Saturday, April 29, 2017

Talking Tribeca: The Last Poker Game

I’ve had the pleasure of screening a number of selections from this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, which takes place April 19th-April 30th.

The Last Poker Game
Directed by Howard Weiner
Festival Screenings

Getting old isn’t easy. Whatever a person has achieved during a long and illustrious career, the changes a body begins to go through and the increasing lack of independent function can be extraordinarily difficult to confront. People hang on to different things, whether it’s a title or a physical souvenir, to remind them of what they have accomplished. Some accept their new reality without much resistance, while others do what they can to preserve what they’ve had and prolong the inevitable by denying its validity and the certainty that there’s nothing they can do to stop it.

Dr. Abe Mandelbaum (Martin Landau) moves into a nursing home called Cliffside Manor so that his wife Molly, who has dementia, can receive the care she needs. Abe is quick to correct those who neglect to call him doctor, and he strikes up conversations and friendships with others, both residents and staff, at Cliffside Manor. In addition to an endearing bond with Phil Nocoletti (Paul Sorvino), a resident who believes his life ended when he could no longer have sex, Abe also takes an active interest in Angela (Maria Dizzia), a nurse who has come to find her birth father after receiving a note that he is at Cliffside Manor.

The difficulties of aging and the pains that come with it have been explored extensively in film over the years, and this movie doesn’t offer much in the way of new ideas. Abe is perfectly alert and aware of what is going on around him despite a few physical setbacks, while Phil’s vision has deteriorated considerably and he has become cognizant of his limitations. Yet what the film does achieve is that it shows that those who have not yet reached the final chapter of their lives go through some of the same struggles with just as little idea how to handle it.

Landau is an established actor who has just the right affect and composure to portray this protagonist, and, at eighty-nine years old he gives off an incomparable intensity of presence in the moment during every scene of this film. Sorvino plays off him well, jumping at the chance to make a friend towards the end of his life. Dizzia, recognizable to audiences from “Orange is the New Black,” provides a stable sense of comparable youth in her interactions with the two old men, both of whom form a special connection with her. This film is thought-provoking and endearing, and presents a solid, contemplative look at what’s to come in some form of another for anyone who makes it to old age.


Talking Tribeca: The Exception

I’ve had the pleasure of screening a number of selections from this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, which takes place April 19th-April 30th.

The Exception
Directed by David Leveaux
Festival Screenings

Most films contain more than one storyline. At the very least, there may be multiple characters, all of whom play a central role and whose individual plotlines diverge as the film progresses, likely ultimately culminating towards the end of the film when everything comes together. In those cases, it’s fair to assume that one part or element may be stronger than the others, and it could even be that the film as a whole might have been better had it focused solely or more intensively on its more compelling assets.

Captain Stefan Brandt (Jai Courtney) is a Nazi officer who, after an unexplained incident, is transferred to Holland to serve as the head of the guard for the exiled former ruler of Germany, Kaiser Wilhelm II (Christopher Plummer). While there, Brandt meets Wilhelm’s wife Hermine (Janet McTeer), who is eager to see her husband returned to the throne, Colonel Sigurd von Ilsemann (Ben Daniels), Wilhelm’s loyal aide, and Mieke de Jong (Lily James), a newly hired maid. As Brandt builds a close but forbidden relationship with Mieke, he is tasked with finding the spy operating within Wilhelm’s complex, an assignment that proves to be more difficult than expected when he discovers the spy’s identity.

The Nazi captain’s affair with the maid who harbors secrets takes center stage in the film’s setup and even serves as the reason for its title - Brandt is the exception, a good man who wears the Nazi uniform. Yet that love story with all of its complexities isn’t what makes this film appealing. Instead, it’s the spotlighting of a deposed ruler, one who has been in exile for so long that he is no longer used to communication with the outside world, let alone a regime which punishes negative language about its commanders or policies with unforgiving efficiency. To see how Wilhelm operates and how he interacts on a daily basis with his inner circle and with visitors is immensely interesting.

Plummer, who won an Oscar in 2011 for “Beginners” and is now eighty-seven years old, received a well-deserved standing ovation and plenty of respect at the U.S. premiere of this film at Tribeca. His turn as Wilhelm is full of emotion and intensity, and it’s wonderful to see that Plummer shows no signs of slowing down this decade. McTeer and Daniels provide ample support, with Courtney and James doing their best to steer a less-than-enthralling subplot mistaken for the main focus of this film. This film, best described as a fictional historical drama, will be most remembered for Plummer’s performance and the strength of the character he portrays.


Friday, April 28, 2017

Movie with Abe: Grey Lady

Grey Lady
Directed by John Shea
Released April 28, 2017

Getting past the death of a loved one is a difficult process, and it can made considerably harder by the means of passing. When someone is murdered, it’s exponentially more difficult, especially if the culprit remains at large, meaning that not only has someone been taken, but another could easily be next. Hopefully this isn’t something that many in the real world have to contend with, and certainly not on the scale that it’s represented in film and television. If nothing else, the need to settle a score and make things as right as they can be is a unifying feature of all such productions.

Boston police officer Doyle (Eric Dane) is already reeling from the death of his sister, and the murder of his partner only sends him deeper into mourning. A visit to Nantucket to try to track down clues is strictly off-book, and in addition to the gloomy aura of death that Doyle brings with him, he begins to realize that he and those he cares about are being specifically targeted. He forms a connection with a local woman, Melissa (Natalie Zea), but that may well put her in the same danger as he uncovers unsettling secrets about his own family and past that may serve as the explanation for present-day events.

