Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Interviews with Abe, Incitement


This year’s recipient of the Best Picture prize at the Ophir Awards, Israel’s equivalent of the Oscars, is “Incitement,” which tells the story of the year leading up to Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination, focusing on the assassin himself, Yigal Amir. After a successful North American premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival this past September, the film serves as the opening night film for the 33rd Israel Film Festival in Los Angeles tonight. I had the chance to sit down with director Yaron Zilberman to talk about the experience of making this film.

What drew you to this subject and to make this particular movie?

It’s a national trauma. It’s a traumatic event on a personal level because I was part of the pro-peace movement in Israel. That assassination changed the course of history in the country. I always wanted to address it and talk about it. There were many questions about what really happened. There was much more to be interpreted that I was curious about before I started working on it. Once I began, it was fascinating – there were so many layers to it.

What were you most surprised to learn?

To really see that the assassin wasn’t a monster outside of the realm of the mainstream, as we were always told. This guy was almost a normative guy. Yes, he had extreme opinions, but he was part of society, talking with everyone about this murder. He was openly debating whether one should kill Rabin and announced his plans to do so. He went from protest to protest where people spoke in violent language of “blood and fire” and taking out Rabin. That was just the tip of the iceberg. In research, I realized there was a huge push towards that direction – it’s not that he was crazy.

Did you speak to Yigal Amir?

I did not speak to him personally. My researcher did since he’s Orthodox and so is Yigal. It’s a different kind of conversation where they immediately feel comfortable discussing nuances within the religious world. They had the same background, both having been active in Bnei Akiva, our national religious scout program. They were, in a way, speaking the same language. He spoke to him over the phone for hundreds of hours with questions my co-writer and I had prepared. He asked and came back with many stories, then went back with new questions to learn the whole world that helped us craft this story.

Do you think he would be pleased with his representation in this film?

He doesn’t think of himself as a villain, and, for so long, he was such a monster that now he can speak and express his opinions, which made him eager to talk. Whether he’s happy or not, we’ll see once he sees the movie. So far, he’s said that it’s a must-see movie because it’s important for democracy, even if he doesn’t agree with many things in the movie. It’s ironic because what he did by shooting Rabin was to fatally wound democracy.

You chose to end the film when Rabin died rather than continuing to follow Yigal in prison, where he has since gotten married and had a child. Was that purposeful?

My concept was that, until the first shot comes out of his gun, he’s still not a killer. Imagine that he goes there and decides not to shoot Rabin and just comes home. He’s not a murderer – there’s no issue with him, just another guy who turned out to want to do something extreme and then not go through with it. The moment he shoots him, he becomes a villain. That’s when I stop being interested in him. That’s the moment that I depart from him. The entire story is told through his journey, but once he shoots Rabin, I’m no longer on that journey with him. I don’t really care, I just want him to be in jail forever.

It’s hard to watch this film and not think a lot about HBO’s “Our Boys.” They’re both stories that get to the heart of how a deep devotion to religion drives people to think that murder is acceptable and even encouraged. There is certainly some concern that it doesn’t do a lot for Israel and Judaism and their worldwide standing. What do you think?

I haven’t had a chance to watch “Our Boys,” but I will definitely do so soon. I don’t think that it’s bad for Israel, but good to see that the country and filmmakers can self-criticize and criticize the government. That people can watch it and say whatever they want to say shows the strength of Israel and of its people as a nation. There are countries where you can’t do that. In Israel, you can. The fact that we criticize certain governments and view certain rabbis as inciting in the same way, pushing to violence, doesn’t mean that the entire Israel is a bad place. It means that these people are a part of Israel that needs to change.

There are some, such as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who are unhappy with the film.

Yes. Miri Regev, especially, the culture minister. When Bibi doesn’t like something, she announces it, and in our case, she called for a boycott of the movie without having seen it. In Israel, the moment she says that, people start to watch. We’ve been waiting for her to say that, so it’s all good.

What has the response to the film been like, and what do you expect from tonight at the Israel Film Festival?

In Israel, the movie became a phenomenon. We crossed 150,000 people, which is big for Israel, especially for something that’s not a romantic comedy or fun. It’s a drama with an ending that is devastating. They invited me to speak last week at a peace rally where I spoke in front of 50,000 people, the first time in 24 years since the murder that they’ve had someone from outside the political world. High school students and teachers have gone to see it, which is great, and every institution – policemen, soldiers – wants to have their people go see it and discuss it and how it relates to the future of Israel. How do we move forward, and how can we stop the next one? As for the United States, the public will likely see parallels to what’s happening here with Donald Trump and Bibi, the same kind of inciting language and groups supporting them.

Have members of Rabin’s family seen it, and what do they think?

They have, and yes. His daughter, who is in a way responsible for his legacy, running his museum, is a major supporter of the movie. She’ll be here next week for several of our screenings. The first time she saw the movie, she cried from the first frame to the last frame. She hugged me and said great things about it. She believes this is the history of what happened in Israel and has totally embraced it.

Can you talk about your decision to use a lot of archive footage rather than casting anyone as Rabin?

Using footage supports the idea that it’s true. The first time that Yigal is seen watching Rabin on television with Clinton and Arafat in Washington, you already see a relationship with reality. Every time we get into a question about whether it’s real or not, I’ll show you more archive footage to show you that it’s true. I won’t tell you that a rabbi said something; I’ll show you a clip of them saying it on camera. It gives the power of truth to the story.

Was anything created or embellished for the film?

I didn’t really add anything. It was important for me not to, because once you do that, there’s a credibility issue which can put everything in doubt. What I had to do was to imagine what conversation occurred between people, using things that I knew happened whether the words were exactly what they said to each other, between Yigal and his girlfriend or his father. Based on interviews and what I read about them, I invented dialogue.

I know that the film won the Ophir Israeli Oscar for Best Picture and also an award for casting. Can you talk about finding some of your main players?

Early on, we decided on two main concepts for casting. The first is that it must be a Yemenite family so that they can bring their world and to discuss this major issue that the assassin came out of this community. They are the only people that can really know the behavior, way of talking, and religious elements. The second was that we wouldn’t take famous actors, just an ensemble of amazing actors. When you have a famous actor, it’s harder to imagine that person in the role. You can overcome it, but we’re not accustomed to it in Israeli society like you are here. Daniel Day-Lewis plays Lincoln and you can accept it, but it doesn’t work that way in Israel. So we wanted someone relatively unknown to keep it humble and mundane, so that you don’t have a person that’s bigger than the situation.

I’ve seen the film marketed as a thriller, but to me it plays a lot more like a standard drama. Even the climactic scene feels relatively relaxed, not embellished or dramatized to heighten the energy or speed up events.

The approach was very naturalistic. It’s almost like a documentary. I always wanted this to be a narrative, but I wanted it to be as close to a documentary in how we selected shots. It’s as if Yigal had called us and said “Listen, don’t tell anyone, but in a year and a half I’m going to shoot Rabin, and I am allowing you to follow me.” That was the feeling I wanted to create. The realism was very important because there’s a doubt in Israel that this actually happened like this. In other films, you know they exaggerate, and you don’t really buy it. You’re enjoying a movie. I didn’t want this to be a movie since it’s such a trauma for Israel. My number one goal with this film was for it to shake Israelis to their core. Israel has been talking about this movie for six weeks. The movie is questioning everything that we think about the assassination. We’re no longer willing to accept that there was no incitement. The realism, the naturalism, the actors, the archival footage – everything was there to artistically support the message we were trying to send. We’re also hoping people will be able to see it as a universal film where people really question the motives of assassins and whether they were pushed by anyone to do it, and what can be learned from that.

