Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Sundance with Abe: The Catcher Was a Spy

I’m thrilled to be attending and covering the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah for the fifth time. I’m seeing as many movies as I can each day and will post reviews of each as I can.


The Catcher Was a Spy
Directed by Ben Lewin
Premieres

For every fictional story created about history, like “Beirut,” there’s another that’s true and completely fascinating in itself. The ones set during a war most often involve unlikely odds in which someone completely unprepared for their circumstances goes in to achieve a daring mission where success seems almost impossible. How the story ends isn’t the most important factor since the mere fact that it was attempted is enough to create interest and tell a compelling tale about something that the public didn’t know about until much later.

Moe Berg (Paul Rudd) is a famous baseball catcher who joins the Office of Security Services during World War II, seeking to do something to give back to his country. He’s a particularly strong recruit, speaking nine languages and bearing few personal attachments, avoiding rumors of his homosexuality while refusing to treat his girlfriend as anything more than that. His intellect and skill make him the perfect fit to go overseas with a spy (Guy Pearce) and a physicist (Paul Giamatti) to track down Heisenberg (Mark Strong), the one man who may be able to help the Germans build a bomb.

This film establishes its intrigue at its very start, introducing Heisenberg and then stating that the United States sent a Jewish baseball player to assassinate him. This film is reminiscent in many ways of “The Monuments Men” in that it portrays a small, off-the-books mission in which a handful of people head straight into a war zone that seems to conveniently spare just them as they seek to carry out their orders and ignore the rest of the conflict. Nonetheless, Berg is an intriguing protagonist, one who excels at keeping his personal life private and uses that ability to his advantage in this new line of work.


Director Ben Lewin discusses the film

Rudd might not seem like the first choice to play this character given his mostly comedic background, but he turns out to be an ideal and effective fit, giving Berg a good amount of personality but ensuring that he holds back from truly revealing anything about himself except when he expressly wants to. Giamatti’s Dutch accent is questionable, and it’s Jeff Daniels who steals most of the scenes he’s in as a chief operative who speaks honestly at every opportunity even if it’s far from polite or gentle. This is a fine and involving film, though hardly the home run that this story could have been.

B

Sundance with Abe: A Futile and Stupid Gesture

I’m thrilled to be attending and covering the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah for the fifth time. I’m seeing as many movies as I can each day and will post reviews of each as I can.


A Futile and Stupid Gesture
Directed by David Wain
Premieres

In every generation, there are individual actors who have an influence on cinema, but also groups known more for their collective work than they may be on their own. In the late 1970s and the 1980s, National Lampoon was one such brand that, beginning with “Animal House,” came to define comedy. Their humor may not have been overly sophisticated, but it’s hard to deny that it could be very funny. As expected, exploring the origins of National Lampoon and everything that led up to the filming of the first movie proves enormously worthwhile, as is clear from the incredible talent assembled to star in the film.


Members of the cast and crew discuss the film

Doug Kenney (Will Forte) attends Harvard, where he immediately meets Henry Beard (Domhnall Gleeson), and the two begin working together on the Harvard Lampoon, the university’s humor magazine. When they graduate, Doug convinces Henry to postpone law school to create a spinoff publication. After convincing a publisher (Matt Walsh) to take a chance on them, Doug and Henry navigate a wild ride filled with drugs, controversial jokes, and every big name in comedy as they make their dreams come true.


David Wain and members of the cast discuss the film

Director David Wain is best known for the film “Wet Hot American Summer,” which exaggerates summer camp life into a cult classic. This film, while certainly absurd, is far more grounded in the comedy produced by National Lampoon as a magazine, and watching it portrayed on screen is endlessly entertaining. The structure is purposefully tongue-in-cheek, featuring Martin Mull as a self-described narrative device, anchoring the story and confessing when some casting decisions, like Joel McHale as Chevy Chase, should be excused since they’re well aware that they look nothing alike (and that star Will Forte isn’t 27).


Joel McHale, Emmy Rossum, and Domnhall Gleeson discuss the film

So many members of this talented cast, including Mull, Gleeson, Walsh, Elvy Yost, Thomas Lennon, Joel McHale, and Emmy Rossum, were on stage following the film’s premiere at Sundance this past Wednesday to discuss this hilarious movie. It’s truly amazing to see so many of today’s working comedians in this film, and the result is a resounding, laugh-out-loud film that never ceases to be amusing. Fortunately, there’s no need to wait for this one to be acquired or purchased for eventual release, since it’s available to watch on Netflix as of this past Friday. Even if you’re not a fan of National Lampoon, or familiar with their work, don’t waste any time in sitting down to watch and laugh at this movie.

B+

Sundance with Abe: Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind

I’m thrilled to be attending and covering the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah for the fifth time. I’m seeing as many movies as I can each day and will post reviews of each as I can.


Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind
Directed by Marina Zenovich
Doc Premieres

Robin Williams was an incredible performer, one who entertained so many and whose death by suicide at age 63 was met with such sadness by people around the world. His early career in cinema began on television with “Mork and Mindy,” and from there he went on to be taken more seriously in films like “Good Morning, Vietnam,” and the one that won him an Academy Award, “Good Will Hunting.” Throughout his life, he was known for being funny on set, rarely staying in character throughout an entire shoot or act if he found an opportunity to make those around him laugh.

This introduction sounds like a eulogy, and it’s certainly difficult to summarize Williams’ life and impact in just under two hours, let alone a paragraph. That’s what this documentary, from a director who has delved into California’s water system and Roman Polanski, does enormously effectively. It begins with Williams as a child, then a student, and then a stand-up comedian who could go for hours in front of an audience without holding any notes and with seemingly inexhaustible energy. The factors that led to his eventual suicide are also covered, with references to the way in which he would shut down and behave in private in between coming alive in every public moment.

This should not be considered a comprehensive review of Williams’ contributions to film, since some of his most iconic roles, like “Mrs. Doubtfire,” are barely covered at all. Instead, this is about Williams the person and his effect on comedy, not so much the entire industry but more as a personal vehicle for everything funny. This reviewer’s favorite routine, which finds Williams explaining the absurdity of the invention of golf, isn’t featured, but there are countless other routines that show just how much Williams could keep going without losing any steam, reading the crowd and having a great time cracking everyone up.

This film features some narration from Williams but chooses not to show him being interviewed in any of those moments, instead relying on clips of Williams goofing off during shoots and photographs from his childhood and adult life to illustrate who he really was. Serious interviews with the likes of Steve Martin and Billy Crystal demonstrate how well they knew Williams and understood that, while he may have been the funniest person they knew, he was also going through something deeper. As a tribute to Williams and his unparalleled knack for comedy, this documentary succeeds marvelously, and though it can’t hope to have all the answers, it presents everything in an honest, effective manner to construct a superb documentary.

B+

Sundance with Abe: Hearts Beat Loud

I’m thrilled to be attending and covering the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah for the fifth time. I’m seeing as many movies as I can each day and will post reviews of each as I can.


