Friday, May 18, 2018

Movie with Abe: First Reformed


First Reformed
Directed by Paul Schrader
Released May 18, 2018

Religion is something that has the power to guide a person’s life, and those who choose to seek ordination of some sort dedicate themselves to serving a higher purpose. What that looks like in any given religion might be completely unrecognizable to another, but in America, the history of Christianity is strong and the members of its clergy high in number. Due to its prevalence in the early days of the country and before its founding, there are many institutions whose physical buildings still stand but whose operations and congregations have outgrown their humble beginnings.

Reverend Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke) is the pastor of such an establishment in upstate New York, a Dutch Reform church that now serves more as a museum than a functioning parish, with just a few attending services each week while the masses frequent the far more industrial parent church, Abundant Life, that officially controls Toller’s building and is planning its 250th anniversary celebration. Toller is approached by Mary (Amanda Seyfried), a pregnant congregant worried about her activist environmentalist husband’s views on the world and the future they might bring their child into, prompting serious introspection from Toller and a dangerous descent into destructive behavior.

This film begins with stylized title cards that make the film’s setting feel dated, with Toller himself seeming like a relic, sporting a flip cell phone and living a minimalist lifestyle despite having plenty of space and means. The ideas he is introduced to about environmental decay and the political forces doing nothing to stop it are extremely specific, and the alcoholic whose health is not great from the start begins to find some sense of purpose that he has been lacking, especially as he learns that a major donor to his church is one of the most unabashed offenders.

Hawke has been working hard lately, and this performance, however committed, pales in comparison to recent, far more entertaining turns in “Stockholm” and “Juliet, Naked.” Seyfried has also been much better, but the role leaves a great deal to be desired. The casting of Cedric the Entertainer as the leader of Abundant Life proves extremely distracting, shifting too much of the focus off of Toller’s more subdued preacher. Writer-director Paul Schrader, best known for penning the screenplays to “Taxi Driver” and “Raging Bull,” has quite a reputation, but this desolate, dreary drama fails to latch on to interesting characters and believable dialogue, spiraling into a nonsensical fever dream that hardly does justice to its premise.

C+

Saturday, May 12, 2018

Saturday Night Movie Recommendations with Abe

Welcome back to a weekly feature here at Movies With Abe. I'm going to be providing a handy guide to a few choice movies currently playing in theatres as well as several films newly released on DVD and Netflix. I invite you to add in your thoughts on any films I haven’t seen in the comments below.


Now Playing in Theatres

Beast (mixed bag): There’s a lot whole of intrigue to be found in this dark, dreary tale of a young woman who falls in love with a mystery man believed to be a mass murderer. Lead actress Jessie Buckley is great, but this film is off-putting and far from pointed in the slow burn to its conclusion. Now playing at the Landmark at 57 West and the Angelika. Read my review from Sundance.

The Seagull (mixed bag): This Chekhov adaptation isn’t the slam dunk it should be given the impressive cast - which includes Annette Bening, Saoirse Ronan, Elisabeth Moss - and instead serves as the kind of fare that is likely enjoyable for devotees of the original story and its author only. Now playing at the Angelika and the Paris Theatre. Read my review from Tribeca.


New to DVD

In Search of Israeli Cuisine (recommended): This documentary, which I saw at the AIPAC Policy Conference a few years ago, is certainly appetizing, navigating a country known for many things and highlighting a very diverse range of food options prepared by different cultures living within its borders.


Now Available on Instant Streaming

Faces Places (highly recommended): This was my pick to win the Oscar for Best Documentary this year, a marvelous exploration of the French countryside by a young photographer and a veteran filmmaker designed to shed some light - literally, through pictures - on unsung heroes.

Dirty Girl (recommended): This 1980s-set dramedy from early on in Juno Temple’s career features a fabulous central performance from the talented actress and an endearing, surprisingly fresh take on two teenage runaways.

Saturday, May 5, 2018

Saturday Night Movie Recommendations with Abe

Welcome back to a weekly feature here at Movies With Abe. I'm going to be providing a handy guide to a few choice movies currently playing in theatres as well as several films newly released on DVD and Netflix. I invite you to add in your thoughts on any films I haven’t seen in the comments below.


Now Playing in Theatres

After Auschwitz (recommended): This affecting story of six survivors of the Holocaust who made their way to Los Angeles does a great job of spotlighting individual stories. Now playing in Los Angeles, and still showing at Kew Gardens Cinema and Malverne Cinema outside of New York City. Read my review from Thursday.

Disobedience (highly recommended): Spectacular performances from Rachel Weisz, Rachel McAdams, and Alessandro Nivola accentuate this captivating look at a forbidden relationship in a religious community. After its premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival, this film is playing at AMC Lincoln Square, AMC Kips Bay, City Cinemas 123, Cinepolis Chelsea, and the Angelika. Check out Read my interview for Jewcy with director Sebastián Lelio, who won an Oscar for “A Fantastic Woman.”

Let the Sun Shine In (mixed bag): This New York Film Festival entry from Claire Denis is most worthwhile for the central performance given by the reliably incredible Juliette Binoche. The film is far less tolerable, indulging in directionless conversation and storytelling that serves questionable purposes. Now playing at the IFC Center and Walter Reade Theater. Read my review from NYFF.

Tully (recommended): The third collaboration between director Jason Reitman and screenwriter Diablo Cody is a great success, one that expands upon “Juno” and “Young Adult” to create an unusual portrait of a struggling mother desperate for just a bit of rest and support. Charlize Theron and Mackenzie Davis are great in this entertaining and layered dramedy. Now playing at AMC Lincoln Square, AMC Empire, AMC Kips Bay, City Cinemas 86th St, Cinepolis Chelsea, iPic Fulton Market, the Angelika, and Regal Battery Park. Read my review from Tribeca.

The 12th Man (recommended): This is a different kind of war epic, one that follows a single survivor of a failed subversive mission against the Nazis who has to outlast the harsh weather of Scandinavia and outrun a ruthless Nazi commander intent on finding him. It’s a decent if long showcase that features some intriguing moments. Now playing at the IFC Center. Read my review from yesterday.


New to DVD

Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story (highly recommended): This informative documentary sheds a light on the scientific achievements and mental health struggles of Hedy Lamarr, an actress known for her beauty but who accomplished so much more.

Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool (recommended): Annette Bening plays actress Gloria Grahame in this drama that occasionally approaches intrigue but never really gets there. Devotees of either Bening or Graham may be more interested.

In Between (highly recommended): This portrait of three Palestinian women living in Tel Aviv from director Maysaloun Hamoud was the opening night selection of the Other Israel Film Festival. It’s a terrific and very worthwhile watch featuring superb performances from all three main actresses.

In the Fade (recommended): Before failing to make the list of nine finalists for the Oscar, this German film took home the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Film. Diane Kruger delivers a formidable performance as a woman in mourning facing her family’s executioners.

The Insult (highly recommended): This was my choice to win the Oscar for Best Foreign Film, a remarkable story of two men from different cultures who go to court when one insults the other in response to a derogatory remark. This is excellent international cinema that should really be seen by all.


Now Available on Instant Streaming

Come Sunday (recommended): This decent Sundance drama tells the true story an evangelical bishop who has a revelation that changes everything about his faith and inspires him to charge ahead with a new vision.

Pelé: Birth of a Legend (highly recommended): I really enjoyed this Tribeca 2016 entry which showcases the amazing soccer player and mimics his signature style with a great flair and energy.

