Monday, October 24, 2016

Movie with Abe: Men and Chicken

Men and Chicken
Directed by Anders Thomas Jensen
Released October 25, 2016 (DVD)

Sometimes a picture really is worth a thousand words, which, as it happens, is about twice the length of a typical review I write. I only saw the poster for this film after I finished watching it, but I think it summarizes it far better than I possibly could, though I’ll try my best in the ensuing several paragraphs. On the left, Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen appears with curly hair and a mustache, wearing a tie and caressing a chicken. On the right, another person is clad in a tie but his head has been replaced with an egg. It’s a fitting representation of this thoroughly odd, definitely original story of five misfit half-brothers who begin to question why it is they have so much trouble operating in normal society.

Gabriel (David Dencik) and Elias (Mads Mikkelsen) are brothers whose father dies at the opening of the film and leaves them a video will which alerts them to the life-changing news that he and his late wife were not their parents, but that they were the children of a mysterious scientist who is still alive and residing on a small Danish island called home by fewer than fifty people. Upon arriving to the home of their three half-brothers, Gabriel and Elias are greeted by animalistic, insular behavior and a very peculiar way of functioning and living. As they discover more about their past and the childbirth deaths of all of their mothers, the far more civilized Gabriel attempts to see if he can teach these adult boys how to truly act like people.

There is almost no part of this film that is not absurd, and it’s not as if those creative people behind the film are unaware of that fact. Writer-director Anders Thomas Jensen has written a number of fantastic Danish films, including “In a Better World” and “After the Wedding,” and a few American screenplays such as “The Duchess.” His latest project is most similar to his 2002 collaboration with “An Education” director Lone Scherfig, “Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself,” which presents a different way of looking at the world through the eyes of someone who has never found a place for himself in the world. That’s a fitting inspiration for this film, which finds five people of varying viability for human interaction all cooped up (pun intended) together in one large house.

Mikkelsen is a celebrated actor in Denmark who should also be known to American audiences for “Casino Royale” and for playing the title character in the TV series “Hannibal.” Here, he’s looser and sillier than ever before, leading a cast of actors playing a range of people, some despicable and all misunderstood. It’s a bizarre film more than anything, and the answers it probes for are relatively obvious from the start, which doesn’t detract from the experience and just makes it all the more individualistic. This film isn’t for everyone but it’s certainly something.


Friday, October 21, 2016

Movie with Abe: Moonlight

Directed by Barry Jenkins
Released October 21, 2016

We live in changing times, when societal norms are being transformed and so much of what was standard even just a few years ago is no longer seen as definitive. While progress has been made in many circles, there is still much to be done, and even though things have changed for some, distinct communities and culture are not as willing to adapt. That applies more than anything to sexual orientation and gender identity, for which deviation from heteronormativity can be extremely alienating. Barry Jenkins’ powerful new film explores that phenomenon for one lonely male throughout the course of his life.

At age ten, Chiron, better known as Little (Alex Hibbert), is a wide-eyed boy who knows that he is different from those around him in some way and expresses it most by saying little. His drug-addicted mother Paula (Naomie Harris) is hardly a fitting role model, and he instead spends plenty of time with Juan (Mahershala Ali) and Teresa (Janelle Monae), who provide more stable preparation for the future and fully accept Little as he is. At age sixteen, Chiron (Ashton Sanders) is tall, lanky, and the butt of all of his classmates’ jokes. Nearly two decades later, a hardened Chiron (Trevante Rhodes) looks totally different, and details on his transformation should be discovered when viewing the film.

There is a mesmerizing solitary feeling that runs through “Moonlight” in all of its time periods, tracking Chiron as a character who is never truly able to connect with those around him and find the place where he can fit in. thanks to Juan’s mentorship, Chiron is able to avoid, or at least prolong, a fate that befalls many of those in his community, staying off drugs and keeping himself out of serious trouble, instead opting not to defend himself from those who insult and taunt him. He’s a magnetic lead character whose story as portrayed in this film is truly engaging.

