Sunday, November 30, 2014

Movie with Abe: How to Train Your Dragon 2

How to Train Your Dragon 2
Directed by Dean DeBlois
Released June 13, 2014

There may not actually be any meaning behind it, but when a sequel simply sports a number added to its title rather than a full subtitle, it often indicates that returning to the first film’s world should prove enticing enough for eager audiences. The hook of the original “How to Train Your Dragon” was that its protagonist, Hiccup, thought outside the box, daring to consider the dangerous and demonized dragons as potential friends. The task of a good sequel, particularly an animated one, is to amplify the plot by introducing a new villain and a new problem to create unrest that must be resolved to restore the tranquility achieved by the first film’s end.

The first film succeeded in being charming and energizing due to the nature of its plot, though it was defined more by its message than its literal content. The same thing is true in the sequel, as Hiccup, a newfound hero of the village, encounters a new enemy unwilling to be convinced of his worldview of dragons, determined to continue hunting them and to take down all those who might stand against him. As expected, it’s acceptance and kindness that must prevail, and Hiccup is just the protagonist to fulfill that role, fighting to prove that understanding others is the only way to succeed.

Sequels tend to be more confident than their predecessors, and that’s certainly the case with this film, which finds Hiccup no longer constrained by being unpopular or outspoken. Though his father continues to think of him as overly idealistic and not fully prepared for the real world, Hiccup has earned himself a certain respect, and that makes him a formidable and endearing hero. If anything, it amplifies the effect of his efforts and helps him to carry the film. There is something inherently recognizable about this film and its universe, making it in an inviting and familiar place. This story isn’t all that memorable, but it’s a successful return to a franchise that could well produce many more exciting and well-received installments in the future.


Movie with Abe: Penguins of Madagascar

Penguins of Madagascar
Directed by Eric Darnell and Simon J. Smith
Released November 26, 2014

It’s hard to find a standalone film these days. Successful films breed sequels and additional entries, and sometimes they even spin off unrelated films that can subsist on their own. “Penguins of Madagascar,” which sort of follows three “Madagascar” films, was the Thanksgiving movie choice made by my wife and in-laws, and therefore I went into a film in a way I might not usually do: with no knowledge of what came before it. While I may have missed references to this cinematic universe, this film does just fine without any knowledge of what came before it. That said, it’s hardly a universal or must-see movie.

“Penguins of Madagascar,” which might as well just be called “Penguins” since it contains just a passing reference to the country, follows four penguins, Skipper, Kowalski, Rico, and Private, who are transplanted from their native arctic environment and end up facing off against a villain with an inherent hatred for their species, occasionally teaming up with the North Wind, an interspecies spy force. The whole premise is built around the fact that penguins are undeniably cute, and young Private, who is the baby of the group and is seen by his peers as nothing but adorable, is the epitome of that.

Animated features made for children have the considerable task of appealing to the adults who take their children to see them, and not all succeed. This film attempts to achieve a balance by inserting some references to the way in which this universe might possibly be captured on film, showing a documentary crew and using them as the impetus for this adventure, and firing off a few name-related puns in sequence to remind adult audiences that this film is accessible to them too. It’s far from consistent and ends up being uneven at best.

Even as a kid’s film, “Penguins of Madagascar” is not ambitious. The fact that its characters are penguins is inconsequential, and while it adds a bit of cuteness to the story, they may as well be any other animal. The villain, Dr. Octavius Brine, is composed of elements borrowed from other recent animated universes, and his ideas of revenge against the penguins seems as if it has been expressly lifted from more than one preexisting film. Those who love watching penguins talk and explore the world should see this movie; others need not rush to do so.


Saturday, November 29, 2014

Saturday Night Movie Recommendations with Abe

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

Now Playing in Theatres

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

The Imitation Game (recommended): This World War II thriller stars the terrific Benedict Cumberbatch as the leader of a British intelligence unit tasked with breaking the German enigma code. It’s a cool concept that makes for an enthralling if not entirely memorable film. Now playing at the Angelika and the Paris Theatre. Read my review from Thursday.

Penguins of Madagascar (mixed bag): This animated film, which I saw as the family choice movie for Thanksgiving, is relatively enjoyable and funny, but it doesn’t capture the same universal spirit that many animated films these days do. Now playing in wide release. My review will be up tomorrow.

New to DVD

War Story (mixed bag): This was the last of 31 films that I saw at Sundance this past year and was probably the least involving or memorable. Catherine Keener anchors a theoretically compelling story whose tedious pacing does the film few favors.

Now on Netflix Instant Streaming

The Conformist (recommended): I saw this 1970 Bernardo Bertolucci film in an Italian Cinema class while studying abroad in Florence five years ago. Jean-Louis Trintignant of “Amour,” then just forty years old, anchored a strong and classic mobster story definitively stylized by one of Italy’s most prominent filmmakers.

Happy Christmas (recommended): Anna Kendrick is perfectly charming as an immature screwup who has difficulty being an adult when she stays with her brother, his wife, and their baby. Director Joe Swanberg gives a great companion performance in this enjoyable comedy.

Ida (mixed bag): This Polish drama, which serves as its country’s Oscar submission for Best Foreign Film, has an intriguing concept but doesn’t match its premise with a worthwhile or unique payoff. My review is coming soon.

Whitey: The United States of America vs. James J. Bulger (recommended): This documentary about Whitey Bulger, the notorious mobster who faced trial last year for his many crimes after spending almost two decades in hiding, is full of facts and strong arguments, and proves interesting even if it doesn’t truly unmask the man himself.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Movie with Abe: The Grand Budapest Hotel

The Grand Budapest Hotel
Directed by Wes Anderson
Released March 28, 2014

It’s easy to recognize films by select directors. With Woody Allen, it’s his signature font, with Quentin Tarantino, it’s a certain style, and with Wes Anderson, there are a number of elements that immediately identify Anderson as the singular mind behind a project. The quick, purposeful dialogue, the colorful landscapes, anachronistic characters and references, and an ensemble of recognizable actors are all traits common to Anderson films. His previous film, “Moonrise Kingdom,” was a spectacular saga set in the United States several decades ago, and his latest film, “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” transplants its audience back even further in time for a truly outrageous story that only Anderson could appropriately tell.

The film begins by introducing a flashback within a flashback within a flashback, as a young woman comes upon a memorial to a famous writer, whose older self (Tom Wilkinson) recounts how his younger self (Jude Law) had the incomparable opportunity to hear the life story of one Zero Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham), who begins his career as a lobby boy (Tony Revolori) at the Grand Budapest Hotel in the Republic of Zubrowska. His mentor and the hotel’s concierge, Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes) was a unique personality who, among other things, gave nightly sermons over dinner to the other hotel employees and went to bed with octogenarian hotel guests. The murder of one such elderly woman (Tilda Swinton) prompts a ridiculous adventure in which the young Zero becomes intricately and unforgettably involved.

There’s a considerable and familiar charm to this story film that defines everything Anderson does. His use of actors is excellent as usual, creating great parts for Jason Schwartzman, Edward Norton, Bob Balaban, Jeff Goldblum, and Harvey Keitel, among others. No part is too small to merit a terrific actor. Fiennes in particular has a fantastic time putting on his most high-minded and dainty air to portray the brilliant Gustave H to hilarious perfection. Varying accents, including inexplicable American ones, are used throughout this film’s journey through Europe, and for the most part, they all work. Adrien Brody’s Dmitri, however, feels out of place in a film built on such things due to the short and terse modern way in which he speaks. The film has a dark, violent, and deadly undercurrent to it that prevents it from being as satisfying and enjoyable as Anderson’s past works, and it ends on a strange and uncomfortable note. Still, there is a magic to it all, and this is one trip that can’t be repeated or recreated, even in Anderson’s next film.


Movie with Abe: Antarctica: A Year on Ice

Antarctica: A Year on Ice
Directed by Anthony Powell
Released November 28, 2014

There’s no place quite like Antarctica. It’s easy to understand just how different the coldest place on Earth is from the rest of the world, but not entirely possible to grasp its beauty and the feel of being there. That’s why director Anthony Powell set out to capture what it’s like to spend the full year in Antarctica, setting up time-lapse cameras and interviewing those who spent the dark winter there over the course of ten years. The result is a visually stunning and very enlightening look at how things operate on a continent unlike any other.

