Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Movie with Abe: Boy Erased

Boy Erased
Directed by Joel Edgerton
Released November 2, 2018

The relationship between religion and sexuality is very complicated, and usually the associations between the two are not positive given scriptural references that indicate less traditional understandings of gender and attraction as forbidden and abhorrent. Modern interpretations are far more liberal and accepting of those whose personal and family values differ from what has been established over many centuries, but it’s hardly the standard. Many still experience extremely negative and often truly disturbing responses to their attempts to express themselves.

Jared Eamons (Lucas Hedges) is the only son of Marshall, a Baptist preacher (Russell Crowe), and his wife Nancy (Nicole Kidman) living in Arkansas. Harrowing events at college lead Marshall and Nancy to receive a call that Jared has engaged in purportedly sinful activity, and Jared, aware that he is attracted to men, accepts his father’s decision to send him to a conversion therapy program. As he meets Victor Sykes (Joel Edgerton), the charismatic man in charge of the program, Jared begins to understand that what he sees as a perfectly logical process to get back to what he is supposed to be is an awful and truly damaging thing with brutal and damaging implications.

This is the second major film this year to deal with conversion therapy, with “The Miseducation of Cameron Post” taking a more comedic look at a camp with similar aims. While that film takes its inspiration from real-life events and is based on a novel, this one is adapted specifically from Garrard Conley’s memoir of his own experiences going through this program and then deciding to expose it to the world. While it’s impossible to truly grasp what he experienced, this film paints a vivid and highly unsettling portrait that is at times very difficult to watch, and appropriately so.

Hedges, who is just twenty-one years old, has been working steadily for the past two years since his Oscar nomination for “Manchester by the Sea,” with major roles in two other films this year. His performance here is simple but passionate, conflicted about his feelings but unresistant to his situation until he sees it for what it is. Edgerton, who also wrote and directed the film, casts himself in a very effective role as the influencer of these young minds, twisting convenient verses and facts to his manipulative advantage. Russell Crowe also turns in a subdued and thoughtful take on Jared’s father, who can’t possibly reconcile who Jared might be with his beliefs. This film does its subject matter justice, confronting hard truths through the incredible and important story of one person who managed to survive this terrible process.


Movie with Abe: What They Had

What They Had
Directed by Elizabeth Chomko
Released October 19, 2018

Getting older isn’t known to be an easy process. As people begin to see personality traits and physical prowess that they depended on for years and took for granted fade away, admitting the loss of those reliable things tends to be just as challenging. A couple that has been together for many years may experience deterioration of function at different levels and speeds, and the notion of separating to provide the proper care for one without the other is almost unthinkable. Adult children pushing for that outcome are almost always met with tremendous pushback from the more stable parent who won’t hear of it.

Ruth (Blythe Danner), who is suffering from Alzheimer’s, wanders out into a snowstorm one night, leaving her husband, Norbert (Robert Forster), panic-stricken. Their son Nicky (Michael Shannon), who lives nearby, calls his sister Bridget (Hilary Swank), who promptly arrives with her daughter Emma (Taissa Farmiga) to try to help. Nicky’s eagerness to get Ruth into a facility capable of providing the best treatment for her falls on deaf ears with Norbert, and Bridget doesn’t prove to be the ally he had hoped, as she watches the way her parents care for each other and starts to wonder if she has anything that resembles that in her own marriage and life.

From this film’s first moment in which Ruth steps outside in the middle of the night, what she is going through and how it is affecting those around her is painfully clear. Fortunately, there is plenty of humor to be found in this film and in the way these family members talk to each other, often injecting serious and depressing moments with a lighter touch. Nicky proves to be a particularly prickly and entertaining character, clashing with everyone, including rebellious college student Emma, who can’t stand her mother but describes her uncle in unfavorable terms. Audience members should be able to easily identify recognizable traits of their own family members in each character.

This film assembles a terrific cast, led by an unusual choice for a film of this nature. Swank, who has won two Oscars, hasn’t had a lead role like this in a few years, and this one is nice because it enables her to smile more than usual and convey a good deal of personality and energy in her portrayal of a woman who hasn’t even stopped to realize that she’s unhappy. Shannon, while usually crotchety on screen, is also cast well in a less severe part. The young Farmiga is superb as always, and Forster is the standout as the strong-willed and unflinching husband not at all willing to compromise the way that he wants to be with his wife. This is a film to avoid for those who may have endured a similar experience because it may be too painful to watch, but Elizabeth Chomko’s directorial debut is a true success that handles a universal topic with grace.


Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Movie with Abe: Bohemian Rhapsody

Bohemian Rhapsody
Directed by Bryan Singer
Released November 2, 2018

Most musicians have a certain style they adhere to, and it’s easy to recognize one of their songs since it sounds at least a little bit like another they’ve produced. As times change, so does the music that’s popular, and those that end up becoming the most listened-to over the years are often lambasted upon their initial breakthroughs, decried as uncivilized or detrimental to society. Seeing those whose music has become immortal and classic at the very start of their careers is usually entertaining, and that sentiment is multiplied exponentially when it comes to one of the most unique and individualistic groups: Queen.

Freddie Mercury (Rami Malek) is born when immigrant Farrokh Bulsara changes his name and ditches his job as an airport baggage handler to become the new lead singer for a band he’s been following. He joins bass guitarist John Deacon (Joseph Mazzello), drummer Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy), and lead guitarist Brian May (Gwilym Lee) to become Queen, a band that is never concerned with what anyone – certainly not a manager or producer – thinks they should do or should be. Freddie’s life is complicated by uncertainty about his sexuality, navigating relationships with Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton) and Paul Prenter (Allen Leech) and trying to figure out who he truly is along the way.

There’s no denying that the story of Queen is both fun and interesting. This film could have been done any number of ways, but instead it is presented as a straight biopic, which in this case is extremely effective. The band’s most beloved songs are performed during concerts and in the process of being written, serving not as a musical score or anthem but rather as crucial moments along the way in the formation of a truly unforgettable and cutting-edge band, with each song baring almost no similarity to any other. The band members – and their songs – are more than capable of telling this story all by themselves.

Malek, best known as antisocial hacker Elliot on “Mr. Robot,” delivers a transformative and fully engaged performance as Freddie, utterly captivating on screen and totally committed to the role. The sheer physical similarity of Mazzello, Hardy, and Lee to the characters they play is incredible, and fortunately, their depictions are also terrific. The costumes are equally fantastic, and this film is a superb and wildly engaging ride from start to finish, capturing the incomparable energy of Queen in truly magnificent fashion.


Monday, October 29, 2018

Monday Oscar Odds

I haven’t actually done this since 2011, but since I feel like I’ve seen a whole lot of the Oscar contenders much earlier this year, I want to keep a running list each week of where I think the Oscar race stands. I regularly visit The Film Experience, Awards Daily, and Gold Derby for a look at what others are saying, but here’s what I think based on what I’ve seen and what I’ve heard. I’ll update each week and add more categories as we get closer.

