies – is a hot-button topic that has been all over the news since the presidential election. Travel bans and other policies seek to categorize people by their country of origin as a whole, something that punishes those who do not practice terror and may even support the United States. Last year’s Oscar-winning documentary short “The White Helmets” showcased the incredible work being done by rescue workers in Syria, and now this film shows a similar organization at work in another country: Pakistan.

This documentary begins by clarifying that Pakistan is an American ally, a relationship that has only been strengthened since the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001. The friendship with American forces has made Pakistan a target, since its police and other entities are seen as cooperating with an enemy and therefore worthy of just as much punishment as infidels overseas. The country’s proximity to Afghanistan also makes its tribal areas on the border a particularly popular place for terror cells to be located. The Pakistani Bomb Disposal Unit combats the many threats it receives, able to defuse some objects of destruction ahead of time and left to use the aftermath of others to learn more for next time.

There’s always something powerful about seeing a film like this that was clearly filmed in a war zone. The members of the Bomb Disposal Unit freely share on their way to a call that they don’t know what awaits them. One interviewee points a spot along his daily drive where he defused a terrorist’s suicide vest when it failed to detonate. These things have become normal, and the resilience – and bravery – of those who run towards danger is commendable. Understandably, family members of those in the unit are less than enthusiastic about their participation given its high risks.

This film is screening as part of the International Perspectives section of DOC NYC, and it’s certainly one that should prove eye-opening for American audiences. The subjects interviewed do their best to convey what living in Pakistan is like and how their work is just something that comes naturally, with the express aim of saving lives, including those of people indoctrinated into extremism who don’t actually know what they’ve signed up for. It’s an effective look that stands in great company with other films about goodness in a landscape of frequent terrorism.

B+

Friday, November 10, 2017

Movie with Abe: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri


Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Directed by Martin McDonagh
Released November 10, 2017

Balancing a murder tale with biting comedy is not an easy task, and there are a few filmmakers who can rightfully claim to do it well. Being unintentionally funny is probably more common, but this is an art that requires skill to do justice to the seriousness of its plotline and presenting humorous, human characters at its center. Joel and Ethan Coen are well-known for mastering this in films like “Fargo,” which features a perfect Frances McDormand at its center. Another such director, Martin McDonagh, whose “In Bruges” inhabits that space mesmerizingly, has teamed up with McDormand for a deep dive into brutally comic darkness.

Mildred Hayes (McDormand) is a woman with a lot of personality, and the rape and murder of her daughter has made her even less filtered. Frustrated with the lack of progress in the investigation, she commissions three rotting billboards by her home to display a blunt message to Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) that something must be done. Her provocative action makes her a pariah in town, and a target of the aggression of dim-witted cop Dixon (Sam Rockwell). Mildred remains unflappable, determined to have her voice heard and to smack some sense into anyone who isn’t willing to listen.

This is the third feature film from McDonagh and his first to have just one clear lead. A number of the actors in the cast are imports from his second film, “Seven Psychopaths,” and McDonagh is certainly skilled at finding even the smallest roles that are memorable for beloved performers like Kerry Condon and Zeljko Ivanek. This is a role made for McDormand, who effortlessly conveys such disdain for everyone around her and not even a hint of a desire to conform to anyone else’s expectations of her. Harrelson and Rockwell are both equally superb, adding incredible humor while still remaining just barely believable. All three could easily end up with well-deserved Oscar nominations.

The film isn’t quite as formidable as its actors. It’s undeniably entertaining and immensely watchable, full of funny lines and wild moments. But, as a whole, its tone is inconsistent to a fault, unable to follow a clear narrative for which the audience is prepared. Serious developments come out of nowhere and create a dizzying effect. It’s a film full of such energy that it doesn’t need surprises to jolt the audience, and as a result they don’t feel necessary or satisfying. Its ending in particular conveys how plot structure is less important than inventiveness for McDonagh, and while this film is still much more engaging than most, it fails to be resounding in the way it should.

B

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Movie with Abe: The Price


The Price
Directed by Anthony Onah
Released November 10, 2017

Wall Street is rarely a setting for movies about good guys leading an easy life, neatly balancing the pressures of work and the allure of making an incredible amount of money. Instead, a protagonist is usually compelled to make a bold and potentially illegal move due to the promise of immeasurable rewards. A difficult home life can also complicate matters since achieving any sort of equilibrium between a demanding career and maintaining a strong relationship with family is never simple.

Seyi Ogunde (Aml Ameen) is a rising star at his company, generally well-liked by people and respected by those above him. The Nigerian-American young man frequently clashes with his sister (Hope Olaide Wilson) and mother (Michael Hyatt) about the care, in addition to financial support, that he is expected to provide for his father (Souleymane Sy Savane), who has recently suffered a stroke. As he begins a new relationship with Liz (Lucy Griffiths), Seyi isn’t able to resist the chance to score big by acting on a tip that could make him susceptible to legal action later on if its origins are revealed.

