Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Movie with Abe: Our Friend

Our Friend
Directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite
Released January 22, 2021

Many people consider their romantic partners to be their best friends. That’s hardly a universal sentiment, and it’s very often true that, for heterosexual couples, both people involved have their own preexisting relationships with individuals of their same gender. When one of them is very close with someone of the opposite gender, feelings of jealousy or suspicion can emerge, a problem that can only be solved if both partners feel connected to that person and as if the dynamic is truly platonic. When that is the case, it’s an invaluable bond that can be especially crucial in the face of tragedy.

Nicole (Dakota Johnson) and Matt (Casey Affleck) are happily married and serve as parents to two young daughters, Evie (Violet McGraw) and Molly (Isabella Kai). They experience rough patches when Matt’s work as a journalist keeps him on assignment and away from home for extended periods of time, but their greatest struggle comes when Nicole’s health declines severely and they are forced to prepare for the worst. Their good friend Dane (Jason Segel) shows up to offer his support, doing his best to comfort both of them and care for their children as they face a difficult future.

This film’s title explains Dane’s role in Nicole and Matt’s lives, which is charted through flashbacks that also fill in the way in which Nicole and Matt’s own romance evolved and changed over time. Matt is at times suspicious of Dane’s interest in his wife, and the fact that he is physically absent for a substantial period of time does not help matters since it creates opportunities for resentment and for Dane to be present when he is not. When they need him most, Dane steps up in a big way, which of course does not come without its own issues as emotions are heightened and interactions are rarely calm and pleasant.

These three stars are all strong actors who have done excellent work in very varied projects in the past. Johnson, who I remember from her breakout TV role on “Ben and Kate” and is most well-known for the “Fifty Shades of Grey” film series, handles the weight of her part well and conveys a deep love for those she knows she may need to say goodbye to far sooner than she thought or hoped. Affleck, who dealt masterfully with incredible loss in his Oscar-winning turn in “Manchester by the Sea,” is typically moody, but this isn’t his best work. The same goes for Segel, who is affable and genuine but not nearly as well-used as he often is in comedies. This film is compelling at times but ultimately unextraordinary in its depiction of an unconventional three-way friendship and the way in which people show up in different ways when they’re needed most.

B

Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Movie with Abe: The Human Factor

The Human Factor
Directed by Dror Moreh
Released January 22, 2021

Since the official creation of the country of Israel in 1948, there have been few lasting moments of peace between it and its neighbors. Multiple wars early in its history and the presence of two peoples within it have only exacerbated that. Throughout that time, the United States took an active role in trying to facilitate some sort of understanding, working with Israelis and Palestinians to determine what they needed in order to coexist. One of the sincerest and most groundbreaking efforts was undertaken by three men from very different backgrounds and perspectives: Israeli Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin, Palestinian President Yasser Arafat, and U.S. President Bill Clinton.

This documentary examines the Oslo Accords, brokered by Clinton, from the point of view of the American negotiators. The narrative begins before Clinton was elected, looking at a history of American involvement in the Middle East peace process and the groundbreaking nature of two longtime enemies, Rabin and Arafat, even coming to the table to acknowledge each other as people. The story also continues after the assassination of Rabin in Israel and Clinton’s departure from office, examining the shortcomings and failures of even the most determined and comparably open-minded operatives.

There is a great deal of levity to be found in this film that deals with very serious issues that have an enduring impact for all the residents of the region. Anecdotes about Arafat’s team watching “The Golden Girls” and the leader cutting one of the negotiators’ chicken for him lead to humorous comparisons to typical Jewish traits, and that sentiment was shown to be at play in the surprisingly cordial relations between Rabin and Arafat. The film strikes a more somber tone when it describes and shows Clinton’s heartbroken reaction to learning of the death of his friend Rabin, and the gradually derailed process that starts with his successor, who just happens to be the man currently serving as prime minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu.

This is a highly informative film that adds new weight to a conversation that has been had countless times, with the negotiators offering tremendous detail and reflection on what each party did wrong. Conflicting expectations about what elements of the process would mean for Israelis and Palestinians was the root of the problem, but, twenty-five years later, those intimately involved have come to see their own role in playing favorites. Unlike his previous film, “The Gatekeepers,” however, documentarian Dror Moreh isn’t presenting a searing indictment of his home country but instead powerfully exploring the difficulties of achieving peace and the value of striving for something else that might be more sustainable and possible.

B+

Monday, January 18, 2021

Interview with Abe: News of the World

I had the pleasure of chatting with production designer David Crank about his work on the film “News of the World,” which is now playing in theaters and on demand. Check out my great conversation with him at Awards Radar. Read my review here.

Movie with Abe: News of the World

News of the World
Directed by Paul Greengrass
Released December 25, 2020

Studies in recent years have predicted that people in the near future will have more careers than ever before, and that some of those fields don’t even exist yet. While developing technology creates new possibilities, it also eliminates industries that may have previously thrived and served as a way of life for many. Internet and television news have gradually reduced the impact and profitability of printed publications, and widespread access to education means that a higher percentage of the American population can read. Those factors mean that traveling from town to town to read the news to an eager audience is a profession that simply no longer has any demand.

Civil War veteran Captain Kidd (Tom Hanks) encounters a young girl, Johanna (Helena Zengel), on his way from one Texas one to another. Kidd struggles to communicate with Johanna, who speaks no English and appears tied to many Native American customs learned from the people who took her from her natural-born family. After learning that an official reservation representative won’t be available for months, Kidd sets out to bring Johanna to her remaining living relatives himself, charting uncertain roads and dangerous threats along the way.

This film is mostly a two-person journey, following Kidd and Johanna as they navigate new territory and a developing relationship that primarily involves non-verbal communication. While there is much to be learned about each of them and how they see the world through their rapport, the most inviting aspect of this experience is its visual component. The landscapes and sunsets, assisted by a strong score, are particularly mesmerizing, conveying the true physical beauty of Kidd and Johanna’s surroundings even if the land is riddled with lawlessness and violence.

Hanks is an obvious choice for this role because of his generally likeable nature, adding humanity to the role of someone who would love only to look out for himself but can’t resist the urge to help those he sees in need. Zengel, like other young breakouts before her, is a recognizable talent in a part that makes the story more emphatic and engaging. This is a film that shines in specific moments that occur throughout its narrative, capturing a feeling of vastness and uncertainty as its characters travel the barren desert roads from town to town. Director Paul Greengrass, whose last collaboration with Hanks was “Captain Phillips,” presents another contemplative reflection on individuality in a place dominated by those who would rather not challenge the way things are.

B+

Friday, January 15, 2021

Weekend Movie Recommendations with Abe

Every Friday, I'll be uploading a Minute with Abe: Weekend Movie Recommendations Edition, surveying new releases on DVD, and on streaming services. Check it out, and subscribe to the movieswithabe channel!


New to Theaters: The Marksman
New to Theaters and VOD: MLK/FBI
New to VOD: Promising Young Woman, News of the World
New to DVD: A Thousand Cuts, Monsoon, Jungleland
New to Amazon: One Night in Miami
New to Hulu: The Ultimate Playlist of Noise

Thursday, January 14, 2021

Movie with Abe: The Marksman

The Marksman
Directed by Robert Lorenz
Released January 15, 2021

In certain cases, it’s unclear whether an actor was cast for a particular role or if the part was actually written specifically for that actor. This is far more typical in the case of big-budget blockbusters or action films than independent features or biopics, and that’s often because a star is marketable and audiences will buy tickets to see them in any capacity. How much effort is put in to building a coherent narrative around that central character is not set in stone, and it’s definitely much easier to simply rely on the bankability of a name alone.

