Thursday, October 29, 2015

Movie with Abe: Bridge of Spies

Bridge of Spies
Directed by Steven Spielberg
Released October 16, 2015

The Cold War was an interesting time for the parties involved since it was defined by a constant state of uneasiness and covert operations, with few military engagements and visible confrontations occurring. That extended time period presents a world of storytelling possibilities. Director Steven Spielberg, no stranger to historical films and ones set during wartime, reunites with his “Saving Private Ryan” star Tom Hanks to put on screen the true story of James Donovan, an American lawyer tasked with providing a defense for an accused Russian spy, who defied the spirit of his era by giving it his all and risking even more to save American lives.

This drama begins with the arrest of Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), who is suspected of being a Russian spy. Donovan, a charismatic lawyer, agrees to take on his case, and it quickly becomes clear that it is all a show to make his conviction legally acceptable. Donovan pushes to argue against the automatic presumption of guilt, but learns that he may have better luck keeping his client alive so that, if Americans are taken prisoner by the Soviet Union, the United States has something to trade. When that inevitably happens, it’s hardly a shock that Donovan is the one called upon to act as the negotiator between two parties who can’t officially acknowledge the existence of any situation.

There is a surprising amount of humor infused into this otherwise dark and dreary tale, and most of it comes from Hanks. Donovan cracks plenty of jokes, some about how he will be the second most-hated man in America for defending number one and others about the state of affairs in Germany, which, on the eve of the building of the Berlin Wall, is the unstable site for negotiations between the United States and the Soviet Union. That lightheartedness sometimes feels inappropriate, though it often also helps to invigorate a story that, while interesting, is far from thrilling. There is little action and few thrills to be found in a film that, while marketed as a thriller, is merely a dramatic period piece. Hanks and Rylance are right for their parts, and strengthen a decent film that isn’t Spielberg’s best. It captures the feeling of the times and remains engaging for the majority of its 141-minute runtime, but lacks a certain excitement and powerful impact that other films from the venerable director have mastered.


Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Tuesday’s Top Trailer: Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens

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.

Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens – Opening December 18, 2015

When I watched the new official trailer for the seventh installment of one of the most popular film franchises, it occurred to me that I had probably already written about the first trailer released a few months before. I have no qualms about revisiting what may well be one of the most anticipated films of all time. I’ve noted before that I actually liked the first two prequels, and so I expect that I’ll enjoy this one plenty. What this trailer shows, more than anything, is that this is not a departure from the fantastically dated style of the original films, valuing the old-fashioned look of the pilot uniforms and backdrops over the more futuristic technological colors and styles of the prequels. There’s something about seeing a TIE fighter and the Millennium Falcon that just conjures up so much excitement. I was concerned that this film would feel like too much of a throwback to the original movies, emphasizing cameos over actual plot, but it doesn’t look like that’s the case. Hearing that the Jedi are but legends and that everything we know to be true is a story from the past makes it infinitely more interesting, and therefore the return of Han, Leia, Luke, and all of them will be crucial and celebrated as Darth Vader’s apparent successor decides to wage war on all that’s left of them. It’s crazy to me that tickets are already on sale when the film won’t be out for nearly two months – I guess I should get mine soon! This film is going to be a truly invigorating experience, even if it ends up being disappointing.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

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 and Netflix. I invite you to add in your thoughts on any films I haven’t seen in the comments below.

Now Playing in Theatres

Asthma (mixed bag): This story of a directionless drug addict who takes a ride with a tattoo artist in a stolen car starts from an intriguing vantage point but doesn’t head anywhere terribly interesting. Krysten Ritter is always a reason to see a movie, but this isn’t anywhere near her best work. Now playing at IFC Center. Read my review from Wednesday.

Difret (recommended): This Ethiopian film about a fourteen-year-old girl ostracized and put on trial for killing a man when he and others were trying to abduct her as part of societal tradition is a powerful and effective story with an important message and strong performances from its actors. Now playing at Lincoln Plaza. Read my review from Sundance 2014.

I Smile Back (mixed bag): Sarah Silverman gets serious in this film about a wife and mother whose life is defined by her addictions. Silverman’s performance is good but the film never achieves a sense of itself, aimlessly following Silverman’s character on her downward spiral. Now playing at the Angelika. Read my review from Thursday.

Nasty Baby (mixed bag): This is inarguably one of the weirder movies I’ve seen recently, but it actually starts off pretty well, with Kristen Wiig and director Sebastian Silva delivering engaging semi-serious performances, but a turn midway through the film prevents it from staying coherent and interesting. Now playing at IFC Center. Read my review from Sundance.

Suffragette (recommended): Carey Mulligan stars as an early 1900s British woman who gradually becomes an active and outspoken member of the suffragette movement in the United Kingdom. The story is an inspiring one, but the film doesn’t always capture the energy and feeling of the work being done. Now playing at AMC Lincoln Square and Landmark Sunshine. Read my review from yesterday.

