Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Talking Tribeca: The Last Laugh

Head over to Jewcy to read my take on "The Last Laugh," a documentary that showed at Tribeca about whether it's okay to make jokes about the Holocaust. Click here to read it.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Talking Tribeca: A Kind of Murder

I’ve had the pleasure this year of screening a number of selections from this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, which took place April 13th-24th.

A Kind of Murder
Directed by Andy Goddard
Festival Screenings

Films often tell more than one story, and while they may seem to be unconnected at first, figuring out how they are related is a big part of a film’s exposition. “A Kind of Murder” begins with two parallel stories, one of a man whose wife has been found murdered at a bus rest stop and the other of a man whose wife drives him crazy. The former’s situation entices the latter, who moonlights as a crime novelist, and the line between fact and fiction is hard to decipher in this dark, brooding drama set in the 1960s.

Walter Stackhouse (Patrick Wilson) is an architect who lives in a beautiful, spacious home that he designed. He hosts lavish parties with his wife Clara (Jessica Biel), but it is evident that, despite the presence of many people around her, she latches on only to Walter’s extended conversation with an attractive young woman, Ellie Briess (Haley Bennett). Her jealous behavior infuriates Walter, who is no angel given the fact that he does indeed lust for an affair with Ellie, anything to get him away from his possessive and sometimes suicidal spouse. His fascination with the unsolved case of the murdered Helen Kimmel and her husband (Eddie Marsan), the prime suspect, leads to events that seem to suggest that Walter is going to kill his wife too.

This is a film that very much frontloads its plot, with its title giving away a good portion of the film’s events and leading to the big question of what crime exactly both Walter and Kimmel have committed if they are indeed innocent of the actual physical murder of their wives. Aside from short, spoken protests, neither man does much to argue for his innocence with his behavior. Kimmel is a man who keeps to himself and seems not to enjoy conversation with anyone, and Walter is a boastful, social man who couldn’t be any less interested in his wife. The dogged, aggressive nature of the detective (Vincent Kartheiser) in hot pursuit of both of them is just about the only thing that makes either of them sympathetic.

Wilson spent time recently in the past on the other side of the law hunting criminals in the second season of “Fargo,” and while he was an endearing hero there, he can definitely play the part of the smarmy smooth talker. Marsan is a talented actor extraordinarily suited for this role. Kartheiser makes the eccentric and passionate Detective Corby hard to forget, giving the film three layered characters, none of whom can be described as likeable. While it presents interesting questions and intriguing characters, this film doesn’t do a great job of taking them anywhere, leading to a middling and unexciting resolution.


Monday, April 25, 2016

Talking Tribeca: Always Shine

I’ve had the pleasure this year of screening a number of selections from this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, which took place April 13th-24th.

Always Shine
Directed by Sophia Takal
Festival Screenings

The best films in a given genre work hard to expand upon typical tropes and other recognizable features and formats, experimenting and transforming expectations into something more. Such efforts often please fans of that genre and also attract those who are not usually part of that group. “Always Shine,” at first glimpse, is a film about two actresses taking a weekend away from Los Angeles and traveling to Big Sur. Close-up audition takes, creepy music, and frantic scrolling opening titles indicate that this story of friendship is a much more intense and frightening adventure.

Beth (Caitlin FitzGerald) is first seen reading lines for a horror film, and is told repeatedly after she pauses that the part she is reading for contains extensive nudity. She is relatively quiet and rarely speaks up, but she has a sweet nature that seems to make people like her. Her friend Anna (Mackenzie Davis), on the other hand, is considerably more boisterous and unfiltered, usually cast in louder and bolder parts than the innocent girl running for her life. It is clear that Beth has achieved more success in their field than Anna, and Beth’s casual downplaying of the mediocre nature of her latest role, while perfectly well-intended, does not sit well with Anna, setting the stage for a foreboding build-up to an explosion of emotions far removed from the rest of civilization.

“Always Shine,” which is probably most accurately described as a psychological thriller, sets itself up as a horror movie from the start, with frequent flashing images laced with fear and death accompanied by short, high-pitched musical notes designed to make the spine tingle. Even when the two are sitting together in a crowded restaurant before they leave for their trip, the mood is tense and dark. For this particular story, that works well, but the film does seem unnecessarily dreary and brooding at times. That’s all in the service of its path to a trippy transition and a mind-boggling ending that has probably delighted some but left this viewer far from satisfied.

There are a few supporting actors who appear throughout the film, but this is a two-woman show. These two actresses have very different styles, and those work well to create a complex friendship for their characters that is based largely on a craft which unites but also divides them. FitzGerald, who stars in “Masters of Sex,” does a strong job of firmly establishing Beth’s discomfort and general squeamishness, while Davis, who stars in “Halt and Catch Fire,” holds nothing back in the most terrific and compelling way as Anna refuses to let Beth get away with silently usurping her. This is a strange and disturbing film, one that may entice but one that it is also perplexing and off-putting at the same time.


Talking Tribeca: Special Correspondents

I’ve had the pleasure this year of screening a number of selections from this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, which took place April 13th-24th.

Special Correspondents
Directed by Ricky Gervais
Festival Screenings

Journalism can be one of the bravest professions. Getting the story, and more importantly exposing the truth to a wide audience, can require entering dangerous territory and putting one’s life at serious risk. That isn’t usually the premise for a comedy, but apparently it can be. In “Special Correspondents,” a cocky radio reporter and his eager sound engineer are sent to Ecuador to cover a worsening political situation, but their plans change when their tickets and passports are lost, leading them to shack up across the street from the radio station and do their best to pretend that they are actually reporting live from a war zone.

As odd couples tend to be, our two protagonists couldn’t be any more different. Frank Bonneville (Eric Bana) walks around like James Bond, posing as a detective to get a major scoop and acting like a rock star despite really being a radio host. Ian Finch (Ricky Gervais) is a kindhearted technician whose wife Eleanor (Vera Farmiga) hates him, and he is often prone to unintelligent decisions and choices. When Frank decides to bring Ian along to Ecuador, he can’t regret his choice quickly enough, as Ian’s bumbling results in a preposterous plan to make up news and make it seem like it is the real thing.

