Friday, May 18, 2018

Movie with Abe: First Reformed

First Reformed
Directed by Paul Schrader
Released May 18, 2018

Religion is something that has the power to guide a person’s life, and those who choose to seek ordination of some sort dedicate themselves to serving a higher purpose. What that looks like in any given religion might be completely unrecognizable to another, but in America, the history of Christianity is strong and the members of its clergy high in number. Due to its prevalence in the early days of the country and before its founding, there are many institutions whose physical buildings still stand but whose operations and congregations have outgrown their humble beginnings.

Reverend Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke) is the pastor of such an establishment in upstate New York, a Dutch Reform church that now serves more as a museum than a functioning parish, with just a few attending services each week while the masses frequent the far more industrial parent church, Abundant Life, that officially controls Toller’s building and is planning its 250th anniversary celebration. Toller is approached by Mary (Amanda Seyfried), a pregnant congregant worried about her activist environmentalist husband’s views on the world and the future they might bring their child into, prompting serious introspection from Toller and a dangerous descent into destructive behavior.

This film begins with stylized title cards that make the film’s setting feel dated, with Toller himself seeming like a relic, sporting a flip cell phone and living a minimalist lifestyle despite having plenty of space and means. The ideas he is introduced to about environmental decay and the political forces doing nothing to stop it are extremely specific, and the alcoholic whose health is not great from the start begins to find some sense of purpose that he has been lacking, especially as he learns that a major donor to his church is one of the most unabashed offenders.

Hawke has been working hard lately, and this performance, however committed, pales in comparison to recent, far more entertaining turns in “Stockholm” and “Juliet, Naked.” Seyfried has also been much better, but the role leaves a great deal to be desired. The casting of Cedric the Entertainer as the leader of Abundant Life proves extremely distracting, shifting too much of the focus off of Toller’s more subdued preacher. Writer-director Paul Schrader, best known for penning the screenplays to “Taxi Driver” and “Raging Bull,” has quite a reputation, but this desolate, dreary drama fails to latch on to interesting characters and believable dialogue, spiraling into a nonsensical fever dream that hardly does justice to its premise.


Saturday, May 12, 2018

Saturday Night Movie Recommendations with Abe

Welcome back to a weekly feature here at Movies With Abe. I'm going to be providing a handy guide to a few choice movies currently playing in theatres as well as several films newly released on DVD and Netflix. I invite you to add in your thoughts on any films I haven’t seen in the comments below.

Now Playing in Theatres

Beast (mixed bag): There’s a lot whole of intrigue to be found in this dark, dreary tale of a young woman who falls in love with a mystery man believed to be a mass murderer. Lead actress Jessie Buckley is great, but this film is off-putting and far from pointed in the slow burn to its conclusion. Now playing at the Landmark at 57 West and the Angelika. Read my review from Sundance.

The Seagull (mixed bag): This Chekhov adaptation isn’t the slam dunk it should be given the impressive cast - which includes Annette Bening, Saoirse Ronan, Elisabeth Moss - and instead serves as the kind of fare that is likely enjoyable for devotees of the original story and its author only. Now playing at the Angelika and the Paris Theatre. Read my review from Tribeca.

New to DVD

In Search of Israeli Cuisine (recommended): This documentary, which I saw at the AIPAC Policy Conference a few years ago, is certainly appetizing, navigating a country known for many things and highlighting a very diverse range of food options prepared by different cultures living within its borders.

Now Available on Instant Streaming

Faces Places (highly recommended): This was my pick to win the Oscar for Best Documentary this year, a marvelous exploration of the French countryside by a young photographer and a veteran filmmaker designed to shed some light - literally, through pictures - on unsung heroes.

Dirty Girl (recommended): This 1980s-set dramedy from early on in Juno Temple’s career features a fabulous central performance from the talented actress and an endearing, surprisingly fresh take on two teenage runaways.

Saturday, May 5, 2018

Saturday Night Movie Recommendations with Abe

Welcome back to a weekly feature here at Movies With Abe. I'm going to be providing a handy guide to a few choice movies currently playing in theatres as well as several films newly released on DVD and Netflix. I invite you to add in your thoughts on any films I haven’t seen in the comments below.