As a winner of the Israeli Oscar for Best Picture, this film is now eligible for the Oscar for Best International Feature. What do you think about that?

We’re going to do our best. We’re going to show it and talk about it, and the Academy members will decide. It’s their decision, not mine.

You can see “Incitement” at the Israel Film Festival in Los Angeles. It is scheduled for a theatrical release in the United States in early 2020.

Monday, November 11, 2019

Monday Oscar Odds


It’s been a very busy week of screenings, and I have even more scheduled for this week. I’m trying to keep on top of the buzz to understand what films may be gaining or losing advantages, even if I have yet to see them or didn’t like them.

I’m adding one category here with three films I haven’t yet seen but hope to within the next week and a half or so. The Makeup Artists and Hair Stylists Guild announced their nominations earlier today. I’m choosing three films that seem likeliest, though it’s also possible that “Joker,” “Downton Abbey,” or “Hustlers” could break into the three-wide field.

I’ve watched a handful of other documentaries that could contend, mostly from DOC NYC. I’m subbing in “The Apollo” in place of “Ask Dr. Ruth,” but I also think that either of the Syrian films in contention, “The Cave” and “For Sama,” could easily displace one or two of the others. We’ll have to see what the finalist list of fifteen films announced in just over a month will include.

I got to screen a handful of Best International Feature submissions, including those from Poland, France, North Macedonia, Estonia, and Israel. Reviews will be forthcoming for those – at this time, I’m not making any changes to my predictions. The European Film Awards also announced their nominees, which included top placements for submissions from France, Spain, Germany, and Italy.

The most high-profile contender that I watched this week was “Marriage Story,” which really was very good. I see it doing very well across the board, and while Alan Alda, an original prediction of mine who I took out last week, could make the cut, his role really is very small. The big question mark remains “1917,” which is slated to begin screening in two weeks and which I hope to see soon. I’ve resisted putting it in, but I think I’m going to add it now in place of “Little Women,” another film I won’t be seeing for a few weeks, though I’m not yet bumping anyone from Best Director.

I’m finally going to screen “The Irishman” tonight and have a number of other exciting contenders to see this week. I don’t feel confident about either the Best Actor or Best Supporting Actor lineups, but I’ll have to see more films and precursors first before making any serious changes. Stick around for reviews and updated predictions next week!

Current predictions:

Best Picture
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
The Farewell
The Irishman
Jojo Rabbit
Joker
Marriage Story
1917
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
Parasite

Best Director
Martin Scorsese (The Irishman)
Taika Waititi (Jojo Rabbit)
Noah Baumbach (Marriage Story)
Quentin Tarantino (Once Upon a Time in Hollywood)
Bong Joon Ho (Parasite)

Best Actor
Antonio Banderas (Pain and Glory)
Robert De Niro (The Irishman)
Leonardo DiCaprio (Once Upon a Time in Hollywood)
Adam Driver (Marriage Story)
Joaquin Phoenix (Joker)

Best Actress
Awkwafina (The Farewell)
Scarlett Johansson (Marriage Story)
Charlize Theron (Bombshell)
Alfre Woodard (Clemency)
Renée Zellweger (Judy)

Best Supporting Actor
Sterling K. Brown (Waves)
Tom Hanks (A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood)
Al Pacino (The Irishman)
Joe Pesci (The Irishman)
Brad Pitt (Once Upon a Time in Hollywood)

Best Supporting Actress
Laura Dern (Marriage Story)
Scarlett Johansson (Jojo Rabbit)
Jennifer Lopez (Hustlers)
Margot Robbie (Bombshell)
Maggie Smith (Downton Abbey)

Best Original Screenplay
The Farewell
Marriage Story
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
Parasite
Waves

Best Adapted Screenplay
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
The Irishman
Jojo Rabbit
Joker
Little Women

Best Makeup and Hairstyling
Bombshell
The Irishman
Rocketman

Best Animated Feature
Frozen II
How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World
Klaus
Toy Story 4
Weathering with You

Best Documentary
American Factory
The Apollo
Apollo 11
The Biggest Little Farm
Honeyland

Best International Feature
Les Miserables (France)
Out Stealing Horses (Norway)
Corpus Christi (Poland)
Parasite (South Korea)
Pain and Glory (Spain)

DOC NYC Spotlight: Desert One

I’m excited to have been able to screen a few selections from DOC NYC, America’s largest documentary festival, which presents its tenth year in New York City from November 6th-15th.


Desert One
Directed by Barbara Kopple
DOC NYC Screenings

Some of the boldest and most daring military operations aren’t known to the general public. Those that are successful and have momentous results are usually discussed, but not necessarily in great detail that reveals what actually went into them. Cinematic adaptations or investigations are the most common way in which stories are unveiled, profiled from start to finish with the underlying causes and unexpected consequences of a mission explored. Even if a good deal is known about a particular historical event, there’s always more going on behind the scenes that can lend more context and clarity.

In 1979, the Shah of Iran was given asylum in the United States by President Jimmy Carter, triggering further anti-American sentiment during the Iranian Revolution in the country. Fifty-two Americans were taken hostage at the United States embassy in Tehran, a process that lasted more than a year. Negotiations between Carter and Ayatollah Khomeini were far from productive, with the American leader not getting anywhere and the situation worsening over time. Carter’s alternative: a rescue mission on Iranian soil, explored in detail in this documentary.

The Iran hostage crisis came into cinematic focus recently with the release and Oscar Best Picture victory for “Argo,” looking at the more extensive and ultimately successful rescue of six diplomats who managed to get out of the embassy. This documentary maintains some of the same playfulness from those who experienced it, looking back on a bit of the comedy in an otherwise deadly serious and dangerous context. It’s definitely hard to imagine laughing in the moment, and one hostage’s recollections of acting out and receiving ensuing punishment from the guards are conveyed in a startlingly gleeful manner.

This film smartly interviews those involved in many different ways, including American hostages, members of the Desert One operation, and Iranians present during its execution. Revisiting these events almost four decades later demonstrates how memories remain intact and how trivial this crisis seems when compared with current events. Hearing from Carter himself and former Vice-President Walter Mondale, two figures whose legacies are strongly associated with the hostages being released one minute after Ronald Reagan’s inauguration, proves to be particularly powerful as they defend doing what they thought was best. It’s an interesting and educational look back at a chapter of history that could certainly have gone worse, and might have been curtailed considerably had this effort turned out positively.

B+

Friday, November 8, 2019

Weekend Movie Recommendations with Abe

I'm excited to present a revamped version of Saturday Night Movie Recommendations with Abe! The Minute with Abe: Weekend Movie Recommendations Edition will premiere on YouTube each Friday and be reposted here during the day as well. Check it out, and subscribe to the movieswithabe channel!

Movie with Abe: Marriage Story


Marriage Story
Directed by Noah Baumbach
Released November 6, 2019

The dissolution of a marriage is a painful process for all involved. Minor disagreements and sentiments that might have gone undiscussed during happier times are blown up and emphasized as indications of a larger trend of behavior, and long-forgotten fights are brought again even if they had previously been resolved. When lawyers are involved, things can get much messier, with constant battles to achieve victory that may not represent what it is that both parties actually want, expressed in a moment of anger that can have lasting reverberations and consequences for the future of what in many cases could be a mostly amicable relationship.

Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) and Charlie (Adam Driver) are in the process of separating, a decision largely spurred by Nicole’s belief that Charlie prioritizes the theater company he runs over all else and her decision to relocate to Los Angeles to star in a TV pilot. They start with mediation, but Nicole is encouraged to see a famed divorce attorney (Laura Dern) whose cutthroat approach forces Charlie to find his own representation (Alan Alda). Nicole and Charlie aren’t much concerned with who gets what, but the same thing is most important to both of them: their young son Henry (Azhy Robertson).