Friday, May 4, 2018

Movie with Abe: The 12th Man


The 12th Man
Directed by Harald Zwart
Released May 4, 2018

In war, there are fateful battles that involve enormous loss of life on multiple sides. For every mass confrontation that is well-documented, there are many more that are considerably less known. A covert mission is likely to be declassified and publicized only long after its occurrence, if at all, and remembering it requires that at least one member survived or someone within the chain of command who knew about its existence wrote it down or told another person about it. These stories are often gripping, inspiring tales of unlikely survival against the greatest odds.

Jan Baalsrud (Thomas Gullestad) is a member of a twelve-person Norwegian operation meant to sabotage the Nazis in 1943. When the mission is compromised, all eleven of his fellow operatives are captured. Baalsrud retreats into the icy waters and moves from place to place trying to stay alive as relentless Nazi commander Kurt Stage (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers) refuses to believe the reports he has been given that the twelfth man succumbed to the elements as he ran from the Nazis, desperate and determined to find every last conspirator.

Films like “Saving Private Ryan” have been praised for their epic battle sequences that truly convey the senselessness of war and the way in which it engulfs those involved in an inescapable haze of blood and bullets. This film presents a different kind of fight, one that involves a single man doing whatever he can to make it to safety. His battle is not on a beach but on the snow-covered mountains of Scandinavia, as he flees on skis from an enemy plane in a daring attempt at perseverance. His survival is made all the more compelling by the horrific experiments Stage conducts on the prisoners he has to calculate whether his target could indeed still be alive.

Norwegian actor Gullestad delivers an inarguably committed performance, conveying the lengths to which Baalsrud had to go in order to get through his ordeal, burying himself under bales of hay and outlasting treacherous cold along the way. Rhys-Meyers, who plays villains well, is a fitting choice to portray the heartless Stage, whose desire to apprehend the missing saboteur stems from his eagerness to stay in the good graces of his superiors. This lengthy film, which clocks in at about two hours and ten minutes, presents this unbelievable journey of more than seventy days in a straightforward narrative fashion, occasionally accelerating to scenes of action but rightfully spending more time on the righteous people who, fully aware of the potential consequences, help Baalsrud along the way. This is, if nothing else, a compelling ode to its impressive protagonist.

B

Thursday, May 3, 2018

Movie with Abe: After Auschwitz

After Auschwitz
Directed by Jon Kean
Released April 20, 2018

One of the best ways to ensure that history does not repeat itself is for those who have experienced terrible things to continue telling their stories. Many films have been made about the Holocaust, and as even those who were young children during the Holocaust are now approaching their eighties, it’s more important than ever to capture as much testimony as possible on film and share it with a wide audience so that the expression “never forget” holds true, keeping the memory of those many lost during the Holocaust alive and inspiring the next generation to prevent such atrocities from being perpetrated again in the future.

“After Auschwitz” follows six women who are liberated from concentration camps at the end of World War II, charting their time in Europe immediately afterward, their journeys to the United States, and their eventual settlement in Los Angeles. Each step is a crucial part of their transformation from prisoners all but certain to be forgotten to a life that involves a degree of liberty and happiness that never seemed possible along the way. Through it all, processing what they went through is a never-ending challenge, one that manifests itself in different ways as they try their best to move on and live their lives.

The glamour of life in the United States contrasts sharply with the lack of dignity and inhuman conditions faced by Jews in Nazi Germany, and those comparisons are made frequently throughout this insightful documentary. One survivor, a term that the subjects of this film reject because it doesn’t adequately define their experience and state of mind, recalls the much-covered news story of a three-year-old girl who fell down a well and expresses shock at how much effort was put into saving just one child when everyone turned a blind eye to what was going on during the Holocaust. These women rarely discussed their experiences for years, and only later when it became clear that they needed to educate a new generation did they ease into speaking up about traumatic memories that continue to haunt them.

The use of archive newsreel footage mixed with intimate interviews with all six of these women – Eva Beckman, Rena Drexler, Renee Firestone, Erika Jacoby, Lili Majzner, and Linda Sherman – proves to be extremely effective, allowing them to speak for themselves and to share what they went through, coming from different countries to end up in the same place, achieving remarkable things and sharing what they have learned through it all. The fact that half of them have passed away in recent years makes this film all the more poignant, an important and touching film that truly captures these women and their individual lives.

B+

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Talking Tribeca: Disobedience


One of the most buzzed-about movies at this year's Tribeca Film Festival was surely "Disobedience," which opened in theaters in New York and LA this past Friday. It's a terrific film, one that looks at a forbidden relationship in an insular London Orthodox Jewish community. I had the privilege to talk with director Sebastián Lelio, who took home the Oscar for Best Foreign Film for "A Fantastic Woman" just two months ago, about the experience of making this film.


Head over to Jewcy to read the interview, and go see the film!

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Talking Tribeca: To Dust


As I'm finishing up my coverage of this year's Tribeca Film Festival, here's a review of "To Dust," a peculiar buddy comedy of sorts, that was posted on Jewcy last week. I managed to get a picture with star Géza Röhrig, most recognizable from the title role in "Son of Saul," after the screening.

Head over to Jewcy to check out the review!

Monday, April 30, 2018

Talking Tribeca: Egg

I’ve had the pleasure this year of screening a number of selections from this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, which takes place April 18th-29th.


Egg
Directed by Marianna Palka
Spotlight Narrative

Every parent raises their child in a different way. It’s not uncommon to see new parents telling friends how to hold their babies while their own parents express an entirely opposite point of view about what’s necessary to help create a safe and productive environment for development. Conflicting perspectives can also play into the decision to have a baby in the first place, and there are additional health and socioeconomic factors that affect whether a couple or individual can conceive in the first place. Such conversations are often awkward since sharing feelings can seem to impart judgment.

Karen (Christina Hendricks), who is eight months pregnant, brings her rich husband Don (David Alan Basche) to Brooklyn to meet her old art school friend Tina (Alysia Reiner), who lives with her partner Wayne (Gbenga Akinnagbe). Their lifestyles quickly appear to clash, even more so after Tina reveals that she and Wayne are bringing a baby into the world with the help of Wayne’s friend Kiki (Anna Camp), though nothing physiological prevents Tina from getting pregnant. What initially seem like minor jabs at the way they each see the world slowly turn into far more hostile conversations that threaten to have serious implications on both relationships.

This is a film that features just five actors and takes place mostly in the same location for its entire duration. It’s possible that this dialogue-heavy production would have been better suited as a play, but the use of a very artsy loft and multiple rooms within it help to enhance its setting rather than lead the actors to focus too heavily on blocking. Reminiscent of other films like “The Big Kahuna,” this is one that draws audiences in completely to the things its characters discuss and almost makes them forget that they’re only watching five people, some of whom have just met for the first time, in close quarters.


Screenwriter Risa Mickenberg and star Alysia Reiner discuss the film

A small cast like this demands great effort from all involved, and every performer delivers. Reiner, best known from “Orange is the New Black,” and Hendricks, of “Mad Men” and “Good Girls,” are superb in what could best be termed the lead roles, each having made certain concessions in their relationships that only the other woman can help them see. As the men who occasionally make them happy, Basche and Akinnagbe serve less sympathetic functions, making Don and Wayne into the kind of guys who seem supportive until they express resentment at all they’ve been asked to do. Camp, always a delight, compliments them all wonderfully as the less-than-intellectual fifth wheel. A smart script and strong production featuring women in all department head roles pays off well for an involving, entertaining, and button-pushing ride.

