Saturday, April 18, 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

Closer to the Moon (anti-recommended): This dramatization of a real life heist by Jewish Romanian resistance fighters staged to look like it was a movie being filmed takes what could have been an interesting story and incorporates none of its involving elements into its execution, resulting in a bland and uninviting disappointment of a film. Now playing at IFC Center. Read my review from yesterday.

Felix and Meira (recommended): Hadas Yaron, who starred in “Fill the Void,” plays a different kind of Hasidic woman in this story of a religious woman and a secular man who find an unexpected comfort in each other’s arms. The performances from Yaron and Martin Dubreuil enhance a film that starts off from an intriguing vantage point and isn’t entirely sure where it’s headed. Now playing at Lincoln Plaza. Read my review from the New York Jewish Film Festival.

Tangerines (highly recommended): The last of this year’s Oscar nominees for Best Foreign Film is also one of the best of that slate. Estonia’s first nominated film is a powerful and worthwhile account of a tangerine farmer who saves two men on different sides of a war, with strong performances, an engaging story, and a stirring score. Now playing at Lincoln Plaza. Read my review from yesterday.

True Story (mixed bag): James Franco stars as a man on trial for murdering his family and Jonah Hill plays the journalist he wants to tell his story to. It’s a decent premise, based on a true story, but nothing about the film makes it come alive or feel necessary. Now playing all over New York City. Read my review from Sundance.

New to DVD

Antarctica: A Year on Ice (recommended): This documentary looks at what it’s like to spend the whole year in Antarctica. It’s a marvelous collection of stunning imagery and informative and entertaining interviews with those precious few who can call themselves residents of this legendary continent.

Beside Still Waters (mixed bag): Actor Chris Lowell’s directorial debut is an interesting and entertaining film about childhood friends reuniting at a lake house, but it’s not a groundbreaking or particularly compelling story in its own right.

Big Eyes (mixed bag): Tim Burton directs this strange tale of a female painter in the 1950s whose husband took credit for all her work. Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz aren’t challenged all that much, and this film manages to be even more peculiar than its story dictates to mixed effect.

Kidnapping Mr. Heineken (mixed bag): The story of the 1980s abduction of beer magnate Freddy Heineken by a group of criminals is an inherently fascinating tale, but it doesn’t translate to gripping cinema that way that it should despite a strong cast including Jim Sturgess, Sam Worthinton, Ryan Kwanten, and Anthony Hopkins.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Movie with Abe: Tangerines

Directed by Zaza Urushadze
Released April 17, 2015

War affects many people, both those on the front lines and those whose countries, towns, and homes are involved in some way in the conflict. When a war spans multiple countries, it’s often those caught in the middle in a disputed region that end up being placed most in harm’s way. “Tangerines,” an Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Film this past year, is a marvelous and moving account of a tangerine farmer in rural Georgian territory who ends up with two soldiers from different sides forced to recover and live side by side in his home.

Ivo (Lembit Ulfsak) is a kindly older man in Abkhazia in 1990 who lives a quiet life, harvesting tangerines with his neighbor Margus (Elmo Nuganen). His calm is disrupted when two Chechen mercenaries arrive at his door. Though their visit is pleasant enough, their departure is marked by a short battle that leaves many of their Georgian opponents and one of them dead. Ivo takes in Ahmed (Giorgi Nakashidze), but also discovers another wounded man - Niko (Mikheil Meskhi) – who is Georgian. Ivo makes them both promise that they will not kill each other in his house, but that does not stop them from threatening to chop off each other’s heads the moment either steps outside for even a second.

“Tangerines” is a deliberate, carefully-paced film that feels anything but slow. Its original music, from composer Niaz Diasamidze, introduces the impact of its story from the beginning before anything happens, and emphatically underscores the rhythm of living a peaceful existence surrounded by such violence and hate. The tangerine garden serves as a symbol of a small remnant of beauty and sunshine, and Margus in particular is devastated by the prospects of not being able to pick all the tangerines, meaning that the harvest will go to waste. Ivo has a more accepting attitude, but he too clearly relishes the quieter sweetness of life to the angry conflict.