New to DVD

Z for Zachariah (recommended): Margot Robbie, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and Chris Pine are all terrific in this decent depiction of a post-apocalyptic world that doesn’t involve zombies, mutants, or anything of the sort.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Movie with Abe: Suffragette

Directed by Sarah Gavron
Released October 23, 2015

History is full of struggles for equal rights just waiting to be made into movies. In recent years, issues of gay marriage and the legal claims of partners rather than spouses have been front and center, and race, class, and gender have always existed. “Suffragette” hones in on a time a century ago in the United Kingdom where the fight for women’s rights to vote was just heating up. This dramatic tale chronicles an unsettling and inspiring chapter from that fight, picking a few prominent suffragettes as its protagonists to tell a greater and overarching story.

Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan) is introduced as a mild-mannered twenty-four-year-old mother and wife who has worked in the same factory for half of her life. An innocent evening trip home results in her being present when suffragettes throw rocks at storefront windows in protest, frightening Maud but also piquing her curiosity. Before long, the sheepish young woman who has never spoken up for anything in her life becomes a dedicated member of the movement, alienating her embarrassed husband (Ben Wishaw) and nearly losing her son in the process, all the while catching the discerning eye of a police inspector, Steed (Brendan Gleeson), who has made it his mission to quell the disruptive female forces trying to win a voice.

There is no doubt that this struggle was a compelling one, and though women were granted the right to vote shortly after the events of this film in the United Kingdom, there are still major inequalities that exist in all countries related to gender. As such, this film, though its events take place about a hundred years ago, does feel relevant in its themes and content. Yet there is something missing that makes the film less effective overall, namely its focus on Maud and several surrounding events that might be representative of the suffragette movement but don’t seem to paint a complete picture.

This cast includes more than a few familiar faces, with the typically terrific Mulligan at its head. Here, she is soft-spoken and reserved, internalizing her emotions and then opening up as she begins to adopt the cause. While she has generated considerable Oscar buzz, this is not her sharpest or most evocative performance. Wishaw, Gleeson, Anne-Marie Duff, and Romola Garai do fine in the supporting cast, but it’s Helena Bonham Carter who stands out most as a spirited leader of the movement. Meryl Streep also makes the very most of her brief role as the famed head of the movement, Mrs. Pankhurst. This ensemble contributes to a perfectly decent film that stirs up the right kind of emotion but fails to fully deliver on them.


Thursday, October 22, 2015

Movie with Abe: I Smile Back

I Smile Back
Directed by Adam Salky
Released October 23, 2015

Comedians getting serious is often momentous enough in itself that little else is required to pique audience interest in a film. Sarah Silverman is an actress and writer well-known for her wit and comedic nature. Recently, she has forayed slightly into more dramatic territory with a recurring arc on “Masters of Sex,” but almost anyone would first associate her with her comedy background. In “I Smile Back,” she expands on a role that she tried in “Take This Waltz,” starring as Laney, a mother of two whose daily life and ability to function is severely hindered by her very serious and uncontrollable drug addiction.

Red flags are raised early in “I Smile Back,” as Laney’s husband Bruce (Josh Charles) talks to his children about the merits of a good meal before running outside to play basketball with them while Laney sits at the table eating nothing but a lollipop. One of Laney’s favorite vices is drinking wine with a hint of something stronger mixed in, and she also frequently snorts cocaine in her hallway bathroom in the middle of family events. Her failure to keep up on e-mails and other communications results in her being the only parent not allowed in to school one morning when admission policies change, and her bad judgment has also led to an ongoing affair with her best friend’s husband (Thomas Sadoski). Bruce is well aware that Laney is not doing well, but every time he notices and points something out, it only drives Laney further away.

There are certainly echoes of her humorous tendencies that show up in Silverman’s performance as Laney, but it’s inarguably a dark turn that enables her to channel a vicious underside of addiction. Casting Silverman in this role is a bold choice but a relatively effective one, especially as she acts opposite Charles, who is usually likeable and dependable, which only contributes to her sense of self-worth as he swoops in to be the more responsible parent. The film begins from an interesting vantage point and stays there, but it doesn’t always feel genuine. Some of its drama is moving and involving, while other moments feel less poignant. Where the film leaves off also leaves much to be desired, presenting several chapters of a story which feels distinctly unfinished, which may well be the point but also doesn’t prove to be fittingly satisfactory.


Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Movie with Abe: Asthma

Directed by Jake Hoffman
Released October 23, 2015

Movies are often framed by the way in which their protagonists experience the world. If they do not perceive their interactions with others as worthy of their time and they walk through life in a constant haze created by some combination of drugs and medication, their cinematic story may reflect that worldview. In “Asthma,” which follows a heroin addict named Gus (Benedict Samuel) who steals a car in New York City and brings a tattoo artist (Krysten Ritter) along for the ride, the universe seems contained to that which is affecting Gus and the wild journey on which he is on.

