Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Movie with Abe: Hell or High Water

Hell or High Water
Directed by David Mackenzie
Released August 12, 2016

Crime thrillers tend to follow a certain formula, especially when they involve bank robbers. The reasons for resorting to crime may be innocent enough, and things start out small before turning into something much more serious. Eventually, they’ll be caught and likely killed in a glorious shootout leaving no one the better for all their crimes. That format can still work well, but it’s refreshing to see a story that sets itself up in a familiar way but takes an altogether different approach to the subject, which is exactly what David Mackenzie’s crime thriller “Hell or High Water” does.

The film opens on an unsuspecting bank employee being followed into work by two masked men, who demand codes and cash but still, in true Texas style, use polite salutations and maintain a degree of calm. Brothers Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner (Ben Foster) have an elaborate plan to hit a number of branches of the same bank across the state and cash out at an Oklahoma casino so that they can keep the ranch their late mother fell behind on paying and provide a good future for Toby’s children. Tanner’s unpredictable nature presents numerous problems, and they definitely didn’t count on the intrepid detective skills of Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges).

Every element of this intense, suspenseful crime film combines tremendously to make an entirely immersive and excellent viewing experience. Mackenzie, who previously directed “Perfect Sense” and “Starred Up,” helms another focused and thought-provoking drama, with a strong script from “Sicario” writer Taylor Sheridan. The cinematography by Giles Nuttgens, editing by Jake Roberts, and music by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis are particular standout aspects of the film that deserve commendation. Pine, who has mostly starred in action and genre films, turns in a superb serious performance opposite an always great Foster’s wild, unfiltered, smooth-talking con artist. Bridges makes a formidable foil for the two robbers, pursuing them with a relaxed determination, spewing repeated cultural insults at his Native American colleague Alberto Parker, humorously portrayed by Gil Birmingham. The film as a whole features a good deal of unexpected humor, smoothly incorporated into a movie that can be deadly serious and furiously tense at its best moments. This is what a crime thriller should be like, and it’s great to see such a strong and effective assembly of acting talent and technical elements in one of this year’s best films to date.


Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Movie with Abe: The Jungle Book

The Jungle Book
Directed by Jon Favreau
Released April 15, 2016 / DVD August 26, 2016

The original 1967 animated film “The Jungle Book” is surely cited as one of the formative cinematic experiences for many children. It came out after all the old classics like “Bambi” and “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves” and decades before modern-day immortal hits from “The Little Mermaid” to “Inside Out.” It’s not clear that anyone was asking for a live-action reimagining of the film, but Jon Favreau’s epic vision is a visually dazzling and enjoyable adventure with plenty of energy.

I’ll admit that I couldn’t remember much of the plot of “The Jungle Book” going into this film, and that I found myself recalling much stronger memories of “The Lion King,” which is similar in its talking animal setting but not as much in its central character, who does not belong in the jungle. This live-action family film features just one actor seen in human form, and that’s young Neel Sethi, who embodies a sense of excitement and wonder as the fearless man cub Mowgli, surrounded by many animals and species whose natural habitat is the vast forest and plains in which he runs and lives.

Jon Favreau, who got his start acting, has directed a number of films over the past fifteen years. This is not the first time that he has contributed a distinct creativity to his projects, starting with the warmly-received “Iron Man.” Favreau knows how to frame a great story and turn it into something full of excitement and flair. This is a grand fairy tale, one that demands a level of attention and commitment to the material, which was originally penned by Rudyard Kipling in 1894 before the animated classic was made in 1967. This is indisputably a film for the whole family, but its positive embracing of its sense of community and interspecies spirit makes it worthwhile for all ages.

Sethi, who turns thirteen this December, delivers an incredible feature film debut made all the more impressive by the fact that he acted entirely on his own with only simulated backgrounds behind him. The voice cast that accompanies him is formidable, led by Bill Murray, Ben Kingsley, Idris Elba, Scarlett Johansson, Lupita Nyong’o, and Christopher Walken. The visual effects, which allow each animal to appear as if they are speaking, are terrific, and the cinematography and music work together well to assist a spectacular adventure that skirts with darkness in moments and ultimately crafts an enthralling and mesmerizing journey.