Dane and Zea are both TV stars who got their starts on popular ABC shows with bigger names - “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Dirty Sexy Money,” respectively - and have now ascended to leading roles on successful cable series - “The Last Ship” and “The Detour,” respectively - that properly use their talents and give them a new chance to shine. This, sadly, couldn’t be further from that, drowning in misery and severely lacking in logic. It’s much closer to Zea’s unfortunate role on “The Following,” a series that portrayed disturbed villains prone to psychological meltdowns yet somehow able to stay several steps ahead of the good guys at every juncture.

This film’s title is meant to invoke the off-season fogginess of its setting, and while it does that, all it manages to contribute is excessive dreariness that makes this film’s completely unappealing - and unconvincing - plot even less enticing. The convoluted story doesn’t pan itself out in a worthwhile fashion, and there isn’t much to salvage here in this forgettable film that doesn’t use any of its assets, actors or location, anywhere near as well as it could have.


Movie with Abe: Below Her Mouth

Below Her Mouth
Directed by April Mullen
Released April 28, 2017

Passion can do crazy things to people. Most human beings are capable of thinking things through and reasoning out logical options and consequences to their actions, but it’s easy to become blinded to all that when attraction and the allure of being with someone gets in the way. Films tend to spotlight the most intense moments of a relationship, however fleeting, both the highest points of complete joy and happiness and the lowest points of misery and regret. This subject has been explored endless times, and it’s nice to see a new take that feels familiar yet still manages to achieve sufficient originality to allow it to stand on its own.

Dallas (Erika Linder) is a roofer with her own business who has just ended a relationship with her girlfriend. At a bar one night, she sets her sights on Jasmine (Natalie Krill), a fashion editor who is happily engaged to a man and only there to be with her friend. Dallas presses Jasmine to give her a chance, and despite repeated reminders that she has a fiancé, Jasmine eventually gives in, leading to a momentous affair that shows both women something that they hadn’t expected: real romance for Dallas and something truly transformational for Jasmine.

This film has the unique distinction of being shot by an entirely female crew, lending it considerably more credibility than, say, “Blue is the Warmest Color,” another tremendous film that was the subject of some controversy after its release because of the fact that it was filmed by a male director that many claimed couldn’t possibly understand the lesbian perspective. While this reviewer can’t claim to do that either, this film does serve as a strong companion to the other, full of just as much passion even if it clocks in at less than half its runtime.

Linder, a female supermodel famous for being booked for male modeling campaigns, and Canadian actress Krill make a fabulous pair, each conveying the extreme emotions that go into the affair that Dallas and Jasmine begin. The romance here feels honest and raw, and the explicit nature of many of the sex scenes isn’t used as a handicap, with the film still managing to deliver plenty of depth. This is an affirming, memorable film that ends on just the right note, delivering an energizing and satisfying story that illustrates the power of passion.


Thursday, April 27, 2017

Talking Tribeca: Holy Air

I’ve had the pleasure of screening a number of selections from this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, which takes place April 19th-April 30th.

Holy Air
Directed by Shady Srour
Festival Screenings

The dictionary definition of a scam is “a fraudulent or deceptive act or operation.” A simpler explanation is “a dishonest way to make money by deceiving people.” There are obviously a number of levels in this business, and scams can turn into schemes when they involve large amounts of money taken by one person or group from another in exchange for little and sometimes nothing in return. There are, on the other hand, some scams that can be described more accurately as victimless crimes that hardly constitute as misdeeds given both the low financial loss suffered by the victim and the lack of any greater implications beyond an unnecessary purchase.

Adam (Shady Srour) is a budding entrepreneur in Nazareth, a Christian man who works alongside Jews and Muslims in his daily efforts to come up with a winning idea and market a successful product. His wife Lamia (Laëtitia Eïdo) is eager to have a baby, but the process isn’t so easy, and that impending cost coupled with his father’s failing health make his need for a cash infusion all the more urgent. Inspirational quotes written on toilet paper aren’t going to cut it, and Adam is struck with a notion far more likely to succeed: bottling “holy air” to sell to visiting believers, literally making money from nothing.

Srour, who stars, writes, and directs, should be recognizable to American audiences from his lead role as an Ultra-Orthodox Jew stranded at a convent in the West Bank in the Oscar-nominated short film “Ave Maria,” spotlights a facet of Israeli society that rarely gets top billing in cinema. Adam must gain approval from his Jewish funders, keep the Muslim gangsters from beating him up for encroaching on their territory, and appease the Christian authorities already trying to maximize their profits without his intervention. Adam doesn’t seem tethered to much, but he does want to succeed, and the way he comes up with to do it is truly ingenious.

Srour is not a showy actor, and he directs himself here as a protagonist who mainly allows others around him to shape events, and he gets to choose whether or not to participate. When Adam is ready to make his big pitch, watching him quietly come to life is a revelation of sorts. This film shouldn’t be mistaken as anything but a light-hearted comedy, one that serves to slyly entertain throughout its short eighty-one-minute runtime and then dissipates into a mere memory as Adam’s product would surely do in real life.


Talking Tribeca: Blame

I’ve had the pleasure of screening a number of selections from this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, which takes place April 19th-April 30th.