“Antarctica: A Year on Ice” begins with dazzling shots of its subject matter, as Powell recounts his creation of a number of cameras that could withstand the weather – and some that couldn’t – in his effort to film the experience of living and working up north. The film as a whole mixes shots of the sky with beautiful colors and the snowy landscape with conversations with those living there who try to get at just how indescribable spending so many months away from civilization with a small group of people is.

Much of this film’s impact is rooted in the stark reality of some of the revelations it makes. A few are common knowledge but are still hard to believe, particularly the fact that the sun doesn’t set for months and then doesn’t come up for months, which leads to sunny strolls at midnight and a permanent sense of darkness that creates an incomparable calm. Residents describe their feelings upon first arriving in Antarctica and then the way in which short-term memory begins to fade after spending weeks isolated in the same routine. It’s all fascinating, and it’s great to see the spirit of energy and cooperation that defines this unique experience.

This documentary isn’t trying to prove everything, not arguing that climate change is real or demonstrating something else of vital importance to the world. Instead, it’s an entertaining, endearing portrait of a singular place, with enthusiastic emphasis on how great it is for so many countries to coexist in one particular space. Loud musical interludes are frequent, but they’re all in support of the awe-inspiring visuals on screen and the cool, exciting nature of this one-of-a-kind subject matter. It’s hard not to be captivated and made even more curious by this enjoyable and educational documentary.


Thursday, November 27, 2014

Movie with Abe: Edge of Tomorrow

Edge of Tomorrow
Directed by Doug Liman
Released June 6, 2014

I often watch trailers for action movies and tell myself how exciting they look, though I know that I likely won’t end up seeing them, and certainly not before my initial enthusiasm fades while they are still playing in theatres. Such is the case with “Edge of Tomorrow,” which, thanks to a strong musical choice paired with compelling clips from the film, looked like an enthralling sci-fi film with Tom Cruise’s armored soldier fighting aliens over and over as his death mysteriously meant restarting the day each time with renewed knowledge and hope of how to defeat the enemy. It’s an ambitious premise, to be sure, and, disappointingly but unsurprisingly, this film can’t hope to make it work.

Cruise stars as Cage, a spokesperson for a multinational human army against invading aliens. When he is summoned one day to a general’s office, he learns that he is being sent to the front lines and responds incredulously, emphasizing that he is meant for public service and a non-physical part of the fight. He is promptly arrested and wakes up to find himself preparing for the first day of battle, with his pleas for others to believe his circumstances falling on deaf ears. Soon after landing on the battlefield, Cage dies and awakens again at the start of the day. Gradually, Cage realizes that his pre-death encounter with soldier Rita (Emily Blunt) is crucial to his and the human race’s survival, and begins reliving his day countless times so that he can get it right and figure out how to truly win the war.

This film adheres to the notion that a relived day will play out exactly the same way no matter what, with no variance in what others say and what happens unless something different is done to change those events. What that means is Cage gets to be a ranting know-it-all, predicting what those around him will say or do before it happens and seeming like a bratty braggart who many perceive as crazy. Cruise is all too right for that part, which makes him far less appealing than when he served as a strong lead for similar films like “Mission: Impossible” and “Minority Report.” Blunt is good as usual but should be considered for deeper roles rather than one-note characters like this. This film’s logic isn’t entirely sound, so seeing the day over and over doesn’t pay off, but that’s not its main issue. The problem is that finding a way to defeat the enemy isn’t an enticing process, and the resolution is watery and unexciting, if not far too simplistic. Most of all, the action is lackluster and barely even there, and for a film featuring soldiers in giant suits shooting at aliens, that’s a true failure.


Movie with Abe: The Imitation Game

The Imitation Game
Directed by Morten Tyldum
Released November 28, 2014

There are countless films that have been made about World War II. Many focus on the harshness of the Holocaust, while others deal with the stark reality of war. Others shine a light on less-known stories that, due to their secret nature, never got the publicity they deserved so many years ago. Earlier this year, “The Monuments Men” followed a brigade of soldiers sent to Europe to save precious works of art, and now “The Imitation Game” tells a different tale, one of mathematicians tasked with breaking the code the Germans used to encrypt messages to tip the war in the Allies’ favor.

This story begins with the brilliant and antisocial Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) presenting himself for an unsolicited interview with Commander Denniston (Charles Dance) for an unadvertised job working to crack the Enigma code. Clearly intelligent, Turing begins working with a small band of mathematicians on an impossible task whose impact would be immeasurable. Displeased with the motivation of his coworkers, Turing commandeers the operation and hires a bright young woman, Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley) to discreetly join the team and to help on the construction of a formidable machine to achieve their mission.

“The Imitation Game” is designed as a thriller, one which uses newsreels from the war to compound the importance of the success of this project. Making calculations and the pursuit of a technological solution to cracking transmitted messages exciting is a considerable task, and this film manages to do it well, thanks in part to an energizing score by Alexandre Desplat. Director Morten Tyldum’s previous film was the fantastic “Headhunters,” and here he’s able to once again merge genres into something compelling by turning the novel by Andrew Hodges, with help from screenwriter Graham Moore, into an energizing and compelling film-worthy story.

Cumberbatch, who I first saw back in 2007 when I started this blog in “Starter for 10,” has been building towards a film role of this magnitude after winning over TV viewers with “Sherlock” and appearing in supporting roles in films from “Star Trek Into Darkness” to “12 Years a Slave.” Here, he perfectly inhabits the role of Turing, radiating superior intelligence and a disdain for others that makes him a fitting scientist hero. Knightley is charming in a role less prominent than usual, and dependable Brits Matthew Goode, Mark Strong, and Dance enhance a competent supporting cast. The film manages to stay interesting throughout, achieving a peak towards its finish and then ending on an unsettling note true to real events. It’s not the best war movie ever made, but it does manage to succeed in crafting a solid film with a specialized focus.


Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Golden Globe Musings: Best Foreign Language Film

Golden Globe nominations for this year will be announced in just a few weeks, so here’s a survey of the contenders and the most likely predictions at this time. Weigh in with your thoughts, and let me know if I’ve left off anything important. A reminder that the Globes are wildly unpredictable and that it is still a bit early to gauge the reception or awards potential of a number of the so-called “contenders” at this point.

Last year’s nominees:
Blue is the Warmest Color (France)
The Great Beauty (Italy)
The Hunt (Denmark)
The Past (Iran)
The Wind Rises (Japan)

This category is near-impossible to predict before knowing which films might be eligible, and my number one awards site, Goldderby, doesn’t yet offer any clues about what other people are predicting. What I’ve heard most about this year are Two Days, One Night (Belgium), Mommy (Canada), Saint Laurent (France), Human Capital (Italy), Ida (Poland), and Force Majeure (Sweden), all of which are eligible for the Oscar which means that we may not be considering others that are out there.

Current predictions:
Two Days, One Night (Belgium)
Mommy (Canada)
Saint Laurent (France)
Human Capital (Italy)
Ida (Poland)

Golden Globe Musings: Best Animated Feature Film

Golden Globe nominations for this year will be announced in just a few weeks, so here’s a survey of the contenders and the most likely predictions at this time. Weigh in with your thoughts, and let me know if I’ve left off anything important. A reminder that the Globes are wildly unpredictable and that it is still a bit early to gauge the reception or awards potential of a number of the so-called “contenders” at this point.

Last year’s nominees:
The Croods
Despicable Me

For the first time since 2008, this category had only three nominees last year, but it should be returned to five with more eligible films this year. I haven’t seen much of this year’s crop, but it certainly seems like Big Hero 6, The Lego Movie, and How to Train Your Dragon 2 are the three to beat. Globe voters rarely go for the artsier foreign picks that Oscar does, but maybe that bodes well for my favorite animated film of the year, Mr. Peabody and Sherman? Other contenders include The Book of Life and The Boxtrolls.