The status that Seyi has achieved in his life in America stands in stark contrast to the way that others perceive him. One scene best summarizes his experience, when a woman walks by him on the street and clutches her purse, prompting him to lash out and give her reason to be scared by yelling that he went to Harvard and she shouldn’t be afraid of him just because of how he looks. The immigrant experience also plays a part in his romance with a white woman, though the secrets that Seyi keeps about his personal life and work do far more damage than anything stemming from his heritage does.

Ameen may be known to American audiences from his role as Capheus in the first season of “Sense8,” a show that allowed him to have much more fun and exhibit a livelier energy. Here, he is a decent lead, but doesn’t carry the film with much enthusiasm. Hyatt, a recurring guest star on “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” is the film’s strongest asset, enhancing a domicile storyline that resonates much more powerfully than the Wall Street-set plot. There isn’t much that stands out here from a number of other films and stories, and the lack of any distinctive features makes this moderately engaging film less than thrilling or memorable.

B-

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Other Israel Film Festival Spotlight: Waiting for Giraffes

I’m delighted to be returning for the sixth time to cover the Other Israel Film Festival, which features a diverse crop of Israeli and Palestinian cinema and is hosted by the JCC Manhattan. The 11th Annual Other Israel Film Festival takes place November 2nd-9th, 2017.


Waiting for Giraffes
Directed by Marco de Stefanis
Festival Information

Who doesn’t love a zoo? That’s the subject of this film, the only zoo that sits within the Palestinian territories in the city of Qalqilya in the West Bank. The myth of the lost giraffe stems from the Second Antifada, and its present-day operations are focused on trying to earn accreditation for the zoo from EAZA, a European organization that will allow the zoo unprecedented access to certain animals and open up relations with other zoos around the world. A big part of the application involves a partnership with the Jerusalem Zoo, one that serves as an inspirational example of dynamic collaboration. The film repeatedly polls Palestinians about what animals they would like to see in the zoo, but its real heart comes from the seriousness with which the zookeepers and veterinarians take a site visit that notes problems they must address that have nothing to do with their political or geographic situation, showing just how committed they are to creating a substantial and educational environment for all of their visitors.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Other Israel Film Festival Spotlight: The Field

I’m delighted to be returning for the sixth time to cover the Other Israel Film Festival, which features a diverse crop of Israeli and Palestinian cinema and is hosted by the JCC Manhattan. The 11th Annual Other Israel Film Festival takes place November 2nd-9th, 2017.


The Field
Directed by Mordechai Vardi
Festival Information

Being open to dialogue is one of the first steps towards coexistence. That’s a concept brought to life in this exploration of the Palestinian Center for Nonviolence in Gush Etzion, founded by Ali Abu Awwad as a place for Palestinians to interact with Israeli settlers. They talk about what has brought them to where they are, speaking in Hebrew or English depending on the audience they are addressing. They dissect the language that they use, like describing a terrorist as “Palestinian,” and establish a field together in memory of three local Israeli settlers who were killed in 2014. They don’t ignore hard questions, like those about the danger of suicide bombers and the reality of the occupation, and acknowledge their responsibility, including the settlers’ point that there are rabbis who support the incitement of hate against Palestinians and must be condemned. “We must believe in the truth of both peoples” is the film’s signature line, and its most memorable scene finds both groups beginning a fast together, with one rabbi shouting “Allahu Akbar” before his own Hebrew proclamation that God is great. It’s clear that there is much still to be accomplished and that this is only a small segment of the population, but this film highlights important and inspiring work that is being done by those with the most open of minds in a place not typically suited to such ideas.

Monday, November 6, 2017

Other Israel Film Festival Spotlight: Desert Wounds

I’m delighted to be returning for the sixth time to cover the Other Israel Film Festival, which features a diverse crop of Israeli and Palestinian cinema and is hosted by the JCC Manhattan. The 11th Annual Other Israel Film Festival takes place November 2nd-9th, 2017.


Desert Wounds
Directed by Nili Dotan
Festival Information

The topic of refugees is very hot-button on the moment, especially in the United States, as saving the lives of those cast out of or endangered in their own countries must be balanced with security questions about the place they are entering. This hourlong documentary spotlights two Christian women from Sudan and Eritrea who come to Israel after escaping their native lands. The experience they find is a complicated one, filled with hurdles but also including some surprising and positive examples of hospitality. Watching those who have come as refugees speak to each other in Hebrew and watch Hebrew television excitedly indicates the warmer benefits of living in the country, while the constant knowledge that deportation could be imminent, especially in the wake of diplomatic talks between Israel and emerging nation South Sudan, serves to ground their experience. This is a film that serves as the beginning of a conversation in its showcase of two women whose specific journeys can be seen as representative of a worldwide phenomenon.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Other Israel Film Festival Spotlight: Opening and Closing Night

I’m delighted to be returning for the sixth time to cover the Other Israel Film Festival, which features a diverse crop of Israeli and Palestinian cinema and is hosted by the JCC Manhattan. The 11th Annual Other Israel Film Festival takes place November 2nd-9th, 2017.