Predictably, this film hinges on a considerable amount of suspension of disbelief, compounded by the fact that Frank and Ian decide that a hideout directly across the street from the radio station, which means that they can see the reaction to their false reports, was the smartest plan. As a grander statement on society and the digestion of news, however, this film has plenty of mildly intellectual things to say. Its most memorable instance of parody is when Frank decides to make up a source so that he will have some credibility and other news outlets immediately report that they too have been in touch with this totally false person.

Australian actor Eric Bana hasn’t always found the right roles in American films, and this part is a pretty good fit for him, allowing him to have a great time being a cocky jerk who unintentionally starts to turn into a nice guy as the film goes on. Gervais has, as usual, cast himself as a good-natured, idealistic man who gets walked all over by most people, one of his two typical archetypes. This isn’t Gervais’ first time behind the camera or as the author of a script, and unlike his racy Golden Globes routine, this moderately R-rated (or TV-MA, since this is a Netflix original film premiering on the streaming service this Friday) movie contains some swearing but still feels a bit simplistic and censored, which is a shame given its potential for raunchiness. It’s a fine parody that does contain some funny moments, but there’s nothing extremely memorable about it.


Sunday, April 24, 2016

Talking Tribeca: Pelé: Birth of a Legend

I’ve had the pleasure this year of screening a number of selections from this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, which takes place April 13th-24th.

Pelé: Birth of a Legend
Directed by Jeff and Michael Zimbalist
Festival Screenings

Sports have a unique power to unite people from many different backgrounds. The most common aspect that brings sports fans together is where they’re from, whether it’s a local, regional, or national team. When the competition is on the world stage, countries vie for coveted titles, and a sense of national pride takes over. This stirring biopic tells the story of one of the most celebrated soccer players who came to prominence at just the time that Brazil needed a major win and a chance to prove itself on the international scene.

The man who would become Pelé is introduced as a young boy playing in the streets of Sao Paulo, eternally excited by the notion of the game but more likely to get in trouble than anything else. His passion for the game is held back considerably by the state of poverty in which he lives. That doesn’t stop him from dreaming, and though he encounters a number of obstacles and setbacks along the way, he soon has the incredible opportunity to join Brazil’s national team and head towards the World Cup, a monumental event that may well put Brazil back on the map after a devastating surprise defeat in the previous games that has crippled morale in the country.

This is a relatively standard biopic, one that presents its character at his humble beginnings and takes him all the way through to the impossibly high status of being considered the greatest soccer player of all time. The telling of this story, however, is exceptional, showcasing the enthusiasm young Dico, who will later adopt the negative nickname given to him and embrace it as his signature, has for the game. His style of play in particular is what made him unique, intent on sticking to the inventive and historical manner of playing that was seen as an antiquated embarrassment that was not suitable to represent Brazil.

“Pelé: Birth of a Legend” does a magnificent job of conveying its protagonist’s ascension from unknown kid on the streets of Brazil to internationally celebrated star. The actors who portray him are well-cast, and the ensemble of the film contributes positively as well. It’s the film’s spirit that ultimately shines through, and its presentation of impactful games is particularly engaging. This reviewer is far from a sports fan yet still very much got into the scenes on the field depicted in this affirming and energizing film.


Saturday, April 23, 2016

Talking Tribeca: Hunt for the Wilderpeople

I’ve had the pleasure this year of screening a number of selections from this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, which takes place April 13th-24th.

Hunt for the Wilderpeople
Directed by Taika Waititi
Festival Screenings

Adjusting to a new family situation can be a very difficult thing to do. The foster care system in many countries is not set up in a way that makes transitions smooth or the likelihood of success terribly great. Often, that creates serious problems, but it can also be fodder for comedy. In this highly entertaining film, an overzealous social worker dumps a juvenile known for such depraved behavior as "spitting" and "loitering" on an eager mother and her disgruntled husband, with no idea what adventures lie ahead.

Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison) is silent and unfriendly when he first arrives at his new home. He tries to run away and makes it just a short distance, prompting his generous new parent, Bella (Rima Te Wiata), to try a different approach, one that blends sweetness with sarcasm, while her husband Hec (Sam Neill) maintains a stuffier exterior. The quality of the situation becomes clear when Ricky celebrates his birthday and notes that it is the first time that he has had occasion to do so. Sadly, Bella’s untimely death means that Ricky is headed to a new home and probably juvy, and an ill-fated attempt to fake his own death results in Hec following him into the woods and injuring himself, leaving the unlikely pair stranded for months as the public begins to spin devious theories about what has become of the old man and the young boy.

This film is a pure delight. Ricky is an affable boy well aware of his body size and the fact that people don’t have high expectations of him, yet he never wants to give up. Hec is gruff and has no desire to socialize with anyone, and seeing how he coolly follows Ricky and only slowly opens up to the boy who takes care of him and then becomes his accomplice as they run from the authorities is an entertaining process. Other characters, like Rhys Darby’s forest-dwelling conspiracy theorist and Rachel House’s furious social worker, enhance a genuinely charming and funny film.

Dennison is a tremendous find, capable of anchoring scenes and sharing the screen with much more established performers, like Neill, who does a great job being serious and only occasionally allows Hec to have any fun. The two are great together, and they lead a superb cast. The film’s setting in New Zealand works on many levels, with appealing backgrounds and a good-natured vibe. Taika Waititi, who previously directed the fantastic “Eagle vs. Shark,” has made another supremely compelling and unique comedy that is easily one of the best and most endearing movies at Tribeca this year.


Friday, April 22, 2016

Talking Tribeca: Elvis and Nixon

I’ve had the pleasure this year of screening a number of selections from this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, which takes place April 13th-24th.

Elvis and Nixon
Directed by Liza Johnson
Festival Screenings

Ask any young person today to name someone who was alive and important in 1970, and it’s a good bet that both Elvis Presley and Richard Nixon would come up very frequently. Those two men held very different positions in society at that point, one a music legend and the other the leader of the country, and by the late 1970s, neither was in a place of power anymore. To imagine them together is a crazy thing, yet one immortal photograph showcases their meeting. “Elvis and Nixon” dramatizes the whole story of what brought them together and what happened behind closed doors.

