Sunday, March 29, 2015

Sunday Signature Song: The Great Gatsby

Welcome to a new weekly feature here at Movies with Abe. Original songs in films certainly add to the overall experience of going to or watching a movie, whether they play over the end credits or during a particular scene during the movie. There is an Oscar category to recognize the Best Original Song of each year, and this feature will aim to spotlight one terrific song that defined a movie but didn’t end up getting nominated. Submissions are welcome – offer your thoughts on this song and others like it in the comments below!

Song: Young and Beautiful
Artist: Lana Del Rey
Film: The Great Gatsby
Year: 2013

Baz Luhrmann’s cinematic adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novel is full of excess in so many ways, and it’s fitting that its most memorable song is one that talks about age, attractiveness, and the impossibility of it lasting. This is just one of a few songs in the film, including “A Little Party Never Killed Nobody,” that feel extremely anachronistic, making this 1925 story spring to life with more modern yet still dated music that energizes the already roaring melodies of the 1920s. There’s something about Lana Del Rey’s soft voice that makes this young incredibly haunting, pleading to be able to “bring her man” when she “gets to heaven” and asking “Will you still love me when I’m no longer young and beautiful?” That’s really what the film is about, as the allure of Gatsby’s parties are the fact that they are so lavish and productive, yet when he is no longer there to run them, it’s as if they never existed at all. Competing against “Let It Go” from “Frozen,” this song was never going to win the Oscar, but it at least deserved a nomination alongside the film’s other two recognized qualities, Best Art Direction and Best Costume Design. Del Rey followed up this up with the title theme from “Big Eyes,” which got nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Original Song in 2014, but that song, while still haunting, wasn’t nearly as effective or positively memorable. This tune, on the other hand, is sure to be remembered long after the film in which it first played.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

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 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 Theatres

Apartment Troubles (recommended): Jess Weixler and Jennifer Prediger play endearing unmotivated young women struggling to get by as real adults in New York City in this fun and involving comedy they wrote and directed together. Read my review from Thursday.

52 Tuesdays (recommended): This Australian indie, which played at the Sundance Film Festival last year, checks in with a 16-year-old girl and her mother, who is undergoing a sex change, every Tuesday for a year. It’s an energizing and powerful journey anchored by strong performances Now playing at Quad Cinema. Read my review from Sundance 2014.

Man from Reno (recommended): This alluring mystery that finds a Japanese woman in San Francisco and a concurrent suburban police investigation is a strange but enticing film that manages to be entertaining, haunting, and ultimately satisfying in its own bizarre way. Now playing at Regal E-Walk. Read my review from yesterday.

The Riot Club (recommended): Lone Scherfig, who made “An Education” and “One Day,” has created another eventful British drama filled with comedy and drama, this one an unevenly engaging story of a premiere dining club known for its bad behavior. Now playing at IFC Center. Read my review from Wednesday.

The Salt of the Earth (highly recommended): This documentary, which was nominated for an Oscar this past year, is easily the best of its category, a captivating account of the life of one photographer and his many long-term projects that chronicle much of the world over the past few decades. Now playing at Lincoln Plaza and the Angelika. Read my review from Monday.

New to DVD

Into the Woods (recommended): Another major movie musical is this production of a cacophony of fairy tales mixed together. Emily Blunt stands out among a relatively talented cast in an epic adaptation that isn’t extraordinary but is still fun.

Kabbalah Me (recommended): This documentary from directors Steven Bram and Judah Lazarus follows Bram’s own personal journey into the world of Kabbalah as he strives to make a connection with his religion. It’s a fun and enlivening journey from an involved filmmaker.

Song One (recommended): I was actually very impressed with this 2014 Sundance Film Festival selection, which stars Anne Hathaway as a woman who connects with her comatose brother’s favorite musician. Hathaway is great, and the film has good music and a strong script.

Sukkah City (mixed bag): This documentary about a competition to propose and build a creative Sukkah to be brought to life and displayed in Union Square has an undeniably interesting subject but its framing as a film isn’t nearly as intriguing.

Unbroken (recommended): Angelina Jolie’s second time behind the camera isn’t as dark or haunting as her first, “In the Land of Blood and Honey,” but it’s still an engaging and emotional journey with a strong performance by Jack O’Connell holding it all down.