The three actors who portray Chiron were carefully selected and all have minimal acting credits, but they work together – separately – to create a tremendous illustration of a person fated to certain circumstances who diverges from the expected path without much of a loud voice. Harris, Ali, and Monae provide strong adult support, and André Holland is particularly excellent as a colleague of the adult Chiron. This poignant, stirring film is purposefully arranged and beautifully shot to create a captivating experience that’s more than likely to earn deserved attention come Oscar time.


Thursday, October 20, 2016

Movie with Abe: A Stray

A Stray
Directed by Musa Syeed
Released October 21, 2016

The word “stray” can have many meanings. Used as a noun, it indicates someone, person or animal, who is no longer part of wherever it is they came from, often also called homeless or friendless. As a verb, it means to wander or to go astray, sometimes from a religious course. The new film “A Stray” tackles every possible meaning, following a Muslim refugee from Somalia in Minneapolis who hits a stray dog and then finds himself with a new pet and nowhere to go, unsure of how to get back to where he and his new friend belong.

Adan (Barkhad Abdirahman) shouldn’t necessarily be described as a troublemaker, but he doesn’t always do the right thing in a given situation. After his mom kicks him out of the house, he is quickly thrown out of his new living space after offending his friends. Moving into the mosque seems like a smart idea for this devout Muslim, but it doesn’t take long for him to become saddled with a dog that isn’t deemed pure enough for the mosque, sending him again on an unknown path. There are plenty of places for Adan to go from moment to moment and day to day, but it’s hard for him to know where he’ll eventually be able to end up and know that he can truly stay.

Throughout Adan’s journey, there are many things that come into question. One thing that does not, however, is his faith. Adan might be a stray in so many senses of the word, but even though he is not permitted to stay in the mosque, he remains tethered to a strict observance and a connection to God that keeps him going. He half-jokingly asks if the dog is Muslim when he has food to feed it, and takes the legal aspects of his religion seriously even when his actions don’t reflect the same forethought and purpose.

Abdirahman, not to be confused with his fellow real-life Minneapolis Somali immigrant and Oscar-nominated “Captain Phillips” costar Barkhad Abdi, brings a sincere authenticity to Adan that makes him especially human. He’s far from the most formidable protagonist, but he represents a new generation of immigrant who fits in much better than his parents and ancestors would have, not assimilating but still becoming part of the culture. This film doesn’t move too fast but slows down just enough to present a compelling portrait of a lost young man with multiple avenues towards redemption.


Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Movie with Abe: In a Valley of Violence

In a Valley of Violence
Directed by Ti West
Released October 21, 2016

The western is a genre defined by violence. The climactic scene of any great western involves a fateful shootout in which the hero must defend his town or way of life from an enemy who threatens that. Even if the hero espouses nonviolence and attempts to resolve the situation diplomatically, inevitably guns come into play. A valley of violence is just the kind of place that should be found in a western, and Ti West’s involving, creative take on the classic story of a good man riding into town and being forced to clean up the mess that disguises itself as law and order has a most fitting title.

Paul (Ethan Hawke) is first introduced with his loyal dog as he stops to help a destitute preacher eager for aid in the middle of the desert, and, seeing his attempts at deception, robs him of his weapon and his supplies, warning him that they should not cross paths again. The drifter and his dog wander into the town of Denton, and it takes man of few words Paul little time to clash with Gilly (James Ransone), who gets away with just about anything on account of his father being the sheriff (John Travolta). After one of the town’s innkeepers, Mary-Anne (Taissa Farmiga), whose sister and fellow innkeeper Ellen (Karen Gillan) finds herself romantically tethered to Gilly, takes a liking to Paul, he realizes that this brief stopover in Denton will be far more permanent and impactful than he had originally planned.

This film is in many ways a conventional western, but West’s take on it is also highly satirical and funny. Violence comes to Paul without him trying to attract it, and the bad guys are almost asking to be taken out as they walk all over their town and the people in it. Mary-Anne personifies goodness even more than Paul, and Ellen represents an in-between based mainly on her poor outlook on the world. Travolta’s sheriff knows how he likes to keep his town, and an unruly son who won’t listen to anyone is, in his mind, far better than a reckless random citizen or visitor who doesn’t play by the rules.