Elvis (Michael Shannon) needs no introduction, and this film features a number of recognizable traits and phrases coined by the rock and roller. What’s most clear about Elvis is that he does whatever he wants to, bringing his signature style and attitude to everything he does. He won’t play by the rules, and when he gets it in his head that he wants to be appointed a Federal Agent at Large to help the country come back from the direction in which it’s headed regarding drugs and culture, he drives straight up to the White House to deliver his hand-written note in person. Nixon (Kevin Spacey) has no desire to meet with the man, but a series of amusing interactions and conversations lead to the fated sit-down that makes up the centerpiece of this film.

It’s a real treat to see Shannon and Spacey tackling these roles. Shannon, who has been working nonstop lately and stars in multiple features at Tribeca this year, usually portrays very serious characters with a dark side. Watching him imitate some of Elvis’ mannerisms and adding his own take is extremely entertaining, and it’s great to see him lighten up. Spacey, who is no stranger to presidential roles, delivers a substantially removed performance from his “House of Cards” character that is still just as sharp and superb. While there are a number of specific jokes and references to be found throughout, anyone with even the most minor knowledge of either man can understand why these performances are great.

Though the film contains a subplot involving Elvis’ public relations manager Jerry (Alex Pettyfer) trying to get his life back on track, this is purely a comedy. The supporting cast includes Colin Hanks, Evan Peters, Johnny Knoxville, Tracy Letts, and Tate Donovan, all of whom put on their most serious faces to enhance the entertainment factor as they interact with the absurd Elvis and the flummoxed Nixon, who thought he was something before he met the king. This is a wild adventure that seems too crazy to be true, and this dramatization is a thoroughly involving and memorable take.


Talking Tribeca: Equals

I’ve had the pleasure this year of screening a number of selections from this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, which takes place April 13th-24th.

Directed by Drake Doremus
Festival Screenings

It’s almost impossible to find a cinematic or literary future where everyone lives happily ever after. It may be the pessimistic nature of our society, or it may just be that it makes for better material, but the future, as imagined so many times and in so many different ways by screenwriters, authors, and other visionaries, is always bleak. There exist an infinite number of dystopian possibilities for why everything fell apart and needs to be put back together again. In “Equals,” the cause of society’s downfall is presented as “Switched-On Syndrome,” an unfortunate and untreatable condition in which people actually experience feelings, a part of humanity that has otherwise been extinguished.

Silas (Nicholas Hoult) wakes up each morning in exactly the same way. He pushes buttons in his neat, hospital-like apartment and watches it transform around him to most efficiently go from sleeping space to living space to uninhabited room for the majority of the day. He puts on the same plain white outfit and goes to work as an illustrator, visually interpreting relics of the past. Conversation with other worker bees occurs, which is a more muted and uninteresting version of present-day gossip, but emotions are nowhere to be found. Every once in a while, a person cries out and attempts to shout to the masses that a mask has been pulled over their eyes, but they are quickly removed from the public eye, never to be seen again as they are shipped to a treatment facility where suicide is the simplest option.

As the film’s title suggests and as anyone who has ever seen a movie with two leads might expect, everything changes for Silas when he begins to realize that he is developing feelings for another worker bee, Nia (Kristen Stewart). At first, their romance is basically nonexistent, but as it progresses, the oppressive nature of their society only encourages them to push boundaries in secret even more. Watching their transformations from human robots into actual people is a familiar journey for any story such as this, but it is also an effective and involving one.

Stewart is a bold choice for this role given her tendency for relatively robotic acting, but a recent focus on quality performances in films such as “Clouds of Sils Maria” and “Camp X-Ray” has prepared her well for a more serious and impressive turn. Hoult, who has demonstrated considerable range in “Young Ones” and “Warm Bodies,” is an appropriately muted and effective partner for her. Their story is an interesting and thought-provoking one that doesn’t necessarily break new ground but does follow a compelling trajectory leading to a strong and intense finish.


Thursday, April 21, 2016

Talking Tribeca: Adult Life Skills

I’ve had the pleasure this year of screening a number of selections from this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, which takes place April 13th-24th.

Adult Life Skills
Directed by Rachel Tunnard
Festival Screenings

There are many things that prevent a person from properly growing up, and context can completely change someone’s understanding of another person’s existence or mental state. When Anna (Jodie Whittaker) is first introduced, she is living in her mother’s shed, which is adorned with antiestablishment puns. Her dead-end job at a local boating center hardly enthralls her, and she aggressively shies away from her looming thirtieth birthday because, for the first time, she won’t be able to celebrate it with her late twin brother, whose loss has all but crippled her.

Though the circumstances are tragic and upsetting, the place in which Anna finds herself at the start of the film paves the way for plenty of endearing humor. Anna’s go-to mode is to seem annoyed or disinterested in just about anything, and she runs from her mother and grandmother anytime they try to ask her a simple question, especially if it involves the topic of doing something productive with her life. Anna continues to make silly movies like the ones she made with her brother, and spends some time socializing with her friend Fiona (Rachael Deering), who has recently returned from being abroad, and budding realtor Brendan (Brett Goldstein). Reluctantly, she begins to look after her young neighbor, Clint (Ozzy Myers), aiding him to cope with his mother’s illness and to work through his anger at the situation.

Characters like Anna have existed in film before many times, and the only thing that makes Anna unique is that she was a twin. Her brother is a regularly-appearing player in the film, showing up in brief flashbacks to moments when Anna was truly happy and then again at points as an encouraging hallucination. His constant presence in her mind and the nagging of her living family members pushes her to stand still while her three friends nudge her to figure out what’s next for her. It’s a truly enjoyable journey that’s also laced with some important and powerful drama.

Whittaker is a wonderful British actress who has delivered terrific performances in films like “Venus,” “Attack the Block,” and “White Wedding,” and she is typically superb here as the unmotivated but still likeable Anna. Deering and Myers are both strong performers as well, but it’s Goldstein who is truly wonderful as the well-meaning Brendan who tries very hard to cheer Anna up and provide her with daily encouragement when he meets her as their paths cross on the way to work. This is a fun film that modifies a common concept and turns it into something fresh and highly worthwhile.