Writer-director Noah Baumbach has tackled the complexities of divorce before in his strong 2005 film “The Squid and the Whale.” This time, he returns with the same familiar humor that adds much-needed levity to a serious and upsetting story. There are moments of comedy embedded within a narrative that shows two people fighting to regain some sense of normalcy and happiness after their lives spiral out of control thanks to the manipulation of their emotions and desires by those hired to represent them and argue on their behalf. It’s an affecting and deeply human portrait, with echoes of “500 Days of Summer” related to the way in which once endearing qualities can be seen in a less positive context when the circumstances of a relationship have changed.

This film features spectacular performances from Johansson and Driver, representing an enormous step forward in both of their thriving careers as they each have other major arthouse and blockbuster projects this year. Their interactions are immensely watchable, and seeing them boil to such anger before returning back to a state of melancholy acceptance is extraordinary. Dern offers a formidable scene-stealing turn, with additional support from Alda and Ray Liotta as a similarly brutal negotiator. This is a powerful, honest film, one which is not always an easy watch but is terrific and resonant from start to finish.

B+

Thursday, November 7, 2019

DOC NYC Spotlight: Healing from Hate

I’m excited to have been able to screen a few selections from DOC NYC, America’s largest documentary festival, which presents its tenth year in New York City from November 6th-15th.


Healing from Hate: Battle for the Soul of a Nation
Directed by Peter Hutchinson
DOC NYC Screenings

It’s easy to see how the United States has transformed over the course of the past few years, allowing extremism to become more mainstream. The failure of prominent politicians to denounce hate groups as such has led to the normalization of sentiments that in the past would have been considered unacceptable even if they were allowed to exist beneath the surface. Not everyone has moved so far to the right that they actively work to terrorize and discriminate against those who don’t look like them, and understanding how those who were able to escape that life think is an eye-opening and deeply unsettling process.

This documentary looks at a group called Life After Hate, founded by former skinheads and neo-Nazis who, in different ways, all came to see the error of their ways and have since dedicated their lives to rebuilding trust with the people that they hurt and working to help those like them separate from their hateful identities. Those interviewed share painful stories from their pasts, including leaving those they hurt for dead, still unaware of whether they survived, and returning to the sites of their crimes to speak to the people that they hurt about how their views on the world have since changed.

This film enjoys an incredible degree of access to those who have taken steps towards reform, and it also includes explicit footage of those who still preach hate. Richard Spencer is one white nationalist who makes multiple appearances as he engages with those who are attempting to reverse the radicalization, proudly detailing the alleged scientific and sociological evidence that serves as the basis of his views. One rehabilitated interviewee explains that, when he used to go on talk shows, he changed his appearance and wore a suit so that he could be taken more seriously, just part of the invention of the “alt-right,” a term that attempts to hide the white supremacy inherent within its ideology.

This documentary serves as an excellent companion piece to a DOC NYC selection from last year, “Exit,” which presented a more global perspective on those who have left hate groups. Shining a light on the Internet as a way to both allow anonymity and to broaden access to material that previously would have arrived more slowly by mail demonstrates the need for this increasingly prominent worldview to be combated. The terrifying score from Malcolm Francis highlights the urgency of this fight and the brutality that can come from acting on these feelings of hate. Knowing that there are those fervently engaged in educating others like themselves on how to return and atone for what they have done is inspiring, though it’s merely a mild comfort given the seriousness conveyed by this film’s hard-hatting research.

B+

DOC NYC Shortlist Spotlight: The Cave

In advance of and during DOC NYC 2019, which begins November 6th, I’m making my way through some of the contenders on the annual Features Shortlist, which selects the films likeliest to contend for the Oscar for Best Documentary.


The Cave
Directed by Feras Fayyad
DOC NYC Screenings

Wartime typically leads to a different modality of behavior for those affected. Supplies are rationed based on availability, and those not actively engaged with the military may take on new roles as needed. A conflict extends far beyond those that are directly involved, and it is up to those left on the sidelines to determine what their contributions will be as they remain behind in a dangerous area. These stories of bravery can be truly harrowing, and when a journalist or filmmaker gains access to them as they are occurring, getting the message out that these events are undeniably happening becomes of crucial importance.

The situation in Syria has become so untenable due to constant aerial assaults that the only solution for one group of medical professionals is to establish an underground hospital near Damascus. Dr. Amani Ballour works tirelessly to care for the patients who come her way, pausing to listen for the ominous and deafening sound of warplanes as they approach to deliver more casualties. Despite her clear expertise and skill, Dr. Amani faces challenges to her authority by men who believe that religion has set out a clear path for gender roles, one that has not been altered by the constant barrage of attacks around them.

This film joins “For Sama” as another female-centric look at medical care in present-day Syria, also on DOC NYC’s shortlist. This film manages to capture the terrifying unpredictability of the daily life, with shouts of “Either work or be scared” followed by audibly frightening sounds whose effect is felt even as a viewer hundreds of miles removed from this conflict. A birthday celebration featuring popcorn finds Dr. Amani and other attendees pretending that they are enjoying pizza, an alluring concept unimaginable in their current circumstances. The hopeful illusion is just one method in which they cope with the impossibility of their everyday life.

This is director Feras Fayyad’s second cinematic trip to Syria following his Oscar-nominated feature documentary “Last Men in Aleppo,” and this time feels far more personal and intimate. Dr. Amani doesn’t always radiate confidence or positive energy, consumed by the misery of what she is seeing and her helplessness in being able to put a stop to it or save someone too far gone who didn’t need to die. Fayyad smartly captures conversations rather than direct interviews, allowing the reality of what he is filming to speak volumes and transmit, as much as can be conveyed by a film, the horrors of what is happening in Syria and the incredible work Dr. Amani and her colleagues have done nonetheless.

B+

Wednesday, November 6, 2019

DOC NYC Shortlist Spotlight: The Apollo

In advance of DOC NYC 2019, which begins November 6th, I’m making my way through some of the contenders on the annual Features Shortlist, which selects the films likeliest to contend for the Oscar for Best Documentary.


The Apollo
Directed by Roger Ross Williams
DOC NYC Screenings

When it comes to movies, the theaters in which they are shown don’t necessarily make the experience. Some cineplexes have history, but they don’t compare to the importance of a venue in which live performances occur. Particularly for marginalized communities who at certain points in time weren’t free to perform wherever they liked, a theater can hold special significance, emblematic of a sense of opportunity that those who got to benefit from or experience it may have appreciated without having the full knowledge of just how much it would mean years later and long into their careers.

This documentary spotlights the Apollo Theater, a staple of Harlem in New York City that gave birth to many successful musicians. As a place where African-Americans could feel comfortable performing, it was a starting point for famed figures such as Dionne Warwick and Louis Armstrong. Over time, it evolved into a space where its own roots as somewhere where being black was okay were explored through the adaptation of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “Between the World and Me.” Through it all, its legendary Amateur Night, a crucial testing ground for future talent, has endured.

This film does double duty as a historical chronicle of all the people who have performed at the Apollo and as a layered narrative about the fragility of being black in America. One iconic moment that really sets the tone for this film is a clip of Billie Holiday singing “Strange Fruit,” a song about racism and lynching, defying notions of normalcy and not rocking the boat to proclaim something deeply meaningful to her. That courageous choice decades ago has shaped the makeup of the Apollo today, which now serves as a platform to call out that which cannot be denied by society yet somehow continues to persist.