I had the chance to attend the opening night of this year’s festival, which featured the terrific “In Between,” which is a story about three Palestinian women who share an apartment in Tel Aviv. I wrote up the film and the conversation that followed over at Jewcy – check that article out here.

Additionally, I’ve already had the chance to see the closing night selection, “Holy Air,” which played at Tribeca back in April. Click here to read that review.

Stay tuned for capsule reviews of a few more selections from this year’s festival!

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Movie with Abe: The Heyday of the Insensitive Bastards


The Heyday of the Insensitive Bastards
Various Directors
Released October 27, 2017

In order to create a successful film made up of multiple vignettes, it’s crucial to establish an overarching theme. There may not be a particular order to the segments, but they should build on one another so that they contribute to something greater that ties the whole film together. That’s not an easy task, especially when different directors are helming each installment. In some cases, the result is a mildly entertaining if totally directionless collection of unconnected thoughts put to paper and brought to life on screen.

This film contains seven vignettes, each of which has a starkly different focus. Memories of a murderous father and a haunting hunting grip, being bullied as a child with a sick father at home, adult sisters who have managed not to make their parents too proud, a maid with aspirations of greater things, a man whose ex-girlfriend has a new baby, an invented story about a sexual experience, and an accidental death taken very unseriously make up the segments of this self-described film that “explores the difference between fantasy and reality, memory and history, and the joy and agony of the human condition.”

It’s not an easy task to find commonalities among the seven tales told in this film aside from the fact that they’re all based on short stories from Robert Boswell’s book of the same name. Tonally, they’re diverse, with a shift from the more dramatic and bleak to slightly more comic but still dark and uninviting. Greater truths and realizations about things such as the human condition don’t really present themselves, especially not as stacked from start to finish. In contrast with something like “Brief Interviews with Hideous Men” or “30 Beats,” two imperfect but intriguing films of similar structure, this one fails to present a compelling argument for its existence.

From these seven segments, it’s hard to find a truly involving one, but the talent on display here suggests a far better product. Film stars Natalie Portman, Kate Mara, Kristen Wiig, and James Franco are the biggest names, though a slew of TV faces, including Amber Tamblyn from “Joan of Arcadia,” Abigail Spencer from “Rectify,” Rico Rodriguez from “Modern Family,” Jim Parrack from “True Blood,” Keir Gilchrist from “Atypical,” and Tyler Labine from “Reaper,” also appear. What convinced them to join this project is a mystery, and unfortunately none of them manage to enhance its effectiveness. This could have been interesting, but the lack of a connective tissue or a memorable installment makes it very much worth forgetting.

D-

Friday, November 3, 2017

Movie with Abe: LBJ

LBJ
Directed by Rob Reiner
Released November 3, 2017

The United States has had forty-four different presidents, and regardless of how the public has or does feel about them, their stories have become a part of history. There’s no surprise that many books and films have been made dramatizing their lives. In addition to profiling different men from assorted places and eras, these adaptations also have a choice of how much of the president’s term or life to cover. Lyndon Baines Johnson, the thirty-sixth president of the United States, has been portrayed in many films, and now he’s back in a story that spotlights his rise in the shadow of the man whose assassination elevated him to the highest office in the country.

LBJ (Woody Harrelson) is introduced as the most powerful man in the Senate, strong-arming others to ensure that his legislation is passed while continually denying that he will run for president. When he finally does decide to run, he finds it difficult to best the far more likeable John F. Kennedy (Jeffrey Donovan), who opts to ask him to be his running mate against the advice of his brother and right-hand man Bobby (Michael Stahl-David). When he takes on a role devoid of power in the White House, LBJ finds himself in a unique position to understand the progressive Kennedy administration and the more conservative South he calls home, something that becomes even more critical when he takes the oath of office and is sworn in as the new president.

The last major film about a president, “Lincoln,” approached its subject with a narrow focus, his work on the passage of the thirteenth amendment. “LBJ” presents its protagonist as someone used to getting his way who is beginning to realize that he is part of the old guard. His past is glossed over, and his wife Lady Bird (Jennifer Jason Leigh) doesn’t play much of a part in the film’s narrative. Instead, it’s his relationship with the Kennedy brothers, a Texas senator (Bill Pullman), and a Georgia senator (Richard Jenkins) that take center stage. It feels like LBJ is a supporting player in his own story, or at least this chapter, with the eras in which he figured more prominently left for further historical research for viewers whose interest is piqued by what’s not shown in the film.

Harrelson is an actor whose demeanor and style of speaking are distinctive, and, despite the layers of his makeup that add weight to his face and chin so that he might resemble the considerably bulkier LBJ, it’s hard to recognize anyone other than Harrelson himself in this performance. It’s an entertaining portrayal nonetheless, but it doesn’t feel like the transformation it should (he’s far better in next week’s “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”). Jenkins plays his part well, and Stahl-David infuses Bobby with a wonderful combative energy that makes him very watchable. Director Rob Reiner made a great movie about a fictional American president two decades ago, and this film doesn’t feel nearly as fresh or involving. Its title feels like a misnomer as well, since this is hardly the sum of LBJ’s legacy or its most interesting excerpt.

