Friday, October 27, 2017

Movie with Abe: Novitiate

Directed by Margaret Betts
Released October 27, 2017

The devotion to faith of any kind requires a certain isolation from the outside world. How that manifests itself can vary greatly, and the training to become a religious figure can be arduous and challenging. Immersion into the Catholic faith, particularly the nunnery, is one process that involves a serious separation from what someone has previously experienced in a more social, secular existence. This new film complicates that journey with the backdrop of changing times in the Catholic church and how one young woman is transformed during her path to becoming a nun.

Cathleen Harris (Margaret Qualley) is sent to a Catholic school by her mother (Julianne Nicholson) when she receives an offer of full scholarship. When Cathleen expresses a love for God and an interest in becoming a nun, her mother is at a loss to understand what she might have done to inspire this choice. Cathleen’s experience as a postulant is shaped by a kindly mentor (Dianna Agron) and even more by the tyrannical rule of the Reverend Mother (Melissa Leo), who takes her vocation extremely seriously and resists the reforms put forth by Vatican II that seek to move the Church closer to modernity and away from practices some would decry as medieval and cruel.

The process of becoming a nun is presented as one that requires an enormous amount of self-sacrifice. There are many disturbing scenes in which the Mother Superior works to inspire devout behavior in her students through brutal methods that involve public humiliation and even physical violence. One particularly memorable scene finds her screaming the word “silence” and eviscerating one pupil simply for saying good morning during hours that are supposed to be filled with nothing but silence. Cathleen is someone who embarks on her spiritual path because she feels a connection with God, drawn to the convent because it means more to her than anything else, and therefore she comes in free of any perception that this life and the training to get there might be oppressive or unacceptable. She is not a rebel, but rather someone who endures hardship, all the while believing that she is on the right course with the right people guiding her there.

Qualley made her mark as a far more opinionated teen, also interacting with a domineering religion, on “The Leftovers,” and here she takes on a lead role with the proper subdued energy. While some lines, like shouts of “I love you, God” feel somewhat forced, the overall character is believable and important in framing her in contrast to her fellow candidates for the convent. Agron, who got her big break on “Glee,” stands out as someone who puts equal effort into being committed and kind, and Nicholson is typically excellent as the representative of life outside the Church. The real tour de force performance comes from Leo, who is terrifying and formidable as someone who believes she is doing God’s work and won’t let anyone – archbishop or postulant – tell her that she’s wrong. This film handles its subject matter respectfully and tells an interesting, involving tale in the process.


Thursday, October 26, 2017

Movie with Abe: Maya Dardel

Maya Dardel
Directed by Magdalena Zyzak and Zachary Cotler
Released October 27, 2017

Leaving a mark on the world is an important consideration for many people, especially those who consider themselves artists or writers. Fame can be fleeting, and once a person is gone, only their reputation and their work lives on for people to remember them. Choosing the moment at which one ends their life allows that person to determine, or at least contribute to, how people will recall them and what lasting impression they want to leave in their final days.

Maya Dardel (Lena Olin) is a famous and renowned poet and novelist living in Northern California. After she announces on National Public Radio that she plans to end her life and seeks male writers to compete to become the executor of her estate, she is visited by a number of men who are completely unprepared for what they encounter - a woman seeking control of what remains of her life and the people that she lets in to it. Through many lengthy conversations, and rather explicit sexual experiences, Maya takes what she wants from her applicants and shares only what she specifically selects with the new men vying for control of her legacy.

Some movies are defined by the action they contain or driven by their plot. This one relies almost entirely on dialogue. It’s reasonable to estimate that Olin speaks for a good three quarters of the film, going into detail about her perspective on something and what it means or chipping away at the intellect or skill of a man who has come hoping to impress her. At times, it’s difficult to stay engaged and follow what she’s saying, and the level of energy in the movie as a whole is extremely low. As a thought-provoking meditation on what success and fulfillment mean, this film has plenty to say, but it’s a subject that might be more suited as a play or even a one-woman show.

Olin is an Oscar-nominated actress from Sweden whose credits in America include “The Unbearable Lightness of Being,” “Enemies, A Love Story,” and the TV show “Alias.” She commands this role and this film, outperforming every person she shares scenes with and creating a memorable, complex, unlikeable protagonist almost bored with the mundanity of being alive. Relying on one actress to keep a film interesting for over 100 minutes is an arduous task, and this lackluster and unexciting film suffers from severely slow and directionless pacing. Its main character might be interesting, but unfortunately the movie really isn’t.


Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Jewcy Interviews: The Pirate Captain Toledano

I've been writing a lot for Jewcy lately, conducting some really cool interviews. Though I don't usually focus on short films, I did get the chance to screen "The Pirate Captain Toledano," which features Jewish pirates! My conversation with star Stephen DeCordova was pretty fascinating. Head over to Jewcy to read my interview!

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Jewcy Interviews: Aida's Secrets

The documentary "Aida's Secrets," which showcases the reunion of two seventy-year-old brothers separated at birth, opened this past Friday. I had the chance to chat with director Alon Schwarz for Jewcy. Head over to Jewcy to read my interview!

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Movie with Abe: Thy Father’s Chair (Capsule Review)

Thy Father’s Chair
Directed by Àlex Lora, Antonio Tibaldi
Released October 13, 2017

I’ve never seen the show “Hoarders,” but I have some idea of what it’s about and can imagine how each episode is structured. This documentary brings audiences into the lives of Abraham and Shraga, two Orthodox Jewish twins from Brooklyn who basically haven’t thrown anything away since their parents passed away. The arrival of a professional cleaning service, mandated by a tenant who refuses to pay rent until the conditions of the brothers’ apartment are improved, prompts the brothers to panic not because their home is being invaded by strangers but because it means their things will be disturbed and possibly discarded.