Now on Netflix Instant Streaming

The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby (highly recommended): Jessica Chastain and James McAvoy star in this moving, involving story about a couple struggling to get back to a sense of normalcy after their lives are rocked by an unthinkable event. Both performers are incredible, and the film is extremely powerful. Start with “Him,” then watch “Her,” then watch “Them” for the full experience (not the order I saw them in, but I think it’s the best idea).

Life Itself (highly recommended): This documentary seemed worthwhile enough to me to rank as the fifth film of my second-ever quintuple feature, and fortunately, it delivered. This retrospective of Roger Ebert’s life and his enthusiasm for movies is a resounding and entertaining endorsement of the whole concept of cinema.

Syriana (recommended): This 2005 film, which won George Clooney an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, is a strong and complex thriller with an effective ensemble and plenty going on, well worth seeing for those with an interest in this genre.

Viva La Liberta (highly recommended): This Italian movie about a politician who decides he needs to take time off from his public life stars Toni Servillo as the mild-mannered man in question and his far more eccentric and entertaining identical twin brother. It’s a marvelously entertaining and clever film with plenty to say about politics and relationships.

Water and Power (mixed bag): This Los Angeles drama about two brothers is a very literal manifestation of what growing up in different worlds and ending up in different places can mean. It’s effective at times but more than a little over-the-top.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Movie with Abe: Man from Reno

Man from Reno
Directed by Dave Boyle
Released March 27, 2015

Films that merge different cultures are inherently interesting, though their intersections aren’t always seamless or logical. San Francisco and Tokyo were recently merged into one imagined technological metropolis in “Big Hero 6,” and now the two heavily connected cities are once again interwoven in a more contemporary and literal way with the new mystery thriller “Man from Reno.” Directed by American filmmaker Dave Boyle, this story takes place in the greater San Francisco area but involves a much larger scope including a reclusive Japanese author, a local suburban sheriff, and an identity crisis that affects more than a few innocent people.

“Man from Reno” feels at times like three distinctly different stories. Aki Akahori (Ayako Fujitani) arrives to her hotel in San Francisco with her own emotional baggage, on the run from her old life back in Japan but not for fear of being pursued but rather because of the demons that haunt her. The echoes of her former life have a separate feel from her present experiences in San Francisco, which are mostly fantastical and mildly disconcerting as she meets Akira (Kazuki Kitamura), best described as a friendly enigma. And then there is Paul Del Moral (Pepe Serna), a sheriff investigating a mysterious death with the help of his daughter Teresa (Elisha Skorman). Inevitably, the three will converge, and it’s all a matter of time before the pieces are put together.

This is a definitely a strange film, one that often gets distracted from reality and caught up in the odd nature of a given moment or lingering feeling. That serves the film and its several subplots well, as the mystery is only enhanced by Aki’s bizarre experiences and the puzzling questions that emerge for Paul as he proceeds with his investigation. Aki is initially an eager tourist to a new city who finds refuge in not being known but then discovers herself to be embroiled in something far more dangerous half a world away from where she began. The film transforms as it goes along into something visibly different than what it began as, much more overtly disturbing after some of the unknown has been resolved. The performances are solid, but it’s the tone and pacing that are key, keeping this film from getting too preoccupied with any one distraction and set instead on keeping its audiences in the dark and then all too aware of just what is going on and its inevitability.


Thursday, March 26, 2015

Movie with Abe: Apartment Troubles

Apartment Troubles
Directed by Jennifer Prediger and Jess Weixler
Released March 27, 2015

New York City is a fascinating place unlike any other, but it is not known for being cheap. When someone says that what they are paying for a one-bedroom apartment on the Upper West Side could buy a house in any other state, they’re not really joking. Some have it better than others, but living in Manhattan is always a wild, unpredictable ride. For two East Village residents who see paying the rent in full as an option, life is plagued with what could best be described by this film’s title, apartment troubles.

Creativity is a talent, but it rarely pays the bills. Nicole (Jess Weixler) is an artist who spends most of her time gathering materials for her work, which she refuses to show or sell since she is a perfectionist and is never satisfied with her finished products. Olivia (Jennifer Prediger) is an aspiring actress who has yet to hit the jackpot with a great role, eagerly awaiting callbacks for commercial auditions. The threat of eviction by their landlord (Jeffrey Tambor) after months of partial rent payments adds considerable stress to their lives and, as movies often afford their characters the opportunity to do, they take off in Nicole’s parents’ private jet to see how life is on the other side, in Los Angeles.

