Friday, May 31, 2013

Movie with Abe: The East

The East
Directed by Zal Batmanglij
Released May 31, 2013

Some films manage to establish their tones and find their voices from their very first moment. In the opening scene of “The East,” Izzy (Ellen Page) introduces the title group, explaining their mission to ensure corporate accountability and justice for the maltreated, as representative consequences are visited upon the home of a CEO whose company was responsible for a deadly oil spill. From that moment, “The East” is a dark thriller featuring a determined collective with a mission of opening the world’s eyes, and one woman’s mesmerizing experience being exposed to the culture as she goes undercover within it to bring it down from the inside.

“The East” is the second feature film, and the second to deal with cults, from writing team Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij. As with their previous feature, “Sound of My Voice,” Marling stars and Batmanglij directs. Both screenwriters discussed their experiences going off the grid and immersing themselves in a counterculture lifestyle prior to making the film at a press day in May. Batmanglij detailed the process of “stopping watching films, listening to recorded music, and news, and entering into a capitalistic-free zone, replaced with kissing each other in circles, eating food from the trash, and fixing and riding abandoned bicycles.”

Marling said the experience of ingratiating themselves in the lifestyle was difficult to break away from, and she continues to think about it all the time. Batmanglij contrasts the egalitarianism of anarchist collectives with the hierarchy of film sets, which he describes as more of a circus than anything else. Batmanglij says he had this experiences and had to make a movie to digest it. He adds that the Occupy movement happened three weeks into preproduction, and they were seeing images of what they had experienced, which made making the film all the more relevant.

“The East” attempts to frame the world of eco-terrorism in a specific way, starting with a driven young woman, Sarah (Marling) hired by an private intelligence firm to infiltrate the mysterious group The East. As Sarah cuts herself off from the material world, she wades into the unsettling and unfamiliar universe inhabited by the members of The East, who turn to Benji (Alexander Skarsgard) for guidance, despite his insistence that he is not their leader. Skarsgard, whose work on “True Blood” as sarcastic vampire Eric makes him a perfect candidate to play the dry, inspiring Benji, explains that Benji hates cults and cult leaders and the idea of following people blindly. The East, he says, is a true democracy. Page, who portrays Izzy, that the lifestyle is something their characters truly believe in, and while her involvement comes from profound anger, it doesn’t take away the validity of witnessing atrocities and wanting to do something about it.

“The East” can be seen as a call to action, whether or not its instructions are specific. Batmanglij describes the notion of “going home and Googling your drugs when they are prescribed, something doctors wouldn’t want, but we should be responsible to know what we’re putting into our body.” He compares in-house drug tests with the concept of film studios writing their own movie reviews. Marling admits that she doesn’t necessarily have a solution, but people have to be talking about it first. Batmanglij is not sure if film shave the power to change, but he is more secure that hey can reflect the world back to us in a way that makes more sense.

Its social implications are worthy of further discussion, but aside from its message, “The East” is a strong and intense film. Marling, Skarsgard, and Page are all well-cast in their distinctive roles, as are Patricia Clarkson as Sarah’s mentor and boss and Toby Kebbell as Doc, one of the members of The East who himself is suffering from the unexpected effects of an everyday pharmaceutical drug. The story unfurls in an extremely compelling fashion, and the film ends up at an unexpected and thought-provoking conclusion. This is a fine thriller that doubles as a socially conscious film, equally worthwhile for both cinematic and educational purposes.


Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Tuesday’s Top Trailer: Elysium

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

Elysium – Opening August 9, 2013

There are many reasons to anticipate this film. For one, it’s only the second feature film effort from South African director Neill Blomkamp, who astounded with “District 9” almost exactly four years prior to this film’s slated release date. This original story, which reminds of many dystopian futures, presents another look at a segregated futuristic society, which in this case has the rich living essentially in paradise while the poor and unfortunate suffer on decrepit Earth below. Sharlto Copley, who got his start with Blomkamp in “District 9,” is back in a supporting role, but the success that Blomkamp achieved with his debut has attracted the attention of stars Matt Damon and Jodie Foster, which indicates that this might be more of a blockbuster than a small sci-fi sleeper hit. Yet some of the best sci-fi movies are big-budget extravaganzas, and the notion of a bald Damon leading his people to fight against their oppressors, led by Foster in a role that seems perfectly suited for her, is undeniably exciting. As long as it maintains the creativity of Blomkamp’s previous enterprise and doesn’t get too caught up in being a blow-out action piece, I think this could be another slam dunk for Blomkamp and his celebrity cast. This teaser gives away little about the film, so there’s plenty more to expect, and I’m sure it will prove worthwhile.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Saturday Night Movie Recommendations with Abe

Welcome back to a weekly feature here at Movies With Abe. I'm going to be providing a handy guide to a few choice movies currently playing in theatres as well as several films newly released on DVD. I’ll also aim to comment on those films I have not yet had the chance to see, and I invite you to add in your thoughts on any films I haven’t seen in the comments below. Understandably, some weeks will have considerably fewer releases to address than others.