Hearts Beat Loud
Directed by Brett Haley
Premieres

Sometimes you just need a movie that’s set up for success. Its characters may be going through things, and how it will all turn out is uncertain, but there’s still a positive outlook that things can’t get so bad, since the place at which they’re starting is decent if not all that exciting. Such films are at risk of being boring if they don’t present any conflicts or obstacles, but a feel-good movie has the potential to be just as good as a serious drama any day if done right.

Frank (Nick Offerman) runs a record store in Brooklyn that isn’t doing well, and it’s not just because he refuses to talk to his less friendly customers. As his daughter Sam (Kiersey Clemons) prepares to go to college to study medicine, Frank reminds her how much fun they have jamming together, and when he hears her latest song, he realizes that they need to keep making music. After uploading their recording to Spotify, Frank prepares to shut down his store and hopefully start a band with his resistant daughter, a way of paying tribute to her musician mother, who was killed in a bicycle accident years earlier.

Offerman is well-known to TV audiences as gruff manager Ron Swanson from “Parks and Recreation,” and it’s nice to see him shed that personality to create the definition of a wannabe-cool dad who likes what he likes and wants his ambitious and driven daughter to stop doing her homework so that she can jam with him. Clemons, who also has TV experience, is wonderful opposite him, and the two feel like a true family, even though their outlook on the world is very different. Toni Collette and Sasha Lane are both lovely as the romantic influences in their lives.

This film’s plot is affirming and fun, with many jokes throughout, but what really makes it work is the music. Offerman and Clemons perform a number of songs, including the title track, and watching them make the music is only half the fun. This reviewer is particularly excited for an eventual soundtrack release since the songs are all terrific, and the performance of them on screen helps make the experience a delightful and energizing one. What could have been a decent, well-written comedy becomes something memorable and special thanks to both the acting and musical talent of its two leads.

B+

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Sundance with Abe: Sorry to Bother You

I’m thrilled to be attending and covering the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah for the fifth time. I’m seeing as many movies as I can each day and will post reviews of each as I can.


Sorry to Bother You
Directed by Boots Riley
U.S. Dramatic Competition

It’s easy to spot trends in filmmaking, especially at a festival like Sundance that features so many films with similar themes and with the same actors in them. “Get Out” was enormously influential at getting people to realize that the status of African-American people in today’s society is no joke, even if it did it in a way that some termed a comedy. If “Tyrel,” another U.S. Dramatic Competition entry that screened this year, is the literal, realistic interpretation of how things are, then “Sorry to Bother You” is the absurdist response that transforms the horror of “Get Out” into all-out craziness.

Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield), better known as Cass, is having serious money problems, and he manages to get a job as a telemarketer, where he’s advised by another African-American colleague (Danny Glover) to use his “white voice” to make more sales. It turns out that it’s a recipe for success, putting him on track to become a mysterious Power Caller, promoted to a top floor to sell top-tier products, and placing him at odds with unionizer Squeeze (Steven Yeun), his best friend (Jermaine Fowler), and his activist girlfriend (Tessa Thempson).

While the use of “white voice” is unsubtle commentary about how different people are perceived when saying the same things, that’s the least of this film’s exaggerations to make its point. The prominence of a company called Worry Free in which employees sign lifetime contracts to live and work for a corporation is the backdrop for a story about what it means to sign yourself over to something without any knowledge of where things might go from there. This wild universe includes far more sinister developments that Cash is shocked to discover and audiences surely will be too.


Star Tessa Thompson and director Boots Riley discuss the film

Stanfield, who himself uttered that infamous warning in “Get Out,” has multiple movies at Sundance this year, and this is the one that allows him to take on the main role and run wild with it. Though most of his sentences are uttered by David Cross and his white voice, it’s a formidable performance that shows Stanfield will have a long and productive career. Armie Hammer is well-cast as the conniving CEO of Worry Free, and Thompson is instantly unforgettable as a woman with personality whose earrings, different in every scene, reveal her true drive for social change. This film is a bit too unhinged to be truly effective, presenting a world that is so removed in its specific alterations from today’s, but like “Get Out,” shows a vision of how things could be to make a greater point about what’s going on in society.

B-

Slamdance Special: Pick of the Litter

I'm delighted to invite a guest reviewer, my wife, Arielle Friedtanzer, who got the chance to cover a film of particular interest to her at the Slamdance Film Festival.

Pick of the Litter
Directed by Dana Nachman and Don Hardy
Slamdance Special Screening


The dogs and humans featured on camera and behind it

When Movies With Abe gave me the opportunity to see this film, I jumped at the chance! A film about training guide dogs? I’d be crazy to say no! What I did not realize at the time was that in addition to having my first stab at attending a film festival as press, doing my first behind-the-scenes interview, and attending my first red carpet premiere, the film that I was getting to do all this for was not only beautifully made and poignantly crafted, but has the potential to make a difference in our world. Many films are created just for the sake of entertainment or pleasure, but this one captures the attention and the hearts of all who have the pleasure of seeing it, and is sure to leave audiences with a new perspective on the vision impaired community and their canine companions.


Arielle and Poppet, one of the stars of the film

Spotlighted as the opening night film for Slamdance, a film festival that rose from the ashes of Sundance rejections to become a “showcase for raw and innovative filmmaking - by filmmakers, for filmmakers,” “Pick of the Litter” was certainly a good pick as a touching, informative, entertaining crowd-pleaser. Watching it in a packed house (literally, I was sitting on the floor!), I realized that we were all aboard a roller coaster of emotions: suspense, excitement, joy, and even sadness. And at the end of the movie, I knew my life was better for having seen it - so much so that I saw it twice in one day! While several parts of the film tugged at the audience’s heartstrings and others were laugh-out-loud hilarious, everyone was engaged throughout the film, a true tribute to the brilliant cinematography, editing, score (by Helen Jane Long, a personal favorite of mine), and direction that went into it. And getting to watch five puppies grow up and embark on their individual journeys is an opportunity I don’t think I’ll ever have in my life, so I am grateful to have felt like I lived it from my seat.


The finale of the Puppy Parade on Main St. in Park City

And yet, I will likely never know what it feels like to be on this journey, to raise a puppy with the intended purpose of it becoming a guide dog, knowing all the while I will need to give it back despite how attached I become to it; or to imagine the trust that is involved in relying on a well-trained dog to be my eyes in the everyday world. This film gives audiences a glimpse into the world of the visually impaired, the vulnerability and dependence experienced by individuals who are expected to function fully in a world that is insensitive and ignorant to many of their needs. The dangers posed by vision impairment are all around us, and the presence of a guide dog in the life of a blind person offers them independence, dignity, and comfort in knowing they are cared for and protected. These four-legged friends become an extension of their owners, and it is through the meticulous and thoughtful training they undergo - from the moment they’re born through graduation - that allows them to offer the gift of sight, in addition to the love and companionship typical of pets.