Talking Tribeca: Dean

I’ve had the pleasure this year of screening a number of selections from this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, which takes place April 13th-24th.

Directed by Demetri Martin
Festival Screenings

It’s funny how many films there are about people struggling with writer’s block. The lack of material that a character can come up with often directly translates to plenty of inspiration for cinematic storytelling about that very thing. There’s an added tendency for the second work to be a particular challenge for writers, and that’s no different for those who create collections of drawn images. Dean (Demetri Martin) is one such artist whose life is headed nowhere as he contends with many missed deadlines, his father’s attempts to sell his childhood home, and the frightening allure of selling out.

Dean is a celebrated artist whose first book performed very well. The untimely death of his mother has greatly affected him, prompting little motivation on his part to do anything and to care about much of what is going on in the world. He took back the proposal he made to his girlfriend Michelle (Christine Woods), claiming that he only asked her to marry him to give his mother some hope about his future. By the time he serves as one of two best men at his friend’s wedding, there is little optimism left, which causes him to fly out to Los Angeles to be courted for a more regular collaborative gig. While that meeting is a bust, Dean’s chance meeting at a party with Nicky (Gillian Jacobs) starts to inspire some long-dormant enthusiasm within him and makes him question what he is doing with his life.

Comedian Martin has a certain way about him that makes him the perfect lead for this film, which he wrote and which also marks his directorial debut. It’s a very pleasant and entertaining experience watching Martin, who usually shows up in supporting roles as an eccentric oddball of some kind, get to take center stage in a story about navigating both adulthood and human relationships. Casting Jacobs as the object of his affection is a resounding success, since she proves to be alluring enough to entrance him and distant enough to not let him feel secure in their potential future happiness. Woods is a great part of the cast in a small role, and Kevin Kline and Mary Steenburgen occupy appropriate screen time as Dean’s widowed father and his new realtor love interest in a side plotline. This isn’t a perfect film, but it’s an endearing and enjoyable comedy that, assisted by some fun drawing-inspired visual aids, provides more than a few laughs.


Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Talking Tribeca: The Family Fang

I’ve had the pleasure this year of screening a number of selections from this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, which takes place April 13th-24th.

The Family Fang
Directed by Jason Bateman
Festival Screenings

You might think your parents are weird or embarrassing, but you’ve got nothing on the Fangs. Caleb and Camille Fang consider themselves performance artists, staging extravagant pranks in public places with no express aim other than to show the world that such an event is possible. One such prank displayed early in the film involves a staged bank robbery and death of a young child’s mother, while another is as simple as a fancy family photo showing the whole family with blood dripping out of their mouths. Corrupted by being forced to play a part in a number of these pranks, the adult Fang children take center stage in “The Family Fang” to try to make sense of their lives.

Annie (Nicole Kidman) and Baxter (Jason Bateman) are the adult versions of the Fang children. Annie is an actress known for diva behavior, while Baxter is an author getting nowhere on his second book. Their parents make plenty of appearances in flashbacks to earlier pranks, in which they are portrayed by Jason Butler Harner and Kathryn Hahn, and then rejoin the story after Baxter is injured while writing a magazine piece, now played by Christopher Walken and Maryann Plunkett. The sudden disappearance of their parents prompt the police to think they may have been murdered, and Annie and Baxter spiral into a maddening search for answers about what they thought they knew their whole lives.

Bateman is an actor known for his understated straight man portrayals in “Arrested Development” and a number of films since then. This is his second time behind the camera, after 2013’s “Bad Words,” and here he helms an adaptation of Kevin Wilson’s popular 2011 novel. Casting Kidman as Bateman’s onscreen sibling is a terrific choice since the two contrast and complement each other very well. The two pairs of actors who step in as their parents are particularly great, and the sedated joy they get out of showing the world what they can pull off is magnificent to watch.

This is an unapologetically bizarre film. Events like Baxter being shot in the head with a potato gun aren’t even the most ridiculous. Some of the film’s developments are meant to show more about the characters than they do about the society meant to experience the pranks, like when Caleb becomes infuriated after his handing out fake coupons for a free sandwich in front of a chicken stand leads to the employees behind the counter honoring them rather than citing their invalidity. The film’s tone shifts considerably throughout the film, wavering from fully comedic to hauntingly serious. It’s hard to break this film down and figure out how to come away from it, but it’s certainly an eye-opening and entertaining watch.


Talking Tribeca: The Ticket

I’ve had the pleasure this year of screening a number of selections from this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, which takes place April 13th-24th.

The Ticket
Directed by Ido Fluk
Festival Screenings

A disability of any kind affects the way that someone is perceived by those around them. However progressive any given society may be, treatment is still based at least in part on the differing way in which they lead their lives and experience situations as a result. What may not be as obvious is that those afflicted with disabilities or physical restrictions also interact with the world based on the existence of that condition. “The Ticket” tells the story of one man who went blind as a child and then miraculously finds his sight restored. The way in which he deals with that monumental change is at first gracious and inspiring, but quickly turns sour as he realizes how much he believes his literal inability to see has held him back.

“The Ticket” uses a strong visual style - distorted images that can’t be distinguished - to introduce its characters in its first scene, lending some small assist to viewers to comprehend how James (Dan Stevens) experiences the world. His wife Sam (Malin Akerman) is extremely supportive, and the two lead a very happy life with their young son. When James realizes that he can see again, he attacks his job as a phone agent trying to get people to sell their homes for a fraction of the price as an opportunity, immediately moving up the ranks and leaving many elements of his old life, including his coworker and friend Bob (Oliver Platt), who is also blind, behind.

There is a story that James references numerous times throughout this film in which a man prays to God to win the lottery every night for fifty years. The punchline comes when an angel asks God why he wouldn’t grant him that wish, to which God responds, “I’d love to, but he never bought a ticket.” This humorous tale is an anchor for this film, representing James’ new lease on life and the ways in which he abuses it by failing to appreciate the quality of life he had before he was newly able to see. Watching his transformation is unsettling but powerful.