Among the most rewarding aspects of this informative and involving documentary are the interviews with musicians who eagerly recall how they felt when they first performed at the Apollo. This film has a wonderful rhythm to it, one that ebbs and flows with the reality of the times, which includes blatant and unapologetic racist policies in its early years and unpunished discrimination and police violence in the present. This film makes a strong and effective case for the Apollo as a sanctuary of sorts, ensuring one place to thrive for a community in need of a space to express itself.

B+

Tuesday, November 5, 2019

DOC NYC Shortlist Spotlight: Honeyland

In advance of DOC NYC 2019, which begins November 6th, I’m making my way through some of the contenders on the annual Features Shortlist, which selects the films likeliest to contend for the Oscar for Best Documentary.


Honeyland
Directed by Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov
DOC NYC Screenings

Industry has advanced to a certain point in developed countries that it’s often hard for people to imagine and understand the personal touch and care needed to foster natural products without the use of modern machinery. Factory tours across the United States offer a vantage point from which to observe workers in the middle of their shifts doing their jobs and ensuring quality control, but that assumes the presence of some surrounding operation, which isn’t always the case, especially in rural communities where everything is completely hands-on and requires an extreme devotion to a particular vocation.

In Northern Macedonia, Hatidze serves as a beekeeper, taking care that she is able to cultivate the honey that she needs to sell while leaving half for the bees, ensuring a balance so that she can continue the harmonious relationship. Her indigenous practices are disrupted with the arrival of a Turkish family, who have different ideas about how to do things and are more concerned with profit over ancient ways of producing only what’s possible without artificial intervention. Determined to maintain what has always worked for her, Hatidze must try to endure and persevere against this new threat of competition and obliteration.

This film won several prizes at the Sundance Film Festival this past January, and is both a top contender for the Best Documentary Oscar and the country of North Macedonia’s official submission for Best International Feature. There is no denying the eye-opening value of spotlighting this extraordinarily impressive woman set on continuing her way of life and not taking the easy way out, refusing to be forcibly changed or trampled out of existence. While its pacing is purposely slow, following Hatidze as events in her life drive the narrative, there is a truth and honesty at play here that can’t be replicated.

Under a broader definition of documentary filmmaking, this film falls into the perseveration subcategory, showcasing someone who is defying trends of modernization and industrialization. This is a journey into the mountains of North Macedonia, a place not known to many and visited by even fewer. It may not be riveting or pulse-pounding, but stopping to appreciate the beauty and simplicity of beekeeping is an unexpected delight. This documentary didn’t astound this reviewer quite as much as it seems to have won over wider festival and critical audiences, but for those intrigued by any aspect of it, it’s certainly worth a watch.

B

Monday, November 4, 2019

Monday Oscar Odds


I’m going to be seeing a lot of top contenders in the next couple weeks, and so, for the moment, I only have a bit more information to help me with my predictions.

The big announcement that has potential for impact is that the 93 submissions for Best International Feature, formerly Best Foreign Film, will now be able to be screened online by all Academy members to determine the ultimate five nominees, drawn from a shortlist of ten, up from nine. Theoretically, this makes it easier for films to be seen and might give stronger but lesser-known entries a better shot. It doesn't change my predictions just yet, however, but I'll keep an eye on the category going forward.

I had seen “Harriet” before posting last week’s predictions, and though star Cynthia Erivo appears to be getting positive mentions, I still think she may just miss out. I finally got to see “Parasite” on Tuesday and absolutely loved it. It stays in my predictions in all categories, though I understand it’s still a historical longshot, especially after “Burning” got snubbed in the Best Foreign Film race last year. The other big contender I saw after missing it in its initial theatrical release was “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.” There was an awards screening in San Francisco on Saturday which featured a live-streamed Q and A session at the Los Angeles screening with Quentin Tarantino, Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, and Margot Robbie after the film. I personally didn’t love the movie, but getting to hear the actors talk after clued me into the fact that I’m in the minority. Pitt seems like a good bet since it’s a natural and entertaining performance, and Robbie, despite minimal screen time, will surely earn votes, though it sounds like her turn in “Bombshell,” which I won’t be seeing for a couple weeks, is likely to eclipse that. DiCaprio is less certain, but this seems to be a turn respected in a similar way to “The Revenant,” one that demonstrates clear effort and intention even if the end result isn’t quite as formidable as everyone believes it to be. Tarantino should be set for a directing nomination and the film shouldn’t have any trouble placing in the Best Picture field, especially considering “Django Unchained” made the cut.

I’m still making my way through DOC NYC’s Features Shortlist, so I’ll wait to revise my Best Documentary predictions until I’ve screened a few more films. The only change, therefore, that I’m making to my predictions is to sub in Sterling K. Brown for “Waves” in the Best Supporting Actor field after seeing a trailer for the film. This week, I’m planning to see “Dark Waters,” Polish International Feature submission “Corpus Christi,” and top contender “Marriage Story,” and possibly a few others. Reviews will be posted closer to release, but that will definitely inform my picks here. Stay tuned!

Current predictions:

Best Picture
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
The Farewell
The Irishman
Jojo Rabbit
Joker
Little Women
Marriage Story
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
Parasite

Best Director
Martin Scorsese (The Irishman)
Taika Waititi (Jojo Rabbit)
Noah Baumbach (Marriage Story)
Quentin Tarantino (Once Upon a Time in Hollywood)
Bong Joon Ho (Parasite)

Best Actor
Antonio Banderas (Pain and Glory)
Robert De Niro (The Irishman)
Leonardo DiCaprio (Once Upon a Time in Hollywood)
Adam Driver (Marriage Story)
Joaquin Phoenix (Joker)

Best Actress
Awkwafina (The Farewell)
Scarlett Johansson (Marriage Story)
Charlize Theron (Bombshell)
Alfre Woodard (Clemency)
Renée Zellweger (Judy)

Best Supporting Actor
Sterling K. Brown (Waves)
Tom Hanks (A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood )
Al Pacino (The Irishman)
Joe Pesci (The Irishman)
Brad Pitt (Once Upon a Time in Hollywood)

Best Supporting Actress
Laura Dern (Marriage Story)
Scarlett Johansson (Jojo Rabbit)
Jennifer Lopez (Hustlers)
Margot Robbie (Bombshell)
Maggie Smith (Downton Abbey)

Best Original Screenplay
The Farewell
Marriage Story
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
Parasite
Waves

Best Adapted Screenplay
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
The Irishman
Jojo Rabbit
Joker
Little Women

Best Animated Feature
Frozen II
How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World
Klaus
Toy Story 4
Weathering with You

Best Documentary
American Factory
Apollo 11
Ask Dr. Ruth
The Biggest Little Farm
Honeyland

Best International Feature
Les Miserables (France)
Out Stealing Horses (Norway)
Corpus Christi (Poland)
Parasite (South Korea)
Pain and Glory (Spain)

Sunday, November 3, 2019

Movie with Abe: Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
Directed by Quentin Tarantino
Released July 26, 2019

There exists an intriguing area of intersection between truth and fiction. Many films based on true stories include fabricated events and entire characters designed to better help an audience digest the plot. Some films go a step further in revising history by inserting other players whose presence would have deeply influenced how things happened, imagining a different trajectory with crucial tweaks to known moments in history. This approach has been taken by Quentin Tarantino with his last three films, rewriting narratives during World War II and the time of the Civil War. In his latest project, he’s targeting a more familiar setting: the golden age of Hollywood.

Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) is an aging TV star whose career is slowing down. His best friend is his stuntman, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), whose anti-authority reputation has caused him to lose steady work. After being approached by a casting agent (Al Pacino) who wants to send him to Rome to work with a prestigious Italian director, Rick must grapple with the state of his life, which includes a yearning desire to befriend his new neighbor Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) and her celebrity filmmaker husband Roman Polanski. Cliff, less concerned with his fate, becomes enchanted by a young hitchhiker (Margaret Qualley) he has no idea is among the devoted followers of one Charles Manson.

This movie is marketed as the ninth film from Tarantino, a rare instance where an auteur’s work can be easily counted (and all of which this reviewer has seen). In many ways, it feels nothing like a traditional Tarantino project, minimizing bloodbaths in exchange for a glorification of an influential period in cinema. The use of many regular actors, some in small but purposeful cameos, is just one manner in which he does leave his mark on this often bizarre but deeply intentional film, which invents characters based on a number of real-life influences and designed to mimic standard and sentiments of the times.

While diehard cinephiles will likely appreciate the nods to a nostalgic era, and the production values, namely the period set design and colorful costumes, are stunning, this film’s story doesn’t make it feel like a unified production. His previous works have featured similarly stacked ensembles and boldly exaggerated premises, and this film lacks that same appeal. As a reflective ode to cinema for Tarantino, it makes complete sense and has value in that right, but it doesn’t compare to many of his wilder and more spectacular efforts in the past.

DiCaprio turned us one of his finest performances in his previous collaboration with Tarantino, “Django Unchained,” and here he delivers a comical portrayal of an actor no longer convinced by his own abilities. Pitt, who starred in “Inglourious Basterds,” is having a blast here, cool and relaxed until he’s prompted to show force. In a relatively small role, new collaborator Robbie makes a tremendous impact, as does omnipresent rising star Qualley. A two-hour-forty-minute runtime is nothing new for Tarantino, and even if it’s not riveting, the film does manage to remain engaging for most of it. Though it didn’t wow me, this might almost be Tarantino’s least divisive film, a sentiment that must be considered in perspective.

B-

Saturday, November 2, 2019

Movie with Abe: Parasite


Parasite
Directed by Bong Joon-Ho
Released October 11, 2019

The definition of a crime can be complicated, since judicial systems usually assess guilt and culpability based on specifics that might delineate subtle differences between applicable laws. Deception, on the other hand, is something that can be more broadly applied, since lying to someone in order to achieve an aim is likely unethical even if it’s not prosecutable by law. Whether bending the truth is necessary or defensible can be murky, and the achievement of certain results through the manipulation of events or express dishonesty is often up for interpretation.

Ki-woo (Woo-sik Choi) lives with his family in a semi-basement apartment, stealing wi-fi from their neighbors after their phone service has been cut off. When a friend suggests he embellish his resume to pose as a college student, he succeeds in a getting a plum job as an English tutor for the daughter of a housewife, Yeon-kyo (Yeo-jeong Jo), and her wealthy husband Dong-ik (Sun-kyun Lee). He immediately brings in his sister Ki-jung (So-dam Park) as an alleged art therapist, and the two work together to oust the family driver and housekeeper so that their parents Ki-taek (So-dam Park) and Chung-sook (Hye-jin Jang) can take over those roles. Soon, the entire family is working together, dreaming about turning this unimaginable home into their own, unaware of hidden secrets that threaten the stability of their carefully-orchestrated illusion.

Joon-Ho’s latest film has rightfully been earning incredible awards buzz, an impressive feat given that South Korea has never earned a Best Foreign Film Oscar nomination and that Joon-Ho’s previous critically-praised work like “The Host,” “Mother,” and “Snowpiercer” has never really translated to mainstream acclaim. Yet there’s something absolutely universal about this film, which examines class disparity and what it means to live comfortable in a fascinating way. Best of all, the film is gripping and entirely captivating in its own right, not serving merely as allegory or symbolic but extraordinarily effective, both comically and dramatically, as a viewing experience due to the strength of its story and its performers.

None of the actors in this film should be familiar to American audiences, but it’s more than likely that a few of them will end up with notable international roles following their participation here. All are excellent, but the particular standout is Yeo-jeong Jo as the talkative mother who is described as simple, always asking plenty of questions yet gullibly accepting whatever answer is fed to her first. It’s a marvelous performance surrounded by a superb ensemble, all contributing to a resounding and haunting story that proves to be an astonishing and revelatory experience worthy of intensive analysis.

A-

Friday, November 1, 2019

Weekend Movie Recommendations with Abe

I'm excited to present a revamped version of Saturday Night Movie Recommendations with Abe! The Minute with Abe: Weekend Movie Recommendations Edition will premiere on YouTube each Friday and be reposted here during the day as well. Check it out, and subscribe to the movieswithabe channel!

Movie with Abe: Harriet

Harriet
Directed by Kasi Lemmons
Released November 1, 2019

There are historical figures whose names are widely known, practically begging for their eventual cinematic treatment. What many may not know – and what filmmakers and distributors use as a selling point – is the larger story behind them and what they did before everyone knew who they were. A portrait of a great person who accomplished much in their life doesn’t necessarily manage to be a great film, and the cinematic realization of incredible events should be considered separately from the emotional impact of what’s represented on screen.

Minty Ross (Cynthia Erivo) lives a subjugated existence as a slave on a Maryland plantation in the 1840s. When the head of her house dies and his son Gideon (Joe Alwyn) tries to take steps to keep Minty in line, she escapes and makes it to Philadelphia, where she meets William Still (Leslie Odom Jr.), an abolitionist who works closely with the Underground Railroad. Determined not to leave her family behind, Minty, who takes on the new name Harriet Tubman, returns repeatedly to Maryland to rescue anyone she can, staying one step ahead of the slavecatchers and exercising a firm belief that all people have the right to be free.

There’s no questioning the incredible work that Tubman did and her incomparable bravery in heading back towards danger time and time again. Puzzlingly, however, this film chooses to showcase much of her story as a thriller, assisted by a distracting score by Terence Blanchard, with Harriet often running with those she is rescuing through the woods on their treacherous journey to freedom. This genre choice detracts from the story’s overall effectiveness, and much of the dialogue is similarly disappointing, coming off as stale and disingenuous in lackluster support of a far better overarching premise. This doesn’t feel like the film treatment Tubman deserves, far less powerful and resounding than it should be.

Erivo, a Tony winner who delivered a memorable supporting turn in “Widows” last year, is a good choice to play Tubman, a role that was originally pitched with different actresses while this project was in development. She captures her passion even if the writing of her character isn’t superb, and the same is true for Odom and Janelle Monae as an ally of Tubman’s in Philadelphia. The message of this film is clear, and there are emotional and upsetting moments that manage to resound, but the finished product feels far less authentic than other cinematic explorations of slavery such as “12 Years a Slave” or “The Birth of a Nation.”

B-

Thursday, October 31, 2019

DOC NYC Shortlist Spotlight: The Elephant Queen

In advance of DOC NYC 2019, which begins November 6th, I’m making my way through some of the contenders on the annual Features Shortlist, which selects the films likeliest to contend for the Oscar for Best Documentary.


The Elephant Queen
Directed by Mark Deeble and Victoria Stone
DOC NYC Screenings

There is a lot of beauty in the world just waiting to be discovered. One of the primary reasons that people travel is to see natural wonders that are specific to their geographical locations, offering spectacular and stunning views that can’t be matched from somewhere else that lacks the same climate and features. One particular destination that attracts tourists from more developed North American and European countries is Africa, with its deserts and savannahs that are home to wondrous and often seemingly magical animal kingdoms.