Now Playing

Fill the Void (highly recommended): One of the most powerful and memorable films from the Sundance Film Festival was this highly specific but universally applicable story about a Hasidic Jewish woman in Tel Aviv dealing with a tragic event and its unexpected implications. Those familiar with customs and traditions will find it extremely meaningful, and those unfamiliar should find it very effective as well. Now playing at Landmark Sunshine and Lincoln Plaza. Read my Jewish Journal article from Sundance.

I can’t wait to see Fast and Furious 6, but I made plans during “Fast Five” to see it with a friend, which will happen later this week. Two of the biggest Sundance movies I didn’t have a chance to see, Before Midnight and Alex Gibney’s We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks, are out this week, both of which are surely great films.

New to DVD

Stand Up Guys (mixed bag): This aging gangster movie unites three Oscar winners – Al Pacino, Christopher Walken, and Alan Arkin – and follows their adventures on one action-packed night in an uncreative, unmotivated film that is generally endearing but unexciting. For more about the film, read about the Q & A Teacher I participated in with director Fisher Stevens.

New on Netflix Instant Streaming

Cheerful Weather for the Wedding (mixed bag): This British period drama is extremely reminiscent of “Downton Abbey” – Elizabeth McGovern even stars in both – and fans of that show might enjoy a brief look at forbidden love. Its central performers are good, and the movie is decently enchanting while it lasts.

The Other Woman (mixed bag): This disappointing dramatic follow-up to “Happy Endings” from director Don Roos stars Natalie Portman as a woman mourning the death of her baby while being ostracized from her community because of her romance with her current husband began. It’s far from Portman’s best performance, and the movie just doesn’t manage to be either compelling or interesting.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Tuesday’s Top Trailer: About Time

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

About Time – Opening November 8, 2013

This movie has a lot going for it. First of all, it comes from writer-director Richard Curtis, who penned the script to “Four Weddings and a Funeral” and directed one of the greatest ensemble romantic comedies of all time, “Love Actually.” His second feature, “Pirate Radio,” was pretty great too, and his third outing behind the camera looks extremely promising. This original story isn’t Rachel McAdams’ first time being in love with someone who travels through time, and I sincerely hope this trip proves more compelling than “The Time Traveler’s Wife.” That said, of course, McAdams is quite charming and capable of anchoring a romantic film. I’m pleased to see the very redheaded Domhnall Gleeson, son of Brendan and recent scene-stealer in “Anna Karenina,” in the role of Tim, the son of none other than Bill Nighy, a Curtis regular, who tells his son that the men in their family have the ability to travel back in time. This looks like a much, much happier version of “The Butterfly Effect,” with Tim constantly and humorously revisiting each memory until he is completely happy with its outcome. Whether this film will ultimately prove to be more about romance than about time travel is unknown, but I think it looks appealing and very likeable.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Movie with Abe: Star Trek Into Darkness

Star Trek Into Darkness
Directed by J.J. Abrams
Released May 16, 2013

This season’s second big sequel is actually the twelfth film in the “Star Trek” saga, though it’s only the second that takes place in the modified universe associated with the one and only J.J. Abrams. Picking up where his 2009 success left off, it revisits the famous crew of the original USS Enterprise in their younger, more excitable versions. This return trip proves to be a wholehearted success, equally thrilling and entertaining for the whole of its 132 minutes, and a strong sign that this rebooted franchise has plenty of life left in it.

“Star Trek Into Darkness” begins in the middle of the action as Kirk and his crew race to stop a volcano from exploding on a primitive planet without violating the Prime Directive and alerting its people to advanced technology. This start firmly grounds the film in the mindset of space exploration and honor, and after that, the plot takes off, leaving Kirk, Spock, and everyone else to find for their lives as they encounter deadly new enemies. What’s most affirming is that all of the characters work together so well, and it’s clear that every member of the cast is having fun.

Unlike “Iron Man 3,” this movie has a clear sense of where to insert humor, and, to its credit, it’s quite funny when it wants to be. Chris Pine’s Kirk, Karl Urban’s Bones, and Simon Pegg’s Scotty are particularly humorous, and the film also makes the most of Spock’s logic-driven Vulcan and how his antics are received by Kirk and Uhura. The already terrific cast gets two magnificent additions in Alice Eve as Carol, the Enterprise’s newest officer, and Benedict Cumberbatch, who is simply astounding as the film’s captivating and fascinating villain. The film balances the drama of Cumberbatch’s performance and the lighthearted nature of the “Star Trek” universe perfectly.

Like its film and television predecessors, the success of this entry in the “Star Trek” canon is largely dependent on the selected story. Retooling a classic and beloved piece of the saga works excellently, and, as with the first Abrams film, this one redefines it and re-imagines it in a way that likely won’t be able to please everyone. Yet the gamble pays off with Abrams behind this visually strong film, and this sci-fi blockbuster turns out to be one of the most energetic and engaging films of the year, a thoroughly enjoyable visit to space, the final frontier, but hopefully not for the final time.