Now Playing in Theatres

After Auschwitz (recommended): This affecting story of six survivors of the Holocaust who made their way to Los Angeles does a great job of spotlighting individual stories. Now playing in Los Angeles, and still showing at Kew Gardens Cinema and Malverne Cinema outside of New York City. Read my review from Thursday.

Disobedience (highly recommended): Spectacular performances from Rachel Weisz, Rachel McAdams, and Alessandro Nivola accentuate this captivating look at a forbidden relationship in a religious community. After its premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival, this film is playing at AMC Lincoln Square, AMC Kips Bay, City Cinemas 123, Cinepolis Chelsea, and the Angelika. Check out Read my interview for Jewcy with director Sebastián Lelio, who won an Oscar for “A Fantastic Woman.”

Let the Sun Shine In (mixed bag): This New York Film Festival entry from Claire Denis is most worthwhile for the central performance given by the reliably incredible Juliette Binoche. The film is far less tolerable, indulging in directionless conversation and storytelling that serves questionable purposes. Now playing at the IFC Center and Walter Reade Theater. Read my review from NYFF.

Tully (recommended): The third collaboration between director Jason Reitman and screenwriter Diablo Cody is a great success, one that expands upon “Juno” and “Young Adult” to create an unusual portrait of a struggling mother desperate for just a bit of rest and support. Charlize Theron and Mackenzie Davis are great in this entertaining and layered dramedy. Now playing at AMC Lincoln Square, AMC Empire, AMC Kips Bay, City Cinemas 86th St, Cinepolis Chelsea, iPic Fulton Market, the Angelika, and Regal Battery Park. Read my review from Tribeca.

The 12th Man (recommended): This is a different kind of war epic, one that follows a single survivor of a failed subversive mission against the Nazis who has to outlast the harsh weather of Scandinavia and outrun a ruthless Nazi commander intent on finding him. It’s a decent if long showcase that features some intriguing moments. Now playing at the IFC Center. Read my review from yesterday.

New to DVD

Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story (highly recommended): This informative documentary sheds a light on the scientific achievements and mental health struggles of Hedy Lamarr, an actress known for her beauty but who accomplished so much more.

Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool (recommended): Annette Bening plays actress Gloria Grahame in this drama that occasionally approaches intrigue but never really gets there. Devotees of either Bening or Graham may be more interested.

In Between (highly recommended): This portrait of three Palestinian women living in Tel Aviv from director Maysaloun Hamoud was the opening night selection of the Other Israel Film Festival. It’s a terrific and very worthwhile watch featuring superb performances from all three main actresses.

In the Fade (recommended): Before failing to make the list of nine finalists for the Oscar, this German film took home the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Film. Diane Kruger delivers a formidable performance as a woman in mourning facing her family’s executioners.

The Insult (highly recommended): This was my choice to win the Oscar for Best Foreign Film, a remarkable story of two men from different cultures who go to court when one insults the other in response to a derogatory remark. This is excellent international cinema that should really be seen by all.

Now Available on Instant Streaming

Come Sunday (recommended): This decent Sundance drama tells the true story an evangelical bishop who has a revelation that changes everything about his faith and inspires him to charge ahead with a new vision.

Pelé: Birth of a Legend (highly recommended): I really enjoyed this Tribeca 2016 entry which showcases the amazing soccer player and mimics his signature style with a great flair and energy.

Friday, May 4, 2018

Movie with Abe: The 12th Man

The 12th Man
Directed by Harald Zwart
Released May 4, 2018

In war, there are fateful battles that involve enormous loss of life on multiple sides. For every mass confrontation that is well-documented, there are many more that are considerably less known. A covert mission is likely to be declassified and publicized only long after its occurrence, if at all, and remembering it requires that at least one member survived or someone within the chain of command who knew about its existence wrote it down or told another person about it. These stories are often gripping, inspiring tales of unlikely survival against the greatest odds.

Jan Baalsrud (Thomas Gullestad) is a member of a twelve-person Norwegian operation meant to sabotage the Nazis in 1943. When the mission is compromised, all eleven of his fellow operatives are captured. Baalsrud retreats into the icy waters and moves from place to place trying to stay alive as relentless Nazi commander Kurt Stage (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers) refuses to believe the reports he has been given that the twelfth man succumbed to the elements as he ran from the Nazis, desperate and determined to find every last conspirator.