Current predictions:
Big Hero 6
The Book of Life
How to Train Your Dragon 2
The Lego Movie
Mr. Peabody and Sherman

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Golden Globe Musings: Best Actress in a Supporting Role in a Motion Picture

Golden Globe nominations for this year will be announced in just a few weeks, so here’s a survey of the contenders and the most likely predictions at this time. Weigh in with your thoughts, and let me know if I’ve left off anything important. A reminder that the Globes are wildly unpredictable and that it is still a bit early to gauge the reception or awards potential of a number of the so-called “contenders” at this point.

Last year’s nominees:
Sally Hawkins (Blue Jasmine)
Jennifer Lawrence (American Hustle)
Lupita Nyongo (12 Years a Slave)
Julia Roberts (August: Osage County)
June Squibb (Nebraska)

Last year’s so-called frontrunner, Oprah Winfrey, got snubbed here and then didn’t make it to Oscar. I don’t think that will happen with Patricia Arquette (Boyhood), who may just be this category’s only sure thing. Jessica Chastain (A Most Violent Year), Keira Knightley (The Imitation Game), and Emma Stone (Birdman) are good bets but hardly guaranteed. Laura Dern (Wild), Meryl Streep (Into the Woods), and Anna Kendrick (Into the Woods), and Carrie Coon (Gone Girl) are also possibilities, and I imagine we’ll have a surprise nominee or two here.

Current predictions:
Patricia Arquette (Boyhood)
Jessica Chastain (A Most Violent Year)
Anna Kendrick (Into the Woods)
Keira Knightley (The Imitation Game)
Emma Stone (Birdman)

Golden Globe Musings: Best Actor in a Supporting Role in a Motion Picture

Golden Globe nominations for this year will be announced in just a few weeks, so here’s a survey of the contenders and the most likely predictions at this time. Weigh in with your thoughts, and let me know if I’ve left off anything important. A reminder that the Globes are wildly unpredictable and that it is still a bit early to gauge the reception or awards potential of a number of the so-called “contenders” at this point.

Last year’s nominees:
Barkhad Abdi (Captain Phillips)
Daniel Bruhl (Rush)
Bradley Cooper (American Hustle)
Michael Fassbender (12 Years a Slave)
Jared Leto (Dallas Buyers Club)

This category really doesn’t have that many nominees locked up, and I’m sure we’re going to see some unexpected faces. The actor with the best shot is J.K. Simmons (Whiplash), with Edward Norton (Birdman) close behind him. If either of those actors isn’t nominated, this may be the end of the road for them this awards season. Mark Ruffalo (Foxcatcher) and Ethan Hawke (Boyhood) are both good bets, but they could easily be snubbed and show up closer to the Oscar race. Those who could displace them include Tom Wilkinson (Selma), Robert Duvall (The Judge), Johnny Depp (Into the Woods), and Josh Brolin (Inherent Vice).

Current predictions:
Johnny Depp (Into the Woods)
Ethan Hawke (Boyhood)
Mark Ruffalo (Foxcatcher)
Edward Norton (Birdman)
J.K. Simmons (Whiplash)

Monday, November 24, 2014

Golden Globe Musings: Best Actress in a Motion Picture – Comedy/Musical

Golden Globe nominations for this year will be announced in just a few weeks, so here’s a survey of the contenders and the most likely predictions at this time. Weigh in with your thoughts, and let me know if I’ve left off anything important. A reminder that the Globes are wildly unpredictable and that it is still a bit early to gauge the reception or awards potential of a number of the so-called “contenders” at this point.

Last year’s nominees:
Amy Adams (American Hustle)
Julie Delpy (Before Midnight)
Greta Gerwig (Frances Ha)
Julia Louis-Dreyfus (Enough Said)
Meryl Streep (August: Osage County)

I’m most doubtful about this category since I don’t see most of the likely nominees as really fitting in here. Musicals tend to do well when they’re eligible, which could mean good news for Emily Blunt (Into the Woods), a past nominee in this category, and Quvenzhane Wallis (Annie), an Oscar nominee who wasn’t recognized by this organization. Keira Knightley (Begin Again), who’s having a great year, could benefit as well. Helen Mirren (The Hundred Foot Journey), a familiar face in this category, has a good shot, as does Amy Adams (Big Eyes). And then there are those who don’t quite fit, like Angelina Jolie (Maleficent) and Julianne Moore (Maps to the Stars). Other possibilities: Emmanuelle Seigner (Venus in Fur), Kristen Wiig (The Skeleton Twins), Jenny Slate (Obvious Child), and Lindsay Duncan (Le Week-End).

Current predictions:
Amy Adams (Big Eyes)
Emily Blunt (Into the Woods)
Angelina Jolie (Maleficent)
Helen Mirren (The Hundred Foot Journey)
Julianne Moore (Maps to the Stars)

Golden Globe Musings: Best Actor in a Motion Picture – Comedy/Musical

Golden Globe nominations for this year will be announced in just a few weeks, so here’s a survey of the contenders and the most likely predictions at this time. Weigh in with your thoughts, and let me know if I’ve left off anything important. A reminder that the Globes are wildly unpredictable and that it is still a bit early to gauge the reception or awards potential of a number of the so-called “contenders” at this point.

Last year’s nominees:
Christian Bale (American Hustle)
Bruce Dern (Nebraska)
Leonardo DiCaprio (The Wolf of Wall Street)
Oscar Isaac (Inside Llewyn Davis)
Joaquin Phoenix (Her)

Two films submitting as comedy help their actors out a lot - Michael Keaton (Birdman) and Joaquin Phoenix (Inherent Vice). Those two Oscar contenders will likely be joined by Bill Murray (St. Vincent) and Ralph Fiennes (The Grand Budapest Hotel). On the music side of things, Chadwick Boseman (Get on Up) and Mark Ruffalo (Begin Again) have decent shots, and voters might also warm to James Corden (Into the Woods), Bill Hader (The Skeleton Twins), or Chris Rock (Top Five). It’s also possible that Christoph Waltz (Big Eyes) could end up here.

Current predictions:
James Corden (Into the Woods)
Ralph Fiennes (The Grand Budapest Hotel)
Michael Keaton (Birdman)
Bill Murray (St. Vincent)
Joaquin Phoenix (Inherent Vice)

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Golden Globe Musings: Best Actress in a Motion Picture – Drama

Golden Globe nominations for this year will be announced in just a few weeks, so here’s a survey of the contenders and the most likely predictions at this time. Weigh in with your thoughts, and let me know if I’ve left off anything important. A reminder that the Globes are wildly unpredictable and that it is still a bit early to gauge the reception or awards potential of a number of the so-called “contenders” at this point.

Last year’s nominees:
Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine)
Sandra Bullock (Gravity)
Judi Dench (Philomena)
Emma Thompson (Saving Mr. Banks)
Kate Winslet (Labor Day)

All I’ve been reading about is Julianne Moore (Still Alice), and I think she’s far ahead of the pack. Likely nominees include Rosamund Pike (Gone Girl), Felicity Jones (The Theory of Everything), and Reese Witherspoon (Wild). For the final spot, there are a range of contenders, including Jessica Chastain (The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby), Hilary Swank (The Homesman), Mia Wasikowska (Tracks), and Shailene Woodley (The Fault in Our Stars), and probably one or two no one has thought of yet.

Current predictions:
Jessica Chastain (The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby)
Felicity Jones (The Theory of Everything)
Julianne Moore (Still Alice)
Rosamund Pike (Gone Girl)
Reese Witherspoon (Wild)

Golden Globe Musings: Best Actor in a Motion Picture – Drama

Golden Globe nominations for this year will be announced in just a few weeks, so here’s a survey of the contenders and the most likely predictions at this time. Weigh in with your thoughts, and let me know if I’ve left off anything important. A reminder that the Globes are wildly unpredictable and that it is still a bit early to gauge the reception or awards potential of a number of the so-called “contenders” at this point.

