Friday, September 30, 2016

Movie with Abe: American Honey

American Honey
Directed by Andrea Arnold
Released September 30, 2016

A film’s runtime often has nothing to do with its content, but sometimes it can be telling. Data shows that films tend to be about two hours in length, on average, and therefore two hours and forty-three minutes can be considered a real outlier. What that means is either that little editing was done and much of the original footage was preserved, or that this is an epic story that requires time to be told. “American Honey” is not an action film or a period saga, but instead an immensely compelling exploration of one young woman’s freewheeling tour around the country with her entire future ahead of her.

Star (Sasha Lane) is first introduced hitchhiking on the side of a street with two young children to whom she acts as a mother despite not being all that much older than them. In the parking lot of a supermarket, she meets Jake (Shia LaBeouf), a free spirit with a wild look in his eyes who rides around in a van with a group of other aimless teenagers selling magazines under the leadership of the alluring, bossy Krystal (Riley Keough). Seeing a chance to get away from an abusive home and dead-end future, Star ditches her kids and boards the van en route to Kansas City and beyond, just hoping to experience something that will give her hope for what might lie ahead.

Star is a fascinating protagonist, defined by strong opinions about how people should be treated but rarely put to practical use in a consistent manner. She immediately tells a haughty Krystal that she can be trusted and then oversleeps her first morning on the job, and sabotages Jake’s strategy during a joint magazine sale attempt when she feels that his methods are untruthful and malignant. More than anything, Star doesn’t know who she wants to be yet, but this journey is all about the exploration and not having anyone tell her what she is supposed to do.

Lane is a true find, exhibiting a prickly spark very worthy of positive comparison to Katie Jarvis, the lead in director Andrea Arnold’s equally enticing “Fish Tank.” She makes it easy to root for her even if most of her decisions aren’t admirable or commendable. LaBeouf and Keough offer a marvelous kind of dazed support in their respective roles, both so committed to their work and just as insistent on living a casual, free-wheeling life filled with drugs and built on not putting down roots or accepting reality. The three of them define the film’s style, a magnificent road movie prone to musical outbursts and truly letting its plot take it in any direction at a moment’s notice. Like its protagonist, “American Honey” is a hypnotic, mesmerizing, immensely intriguing experience that leaves a lasting impression.


Thursday, September 29, 2016

Movie with Abe: Miss Stevens

Miss Stevens
Directed by Julia Hart
Released September 20, 2016

The line between teenager and adult is usually defined only by age, which doesn’t necessarily reflect one’s actual maturity. In school, adults often have the benefit of being teachers where the teenagers are students. Field trips are a fantastic opportunity for those lines to be blurred, especially when teachers and students stay in hotel rooms for conferences and competitions. “Miss Stevens” follows a seemingly put-together teacher whose life begins to unravel when she chaperones three teenagers on a trip to a drama competition that brings plenty of tensions to the surface.

Rachel Stevens (Lily Rabe) is initially introduced as a mild-mannered teacher who is the happy-go-lucky volunteer to go with students Margot (Lili Reinhart), Billy (Timothée Chalamet), and Sam (Anthony Quintal) to compete in a drama competition. Margot tells Miss Stevens how much they appreciate her coming, and things go considerably downhill from there as soon as they hit the road. Simple things like Miss Stevens not checking an orange light that comes on in her car lead to considerable delays, and her decision to drink multiple glasses of wine at dinner with her underage companions is just one indicator that Miss Stevens may not be as in control – or as grown up – as she seems to be or should be given her role.

This is a very simple story that never experiences too much excitement or emotion. Interactions occur and conversations takes place with little energy or emphasis, with no truly horrific developments or decisions made by any of the parties. A brewing friendship between Billy, who is already behind academically and is taking major medications, and Miss Stevens, threatens to cross an inappropriate line, and in this film’s small universe, not much stands in the way other than hotel room doors and just a little bit of common sense.

Rabe, who starred on ABC’s short-lived “The Whispers” and has been a long-term player on “American Horror Story,” has a likeable persona that serves her well as an endearing if certainly imperfect protagonist trying to figure out where her life has gone wrong and whether she’s revealed too much of herself on this educational outing. She has good support from the young actors opposite her and Rob Huebel as a potential love interest. The performers are decent but the film unfortunately doesn’t catch fire, chronicling as a moderately entertaining but forgetting journey.


Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Movie with Abe: Sand Storm

Sand Storm
Directed by Elite Zexer
Released September 28, 2016

Israeli produces a number of movies each year and has managed to earn an impressive ten Oscar nominations in the Best Foreign Film category over the past sixty years. Each year, the winner of the Ophir, the Israeli Oscar, for Best Film goes on to be considered for the Oscar. Last week, “Sand Storm” won that honor, more than half a year after taking home the Grand Jury Prize for World Cinema – Dramatic at the Sundance Film Festival. “Sand Storm” represents what’s best about the Israeli cinema industry today: a portrait of diverse cultures and the complexities within them.

“Sand Storm” opens with one of its two protagonists, Layla (Lamis Ammar) driving with her father Suliman (Hitham Omari), switching back to the passenger seat when they approach their village. Layla is clearly a free spirit and her father is open-minded in his personal practice, but in their Bedouin village, they must maintain a certain traditional decorum. Involved with that is Suliman’s marriage to a new younger wife, an event that Layla’s mother Jalila (Ruba Blal-Asfor) must host. Both women stage their own rebellions against the oppression they experience from the males in their society, Layla in an overt manner as she tries to choose her own husband and Jalila more subtly as she wears the pain of silently suffering after working so hard to be a rock for her family for so many years.

The film’s poster features the image above of Layla with her hand over her boyfriend’s mouth, symbolizing a demand for women’s voices to be heard. This film does a strong job of extracting the energies of its two female protagonists in a deeply involving story of a tight-knit community bound by its ways. As Layla, Ammar exhibits a grand sense of self, not content to be confined to a gender role and set on determining her own life. It’s not always a showy performance but a consistently emotive one. Opposite her, Blal-Asfor internalizes Jalila’s struggle, conveying her deep pain that is now manifesting itself as anger and resentment more than anything. Omari also offers a complex performance that paints him at times as a modern, sympathetic figure and at others as an archaic, unyielding obstacle. Israeli director Zexer, who is Jewish, works with a multicultural crew to create a relevant and engaging film that represents yet another facet of Israel in cinema.


Thursday, September 22, 2016

Movie with Abe: Goat

Directed by Andrew Neel
Released September 23, 2016

Hazing is an unfortunate reality in today’s college world. Those who don’t rush fraternities or sororities (like this reviewer) might be spared, but the level to which people are humiliated and in many cases physically and emotionally harmed is truly disturbing. Those experiences are further compounded when a person who is the victim of hazing has gone through a previous trauma whose horrors are dredged up again every time some seemingly playful or harmless torment occurs. “Goat” dramatizes the experiences of author Brad Land, based on his 2005 memoir, as he survives a vicious attack and then relives it over and over again as he rushes his brother’s fraternity.

Brad (Ben Schnetzer) is first seen with a buttoned-up shirt and glasses, seeming far more composed and together than everyone else at the college party he is attending. He and his older brother Brett (Nick Jonas) function well together in that setting, but Brad makes the mistake of leaving the party alone and offering two strangers a ride home. Brad is brutally beaten and his car is stolen, and after a long recovery, he decides to begin school at the same college his brother attends, where the first and only activity option is to join the legendary fraternity Brett has already pledged.

This film assembles a deeply disturbing compilation of upsetting and demeaning pranks pulled by those who have survived their own “hell week” on the unsuspecting and all-too-willing freshmen desperate to join their ranks. The severe assault of highly off-putting events isn’t worth describing here, and its miserable nature is no fault of the film’s since all of this actually happens, whether or not it was specifically endured by the real Land. Where the film doesn’t work as well is in its constant definition of Brett as a friendly upperclassman who seems to object to the way things are done from the very start, making him little more than a bystander to his brother’s suffering.