Monday, August 29, 2016

Interview with Abe: Director Jesse Sweet

As you've noticed if you're a regular visitor, I've been writing frequently for about a number of films with Jewish content, so bookmark that site to read great articles by me and others. In case you missed, check out my interview with director Jesse Sweet about his upcoming documentary, "City of Joel," about the ultra-Orthodox upstate New York community of Kiryas Joel, which has already surpassed its Kickstarter goal. Click here to read the interview.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Movie with Abe: The Hollars

The Hollars
Directed by John Krasinski
Released August 26, 2016

It’s always interesting to see the roles in which actors who become directors cast themselves when they step behind the camera. In some cases, the performer will always be the center of attention, which has led to Oscar wins for directing – not acting – for the likes of Kevin Costner and Clint Eastwood, while others are hidden in the supporting cast, like Nanni Moretti, whose “Mia Madre” opened this week. For his second time behind the camera, following “Brief Interviews with Hideous Men,” in which he played a small role, John Krasinski is the lead, embedded in a very strong ensemble paired with a great script in this entertaining dramedy.

“The Hollars” opens by introducing its matriarch and patriarch, Sally (Margo Martindale) and Don (Richard Jenkins), whose adult son Ron (Sharlto Copley) is clearly not having the best time living with them if his need to pee in a pitcher because both bathrooms are occupied in the first scene is any indication. After Sally passes out in the bathroom, a visit to the hospital reveals that she has a large brain tumor, prompting the return home of her son John (Krasinski), who has largely cut himself off from the family, living and working in New York City with a baby on the way with his girlfriend Rebecca (Anna Kendrick). With all the family so close and Sally’s health on the line, there’s bound to be plenty of laughs and tears ahead.

This film boasts a number of great lines wittingly delivered by its cast, and a big reason for that is the screenplay from James C. Strouse. It shouldn’t be surprising that John’s cartooning hobby reminded me of “People, Places, Things,” since Strouse wrote and directed that terrific comedy. Krasinski does well with the material, helming a decent story with a number of points of accessibility for audience members. Krasinski’s role is suitable to his talents as is Jenkins’. Martindale, as usual, is spectacular, and the film’s poster demands an Oscar nomination for her which would definitely be warranted. Kendrick is lovely, and Copley, the South African star of “District 9,” fits in much better than expected with a compelling turn as the screwup son with two daughters of his own. In smaller roles, Charlie Day and Mary Elizabeth Winstead steal scenes as high school colleagues of John’s. This isn’t an entirely original comedy but it is a perfectly fun and very enjoyable one.


Saturday, August 27, 2016

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

Complete Unknown (recommended): Rachel Weisz anchors this intriguing look at a woman who lives her life as a chameleon opposite Michael Shannon, directed by Joshua Marston, who made “Maria Full of Grace.” It’s interesting but less sure of where it wants to end up. Now playing at IFC Center and Lincoln Plaza. Read my review from Monday.

The Hollars (recommended): John Krasinski directs and stars in his second feature film with a superb cast including Margo Martindale, Sharlto Copley, and Anna Kendrick. It’s a witty and enjoyable comedy with plenty of laughs and some good dramatic content too. Now playing at AMC Lincoln Square and Landmark Sunshine. My review will be up tomorrow.

Is That You? (mixed bag): This Israeli film about a man who comes to America to find the woman that he let get away is a road movie that often feels like it’s aimless but does contain some decent moments along the way. Now playing at Cinema Village. Read my review from Tuesday.

Level Up (anti-recommended): This British thriller about a random guy forced to run around London completing tasks and errands to save his kidnapped girlfriend is hardly worth the price of admission, and could have functioned much better with stronger characters and a more clever format. Now playing at Cinema Village. Read my review from Wednesday.

Mia Madre (recommended): Italian director Nanni Moretti crafts this layered look at a director coping with a frustrating American actor and her mother’s ailing health. Margherita Buy delivers a strong lead performance as the struggling director in question. Now playing at Angelika and Lincoln Plaza. Read my review from Thursday.

Sea of Trees (mixed bag): Gus Van Sant’s portrait of a grieving man lost in a vast forest should have been great considering it features Matthew McConaughey, Ken Watanabe, and Naomi Watts, but something just doesn’t click in this occasionally engaging but ultimately disappointing journey. Now playing at Village East Cinemas. Read my review from yesterday.

New to DVD

Maggie’s Plan (recommended): Greta Gerwig is perfectly cast in this strong comedy about a woman trying to stay true to where she wants her life to go, with strong assists from Ethan Hawke and Julianne Moore as the man she falls for and his wife. The film’s mockery of its own intellectual nature is particularly inviting.

Now Available on Instant Streaming

Blue is the Warmest Color (highly recommended): I can’t overstate my affection for this film, which has sadly earned more notoriety for its sex scenes than its sincere depiction of a relationship. Adèle Exarchupoulos and Léa Seydoux give incredible performances as the two main characters in this immensely worthwhile film that feels real and emotional.