Hawke, who scored an Oscar nomination for “Boyhood” and was at serious risk of just playing the same part over and over again, finds a fabulous role in Paul, painting him as a carefree cowboy, just seeking to pass through with his own signature style. Farmiga and Gillan are both terrific, and Ransone has a superb frenetic energy that makes him just the right level of absurd. Travolta offers a detached take on the sheriff, just trying to get by without any ruckus. This entertaining, enthralling western spins a standard tale into something far more enticing with witty dialogue, strong cinematography and framing, and excellent use of a talented and capable cast.


Sunday, October 16, 2016

NYFF Spotlight: The Lost City of Z

I’m thrilled to be covering a number of selections from the 54th Annual New York Film Festival, which takes place September 30th-October 16th.

The Lost City of Z
Directed by James Gray
NYFF Closing Night Selection

No matter when it takes place, there is a certain excitement and sense of wonder that comes with exploration. In the present day, technology has advanced to the point where lands are no longer uncharted and travel from continent to continent takes almost no time. A century ago, however, there was still much to be learned about different regions of the world. In 1906, one British explorer mapping the Amazon came across what he thought might be the remnants of a civilization far older than his own and began a lifelong quest for answers that could greatly alter the findings of recorded human history.

Tasked with following the path of a river in Brazil to help quell international tensions in the region, eager young soldier Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam) is astounded by what he finds at the farthest reach of his journey: pottery in the middle of the jungle that indicates a people once lived there. Returning to his family in Europe, Fawcett spends minimal time with his wife Nina (Sienna Miller) and the children he barely gets to know, focused instead on going back to the Amazon in search of what he calls the “Lost City of Z” with equally curious fellow explorer Henry Costin (Robert Pattinson) at his side, charging ahead despite dubious support back home and a lack of belief that what they are looking for – a primitive civilization potentially more advanced than their own – could even exist.

Gray’s film runs a staggering two hours and twenty minutes, covering Fawcett’s twenty-year obsession with his fabled lost city, interrupted by the advent of World War I and eventually passed on to his eldest son Jack (Tom Holland). Much of the film’s runtime is spent on the river or in the jungle itself, as a white European does his best to seem nonimperialist and pay the societies they encounter a respect rarely afforded to them by people with his color of skin. Fawcett is a man far ahead of his time, undeterred by the limited thinking of his peers or the real dangers that lie ahead. It’s a compelling story that doesn’t often match its excitement in its presentation, finding solid moments on which to coast but not recreating that same enticement for the rest of the time. The cast, led by a determined Hunnam, do their job well, but the extraordinary charisma and sense of humor displayed by Gray in a press conference following the film are sadly seldom seen in this sometimes underwhelming epic.


Saturday, October 15, 2016

NYFF Spotlight: Elle

I’m thrilled to be covering a number of selections from the 54th Annual New York Film Festival, which takes place September 30th-October 16th.

Directed by Paul Verhoeven
NYFF Screenings

Paul Verhoeven is a Dutch director who has been making movies for over forty years. Sci-fi hits “Robocop” and “Total Recall” were relatively well-received in the United States, and the quality of his films went severely downhill from there with mixed reviews for “Basic Instinct,” “Starship Troopers,” and “Hollow Man,” and the truly terrible “Showgirls” in between. He made a critical comeback in 2008 by returning to his home country to make the campy Holocaust thriller “Black Book,” which most except this critic liked, and, fortunately, Verhoeven has now directed his finest film to date, an exceptional character study in French.

In the first scene of “Elle,” Michèle (Isabelle Huppert) is brutally attacked and sexually assaulted by an unknown assailant. Wary of the police because of negative treatment she received when, years earlier, her father was arrested for perpetrating horrific crimes, Michèle keeps the assault to herself and immediately returns to work as the head of a video game company. As she navigates relationships with all the men in her life, including her son Vincent (Jonas Bloquet), her ex-husband Richard (Charles Bering), her best friend’s husband Robert (Christian Berkel), and her attractive married neighbor Patrick (Laurent Lafitte), she takes her own steps to find the man who attacked her and take control of her life.