What’s most interesting about the focus on these two relatively antisocial men is their commitment to their religion. In the first scene, the concept of “shaimos” is explained in reference to books that must not be thrown away even if they’re infested, and later, one brother reads aloud from a megillah when they are told that they may not be able to save it. As their apartment is slowly transformed, they meditate on what life could have been like if their father had moved them to San Diego and they had not become observant, and they even ask the movers if they pray, revealing that they too doubt their faith sometimes. It’s a slow burn of a documentary that serves as more of an excerpt of their lives than anything, including several moments of alarm, like a report that their apartment had more roaches than a Manhattan restaurant, but otherwise not too much worth remembering despite the intriguing and undeniably original setup.


Friday, October 20, 2017

Movie with Abe: The Killing of a Sacred Deer

The Killing of a Sacred Deer
Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos
Released October 20, 2017

Yorgos Lanthimos is a Greek filmmaker whose two films to cross over to American audiences have left quite a distinct impression and an indication of his style. The first, “Dogtooth,” introduced three teenagers whose parents lied to them their entire lives, purposely educating them with wrong information and ensuring that they would never try to leave their home. The second, “The Lobster,” waded more into fantasy territory with its setting at a hotel where single adults check in to find a mate within a set period of time or be turned into an animal of their choice. His third breakthrough is something else altogether.

Steven Murphy (Colin Farrell) is a successful surgeon who lives in a nice house with his wife Anna (Nicole Kidman), his daughter Kim (Raffey Cassidy), and his son Bob (Sunny Suljic). As he develops a relationship with Martin (Barry Keoghan), the son of a man who died during surgery, Steven begins to invite Martin into his family’s life. As Martin starts spending more time with them and showing up more frequently, Steven pulls away, and soon after watches as both of his children become inexplicably ill, told by Martin that he can make it stop if he chooses a member of his family to sacrifice as penance for his father’s death.

Where his previous films required some suspension of disbelief to accept their universes as reality, this film sets itself in a relatively normal and unremarkable contemporary society, with just Martin’s seeming ability to inflict medically unmeasurable conditions upon others as the sole supernatural outlier. Just accepting it as legitimate isn’t easy, and the film suffers in a way Lanthimos’ past efforts haven’t as a result. This is also an undeniably disturbing and off-putting film, one whose events are difficult both to digest and to forget. The infusion of Lanthimos’ sinister humor only adds to the distasteful feeling it leaves.

Farrell was the star of “The Lobster,” and he and Kidman appeared together earlier this year in the only moderately more uplifting “The Beguiled.” Buried under a huge beard, Farrell is hard to like, and it’s even harder to emphasize with his increasingly horrifying situation. Kidman is far more sympathetic, and she’s matched well by a very creepy but focused performance from Keoghan, who had a much brighter role in this year’s “Dunkirk.” The dialogue is just as strange as it always in screenplays from Lanthimos and his writing partner Efthymis Filippou, and some of it seems truly random and unnecessary. This film has a foreboding feel from the start, shot in a dark, haunting way. This enthusiastic fan of Lanthimos’ other films didn’t find the same spark here, with an intriguing concept turning utterly unappealing and unfulfilling, needlessly and pointlessly creepy.


Thursday, October 19, 2017

Jewcy Interviews: Jungle

I had the privilege to speak with Yossi Ghinsberg, the real-life subject of the new film "Jungle," starring Daniel Radcliffe as the Israeli adventurer who survived for three weeks after being stranded alone in the Bolivian Amazon, and producer Dana Lustig earlier this week. Head over to Jewcy to read my interview!

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Movie with Abe: Battle of the Sexes

Battle of the Sexes
Directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris
Released September 29, 2017

Headlines over the past week or so have focused extensively on powerful producer Harvey Weinstein’s fall from grace as numerous accusations of sexual harassment and illicit sexual behavior have become public. Similar stories came to light during Trump’s campaign and continue to do so for far too many other men. While most decry this as completely unacceptable, there was a time when these kinds of accusations would have been almost unheard of, since sexism was so rampant and embroiled in American culture that women simply questioning their place at home or at work was thought of as asking for too much.

“Battle of the Sexes” dramatizes the much-publicized tennis competition between fifty-five-year-old male champion Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) and twenty-nine-year-old female champion Billie Jean King (Emma Stone), suggested by Riggs as a way of proving that he was the best women’s tennis player in the world. As Riggs struggled to remain relevant after retreating from his sports career, King was leading the fight for equality between men and women in tennis, emphasizing equal pay and respect. Navigating marital problems comes second for both Riggs and King, for whom the sport is everything – a chance for Riggs to show off and for King to hone her craft.

This is the third film from husband-wife directing duo Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, after “Little Miss Sunshine” and “Ruby Sparks.” After creating endearing comedies laced with dramatic poignancy, this more serious true story is enhanced considerably by its humorous framing. Much of what is said in the film, particularly by Riggs, is funny mostly because of the outrageous fact that it can be uttered publicly and vocally with no shame. The term “male chauvinist pig” is owned and repeated often by Riggs, who proudly seeks to remind women that their place is either in the kitchen or in the bedroom. King represents a wonderful antagonist for Riggs, showing her commitment to the sport through diligent practice for their match while Riggs goofs off, playing in costumes and with obstacles to show just how little he finds King a threat. To laugh at this might be difficult given the current state of our times, but it’s inspiring to see King fight so boldly and to know how this all plays out.

Stone, fresh off an Oscar win for “La La Land,” has found a fitting follow-up role which allows her to get into King’s skin, delivering an invested and heartfelt performance. Carell eases into portraying Riggs, eagerly recreating his unapologetic sexism and showmanship. The supporting cast is very well assembled, including Sarah Silverman as the women’s tennis manager, Natalie Morales as another player, Andrea Riseborough as a hairdresser with whom King forms an immediate connection, Alan Cumming as a gay fashion designer, Bill Pullman as a powerful advocate against gender equality in tennis, and Elisabeth Shue as Riggs’ wife. The costumes, art direction, editing and general feel of the film all make its 1970s setting engaging, and the script by Oscar winner Simon Beaufoy is full of great one-liners and strong dialogue. This cinematic version of a famous and culturally important tennis match is a great, fun film that feels good to watch too.