Last year’s nominees:
Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave)
Idris Elba (Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom)
Tom Hanks (Captain Phillips)
Matthew McConaughey (Dallas Buyers Club)
Robert Redford (All is Lost)

This category has a few solid frontrunners. Eddie Redmayne (The Theory of Everything) and Benedict Cumberbatch (The Imitation Game) are locks, and I think that Steve Carell (Foxcatcher) should have no trouble getting in here too, though I don’t think there’s enough room for his costar Channing Tatum (Foxcatcher). Even if his film doesn’t land, David Oyelowo (Selma) is a good bet, and I also think that Miles Teller (Whiplash) might have an easier time sliding in here than to the corresponding Oscar category. Bradley Cooper (American Sniper), Timothy Spall (Mr. Turner), and Ben Affleck (Gone Girl) are possibilities too.

Current predictions:
Steve Carell (Foxcatcher)
Benedict Cumberbatch (The Imitation Game)
David Oyelowo (Selma)
Eddie Redmayne (The Theory of Everything)
Miles Teller (Whiplash)

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Saturday Night Movie Recommendations with Abe

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

Now Playing in Theatres

The Sleepwalker (recommended): This Sundance feature from debut director Mona Fastvold is an intimate look at two couples and how they communicate and clash during one volatile weekend. Stephanie Ellis, as the eccentric and unpredictable Christine, is the film’s standout. Now playing at IFC Center. Read my review from Sundance.

They’re not new this week, but I can highly recommend both Interstellar and The Theory of Everything.

New to DVD

In Bloom (mixed bag): This 1990s-set drama, which was Georgia’s official Oscar submission for Best Foreign Film last year, has strong characters but not an effectively engaging story to match them.

The Wind Rises (highly recommend): In the height of Oscar season, I somehow neglected to write a review, but last year’s second-best animated film is a must see. This dazzling film comes from director Hayao Miyazaki, who presents a tale of a man obsessed with building planes who just happens to grow up in Japan in the run-up to World War II. It’s a visually stunning and extremely memorable, mature piece.

South Asian International Film Festival Spotlight: Dukhtar

I’m excited to cover a few selections from the second year in a row the South Asian International Film Festival, exhibiting films from India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and Nepal, which presents its eleventh year in New York City from November 17th-23th.

Directed by Afia Serena Nathaniel
Screening November 22 at 5pm

Pakistan’s official Oscar entry this year is this drama about a ten-year-old girl smuggling away from her home when she is promised as a child bride to a powerful and dangerous man. Allah Rakhi (Samiya Mumtaz) wants only to protect her young daughter Zainab (Saleha Aref) from having her childhood stolen from her, and those who want the marriage to go through will stop at nothing to get her back. Billed as both a drama and a thriller, this film is actually strongest in its more intimate moments, as Allah Rakhi and Zainab befriend Sohail (Mohib Mirza), a truck driver who initially demands that his stowaways depart but gradually proves to be a sympathetic and kindhearted guardian for them. This is female director Afia Nathaniel’s first full-length feature, a powerful look at one culture where physical escape is truly the only option for survival. While it’s not always firmly enthralling, this is an empathetic and worthwhile film.

Friday, November 21, 2014

South Asian International Film Festival Spotlight: Titli

I’m excited to cover a few selections for the second year in a row from the South Asian International Film Festival, exhibiting films from India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and Nepal, which presents its eleventh year in New York City from November 17th-23th.

Directed by Kanu Behl
Screening November 21 at 8pm

This drama, called “Butterfly” internationally, comes from India and presents the story of Titli, a young man caught up in a life of carjacking and petty crime who, as is often the case, wants to make a clean break. Titli is quiet and somber compared to his loud and abrasive brothers, who balk at the idea of him leaving and do everything they can to keep him where he is. The ensuing tale is about who Titli is as a person and what is important to him, since he already exists in a world where getting out isn’t a true possibility, but the idea of starting a new, untarnished life is undeniably appealing. This could be classified as a mobster drama in a different culture, one where thievery and side businesses don’t produce the kind of luxury they might in a wealthier country but instead just enable continued existence a base level. Titli’s story is interesting, but this film doesn’t quite come alive while telling it.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Movie with Abe: The Theory of Everything

The Theory of Everything
Directed by James Marsh
Released November 7, 2014

The intersection of science and emotion is an undeniably interesting place to dwell. Scientists, by nature, aren’t typically graced with excellent social skills, and therefore seeing the relationships they are able to build is particularly worthwhile. In the case of Stephen Hawking, the world’s foremost theoretical physicist, he managed to be charming enough to win the heart of Jane Wilde, a colleague at the University of Oxford, despite the pull of his studies. This science-centered love story inserts a considerably different hurdle, as a genius able to solve nearly any problem is faced with the impossible reality of not being able to control or solve his own deteriorating condition.

“The Theory of Everything” begins as a whirlwind romance, with a young Stephen and a young Jane making eyes at each other at a party and then proceeding to have several captivating dates during which Stephen shows off his brainpower and Jane responds in kind by acknowledging his impressiveness without seeming too giddy. At the same time, Stephen is hard at work proving that time has a beginning and that he can trace it back to that scientific start. A sudden decline in his health reveals a debilitating and terminal illness which should kill him in less than two years, and as Stephen despairs, Jane steps in to show her enduring love and determination to keep him alive and functioning, continuing to make the world a more intelligent place.

This is a story about two people, a strong, supportive wife who would do anything for the husband she admires save for let him sit and sulk and not realize his potential. Its format is reminiscent of the terrific “A Beautiful Mind,” including a similar scene towards the start when Stephen and Jane gaze hopefully at the stars and their infinite nature. Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones deliver heartfelt, transformative performances. Redmayne displays a range of emotion with minimal but deliberate facial expressions and movements as Stephen’s state gradually limits his mobility. Jones exudes a bravery and drive that propels Jane to be the one to prop her husband up and make sure he wants for nothing. The two together are extraordinary, and they help to make this already stirring story even more magnetic and powerful. James Marsh, who won an Oscar for helming the documentary “Man on Wire,” has demonstrated himself to be capable of taking a true story and adapting it with great success into a narrative feature.


Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Wednesday Oscar Watch with Abe

Welcome to the first 2014 edition of this returning feature here at Movies with Abe, Wednesday Oscar Watch with Abe. It’s a bit early to be able to accurately predict the eventual Oscar nominees, but around this time, plenty of likely contenders are being released. I’ll be looking every Wednesday at the awards chances for all of the films released the previous week (in this case, the past three weeks). Additionally, to make up for lost time, I’ll also be taking a look at the films released earlier in the year, one month at a time. Chime in with your thoughts on the Oscar chances for these films in the comments section. Also, if I’ve missed any films from the previous months, please say so!

Films released October 31-November 14, 2014

Nightcrawler (October 31)
This film looked a bit too bleak and grim for Oscar, but Jake Gyllenhaal’s name has come up as a potential Best Actor contender (my most trusted source, Nathaniel at The Film Experience, is currently predicting him). I’d chalk it up to the same buzz he got for “Prisoners” which panned out to nothing.

Big Hero 6 (November 7)
I have yet to see this animated film, but I hear only great things and it seems like it’s the likeliest challenger to “The Lego Movie” for the Best Animated Feature trophy this year.

Interstellar (November 7)
Christopher Nolan’s last film – “The Dark Knight Rises” – didn’t earn any Oscar love, but the one before that, “Inception,” sure did. This should follow in the latter film’s footsteps, with guaranteed tech nominations and a likely Best Picture bid. Given Nolan’s history of being snubbed, a Best Director bid seems unlikely, but who knows?

The Theory of Everything (November 7)
Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones are sure things for their performances as Dr. and Mrs. Stephen Hawking, and this film will also be nominated for Best Picture. Director James Marsh, who won Best Documentary for “Man on Wire” a few years ago, has a good shot, and the film will surely also show up in Best Adapted Screenplay. Best Editing, Best Cinematography, and Best Makeup are possible too.

Beyond the Lights (November 14)
Gugu Mbatha-Raw is having a great year, and it’s possible that she’ll breakthrough for her performance in this film, though competing against herself in “Belle” probably means that she’ll have to wait for a less busy year with just one standout performance.