This documentary tracks Athena, who is the fifty-year-old mother of an elephant herd. She looks after all the other elephants, who share their watering hole with a number of other animal species including dung beetles, chameleons, and bullfrogs. When a drought makes staying there untenable, Athena begins to lead her herd across the desert to a savannah that can offer survival, a lengthy journey that may prove treacherous for her young daughters Wewe and Mimi.

This is the kind of film that audiences might expect to see shown at a science museum, offering an up-close look at how these animals live. All dialogue comes from narrator Chiwetel Ejiofor, a soothing, authoritative voice who explains the actions and movements shown on screen whose accompanying noises are incomprehensible to human ears. This is a movie that slows down and suggests that people take a minute – or an hour and a half, in this case – to appreciate what exists in the world that those with access to movie theaters and on-demand entertainment rarely engage with intimately.

Unlike many documentaries that expose wrongdoing or highlight the erosion of political systems, this film is a simple look at these giant creatures whose lives seem so straightforward yet are far more complex and interconnected with the animals that exist among them. Shots of dung beetles fighting over elephant excrement are entertaining, while the long trek that they make feels especially admirable when seen as a necessary act of perseverance. This is a gorgeous film, one that presents dazzling visuals that need not be created by computers or effects, capturing instead what is already there thanks to the open African landscapes and the vivid, enormous animals that inhabit them. While its pacing is purposely unrushed, the urgency here is to ensure the continued survival of the elephants, a cause this film, available this Friday on Apple TV Plus, advocates for both explicitly and inherently through its picturesque portrait of another world within our own.

B+

DOC NYC Shortlist Spotlight: The Edge of Democracy

In advance of DOC NYC 2019, which begins November 6th, I’m making my way through some of the contenders on the annual Features Shortlist, which selects the films likeliest to contend for the Oscar for Best Documentary.


The Edge of Democracy
Directed by Petra Costa
DOC NYC Screenings

Countries go through cycles, with different governments remaining in power for a given amount of time as social change and political upheaval sweep through them. Many nations have experienced a relatively recent transition from authoritarian regimes to hopeful democracies, and, in most cases, those new institutions are far from secure or stable. Checks and balances exist to ensure that constitutions are upheld and some sense of normalcy can be maintained, and when those seeking to defend them are threatened and called illegitimate, the descent back towards previous failed systems feels all but inevitable.

Filmmaker Petra Costa examines events in Brazil over the past two decades that began with the union aspirations of one Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who ran unsuccessfully for president multiple times before being elected twice, enjoying an incredibly high popularity rating and accomplishing much during his time in office. The election of his chosen successor, Dilma Rousseff, set in motion a troubling course of events as political opponents called for her impeachment and then tried to implicate Lula on corruption charges. Costa looks at the contradictions of the actors on both sides and, regardless of whether Rousseff and Lula are indeed guilty, what this indicates for the future of Brazil.

Costa faces a difficult challenge in making this film, which is that she is far from certain of whether Lula does deserve the fate he has been dealt, and she manages to maintain an objective focus in exposing how the judicial system works in Brazil, with prosecutors and judges often indistinguishable from one another. She has a great deal of access to both former presidents, and the archive footage assembled is more than sufficient to provide detailed background on how the Brazilian people have been motivated to advocate for radical change, with opposing camps villainizing Lula and Rousseff and praising them.

This film’s United States release on Netflix this past June after a premiere at the Sundance Film Festival feels especially timely for an audience that is grappling with its own controversial impeachment process. The similarities between the United States and Brazil are disconcerting, as politicians pounce when one defendant is being investigated and urge restraint when it’s someone they don’t want to see tarnished, even in the face of undeniable proof of wrongdoing. Costa’s film is intelligent and informative, and it’s an unsettling viewing experience that should be required for those concerned about where the United States is going with some power to do anything to course correct.

B+

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

DOC NYC Shortlist Spotlight: Ask Dr. Ruth

In advance of DOC NYC 2019, which begins November 6th, I’m making my way through some of the contenders on the annual Features Shortlist, which selects the films likeliest to contend for the Oscar for Best Documentary.


Ask Dr. Ruth
Directed by Ryan White
DOC NYC Screenings

Last year, there was an extremely popular documentary about a tiny woman named Ruth who has become something of a national pop culture icon thanks to her groundbreaking work over decades in law. This year, another woman named Ruth gets the same treatment, having her life story assembled into a very entertaining and educational film. Dr. Ruth is referenced by her title rather than her initials, but she has arguably had just as strong an influence on a tremendous number of people and also shows no signs of slowing down even as she enters her tenth decade of life.

Dr. Ruth Westheimer is introduced through clips of her memorable and often controversial appearances on talk shows and in other forums, discussing sex in more detail than most do with absolutely no shame or embarrassment. While she explains the importance of openness and destigmatizing something that most people are too afraid to bring up, she recalls her childhood, being sent from Germany to Switzerland during the Holocaust before emigrating to the United States. She explores her own life decisions and viewpoints, examining the humorous and more serious highlights of an incredible and unlikely career.

This film’s title matches its buoyant stance, presenting the physically diminutive powerhouse as an authority figure who dominates conversations with grown men due to her eager willingness to say whatever is on her mind. Her family members are interviewed to give context about what kind of parent and grandparent she was and is, and one granddaughter tries to comprehend how the trailblazing sex guru, who describes herself as “old-fashioned” and “a square,” doesn’t consider herself a feminist. It’s hard not to smile watching this film, which offers plenty of amusing and enlightening anecdotes about Dr. Ruth and her illustrious life.

Where this film proves most wonderful is in its portrayal of the effect that Dr. Ruth has had on a number of people, many of whom call in to tell her just what she’s done for them, prompting sincere and humble gratitude. Looking at the work she did to advocate for the treatment of those with AIDS and gay men in general is moving, as is her one exception to the avoidance of politics in her strong defense of the need for full access to abortion for women. While some conservative audience may find what Dr. Ruth does and stands for objectionable, it’s hard to deny the impact and impressiveness of what she’s done, as spectacularly and delightfully conveyed in this stirring documentary.

B+

DOC NYC Shortlist Spotlight: The Great Hack

In advance of DOC NYC 2019, which begins November 6th, I’m making my way through some of the contenders on the annual Features Shortlist, which selects the films likeliest to contend for the Oscar for Best Documentary.


The Great Hack
Directed by Karim Amer and Jehane Noujaim
DOC NYC Screenings

It’s a changing world, with the political landscape in America having become truly temperamental and confrontational in recent years. Journalism is under attack with proclamations of fake news and other nefarious influences, and everyone seems to agree that those they don’t like are doing truly objectionable things. What’s not as apparent on the surface is how the opinions that we form are shaped by factors we don’t even know exist. The extent to which data is being collected and utilized is astonishing, and those who come forward to share what they know about it warn that this is just the beginning.

This documentary follows several individuals with expertise in how data is used and just how much of it is actually legally permissible, with reporting by Carole Cadwalladr, who found herself targeted by falsified videos in an attempt to discredit her. David Carroll seeks to sue a company called Cambridge Analytica for collecting his data without his permission, while Brittany Kaiser, a former high-ranking employee at the company, unearths proof that the firm, which was heavily involved both in Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and the push for Brexit, broke the law as Congress demands answers from Cambridge Analytica’s CEO, Alexander Nix.

This is a film that charges forward with its assertions of blatant violations of privacy and reasonable expectations, with its subjects eager to share what they know since they believe that everyone should be aware of just what they’ve unknowingly signed themselves onto by mindlessly accepting terms and conditions. They comment incredulously on testimony given under oath that contradicts what they know to be true and detail as much as they can when interviewed directly about what they did and what they know others were doing far beyond their purported parameters.