B+

Talking Tribeca: All These Small Moments

I’ve had the pleasure this year of screening a number of selections from this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, which takes place April 18th-29th.


All These Small Moments
Directed by Melissa Miller Costanzo
Spotlight Narrative

Many people become friends as a result of their similar daily interactions, be it a neighbor, a parent whose child goes to the same school or plays the same sport, a waiter or vendor, or anything else. Often, the relationship begins in an unspoken or unrecognized way, where paths cross repeatedly and conversation eventually erupts, leading to the development of an unexpected relationship based merely on the same schedule. Eventually, when circumstances change and that routine ceases, either the interaction continues purposely at a new place or a new level, or it evaporates completely.

Howie (Brendan Meyer) rides the bus with his brother Simon (Sam McCarthy) to school every day, and he can’t take his eyes off Odessa (Jemima Kirke), who always sits in the same seat just a few rows ahead of him. As his parents Carla (Molly Ringwald) and Tom (Brian d’Arcy James) behave increasingly hostilely to each other and their marriage shows signs of breaking down, Howie tries to stay focused on school, meeting a girl named Lindsay (Harley Quinn Smith) who clearly likes him but can’t possibly compete with this alluring older woman who intrigues him every morning.


Director Melissa Miller Costanzo discusses the film

This is the kind of story that features the whole family, with established actors Ringwald and James receiving top billing but young stars McCarthy and Meyer in particular getting just as much, if not more, screen time. Howie is the one who is pining for a woman he doesn’t even know, while Carla is yearning for something more in her marriage that the entirely absent Tom isn’t providing. Simon doesn’t express much, but the fact that everything is crumbling clearly gets to him. As its title suggests, this film is about moments, and its sum is a collection of assorted scenes from the lives of these four people.


Stars Brendan Meyer and Sam McCarthy discuss the film

Meyer and McCarthy were present at a Q and A following a screening of the film at Tribeca and received a very deservingly warm reception for their breakthrough performances, making these teenagers feel real and relatable. Ringwald and James accomplish the same for the older generation and Kirke, in one of her most muted turns to date, plays Odessa exactly as she should appear to an admiring teenage boy, which helps gives the film the structure it needs. While not all of its storylines are resolved to an empathetically satisfactory degree, and the film seems to rush towards its conclusion without much warning, this is a fine and enjoyable film with some great moments, big and small.

B+

Talking Tribeca: Blue Night

I’ve had the pleasure this year of screening a number of selections from this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, which takes place April 18th-29th.


Blue Night
Directed by Fabien Constant
Spotlight Narrative

For many performers, being on stage and in front of an audience represents the embodiment of how they interact with the world. A singer losing their voice can be catastrophic, and even though some, like Julie Andrews, are able to remain involved in the world of music in a different capacity, there is something crucial that is missing from their lives. Finding out that such a change – or something much worse – is coming is devastating, and can greatly affect someone as they consider their options and face a future that looks impossibly different from the present.

Vivienne Carala (Sarah Jessica Parker) arrives late to rehearsal for a big show at the Birdland Jazz Club after receiving horrible news from her doctor that a mild pain in her head is in fact a tumor which, even after surgery, may leave her with little more than a year to live. As she tries to put off processing what she has learned, Vivienne navigates New York City, stopping in to see her daughter and ex-husband (Simon Baker), evading her mother (Jacqueline Bisset), and seeking comfort from her manager (Common).

From the film’s opening moment, there is a distinctive musical score that anchors Vivienne’s shock and the dreamlike way she wanders through the city. It’s an effective device that isolates her and externalizes the thoughts that she does not express to those around her, some of whom notice that she seems unlike herself. The film also has a specific look and feel to it, one that makes it seem as if Vivienne at once owns this city and knows nothing about it, representative of the control that she has lost over her future on the twenty-fifth anniversary of the start of her career.

Parker doesn’t seem like the first choice for such a role given her TV work on “Sex and the City” and “Divorce,” but she turns in a heartfelt and emotional performance, one anchored by an ability to hide her feelings as she gets lost in her own thoughts. The film is best as a showcase of her journey, one that many may have to experience but still manages to feel deeply personal. The inclusion of an unfriendly Lyft driver (Waleed Zuaiter) who encounters Vivienne on numerous occasions is peculiar, and the film occasionally drifts from its most interesting moments to those that feel unnecessary and hardly vital to this character study.

B

Sunday, April 29, 2018

Talking Tribeca: Song of Back and Neck

I’ve had the pleasure this year of screening a number of selections from this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, which takes place April 18th-29th.


Song of Back and Neck
Directed by Paul Lieberstein
U.S. Narrative Competition

There are many people who believe that physical pain can be indicative of emotional distress, and there is science to back some of it up. While it’s not always the case, those who suffer discomfort of certain body parts may have deeper issues to address, and curing ailments can be as simple as reducing stress in their daily life. Healing something without the use of Western medicine can be immensely satisfying, though there’s rarely a simple fix that doesn’t feature a relapse or require either a follow-up or repeated, consistent care.

Fred (Paul Lieberstein) isn’t doing great. His neck and back pain are so extreme that he crawls out of bed every morning to get ready and eat breakfast on the floor. His visit to a doctor reveals multiple issues that might require ten years of surgery and still not end up fixed, leaving little hope for his future. When the lifelong paralegal still working at his father’s firm meets Regan (Rosemarie DeWitt), a client seeking a divorce, everything changes. Her suggestion of acupuncture leads him to an unexpected relief, and he begins a relationship with Regan that enables him to be seen for who he is for the first time in his life.

This film gets its title from the bizarre music that the needles make when they sit in Fred’s back, prompting the doctor’s son, a cellist, to play alongside him. That element of wonder helps to complement an otherwise straightforward comedy story, one that finds an unlikely hero in Fred, who says hello to every person he passes in the office each time he walks by their desks each day, to take an active role in his life, bonding with a kindred spirit whose experiences have been very different from his own, save for the same crippling physical pain she has endured.

Lieberstein is best known as a writer and showrunner for “The Office,” on which he also starred as the frequently-maligned and miserable Toby. Here, directing himself, he demonstrates a wonderfully muted energy that makes him a great lead, and the always terrific DeWitt is well-cast opposite him. This story is sweet and innocent, full of entertaining and enjoyable moments. Its trajectory is relatively simple, and the film goes along with it, offering some drama along the way, resulting in a mildly memorable and endearingly funny film.

B+

Talking Tribeca: Untogether

I’ve had the pleasure this year of screening a number of selections from this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, which takes place April 18th-29th.


Untogether
Directed by Emma Forrest
Spotlight Narrative

Regardless of what labels society wants to put on a relationship, some people don’t want to have the way they interact with another person defined by those who don’t understand their connection. It is possible that both parties have the same idea of what they want, but a change or realization from one of them that it isn’t enough and they need to have some formal bond can start to chip away at something that worked previously. Some terms, like “untogether,” can have a double meaning: referring to a less-than-official relationship but also to an individual.

Andrea (Jemima Kirke) scored early success as a novelist at a young age, but since then, and since getting clean, she hasn’t been able to doing any real writing. Her newfound affair with Nick (Jamie Dornan), a doctor made famous as a writer for his memoir about a lost love in Gaza, often frustrates her more than it satisfies her. Her sister Tara (Lola Kirke) is a massage therapist dating a much older musician turned painter, Martin (Ben Mendelsohn), and she finds herself distracted when a rabbi (Billy Crystal) invites her to come to his congregation, sending her on an unexpected journey of self-discovery about what she actually wants from life.

