Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Movie with Abe: Marshall

Marshall
Directed by Reginald Hudlin
Released October 13, 2017

Great people deserve to be profiled, and when films come out about them, it’s a chance for the world to get to know someone that may not be familiar to the latest generation. In the case of Thurgood Marshall, travel enthusiasts may recognize his name from its association with BWI Airport in Washington, and others will know that he was the first African-American Supreme Court Justice. To tell his story, this film zeroes in one influential case early in his career with the NAACP, a landmark instance in which he was forced to confront rampant racism that threatened to convict his client based on the color of his skin alone.

Marshall (Chadwick Boseman) arrives in Bridgeport, Connecticut to defend Joseph Spell (Sterling K. Brown), a black chauffeur who has been accused of raping and trying to kill his white employer Eleanor Strubing (Kate Hudson). The unsympathetic judge (James Cromwell) refuses to allow Marshall to speak in court, forcing him to stand silently behind a white insurance lawyer, Sam Friedman (Josh Gad), who works to dispute the evidence alleged by the prosecutor (Dan Stevens) and show that the deck has been unfairly stacked against his client.

So many moments during this case are upsetting for the blatant way in which white witnesses are presumed to be telling the truth while the word of a black man is questioned at every turn. The evident bias of the judge is particularly problematic, and his denial of Marshall’s request to represent Spell means that Marshall must deliver compelling speeches through the initially unwilling Friedman, who can’t possibly relate to Spell’s life experience, though his own encounters with anti-Semitism as a Jew in America right before World War II are featured throughout the film. The notion, posited by Marshall early on in the film, that Spell and Strubing might have had sex but that it was consensual, is one that goes over particularly poorly, promptly angry responses from both the prosecution and the judge for daring to suggest such a horror aloud.

It’s never easy to watch a film that depicts a time in history where these discriminatory opinions were not just held by people throughout America but presented in legal arguments, and this film manages to tell its story in a compelling way that’s assisted by humor thanks mostly to the dynamic that Marshall and Friedman have. Bozeman, who stars as the title character in the recently released “Black Panther,” portrays Marshall as a determined, immutable advocate, while Gad turns in a relatively serious performance that comes off well. Emmy winner Brown is also well-cast, and Cromwell, Hudson, and Stevens are certainly convincing in their depiction of unapologetic racists of the time. This film isn’t a sweeping biography of Marshall and all of his achievements, which would surely be interesting, but it does select a worthwhile excerpt from his incredible life and do a great job conveying a piece of his legacy.

B+

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Movie with Abe: Beauty and the Beast

Beauty and the Beast
Directed by Bill Condon
Released March 17, 2017

Disney’s original “Beauty and the Beast,” the company’s thirtieth animated feature and the first of its format ever to earn an Oscar nomination for Best Picture, was a huge hit when it was released back in 1991. The themes of inner beauty and emphasis on acting kindly and treating everyone with respect were amplified by a delightful and creative house full of former servers transformers into animated objects singing songs. It should probably come as a surprise that it took nearly three decades to adapt it into a live-action musical, one that was a predictable success even if its existence isn’t entirely necessary.

A cruel and egotistical prince (Dan Stevens) is turned into a beast by a witch to teach him a lesson about his behavior and isolated from the world until a man named Maurice (Kevin Kline) happens upon his castle and tries to steal a rose. Alarmed at her father’s disappearance, the unique, educated Belle (Emma Watson) comes to find him and takes his place as the beast’s prisoner. When Belle’s overzealous suitor Gaston (Luke Evans) learns of this beast, he sets out to kill the creature and once and for all compel the uninterested recipient of his affection to marry him.

This is merely the latest translation of a classic animated Disney film to a live-action format, following “The Jungle Book” last year, and considering the incredible box office take, it’s sure not to be the last. This colorful movie does its best to mimic the magic of the original film and its boundless showcase of its scenery, using landscapes, set decoration, and visual effects to create a stunning environment. Its Oscar nominations for Best Production Design and Best Costume Design are well-deserved, and all the aesthetics of this adaptation are commendable and contribute to a cohesive graphic experience.

Watson, who gained fame for her role as a smart bookworm in the “Harry Potter” film series, is an extremely logical choice to play Belle, who is considered odd by all she encounters and stands out from the rest of the people in her village due to her love of reading and desire to see the world. The relationship she forms with the Beast, played by Dan Stevens, who established himself as a heartthrob on “Downton Abbey,” feels genuine, aided by Stevens’ layered performance. Supporting turns from Ewan McGregor as Lumière, Ian McKellen as Cogsworth, and Emma Thompson as Mrs. Potts are delightful and extremely entertaining. As a whole, the film takes some time to get started, but ultimately it proves to be an enjoyable experience pleasing both the eyes and the ears.

B

Movie with Abe: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
Directed by James Gunn
Released May 5, 2017

Sequels are everywhere these days, and when they follow an astronomical hit, expectations are high and audiences are usually disappointed. The key to a successful sequel is to include all the elements that made people enjoy the first film so much and to expand upon the characters and their adventures in a way that mimics the excitement of the original endeavor. Marvel is churning out movie over movie, producing so many sequels each year that it’s almost impossible to keep count. The second chapter in what might best be described as its lightest franchise is quite the production, and fortunately it’s even better than the first effort.

Fresh off their exploits from the first film, the team of Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Drax (Dave Bautista), Rocket (Bradley Cooper), and Baby Groot (Vin Diesel) are hired to protect batteries for Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki) and the Sovereigns, resulting in their acquisition of Gamora’s sister Nebula (Karen Gillan). When Rocket decides to steal a few batteries after they complete their mission, they must flee to a nearby planet, where Peter meets his powerful father, Ego (Kurt Russell), who encourages him to embrace his true potential while the team is pursued by Yondu (Michael Rooker) on behalf of the very angry Sovereigns.

This is a film that knows exactly what it is, a science fiction epic which emphasizes humor over everything else. Baby Groot opens the film dancing to the song “Mr. Blue Sky” to properly set the tone for this adventure, which includes many jokes and all of the characters giving each other a hard time, even in the heat of a potentially fatal battle. These personalities have now been well-established, and getting to see them for a second time shows how great they truly are.

The plot of this film provides a fitting setting and setup for its characters to go about their latest shenanigans, demonstrating how well they can work together when they actually get along and how rarely they try to get along. All of the actors are superb, with Debicki, Russell, and Chris Sullivan from “This Is Us” as the humorously-named Taserface proving to be worthwhile additions. The Oscar-nominated visual effects certainly deserve praise for their creation of so many different creatures and places in the galaxy. The glimpse of this team at the end in the trailer for “Avengers: Infinity War” shows just how anticipated another outing with them is, and for good reason. This installment proves that this franchise is definitely one that earn its sequels.

B+

Monday, February 19, 2018

Movie with Abe: Kong: Skull Island

Kong: Skull Island
Directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts
Released March 10, 2017

Not all movies are created equally. Many films are considered failures because they try to be something that they’re not and don’t meet expectations. A monster movie is never going to win Best Picture at the Oscars, and therefore the secret to success is a film knowing what it wants to be and aiming to be exactly that. This franchise reboot, which is only on this reviewer’s radar because of the Oscar nomination it received for Best Visual Effects, is very good at just that: being a mindless monster movie and nothing more.

In 1973, Bill Randa (John Goodman) uses the considerable resources his government organization Monarch has to enlist British military veteran James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) and American Lieutenant Colonel Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson) to head to the mysterious Skull Island. Mason Weaver (Brie Larson), who describes herself as an anti-war photographer, joins them to capture what she sees, which turns out to be an incredible array of enormous animals, some of which are friendly but most of which see the human arrival as an invasion against which they have to defend, including what one stranded lieutenant (John C. Reilly) who has been on the island for decades describes as the king of the island, better known as Kong.

There is a lot of talent here that one wouldn’t normally expect to star in a film like this. Recent Oscar winner Brie Larson is the most glaring example, though her role is also amplified beyond that of just a throwaway character all but guaranteed to die a violent death under Kong’s giant foot or at the hands of some other creature. Hiddleston expands beyond his Marvel enterprise to anchor a new franchise, and Jackson and Goodman are both veterans who are clearly just having fun here. A handful of supporting players, including Corey Hawkins from “24: Legacy,” Jason Mitchell from “Mudbound,” and Shea Whigham from just about everything these days, contribute as needed as those likely doomed to forgettable fates.