Sunday, May 19, 2013

Movie with Abe: State 194

In case you missed it, in lieu of a review, I’ve written a blog entry on Awards Material, my blog for the Jewish Journal, about “State 194,” the new documentary about Palestinian statehood. It’s a well-made film that comes much closer than most to a balanced portrayal of the situation, and one that deserves a viewing, if a careful one. Check out the post here.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Saturday Night Movie Recommendations with Abe

Welcome back to a weekly feature here at Movies With Abe. I'm going to be providing a handy guide to a few choice movies currently playing in theatres as well as several films newly released on DVD. I’ll also aim to comment on those films I have not yet had the chance to see, and I invite you to add in your thoughts on any films I haven’t seen in the comments below. Understandably, some weeks will have considerably fewer releases to address than others.

Now Playing

The English Teacher (recommended): This light-hearted comedy featuring Julianne Moore as an English teacher who tries to mount a high school production of the play written by her former student is far from memorable, but it is perfectly enjoyable for the length of its 90-minute runtime. Now playing in L.A., and opening in New York next week. Read my review from Thursday.

Erased (anti-recommended): This brainless thriller posits that Aaron Eckhart’s scientist goes into work one day to discover that the life he thinks he’s living doesn’t exist. Predictable twists and turns reveal a surprising lack of coherence or satisfaction. Now playing at the Village East Cinema. Read my review from yesterday.

State 194 (mixed bag): This documentary about the Palestinian bid for statehood does a better job than most at achieving a balanced perspective on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict but ultimately still paints a lopsided picture of the situation. As a documentary, however, it is extremely well-made and strongly edited. Read my article from my Jewish Journal blog, Awards Material.

This week’s biggest release, Star Trek Into Darkness, is the next film I'm planning to see. A review will be up soon.

New to DVD

Nothing of interest this week!

New on Netflix Instant Streaming

30 Beats (mixed bag): This sex-filled drama jumps from character to character in its two-person scenes, following a chain of people through a heat wave in New York City. It’s a cool concept that boasts plenty of intrigue but not nearly as much actual depth.

Price Check (anti-recommended): This comedy starring Parker Posey and Eric Mabius doesn’t have much going for it, featuring unexceptional characters and a generally uninteresting plotline.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Movie with Abe: Erased

Directed by Philipp Stolzl
Released May 17, 2013

A good thriller may start out long before the action and the intrigue begins, or it may not wait until its middle act to shift into high gear. When a mystery needs to be solved and it seems like no answer is possible, there needs to be a path, if long and winding, to some sort of reasonable resolution. If a situation arises where no explanation makes any logical sense, a story is doomed to failure. That is exactly the case with the muddled, senseless events of “Erased,” in which mild-mannered Ben Logan (Aaron Eckhart) has to contend with his life being seemingly erased, forcing him to go on the run with his daughter.

This kind of premise has existed before, where someone goes into work and finds that his office isn’t actually there, his boss has never heard of him, there are no records of his employment at the company, and, most of all, anyone who could corroborate his story doesn’t appear to exist either. Ben’s discovery of his situation takes all of the predictable turns, as he continues to embarrass himself by assuring those dubious people he is speaking to that he is telling the truth, with all evidence failing to confirm his story. Rather than strengthen his character, all such scenes do is make him seem crazier and more unhinged.

Ben begins as a boring and unexciting character, and revealing that he used to be in the CIA doesn’t help matters much, because, his obvious skills aside, he’s not a very effective central character. His uncooperative and whiny daughter, played by Liana Liberato, is particularly irksome, and Olga Kurylenko’s double-crossing government villain is far from compelling too. The plot inconsistencies and glaring problems with the story weaken what is already an unimpressive effort. Ben’s life needed to be more interesting from the start, or he should have been just a bit cooler in how he managed to go on the run and stay one step ahead of his pursuers. Had Liam Neeson been cast in the lead role, this might have been a stronger film, but, that said, Eckhart is a capable actor and, like other dramatic performers, is entitled to one or two major flops that call into question why he would have selected such a project in the first place. Think of this as a less involving film than last year’s Nicolas Cage starrer “Seeking Justice” of about the same caliber.


Thursday, May 16, 2013

Movie with Abe: The English Teacher

The English Teacher
Directed by Craig Zisk
Released May 17, 2013

Julianne Moore is a very prolific actress who has taken on a variety of roles over the past two decades. She has received Oscar nominations for dramatic work in period films like “Far From Heaven” and “The Hours,” and she has ventured into much more light-hearted comedy recently with “The Kids Are All Right” and “Crazy Stupid Love.” Moore is gracefully able to inhabit a role without stealing focus away from those around her, and it’s often that her lead character actually fades into the background rather than taking the spotlight. As in her 2005 film, “The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio,” Moore portrays a simple woman living a simple life which is inexorably altered by events out of her control in the new film “The English Teacher.”