Monday, October 16, 2017

Movie with Abe: The Florida Project

The Florida Project
Directed by Sean Baker
Released October 6, 2017

In order to make a movie and have it be successful, you usually need a clear-cut premise. Having known stars can help too, since marketing is considerably easier if potential viewers can latch on to recognizable elements or an alluring plot. Every once in a while, however, there’s an independent film that deals very intimately with characters just living their lives. The reputation of a filmmaker and positive word-of-mouth buzz drives the ultimate reception of such a film, and “The Florida Project” is a knockout that’s hard to describe but makes an incredibly powerful and lasting impression.

Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) is a six-year-old who lives in a motel room in Orlando just outside Disney World with her unemployed and relatively unmotivated mother Halley (Bria Vinaite). She spends most of her days spitting on car windshields, compelling tourists to buy her ice cream, and causing trouble around the motel with her friends Jancey (Valeria Cotto) and Scooty (Christopher Rivera), who lives one floor down with his mother, Ashley (Mela Murder), who works at Waffle House and brings food out the back door for the kids and Halley to eat. As Moonee runs free around the motel and its surrounding area each day, manager Bobby (Willem Dafoe) tries his best to keep things in order, enforcing the roles while harboring a soft spot for the troublesome kids and for the always late-on-rent and rarely friendly Halley.

This film is a captivating experience which doesn’t quite show the world through the eyes of a child but instead follows a child who is allowed to run wild each and every day, expressing her curiosity and a certain maturity defined by foul language, rude behavior, and fierce friendship but lacking in life experience. While Ashley holds down her day job and brings home some money, Halley displays no such resolve, and therefore she acts however she feels in front of her daughter and anyone else with whom she crosses paths. Bobby works well as a stand-in of sorts for the audience, someone who sees what it is like for people who have essentially become permanent residents of the motel, legally required to stay elsewhere for a night each month, and also interacts with the world outside, including one effective scene in which he forcefully chases away a suspected pedophile who walks over to the children playing outside the motel.

This film evokes favorable comparisons to both “Beasts of the Southern Wild” and “American Honey,” allowing its very young female protagonist the spotlight to tremendous effect like the former and showcasing an underrepresented segment of the population that treats money and mobility in a fascinating way like the latter. Like those two films, this succeeds wondrously as a portrait of those who drive their own experiences and shape their own lives. Every cast member is terrific, and while Dafoe, the only known actor in the cast, is the one earning Oscar buzz, any one of them, especially the children, would be deserving. Sean Baker’s direction and Alexis Zabe’s cinematography contribute wonderfully to a film that never loses its focus and lives in each moment, whether it’s one that captures the poverty in which its characters live or the sheer joy they find in simple shenanigans. This is a fully engaging and immersive experience, a triumph for independent filmmaking that proves instantly memorable and immensely poignant.


Saturday, October 14, 2017

NYFF Spotlight: Wonder Wheel

I’m thrilled to be covering a number of selections from the 55th Annual New York Film Festival, which takes place September 28th-October 15th.

Wonder Wheel
Directed by Woody Allen
NYFF Closing Night

Woody Allen makes a lot of movies. Since his directorial debut in 1966, four-time Oscar winner Allen has churned out an average of a film almost every year. Recently, he’s been met with success less and less frequently, releasing just three hits – “Vicky Cristina Barcelona,” “Midnight in Paris,” and “Blue Jasmine” - in the past decade. There are certain staples in his films, beginning with a neurotic lead character whose perception of the world around them isn’t entirely accurate, and he spends more time in his native New York than anything else. His latest doesn’t always feel like an Allen production, but his mark is all over it.

Ginny (Kate Winslet) leads a less-than-exciting life as a waitress on Coney Island in the 1950s, married to alcoholic carousel operator Humpty (James Belushi) and raising a budding arsonist son from her first marriage. When Humpty’s adult daughter Carolina (Juno Temple) shows up, on the run from her mobster husband, Ginny finds any aspirations for greater happiness she had put on hold, with her husband investing more in his daughter’s career rehabilitation. Ginny’s affair with lifeguard Mickey (Justin Timberlake) serves as her only outlet, something she clings to for hopes of a better and more fulfilling life.

There’s no denying the instantly recognizable newer Allen archetype in Ginny, who constantly has a headache that never seems to go away and who makes grand speeches against things she didn’t like but never actually accepts productive suggested solutions. She’s most reminiscent of a more muted version of Cate Blanchett’s character from “Blue Jasmine,” though she advocates far less for herself and only occasionally lets those around her feel her true wrath since most of them are busy being angry enough on their own. The Coney Island setting makes sense for the “Annie Hall” auteur who claimed to have been brought up under a rollercoaster, and setting the film in the 1950s is a logical move given his recent forays into the past.

This marks the first collaboration for the four credited stars of this film with Allen, and each of them seems like a good fit to work with him. Belushi takes a backseat to Winslet since this is a more female-driven story, and Winslet delivers a fiercely committed performance (with one memorable scene in particular sure to be discussed) sure to drum up Oscar buzz, though it’s far from her best role. Temple is, as usual, wonderful, and it’s great to see making strong career decisions. Timberlake continues to diversify his acting choices, and he fits in just fine here, both with the script and the time period. As a film, there aren’t nearly enough instantly-classic insights delivered by any of the characters, and the story doesn’t resonate. This is far from Allen’s strongest film, offering a few funny lines but hardly a pleasant experience aside from that not removed enough to be considered an effective drama but instead an uneven effort.


Friday, October 13, 2017

NYFF Spotlight: Mudbound

I’m thrilled to be covering a number of selections from the 55th Annual New York Film Festival, which takes place September 28th-October 15th.