B-

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Movie with Abe: Princess Cyd


Princess Cyd
Directed by Stephen Cone
Released November 3, 2017

Going to a place you’ve never been before can help present the opportunity for a new outlook on life. Similarly, the arrival of someone from another place can disrupt, in a good or bad way, the order of things and change the perspective of someone who has been in the same place all their lives. When the two coincide, both the visitor and the host are likely to be affected. Such setups are common in film for good reason – watching two people transform each other is often a mesmerizing and rewarding endeavor.

Sixteen-year-old Cyd (Jessie Pinnick) is ready to get some time away from her depressed father and comes to stay with her aunt Miranda (Rebecca Spence), who is an established novelist. Getting to know her aunt brings up some of the differences in their personalities, and Cyd pushes Miranda to let loose, investing in her own personal fulfillment as much as she invests in her work. At the same time, Cyd on her own adventure as she explores her attraction to Katie (Malic White), a young bartender.

There is something remarkably disarming about this film, which treats its subject matter respectfully and in an accessible manner. “Princess Cyd” comes from Wolfe Video, which describes itself as an exclusive distributor of LGBTQ+ filmed entertainment. In this film, Cyd brings up her feelings about Katie and is met with complete acceptance from Miranda, who responds that Cyd’s late mother had a fling with a girl once. The openness and raw honesty that exists between all three women feels incredibly genuine and contributes to the development of the characters, including Katie, who doesn’t mind being mistaken for a boy because of her hairstyle by a film crew, and Miranda, whose own sex life has been mostly dormant.

All three actresses deliver rich, invested performances that make their characters feel like real people. This is a breakthrough role for Spence, who has been featured in minor roles in a number of projects and demonstrates her talent as the adult carrying this film. Pinnick and White both have short film resumes, and these turns show their enormous potential for the future. This story is told sensitively and simply, with a strong script and direction from Stephen Cone. This is a straightforward, nonjudgmental look at a complicated situation and the people involved that plays itself out beautifully in this film.

B+

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Movie with Abe: 1945


1945
Directed by Ferenc Török
Released November 1, 2017

When a society goes through a change, be it noticeable or subtle, it is difficult to return to what was before. A way of being and doing things becomes ingrained within a community, and anyone who represents a challenge to that sense of normalcy can cause an immediate disruption, heralding fears of monumental change with nothing more than their existence. How that community responds is a sign of its ability to endure, whether it arduously refuses any type of evolution or presents a more welcoming front to a potentially inevitable temporary or permanent transformation.

In the summer of 1945 after the end of World War II, a small village in Hungary prepares for a festive occasion. The town clerk (Péter Rudolf) is about to see his son married. The arrival of two men spooks the clerk and the rest of the village, since it is clear that they are Jews. Fearful that they have been sent by the Jewish former residents of the town to reclaim their homes and property, the residents tread carefully, keeping their eyes on their visitors and acting as one to preserve their stable ways.

There is a disconcerting air to the manner in which the people of the town react to the presence of strangers in their midst. They speak generally, describing “two of them,” without specific mention of the obvious religious garb that identifies the men as observant Jews. The tone of this film is reminiscent of another recent black-and-white European film, “The White Ribbon,” which has a foreboding air where things feel much worse than the dialogue and actual events would make it seem. The residents tell themselves, aloud, that they are the rightful owners of that which was given to them when the Jews were forced to leave, and that this return must be an act of aggression.

This is a film that belongs to an important genre that examines European communities in which Jews lived prior to the Holocaust which have attempted to eradicate all traces of an element that they let be taken away, be it willfully or passively. This particular story plays out in slower, more pensive fashion than the Polish drama “Aftermath,” also distributed by Menemsha Films. The Jews barely appear in this story and speak even more rarely, with an instrumental version of the Kol Nidre service melody serving as a melancholy score befitting of the symbolic burial that they have come to the village to perform. This film is quiet and thought-provoking if less than entirely engaging.

B-

Friday, October 27, 2017

Movie with Abe: Novitiate


Novitiate
Directed by Margaret Betts
Released October 27, 2017

The devotion to faith of any kind requires a certain isolation from the outside world. How that manifests itself can vary greatly, and the training to become a religious figure can be arduous and challenging. Immersion into the Catholic faith, particularly the nunnery, is one process that involves a serious separation from what someone has previously experienced in a more social, secular existence. This new film complicates that journey with the backdrop of changing times in the Catholic church and how one young woman is transformed during her path to becoming a nun.

