Saturday, April 19, 2014

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. I’ll also aim to comment on those films I have not yet had the chance to see, and I invite you to add in your thoughts on any films I haven’t seen in the comments below. Understandably, some weeks will have considerably fewer releases to address than others.

Now Playing in NYC

A Promise (mixed bag): This forbidden romance drama starring Richard Madden of “Game of Thrones” and Rebecca Hall is a very typical film of its genre, offering little in the way of originality or cinematic qualities. Now playing at the IFC Center. Read my review from yesterday.

Tasting Menu (recommended): This food movie isn’t all about its appetizing dishes, but instead offers up a handful of fun and involving storylines that, for the most part, come together in a positive and enjoyable format. Now playing at the Quad Cinema. Read my review from yesterday.

New to DVD

Philomena (recommended): Judi Dench deserved her Best Actress nomination for her endearing performance as an older woman who tries to find the son she had to give up for adoption decades earlier, but her film isn’t exactly a worthy Best Picture nominee. It’s a fine light-hearted ride with a few memorable high points.

Now on Netflix

The Family (mixed bag): This mobster comedy from French director Luc Besson casts Robert De Niro as a mobster in living in the Witness Protection Program in France with his family. It’s far from ambitious but does provide an entertaining if unfulfilling experience.

Scoop (mixed bag): This 2006 film was Woody Allen’s follow-up to the terrific “Match Point.” Allen’s shift back to comedy wasn’t so seamless, and Scarlett Johansson’s performance wasn’t nearly as compelling. This is far from one of Allen’s best efforts, but it’s still relatively enjoyable.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Movie with Abe: Tasting Menu

Tasting Menu
Directed by Roger Gual
Released April 18, 2014

Food movies belong to a very specific genre. It’s hard not to find a film like “Big Night” appetizing, and part of the delight of watching the film is being able to imagine just how delicious all the food on screen would taste in real life. The new film “Tasting Menu” is inarguably a food movie, one that showcases its clever culinary inventions but utilizes them more as centerpieces for a grander web of stories and that finds a colorful cast of characters gathered together for the much-anticipated closing night of a legendary restaurant.

“Tasting Menu” follows a number of different plotlines, starting centrally from the focal point of chef Mar (Vicenta N’Dongo) and manager Max (Andrew Tarbet) preparing for an unforgettable evening of meticulously-prepared dishes served to a select slate of guests who have had reservations for months. Among the attendees are famed writer Rachel (Claudia Bassols) and her ex-husband Marc (Jan Cornet), a mysterious food connoisseur (Stephen Rea), a chatty translator (Marta TornĂ©) representing two competing Japanese businessman, and a widowed Countess (Fionnula Flanagan). As each course is served, more is revealed about each person in the restaurant and the ways in which their stories are connected.

“Tasting Menu” begins as a staged, carefully choreographed production set to the meter of the dinner and its many components. As it progresses, however, some of the plotlines begin to converge, and at a certain point, everything comes together in a surprising and not entirely logical way. Yet it’s the ride that’s most entertaining here, and watching all of its players interact, even if it might not be totally believable, is a treat. The food is fancy and its preparation is magnificent, and it provides the perfect setting for this fleeting but fun series of interconnected stories.

The cast in “Tasting Menu” is a big part of its success, the crucial ingredients of a terrific recipe. In what can be considered the leading roles, N’Dongo and Tarbet stick to the background and portray professional people doing their best to deliver a final performance. Both Bassols and Cornet are charming and make the most of their screen time, and the rest of the cast contributes just what’s needed, with TornĂ© especially delighting in her scenes. This film might be odd at times, but overall, it’s quite a delight. Its title is appropriate – it’s a solid sampling of what could be many larger stories, compressed down into one multifaceted and entertaining night.


Movie with Abe: A Promise

A Promise
Directed by Patrice Leconte
Released April 18, 2014

Forbidden romance is a popular subject for movies. In many cases, such stories are set in the past, where certain cultural and societal tendencies make the circumstances of such an impossible union all the more dramatic. “A Promise” is a textbook case of two people destined not to be together despite their strong feelings for each other. Based on the novella “Journey into the Past,” published three decades after author Stefan Zweig’s death, this is an old-fashioned, extremely familiar story of love and longing.