Directed by Dee Rees
NYFF Screenings

Race in America is and has always been a hot topic. The emancipation of the slaves in 1863 left two distinctly separate populations, and it took an entire century for desegregation and voting rights to be put into place. There are still many incidents of rampant racism that happen on a regular basis in the United States. That unfortunate reality makes a story about a time of extreme inequality that somehow seemed normal all the more relevant and important, and that’s just what director Dee Rees brings to the forefront in her adaptation of Hillary Jordan’s 2008 novel.

Mulligan stars in the film

Laura (Carey Mulligan) meets Henry McAllan (Jason Clarke) and the two begin a life together in the 1940s. Laura enjoys domestic life, but when Henry suddenly uproots them to move with his father (Jonathan Banks) to a rural Mississippi farm, Laura must adjust to a far more isolating situation. Hap (Rob Morgan) and Florence (Mary J. Blige) raise their family on the outskirts of Henry’s property, working in the fields and on the farm for the McAllans. When World War II ends, Henry’s brother Jamie (Garrett Hedlund) and Hap’s son Ronsel (Jason Mitchell) both return, bringing with them a shared experience that transcends the color of their skin, building a friendship that stands in stark contrast to their far less accepting family and neighbors.

Rees, Blige, Hedlund, Mitchell, Mulligan, Clarke, and Morgan discuss the film

At a press conference for the film, Rees explains that she wanted this to be “an old-fashioned film like they don’t make anymore,” where the audience can get invested in each character and the plot can be secondary. During filming, they worked in actual sharecroppers’ cabins, and the camera style was key to each of the characters and how they were photographed based on their relationships. Morgan describes the opportunity to be a part of this telling of history since, as he says, “we often see black people as slaves or during the civil rights era – we don’t really see the sharecropping era when they’re not quite free.” Rees speaks specifically of incorporating the n-word into the language, in a way that sounded normal and unremarkable in everyday conversation, as the white actors hated saying it and the black actors hated hearing it. Rees, who emphasizes having many women behind the camera, believes that “we can’t begin to tackle our past until we look at our personal histories. We’re not separate from our past; we are all actors in what we’re creating.”

Hedlund and Mitchell star in the film

This film is a testament to that notion, telling a story of intersecting personalities who are very much products of the time and space in which they live. The cast is strong, with Mitchell as the standout for his portrayal of a soldier who saw his skin color ignored and even loved in Europe only to return home to find it just as horrifically backward as he left it. Each actor is afforded the opportunity to shine and truly get to know their characters, who do, as Rees suggests, steer the story, which is engaging and uncomfortable, and at times extremely disturbing due to its showcase of the horrific violence exacted by white people and uncondemned by the general public. Rees has crafted a film that feels important and which shines a light on a not-too-distant collective memory that has largely been repressed.


Thursday, October 12, 2017

Movie with Abe: Stronger

Directed by David Gordon Green
Released September 29, 2017

Dramatizing traumatic events is never an easy task, and it’s one that requires extreme sensitivity. The closer it is to when it occurred, the more it will still be in the public memory, making seeing it happen on screen potentially painful and triggering. Treating a subject with respect and dignity, and an avoidance of gratuitous showboating, are paramount qualities to making a successful depiction of recent history that can function as both a fitting testament to the real people and a worthwhile cinematic product in its own right.

The 2013 Boston Marathon bombing has already been made into a movie, last year’s “Patriots Day,” which this reviewer didn’t see. This film focuses not on the manhunt for the perpetrators of the bombing but instead on one of its survivors, Jeff Bauman (Jake Gyllenhaal), who lost both of his legs while holding a sign at the finish line waiting for his ex-girlfriend Erin Hurley (Tatiana Maslany). “Stronger” chronicles Bauman’s road to recovery as he reconciles with Erin and contends with a constant push by his mother Patty (Miranda Richardson) to inspire others with his story while grappling with the difficult road ahead and horrific memories of the bombing that still haunt him.

This movie wisely chooses not to make the bombing its central focus, featuring it initially as perceived by Erin in the distance. Instead, it’s Bauman, his extended family, and his struggle to understand the meaning of the term “Boston Strong” that drive this film. Prior to losing his legs, Bauman was a very likeable but unreliable Costco employee, and seeing him cast into a role he was never prepared for is quite the powerful journey. This feels like a topic worth making a movie about, a story that deserves to be told and works quite well on screen.

Gyllenhaal may well earn his second Oscar nomination for his extremely effective performance as the affable Bauman, who upon waking up following his amputations, demonstrates his sense of humor by writing “Lieutenant Dan” on a piece of paper. Gyllenhaal puts all of himself into this performance, and he’s matched well by Maslany, beginning what’s sure to be a superb post-“Orphan Black” career. Richardson and Clancy Brown, as Bauman’s father, contribute well, as does the entire ensemble. This is an emotional, affecting film that paints a powerful picture of one man who was transformed by one irreversible event that came to define the city that showed its resilience in the aftermath.


Wednesday, October 11, 2017

NYFF Spotlight: Wonderstruck

I’m thrilled to be covering a number of selections from the 55th Annual New York Film Festival, which takes place September 28th-October 15th.

Directed by Todd Haynes
NYFF Centerpiece

Todd Haynes is a direct known for vivid, perceptive films that offer social commentary and usually look pretty great in the process. His three most well-known and recent films are “Carol,” “I’m Not There,” and “Far From Heaven,” all of which feature unconventional adult relationships and are set in the past. For his latest project, Haynes ditches the adult themes to make a film about and, in large part, for children. “Wonderstruck” tells an inventive, invigorating story of two children in different periods, both coping with a lack of hearing and searching for answers.