Cathleen Harris (Margaret Qualley) is sent to a Catholic school by her mother (Julianne Nicholson) when she receives an offer of full scholarship. When Cathleen expresses a love for God and an interest in becoming a nun, her mother is at a loss to understand what she might have done to inspire this choice. Cathleen’s experience as a postulant is shaped by a kindly mentor (Dianna Agron) and even more by the tyrannical rule of the Reverend Mother (Melissa Leo), who takes her vocation extremely seriously and resists the reforms put forth by Vatican II that seek to move the Church closer to modernity and away from practices some would decry as medieval and cruel.

The process of becoming a nun is presented as one that requires an enormous amount of self-sacrifice. There are many disturbing scenes in which the Mother Superior works to inspire devout behavior in her students through brutal methods that involve public humiliation and even physical violence. One particularly memorable scene finds her screaming the word “silence” and eviscerating one pupil simply for saying good morning during hours that are supposed to be filled with nothing but silence. Cathleen is someone who embarks on her spiritual path because she feels a connection with God, drawn to the convent because it means more to her than anything else, and therefore she comes in free of any perception that this life and the training to get there might be oppressive or unacceptable. She is not a rebel, but rather someone who endures hardship, all the while believing that she is on the right course with the right people guiding her there.

Qualley made her mark as a far more opinionated teen, also interacting with a domineering religion, on “The Leftovers,” and here she takes on a lead role with the proper subdued energy. While some lines, like shouts of “I love you, God” feel somewhat forced, the overall character is believable and important in framing her in contrast to her fellow candidates for the convent. Agron, who got her big break on “Glee,” stands out as someone who puts equal effort into being committed and kind, and Nicholson is typically excellent as the representative of life outside the Church. The real tour de force performance comes from Leo, who is terrifying and formidable as someone who believes she is doing God’s work and won’t let anyone – archbishop or postulant – tell her that she’s wrong. This film handles its subject matter respectfully and tells an interesting, involving tale in the process.

B+

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Movie with Abe: Maya Dardel


Maya Dardel
Directed by Magdalena Zyzak and Zachary Cotler
Released October 27, 2017

Leaving a mark on the world is an important consideration for many people, especially those who consider themselves artists or writers. Fame can be fleeting, and once a person is gone, only their reputation and their work lives on for people to remember them. Choosing the moment at which one ends their life allows that person to determine, or at least contribute to, how people will recall them and what lasting impression they want to leave in their final days.

Maya Dardel (Lena Olin) is a famous and renowned poet and novelist living in Northern California. After she announces on National Public Radio that she plans to end her life and seeks male writers to compete to become the executor of her estate, she is visited by a number of men who are completely unprepared for what they encounter - a woman seeking control of what remains of her life and the people that she lets in to it. Through many lengthy conversations, and rather explicit sexual experiences, Maya takes what she wants from her applicants and shares only what she specifically selects with the new men vying for control of her legacy.

Some movies are defined by the action they contain or driven by their plot. This one relies almost entirely on dialogue. It’s reasonable to estimate that Olin speaks for a good three quarters of the film, going into detail about her perspective on something and what it means or chipping away at the intellect or skill of a man who has come hoping to impress her. At times, it’s difficult to stay engaged and follow what she’s saying, and the level of energy in the movie as a whole is extremely low. As a thought-provoking meditation on what success and fulfillment mean, this film has plenty to say, but it’s a subject that might be more suited as a play or even a one-woman show.

Olin is an Oscar-nominated actress from Sweden whose credits in America include “The Unbearable Lightness of Being,” “Enemies, A Love Story,” and the TV show “Alias.” She commands this role and this film, outperforming every person she shares scenes with and creating a memorable, complex, unlikeable protagonist almost bored with the mundanity of being alive. Relying on one actress to keep a film interesting for over 100 minutes is an arduous task, and this lackluster and unexciting film suffers from severely slow and directionless pacing. Its main character might be interesting, but unfortunately the movie really isn’t.

C

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Jewcy Interviews: The Pirate Captain Toledano


I've been writing a lot for Jewcy lately, conducting some really cool interviews. Though I don't usually focus on short films, I did get the chance to screen "The Pirate Captain Toledano," which features Jewish pirates! My conversation with star Stephen DeCordova was pretty fascinating. Head over to Jewcy to read my interview!

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Jewcy Interviews: Aida's Secrets


The documentary "Aida's Secrets," which showcases the reunion of two seventy-year-old brothers separated at birth, opened this past Friday. I had the chance to chat with director Alon Schwarz for Jewcy. Head over to Jewcy to read my interview!

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Movie with Abe: Thy Father’s Chair (Capsule Review)


Thy Father’s Chair
Directed by Àlex Lora, Antonio Tibaldi
Released October 13, 2017

I’ve never seen the show “Hoarders,” but I have some idea of what it’s about and can imagine how each episode is structured. This documentary brings audiences into the lives of Abraham and Shraga, two Orthodox Jewish twins from Brooklyn who basically haven’t thrown anything away since their parents passed away. The arrival of a professional cleaning service, mandated by a tenant who refuses to pay rent until the conditions of the brothers’ apartment are improved, prompts the brothers to panic not because their home is being invaded by strangers but because it means their things will be disturbed and possibly discarded.