Liam Neeson stars as Jim, a widower who lives in Arizona right near the Mexico-U.S. border. Just after he learns that he is going to lose his home to the bank over late payments caused by high medical bills for his late wife, Jim encounters a young mother (Teresa Ruiz) who has just illegally crossed the border with her eleven-year-old son Miguel (Jacob Perez). Though he wants to stay out of trouble and report their presence to his stepdaughter Sarah (Katheryn Winnick), who works in law enforcement, Jim must keep the promise he makes to Miguel’s mother to transport him safely to Chicago as they are trailed by cartel operatives led by the vengeful Mauricio (Juan Pablo Raba).

Neeson had another vehicle like this in last year’s “Honest Thief,” where he portrayed Tom, a bank robber determined to put his criminal past behind him after falling in love. Here, he’s on the other side of that, devastated to be left alone after a rich life with a loyal partner, and the threat of losing the one thing he has left coupled with compassion for a child out of options leads to him to focus on nothing but fulfilling a caring mother’s request. From the moment he makes that choice, Jim is immediately endowed with all the past training and abilities of Neeson’s previous characters.

Most who choose to watch this film will be looking forward to the moment in which Jim becomes merely a stand-in for any role that Neeson has had in the past. Unfortunately, it doesn’t lead to particularly creative or engaging filmmaking, as Jim is more tired and less expressive even than the already low-key Tom. The immigration elements of the story add little, and there are actually few moments of true satisfying action that should please Neeson fans. It’s certainly much more logical than the Sean Penn starrer “The Gunman,” and there’s nothing inherently bad about it, but this film has a thin premise and doesn’t aim particularly high in any respect.

C

Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Movie with Abe: The Ultimate Playlist of Noise

The Ultimate Playlist of Noise
Directed by Bennett Lasseter
Released January 15, 2021 (Hulu)

When someone knows that they have a limited time left to do something, they tend to want to spend as much time as possible doing it. The notion of indulging plentifully in an experience before it disappears or can no longer be accessed makes sense, since those memories and feelings will serve as an enduring reminder to be referenced in the future. It can’t replace the absence, but may serve as a comfort and the only thing a person can really do in the face of something they can’t control or prevent, no matter how hard they try.

Marcus (Keean Johnson) is a high school senior who loves music. When he learns that he has a condition that will force him to have brain surgery that will leave him without his hearing, he sets out to create the definitive collection of noise, assembling samples of all the sounds that he knows he’ll no longer be able to hear. Along the way, he meets and is amazed by Wendy (Madeline Brewer), a musician who is trying to escape her own messay situation and make it to New York. Their road trip provides the opportunity to encounter a wide array of sounds and a transformative sample of what’s out there in the world.

This film’s premise has some similarities to “Sound of Metal,” a far melancholier story of a drummer losing his hearing. This could be considered the less gruff version, one that’s much more family-friendly even if some of the experiences that Marcus has aren’t completely wholesome. In addition to his impending deafness, he feels a sense of longing for his older brother who died but left a strong impression on him. He is immediately attracted to Wendy but the relationship is more about interacting with their audial surroundings than developing a true romantic connection.

Johnson has a very likeable demeanor that makes him an endearing protagonist, someone with a sense of what he wants and a great curiosity about the world that has yet to be fulfilled because of how much he just doesn’t know. Brewer plays a far gentler character than the one most might know her from on “The Handmaid’s Tale,” and she makes Wendy appropriately alluring while keeping her three-dimensional and complex. This film has a wonderful spirit of adventure and exploration, one that fuels it as Marcus prepares for an unthinkable future made much more bearable by the excitement of all he can internalize before that happens.

B+

Tuesday, January 12, 2021

Movie with Abe: The King of Staten Island

The King of Staten Island
Directed by Judd Apatow
Released June 12, 2020

Growing up can be tough, and there are many who, if given the choice, would choose not to do it at all. Remaining in a perpetual state of putting off major life decisions and significant accomplishments is appealing because there is no pressure to be successful or become independent. Such scenarios rarely last forever, and the introduction of a new element into a previously sustainable situation can threaten to change everything. Ultimately, a bit of outside perspective and a new approach may be exactly the enhancement that someone didn’t know they needed.

Scott (Pete Davidson) is twenty-four years old and still living at home in Staten Island with his mother (Marisa Tomei). The ever-aspiring tattoo artist spends most of his time with his friends Richie (Lou Wilson), Oscar (Ricky Velez), and Igor (Moises Arias), while navigating a budding relationship with Kelsey (Bel Powley). When his mother begins dating a hotheaded firefighter, Ray (Bill Burr), Scott reacts negatively, unhappy with the idea that his father, also a firefighter who died years earlier, would be replaced by someone he doesn’t like at all, and sets out to sabotage him.

This film comes from director Judd Apatow, best known for comedies like “Knocked Up,” “Funny People,” and “Trainwreck,” about people having their first experiences with adulthood. Davidson, a “Saturday Night Live” player who had a similarly terrific role in the recent “Big Time Adolescence,” serves as a co-writer on this semiautobiographical story and feels so at home in the role of Scott, unwilling to censor any of his base impulses and even less motivated to change for the sake of other people. It’s at the same time clearly a version of Davidson’s personality and a terrific lead performance.

Davidson is in good company in this rich and highly entertaining film that offers plenty of laughs along the way. The entire cast is excellent, with Powley and Maude Apatow, who plays Scott’s more responsible and productive sibling Claire, as spectacular standouts, and other performers like Steve Buscemi and Pamela Adlon utilized very well in small parts. Burr, who has been picking up mentions from critics’ groups this awards season, makes Ray a more layered character than he might be in another film. This film has a unique Staten Island spirit, one that makes a narrative that could be unremarkable if handled differently charming and very worthwhile.

B+

Monday, January 11, 2021

Movie with Abe: Another Round

Another Round
Directed by Thomas Vinterberg
Released December 18, 2020

Alcohol is known to cause impairment, but there’s a wide range of ways in which people react to its consumption. Some may become tipsy and make questionable decisions when they drink, while others may have built up a high tolerance and be able to function relatively normally even after imbibing generously. Aside from a person’s behavior while under the influence, there are additional effects that may not be immediately apparent and can be far more destructive and lasting. Attempting to push limits to see what might happen can be enlightening and equally regrettable.

Martin (Mads Mikkelsen) is a high school teacher failing to connect with his students, who, along with their parents, complain about the difficulty of his tests and their need to earn high marks in the class. A night out with his fellow teacher friends results in an intriguing experiment, one that finds the four men drinking heavily to keep their blood alcohol levels at a stable high throughout the day, including during their time at school. Martin’s new attitude enables him to forge a new relationship with his students while he and his friends begin to notice the potentially adverse implications of their risky routine.

This film, which took home top honors at the European Film Awards, presents a story that wouldn’t really work in an American setting, where high school teachers are of a different generation and might have murkier boundaries with their students. Yet what these educators decide to do, under the guise of intellectual research, is indisputably irresponsible, and they fail to consider what tangential results their reckless indulgence might cause. Though their students seem mostly unaware of why they are acting differently, their family members feel the brunt of their shift towards a life of permanent inebriation.