This film relies heavily on its small cast of four main actors to convey a region deeply plagued by ethnic disputes. Both Ahmed and Niko are strong, resilient people, with a heavily wounded Ahmed trying to sneak out of his bed to kill his Georgian enemy and Niko egging his Chechen rival on at every opportunity, insulting his intelligence and his way of life. Mediated by Ivo, they make a magnificent pair. The cast is uniformly excellent in Estonia’s first Oscar-nominated film, a stirring and well-constructed picture of specific representations of broader ideals.


Movie with Abe: Closer to the Moon

Closer to the Moon
Directed by Nae Caranfil
Released March 27, 2015

Movie summaries can be deceptive. I actually try to read as little as possible about a film before I see it, but I happen to have read the short synopsis on IMDB before watching this film. The story of Jewish resistance fighters in Romania from World War II staging a heist under the guise of a filming a movie made this film seem like a more dated European version of “Argo.” What that event does in fact take place during the film, it’s hardly the film’s centerpiece, which turns out to be a far less energizing and worthwhile tale.

“Closer to the Moon,” which is based on a true story, focuses much more heavily on the aftermath of the robbery, as the crime’s Jewish conspirators are held in a Romanian prison and forced to act in a propaganda production that dramatizes their efforts and the ultimate victory of the Communist state. Starry-eyed photographer Virgil (Harry Lloyd) is selected to film it, and he takes it all in with a sense of wonder and energy, augmented by the fact that he was present at the scene of the actual crime.

What Virgil witnesses is a farce of sorts, as these imprisoned criminals, knowing full well that they have been caught and are likely to face execution for their deed, soak up the opportunity to reenact their crime. They make a mockery of the situation by looking at the making of a propaganda film as serious cinema, determined to deliver their best performances. As the film progresses and some of their backstory is revealed, it becomes clearer that they are under no illusions that this freedom from their cells is merely temporary and impermanent. While it’s an intriguing concept, the film’s focus does not gravitate towards its most fascinating or compelling parts.

Lloyd may be known but certainly won’t be recognized from his stint as Viserys Targaryen on “Game of Thrones,” and here he plays the default role of the curious youngster without much self-defining personality who has to weigh his conscience against his duty to the party. The ragtag band of criminals include three prominent actors – Mark Strong, Vera Farmiga, and Christian McKay – all having a good time but not being used to their full potential. This film might have looked good in the history books and on paper, but as realized cinematically, it just doesn’t click.


Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Tuesday’s Top Trailer: Terminator: Genisys

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.

Terminator: Genisys – Opening July 1, 2015

I was nearly positive that I had already written about this trailer in a previous edition of this feature. It seems that I hadn’t, and I definitely have a lot to say about the trailer, particularly the newest one which fills in one major important detail about the film’s plot. If there’s one thing I love more than time travel, it’s alternate realities, and the notion that so many Terminator films have produced so many different timelines is absolutely terrific. This trailer makes a purposeful revision of a scene we all know – “Come with me if you want to live” – but changes the speaker so that it’s Sarah Connor welcoming a confused Kyle Reese to a place very much unlike the past he thought he was being sent back to change. His governating days are over, and so now Arnold Schwarzenegger is back full-time to acting in the role that made him famous, and he’s cut his work cut out for him here, playing a range of different characters, including the young Terminator he debuted in 1984 and a gray-haired version who is bad-ass enough to jump out of a helicopter to save the day. What I didn’t realize in the first trailer is that John Connor plays a big part in this film, and that’s because he’s been modified so that he too is a Terminator of sorts. I like the casting of two unrelated Clarkes, both not actually American, familiar for their TV work above all else. Emilia Clarke is Daenerys on “Game of Thrones,” and this kind of action role may be good for her. I’m more excited about Jason Clarke, from “Brotherhood” and “The Chicago Code,” playing John. More than anything, this should be a fun blockbuster that may not be as mindless as many expect it to.

Saturday, April 11, 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

Cheatin’ (recommended): This 76-minute animated film is mostly silent and uses detailed evocative images to tell its story of romance and infidelity. It may not be everyone’s cup of tea but it is a captivating wonder to behold for those with an interest in imaginative animation. Read my review from last week.