Schnetzer is a great actor who delivered a terrific performance as the lead of the ensemble in “Pride.” Here, he puts on an American accent and grows his hair out to hide behind an aura of nervousness and nerdiness that doesn’t allow his portrayal to be as authentic as it could be. Pop star Jonas, whose casting in the film surely raised some eyebrows, is surprisingly well-suited for his role, even if it’s not particularly deep. This film shouldn’t be seen by anyone who is still traumatized by their own experiences being hazed, and for those not as familiar with the process, what the film accomplishes and concludes about its nature and effects isn’t really worth watching the misery either.


Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Movie with Abe: Unless

Directed by Alan Gilsenan
TIFF Special Presentations

Having a home is something most people take for granted. Many things in a person’s life can change from time to time, but losing your home is a monumental event that can truly uproot everything, literally and metaphorically. That’s what makes the decision by one daughter of an established writer to live on the street and cut off all ties to anything that used to define her all the more staggering, since she has voluntarily cast off everything material in her life and willingly taken on a life most would never hope to have to experience.

University student Norah (Hannah Gross) is almost invisible the first time she is introduced, far less vocal than her two younger sisters, Christine and Natalie. Her mother, Reta (Catherine Keener) is a renowned author working on her next project, and she has an amicable relationship with her kindhearted father, Tom (Matt Craven). When Norah goes missing, her parents find her on the street outside a famous Toronto store with nothing more than a sign that reads “Goodness” in her hands. Norah refuses to speak, and not one among the multitude of visitors is able to convince her to do so. The lack of any explanation for Norah’s sudden shift in behavior sends her parents reeling as they search for answers that they cannot hope to find.

It’s an intriguing gamble to have a character remain silent for the majority of a film, and it’s not necessarily as impactful as it could be since there’s little context for how chatty she was beforehand. Her not saying anything speaks only so much since she barely had a chance to say anything at all. The film focuses heavily on the experiences of her mother as she contends with continuing her writing and translating while grappling with the seeming loss of her daughter. Keener is an accomplished actress who has tackled this kind of isolating role before in “War Story,” and while she does demonstrate tremendous commitment to the emotion of the role, it’s not her most commanding performance. Craven is properly cast as a background player without an overly substantial influence on the film. Gross turns in a solid portrayal that, again, would have meant more if the pre-homeless Norah had been more fully introduced. This film starts from an interesting vantage point and explores worthwhile territory, not quite reaching the potential it sets in getting to the root of its message about people and the world.


Sunday, September 18, 2016

Movie with Abe: Is That a Gun in Your Pocket?

Is That a Gun in Your Pocket?
Directed by Matt Cooper
Released September 16, 2016

Sex and violence are both hot topics that are overwhelmingly found in movies and television these days. Most would agree that there is far too much of both, and that they are usually portrayed in quite a gratuitous manner. There’s a new film out that doesn’t show much of either but focuses its storyline entirely on the battle between a need for sex and a need for guns. “Is That a Gun in Your Pocket?” is a silly but very amusing picture of one Texas town where one woman decided to take a stand against guns and knew just what to withhold to make her voice heard.

Jenna Keely (Andrea Anders) is happily married to Glenn (Matt Passmore) and acts as a stay-at-home mom to their two children, Sandy and Lance. When Lance brings a gun to school to show to his friend and it accidentally goes off, Jenna begins to think about the destructive, dangerous power of firearms and asks Glenn to get rid of his. When he refuses, she realizes that the only way to truly achieve change is to refuse Glenn something he desires – sex. Her approach catches on with other women in the two, pitting husbands against wives in a battle to determine how Rockford, Texas will truly be defined.

This film’s poster shows a man’s hand holding a gun that is twisted into the shape of a heart on its way to a woman’s hand gripping it from the other end. This is meant to be a comic portrayal of the gun control debate, taken to such a far extreme that it has to be laughed at. It’s the men who are more exaggerated as they think of nothing but sex and of their wives being ridiculous for deigning to be self-sufficient, and the women respond in kind by enjoying tormenting their husbands a little too much.

Anders is a fun choice to play Jenna, who has plenty of personality but is also by far the most sensible person in all of Rockford. She is ably supported by Lauren Bowles (“True Blood”), Christine Estabrook (“Desperate Housewives"), Fernanda Romero, and in a very vocal scene-stealing role, veteran actress Cloris Leachman as the women who rally behind her. Passmore (“The Glades”) has good company in Horatio Sanz, John Michael Higgins, and John Heard. Much of the events and the drama in the film is so over-the-top it’s impossible to take it seriously, but that’s also what makes it a fun and extraordinarily entertaining ride.