At a NYFF press conference after the film, Verhoeven noted that this film couldn’t be made in America. Though adapted from a French novel by American screenwriter David Birke, this is a distinctly European film that pushes boundaries in a number of ways. It’s far from a typical revenge story, and its extensive use of sexuality amplifies and makes it extremely layered and complex. There are a staggering number of plotlines all in focus at the same time, and it’s a magnificently functional film that gives devoted attention to all of its characters, no matter how minimal.

Huppert, who is anchoring this film and another NYFF selection, “Things to Come,” is exceptionally suited for this role, self-assured and confident in some moments and completely vulnerable and susceptible to those around her at others. Most of all, she seizes on the film’s unexpected opportunities for humor in her perception of those with whom she interacts. She is surrounded by a tremendous ensemble, including all four men previously mentioned, Anne Consigny as Michèle’s best friend and business partner Anna, and Alice Isaaz as Vincent’s monstrous pregnant girlfriend Josie. This is far from a conventional film, but the tremendous combination of a highly skilled and entertaining cast, a sharp script, and attentive direction make this a very creative, memorable, and engaging film.


Friday, October 14, 2016

NYFF Spotlight: 20th Century Women

I’m thrilled to be covering a number of selections from the 54th Annual New York Film Festival, which takes place September 30th-October 16th.

20th Century Women
Directed by Mike Mills
NYFF Screenings

An expression like “20th Century Women” suggests that every century creates a certain type of woman. The expectations and roles of the female in American life have changed over the years, and the twentieth century was definitely dynamic enough that each decade could have its own type of woman. Mike Mills’ very fun new film finds one very singular independent woman doing her best to raise her teenage son and, in doing so, seeks the assistance of two extremely different “20th century women” to ensure that he enters the real world of adulthood with his head screwed on straight and a proper outlook on life.

Dorothea Fields (Annette Bening) is a woman who knows how she likes things. At age forty, she gave birth to a son, Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann), and tries to teach him values as a single mother. She rents out two rooms in their Santa Barbara home, one to a carpenter, William (Billy Crudup), who does most of his work on the house itself, and the other to a hip young artist, Abbie (Greta Gerwig). When she realizes that she is not totally capable of guiding Jamie through life, she enlists the help of Abbie and Jamie’s friend Julie (Elle Fanning), who sleeps over every night yet refuses to indulge a sexual relationship with her best bud, to raise her son and steer him in the right direction.

Mills’ previous film was the wonderful “Beginners,” which in 2011 won Christopher Plummer a Best Supporting Actor for playing a gay widower who comes out at the age of seventy-five, based on Mills’ own father. That film was full of whimsical narrations to frame the story in a creative way, and his latest project uses delightful title cards to fill in the histories of its main characters and, occasionally, to cite works of literature that have influenced them. It all contributes to a wholly entertaining and enjoyable experience with some truly memorable characters.

Bening is already generating Oscar buzz for her portrayal of a mother passionate about what she wants to do and completely unaware of how she is perceived by the rest of the world, a very focused and funny performance. Gerwig plays a role similar to the one she usually has but fits in well with the ensemble, as does Fanning, who, at age eighteen, has already delivered her share of strong turns. Crudup and Zumann round out a very talented cast, all of whom are clearly having fun in this energetic, heartwarming, and sincerely funny film.


Thursday, October 13, 2016

NYFF Spotlight: The Settlers

Earlier this week, I wrote up a lengthy piece about "The Settlers," a layered documentary playing at the New York Film Festival about Israeli settlements. Head over to Jewcy to read the article and visit the NYFF page to learn more about the film.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

NYFF Spotlight: Aquarius

I’m thrilled to be covering a number of selections from the 54th Annual New York Film Festival, which takes place September 30th-October 16th.

Directed by Kleber Mendonça Filho
NYFF Screenings

Most people live in a few places over the course of their lives, moving from one city to another, or even crossing state and international lines as they go through different stages, steps, and careers. Some do stay in the same city or town their entire lives, and later in life, even those who have moved frequently often remain in one place as they get older. It’s not easy to persuade someone who has spent years in the same house or apartment to consider relocating, and such attempts to do so tend to be futile and only provoke further stubbornness.