Co-directors Don Hardy, Jr. and Dana Nachman

And speaking of friends, it took just moments sitting with co-directors, Dana Nachman and Don Hardy, Jr., each of whom worked in several other capacities on the film, to feel completely at-home. They immediately made me feel comfortable and welcome as they shared the inspiration behind the film, the impact they hoped it would have on audiences, and the insight they intended to bring to those within the guide dog community. This 81-minute sure crowd-pleaser, whittled down from around 300 hours of footage from 120 days of shooting, was intended for documentary and dog lovers alike, people with disabilities to families with children, and everyone in between. “I want people to not just think of it as a cute dog movie,” Nachman said. “I think there’s a lot of heft to it; it’s a people movie as much as it’s a dog movie.” Nachman and Hardy, Jr. hoped that their creation would be eye-opening for those involved in raising guide dogs, offering them a glimpse into the parts of the training they were not involved with, and Rebecca, one of the film’s veteran puppy raisers (raising eight guide dogs over the last decade) confirmed they had succeeded when, during the Q and A, she expressed her gratitude for getting to see how the puppies she raises are trained to become outstanding guide dogs. Nachman and Hardy, Jr. also wanted to educate sighted individuals of all ages, as they believe many of us could benefit from learning about vision impairment, but their passion and investment in sharing the gift of this film did not stop at the screen. These thoughtful and inclusive directors also premiered the film with the use of ActiVew, a software that allows vision impaired individuals to experience a film through audio descriptions of what is on screen.


Q and A with the amazing onscreen team

And yet, their thoughtfulness didn’t stop there! As executive producer Ian Reinhard said during my red carpet interview with him, “It’s nice to work with nice people, and the Guide Dogs people are nice people.” Well, so are those running the ship of “Pick of the Litter,” including Reinhard himself, who invited this very lucky first-time film critic to celebrate with their team after the premiere! Truly, every single person working on this film could not have been kinder, and I think that shines through both in the subject matter of the film, and in their excitement to share it with the world and raise awareness about the blind community. “The canine human connection is really pretty profound,” Nachman said, and this film really helps to bring that relationship to the foreground. (It doesn't hurt that all of their publicity materials include five very adorable dogs.) Hardy, Jr. agrees, ”“The cute dogs are what get you through the door, but then you really learn how much it takes, how many people it takes, and the struggles involved in really becoming a guide dog so hopefully the next time you see one walking down the street, you realize that's an incredible animal there that can do just amazing work.”

Sundance with Abe: Eighth Grade

I’m thrilled to be attending and covering the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah for the fifth time. I’m seeing as many movies as I can each day and will post reviews of each as I can.


Eighth Grade
Directed by Bo Burnham
U.S. Dramatic Competition

If high school is hard, middle school can be even worse. Kids are still developing, both physically and emotionally, and there’s the potential for a whole lot of heartbreak in mockery and broken friendships designed to boost social status. It’s infinitely worse now that middle schoolers have smart phones, something unimaginable for this reviewer who is still considered young by many. It’s a wonder that anyone even makes it past middle school, as explored by this humorous take on what it’s like to go unnoticed in eighth grade.

Kayla (Elsie Fisher) is very talkative – but only at home. She hosts a video series in which she shares some of the things she’s learned in life, but doesn’t manage to put most of those into practice when she goes to school. Glued to her smartphone and addicted to social media, she doesn’t have much human contact aside from her clueless single father (Josh Hamilton). When she meets a high school mentor (Emily Robinson) who actually shows an interest in her, she begins to slowly incorporate some of the wisdom she relays to anonymous followers into the way she interacts with others.

This is a funny, endearing take on what it’s like to be in middle school. There are no “mean girls” or other cruel individuals seeking to ruin Kayla’s life, merely girls who won’t even look up from their phones when she speaks to them and boys only interested in seeing racy pictures or being offered sexual favors. Kayla fits in so well to this film’s universe, as someone at risk of never being seen by those she actually wants to see her, since her well-meaning dad keeps a very close eye on her, much to her frustration and embarrassment.

Fisher is great as Kayla, giving her a silent confidence that allows her to be brave in isolated situations and to sink into a shell of herself in others. She’s a wonderful protagonist, one who helps this harmless, entertaining film to work so well. What happens to her is often humorous, and it’s her reactions that make everything all the more worthwhile. It’s nice to see a movie about how awkward eighth grade can be without featuring anything truly horrible happening, and that’s one of the reasons that this directorial debut from Bo Burnham seems to have been received so warmly by wide audiences at Sundance.

B+

Sundance with Abe: A Kid Like Jake

I’m thrilled to be attending and covering the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah for the fifth time. I’m seeing as many movies as I can each day and will post reviews of each as I can.


A Kid Like Jake
Directed by Silas Howard
Premieres

It’s always worth nothing when a character’s name is included in the title of a film but isn’t featured extensively within it. “Rachel Getting Married,” for instance, centers far more on her sister’s attendance at her wedding than on Rachel herself. That doesn’t mean that the title-referenced character is unimportant, but merely that someone else’s experience has a big effect on her life, or the other way around. “A Kid Like Jake,” adapted from the 2013 play of the same name that doesn’t feature the kid at all, is much more about how Jake’s parents must confront the world for him than how he himself greets it.

Alex (Claire Danes) and Greg (Jim Parsons) are the parents of Jake (Leo James Davis), a four-year-old who likes to dress up as in princess costumes and isn’t into many of the childhood interests traditionally favored by young boys. As his parents begin the preschool application process, they are encouraged to describe what makes Jake special. Greg seems concerned that Jake is acting out because his behavior doesn’t conform with that of his peers and he may be realizing that, while Alex hits back at the notion that there is something wrong which must be addressed about her son.


Octavia Spencer, Claire Danes, Jim Parsons, Leo James Davis, and Silas Howard discuss the film

This is a very timely film, one that trans director Silas Howard said he was proud to make, about someone who can’t easily be defined in an age where being different is okay and becoming far more normalized. Yet there’s still a difficulty in understanding how to go about it, since Greg’s assertion that his son should see someone doesn’t indicate that he believes that his son’s behavior is unacceptable or out of the ordinary, but merely that it should be discussed so that he can feel at home in his life, while Alex believes that addressing it in such a manner creates a stigma that could have irreparable and unnecessary effects on her son’s self-confidence.


Actress Amy Landecker discusses the film

Danes and Parsons, both Emmy winners known for extremely different TV work on “Homeland” and “The Big Bang Theory,” respectively, come together for effective turns as married partners who see eye-to-eye on almost everything save for how to approach their son’s behavior. Supporting performances from Priyanka Chopra, Octavia Spencer, Amy Landecker, and the young Davis himself, who has a similar real-life story, all contribute to a well-positioned cast to bring this story to life. This is not an easy film, but it’s one that addresses an important subject in the only real way possible, to show people struggling with how to make sure that, above all, their son feels loved and accepted for who he is.

B+

Monday, January 29, 2018

Sundance with Abe: Puzzle

I’m thrilled to be attending and covering the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah for the fifth time. I’m seeing as many movies as I can each day and will post reviews of each as I can.