Friday, September 16, 2016

Movie with Abe: Snowden

Directed by Oliver Stone
Released September 16, 2016

Making recent headlines into movies is always an intriguing and risky experiment since most viewers will remember what really happened. That’s not to suggest that events being exaggerated or altered for dramatic effect is a concern, but rather that there will be a tendency to imitate so that those watching will be prompted to remember them and remark on how close this cinematic impression really is. Most people know the name Edward Snowden, who came to fame even before he was the subject of an Oscar-winning documentary, and Oliver Stone’s new drama fills in the whole story of who this famed whistleblower was and how he got to the place where the whole world learned his name.

Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is first introduced in 2013 as he meets filmmaker Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo) and journalist Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) in Hong Kong to discuss the information that he believes people must see. He looks identical to the real Snowden, and it’s only when flashbacks are triggered by Snowden recounting how he first came to work with the CIA and the NSA that a picture of a younger, more idealistic patriot emerges. The brilliant young mind is loyal to his country and identifies as a conservative, a point of contention with the object of his affection, dancer Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley), who tries to get the introverted analyst to come out of his shell.

As Snowden covers the numerous different positions he held making systems more efficient and augmenting surveillance and analysis techniques for the United States government, it becomes clear that he realized that what he was doing on behalf of the agencies he worked for crossed a line that was justified time and time again by unreasonable excuses and then misreported to the American public. That trajectory is a very intriguing one to follow, which is very well-showcased by the energetic images and framing of Snowden as a character in this film. Since it is an Oliver Stone film, the level of paranoia and scenery-chewing can often be extreme, but as a whole it works well.

This is the second time in two years that Gordon-Levitt has portrayed the subject of a recent Oscar-winning documentary. This reviewer wasn’t terribly fond of “Citizenfour,” Poitras’ film that took home the Best Documentary award in 2014, and is pleased to report that this dramatic reinterpretation offers a much more compelling and engaging look at Snowden. Gordon-Levitt puts on a certain voice to imitate Snowden that initially seems forced and exaggerated but as the film progresses becomes more normative and standard. Woodley proves a strong choice to play the sweet-natured Lindsay who supports her boyfriend despite his unwillingness to share any of his work with her, and background players including Leo, Quinto, Ben Schnetzer, and, in all seriousness, Nicolas Cage, contribute to the overall experience. The editing works well to keep the film on track, and its use of many locations is an affirming asset rather than a distraction. Clocking in at two hours and fourteen minutes, this film serves as a totally engaging portrait of a man who turned his whole life upside down and opened the world up to many questions as a result.


Wednesday, September 14, 2016

TIFF Interview: Past Life

I'm in Toronto for a work conference unrelated to film, and I managed to stop by TIFF for a brief moment to interview director Avi Nesher about his new film "Past Life." Check out the interview over at Jewcy.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Movie with Abe: Florence Foster Jenkins

Florence Foster Jenkins
Directed by Stephen Frears
Released August 12, 2016

It would be hard for anyone to deny that Meryl Streep is a great actress. She won two Oscars before she turned thirty-five and earned a third in 2011, picking up a grand unmatched total of nineteen nominations along the way. She proved her abilities early on with roles in “The Deer Hunter” and “Kramer vs. Kramer” and has since continued fine dramatic and comedic work, taking some time to branch out to less serious projects like “It’s Complicated” and “Mamma Mia” as well. She’s therefore a natural fit to portray Florence Foster Jenkins, a noted New York socialite with a tireless desire to sing for a crowd despite being truly terrible at it.

The introduction of Florence as portrayed by Streep is notable for the fact that it does not feature her singing, but rather performing with dramatic costumes in a show put on her by husband St. Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant), who describes himself as an actor and monologist. St. Clair dotes on Florence and makes sure that she has everything that she needs, tucking her in for bed at night before leaving for the apartment in which he sleeps with another woman. When Florence hires a pianist (Simon Helberg) to work with her as she prepares for her first big show in a while, it becomes painfully clear that what the woman possesses in flair and commitment to the craft she utterly lacks in vocal talent.