Neither Gus nor his traveling companion, Ruby, are particularly motivated people. In the beginning of the film, Gus opts to cut a painting job short and try to kill himself, an attempt that does not succeed and prompts him instead to find a nice classic car on the street and start driving it around aimlessly. A chance meeting with the alluring Ruby and a blunt pickup line seem at first like they won’t lead anywhere, but when he runs into her on the street in his car the next day, a short and painless train ride to a client in Connecticut turns into a much longer journey thanks to a car wreck, lost service, and a sizeable walk that might not be as daunting for two more effort-inclined people.

The moments at which “Asthma” is most effective are when Gus and Ruby are alone together, entranced in their own world in a seemingly endless drive to New England from Manhattan. The film’s brief runtime – ninety minutes – is augmented by the focus put on that drive and on the solitary moments that Gus and Ruby share together. When they are around other people, Ruby turns into much more of a social butterfly while Gus retreats within himself and shuts off the world. Spending time with a bunch of hippies in rural Connecticut feels like it should be just the place for them, but it turns out that the vibe just can’t jive with Gus’ directionless nature.

Samuel has a certain look to him that makes him the perfect fit to play Gus, and the attitude he brings along with him works well too. Ritter is always immensely appealing thanks to the signature energy she brings to the roles she takes on, and while she is dependably good, this is far from her most formidable or impressive part. This film, like its characters, starts off on an interesting journey, but it doesn’t take them anywhere too startling or memorable. The fleeting nature of their escape contains much meaning but doesn’t translate to a fully rounded film.


Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Tuesday’s Top Trailer: Hail, Caesar!

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.

Hail, Caesar! – Opening February 5, 2016

It’s always strange to me to see a movie premiering after Oscar season advertised this early, but I think that’s just because of how much time I invest in Oscar predictions around this time of year. February has always struck me as a strange time for release, but that’s the same timing as the last George Clooney film I saw, “The Monuments Men.” This is the latest film from the Coen brothers, a fact that is hardly surprising even just a few seconds into the trailer. Their two most recent films – “Inside Llewyn Davis” and “True Grit” – have skewed a bit more serious, and their newest project looks a lot more like “Burn After Reading” or “Intolerable Cruelty,” an absurdist comedy with more than a bit of energy and enthusiasm to go around. The cast, as usual, is stacked high, with some familiar faces such as Clooney, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton, and Josh Brolin, and with an eclectic and diverse list to add that, including Ralph Fiennes, Scarlett Johansson, Channing Tatum, and Jonah Hill. Its 1950s Hollywood setting looks like a lot of fun, and if there was a directing duo I’d trust to make this an adventure to remember, it’s the Coen brothers. The movie-within-a-movie looks entertaining enough, and I think that, while this could be wildly out of control, it could also be a biting indictment of the ridiculousness of old-fashioned Hollywood. Either way, it’s sure to be an experience, one that the desolate landscape of new releases in February could definitely use.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Movie with Abe: The Martian

The Martian
Directed by Ridley Scott
Released October 2, 2015

Space travel has come a long way since the advent of film, sending many men and women into space and on expeditions of varying lengths. One trope of film hasn’t changed, and that’s the notion that something will always inevitably go wrong. Director Ridley Scott is especially familiar with this premise, helming the classic “Alien” in 1979 and then returning to the same idea of “In space, no one can hear you scream” with the thrilling “Prometheus” in 2012. Scott is back in space again, but this time with a distinctly different story that starts from a similar place of panic but takes an altogether lighter and more entertaining direction.

“The Martian” begins on a comedic note, with astronauts on Mars’ surface joking around, but the mood quickly turns as a violent storm approaches, causing Commander Lewis (Jessica Chastain) to abort the mission over the objections of botanist Mark Watney (Matt Damon), who believes it is still viable. During the evacuation, Mark is hit by a flying piece of shrapnel and all communication with him is lost. Presuming him dead, the crew leaves the planet surface, and it is only some weeks later that NASA realizes that there is still someone very much alive and at work trying to stay that way on Earth’s neighbor.

Rather than present Mark’s situation as impossibly grim, “The Martian,” with its clever and fitting name, shows Mark as the ultimate survivor, someone who makes himself laugh as he is recording video logs that may never be seen by anyone, congratulating himself on his excellent ideas and brilliance. Unlike “Gravity,” this is not a story of a man completely isolated, since limited contact between Mark and NASA enables him to know that someone else is aware of his existence and trying to coach him through it. Naturally, the film succeeds best when Mark is on his own since it is incredible to see just how he deals with adversity, embracing humor all the time, even when moments of crisis and certain doom are just around the corner.