Puzzle
Directed by Marc Turtletaub
Premieres

Main characters in a film usually start out one of two days: either they’re really living, or they’re letting life happen to them. Those who fall into the latter category may be perfectly happy doing what they’re doing, but it’s all in service of what they believe their place in life to be, devoid of any investment in their own fulfillment and achievement of something greater. If they begin in such a position, it’s unlikely that they’ll stay that way throughout the film, due to the arrival of an unexpected discovery or force that propels them, at least temporarily, on a new path.

Agnes (Kelly Macdonald) is first seen keeping mostly to herself and bringing out a birthday cake to a group of partygoers – who it turns out are there to celebrate her own birthday. The Connecticut housewife lives to please her two sons and the husband (David Denman) who fails to recognize just how much he leans on her and refuses to consider that she might want to do anything on her own. When she quickly assembles a puzzle given to her as a birthday present, she realizes she has a knack for something and begins working with an egotistical professional puzzler, Robert (Irrfan Khan), in New York City who opens her eyes to some of what she’s been missing with her head down at home in the suburbs.

This is not a grand film about the world’s greatest puzzling champion who broke world records and achieved fame. Instead, it’s a quieter, humorous story about a woman who happens to be good at a hobby that she never thought much about and begins to work up the courage to stand up for herself and her independence as a result. Her meetings with Robert begin with puzzling techniques but go much deeper, allowing her to be listened to by someone for the first time in her life. That transformation is worthwhile in itself, and serves as the anchor of an otherwise decent if not entirely memorable film.


Kelly Macdonald, David Denman, and Irrfan Khan discuss the film

Scottish actress Kelly Macdonald, best known for her role on “Boardwalk Empire,” doesn’t usually get the lead part, and, as director Marc Turtletaub pointed out, is particularly refreshing as an over-forty actress given the full spotlight in this film. She delivers a wonderful, endearing performance, complemented nicely by Khan, who’s clearly having fun, and Denman, who plays dull and despicable very well. This film is fun and light, and though it doesn’t manage to achieve the dramatic potency it wishes too, it’s likely to put a smile on any viewer’s face.

B

Sundance with Abe: Damsel

I’m thrilled to be attending and covering the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah for the fifth time. I’m seeing as many movies as I can each day and will post reviews of each as I can.


Damsel
Directed by David and Nathan Zellner
Premieres

The American Old West was a vast landscape ripe for storytelling, since lawlessness prevailed and people were constantly traveling as the country was developed and expanded. The Western film genre is one that emphasized gunfights and cowboys, telling stories of good versus evil and unlikely outsiders taking on cruel institutions. There’s been no shortage recently of attempts to reinvent the genre and revisit some of its most common tropes, and, if nothing else, one recent effort, “Damsel” is different.

Samuel Alabaster (Robert Pattinson) is a man in love. He seeks out the dilapidated Parson Henry (David Zellner), who spends much of his time passed out with a bottle in his hand, to help him find his kidnapped Penelope (Mia Wasikowska) and marry them after he kills the evil Rufus Cornell (Nathan Zellner). As Samuel demonstrates that he is not the type of man used to gunfights or any real outlaw living, surprising information is revealed that shows that the situation is not at all what it seems, much to the bewilderment of the eternally flummoxed Henry, who has gotten himself in way over his head.

It’s difficult to say much more about this film without revealing its plot details, which serve as its sole real defensible asset. This film starts out as an intriguing look at a man not really fit for the West, who responds to insults about his lack of a manly drink choice by confirming that his stomach is weak and smiling far too much at everyone around him. Once things take a turn and Henry becomes the stand-in for the audience and their surprise, this film goes off the rails, delving far too deep into humor that isn’t all that funny and makes this into a very silly and unappealing experience.


Stars Robert Pattinson and Mia Wasikwoska discuss the film

Regardless of the roles that they’ve been given, Pattison and Wasikowska are still good performers who do their best to make Samuel and Penelope into vivid protagonists, which they certainly are. It’s not their fault entirely that the film’s plot takes them in an unfortunate direction, focusing far too much on these director brothers as actors in a story that just isn’t interesting or entertaining. For a while at the start, it feels like it might be going somewhere, but it’s soon clear that, where this film is headed, there’s no good reason for the audience to follow.

C-

Sundance with Abe: Never Goin’ Back

I’m thrilled to be attending and covering the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah for the fifth time. I’m seeing as many movies as I can each day and will post reviews of each as I can.


Never Goin’ Back
Directed by Augustine Frizzell
Midnight

The teenage years are often the most memorable part of a person’s life, and how that time plays out can be completely different based on location, socioeconomic status, family structure, and so much more. For those without parents who provide a stabilizing force, it can be a time when they try out the world as adults, exposed to consequences that haven’t been there before and limited by little other than their own imaginations, opening the door to experiences with the potential to get them into plenty of trouble.

Angela (Maia Mitchell) and Jessie (Cami Morrone) are high school dropouts living in small-town Texas, and they couldn’t be more bored by life. Living together as best friends is the only thing that gets them through working at a diner and trying to come up with the money to pay their rent. When Angela buys a trip to the beaches of Galveston as an eighteenth birthday present for Jessie, things begin to spiral out of control as they contend with unexpected factors that put their jobs in jeopardy and lead to considerable antics that, if nothing else, keep them entertained.


Stars Maia Mitchell and Cami Morrone discuss the film

Director Augustine Frizzell describes this film as semi-autobiographical, referencing cocaine-snorting races and attempted robberies of sandwich shops as real-life events that inspired these two main characters, who are amalgamations of her and her teenage best friend. Frizzell, who couldn’t stop smiling and laughing after the film showed at Sundance, was excited to tell this story, which is primarily fun and hilarious, framing these two relatively unmotivated girls as having low aims and hard shells, determined to make their mark on a world that really doesn’t care about them.


Director Augustine Frizzell discusses the film

Both Mitchell and Morrone are excellent, and they play so well off each other that a festival programmer’s wish for this to be the first of a series of “Goin’ Back” films should be taken seriously. Supporting cast members Kyle Mooney, Joel Allen, Matthew Holcomb, and Kendal Smith are also terrific as the questionable male influences in these girls’ lives. Frizzell’s script is very funny and fresh, full of humor that manages to be feel original and lively even if some of it has been explored in other projects before. This is easily the most entertaining and enjoyable film that this reviewer saw at Sundance this year, full of promise for this debut director and its two superb young stars.

A-

Sundance with Abe: You Were Never Really Here

I’m thrilled to be attending and covering the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah for the fifth time. I’m seeing as many movies as I can each day and will post reviews of each as I can.


You Were Never Really Here
Directed by Lynne Ramsay
Spotlight

Hitmen and assassins tend to be popular film subjects. For some reason, those hired to kill other people turn out to be complicated, worthwhile protagonists, at least on screen. A crisis of conscience is often involved as some target they are hired to take out conflicts with the moral code they have written for themselves, and some form of redemption, even if it precedes death, usually occurs before the end credits roll. Not all such films are created equally, and some contain a particular mark left by the filmmaker.