This is a movie with two concurrent sets of protagonists whose lives intersect only occasionally. There are moments in which Andrea and Martin seem much better suited for each other, though both sisters start to look introspectively without letting their significant others in on their pursuits. Tara’s exploration of Judaism is a solitary trajectory, one that Andrea rejects outright and that Martin can’t be really bothered to understand. Nick has his own issues to sort out, and he allows Andrea to share with him much more than he opens up to her.

The assortment of plotlines and troubled relationships include plenty of intrigue but not much connected logic, with each seeming like its own story and hardly relevant to anything else in the film. Casting sisters in these roles is a successful gambit, with both Jemima, of “Girls,” and Lola, of “Mozart in the Jungle,” offering valid interpretations of these young women. Crystal doesn’t seem to fit into the world of this movie, one that seems worth watching while it builds its story and then eventually reveals itself to not be grounded or headed towards something. Its title unfortunately serves as an effective descriptor of its content.

C+

Talking Tribeca: Little Woods

I’ve had the pleasure this year of screening a number of selections from this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, which takes place April 18th-29th.


Little Woods
Directed by Nia DaCosta
U.S. Narrative Competition

Large areas with small populations often present a distinct set of job opportunities to its residents that may involve supporting the economy or local industries. Getting into something else can be difficult, especially because a dearth of people means that circles are small and everyone knows everyone. The temptation to break the law to make a bit of extra cash may be strong, and getting caught in the process isn’t necessarily as much of a deterrent as it should be since a large risk represents a large reward and may be the only way to stay afloat in tough times.

Ollie (Tessa Thompson) is on probation after being caught trafficking prescription pills over the Canadian border to her home in Little Woods, North Dakota. Following her mother’s death, she discovers that she must come up with a considerable sum of money to save her house from being repossessed by the bank, which forces her to reconnect with her sister Deb (Lily James), who is supporting a child on her own and pregnant again with a baby from the same father. Desperate for funds and unable to see any other way out, Ollie decides to turn back to what she knows best to make some quick cash.

This is hardly an optimistic film, one that introduces a woman who clearly has compassion for others but hasn’t experienced much luck in return. Her parole officer (Lance Reddick) is kindhearted and supportive, eagerly providing her an enthusiastic reference for a job, but he also stops by unannounced to make sure that she’s staying out of trouble. Deb’s situation is even more miserable, living in a trailer in a supermarket parking lot and fighting often with her ex (James Badge Dale), whose behavior can be described as bipolar at best. These two sisters have each other even though they don’t always see eye-to-eye, and they’re both in need of a win to keep on going.

Thompson and James are both terrific actresses with a number of previous great roles, including “Creed” and a continuing part on “Westworld” for the former and “Downtown Abbey” and “Baby Driver” for the latter. Here, they do their best to make their characters feel raw and genuine. The story, while fine-tuned with these particularities, is a familiar one that has been covered before in films like “Frozen River,” and this film doesn’t always feel as poignant or purposeful as it should.

B

Saturday, April 28, 2018

Talking Tribeca: Mapplethorpe

I’ve had the pleasure this year of screening a number of selections from this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, which takes place April 18th-29th.


Mapplethorpe
Directed by Ondi Timoner
U.S. Narrative Competition

Artists who create work that isn’t easily digested in their times don’t necessarily seek out controversy, but they see something that many others don’t and feel the need to capture it and express it to the world. The wonderful thing about art, in whatever form, is that it can be preserved to be seen by future generations and appreciated by those with more open minds, inspecting and analyzing it to determine what it was that inspired its creator to make it and what it was they were trying to say, regardless of how strongly others wanted to stifle them.

Robert Mapplethorpe (Matt Smith) begins his career as a painter in the company of Patti Smith (Marianne Rendón) in the 1980s, struggling to make a living and to be taken seriously by his very religious family. Living in Chelsea exposes him to a whole new way of life, which prompts him to make a move to photography. Switching freely between explicit photographs of naked male bodies and BSDM and ordinary portraits of well-known individuals, Mapplethorpe creates a legacy of work matched by the fervor of his process and self-perception, often putting him at odds with the most important people in his life, including his brother Edward (Brandon Sklenar) and wealthy patron Sam (John Benjamin Hickey).

There is no question that Mapplethorpe’s photography was cutting-edge, and it remains so today, representative of an underground scene that he sought to make mainstream without even acknowledging that any gallery owner or collector would reasonably hesitate to display his work. The drive he felt to capture it on camera and the passion with which he sought out subjects, sometimes plucking them from the street to be featured extensively in a series, is what proves most memorable from this biopic, which charts his ascent to success and his deteriorating condition as a result of contracting HIV/AIDS.

Smith is best known to American audiences for his roles on “Doctor Who” and “The Crown,” and he eases into an American accent and a wildly different character here, making Mapplethorpe into an irritable, brilliant artist never expressing any doubts about his talent, only whether others will fully appreciate him. This is a rare foray into narrative filmmaking for director Ondi Timoner, one that covers the history effectively but fails to truly come alive, serving as a perfectly adequate but unspectacular showcase of one man who pushed the boundaries and created something off-putting to some and mesmerizing to others.

B

Talking Tribeca: The Party’s Just Beginning

I’ve had the pleasure this year of screening a number of selections from this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, which takes place April 18th-29th.


The Party’s Just Beginning
Directed by Karen Gillan
International Narrative Competition

A tumultuous time in a person’s life is often the most enticing to spotlight. The less in control someone is of what’s happening to them, the more likely it is than they will go through experiences that will prove difficult and trying to endure. Some semblance of an end in sight, be it a return to normalcy or stability or a far less positive and finite remedy, is necessary to anchor any story, otherwise it’s just a portrait of chaos. Having a magnetic protagonist helps considerably, because investing in their success – or failure – is immensely appealing.

Liusaidh (Karen Gillan) is a twenty-four-year-old woman living in Scotland with her parents, who sit each night eating dinner separately and only speak to her individually when they’re trying to get her to do something. She splits her time between hanging out with her best friend Alistair (Matthew Beard), who hasn’t yet come out to his ailing father, navigating a romance with a British visitor (Lee Pace), and talking on her home phone to a much older man who calls her house thinking it’s a suicide hotline. In between it all, she parties hard, drinking heavily and sleeping with anonymous men at night after working a dead-end job behind the deli counter at a local supermarket during the day.

Gillan is an actress who has appeared in “Doctor Who” and films like “Guardians of the Galaxy” and “In a Valley of Violence,” making her feature debut behind the camera here. She makes a strong impression right away with stylized choices such as captioning Liusaidh’s opening dialogue like a karaoke song. She has crafted an intense character with a lot of spirited energy, diving headfirst into bad decisions and then stuffing French fries into her mouth on her nightly walk home to indicate just how uninvested she is in her own wellbeing. It’s an incredible turn from this young actress directing herself.

The film begins as an incredibly watchable portrait of this self-destructive character. It’s structured in a non-narrative fashion that finds Luisaidh making separate visits to different parts of her life, interacting one-on-one with each of them. It’s not always clear in which order things happen, and while that’s meant to add to the chaos and trauma that she endures, it also detracts from the effectiveness of this film, which is at once quite the party for its protagonist and also no party at all. Gillan is definitely worth watching, if this performance and premise are any indication.