“A Promise” begins with bright, hard-working young Friedrich Zietz (Richard Madden) accepting a job working for the wealthy and respected owner of a steel factory, Karl Hoffmeister (Alan Rickman), in 1912 Germany. Karl quickly promotes Friedrich to be his private secretary, and, before long, Friedrich is asked to live in Karl’s home to be able to fulfill his duties to the greatest possible degree. Turning his back on a far less important but equally forbidden fling, Richard soon meets Karl’s wife Lotte (Rebecca Hall), a much younger woman with energy and a passion for life. World War I breaks out, and events conspire to keep their inevitable love from being spoken or truly progressing, yet it is clear that both hold their feelings for one another close to their hearts.

There is little to this film and its plot that feels original, and the details of its setting – the early 1900s, Germany, a factory – do little to distinguish it from other similar movies. Its story takes place mostly indoors and involves just the three main players, and, as a result, there are few visual or technical opportunities for the film to use the time period or its surroundings to stand out. When it does venture outside, there’s a glimpse of the universe that exists apart from just these characters, and a sense of what a fuller film could have looked like had it not been so isolated on its three primary personalities.

The idea of spending so much time getting to know Friedrich, Karl, and Lotte is to demonstrate that the way that Karl and Friedrich felt about each other overwhelmed anything else that was going in their world. Madden, familiar to most for his role as Robb Stark on “Game of Thrones,” is muted and relatively shy, allowing his expressions and his imagination to tell of Friedrich’s longing for Lotte. Hall, whose career took off a few years ago, is better suited to dry comedic roles that allow her to do more than simply pine for two different men. Rickman is hardly putting in his best efforts, though it’s not as if the part asks much of him. This love triangle doesn’t feel like it’s alive, trapped instead in the past. Its story has its emotional points, but they don’t add up to a moving or memorable whole.


Thursday, April 17, 2014

Talking Tribeca: Of Many

I’ve had the pleasure this year of screening a number of selections from this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, which takes place April 16th-27th.

Of Many
Directed by Linda Mills
Festival Screenings

This Tribeca documentary has special relevance for me since it focuses on the strong friendship between Rabbi Yehuda Sarna and Imam Khalid Latif, the university chaplains at New York University. As a student at NYU, I was never involved in interfaith programming, but do remember when I attended a celebration of Israel’s Independence Day in Washington Square Park with the Jewish community. When protestors showed up shouting “Free Palestine,” I remember some of the Jewish students were upset because the people protesting were Muslim community members they knew from interfaith trips. They had been able to forge such incredible connections despite the differences of their beliefs, but now they were confronting them on a level impossible to ignore. This documentary is about two people working together to ensure that people from different backgrounds are able to connect and come to understand each other even if they can’t agree on anything. Both Rabbi Sarna and Imam Latif are calm, unassuming men who don’t give off an aura of self-importance or intimidation. In just 33 minutes, Mills and executive producer Chelsea Clinton show how an intimate friendship can lead to something more. At a screening hosted at NYU last week, Rabbi Sarna and Imam Latif affirmed that by standing side-by-side to answer questions about the film, repeatedly emphasizing the mission of their interfaith project and the film, to open up understanding and tolerance of beliefs not your own.

See it or skip it? See it! It’s playing with other shorts I haven’t seen, but this one is both interesting and inspiring.

Talking Tribeca: Starred Up

I’ve had the pleasure this year of screening a number of selections from this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, which takes place April 16th-27th.

Starred Up
Directed by David Mackenzie
Festival Screenings

Prison is the setting for a number of films at the Tribeca Film Festival this year, and this film embraces its surroundings completely. Jack O’Connell stars as Eric, a violent young offender whose first day in jail finds him clashing physically with guards and inmates alike. One of his new neighbors happens to be his father, Neville, portrayed by Ben Mendelsohn, who was more than memorable in “Animal Kingdom,” another story of a criminal family. O’Connell and Mendelsohn are both terrific, anchoring a captivating, brutal tale of two men who know they’re never getting out of prison and respond to that truth in very different ways. O’Connell in particular plays Eric as a young rabblerouser entertaining himself by causing chaos, unconcerned with what the consequences may be. Rupert Friend, currently starring on “Homeland,” also appears as a psychotherapist who sees potential in Eric to change. This is not an easy film but a very well-made one.