I remember seeing a moving poster for this film at bus stops around New York City a year ago and thinking how incredible the visuals looked, and it’s true that the effects are hard at work creating so many different monsters and mesmerizing creatures to astound and destroy the human explorers. Apparently this film is part of an epic series also involving Godzilla, set to culminate in a film that has the two giant monsters facing off against each other. That might appeal to some, but this truly is mindless entertainment at its best, just as easily avoidable because it’s marketed to be just what it is.

B-

Movie with Abe: War for the Planet of the Apes

War for the Planet of the Apes
Directed by Matt Reeves
Released July 14, 2017

When a series contains infinite installments and doesn’t want to simply place a number after each of its titles, it becomes necessary to distinguish between each with a descriptive word. For this reboot of the ape-centric universe first introduced to the world in novel form in 1963 and then in film in 1968, first came the Rise in 2011, then the Dawn in 2014, and now the War in 2017. I already questioned why the Rise predated the Dawn in my review of the previous film, and the opening credits for this latest film explain in further detail how all the relatively unengaging drama involving these superintelligent apes went down.

Following the revolt against the humans led by the evil Koba, Caesar (Andy Serkis) and his band of apes are in hiding and constantly on the run from the vindictive Colonel J. Wesley McCollough (Woody Harrelson) and his military group Alpha-Omega, which includes a number of Koba’s followers who are treated as inferior to the humans. Caesar’s desire not to create more conflict is threatened by the onslaught of hatred and violence that he and his kind find everywhere they go, yet he does not give up hope of keeping his apes safe and establishing some sort of peace.

The original series of movies included five films, the last of which, “Battle for the Planet of the Apes,” apparently bears the most similarity to this one. By that token, it doesn’t seem like a good omen that the third installment of this new series already feels tiresome and pointless, with apes on both sides of the conflict and no real sign that convincing a few people that they’re not bad is going to prevent the next group of ate-hating humans from coming after them. Though this film received even better reviews than the last two, this reviewer found it to be more cumbersome than the second, which was considerably less engaging and worthwhile than the first.

What does distinguish it from the previous two films is that there is no sympathetic human, portrayed previously by Jason Clarke and James Franco, to anchor the apes’ connection to humanity. Worse still, Harrelson seems like the perfect actor to play a scenery-chewing, ape-hating general reminiscent of Stephen Lang’s Colonel Quaritch in “Avatar,” but the actor, Oscar nominated for “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” this year, delivers one of his more muted, unmemorable performances. Serkis is good as always, and the film’s visual effects, recognized yet again for an Oscar, continue to be the film’s most impressive asset. For non-ape fans, however, this film is simply boring and another unnecessary chapter in a saga that’s much less compelling than most other dystopian sci-fi.

C

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Movie with Abe: Wonder

Wonder
Directed by Stephen Chbosky
Released November 17, 2017

People who look different are usually frequent targets for bullying or discrimination. There is an interesting difference between how children and adults interact with and treat those who don’t look like them, since children may be less trained in how to control their initial reactions and subsequent displays of emotion while adults, if they are mature enough to not pass judgment, may be better at ensuring that they do not indicate any sort of negative connotations when they first lay their eyes on someone whose appearance is not as they expect. Either way, it can be a difficult road for someone who doesn’t fit in with the rest of his or her peers or society in general.

Auggie (Jacob Tremblay) was born with Treacher Collins syndrome, and numerous surgeries have not been able to repair the deformities on his face. Having been previously homeschooled by his mother (Julia Roberts) and seen only under a NASA helmet out in public, Auggie begins fifth grade in a mainstream school. While he encounters bullies like Julian (Bryce Gheisar), he also makes an unexpected friend in Jack Will (Noah Jupe). As he struggles to find acceptance and some semblance of normalcy, his sister Via (Izabela Vidovic) contends with her own teenage experience and constantly being ignored by her mother and father (Owen Wilson) in favor of her brother.

This sweet, endearing film, based on the popular 2012 children’s novel by R.J. Palacio, structures its narrative in a creative way, showcasing how each of its characters view their universe. Via describes her family as living in orbit of her brother, and scenes play out from the perspectives of Auggie, Via, their mother, Jack Will, and Via’s best friend Miranda, each adding more information to Auggie’s unique experience out in the world. That format works extremely well, encapsulating Auggie’s immersion in normative life for the first time and showcasing its most influential and unforgettable moments.

Tremblay, who was excellent in “Room” a few years ago, demonstrates that he’s more than capable of portraying a range of different children, and whatever comes next in his career is sure to be great. Jupe is particularly terrific as well, and it’s great to see veteran performers like Roberts, Wilson, and Mandy Patinkin, who portrays the kindly school principal, lending support in a way that lets the young actors and the story shine. The film’s Oscar-nominated makeup is an undeniable asset as well, but it’s the script and the people who bring it to life that are deserving of the most commendation here in this film that should win over all ages and shares an inspiring message of acceptance and friendship.

B+

Movie with Abe: Blade Runner 2049

Blade Runner 2049
Directed by Denis Villeneuve
Released October 6, 2017

When the road to a dystopian future involves robots, it usually leads to them becoming self-aware enough to fight back against what they perceive to be their human oppressors. That battle or war is the critical event that transforms what might somewhat resemble modern society into something altogether darker and less recognizable, and it’s impossible to go back. Where the robots fit in once things have changed irreconcilably depends on how events played out, but circumstances are rarely good for survivors on either side.

K (Ryan Gosling) is a Blade Runner in 2049 Los Angeles, working for the police department to hunt down rogue replicants, while most of the bioengineered humans are kept as slaves. After a routine run leads to shocking proof replicants can have children, K is sent on a mission by Lt. Joshi (Robin Wright) that puts him on the trail of Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), who has been in hiding for decades. Through his mission and his relationship with his holographic girlfriend Joi (Ana de Armas), K begins to question whether he is in fact a replicant as he believes or if there’s considerably more humanity inside him than he thought.

“Blade Runner 2049,” the sequel to the popular and formative science fiction film released thirty-five years earlier, is a long movie that clocks in at two hours and forty-four minutes. The story it tells has its own variations but is otherwise mostly familiar, and therefore the film’s quality should be judged mainly on its technical elements, which are all astounding. The astonishing visuals best illustrate the film’s creativity in its depiction of Joi and how she shows herself to K, who gives her the gift of an emanator, which enables her to travel outside their home and to truly experience the world.

“Blade Runner 2049” represents a positive addition to the impressive filmography of director Denis Villeneuve, who first showed up on American audiences’ radar with his Oscar-nominated Canadian drama “Incendies” and then made the diverse trio of “Prisoners,” “Enemy,” and “Sicario” before achieving resounding success with “Arrival.” His touch here is emphatic and purposeful, and the film is augmented as a result of the care he puts in to how the story is told and conveyed, with superb visual and audial elements. Gosling proves to be a fitting lead, with de Armas turning in an intriguing performance as well and Ford making his returning character a worthwhile featured player. This film’s lengthy runtime doesn’t feel cumbersome, and a potential repeat visit to this universe would surely be welcome and worthwhile.

B+

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Movie with Abe: Logan

Logan
Directed by James Mangold
Released March 3, 2017

It feels right now like superhero movies are going to be popular forever. The trend lately has been to amass as many characters as possible to come together to star in the same epic film, with “Justice League” and “The Avengers” serving as the flagships of DC and Marvel, the two competing comic book brands dominating the box office this, last, and likely next decade. While a number of individual characters have been treated to reboots and standalone installments, there’s one member of the X-Men who has been played by the same actor in eight films and now graduates to an R-rated story that shows who he truly is.