B

Talking Tribeca: The Seagull

I’ve had the pleasure this year of screening a number of selections from this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, which takes place April 18th-29th.


The Seagull
Directed by Michael Mayer
Spotlight Narrative

There are some stories that are adapted over and over, told by a number of different voices. Each seeks to offer a new take on what the author originally intended, something that will likely speak to audiences very familiar with the preexisting work and may also reach a new crowd that hasn’t yet experienced it. Every iteration requires enough to be familiar and recognizable from the original yet inventive enough to distinguish it and make revisiting it feel worthwhile. “The Seagull,” a play by Anton Chekhov first put on in 1896, is one such work that has been adapted and reimagined so many times.

Gathered in the country for a weekend, actress Irina (Annette Bening) has come with her famous playwright partner Boris (Corey Stoll) to see her brother Sorin (Brian Dennehy). Irina’s son Konstantin (Billy Howle) has prepared a unique play to put on for everyone starring his beloved Nina (Saoirse Ronan). Nina’s admiration for Boris is matched by Konstantin’s hatred of him. Masha (Elisabeth Moss) pines for Konstantin while Mikhail (Michael Zegen) longs for her to acknowledge him, while Doctor Dorn (Jon Tenney), Shamrayev (Glenn Fleshler), and Polina (Mare Winningham) do their best to keep the peace.

This is a film that has gathered extraordinary talent together to recreate an acclaimed production. It’s a tale likely meant for the stage, as the striking visuals of the countryside and sitting on a boat in the water make a case for this film version but the dialogue and staging suggests that it would have been better in a different form. Its status as a crucial historical work is unquestioned, but whether yet another version was necessary remains a question since it doesn’t succeed nearly as triumphantly as it should, failing to achieve the sense of authenticity despite its layered and representative characters.

Bening gives the showiest turn in this film, an obvious fit for a role in which she performs commendably. Ronan follows up “Lady Bird” with a different kind of committed performance, one that sees her trying to impress another rather than living for herself. Moss is probably the strongest member of the cast, indulging Masha’s misery and making it a source of sardonic entertainment. Fleshler, who has been increasingly omnipresent in projects over the past few years, is another standout from the ensemble. While devotees of Chekhov’s work may find this take stirring, there’s something missing that prevents it from truly having the impact it desires, aimlessly and slowly wandering in search of it.

B-

Friday, April 27, 2018

Movie with Abe: Ava


Ava
Directed by Sadaf Foroughi
Released April 27, 2018

While there are many societal differences and cultural specificities that set locations around the world apart, the same type of people can largely be found, albeit slightly modified and shaped by their environments. Teenagers that rebel against their parents are commonplace almost everywhere, and what comes next and how they turn out depends largely on how those around them respond to their behavior. When teenagers are understood for who they are and how they will change over the coming years and encouraged to make the right choices rather than scorned for making the wrong ones, they may present a less aggressive and combative front.

Ava (Mahour Jabbari) lives a comfortable line in Tehran with a father (Vahid Aghapoor) who is often away for work and a mother (Bahar Noohian) whose close watch on her daughter feels stifling. When the talented budding musician makes a bet with her friends to get close with a boy, her mother becomes even more overprotective and alienating, prompting Ava to begin to cause trouble and veer from her promising academic path, all while noticing increasingly strict and unforgiving responses by the administration to rumors of an attempted abortion by a student at her school.

This film, the feature debut from female Iranian director Sadaf Foroughi, is the latest cinematic depiction of life in Iran, one that showcases real people who blend in with their culture and might as well exist anywhere else. It’s the way that the adults respond to them which reveals its setting, as the vindictive principal (Leili Rashidi) berates all her students for daring to think freely and shame their families with their adolescent behavior, even though most of them have nothing objectionable in the first place. It’s an intriguing showcase reminiscent of “Mustang,” though Ava’s circumstances are far brighter than the captive protagonists in that film.

Though Jabbari’s debut is certainly a noteworthy breakthrough, it’s the two primary adults in her life who are most compellingly portrayed. Aghapoor makes Ava’s father seem like a sympathetic, kindhearted parent just looking out for his daughter’s happiness, though when he finally takes a stand to defend his family, he’s not nearly as gentle. Noohian plays a mother who is beyond frustrated with the insolence her daughter shows up and becomes belligerent because she believes she has no other options. Rashidi is also particularly villainous in a way that doesn’t feel cartoonish but merely despicable. The film’s cinematography is pensive and its editing is purposeful, making for a slow but poignant look at teenage rebellion in a society known for strictness and conformity.

B

Movie with Abe: Bye Bye Germany


Bye Bye Germany
Directed by Sam Garbarski
Released April 27, 2018

Comedy having to do with the Holocaust is a tough sell. Though certain films have succeeded, like the Oscar-winning “Life is Beautiful” and the campy Danish thriller “Black Book,” it’s not an easy genre, and certainly one that attains a good deal of controversy. The documentary “The Last Laugh” is devoted entirely to whether such fare is appropriate. Trying to find some humor in survival, here’s the latest attempt, bearing the tagline “a post-war comedy with chutzpah.”

In 1946 Frankfurt, David Bermann (Moritz Bleibtreu) is living in a displaced persons camp and hoping to start a new life. With a few other Jews seeking to make enough to move to America, David begins selling linens to Germans, targeting those who may be particularly susceptible to their sales technique, commanding absurd prices and getting some symbolic revenge in the process. As his business booms, David meets with an American Army investigator (Antje Traue) who has questions for him about how he survived being in a camp and spins her the tale of how his knack for telling jokes earned him special treatment.

There is a sense at the start of this film that Bermann in particular doesn’t seem to have endured the horrors of the Holocaust, going about his daily life with a sarcastic but optimistic attitude towards the world. The way in which Bermann gets his operation off the ground and is able to cheat Germans is a far less destructive form of self-satisfaction than something like “Inglourious Basterds,” and it makes some sense that those who suffered unthinkable horrors at the hands of the Nazis might aim merely for the prosperity that they are able to attain, making this a logical if unspectacular path for them to follow after the end of the war.

Bleibtreu is certainly charismatic, bearing a striking resemblance to American actor Thomas Sadoski at times. His narration of what happened to him, given as testimony during the investigation, is what makes the film most interesting. Ultimately, however, its story isn’t as resonant or amusing as it sets out to be, and this film, though not terribly offensive or edgy, hardly makes the case for any sort of Holocaust-based humor. Though it’s not resounding, it’s also relatively benign and harmless, showcasing one interpretation of what starting a new life with all that’s left could look like.

B-

Thursday, April 26, 2018

Talking Tribeca: All About Nina

I’ve had the pleasure this year of screening a number of selections from this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, which takes place April 18th-29th.


All About Nina
Directed by Eva Vives
U.S. Narrative Competition

Stand-up comedy is an art form, and it’s not for everyone. This reviewer has been told by many that he’s funny because of the things he does and the way in which he entertains himself, but standing in front of a crowd to tell jokes isn’t his strong suit. There’s an element of self-deprecation necessary to be up on a stage regaling a crowd with stories that, in part, are inspired by your own life, and, if it goes over well, it can be very, very funny. As a result, stand-up comics often make great movie subjects.