Directed by Quinn Shephard
Festival Screenings

Human beings have an incredible ability to be horrible to each other. That’s not always true, to be sure, and as a result there’s still hope for our species. Adolescence, however, tends to be one of the stages in life where peer cruelty knows no bounds and often has no real inspiration other than a drive to mock those less fortunate or less favorable. Films like “Mean Girls” have shown the especially vicious nature of teenage girls, and “Blame,” which is the brainchild of a young woman not much past that time period in her life, presents a both fresh and familiar look at the perils of high school.

Abigail (Quinn Shephard) returns to school at the beginning of the year after suffering a psychotic episode of sorts, the details are which are never given, the year before. She is ostracized and mocked, and finds herself the particular target of Melissa (Nadia Alexander), who corrupts her new friend Sophie (Sarah Mezzanotte) and unsubtly tries to cut Ellie (Tessa Albertson) out of the friendship dynamic. When Melissa loses out on the lead role in “The Crucible” to Abigail, she goes on the warpath. The fact that drama teacher Jeremy (Chris Messina) seems to have a soft spot for Abigail only gives her more fuel for the fire.

Shephard, who is currently twenty-two, has made quite the debut as a feature filmmaker here. She stars, directs, and co-wrote the screenplay with her mom, showing extraordinary promise as a young talent. She calls this film her “college,” and it’s clear that she is enterprising and passionate, presenting an academic thesis of sorts with a film based in part on a play she loves, adapted to modern times and society with high school drama mixed in. I had the rare experience of sitting right in front of Shephard and the other actresses during a Tribeca screening, and hearing them react to what clearly their favorite moments from the film was a real bonus.

Unsurprisingly, in a film about teenagers, it’s the younger talent that really shines. Messina receives top billing for playing a teacher in a lackluster role that, like the other adult performances from TV regulars Tate Donovan and Trieste Kelly Dunn as adults, aren’t nearly as fleshed-out or formidable as the mean girls and their victims are. Alexander is particularly terrific at being awful, and all four actresses play well off one another in this smart, involving drama with plenty of entertaining moments and a relatively solid grasp on what it’s like to be in high school.


Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Talking Tribeca: Dog Years

I’ve had the pleasure of screening a number of selections from this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, which takes place April 19th-April 30th.

Dog Years
Directed by Adam Rifkin
Festival Screenings

If an actor lives long enough, he’s likely to come to a point in his career where he isn’t getting the roles he used to, or any roles at all. That’s assuming that he’s made all the right choices throughout the years, which, when money and other distractions get in the way, isn’t all that likely. The chance to matter again to someone or some group can be very appealing, and such stories are often excellent opportunities for real-life actors with similar or dissimilar experiences to portray what it looks like to have a shot at a career-defining comeback.

Vic Edwards (Burt Reynolds) used to be at the top. He was the number one box office star for six years in a row, and was well-known all around the world for his roles. Since then, he has been married five times, and, after the death of his dog, he is encouraged by his one remaining friend, Sonny (Chevy Chase), to accept an invitation to attend the International Nashville Film Festival, where he will receive a Lifetime Achievement Award. A noticeable lack of first-class airfare is just the first in a series of disappointments as he ends up being chauffeured around by an unwilling driver, Lil (Ariel Winter), and has to look back at his life to see what it is that he has really accomplished.

This is a very typical film from this subgenre in many ways, with Vic reflecting on sunnier times while he can’t help but be the world’s worst curmudgeon in the present. Lil, representing the furthest thing from Alex Dunphy on “Modern Family” that you could possibly imagine, represents everything that Vic doesn’t like about the twenty-first century, and the time that she has to spend driving him around, including a nostalgic trip to his hometown of Knoxville, is inevitably going to help them build a true friendship despite their enormous differences.

Reynolds is a veteran actor with a great body of work that serves a fun if disorienting purpose as notable clips of his are edited to turn him into a young Vic, and in a few scenes the octogenarian actually appears next to his younger self in dream sequences and engages in conversation. This is a solid turn for Reynolds, and Winter holds her own quite well playing against type opposite him. As his biggest fans and the organizers of the festival, Clark Duke from “The Office” and Ellar Coltrane from “Boyhood” have fun supporting roles. This film may not have much in the way of new material or ideas to offer, but it’s an endearing nostalgia trip nonetheless.


Talking Tribeca: Literally, Right Before Aaron

I’ve had the pleasure of screening a number of selections from this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, which takes place April 19th-April 30th.

Literally, Right Before Aaron
Directed by Ryan Eggold
Festival Screenings

It’s usually not a great idea to go to an ex’s wedding. There are exceptions, of course, like having been friends first or enough time having passed since the breakup that a relationship with the ex getting married and the spouse-to-be could potentially have formed. When one party isn’t over the other, however, and the relationship is recent enough that wounds still haven’t healed, it’s definitely a bad plan. Yet that’s exactly what the man described as dating the bride literally, right before the groom decides to do in this moderately entertaining story of undying love expressed at exactly the wrong time.

Adam (Justin Long) gets a call in the film’s opening scene from Allison (Cobie Smulders), his ex-girlfriend, who wastes no time before telling him that she’s getting married, and that she wants him to come because they had always known they would be at each other’s weddings, though of course they expected them to be the same event. Against the advice of anyone he asks and with a burning desire to get her back, Adam travels to what promises to be an awkward affair, which includes misadventures like his truly bizarre date (Kristen Schaal) and an attempt to befriend Allison’s annoyingly perfect fiancé (Ryan Hansen).