In 1977, Ben (Oakes Fegley) has just lost his mother (Michelle Williams) in a car accident, and after he loses his hearing when the phone he is holding is struck by lightning, he sets out on a bus from Minnesota to New York City with the hopes of finding the father that his mother repeatedly said she’d one day tell him about. In 1927, Rose (Millicent Simmonds), who is deaf, is less than eager to learn how to communicate in a conventional way and flees the Hoboken home she shares with her father (James Urbaniak) to find her actress mother (Julianne Moore) and explore New York City.

At a press conference for the film, Haynes discusses making this film for “an audience I never really address” and how it made him think of how much movies meant to him as a young person. He remembers that there were movies beyond his reach, something he believes is important to show kids to expose them to new and potentially incomprehensible ideas. This film deals a lot with museums and the way in which they seem infinitely larger to those of a young age, including Ben’s new friend Jamie (Jaden Michael), who has a secret hideout deep within the American Museum of Natural History that he shows Ben. Haynes acknowledges that it is a tribute to New York, which makes its selection as the centerpiece for the New York Film Festival all the more meaningful, and uses the reflection of space and time in the museums of New York to its compelling advantage.

The child actors in this film are nothing short of fantastic, and it’s very entertaining to hear them talk about how they acclimated to the roles. Michael notes his previous work on a TV show set in the 1970s, “The Get Down,” but says that playing a gangster is very different, and listening to music of the times helped him get into character. Simmonds, who is actually deaf, signed that she had to pretend not to know sign language, which provided its own challenges and opportunities. Joined by Moore and Tom Noonan, this ensemble proves to be a winning combination. While it seems to lack a clear direction during its first act, it finishes extremely strongly, and should leave viewers satisfied. Haynes’ new film may be free of passionate same-sex relationships, but this film does have a strong dramatic core emphasizing youth, family, and friendships.


Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Movie with Abe: The Beguiled

The Beguiled
Directed by Sofia Coppola
Released June 30, 2017 / October 10, 2017 (DVD)

Some directors churn out one film a year or even more frequently than that, and others take their time, waiting years between each project. The latter style tends to allow directors to establish styles and themes that become recognizable each time they make a film. Sofia Coppola is one such director, releasing her sixth feature film nineteen years after her debut. Her Oscar-winning “Lost in Translation” and the dreamlike “Somewhere” are particularly evocative of her unique cinematic touch. Her latest film, released just over three months ago in theaters and now already out on DVD, doesn’t measure up.

Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman) runs a school for girls in Virginia in 1864 with the support of teacher Edwina Morrow (Kirsten Dunst). Only five students remain as the Civil War takes its toll on the country, and things become sufficiently more exciting when Union Corporal John McBurney (Colin Farrell) is discovered wounded in the woods by one of the students. As the Confederate army passes by their school repeatedly, the seven women nurse McBurney back to health. As he tries to seduce many of them, he sets his sights on Edwina, while Martha and the others realize that his temper and his need for dominance have no place in their home.

Considering the lavish set decoration and Oscar-winning costume design of the excessive “Marie Antoinette,” it would be fair to assume that Coppola would at least surround her story with dazzling imagery. Unfortunately, much of this film feels terribly ordinary and unspectacular. Its production values are unremarkable, and they do nothing to amplify a surprisingly simple and uncomplex story. There just isn’t all that much here, despite the fact that the novel that serves as this film’s source material was also adapted into a 1971 film starring Clint Eastwood.

Kidman and Farrell, who also appear together in this fall’s “The Killing of a Sacred Deer,” turn in mildly unengaged performances that feel like they could have been much better given previous turns. Dunst is strong, as is Coppola regular Elle Fanning. Yet no one in this small ensemble proves to be too memorable, and what could have been a rich, gloomy experience of isolation manages to be little more than a less than enthralling movie. The Cannes Film Festival awarded its prestigious Palme d’Or to Coppola for this film, but it’s hard to see why they saw fit to compare this to her other work.


Monday, October 9, 2017

NYFF Spotlight: Lady Bird

I’m thrilled to be covering a number of selections from the 55th Annual New York Film Festival, which takes place September 28th-October 15th.

Lady Bird
Directed by Greta Gerwig
NYFF Screenings

Greta Gerwig is an actress who has starred in a number of movies over the past decade or so, earning a reputation as a darling of independent film. She is featured heavily in mumblecore films and has on several movies served as a co-writer, often partnering with boyfriend Noah Baumbach on films in which she starred and he directed. Recently, she has made a move towards more mainstream independent cinema with more serious roles in “20th Century Women” and “Jackie,” and now she’s back at the New York Film Festival with a movie that’s all her own as she steps fully behind the camera to make her directorial debut.

“Lady Bird” does not star Gerwig, but instead Saoirse Ronan, who plays Christine, a teenager living in Sacramento who prefers to be called Lady Bird. She yearns to break free from the often stifling grip of her mother Marion (Laurie Metcalf), and conspires with her out-of-work father Larry (Tracy Letts) to apply for financial aid from schools on the East Coast. Her Catholic high school experience is also severely affected by a desire for independence, self-expression, and sexual fulfillment that prove to be much more difficult to attain than she expects.

At a press conference for the film, Gerwig, who says that she never imagine herself in the film, based some aspects of the story on her own life growing up in Sacramento, and describes the movie as a love letter to the city delivered by someone who thinks she hates it. Gerwig addresses her process, explaining that she writes to figure out what a story is and the characters end up telling her what’s important to them. This film is particularly rooted in class, as Lady Bird constantly looks at others and thinks how good they have it, a comment on the statistic Gerwig cites that 95% of Americans self-identify as members of the middle class. This sharp and funny script has plenty to say about society and the way people interact, with age, religion, and environment all factored in.