This serves a reunion for director Thomas Vinterberg and star Mads Mikkelsen, whose 2013 collaboration “The Hunt” earned an Oscar nomination, a feat that is likely to be repeated by this year’s official Danish submission for Best International Feature. The recognizable Mikkelsen is a strong fit for the role of Martin, who expresses reservations about this plan but ultimately finds it irresistible, navigating a fine line between once again finding a passion that was lost and acting in an appropriate and commendable manner. This film’s narrative arc, much like the sobriety of his characters, is full of extremes, culminating in a highly memorable and emphatic finale that calls into question whether its players have indeed learned anything from their dangerous antics.

B+

Friday, January 8, 2021

Weekend Movie Recommendations with Abe

Every Friday, I'll be uploading a Minute with Abe: Weekend Movie Recommendations Edition, surveying new releases on DVD, and on streaming services. Check it out, and subscribe to the movieswithabe channel!


New to Virtual Cinemas: Blizzard of Souls, Beautiful Something Left Behind 
New to DVD: The Keeper 
 New to Amazon: Herself

Thursday, January 7, 2021

Movie with Abe: Pieces of a Woman

Pieces of a Woman
Directed by Kornél Mundruczó
Released January 7, 2021 (Netflix)

Experiencing a loss can lead to truly lasting and irreversible effects. There’s the very literal absence of the person or thing that is no longer present, and a melancholy about what could have been if that was not the case. No two people go through a loss in the exact same way, even if they are now both missing the same thing. Getting back to a point of stability may take a tremendous amount of time, and those who can’t see the world through one person’s eyes may have difficulty accepting that the process may be lengthy and possibly never even fully complete.

Martha (Vanessa Kirby) prepares for a home birth with her partner Sean (Shia LaBeouf), and they are forced to use a new midwife, Eva (Molly Parker), when their original choice is not available. Troubling indicators after the baby is born lead to the devastating death of the child and Eva’s arrest on multiple counts of negligence. Martha struggles to exist in the aftermath, facing constant judgment and hushed conversations around her, both from those she knows, like her mother, Elizabeth (Ellen Burstyn) and those who somehow think they comprehend her situation and mindset.

This can be a very grueling film to watch, one that spares little in its depiction of the birthing process and its traumatic aftermath. Martha is a character who exudes positive energy early on but is also clearly involved in a relationship that is toxic at best. There is a friction between Sean and Elizabeth that initially seems lighthearted and almost comical, and though they both want to support Martha, their approaches are disparate and clashing. Sean in particular is unwilling to consider Martha’s feelings separately from his own, unable to acknowledge that the emptiness she has could be different or deeper than his own.

Kirby, a standout player from the first two seasons of “The Crown,” delivers an exceptional performance charged with emotion, presenting Martha as someone who does not like being vulnerable but also isn’t always able to stand up for herself in the face of oppressive or demeaning elements. Burstyn is memorable and impactful in her limited scenes, adding layers to the mother who doesn’t always agree with her strong-willed daughter. The strength of LaBeouf’s turn shouldn’t be judged by the lawsuits and negative press he is currently facing, but it’s not easy to separate those allegations from the similarities to the character he plays perhaps all too well. This film is, at times, both poignant and deeply upsetting, seemingly unsure of its ultimate direction but committed to sitting with discomfort and grief and grappling with unresolved questions about imagined possibilities.

B

Interview with Abe: Blizzard of Souls

I had the pleasure of speaking with director Dzintars Dreibergs, cinematographer Valdis Celmins, composer Lolita Ritmanis, and actor Oto Brantevics about their new film “Blizzard of Souls,” which debuts in virtual cinemas tomorrow and is Latvia's official Oscar submission for Best International Feature. Check out our conversation below to learn more about the film! Buy tickets here.



Wednesday, January 6, 2021

Interviews with Abe: Herself

I had the pleasure of speaking with writer-star Clare Dunne, star Harriet Walter, and director Phyllida Lloyd about one of my top films of the year, “Herself,” which premieres on Amazon Prime Video this Friday. Watch the two conversations, plus my one-minute video review from last year's Sundance Film Festival, below, and click here to read my review of this excellent film.





Saturday, January 2, 2021

Top 10 Films of 2020

As someone known for being able to name the year a movie was released or won an Oscar, it feels weird to make a list of the best movies of 2020 when some of my favorites haven’t been officially released yet, and I might still see something I really like by February that could arguably count as either 2020 or 2021.

As a result, this is my current top ten movies of 2020, with the caveat that it’s not final. See these movies!

10. Dating Amber (available on VOD)
9. Palm Springs (watch now on Hulu)
8. Nine Days (coming summer 2021)
7. Summertime (coming spring 2021)
6. Weathering with You (available on VOD)
5. Wendy (watch now on HBO Max)
4. Herself (coming to Amazon Prime January 8th)
3. Mank (watch now on Netflix)
2. The Trial of the Chicago 7 (watch now on Netflix)
1. Promising Young Woman (coming to VOD mid-January)

Stick around in 2021 for plenty of exciting content, including the 14th Annual AFT Awards, Oscar predictions, Sundance Film Festival coverage, and so much more!

Friday, January 1, 2021

Weekend Movie Recommendations with Abe

Every Friday, I'll be uploading a Minute with Abe: Weekend Movie Recommendations Edition, surveying new releases on DVD, and on streaming services. Check it out, and subscribe to the movieswithabe channel!


New to Theaters: Herself
New to VOD: Shadow in the Cloud
New to DVD: Dating Amber, Saul and Ruby's Holocaust Survivor Band, The Last Shift, Honest Thief
New to Netflix: Bonnie and Clyde, Catch Me If You Can, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, Into the Wild, Mud, The Departed
New to Amazon and Hulu: A Night at the Roxbury, Cloverfield, Face/Off, The Truman Show
New to Hulu: Hell or High Water, The Mexican, Young Adult, Save Yourselves
New to Topic: Once Upon a Time in Venezuela

Thursday, December 31, 2020

Movie with Abe: Nomadland

Nomadland
Directed by Chloé Zhao
To Be Released February 19th, 2021

Putting down roots can provide people with a sense of community and security. That lifestyle isn’t for everyone, however, and some embrace the continually changing nature of their existence, which might keep them moving from place to place and following whatever opportunities and palatable weather come along. Someone may also transition from being settled to a more transitory way of life, particularly if the elements that were grounding them, like family, friends, or a job, are no longer present and nowhere really feels like home anymore.

Fern (Frances McDormand) sees the factory in her Nevada town closed due to economic troubles in 2011, and her zip code discontinued as a result of the exodus of residents seeking work. Recently widowed, Fern lives in her van and explores the nomad lifestyle, working as a seasonal employee for Amazon to earn enough money and take advantage of the parking arrangement for what counts as her mobile home. Fern learns from other people about a range of topics, including changing tires and managing your own waste, while she keeps moving around from job to job in search of some way to stay afloat and continue wandering the country at her own pace.

This film is based on the 2017 nonfiction book “Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century” by Jessica Bruder. Fern encapsulates the experience of many who have chosen the nomad lifestyle, sometimes voluntarily but mostly due to financial troubles caused by the 2008 recession. She is told by multiple people, those who know her and strangers alike, that they are concerned about her and are happy to offer her a place to stay, but she realizes that an option like that might bring her temporary peace but ultimately wouldn’t be what she needs after seeing that which she held most dear – her husband and her community – disappear.