At times this film feels like a Michael Moore project, with Carroll’s quest to have his grievances heard feeling decidedly far-fetched and done more for the sake of making a point, which it decidedly does. It’s most similar to “Icarus,” a film that uncovers many layers of a concerted globing operation hiding in plain sight. Kaiser, who grew up as a liberal and then transformed into a conservative before rebounding once she realized that she couldn’t continue down her path, is a particularly fascinating subject. Where this film truly succeeds is in its breakdown of the purposeful targeting of susceptible parties, and just how systematically their opinions can be changed. It’s a terrifying concept, and one that this film does its very best to sound the alarm on before it’s too late to turn back.

B+

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

DOC NYC Shortlist Spotlight: For Sama

In advance of DOC NYC 2019, which begins November 6th, I’m making my way through some of the contenders on the annual Features Shortlist, which selects the films likeliest to contend for the Oscar for Best Documentary.


For Sama
Directed by Waad Al-Khateab and Edward Watts
DOC NYC Screenings

We live in a day and age where it’s impossible to be truly ignorant of what’s going on around the world. The Internet offers an incredible pipeline for information to be transmitted even from the most previously inaccessible places, and it has enabled many horrific acts widely denied or suppressed by governments or other organizations to reach a wide and passionate audience. Documenting events as they happen and broadcasting them to the world has the power to change and influence what occurs next, capturing the voices of those who might otherwise not be able to get their message out and giving them a megaphone.

Waad is a journalist living in Aleppo, Syria when war breaks out. Determined to share what is going on, she grabs her video camera and films at every possible moment. She watches as hospitals around her are bombed and friends are killed. In the process, she meets Hamza, a doctor who works to treat the many wounded people who come to find him after each attack. After they marry, Waad discovers that she is pregnant. Aware that the world she will bring her child into is a deeply imperfect one and that their livelihoods will be threatened on a daily basis, Waad perseveres, dedicating everything she does to Sama, her daughter.

This film arrives as a formidable compliment to the Oscar-winning short “The White Helmets” and Oscar-nominated feature documentary “Last Men in Aleppo,” showcasing even more of what occurred in Syria and the tremendous bravery displayed by those who ran towards explosions to save lives. Waad’s angle feels particularly intimate, as she sits closely with her husband and her daughter, often turning the camera on herself to show how she is responding to a given situation. This feels like the diary that she is keeping, one that provides an extremely enlightening outlet into her personal life and serves as a deeply important journal representative of the Syrian experience.

Narrated as a project dedicated to the daughter she hopes will one day grow up and return to a healed and repaired Aleppo, this film benefits greatly from the human approach that Waad takes, evident in its title. Waad and Hamza serve crucial functions in a crumbling, besieged society, but, for the purposes of this film, being parents ranks just as high. The footage she has assembled is brutal and at times very graphic, yet none of it is censored since, for those who lived it, they couldn’t simply turn away and pretend it wasn’t real. This affecting portrait is unsettling and moving, a vital export that certifies the reality and horror of the events it portrays.

B+

DOC NYC Shortlist Spotlight: The Biggest Little Farm

In advance of DOC NYC 2019, which begins November 4th, I’m making my way through some of the contenders on the annual Features Shortlist, which selects the films likeliest to contend for the Oscar for Best Documentary.


The Biggest Little Farm
Directed by John Chester
DOC NYC Screenings

There’s a big difference between the city and the country, and, often, people have trouble reconciling the two. Moving from a cramped downtown apartment to a spacious house in the suburbs is a more natural step, but there are some who decide to go much further, abandoning their urban existences to try the truly rural, living away from industry and developing a relationship with nature. That adjustment can be jarring, and expecting a smooth transition to a perfectly durable and sustainable sense of normalcy is foolish since that’s almost never the case.

John and Molly Chester find their lives in Los Angeles uprooted when their dog Todd’s frequent and uncontrollable barking results in an eviction notice from their small apartment. Realizing that this isn’t the way they want to continue, John and Molly make a bold decision: to relocate to a 200-acre farm, determined to build a sprawling operation populated by countless different animals. Their ambitions are halted when they begin to understand the facts on the ground, namely the unsuitability of much of what they want to grow and the drought affecting the region, and wonder constantly whether they’ve made a tremendous mistake as they make slow progress over the course of eight long years.

This documentary is structured in a way that puts audiences in the place of its two leads, following their big dreams when they seem so far away and unimaginable to the places where they confront harsh realities about what’s truly possible with what they have. It’s an endearing and very enjoyable journey, one filled with colorful animations to conceptualize the visions they have, which contrasts greatly with the obstacles they have to contend with once they are educated about what they need to do in order to get one step closer to the ideas they’ve formed. It’s easy to get swept along with the excitement of their plans.

There is a very positive emphasis on the communal effort that must go into building and maintaining a farm like this, stressing the involvement of the animals and the people whose presence and expertise is crucial to ensuring a successful operation. The way in which this story is presented and framed makes a subject that made not seem inherently interesting to all audiences truly engaging, inviting audiences to stand on the sidelines and cheer these people on as they invest everything they have into achieving something truly remarkable with absolutely no guarantee of success.

B+

Monday, October 28, 2019

Monday Oscar Odds


If you’ve been visiting MoviesWithAbe.com recently, you’ve likely noticed that Emmy season is over and, while fall TV pilots continue to premiere, it’s time to start thinking about the Oscars. I’ve been watching and reviewing tons of movies that look like top contenders, and I already have more than fifteen screenings on the calendar for November. I’m still missing a lot of the big movies, but I’m getting there, and I’m now starting to pay close attention as I offer my first official predictions.

The only real precursor that we have to work with already is the Gotham Awards, which announced their independent film nominations last week. Last year, none of their Best Picture picks ended up earning a corresponding Oscar nod, and “If Beale Street Could Talk” got a huge boost that didn’t pan out at all come Oscar time (though it did win the top Independent Spirit Award). I’ve seen just one of the nominees this year – “The Farewell” – which I hope will end up going the distance, especially for star Awkwafina. My favorite film of the year, “The Last Black Man in San Francisco,” didn’t show up in the top category but netted a few nominations, and I’m also thrilled for Aldis Hodge, who I’m hoping will manage a Best Supporting Actor bid for “Clemency” but doubt can. The other Best Feature nominees were “Hustlers,” which has done very well, and three films I’m very much looking forward to seeing in the next month or so: “Marriage Story,” “Uncut Gems,” and “Waves.”

Documentary awards groups have also been announcing a lot over the past week or two. The list I’m paying most attention to is DOC NYC’s Shortlist, which cites fifteen features which usually end up populating a good portion of the Oscar list of fifteen films that will be unveiled in mid-December. I’m trying to screen as many of these as I can this week in advance of DOC NYC, so look out for those reviews and changing predictions as a result. The rest is all guesswork – please comment with what you’ve seen and what you’re rooting for!