In the year 2029, Logan (Hugh Jackman) is a shell of what he once was, working as a limo driver and spending his days keeping a relatively low profile. His lone associates are Caliban (Stephen Merchant) and an elderly Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), whose powers now lead to immensely powerful seizures capable of tremendous collateral damage. With no new mutants being born and the X-Men a distant memory, Logan is unwillingly swept back up into being a hero when he must protect Laura (Dafne Keen), who has similar powers to him and has been created from his DNA, from Donald Pierce (Boyd Holbrook) and Zander Rice (Richard E. Grant), who run Transigen, a company that has been experimenting with powers to turn children into weapons.

This film, the first in the solo Wolverine series that this reviewer has seen, represents a considerable departure from most of what Marvel puts out. Logan’s powers have always been relatively violent, but not nearly as much so as in this context, which features both Logan and Laura stabbing people in brutal ways and facing similarly graphic threats from those who seek to take them out. The R rating also includes language not typically used in superhero movies, enabling this film to feel considerably darker and more effective as a result, employed for dramatic purposes rather than those utilized in another R-rated X-Men offshoot, “Deadpool.”

Jackman, who also this year starred in a completely different kind of film, “The Greatest Showman,” demonstrates in what is supposed to be the last time he plays this character that he’s exactly the right man for it, making Logan believably gruff and weathered. Portraying a superhero in a comic book film demands a specific type of acting, and Jackman has it down. Stewart, who earned a number of awards nominations for his performance, is also terrific, turning Xavier into a pained and far less kindly old man. The rest of the cast contributes well, though this is a film primarily driven by its action. Its Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay represents a first for the genre, and it’s a well-earned honor that shows most of all how a character typically appropriate for most ages has been impressively transformed into the star of a mature and effective superhero film for adults.

B+

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Movie with Abe: Icarus

Icarus
Directed by Bryan Fogel
Released August 4, 2017

There are so many things that happen across the world and throughout history that aren’t known, and only in some cases are they revealed to the public. The breaking of a scandal often prompts further research into what led to it, and interest is sparked by those who have read or heard about it, fueling the release of information that explains how something was allowed to occur and then failed to become known at that time. In rarer cases, an investigation of sorts is already underway in an unofficial capacity and then collides head-on with an unexpected public exposure.

Director and actor Bryan Fogel, an avid follower of Lance Armstrong, was so taken by the news that the star athlete had been doping that he decided to take it upon himself to see how the doping process could practically work. He makes contact with Dr. Grigory Rodchenkov, a Russian scientist who was instrumental in helping his country’s athletes pass tests while doping, to test the effects and understand how it works. As their relationship develops, reports break about a massive culture of Russian doping which finds Rodchenkov implicated and Fogel at the center of an incredible exposé that threatens to throw his contact under the bus to protect one country’s reputation.

This is a film that starts out as one thing and turns into something completely different, similar to “The Big Sick” but in documentary form. At first, Fogel is disillusioned by Armstrong’s lying and then curious to see if he could duplicate his actions. As the film progresses and it becomes clear that Rodchenkov is responsible for something enormous that was hardly his own idea regardless of his scientific prowess, it turns into more of a thriller connecting the dots and showing just how big this whole thing goes.

Though this film was released on Netflix back in August, its relevance is heightened now as the Olympics are in full swing and Russian athletes are competing across almost all sports despite the findings detailed in this documentary. It’s refreshing if nothing else to see an Olympic scandal piece that isn’t about Larry Nassar and something about Russia that doesn’t have to do with Trump, but everything about this film is interesting all on its own. It’s informative and gripping, spotlighting something that’s happening just on the fringe of sporting events televised to the entire world.

B+

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Movie with Abe: Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Star Wars: The Last Jedi
Directed by Rian Johnson
Released December 15, 2017

Star Wars is something that’s going to be popular forever, and after a full decade off, we’re going to be getting movies every year, with standalone entries aplenty and multiple new trilogies announced recently. While, for reasons unknown to the eager eleven-year-old who saw “The Phantom Menace” in theaters when it was first released, the prequels have been lambasted for their poor quality, the newer films have been subject to considerably higher praise and have also made an incredible amount of money for theaters and studios over the past few years. Fortunately, all that is made worthwhile by the latest fantastic entry in the saga.

Picking up where the last official episode of the series left off, the Resistance, led by Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher), struggles to survive as their numbers diminish and they are pursued relentlessly by the First Order, led by General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) in service of Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis). Determined to see success, Poe (Oscar Isaac) dispatches Finn (John Boyega) and Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) on a mission to fell the First Order’s ships. Rey (Daisy Ridley) tries to convince Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) to train her in the ways of the Jedi while she experiences an unexpected connection with Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) that makes her believe that she can turn him back to the good side of the Force.

What’s most exciting here is that these characters, most of whom were introduced in the previous film, feel established and worthwhile, capable of carrying many more movies to come. There’s a superb energy that drives this film, which multitasks between its three main settings, keeping the action going simultaneously on all fronts. There are still flashes of nostalgia to be found, but this episode proves that this series is headed in a new direction for a new generation, not set on staying in the past but instead capable of creating a fresh and enduring mythology with younger actors carrying on – and often defying and redefining – their predecessors’ legacy.

This film isn’t about the acting, but it’s worth noting that all of these stars are more than capable of returning for as many franchise entries as they’re kept alive, with Ridley, Driver, Boyega, and Isaac serving as a particularly fantastic foursome. Hamill and Fisher, in her final film performance, serve their roles well enough, effectively passing the torch for what’s sure to be an enthralling final installment of this trilogy to the new crew. The visual effects and technical elements are strong as always, and this particular entry, which clocks in at around two and a half hours, is a thrill ride from start to finish, proving once again that this saga is worthy of many more visits.

B+

Monday, February 12, 2018

Movie with Abe: On Body and Soul

On Body and Soul
Directed by Ildikó Enyedi
Released February 2, 2018

There are so many factors that keep people from finding the one that they’re supposed to be with, and plenty who don’t believe that there’s one particular person out there for them. They might cross paths for the briefest of moments, and if they don’t seize the opportunity to meet and pursue a relationship, it could be lost forever. Sometimes, circumstances bring people together but for any number of reasons, they don’t even look at each other in a way that could be perceived as romantic or capable of leading to any true contact. Those dynamics are often the most intriguing since the path to an unlikely bond usually takes an interesting road.

Endre (Géza Morcsányi) handles finances for a slaughterhouse, and he doesn’t find new quality inspector Mária (Alexandra Borbély) to be a worthwhile addition to his facility, as she immediately ruffles feathers with her antisocial attitude and angers the other workers by sticking to strict regulations and grading the meat they produce stringently. When a theft occurs and a psychologist conducts interviews to determine who committed it, Endre and Mária are astonished to discover that they have had the same dream, a trend that continues and inspires them to consider whether they have much more in common than they think.

This film begins by showing two lonely people leading extremely ordinary, unfulfilling lives. Unable to use a crippled arm, Endre cannot work with his hands in the slaughterhouse and instead serves in a supervisory role that doesn’t require him to actually be on the floor. Mária, who has an impeccable memory that forces her to remember everything, isn’t skilled at human contact and doesn’t present as wanting to make any friends. The strange coincidence of their shared dream, which the psychologist angrily believes to be a joke at her expense, helps to show them that perhaps they’re not as alone in the world as they believe.

This film, which is Hungary’s first Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Film since “Son of Saul” won two years ago, is an affirming and different kind of love story, one that finds its main characters dreaming of themselves as deer and spending each night together. Its quieter moments – and there are many – prove effective, and they’re amplified by strong lead performances from both Morcsányi and Borbély, who portray their respective characters as people who would prefer to be alone only because they haven’t found someone with whom they can share their lives without having to put on an act. It’s an endearing, visually pleasing, and sweet story that serves as a fine representation of international cinema, available in the United States on Netflix for a wide audience to stream.

B+

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Movie with Abe: Loveless


Loveless
Directed by Andrey Zvyagintsev
Released February 16, 2018

The dissolution of a marriage is never a pleasant thing to watch. There are often factors, like financial stability and the existence of children, that keep a couple together longer than perhaps they should be, and there may also be an attempt to rekindle whatever affection and romance initially brought them together rather than abandon the relationship completely. And then there are the times when two people can’t stand to be with one another, and they’ll do anything possible to separate fully, letting their hatred for each other fuel their every interaction and overwhelm anything else in their lives.