British actress Fiona Shaw begins by narrating the story of Linda Sinclair (Moore), a high school English teacher driven and fulfilled by her lifelong love of reading. When asked by her students if she has ever written anything, Linda emphasizes the importance of readers in the world in addition to writers. In her search for love, Linda grades all of the men she meets, with most disappointing from the very start. When Linda runs into a former student, Jason Sherwood (Michael Angarano), who has become an unsuccessful playwright, she falls in love with his work and decides that, despite its mature content, it should be staged as the high school play.

What ensues is a relatively predictable but still decently entertaining sequence of events which require minimal enthusiasm and energy from Linda. She is a tame character in a story that is prone to harsher language and less mild human responses. A transformative arc does exist for Linda, but ultimately she plays a passing part in her own story, which unfolds around her. Hidden under large glasses, Moore is sheepish but sweet, and her character is sympathetic if not entirely endearing.

The cast is full of familiar faces, including Nathan Lane as the dramatic theater teacher, Greg Kinnear as Jason’s father, and Jessica Hecht (“Friends”) and Norbert Leo Butz (“The Deep End”) as the school’s by-the-book principal and assistant principal, respectively. Director Craig Zisk, who has extensive experience directing comedy television, makes his feature film debut with this completely familiar story that, while it flirts with the inappropriate and the scandalous, is ultimately harmless and generally enjoyable, if almost entirely unmemorable.


Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Movie with Abe: The Great Gatsby

The Great Gatsby
Directed by Baz Luhrmann
Released May 10, 2013

Director Baz Luhrmann has now made just five feature-length films over his twenty-year cinematic career. All of them are distinctly stylized and colorful, featuring extravagant characters, costumes, and sets. “Moulin Rouge” earned him an Oscar nomination and took home two other awards, while his most recent film prior to this, “Australia,” flopped, netting less than half its $130 million budget in ticket sales. Luhrmann’s latest effort, an adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novel, has already exceeded that box office benchmark. This is a return to what Luhrmann does best, showcasing another time period lavishly, best described as an eye-popping exercise in excess.

The way that Fitzgerald’s story of a mystery millionaire and his curious neighbor in 1920s New York City translates to the big screen is visually mesmerizing. Its characters stand out from their backgrounds, and both boast decorative colors and details. The stark difference between the natural beauty of the Long Island waterfront homes and the bustling city is well represented in the strip of garbage-filled desolation that separates the two, and which all must pass through on a car ride or train commute into the city. The preposterously expensive parties that Gatsby throws are particularly astonishing, and it’s hard not to be hypnotized by the glamour of these people and their lives.

There is an extreme melodrama to be found in Luhrmann’s adaptation which is in keeping with Fitzgerald’s tale, and something that is portrayed to great effect by the actors within the film. Tobey Maguire exemplifies the passive but intrigued observer, while Leonardo DiCaprio easily assumes the part of the eccentric and charismatic title character. Two actresses prove especially hypnotic in their performances: Carey Mulligan as the lovelorn Daisy Buchanan, and Australian newcomer Elizabeth Debicki, who energetically inhabits the role of Daisy’s good friend Jordan Baker. Also in the ensemble are strong turns from Jason Clarke, Isla Fisher, and Joel Edgerton.

This is, all above else, a production. The human drama that exists between the film’s primary characters is central to the film, but its most compelling scenes are those that contain hundreds of supporting players, dancing, partying, or simply being to a truly catchy beat. The purposeful incorporation of anachronistic music gives the film a truly dreamlike and intoxicating feel, one that is at times alluring and at others off-putting. While the film often feels overdone, there’s something undeniably appealing and interesting about the characters contained within it.


Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Tuesday’s Top Trailer: Captain Phillips

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

Captain Phillips – Opening October 11, 2013

In the absence of any new films seen in theatres this past week, I found this trailer front-and-center on the IMDB home page. Tom Hanks was for a while the kind-hearted everyman who starred in pleasant and inspiring stories laced with humor, and then he played against type in artistic films like “Road to Perdition” and “Catch Me If You Can.” What his character seems to represent in this film is a version of his old self at the start who becomes what might best be described as a far more resilient and impressive version of his “Da Vinci Code” character. Having director Paul Greengrass, who previously lensed a difficult piece of history in the most moving way with “United 93,” behind the camera, makes this frightening real-life story of Somali pirates all the more appealing. Mostly, though, it’s the plot itself that stands out as interesting. The uncertain start of the trailer conveys the abrupt shift from quiet calm to all-out panic as the pirates board, but there is a certain order that seems to be maintained which makes this story seem, from the outset, extremely compelling. In an age when terrorism is still fairly rampant, this story of mercenaries is sure to hard to watch, but, if all goes well, it will be yet another fitting tribute to those whose lives were irreversibly changed in an awful event from a talented director like Greengrass, with Hanks delivering his most powerful performance in years.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Saturday Night Movie Recommendations with Abe

Welcome back to a weekly feature here at Movies With Abe. I'm going to be providing a handy guide to a few choice movies currently playing in theatres as well as several films newly released on DVD. I’ll also aim to comment on those films I have not yet had the chance to see, and I invite you to add in your thoughts on any films I haven’t seen in the comments below. Understandably, some weeks will have considerably fewer releases to address than others.