At this point, I haven’t seen “Green Book” and “If Beale Street Could Talk,” and no one has seen “Vice” or “The Mule.” I’m not confident at all in the Oscar chances of Richard E. Grant and Sam Elliott, and I’m hoping that Rachel Weisz will continue to be part of the Oscar conversation in the supporting category. Having seen “Widows” (review coming soon), I think that film will do very well.

There are still plenty of other films that could end up on this list, but here’s where we stand as far as I can tell:

Best Picture
Black Panther
The Favourite
First Man
Green Book
If Beale Street Could Talk
A Star is Born

Best Director
Spike Lee (BlacKkKlansman)
Yorgos Lanthimos (The Favourite)
Damien Chazelle (First Man)
Alfonso Cuaron (Roma)
Bradley Cooper (A Star is Born)

Best Actor
Christian Bale (Vice)
Bradley Cooper (A Star is Born)
Clint Eastwood (The Mule)
Rami Malek (Bohemian Rhapsody)
Viggo Mortensen (Green Book)

Best Actress
Glenn Close (The Wife)
Olivia Colman (The Favourite)
Viola Davis (Widows)
Lady Gaga (A Star is Born)
Melissa McCarthy (Can You Ever Forgive Me?)

Best Supporting Actor
Mahershala Ali (Green Book)
Timothee Chalamet (Beautiful Boy)
Sam Elliott (A Star Is Born)
Richard E. Grant (Can You Ever Forgive Me?)
Daniel Kaluuya (Widows)

Best Supporting Actress
Claire Foy (First Man)
Elizabeth Debicki (Widows)
Regina King (If Beale Street Could Talk)
Emma Stone (The Favourite)
Rachel Weisz (The Favourite)

Best Original Screenplay
Eighth Grade
The Favourite
Green Book

Best Adapted Screenplay
Can You Ever Forgive Me?
First Man
If Beale Street Could Talk

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Movie with Abe: A Private War

A Private War
Directed by Matthew Heineman
Released November 2, 2018

When given the choice, many people run from danger. There are degrees to which those who find themselves in precarious situations on a regular basis will opt to remain there, often out of a sense of duty, whether professional or ethical, to protect those whose livelihoods will be placed into even greater peril following their departure. Running headfirst into a place where safety is far from guaranteed without any sort of backup requires a special kind of courage, and attaining the rewards for such behavior often require paying the ultimate price.

Marie Colvin (Rosamund Pike) is a war reporter whose assignments have taken her all over the world. When given the chance, she immediately jumps on a plane and heads to conflicted zones where the situation is only worsening, determined to get the full story and to expose whatever injustice is occurring. Her resilience more than often translates to stubbornness, frustrating her editor (Tom Hollander), though the copy she sends back always astounds. After losing sight in one eye in Sri Lanka, Colvin continues to press on, hiring a photographer (Jamie Dornan) and heading deep into one of the worst conflicts she has ever experienced: the civil war in Syria in 2012.

Director Matthew Heineman is a respected documentary filmmaker, whose previous works “Cartel Land” and “City of Ghosts” have received tremendous praise. As a narrative film, his latest project recreates many historical circumstances, dramatizing them to convey the horrors that Colvin witnessed and reported on in her life. That lens doesn’t feel nearly as effective as a documentary presentation might have, coming off as less authentic and impactful. What does transmit is the endlessness of the conflicts Colvin experiences and the importance, especially in today’s world, of reporting and broadcasting the truth, something that was so ingrained as an eternal priority in Colvin’s mind.

Pike, who received an Oscar nomination for her title role in “Gone Girl,” bears a striking resemblance under her red hair and eyepatch to the real Colvin, but it’s hard to sympathize with the character due to her gruff exterior. Much of this film deals with the effects of what Colvin has witnessed on her mental health and the way in which that influences her every relationship and friendship. It’s a decent tribute to the life and incredible work of the late Colvin, whose commitment to telling the stories of those who couldn’t makes her well worth remembering and celebrating.


Saturday, October 27, 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

1985 (recommended): This black-and-white film tells an affecting story of a young man returning to his childhood home where he struggles to be able to come out to the conservative family he hasn’t seen for years. Now playing at the Quad Cinema. Read my review from yesterday.

New to DVD

I Think We’re Alone Now (recommended): Peter Dinklage and Elle Fanning star in a post-apocalyptic drama from “The Handmaid’s Tale” director Reed Morano that’s slower and more contemplative than other dystopias but still manages to be effective and worthwhile.

Sorry to Bother You (mixed bag): This trippy comedy starring Lakeith Stanfield as a telemarketer who soars to incredible heights using his “white voice” is unapologetically strange and occasionally effective in its own individualistic way.

Friday, October 26, 2018

Movie with Abe: 1985

Directed by Yen Tan
Released October 26, 2018

Leaving a strict home mandated by many rules can result in the opening up of entirely new possibilities in a less restrictive environment. Forging a more fulfilling lifestyle becomes difficult when the thought of returning home reintroduces stifling elements and threatens to undo any emotional progress made in the time spent away. Regardless of how uncomfortable or problematic seeing a person’s family can be, there still exists a bond between those who share blood, and staying apart forever is usually not a realistic option.

Adrian (Cory Michael Smith) returns home for the first time in a few years, leaving the exciting world in which he lives openly as a gay man behind to spend Christmas in his very religious, conservative hometown. His mother Eileen (Virginia Madsen) is overjoyed to see him, welcoming him home with open arms. His younger brother Andrew (Aidan Langford) looks up to him and appreciates how he opens him up to a bigger world than he’s known. Adrian struggles to connect with his disapproving father, Dale (Michael Chiklis), who barely looks at him even without knowing about his sexual identity, and finds it difficult even to open up to his former girlfriend Carly (Jamie Chung).

This film presents its events in black-and-white, mirroring the feeling Adrian experiences coming back to the place he grew up. His interactions with his father are particularly grim, since his casual remarks about his brother’s softness sting even more because he has never actually taken any time to really get to know his older son. His every success is doubted by his father, and the only path to any sort of acceptance is to dive fully into the religion that has clearly had a large part in driving Adrian away.

Smith, a relative newcomer, impresses as Adrian, conveying a lifetime of hurt and disappointment that bubbles right back to the top as soon as his father greets him at the airport. Chiklis, usually known for more sympathetic roles, and Madsen play well off each other to create polar opposite parents, whose treatment of their sons shapes their life choices. Langford is a great find, and it’s wonderful to see Chung, who stars in a less rewarding part on “The Gifted,” in a standout turn as a facet of Adrian’s oppressive childhood who doesn’t judge him at all for anything he’s done aside from not be honest with her. This film is a solid look at a young man trying to negotiate his different identities and to discover whether he truly can be himself in a place – and a time – that’s not ready for him.