Friday, August 26, 2016

Movie with Abe: Sea of Trees

Sea of Trees
Directed by Gus Van Sant
Released August 26, 2016

When a man drives his car to the airport, leaves the keys inside, and boards a flight to Japan that he purchased the night before with no intention of getting a return ticket, it’s a good bet that there’s reason for concern. Nothing more than that is presented at the start of “The Sea of Trees,” which finds its protagonist, Arthur (Matthew McConaughey) making his way to Aokigahara, a vast forest commonly known as Suicide Forest or by its other name, which serves as the title of this film. From there, two winding journeys begin, one physical and harrowing through the forest and the other to explore what led to Arthur’s one-way trip to Japan.

There are two others in this small cast of characters who, separately, spend most of the film with Arthur. As he enters the forest, he meets Takumi (Ken Watanabe), a Japanese man whose recent loss of his job has led him to this place as a way to cope with his shame and is in bad condition. The two help each other as they realize that they have lost any trace of the trail and encounter obstacles and the harshness of the elements. Throughout this walk, Arthur remembers toxic moments from his marriage to Joan (Naomi Watts) and the events that helped to bring them back together before her death. Neither story is particularly pleasant or inviting.

This film has all the recipe ingredients for success. McConaughey has made an impressive transition from shirtless romantic comedy lead to Oscar winner with “Dallas Buyers Club” and followed that up with a strong, dark performance in “True Detective.” Watts and Watanabe are both Oscar nominees working regularly who have floated among many genres. Director Gus Van Sant has made well-received films from “Good Will Hunting” to “Milk” and ventured into more experimental territory with “Elephant” and “Paranoid Park.” And screenwriter Chris Sparling earned praise for penning “Buried,” which was much better than most expected.

But there’s just something here that doesn’t click. Most critics panned this film unforgivingly, and while it’s not nearly that bad, it also doesn’t ascend to the quality it should easily be able to achieve. McConaughey and Watts have both dealt with tragedy onscreen before, but these performances don’t feel as genuine. The same goes for Watanabe, who has played a mysterious foreigner providing advice to an American in better contexts. The film plays out very slowly, and the story takes a few turns that are thought-provoking but ultimately not as impactful as they could be. In all, it’s an intriguing experience, but far from a vital one.


Thursday, August 25, 2016

Movie with Abe: Mia Madre

Mia Madre
Directed by Nanni Moretti
Released August 26, 2016

Films about filmmakers rarely serve as portraits of happy, fulfilled people. One of the main reasons for directors and writers to tell stories in cinematic form is that they’re trying to cope with or understand what’s going on in their own lives, either mirroring events or masking them entirely in a fantasy of some sort. Sometimes a filmmaker disconnects himself or herself so much from his or her project that there seems to be nothing in common between the two, and when do intersect or overlap it’s all the more glaring. “Mia Madre” presents one such scenario.

Margherita (Margherita Buy) is in the midst of making a major film about workers’ rights. Scenes are already complicated to shoot before the arrival of the American star, Barry Huggins (John Turturro), whose inability to speak Italian and lack of commitment to learning and nailing each line further frustrate things. At the same time, Margherita spends time running to the hospital to visit her sick mother Ada (Giulia Lazzarini) and struggling to accept the truth about her decline that her supportive brother Giovanni (Nanni Moretti) already knows. All of this stress predictably leads to Margherita turning inward to figure out where her life is headed.

“Mia Madre” is in many ways a very typical story about a professional overrun by personal troubles that threaten to take down both parts of her lives. What only stretches out the pain is that Ada is not unconscious or on death’s door. Instead, she is fully lucid and conversational and gradually begins to decline, mistaking her daughter for someone else and then apologizing as she realizes her error. That coupled with Barry’s seemingly deliberate forgetting of his lines makes for a very frazzled Margherita ready to come apart.

This film comes from director Nanni Moretti, whose last film was the entertaining “We Have a Pope.” Like in that film, Moretti casts himself in a supporting role, that of Giovanni, quietly steering the film in the right direction as the one truly stable thing in Margherita’s life. Buy, who won Italy’s equivalent of the Oscar for Best Actress, is terrific, displaying a range of subtle emotions throughout her performance. Lazzarini, who also took home a David di Donatello Award, turns in a strong and endearing portrayal of a declining matriarch. And then there’s Turturro, who could stick out like a sore thumb but instead portrays an American moderately more sophisticated and adjusted than might be expected. As a whole, this is an engaging and involving experience that is at the right times amusing and at others resounding.


Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Movie with Abe: Level Up

Level Up
Directed by Adam Randall
Released August 26, 2016

Films that define themselves only as thrillers expressly have just one intent: to enthrall. These aren’t the movies that double as dramas or include undead elements that could recategorize them as horror. These are the blockbusters that start the clock when the opening credits roll and then don’t let up until the hero hopefully saves the day and then relaxes until whatever post-film future hassles await him or her. The new British film “Level Up” isn’t hoping to be a modern-day one-person “Die Hard” or “Speed” - the aim here is just to provide nonstop action and little substance.

John McClane was ready to deal with a hostage situation, even on Christmas, because he was a tough New York cop. Matt (Josh Bowman) is not. He spends most of his time on his couch playing video games, rarely rising to the occasion and making something of the life that he shares with his far more successful girlfriend Anna (Leila Mimmack). Only a group of masked thugs literally breaking his door down and strapping a bomb to him can motivate him to get up off the couch and try to accomplish something, even if that something is doing a number of deplorable things to save the woman he loves who doesn’t always feel appreciated.

Though its scenarios and scenes change quickly, “Level Up” isn’t a terribly fast-paced film. Clocking in at just eighty-four minutes, this film instead emphasizes moments in which things explode and then spends at least two as long after finding its protagonist in a state of recuperation. Its title couldn’t be any more accurate - this all plays out as if Matt is trapped inside a video game. Each time he defies his instructions or does something unexpected, he has the opportunity to start again and make a new choice as the next challenge or threat presents itself.

The possibilities for creative filmmaking here were endless, and if this had actually mirrored a video game in its execution, it could have been pretty cool. There are definitely weird moments and strange things afoot, but it doesn’t have the resounding effect it could if it was programmed the way that Matt’s life was already playing out from his comfortable seat on the couch. Instead, it’s a generally unambitious and relatively unpleasant race to the end of a film that doesn’t bother to get to know its characters, assuming that someone being taken as a bargaining chip is reason enough to save them. Of course that’s how most would react, but even a little bit of substance in this mindless thriller might have been nice.


Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Movie with Abe: Is That You?

Is That You?
Directed by Dani Menkin
Released August 26, 2016

Films that employ a question as a title invariably take on the challenge of answering that question. This Israeli film, which debuted at festivals in Israel and the United States nearly two years ago and arrives in New York this week, takes its title from the simple phrase its protagonist uses to identify whether he has achieved his goal, which is to find the woman he loved who long ago was no longer part of his life. Best described as a meandering road movie, this harmless journey is filled with some decent if fleeting entertainment.

Ronnie (Alon Aboutboul) is sixty years old and works as a projectionist and finds himself released from his steady job with what he describes as a generous severance package, including a ticket to the United States. His first stop is his brother, who he hasn’t seen or spoken to since their mother’s death, and nostalgia prompts him to, with the aid of his technologically-inclined nephew, begin to search for Rachel (Suzanne Sadler), best defined as the one who got away. An almost directionless road trip gets even further off course when he meets Myla (Naruna Kaplan de Macedo), an aspiring filmmaker who barters her way out of tough spots by offering to make every person she speaks to the subject of her documentary, which conveniently enough is focused on regrets.

Ronnie’s quest to find the woman he loved seems destined to end one of two ways: either he’ll find her or he won’t. Whether they get to live out the rest of their lives together is a separate matter, but Ronnie seems to have grown lonely and solitary enough that the thought of being with someone he remembers fondly is substantially appealing for him to just get in a car and drive. Pairing him as a protagonist with Myla is effective because they’re both on journeys to discover something, with hers a more open-ended investigation into what exactly she’s trying to find. As a concept, this film works fine, but it’s far from the most vital cinematic export from Israel to reach the United States. Aboutboul and de Macedo are fun together on screen, and do a decent job carry this lighthearted drama, which is at times engaging but ultimately not terribly memorable.


Monday, August 22, 2016

Movie with Abe: Complete Unknown

Complete Unknown
Directed by Joshua Marston
Released August 26, 2016

Movies have a set period of time – usually between an hour and a half and two hours – to create a universe with living, breathing characters. There are those that take time to truly get to know a person, actual or fictional, over the course of their entire life, while other films focus on just one day, night, or week of someone’s existence. In most cases, the more you know and learn about a protagonist, the better. The new film “Complete Unknown” supposes the opposite, crafting a mysterious drama centered around a woman who personifies its title.