See it or skip it? See it if you’re okay with an upsetting storyline and disturbing visuals.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Talking Tribeca: Brides

I’ve had the pleasure this year of screening a number of selections from this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, which takes place April 16th-27th.

Directed by Tinatin Kajrishvili
Festival Screenings

One of several Tribeca movies frorm this year involving prison, this Georgian film takes a different approach from the rest. Nutsa (Mari Kitia) is one of the first to come forward to request the opportunity to be married to the father of her two children when the law changes to permit visitations by spouses to those in prison. Her relationship with Goga (George Maskharashvili) is revealed through the few moments that they get to share together. Neither Nutsa nor Goga display too many endearing qualities, yet it’s clear that both have been affected deeply by their circumstances. One particularly moving extended scene finds Nutsa and Goga taking advantage of a new privilege to spend twenty-fours together in a small house on the prison grounds, imitating what life might be like if Goga wasn’t serving a decade-long sentence. That scene is just one of the many unexpectedly intimate, powerful moments in this strong and involving film.

See it or skip it? See it! It’s a solid and thought-provoking drama.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

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. I’ll also aim to comment on those films I have not yet had the chance to see, and I invite you to add in your thoughts on any films I haven’t seen in the comments below. Understandably, some weeks will have considerably fewer releases to address than others.

Now Playing in NYC

Dancing in Jaffa (recommended): The opening night selection from the 7th Annual Other Israel Film Festival is a balanced, harmless look at what happens when Arab and Jewish children come together to do nothing but dance in Israel. Now playing at the IFC Center and the JCC in Manhattan. Read my review from the Other Israel Film Festival.

Joe (highly recommended): Nicolas Cage is better than he’s been in a decade as the title character in this dark and involving story, which also features a superb performance from Tye Sheridan, one of the breakout stars of last year’s “Mud,” and strong filmmaking all around. Now playing at AMC Empire and City Cinemas 123. Read my review from yesterday.

New to DVD

August: Osage County (mixed bag): This adaptation of the popular play features an astounding cast, led by Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts, but it’s not nearly as satisfying or even as it should be. Margo Martindale is the standout player, and it’s the subtler background performances in this loud film that make it most worthwhile.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Movie with Abe: Joe

Directed by David Gordon Green
Released April 11, 2014

Once upon a time, Nicolas Cage was an Oscar-winning actor. His performance in 1995’s “Leaving Las Vegas” as a suicidal alcoholic earned him the coveted trophy, and he contended again for his terrific dual role in 2002’s “Adaptation.” Since then, Cage’s acting has taken a backseat to his horrendous hairstyle in most of his films. He has not selected particularly challenging roles, most often opting for brainless action flicks. Fortunately, his latest film, “Joe,” showcases what is easily his best performance in a decade, enabling him to tackle a complex character as part of a deeply involving story.

Cage stars as the title character, an ex-con who drives his truck full of workers out every day into the woods to tag trees to be killed and cut down in advance of development construction. Joe takes care of his people, demanding that they work hard but treating them fairly. His newest and brightest employee comes in the form of Gary (Tye Sheridan), an excitable young boy who also brings along the burden of his alcoholic deadbeat father Wade (Gary Poulter). Joe clearly likes and respects Gary, and forms a relationship with the kid who is making the best of a truly miserable situation.

“Joe” follows in the style of films like “Mud” and “Winter’s Bone” which begin from a relatively stable, calm point and gradually transform into something dark and unsettling. That process is managed excellently by director David Gordon Green, whose previous credits include “Prince Avalanche” and “Pineapple Express.” The script by Gary Hawkins, based on the 1991 novel by Larry Brown, is purposefully sparse in dialogue and weaves an extremely compelling narrative. Its plot is gripping and takes its audience on an engaging and powerful ride.

Most of all, “Joe” is driven by its performance. Cage draws out Joe’s self-destructive nature, emphasizing his temper as an enemy just as great as the man who wishes to get revenge on him for a condescending slap Joe delivered at a bar. Cage demonstrates that he is still a great actor, and just needs roles like this to show off his talent. Just as impressive is seventeen-year-old Sheridan, who appeared previously in “Mud” and “The Tree of Life.” This is another mature role and performance from a young actor with a very bright future ahead of him. Sheridan’s sunny nature contrasts Cage’s reserved demeanor perfectly, making them a terrific pair in this rewarding, seriously worthwhile film.