Thursday, October 25, 2018

Movie with Abe: Black Panther

Black Panther
Directed by Ryan Coogler
Released February 16, 2018

The Marvel Cinematic Universe is arguably the most successful film franchise, beginning ten years ago with “Iron Man” and showing no signs whatsoever of slowing down with increasingly frequent releases and mega-films featuring dozens of superheroes uniting in epic battle against any number of threats. As the universe has expanded and looped in more characters from the comics, those introduced are then given origin stories, allowing them to become something altogether unique and impressive in their own right. Released at the very beginning of this year, “Black Panther” is perhaps the strongest example of a film that comes from this universe but exists in its own world.

After his father dies, T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) is crowned the new king of the African nation of Wakanda, a land of riches and technological advances that cloaks itself from the world as a small, poor country. When arms dealer Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) attempts to steal vibranium, the element that helps power Wakanda, T’Challa, better known as the Black Panther, must team up with military leader Okoye (Danai Gurira), his ex-lover and spy Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), his brilliant sister Shuri (Letitia Wright), and CIA Agent Ross (Martin Freeman) to defeat the greatest threat Wakanda has ever faced: Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), a powerful, vengeful operative with aims to transform the peaceful nation into a violent empire.

This film has enjoyed tremendous popularity and unrivaled box office success since its release for a number of reasons. This reviewer missed the last few films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe sequence, and this first experience with Black Panther feels like a complete one more than capable of standing alone, ignoring the few explicit references to events and characters from past and future films. The spotlight on this incredible African nation is a revolutionary idea, something that shouldn’t have taken this long to happen in Hollywood but which feels authentic and exciting, especially since it encompasses action and science fiction films within to create a broadly appealing, totally engaging thrill ride that could easily be experienced for double its two hour and fourteen minute runtime.

Boseman, who impressed as the future Supreme Court Justice in “Marshall,” has the right energy and swagger to play T’Challa, confident in his skills and his success but exceedingly humble and generous when the moment calls for it. This film offers a tremendous showcase for its three leading women, who kick ass and demonstrate their abilities many times. Gurira in particular offers a departure from her more subdued role on “The Walking Dead” and Nyong’o follows up her Oscar-winning turn in “12 Years a Slave” with a totally unrecognizable and awesome part. Serkis, Freeman, Jordan, Daniel Kaluuya, and Sterling K. Brown offer support in a rich ensemble fitting for its surroundings. The visual effects and set design are marvelous, and this action adventure is easily one of the more exciting and enjoyable chapters in the never-ending Marvel cinematic saga.


Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Movie with Abe: A Star is Born

A Star is Born
Directed by Bradley Cooper
Released October 5, 2018

Fame is one of the most alluring facets of contemporary society. To be recognized by random people on the street and asked for autographs is just one of the more external elements of that achievement, and the riches and treatment that come from being admired and pampered can have a tremendous effect on how a person goes about daily life. It’s rare for someone to not be changed in any way during the process of becoming famous, and for many, getting to that point is the height of a career that can’t possibly go any higher, which can lead to misery, depression, and the looming threat of regression and failure.

Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper) is a successful musician who wows the crowds despite being wildly high and drunk during his concerts. On one such night, he stumbles into a bar and is mesmerized by the sight and sound of Ally (Lady Gaga), an unhappy waitress with an incredible voice. Taken with her, Jack invites Ally to his next show and brings her up on stage, sparking an incredible journey that leads her to a wondrous musical career of her own. Battling his own demons, Jack finds himself unable to cope with being the one on the sidelines of someone else’s success, leading to the gradual evaporation of their whirlwind romance.

Much of this film, particularly the characters’ initial meeting, feels like a dream. Jack may be in a state of permanent drunkenness, but the affection he feels for Ally is completely genuine and overpowers his every instinct. Ally, for her part, is overwhelmed by his doting on her and gets quickly swept up by the wonder of her meteoric rise. It’s her father (Andrew Dice Clay), who, as a limo driver who encounters the rich and famous on a regular basis, best embodies the way that she deals with her newfound success, humbly shocked by the outpouring of enthusiasm and adoration from the masses. Far past that point in his career, Jack is occasionally kept in line by his elder brother and manager, Bobby (Sam Elliott), who has seen what life in the spotlight has done to exacerbate Jack’s own mental health issues.

This film is not a first-generation remake, and therefore it’s understandable that much of its content would feel familiar and recognizable. While that is true, the genuine bond that forms between its protagonists feels totally fresh and formidable. Its lengthy two hour and fifteen minute runtime - a bit longer than the film probably needed to be - is made up for by the energy and sincerity of Gaga’s performance, coupled with her voice and the original songs performed in the film. Cooper impresses in his directorial debut and turns in what may well be his best performance at the same time. Elliott and Clay provide dependable support in smaller roles that reflect their onscreen family members’ experiences. This film is undeniably an experience, one that makes a strong case that stories like this are still worth exploring.


Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Movie with Abe: First Man

First Man
Directed by Damien Chazelle
Released October 12, 2018

Damien Chazelle is a remarkably accomplished filmmaker, winning an Oscar shortly after his thirty-second birthday for his third feature film. His first big feature splash, “Whiplash,” based on his short film of the same name, was a searing look at a young musician and the teacher who tormented him to compel him to success. His next film, “La La Land,” was a bold and magnificent revival of the musical genre, one that was met with acclaim from many and backlash from others. He’s demonstrated an incredible talent, and therefore it’s no surprise that his next film should be equally ambitious, though it’s nothing like his previous work.

Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) is an intelligent and passionate engineer and pilot whose early career quickly takes him to NASA, where beating the Soviet Union into space was a clear priority. Armstrong’s dedication to his work is based in part on the loss of his daughter at a young age, straining his relationship with his wife, Janet (Claire Foy), and his other children. Much effort and many mistakes, some resulting in the deaths of those closest to Armstrong, lead to his history-making mission that cement him as the first man to walk on the moon, taking one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.

Whereas Chazelle’s previous films have dealt with music on both a very focused and very grand scale, this project approaches his subject from an altogether different vantage point. Armstrong is first seen hurtling up into space in a small aircraft that doesn’t seem nearly stable or large enough to get him there safely, and that’s just one of many such scenes that attempt to capture the feeling of launching into the atmosphere as something utterly terrifying and far from guaranteed to end safely. It’s an intimate portrayal of the process of going into space set in the context of a sprawling story of the extensive efforts undertaken to make it possible, with a predictably excellent score from Justin Hurwitz fit for this kind of film.