Now Playing

I’ll have plenty to report next week for new releases. I’m hoping to see “The Great Gatsby” in the coming weeks.

New to DVD

The Rabbi’s Cat (mixed bag): This finalist for the Best Animated Feature Oscar is certainly an intriguing and original choice, but it’s just as odd a story as it is an inventive one. Worthwhile for its animation and its strange ideas, this film is an interesting if ultimately unfulfilling experience. Read more about it on my Jewish Journal blog, Awards Material.

New on Netflix Instant Streaming

Hit and Run (mixed bag): This comedy co-directed and written by and starring Dax Shepard is far better than his last effort, “Brother’s Justice,” and has a fun premise but gets carried away with its ridiculousness rather than stay solidly grounded. It still has its funny moments, and it’s decent light entertainment.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Thursday Theatre Review: ArcLight Sherman Oaks

Weekly to a returning weekly feature here at Movies with Abe, Thursday Theatre Review. I had the chance to spend a few months in Los Angeles, and though I’m now back in New York City, it’s worth recognizing the good and bad theatres I attended while in L.A. There’s no perfect theatre, but there are a few things that can make or break a movie-going experience. In no particular order, this is a guide to movie theatres in L.A.

ArcLight Sherman Oaks

Location: Part of the Sherman Oaks Galleria, this Valley-set theatre is embedded within a pretty fantastic shopping mall. Parking is free for 4 hours with validation and then runs about $7 per hour after that.

Pricing: This is where it gets crazy. “Non peak” shows are $13.50, and if you come to see a movie on a weekend, a time when most people show up, it jumps up to $15.50, and that doesn’t even account for 3D, which on a weekend will run you $19.

Film selection: It’s mainly the big blockbusters, with a few more independent choices mixed in. I saw both “Silver Linings Playbook” and “Lincoln” here, and indie choices “Mud” and “The Place Beyond the Pines” are both currently playing in addition to more mainstream fare like “42,” “Iron Man 3,” and “Pain and Gain.”

Seating: Each auditorium is large, and, like other L.A. theatres, all seating is reserved before the film.

Bonus features: Because this is part of the ArcLight chain (which also has four other locations), you can become a member of the chain and save $1 off each ticket purchased online, among other perks.

Worth the trip? It’s not a bad location for those not in the heart of the city, but this theatre is expensive and often crowded, so it wouldn’t be my first choice if I had a pick of the theatres I’ve been to in L.A.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Tuesday’s Top Trailer: Much Ado About Nothing

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

Much Ado About Nothing – Opening June 7, 2013

What if Joss Whedon got the chance to adapt Shakespeare and cast all of the actors he frequently works with on television? One friend of mine who loves both Whedon and the Bard would be ecstatic, and I would be extremely intrigued. That’s the case with this forthcoming film, which stars, among others, Amy Acker, Fran Kranz, Nathan Fillion, Alexis Denisof, and Reed Diamond. I’m particularly thrilled to see Acker, who has proven to be an exceptional and dependable TV guest star, in a lead role, one which looks to be quite positive for her. I didn’t love the last time Shakespeare dialogue was uttered by people who looked like they were living in modern times, in 2011’s “Coriolanus,” but this appears to be a more light-hearted and enticing premise, both because of the nature of the literary work and Whedon’s style. His only previous film credits behind the camera are “The Avengers” and “Serenity,” and while this is an entirely different ballgame, I think that almost all moviegoers can agree that he is surely fit for the task. I’m mainly taken by the idea of seeing these TV stars up on the big screen, since I think some of them are destined for greatness, and it would be nice to see moviegoers exposed to their talents as well as those devoted TV viewers.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Movie with Abe: Iron Man 3

Iron Man 3
Directed by Shane Black
Released May 3, 2013

Marvel superheroes aren’t going anywhere. With the huge popularity of “The Avengers,” this brand is sure to producing films for years to come. Among those characters with their own film series, Tony Stark, also known as Iron Man, has always been the most dependable protagonist, thanks in large part to the charismatic lead performance by Robert Downey Jr. as the eccentric billionaire inventor. Armed with a new director and a new slate of villains, this third installment doesn’t quite match the excitement and overall quality of the first two films, providing a disjointed but ultimately still entertaining action experience.