McDormand is a two-time Oscar-winning actress whose immersion into this role feels effortless. She creates the truest definition of a real person, someone who doesn’t want to be told what to do and acknowledges her own limitations. It’s a powerhouse turn supported by real-life nomads Charlene Swankie and Bob Wells, who embody a certain calm serenity and optimistic outlook about their atypical worldview, and David Strathairn, in a similarly toned-down performance. Director Chloé Zhao’s follow-up to the highly acclaimed “The Rider” is, like that film, a sensitive and captivating look at loneliness and mobility, with stunning cinematography and a beautiful score by Ludovico Einaudito assist its stark and haunting narrative.

B+

Wednesday, December 30, 2020

Movie with Abe: The Way Back

The Way Back
Directed by Gavin O’Connor
Released March 6, 2020

People face a variety of setbacks throughout their lives, and having a support system to rely on during hard times can make all the difference. Unfortunately, not everyone has that, whether through a series of circumstances beyond their control or because of a willful desire not to accept help from others. Returning to a place of hope and happiness can seem impossibly distant, and getting there may require an intervention from someone else who notices suffering or outside influences that serve as a productive distraction and motivator.

Former high school basketball star Jack (Ben Affleck) consumes a worrisome amount of beer each day, struggling to find meaning in his construction job. When he is offered the chance to coach the lackluster basketball team at his old school, he reluctantly accepts. He finds his passion but also has immense difficulty tempering the anger he feels that manifests itself in foul language and other behavior deemed unacceptable by the school. His fractured relationship with his ex-wife (Janina Gavankar) and demons from his past threaten to derail a future that might actually allow him to channel his energy into something that will be good for the next generation.

This is, in many ways, a typical sports movie that also deals extensively with alcoholism and depression. As Jack debates whether to take the job, he cycles through a number of beer cans that he systematically moves from the refrigerator to the freezer, clearly rehearsing a process he has repeated many times. He snaps at his sister (Michaela Watkins) when she dares to question how often he is seen at the bar, and outright denies any lingering issues when pressed by his new assistant coach (Al Madrigal), who immediately defers to his expertise as soon as he first sets foot on the court. Everyone around Jack seems to be rooting for his success, but he is intent on punishing himself for past failures even if no one else seeks to put blame on him.

Affleck has received considerable praise for his performance, which does find him investing deeply in a character in a way vaguely reminiscent of his standout turn in 2006’s “Hollywoodland.” His star power might be enough to catapult him into the Oscar race, but there’s nothing especially extraordinary about this standard and relatively expected film. It’s still a worthwhile story, even if it travels a road many films have explored before, with some sports excitement thrown in to make Jack a fractured hero worth supporting even if his choices are rarely the best.

B

Movie with Abe: Borat Subsequent Moviefilm


Borat Subsequent Moviefilm
Directed by Jason Woliner
Released October 23, 2020 (Amazon Prime Video)

In 2006, Sacha Baron Cohen brought his bumbling Kazakh journalist Borat Sagdiyev to the big screen, highlighting the stupidity of the masses in a number of staged scenes mixed in with a loose fictionalized story. In the time since, the world has undeniably become more absurd, and it makes sense that Cohen would decide to bring the character back for another global misadventure. It’s important to know what to expect when preparing to watch Borat in action, spearheading a narrative that’s often obscene as a way to draw out the worse impulses in people who have no problem doing and saying deplorable things on camera.

This film, whose full title is “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm: Delivery of Prodigious Bribe to American Regime for Make Benefit Once Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan,” finds Borat being released from prison and charged with a mission to bribe President Donald Trump with a prized Kazakh monkey. When he arrives in America, he finds that the monkey has died but his teenage daughter Tutar (Maria Bakalova) is very much there and desperately seeking his approval. In his ill-advised quest to reach the top Republicans in power, Borat is forced to confront what he believes to be true in the midst of Tutar’s gradual yearning for independent thought.

The primary joke being made here is that Kazakhstan is a backwards country where women have absolutely no rights and are indoctrinated with preposterous lies to keep them from asking questions. As with the first film and much of Cohen’s work, portraying bigotry provides an opportunity for others to freely display their opinions, which can be quite disturbing and horrifying. Some of the material, like Borat panicking at the thought that the “national pride” of Kazakhstan that was the Holocaust didn’t happen and then being relieved when two Holocaust survivors assure him it did, is a bit much to take, and that which works better, particularly involving those who believe the coronavirus pandemic is a hoax and the government has no right to impose restrictions on its citizens, may be more upsetting than humorous in this present moment.

Even if this film does lean towards the immature and stupid, it’s best viewed as a mockery of what it showcases rather than an encouragement of it. More importantly, it manages to reach a conclusion that’s both clever and unexpectedly sweet, conveying a far more intelligent structure behind a less sophisticated finished product. Early on, Borat explains how his fame has made it difficult for him to operate unnoticed, and Cohen’s pranks and Borat’s legacy have indeed been influential on popular culture and even politics in some cases. As a whole, this film is a mixed bag, but an emphatic finish and the opportunity for reflection on its contents makes it feel considerably stronger and more worthwhile.

B

Tuesday, December 29, 2020

Movie with Abe: Crip Camp

Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution
Directed by James Lebrecht and Nicole Newnham
Released March 25, 2020 (Netflix)

There are many reasons that true equality doesn’t exist between all people in the United States and the larger world. Clear physical signs of difference inspire exaggerated reactions and attempts even by those meaning well to create a distinction between the able-bodied and those with disabilities. It’s possible that those who are deemed unlike the established norm will never have experienced a situation in which they are treated merely as people, not separated or given special attention because of the needs they have, which can understandably make them feel ostracized and as if they’ll never truly fit in.

In 1971, Camp Jened in upstate New York welcomed a diverse group of campers with disabilities, bringing in hippies to serve as counselors and offering attendees the chance to truly express themselves in a safe and warm environment. This documentary includes archive footage from the camp of daily activities and interviews with many of the people there, as well as more recent reflective conversations with those who were there and who translated their positive experience into advocacy for government legislation for official protections and accommodations to be mandated.

This is a very affirming film, one that meets a number of people who have been made to feel marginalized and gives them an uninterrupted voice. It’s inspiring to hear about the spirit of openness that permeated Camp Jened and the incredible impact it made on so many. There seem to be no judgments made in the construction of this film, allowing each person featured an equal opportunity to share their story and contribute to the narrative, particularly if they might not typically be featured as an interviewee due to difficulty speaking or communicating. It’s a wonderful way to extend the legacy of an institution whose almost haphazard mission was one of radical inclusion.

The fact that this film was made and released widely on an extremely popular streaming service means that, at the very least, it should provide a chance for those unexposed to seeing how people with disabilities live and are often treated to have a better understanding, and to hopefully reach the conclusion that a notion like “separate but equal,” applied for any reason, is not acceptable. Fortunately, there are many advances that have happened since much of what is depicted in this film – in many cases as a result of activism by those portrayed – which have made the country a more accessible and navigable place. There is certainly still work to be done, and getting as many people as possible to see this very strong and stirring documentary is a great first step.

B+

Movie with Abe: The Social Dilemma

The Social Dilemma
Directed by Jeff Orlowski
Released September 9, 2020 (Netflix)

It would be hard to find someone who doesn’t feel that they spend too much time on their phone. There are many reasons to believe that being online for too long can have detrimental effects, and only those who remember life before constantly-accessible technology can truly understand the possibilities and benefits of detachment and unplugging. While staring at a screen for too long may result in headaches or other minor health conditions, there are actually far more severe effects that should have anyone who owns a smartphone or a computer thinking twice about the way they engage with the digital world.