Damon carries this film with his energy and spirit, infusing Mark with a relentless ability to entertain himself and actually make smart decisions that help to save his life at the same time. A supporting ensemble playing those at NASA and on Mark’s crew, led by Chiwetel Ejiofor, Jeff Daniels, and Jessica Chastain, contributes dutifully to the overall experience of the film, cheering Mark on as he works towards an impossible survival. The landscape of Mars proves very effective as well, and this slightly sci-fi story of triumph is a resounding and thoroughly enjoyable success that highly recommends cinematic space travel for years to come.


Saturday, October 17, 2015

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 and Netflix. I invite you to add in your thoughts on any films I haven’t seen in the comments below.

Now Playing in Theatres

Experimenter (mixed bag): Peter Sarsgaard stars as a social psychologist who did research to test how ordinary people would respond when told to inflict pain on someone else they did know. The film’s fanciful style doesn’t quite match its content, and this experiment is only moderately effective as a result. Now playing at Regal Union Square, Lincoln Plaza, and City Cinemas 123. Read my review from Sundance.

Truth (recommended): Cate Blanchett stars as 60 Minutes producer Mary Mapes opposite Robert Redford’s Dan Rather in this decently interesting but not entirely satisfying recounting of a doomed story about George W. Bush’s military service that didn’t turn out to be as reliable as it initially seemed. Now playing at Landmark Sunshine. Read my review from yesterday.

New to DVD

Call Me Lucky (recommended): This documentary about comedian Barry Crimmins is a fascinating look at one comedian who has always colored outside the lines, with insightful commentary from a number of contemporaries and a surprisingly serious shift into some of his less comedic work.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Movie with Abe: Truth

Directed by James Vanderbilt
Released October 16, 2015

It’s not uncommon for the reporting of a story to become the story itself. Especially in an age where the average citizen has access to an immense vault of information on the Internet, it is staggeringly easy for a news story to be dissected and taken apart. Even back in 2004 when services like Twitter did not yet exist, this still occurred. “Truth” tells the disconcerting tale of how one startling exposé about President George W. Bush by 60 Minutes came crashing down as what initially seemed like a rock-solid story was transformed into anything but a stable instance of journalism.

Mary Mapes (Cate Blanchett) is introduced as the producer of CBS News’ flagship series, a seasoned veteran of enterprising, hard-hitting pieces. Her business partner is anchor Dan Rather (Robert Redford), a renowned and popular public figure who is well-trusted by his viewers. Mary is the go-getter who goes after the most difficult investigations, and Dan supports her in the pursuit of true, sincere journalism. Mary assembles a crack team of experienced talent (Dennis Quaid, Elisabeth Moss, and Topher Grace) when she comes upon what may just be the biggest story she’s ever had: an allegation that Bush was absent for most of his initial training period in the National Guard, putting his entire military career in question.

Unsurprisingly, holes start appearing in the story even before it airs, and it only gets worse once the initial coverage begins and right-wing bloggers and others with an axe to grind with the show begin to dissect the many pieces of the claims that don’t add up. The film wisely chooses to show things as they are purported to have happened as written in the novel by Mary Mapes on which this adaptation is based. There is never a moment where things seem to be confirmed beyond a doubt or irrefutable, but it makes sense that Mary, Dan, and her team decided that it was smart for them to move forward. When everything comes crumbling down, it’s unfortunate but not shocking.

Blanchett and Redford are both formidable actors with long resumes and trophies on their mantles. Blanchett inhabits her role as usual, fully becoming the intrepid workaholic producer and showing her pain and anguish as the credibility she has built is irreversibly diminished. Redford uses his typical charisma to play Rather, who ends up being more of a background player than a leading protagonist. Quaid, Moss, and Grace are appropriately quirky contributors to a highly populated ensemble that also includes Bruce Greenwood, Stacy Keach, David Lyons, Dermot Mulroney, and John Benjamin Hickey. The story is an undoubtedly a compelling one, but this doesn’t feel like a groundbreaking, original news movie. Like the events in the film, there is so much intrigue at play, but the payoff isn’t exactly what was promised.


Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Tuesday’s Top Trailer: The Big Short

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.