In “Aquarius,” Clara (Sonia Braga) is first introduced at age thirty, partying in 1980 and celebrating the seventieth birthday of her favorite aunt. Her husband thanks all those in attendance for supporting the family as she has battled cancer the previous year, and the film then jumps ahead to the present day, when Clara, retired after a successful career of writing music, is the sole remaining resident of the famed Aquarius building. The construction company sends smiling emissaries to knock on her door with a colorful brochure about their plans once the final obstacle in their way is removed, which encourages her to stand her ground and defend the home that she wants to continue calling her own.

Clara is interviewed as soon as the film arrives at the present by an intrepid journalist, who asks her, among other things, how she feels about the Internet and music being so readily available. Her answer is boiled down in a headline to “I love MP3s,” but it does represent an adjustment to modernity that many in her field of her age wouldn’t normally make. Clara maintains positive relationships with her adult children and plenty of friendships, and staying in her home is just another element of continuing to live a rich life and experience the world as she desires. She’s a formidable lead character.

Braga is a respected Brazilian actress who appeared in a handful of American films thirty years ago and plays a major role in the new Netflix series “Marvel’s Luke Cage.” Braga, who is hardly wanting for memorable parts, has found a career-topping role in Clara, and she responds with exuberance and commitment, carrying the film with her modest and confident energy. The film runs two hours and twenty-two minutes but remains engaging due to an impressive reliance on its story and its actors to take the film wherever it needs to go, which proves more than worthwhile.


Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Movie with Abe: Do Over

Do Over
Directed by Ryan Francis
Released October 11, 2016

Who wouldn’t want to have a second shot at getting it right the first time? That sentiment could apply to nearly anything in life, but in this case, it’s all about losing your virginity on prom night. While hardly the most sophisticated subject, this comedy doesn’t pretend to be anything it’s not, laying all its cards on the table as four friends who haven’t necessarily gone too far try to recapture the glory of high school and rewind their sex lives back to where they started, for whatever it may be worth.

“Do Over” opens in a bar with a long conversation among reunited friends. Sean (Drew Seeley) has just moved back to his hometown after making it big in the tech industry, and he is warmly greeted by his old friends Anthony (Jonathan Bennett), Ryan (Zack Lively), and Angela (Amy Paffrath). Their conversation is full of nostalgia for a time long gone since the other three haven’t moved very far since then, and it naturally turns to the fateful night where they all lost their virginity. Egged on by Angela, Anthony and Ryan decide to contact the women they slept with for a second shot, and Sean can’t resist the opportunity to contemplate reconnecting with Gina (Gina Field), who he still can’t stop thinking about after thirteen years.

What ensues is a silly series of interactions as the three men search for the women they aren’t so sure they wowed. A combination of overeager matches all too willing to engage spiritually, awkward attempts to restart relationships, and shocking revelations that cause immense soul-searching leads the three men in totally different directions. It may not be the most intellectual or complicated film, but it is a fun, often entertaining, and generally enjoyable riff.


Monday, October 10, 2016

NYFF Spotlight: Personal Shopper

I’m thrilled to be covering a number of selections from the 54th Annual New York Film Festival, which takes place September 30th-October 16th.

Personal Shopper
Directed by Olivier Assayas
NYFF Screenings

Kristen Stewart has been acting regularly for the past fifteen years and is one of the most well-known young actresses in Hollywood. After starring in the “Twilight” series, she became more famous for running her fingers through her hair than for delivering serious performances. All that changed in 2014, when she became the first actress to win France’s equivalent of the Oscar for her turn in “Clouds of Sils Maria.” It’s fair to say that expectations are high for her follow-up collaboration with the director who took her there, Olivier Assayas.