Zhenya (Maryana Spivak) and Boris (Aleksey Rozin) both share an equal disdain for each other, and have already moved on with their lives despite still being officially married, each spending most of their time with a new partner that makes them much happier than the sight of their spouse does. Caught in all this is their twelve-year-old son Alyosha (Matvey Novikov), who hears their fights and how both express no desire to care for him when they officially split. When Alyosha goes missing, Zhenya and Boris are pulled together to try to find the child they have neglected.

“Loveless” is Russia’s Oscar entry for Best Foreign Film this year, and it’s also director Andrrey Zvyagintsev’s follow-up to the film that earned him an Oscar nomination three years ago, “Leviathan.” This similarly dreary and miserable film is a worthy successor to that one, presenting characters who are complex in the sheer passion they express as rage towards each other. Alyosha is lambasted by his mother as barely a man and constantly crying to prospective buyers of their apartment, and that’s about all the recognition he gets from either of his parents, who are too obsessed with bad-mouthing each other to anyone they meet to remember that he exists.

This film, representing its country, paints an interesting picture of how these two parents see their situation. Zhenya is relieved to be with a man who doesn’t inspire such anger in her since he rises to challenges and doesn’t let things in their life fall apart, while Boris panics about his religious boss discovering that he is getting divorced since it will surely mean his ejection from the family-oriented company. Watching these two explode at each other and decompress apart as their son gets lost in the chaos is certainly intriguing. The film’s ultimate direction, which takes some time to reach, isn’t nearly as satisfying.

B

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Movie with Abe: Last Men in Aleppo


Last Men in Aleppo
Directed by Feras Fayyad
Released June 27, 2017

It’s particularly awe-inspiring to watch people who are subjected daily to unpredictable, life-threatening violence run towards danger. Sadly, there are so many places in the world where defenseless populations face bombings, terrorist attacks, and natural disasters on a regular basis, and whether the international community can’t or won’t help is irrelevant since those on the ground are left to protect themselves either way. Among stories of destruction and devastation are those of true heroism, selfless acts to protect and save others.

During the Syrian Civil War, the White Helmets watch carefully as helicopters fly over ahead, always on the lookout for the next attack. When a strike or bombing occurs, they rush to the scene to save as many lives as possible. Their daily activities are relegated by a knowledge that their government may attack at any time, and everyday meetings or celebrations are often interrupted by a need to go help those who lives in neighboring areas that they have never met. The members of the White Helmets are not immune to danger and death themselves, as a number of the people interviewed in the film were killed either during production or prior to the release of the film.

The White Helmets should be familiar to anyone who has seen the British-made forty-minute Oscar-winning documentary short from 2016. This feature-length film took home the World Documentary Grand Jury Prize just before that at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival, and now it’s in contention to take home the Best Documentary Oscar, the first film from Syrian filmmakers to be up for the award. There are many similarities between the two, including incredible footage of a baby being rescued, and this film digs a bit deeper into the lives of three of the founding members. Explosions occur on camera and subjects frantically call out for each other, unsure if they’ve fallen victim to the latest attack.

What is accomplished here aside from a showcase of tremendous bravery and self-sacrifice is a clear demonstration of just how unconcerned with their own egos the White Helmets are. When they visit a boy that they have saved and he eagerly asks them to recount what happened, they leave feeling uncomfortable with the idea of showing off and being recognized for what they did. They wonder aloud why their Arab neighbors won’t help him and joke about going to “overthrow the regime at my place” when they need a break from exhausting some of their political energy. As a companion piece to the documentary short, this film serves as just more evidence that what these people do is truly incredible.

B+

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Movie with Abe: A Fantastic Woman


A Fantastic Woman
Directed by Sebastian Lelio
Released February 2, 2018

Hate is a terrible thing that’s extremely prevalent throughout the world. Hatred can be baseless and come from nothing, but usually it stems from a misunderstanding of or disagreement with who or what someone is or represents. Their inability to comprehend another’s situation or mindset doesn’t lead to the asking of questions or a desire to come around to a new point of view. Rarely does anything good come from someone being shunned by others, and being treated with disdain just for existing can be devastating and immensely damaging.

Marina (Daniela Vega) is a waitress and aspiring singer in Santiago living a peaceful and pleasant life with her caring boyfriend Orlando (Francisco Reyes). When Orlando becomes ill one night and dies after being rushed to the hospital, Marina’s life implodes. The doctor at the hospital finds her suspicious and everyone in Orlando’s family aside from his brother treat her as less than human because she is a trans woman. Questioned by a detective investigating sexual offenses, Marina struggles to hold herself together as she is denied the opportunity to mourn the man she loved because his family considers her to be an abomination.

This film opens with such kindness being projected onto Marina by the doting and adoring Orlando, who has purchased tickets for a vacation for her birthday but misplaced them. The way in which Marina is subsequently swiftly ejected from any claim on being a legitimate part of Orlando’s life is especially cruel, and her attempts to take the high road and remain levelheaded opposite those who can barely look at her is admirable but does little to improve her situation. She is all too forgiving when she receives meaningless apologies from those who talk down to her, and remains committed to being who she is and charging ahead despite infinite obstacles to her happiness.

Vega is a clear breakout, defining the title character and making sure that she is indeed a fantastic woman, revered only by Orlando but capable of so much when faced with such unnecessary and humiliating persecution. This is a great follow-up for director Sebastian Lelio, whose last film, “Gloria,” also had an unforgettable lead female character who drove and commanded the film. Though it comes from Chile as that country’s Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Film, this is a universal story that gives Vega a superb showcase and spotlights the will to overcome or at least combat misery and intolerance for those who are different.

B+

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Movie with Abe: Faces Places


Faces Places
Directed by JR and Agnes Varda
Released October 6, 2017

Documentarians capture the world and preserve it in some form for the future. They may also be championing a cause that they wish to broadcast to the masses or spotlighting an injustice they want the world to see, but ultimately they are creating an archive of what is or has happened that will remain as long as the medium of film remains playable by subsequent generations. As a result, documentary filmmaking frequently interacts with photography, its primary predecessor, and films about creative photography tend to be particularly poignant, as one of this year’s Oscar nominees for Best Documentary inarguably is.

Director Agnes Varda, a prominent participant in the French New Wave film movement, teams up with photographer slash street artist JR to travel through rural France. As part of JR’s Inside Out Project, they take photographs of people after learning their stories and then blow them up to paste them in a significant location, like the image of a farmer on a building he and anyone who visits sees every day. The eighty-nine-year-old filmmaker and the thirty-year-old photographer both share a passion for meeting people with interesting backgrounds and helping them to truly see themselves, and they also discover quite a bit about each other and how they see the world differently in the process.

This film really is best likened to a film version of a photo essay, since Varda and JR set out to explore a landscape with which they have some familiarity and to understand the people who inhabit it. Their purpose is to see people in new ways and to capture the feelings and emotions that they express upon being shown these portraits. It’s an exceptional journey, one that sparkles with creativity and a delightful energy, with each person interviewed perfectly willing to talk freely and be open to something they would never have imagined.

The power of these large photographic murals being put up is difficult to convey, and that is the number one reason to watch this film. But the relationship that develops between Varda and JR is a very close second, since they’re also trying to open each other’s minds to fresh ideas, like JR wanting Varda to stop harping on how old she is and how each meeting might be her last and Varda pressing JR to remove his token sunglasses for just one photograph. This is film that’s easy to love, representing a more optimistic but equally compelling vision of photography and its power from the last great Oscar-nominated documentary of its kind, “The Salt of the Earth.” There’s simply so much to see here, and Varda and JR have done a wonderful job of capturing it.

B+

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Movie with Abe: Abacus: Small Enough to Jail


Abacus: Small Enough to Jail
Directed by Steve James
Released May 19, 2017

When a crime is committed, there’s usually a victim and a perpetrator. There might be multiple people involved on either side, and something that’s clearly illegal or defines a crime is much easier to prosecute and implement punishment for than a more ambiguous and less finite misdeed or series or misdeeds. When it’s a company at fault and the constituents deserving of payment in some form for their grievances, public opinion usually comes into play, as does as the likelihood of successfully obtaining a conviction.