Joe (Joaquin Phoenix) is the definition of cool under pressure, rarely letting himself get disrupted in the middle of a job, thanks largely to the almost senseless wielding of his hammer that allows him to take out anyone who might get in his way as he seeks out whoever it is that he has been hired to kill. When he is hired to bring back a senator’s abducted daughter, he discovers a far darker web of evil that affects everyone he cares about in his life, sending him on the warpath to avenge those he has lost and free those innocent victims who still remain in danger.

This film makes considerably more sense in context, knowing that Ramsay’s previous feature was the deeply disturbing “We Need to Talk About Kevin,” which told the story of a mother and her tempestuous relationship with her son, who kills a number of his classmates and family members. This film’s protagonist kills to make a living rather than because he feels compelled to by whatever demons exist within him, though it’s likely that Joe is driven in part by the feeling he gets from taking out the trash, which is what propels him fully once he comes to understand the horrific situation in which he finds himself.

Phoenix, the subject of a documentary called “I’m Still Here,” which has nothing to do with this film despite their similar titles, has delivered strong performances in the past and also stars in another Sundance entry this year, “Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot.” Here, he shows that he’s a proper choice for the role, but the character isn’t as enticing as the film tries to convey. That goes for the film as a whole, which serves as a lackluster sibling of “Cold in July,” living in darkness and trying to find some light that can’t really guide it anywhere compelling.

B-

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Sundance with Abe: Beirut

I’m thrilled to be attending and covering the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah for the fifth time. I’m seeing as many movies as I can each day and will post reviews of each as I can.


Beirut
Directed by Brad Anderson
Premieres

Covert operations can make for great films – the only problem is that they’re often classified. As a result, fictionalized stories based in some part on true events are often created. They may be subject to criticism for broadly painting a situation or the people involved, or for trying to boil down a years-long conflict into one personal dynamic representative of the whole thing. One way in which they do usually succeed is in being cinematic, and that’s the case in this large-scale fictional thriller from an unexpected director known for making small independent films.

Mason Skiles (Jon Hamm) is a gregarious and efficient U.S. diplomat stationed in Beirut in 1972. When his wife is killed following a terrorist attack designed to free a young Palestinian boy, Karim, that he has come to know and love, he returns to the United States and opens a legal practice. A decade later, he is summoned back to war-torn Beirut to help negotiate the release of a former colleague and top operative (Mark Pellegrino) whose captors have said they will speak only to him. Working with a few agency officials (Rosamund Pike, Shea Whigham, and Dean Norris) who have doubts about whether this man can accomplish what they need him to do, Skiles must use his knowledge of the area and his personal connections to ensure that everything plays out in a way that will both please the government and save his friend.

Anderson’s previous Sundance premieres have included “The Machinist” and “Transsiberian,” quieter thrillers in remote settings featuring isolated protagonists. This is a far more ambitious effort, utilizing a large cast to tell the story of one diplomat with the skills to talk his way out of situations and to understand how each piece of the puzzle fits. Bringing in Israel and using its role in this fictional plot as a catalyst for the outbreak of the 1982 Lebanon War politicizes this project in a big way, and at least one Israeli actor (Alon Aboutboul) is actually featured, though the filmmakers were questioned at Sundance about whether any of them had ever been to Beirut, which they had not. Just as this story is not true to life, this film does its best to recreate something that those behind it can’t fully comprehend since they weren’t there and haven’t gone.


Star Jon Hamm, director Brad Anderson, and screenwriter Tony Gilroy discuss the film

After working with actors like Christian Bale and Woody Harrelson, Anderson knows just how to use a completely different personality – Hamm – to tremendous effect. The gregarious actor, who enthusiastically greeted the audience when he came out on stage for the Q and A following the film’s premiere at Sundance, is just the right actor to play the wounded Skiles, who still remains the best and only man for the job. An unrecognizable Norris stands out in the supporting cast for his committed role as a hard-line operative, and Whigham is dependable as usual. This film is fully engaging and enthralling, doing its best to showcase a greater conflict through this illustrative example. It doesn’t work fully, but it’s a solid film.

B

Sundance with Abe: Arizona

I’m thrilled to be attending and covering the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah for the fifth time. I’m seeing as many movies as I can each day and will post reviews of each as I can.


Arizona
Directed by Jonathan Waston
Midnight

There are some actors for whom a plot isn’t even really necessary since they can work with whatever material they’re given. Danny McBride, who was first truly memorable in a supporting role in “Pineapple Express,” is just such an actor. He has successfully headlined two TV series, “Eastbound and Down” and “Vice Principals,” and shown that he’s ultimately going to play a similar character in all of them, one who effortlessly carries the entire project with his signature foul-mouthed excessiveness. He’s the perfect person to star in one of the Sundance Film Festival’s Midnight section hits.

Cassie (Rosemarie DeWitt) is a realtor in rural 2009 Arizona, where the housing market has taken a complete downturn and she barely does any business. When Sonny (Danny McBride), arrives at her office to confront her boss (Seth Rogen) for selling him a worthless home he can’t afford, a fatal scuffle ensues and Cassie finds herself kidnapped by Sonny, who continues to try to cover his tracks as things get worse and worse. Cassie fights for her life as Sonny causes more collateral damage, bringing her daughter (Lolli Sorenson), ex-husband (Luke Wilson), and his new girlfriend (Elizabeth Gillies) into this crazy and unpredictable mess.

Many of the films playing in the Midnight category at Sundance are horror films, and while this one does contain some horrifying moments and its share of gore, it’s primarily a comedy. Sonny is so driven by his desire to cover up something that probably could have been explained away as an accident that he taps into his rage and hatred toward the world and society to commit a ridiculous number of subsequent crimes which he can’t possibly walk back. Cassie just wants to survive, even though, as she’ll admit, there isn’t much she likes about her life except for her daughter.

McBride delivers expectedly and fully, making Sonny into a villain driven purely by impulse, hilariously pointing himself out in a family photo to Cassie while wearing a mask and always thinking just to the next step of his hastily-hatched plan and not beyond. DeWitt is a great lead, playing a role she doesn’t usually play, with some fantastic assistance from the entire cast, including Kaitlin Olson as Sonny’s angry ex-wife and particularly the underrated Gillies. This film is great fun for the 85 minutes that it lasts, making good on exactly what it sets out to be.

B+

Sundance with Abe: Madeline’s Madeline

I’m thrilled to be attending and covering the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah for the fifth time. I’m seeing as many movies as I can each day and will post reviews of each as I can.


Madeline’s Madeline
Directed by Josephine Decker
NEXT

Weird can sometimes be good, but weird is always weird. Plenty of films are experimental and choose novel approaches for how to tell a story on screen. That can have an appeal, and it can just as easily be off-putting and fail to attract an audience. When the content – and the story within a story – is what’s strange, it’s the responsibility of the film to find a way to frame it and make it interesting. It’s worked numerous times in the past, but unfortunately this film is a poor example of how to present a wild and unusual plot.

Madeline (Helena Howard) has found something that she likes to do: theater. Encouraged to indulge her odder thoughts and draw on her history for her inspiration by her theater director Evangeline (Molly Parker), she uses it as an opportunity to escape the confines of her everyday life in which her mother (Miranda July) never ceases to irk her, prompting unfriendly responses and creating a strained relationship between them. As Evangeline pushes her more and more to open up, reconciling her work on stage and her life at home becomes increasingly difficult as her behaviors begin to merge.