After playing a personal assistant in her César-winning role, Stewart shifts gears to portray Maureen, a personal shopper for an obnoxious and rarely-seen starlet. Her aimless trips around Europe to pick out clothes are contrasted by the deep commitment she exhibits in her other role as a medium, attempting to connect with her late twin brother’s spirit in his former home. There is an aura of darkness that follows Maureen even when she is not spending the night alone in a house she hopes is haunted, and when she begins receiving invasive text messages from an anonymous number, her loneliness compels her to answer them to try to create some connection to whoever it is who is tormenting her, living or dead.

Described in press releases and summaries as a ghost story, this film suffers from a severe lack of defined tone. Assayas, in a press conference following the film at its NYFF press screening, compares it to “Clouds of Sils Maria” and defines it as a film more obviously dealing with the subject, this time in physical form and with Maureen’s obsession with the undead. Billed as a psychological thriller, this film attempts to create horror out of the everyday and the mundane in a manner similar to “Black Swan.” The result is an intriguing but scattered combination.

This film, which won the award for Best Director at the Cannes Film Festival and is slated for release in France in December and in the United States in March, is unlikely to win Stewart a second César. While her performance is certainly grown-up, it doesn’t feel nearly as lived-in. The film’s title is particularly unsatisfying, since it seems an odd choice in which to frame Maureen’s life. There are layers of complexity buried within the title and the film, but its presentation leaves much to be desired.


Sunday, October 9, 2016

Movie with Abe: The Birth of a Nation

The Birth of a Nation
Directed by Nate Parker
Released October 7, 2016

Slavery is a truly awful part of America’s history, and its formative role in the early years of the country make it a frequent film subject. In 1915, director D.W. Griffith released the groundbreaking epic “The Birth of a Nation,” which, among other things, glorified the Ku Klux Klan. That formative film has strong cinematic qualities but a message that now goes against everything this nation stands for. That title is ripe for a more modern and productive reinterpretation, and that’s exactly what Nate Parker’s chronicle of Nat Turner’s slave rebellion aims to do.

Nat (Parker) is taught to read by the owner of his plantation as a child and grows up with a strong knowledge of the Bible and a knack for preaching. As he does his best to begin a life with a fellow slave, Cherry (Aja Naomi King), he finds himself taken to numerous plantations by the new master of the plantation, Samuel Turner (Armie Hammer), to preach to slaves treated inhumanely by their plantation overseers and inspire them to lead more obedient lives. As he attempts to spread the word of God, Nat soon realizes that those words have been corrupted by those who seek to legitimize evil and cannot stand idly by and watch it happen any longer.

Parker’s film presents a harrowing story of one man’s representative experience during a dark period in American’s history. Samuel is purposely not cast as a particularly harsh or vindictive white man, meant instead to symbolize the collective guilt of all those who would indulge in the shameful practice of slavery and the dehumanization of people based purely on the color of their skin. Nat, for the most part, does what he is told and feigns respect to those who have power over them, but the inner fury he possesses that he eventually externalizes is burning and building for the entirety of the film and his story.

Like other films set in the same era, “The Birth of a Nation” includes a handful of truly disturbing scenes that show the horrifying and unbearable misery suffered by those forced to endure slavery. Some of the staged speeches feel forced, but the film rallies for a powerful and hopeful story of rebellion anchored by Parker’s energy. It doesn’t quite have the staggering impact of “12 Years of Slave,” but it certainly has its own unique thunderous nature that makes it an important and momentous film.


Saturday, October 8, 2016

Movie with Abe: Denial

In between New York Film Festival screenings, I had the chance to see the new film "Denial" about an American historian accused of libel by a noted Holocaust denier. Check out my review over at Jewcy.

Friday, October 7, 2016

NYFF Spotlight: Things to Come

I’m thrilled to be covering a number of selections from the 54th Annual New York Film Festival, which takes place September 30th-October 16th.

Things to Come
Directed by Mia Hansen-Love
NYFF Screenings

Those who teach as a profession have countless opportunities throughout their lives to learn lessons, and they incorporate what they have experienced into the way that they pass knowledge along to others. There is often just as much about how to navigate the world that evades them as they are able to grasp, and that is part of the reason that they make such great film subjects. Nathalie (Isabelle Huppert) is a high school philosophy teacher whose prime motivator is to encourage others to use every moment to think. As Nathalie faces certain personal challenges at home, all aspects of her life come together to cause her to contemplate what she really wants and needs.