This escape from New York isn’t entirely fantastical, since many young New Yorkers – like Lena Dunham’s Hannah Horvath on “Girls” – could well subsist if they took their lives seriously and put effort into paying for their real estate, however out of their price range it may be. It distinguishes Nicole and Olivia from being truly poor, instead emphasizing just how little they do to improve their situation, spending excessive money on snacks immediately following the news of an eviction rather than trying to be proactive about it. Los Angeles provides an escape but also both new possibilities and harsh truths, fulfilling and deceptive in its own ways.

This film is especially fun because it is written and directed by its stars. Weixler should be familiar to audiences from “Teeth,” “The Good Wife,” and other projects, while Prediger is a fresher face. Both are perfect for their roles, Weixler as a buttoned-up pessimist incapable of relaxing and Prediger as a hopeful soul far too susceptible to heartbreak. They are ably supported by Megan Mullally, Will Forte, and Jeffrey Tambor in small roles in the supporting cast. This is a great film about young adulthood in New York City, one that isn’t brimming with originality but still has plenty of heart and comedy to share.


Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Movie with Abe: The Riot Club

The Riot Club
Directed by Lone Scherfig
Released March 27, 2015

College can be a crazy time. No matter where you end up, there are always opportunities for mischief. Clubs compound this further by grouping together people with a shared purpose or mission and enabling them to bond together to achieve their goals. Often, such clubs have intense orientation processes that involve considerable hazing, and it’s hard for those who have gone through such an ordeal not to come through the experience a more vicious and uninhibited person. Films about this subject have ranged from “Old School” to “The Skulls,” and the latest is “The Riot Club,” a volatile dining club at Oxford University.

“The Riot Club” begins its fictional story way back at the founding of its organization, aggrandizing it immensely with an almost mythical beginning. In the present day, we meet a number of Oxford students, some who are veteran members of the club and others who set their sights on becoming members. The application process is arduous and unpredictable, and the only certainty is that prospective rioters will come out the other side transformed and unable to return to being the people they were before they desired to achieve elitist greatness.

Based on the 2010 play “Posh,” which itself is widely discussed to be a dramatization of the real-life Bullingdon Club, of which British Prime Minister David Cameron was a member, this film is decidedly a British production. It comes from director Lone Scherfig, who previously made “An Education,” “One Day,” and “Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself.” Her involvement and the casting of a number of English and Australian actors gives the film an added air of prestige and pompousness that setting it at Yale or Harvard would not. What its members are doing may be atrocious, but there is something inarguably elegant about it.

This story is one that takes some time to become invigorating, but once it gets there, it is impossible to turn back. It is midway through the film that it really takes off and the disregard its members have for the law and anyone they perceive to be lower than themselves is impressed upon the audience as a result of their unconscionable actions. There is an interesting story to be told here, but this is hardly the definitive social club tale. As a movie, it manages to become enthralling as it progresses, but the energy just isn’t there the whole time to make it truly vital.


Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Tuesday's Top Trailer: Man Up

Welcome back to a weekly feature here at Movies with Abe, Tuesday's Top Trailer. One of my favorite parts about going to see movies is the series of trailers that airs beforehand and, more often than not, the trailer is far better than the actual film. Each week, I'll be sharing a trailer I've recently seen. Please chime in with comments on what you think of the trailer and how you think the movie is going to be.

Man Up – Opening April 19, 2015 at the Tribeca Film Festival

There’s something about an accent that can just ruin a film. One of the best examples is Nicolas Cage’s Southern drawl in “Con Air.” It’s rare to find an American actor putting on a British accent rather than the other way around. In this case, New York City native Lake Bell is acting like a Brit who meets a woman on a train and accidentally ends up taking her place on a blind date. What’s just as strange as Bell’s British accent is the casting of her beau in the form of Simon Pegg. Both Bell and Pegg are great comedic actors, but they’re rarely cast in these kinds of parts. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, since it seems like a toned-down Pegg might actually be quite charming and endearing, and Bell, able to control her talkative nature, could serve as a decent romantic lead. I’m not sure I could get past her accent, though, and I think that her natural persona could have worked just fine here. Instead, she’s part of a distinctly British clan, supported by the likes of Olivia Williams and Ophelia Lovibond, which makes the whole thing far more romanticized and sappy instead of inherently comedic. The trailer gives away a whole lot but this film might still manage to be entertaining in spite of its gimmicky premise and presumably predictable ending. Bell and Pegg playing against type might just work, and an opening at the Tribeca Film Festival is certainly a promising indicator of success.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Movie with Abe: The Salt of the Earth