This isn’t Long’s first foray into ill-fated wedding films. In 2013, he starred in “Best Man Down,” which cast him as a groom whose best man dies during the wedding. Here, his affect is spot-on, but his character is very directionless, with little guidance from Smulders’ Allison, who is charming in flashbacks where the two flirt endearingly, but whose present-day bride-to-be likes bite. The two have chemistry, to be sure, but filling in precious few details about their now-ended relationship serves as a loss for the film rather than a gain.

Anna Kendrick chose to attend a wedding even though she probably shouldn’t have in a film from earlier this year, “Table 19.” While that comedy wasn’t entirely fantastic, it did manage to be funny, and utilized its ensemble strongly. This film isn’t able to do that nearly as well, giving John Cho, Luis Guzman, Lea Thompson, and Peter Gallagher all smart parts that, on their own, are fun, but don’t add up to much. Hansen is probably the best part of the film, delivering the most honest performance as a ham who’s not that bad of a guy. This film provides some entertainment, but it doesn’t really know what it wants to be.


Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Talking Tribeca: Sweet Virginia

I’ve had the pleasure of screening a number of selections from this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, which takes place April 19th-April 30th.

Sweet Virginia
Directed by Jamie M. Dagg
Festival Screenings

Crime dramas seem to be particularly effective when set in small towns where people are used to leaving their doors unlocked and granting enormous trust to strangers. It’s not that they manage to make people feel unsafe since letting their guard down to the wrong people can have disastrous, fatal consequences, but instead that there’s a quiet calm to that kind of setting which makes the arrival of disruptive forces all the more intense and chilling, creating the opportunity for a strong instance of a genre that’s hard to do well but very rewarding when it succeeds: the thriller.

In the film’s first scene, three employees at a bar are killed late one night by hitman Elwood (Christopher Abbott). Eager for payment, Elwood extends his stay in town to collect from one of the dead men’s widows, Lila (Imogen Poots), who hired him to kill just her husband. The other widow, Bernadette (Rosemarie DeWitt), continues the affair she was already having with Sam (Jon Bernthal), a former rodeo champ who just happens to be the owner of the motel where Elwood is staying, creating a web of connections that only serve to complicate matters as Elwood grows impatient waiting for money that Lila may not in the end have.

It’s easy to draw comparisons, as others already have, between this film and those made by the Coen brothers, though it’s worth noting that this film contains far less humor. There are brief moments that might produce a chuckle or two, but this is otherwise a fully serious drama featuring very flawed characters who are stuck in cycles of activity that they can’t seem to escape no matter how much – or little – they try. This film earns the classification of thriller thanks to an extraordinary command of suspense, differentiated from cheap scares thanks to purposeful cinematography and a very deliberate structuring of its more intense and breathless scenes.

This cast is truly top-notch, and all four of the main players get their chance to shine. Abbott is the one who appears to have received the best reviews for his excellent turn as the mostly asocial hitman who proactively strikes up a friendship with Sam, well-portrayed by Bernthal, far more subdued than in his energetic role on “The Walking Dead.” DeWitt and Poots are both great in supporting parts that function crucially on their own and in their interactions with the men in their lives, both their deceased husbands – Jonathan Tucker makes a mark in the first scene – and the ones they are left with after their deaths. This is a solid, enthralling thriller that represents the genre well and is surely one of the top Tribeca picks this year.


Talking Tribeca: Permission

I’ve had the pleasure of screening a number of selections from this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, which takes place April 19th-April 30th.

Directed by Brian Crano
Festival Screenings

There comes a point in any relationship that lasts for a long period of time that one or both parties wonder - if only for a fleeting moment - what it might like to be with someone else. When two people have only ever been with each other, the notion seems impossible, but, when pondered, can cast doubt on the viability of a relationship. As long as both parties agree they are happy, they usually move on, leaving the concept of a free pass just to see what being with someone else would be like as an ill-advised suggestion that no one should ever take seriously.

Will (Dan Stevens) is about to propose to his girlfriend Anna (Rebecca Hall) on her thirtieth birthday. They've been together forever, never really having dated anyone else, and he spends a good deal of time working on the brownstone that he's bought for the two of them. An alcohol-fueled question from Reece (Morgan Spector), the partner of Anna's brother, Hale (David Joseph Craig) inspires them to consider giving harmless sex with strangers a try, which threatens to turn into something else when they each meet someone where it might become more than just a sexual attraction.

“Permission” starts out as a more sophisticated version of “Hall Pass” (amusingly, Jason Sudeikis has a small part in this film), but with less infantile excitement. Both Anna and Will are reticent about beginning this journey, and Will is present when she meets her first choice, Dane (François Arnaud). When his selection, Lydia (Gina Gershon), is made without her knowledge, the problems start to emerge and this film leans towards drama when what was an awkward suggestion capable of producing plenty of comic moments – which it does – may have broader, more irreversible consequences for their previously impermeable relationship. A subplot involving Hale’s desire to have a baby, not shared by Reece, explores the further longevity of a relationship that seemed perfect at the outset.

Hall and Stevens are both young actors currently appearing in plenty of projects, with Hall starring in a number of independent films including last year’s “Christine” and Stevens following up on “Downton Abbey” with another TV show, “Legion.” They’re both more than suited for their roles, demonstrating a stagnant, stable romance that is elevated by the passion they experience with Dane and Lydia, portrayed wonderfully by Arnaud and Gershon. This movie is a comedy and also a cautionary tale of sorts, one that might be warning just as much that an experiment like this isn’t a smart idea as it is commenting that it’s important to have the big conversations to make sure both members of a couple are on the same page.