Who is more qualified to assess the dangers of social media than the people involved at the earliest points and highest levels of the biggest companies in the business? This documentary assembles an impressively – and worrisomely – large group of past presidents, founders, engineers, data scientists, and other experts with an intimate knowledge of both the design goals and growth objectives of Facebook, Google, Instagram, and others who share the problematic structures in place that seek to create a culture of addiction to technology rather than safeguard users from its potentially negative influences.

This film presents a startling amount of information, very little of which should put viewers at ease about their Internet habits. The interviewees selected represent a wide range of specialties, and each comes thoroughly recommended with their credentials listed on screen below their names. It says enough about the way that the industry is going that so many people who used to be – and in some cases may still be – high-up in positions of tech leadership feel that things have gone too far and are sure to have detrimental effects if the system isn’t substantially altered. It would surely be difficult for anyone to legitimately reject all of these arguments as invalid, merely as inferior to profitability aims.

This documentary should be more relatable than most since anyone who is able to watch it is at the very least a subscriber to Netflix and more than likely a casual user of some type of social media or web-based service. Taking its recommendations to monitor time spent and information given over to accounts will be considerably more challenging, as even those well aware of the pervasive pull present in their Internet habits find themselves unable to resist checking e-mail or scrolling through feeds. Representing the addictions created through acted scenes helps drive home the severity of the current state of technology. This film’s title is a strong and fitting one, offering a tremendous and undeniable serving of truth with the caveat that it may still be irresistible even after viewers know the adverse aspects of the recipe.

B+

Monday, December 28, 2020

Movie with Abe: Bacurau

Bacurau
Directed by Juliano Dornelles and Kleber Mendonça Filho
Released March 6, 2020

People make assumptions about others based on where they come from and the kind of lives they lead. Those factors may be informative, but they’re not all that goes into what makes a person and how they interact with the world. Drawing a conclusion as a result of only circumstantial influencers is far from responsible, and it can have a detrimental effect on both parties, transforming whatever relationship might exist and erecting barriers that make communication strained and difficult. More dangerously, it risks leading to unforeseen and destructive consequences that could have been avoided with an open and less judgmental attitude.

In the near future, the small Brazilian town of Bacurau is an intimate community, one that comes together to mourn the death of Carmelita, a well-respected matriarch. The locals are concerned when a water truck arrives with leaks caused by several bullet holes, and other worrisome developments include a teacher’s inability to find Bacurau on an electronic map to show to his students. A local wanted criminal, Lunga (Silvero Pereira), contemplates a return to the town that celebrates him as a hero as a mysterious group led by Michael (Udo Kier) prepares for a subversive attack on its unsuspecting residents.

This film, which has been awarded a number of prizes citing it as the best foreign film of the year, is an unusual specimen, one that begins in a very slow manner and only gradually unfurls the various elements of its plot. It’s never clear exactly what’s going on, and much is conveyed in a subtle and ambiguous way through conversations between the people of Bacurau and the nefarious invaders who threaten their stability and safety. Its construction is unnerving, and each new revelation only adds to the feeling of dread that fills this stark, bare landscape.

This isn’t explicitly science fiction, employing minor instances of advanced technology that feels out of place in an otherwise undeveloped space lacking in much-needed resources. But there is something that feels unique about this invented town in Brazil and the disturbing events that occur within its boundaries. Those not eager to be deeply unsettled by the violent nature of its content and general premise should avoid this film because it offers no source of comfort, but anyone willing to engage with potentially upsetting material may find it intriguing and rewarding. Once its story becomes more comprehensible, it leaves plenty to be unpacked, functioning both as an interesting watch that becomes progressively more involving and a haunting metaphor about society ripe for analysis.

B

Movie with Abe: The Best Years

The Best Years
Directed by Gabriele Muccino
Release TBD

Relationships don’t always last forever. People change over time and the world changes with them, and to assume that everyone who gets along at a certain age might continue to do so after considerable life experience just isn’t always correct. There are those who know exactly what they want and can envision spending an eternity together, while others are prone to boredom and want to be surprised by the direction life takes them. In some cases, two people might be perfect for each other at one moment, wrong the next, and ultimately fated to reunite after many years and under completely different circumstances.

In 1980s Italy, Giulio (Francesco Centorame), Ricardo (Matteo De Buono), and Paolo (Andrea Pittorino) are inseparable friends. Paolo meets Gemma (Alma Noce) and is infatuated, and the two begin a romance that is short-lived when she is forced to move away. As the years progress, the four friends (Pierfrancesco Favino, Claudio Santamaria, Kim Rossi Stuart, and Micaela Ramazzotti) find their paths continually crossing as they navigate professional ambition, financial difficulties, rotating romantic entanglements, and the difficulty of achieving dreams.

This is a buoyant, energetic film, one that features strongly-written characters with plenty of passion. The younger cast does a superb job of creating those personalities, building a framework of relationships that seem simultaneously genuine and enhanced for cinematic effect. In their adult forms, they become fleshed-out and even more real, prone to the same setbacks as anyone watching their stories even if their lives may feel fantastical. They are distinctly Italian in the way that they speak, communicate, and argue, imparting their culture in their every interaction.

This film has a fun and wondrous rhythm, one that includes sporadic narration to catch audiences up to the moment in time that it has reached. The entire cast is terrific, with both sets of actors contributing vivid portrayals of these four characters at various points throughout their lives. Noce and Ramazzotti are particularly superb, painting Gemma as someone well aware of the way that men see her and determined to forge her own path, even if she encounters a number of obstacles along the way. Even though its presentation is inherently cinematic, there is a realness to the way in which each relationship – friendship or romantic – encounters difficulties and evolves over time. This film is a highly enjoyable and invigorating showcase of that, running 129 minutes and remaining involving and interesting the entire time.

B+

Sunday, December 27, 2020

Movie with Abe: Night of the Kings

Night of the Kings
Directed by Philippe Lacôte
Release TBD

Folklore and custom can have a powerful draw capable of uniting people from many different backgrounds and experiences. A belief in something can overpower other worldly desires, and bring together people who would otherwise have nothing to talk about and no way to honestly communicate. In developed countries with increasingly advanced technology, it is hard to find elements like this that transcend everything else, though organized religion still qualifies to a degree. When people are trapped in a specific place, like, for instance, a prison, getting on board with a particular way of approaching ritual and respecting traditions may be considerably more expected.

A new inmate (Bakary Koné) arrives at La Maca prison, deep in the forest of the Ivory Coast. He is unprepared for the night he is about to experience, which coincides with the red moon in the sky, a meaningful event for all within the prison. Blackbeard (Steve Tientcheu), who rules La Maca, is sick, and he is supposed to take his own life when he is no longer able to lead. He anoints the new arrival Roman, whose task it is to tell stories throughout the night to keep the inmates of the block, who participate enthusiastically by acting out parts of what he says, enthralled before morning eventually comes and Roman meets whatever fate awaits him.