Downey’s Stark has always been extremely casual and nonchalant about the fact that he has built what may well be the world’s most powerful and effective armor. Paralyzed by fits of anxiety brought on by memories of imminent death in New York during the events of “The Avengers,” this new Stark is even more carefree and indifferent to the magnitude of occurrences in his life. The film adapts a similar attitude towards what it portrays, making for an excessively light telling of this saga of Iron Man’s story. Moments of seriousness are sprinkled in, but this particular chapter doesn’t compare to the dramatic effectiveness of “Iron Man” and “Iron Man 2.”

There are some positive elements of the film, however, namely Guy Pearce’s portrayal of evil scientist Aldrich Killian, whose quest for world domination makes him a fitting successor to Mickey Rourke’s Ivan Vanko and Jeff Bridges’ Obadiah Stane. Don Cheadle also proves extremely capable of throwing himself into the film’s more thrilling scenes as Jim Rhodes, who wears the War Machine suit, now dubbed Iron Patriot. While the film lags considerably in its first act with an overemphasis on Stark’s soul-searching, it delivers when its $200 million budget kicks into high gear with two action sequences that prove thoroughly engaging and highly memorable. Though its specifics are unclear at first, the film’s story arc also turns out to be solid and inventive, weighed down by a lack of clarity and focus elsewhere for a good portion of its beginning.

This excerpt from the Iron Man mythology is hardly bad, but it just can’t quite match the impact of the series’ first two films, which took a character, who, like fellow Avenger Captain America, might not translate believably to the big screen, and made him even more compelling than ever could have been expected. When it lives up to its potential, “Iron Man 3” is thoroughly competent, but its two-plus hours are not solidly spent on building up this story, instead developing a character who has already been fleshed out enough to be a suitable protagonist. The inevitable fourth installment should trust that its audiences have already come to know its hero and skip straight to the excitement and energy that makes this iteration of Iron Man so damn cool.


Sunday, May 5, 2013

Sunday Standout Performances: January

Welcome to a semi-regular feature here at Movies with Abe, returning for the first time in three years. A lot of great performances from the first half of the year are forgotten by the time Oscar movies roll out and awards season comes around. This feature is designed to pay tribute to those actors and actresses who have demonstrated excellence in movies that likely will not be remembered at the end of the year. Maybe praise like this can help. Each edition of Sunday Standout Performances will look at a different month, referencing my reviews of the films mentioned. Since we’re playing catchup now, let’s start by taking a look at January. This one is all about the Spanish speakers.

Carmen Maura (Let My People Go)

“Spanish actress Carmen Maura, a frequent muse of Pedro Almodovar’s, is the standout member of the ensemble, playing his Jewish mother with just the right amount of obsessive and protective attention.” It’s fun to recognize Maura in this context and to see her enhance an admittedly entertaining but still strange story.

Gael Garcia Bernal (No)

“Bernal, whose international popularity continues to be strong, has just the right sensibility to play René. When asked about being a Mexican actor portraying a Chilean at a Q & A following a public screening at the Sundance Film Festival, Bernal responded that the film tackles far more important issues. Bernal answered a question about why the film is important today by emphasizing its subversive questioning of democracy, something he believes exists to be perfected every day.” His is such a natural performance that it blends seamlessly with the film, and having him play someone so initially detached from the emotion of his work is doubly worthwhile when it becomes clear how invested Bernal is in this story.

Sofia Oria and Maribel Verdu (Blancanieves)

“Actress Sofia Oria, who plays Carmencita, is a new face both to Spanish and American audiences, and she draws out the spirit of her character’s struggle ably and compellingly. Maribel Verdu, who had the opportunity to play the heroic rebel Mercedes in “Pan’s Labyrinth,” is superb as Encarna, emoting strongly with her eyes and with her face and delivering a fiercely villainous turn.” These Spanish actresses, one completely new and the other familiar to American audiences from “Pan’s Labyrinth” and “Y Tu Mama Tambien,” in which she starred with Bernal, make this underrated black-and-white interpretation of Snow White a haunting success.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Saturday Night Movie Recommendations with Abe

Welcome back to a weekly feature here at Movies With Abe. I'm going to be providing a handy guide to a few choice movies currently playing in theatres as well as several films newly released on DVD. I’ll also aim to comment on those films I have not yet had the chance to see, and I invite you to add in your thoughts on any films I haven’t seen in the comments below. Understandably, some weeks will have considerably fewer releases to address than others.

Now Playing

Caroline and Jackie (recommended): This entry from last year’s Tribeca Film Festival is finally out, and the hypnotic film features memorable performances from Marguerite Moreau and especially Bitsie Tulloch as sisters whose competitive spirit makes for one never-ending night filmed with twists and turns. Now playing at the Quad Cinema. Read my review from Tribeca.

Dead Man’s Burden (mixed bag): Anyone who loves a good Western might enjoy this film, while those who aren’t fans of the genre likely won’t. A small cast and even smaller universe makes for a rather dull and unengaging story, without much creativity or appeal. Hardly essential viewing. Read my review from Thursday.