Gosling, who starred in Chazelle’s most recent film before this, has just the right reserved energy to play Armstrong, a man driven by a need to succeed and tormented by losses out of his control. Foy, fresh off an Emmy win for “The Crown,” makes a very strong transition to cinema in a formidable performance as Janet, not content to be thought of merely as a wife to be controlled. Many notable actors, including Jason Clarke, Corey Stoll, and Kyle Chandler, appear in key supporting roles to underscore just how vast an undertaking putting man on the moon truly was. The film’s lengthy runtime contains moments in which it, seemingly purposely, feels endless, but the strong moments of breathless flight and tremendous awe make up for any lulls, creating an ultimately well-rounded and resounding cinematic experience.


Monday, October 22, 2018

DTLA Film Festival: Holy Lands

I had the chance to attend a few screenings from the 10th Annual Downtown Los Angeles Film Festival, which ran from October 17th-21st.

Holy Lands
Directed by Amanda Sthers
Centerpiece Film

There are many reasons that people rebel against religion. Often, the stronger the attempt to push faith upon people, the more that they will push back against it, declaring their determination to resist if only just for the sake of not being told what to do. Attempts to bring them back into the fold and set them on the right path are usually unsuccessful since, unless they have a desire to reconnect with what they’ve lost, it becomes yet another effort to stifle their sense of free will and indoctrinate them to something they’ve clearly expressed no interest in being affiliated with or having dictated for them.

Harry (James Caan) moves to Israel to raise pigs, an unusual decision that invokes the ire of multiple religious authorities, both for his disrespect of the majority populations of the land and his farm’s alleged historical holy Christian roots. As a rabbi, Moshe (Tom Hollander), makes progress in befriending Harry, the pieces of his family that he’s left behind back in America come into focus, shaped entirely by his absence: his playwright son, David (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), his dependent daughter Annabelle (Efrat Dor), and his ex-wife Monica (Rosanna Arquette), whose medical diagnosis compels her to take a serious look back at her life.

Harry’s decision to move to a country where pigs aren’t even allowed to touch the ground after a career in cardiology is perplexing and never explained, and all that’s clear is that he has completely abandoned his family. David’s plays are all about the letters he writes to his father, and Annabelle, who actually comes to visit him, is far from financially or socially independent seemingly as a result of his lack of proper parenthood. These are among the many themes that present themselves in this crowded, disjointed film that struggles to connect its various ideas into one coherent narrative.

Caan’s character calls for little more than being crotchety, and Hollander’s British rabbi is full of puzzling and unsatisfying inconsistencies. Rhys Meyers’ role is barely defined, and only Dor, actually Israeli but playing an American, and Arquette, who received the DTLA Independent Film Pioneer Award, manage to extract some meaning from their parts and portray it on screen. This film, based on director Amanda Sthers’ 2010 French novel, has lofty notions but doesn’t have a way to tie them together, and the product feels decidedly unfinished, assembling theoretically intriguing pieces, some amusing and some less so, in an utterly perplexing and haphazard manner.


Sunday, October 21, 2018

DTLA Film Festival: All Creatures Here Below

I had the chance to attend a few screenings from the 10th Annual Downtown Los Angeles Film Festival, which ran from October 17th-21st.

All Creatures Here Below
Directed by Collin Schiffli
Screened October 18th

Two people who don’t see the world the same way may still possess an incredible loyalty to one another, defensive and protective to the very end even if they can’t comprehend how the other experiences life. Sometimes, a difference in perspective is crucial to the bond between the two, since it allows them to see just what’s missing for the other, be it bravery, compassion, or anything else. Depending on someone else for a personality trait that is lacking can also create a need for symbiosis, where one can’t possibly hope to survive without the other.

Gensan (David Dastmalchian) works as a cook at a fast food pizza restaurant, supporting Ruby (Karen Gillan), whose social anxieties make her holding down a job difficult. When Gensan is let go as his restaurant prepares to close, he tries to score big with a bet on a chicken fight that turns violent, resulting in him stealing a car and going on the run. When he goes to pick up Ruby, he is shocked to discover that she has taken away a baby from her inattentive mother, giving them an additional obstacle on their getaway. As Gensan heads towards Kansas City, a source of past trauma for both him and Ruby, he struggles to see a happy end in sight for their new family of three.

The devotion that Gensan and Ruby have to each other is this film’s strongest selling point, since it’s clear that their relationship means everything to them, even if Ruby is hopeless to listen to what Gensan tells her and Gensan doesn’t always react to Ruby’s antics in the most polite or overtly supportive manner. Their journey is one that quickly demonstrates just how unequipped both are to thrive and succeed in this world, trapped for so long in a small bubble of poverty and barely getting by that has deceived them into thinking they can handle whatever life throws at them.

Gillian is a versatile actress whose ability to blend seamlessly into this role is impressive, even if it isn’t altogether realistically written. Dastmalchian, who wrote the film, has crafted for himself a somewhat more believable character, though he too doesn’t feel entirely genuine. This film, which is reminiscent at times of recent film festival standouts “Heaven Knows What” and “Back Roads,” bases itself on a premise that never feels true or sustainable. It’s a dismal and depressing ride, one that doesn’t ultimately offer anything rewarding for either its characters or its audience.


Saturday, October 20, 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

Brampton’s Own (mixed bag): This “romantic drama” about a baseball player who never got called up and returns back to his hometown in search of something is full of familiar tropes and not too much in the way of appealing originality. Now playing in Los Angeles at the Laemmle Playhouse 7. Read my review from Wednesday.

Can You Ever Forgive Me? (recommended): Melissa McCarthy gets (slightly) serious in this intriguing light drama about an author who starts forging literary letters to make money. It’s an enthralling and involving ride with strong performances. Now playing at the Landmark 57 West, City Cinemas 123, and the Angelika. Read my review from yesterday.

Mid90s (recommended): Jonah Hill makes a terrific directorial debut with this stylized tale of youthful rebellion. Sunny Suljic leads a great cast that helps to energize a very solid film. Now playing at AMC Lincoln Square and Regal Union Square. Read my review from Thursday.

Wildlife (mixed bag): There’s something that just doesn’t click about Paul Dano’s directorial debut, which features a wild, animated performance from the very dependable Carey Mulligan but otherwise feels very stuck in its own directionless web. Now playing at the Walter Reade Theater, Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center, and the IFC Center. Read my review from Sundance.

New to DVD

Arizona (recommended): Danny McBride is perfectly cast as a frustrated homeowner at the height of the housing market crash whose actions turn unintentionally violent, transforming this highly engaging film into a cat-and-mouse thriller that pits him against a frazzled but great Rosemarie DeWitt.

Boundaries (highly recommended): Vera Farmiga leads this fresh, involving road movie that features a tremendous performance from a still-fantastic and very funny Christopher Plummer. It’s well worth a watch both for the journey and for the characters who travel on it.

Friday, October 19, 2018

Movie with Abe: Can You Ever Forgive Me?