Films like “Saving Private Ryan” have been praised for their epic battle sequences that truly convey the senselessness of war and the way in which it engulfs those involved in an inescapable haze of blood and bullets. This film presents a different kind of fight, one that involves a single man doing whatever he can to make it to safety. His battle is not on a beach but on the snow-covered mountains of Scandinavia, as he flees on skis from an enemy plane in a daring attempt at perseverance. His survival is made all the more compelling by the horrific experiments Stage conducts on the prisoners he has to calculate whether his target could indeed still be alive.

Norwegian actor Gullestad delivers an inarguably committed performance, conveying the lengths to which Baalsrud had to go in order to get through his ordeal, burying himself under bales of hay and outlasting treacherous cold along the way. Rhys-Meyers, who plays villains well, is a fitting choice to portray the heartless Stage, whose desire to apprehend the missing saboteur stems from his eagerness to stay in the good graces of his superiors. This lengthy film, which clocks in at about two hours and ten minutes, presents this unbelievable journey of more than seventy days in a straightforward narrative fashion, occasionally accelerating to scenes of action but rightfully spending more time on the righteous people who, fully aware of the potential consequences, help Baalsrud along the way. This is, if nothing else, a compelling ode to its impressive protagonist.


Thursday, May 3, 2018

Movie with Abe: After Auschwitz

After Auschwitz
Directed by Jon Kean
Released April 20, 2018

One of the best ways to ensure that history does not repeat itself is for those who have experienced terrible things to continue telling their stories. Many films have been made about the Holocaust, and as even those who were young children during the Holocaust are now approaching their eighties, it’s more important than ever to capture as much testimony as possible on film and share it with a wide audience so that the expression “never forget” holds true, keeping the memory of those many lost during the Holocaust alive and inspiring the next generation to prevent such atrocities from being perpetrated again in the future.

“After Auschwitz” follows six women who are liberated from concentration camps at the end of World War II, charting their time in Europe immediately afterward, their journeys to the United States, and their eventual settlement in Los Angeles. Each step is a crucial part of their transformation from prisoners all but certain to be forgotten to a life that involves a degree of liberty and happiness that never seemed possible along the way. Through it all, processing what they went through is a never-ending challenge, one that manifests itself in different ways as they try their best to move on and live their lives.

The glamour of life in the United States contrasts sharply with the lack of dignity and inhuman conditions faced by Jews in Nazi Germany, and those comparisons are made frequently throughout this insightful documentary. One survivor, a term that the subjects of this film reject because it doesn’t adequately define their experience and state of mind, recalls the much-covered news story of a three-year-old girl who fell down a well and expresses shock at how much effort was put into saving just one child when everyone turned a blind eye to what was going on during the Holocaust. These women rarely discussed their experiences for years, and only later when it became clear that they needed to educate a new generation did they ease into speaking up about traumatic memories that continue to haunt them.

The use of archive newsreel footage mixed with intimate interviews with all six of these women – Eva Beckman, Rena Drexler, Renee Firestone, Erika Jacoby, Lili Majzner, and Linda Sherman – proves to be extremely effective, allowing them to speak for themselves and to share what they went through, coming from different countries to end up in the same place, achieving remarkable things and sharing what they have learned through it all. The fact that half of them have passed away in recent years makes this film all the more poignant, an important and touching film that truly captures these women and their individual lives.


Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Talking Tribeca: Disobedience

One of the most buzzed-about movies at this year's Tribeca Film Festival was surely "Disobedience," which opened in theaters in New York and LA this past Friday. It's a terrific film, one that looks at a forbidden relationship in an insular London Orthodox Jewish community. I had the privilege to talk with director Sebastián Lelio, who took home the Oscar for Best Foreign Film for "A Fantastic Woman" just two months ago, about the experience of making this film.

Head over to Jewcy to read the interview, and go see the film!

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Talking Tribeca: To Dust

As I'm finishing up my coverage of this year's Tribeca Film Festival, here's a review of "To Dust," a peculiar buddy comedy of sorts, that was posted on Jewcy last week. I managed to get a picture with star Géza Röhrig, most recognizable from the title role in "Son of Saul," after the screening.

Head over to Jewcy to check out the review!