Monday, April 24, 2017

Talking Tribeca: Tilt

I’ve had the pleasure of screening a number of selections from this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, which takes place April 19th-April 30th.

Directed by Kasra Farahani
Festival Screenings

Broadly speaking, there are two types of films that deal with pregnancies. One is a comedy, romantic or not, that finds the time leading up to a baby’s birth presenting a handful of complications. Suitors may emerge for an unmarried woman over the course of the film, and usually there’s a happy ending. The other is a far darker kind of movie, one that presents a more terrifying vision of what’s to come with parenthood, something that expectant parents should almost certainly avoid at all costs. “Tilt,” screening as a Midnight selection at Tribeca, falls decidedly into the latter category.

Joe (Joseph Cross) is not a particularly fulfilled person. The struggling filmmaker’s one claim to fame is a project that received minimal funding several years earlier, and he is hard at work not getting far on his newest project, which explores capitalism and consumerism in America’s Golden Age. His wife Joanne (Alexia Rasmussen) is pregnant and initially supportive of her husband’s exploits until it becomes clear that he is becoming completely wrapped up in the negativity that comes from his subject matter and almost completely detached from his role as husband and future father.

There is something decidedly unsettling about experiencing Joe’s descent into paranoia and madness with footage of Donald Trump’s campaign speeches on the television and an only mildly more optimistic presentation of the possibility of American excellence. The eerie normalcy of it all makes it seem that this kind of thing could happen to anyone, though of course it’s important to remember that this horror film, which this reviewer might not have elected to watch given its genre had he read the film’s summary, is purposely classified into this genre because it represents a certain type of storytelling designed to highlight the evils that lurk within and the temptations outside that bring them in.

Cross, who delivered a breakout performance a decade ago in the comedy “Running with Scissors,” hands in a creepy, extraordinarily focused turn as a man so swept up in wanting to be able to say something about society that even he doesn’t seem interested in it any longer when he speaks about it to those his wife makes him share a dinner table with on occasion. Rasmussen frames the dismay with which she watches his transformation in a real and relatable way, making this disturbing and off-putting experience, that some will surely enjoy, even more skin-crawling.


Talking Tribeca: The Endless

I’ve had the pleasure of screening a number of selections from this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, which takes place April 19th-April 30th.

The Endless
Directed by Justin Benson and Aaron Moorehead
Festival Screenings

Cults are not known to be a particularly productive or positive part of society, and films about the subject almost never portray them in a good or affirming light. Groups assembling together to practice obsessive devotion to some deity or concept are often seen as dangerous if they don’t conform to established standards of normative religion, and, good or bad, legitimate or illegitimate, they can have the power to make people do just about anything. Worst of all, getting out once you’re in can be a difficult if impossible process since being part of something is an infectious feeling that often can’t be matched by anything else.

“The Endless” is the story of two brothers, Justin (Justin Benson) and Aaron (Aaron Moorehead), who were able to achieve an escape from what they term a “UFO death cult” at a young age and haven’t managed to do all that much since. When they receive a message in the mail that appears to be from the cult, they are drawn back in by an incredible curiosity. Aaron is quick to see and appreciate the charisma of leader Hal (Tate Ellington), Justin is less than willing to succumb and let go. As they navigate the perils of what they might be undertaking, they experience a number of events that lead them to believe that not everything about the cult may be crazy after all.

Benson and Moorehead have established themselves as independent filmmakers with a distinct style and vision with previous films at the Toronto International Film Festival and Tribeca, and their latest effort is certainly no exception. The casual nature with which the on-camera brothers interact and the simplicity of their conversations stand in stark contrast to the majestic, enormous nature of the world they are reentering. Once the film begins to venture into territory where it is presenting fantastical and seemingly supernatural evidence that can serve to back up some of the key tenets of the cult, it turns from an eerie drama into something altogether more haunting and chilling, reminiscent of the 2014 film “Coherence,” which also presents a strange and distorted version of reality that has managed to trap people within it with no hope of escape. This film doesn’t resound quite as much, but it’s an intriguing and unsettling exploration of what it means to give oneself over to a sense of inevitability and accept that any sense of normalcy or control is out of reach.


Sunday, April 23, 2017

Talking Tribeca: The Boy Downstairs

I’ve had the pleasure of screening a number of selections from this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, which takes place April 19th-April 30th.

The Boy Downstairs
Directed by Sophie Brooks
Festival Screenings

When a relationship ends, it’s pretty important for the people involved to move on. No one ever said that it was easy, and it often takes a long time for both parties to do so, regardless of whether the decision to split was mutual. In some cases, one person needs much more time to get past it, and a complete separation is usually necessary after a close, lengthy relationship before transforming the dynamic into a workable friendship is possible. One particularly unproductive step is the very unadvisable decision to move into the same building where an ex lives.

After spending two years in London, Diana (Zosia Mamet) returns to New York City, where she works in a wedding dress shop. Prior to her departure, Diana dated Ben (Matthew Shear), and used her international relocation as an excuse to end their relationship. When a realtor, Meg (Sarah Ramos), shows her an apartment building, she falls in love, and it’s only after all of her furniture is delivered that she delivers that her downstairs neighbor is none other than Ben, who just happens to have a new girlfriend: Meg.

