Sunday, February 18, 2018

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+

Sundance with Abe: Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind

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.


Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind
Directed by Marina Zenovich
Doc Premieres

Robin Williams was an incredible performer, one who entertained so many and whose death by suicide at age 63 was met with such sadness by people around the world. His early career in cinema began on television with “Mork and Mindy,” and from there he went on to be taken more seriously in films like “Good Morning, Vietnam,” and the one that won him an Academy Award, “Good Will Hunting.” Throughout his life, he was known for being funny on set, rarely staying in character throughout an entire shoot or act if he found an opportunity to make those around him laugh.

This introduction sounds like a eulogy, and it’s certainly difficult to summarize Williams’ life and impact in just under two hours, let alone a paragraph. That’s what this documentary, from a director who has delved into California’s water system and Roman Polanski, does enormously effectively. It begins with Williams as a child, then a student, and then a stand-up comedian who could go for hours in front of an audience without holding any notes and with seemingly inexhaustible energy. The factors that led to his eventual suicide are also covered, with references to the way in which he would shut down and behave in private in between coming alive in every public moment.

This should not be considered a comprehensive review of Williams’ contributions to film, since some of his most iconic roles, like “Mrs. Doubtfire,” are barely covered at all. Instead, this is about Williams the person and his effect on comedy, not so much the entire industry but more as a personal vehicle for everything funny. This reviewer’s favorite routine, which finds Williams explaining the absurdity of the invention of golf, isn’t featured, but there are countless other routines that show just how much Williams could keep going without losing any steam, reading the crowd and having a great time cracking everyone up.

This film features some narration from Williams but chooses not to show him being interviewed in any of those moments, instead relying on clips of Williams goofing off during shoots and photographs from his childhood and adult life to illustrate who he really was. Serious interviews with the likes of Steve Martin and Billy Crystal demonstrate how well they knew Williams and understood that, while he may have been the funniest person they knew, he was also going through something deeper. As a tribute to Williams and his unparalleled knack for comedy, this documentary succeeds marvelously, and though it can’t hope to have all the answers, it presents everything in an honest, effective manner to construct a superb documentary.

B+

Sundance with Abe: Hearts Beat Loud

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.


Hearts Beat Loud
Directed by Brett Haley
Premieres

Sometimes you just need a movie that’s set up for success. Its characters may be going through things, and how it will all turn out is uncertain, but there’s still a positive outlook that things can’t get so bad, since the place at which they’re starting is decent if not all that exciting. Such films are at risk of being boring if they don’t present any conflicts or obstacles, but a feel-good movie has the potential to be just as good as a serious drama any day if done right.

Frank (Nick Offerman) runs a record store in Brooklyn that isn’t doing well, and it’s not just because he refuses to talk to his less friendly customers. As his daughter Sam (Kiersey Clemons) prepares to go to college to study medicine, Frank reminds her how much fun they have jamming together, and when he hears her latest song, he realizes that they need to keep making music. After uploading their recording to Spotify, Frank prepares to shut down his store and hopefully start a band with his resistant daughter, a way of paying tribute to her musician mother, who was killed in a bicycle accident years earlier.

Offerman is well-known to TV audiences as gruff manager Ron Swanson from “Parks and Recreation,” and it’s nice to see him shed that personality to create the definition of a wannabe-cool dad who likes what he likes and wants his ambitious and driven daughter to stop doing her homework so that she can jam with him. Clemons, who also has TV experience, is wonderful opposite him, and the two feel like a true family, even though their outlook on the world is very different. Toni Collette and Sasha Lane are both lovely as the romantic influences in their lives.

This film’s plot is affirming and fun, with many jokes throughout, but what really makes it work is the music. Offerman and Clemons perform a number of songs, including the title track, and watching them make the music is only half the fun. This reviewer is particularly excited for an eventual soundtrack release since the songs are all terrific, and the performance of them on screen helps make the experience a delightful and energizing one. What could have been a decent, well-written comedy becomes something memorable and special thanks to both the acting and musical talent of its two leads.

B+

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Sundance with Abe: Sorry to Bother You

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.


Sorry to Bother You
Directed by Boots Riley
U.S. Dramatic Competition

It’s easy to spot trends in filmmaking, especially at a festival like Sundance that features so many films with similar themes and with the same actors in them. “Get Out” was enormously influential at getting people to realize that the status of African-American people in today’s society is no joke, even if it did it in a way that some termed a comedy. If “Tyrel,” another U.S. Dramatic Competition entry that screened this year, is the literal, realistic interpretation of how things are, then “Sorry to Bother You” is the absurdist response that transforms the horror of “Get Out” into all-out craziness.

Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield), better known as Cass, is having serious money problems, and he manages to get a job as a telemarketer, where he’s advised by another African-American colleague (Danny Glover) to use his “white voice” to make more sales. It turns out that it’s a recipe for success, putting him on track to become a mysterious Power Caller, promoted to a top floor to sell top-tier products, and placing him at odds with unionizer Squeeze (Steven Yeun), his best friend (Jermaine Fowler), and his activist girlfriend (Tessa Thempson).

While the use of “white voice” is unsubtle commentary about how different people are perceived when saying the same things, that’s the least of this film’s exaggerations to make its point. The prominence of a company called Worry Free in which employees sign lifetime contracts to live and work for a corporation is the backdrop for a story about what it means to sign yourself over to something without any knowledge of where things might go from there. This wild universe includes far more sinister developments that Cash is shocked to discover and audiences surely will be too.