Foxcatcher (November 14)
Director Bennett Miller has been nominated for both of his previous films, “Capote” and “Moneyball,” both of which also earned Best Picture nominations and two acting nods apiece. That seems about right for this film, which shouldn’t have trouble getting in with an expanded Best Picture field. Miller won’t have as easy a shot but could still make it. Steve Carell is a likely Best Actor nominee, but hardly locked, and Mark Ruffalo has the best shot for his supporting turn over onscreen brother Channing Tatum, who won’t have an easy time breaking into the more crowded Best Actor race.

Rosewater (November 14)
Jon Stewart has won an awful lot of Emmys, so it’s fair to expect that having his name on a film might at the very least pique Oscar voters’ attention. I don’t think the film will be big enough, but he’s a dark horse contender for his reputation and for the film’s subject matter.

Films released June 2014

The Fault in Our Stars (June 6)
Shailene Woodley was nearly an Oscar nominee a few years ago for “The Descendants,” and I’m fully confident that she will be in the future. This film might not be Oscar voters’ tastes, but you can bet that Woodley is going to show up on more than a few ballots.

Obvious Child (June 6)
Jenny Slate is an up-and-coming actress with a proven comedian record, but this film needed to land in a much, much bigger way for her to make it her Oscar debut. A Golden Globe nomination is more realistic, and I’m not so sure that’s guaranteed either.

Snowpiercer (June 27)
I’ve read some buzz about Tilda Swinton being a contender for this film, which I have yet to see, but I don’t think this one is going to place at all, even though it should garner some technical votes. A sci-fi success like this doesn’t tend to be Oscar-friendly.

Begin Again (June 27)
Keira Knightley is everywhere this year, and it makes sense that she might at least earn some Golden Globe attention for her role in this film. Costar Mark Ruffalo, also having a big year, could too, though an Oscar nomination for him is impossible. Director John Carney’s “Once” earned one nomination – and on win – for Best Original Song, and I think this film has the best chance of showing up in that race, possibly with a few nominations.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

South Asian International Film Festival Spotlight: X

I’m excited to cover a few selections for the second year in a row the South Asian International Film Festival, exhibiting films from India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and Nepal, which presents its eleventh year in New York City from November 17th-23th.

Many directors
Screening November 17 at 8pm

This audacious project is a fitting film to introduce this year’s SAIFF lineup as its Opening Night selection. This Indian film comes from eleven different filmmakers, all of whom tackled the same storyline but from their own vantage points and fitting their own genres. That makes for one very schizophrenic experience – alternately engaging and alienating, hard to latch on to but gripping when one of the film’s eleven chapters really works. Like any film made up of vignettes, some are stronger than others, and it’s those that focus on direct, one-on-one conversation, particularly a chapter with a mock job interview, that prove most memorable and effective. Its brave construction makes for a fragmented experience, one that does manage to traverse a wealth of genres and themes but not in any coherent manner. The film’s tagline reads “Is man meant to stick to one woman? Is film meant to conform to one genre?” Those questions may be answered both in the negative here, but it’s a response that hasn’t been fully worked out just yet.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Movie with Abe: Interstellar

Directed by Christopher Nolan
Released November 7, 2014

Christopher Nolan is, without question, an ambitious filmmaker. Most recently, he revived the Batman franchise with the immensely popular Dark Knight trilogy, and he helmed an Oscar Best Picture nominee with the dream-centric “Inception.” He has shown a clear enthusiasm for science fiction and for merging scientific concepts that are both factual and fictional. Now, he’s headed into space with a 169-minute exploration of what the future might look like, a recognizably epic and momentous journey that’s fully worthy of its intimidating runtime.

“Interstellar” begins in a dystopian future that isn’t too far off from the present, though resources have been depleted considerably and Earth’s inhabitants are subject to increasingly bad dust storms. Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) has found himself to be a farmer in this new world order despite his past job history as a pilot. His daughter’s curiosity leads him to an opportunity to return to his old life and possibly even save the world, piloting an extremely daring NASA mission to find a new inhabitable planet for the people of Earth.

“Interstellar” spends its first act on Earth, and the departure into space is a thoroughly satisfying one. On the heels of last year’s “Gravity,” this is another look at the magnificent universe that’s both mesmerizing and terrifying in its absoluteness. The sheer magnitude of this mission – which is known from the outset to likely take years if not decades, particularly with the inconvenient nature of certain gravitational systems to slow time down considerably – is not lost, and the four astronauts who undertake it understand the importance of what they’re doing, especially as those they left behind continue to see circumstances worsen.

As with “Inception,” technology and science are incorporated in a terrific way, even if it may blur the line between the possible and the truly theoretical. Among the film’s best elements is TARS, a robot superbly voiced by Bill Irwin who has both the ability to be sarcastic and to adapt very quickly to whatever situation he needs. Oscar winners McConaughey and Anne Hathaway are well cast as two equally determined astronauts with strong motivations for succeeding in their mission, and the supporting cast includes standout turns from Jessica Chastain, Mackenzie Foy, and an “American Beauty” actor not seen in a long time, Wes Bentley. The film is full of exciting moments and dazzling effects, creating a suspenseful, gripping, and all-involving experience. The film takes a questionable step towards its conclusion but everything else, including the film’s final scene, is completely satisfying and a sign that Nolan can excel at whatever feat he sets his mind to.


Sunday, November 16, 2014

Movie with Abe: Beside Still Waters

Beside Still Waters
Directed by Chris Lowell
Released November 14, 2014

A lake house is a perfect setting for an ensemble film, be it a comedy or a drama. When that home has deep resonance for its guests and brings back nostalgic feelings of their childhood, it can be even more impactful. In “Beside Still Waters,” that sense of longing for better days is exponentially enhanced by the fact that this final gathering of friends comes in the wake of the car accident death of its new owner’s parents, mournfully underscoring an otherwise celebratory reunion filled with soap-worthy romantic entanglements.

This film marks actor Chris Lowell’s debut as both cowriter and director. Most people will recognize him from his role as a shirtless receptionist on “Private Practice” or from his recent stint as an idiotic brother on “Enlisted.” I remember him, however, from his debut role on ABC’s extremely short-lived “Life As We Know It,” where he played a teenage photographer in a relationship with Kelly Osborne. That classic hilarious show was all about sex and relationships, and it’s no surprise that his first time behind the camera should be similar.

“Beside Still Waters” doesn’t waste much time in bringing its characters together from the varied places they are in life, starting with Daniel (Ryan Eggold), who has to cope with his parents’ unexpected and untimely death and also with his ex Olivia (Britt Lower) making the questionable decision to bring her new fiancé Henry (Reid Scott) along with her. The rest of the guest list includes a couple and a newly famous reality TV star (Brett Dalton). Romance, seduction, secrets, and betrayal predictably follow.

This is an original story about young people that feels genuine, but there’s nothing particular about it that makes it uniquely memorable or enduring. These characters all feel like variations of different archetypes, each offering a piece of a given personality and helping to show how contrasting attitudes and career experiences can mesh together. This is a specific and fleeting snapshot of their lives that permits only a brief opportunity to try and understand their motivations for their actions on a given weekend. The film’s tone is one of loose, unserious fun later made far more consequential once the weight of decisions and actions have sunk in. Lowell does seem to have interesting things to say, and his next feature has the potential to be a more lasting realization of the themes he has begun to explore here.


Saturday, November 15, 2014

Saturday Night Movie Recommendations with Abe

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

Now Playing in Theatres

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

Foxcatcher (mixed bag): Bennett Miller’s third feature film, following “Moneyball” and “Capote,” is an intriguing look at an eccentric billionaire and the two wrestling champions he takes an interest in, but its story arc isn’t as compelling or fulfilling as it should be. Steve Carell’s transformative performance, on the other hand, is more worthwhile. Now playing at AMC Lincoln Square, Landmark Sunshine, and Regal E-Walk. Read my review from NYFF.

The Homesman (anti-recommended): Tommy Lee Jones’ second time behind the camera is about as bleak and uninviting as his first, “The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada.” If watching his disgruntled drifter and Hilary Swank’s buttoned-up Midwesterner transport three crazy women across territorial lines sounds appealing, go ahead and check this one out. Read my review from Thursday.

Rosewater (recommended): Jon Stewart’s directorial debut isn’t something you might expect from him, but it does dramatically spotlight the story of one journalist imprisoned in Iran. Its story and star Gael Garcia Bernal are its strongest assets. Now playing in limited release. Read my review from yesterday.