There is evidently something about Madeline that deeply troubles her mother, not limited to the frequent lashing out that she does, which includes violent incidents. She sees the way that Evangeline emphasizes tapping into those impulses as destructive, and eventually she too becomes drawn to the allure of being the teacher’s pet and being commended for demonstrating talent. There’s a story to be found in here somewhere, but it’s all very muddled and presented in a confusing, unappealing format.


Molly Parker, Miranda July, director Josephine Decker, and Helena Howard discuss the film

Howard is unquestionably a breakout, but it’s hard to imagine how she was directed going into this film, which pretty much allows her to express herself in the wildest ways possible. Parker has been stronger in other projects like “House of Cards.” And it was July’s work behind and in front of the camera on “Me and You and Everyone We Know” that drew this reviewer to this film, and while her work here is solid, this film is a complete different kind of weird from that brilliant feature. This likely started as a potentially compelling experiment, but it falters throughout and fails to become coherent, stumbling and irritating as it never reaches any real point.

C-

Saturday, January 27, 2018

Sundance with Abe: A Boy. A Girl. A Dream.

I’m thrilled to be attending and covering the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah for the fifth time. I’m seeing as many movies as I can each day and will post reviews of each as I can.


A Boy. A Girl. A Dream.
Directed by Qasim Basir
NEXT

The election of Donald Trump as President of the United States has had quite an effect on the world of film and television. As actors take to the stage during awards shows to make political statements and endless references to how the world we see today is looking more and more like many dystopias that have been portrayed in cinema for years, there are also more straightforward, direct approaches to how that fateful night felt for ordinary people just going about their lives and watching the election returns take a surprising and irreversible turn.

Cass (Omari Hardwick) works as a club promoter in Los Angeles, recognized by friends as the maker of an inspiring student film at USC, and isn’t able to focus on his night out going from party to party thanks to the depressing text updates he keeps getting about the latest polls closing. He does allow himself another distraction in the form of Frida (Meagan Good), who he meets on the street and invites to join them. Their conversations take unpredictable turns as their locations change throughout the night and they form an unexpectedly close bond.

The backdrop of Trump’s election is merely a way of setting the stage for the world as it exists, with both Cass and Frida approaching it in different ways. Cass made something of great meaning to people, yet he’s lost some of that optimistic spirit, caught in a dead-end job and barely in control of his life. Frida has it together but doesn’t seem all that content either, and she’s the driving force at a party where everyone is glued in misery to the TV who suggests that they turn it off to live in the moment before things change incontrovertibly.


Director Qasim Basir and stars Omari Hardwick and Meagan good discuss the film

Hardwick and Good work marvelously together on screen, both delivering vulnerable, realistic performances perfectly in keeping with the film’s naturalistic style. The film’s single continuous take is wildly impressive, and it’s easy to get drawn in to the feeling and magic of the moment, which finds Cass and Frida talking about things that people rarely discuss on first dates and getting to the heart of what it means to stand for something. Director Qasim Basir’s film is an ambitious meditation, one that tries – and succeeds to a degree – to speak for all those who felt their lives change that night, offering few answers but proposing one scenario in which things might turn out okay.

B+

Sundance with Abe: I Think We’re Alone Now

I’m thrilled to be attending and covering the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah for the fifth time. I’m seeing as many movies as I can each day and will post reviews of each as I can.


I Think We’re Alone Now
Directed by Reed Morano
U.S. Dramatic Competition

There are a lot of films about the end of the world, or at least the demise of humanity. How or why it happens varies, but it doesn’t seem that, in our fictional film future, things are looking bright for homo sapiens. The scale and scope of such films depends entirely on the premise, and sometimes the most effective exercises are those that follow just one or two survivors in a desolate landscape, trying to stay active and keep busy in a lonely universe not likely to become populated again anytime soon.

Del (Peter Dinklage) spends his days walking through his town and cleaning out the houses of the residents whose bodies have decayed inside, taking with him a photo from each home and painting a large white X outside each to keep track of his work. He retreats to the library where he used to work each night to maintain some sense of order, a ritual practice that is disrupted when Grace (Elle Fanning) arrives. His new companion is chatty and curious, looking for a friend in a world greatly lacking in company, pushing him to open up and let her in so that they can continue his work together.

It’s no surprise that Reed Morano, who recently won an Emmy for director the pilot of “The Handmaid’s Tale,” another dark dystopia, would be interested in this subject. Rather than involve a sadistic society based on the superiority of one gender, this quiet world features just two people who, for reasons unknown to them, have survived when everyone else around them is gone. It’s not even a matter of making sense of what’s happened, but instead finding a way to go on and stay occupied. These are two people who would never have crossed paths in any other scenario, but as the only two people in the same place, they’re forced to build a relationship.

Dinklage is back at Sundance this year after starring in “Rememory” last year, and it’s good to say that the “Game of Thrones” standout is busy with quality independent film work. Del feels like his own person, less talkative than most Dinklage characters and equally compelling. The same is true for Fanning, who seems to be in so many films playing mature roles, and their pairing is great. Not all that much happens in this meditative film, but it manages to be an involving and contemplative experience nonetheless, painting one picture of what might become of us in the near future.

B+

Sundance with Abe: Come Sunday

I’m thrilled to be attending and covering the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah for the fifth time. I’m seeing as many movies as I can each day and will post reviews of each as I can.


Come Sunday
Directed by Joshua Marston
Premieres

Religion plays a big role in America. Due in part to the religious freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution, there are many different strands of a number of faiths, which creates a wealth of options for Americans to go and worship. Naturally, there are differences among them, and smaller subsects of each which have variations in their practices. New trends and divisions emerge from that which exists already, yet most new developments aren’t met with welcoming arms at first, since they’re seen as a move away from that which works to something entirely unproven.

Carlton Pearson (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is an evangelical bishop with a thriving congregation. Assisted by his close advisor Henry (Jason Segel) and loyal devotee Reggie (Lakeith Stanfield), and supported by a renowned mentor (Martin Sheen), Carlton delights in connecting with random people on planes or elsewhere in his travels to help them find salvation. Something in him changes when he is hopelessly distraught over the news of thousands of people being murdered in Africa, which prompts him to deliver a sermon alleging that hell doesn’t exist and people don’t necessarily need to work to be saved, earning him consternation and condemnation from those in his community.

What Pearson suggests is controversial, to be sure, but what ultimately sets him apart is that he refuses to simply take it back, instead insisting that, as has occurred throughout his life, God spoke to him. The conviction he conveys is incredible, and his faith in God never wavers despite his personal and professional livelihood being put in jeopardy. His status as an evangelist is but a mere detail, since he is a man of faith who decides to speak out for something that he believes in his heart despite all evidence to the contrary and seeks to help others by spreading that message far and wide.