The Big Short – Opening December 23, 2015

I saw this trailer before a showing of “Steve Jobs” with no knowledge whatsoever of the film. This trailer was the first in a while that really surprised me in terms of the actors who showed up as its stars. The first was Christian Bale, who did wow me with his Oscar-winning turn in “The Fighter” but hasn’t usually impressed me too much in other roles, including his unnecessarily Oscar-nominated performance in “American Hustle.” Bale has worked with a number of actors, and Brad Pitt makes some sense since he too has tended to jump around from action films to more serious movies without much concern for whether he’s the lead or a supporting player. The two who I wouldn’t have pegged for this are Steve Carell and Ryan Gosling. The former has been foraying into more dramatic films recently, earning an Oscar nomination for “Foxcatcher,” and here he appears with blond hair messy on his head, and the latter, a dependably intense actor, has completely different hair, making him look much more buttoned-up and less reckless than usual. These four make a formidable foursome to take on big banks, a natural faceless but omnipotent enemy for a film like this. With this diverse talent, this film is sure to be electric and watchable; it’s just a question of whether, with this potential, this will be a big Oscar contender or somewhere more along the lines of “The Company Men,” which looked like it could have been that and then turned out to come and go with no fanfare at all. Director Adam McKay’s credits are essentially all Will Ferrell movies, which conjures up a bizarre resume for this movie, and the screenplay is based on a book by Michael Lewis, the author of both “Moneyball,” which was adapted by Aaron Sorkin as a fantastic script, and “The Blind Side,” which was not. We’ll see what happens here as this film opens just around when every other big film does: Christmas.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Movie with Abe: Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs
Directed by Danny Boyle
Released October 9, 2015

Steve Jobs is a household name. Even those who have little to no knowledge of the computer industry know that Jobs was inarguably the most important person involved in developing and growing Apple, one of the most popular and successful computer companies. Making a film about the late, famously temperamental Steve Jobs is a daunting task, and who better than dependable screenwriter Aaron Sorkin and the creative, ambitious director Danny Boyle to take on such a project? The result of this partnership, coupled with terrific performances from an outstanding ensemble, is nothing short of amazing.

Any fan of “The West Wing” or any Sorkin-penned film script knows that he can be relied upon to write at least three times as many lines as most humans could possibly deliver in a film or episode of normal length, and his actors have the formidable job of firing off his dialogue at rapid speed. Something truly interesting has come of Sorkin’s partnership with Boyle, a director known for “Slumdog Millionaire” and “127 Hours.” Boyle’s artistry and focus work to slow down Sorkin’s fast pace and still produce the same immensely memorable and watchable scenes at a more standard and human rate.

There is much that could be covered in a film about Jobs’ life, and the decision made by Boyle and Sorkin is a risky but strong one. Three significant events – all product launches – are chosen as the settings for this film’s scenes. All three are monstrous milestones of innovation - the Macintosh in 1984, the NeXT computer in 1988, and the iMac in 1998. In the run-up to each, Jobs (Michael Fassbender) is coached by his loyal colleague Joanne (Kate Winslet) and encounters the most influential people in his life: Apple cofounder Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen), another colleague, Andy (Michael Stuhlbarg), Apple CEO John Scully (Jeff Daniels), and his illegitimate daughter Lisa and her mother Chrisann (Katherine Waterston). It is understood that these conversations may not have all happened at those exact times, or as eloquently as Sorkin writes them, but isolating Jobs’ experience to three formative moments of his life is a fascinating technique that pays off wildly in this case.

The film’s script is superb, its direction excellent, and its technical elements, particularly the cinematography by Alwin H. Kuchler, are all terrific. And then there’s the cast. Fassbender, a tremendous actor who already has delivered so many magnificent performances, is astonishing as Jobs, so consumed by his grand dreams and the fact that he is changing the world with every new product. Winslet is just as fiercely dedicated to making his right-hand woman a devoted innovator with a more realistic grasp of the possible, infusing humor and sarcasm into her performance. Rogen, Stuhlbarg, and Daniels augment the film with turns just as focused and minor as they are meant to be. This cast does an incredible job of latching on to Sorkin’s dialogue and, with Boyle’s expert, eccentric guidance, they contribute to a fantastic film that is as much the story of Apple and a part of the computer industry as it is the story of a man. Not even entering the twenty-first century or touching upon its many inventions, including the iPod, iPad, and iPhone, is a brave choice. The film could well have gone on an additional two hours and still been captivating, but the finished product as it stands is perfectly exceptional. One brilliant line stands out to summarize the film, after Jobs fires back when he is told that a few weeks wasn’t enough time that God created the world in only a week and receives the perfect response: “One day, you’ll have to tell us how you did it.”


Sunday, October 11, 2015

Movie with Abe: Reversion

Directed by Jose Nestor Marquez
Released October 9, 2015

There is a genre of film that is often classified as science fiction which explores the near future and the advent of technology that, realistic or not, might be just around the corner and whose existence would radically transform the way humans interact and society functions. Usually, such an invention is presented in a very contained context, not yet having reached its full universal potential. Stories like this are often lonely as the purpose of the technology is to create a more internal sense of happiness and fulfillment rather than a public, interactive one. A device that allows its users to harness and relive only happy memories is sure to have sinister side effects, as shown in this haunting new film.