New to DVD

Happy Christmas (recommended): Anna Kendrick is perfectly charming as an immature screwup who has difficulty being an adult when she stays with her brother, his wife, and their baby. Director Joe Swanberg gives a great companion performance in this enjoyable comedy.

Now on Netflix Instant Streaming

Nebraska (recommended): This quiet black-and-white Best Picture nominee tells an endearing, surprisingly funny tale of an older man with a fading memory who embarks to reclaim the prize money he believes he has won and experiences a true life journey on the way to find it.

Pirates of the Caribbean (highly recommended): Before this turned into a franchise that wasn’t even worth watching, this first film, which earned an awesome and well-deserved Oscar nomination for Johnny Depp’s maniacal lead performance, was a tremendous accomplishment in entertainment and bringing fantasy to life in the most terrific way.

Quartet (recommended): This 2012 Golden Globe nominee for lead actress Maggie Smith’s performance is actually an extremely competent and worthwhile film, featuring superb performances from Smith, Tom Courtenay, Billy Connolly, Pauline Collins, and Michael Gambon as senior citizens in a home for retired musicians. Dustin Hoffman’s directorial debut is an endearing hit.

Siddarth (recommended): This drama, which I screened as part of last year’s South Asian International Film Festival (this year’s begins on Tuesday), is a stirring and emotional story about a man who goes to great lengths and personal sacrifices to track down his missing son in India.

Tasting Menu (recommended): This food movie isn’t all about its appetizing dishes, but instead offers up a handful of fun and involving storylines that, for the most part, come together in a positive and enjoyable format.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Movie with Abe: Rosewater

Directed by Jon Stewart
Released November 14, 2014

Venturing into a new genre is always a challenge, and audiences often have a hard time accepting that a performer or filmmaker is equally capable of making one kind of film as the one for which they are most known. To some, Jon Stewart is still the guy from “Big Daddy,” while most at least acknowledge the more intellectual comedian host of “The Daily Show” on Comedy Central. Making a dramatic film about the arrest and torture of a Canadian-Iranian journalist in Iran in the aftermath of the controversial 2009 elections is a big leap from political satire, but it’s clear that this is the kind of topic that matters most to Stewart.

”Rosewater” tells the real-life story of Maziar Bahari (Gael Garcia Bernal), who traveled from London to Iran in 2009 to cover the elections. What he found was enormous national support for Mir-Hossein Mousavi, the primary opposition candidate to sitting president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. When the election results come in, however, it’s Ahmadinejad who is victorious, and by a suspiciously large majority. Staying with his mother (Shohreh Aghdashloo), Maziar awakens to find government authorities have come to question him, and he soon lands in a cell, blindfolded, interrogated, and told that he is a spy. At first, he responds with laughter at the notion and soon realizes that circumstances are much more serious than he could imagine.

“Rosewater” has a meta moment in which Jason Jones, a regular player on “The Daily Show,” portrays himself, reenacting a segment with the real Bahari just prior to the election in which Jones pretends to be a “spy correspondent” speaking with Bahari, who jokingly confirms his identity as a spy. Stewart uses an altogether different tactic to expose the ridiculous of world events here, demonstrating how Bahari’s interrogation includes such outlandish and clearly made-up claims yet that’s what actually goes on in the world. The film isn’t immune to humor, of course, highlighted by Bahari’s attempts to have fun with his interrogator, making up lengthy stories about famed sexual massages in New Jersey to pique his interest.

Bernal is the perfect actor to play Bahari, who at a press conference for the film demonstrated the same kind of fusion of likeable and knowledgeable personality that makes his attitude towards his circumstances considerably sunnier and more optimistic than another journalist’s might be. Stewart has told an important story in this film, and while it’s not that drama doesn’t suit him, he’s not yet the most finessed filmmaker, using a few tropes such as hallucinated relatives and fast editing that don’t lend themselves to the most well-rounded film. Bernal and this film’s message, however, remain powerful, as wrapped up in this decent if unextraordinary film.


Thursday, November 13, 2014

Movie with Abe: The Homesman

The Homesman
Directed by Tommy Lee Jones
Released November 14, 2014

Westerns don’t come along that often these days. It’s a genre that requires a certain energy to be accessible, otherwise it can feel like a long meandering journey. Tommy Lee Jones’ directorial debut – “The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada” – wasn’t quite a western even though it felt like one in some respects, and it makes sense that the Texas native would choose a western for his follow-up feature. Though it’s clearly an interesting topic for him, “The Homesman” is a grim and uninviting drama that proceeds at a slow and unenthusiastic pace.

This film’s title refers to a role to be fulfilled by some member of a small community in the Nebraska territory which involves the transportation of three women who have gone crazy to a church many miles away in Iowa. Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank), a single woman with a prominent position in town, volunteers to take on that job, and soon into her journey she rescues miscreant George Briggs (Tommy Lee Jones) from being hanged for squatting and enlists him to accompany her and follow her every directive. Excited by the notion of earning three hundred dollars for his work, Briggs hastily agrees, though he doesn’t share Cuddy’s passion and good heart.

The long, arduous trip is filled with misery as the three women are antisocial and unresponsive, occasionally attempting to run away or to defy the two people who are trying to transport them across territorial lines. It’s hard to find a character to like since Cuddy isn’t exactly agreeable and Briggs doesn’t manage to be likeable in spite of being despicable. A few twists along the way are predictable, while others don’t feel justified by the characterizations and events that precede them, instead inserted merely for unsubstantiated dramatic effect.

Jones is clearly having fun with his role, though he’s not putting in too much effort. Swank is trying hard to be as buttoned-up as possible, and it’s far from her most satisfying performance. James Spader and Meryl Streep show up in overdone small roles, while Hailee Steinfeld ranks as the film’s hardest-working performer. The story, based on the 1988 novel by Glendon Swarthout, doesn’t purport to be an optimistic one, but there’s no redeeming value to be found in the ground it covers or the conclusion it reaches. Without much appeal, it’s hard to find this journey worth taking.


Wednesday, November 12, 2014

DOC NYC Spotlight: Miss Tibet

I’m excited to have been able to screen a few selections from DOC NYC, America’s largest documentary festival, which presents its fifth year in New York City from November 13th-20th.

Miss Tibet: Beauty in Exile
Directed by Norah Shapiro
Screening November 16 at 7:15pm and November 17 at 11:15am

Tibet has a certain mythical quality to it, geographically separate from the rest of the world and located within a country with which it doesn’t identify on a number of levels. It has a distinct pull for those with Tibetan heritage who have never had the opportunity to visit their homeland, more so than many other places from which those with ancestors with historic roots in a controversial place are banned. That setup makes an unexpected attempt to connect with Tibetan culture – a beauty pageant – a particularly interesting topic for examination.

“Miss Tibet,” which uses a very fitting tagline, “Beauty in Exile,” as its subtitle, follows a group of contestants in Miss Tibet, a pageant hosted in India designed to determine who the best representative of Tibetan ideals and culture is. One participant comes from Minneapolis, home to one of the largest communities of Tibetans around the world, an assimilated American with an active interest in forging a deeper connection with her people and the place she considers to be home despite having never visited. That spirit of yearning to recreate something distant and unattainable is the driving force behind everyone’s participation in this pageant.

This relatively short documentary – which runs just sixty-nine minutes – manages to evoke a sense of what Tibet is and what it represents to those with roots there through literal imagery and through evoking the feeling of being connected to something grander that isn’t tangibly within reach. The film also addresses the components of a beauty pageant that don’t fit in with what being a Tibetan represents. Diverse opinions don’t derail this unifying event, and this small snapshot of an intriguing international event feels like a worthwhile introduction to a much deeper and rich story.


DOC NYC Spotlight: A Murder in the Park

I’m excited to have been able to screen a few selections from DOC NYC, America’s largest documentary festival, which presents its fifth year in New York City from November 13th-20th.