What’s most interesting about the focus on these two relatively antisocial men is their commitment to their religion. In the first scene, the concept of “shaimos” is explained in reference to books that must not be thrown away even if they’re infested, and later, one brother reads aloud from a megillah when they are told that they may not be able to save it. As their apartment is slowly transformed, they meditate on what life could have been like if their father had moved them to San Diego and they had not become observant, and they even ask the movers if they pray, revealing that they too doubt their faith sometimes. It’s a slow burn of a documentary that serves as more of an excerpt of their lives than anything, including several moments of alarm, like a report that their apartment had more roaches than a Manhattan restaurant, but otherwise not too much worth remembering despite the intriguing and undeniably original setup.

B-

Friday, October 20, 2017

Movie with Abe: The Killing of a Sacred Deer


The Killing of a Sacred Deer
Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos
Released October 20, 2017

Yorgos Lanthimos is a Greek filmmaker whose two films to cross over to American audiences have left quite a distinct impression and an indication of his style. The first, “Dogtooth,” introduced three teenagers whose parents lied to them their entire lives, purposely educating them with wrong information and ensuring that they would never try to leave their home. The second, “The Lobster,” waded more into fantasy territory with its setting at a hotel where single adults check in to find a mate within a set period of time or be turned into an animal of their choice. His third breakthrough is something else altogether.

Steven Murphy (Colin Farrell) is a successful surgeon who lives in a nice house with his wife Anna (Nicole Kidman), his daughter Kim (Raffey Cassidy), and his son Bob (Sunny Suljic). As he develops a relationship with Martin (Barry Keoghan), the son of a man who died during surgery, Steven begins to invite Martin into his family’s life. As Martin starts spending more time with them and showing up more frequently, Steven pulls away, and soon after watches as both of his children become inexplicably ill, told by Martin that he can make it stop if he chooses a member of his family to sacrifice as penance for his father’s death.

Where his previous films required some suspension of disbelief to accept their universes as reality, this film sets itself in a relatively normal and unremarkable contemporary society, with just Martin’s seeming ability to inflict medically unmeasurable conditions upon others as the sole supernatural outlier. Just accepting it as legitimate isn’t easy, and the film suffers in a way Lanthimos’ past efforts haven’t as a result. This is also an undeniably disturbing and off-putting film, one whose events are difficult both to digest and to forget. The infusion of Lanthimos’ sinister humor only adds to the distasteful feeling it leaves.

Farrell was the star of “The Lobster,” and he and Kidman appeared together earlier this year in the only moderately more uplifting “The Beguiled.” Buried under a huge beard, Farrell is hard to like, and it’s even harder to emphasize with his increasingly horrifying situation. Kidman is far more sympathetic, and she’s matched well by a very creepy but focused performance from Keoghan, who had a much brighter role in this year’s “Dunkirk.” The dialogue is just as strange as it always in screenplays from Lanthimos and his writing partner Efthymis Filippou, and some of it seems truly random and unnecessary. This film has a foreboding feel from the start, shot in a dark, haunting way. This enthusiastic fan of Lanthimos’ other films didn’t find the same spark here, with an intriguing concept turning utterly unappealing and unfulfilling, needlessly and pointlessly creepy.

C+

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Jewcy Interviews: Jungle


I had the privilege to speak with Yossi Ghinsberg, the real-life subject of the new film "Jungle," starring Daniel Radcliffe as the Israeli adventurer who survived for three weeks after being stranded alone in the Bolivian Amazon, and producer Dana Lustig earlier this week. Head over to Jewcy to read my interview!

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Movie with Abe: Battle of the Sexes


Battle of the Sexes
Directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris
Released September 29, 2017

Headlines over the past week or so have focused extensively on powerful producer Harvey Weinstein’s fall from grace as numerous accusations of sexual harassment and illicit sexual behavior have become public. Similar stories came to light during Trump’s campaign and continue to do so for far too many other men. While most decry this as completely unacceptable, there was a time when these kinds of accusations would have been almost unheard of, since sexism was so rampant and embroiled in American culture that women simply questioning their place at home or at work was thought of as asking for too much.

“Battle of the Sexes” dramatizes the much-publicized tennis competition between fifty-five-year-old male champion Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) and twenty-nine-year-old female champion Billie Jean King (Emma Stone), suggested by Riggs as a way of proving that he was the best women’s tennis player in the world. As Riggs struggled to remain relevant after retreating from his sports career, King was leading the fight for equality between men and women in tennis, emphasizing equal pay and respect. Navigating marital problems comes second for both Riggs and King, for whom the sport is everything – a chance for Riggs to show off and for King to hone her craft.