“Reversion” opens the way its signature product, Oubli, is best marketed to its prospective constituents. A woman who has achieved an impossible level of bliss details the experiences that led up to her current state, praising Oubli as a masterful and life-changing device that can truly alter the mind and the way she and others can see the world. Its creator, Jack (Colm Feore), sits by and smiles as his daughter and the Oubli’s head of marketing, Sophie (Aja Naomi King) shares her own perspective of the device’s transformative power. As the Oubli’s big launch hurtles closer, Sophie’s world is shattered when she is kidnapped by a mysterious woman and she begins to realize that her memories may not be as reliable or true as she has come to believe.

Much of the film features just Sophie, struggling to make sense of her situation and utilizing the device wrapped around her ear to recall the last moments she remembers of her mother and to immerse herself in more pleasant thoughts. King, who stars on “How to Get Away with Murder” and previously starred on “Emily Owens, M.D.” is genuine and believable as a woman who firmly stands by what she sells, and watching her discover that what she knows cannot be trusted is an intriguing experience.

The film transitions frequently from a focused character study to a less complex thriller with murderous elements and treachery aplenty, which works considerably less convincingly. This story presents a mesmerizing idea, but its premise is much more worthwhile than the finished product. The concept of memory and its fallibility, including its ability to be manipulated, is immensely interesting, and “Reversion” touches on that idea, but never fully expands upon it. Its subject and style are hard to forget, but this is a film that certainly could have run longer than eighty-five minutes to tell a grander and more emphatic story.


Saturday, October 10, 2015

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 and Netflix. I invite you to add in your thoughts on any films I haven’t seen in the comments below.

Now Playing in Theatres

Freeheld (recommended): Julianne Moore and Ellen Page star as a lesbian couple whose own personal love story becomes a much larger battle for equality in this moving adaptation of the Oscar-winning documentary short from 2007. The cast is strong and the film, from director Peter Sollett, is too. Now playing at AMC Lincoln Square, AMC Empire, Bow Tie Chelsea, Landmark Sunshine, and City Cinemas East 86th St. Read my review from Wednesday.

Manhattan Romance (recommended): This energetic, engaging romantic dramedy features great performances from Caitlin FitzGerald, Katherine Waterston, Gaby Hoffmann, and director Tom O’Brien. Read my review from the 2014 Big Apple Film Festival.

The Prime Ministers: Soldiers and Peacemakers (recommended): The second part of the adaptation of Ambassador Yehuda Avner’s novel about his time spent working with Israel’s prime ministers is a major improvement on the first, offering an extremely informative analysis of Yitzhak Rabin and Menachem Begin and the circumstances that defined their terms in office. Now playing at AMC Village 7. Read my review from yesterday.

Reversion (mixed bag): The concept of this film – an executive marketing her father’s invention that allows its users to relive happy memories starting to doubt the validity of her own experiences – is a great one, and the resulting film is an intriguing but far from satisfying thesis with a strong central performance from Aja Naomi King. Now playing at AMC Empire. My review will be up tomorrow.

Shanghai (mixed bag): John Cusack stars as an American agent dispatched to Shanghai in October 1941 who becomes embroiled in a rebellion plot while war is about to break out. The setting is strong, as are performances from Gong Li and Chow-Yun Fat, but the film isn’t an entirely solid or crucial period thriller. Now playing at Village East Cinema. Read my review from yesterday.

Steve Jobs (highly recommended): Michael Fassbender and Kate Winslet astound as the famed Apple founder and his most loyal associate in this excellent and magnetically interesting take on Steve Jobs’ most formative moments from the winning duo of director Danny Boyle and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin. It’s a surefire Oscar contender and a must-see for all. Now playing at AMC Lincoln Square and Regal Union Square. My review will be up on Monday.

New to DVD

Felix and Meira (recommended): Hadas Yaron, who starred in “Fill the Void,” plays a different kind of Hasidic woman in this story of a religious woman and a secular man who find an unexpected comfort in each other’s arms. The performances from Yaron and Martin Dubreuil enhance a film that starts off from an intriguing vantage point and isn’t entirely sure where it’s headed.

Manglehorn (mixed bag): Al Pacino stars in this mediocre, forgettable tale of an older man dealing with his age and memories of a woman he could have had, all of which feel like an ineffective ode to a long and prolific career of an actor who used to try much harder.

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (highly recommended): It’s difficult to convey just how awesomely creative and engaging this film, which took home both the Audience Award and Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, where I tried to see it but didn’t get in, is. The child and adult actors are equally excellent, and it’s hard to match this film’s wondrous style and dialogue.

People, Places, Things (highly recommended): Jemaine Clement of “Flight of the Conchords” is a wonderful lead in this terrific comedy featuring a comic book artist father of two trying to get his life on track. The whole cast is great, and this film is a lot of fun.

Ten Thousand Saints (mixed bag): Asa Butterfield and Hailee Steinfeld, two terrific young actors, deliver great performances in this film about teenagers who grow up much faster than most. Their performances are authentic, but the film doesn’t always feel as real.