Star Tessa Thompson and director Boots Riley discuss the film

Stanfield, who himself uttered that infamous warning in “Get Out,” has multiple movies at Sundance this year, and this is the one that allows him to take on the main role and run wild with it. Though most of his sentences are uttered by David Cross and his white voice, it’s a formidable performance that shows Stanfield will have a long and productive career. Armie Hammer is well-cast as the conniving CEO of Worry Free, and Thompson is instantly unforgettable as a woman with personality whose earrings, different in every scene, reveal her true drive for social change. This film is a bit too unhinged to be truly effective, presenting a world that is so removed in its specific alterations from today’s, but like “Get Out,” shows a vision of how things could be to make a greater point about what’s going on in society.

B-

Slamdance Special: Pick of the Litter

I'm delighted to invite a guest reviewer, my wife, Arielle Friedtanzer, who got the chance to cover a film of particular interest to her at the Slamdance Film Festival.

Pick of the Litter
Directed by Dana Nachman and Don Hardy
Slamdance Special Screening


The dogs and humans featured on camera and behind it

When Movies With Abe gave me the opportunity to see this film, I jumped at the chance! A film about training guide dogs? I’d be crazy to say no! What I did not realize at the time was that in addition to having my first stab at attending a film festival as press, doing my first behind-the-scenes interview, and attending my first red carpet premiere, the film that I was getting to do all this for was not only beautifully made and poignantly crafted, but has the potential to make a difference in our world. Many films are created just for the sake of entertainment or pleasure, but this one captures the attention and the hearts of all who have the pleasure of seeing it, and is sure to leave audiences with a new perspective on the vision impaired community and their canine companions.


Arielle and Poppet, one of the stars of the film

Spotlighted as the opening night film for Slamdance, a film festival that rose from the ashes of Sundance rejections to become a “showcase for raw and innovative filmmaking - by filmmakers, for filmmakers,” “Pick of the Litter” was certainly a good pick as a touching, informative, entertaining crowd-pleaser. Watching it in a packed house (literally, I was sitting on the floor!), I realized that we were all aboard a roller coaster of emotions: suspense, excitement, joy, and even sadness. And at the end of the movie, I knew my life was better for having seen it - so much so that I saw it twice in one day! While several parts of the film tugged at the audience’s heartstrings and others were laugh-out-loud hilarious, everyone was engaged throughout the film, a true tribute to the brilliant cinematography, editing, score (by Helen Jane Long, a personal favorite of mine), and direction that went into it. And getting to watch five puppies grow up and embark on their individual journeys is an opportunity I don’t think I’ll ever have in my life, so I am grateful to have felt like I lived it from my seat.


The finale of the Puppy Parade on Main St. in Park City

And yet, I will likely never know what it feels like to be on this journey, to raise a puppy with the intended purpose of it becoming a guide dog, knowing all the while I will need to give it back despite how attached I become to it; or to imagine the trust that is involved in relying on a well-trained dog to be my eyes in the everyday world. This film gives audiences a glimpse into the world of the visually impaired, the vulnerability and dependence experienced by individuals who are expected to function fully in a world that is insensitive and ignorant to many of their needs. The dangers posed by vision impairment are all around us, and the presence of a guide dog in the life of a blind person offers them independence, dignity, and comfort in knowing they are cared for and protected. These four-legged friends become an extension of their owners, and it is through the meticulous and thoughtful training they undergo - from the moment they’re born through graduation - that allows them to offer the gift of sight, in addition to the love and companionship typical of pets.


Co-directors Don Hardy, Jr. and Dana Nachman

And speaking of friends, it took just moments sitting with co-directors, Dana Nachman and Don Hardy, Jr., each of whom worked in several other capacities on the film, to feel completely at-home. They immediately made me feel comfortable and welcome as they shared the inspiration behind the film, the impact they hoped it would have on audiences, and the insight they intended to bring to those within the guide dog community. This 81-minute sure crowd-pleaser, whittled down from around 300 hours of footage from 120 days of shooting, was intended for documentary and dog lovers alike, people with disabilities to families with children, and everyone in between. “I want people to not just think of it as a cute dog movie,” Nachman said. “I think there’s a lot of heft to it; it’s a people movie as much as it’s a dog movie.” Nachman and Hardy, Jr. hoped that their creation would be eye-opening for those involved in raising guide dogs, offering them a glimpse into the parts of the training they were not involved with, and Rebecca, one of the film’s veteran puppy raisers (raising eight guide dogs over the last decade) confirmed they had succeeded when, during the Q and A, she expressed her gratitude for getting to see how the puppies she raises are trained to become outstanding guide dogs. Nachman and Hardy, Jr. also wanted to educate sighted individuals of all ages, as they believe many of us could benefit from learning about vision impairment, but their passion and investment in sharing the gift of this film did not stop at the screen. These thoughtful and inclusive directors also premiered the film with the use of ActiVew, a software that allows vision impaired individuals to experience a film through audio descriptions of what is on screen.


Q and A with the amazing onscreen team

And yet, their thoughtfulness didn’t stop there! As executive producer Ian Reinhard said during my red carpet interview with him, “It’s nice to work with nice people, and the Guide Dogs people are nice people.” Well, so are those running the ship of “Pick of the Litter,” including Reinhard himself, who invited this very lucky first-time film critic to celebrate with their team after the premiere! Truly, every single person working on this film could not have been kinder, and I think that shines through both in the subject matter of the film, and in their excitement to share it with the world and raise awareness about the blind community. “The canine human connection is really pretty profound,” Nachman said, and this film really helps to bring that relationship to the foreground. (It doesn't hurt that all of their publicity materials include five very adorable dogs.) Hardy, Jr. agrees, ”“The cute dogs are what get you through the door, but then you really learn how much it takes, how many people it takes, and the struggles involved in really becoming a guide dog so hopefully the next time you see one walking down the street, you realize that's an incredible animal there that can do just amazing work.”