The Iceman (highly recommended): Michael Shannon delivers a tremendous, formidable performance as a real-life hitman who kept his day job from his wife and children. Shannon is electric, but the film is equally rich and captivating, making for one powerhouse cinematic experience. It’s violent but well worth it. Now playing at the Landmark Sunshine and AMC Lincoln Square. Read my review from yesterday.

Love Is All You Need (recommended): I was very excited to see Danish director Susanne Bier’s follow-up to the Oscar-winning “In a Better World,” and though this half-English drama is much less devastating and serious than her last work, it has its moments and features a compelling cast of characters and actors. Now playing at the Landmark Sunshine and Lincoln Plaza. Read my review from Wednesday.

This week's biggest movie is of course Iron Man 3, which I'm planning to see tomorrow morning. Review will be up on Monday!

New to DVD

Silver Linings Playbook (recommended): Jennifer Lawrence took home a well-deserved Best Actress Oscar for her standout performance in this quirky and endearing comedic drama, which also features Bradley Cooper and Robert DeNiro in high-quality turns. Its story is creative and unexpected, and it’s a fun, often stirring ride.

New on Netflix Instant Streaming

Beowulf (anti-recommended): This 2007 computer-animated film is a remarkably extravagant and poor adaptation of the classic story, memorable for showcasing a motion-captured Angelina Jolie almost completely naked. Aside from the one awesome moment in which Beowulf delivers a tirade of synonyms and boasts before concluding, “I. Am. Beowulf!” there’s little to like about this obnoxious and forgettable blockbuster.

Defiance (recommended): This powerful 2008 drama earned just one Oscar nomination – for its original score – but there is much to praise about the true story of the Bielski brothers, played by Daniel Craig, Liev Schreiber, and Jamie Bell, who saved the lives of a thousand Jews during the Holocaust by hiding in the woods. It’s a strong and sentimental film that ranks as one of the better recent Holocaust movies.

Mission: Impossible II (mixed bag): The 1996 remake and the third installment, from 2005, were both previously available on Netflix, and now the 2000 sequel is too. It’s one of my earliest clear cinematic memories, watching and being mesmerized by the amount of action while equally concerned about the plot holes, particularly to do with people wearing face masks. It’s a thrill ride, but not a fully competent one.

Pulp Fiction (recommended): Any film buff has heard of Quentin Tarantino’s second film, which won him an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay and officially brought him to the big leagues. His earlier films are violent in a subtler way and less obvious about their cleverness, and this one boasts a particular stellar performance from Samuel L. Jackson as a hitman you really don’t want set on killing you. It is notable in many ways, and best seen rather than described.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Movie with Abe: The Iceman

The Iceman
Directed by Ariel Vromen
Released May 3, 2013

Michael Shannon makes quite an impression. In addition to his hulking presence that leads him to tower over most other people, he has a demeanor that does not invite conversation and makes him extremely intimidating. That aura is part of what qualifies Shannon as the perfect person to portray real-life contract killer Richard Kuklinski, whose simple life as a pornography editor and father of two takes a turn for the calculating and deadly after he is hired by the mob. Shannon is utterly captivating in the lead role, and his story is a formidable one as well.

In the film’s first scene, a smiling Richard is seen talking to the woman who will soon become his wife, Deborah (Winona Ryder) on a first date, and, when asked what he does, he replies, “I dub Disney movies.” That initial lie is only the first of a series of categorical untruths, as Richard becomes more ingrained in the criminal world as he is forced to kill for mobster Roy Demeo (Ray Liotta) and does so commendably without any argument. It’s only a matter of time before things begin to unravel, yet it’s astonishing to watch Richard at his best, killing without emotion and helping his family become more and more comfortable thanks to the money he is earning.

“The Iceman” is best described as a character drama, since it focuses so intensely on Richard and the two lives he lives. The violence is all incidental, and it’s the stoic way that he deals with his jobs that makes him a rich and compelling character. Shannon has already turned in two unforgettable performances, in HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire” and Jeff Nichols’ “Take Shelter,” and this is yet another affirmation of his talent. While Ryder and Liotta are merely necessary and satisfactory supporting players, other actors stand out in almost unrecognizable roles, including David Schwimmer of “Friends” fame as Rosenthal, one of Roy’s deputies, and a charismatic Chris Evans, whose fellow contract killer uses an ice cream truck as both a cover business and a way to store dead bodies.

Richard’s story takes place in the 1970s and 1980s, and the film looks the part, utilizing appropriate backgrounds and costumes to best represent the era. The story slows down at points to isolate an important moment or interaction in Richard’s life and then speeds up to feature a montage of kills, smoothly transitioning through Richard’s transformation from small-town porn editor to one of the most revered hitmen in town. This is not a happy story, but, as showcased here, it is an undeniably appealing one. Fluctuating between genuine joy, eerie calm, and full-on intensity, “The Iceman” is a gripping cinematic journey not to be missed.