A Murder in the Park
Directed by Christopher S. Rech and Brandon Kimber
Screening November 17 at 9:30pm

Documentaries have two primary tasks: to highlight an interesting subject and to present it in a worthwhile way. Some nonfiction films are strong because of their content, the stories that they tell, and the causes for which they advocate. Others succeed in making facts and events that wouldn’t otherwise be extraordinary undeniably appealing and watchable because of how they frame their subject matter. “A Murder in the Park” is a documentary that does its topic justice and which chooses a furiously interesting and important focus: a struggle to prove a man’s innocence that resulted in a far more complicated and unbelievable outcome.

“A Murder in the Park” begins with a deceptively triumphant introduction, one that makes its subsequent revelations all the more profound. Less than forty-eight hours from execution for a double murder in 1982, Anthony Porter was freed thanks to the investigative efforts of a Northwestern University journalism class. It’s a remarkable tale in itself, but then comes the big bombshell: Porter actually committed the crime. The film’s assertion, supported by a number of law enforcement officials involved with the original case, is that Northwestern professor David Protess charged his students with proving Porter’s innocence as a way of combating the death penalty in Illinois rather than actually renaming the crime objectively.

What ensues is a complex look at how easily the justice system can be manipulated due to the loopholes and obstacles that exist in convictions, trials, and use of the media. This film takes the staunch position that Protess actually orchestrated events to find an innocent man, Alstory Simon, who could be convinced to take the fall for Porter’s crimes without realizing the full weight of what he was doing, which would put him in prison for fifteen years. It’s astonishing to see how Protess’ main cause - The Innocence Project – serves an altogether difference purpose with no regard for collateral damage.

It’s hard to remember a documentary that wasn’t about politics or some sort of grand social or international change that was as engaging and memorable as this film. It treats its subject matter with the utmost seriousness, with all its witnesses incredulous at the notion of this having actually happened. It’s a thorough and extremely effective analysis, one that exposes something that needs all the publicity it can get. This is both an instance of great journalism and a very sound documentary.


Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Tuesday’s Top Trailer: Big Eyes

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

Big Eyes – Opening December 25, 2014

I saw this trailer a few weeks ago when I was at the movie theatre and I found it both intriguing and very weird. It’s mainly the poster that does it, with the very large and haunting eyes coming off as more creepy than artistically attractive. What doesn’t necessarily come across from the trailer is that this film is the work of Tim Burton, who is known for odd and eclectic projects. I liked “Frankenweenie,” “Alice in Wonderland,” and “Sweeney Todd,” three of his recent projects, and I’m a big fan of “Big Fish.” This seems to be a lot less fantastical than any of those, but there’s still something about painter Margaret Keane and the way that she connects to those eyes. I wouldn’t have thought to pair Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz, particularly because he’s nearly twenty years older but also because I don’t see them as being terribly compatible. Yet Waltz, in this film, appears to have an ageless quality about him, and it seems like he’s a good fit. Adams is the likelier one to earn buzz for this performance, one of an endearing and hard-working artist who has to hide what she does so that her husband can sell her work. I’m excited to see Jason Schwartzman and Krysten Ritter, who just appeared together in “Listen Up Philip,” in the supporting cast, in addition to traditional heavyweights Danny Huston and Terence Stamp. This film’s Christmas release date suggests that it’s going to be one of the big movies of the end of the year, and I hope it proves to be both enjoyable and memorable.

Monday, November 10, 2014

DOC NYC Spotlight: Enquiring Minds

I’m excited to have been able to screen a few selections from DOC NYC, America’s largest documentary festival, which presents its fifth year in New York City from November 13th-20th.

Enquiring Minds: The Untold Story of the National Enquirer
Directed by Ric Burns
Screening November 15 at 7pm

Anyone asking would be hard pressed to find a single person in America who hadn’t heard of the National Enquirer. Locating someone who had actually purchased and read through an issue, and getting someone to admit to that, would be a considerably more difficult task. It’s a national phenomenon which is representative of a larger culture of news defined by paparazzi and sensationalism, and it’s no surprise that the story of its most notable publisher, Genereso Pope Jr., has its own elements of public interest to expose.

The approach to its subject matter that this film takes reminded me instantly of two documentaries from 2010 about two figures considered highly controversial. “Smash His Camera” was about Ron Galella, a paparazzo who considered it his job to be up and ready to get in a celebrity’s face with his chosen instrument. “Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist, and Rebel” focused on the infamous founder of the men’s magazine. Both are detested by far more people than they are revered by anyone, and those documentaries do them justice by considering their crafts just as decent and respectable as any other. “Enquiring Minds” does the same, looking at the National Enquirer and interviewing its many employees as exemplars of journalism and breaking news over the past six decades.

What “Enquiring Minds” demonstrates is that Pope was a formidable man, one driven by the notion of unparalleled success and prone to bouts of anger that resulted in the firing of whole departments. He was a shrewd businessman, one who managed to capitalize on the supermarket industry so that other periodicals and newspapers being sold on shelves had to come through him first. He prided himself on major stories, ranging from outrageous celebrity scoops to what might more plainly be called a human interest piece. To Pope, the National Enquirer was not what many think of it today, and every story required backup and a personal review by Pope to make it to print. Seeing and understanding how tabloid journalism came to be makes perfect sense as portrayed in this film, and this eye-opening story helps to both humanize and professionalize the people working to churn out the kind of material that fills the pages of the most purchased publication at the supermarket and at the same time threatens to unravel a celebrity’s career depending on whether today’s writers and editors abide by the same standards as Pope did when he was in charge.


Sunday, November 9, 2014

Movie with Abe: West

Directed by Christian Schwochow
Released November 7, 2014

There’s something about postwar Germany that automatically feels eerie. While the Holocaust makes for an excellent film subject widely known to win awards, Germany in the years after its darkest period is also a wealthy setting ripe for dramatic adaptation. “The Lives of Others” was a terrific example of how paranoia in the splintered Germany before the fall of the Berlin Wall seized the nation. “West” takes a step back from that, losing its omniscient protagonist and instead focusing on one woman trying hard to stay under the radar as she starts a new life in 1970s West Germany, haunted by the ghosts of her East German past.

The first scene of the film presents a bleak outlook for the rest of its content, as Jördis (Nelly Senff) smiles through the search conducted by West German officials as she tries to cross into sunnier territory but finds her plan interrupted by an innocent request from her young son Alexej (Tristan Göbel) to use the bathroom. Jördis soon finds herself subjected to an invasive strip search, and though she makes it to her destination without being detained for long or being physically harmed, it is clear that adjusting to her new life, which finds her rooming in close quarters with those considerably below her station, is going to be a weary struggle.

Jördis’ attempts to start her life anew include trying to get a job in line with the advanced degree she possesses, but she finds that her skills are not as easily transposable as she might have hoped. More disconcertingly, Jördis is also approached by authorities seeking to learn more about her dead boyfriend and his ties to illegal operations in his homeland. Jördis is doing what she can to move on, and Alexej certainly has an idealized view of the world that doesn’t match what his mother constantly experiences.

It’s not terribly clear throughout “West” where its story is headed, yet there’s a foreboding feeling that exists during the entirety of the film. Jördis’ interactions with an American representative of the Allied Secret Service fluent in German, played by Jacky Ido, are especially laced with a sense of inescapable inevitability, though its consequences are unknown. The film leaps forward at a surprising pace towards its conclusion that doesn’t suit all that led up to it, realizing an intriguing story shrouded in mystery in a way that proves too definitive.


Saturday, November 8, 2014

Saturday Night Movie Recommendations with Abe

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

Now Playing in Theatres

The Better Angels (anti-recommended): The worst film I saw at Sundance this year was this heavily disappointing tale of Abraham Lincoln’s childhood, which fades into its black-and-white background and tells a deathly boring story, with no help from a theoretically strong cast led by Jason Clarke and Diane Kruger. Now playing at Landmark Sunshine. Read my review from Sundance.

Viva La Liberta (highly recommended): This Italian movie about a politician who decides he needs to take time off from his public life stars Toni Servillo as the mild-mannered man in question and his far more eccentric and entertaining identical twin brother. It’s a marvelously entertaining and clever film with plenty to say about politics and relationships. Now playing at Lincoln Plaza and Quad Cinema. Read my review from yesterday.