This is not the most demanding role Streep has ever taken on, but to so gallantly miss every note and be gleeful while doing it takes a considerable amount of skill, however strange it may be. It’s a bit jarring to see Hugh Grant, once a romantic comedy leading man who has been only intermittently seen in the past decade or so, as Streep’s onscreen husband, but he does well in the role, committing fully to it and making him a believable and extremely conflicted person. Helberg, known for his supporting role on “The Big Bang Theory,” is more than a bit overeager in his portrayal of pianist Cosmé McMoon, demonstrating a lack of definitive tone for the film in general. That’s largely due to the perplexing nature of Florence as a person, seemingly unaware of the fact that people were applauding her as a different type of entertainment than she thought. The costumes, set pieces, and story do their best to make up for that uncertainty, making this an engaging and decent experience.


Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Movie with Abe: Genius

Directed by Michael Grandage
Released June 10, 2016 / DVD September 6, 2016

It’s very possible that a deceased writer knowing that his life story has been made into a movie might cause him to turn over in his grave. The hope is that the art form of cinema does justice to the words put to paper by an author, though it’s hard to find too many instances where critics declare that “the movie was so much better than the book.” It’s been over eighty years since Thomas Wolfe’s books were published, and now it’s time for the story of the frenetic, unpredictable writer to have his story made into a film, one that’s not nearly as long as most of his work but manages to showcase the passion he felt for what he did and wrote.

There are two central characters in “Genius,” and they couldn’t be more different. Max Perkins (Colin Firth) is a quiet, mild-mannered editor who works with writers such as Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald. The excitable Thomas Wolfe (Jude Law) bursts into his office overflowing with ideas and a giant manuscript, and Perkins sees in Wolfe a tremendous opportunity. The film chronicles their arduous work together, filled with fervent passion from Wolfe and a steadfast commitment from Perkins to condensing all his crazy impulses and excessive prose to a marketable and memorable published piece.

This dramatization of the collaboration between two literature greats stars two notable British actors doing their best impressions of Americans. Firth, who won an Oscar portraying a stuttering regal figure in “The King’s Speech,” delivers a muted performance as Perkins, whose energy can best be perceived by the amount of time he puts into his work, neglecting his family and his life to focus on the weeks and months he feels he must spend to craft the work. Law, a two-time Oscar nominee who in years such as 2004 was churning out six films at a time, hands in his most memorable performance in a long time, channeling so much sheer zeal for what he does and never suppressing it, which of course often becomes problematic when his behavior is inappropriate. The supporting cast includes Laura Linney and Nicole Kidman as the most prominent women in these two men’s lives as well as Guy Pearce as Fitzgerald and Dominic West as Hemingway. Only Law stands out among the whole cast, and the film can’t quite match his energy and as a result doesn’t present itself as a vital story of a great writer.


Saturday, September 3, 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

Game of Aces (recommended): This World War I film stars just three people and tells a surprisingly complex and enthralling story of an American pilot and an English nurse searching for a downed German turncoat in the middle of the Arabian desert. Its production values and script are better than they could have been given the premise and the film succeeds as a period adventure drama. Now playing. Read my review from Thursday.

The Light Between Oceans (recommended): Michael Fassbender, Alicia Vikander, and Rachel Weisz all turn in heartfelt performances in this film from Derek Cianfrance about a lighthouse keeper and his wife on their complicated way to starting a family. It’s a touching love story that also includes its share of moving drama. Now playing at many theatres in New York. Read my review from Friday.

New to DVD

The Jungle Book (recommended): I’m not sure I had any particular desire to see a remake of the classic 1967 animated film, but this live-action take from Jon Favreau is actually really great. Young Neel Sethi gives a superb breakout performance with assistance from a number of talented actors voicing the other members of his animal kingdom and dazzling scenery and effects.