Stevens is well-known for “Downton Abbey, and it’s nice to see that he’s pursuing challenging roles that give him something else to do other than protest the absurdity of the upper class while still being a part of it. Akerman and Platt are both sympathetic as the representatives of James’ earlier life, while Kerry Bishé is particularly great as James’ high-powered alluring work colleague who takes his attention as soon as he can see, a far cry from her neurotic beginnings on “Scrubs.” Despite its optimistic start, this film is not an overly affirming or positive one; rather an intriguing and thought-provoking exploration of privilege and humility.


Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Talking Tribeca: AWOL

I’ve had the pleasure this year of screening a number of selections from this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, which takes place April 13th-24th.

Directed by Deb Shoval
Festival Screenings

Young adulthood is an interesting time in a person’s life. After high school, options abound, and higher education and employment are the two most common paths taken by the general population. It can also be a time of extreme aimlessness, with a perception that the future is a far away thing and there is no need to rush to get anywhere. “AWOL” checks in with Joey (Lola Kirke), who lives in rural Pennsylvania and works at an ice cream stand, as she tries to figure out what’s next for her: the army and the chance to leave her home or the inevitability of standing in place and never getting out.

Midway through the film, Joey is told by her brother-in-law that her mother believes she isn’t living up to her potential. Her reaction to that remark is not a good one, since she doesn’t understand why she should be seen as having potential when those around her, namely her brother-in-law and her sister, aren’t held to the same standard and are allowed to live their lives without anyone telling them to accomplish something. As she prepares to enlist in the army so that she can hone her skills fixing cars and have the army pay for college, she meets the alluring Rayna (Breeda Wool), a married mother of two adorable young kids who has only ever left the state once, who makes her reconsider everything.

This film’s title gives away part of its plot, but that doesn’t distract from its effectiveness. Joey is adrift without any sense of purpose, eager for some escape from her life but not truly prepared to effect change. Rayna opens her eyes to a whole new worldview, one which suggests that a human connection may be the most meaningful factor in figuring out her future. When Joey says that she and Rayna should take her daughters and run away from her husband to Vermont, Rayna insists that she doesn’t want to hold Joey back and that she will be right where Joey leaves her when she returns trained and educated.

Kirke, who stars in “Mozart in the Jungle” and had a lead role in “Mistress America,” is exactly the right actress to play the soft-spoken and quietly passionate Joey, who expresses plenty of emotion even if she rarely raises her voice. The breakout star of the film is Wool, who instantly makes Rayna absolutely irresistible to Joey and switches back and forth throughout the film from strong-willed dreamer to helpless housewife destined to fall back into the same unproductive patterns. The film is enthralling and involving, and while its end isn’t exactly satisfying, it’s a very worthwhile journey.


Talking Tribeca: Little Boxes

I’ve had the pleasure this year of screening a number of selections from this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, which takes place April 13th-24th.

Little Boxes
Directed by Rob Meyer
Festival Screenings

The title “Little Boxes” immediately recalls the 1962 song by Malvina Reynolds that this reviewer came to know as the theme song for the television show “Weeds,” which describes “little boxes made of ticky-tacky” which “look all the same.” The reference is to homes in the suburbs and the way that suburban living discourages diversification and any sort of originality. That title is doubly significant in this film, where a biracial family moves to a new home across the country and is forced to adjust to their new surroundings without the comfort of their belongings, with only a few little boxes while they wait for the delayed arrival of their moving truck.

Mack (Nelsan Ellis) and Gina (Melanie Lynskey) live in Brooklyn with their son Clark (Armani Jackson). When the film starts, the family is packing up to leave New York and move to Rome, Washington. Gina has a tenure-track job waiting for her as a photography teacher at the local college, and Mack is looking forward to focusing on writing his second book so that he can stop contributing food articles to gastronomic magazines. Clark quickly makes friends with two girls who live down the street, while Gina realizes that the tenure-track lifestyle is not what she expected. Mack, who looks substantially different from all those around him, finds boredom and the constant suspicious smell of mold in their new house just as challenging as getting acclimated to a new way of life.

This film deals with many themes and presents them all from a respectfully comedic standpoint. Clark’s tween friends obsess over their dance routine, something totally inappropriate for their young age, but he goes along with it because he’s happy to have friends and doesn’t have anything else to do in the summer. Gina can’t quite hide her New York personality, which earns her raves and jealousy from some and casual contempt from others. Mack wants to believe that a small town might be nice, but the lack of culture and diversity just isn’t cutting it for him. Not having any of their things only adds to the frustration and makes confrontation inevitable.

At times, “Little Boxes” feels like it is taking a chapter out of a family’s life without much sense of where it will end, but as it progresses, it becomes more endearing and involving. Ellis and Lynskey are an unexpected but strong match, both familiar for great TV work on “True Blood” and “Togetherness,” respectively, and well-cast in perfect roles for them. Jackson is also great, as are supporting cast members Janeane Garofalo and Christine Taylor in small but important roles. This is a quiet movie about people transitioning, and it’s an entertaining if not entirely memorable one.


Monday, April 18, 2016

Talking Tribeca: Wolves

I’ve had the pleasure this year of screening a number of selections from this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, which takes place April 13th-24th.

Directed by Bart Freundlich
Festival Screenings

In high school, sports can be everything. There are those who simply embrace the spirit of the school teams and go to games and matches to cheer their peers on. There are those whose entire social circles are occupied and defined by a love of playing sports, both casually and on an organized team. And then there are those whose future depends on their sports career in high school, as it will catapult them to a great college with a substantial scholarship and set them up for a promising and comfortable life. “Wolves” tells the story of one of the star players of the team of the same name and the struggles he encounters as he does his best to make his mark and set himself up for post-high school life.

Anthony (Taylor John Smith) is the popular captain of his basketball team. He has good friends, a great girlfriend, and is already a known quantity to the coach from Cornell who encourages him to keep on going and he’ll be completely set to join their ranks. His mother Jenny (Carla Gugino) works hard at a department store to support the family, while his father Lee (Michael Shannon) teaches at a small college and vows to finish writing his book. Lee also devotes a large portion of his time to betting uncontrollably on sports games, racking up sizable debts to multiple bookies and threatening the livelihood of his family and any options for Anthony in the future if he doesn’t secure that scholarship.