Nina (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) knows how to work a room, and, though she’s still waiting to make it big, she has her act down. Her personal life, on the other hand, leaves much to be desired, and leaving for Los Angeles serves as an important step in getting away from a destructive relationship with a married man (Chace Crawford). The new scene introduces her to the kindhearted Rafe (Common), who may well be too nice for Nina, who isn’t afraid to be raunchy in her act and often seems ready to explode when she isn’t prepared for what’s coming next.

Winstead, who was the best part of the third season of “Fargo” and anchored the short-lived comedy series “BrainDead,” is a superb actress completely deserving of more lead roles like this. She is remarkably comfortable on screen, telling jokes and trying not to be vulnerable as she does her best to keep it together. She is simply fantastic as Nina, unflinching in her portrayal of someone who thinks she might know what she wants but then instinctively rejects it as soon as it starts to seem like it’s coming to fruition. Opposite her, Common is immensely endearing trying to keep up, and the two make a great onscreen duo.

This film isn’t just a comedy. While Nina does regale the audience with a number of routines, seeing how she acts when she’s not on stage is equally fascinating. This film doesn’t sugarcoat her life, and it’s most effective when she practices routines with no audience that make light of things she shouldn’t be joking about, processing them verbally as an apparent way of coping with them. This film, with the fabulous Winstead in the center, is a very impressive feature debut for director Eva Vives, one that succeeds equally as a comedy and a drama.

A-

Talking Tribeca: Jonathan

I’ve had the pleasure this year of screening a number of selections from this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, which takes place April 18th-29th.

Jonathan
Directed by Bill Oliver
Spotlight Narrative


Ansel Elgort stars in the film

Split personalities are a common plot device in film and other media. Usually, a person either isn’t aware that they possess more than one consciousness, or the audience has no idea and then discovers it at a point that completely reworks and opens up the story. In most cases, such fare is featured in thrillers and the personalities, if they are aware of each other’s existence, have no interest in working together and instead seek to achieve dominance over the one thing that they unquestionably share: a body. “Jonathan” offers a wholly different take.

Jonathan (Ansel Elgort) is a mild-mannered architect who follows the same routine each day, going to work in the morning and then returning home early in the afternoon. The first thing he does every day is to watch the video recorded for him by John, his far more active brother who inhabits his body each night for twelve hours. Regimented to prevent internal chaos by Dr. Nariman (Patricia Clarkson), the two follow rules to ensure their survival, one that John breaks by secretly dating Elena (Suki Waterhouse), a development that threatens the stability of their very unique arrangement.

This is a film which might categorize itself as science fiction because of the way in which these two brothers coexist in the same body and Dr. Nariman is able to isolate their personalities to put them on a schedule. More than that, it’s a film about two people who care deeply about each other yet never have the opportunity to be together, bonding instead by watching a video of someone who looks just like them telling them what their life is like and then recording another one to send back. It’s a marvelous experience, one that’s both thought-provoking and deeply dramatically effective.


Director Bill Oliver discusses the film

Elgort, who broke out in the lead role in “Baby Driver” last year, is exceptional in this double performance, making the two brothers completely different people and spending a good deal of the film simply watching and listening to himself talk. Waterhouse is superb in a supporting role, serving as a stand-in of sorts for the audience, trying to comprehend how these two view the world. This film is simply presented, with many cuts to black to indicate Jonathan shutting down and then waking back up after John has taken over, and framing the story from Jonathan’s perspective with John seen only in video footage creates a fitting sense of loneliness and isolation. This is a resounding, powerful film, compelling from start to finish.

A-

Talking Tribeca: Diane

I’ve had the pleasure this year of screening a number of selections from this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, which takes place April 18th-29th.

Diane
Directed by Kent Jones
U.S. Narrative Competition

Sports stars retire early since their best years are when they’re young, strong, and active. Acting isn’t the same in that performers of all ages can still get roles, though there’s definitely a tendency for films and TV shows to feature appealing, attractive performers who usually slant young. There are many documented instances of a preposterous gender gap between older male leads and their female co-stars, and it’s rare to see a film anchored by an actress in her seventies that truly tells just her story.


Mary Kay Place stars in the film

Diane (Mary Kay Place) is the definition of selfless. The Massachusetts widow drives around each day, visiting her ailing cousin (Deidre O’Connell), serving food to the homeless, and trying to make sure her drug-addicted adult son Brian (Jake Lacy) doesn’t end up dead. She eats at a buffet with her friend Bobbie (Andrea Martin) for the conversation alone, the one chance she gets to process what she’s experiencing and just how much she’s doing for everyone else in her life. Her connection to older family members, including two endearing aunts (Estelle Parsons and Phyllis Somerville) is strong, but she knows that they won’t live forever, and eventually everyone she holds dear will be gone.


Director Kent Jones discusses the film

“Diane” marks the narrative feature debut of Kent Jones, best known as a festival programmer who moderates many discussions with filmmakers at the New York Film Festival. This fiction film serves as a tremendous showcase for the exceptional Place, the actress he says he always envisioned in the lead role, and allows superb screen time for a number of older, esteemed actresses, with Lacy serving as the sole representative of a younger generation. This is a worthwhile population to spotlight and Diane is an immensely relatable character, giving so much of herself in part because she’s had a chance to live her life but also because she cares deeply and unselfishly, even for those, like her son, who are far from grateful.


Mary Kay Place and Jake Lucy discuss the film

Diane is a strong character, and having her anchor a film isn’t what’s problematic her. This is a story that becomes progressively less interesting as it continues, frontloading the relationships that prove most worthwhile and watchable. As it goes on, its momentum diminishes, and it feels like an aimless journey with only Diane there to try to save it. Jones is a skilled film historian and expert, but this film doesn’t demonstrate the kind of mastery he clearly has. His star is talented and deserving of a vehicle like this, but this film falls flat and loses steam long before its eventual end.

B-

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Talking Tribeca: Zoe

I’ve had the pleasure this year of screening a number of selections from this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, which takes place April 18th-29th.


Zoe
Directed by Drake Doremus
Gala Centerpiece

Robots exist in some form in most visions of the future, and the notion that functions currently performed by human beings are likely to be transferred to machines is almost universally acknowledged. The use of artificial intelligence for non-vital tasks, including as entertainment and vessels for pleasure, is a trope frequently explored in science fiction and both utopian and dystopian realities that might come to pass. A robot programmed to do exactly what someone wants it to bears great promise, but the ability to be authentic in something that is inherently part of code is truly difficult.

In a time that might as well be the present one, Cole (Ewan McGregor) works as a respected designer of synthetics, human-looking androids who are supposed to provide companionship to human beings, an evolution from the commonplace models that serve primarily as gardeners and in other service positions. He works with Zoe (Léa Seydoux) on a machine that calculates the compatibility of a couple and their likelihood as a new drug that allows two people who take it to believe they are falling in love, as the two try to navigate what it means to actually feel when two can no longer tell what has been manufactured and what is true.

There have been a number of films in recent years dealing with technology and how it can affect relationships, setting people up for predestined pairings because of an intellectual or genetic similarity. In almost all cases, those in such a system seeking actual love with rebel against it and prove how science and math can’t explain everything. “Frequencies” is a particularly memorable example, and director Drake Doremus’ previous film, “Equals,” which deals with the oppression of all emotion for the betterment and productivity of society, addresses similar themes. In “Zoe,” the machine call tell you whether you’re meant to be together, an affirmation of feelings meant to celebrate them if, indeed, the coupling is calculated to be compatible. It’s certainly a fascinating area of study, and one that always presents newly interesting ideas.