The Salt of the Earth
Directed by Juliano Ribeiro Salgado and Wim Wenders
Released March 27, 2015

It’s an intriguing idea to document one art form using another. Every artistic style or presentation brings something different to the content which it is showcasing. In theory, film is more advanced than photography, evolving at a later point and adding movement and sound to pictures. In the case of “The Salt of the Earth,” the final 2014 Oscar nominee for Best Documentary to be released theatrically, it is clear that both are equally worthwhile, since presenting noted photographer Sebastiao Selgado’s work gives the added benefit of getting to see, hear, and comprehend the artist whose mannerisms and personality contribute a great deal to effectiveness of his work.

Even just on paper, Selgado’s résumé is an impressive one. Over the course of four decades, Selgado has traveled to multiple continents and numerous countries, embarking on ambitious projects that focus on a central theme but span many cultures and communities. The Brazilian photographer has selected themes such as “Migrations” and “Genesis” that strive to capture and chronicle the history of a place or thing and how it has impacted society. The sheer commitment with which Selgado takes on a years-long self-motivated mission is truly incredible.

What this documentary does is give Selgado a voice, enabling him to comment on a number of his most powerful and well-known photographs, remembering the circumstances in which he took the picture or conceived of the idea to be in a certain location at a certain time. Selgado is a soft-spoken, mild-mannered individual who does not overshadow his work but rather adds just the right amount of contained enthusiasm to each haunting photograph. Often, his pictures are shown in front of him, fading out to reveal Selgado looking at them and taking them in however many years after he took the original photograph.

The directing duo of noted documentarian Wim Wenders and Juliano Ribeiro Selgado, the son of the film’s subject, does a superb job of following the elder Selgado and understanding his craft by prompting conversations about his motivations and journeys. For his son, this film presents an unprecedented chance to get to know Selgado, a father defined mostly by legend and long absences during his childhood while on assignment in Africa or Asia. The film begins with some of Selgado’s most affecting work, and it is easy to see just how much this dedicated photographer has contributed both to art history and to the greater notion of shedding light on causes not known to the world.


Sunday, March 22, 2015

Movie with Abe: Sukkah City (Capsule Review)

Sukkah City
Directed by Jason Hutt
Released August 22, 2014/DVD March 24, 2015

There are a number of Jewish holidays that are more obscure than others, and Sukkot is one of the ones that might seem strangest to those without any experience of its customs or traditions. It’s especially interesting, therefore, to see it presented to the masses in an extremely public way. “Sukkah City” is a documentary that chronicles an ambitious project created to challenge designers and artists to create a decidedly untraditional Sukkah, a temporary booth or hut. Selected finalists will be able to bring their ideas to life and display them in Union Square in New York City. It’s an intriguing process to see the genesis of different designs and their implementations, but watching some of it play out is too technical and scientific to be truly engaging. Seeing the building of certain especially ambitious notions, like a Sukkah assembled from signs held by homeless people, can be invigorating, but that’s the highlight of an undramatic filming of an admittedly much more exciting event.


Saturday, March 21, 2015

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 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 Theatres

The Gunman (anti-recommended): This film may feel a lot like “Taken,” and while the two share a director, this mindless action blockbuster doesn’t have nearly the brains of that already questionable prototype. Sean Penn is at his least enthusiastic in this truly absurd flick. Now playing in wide release. Read my review from Thursday.

La Sapienza (recommended): I enjoyed this intellectual film about art and those who appreciate it when I saw it at the New York Film Festival this past fall. Its use of multiple languages and entertaining characters is enjoyable, and overall it’s a great ride. Now playing at Lincoln Plaza. Read my review from NYFF.