This film, which made its premiere at fall film festivals including Venice, Toronto, and New York, is the official Oscar submission for Best International Feature from the Ivory Coast. It’s an immersive and fantastical tale that grounds itself in its moment, inviting unfamiliar audiences in to experience African culture through this ritual that is just as new and unknown to the renamed Roman. The stories he tells, about a legendary figure called Zama, are depicted not only by Roman’s words but also through cinematic recreations made even more real by the energetic and almost rhythmic physicality of the inmates who jump in to portray something he has just said.

This film is unlike many other prison movies because it leans so heavily into the story that Roman is sharing, indulging him in the liberties he takes and the manner in which the guards, seen only a few times throughout the film, stay away from the inmates knowing just how seriously they take this night and the likely casualties that will come from it. It’s the kind of foreign film that some may not find accessible but that others will appreciate greatly for the rich and truly different approach it takes both to the plot it features and the dedication to its characters that makes it a uniquely captivating experience.

B+

Movies with Abe: The Wasteland and Made in Bangladesh

The Wasteland
Directed by Ahmad Bahrami

Made in Bangladesh
Directed by Rubaiyat Hossain

Workers’ rights are a universal issue that, unfortunately, aren’t afforded the same protections everywhere. Even when there are systems in place to ensure that employees are kept safe and fairly compensated for both their time and their effort, many people with power over others choose to take advantage and deprive those who deserve fair pay and treatment from getting it. Efforts to change the way things work and combat oppressive labor practices are rarely easy to achieve, and a lack of progress even despite taking all the right steps can be demoralizing, especially when the result is actually worse.

In “The Wasteland,” the owner of a brick factory in Iran gathers his workers to tell them that the factory is closing. His employees come to him asking for help, mostly in the form of money, to deal with various issues in their lives, including forbidden romances and family problems. In “Made in Bangladesh,” a young woman working at a textile factory Bangladesh is troubled by a safety incident and begins learning about a labor union, something all of her colleagues are terrified to explore given the almost-certain retaliation they will receive from their supervisors for even speaking about it.

These two films present starkly different approaches to similar concepts. “The Wasteland” is black-and-white and features minimalist scenes that contrast the vast desert with the people trying to be seen within it. The same speech by the factory owner is repeated multiple times, and even the conversations had between him and his employees feel like they are almost identical, though the particulars of the asks and the situations vary. “Made in Bangladesh” showcases the blunt cruelty of those who know that they can get away with whatever they want, unwilling to even consider minimal steps to appease those they know deserve better treatment. There may be more hope in the latter film of something productive happening, but that optimism, held by its protagonist Shimu (Rikita Nandini Shimu), is a dangerous thing because of the extraordinary uphill battle she faces.

These two films, more than anything else, are strong indicators of their countries of origin and how the labor force does not look the same in every place. There are rural locations like the one in “The Wasteland” where workers accept what they are given and endure brutally hot conditions and endlessly long hours to make a bare minimum salary. Even if unions are governmentally-approved entities and lawfully approved, there might still exist infinite hurdles and bureaucratic steps to discourage their formation, including a chauvinistic structure where women are considered inferior to men. These two films offer important and mostly unoptimistic portraits of the problems that exist and the way that people try to achieve something resembling fairness.

The setup and pacing on “Made in Bangladesh” makes it a far more invigorating watch than “The Wasteland,” which features its events again and again with minimally more information to drive home the irreversible nature of its proclamation and the true lack of options for its now-jobless employees. The latter is mostly a series of two-person conversations and silent shots of the barren landscape, while the former engages with its characters as they talk among themselves and explore new ideas. Shimu’s relationship with her husband is particularly intriguing since he has his own notions of a woman’s place that don’t reflect the independence and drive she feels. Neither film is pleasant, but both have interesting analyses to offer presented through straightforward storytelling.

The Wasteland: B-
Made in Bangladesh: B+

Saturday, December 26, 2020

Movie with Abe: Soul

Soul
Directed by Pete Docter and Kemp Powers
Released December 25, 2020 (Disney Plus)

There are many things that we just can’t know about the universe. Plenty of theories exist about how the world came into being and what the meaning of life is, and people search for years for answers that aren’t definitive and can’t be proven. One wonderful possibility that storytelling and cinema present is the opportunity to explore notions of identity and purpose through creative outlets, imagining the systems that could be in place to combine all the elements of personality and soul to create what it is that we perceive as life.

Joe is a middle school band teacher whose big dream is to play piano. He is elated when he receives a chance to perform with the famed Dorothea Williams, but falls into a manhole as he rushes around New York City in excitement. He finds himself in line for the great beyond and manages to escape to a place where young souls are cultivated and prepared for life. He poses as a mentor for the troublesome 22, a soul infamous for her resistant attitude, so that he can utilize the pass she’ll gain to return to Earth and his body. In the process of desperately trying to get home, Joe unexpectedly learns a lot from someone who hasn’t yet had the chance to live.

This marks the twenty-third film from Pixar, and, like its previous feature, “Onward,” it tackles a very adult subject in a way that’s accessible for all ages. It shouldn’t be thought of as a film about death since it doesn’t actually posit much about what comes next aside from a vast, mysterious image of the great beyond, and instead it’s a film about life. Joe has always been looking to what he might be able to accomplish and worried about what he hasn’t done yet, a preoccupation that keeps him from truly appreciating what he does have. All he needs to do in order to truly see it is step out of his body, something that this fantastical setup offers him.

This animated delight is best compared to “Inside Out,” another Pixar entry that sought to look behind what goes into people and dissect the ingredients that come together to form personality and purpose. As usual, it’s a remarkably successful experiment, one that sometimes matches the emotional power of “Up” and at others handles its comedy very well, including in the long line of impressive mentors from history who have become impossibly frustrated with 22 as a rebellious mentee determined to break their resolve. The voice cast, led by Jamie Foxx and Tina Fey, is wonderful, making this film a completely enjoyable and thought-provoking journey to find what makes us who we are.

B+

Movie with Abe: Onward

Onward
Directed by Dan Scanlon
Released March 6, 2020

The creation of easier ways to accomplish difficult tasks tends to be heralded as a masterful scientific innovation and celebrated for the time and effort it can save. Eager consumers await the newest inventions and upgrade instantly to something that’s considered slightly better than what already exists, not content to be left behind with an outdated version. Yet there’s something lost in not understanding the processes that exist and the simple ingredients that can lead to complex results, and putting less thought into executing a particular action can give it significantly less meaning.

Ian and Barley Lightfoot are elven brothers in modern-day New Mushroomtown. Ian is shy and insecure, while his older brother Barley is considerably more self-assured and directionless in his life. When Ian turns sixteen, his mother Laurel reveals a gift left behind by their late father: a magical staff with the ability to bring him back to life for one day. The spell goes awry, resulting in only the bottom half of their father being conjured, and Ian and Barley set off on a wild quest to find a way to get all of him back.

This marks the twenty-second film from Pixar, a studio that has proven time and time again its ability to endearingly bring fantastical concepts to the screen in a manner accessible to all audiences. The idea of getting to spend more time with someone who has been gone for a long time is indeed appealing, and there’s a wondrous maturity embedded in the premise of this film, that brings him back but without a face and the ability to speak. Much of the ensuing antics are comical, but there is a sweet-natured resonance about loss and relationships that drives all of that lighthearted action.

The structure of this film is fairly typical, and it’s nice to get to know both Ian and Barley along the way as they come to terms with who they are. Setting it within a world full of magic only makes the story more relatable, especially as characters come to realize the abilities they possess that can make small tasks and big actions more meaningful by recognizing their role in achieving them. The voice cast, led by Tom Holland and Chris Pratt, is superbly-assembled, helping to complete a thoroughly entertaining and worthwhile animated effort in great company with past Pixar projects.