“Complete Unknown” has two main characters, Tom (Michael Shannon) and Alice (Rachel Weisz). Tom is a successful man with many friends, and he is at a turning point in his sometimes strained relationship with his wife, Ramina (Azita Ghanizada), as he considers moving with her to a new job across the country. As he celebrates his birthday, Tom meets the woman his friend Clyde (Michael Chernus) has started seeing recently. Alice is a charming, alluring find with many interests more than capable of sustaining living conversation with Clyde’s friends. But Tom seems acutely aware that there is something wrong, and little time passes before it is revealed that their stories are interlinked even though they haven’t seen each other in years, and she is most definitely not who she claims to be.

This is one of those films where it’s better to go in without knowing much, and even just providing a bit of a summary might detract from the experience. This reviewer saw the title and the cast and figured that was a good enough reason to check it out, and interested audiences should do the same. What can be said without giving too much away is that Alice is a fascinating character whose story merits such cinematic consideration, and Tom provides an effective standard, stable foil to her more unpredictable chameleon.

Weisz is a terrific actress who won an Oscar in 2005 for “The Constant Gardener.” After her supporting role in “Youth” last year and her eager portrayal of a free thinker in “The Lobster” earlier this year, this is a superb showcase for Weisz to really shine. Shannon, who is starring in so many films this year, is at his most quietly formidable best opposite her. Ghanizada, who starred on Syfy’s great series “Alphas” a few years ago, and Chernus, who does plenty of underpraised supporting work in film and on television, contribute to the ensemble in their roles, as do Kathy Bates and Danny Glover in a key extended scene. Joshua Marston, who made his feature film debut with “Maria Full of Grace,” has found another very interesting subject matter and created a film that is well-constructed and often engaging but ultimately unsatisfying, set on where it wants to start out but hardly as certain of where it wants to end up.


Friday, August 19, 2016

Movie with Abe: The People vs. Fritz Bauer

In theaters today is the award-winning German film "The People vs. Fritz Bauer," which may end up being the German selection for Best Foreign Film in this year's Oscar race. Check out my take on the film over at Jewcy.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Movie with Abe: A Tale of Love and Darkness

It's only fair that my review of Natalie Portman's feature directorial debut, "A Tale of Love and Darkness," was written for Jewcy. Portman pulls double duty in front of and behind the camera in this story of famed writer Amos Oz's childhood during the infancy of the State of Israel that's fully in Hebrew. Check out the review over at Jewcy.

Friday, August 12, 2016

Movie with Abe: The Tenth Man

The Tenth Man
Directed by Daniel Burman
Released August 5, 2016

Coming home is always a momentous occasion, one guaranteed to produce a variety of reactions from different people. When someone lives abroad and returns to a place where most locals rarely leave the city let alone the state or country, it can be a jarring adjustment for all parties involved. In “The Tenth Man,” an Argentinean man living in the United States returns to Buenos Aires and finds that easing back into the life he knew so well as a child is not the simplest of tasks, and his outlook on what he has and what he wants must shift accordingly.

As he prepares to leave for Argentina, planning to introduce his fiancée to his family, Ariel (Alan Sabbagh) gets repeated calls from his father, Usher (Usher Barilka), asking him to bring Velcro sneakers with him so that he can give them to a kid who is in the hospital. As is the case with any big trip, the minutia of an errand such as that can be lost in a sea of things to do and loose ends to tie up, and though Ariel tries and looks, he ultimately cannot find the requested pair of shoes.

Arriving in Buenos Aires, Ariel is immediately drawn back into the charity foundation that his father created, making new use of things left behind by those who no longer need them. Try as he may, he is unable to actually meet Usher face to face, constantly getting phone calls about the shoes and errand after errand, yet an audience proves elusive. Eva (Julieta Zylberberg), a religious woman who barely speaks, becomes an unlikely friend, and it feels in a way as if Ariel never left, once again depended upon to live his father’s legacy.

This film’s title and its Spanish title both have an interesting and layered meaning rooted in Jewish practice. “El rey del Once,” which means “The King of Once,” matches the film’s poster, which shows Ariel driving around the district of Once with a crown on his head in celebration of the festive Jewish holiday of Purim. “The Tenth Man” refers to the number of people needed to make a minyan, or quorum of ten Jews, required to recite certain prayers. Both titles represent an intriguing but unfulfilled connection to Judaism as it permeates the culture in Buenos Aires, something started and unfinished. The film, which follows Ariel as he explores his hometown, is equally interesting when it begins but also has trouble finding its eventual direction, unsure of what specifically it wants to achieve.