The subprime mortgage crisis that occurred beginning in 2007 in the United States has led many to place blame on a number of banks and corporations for their contributions to the rise and then subsequent collapse of the housing bubble. While the government stepped in to bail out some of the bigger banks, there was one small community bank, Abacus Federal Savings Bank, that was subjected to criminal charges, seen as an easier target because of its size and its specific identity as an institution of Chinatown in New York City.

This relatively straightforward investigative film is most effective in the way that it hones in on Chinese culture which, like other immigrant communities, doesn’t necessarily make a distinction between gifts from family and payments, thereby complicating the legality of certain important points in the run-up to Abacus being under fire. There is a sense throughout the film that this small group is serving as an example since the livelihood of more prominent and famous banks is directly tied in with that of the economy and the government, and the intimate nature of this film demonstrates just how preposterous its apparent scapegoating is.

Showcasing a segment of American society that assimilates well to a degree but still stands apart offers intriguing social commentary, and this film succeeds in that spotlight. At just ninety minutes, this film doesn’t cover all that much ground, remaining fully interesting for the entirety of its run but not reaching some incredible conclusion other than the fact that Abacus being singled out for prosecution in the subprime mortgage crisis was patently unfair. Its place among this year’s Oscar nominees for Best Documentary doesn’t make it feel entirely relevant or urgent, and it’s a perfectly passable, watchable examination that’s likely more effective when positioned next to a film about the big banks that didn’t go through anything similar to what Abacus experienced.

B

Movie with Abe: Strong Island


Strong Island
Directed by Yance Ford
Released September 15, 2017

It’s no secret that there are many problems with the criminal justice system in America today. The way in which people of color are profiled by police and face disproportionately higher rates of incarceration have been publicized widely in the news and in films, both narrative and documentary. What hasn’t yet come into focus in cinema as prominently is what happens when white citizens without a badge commit crimes against people of color and then face no consequences even and especially after going through the legal process.

Filmmaker Yance Ford brings to light a deeply personal story, that of his brother, William Ford Jr., who was killed at age twenty-four by a nineteen-year-old white mechanic. Ford profiles his own upbringing, describing his parents’ arrival in Long Island to the relatively segregated suburb of Central Islip and his father’s dedication to his job as a subway conductor, driving the train through bad areas while his mother worked to help set girls getting out of prison up for success. The quickness with which his brother found himself murdered is followed up by a trial that remarkably sets his killer free, with seemingly little interest from anyone other than the victim’s family in justice being truly served.

Ford is well aware of the fact that his audience may be coming in with preconceptions of their own to this story, and he makes sure to put everything on the table in the way that he frames it. He admits that, with no intention to offend those behind the camera, one person he references looks like “every white man I’ve ever seen,” and spotlights his mother’s shock that jury members were reading books and magazines when she testified, completely uninterested in anything she had to say. There’s a lot that this story says on its own, and Ford makes sure to dig deep into all of it, zooming in on his and other interviewees’ faces to emphasize the way that recalling these events makes them feel and the lingering impression it has left on them.

Ford makes history as the first openly transgender man to earn an Oscar nomination, a part of his history that he incorporates well into the film as just another element of his experience. The in-depth examination of legal terms and entities like a grand jury and the way that this all played out is particularly impressive, and it’s most effective as a representative example of the prevalence of racial injustice in today’s society, brought to light in an Oscar-nominated film that should gain exposure to a wide audience.

B+

Monday, February 5, 2018

Sundance Film Festival: Won't You Be My Neighbor

I'm delighted to share one last take from Sundance 2018 from my wife, Arielle Friedtanzer, who got the chance to see this documentary.



Won't You Be My Neighbor?
Directed by Morgan Neville
Doc Premieres

“Won’t You Be My Neighbor” is as pleasant and unobjectionable a documentary as was “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” the television show in which its subject, Fred Rogers, starred for decades. It was thorough, offering context into the events and relationships that impacted Rogers’ life, and allowed the audience to understand the depth of his being beyond his celebrity persona.

Rogers was a devoted teacher and an inspirational advocate for children and truth. When others tried to shield children from the realities of their world, Rogers brought the pain of social relationships, current events, and discrimination to light in ways that allowed children to engage with them, helping them to deconstruct stigma and prejudice, and understand the world around them. The documentary includes interviews from Rogers’ wife and sons, as well as friends, coworkers, and those responsible for carrying on his professional legacy at the Fred Rogers Center, offering audiences a panorama of the life he lived and the person he was behind the camera.

During the Q and A after the film’s premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, Rogers’ friend and one of the interviewees from the film, who was in attendance, commended Morgan Neville, the film’s director, for creating a documentary that was true to who Rogers was. “The film didn’t paint him as a saint,” he said, but it did stress the importance of Tikkun Olam, the Jewish concept of repairing the world, with footage of Rogers speaking to his audience of the time and impressing it upon them. His words ring as true today as they did then, imploring us to fix our broken world.

The crowd laughed awkwardly at moments that resembled our current government, felt uplifted in moments of joy and humor, and even shed tears at more personal and sentimental parts of the film, making for a touching, educational, and entertaining viewing experience, and one that I would highly recommend to experience yourself!

Saturday, February 3, 2018

Movie with Abe: The Insult


The Insult
Directed by Ziad Doueiri
Released January 12, 2018

Words do have a tremendous power, and many conflicts in history could likely have been avoided if cooler heads had prevailed and things uttered on both sides had been censored and cast aside without letting them fester into something more emphatic. Previous films and TV series, like “The Slap,” have explored the consequences of one seemingly insignificant action, and this film, from Lebanon, follows the aftermath of a simple unpleasant exchange and just how much it can evolve into something destructive and so far from the place where both parties started.

Tony (Adel Karam) lives in Beirut with his pregnant wife. The Lebanese Christian is a proud member of a right-wing party that frequently demonizes the Palestinian population of his country as a scourge on Lebanon that has no place anywhere. When a Palestinian refugee, Yasser (Kamel El Basha), shows up at his door to fix an illegal pipe he has installed, Tony reacts angrily, prompting an insult in response from Yasser. Furious, Tony demands an apology, and when Yasser refuses to give him one, the situation escalates considerably, ultimately ending up in court where both men appear to be on trial for their conflicting views and defenses of their actions.

This film, which scored an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Film, offers an incredible portrait of how life in the Middle East can be complicated, using specifics that turn this into a symbolic case representing the clashing of two cultures. Tony is seen as a Zionist sympathizer with no regard for the rights of the Palestinians to exist anywhere, while Yasser is perceived as a drain on resources and an affront to Lebanese purity. One small argument turns into a national conversation, pitting people against each other with hatred in their hearts simply because of what accent the other speaks with and where they were born.

This film succeeds mainly in its courtroom portrayal of a case that gets out of the hands of the two men who started it, with lawyers deriding each other for claiming that the other is a victim or a legitimate attacker. Its quieter moments, like a stalled car that forces the two men to look at each other as human beings first, are extremely effective, and there are no simple solutions here, like a predictably happy ending in which everyone’s problems are solved. Karam and Basha are both superb, as are Diamand Bou Abboud and Camille Salameh as their respective lawyers. This represents Lebanon’s first outing at the Academy Awards, and it’s quite a film – furiously intriguing, thought-provoking, and immensely watchable, delivering a message and telling a terrific story on screen at the same time.

A-

Sundance with Abe: NANCY

I’m thrilled to be attending and covering the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah for the fifth time. I’m seeing as many movies as I can each day and will post reviews of each as I can.


NANCY
Directed by Christina Choe
U.S. Dramatic Competition Walto Salt Screenwriting Award Winner

Many people don’t feel a part of their own family for a variety of reasons, whether it’s their political views, their sexual orientation, their commitment to a certain cause, or just because they don’t think their parents like them. The expression goes that you can choose your friends but you can’t choose your family, and for many this rings true since, given the option, they might opt to have nothing to do with those whose genes they share. In some cases, the loss of a family member can inspire an entirely new outlook on life, one which prompts an individual to make new connections and redefine themselves as something completely fresh.