Thursday, May 2, 2013

Movie with Abe: Dead Man’s Burden

Dead Man’s Burden
Directed by Jared Moshe
Released May 3, 2013

Westerns have a distinct feel to them. There is often a strict definition of good and bad, with some characters pushing the boundaries between the two classifications. Lawlessness and justice are forever at odds, and revenge is something that always seems to happen, even if no one is left standing by film’s end. A genre that has been sparsely populated with new entries in recent years welcomes “Dead Man’s Burden,” a through-and-through Western that, rather than try to update or rethink the format, tells a very familiar story that adheres to Western tendencies and should act, if nothing else, as a return to the cinematic Old West.

Many of the most effective scenes in classic Westerns from the 1950s and 1960s involve open space, with barely a person in sight. Utilizing the landscape, while visually stirring, can sometimes mean a dearth of characters, which can then become problematic if the story proves too difficult to latch on to because the number of players is so low. In this case, the main characters number three, and there are only five minor personalities who actually make any sort of impact on their story. Perhaps it’s because the events in their lives are not engaging enough, but this particular adventure proves awfully isolating.

As Wade McCurry (Barlow Jacobs) wanders home to New Mexico after the Civil War, he finds his tough-as-nails sister Martha (Clare Bowen) holding down the fort as the lone surviving member of their family, living with her husband Heck (David Call). Initially unrecognized by his kin, Wade has difficulty accepting that the entire family is gone, and begins searching for the person who killed his father. As a prospective buyer arrives to attempt to purchase Martha’s land, Wade soon discovers that he won’t like the answers for which he is searching. The rest of the plot shouldn’t be too hard to figure out, and it follows what seems the natural course for this genre of film.

Of the cast, Bowen stands out as the most presently recognizable due to her role as sweet-natured up-and-coming country star Scarlett on “Nashville.” Here she possesses the same fire but not the same heart, and she’s the most sympathetic character in the film only by default because there’s little competition. Richard Riehle makes an impression as Three Penny Hank, an old friend of Wade and Martha’s father, whose storyline is somewhat refreshing. Diehard fans of the Western may enjoy this film, but it’s hardly as energizing or as creative as the good old stuff as well as any of the recent successful attempts to revitalize it.


Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Movie with Abe: Love Is All You Need

Love Is All You Need
Directed by Susanne Bier
Released May 3, 2013

There is good reason to anticipate the latest film from Danish director Susanne Bier, who took home an Oscar for Best Foreign Film in 2011 for the mesmerizing and powerful “In a Better World.” Before that, she was a nominee in 2006 for the equally compelling “After the Wedding,” and in between those two projects, she tried an English-language film, “Things We Lost in the Fire,” starring Halle Berry and Benicio Del Toro, which wasn’t nearly as satisfying. Now she’s created, with frequent collaborator writer Anders Thomas Jensen, a story that switches back frequently between Danish and English, weaving together multiple tales of romance in what can be described as Bier’s lightest film yet.

As Patrick (Sebastian Jessen) and Astrid (Molly Blixt Egelind) prepare for their whirlwind wedding in Italy after just a few months of being together, the lives of their parents in Denmark take center stage. Cancer-stricken Ida (Trine Dyrholm), Astrid’s mother, finds her health improving but her marriage in deep trouble when she returns home from the hospital with good news only to find her husband in bed with a much younger coworker. Philip (Pierce Brosnan), Patrick’s father, works nonstop and rejects the idea of romance, despite multiple offers from his admiring coworkers, as a tribute to the wife he lost years ago. When Ida and Philip end up on the same flight to Italy, the wheels begin to turn and everything changes.

As the story progresses, the film’s tone shifts from a lighthearted character drama to a more emotional, serious story about people. Fans of Bier’s previous films might expect the overwhelming anguish and heart-wrenching power of the human interactions she showcases, and not much of that is to be found here. Instead, these characters’ less grim lives take a turn for the more complicated, which brings out surprising depth in them and allows them to be transformed into richer personalities. Comparing this cinematic wedding extravaganza to a middle ground between “Melancholia” and “Margot at the Wedding” with a bit more charm and a lot less doom is probably accurate.

Bier has assembled a diverse cast to populate her film, with mixed results. Brosnan, as usual, has the charisma but lacks the thespian energy necessary to portray a lead, and it’s hard for his character to be believable as a result. In contrast, Danish actress Dyrholm is superb, making Ida endearing and sympathetic rather than pitiable. Jessen and Egelind are strong as well, but the true standouts are Kim Bodnia as Ida’s clueless husband Leif and Paprika Steen, who could be described as a Danish Allison Janney, as Philip’s overeager sister-in-law Benedikte. With a mostly competent cast, Bier manages to achieve some of the emotional impact that she has made in her past films, and this should be viewed as a less intense but more entertaining departure from her usual themes.