Can You Ever Forgive Me?
Directed by Marielle Heller
Released October 19, 2018

There exist people who are interested in just about anything. There are clubs and groups devoted to extraordinarily specific subjects, even if they may not seem mainstream or normative. The literary community has many different factions, and those who admire famed authors can obsess over their work and yearn to learn juicy secrets and unknown facts about the lesser-known parts of their lives. Letters from an author to another person can convey a good deal about who they really were, though, as this film clearly demonstrates, there’s no real way to know just how authentic they actually are.

Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy) is an author searching for her next project, and what she’s proposed but hasn’t really written has been fiercely decried as completely uninteresting by her agent. Miserable and in need of cash, Lee comes across a literary letter and realizes just how much money she can make by selling it. Using her way with words, Lee begins forging letters and selling them all across New York City. Through her illegal enterprise, she befriends an equally opportunistic con artist, Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant), and a bookshop owner, Anna (Dolly Wells), who expresses a romantic interest in Lee, who is far more attracted to the continuation of the art that can pay her bills and earn her praise from those who have no idea they’re looking at a forgery.

McCarthy is an actress known for her loud, unabashed comedy, receiving an Oscar nomination for her standout turn in “Bridesmaids” and a number of lead roles in parodies like “Spy” and “The Happytime Murders.” Though McCarthy wasn’t the original choice to play Lee, she is a brilliant one, since the part allows her to use her comic talents in a far dryer and subtler way than usual. She portrays Lee as an intellectual utterly disgusted by those who don’t share her worldview, and her ability to copy the penmanship and styles of famous authors serves as a symbolic revenge against the universe for not realizing the talent that she actually possesses.

Opposite McCarthy, Grant, who has been working consistently in film for decades, serves as a fantastic foil in the part of Jack, whose fortunes have turned out similarly to Lee’s but who looks at life in an altogether different way, eager for the next big ride rather than looking for the next disappointment. Wells, also known for her comedy, adds a bit of honest and well-intentioned humanity that is never at the forefront of Lee or Israel’s actions as the sweet-natured Anna. This film’s story, based on true events, is specific and engaging, and the moody darkness that surrounds it helps to amplify a surprisingly entertaining and wild tale.


Thursday, October 18, 2018

Movie with Abe: Mid90s

Directed by Jonah Hill
Released October 19, 2018

Jonah Hill grew up in the 1990s, born in 1983 and making his acting debut at age twenty-one in “I Heart Huckabees.” His early work was in comedies mostly produced by Judd Apatow, and since that time, he’s gone on to earn two Oscar nominations for slightly more serious work in “Moneyball” and “The Wolf of Wall Street.” As he enters a more mature and increasingly legitimate stage of his career, Hill steps behind the camera for the first time with an engaging directorial debut that may not be based on his own experiences growing up but is certainly informed by what he knew and watched before he made his entrance into the industry.

Stevie (Sunny Suljic) is a thirteen-year-old boy living in Los Angeles. His mother Dabney (Katherine Waterston) works hard and struggles to raise him and his older brother, Ian (Lucas Hedges), whose bad attitude makes his frequent beatings of Stevie even more brutal. Lost and bored, Stevie becomes entranced by a group of young skaters, idealizing them and slowly joining their crew, spending his every free moment with the small, quiet Ruben (Gio Galicia), dim-witted filmmaker Fourth Grade (Ryder McLaughlin), smooth talker Fuckshit (Olan Prenatt), and the cool leader of the group, Ray (Na-kel Smith).

This is an absolutely immersive experience, following Stevie as he first looks on with wonder at the cool kids skating around and then starts to become one of them. Stevie first connects with Ruben, who, like him, is diminutive and considerably quieter than the rest of the gang. The feeling of freedom that comes from spending time with them and doing nothing but talk and skate is evident in the way that Stevie looks around and at the camera, and the contrast to the isolating misery he experiences at home.

Suljic, who appeared in “The Killing of a Sacred Deer,” is a marvelous fit to play the starry-eyed Stevie, whose most endearing moments come when he is approached by a much bolder, much taller girl at a party who quickly both intimidates and amazes him. The other four boys are all excellent, with Prenatt and Smith standing out as future possibilities for what Stevie can become if he stays this course. This is a fantastic next step for Hill in his career, writing and directing an engaging and funny story that remains involving from start to finish, so perfectly calibrated and scored to the way that its characters see the world.


Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Movie with Abe: Brampton’s Own

Brampton’s Own
Directed by Michael Doneger
Released October 19, 2018

Regardless of where someone is from, there’s always a certain idea of “making it” that comes with getting out of that place and never looking back. Just as often, there are people who remain in one general area for the entirety of their lives, and for them, not as much changes. When one of the former type returns to the place that he or she has left behind, demonstrating success or at least progress towards it is important, and showing up without having accomplished much doesn’t lead to terribly positive interactions since any sense of superiority from having made it out of town is negated by the lack of anything to show for it.

Dustin (Alex Russell) is a minor league baseball player who spends every moment staying in shape so that he can finally get the call which will put him on a team and get him started on a series. As he approaches his thirtieth birthday, he realizes that a lot of time has passed waiting to get to that next step. Reluctantly, he returns back to his hometown of Brampton, where he finds his mother, Judy (Jean Smart), moving on with her life in a big way, and his high school girlfriend, Rachel (Rose McIver), in a new relationship that makes him question the choices he’s made and what could possibly come next for him.

This isn’t a new concept, and the fact that Dustin is obsessed with baseball is merely a variation on this format which involves someone who left coming back to find that no one is all too impressed with what he hasn’t made of himself in the time away. Billed as a “romantic drama,” this film takes predictable turns as Dustin eagerly reaches out to Rachel, not expecting her cold response based in no small part on the reason that their relationship ended in the first place, which was his laser-focused commitment to baseball above all else.

There’s some sweetness to be found in the brotherly relationship that Dustin develops with Cody (Carter Hastings), the much younger son of his mother’s new boyfriend, as he airs his frustrations with how no one understands how hard he’s tried to prepare for a productive life. Aside from that, much of this story seems tempered down, featuring some minimally colorful language but otherwise lacking much energy or true personality. McIver, who stars on “iZombie,” is always good, but this is among the most standard and uncreative of roles in the very same type of film.


Sunday, October 14, 2018

NYFF Spotlight: Roma

I’m thrilled to be covering a number of selections from the 56th Annual New York Film Festival, which takes place September 28th-October 14th.

Directed by Alfonso Cuarón
Centerpiece Selection

There are a number of international directors whose careers have begun in their home countries before, as the phrase goes, “coming to Hollywood” and delivering more mainstream, and occasionally award-nominated, fare. Mexico native Alfonso Cuarón’s trajectory has been a bit different, with only the first and fourth of his seven feature films to date being in Spanish. He had his mainstream blockbuster, “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban,” his follow-up genre hit, “Children of Men,” and the film that won him the Oscar for Best Director, “Gravity.” Now, with his eighth film, he is returning to his roots and to Mexico to tell the kind of story that for most directors comes at the beginning of their careers rather than at this point.