Clouds of Sils Maria (highly recommended): Juliette Binoche stars in this complicated, fascinating tale of stardom and an esteemed actress returning to her first project in a markedly different role. Binoche, Chloe Grace Moretz, and Kristen Stewart in particular are terrific as personalities in celebrity culture. Now playing at IFC Center and Lincoln Plaza. Read my review from Wednesday.

Effie Gray (mixed bag): Dakota Fanning stars in this dramatization of the life of the long-suffering wife of an art critic. The overarching story might be interesting, but the way it plans out certainly isn’t, and Fanning is not the right choice to take on the role in question. Now playing at Regal E-Walk, Bow Tie Cinemas Chelsea, and City Cinemas Beekman Theatre. Read my review from last week.

Kill Me Three Times (recommended): Entertainment is paramount in this Australian comedy-thriller with enjoyable performances from Simon Pegg, Teresa Palmer, Alice Braga, Luke Hemsworth, and a handful of others. Now playing at Landmark Sunshine. Read my review from Thursday.

New to DVD

The Imitation Game (recommended): This World War II thriller stars the terrific Benedict Cumberbatch as the leader of a British intelligence unit tasked with breaking the German enigma code. It’s a cool concept that makes for an enthralling if not entirely memorable film.

Intersterllar (highly recommended): Christopher Nolan’s latest film is a grand odyssey into space, one with enduring intensity and marvelous framing. It didn’t get a warm reception from critics and audiences, but aside from one questionable plot point, this is one of his greatest achievements yet.

A Most Violent Year (highly recommended): Oscar Isaac is excellent in J.C. Chandor’s marvelous and entrancing portrait of 1980s New York City and one businessman’s struggle to overcome unknown threats and come out on top. All elements work together to make this a terrific film, and it’s a shame that an expectedly good Jessica Chastain is the only one who got any credit.

Wild (highly recommended): Reese Witherspoon delivers her best performance in years at the center of this emotional drama about a woman who sets out on a 1000-mile hike to redeem herself. Witherspoon is the reason to see this strong and worthwhile film.

Now on Netflix Instant Streaming

Life Partners (recommended): TV stars Leighton Meester and Gillian Jacobs star as best friends, one gay and one straight, who navigate through young adulthood together in this unexpectedly entertaining delight.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Movie with Abe: Kill Me Three Times

Kill Me Three Times
Directed by Kriv Stenders
Released April 10, 2015

The simplest way to tell a story is chronologically, from beginning to end. But there’s something that gets added by using a creative narrative structure, inserting new details into an apparent account of an event as they are revealed in fresh iterations and examinations that bring important information to light. This device works well for “Kill Me Three Times,” the tale of a hitman trying hard to take out his mark, the specifics of which become clearer and clearer as this offbeat comedy fills in the blank about exactly whose fate is in the crosshairs.

We meet a number of characters throughout each of the three sections of the film whose relationships are revealed as it progresses. Charlie Wolfe (Simon Pegg) is a hitman first seen casually pursuing his prey in the desert, interrupting his kill shot to take a phone call. Alice (Alice Braga), who is stuck in a bad relationship with Jack (Callan Mulvey), needs to go to the dentist to get a tooth injury looked at, where it just so happens that Dr. Nathan Webb (Sullivan Stapleton) is planning something malicious with his wife and secretary Lucy (Teresa Palmer). Also in the mix are dirty cop Bruce (Bryan Brown) and kindhearted Dylan (Luke Hemsworth).

It’s not always apparent what is going on in this film, but what’s paramount is its entertainment factor. All of the characters are well-defined and immensely watchable, and their interactions, however puzzling they may be at the start and even at the finish, are pretty fantastic. Assembling the pieces isn’t too difficult, but the film drops its important revelations at just the right moments to further compound the plot and add more backstory to its plot. Sometimes, it feels like a James Bond parody, and at others just an eccentric comedic thriller with an Australian spin.

Pegg is an actor known for films that might seem serious but certainly aren’t meant to be taken as such, and that makes him a good fit for what should be considered the lead role here, even if he doesn’t deliver the strongest performance of the bunch. Braga and Palmer are both terrific as women fighting for their livelihood under very different circumstances, and Brown and Hemsworth enhance their selected supporting scenes. This film above all else is fun, not intent on making sense the entire time but one of the most enjoyable and enthralling experiences of the year so far to watch.


Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Movie with Abe: Clouds of Sils Maria

Clouds of Sils Maria
Directed by Oliver Assayas
Released April 10, 2015

There’s a reason there are so many movies made about making movies: it’s a fascinating process that almost always sees echoes of what’s happening in real life play out on screen. Making such a duality dynamic requires a careful balance of showing the filmmaking process and chronicling those involved in its creation as they interact off screen. “Clouds of Sils Maria” is an ambitious epic tale that follows an aging actress who is forced to look back on her career from a new vantage point as she revisits the project that made her famous in a decidedly different capacity.

Before we meet Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche), we are introduced to her hardworking assistant, Valentine (Kristen Stewart), aboard a train to Zurich. Valentine speaks confidently for her employer, negotiating aggressively on the phone with those who seek to take advantage of her and even behaving boldly enough as to interrupt her boss with a written message while she is on the phone. Maria’s trip to a gala honoring the filmmaker whose classic work served as the launching point of her career is turned devastating by his sudden death, framing the experience in an altogether different light and forcing her to consider whether she should take on the role of the seduced older woman in a restaging of the play in which she, twenty years earlier, played the young seductress.

There is much going on in “Clouds of Sils Maria,” particularly a transformation of Maria as she contemplates where her life and her work have taken her. Aboard the train, she appears buttoned-up and like a diva, and as the film progresses and we see her later in the process of preparing for the role, she has a new haircut and a different attitude, more humbled and less certain about her future and her talents. Her relationship with Valentine is fascinating, and it serves as an excellent and complex mirror of the written dynamic of the play. The Hollywood starlet chosen to take on the role played by a young Maria, Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloe Grace Moretz), adds a new element to the mix, further contemplating Maria’s self-perception.

“Clouds of Sils Maria” has a lot to say about performance, celebrity, age, relevance, and much more. It’s a layered story that transforms considerably over the course of its two-hour runtime, using the haunting backdrop of the Maloja snake, a natural winding cloud phenomenon in Sils Maria, to further emphasize its themes. The casting is crucial and extremely effective, taking three extremely different actresses and giving them fitting parts. Binoche is the seasoned Oscar winner well-equipped to play a venerated actress with her own personal demons and doubts, and Moretz is an up-and-coming young star who, at age eighteen, has demonstrated herself to be very capable of choosing respectable and challenging parts. It’s Stewart, however, who truly impresses, proving herself more than up to the task of getting serious and portraying a relatable, human, and mature character who may just be the most self-aware person in this film. This is the kind of sophisticated, thought-out movie that explores a lot during its runtime and leaves so many lingering questions after its credits roll.


Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Movie with Abe: The Last Time You Had Fun

The Last Time You Had Fun
Directed by Mo Perkins
Released April 7, 2015 on VOD

A night on the town can be both extremely eventful and extremely therapeutic. This film’s title suggests that its characters have forgotten what it is like to truly have a good time, and that any even partial recreation of “the good old days” would be extremely welcome. A chance encounter at a bar leads to a wild and entertaining night for four very different people, all of whom could use the opportunity to remember what it feels like to be young and alive in this entertaining and enjoyable comedy.

This story begins in two places as it prepares to bring its four protagonists together. Ida (Eliza Coupe) shows up unexpectedly at the home of her sister Alison (Mary Elizabeth Ellis), devastated about the latest development in her destructive marriage. Ida pressures Alison to come out with her and escape from her boring life, a task that requires Alison to bribe her husband with sexual favors. Will (Demetri Matrin) has set up a depraved night for his friend Clark (Kyle Bornheimer) as he begins the single life following a divorce, and Clark comes with him on the condition that he need not change out of his sweatpants. Shortly after that, the two sets of buddies meet at a wine bar when Clark makes the mistake of trying to buy Ida and Alison a drink.

It’s not difficult to predict where the story goes from there, as all four people are very much in need of a thoughtless night where they can separate themselves from their lives. Only Clark is actually single, but there is plenty of debate and conversation from other parties, particularly Ida, who has documented proof that her husband Jake (Jimmi Simpson) regularly engages with other women, a fact confirmed again by Clark and Will when they stop by Ida’s apartment to procure some drugs. Will’s rental of a party limo provides the perfect vehicle, both literal and metaphorical, for an impactful and transformative journey for these four misfits.