Now on Netflix Instant Streaming

Cheatin’ (recommended): This 76-minute animated film is mostly silent and uses detailed evocative images to tell its story of romance and infidelity. It may not be everyone’s cup of tea but it is a captivating wonder to behold for those with an interest in imaginative animation.

The Face of an Angel (anti-recommended): This fictionalized version of the infamous Amanda Knox trial involving an American college student accused of murdering her British roommate in Italy might have been interesting had it focused on the case itself and not the egotistical filmmaker and journalist, played by Daniel Bruhl and Kate Beckinsale, respectively, who covered the story.

The Wedding Singer (recommended): This happens to be one of my favorite Adam Sandler movies, the first of three cinematic pairings between Sandler and Drew Barrymore, with the former playing a moderately successful wedding singer whose latest gig turns out to be the love of his life. It’s more highbrow than much of what Sandler has produced, and highly entertaining.

Friday, October 9, 2015

Movies with Abe: The Prime Ministers: Soldiers and Peacemakers

The Prime Ministers: Soldiers and Peacemakers
Directed by Richard Trank
Released October 9, 2015

Two years ago, Moriah Films released “The Prime Ministers: The Pioneers,” an in-depth look at Levi Eshkol and Golda Meir, two early prime ministers of a young Israeli nation, adapted from a nonfiction book written by Ambassador Yehuda Avner, who served in a number of capacities under five different heads of state. The film, while interesting, never reached a truly invigorating point, and it’s reassuring to see that the second part of the cinematic adaptation of Avner’s book, featuring the late politician in interviews throughout, is a much stronger and more magnetic project.

The focus of this chapter is on two other prime ministers, Yitzhak Rabin and Menachem Begin. An excitable Avner introduces the two intimidating figures and explains their origins and how they came to be elected and to serve, sprinkling the historical narrative with some choice anecdotes, including a memorable visit to the White House in which Rabin made President Ford believe that it was Avner’s birthday and that’s why he was getting special attention from his tablemates rather than have the Israeli press catch wind of the fact that Avner had ordered a kosher meal and Rabin hadn’t.

The film is laced with such moments of humor and lightheartedness among stories of noble political leaders from a number of nations coming very close to reaching monumental peace agreements only to be assassinated by insurgents intent on continuing tensions and worsening them. It is incredible to see just how much of the film deals with foreign policy, and how big a role the United States and its leader play in everything. The transition from Ford to Carter is particularly striking, and Avner paints a relatively neutral portrait of their attitudes on Israel as defined by their words and actions at the time.

Avner, who passed away in March at the age of eighty-six, brings to life two long-dead prime ministers whose left immense and unforgettable legacies. His energy and amazement at the way that these two men overcame many struggles to take on the difficult task of leading their country towards some semblance of harmony within its borders and with its treacherous neighbors is infectious, and the celebrity voices of Michael Douglas and Christoph Waltz are less prominent and distracting than they were in the first film. This second half proves far more engaging and magnificent in its own right, thanks in large part to the energy of its narrator.


Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Movie with Abe: Freeheld

Directed by Peter Sollett
Released October 2, 2015

Stories of overcoming adversity are common in filmmaking, and are usually told in two parts. The exposition is crucial since it must introduce characters and make them compelling in their own right before presenting specific obstacles that they must face. “Freeheld” begins by showing New Jersey police detective Laurel Hester (Julianne Moore) thriving in her work despite being surrounded by men, earning some needed relaxation in private with her much younger girlfriend Stacie (Ellen Page). Only when Laurel becomes sick and learns that her benefits will not go to her domestic partner does her public life merge with her private one, and a battle for justice and equality begins.

“Freeheld,” which is based on an Oscar-winning documentary short of the same name from 2007, succeeds in establishing Laurel as a dedicated, hard-working cop whose social life was limited mostly to a friendly relationship with her longtime partner Dane Wells (Michael Shannon). When she meets the less outwardly feminine Stacie at a volleyball game, Laurel begins to truly show her happiness while keeping her love life a secret from everyone. Laurel frequently acknowledges the extensive age difference – the two were actually nineteen years apart while the actresses are twenty-seven years apart – and it’s clear that their romance is genuine even though it rarely sees the light of day.

“Freeheld” experiences a distinct shift in tone when Laurel is diagnosed with advanced-stage cancer and her prospects are grim. While Dane rushes to her side to help her in the fight to award Stacie her pension, the freeholders’ association and other locals turn a blind eye to her cause. Steven Goldstein (Steve Carell), the founder of Garden State Equality, quickly latches on to Laurel and tries to utilize her specific fight as a larger case for the legalization of gay marriage. While this story represents an important benchmark in the progress of equality across the United States, this is ultimately an individual tale of people who want only to have what they built together remain after one of them is no longer alive thrust into the public sphere because of what they want means.