Gerwig says that, after just two pages, she knew that Ronan was Lady Bird when they met and she began reading the script out loud at the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival. Ronan, already a two-time Oscar nominee at age 23, is formidable and fantastic as Lady Bird, making her instantly memorable and adjusting perfectly to Gerwig’s style, speaking lines that sound like they could be coming straight out of Gerwig’s mouth. The rest of the cast, led by a terrific Metcalf, is superb, with standout performances from Beanie Feldstein and Lucas Hedges as Lady Bird’s best friend and first boyfriend, respectively. There have been many high school movies made about teenagers reckoning with the world around them, and this one easily shoots to somewhere near the top, higher up or way above – depending on your perspective - the “middle class” of high school cinema.


Sunday, October 8, 2017

NYFF Spotlight: Voyeur

I’m thrilled to be covering a number of selections from the 55th Annual New York Film Festival, which takes place September 28th-October 15th.

Directed by Myles Kane and Josh Koury
NYFF Screenings

Even if there aren’t always two sides to every story, there are multiple ways of looking at something. People might decry a certain behavior that is not accepted by most in society, and the degrees to which it is deemed evil, villainous, or simply unusual can vary greatly. A man who buys a motel and designs the rooms so that he can watch guests from the ceiling in moments they believe are private definitely doesn’t fit into the definition of normal and socially acceptable, but this new documentary prepares an invigorating and surprisingly complex look at his take and his relationship with the journalist who shared his story with the public.

Gerald Foos owned a motel in Aurora, Colorado for a number of years between the 1960s and the 1990s and installed louvered vents so that he could spy on those staying in the rooms. The majority of what he saw were sexual interactions, but he also claims to have witnessed a murder in the 1980s that he says he reported to police. Though his guests were not aware that he was watching them, Foos did not keep his actions to himself, sharing them with his wife, to whom he introduced himself as a voyeur rather than a “Peeping Tom,” and with esteemed journalist Gay Talese, who wrote about him first in the New Yorker and then in a book called The Voyeur’s Motel.

This documentary is far brighter, less apologetic, and less creepy than this reviewer would have expected, featuring numerous interviews with Foos, now 82 years old, who eagerly shares some of his most vivid memories with a smile on his face. He discusses leaving things in the rooms, such as a pornographic magazine or a suitcase, to see how guests would react, and how after he saw someone selling drugs to kids, he went into the room and flushed the entire stash down the toilet. He says he believes that the statute of limitations has passed for any crimes he may have committed or witnessed, and though he is a bit strange, he’s far more intellectual and well-spoken than one might expect. His recorded response to the publication of the story is particularly fascinating since he seems to expect a more positive portrayal of his interesting life.

This is not simply Foos’ story, since Talese plays just as much of a role in the film. Hearing him talk about how he first met Foos and the things that he saw and heard is only the tip of the iceberg, since the path to publication of the book is equally interesting. When discrepancies in Gerald’s account begin to come out, Talese insists that he knows the motel is real since he was there and that is the meat of the story, not the specifics of when or where an isolated incident occurred. His relationship with this story is one of extreme investment, and its success is deeply tied with his own as an 84-year-old author with an incredible career behind him.

This wasn’t supposed to be the only film about Foos, with Steven Spielberg slated to produce an adaptation directed by Sam Mendes, which was scrapped when they found out that this film was already in the works. It is true that, as Mendes argued, this is a story perfectly fit to be told in documentary format, featuring extensive conversations with and between both Talese and Foos, and most memorably including several shots of Foos lifting off the top of a miniature reconstruction of a motel room in a very literal representation of his voyeurism. This film’s content is terrific, and the questions it raises about societal ethics, journalistic integrity, and the truth in an age where the term “fake news” is thrown around every day are well worth pondering.


Saturday, October 7, 2017

NYFF Spotlight: Four Sisters

I’m thrilled to be covering a number of selections from the 55th Annual New York Film Festival, which takes place September 28th-October 15th.

Head over to Jewcy to read my write-up on Claude Lanzmann's "Four Sisters" series and the one film, "The Hippocratic Oath," screened for press last week.

Friday, October 6, 2017

Movie with Abe: Una

Directed by Benedict Andrews
Released October 6, 2017

Childhood experiences can be very formative, especially those that not are not positive. People of a younger age cannot perceive the world the same way as those who have lived more years and been through much more, and their interpretation of a situation may be warped as a result. Surviving a sexual assault at a young age can have a profound, lasting effect on a person, and, not even addressing criminality or guilt, the adult involved will also surely have trouble putting it behind him or her, particularly if the deed is unmasked to the general public.

Una (Rooney Mara) is a young woman who arrives at a workplace looking for a man named Ray (Ben Mendelsohn). When Ray, who now goes by Pete, sees her, he panics, since she is from a part of his life that he has tried to forget and that no one else who works with knows exists. As he prepares to make an announcement of impending layoffs to his employees, he is confronted by Una, who pushes him to tell her why he left when they began a relationship when she was thirteen, for which he served time in jail after it came to light.

This is a film that features flashbacks to years earlier when Una was a teenager and Ray was the seemingly innocent next door neighbor, but most of the film takes place in the sprawling warehouse workspace where Una tracks him down. Their conversations serve as the core assets of the film, as they each attempt to reconcile what they experienced while responding to the other about their perspective of the situation. It’s no surprise that this dialogue-heavy movie is based on a play, “Blackbird,” from screenwriter David Harrower.

Mara is an actress who, at the young age of 32, has already earned two Oscar nominations, for “Carol” and “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” and this role is one where she dons an accent and puts herself out there, demanding an explanation for why her life was so affected by someone who, unlike her, knew what he was doing. Emmy winner Ben Mendelsohn, who has turned in fine film performances in “Animal Kingdom” and “Mississippi Grind,” is at his least villainous as a man attempting to atone for the bad choices he made earlier in life. On their own, this film’s scenes are strong, but woven together, they lack a certain directed coherence, making this film a captivating but ultimately unsatisfying look into their lives.