Being a young adult and navigating the dating world is hard enough without the added pressure of running into your ex-boyfriend when you’re taking out the trash or heading out for work in the morning, and, as with any film of this sort, the temptation to rekindle what once was exists on an almost constant basis thanks to simple reminders of times shared together. Flashbacks tell the story of how Diana and Ben got together in the first place as their new experiences play out in the present, creating an effective double narrative that strengthens the identities of both characters.

Mamet is best known for playing the talkative, hyper Shoshanna on HBO’s very recently-wrapped “Girls.” There are similarities between Diana and Shoshanna, though the slightly less chatty Diana manages to handle the situation infinitely better than her TV counterpart would, still creating awkwardness at every turn but less as a result of things that she herself says. Mamet does great here, with stable support from Shear and a humorous supporting turn from Ramos, who played a much more understanding teenager on “Parenthood.” Aside from its clever premise, this decent comedy doesn’t offer many new ideas, but it’s a perfectly passable and entertaining showcase for Mamet tackling finding love in New York City from a slightly different angle.


Talking Tribeca: Aardvark

I’ve had the pleasure of screening a number of selections from this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, which takes place April 19th-April 30th.

Directed by Brian Shoaf
Festival Screenings

Mental illness is an extremely stigmatized issue in society, and those who, in plain terms, see and experience things that are not there are usually looked down upon or dismissed as crazy for their inability to perceive the world as others do. Social workers and mental health professionals, however, are not as quick to dismiss how they view the world as illegitimate, though figuring out the proper way to provide support can be a challenge. Conversations about what is and is not real can include moments of levity and humor, as expressed and portrayed in the decidedly odd “Aardvark,” from first-time director Brian Shoaf.

Emily (Jenny Slate) is a licensed social worker – she frequently points out that she is not a doctor – who meets an interesting new patient, Josh (Zachary Quinto). Josh has received many diagnoses and been prescribed numerous medications over the course of his adult life, none of which have helped him to come out of his shell and interact with people in a way that might be deemed normal. His larger-than-life actor brother Craig sends him money regularly, but since he has not visited in over a decade, Josh frequently believes that random people he meets are actually elaborate characters that Craig has constructed and assumed. When Craig (Jon Hamm) actually comes to town and begins a relationship with Emily, the line between what’s real and what’s right becomes increasingly blurred.

Slate is a wonderful young comedienne who has successfully taken on recurring TV roles on “House of Lies” and “Parks and Recreation,” and turned in breakout performances in Sundance hits “Obvious Child” and “Landline.” At the start, Emily seems to be an atypical character for her since she is in fact successful in her professional life and lacks the childish antics that the other people she has played possess. Yet as the film progresses it becomes clear that Slate is just the right actress for this part, a seemingly put-together woman who doesn’t actually know where she’s head. Quinto, who has done well in film after establishing himself on TV with “Heroes,” infuses passion and frustrated energy into Josh, whose interactions with a mysterious young woman (Sheila Vand) represent some of the most compelling moments of the film. Hamm is playing the same role he’s played in drama since finishing “Mad Men,” contributing ably but unspectacularly. While there’s plenty of intrigue to be found in this film, the way in which it refuses to truly differentiate between what’s real and what’s imaginary, perhaps in solidarity with its lead characters, proves more frustrating than fulfilling.


Saturday, April 22, 2017

Talking Tribeca: Abundant Acreage Available

I’ve had the pleasure of screening a number of selections from this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, which takes place April 19th-April 30th.

Abundant Acreage Available
Directed by Angus MacLachlan
Festival Screenings

Some people plant roots in the most literal sense. While there are those who move from home to home on a regular basis, left to answer the question of where they are from with a few qualifiers, others grow up in one place and never leave. Trips out of state are infrequent or even nonexistent, and death seems the only real possibility for relocation from the place they call home. When presented with the idea that others don’t view them as quite as tethered to their home and land as they thought, it’s fair to assume and expect a negative reaction.

Tracy (Amy Ryan) is deeply connected to the family farm that she lives on and runs with her brother Jesse (Terry Kinney). The death of their father has left them both struggling to move on, as Tracy buries his ashes in the dirt on their property and Jesse, who considers himself a deeply religious man, yearns for a more proper and official Christian burial. Their steady if unexciting lives are interrupted even more by the arrival of three brothers, Hans (Max Gail), Charles (Steve Coulter), and Tom (Francis Guinan), who pitch a tent to camp out on their land and then reveal that Tracy and Jesse’s father bought the farm from their father when they were children. Their unwillingness to leave strikes Tracy very poorly, while Jesse is motivated almost entirely by guilt to consider ceding the farm to what he considers to be its rightful owners.

This quiet film features only five performers and takes place entirely on the family farm as two very different sets of siblings, each with their own interpersonal dynamics built from the forty to fifty years of life that they’ve shared together. Ryan, who ten years ago was nominated for an Oscar for “Gone Baby Gone,” delivers a fiercely committed performance, complemented well by a less showy turn from Kinney, who was a great part of “Good Behavior” in a louder and more exaggerated role. Gail, Coulter, and Guinan make these three older men, who sleep each night cuddled up in a tent, dynamic and personable in their own ways. This film doesn’t reach any particularly stirring or satisfying conclusion, but it does serve as a solid look at what it means to be firmly linked to something less moveable and more permanent than just the people in your life.