“Things to Come,” a film that boasts an interesting title that could have many meanings, starts from an intriguing vantage point. Nathalie is a lifelong intellectual married to a man who could well be described as the same, and it’s clear that her two children have gotten used to her turning every meal or family interaction into a chance to think critically. Her elderly mother is deteriorating in a way that seems expressly designed to cause Nathalie anguish and constantly interrupt every quiet moment she finds. Students are protesting outside the school and trying to bar entry to other students, representing a very real threat to the state of education and the stimulation of the mind that Nathalie does not take lightly. The return of a former student who has become a successful writer in his own right offers Nathalie some solace that she has had the impact she hoped to have on at least one person.

Huppert is an established actress who continues to make new movies on a regular basis, even appearing in another major NYFF selection this year. She projects a certain aura, one that commands respect even though she rarely raises her voice and is not far from physically intimidating. Director Mia Hansen-Love is at the beginning of her career, but with only four feature films to date, has already established herself as a filmmaker committed to telling rich stories about the relationships between families and lovers. Pairing the two makes this film a strong follow-up to “The Father of My Children” and “Goodbye First Love,” proving that Huppert has plenty of superb roles left to play and that Hansen-Love is just getting started.


Thursday, October 6, 2016

NYFF Spotlight: Julieta

I’m thrilled to be covering a number of selections from the 54th Annual New York Film Festival, which takes place September 30th-October 16th.

Directed by Pedro Almodovar
NYFF Screenings

At a certain point, filmmakers can achieve a level of fame and prestige that inspires creative people to work with them based on their reputations alone and audiences to go see the films just because their names are on the poster. Pedro Almodovar is one such auteur, marking his twentieth feature film after making his debut thirty-six years ago. Almodovar is an internationally-renowned, Oscar-winning writer and director known for his focus on sexuality in all forms, always delving deep into the rich characters he creates. His latest film presents another strong representation of women in its examination of the life of protagonist Julieta Arcos in two distinctly separate parts.

Julieta (Emma Suarez) is first introduced in a committed relationship with Lorenzo (Dario Grandinetti), planning a move from Spain to Portugal. After she runs into her daughter Antia’s childhood best friend on the street, she cannot shake the feelings of regret that come up due to her completely nonexistent relationship with her adult daughter. As Julieta tries to return to elements of her life from before Antia left, Julieta’s story unfolds with a different actress (Adriana Ugarte) playing her younger self, representing a completely different time full of possibility and optimism, with a far less mature Julieta devoid of any sense of where life will take her when she meets Antia’s father Xoan (Daniel Grao) on a train one snowy night.

Casting two actresses to play Julieta at the start of her adult life and far into it is a masterful and extremely effective choice since the two really are different people. The older Julieta has made something of her life and shows it in the way that she dresses and carries herself, while the younger Julieta is a starry-eyed explorer with no particular direction or plans to become something. Xoan has a profound effect on her transformation, and Antia’s birth is equally significant. Almodovar’s latest great opus, adapted from Alice Munro’s book of short stories “Runaway,” deals with the nature of love, infidelity, and happiness as they all intertwine to create an engaging and memorable story about a magnetic woman. Suarez and Ugarte are both equally excellent, contributing personality and poise to what makes Julieta who she is throughout her life. Grao and Grandinetti provide just the right kind of support, enabling their female counterparts to remain the stars of their own story, just the latest expertly crafted vision from the reliable Almodovar.


Wednesday, October 5, 2016

NYFF Spotlight: I, Daniel Blake

I’m thrilled to be covering a number of selections from the 54th Annual New York Film Festival, which takes place September 30th-October 16th.

I, Daniel Blake
Directed by Ken Loach
NYFF Screenings

There are few people anywhere who would argue that “the system” is set up to help the less fortunate. Those who are disadvantaged or experience hardship are not set up for success since they have countless hurdles to overcome in order to get the restitution that they are entitled to, and it feels doubly miserable since they are already suffering. Such stories are far from inspiring, but told in a lighthearted way, they can toe the line between drama and comedy to create an affecting and endearing narrative.