Nancy (Andrea Riseborough) is thirty-five years old, working as a temp, and living with her irritable mother (Ann Dowd), who is suffering from Parkinson’s disease. She dreams of being a writer but hasn’t found success, and instead writes a blog on the Internet about a miracle baby with which she’s become pregnant, inviting others to read her invented stories. When her mother passes away, she latches on to a news broadcast showing two parents (J. Smith-Cameron and Steve Buscemi) still waiting for the return of their young daughter, lost thirty years ago, and, noting her resemblance to the doctored photo of the girl, reaches out to the family to try to reconnect with these people as their daughter.

Nancy is a complex character, to be sure, one who interacts with the world in a way that doesn’t quite make it clear how she’s reacting to each situation. She’s difficult to read, and as a result her enthusiasm, which never affects the pitch of her voice or the expression on her face, about having parents who actually cared for her and hung on to the hope that they would see her again so many years later, can’t be deciphered, contributing to this film’s status as a mystery of sorts. When asked when she thought that her mother might have taken her from her another family, her answers are unconvincing, but that’s mostly because everything she says never really seems like she buys it.


Director Christina Choe discusses the film

Riseborough, who stars in a whopping four Sundance films this year, including the far more entertaining “The Death of Stalin” opposite Buscemi, is a formidable actress capable of making pretty much any role interesting, but this isn’t her best work. Like Nancy herself, something about this film doesn’t really feel genuine, and its receipt of a screenwriting prize is strange since this is among the weaker and less memorable entries in its competitive field. There are ideas and relationships to think about in this film, but its purposeful attempt to be unreadable and ambiguous is also its undoing.

C+

Friday, February 2, 2018

Sundance with Abe: Wildlife

I’m thrilled to be attending and covering the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah for the fifth time. I’m seeing as many movies as I can each day and will post reviews of each as I can.


Wildlife
Directed by Paul Dano
U.S. Dramatic Competition

Marriage has looked different throughout history as gender roles have evolved and society has come to understand the value of the nuclear family in new ways. Throughout that evolution, many people have been miserable as they have remained in unhappy unions they were made to think were necessary, and divorce was far more stigmatized than it is today. Some people choose to deal with the way things are in an inventive way, seeking out happiness where they can find it and refusing to accept the state of things as completely unchangeable and out of their control.

In 1960s Montana, lively fourteen-year-old Joe (Ed Oxenbould) looks up to his parents, Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Jeanette (Carey Mulligan). When Jerry is fired from his job at a golf club, he has trouble finding new work and ultimately takes the opportunity to help go fight fires far from town, leaving his wife and son to fend for themselves. Jeanette, who has already gone from being a housewife to taking a job giving swimming lessons, refuses to wait for Jerry’s return, seeking the company of an older man (Bill Camp) and making little effort to hide this new romance from her son.

There is something about this era, just on the cusp of moving from traditional behavior of the previous decade to wilder, more rebellious attitudes of the next, that is appealing for this setting, which was originated in Richard Ford’s 1990 novel of the same name. The fact that Jeanette asserts herself so much and won’t take orders while waiting for her husband to come home is revolutionary in itself, and her wide-eyed son watches with horror as his mother demonstrates that she’s very much her own woman, while his father can’t hope to define himself as much other than someone unable to get over disappointment and rejection.

Mulligan is almost always found in period pieces, and there’s a reason for that. The English actress, last seen in a breakout Sundance hit from 2017, “Mudbound,” is easily the best thing about this film, able to adapt to any situation in a believable and incredibly compelling way. Gyllenhaal is also good, as is young Australian actor Oxenbould. The film’s script, from first-time director Paul Dano and Zoe Kazan, a wonderful acting pair in “Ruby Sparks,” is decent but not always interesting, and the film as a whole starts from a worthwhile place but becomes less and less engaging as it goes on, ultimately reaching a point that doesn’t seem to justify the journey.

B-

Sundance with Abe: Rust

I’m thrilled to be attending and covering the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah for the fifth time. I’m seeing as many movies as I can each day and will post reviews of each as I can.


Rust
Directed by Aly Muritiba
World Cinema Dramatic Competition

Social media has become so prevalent these days that it’s barely possible for anyone of any age to make it through a conversation without being distracted by things their friends – or people they don’t even know – are posting about hundreds of miles away that are truly of little importance. Many films at Sundance this year and in past years place special emphasis on the destructive psychological effects of being addicted to social media and letting it define status and happiness, and it’s interesting to see this depressing take from Brazil that could easily have come from any country around the world.

This film is presented in two parts, each focusing on a different character. In the first, Tati (Tifanny Dopke) is a relatively popular high school girl who has just been cheated on by her boyfriend. As she begins a romance with Renet (Giovanni de Lorenzi), she loses her phone and is devastated to discover that a racy video that she made with her ex – and didn’t delete – has been uploaded to the Internet for all to see. In the second segment, Renet grapples with the exposure of this video while dealing with the news that his mother (Clarissa Kiste), recently separated from his father (Enrique Diaz), who teaches at his school, is pregnant with another man’s baby.

“Rust” feels like a cautionary tale for the way in which social media can distract for anything and everything else in life, and how it has come to shape each new generation. One memorable scene finds Renet refusing to answer Tati’s chat messages, a moderately intimate form of communication in a digital age where, waiting for a response, both could easily retreat to browsing and hitting “like” on any number of brainless stories and shares. While the culture in Brazil is somewhat different, so much of this story could be transplanted with few modifications to the United States and be just as effective.

As is likely to be the case with any film split into multiple parts, one is clearly stronger than the other. Tati’s story, and the way in which she transforms once she sees everyone pointing at her at school and sneering behind her back, is much more compelling, as is Dopke’s performance. There is something to the focus on Renet as well, but its direction is less obvious and emphatic. The first of the half might be worthwhile required viewing for a mature audience as a cautionary tale, but the whole product isn’t nearly as resounding.

B-

Sundance with Abe: Blaze

I’m thrilled to be attending and covering the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah for the fifth time. I’m seeing as many movies as I can each day and will post reviews of each as I can.


Blaze
Directed by Ethan Hawke
U.S. Dramatic Competition

Musicians make their mark on the world through the melodies and lyrics that they write, but the experiences that have led them to make music are often just as intriguing as the songs themselves. There are so many world-famous musicians whose stories have made it to the big screen to shine a light on their little-known struggles, but spotlighting those who never achieved the same level of prominence can be just as effective, especially because it invites an audience to get to know a real-life person primarily through their portrayal on screen without any predispositions about them.

Blaze Foley (Benjamin Dickey), born Michael Fuller, was an Arkansas native who spent most of his childhood in Texas. His musical performances were pretty legendary, influenced in large part by three different segments featured in the film: his meeting and ultimate romance with Sybil Rosen (Alia Shawkat), one of his more unforgettable nights on stage with a bottle close to his hand, and being remembered by the two people closest to him in a posthumous radio interview. Those three eras of Blaze dissect what it was that made this man into such a presence whose popularity has only grown since his untimely demise at age thirty-nine.


Director Ethan Hawke and star Benjamin Dickey discuss the film

If nothing else, this film does a mesmerizing job of portraying Blaze, brought to life by Dickey, who is a musician in his own right. He’s remarkably honest, relatable, and vulnerable as the sweet-talking boyfriend in love with Sybil, unconcerned about where he might go until the allure of life on the road gets to him. When he’s on stage later with considerably more facial hair and far less of a grip on his own faculties thanks to a heavy intake of alcohol, he’s less recognizable but still just as into his music. And when he’s but a memory for his friends to recall, he still looms large and dominates the film.


Director Ethan Hawke discuss the film

Dickey, who received resounding applause when he took the stage following the film’s largest screening at Sundance, won a well-deserved special jury award at Sundance for achievement in acting, fully sinking into and becoming this character. Opposite him, Shawkat, best known for awkward comedy, is a surprisingly good foil, encouraging him but ultimately doomed to fall behind when music shows up to take him other places. The ensemble contributes well to a story that’s definitely interesting but also, perhaps purposefully, relatively slow-paced, clocking in at two hours and seven minutes. Director Ethan Hawke, who himself is more often in front of the camera, is obviously passionate about his subject, which makes a decent case for itself but isn’t always as riveting as it should be.