Members of the cast and crew discuss the film

Ejiofor has tremendous range, impressing in films like “Kinky Boots,” “Children of Men,” and “12 Years a Slave,” and while he excels at this role, it’s hardly the most challenging or magnificent that he’s had. Stanfield, starring in multiple films at Sundance this year, is great in a muted, kindly role, and Condola Rashad makes an impression in her scenes as the preacher’s wife, who doesn’t seek to win over the congregation by conforming to the expectations of that role. This film, from director Joshua Marston, who broke out over a decade ago with “Maria Full of Grace,” is standard and decent, but doesn’t achieve much beyond adequately telling a true story on screen.

B

Sundance with Abe: The Tale

I’m thrilled to be attending and covering the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah for the fifth time. I’m seeing as many movies as I can each day and will post reviews of each as I can.


The Tale
Directed by Jennifer Fox
U.S. Dramatic Competition

There has been a recent wave of revelations of sexual harassment and assault within Hollywood and in the greater social media world thanks to the #metoo campaign and brave people coming forward to tell their stories. It’s not an easy process for someone to share a deeply damaging and horrific event from their past, and many people wait years to tell anyone if they even share it at all. After much time has passed, it’s understandably difficult to remember the specifics of what happened, and how things played out exactly becomes less certain.

Jennifer Fox (Laura Dern) is a successful journalist who lives in New York City with her boyfriend (Common). Her rapid-pace life slows down when her mother (Ellen Burstyn) unearths journals that she kept as a thirteen-year-old which detail an extensive romantic – and sexual – relationship with Mrs. G (Elizabeth Debicki) and Bill (Jason Ritter), two adult coaches with whom she spent a summer. As she searches for answers in the present, the events of her past play out as thirteen-year-old Jenny (Isabelle NĂ©lisse) experiences events that, in retrospect, she finds extremely troubling.

This is not an easy film to watch, even for those who have not been victims of sexual assault. A title card in the film’s end credits reassures viewers that any scene involving a minor and a sexual act was filmed with an adult body double, since the film spares no uncomfortable moments in its portrayal of Jenny’s memories. The visual presentation of Mrs. G and Bill is striking and glamorous, standing out in young Jenny’s mind and contrasting deeply with the stark reality that she encounters when reexamining those events in the present. What she can’t recall correctly doesn’t diminish the impact of her experience, which she comes to realize has severely impacted her life.

Dern, who recently won accolades for her role in “Big Little Lies,” which tackled abuse in its own way, is a good fit to play the inquisitive, serious-minded woman trying to piece together what happened to her as a girl. Debicki and Ritter deliver strong performances as the manipulative objects of her adolescent obsession, and NĂ©lisse is particularly good. This is definitely the moment for this film, which felt all the more powerful for this reviewer when Fox’s name showed up as the director in the end credits with thirteen-year-old Jenny credited as the writer, affirming its status as a true story, making it infinitely more emphatic. Even though it’s not a perfectly-constructed film, it’s still a valid and vital one.

B+

Friday, January 26, 2018

Sundance with Abe: Tyrel

I’m thrilled to be attending and covering the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah for the fifth time. I’m seeing as many movies as I can each day and will post reviews of each as I can.


Tyrel
Directed by Sebastian Silva
U.S. Dramatic Competition

The release of “Get Out” last year tackled how young African-Americans often feel like they’re completely on the outside of a white-dominated society, taking it to the extreme with a horror movie plot that many saw as representative of the way in which African-Americans in the United States are brainwashed or erased. On the heels of that film comes “Tyrel,” a more straightforward, realistic interpretation of how one African-American man feels when he’s surrounded by white people who just can’t relate to his life experience and don’t seem to care to try.

Tyler (Jason Mitchell) heads to a party with his friend Johnny (Christopher Abbott) in the Catskills. He doesn’t know anyone else there, including the wild birthday boy Pete (Caleb Landry Jones) and another very eccentric guest, Alan (Michael Cera). The opening activities involve a game in which Tyler is pressured to do impressions of famous African-American celebrities and things quickly devolve into drunken antics which make Tyler feel like a true outsider. When Tyler takes a stand against some of what he’s seeing go on around him, the response he gets from these new peers is one of complete ignorance of how out of place he truly feels.

This is not a horror movie, and there’s nothing supernatural about it. Any questionable behavior comes either from a lack of awareness or from the strong influence of alcohol, which is consumed in excess by almost everyone at this weekend getaway. It’s almost worse to go unnoticed than it is to be disliked, and Tyler only becomes relevant to the group when he demonstrates that he can’t handle the tremendous amount of alcohol that he has had, and his white companions begin to become fearful of his behavior. The film gets its title from one well-meaning party attendee who mishears and thinks that his name must be more exotic and stereotypical than Tyler.

Mitchell was the standout actor not getting as much credit as Mary J. Blige is for “Mudbound,” and it’s good to see him transition effortlessly from period piece to contemporary drama. Abbott is dependable as usual, and both Jones and Cera are very well-cast. This is a film that feels like it might belong more in the Sundance NEXT section, where director Sebastian Silva’s previous feature, “Nasty Baby,” premiered in 2015. This is a far more even exploration of what it’s like to not fit in without anyone noticing, an interesting meditation that makes for a decently involving film.

B

Sundance with Abe: The Death of Stalin

I’m thrilled to be attending and covering the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah for the fifth time. I’m seeing as many movies as I can each day and will post reviews of each as I can.


The Death of Stalin
Directed by Armando Iannucci
Spotlight

History isn’t usually a subject for comedy, especially when it has to do with state-imposed terror and mass murder. Yet there are filmmakers who have proven that their way to confront politics past and present is through skewering mockeries, presenting events as they might have happened but with considerable absurd humor and foul language thrown in. For the man behind the Oscar-nominated film “In the Loop” and the Emmy-winning series “Veep,” it’s no surprise that he might tackle a seemingly unfunny subject – life in Russia under Joseph Stalin – and deliver something perfectly on par with his previous work.

It’s 1953, and Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin) is surrounded by a group of advisors that includes Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi), Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor), Vyacheslav Molotov (Michael Palin), and Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale). When their comrade leader is found dead, everyone close to him scrambles to usurp power, pitting Beria, the vicious director of his security forces, against the scheming Khrushchev. Contending with Stalin’s outspoken children, Svetlana (Andrea Riseborough) and Vasily (Rupert Friend), and the charismatic leader of the army, Georgy Zhukov (Jason Isaacs), these men must determine how to go on in – or possibly against – the spirit of their late leader.

Iannucci’s work has often presented hilarious moments in situations that, when reflected upon, really aren’t so humorous, and he occasionally comes into contact with more dramatic material. Little is filtered here, and as a result there is a considerable amount of disturbing content that isn’t censored for this humorous presentation. It’s the people involved who are mocked relentlessly by their portrayals by comic American actors, and the presentation of off-putting material as the framework for the film’s comedy makes it all the more effective since it grounds it in something partially true to life though obviously exaggerated in an enormous way.