McGregor is a good choice to play a man so passionately into his work that he becomes part of it, searching through the machine’s database each day for a match for himself. Seydoux, a tremendous part of “Blue is the Warmest Color,” embodies the film’s title character as a sincere adherent of the notion of true love and what their work can do to help bring people to each other. Its presentation of a world governed by temptation and the way in which drugs meant to create connection become just as addictive as anything dangerous on the market today is mesmerizing, and, though it can’t hope to reach a transcendent finish, the road there is appropriately intriguing and involving.

B+

Talking Tribeca: State Like Sleep

I’ve had the pleasure this year of screening a number of selections from this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, which takes place April 18th-29th.


State Like Sleep
Directed by Meredith Danluck
U.S. Narrative Competition

Losing a loved one is difficult for anyone, and knowing that it’s coming ahead of time due to an illness doesn’t necessarily make it any easier. Having time to prepare can be helpful simply because the act of mourning is an unthinkable one that makes important decisions and moving forward all the more traumatic. Losing someone without any notice and, worse, without any explanation can be utterly devastating, and many people in a situation where their link to a certain world has been cut off by that person’s untimely demise choose to cut themselves off from it entirely, seeking comfort anywhere else in a new life.

When Belgian actor Stefan Delvoe (Michiel Huisman) dies of an apparent suicide in his Brussels loft, his American wife Katherine (Katherine Waterston) leaves to pursue her photography abroad. A year after his death, she returns to the city when her mother (Mary Kay Place) is hospitalized. As Stefan’s mother pressures her to clean her things out of the loft, she begins to dig deeper into what led her husband to cut their rocky marriage short in a far more finite way than divorce, meeting her husband’s business associate Emil (Luke Evans) and a visiting American (Michael Shannon) staying in her hotel along the way.

This is a film that is indisputably heavy on intrigue. Its sequence of events is not depicted in a narrative way, with Katherine’s short hair helping to distinguish those scenes which occur after Stefan’s death. The vast loft filled only with empty beer bottles and remnants of an occasionally happy life serves as a fitting setting for many of Katherine’s recollections about her past as she discovers more and more of what her husband did in his time away from her and the cameras. What Katherine expects to find that will provide her some satisfaction is unclear, and her chance encounter with Edward is a fleeting distraction that hardly seems like it will become permanent either.

Waterston, who stole scenes in supporting roles in “Inherent Vice” and “Steve Jobs,” delivers a quiet and generally unpleasant performance, making Katherine hard to like and almost uninterested in attaining any sort of happiness. Shannon is dependable in a role that doesn’t offer him much to do, and Huisman, an alumnus of “Orphan Black,” delivers the film’s most layered and worthwhile performance, enhancing this flawed superstar as a complex character. However much Katherine may want to dig, there’s just not much to find here, making this film a thoroughly underwhelming experience, following her down an off-putting rabbit hole to nowhere, in search of answers that just don’t need to be found.

C+

Talking Tribeca: 7 Stages to Achieve Eternal Bliss by Passing through the Gateway Chosen by the Holy Storsh

I’ve had the pleasure this year of screening a number of selections from this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, which takes place April 18th-29th.


7 Stages to Achieve Eternal Bliss by Passing through the Gateway Chosen by the Holy Storsh
Directed by Vivieno Caldinelli
Midnight

Any form of religion can seem crazy in some way. Observant subscribers of even the most mainstream religions may do things on a daily basis that appear extreme, illogical, or completely insane to those unfamiliar with the concepts or unimpressed by the reasoning behind them. Less-supported faiths are often termed cults because of the way in which followers immerse themselves in its teachings to often drastic levels. Usually, cults are the subject of dark thrillers that find innocent would-be adherents becoming trapped with no way out, but it’s also possible to turn that premise into something inherently comical and unapologetically bizarre.

Claire (Kate Micucci) has just moved from Ohio to Los Angeles with her boyfriend Paul (Sam Huntington) to pursue a promising new career. They quickly discover the reason that their freeway-adjacent apartment is so cheap when a devotee of its former inhabitant, Storsh (Taika Waititi), breaks in to commit suicide in their bathtub. This becomes an almost nightly occurrence, with a hapless cop (Dan Harmon) hoping to turn his experiences on the job into a screenplay arriving to shrug and remove the bodies. Claire and Paul begin to find a beauty in the way in which these people choose to end their lives and try to help them along on their journey, which seems harmless enough (aside from the reliable fatalities) until Claire starts to lose it.

Though many elements of this movie are absurd, it’s not entirely haphazard. Storsh’s followers have a routine they must follow, which includes performing a talent before ending their lives, and Claire and Paul eagerly listening to their stories and watching them before giving them a glass of their highly poisonous “Bliss Juice” is endearing to a degree. Storsh’s explanation that someone wouldn’t want to be told that they could eat a pint of ice cream sitting in the freezer seventy-five or eighty years from now as a call to commit suicide is simplistic and mildly amusing, which is a great way to describe much of this very odd film.

Micucci, best known for “Garfunkel and Oates,” “Scrubs,” and other TV supporting roles, is a fantastic fit for this story, quietly bubbly and perky as she searches for a way to express herself. Huntington is well-cast opposite her as the lazy and aimless Paul, and the two characters are obvious choices for susceptibility into this cult. Up until its third act, this film is enjoyable enough, and as it becomes unhinged along with its protagonist, it becomes a bit more difficult to endure. Its classification in the Midnight section of the Tribeca Film Festival is wholly appropriate, and audience members should find the title helpful enough in preparing them for what to expect.

B-

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Talking Tribeca: O.G.

I’ve had the pleasure this year of screening a number of selections from this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, which takes place April 18th-29th.


O.G.
Directed by Madeleine Sackler
U.S. Narrative Competition

Any time spent in prison is likely to change a person, even if it’s just a short stay. For those incarcerated for multiple decades, the effects are considerably more intense and may present someone completely unlike the person who first went into the system. Returning to life without the same restrictions on personal space and behavior can be especially jarring for those who have spent years behind bars, and the run-up to an anticipated release is a time fraught with excitement and positivity but also uncertainty about what comes next.

Louis (Jeffrey Wright) is a very affable inmate at a maximum-security prison who gets along well with the guards and is afforded a certain respect from other inmates. Earlier in his twenty-four-year sentence, Louis ran the prison, but now he has moved past that to keep to himself and focus on his future. As his release date nears, Louis is forced to confront the man he has become as he meets a young new inmate, Beech (Theothus Carter) who he fears may go down the wrong path, is pressed by a prison investigator, Danvers (William Fichtner), to report on illicit goings-on at the prison, and comes face-to-face with a relative of the man he killed as part of a restorative justice program.

There are so many prison movies that have been made, and one of the most iconic and famous ones, “The Shawshank Redemption,” was released right around when Louis would have started serving his time. This film succeeds at feeling fresh and important because it doesn’t dwell on predictable tropes of the genre and instead shows Louis as a relatively comfortable resident of his own cell who works in an auto body shop each day. He is so close to freedom yet it’s apparent he won’t be nearly as well set-up on the outside as he managed to make himself over many years in his current situation. His stature inside the prison is evident when Danvers describes their latest conversation as below their paygrades, to which Louis jokingly responds that they definitely make different salaries.