Talking Tribeca: One Percent More Humid

I’ve had the pleasure of screening a number of selections from this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, which takes place April 19th-April 30th.

One Percent More Humid
Directed by Liz W. Garcia
Festival Screenings

The heat of summer can have truly transformational effects. The literal likelihood of people wearing less clothing as a result of rising temperatures is one such effect, and the psychological lowering of inhibitions can follow thanks to a frustration with what seems to be an increasing and never-ending wave of warmth. Films like “Do the Right Thing” and director Liz W. Garcia’s previous film, “The Lifeguard,” have used summer as a driving force, and “One Percent More Humid,” which includes a weather forecast of sorts in its title, takes it one step further, spotlighting two characters struggling to make their way through a sweltering season.

Iris (Juno Temple) and Catherine (Julia Garner) are good friends who have just been through a horrific accident that took the life of one of their friends, and they are decompressing during summer break in college. Time spent together out by the water pales in comparison to the illicit affairs that each of them pursues, Iris with her married college advisor Gerald (Alessandro Nivola) and Catherine with her late friend’s brother. Summer can’t last forever, and these two young women burrow deep into these fleeting relationships as they grow apart due to the secrets they’re keeping from each other.

This is the kind of film that feels like it should be at a festival like Tribeca, honing in on two talented actresses to star in a coming-of-age story of sorts. Both Temple and Garner have already delivered breakthrough performances – I remember Temple most in “Dirty Girl” though she’s appeared in plenty else, and Garner played Lily Tomlin’s granddaughter in the underrated “Grandma.” Yet they’re both in their twenties and have bright careers ahead of them, which may take them to the kind of strong supporting roles in independent films played by actors like Nivola and Maggie Siff, who plays Gerald’s wife.

Temple and Garner have different personalities, especially as portrayed here, making Iris the talkative, more outwardly flirtatious one, and Catherine the one able to blend into the background and often not noticed by those around her. They play off each other well, and Nivola and Siff offer dependable turns as full-grown adults who aren’t necessarily any more put-together than they are. This drama gets to know its characters well over the course of its runtime, making a definitive mark as an exploration of youth, passion, and the hand sometimes dealt to people by the universe.


Thursday, April 20, 2017

Jewcy Interview: The Zookeeper's Wife

I didn't have the chance to post a review when this film was released a few weeks ago, but please enjoy my interview with star Daniel Brühl from "Rush" and "Inglourious Basterds" and screenwriter Angela Workman. Head over to Jewcy to read the piece!

Friday, April 14, 2017

Movie with Abe: The Fate of the Furious

The Fate of the Furious
Directed by F. Gary Gray
Released April 14, 2017

It’s rare that a franchise is still going strong eight installments in. This series debuted sixteen years ago, went forward without one of its lead actors for films two and three, and is now charging along even after the death of its other lead actor. These films, which don’t jive at all with my usual cinematic tastes, deliver an adrenaline thrill that is equal parts awesome and ridiculous. There were enough moments to defy death, and logic, in the previous few installments, yet this movie, which represents a return to form after a weak seventh entry, goes even bigger in every possible way.

Trailers for this blockbuster showed signature character Dom (Vin Diesel) going rogue and betraying his team to ally with an evil hacker named Cipher (Charlize Theron). Fortunately, the film presents events in a narrative, linear form, and all that’s left up in the air is what leverage Cipher has to make Dom work with her, which is gradually revealed over the course of the action. It’s all hands on deck, with former enemies Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) and Deckard (Jason Statham) teaming up with Letty (Michelle Rodriguez), Tej (Ludacris), Roman (Tyrese Gibson), and Ramsey (Nathalie Emmanuel) to help government agents Mr. Nobody (Kurt Russell) and his new protege (Scott Eastwood) stop Cipher and take Dom down with her.

This film sets its tone definitively when, in the first scene, Dom is seen racing a car by driving it backwards while it’s completely on fire. Without spoiling some of the other great action scenes, it’s fair to say that this film thrives on purposeful excess. Why would anyone - hero or villain - take the easy route of using technology or skill to solve a problem in the most direct and obvious manner instead of putting on a big show just for the hell of it? That’s the motto of this film, which features even more spectacular destruction of cars and property, and makes the most of its stars’ physical strength and brawn to feature them using nothing more than their muscles in battle, which is only questionably more believable than many of the stunts pulled off in the film.

More than anything, this series continues to be about people who love driving fast cars. When Dom’s team is shown into a warehouse of cars seized from drug dealers, it’s as if they’re in heaven. When his car gets dinged, Dom shakes and reels in pain, as if one with it. The acting isn’t what’s important in this movie, though there’s a good deal of comic relief thanks in large part to Gibson and Johnson. The driving, the action, and the stunts are all great, and any plot holes are filled in by this film series’ commitment to making it all exciting. Though the absence of a post-credits scene gave me pause, I’m relieved to know that films nine and ten are already in the works, and I’m pumped.


Monday, April 10, 2017

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Friday, April 7, 2017

Movie with Abe: Colossal

Directed by Nacho Vigalondo
Released April 7, 2017

There are times when the actions of one person affect many. Someone with extreme influence has the power to make decrees that become laws, while others take matters into their own hands to make their voices heard through guerilla tactics designed to make noise. And then there are those who, through whatever bizarre circumstances, have an ability to affect people well beyond the scope of what should be possible. A creature with immense stature who literally towers over a populace is certainly capable of such disproportionate ability is about as representative an example as you can get of that.