Yalitza Aparicio stars in the film

Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) works as a maid in 1970 in the home of a wealthy Mexico City family. The patriarch, Antonio (Fernando Grediaga), spends most of his time at the office and traveling for work, and whatever moments he does have he devotes instead to selfish interests, which drives the matriarch, Sofia (Marina de Tavira), crazy as she struggles to be a doting mother for her three children. While Cleo may not keep the house in the cleanest condition, her influence on the children is clear, and she serves as a crucial part of this family unit.

Alfonso Cuarón discusses the film

This is not the kind of film that often gets made in America, one that doesn’t have a specific plot hook other than that it follows a group of people over the course of a year in their lives. Cuarón’s work to date has been extremely diverse, but he always demonstrates an equal commitment to characters and to background details. The decision to shoot the film in black-and-white is an exceptional one, and the cinematography - by Cuarón himself - is mesmerizing, highlighting the mundanity of much of what the characters go through and the sparkling exceptions to that rule. The way in which Antonio’s car barely fits in the small alley next to their home and must be repositioned several times every time he pulls in and drives right over a staggering amount of dog feces left by Cleo is just one of the stunning images that helps to define this focused film.

Yalitza Aparicio and Marina de Tavira discuss the film

First-time actress Aparicio, who came to the New York Film Festival screening with an interpreter and received a tremendous and lengthy round of applause from the audience, is so subtly and simply effective as Cleo, a young woman who has never had much time to think about herself or what she might want if her circumstances were different yet continues to soldier on as events and realities dictate. Tavira portrays another form of self-sacrifice, exasperated beyond belief but never once contemplating taking the road her husband has to abandon his family. It’s great to see such powerful female performances featured in this film, which shows that Cuarón has drawn upon his more mainstream projects to create a deeply personal and fully captivating product.


Saturday, October 13, 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

Beautiful Boy (mixed bag): Steve Carell stars as the father of a drug-addicted son, played by Timothée Chalamet, in this decent drama that doesn’t feel quite as urgent or authentic as it means to. Now playing at AMC Lincoln Square and the Angelika. Read my review from yesterday.

Gosnell: The Trial of America’s Biggest Serial Killer (anti-recommended): This questionably-named film spotlights the very disturbing case of Dr. Kermit Gosnell, who performed abortions that often resulted in live births which turned into murders. The film is poorly written and executed, and its purpose also up for debate. Now playing at AMC Kips Bay. Read my review from Thursday.

New to DVD

Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot (recommended): Joaquin Phoenix is well-cast by director Gus Van Sant in this story about paraplegic cartoonist John Callahan, who lived a wild life in the company of others, with Jonah Hill and Rooney Mara in key supporting roles. It’s a fun and entertaining ride.

Eighth Grade (highly recommended): This clever and unassuming comedy about a teenager whose social media presence indicates a far more self-assured personality than she actually posesses in public has won rave reviews from critics and anyone I know who’s seen it. Check it out and enjoy for yourself!

Now on Netflix Instant Streaming

The Kindergarten Teacher (anti-recommended): Maggie Gyllenhaal stars as a teacher who gets way too attached to one of her five-year-old students who possesses an incredible talent for poetry. It’s hard to take this premise seriously, and the film suffers immensely as a result. Also playing theatrically at the IFC Center.

Friday, October 12, 2018

Movie with Abe: Beautiful Boy

Beautiful Boy
Directed by Felix Van Groeningen
Released October 12, 2018

There is a special bond that can exist between a father and son which begins at birth and continues as both grow older. Naturally, the nature of that relationship changes over time, as a son transforms from a child into a teenager into a young adult, and a father might face a decline in health and physical ability as the years pass. In some cases, a son emulates his father – or another parent – and in others, he rebels specifically to challenge authority. That behavior may not even be intentional, since personality and environmental factors can contribute to the development of issues that may be too difficult for even a father to be able to resolve.

David Sheff (Steve Carell) is a journalist who goes to see a doctor not for a story he is a writing but one that he is living, as his son Nic (Timothée Chalamet) is suffering from crippling addiction to a number of drugs. David’s biggest struggle is reconciling the young boy (Jack Dylan Grazer) he raised and had such a close relationship with and the defiant teenager he sees who puts on a happy face but spends so much of his time drowning in ways to make himself feel good using a variety of drugs. As multiple rehab treatments fail, David wonders how much more he can take to try to save his son.

If nothing else, this is an intimate portrait of two people who feel completely isolated by their circumstances. Nic is a child of divorce, and though both of his parents have afforded him a great life, he has his own demons that have caused him to forego his potential for great accomplishments. David becomes so obsessed with finding a way to connect with and help his son that he can’t focus on anything, including his wife and two other children, convinced that he can fix the situation.

Carell has ventured into drama recently after making a name for himself in comedy, and while he’s certainly believable in this role, it’s not his most dynamic or authentic performance. Chalamet, fresh off an Oscar-nominated breakthrough in “Call Me By Your Name,” manages to convey the real pain of addiction in his turn, which serves as a decent follow-up for him and a positive step in his career, and Grazer, who starred in “Me, Myself, and I,” is a dead ringer for him and a very competent pick to play his younger self. While this true story is indeed powerful and heart-wrenching, this adaptation doesn’t feel quite as vibrant and engaging as it should, presenting an impossible situation in an unremarkable, straightforward manner.


Thursday, October 11, 2018

Movie with Abe: Gosnell: The Trial of America’s Biggest Serial Killer

Gosnell: The Trial of America’s Biggest Serial Killer
Directed by Nick Searcy
Released October 12, 2018

A subtitle in the name of a film allows the creative forces behind it to add commentary and context to what they believe their subject to be. A person’s name or a specific location might not denote its significance in history, and that’s where an additional phrase or line of text can help to define what it means to those who find its story worth telling. In the case of this new film about a doctor who frequently performed abortions that went awry, the use of the word “biggest” and the term “serial killer” indicates a clear slant on how its subject’s indisputably disturbing behavior should be viewed.

Detective James Wood (Dean Cain) and Assistant District Attorney Lexy McGuire (Sarah Jane Morris) find themselves highly unsettled when they discover the office of Dr. Kermit Gosnell (Earl Billings), who, in his extremely unclean space, had unlicensed employees frequently assisting in the medication of pregnant women and the termination of their pregnancies, which in some cases involved the birth of live babies who immediately had their spinal cords severed. As Dr. Gosnell and his defense attorney Mike Cohan (Nick Searcy) argue that he was an ethical physician and that pro-choice advocates simply want to take him down, McGuire presses on with her prosecution of a man whose crimes she believes are truly heinous and unforgivable.