Daniel Blake (Dave Johns) is a widower who, after having a heart attack, has been deemed unfit to return to work by multiple doctors. During the assessment that opens the film, he is asked numerous questions about his mental state and his limbs, yet the test does not address the problem preventing him from returning to work: his heart. Denied compensation based on medical need, he is forced to look for jobs he knows he cannot accept since the only option is to collect unemployment while showing that he is actively trying to find work. In his frustrated search, Daniel meets Katie (Hayley Squires), a woman in a similar situation trying hard to support her two young children despite all forces uniting to work against her prosperity.

Daniel might be considered a curmudgeon by some, but much of his behavior, like his inability to use a computer and his relentless efforts to get his slacker neighbor to take out the trash, makes him a sympathetic older man. The kindness that he shows to Katie and her children demonstrates that he wants to be helpful in some way, and his failure to share with them why he is not currently working is surely not accidental since he wants to feel relevant and needed by someone. He wants to be there for people and give of himself in his later years.

“I, Daniel Blake” comes from director Ken Loach, who is known for making the films that he wants to make and not adjusting his work to anyone else’s expectations. “Looking for Eric” was an interesting meditation on one man’s sense of himself, and this very simple, straightforward film with no flair of any kind follows that same format. This winner of the Palme D’Or at the Cannes Film Festival is a basic presentation of a man just trying to go on existing, and it’s a stirring, involving story that feels very universal.


Sunday, October 2, 2016

Movie with Abe: Sully

Directed by Clint Eastwood
Released September 9, 2016

There is an obvious appeal to dramatizing major unexpected events that were widely seen in the news across the world. As with recent releases like “Snowden,” people remember hearing about it or seeing it and they might also recognize the main player involved. This film’s tagline reads “The untold story of the miracle on the Hudson,” and makes sure that it is forever associated with the pilot who calmly and courageously diverted a flight after it was struck by birds and landed it on the Hudson River, saving all 155 passengers and crew on board.

“Sully” opens with its protagonist, Captain Chesley Sullenberger (Tom Hanks), having a nightmare about engine failure on his flight and crashing the plane into a New York City building. He has already performed his miracle act and is facing NTSB scrutiny for his water landing and assertions that, while he didn’t lose a single passenger or crew member, he could easily have landed at multiple area airports without incident. As he grapples with the notion that he might have done the wrong thing, extensive flashbacks reveal what really happened in visceral and astonishing detail.

“Sully” is the true story of an American hero, a man who could have panicked and in nearly all scenarios should not have been able to safely land his plane. Who better to bring that story to the big screen than director Clint Eastwood, who at eighty-six years old has directed his thirty-fifth film. Eastwood positions Sully as a seasoned, reasonable pilot with a unique ability to act under pressure, and subsequent assaults on his credibility only serve to further strengthen his respectability as lensed in this film. It might have been nice and informative to see some of Sully’s noted advocacy for pilot rights and treatment after this incident, but that’s not part of the particular story of heroism that Eastwood is trying to tell.

Hanks is a veteran actor with a history of tackling iconic roles, and this is a fitting career fiftieth film part for him. He brings a strong sense of duty and a striking physical resemblance with the aid of gray hair to the part of Sully, a truly likeable and respectable figure who puts everyone else before him. Aiding him in the cast is Aaron Eckhart as First Officer Jeff Skiles, who looks to Sully as an inspiration and offers him unconditional support throughout the entirety of their experience and the aftermath. Mike O’Malley and Jamey Sheridan stand out as formidable adversaries on the NTSB board, while Anna Gunn could have used a more substantial part worthy of her talents. The film focuses in on Sully and his experiences as they relate to this one flight, and the omission of much of his personal life or past serves to heighten the effectiveness of this one incident. The film is most striking and invigorating when recreating the run-up to the water landing and the “miracle” itself, a magnificent feat that feels impossibly real and incredibly enthralling as the centerpiece of this film.