B+

Friday, December 25, 2020

Weekend Movie Recommendations with Abe

Every Friday, I'll be uploading a Minute with Abe: Weekend Movie Recommendations Edition, surveying new releases on DVD, and on streaming services. Check it out, and subscribe to the movieswithabe channel!


New to Theaters: Promising Young Woman, One Night in Miami, The Dissident
New to Virtual Cinemas: Dear Comrades
New to DVD: The Place of No Words, Villains, Kajillionaire
New to Netflix: The Midnight Sky
New to Amazon: Sylvie’s Love

Movie with Abe: The Midnight Sky

The Midnight Sky
Directed by George Clooney
Released December 23, 2020 (Netflix)

There are many theories that the human race is headed towards its own end, likely as a result of drastic climate change or some other extinction-level event. What science fiction stories like to posit is that such an eventuality means only the loss of Earth as a habitable planet and not the end of humanity as we know it. Deep-space exploration probes for a new place to rebuild and try for a second chance, bringing with it immense hope and unknown danger. At the point of no turning back, forging into mysterious territory beats the alternative of remaining in an unsustainable situation destined for doom.

In the year 2049, Augustine (George Clooney) stays behind at his Arctic Circle base when the rest of the facility is evacuated in the wake of devastating radiation that has reached and killed off most of the world’s population. He soon discovers that a young girl, Iris (Caoilinn Springall), has been left behind, and the two begin the treacherous journey to a faraway radar station so that they can attempt to contact the crew of a space mission sent to survey the planet K-23 as a possible new home for humanity. Aboard the ship, Sully (Felicity Jones), Adewole (David Oyelowo), Maya (Tiffany Boone), Sanchez (Demian Bichir), and Mitchell (Kyle Chandler) struggle to maintain optimism as they receive nothing but radio silence from Earth and face unexpected challenges on their return path.

This is a return to space for Clooney following “Gravity,” and this time he’s working behind the camera as director in addition to his starring role. This is really two movies in one, chronicling Augustine’s desperate attempts to survive long enough to warn the crew of what awaits them back on Earth and the intrepid adventures of these astronauts in space. Both draw extensively on existing science-fiction films as clear influences, creating a toned-down version of something as grand and far-reaching as “Interstellar” with equally high stakes and harsh weather conditions.

While this film doesn’t necessarily introduce anything new in either its moderately predictable plot or its vision of a not-too-distant post-apocalyptic future, it does present a relatively involving and watchable story. A strongly-assembled cast ensures every role is worthwhile and relevant, while the sets and visuals serve to draw audiences in to the inescapable experiences, both in the arctic and in space. Those intimately familiar with other genre films may be less than satiated by this mediocre effort, but it’s one that works well enough and serves as a decently enthralling cinematic voyage into a future that might not be all that unlikely.

B

Thursday, December 24, 2020

Movie with Abe: One Night in Miami

One Night in Miami
Directed by Regina King
Released December 25, 2020

There is a certain liberty in storytelling that allows for the modification or even fabrication of events. Dramatic license might involve the outright creation of characters or moments that help to illustrate who a person was and enable the story to progress. A timeline might also be modified to make more narrative sense, even if the actual sequence didn’t play out in the same manner. All these things are meant to make the contents of a film more accessible to audiences and deliver the most compelling cinematic product.

On one night in 1964, four iconic Black men spend an evening together in a motel room in Miami. Fresh off a major win in a boxing match, Cassius Clay (Eli Goree) has plans to celebrate with his friends. He joins football player Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge) and soul singer Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.) in the room rented by Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir), whose idea of a good time is not in alignment with that of the other three. Instead of a raging party, the four have the opportunity to discuss their disagreements and engage with what it is that defines them as people and as famous members of the Black community.

This film is described as a fictional account of true events, since these four men did in fact come together on that night but what happened behind closed doors isn’t known. This adaptation of the play of the same name by Kemp Powers presents very much like it could be seen on stage but makes excellent use of close-ups of the characters’ faces and shifting camera angles to make the unspectacular motel room in which the majority of the film takes place feel like an infinite space. Making it into a film feels like a very worthwhile exercise that pays off thanks to many positive cinematic additions.

This cast is simply terrific, and it’s impossible to pick a standout. Each of the four makes the icon he is portraying individualized and passionate, aware of how the world sees them and unexcited about having their perspectives challenged by their closest friends. Amazon’s awards campaign has deemed Ben-Adir and Goree leads while Hodge and Odom Jr. are considered supporting players, which makes sense, but this is truly an ensemble effort that serves as an impressive directorial debut for actress Regina King. Its content and presentation feel resonant and powerful both for the history they convey and a thought-provoking engagement with the current state of race in America.

B+

Movie with Abe: Dear Comrades

Dear Comrades
Directed by Andrey Konchalovskiy
Release December 25, 2020 (Virtual Cinemas)

The will of the people is a powerful thing. In democracies, constituents feel that they can make their voices heard by exercising their freedoms of speech and to vote for the candidates they believe will best represent their views and ideals. In less open societies based on other political structures, there is a culture of cohesion and obedience meant to suppress any sense of individual expression that might threaten the order of things. Totalitarian regimes often end in rebellion, as those who have been kept at bay reach a point at which they are no longer willing to accept that treatment.

In 1962, the communist government in the Soviet Union increases food prices, which puts a further strain on the already-struggling populace. In the town of Novocherkassk, the workers at a plant go on strike. Lyuda (Yuliya Vysotskaya) is a member of the city committee and a firm believer in the communist way of life who witnesses the way in which the government responds with violence to quell the workers and bury any story of unrest. When she is unable to find her daughter, Lyuda becomes obsessed with finding her as she processes the horror of what she has seen happen.

This film is based on the Novocherkassk massacre, a horrifying event that claimed many lives and led to numerous arrests in the aftermath. Its content is presented in a stark format, playing out slowly and following characters as they walk from place to place. As a result, viewers only know as much of what’s going on as the person or people featured on screen, which in most cases is Lyuda, who is initially supportive of efforts to get the workers to comply and gradually begins to see the deeply problematic nature of the response that ensues.

This is Russia’s official Oscar submission for Best International Feature, telling an important chapter of the history of the country that preceded it. It’s far from a positive or enjoyable experience, but it does manage to frame disturbing content in a compelling way, forcing those watching to continue paying attention since there is nowhere else to go. Lyuda, strongly portrayed by Vysotskaya, serves as a stand-in for the audience, proposing sweeping policy solutions that in reality turn to something far more violent and authoritarian. It is a disturbing, grueling watch, but one that is equally powerful and hard to forget.

B+

Wednesday, December 23, 2020

Movie with Abe: The Truffle Hunters

The Truffle Hunters
Directed by Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw
To Be Released March 5, 2021

Many people work for a living, doing what they can in order to make a good amount of money. Some are fortunate to be able to choose how they want to spend their time, even if it won’t result in the same financial reward as a more lucrative opportunity. And then there are those who know what they do best, which may be their source of sustenance but is more about a passionate pursuit of a craft. Doing it well and doing it right can be more important than anything else, even if it fails to be as profitable as it could be with a different approach.