Both lawyers stress in their speeches to the jury that Gosnell’s office was far from the cleanest, and the level of service he provided was on par with what his patients expected. When McGuire first takes the case, she is explicitly instructed not to make it about abortion, since the outcome of the trial could be easily politicized on both sides. Gosnell is portrayed as an unfeeling monster, who plays the piano when police arrive to search the premises (it actually happened) and seems proud of the work he does that others obviously consider abhorrent. It’s not hard to figure out where the producers of this film stand, and Searcy’s hotheaded, vicious performance as his defense attorney is telling given that he cast himself in that role.

After watching this film, it was unsurprising to learn that Searcy, best known to TV audiences for his role as Art on “Justified,” is an outspoken conservative, as is star Cain, and interviews Searcy has done place blame on Hollywood for not being willing to go near this film because of its perceived political slant. Its subject material is off-putting to an extreme degree, and the purposeful omission of a disturbing image, advertised as available only on the film’s website during the end credits, reveals just how the film wishes to frame its story. Cinematically, it’s clunky and feels extremely dated, and the dialogue is especially tired. Gosnell may be a notable and infamous figure, but this version of his story is a lackluster and trite courtroom drama, bolstered by an over-the-top title meant to sensationalize something that probably never needed to be made into a film.


Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Movie with Abe: The Kindergarten Teacher

The Kindergarten Teacher
Directed by Sara Colangelo
Released October 12, 2018

The jobs that people have inform who they are, at least to some degree. How invested someone is in their work can affect the way that they interact with friends and family, in addition to shaping how many friends and how large a family, if any, they end up having. Spending too much time on work and not enough with loved ones or even just having personal time can be detrimental to a person’s growth and health, and, if truly unchecked, can even become dangerous and threaten a person’s livelihood.

Lisa (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is a kindergarten teacher who loves what she does. The young children she spends each day with are far easier to deal with than her own teenage offspring, both of whom no longer seem to have time or any interest in even eating dinner as a family, though her husband Grant (Michael Chernus) is kind and supportive. As she receives negative feedback from her poetry teacher (Gael Garcia Bernal) and classmates, she spots an incredible talent for poetry from her student Jimmy (Parker Sevak), which she begins to nurture and in turn steal to pass off as her own.

There’s a fundamental narrative issue in this film, which is based on a 2014 Israeli film of the same name, which makes it difficult to watch and accept. Lisa is good at her job, and therefore the interest she takes in her student, which causes her to do extraordinarily inappropriate things such as program her cell phone number into Jimmy’s phone and have him sleep over at her house without getting parental permission, is something that she should be aware is not okay. More unbelievably, others notice that she is overly invested and say nothing despite clear red flags that should be reported. Lisa’s need for fulfillment from her poetry class shouldn’t lead to what she does in this film, but that’s far from the only stretch applied here.

Gyllenhaal is a talented and hard-working actress who, on paper, should make this character work. That said, the assumption that this character can be a real, dynamic personality is flawed since the premise of this film is insufficient. Chernus is wasted in a supporting role, as is Bernal, and Sevak is the only one who shows potential for future roles, not that this one demands much other than a recitation of poetry that a five-year-old couldn’t possibly write. This film is a misfire, one that probably couldn’t have gone in the right direction since its story just isn’t appealing or coherent.


Sunday, October 7, 2018

NYFF Spotlight: The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

I’m thrilled to be covering a number of selections from the 56th Annual New York Film Festival, which takes place September 28th-October 14th.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
Directed by Joel and Ethan Cohen
Main Slate

The Coen Brothers have what some might call a unique touch. Their films are often uproariously funny, but usually also involve murder and mayhem. “No Country for Old Men” and “Fargo” are probably their biggest successes, though they’ve had other Best Picture Oscar nominees over the years. Their stories – and their characters – are peculiar, and almost always have a penchant for long-winded speeches that convey an intellect far beyond what might be expected. Not every effort by this duo is a success, and aiming too broadly for either comedy or drama without the knowledge of where to meet in the middle can produce an uneven result.

Tim Blake Nelson stars in the film

“The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” is merely the first chapter of this six-part collection of unconnected stories. Tim Blake Nelson is a showy, singing cowboy in the first, James Franco is an unlucky robber in the second, Liam Neeson is a traveling entertainer in the third, Tom Waits is a prospector looking for gold in the fourth, Zoe Kazan is a young maiden in search of a better life in the fifth, and Tyne Daly is one of a few nervous passengers in a stagecoach in the sixth. Other well-known actors and breakout newcomers accompany them and appear in various roles throughout this assembly of predictably outlandish tales.

The Coen Brothers discuss the film

The Coen Brothers have never been afraid to try something new, and they expressed at the press conference at the New York Film Festival that they didn’t ever think they’d be able to get this project made. While it is an impressive undertaking emboldened by great costuming and art direction, it suffers from being disjointed and, at times, purposeless. The bigger issue is that its first segment is so spectacular and entertaining that everything that comes after can’t possibly compare. The other five are also more serious and unpleasant in nature, which the Coen Brothers have done well in the past but doesn’t work too well here, especially in the film’s third road show act segment.

Bill Heck, Tim Blake Nelson, Zoe Kazan, and the Coen Brothers discuss the film

Nelson, who plays the film’s title character, is the undeniable star of this film, and it’s a tremendous, hilarious performance that sets the film off to a superb start. In the film’s penultimate segment, Kazan, Bill Heck, and Grainger Hines enhance their material considerably with involved and engaging turns. The smallest role that proves truly unforgettable features the reliable Stephen Root as a bank teller not about to be robbed again in what serves as the film’s funniest moment aside from the entirety of its opening act. Whether this film needed to exist as it is with its parts together is up for debate, since the quality of its first segment really overshadows and dwarfs the far less worthwhile rest.


Saturday, October 6, 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

Loving Pablo (mixed bag): Javier Bardem stars as Pablo Escobar and Penelope Cruz plays a journalist who falls for him in this lackluster adaptation that can’t possibly compare to the recent and far superior depiction of Escobar’s story in Netflix’s Narcos. Now playing at Village East Cinema. Read my review from yesterday.

Private Life (recommended): Paul Giamatti and Kathryn Hahn star in this comedic drama from director Tamara Jenkins about infertility, which features a breakout performance from Kayli Carter and a worthwhile look at the struggle to build a family. Now playing at Landmark 57 West and the IFC Center. Also available on Netflix. Read my review from Sundance.

New to DVD

Breath (highly recommended): Simon Baker stars in and directs this visually incredible story of two young surfers on the Western coast of Australia in the 1970s who get to experience glimpses of adulthood through their interactions with a former professional surfer.

The Catcher Was a Spy (recommended): Paul Rudd stars as a real-life Jewish baseball player sent to assassinate a Nazi target. It’s a cool premise which works well enough as a film, even if it feels like this story is a bit too isolated from the real world.

Leave No Trace (highly recommended): Debra Granik helms this terrific film worthy of favorable comparison to her previous success, “Winter’s Bone,” featuring exceptional performances from Ben Foster and breakout star Thomasin McKenzie as a father and daughter set on living away from the world in the wilderness.