There are many father-son dynamics that have been portrayed on film, and this movie crafts a truly intense and compelling relationship. The vigor of Lee’s addiction is matched by his enthusiasm for alcohol and his readiness to criticize his son for not accomplishing his full potential before complimenting him, pointing out the one or two things he could have done better rather than praising a near-perfect game. Anthony looks to his father for approval, and his lack of support, particularly his absence at all games due to teaching or gambling, truly wounds him. While Jenny is there for him in all those moments, she is also helpless to control the impulses and destructive behavior of her husband.

Shannon is everywhere at the moment, starring in three films premiering at Tribeca, with a few more in the pipeline. Here, he delivers a tremendous performance of a man so consumed by addiction and prone to fits of anger that he is unable to be defined by anything else. Gugino complements him well, and Smith is a particularly strong find, baring his emotions and believably portraying a wounded teenager driven by his love of sports and a desire to succeed. This film may be darker than most high school-set movies, but it has plenty of light, entertainment, and meaning along the way.


Talking Tribeca: The Fixer

I’ve had the pleasure this year of screening a number of selections from this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, which takes place April 13th-24th.

The Fixer
Directed by Ian Olds
Festival Screenings

Adjusting to a new culture is a challenge, especially if the place or function one occupies in one place does not exist in the other. Celebrating new freedoms and opportunities can overcome a lack of purpose, though that’s not always a guarantee. In “The Fixer,” Osman (Dominic Rains), an Afghan “fixer” who served as a guide and liaison of sorts for journalists in his native country, arrives in California expecting a job as a reporter to find that there is nothing more than the crime blotter available at a very low rate. Not one to lose out on the experience, Osman embraces his new profession - which pays a mere fifty dollars per week - with the utmost enthusiasm.

Osman is first introduced sitting next to Gloria (Melissa Leo) watching a strange play. Their relationship is made clearer in the next scene, as Gloria, the town sheriff, emphasizes that Osman should make himself at home since he formed a bond with her reporter son, who is still actively working in dangerous areas of Afghanistan. Osman’s efforts to make the crime blotter more than it is lead him to interact with the unpredictable Lindsay (James Franco) and to be transfixed by the allure of Sandra (Rachel Brosnahan), the star of the play. As Osman eagerly begins to adapt to this new culture, events around him spiral out of his control.

The tone and mood of “The Fixer” are difficult to describe, since Osman comes from a large country on the other side of the world and there is something so small and insular about the area to which he has now arrived. It’s almost as if Osman shapes the events that occur in his new place of residence, transforming minor crime details that barely even pass for interesting and making them far more fantastical. With that comes violence and an eerie, foreboding feel that can’t really be described as suspenseful because its pace is relatively slow.

There are a few award-winning actors in this cast, including Oscar winner Leo, Oscar nominee Franco, and Emmy nominee Brosnahan. The three of them all represent the links to Osman’s new home, each with his or her own separate allure. Leo is the least dynamic of the three, while Franco is on full unhinged mode and Brosnahan is far happier and more aloof than her “House of Cards” character ever was. Iranian actor Rains is the real standout of the film, sympathetic and enthusiastic in a way that involve too much energy, anchoring a movie that is intriguing throughout but doesn’t ultimately travel in a gripping direction.


Sunday, April 17, 2016

Talking Tribeca: Women Who Kill

I’ve had the pleasure this year of screening a number of selections from this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, which takes place April 13th-24th.

Women Who Kill
Directed by Ingrid Jungermann
Festival Screenings

The audience for a podcast about real-life crimes may not be large, but I’m sure there are plenty of people across the globe who are interested in that topic. In “Women Who Kill,” the feature film debut from Ingrid Jungermann, there are two women whose relationship failed but who found success in hosting such a show together, bonding over a shared interest and developing profession rather than a personal connection. Their story is not a typical romantic comedy, but instead a film whose events mirror some of the suspense and foreboding patterns that their podcasts often feature.

Morgan (Jungermann) is the film’s protagonist, sharing screen time with her live-in roommate and ex-girlfriend Jean (Ann Carr), who is also her co-host. Morgan comes off as an introvert, but as the film progresses, it becomes clear that she only opens up to those to whom she feels close, and can temper her enthusiasm at any moment while others, like Jean, feel some sense of catharsis letting their emotions bubble over. As she finds a sympathetic ear in imprisoned killer Lila (Annette O’Toole), Morgan embarks on a relationship with the mysterious, alluring Simone (Sheila Vand), as everyone around her tells that there is something suspicious and off about her.

The setting is crucial to this film, as Brooklyn, particularly the LGBTQ scene, acts almost as a character in itself. One major meeting point for the film’s characters - and where Morgan first spots Simone - is a food coop where Morgan always gets hit with the most boring jobs that constantly seem wrong for her. Running an orientation for new members deprives her of the opportunity to introduce Simone to the coop, but that is only a minor obstacle in the beginning of their relationship. Jungermann herself is based in Brooklyn, and it’s evident that she knows her town and how to best utilize it.

This film isn’t for everyone, to be sure, mainly because the film’s title and the one-line description will turn plenty off. But for those who do decide to explore, it’s an intriguing and different experience, one that doesn’t fall neatly into any genre classification. The film is funny at times and off-putting approaching disturbing at others. Jungermann is a talented filmmaker who casts herself in a perfect role, and while this film may leave viewers with more unpleasant thoughts than positive ones, it’s definitely hard to shake or to forget.


Talking Tribeca: Nerdland

I’ve had the pleasure this year of screening a number of selections from this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, which takes place April 13th-24th.

Directed by Chris Prynoski
Festival Screenings

R-rated animated films tend to get a lot of press because they’re not too common. Many times, they tell very adult stories with an amplified meaning due to the fact that their stories play out without live actors and take advantage of creative backdrops and other animation techniques. While a number of these films, like “Anomalisa” and “Waltz with Bashir,” are regarded as mature and accomplished, others, such as “Team America: World Police,” skew to a more uncensored and entertainment-prone audience. “Nerdland” definitely falls into the latter category.