This is the third film from husband-wife directing duo Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, after “Little Miss Sunshine” and “Ruby Sparks.” After creating endearing comedies laced with dramatic poignancy, this more serious true story is enhanced considerably by its humorous framing. Much of what is said in the film, particularly by Riggs, is funny mostly because of the outrageous fact that it can be uttered publicly and vocally with no shame. The term “male chauvinist pig” is owned and repeated often by Riggs, who proudly seeks to remind women that their place is either in the kitchen or in the bedroom. King represents a wonderful antagonist for Riggs, showing her commitment to the sport through diligent practice for their match while Riggs goofs off, playing in costumes and with obstacles to show just how little he finds King a threat. To laugh at this might be difficult given the current state of our times, but it’s inspiring to see King fight so boldly and to know how this all plays out.

Stone, fresh off an Oscar win for “La La Land,” has found a fitting follow-up role which allows her to get into King’s skin, delivering an invested and heartfelt performance. Carell eases into portraying Riggs, eagerly recreating his unapologetic sexism and showmanship. The supporting cast is very well assembled, including Sarah Silverman as the women’s tennis manager, Natalie Morales as another player, Andrea Riseborough as a hairdresser with whom King forms an immediate connection, Alan Cumming as a gay fashion designer, Bill Pullman as a powerful advocate against gender equality in tennis, and Elisabeth Shue as Riggs’ wife. The costumes, art direction, editing and general feel of the film all make its 1970s setting engaging, and the script by Oscar winner Simon Beaufoy is full of great one-liners and strong dialogue. This cinematic version of a famous and culturally important tennis match is a great, fun film that feels good to watch too.

B+

Monday, October 16, 2017

Movie with Abe: The Florida Project


The Florida Project
Directed by Sean Baker
Released October 6, 2017

In order to make a movie and have it be successful, you usually need a clear-cut premise. Having known stars can help too, since marketing is considerably easier if potential viewers can latch on to recognizable elements or an alluring plot. Every once in a while, however, there’s an independent film that deals very intimately with characters just living their lives. The reputation of a filmmaker and positive word-of-mouth buzz drives the ultimate reception of such a film, and “The Florida Project” is a knockout that’s hard to describe but makes an incredibly powerful and lasting impression.

Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) is a six-year-old who lives in a motel room in Orlando just outside Disney World with her unemployed and relatively unmotivated mother Halley (Bria Vinaite). She spends most of her days spitting on car windshields, compelling tourists to buy her ice cream, and causing trouble around the motel with her friends Jancey (Valeria Cotto) and Scooty (Christopher Rivera), who lives one floor down with his mother, Ashley (Mela Murder), who works at Waffle House and brings food out the back door for the kids and Halley to eat. As Moonee runs free around the motel and its surrounding area each day, manager Bobby (Willem Dafoe) tries his best to keep things in order, enforcing the roles while harboring a soft spot for the troublesome kids and for the always late-on-rent and rarely friendly Halley.

This film is a captivating experience which doesn’t quite show the world through the eyes of a child but instead follows a child who is allowed to run wild each and every day, expressing her curiosity and a certain maturity defined by foul language, rude behavior, and fierce friendship but lacking in life experience. While Ashley holds down her day job and brings home some money, Halley displays no such resolve, and therefore she acts however she feels in front of her daughter and anyone else with whom she crosses paths. Bobby works well as a stand-in of sorts for the audience, someone who sees what it is like for people who have essentially become permanent residents of the motel, legally required to stay elsewhere for a night each month, and also interacts with the world outside, including one effective scene in which he forcefully chases away a suspected pedophile who walks over to the children playing outside the motel.

This film evokes favorable comparisons to both “Beasts of the Southern Wild” and “American Honey,” allowing its very young female protagonist the spotlight to tremendous effect like the former and showcasing an underrepresented segment of the population that treats money and mobility in a fascinating way like the latter. Like those two films, this succeeds wondrously as a portrait of those who drive their own experiences and shape their own lives. Every cast member is terrific, and while Dafoe, the only known actor in the cast, is the one earning Oscar buzz, any one of them, especially the children, would be deserving. Sean Baker’s direction and Alexis Zabe’s cinematography contribute wonderfully to a film that never loses its focus and lives in each moment, whether it’s one that captures the poverty in which its characters live or the sheer joy they find in simple shenanigans. This is a fully engaging and immersive experience, a triumph for independent filmmaking that proves instantly memorable and immensely poignant.

A-

Saturday, October 14, 2017

NYFF Spotlight: Wonder Wheel

I’m thrilled to be covering a number of selections from the 55th Annual New York Film Festival, which takes place September 28th-October 15th.


Wonder Wheel
Directed by Woody Allen
NYFF Closing Night

Woody Allen makes a lot of movies. Since his directorial debut in 1966, four-time Oscar winner Allen has churned out an average of a film almost every year. Recently, he’s been met with success less and less frequently, releasing just three hits – “Vicky Cristina Barcelona,” “Midnight in Paris,” and “Blue Jasmine” - in the past decade. There are certain staples in his films, beginning with a neurotic lead character whose perception of the world around them isn’t entirely accurate, and he spends more time in his native New York than anything else. His latest doesn’t always feel like an Allen production, but his mark is all over it.