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 on Netflix Instant Streaming

Anger Management (recommended): Jack Nicholson and Adam Sandler were a decent pair for this decent enough comedy about people trying to deal with their anger, offering some laughs and relatively sufficient entertainment.

Billy Madison (mixed bag): Most true Adam Sandler fans love one of his earliest hits, which is far from his most intellectual work but easily one of the most quotable.

Blazing Saddles (highly recommended): It’s hard to find a classic comedy as exceptional – and exceptionally offensive – as this 1974 film from Mel Brooks, featuring a tremendous lead performance from Cleavon Little and so much of what has inspired modern-day comedy since.

Copycat (mixed bag): I’m a huge fan of serial killer thrillers when done right, but this 1995 effort starring Sigourney Weaver didn’t quite do it for me. There are some worthwhile moments but its disturbing nature isn’t quite worth the trip.

Mystic River (recommended): Sean Penn and Tim Robbins both won Oscars for their portrayal of Boston natives caught up in a miserable, unsettling situation that causes them both to question who they are.

Poseidon (recommended): I don’t remember much about this 2006 remake of the 1972 adventure film other than that it starred a young Emmy Rossum and was actually pretty entertaining, if admittedly and expectedly over-the-top.

The Shining (recommended): I had the distinct experience of watching this famed thriller at the Mohonk Mountain House, which wasn’t the basis for the film but easily could have been, and though I’m no fan of horror, I can admit that this film is unique and very worthwhile to anyone who wants to be taken for a wild and often terrifying ride.

V for Vendetta (recommended): This 2006 film about an antigovernment revolutionary feels like it came out forever ago, but I think it serves as an important archetype for a lot of similar films that have been made since, and it’s pretty worthwhile in its own right. The tagline is impossible to forget: “Remember, remember, the fifth of November.”

Friday, October 5, 2018

Movie with Abe: Loving Pablo

Loving Pablo
Directed by Fernando León de Aranoa
Released October 5, 2018

It often happens that two projects about the same subject are released around the same time. It’s rare for both to be equally successful, and usually it’s the one that comes out first which receives more positive reviews from audiences and critics alike. There are always differences between the two approaches, even if the story is extremely similar. Discerning their quality requires a step back to understand what the source material might be, what has been included and omitted, and what style is used to present it. Seeing one first doesn’t necessarily mean that a fresh take is what counts, as in some instances the later product really is inferior.

Virginia Vallejo (Penelope Cruz) is a famous television journalist invited to a party at the home of Colombian rising star and recent millionaire Pablo Escobar (Javier Bardem). Virginia becomes entranced with this gregarious and powerful man, who attempts a career in politics only to be told that the sins of his past are too great, leading him to become a villain in his country, even setting up his own mansion-like prison when it becomes clear that he has no choice but to appear to yield to the authority of both his and the American government, though, as Virginia begins to realize, he is still very much in control of his situation and everything around him.

Escobar, as portrayed by the immensely talented Wagner Moura, was the subject of the first two seasons of Netflix’s magnetic and excellent series “Narcos.” The use of archive footage is prevalent here as it is there, and Virginia, initially presented as a character in her own right, becomes just another narrator to tell Pablo’s story, which is undeniably fascinating. After a slow start, the terror grows for Virginia as she realizes what Pablo does and what he’s capable of when he’s angry, and the film gradually develops its own style as it goes along. Compared to Netflix’s undertaking, however, this effort is a pale imitation that doesn’t provide nearly as much intrigue or compelling drama.

The decision to shoot this film in English is puzzling at best, since director Fernando León de Aranoa and stars Cruz and Bardem are all native to Spain, and Spanish is the primary language of Colombia that all of its characters should speak, aside from when they are addressing American operatives, like Peter Sarsgaard’s DEA agent. It dilutes the story and the overall effectiveness of the film, one that’s often told better from afar through the voice of someone like Virginia. Cruz is strong, and while Bardem might seem like the perfect fit to play Pablo, this is hardly one of his more memorable or chilling performances despite the potential of the role. For those who want to see Pablo portrayed on screen, check out the superb “Narcos” over this mediocre film.


Thursday, October 4, 2018

NYFF Spotlight: High Life

I’m thrilled to be covering a number of selections from the 56th Annual New York Film Festival, which takes place September 28th-October 14th.

High Life
Directed by Claire Denis
Main Slate

Many classic films set in outer space can be easily identified by their directors, who left an indelible stylistic mark on their work that has come to define or at the very least inform their careers. Stanley Kubrick made “2001: A Space Odyssey,” George Lucas helmed “Star Wars,” Ridley Scott guided “Alien,” and James Cameron steered “Aliens.” More recently, established filmmakers not known for science fiction or extraterrestrial efforts have traveled to cinematic space, with Alfonso Cuaron as one prominent example taking home an Oscar for “Gravity.” Now, a director whose previous work has definitely been set firmly on Earth is traveling to new heights for an inarguably unique vision of what space could look like through her eyes.

Monte (Robert Pattinson) is a death row inmate who has accepted an innovative sentence, going into space to try to harness the power of a black hole. Aboard his quiet ship, he spends his days working on repairs and taking care of a baby before submitting nightly reports to refresh his life support. Through flashbacks, the full picture of his mission is revealed, with a convicted doctor (Juliette Binoche) conducting a side project of attempting to impregnate the female prisoners. Trapped together in a small space with no knowledge of if they’ll ever make it home, the group of violent criminals predictably begins to experience cabin fever before all hell breaks loose.

Listed on IMDB under adventure/drama/horror, this film is probably best described as a science-fiction psychological thriller. It appears to take some inspiration from the template of “Alien,” with internal strife and discord serving as just as much a catalyst for the doom as the very threatening possibility of death whenever a black hole nears. Starting with Monte operating the ship by himself while tending to an inexplicably present infant only increases the melancholy, draining feeling that this trip has gone horribly wrong. No fate that can befall the passengers of this ship will be good, but watching as past and present play out simultaneously is a tense and troubling experience.

Director Claire Denis and star Robert Pattison discuss the film at a press conference

Denis, whose extraordinarily different “Let the Sun Shine In” screened at last year’s New York Film Festival, makes a recognizable imprint on this film, focusing most on the characters and their coming undone. She also says that there is no way that people in could speak French, her straightforward explanation for why the film is in English rather than her native language. The presence of a “sex room” aboard the ship designed to help the prisoners alleviate some of their tension is a very peculiar addition that doesn’t feel as strange as it should thanks to Denis’ incorporation of it, and Binoche in particular helps to normalize it with her magnetic and haunting performance. Pattinson, who has transformed himself into a more serious actor over the past few years following an early tween “Twilight” craze, serves as a stable lead, one who anchors a story far out of Monte’s control with a frank acceptance of his situation. This film unapologetically frames and follows its own narrative to great effect, on its own individual, unsettling course the whole time.