John (Paul Rudd) and Elliot (Patton Oswalt) are good friends living together in Los Angeles trying - and failing - to make a go at being famous. John is an actor, and Elliot is a screenwriter, and neither have found success. This film finds the two of them at the most desperate point, coming up with terrible idea after terrible idea to truly make their mark. This wild, unfiltered adventure takes them them through their worst idea yet, to achieve eternal infamy by becoming notorious and feared killers. Predictably, this plan can’t go that well, but John and Elliot are at their rope’s end and are going to do what they can to make it big somehow.

There is an enormous amount of talent associated with this film, and like any good animated film, part of the fun is identifying which voices belong to which actors. Rudd and Oswalt are cast as characters whose physical appearances more closely mirror the other actor’s body type and demeanor. It’s obvious that these two friends are having a good time doing something different. Also in the cast are Hannibal Buress, Mike Judge, Kate Micucci, Riki Lindhome, Paul Scheer, and Reid Scott, all of whom work together well to create a fully absurd film with a number of colorful characters.

Throughout its short 85-minute runtime, it’s often hard to distinguish between a solid and legitimate plot development and a completely crazy and stupid one, and that’s what makes this one hell of a rollercoaster ride. Some humor can be described as crude, while other moments might simply be termed parody, or even likened to a complex comedic examination of society. I don’t imagine that a film with a title like “Nerdland” has such high aspirations, but this film is more fun and memorable than it could have been.


Talking Tribeca: Actor Martinez

I’ve had the pleasure this year of screening a number of selections from this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, which takes place April 13th-24th.

Actor Martinez
Directed by Mike Ott and Nathan Silver
Festival Screenings

Some actors thrive on attention, while others prefer to shy away from the spotlight. Usually, the level of press and stardom performers seek directly corresponds with the nature of their personalities. Those who are more boisterous and excitable are likelier to appear in front of the cameras even when they are not in character than those who lead quiet, personal lives away from prying eyes. In some cases, an actor’s perception of himself may not match reality, and a yearning for being in the public eye based on imagined enthusiasm and charisma doesn’t tend to work out.

“Actor Martinez” follows actor Arthur Martinez, who splits his time between acting workshops in the Denver community and regular work as a computer repairman. The acting scene isn’t what Arthur has hoped it would be, and so he commissions two directors, Mike Ott and Nathan Silver, to make a movie about him. The trouble is, both of Arthur’s professional lives aren’t terribly exciting or illuminating, and basing a film on a man whose energy level is most keenly compared to Louis C.K. as his most melancholy and stoic proves a difficult task indeed.

It’s near impossible to keep track of what is actually authentic and what has been invented for this film. Arthur plays himself, the directors play themselves, and Lindsay Burdge, an actress more well known than everyone else involved with the film combined, is a member of the cast as a big-name actress (herself) who Arthur considers a major get for the film even though she may not be the best fit for the part. Selecting Arthur as a subject is interesting in a sense explicitly because he is unknown, and therefore the audience has no preconceived notions about what to expect.

The problem, of course, is that his life is not inherently fascinating, and the obstacles encountered in the film-within-a-film are doubly true in the film itself. The style is a purposely slow and intentional one, spending a great deal of time on each scene to maximize its impact and to demonstrate the power of small moments. This film also has a lot to both subtly and overtly say about the nature of what it really means to act or to put on an act. As a case study of an actor and of the profession itself, this film has merit, but it doesn’t possess any truly defining qualities.


Friday, April 15, 2016

Jewcy Interview: Wedding Doll

Director Nitzan Gilady's "Wedding Doll" opens today in Los Angeles and New York. Check out my interview with Gilady over at Jewcy.

Movie with Abe: An Eye for Beauty

An Eye for Beauty
Directed by Denys Arcand
Released April 15, 2016

For some reason, architects seem to make great film subjects. They possess an artistic vision that is readily apparent from the visual structures that they create and often show onscreen. It’s not necessarily a given that their lives would be just as interesting as they way they visualize and create, but in both documentary and narrative films, that has proven to be the case. The projects that Quebecan architect Luc (Éric Bruneau) is working on are certainly intriguing, but not quite as much as his personal life.

Luc is happily married to Stéphanie (Mélanie Thierry), though it is clear to him that her thoughts are elsewhere, a fact confirmed when he spots her kissing the spouse of their good friend Isabelle (Marie-Josée Croze). By the time this occurs, however, Luc is already in a different world, as the allure of an assistant named Lindsay (Melanie Merkosky) whom he meets in Toronto on business distracts him entirely from his seemingly perfect life. As he notices Stéphanie drifting away, Luc is entirely consumed by the thought of seeing Lindsay again, and their moments shared together in Toronto are dreamlike and hypnotic.

From this description, Luc might seem like a despicable person, unable to deal with his wife’s unhappiness and invested simultaneously in an escape from the marriage. Yet Luc is a relatively charming protagonist who doesn’t appear to possess any traits of maliciousness or cruelty. The entire film is pervaded by a sense of calm and an appreciation for the beauty of Canada. One particularly stirring and serene scene finds Luc and Lindsay biking through the streets of Toronto, completely invested in the mood of the moment.

This film takes a number of unexpected turns and it evolves from a light-hearted drama about an affair into a larger ensemble piece in which every character plays an important part. As Luc, Bruneau is endearing and likeable, an affable lead who is easy to connect to as the center of the story. Both Thierry and Merkosky give strong supporting performances as the two women in Luc’s life. Croze, who was a memorable part of “Tell No One” and “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly,” contributes as well as Isabelle, Luc’s friend and confidante who also happens to be his closest doctor friend. The film ends with a montage of the works that Luc has created, a fitting ode to the involving and entrancing story this film tells.