Ginny (Kate Winslet) leads a less-than-exciting life as a waitress on Coney Island in the 1950s, married to alcoholic carousel operator Humpty (James Belushi) and raising a budding arsonist son from her first marriage. When Humpty’s adult daughter Carolina (Juno Temple) shows up, on the run from her mobster husband, Ginny finds any aspirations for greater happiness she had put on hold, with her husband investing more in his daughter’s career rehabilitation. Ginny’s affair with lifeguard Mickey (Justin Timberlake) serves as her only outlet, something she clings to for hopes of a better and more fulfilling life.

There’s no denying the instantly recognizable newer Allen archetype in Ginny, who constantly has a headache that never seems to go away and who makes grand speeches against things she didn’t like but never actually accepts productive suggested solutions. She’s most reminiscent of a more muted version of Cate Blanchett’s character from “Blue Jasmine,” though she advocates far less for herself and only occasionally lets those around her feel her true wrath since most of them are busy being angry enough on their own. The Coney Island setting makes sense for the “Annie Hall” auteur who claimed to have been brought up under a rollercoaster, and setting the film in the 1950s is a logical move given his recent forays into the past.

This marks the first collaboration for the four credited stars of this film with Allen, and each of them seems like a good fit to work with him. Belushi takes a backseat to Winslet since this is a more female-driven story, and Winslet delivers a fiercely committed performance (with one memorable scene in particular sure to be discussed) sure to drum up Oscar buzz, though it’s far from her best role. Temple is, as usual, wonderful, and it’s great to see making strong career decisions. Timberlake continues to diversify his acting choices, and he fits in just fine here, both with the script and the time period. As a film, there aren’t nearly enough instantly-classic insights delivered by any of the characters, and the story doesn’t resonate. This is far from Allen’s strongest film, offering a few funny lines but hardly a pleasant experience aside from that not removed enough to be considered an effective drama but instead an uneven effort.

B-

Friday, October 13, 2017

NYFF Spotlight: Mudbound

I’m thrilled to be covering a number of selections from the 55th Annual New York Film Festival, which takes place September 28th-October 15th.

Mudbound
Directed by Dee Rees
NYFF Screenings

Race in America is and has always been a hot topic. The emancipation of the slaves in 1863 left two distinctly separate populations, and it took an entire century for desegregation and voting rights to be put into place. There are still many incidents of rampant racism that happen on a regular basis in the United States. That unfortunate reality makes a story about a time of extreme inequality that somehow seemed normal all the more relevant and important, and that’s just what director Dee Rees brings to the forefront in her adaptation of Hillary Jordan’s 2008 novel.


Mulligan stars in the film

Laura (Carey Mulligan) meets Henry McAllan (Jason Clarke) and the two begin a life together in the 1940s. Laura enjoys domestic life, but when Henry suddenly uproots them to move with his father (Jonathan Banks) to a rural Mississippi farm, Laura must adjust to a far more isolating situation. Hap (Rob Morgan) and Florence (Mary J. Blige) raise their family on the outskirts of Henry’s property, working in the fields and on the farm for the McAllans. When World War II ends, Henry’s brother Jamie (Garrett Hedlund) and Hap’s son Ronsel (Jason Mitchell) both return, bringing with them a shared experience that transcends the color of their skin, building a friendship that stands in stark contrast to their far less accepting family and neighbors.


Rees, Blige, Hedlund, Mitchell, Mulligan, Clarke, and Morgan discuss the film

At a press conference for the film, Rees explains that she wanted this to be “an old-fashioned film like they don’t make anymore,” where the audience can get invested in each character and the plot can be secondary. During filming, they worked in actual sharecroppers’ cabins, and the camera style was key to each of the characters and how they were photographed based on their relationships. Morgan describes the opportunity to be a part of this telling of history since, as he says, “we often see black people as slaves or during the civil rights era – we don’t really see the sharecropping era when they’re not quite free.” Rees speaks specifically of incorporating the n-word into the language, in a way that sounded normal and unremarkable in everyday conversation, as the white actors hated saying it and the black actors hated hearing it. Rees, who emphasizes having many women behind the camera, believes that “we can’t begin to tackle our past until we look at our personal histories. We’re not separate from our past; we are all actors in what we’re creating.”


Hedlund and Mitchell star in the film

This film is a testament to that notion, telling a story of intersecting personalities who are very much products of the time and space in which they live. The cast is strong, with Mitchell as the standout for his portrayal of a soldier who saw his skin color ignored and even loved in Europe only to return home to find it just as horrifically backward as he left it. Each actor is afforded the opportunity to shine and truly get to know their characters, who do, as Rees suggests, steer the story, which is engaging and uncomfortable, and at times extremely disturbing due to its showcase of the horrific violence exacted by white people and uncondemned by the general public. Rees has crafted a film that feels important and which shines a light on a not-too-distant collective memory that has largely been repressed.

B+