This film is full of great actors, all of whom contribute with hilarious performances. Buscemi is closest to the film’s lead, and he does a tremendous job of attempting to steer the ship in his character’s direction. Beale is superb, chewing scenery as the man behind the scenes who is really in charge. Isaacs makes a particularly strong impression, suggesting that the actor known for dramatic roles in “Brotherhood” and “The OA” should really do more comedy. The script is sharp and endlessly entertaining, and this film shines as an argument that Iannucci should make more films like this, shaping history to his comic whims.

B+

Sundance with Abe: Leave No Trace

I’m thrilled to be attending and covering the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah for the fifth time. I’m seeing as many movies as I can each day and will post reviews of each as I can.


Leave No Trace
Directed by Debra Granik
Premieres

Human beings only need a few things to survive, and it is possible to live without all the comforts of modern technology and the developed world. This may be seen as a purer experience, free from the hypnotic influence of cell phones and other material items. Yet it’s also not usually permitted to camp out in the woods on land that doesn’t belong to those residing on it, though that fact is unlikely to dissuade people who seek to shun society and live away from it on their own. Trying to reinsert a self-imposed outcast back into the normalized world is a difficult process not likely to be met with success.


Director Debra Granik discusses the film

Will (Ben Foster) and his daughter Tom (Thomasin McKenzie) live in the woods in a nature reserve outside of Portland, Oregon. While Will prepares Tom for detection with frequent drills, he can’t stop them from being located by authorities who arrest them and then seek to relocate them. Tom, who does like living away from people, embraces the opportunity to be surrounded still by nature but also by new friends, while Will has considerably more difficulty acclimating, pushing his daughter to leave it all behind and retreat back to the wilderness.


Actress Thomasin McKenzie discusses the film

Director Debra Granik’s last narrative film, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2010 and launched Jennifer Lawrence’s career, was “Winter’s Bone.” This follow-up is less of a dark thriller but still remains laser-focused on its two protagonists, whose social skills leave much to be desired and who are compelled most by a commitment to each other and to a rejection of that which distracts from living a purposeful – and effortful – existence. Setting the film primarily in the woods presents enormous opportunity for truly capturing this dynamic and the way that these two relate to the world around them.


Actor Ben Foster discusses the film

Foster is known for playing villainous characters, most recently in his underrated turn in “Hell or High Water,” and here, while he’s far from charming, he plays Will as driven most by his dedication to his daughter’s safety but equally handicapped by traumatizing experiences from his time in the military that make him such an isolationist. New Zealand actress McKenzie is a real find, matching Foster in every scene and delivering a mature, vulnerable performance that easily rivals Lawrence’s Oscar-nominated turn. This is a film that uses its surroundings well and presents a magnificent and mesmerizing story of shared loneliness.

A-

Sundance with Abe: Colette

I’m thrilled to be attending and covering the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah for the fifth time. I’m seeing as many movies as I can each day and will post reviews of each as I can.


Colette
Directed by Wash Westmoreland
Premieres

Some people are both into the wrong generation. The way that they see the world is very different from the way their contemporaries view it, and it can be a struggle to accept the way things are. Standing up for forward-thinking beliefs that stand in direct contrast to the way that the society of their day operates is not easy, and working up the courage to do so can take years. Their impact may not be felt until long after their death, or at least not be truly understood for the remarkable achievement that it was in a time that such behavior wasn’t thought possible.


Keira Knightley, Wash Westmoreland, and Dominic West discuss the film

Colette (Keira Knightley) is first introduced as a young bride coming from the countryside of France to metropolitan Paris to live with her famous husband, the eccentric author Willy (Dominic West). What seemed like an exciting, lavish life quickly turns to one of unnecessary excess and grandstanding from her husband, who depends greatly upon her for his success. When he encourages her to write stories, they become incredible hits across the country, creating great business for the esteemed Willy brand but offering Colette no recognition for all of her work, something that eventually becomes unacceptable for her to bear, setting her on a new course that will cement her place in history.


Keira Knightley discusses the film

A woman being subject to a domineering husband who takes all the credit for what she does is nothing new, and it’s the responsibility of this film to make its story individually interesting. Fortunately, it succeeds in grand fashion, convincingly conveying the dynamic between Colette and Willy and then charting her journey to making a name for herself in inventive ways that can set her apart from the man whose most famous works were actually been produced almost in their entirety by her.


Dominic West discusses the film

Knightley is no stranger to well-decorated period dramas, and this performance allows her to blend in with her surroundings and then come alive as an unforgettable and immutable individual. It’s a performance that could well earn her a well-deserved Oscar nomination. West is wonderfully despicable as usual, making Willy a man of all talk and no action. This is a stirring drama that moves much quicker than many other period pieces – including others playing at this year’s Sundance Film Festival – with great set pieces and costumes. Ultimately, this film, from “Still Alice” director Wash Westmoreland, is driven by Knightley and her strong portrayal of the title character, a very worthwhile subject of her own story.

B+

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Sundance with Abe: Lizzie

I’m thrilled to be attending and covering the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah for the fifth time. I’m seeing as many movies as I can each day and will post reviews of each as I can.


Lizzie
Directed by Craig William Macneill
U.S. Dramatic Competition

There are many movies made based on historical events. Usually, filmmakers take liberties in adapting the story, adding characters, scenes, and events to make it more appealing and engaging for an audience. Names might be changed and pieces skipped over, and in some cases, it’s up to the screenwriter to fill in the blanks and present a version of the story that they believe happened since the actual events are not at all clear. This is obviously a bold and risky move, but when mysteries occur in history, some creativity is needed to tell the story.

Lizzie Borden (Chloe Sevigny) lives in Fall River, Massachusetts in 1892 with her father (Jamey Sheridan), stepmother (Fiona Shaw), and sister (Kim Dickens). Not content to accept the state of things around her, Lizzie regularly flaunts her controlling father’s wishes, going out on the town and balking the authority of those who tell her to be tame. When a new maid, Bridget (Kristen Stewart), comes to live with the family, Lizzie forms a close bond with her that earns the scorn of her father. Lizzie’s contempt for her father and stepmother continues to grow, leading to their murder, which many believe she committed.

This is a very well-known case in history, and its title indicates that the story is most about the rebellious daughter initially arrested and tried for the murders. The film focuses mainly on Lizzie and Bridget, named by Lizzie’s stepmother as Maggie because of her Irish heritage, and the warm, forbidden relationship they form in the midst of such repressive misery. Lizzie feels like a woman far ahead of her time who sought to make trouble since she knew change was impossible, while Bridget maintains a far more passive and submissive approach, blending in and rarely speaking up. Most of this is speculation, but these characters do at least feel like real people.

Sevigny is a great choice to play this role, giving Lizzie a strong, fiery energy and truly conveying the hatred she feels for those who make her unhappy. Stewart handles an accent well and isn’t meant to draw much attention from the film’s title character. Shaw is appropriately villainous, while Sheridan is rather wooden and Dickens is wasted in an underused role. The film, director Craig William Macneill’s second, trudges along rather slowly, and not much feels gained by its end after traveling predictable territory without much helpful insight that couldn’t be gleaned from its start. What is undeniably an interesting piece of history is told in a way that adds nothing to the story and doesn’t feel terribly worthwhile.

C+