She’s Lost Control (recommended): Brooke Bloom is a true breakout as a sex surrogate in this intimate and affecting drama that serves as a reliable and involving independent film. Read my review from yesterday.

New to DVD

Annie (mixed bag): This modern-day update of the Depression-era musical is definitely a fresh take that’s not nearly as bad as most people think. Quvenzhané Wallis is charming as Annie and effectively a spirited if uneven production. Those who like the show will likely enjoy this more than they expect.

Low Down (mixed bag): Elle Fanning and John Hawkes are both great actors capable of playing a variety of characters, but this somber story of a drug-addicted musician and his daughter in the 1970s is hardly the best setting for their talents.

Penguins of Madagascar (mixed bag): This animated film, which I saw as the family choice movie for Thanksgiving, is relatively enjoyable and funny, but it doesn’t capture the same universal spirit that many animated films these days do.

Song of the Sea (highly recommended): Director Tomm Moore’s follow-up to “The Secret of Kells” and one of this past year’s Best Animated Feature Oscar nominees is a typical Irish film that creatively uses animation to tell a folk tale in the most enthralling and visually appealing manner.

Now on Netflix Instant Streaming

Force Majeure (mixed bag): Everyone I’ve spoken to loved this Golden Globe nominee for Best Foreign Film from Sweden, but I couldn’t see what was so great about it (story of the year with a few of the contenders). Setting a family story in a quiet French ski resort helps this film build its plot in an unsuspecting way, but its uncertain genre and uncomfortable conversations aren’t quite as impactful or entertaining as they’re supposed to be.

May in the Summer (recommended): This was the very first film I saw at the Sundance Film Festival back in 2013. Cherien Dabis impresses as writer, director, producer, and star of this entertaining and involving story about a Jordanian-American bride struggling culturally and personally to plan her wedding in her home country.

W (mixed bag): This 2008 parody of the Bush administration from Oliver Stone is an odd specimen, one that is neither funny nor truly scathing. It’s entertaining at times and might be worth another look now that Bush is out of office.

The Way He Looks (recommended): Brazil’s submission for the Best Foreign Film Oscar is an engaging story about a blind teenager and his two friends, one old and one new, who help him see the world through their kindness, something not bestowed upon him by others. It’s a surprisingly mature and memorable film. Also available on DVD.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Movie with Abe: She’s Lost Control

She’s Lost Control
Directed by Anja Marquardt
Released March 20, 2015

Sex and those who work in the field are frequent film subjects. Playing a prostitute and dying of a disease are two surefire ways to be considered for an Oscar nomination, and there are many different lenses through which sex can be shown. Three years ago, Helen Hunt played a sex surrogate in “The Sessions” working with a man unable to move the majority of his body to help him feel sexually comfortable, and earned an Oscar nomination for her work. Brooke Bloom’s performance as a sex surrogate in “She’s Lost Control” probably won’t be seen widely enough to earn Oscar attention, but this Independent Spirit Award-nominated film is a strong and electric look at a woman exploring herself while helping others to explore how they feel about sex.

Bloom stars as Ronah, a woman working with a therapist to help men have sexual experiences that prepare them for real world interactions. She meets frequently with her supervisor to update him on patients and their progress, and he even meets directly with the patients to discuss the work that they are doing with her. This serves to separate Ronah from being a prostitute or someone acting illicitly. She takes precautions before she engages with a patient, and puts her all into her role while remaining fully aware – and reminding her patients – of why they are spending time together.

“She’s Lost Control” offers a compelling look at a less talked-about profession and the effects it has. Ronah’s life is not particularly thrilling, with her bathtub leaking and the extent of her true social interactions being making dinner for her neighbor on one occasion. One particularly troublesome patient (Marc Menchaca) comes along, as they always do, and forces her to examine how much she should open up to help him experience intimacy and come to terms with how he relates to sex. Crucially, Ronah feels like a real, genuine person.

Bloom’s breakout performance is the number one reason to see this film, transforming Ronah from a basic character into a three-dimensional woman. Ronah is endearing, certainly, but she is not immensely likeable, nor does she go to extreme lengths to enthrall her patients, instead tempting them just enough to remember that what they are experiencing is not inherently real. The film is a firm and affecting portrait of someone desperately trying to figure out who she is, bringing the audience along for the enlightening ride.