Thursday, October 5, 2017

Movie with Abe: Trafficked

Directed by Will Wallace
Released October 6, 2017

There are important issues that need to be brought to light, and while documentaries serve their purpose, they usually appeal to those already interested either in advocating for social justice. Dramatizing harrowing stories, whether literal adaptations or fictionalized representations, can be more effective since their narrative style is likely to reach a wider audience. The translation from nonfiction exposé to realized cinematic narrative isn’t always smooth or impressive, and in such cases it’s more worthwhile to focus on the greater story being told than to criticize the specific manner in which it has been done.

In this drama inspired if not entirely based on real people, three young women from very different backgrounds are kidnapped and sold into sex slavery. Sara (Kelly Washington) was taken from her American orphanage by a seemingly motherly figure (Ashley Judd), Amba (Alpa Banker) was abducted by a jealous suitor in India, and Mali (Jessica Obilom) has been sent around the world since being taken from Nigeria five years earlier. They face the harsh realities of being trapped in a horrifying, inescapable situation somewhere in Texas where they are subject to total and complete control by men who prey on their individuality and try to brainwash them into believing that they should get with the program in order to earn their freedom after they fulfill their “debt” of five hundred men.

It’s myths and untruths like that which make the experience of watching it vital and eye-opening. The casting of nice-looking, clean men as the worst abusers of women who regularly punch and hit them when they refuse to comply and the sight of men in suits and fancy clothes who come to have their way with them is surely not accidental, and Judd’s character is even more tuned into society, living in a nice home and driving a minivan. Anyone lucky enough to be watching this film from the comfort of a movie theater or their own home has it much better than these people do and should heed this wake-up call to the realities of what is going on in the world. The devastating statistic that human trafficking brings in more money each year than Google, Microsoft, Nike, and Starbucks combined is an incredible and utterly unbelievable figure that demands more stories like this be brought to public attention.

This particular film pales in comparison to its message. “Trafficked” is written by Harvard professor Siddharth Kara, who has done extensive research in this area, and the film also touches on organ, drug, and gun trafficking. The dialogue and the acting in this film are not of a very high caliber, but the story is immensely disturbing and its importance is not lost even if it’s very lacking in cinematic quality. Reading up on any of the organizations that have endorsed this film - The United Nations, CNN Freedom Project, Demand Abolition, Saving Innocence, and The Orphaned Starfish Foundation – is probably a better use of time than spending an hour and forty-five minutes watching this film.


Wednesday, October 4, 2017

NYFF Spotlight: The Square

I’m thrilled to be covering a number of selections from the 55th Annual New York Film Festival, which takes place September 28th-October 15th.

The Square
Directed by Ruben Östlund
NYFF Screenings

Filmmakers sometimes develop tendencies which make each of their works recognizable, endearing to some and infuriating to others. Token themes and styles can be honed in just one memorable film, and that can propel a director to success in his or her next project. “Force Majeure,” which follows the aftermath of a father and husband choosing to grab his phone and keys and run away when he thought death was imminent rather than protect his wife or children, deals with a seemingly minor life moment and its reverberating implications. That simpler family dramedy has now been expanded into something altogether grander with Ruben Östlund’s follow-up feature.

Christian (Claes Bang) is a curator at a Swedish art museum preparing to launch a new exhibit, a square in which everything within it is meant to be equal. One morning on his way to work, Christian, with the aid of a man he does not know, protects a woman running for help from another man, only to discover that his wallet and phone have been stolen. Able to trace the phone to a building but not to a specific apartment, Christian leaves a note demanding that the thief return his possessions in every mailbox. While he waits to see what will happen, Christian must deal with the unintended public relations consequences of both his work and his personal life.

Christian is a likeable protagonist, a successful man with a great career and two daughters who spend some of their time with him. Though he might have a more high-powered job than many viewers, he’s relatable, and the situation in which he finds himself could happen to anyone. And what he does as he tries to get his life back to normal, eager to regain his personal possessions, also feels genuine. Additional obstacles include a problematic live-performance exhibit that goes incredibly awry and an American journalist (Elisabeth Moss) who gets too attached after a one-night stand.

The appeal of this film, aside from its uncomfortably entertaining nature, is the social commentary it offers about being a good person and about treating others well. Just like “Force Majeure,” this film isn’t an altogether pleasant or focused experience, and not all the questions and ideas it raises are answered or even addressed, which proves frustrating. Bang is great, and Moss is particularly memorable in a lamentably small part. This film, which took home the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, is polarizing, as it means to be, and it’s a laborious journey that spans a staggering two and a half hours. If nothing else, this film accomplishes what it wants to: showcasing life as it sometimes happens, which isn’t always fun or affirming.


Tuesday, October 3, 2017

NYFF Spotlight: Let the Sun Shine In

I’m thrilled to be covering a number of selections from the 55th Annual New York Film Festival, which takes place September 28th-October 15th.

Let the Sun Shine In
Directed by Claire Denis
NYFF Screenings

Finding love can be a complicated and time-consuming task. People go about it different ways, in some cultures using matchmakers and setting people up to be together forever before they ever even meet. Dating apps and websites are very popular these days, and they use algorithms, formulas, and expressed traits to couple their users off. Regardless of the way in which people meet, finding common ground and staying together can be difficult, no matter how many times people have tried it before. The search for companionship and love has understandably been the subject of many films and will surely continue to be the case for many future projects as well.

Isabelle (Juliette Binoche) is an artist in Paris navigating the social scene and searching for the ideal romantic relationship. She has many partners, all of whom she finds appealing in some way but utterly off-putting in others. Among them are a married man (Xavier Beauvois), a young actor (Nicolas Duvauchelle), a hairdresser (Paul Blain), a very nice colleague (Alex Descas), and a fortune teller (Gérard Depardieu). None seem to stick, though Isabelle can’t seem to quit any of them in her pursuit of the one lasting fit.