B

Sundance with Abe: Monsters and Men

I’m thrilled to be attending and covering the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah for the fifth time. I’m seeing as many movies as I can each day and will post reviews of each as I can.


Monsters and Men
Directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green
U.S. Dramatic Competition Special Jury Award for Outstanding First Feature

Police brutality and the disproportionate arrest rate for African-Americans have been in the news alarmingly frequently in recent years, and it’s no surprise that the topic would be featured in a number of films, including the similarly-titled “Monster,” which also competed in the same section at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. When a member of the police force is himself African-American, the complexity of responding to any situation and grappling with the statistics as they stand is multiplied exponentially, creating the opportunity for many conflicting ideas and outlooks on society.

In the opening scene of “Monsters and Men,” an African-American police officer, Dennis Williams (John David Washington), is pulled over while in plainclothes by a white cop, and notes later to a friend that this is the sixth time this year that this has happened. Manny (Anthony Ramos) films a six-on-one interrogation of a neighborhood staple that turns into the shooting of an unarmed man, and finds himself imprisoned after posting the video. Zyrick (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) is a hotshot high school baseball player with a bright future who sees what’s going on in his city and feels like he needs to step up and do something about it.

There is a lot at play here, with three intersecting stories all outlining the way in which these three African-American men all at different stages in their lives are influenced by prejudice within the legal system. Officer Williams’ status as an African-American cop complicates things considerably, since his colleagues expect him to side with them to ensure that the streets are safe for fellow officers, while his friends and family can’t believe that he lets prejudiced and corrupt behavior go unchecked. Manny is a loyal father torn from his family, and Zyrick, who is stopped and searched on his way home early in the film, is barely part of the equation until he decides to do something and fight back against injustice.


Director Reinaldo Marcus Green discusses the film

This sobering film was awarded a special prize for a feature debut at Sundance, and it’s true that it shows promise for the way in which it handles a highly relevant topic – director Reinaldo Marcus Green earned a standing ovation at the film’s final screening in Park City. His three leads here are equally compelling, conveying the personal experiences of these representative characters in Green’s original script. This film is absolutely one that should be part of the conversation about race and tolerance today, and it’s a well-made effort at that.

B+

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Sundance with Abe: Burden

I’m thrilled to be attending and covering the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah for the fifth time. I’m seeing as many movies as I can each day and will post reviews of each as I can.


Burden
Directed by Andrew Heckler
U.S. Dramatic Competition Audience Award Winner

It can be hard to believe the hate that continues to exist in the world, though recent events both in the United States and elsewhere have served as a reminder that intolerance and discrimination are still rampant. Before the establishment of civil rights institutions and laws tailored towards equality, it was simply a matter of a difference of opinion, one that was horrifically tolerated and even legally enforced at times. In modern days, the hope would be that hate is the outlier, and it’s jarring to see instances of seemingly normal people existing in present-day society spewing something that feels like it should have gone out of fashion centuries earlier.

Mike Burden (Garrett Hedlund) lives in 1996 South Carolina in a small town, working on collections and repossessions for his father figure, Tom Griffin (Tom Wilkinson), who has just achieved his goal of opening a KKK museum celebrating their continued membership in the Ku Klux Klan. A local African-American preacher, Reverend Kennedy (Forest Whitaker), is horrified by this celebration of a dark chapter in his country’s history, and organizes regular protests to take place outside the shop. When Burden meets and falls for Judy (Andrea Riseborough), she forces him to make a choice between her and the Klan, putting him at odds with everyone he’s grown up with and into circles he never would have deigned to step into because of the hatred in his heart.

This film’s title references the last name of its protagonist but also signifies more about what allegiance to the KKK really represents. When Burden opts to renounce the Klan so that he can remain with Judy and her young son, he is subject to cruel treatment by his former friends, who own the local police department and have considerable influence. They see any attempt to stifle their dissemination of their philosophy as an infringement on their rights to recall their history, and demonize and incite anyone who would try to tell them to stop spreading hate. Speaking about the process of making the film, director Andrew Heckler shared that they had to recreate the shop in its entirety, which was visited nearly every day by those attempting to browse and buy from what they thought was a real memorabilia store.


Director Andrew Heckler discusses the film

This is Hedlund’s second straight buzzworthy Sundance film about a man standing up to racial intolerance, this time in more modern times and starting out on the wrong side of things. His turn is considerably more excitable and intense, paired with Riseborough’s recreation of this overwhelmed woman who just couldn’t understand how the man she came to love could ascribe to this worldview. The film tells an interesting story which has its moments, but overall this Sundance Audience Award winner, which received a standing ovation following its screening, is a lengthy film with a message more powerful than much of its content.

B

Sundance with Abe: We the Animals

I’m thrilled to be attending and covering the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah for the fifth time. I’m seeing as many movies as I can each day and will post reviews of each as I can.


We the Animals
Directed by Jeremiah Zagar
NEXT

The Sundance Film Festival’s NEXT section is a special category designed to highlight films that are cutting-edge and represent what will “shape a greater next wave in American cinema.” Often, independent filmmakers with a particularly artsy style go on to make more normative films after their debut, as director Desiree Akhavan has done jumping from “Appropriate Behavior” to the U.S. Dramatic Competition Grand Jury Prize winner from this year, “The Miseducation of Cameron Post.” Some of those features are especially grounded in experimental styles, which can work to a degree but still may represent a more unusual approach to moviemaking.

Manny (Isaiah Kristian), Joel (Josiah Gabriel), and Jonah (Evan Rosado) are three brothers who are exceptionally close, in large part to the occasionally negligent influences of their parents, Paps (Raul Castillo) and Ma (Sheila Vand). When they both work jobs at night, Paps will bring the boys with him to sleep on the floor of his office, and the tumultuous relationship their parents have often leaves them to their own devices, running amok in their house trying to entertain and keep themselves occupied while they wait to grow up for whatever comes next.

This film feels at times like a combination of two recent indie successes, “Beasts of the Southern Wild” and “The Florida Project,” mimicking the former’s sense of children running wild as if they own the world and the latter’s portrayal of parents who see and understand what their children are doing but do little to curb their behavior or educate them that they should act differently. The result isn’t nearly as resounding as either of those films, instead presenting a visually astounding and compelling picture of what unsupervised brotherhood really looks like, headed in an uncertain direction because of the true lack of a parenting or life plan from either adult.

The three boys, particularly Rosado as the youngest and most idealistic, are impressive in realistic performances that embody the film’s most effective asset. Castillo and Vand, both of whom have appeared in a number of projects recently, deliver passionate turns that demonstrate just how bonded their characters are to their family despite their preoccupation with things like marital happiness and making a living. This film won a NEXT Innovator Award at Sundance, representing that filmmaker Jeremiah Zagar has interesting things to say about the world, and hopefully his next feature will be just as contemplative and considerably more alert and engaging.

B

Sundance with Abe: The Miseducation of Cameron Post

I’m thrilled to be attending and covering the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah for the fifth time. I’m seeing as many movies as I can each day and will post reviews of each as I can.


The Miseducation of Cameron Post
Directed by Desiree Akhavan
U.S. Dramatic Competition Grand Jury Prize Winner

A number of films at this year’s Sundance Film Festival have to do with same-sex relationships, many of them occurring clandestinely in a time long before it was socially acceptable and common. While a lot of today’s population is okay with people being gay, there remain factions and individuals who continue to revile it. Perhaps worse still than those who blindly hate are those who seek to correct what they see as a disease and immoral temptation, sending those experiencing same-sex attraction to conversion therapy to be “fixed.”

Cameron Post (Chloe Grace Moretz) is a teenage girl engaged in a secret romance with her friend Coley (Quinn Shephard) that abruptly ends when her boyfriend catches them together in a car at their prom. She is sent to a remote therapy center, where she meets the kindhearted Reverend Rick (John Gallagher Jr.), who describes himself as having overcome his own urges, and the less forgiving Dr. Lydia Marsh (Jennifer Ehle). She finds some refuge in the friendships she makes with Jane (Sasha Lane) and Adam (Forrest Goodluck), the only two people who seem not to buy into the smothering program they have been forced to attend, as she tries to act compliant while being told that there’s something wrong with how she feels.