In the Piedmont region of Italy, a group of men in their seventies and eighties spend their time traipsing through the forest with their loyal canine companions on the hunt for truffles. They don’t know what they will find but have their established territories and methods of search. When they are successful, their goods sell for thousands of euros due to the tremendous appreciation for the truffles from restaurateurs and other interested parties.

There is a certain spirit conveyed by this film only possible by meeting these subjects where they are, which is comfortable in their own routines and unwilling to consider a new perspective that might both help them earn more and pass down their knowledge to a next generation. Those who ask their elders nicely both for advice and their trade secrets are turned away since they would, for the most part, rather hold up their successes as a point of pride than share them with someone else, even if it means that the best areas in which to find truffles will go uncultivated after they are no longer around to search them.

This is the kind of documentary that zeroes in on the people it’s presenting, saying more by showcasing their daily activities than by expressly interviewing them about who they are and how they came to be considered among the most respected and prolific truffle hunters. That style of filmmaking may not be immersive for all audiences, though there’s something appealing about the simplicity of their worldviews and the way in which they have their respected processes that are sacred and incontrovertible. Even those who can’t understand why people love truffles and are willing to pay exorbitant prices for mere shavings of them should appreciate the tenderness and wonder of this unusual spotlight.

B+

Movie with Abe: Dick Johnson is Dead

Dick Johnson is Dead
Directed by Kirsten Johnson
Released October 2, 2020 (Netflix)

Everybody dies, but many people simply don’t want to talk about it. There are understandable reasons for aversion to mortality, since acknowledging that you will eventually die can make the process of living a bit more stressful or sad. But presuming that loved ones will endure forever even despite medical obstacles and other factors can lead to a very difficult separation process, one that feels all the more devastating because of how unprepared someone is to accept the idea of having to say goodbye.

Kirsten Johnson is a filmmaker whose father, Dick, is getting older. When she receives multiple concerning reports that his memory is deteriorating, she travels from New York City to Seattle to help him pack up his life so that he can move in with her. Knowing full well that he will eventually die, she prepares herself by staging a number of fake accidental deaths, using stunt doubles and her father himself to imagine the numerous ways in which he might meet his end. He participates in her elaborately-staged scenes and shares his own recollections from a long and memorable life.

This film engages with death head-on, dreaming up images of what heaven will be like for Dick in addition to the possible manner in which he might leave this earthly existence. The frequent and often absurd comedy is more than a coping mechanism for Kirsten, who tries to explore the religious prescriptions for what comes next and to prepare herself for something she knows will be deeply sad by experiencing it over and over again. Remembering what her mother went through as she suffered from Alzheimer’s disease and noticing her father’s failing memory emphasize the seriousness of the situation, something Kirsten isn’t trying to hide from but instead to make more bearable through an optimistic and positive approach.

In the same way that attending a wedding might remind a couple of their own joyous day, this process and the manner in which Kirsten frames it should trigger plenty of memories for audiences of their own loved ones. Kirsten just happens to be open to this angle and her father is willing to play along, and there are plentiful laughs and tears to be found on the journey. It’s unapologetically bizarre at times, but there is a tremendous resonance to the act of saying goodbye many times before the moment finally arrives, both before Dick loses parts of himself to dementia and is gone entirely once he dies. It may not be for everyone, but for those willing to stare death right in the face and smile, this fun is a rewarding experience.

B+

Tuesday, December 22, 2020

Movie with Abe: Collective

Collective
Directed by Alexander Nanau
Released November 20, 2020 (VOD)

There are some tragedies that may not have been fully preventable, but that doesn’t mean the response isn’t very much capable of shaping what happens next. This is a phenomenon seen frequently, that communities band together to improve conditions and ensure that similar crises do not occur again, determined not to let the past repeat itself. Unfortunately, there are instances when, instead of true betterment, people either willfully or ignorantly attempt to rid themselves of blame and responsibility, insisting that things have improved even if that clearly is not the case.

On October 30th, 2015, a fire broke out at the Colectiv nightclub in Romania. Twenty-seven people were killed and nearly two hundred more injured. In the ensuing weeks, an additional thirty-seven people died while being treated in hospitals. Catalin Tolontan, a journalist for the Sports Gazette, investigated the reasons for their deaths and discovered that many of the disinfectants being used at the hospitals contained a tenth of the required chemicals. Along with his colleagues, Tolotan presses for transparency and a new plan from the government. After the resignation of key members of the ruling party, the new minister of health, Vlad Voiculescu, sets out to enact serious reforms despite considerable pushback from all sides.

This film has been collecting numerous documentary prizes and also serves as Romania’s official Oscar submission for Best International Feature. It’s a staggering indictment of the way in which abundant and pervasive bribery has completely tainted a healthcare system, where hundreds of hospital managers are suspected of being complicit. One particularly alarming comment comes from an accreditor who worries that public trust in hospitals will be compromised if it is revealed that he issued a certification that should never have been earned, but he acknowledges that the situation is exactly as it has been portrayed. Voiculescu’s plans also face resistance from those who assert he too is corrupt and has financial ties to the foreign hospital he believes can better treat patients than any local facility.

Much of this film is specific to the devastating Colectiv fire and to the way that Romanian politics function, but there is a universality to the very problematic conflicts of interest that exist and the desire to be able to report that things are going well even when that is far from the truth. That message should have particular resonance at the moment in the United States for those unhappy with the Trump administration’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, though the idea of diluted disinfectants might ultimately be more horrifying in a time where contagions are rampant. Both as an incisive chronicle of internal failings and an illustrative metaphor for self-interest anywhere, this film is a resounding and deeply haunting piece of journalism.

B+

Movie with Abe: Time

Time
Directed by Garrett Bradley
Released October 16, 2020 (Amazon Prime)

Relationships can in many instances withstand the greatest tests to their stability and endure despite tremendous obstacles. An idyllic life isn’t a universal guarantee, and some couples face difficult circumstances that complicate what could have been a simple and happy existence. Being kept apart for an extended period is never easy, and when that’s not something that either of them chose, it’s even more trying. To be with someone knowing that physical contact and even any form of communication may be severely limited takes dedication and love, two factors that may still not be strong enough on their own.

Fox Rich met her husband Rob in high school and they set out to start a business together in Shreveport, Louisiana. Financial struggles compelled them to rob a local bank, resulting in an extraordinarily harsh sixty-year prison sentence for Rob. After she was released following a three-year sentence, Fox worked to provide for her six children and to fight to bring Rob home. Home videos from before the crime and the arrest introduce Rob and his young children, and more recent footage meets Fox as she continues campaigning for clemency for her husband, as well as the actions of her teenage children who have been influenced by the absence of their father for so many years.

This documentary opens in a mesmerizing, powerful way, offering no introduction to the images it shows and accompanying the black-and-white scenes with a powerful musical score. It never feels like anyone shown on screen is talking to an interviewer, and instead they are merely going about their lives, working with people to achieve what’s important to them, both related to Rob’s incarceration and to their own ambitions and success. This film is an enlightening and fully open window into the Rich family, showcasing everything they put out into the world.

This film originally premiered at the Sundance Film Festival back in January and has been enjoying a steady stream of accolades from a number of critics’ groups. While it doesn’t follow a typical narrative in spelling out the exact circumstances under which Rob was convicted and everything that has happened since then, its layered title is indicative of the way in which this film approaches its subjects and the concept of time. Interspersing moments from years ago with recent developments is extremely effective in showcasing the enduring permanence of relationships and the unbreakable link that memory and love provide to any point the past, present, or future.

B+