Wright is an incredible actor whose profile has been slowly building over the past few decades, winning accolades for “Angels in America” and his continuing role on “Westworld.” This performance is exceptional, anchoring the film and demonstrating just how at ease Wright is with any character, capable of capturing what it feels like to live in his skin. Carter makes an impressive debut, all the more astounding because of his status as an inmate of the prison where the film was shot. Documentarian Madeleine Sackler pulls off an extraordinary feat by filming the movie in a prison with real inmates and real guards, giving the film a definitive authenticity. Given its genre, it’s not quite as harrowing or miserable as it could be, and instead serves as a captivating but also mildly optimistic look at life behind bars and what comes next.

B+

Talking Tribeca: Back Roads

I’ve had the pleasure this year of screening a number of selections from this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, which takes place April 18th-29th.


Back Roads
Directed by Alex Pettyfer
Spotlight Narrative

Family life is never perfect, and for some, it can be downright destructive. The breakup of a marriage with children involved can be extremely damaging for the growth and well-being of all involved. When a parent dies, that leaves a void which is difficult to fill, and in the rare cases where one parent is responsible for the other’s death, it’s hard to imagine that anyone will come out of the situation unscathed and with a positive outlook on the world. In such cases, the oldest child is usually called upon to take charge as the closest thing left to a responsible adult.

Harley (Alex Pettyfer) skips college and lives at home working two jobs to care for his three younger sisters after his mother (Juliette Lewis) is sent to prison for killing his father. His hours are the least of his problems, as the oldest of his sisters, Amber (Nicola Peltz), frequently lashes out at him for imposing rules on her and acts out sexually to anger him. As they watch over the two younger girls, Misty (Chiara Aurelia) and Jody (Hala Finley), Harley becomes intoxicated with a married neighbor, Callie (Jennifer Morrison), and quietly begins an affair that serves as his only outlet from a stifling life he never expected to have to lead, which proves to have had even more devastating and horrifying effects on his family members.

This is not a film that attempts to glamorize any of the experiences of these children. Scenes at the home are far from pleasant, ranging from complaints about food preparation and lack of funds for car insurance to screaming matches and furniture set on fire. Harley’s life is monotonous and grim, and Callie, who feels repressed in an entirely different way, represents a rare bright light and instance of beauty. The way he sees her and expresses his feelings about her contrasts so drastically with everything else he experiences and does, and the fact that she is married with two kids, one of whom is Jody’s frequent playmate, means that the one good thing in his life surely can’t last forever.

At just twenty-eight years old, British actor Pettyfer pulls double duty with his feature directorial debut, presenting a surprisingly deep and dark drama, and also acting in the lead role. Morrison, best known for less serious TV work on “House” and “Once Upon a Time,” is terrific in a role representative of a slightly older generation, and all three actresses portraying the sisters are superb, with Peltz turning in a particularly fierce and unforgettable performance. As this film navigates disturbing material, it handles most of its scenes, adapted from Tawni O’Dell’s 1999 novel, well, though many viewers are sure to be put off by the content and the way the film addresses the abuse its characters have endured. It’s an impressive effort by Pettyfer and certainly one worthy of analysis and exploration.

B

Talking Tribeca: Woman Walks Ahead

I’ve had the pleasure this year of screening a number of selections from this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, which takes place April 18th-29th.


Woman Walks Ahead
Directed by Susanna White
Special Screenings

There is often intersectionality between people from vastly different backgrounds who find themselves oppressed. Though there is still a long way to go and certain forces seem more intent on keeping divides rather than breaking them down, a considerable amount has been accomplished in the past century in regards to the rights of both women and the Native American population. This story from the late 1800s finds one woman determined to do as she pleases after a life of appeasing others and set on capturing the essence of a powerful leader not always given the respect he deserves.

Following a year of mourning for her late husband, Catherine Weldon (Jessica Chastain) decides to take up the love of painting she put aside when she got married and journey to North Dakota to paint esteemed Sioux chief Sitting Bull (Michael Greyeyes). Upon arrival, Catherine finds considerable hostility to her presence from the local American commander (Ciarin Hinds) and Colonel Silas Groves (Sam Rockwell), sent by the military to assure the passage of a lopsided treaty with the Sioux. Shunned by many white locals who have not gotten over past conflicts with the Sioux, Catherine finds herself surprisingly welcomed by the population and builds a strong relationship with the initially resistant Sitting Bull.

In a stirring speech given to a group of Native Americans sitting before white men seeking to ratify this treaty, Sitting Bull attests that land cannot be bought or taken because it does not belong to men. Regardless of how one feels about the subject, this is a film that respects its landscape, first appearing when Catherine steps off her train from New York with nothing but flatness in sight and serving as the setting for the moments in which Catherine and Sitting Bull find themselves able to get to know one and understand each other’s experiences. This is a film that, for as much as this reviewer, born one hundred years after the events of this film, actually knows this time period was really like, feels like an authentic excerpt spotlighting an unusual friendship.

Chastain has been making many movies lately, and while this is a good role for her, the New York accent she tries to put on distracts considerably. Greyeyes and Chaske Spencer, as Sitting Bull’s nephew who works with the American forces, deliver effective performances, with Rockwell turning in an expectedly rascally follow-up to his Oscar-winning work in “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.” This is a well-directed movie with a decent script that tells an important story of cooperation which unfortunately does serve as the exception rather than one instance of many.

B+

Monday, April 23, 2018

Talking Tribeca: Cargo

I’ve had the pleasure this year of screening a number of selections from this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, which takes place April 18th-29th.


Cargo
Directed by Ben Howling and Yolanda Ramke
Midnight

Zombies are everywhere right now in film and television, existing undead in various forms that find them feasting on brains and generally not gelling completely with whatever remains of the human population. Certain tenets seem to be consistent across the cinematic zombie universe, while the level of brain functionality and ability to communicate verbally vary, as does the cause of the virus that turned people and whether there’s any hope of an antidote. Lighter fare with comedic interpretations of undeadness like “iZombie” and “Santa Clarita Diet” have become common recently, but an old-fashioned serious take on the inevitability of becoming a zombie still proves reliably dependable.

Andy (Martin Freeman) is floating along the water in a house boat in the Australian Outback with his wife Kay (Susie Porter) and his infant daughter, scavenging for food and trying to make human contact in the aftermath of a devastating outbreak that has turned most people into zombies. The government supplies kits with instructions and materials for what to do if you are bitten, including a watch that counts down the forty-eight hours until you turn and an epi-pen of sorts to inject straight into the brain. When the unthinkable happens and the clock starts, Andy must do whatever he can to ensure that Ruth has a chance at survival.

The setting of rural Australia works very much to the film’s advantage, with seemingly endless landscapes providing little hope for salvation or a crucial alliance. The inclusion of Aboriginal characters including young Thoomi (Simone Landers), who supervises her undead father with the hope that she can rescue his soul, is a boon to the film and its contemplative approach to mortality. The focus here is so much on what comes next once death, or something much worse, is positively certain, and the way in which that guides Andy’s determination to save his daughter is immensely compelling and serves this film remarkably well.

Freeman, known primarily for his role in the Hobbit movies and on “Sherlock,” delivers a committed, unflinching performance that shows the lengths he will unhesitatingly go to for even a chance that his daughter can be allowed to grow up once he is gone. The entire experience is gripping and involving, which is even more impressive given how much of it features aimless wandering. It’s reassuring to know that, in the unlikely event of a zombie apocalypse, there’s still new ground to be covered in telling the story of those who survive.

B+