To list the names of the men in this cast almost seems extraneous since this film is carried entirely by Binoche. The French actress, who won an Oscar twenty years ago for “The English Patient,” has been steadily working in international cinema over the past three decades. Here, she feels totally comfortable as a woman who can’t decide just what she wants and constantly sabotages her relationships with unreasonable expectations of each one of them. It’s a tour de force performance on par with many that Binoche has delivered in previous films.

At times, this feels like another Binoche film, “Certified Copy,” which presented its events in a way that made the truth and its ultimate direction unclear. That’s definitely true here, since these samplings of Isabelle’s love life are just fragments of her attempts to find herself. There isn’t a destination in mind other than the edges of the same circle. Most puzzlingly, this film offers up a full scene that plays over its ending credits, complete with dialogue, demonstrating that this film is meant to be a continuous story. It’s a bizarre and entirely unsatisfying way to end a story that bristles with occasional intrigue but doesn’t appear to be headed anywhere in particular.


Monday, October 2, 2017

NYFF Spotlight: The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)

I’m thrilled to be covering a number of selections from the 55th Annual New York Film Festival, which takes place September 28th-October 15th.

The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)
Directed by Noah Baumbach
NYFF Screenings

Family dynamics are always good fodder for cinema, especially when they’re complicated by a variety of factors. It’s hard to find all that many happily married adult film characters with happily married onscreen parents, and that’s because divorce and the effect it has on children both then and when they are older can be truly transformative. There’s a reason also that it happens a lot in comedy because, aside from the disruptive consequences of a martial split, the results it can produce do tend to be funny if framed in the right way.

To talk simply about divorce doesn’t do this film justice. Sculptor Harold Meyerowitz (Dustin Hoffman) has been married multiple times, and currently lives with Maureen (Emma Thompson), an eccentric woman who likes to make terrible-tasting, fancy dishes like shark for guests. Harold has three children, two from his first marriage and one from his second. Danny (Adam Sandler) is an out-of-work aspiring musician with a daughter of his own, Eliza (Grace Van Patten), headed for college, Jean (Elizabeth Marvel) is an odd bird who doesn’t interact much in social situations, and their half-brother Matthew (Ben Stiller) spends most of his time working and rarely visits his family. As Harold’s health declines, his children develop new relationships, both with each other and their father.

This film comes from writer-director Noah Baumbach, well-known for films like “Mistress America,” “Frances Ha,” “Greenberg,” and “The Squid and the Whale.” Harold in particular sounds like Jeff Daniels’ memorably obtuse character in the latter film, spewing off all of Baumbach’s signature dialogue as he gives his opinion on highfalutin ideals like art and culture. Hoffman is hilarious, to be sure, though all that he utters doesn’t feel entirely genuine. This represents a positive career step for Sandler, whose earlier forays into dramatic territory weren’t nearly as successful as this moderately serious but still fittingly comedic part. Stiller is also great, though the true revelations are Marvel, who never got such a chance to be funny on “House of Cards” and “Homeland,” and Van Patten, the youngest member of the cast whose aspiring filmmaker daughter is one of the film’s most curious elements.

This film’s title includes a clause in parentheses, indicating that these stories are not the complete representation of the Meyerowitz family. These are merely snapshots of a few moments in the adult lives of the three children, free of flashbacks and hardly definitive. These moments are extremely entertaining, full of humorous scenes, but the overall experience isn’t nearly as resounding or transformative as it seeks to be. This is typical Baumbach fare – inviting and intriguing, not interested in being satisfying or feeling entirely complete.


Sunday, October 1, 2017

Movie with Abe: Glory

Directed by Kristina Grozeva and Petar Valchanov
Released September 19 (DVD)

It’s rarely easy to do the right thing in an unexpected situation where a more self-serving choice would provide instant gratification and spare the need for follow-through. Finding a large sum of money that no one else knows exists is among the most literal examples, since taking it would be the simple decision as turning it over does not guarantee a reward, and certainly not one worth the same value. Yet people often have a desire to do what is right, regardless of the outcome, and in many cases their prize for being a good person is far less rich than taking the easy way out would have been.

Tzanko Petrov (Stefan Denolyubov) works as a railway trackman in Bulgaria, keeping mostly to himself. When he comes across an incredibly large sum, in cash, littered on the tracks, he calls the police to turn it in. Julia Staykova (Margita Gosheva), head of public relations for the transport ministry, decides to use Tzanko’s charitable decision as a publicity stunt, photographing Tzanko receiving a new watch and shaking hands with the minister. Yet the simple act of Tzanko’s family heirloom watch being lost in the process and the minister’s failure to acknowledge Tzanko’s attempts to make the railway more efficient by reporting on maleficence that has led to delayed paychecks leads to poor futures for both Tzanko and the workaholic Julia, who is trying to conceive a baby with her husband in between work phone calls.

This is the story of two people, both of whom live life alone in completely different ways. Tzanko interacts occasionally with those he works with, but he would prefer to stay home with his pet rabbits. He doesn’t care much about his appearance, allowing his beard to grow long and unkempt. Julia is constantly surrounded by people, be it those who report to her at work or her husband, but it never feels as if she is truly in the moment actually experiencing what is going on around her. When their paths cross, she refuses to give him the time of day, ignoring his repeated requests for his father’s watch back and setting in motion Tzanko’s efforts to be heard in a forum where people might be more willing to listen.

This Bulgarian film, which serves as the country’s official Oscar submission for Best Foreign Film this year, is not a fast-moving film. Its simple poster evokes memories of “Tell No One” and “Caché,” and its pace is similar to the latter film, pensive and in no rush to get anywhere, covering the banality of everyday life with few rewards for good behavior or proper decorum. This film serves as a strong commentary on what it means to be good in society, and what happens when no one cares to ask questions or listen to the answers. For those seeking a thriller with clear-cut developments and consequences to actions, this film may not be a great fit. For a more pensive look at ordinary people whose lives are transformed by one choice, this thoughtful drama should prove insightful.