Thursday, April 14, 2016

Movie with Abe: Hostile Cargo

Hostile Cargo
Directed by Michael Dwyer
Released April 15, 2016

Bordering countries in which the quality of life is considered to be highly disparate make for great film subjects. Shows like “The Bridge” and films like “Sicario” have demonstrated the extent to which daily life in the United States and in Mexico just a few miles south look nothing alike, and those with mixed heritage find them themselves in an even more complicated position. “Hostile Border,” whose title speaks for itself, follows an undocumented illegal immigrant who goes from committing crime in America to figuring out how best to survive in Mexico after she is deported.

Claudia (Veronica Sixtos) is the film’s protagonist, a young woman first seen surrounded by computers and credit cards, talking to customer service representatives on the phone reading off different numbers one after another. The opening intertitle defines the word “pocha” as a Mexican who cannot even speak Spanish, hardly a compliment and an unflattering introduction to Claudia and her likelihood of survival when she is quickly caught in a police raid and placed briefly in a detention facility before being bussed back to Mexico. Her cattle rancher father is far less kind or forgiving about her lack of connection to her culture than her grandmother, and Claudia seems far from set for success in her new life.

As the film’s title implies, if Claudia’s life was already seedy and below-the-line in the United States, it has to become much worse in Mexico. It doesn’t take long for her to come face-to-face with Ricky, a smuggler who is taking advantage of his position in a foreign country to exert influence and intimidate those around him into submission. Claudia seemingly cannot pull away from a criminal lifestyle, and the fact that her new friend can freely travel to the United States without any scrutiny is certainly alluring.

There is little positivity to be found in “Hostile Border,” which is described as a “slow burning crime thriller and western,” an accurate description to a degree. This story is a dark and uninspiring one, with a decently compelling main character fighting to return to the relatively miserable lifestyle which she used to have. As a broader symbolic representation of immigration issues and wealth inequality, it’s a worthwhile conversation piece, but unfortunately it’s not nearly as memorable a film in its own right.


Movie with Abe: The Measure of a Man

The Measure of a Man
Directed by Stéphane Brizé
Released April 15, 2016

The struggle to find work is a universal pain. Tumbling economies and failing businesses do not exist in just one language, and there is often little that can prepare people for an entirely new worldview based on the lack of stability of a job. How society treats those people and deals with the situation is dependent largely on the culture, but there is a fair degree of consistency across the board to how those who have been laid off and cannot find work are viewed. In “The Measure of a Man,” Thierry (Vincent London), a factory worker struggling to find new employment, has to contend with considerable obstacles in order to maintain his livelihood and provide for his family.

“The Measure of a Man” begins with Thierry discussing the absurdity of his having to take a course that was supposed to qualify him for a job only to learn that it did not include crucial components that are now deemed necessary to attain such a position. It is clear that Thierry has worked with the same kind of equipment and machinery all his life, yet his being out of work has led to the circular problem of not being familiar with the latest models, since the only way to get a job working with them is to have had the hands-on experience using them. Thierry shies away from a class-action lawsuit against the employers who laid him off, sternly arguing that he needs to move on and not simply get revenge on those who wronged him.

Thierry is not a particularly warm or likeable man, yet it’s impossible not to feel for him. He is by no means lazy, and consistently applies for jobs that seem like they should be a good fit. One particularly harrowing scene finds Thierry interviewing for a position via video conference with only his side of the conversation shown on screen. Thierry is told that he is interviewing for a lower position with a lower salary and then berated about the lackluster writing quality of his resume before being warned by the interviewer that he has a very low chance of getting the job. Thierry is hit again and again and told not to stand back up, but he continues to persist and to endure, eventually finding a monotonous job as a security guard.

This is hardly a fast-paced film, best compared to “Two Days, Two Nights,” which shares a theme of being French and dealing with unemployment, both films that linger in scenes rather than rush out of them. That style makes the ninety-three minutes of this film seem like an eternity, one that affords an opportunity to get to know Thierry, thanks also to the strong performance from London. This film feels highly relevant even if it does showcase a different society and culture, and its pensive structure makes it all the more poignant.


Friday, April 8, 2016

Movie with Abe: Demolition

Directed by Jean-Marc Vallée
Released April 8, 2016

One of Jake Gyllenhaal’s formative roles was playing Donnie Darko, an antisocial teenager who spent time talking to an imaginary evil bunny. In recent years, Gyllenhaal has explored new and challenging parts, and it should come as no surprise that a number of them cast him as someone not quite attuned to the norms of society. An eccentric cop and a sociopathic journalist are prominent examples from “Prisoners” and “Nightcrawler,” respectively. In Jean-Marc Vallée’s new film “Demolition,” Gyllenhaal is the perfect person to portray a man who deals with the untimely death of his wife in a way that can be described as anything but typical.

Investment banker Davis (Gyllenhaal) is introduced as a fierce, shrewd hard worker determined to be successful, accustomed to a certain routine that allows him to be most efficient. When his wife Julia (Heather Lind) is killed in a car crash, Davis begins to grieve in a strange way. He fixates on the vending machine in the hospital waiting room that wouldn’t give him a candy bar and begins writing a series of letters to the customer service department of the company. As his lack of social skills becomes apparent to those around him, including his disapproving father-in-law and boss (Chris Cooper), Davis begins to form a platonic relationship with Karen (Naomi Watts), the lonely woman on the receiving end of his letters, and her son Chris (Judah Lewis).

This isn’t simply a story about a man who moves on from the death of his wife by finding a new romance with someone who finds him sympathetic. Instead, it’s about a man who carefully constructed his life to the specifications he thought it should fit, including a house with so many glass windows that can be boarded up and darkened by automatically-powered shades. When one necessary component – a partner – is taken away, Davis realizes that an ordinary life is not for him, and, no longer living for someone else, he seeks to take the reins and do what makes him feel good.

This is Vallée’s follow up to “Dallas Buyers Club” and “Wild,” two Oscar-nominated films with strong protagonists determined to take on the world. In this case, Davis doesn’t care so much what the world thinks but still wants to turn what he knows on his head. While this may not be Gyllenhaal’s sharpest performance, he’s still inarguably the man for it, and Watts provides wonderful support in a sweet but not terribly likeable supporting role. “Demolition” is intriguing and involving if not totally accessible, a portrait of a man not overcome by grief but rather excited by the possibilities that looking at starting life over can bring.