Friday, September 2, 2016

Movie with Abe: The Light Between Oceans

The Light Between Oceans
Directed by Derek Cianfrance
Released September 2, 2016

Stories of solitude are often very powerful, but they require special effort from those representing that sense of loneliness to be truly effective. These films usually work best as love stories, when two people are meant to be together yet some person or force keeps them apart. In “The Light Between Oceans,” adapted from the novel of the same name by M.L. Stedman, a vast sea can’t keep a couple fated to be together from finding each other, but it does bring with it a different kind of longing – for a family.

Tom Sherbourne (Michael Fassbender) is an English war veteran known for not saying much who accepts a post as a lighthouse keeper in Australia in the aftermath of World War I. On one fateful visit to the mainland, Tom meets Isabel (Alicia Vikander), and the two exchange letters before getting married. Isabel likes solitary life with Tom but finds herself feeling empty and unfulfilled without a child. Multiple miscarriages threaten to send her into a serious depression, and the sudden arrival of a boat with a dead man and a young baby inside present what initially seems like a perfect solution to right two injustices in the world.

This is an extraordinarily emotional story, with the isolation of their home by the lighthouse underscoring its intensity considerably. Enormous credit is due to the actors involved, whose award-winning past roles surely served as strong reference points for their being cast in this project. Fassbender does a remarkable job of conveying muted enthusiasm, expressing his love for his wife in letters read aloud and his joy at being a father in quiet moments of play. Vikander, who took home an Oscar last year for “The Danish Girl,” demonstrates the same marvelous aptitude for fully inhabiting her character and displaying enormous involvement in every scene. As the true mother of a daughter presumed dead, Rachel Weisz also offers a heartbreaking portrait of what loss looks like.

These three Oscar-friendly performers are all more than qualified to play their roles and do so commendably. Director Derek Cianfrance, who has proven himself adept at telling broken love stories with films like “Blue Valentine,” delicately helms a dated love story and makes it feel relevant and enthralling. The film’s technical elements, primarily its cinematography by Adam Arkapaw and score by Alexandre Desplat, aid a strongly-written and beautifully-directed tale of romance and love that is both powerful and resonant.


Thursday, September 1, 2016

Movie with Abe: Game of Aces

Game of Aces
Directed by Damian Lay
Released September 2, 2016

War is a frequent backdrop for films, and, unfortunately, history provides a range of options to choose from when selecting a conflict, global or otherwise. Some of these films stage grand scenes with many anonymous soldiers fighting against a legion of enemies, while others pick a narrower focus. Following a single mission can be an effective way to tell a war story by getting to know the individuals involved. “Game of Aces,” which begins in Egypt during World War I, follows an American pilot and British nurse sent into the vast, open Arabian Desert to find a turncoat German soldier with vital information that will be of great help to the Allies.

Eleanor Morgan (Victoria Summer) is the first of the film’s three characters introduced, told by her escorts that it will be a harrowing and dangerous journey, and that she has been selected as a translator for the wild and reckless Captain Jackson Cove (Chris Klein), whose reasons for being grounded are unknown to Eleanor. Neither party is impressed with the other at the start, and their journey into the sandy unknown gives them plenty of time to spend together and enormous opportunity to become angry, due largely to Captain Cove’s drinking and Eleanor’s seeming lack of knowledge about the situation. The man they are searching for, Captain Josef von Zimmerman (Werner Daehn), has been severely wounded in a plane crash and is not in good shape, and it seems unlikely that he will even make it to when his rescuers find him.

With just three actors in its cast and nothing but the sand to serve as a backdrop, this war drama, best described as an adventure film, succeeds rather well. To this reviewer, it’s a far more engaging experience than the similarly-themed Oscar-nominated foreign film “Theeb.” Klein, who was one of the more entertaining parts of “Wilfred,” doesn’t seem like the most obvious choice to star in this vehicle, but his humor serves him well as balanced with an appreciation for the more serious, action-oriented moments. Daehn plays his part well, but the real standout of the film is Summer, a British actress with few film credits to her name who impresses her with a spirited performance that takes into account the two men with whom Eleanor is interacting. She’s the most likeable of the three and anchors this surprisingly dynamic film with a much more intricate and layered story than it seems from the outset. The sandy landscape only serves to enhance that, underscoring this film’s adventure nature.