This is a subject that is surely very difficult for those who have been through it and come out the other side without being brainwashed to watch, but the way in which it’s presented is mostly comedic. Director Desiree Akhavan’s first feature was the 2014 Sundance NEXT entry “Appropriate Behavior,” which followed an Iranian-American bisexual woman navigating her sexual orientation in her culture, and this is a very interesting and noteworthy follow-up, adapting a popular novel by Emily Danforth into something relevant, engaging, humorous, and devastating all at the same time.

Moretz was introduced before the screening of the film as a young actress, who, at age twenty, has already appeared in a number of films, and though this may be her most muted performance to date, she reacts as many might, trying to fly under the radar while refusing to give in and let her opinions be changed by forces she considers to be illegitimate and stifling. Goodluck and the recently prolific Lane complement her well, as does Emily Skeggs as her less resistant roommate, and Gallagher and Ehle make for believable oppressive adults. This film was a deserving winner of the U.S. Dramatic Competition Grand Jury Prize, telling a story that’s both entertaining and horrific at the same time, totally engaging and educational in its own way.

B+

Sundance with Abe: Monster

I’m thrilled to be attending and covering the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah for the fifth time. I’m seeing as many movies as I can each day and will post reviews of each as I can.


Monster
Directed by Anthony Mandler
U.S. Dramatic Competition

The prison system and the statistics of African-Americans being disproportionately incarcerated have been explored in depth lately by a number of projects, including films. In fact, another similarly-titled film, “Monsters and Men,” competed against this film at Sundance and also addresses the arrests of African-Americans and the tendency to want to convict them of crimes even if there’s no evidence to show that they were involved other than the color of their skin and the neighborhood they live in. This is a film that confronts that head-on in its portrait of a young man facing an unthinkable reality.

Steve Harmon (Kelvin Harrison, Jr.) is a seventeen-year-old aspiring filmmaker from a good home with two loving parents (Jeffrey Wright and Jennifer Hudson). When he is arrested as a lookout for a convenience store robbery in Harlem that claimed the life of the owner, he discovers that the prosecutor (Paul Ben-Victor) wants him to serve twenty years in jail because he “looks the part.” As his attorney (Jennifer Ehle) tries valiantly to show that he is not the monster the prosecutor literally says he is, Steve reflects back on the events that led up to his implication in the robbery.

The presentation of this film is very gritty and realistic, showing how quickly Steve could go from screening one of his films in his bedroom to being hauled into a police station with no clear understanding of what he has done. Steve comes from a good home but faces influences on the streets around him that could get him into trouble, but is also that much more likely to be picked up for a crime due to how he looks. His attorney is sympathetic but her arguments to the jury about him not belonging in this world don’t sound like even she is entirely convinced.


Director Anthony Mandler discusses the film

Harrison, Jr. does a remarkable job of anchoring this film, making Steve an endearing protagonist that the audience wants to root for since he truly isn’t supposed to be in that courtroom, and though he’s more than ready to testify on his own behalf, he sometimes can’t find the words to say what he means to. As his parents, Wright and Hudson (who doesn’t seem old enough to play his mother) are appropriately intense and devastated, supportive but in shock. This is a strong debut for established commercial and music video director Anthony Mandler, who helms a memorable and powerful adaptation of Walter Dean Myers’ young adult novel.

B+

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Sundance with Abe: The Catcher Was a Spy

I’m thrilled to be attending and covering the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah for the fifth time. I’m seeing as many movies as I can each day and will post reviews of each as I can.


The Catcher Was a Spy
Directed by Ben Lewin
Premieres

For every fictional story created about history, like “Beirut,” there’s another that’s true and completely fascinating in itself. The ones set during a war most often involve unlikely odds in which someone completely unprepared for their circumstances goes in to achieve a daring mission where success seems almost impossible. How the story ends isn’t the most important factor since the mere fact that it was attempted is enough to create interest and tell a compelling tale about something that the public didn’t know about until much later.

Moe Berg (Paul Rudd) is a famous baseball catcher who joins the Office of Security Services during World War II, seeking to do something to give back to his country. He’s a particularly strong recruit, speaking nine languages and bearing few personal attachments, avoiding rumors of his homosexuality while refusing to treat his girlfriend as anything more than that. His intellect and skill make him the perfect fit to go overseas with a spy (Guy Pearce) and a physicist (Paul Giamatti) to track down Heisenberg (Mark Strong), the one man who may be able to help the Germans build a bomb.

This film establishes its intrigue at its very start, introducing Heisenberg and then stating that the United States sent a Jewish baseball player to assassinate him. This film is reminiscent in many ways of “The Monuments Men” in that it portrays a small, off-the-books mission in which a handful of people head straight into a war zone that seems to conveniently spare just them as they seek to carry out their orders and ignore the rest of the conflict. Nonetheless, Berg is an intriguing protagonist, one who excels at keeping his personal life private and uses that ability to his advantage in this new line of work.


Director Ben Lewin discusses the film

Rudd might not seem like the first choice to play this character given his mostly comedic background, but he turns out to be an ideal and effective fit, giving Berg a good amount of personality but ensuring that he holds back from truly revealing anything about himself except when he expressly wants to. Giamatti’s Dutch accent is questionable, and it’s Jeff Daniels who steals most of the scenes he’s in as a chief operative who speaks honestly at every opportunity even if it’s far from polite or gentle. This is a fine and involving film, though hardly the home run that this story could have been.

B

Sundance with Abe: A Futile and Stupid Gesture

I’m thrilled to be attending and covering the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah for the fifth time. I’m seeing as many movies as I can each day and will post reviews of each as I can.


A Futile and Stupid Gesture
Directed by David Wain
Premieres

In every generation, there are individual actors who have an influence on cinema, but also groups known more for their collective work than they may be on their own. In the late 1970s and the 1980s, National Lampoon was one such brand that, beginning with “Animal House,” came to define comedy. Their humor may not have been overly sophisticated, but it’s hard to deny that it could be very funny. As expected, exploring the origins of National Lampoon and everything that led up to the filming of the first movie proves enormously worthwhile, as is clear from the incredible talent assembled to star in the film.


Members of the cast and crew discuss the film

Doug Kenney (Will Forte) attends Harvard, where he immediately meets Henry Beard (Domhnall Gleeson), and the two begin working together on the Harvard Lampoon, the university’s humor magazine. When they graduate, Doug convinces Henry to postpone law school to create a spinoff publication. After convincing a publisher (Matt Walsh) to take a chance on them, Doug and Henry navigate a wild ride filled with drugs, controversial jokes, and every big name in comedy as they make their dreams come true.


David Wain and members of the cast discuss the film

Director David Wain is best known for the film “Wet Hot American Summer,” which exaggerates summer camp life into a cult classic. This film, while certainly absurd, is far more grounded in the comedy produced by National Lampoon as a magazine, and watching it portrayed on screen is endlessly entertaining. The structure is purposefully tongue-in-cheek, featuring Martin Mull as a self-described narrative device, anchoring the story and confessing when some casting decisions, like Joel McHale as Chevy Chase, should be excused since they’re well aware that they look nothing alike (and that star Will Forte isn’t 27).


Joel McHale, Emmy Rossum, and Domnhall Gleeson discuss the film

So many members of this talented cast, including Mull, Gleeson, Walsh, Elvy Yost, Thomas Lennon, Joel McHale, and Emmy Rossum, were on stage following the film’s premiere at Sundance this past Wednesday to discuss this hilarious movie. It’s truly amazing to see so many of today’s working comedians in this film, and the result is a resounding, laugh-out-loud film that never ceases to be amusing. Fortunately, there’s no need to wait for this one to be acquired or purchased for eventual release, since it’s available to watch on Netflix as of this past Friday. Even if you’re not a fan of National Lampoon, or familiar with their work, don’t waste any time in sitting down to watch and laugh at this movie.

B+