The Way He Looks (recommended): Brazil’s submission for the Best Foreign Film Oscar is an engaging story about a blind teenager and his two friends, one old and one new, who help him see the world through their kindness, something not bestowed upon him by others. It’s a surprisingly mature and memorable film. Now playing at Village East Cinema. Read my review from Thursday.

West (recommended): This film, set in West Germany in the 1970s, is being released to coincide with the twenty-fifth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Its story is intriguing even if its focus isn’t clear, and it’s a haunting thriller that offers an uneasy look at a divided Germany. My review will be up tomorrow.

New to DVD

Land Ho! (highly recommended): My favorite film from Sundance is truly a must-see. It’s an unassuming and wholly likeable comedy with terrific performances from the inimitable Earl Lynn Nelson and the dependable Paul Eenhorn.

A Most Wanted Man (mixed bag): The late Philip Seymour Hoffman stars as the head of a counterterrorism team in Germany in one of his final roles, and while this thriller from director Anton Corbjin has its moments, as a whole it’s not as compelling as it should be.

Now on Netflix Instant Streaming

A handful of recent classics are now available, including two of the best thrillers I’ve ever seen, Se7en and Memento, and the film that was remade as “The Departed,” Infernal Affairs. I’m also a big fan of one of the wonderful Love Actually, the eternally endearing Richard Curtis ensemble film from 2003. All highly recommended!

Friday, November 7, 2014

Movie with Abe: Viva la Libertà

Viva la Libertà
Directed by Roberto Andò
Released November 7, 2014

Watching one foreign film that makes it over to the United States shouldn’t define an international actor’s career, but it very often does just that, at least for American audiences. While Javier Bardem and Marion Cotillard have expanded to a multitude of roles, some, like Jean Dujardin, will need to work hard to be remembered as more than just one iconic character. Another actor, Toni Servillo, made an impression as a less than showy protagonist in an extremely showy film, last year’s Oscar winner for Best Foreign Film, “The Great Beauty.” Impressively, Servillo has selected a follow-up film that permits him to make a wholly new and extremely formidable impression.

At the start of “Viva la Libertà,” which fairly obviously translates to “long live freedom,” Servillo first appears as someone not too unlike his character from “The Great Beauty,” quietly standing at the center of a much louder world. Here, Servillo is Enrico Oliveri, the minority leader in Italy’s government, celebrated by some and despised by others. After being heckled when he is slow to start his speech, Enrico decides that he needs a break and disappears to France, where he reconnects with his old flame Danielle (Valeria Bruni Tedeschi) and gets to know her precocious daughter and filmmaker husband. A politician retreating from public life to reconnect with the simpler pleasures of anonymity would in itself be a perfectly worthwhile premise for a film.

And yet that’s only half of this film. Back in Italy, Enrico’s loyal number two, Andrea (Valerio Mastandrea), desperately tries to prop up the missing senator and make excuses for his absence. His efforts lead him to a surprising discovery – that Enrico has an identical twin brother, Giovanni, who has recently completed a psychiatric stay. A plan to have Giovanni pretend to be his brother is expectedly hatched, but it comes along with something far less anticipated: Giovanni himself. The polar opposite of his brother, Giovanni deflects reporter questions with philosophical proclamations and astounds everyone he speaks to with his newfound intellectual attitude on the decaying state of the party he used to champion.

Servillo delivers an incredible dual performance, imbuing Enrico with a subdued energy that allows him to take in the feelings and emotions of those around him and Giovanni with an incomparable charisma, ready to speak about whatever it is that pleases him regardless of what has been said to or asked of him. Both characters are fascinating, and seeing one actor play both is mesmerizing. Tedeschi is wonderful as well, and it’s great to see the actress, who appeared in Italy’s Oscar submission for Best Foreign Film, “Human Capital,” having such a busy international year. It’s hard to classify “Viva la Libertà” since it doesn’t easily fit into one genre, laden with political diatribe, humor, and a more serious underlying sense of what it means to be committed to something. All in all, this is a blast, and a highly memorable one at that.


Thursday, November 6, 2014

Movie with Abe: The Way He Looks

The Way He Looks
Directed by Daniel Ribeiro
Released November 7, 2014

I often begin my reviews by talking about titles, and that’s certainly how I have to start with this film. I’ll note that I’m analyzing a title that’s been translated from another language, but I still think that it speaks volumes. “The Way He Looks” tells the story of Leonardo, a blind teenager in Brazil, who finds himself frequently bullied by classmates in school and subject to overprotective parents at home. This is a film about how one person looks at the world without seeing and how others looks at him, some with sympathy, some with pity, and some as if he is no different than someone who can see. That intriguing angle is complemented by an engaging story that isn’t too complicated but still serves to be more than adequately involving.

Leonardo (Ghilherme Lobo) is a free spirit who happens to be blind, and is subject to cruel torment by those in his class, who mock the loud sound of the typewriter he uses to take notes and rudely resent the idea of being seated behind him as a punishment. His one friend is Giovana (Tess Amorim), who stands by him and walks him home after school each day. The arrival of a new student, Gabriel (Fabio Audi), piques the interest of both Leonardo and Giovana and begins to show Leonardo that there is more out there in the world, coinciding with a sudden interest on his part in the idea of studying abroad.

This is a movie about kids who don’t know much about the world but still possess a surprising insight into what life entails. Gabriel is the mysterious new kid who radiates a certain energy that draws the popular girls to him, but he chooses to spend his time with Leonardo since he sees a kindred spirit in him. His effect on Leonardo and Giovana’s relationship is not subtle, and it helps to transform all three characters in dynamic ways. All three young actors are talented and perform well, and though I’m not a devotee of Brazilian cinema, I do hope to see them again (this film earning a nomination for Best Foreign Film as Brazil’s official submission could help with that). “The Way He Looks” contrasts cruelty and kindness in a fascinating way, and its story is one that manages to be memorable and enticing without much cinematic flair or dramatics.


Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Big Apple Film Festival Spotlight: Manhattan Romance

I had the privilege of screening the opening night film of the 11th Annual Big Apple Film Festival, which takes place at Tribeca Cinemas from November 5th-9th, 2014.

Manhattan Romance
Directed by Tom O’Brien
Screening November 5th at 8:30pm and November 9th at 8pm

New York City, probably more than any other city, has been described as capable of being a film character in its own right. It’s especially capable of representing itself in love stories, and a film with a title like “Manhattan Romance” could be about many things. In this case, it’s about what romance means to different people, framed as a film within a film as director Tom O’Brien’s Danny films and edits a documentary about relationships. The finished product is an engaging analysis of what it means to be involved with someone, hardly conclusive but full of interesting and enlightening conversations and interactions.

Danny is the star of the film, but he’s purposely not its most dynamic character. He does experience emotions and come to realizations about relationships through his work, but it’s the women in his life who he interviews who have the biggest impact on what the film has to say about affection and connection. Two people in particular give Danny plenty to ponder: Theresa (Caitlin FitzGerald) and Carla (Katherine Waterston). Theresa serves as Danny’s girlfriend but expresses a wholly creative approach to what that means, since their physical affection is limited to hugs and massages since she is not interested in being sexual. Carla is Danny’s best friend, and a perfect subject for his film because of her relationship with the eccentric Emmy (Gaby Hoffmann).

FitzGerald is no stranger to novel outlooks on sex as a regular cast member on Showtime’s “Masters of Sex.” Here, her character is not the timid one longing for physical connection but instead a determined free spirit who believes that there are countless other ways to bond with someone. Hearing her talk about how she views what she has with Danny and the way in which she transcends jealousy is fascinating, and FitzGerald has a particularly wonderful way of delivering her character’s opinions. Waterston, who I remember from her lead role a few years ago in “The Babysitters,” is equally compelling as someone holding on to the people around her and their attachments as a way of fulfilling her own needs. Hoffman, as usual, is terrific, and O’Brien, in front of the camera and behind it, smartly chooses to remain subdued and act as a listener for the majority of the film, which makes his rarely stated opinions all the more resounding. “Manhattan Romance” is not an all-encompassing diatribe on love and life, but it’s a pretty magnificent excerpt.