All four of these actors should be recognizable from their TV work, though Martin actually got his start with a lead role in “Taking Woodstock” before recently wrapping a season-long recurring gig on “House of Lies.” Coupe will be familiar to “Happy Endings” devotees and also just starred on a short-lived USA series, “Benched.” Bornheimer has starred in four different shows that all got axed over the last decade, and one, “Perfect Couples,” also featured Ellis, who has appeared as Caroline on “New Girl.” These four performers are perfect for this film, a boisterous but subdued look at loneliness and letting inhibitions go. It’s not an extraordinary comedy, but it’s certainly fun and worth a watch on demand.


Friday, April 3, 2015

Movie with Abe: Cheatin’ (Capsule Review)

Directed by Bill Plympton
Released April 3, 2015

There are many ways to tell a story, film being one of them. After that, there are gradual levels of creativity possible, and animation is another layer. Some films use different types of animation to distinguish themselves and be imaginative. Bill Plympton’s “Cheatin’” employs hand-drawn animation that in itself is quite striking to watch, and lets his art do all the talking in a film that has plenty of sounds but no dialogue. As a result, his film’s story has an added poignancy because of its stark and mesmerizing visual presentation, complemented by a purposely discomforting lack of aural support.

Following even the broader plot of “Cheatin’” requires attention to detail, but its title offers a helpful clue. Much of the events in the film can be described as occurring at a whirlwind pace, from the bumper car collision that first introduces the film’s two protagonists to the infidelity that later threatens to tear the couple apart. Its impact is felt in the way in which it visually plays out on screen, with exaggerated figures emphasizing the meaning of each moment. Plympton’s use of colored pencils to create the backdrops is particularly effective, enabling a haunting and captivating tale to come to life. Not all will enjoy 76 minutes of near-silence, but those with an interest in allowing animation to guide a film should certainly check it out.


Thursday, April 2, 2015

Movie with Abe: Effie Gray

Effie Gray
Directed by Richard Laxton
Released April 3, 2015

Not all marriages are fated to work. Even the best of friends aren’t guaranteed a happy life together once things turn romantic and a certain sense of permanence sets in. Whether it’s good, bad, or neutral, there is certainly a difference in a relationship once a marriage has happened. In unfortunate cases, however, a blissful engagement period can turn into a truly sour life together for two previously happy people. Sometimes, that transition is a violent and destructive one, and sometimes it is a subtler transformation marked by one spouse’s inability to pay the other any attention.

In this film based on the true story of Effie Gray (Dakota Fanning), a young Scottish woman who is wed to famed art critic John Ruskin (Greg Wise), bliss and joy precede their highly anticipated nuptials. The aftermath, however, is nothing like Effie might have imagined. John is immersed in his work and his preoccupation with art, and sees no room for Effie in anything he does. His promises to take her to exciting places come true to an extent, but John is never a part of them, retreating to a solitary space to work the moment he arrives and putting Effie completely out of his mind for the duration of the visit.

Effie’s yearning for adventure contrasts sharply with John’s serious attitude towards his work, but it goes far beyond that. As portrayed in the film, John ignores Effie at every turn, and shuts her down when it seems that she is happy about something, dismissing its importance or relevance, refusing even to converse about a subject he deems trivial. It’s no surprise that Effie sinks deep into depression as her husband refuses to look at or touch her, leading to the somewhat surprising and historic conclusion that should not be spoiled here since it at least represents a moderately interesting part of the film.

The subject matter here might be of interest to filmgoers, but this film follows a tradition of many period dramas focused on mistreated women failing to capture the true mood or meaning of a given situation, allying themselves with the protagonist but not making her journey come alive. Casting Fanning, who impressed at an early age in “I Am Sam” and other films, as Effie is not a strong choice, since she is not capable of carrying this film with her own energy. Saoirse Ronan and Keira Knightley have played similar parts in the past and been much more effective. The film as a whole remains lonely and depressing, never truly becoming energizing or powerful enough to be impactful.