Moore won an Oscar last year for playing a woman diagnosed with early on-set Alzheimer’s in “Still Alice,” and she is no stranger to portraying strong-willed women forced to deal with unexpected hardship and physical decline. Page, who has come a long way from playing the spunky pregnant title teenager in “Juno,” plays well opposite Moore, and the two anchor the film’s dramatic core with help from Shannon as Laurel’s other loyal partner and Josh Charles as a freeholder with more sympathetic views, with some great comic support from an enthusiastic Carell. The film has its truly emotional and stirring moments, augmenting an already touching true story. Director Peter Sollett, whose previous feature films are “Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist” and “Raising Victor Vargas,” helms an affirming and memorable ode to two real people, their journey together, and the implications and aftereffects of that journey.


Friday, October 2, 2015

Movie with Abe: Shanghai

Directed by Mikael Hafstrom
Released October 2, 2015

Historical wars, namely World War II, are frequently the subject of films. The heart of the war and the havoc it causes on all sides is often the focus, but an equally compelling setting is the time before war has officially broken out, when chaos is just waiting to erupt yet has not quite reached a boiling point. “Shanghai” chooses its title city as its topic, a major Chinese port that in October 1941 was still relatively free from Japanese control and rife with rebellion, suspicion, treachery, and intrigue throughout and among the many cultures contained within its boundaries.

Paul Soames (John Cusack) is the film’s protagonist, an American spy sent by naval intelligence to the Far East following a stint in Germany where he posed as a Nazi-leaning journalist. Almost immediately upon arrival, Soames discovers that his best friend Conner (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), also a spy, has been murdered. He begins to piece together the last month or so of Conner’s life in which he checked in with his handler (David Morse) infrequently and had contact mainly with a mysterious Japanese woman. As he adjusts to his new life, Soames balances his time between a German friend, Leni Muller (Franka Potente), and an intriguing new relationship with local businessman Anthony Lan-Ting (Chow Yun-Fat) and his alluring wife Anna (Gong Li), who harbors more than a few secrets of her own.

“Shanghai” uses the bustle of its signature city to create an involving and compelling picture of a multicultural city largely free from organized conflict but plagued by the anticipatory energy of those just waiting for a crisis to explode. It’s reassuring to see Li and Yun-Fat in the cast, representing a true authentic Asian contribution to and presence in the film, along with the venerable Ken Watanabe, who portrays a Japanese policeman with his eye on the Lan-Tings and their new American friend. Cusack is a good actor to be in the center of many things happening without taking too much focus from those events, hardly delivering a tour de force performance but playing his part as he should. This isn’t an electric thriller but rather an in-depth period drama that, in its best moments, showcases the feeling of the era. This film, which was released in China and other countries back in 2010, is a worthwhile watch but not a vital one.


Thursday, October 1, 2015

Movie with Abe: Sicario

Directed by Denis Villeneuve
Released September 18, 2015

Some films put all their cards out on the table at the beginning, explaining to audiences just what story it is that they’re telling. Others shroud their plots in secrecy, eager for audiences to be kept in suspense as long as possible, piecing together the puzzle of just what is happening along with the protagonist. Both can work well, but they can also be frustrating, particularly the latter approach, which means that audiences need to be invested enough in what is clear to want to discover more. As a film, “Sicario” has some strong points but definitely suffers as a result of the direction from which it spins its story.

“Sicario” opens with FBI Agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) arriving as part of a hostage rescue team to a home in Chandler, Arizona. No hostages are found, but the gruesome discovery of countless bodies housed in the walls of the house and a devastating explosion cause the event to merit serious agency consideration as the onslaught of very bad things. Macer is then quickly appointed to an interagency task force led by the reckless and mysterious Matt Graver (Josh Brolin), who sits in meetings with a t-shirt and flip-flops, and his quieter, more intimidating associate Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro). Throughout it all, Macer has no idea what is going on, and continually says so, as her two new friends lead her on a treacherous tour of more than one country with unknown but certainly devious aims ahead.

There is an intensity to “Sicario” that works extremely well, and those moments are the few where the film’s lack of clarity does work to its advantage. One particularly tense scene set on the bridge between Juarez, Mexico and El Paso, Texas is an early indicator of the film’s strengths, but unfortunately that is one of a few isolated moments that demonstrate that this film might be strong in concept and the execution of selected scenes, but the overall experience is not a cohesive or fully fleshed-out one. As an action film, it’s occasionally strong, but less so as a thriller. Blunt is always reliable but should have more to do than point a gun and ask questions, and Brolin and Del Toro, which exactly the right fits for their characters, have done better work in the past. I’m not sure that this film could have been better, but it’s far more suspenseful than it is satisfying.