Gloria (Anne Hathaway) is headed nowhere in life. Fired from her job and dismissed from their home for being out of control by her boyfriend Tim (Dan Stevens), she moves back home to upstate New York, where she runs into bar owner Oscar (Jason Sudeikis). After she begins working at his bar, Gloria starts to realize that she may be inexplicably responsible for the nightly appearance of a giant monster who terrorizes Seoul, South Korea. When Gloria discovers that she’s not the only one capable of this incredible transformation, she decides she must figure out a way to reverse this destructive course of action however she can.

There is no denying that this is a strange film. The way that Gloria first puts it together that she is somehow the monster above Seoul is when she sees video footage of the creature scratching its head in exactly the same manner that she does thanks to a nervous tic. There’s little in the way of scientific or even theoretical reasoning for how this is possible, yet figuring out why it’s happening is never in question, merely what to do with the power, especially as another seeks to use his newfound talent for his own amusement at the expense of the misery of others.

Hathaway is a polarizing talent, one who earned rave reviews for roles such as those in “Les Miserables” and “Rachel Getting Married.” This turn as an aimless screwup isn’t her best performance, and she never manages to transform Gloria into a compelling figure. Sudeikis, on the other hand, delivers a strangely dark turn as the initially likeable Oscar, showing great range in a film with a truly uneven tone. Director Nacho Vigalondo’s 2012 film “Extraterrestrial” is also an odd experiment of a film, but it’s one that feels like it has a purpose. This film, more often than not, just feels strange, and it’s hard to come out of it feeling fulfilled.


Wednesday, April 5, 2017

AFT Awards: Top 15 Scenes of the Year

This is a special category of the 10th Annual AFT Film Awards, my own personal choices for the best in film of each year and the best in television of each season. The AFT Film Awards include the traditional Oscar categories and a number of additional specific honors. These are my fifteen favorite scenes of the year, listed in alphabetical order by film title. Click here to see previous years of this category. Beware spoilers for these films.

Please note: The opening and ending of La La Land are easily two of the best scenes of the year, but I’ve already acknowledged them in those categories.

The introduction of Shia LaBeouf’s Jake is an entrancing moment, as he locks eyes with Sasha Lane’s Star near the checkout counters and proceeds to dance along to the words of “Yellow Diamonds,” climbing up on a counter to show Star just the ride she is in for over the next two and a half plus hours.

Star’s voyage across the country is filled with colorful, memorable moments, and none is more intoxicating than when she hops in the car with three men in cowboy hats and challenges herself to accomplish something that no one else will ever know she did just to show herself that she can.

It’s something about that song, and Riley Keough’s Krystal knows it. The energy of the film is well represented by the excitement all of the van inhabitants express when Krystal turns up the music as she pulls the van around to drop her salesmen off.

Amy Adams’ Louise has such a fascinating approach to interacting with the aliens, and it’s no more evident than in the first scene where she realizes that the squid ink shapes created by the aliens represent their version of language.

This Tribeca entry managed to do something exceptional in the way that it presented its alluring love interest, Breeda Wool’s Rayna, to Lola Kirke’s bored and malcontent Joey, exemplified best by a scene of passion set in the barn.

The film’s poster and token photo shows the sense of wonder present in this creative family drama, a humorous display of inappropriate color to best underline the unconventional nature of the Cash family when they show up to a funeral in normal society.

For the entirety of this film, Timothy Spall’s David Irving thinks that he’s in the right, and always perceives that he’s winning the case since what he can change the conversation to a specific question he seeks to prove or disprove at any moment. When the tide shifts, the look on his face, however fleeting and quickly replaced by stoicism, is extremely telling.

There’s a certain politeness to the way that the Howard brothers commit their bank robberies, and one of their earlier holdups is particularly representative of their Southern charm mixed with the deadly seriousness of what it is that they’re doing.

The extended shootout that populates the film’s second act is a marvelously-paced, suspenseful sequence that, like its slow-moving, calculating criminals, is in no rush to get anywhere and most intent on showing the quietness of the desert.

So many lines uttered by Julian Dennison’s Ricky are instant classics, thanks in no small part to his enthusiastic delivery. There’s something, however, about him being described as “a real bad egg” that takes the cake and sets the stage perfectly.

The sheer immense nature of Saroo’s journey as he travels so far from home is crucial to this film and its entire story, and seeing it all through a young boy’s eyes only makes it all the more daunting and effective.

My favorite movie of the year is filled with emotional, heart-wrenching moments, but nothing compares to the sight of a distraught Lee, played tremendously by Casey Affleck, grabbing a police officer’s gun in a moment of devastation, ready to end it all rather than go on living.

I enjoyed this film, which I saw at the Tribeca Film Festival last year, apparently more than a number of critics. What was most exciting was when the future famous footballer first debuted his fantastic footwork on the field, introducing a whole new revolution of daring and occasionally successful creativity into the game.

I still can’t get the terrifying “Brace! Brace! Brace!” being shouted by the flight attendants while the plane was going down out of my head. For all the times that this film almost showed what happened when the plane hit the water, there’s nothing more breathless and stirring than actually watching it in action.

In contrast to the high-pressure intensity of the moment, the simulations put on during the investigation are almost too easy. That’s what makes Sully’s challenging of the metrics, adding in a good deal of response time that accounts for the human factor, land in such a resonant and undeniable manner.