Best Picture
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
The Farewell
The Irishman
Jojo Rabbit
Joker
Little Women
Marriage Story
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
Parasite

Best Director
Martin Scorsese (The Irishman)
Taika Waititi (Jojo Rabbit)
Noah Baumbach (Marriage Story)
Quentin Tarantino (Once Upon a Time in Hollywood)
Bong Joon Ho (Parasite)

Best Actor
Antonio Banderas (Pain and Glory)
Robert De Niro (The Irishman)
Leonardo DiCaprio (Once Upon a Time in Hollywood)
Adam Driver (Marriage Story)
Joaquin Phoenix (Joker)

Best Actress
Awkwafina (The Farewell)
Scarlett Johansson (Marriage Story)
Charlize Theron (Bombshell)
Alfre Woodard (Clemency)
Renée Zellweger (Judy)

Best Supporting Actor
Alan Alda (Marriage Story)
Tom Hanks (A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood )
Al Pacino (The Irishman)
Joe Pesci (The Irishman)
Brad Pitt (Once Upon a Time in Hollywood)

Best Supporting Actress
Laura Dern (Marriage Story)
Scarlett Johansson (Jojo Rabbit)
Jennifer Lopez (Hustlers)
Margot Robbie (Bombshell)
Maggie Smith (Downton Abbey)

Best Original Screenplay
The Farewell
Marriage Story
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
Parasite
Waves

Best Adapted Screenplay
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
The Irishman
Jojo Rabbit
Joker
Little Women

Best Animated Feature
Frozen II
How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World
Klaus
Toy Story 4
Weathering with You

Best Documentary
American Factory
Apollo 11
Ask Dr. Ruth
The Biggest Little Farm
Honeyland

Best International Feature
Les Miserables (France)
Out Stealing Horses (Norway)
Corpus Christi (Poland)
Parasite (South Korea)
Pain and Glory (Spain)

Sunday, October 27, 2019

Movie with Abe: Judy

Judy
Directed by Rupert Goold
Released September 7, 2019

The most public people often have the most complicated personal lives. In many cases their struggles aren’t revealed until after their untimely deaths, coming to light only when they have nothing left to hide and used as a cautionary tale for those suffering from similar afflictions. Those in the public eye, however, may be more apt to have their troubles aired in the press or gossip columns, hopeless to hide what they’re going through from an eager and judgmental audience. Persevering in spite of being under a microscope can be extremely difficult and deeply crippling.

Actress Judy Garland (Renée Zellweger) finds herself unemployable after repeated incidents and missed performances, keeping her young children in tow as she tries to find a way to stay afloat. Made aware that overseas may be a viable option and desperate not to lose her kids, she reluctantly travels to London to headline a series of concerts. Her fear of fading into obscurity threatens to derail the entire tour as she flashes back to painful memories of a childhood spent being starved and forced to live out a picture-perfect existence as a studio star with a reputation to present to the adoring world.

Garland is a major pop culture fixture, and this portrait of the actress showcases just how embedded with anguish her talent was. The scenes set early on in her career with executive Louis B. Mayer crushing any rebellious or individualistic ambitions serve as a haunting and effective background for her later addiction issues. The costumes, art direction, and particularly the cinematography that frequently focuses in on Garland’s face as she performs all serve to assist a story that, while appearing picture-perfect, is replete with blemishes indicative of far deeper trauma.

Zellweger, who hasn’t been seen widely in film for more than a decade, follows up her Oscar-winning turn in “Cold Mountain” with a truly stunning and wholly immersive transformation. Doing her own singing is remarkably impressive, capturing Garland’s musical prowess while demonstrating the extent of her emotions while on the stage. Jessie Buckley, who turned in her own standout musical turn in “Wild Rose” this year, provides decent support as her designated handler in London, but this is largely a one-woman show, with Zellweger delivering astoundingly to enhance an otherwise standard biopic which shines a light on a great star who was never fully allowed to be herself.

B+

Saturday, October 26, 2019

Movie with Abe: Pain and Glory


Pain and Glory
Directed by Pedro Almodovar
Released October 4, 2019

A film, even one that’s meant to be a cohesive biopic about a subject, real or invented, can’t possibly capture the entirety of a person’s life. Formative moments have to be chosen, and multiple actors may portray the protagonist at different points in his or her life. In some cases, like “Steve Jobs,” moments are engineered and imagined to present an effective summary of events that might have taken place earlier or later, a creative solution given that highlighting every milestone moment just can’t be done in the span of one film. What does get selected speaks volumes about what shapes a character and defines his or her story.

Salvador Mallo (Antonio Banderas) is an established writer and director in Spain, most known for a breakthrough film thirty years earlier that resulted in an immediate cessation of his friendship with its star, Alberto Crespo (Asier Etxeandia). An anniversary release prompts a reunion between the two, who contemplate new projects as the aging filmmaker is introduced to heroin by his old friend. As he deals with his worsening health and continued questions of relevance, Salvador recalls his childhood, where his younger self (Asier Flores) lives with his loving mother (Penélope Cruz) and teaches a painter (César Vicente) how to read and write.

This is a distinctly Almodovar production, exploring themes of sexuality, nostalgia, and accomplishment, most similar to his most recent film, “Julieta.” Layered beneath a typically colorful and beautifully-decorated surface is commentary on Almodovar’s own career and his long-time friendship with frequent collaborator Banderas. This is far from his most revelatory film in its own right, but there seems to be something deeply personal at play in how Almodovar brings this story of a man whose every thought is dominated by loneliness when he’s achieved so much in his life to the screen, creating what could well be his more normative film, still crafted with precision and intimacy.

Banderas’ last starring role in an Almodovar film was in the dark but excellent “The Skin I Live In,” twenty-one years after his previous collaboration in “Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down.” His work here won Banderas the Best Actor prize at the Cannes Film Festival, recognizing one of his subtlest, least showy efforts. Cruz is particularly endearing and strong as Salvador’s mother, as is Flores in a remarkable debut. This film should have particular resonance for Almodovar aficionados, and for the rest of the population, it’s easily the auteur’s most accessible project, demonstrative of his ability to make any subject feel vital and compelling.

B+

Friday, October 25, 2019

Weekend Movie Recommendations with Abe

I'm excited to present a revamped version of Saturday Night Movie Recommendations with Abe! The Minute with Abe: Weekend Movie Recommendations Edition will premiere on YouTube each Friday and be reposted here during the day as well. Check it out, and subscribe to the movieswithabe channel!

Thursday, October 24, 2019

Movie with Abe: Jojo Rabbit


Jojo Rabbit
Directed by Taika Waititi
Released October 18, 2019

The subject of whether tragedy plus time really does equal comedy has been vigorously debated over the years, and there is still no clear consensus. “Life is Beautiful” and “Inglourious Basterds” both created controversy upon release, and the documentary “The Last Laugh” asked the question of whether the Holocaust can in fact provide fodder for jokes. “The Death of Stalin” posited a humorous interpretation of deadly serious events, and now an even more outlandish vision seeks to extrapolate satire from ideologies that devastated the lives of many people.

Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis) is a ten-year-old boy eager to help the Nazi cause, which he discusses frequently with his imaginary friend, who happens to be Adolf Hitler (Taika Waititi). When an attempt to demonstrate his courage leaves him injured, Jojo begins spending more time at home, where he discovers that his mother Rosie (Scarlett Johansson) is hiding a Jewish girl named Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie). Initially disgusted by her presence, Jojo realizes that he cannot turn her in for fear of him and his mother being implicated in harboring her and begins a relationship based on gleaning details of all the things that make Jews so terrible for the guidebook he plans to write.

This is a film that opens broadly, reminiscent most of a mix of Adam Sandler and Wes Anderson, particularly in its casting of Sam Rockwell and Rebel Wilson in comic roles as two prominent figures in the Nazi party charged with shaping young Nazi minds. Hitler is portrayed in an extremely silly fashion, completely unserious when compared with the driven Jojo. Rosie, whose husband is away at war, seeks to save her son from the hateful person he is becoming as she contributes to other underground resistance efforts, providing a stable and solid foundation for a very different film than this one often seems to be.

While this film may not go over the same way with all audiences, the quality of its performances should. Davis impresses in his debut film role with tremendous energy and timing, and McKenzie turns in a spectacular follow-up to her breakthrough part in “Leave No Trace.” The two of them often feel like the most mature part of this film, with Johansson also delivering an endearing and affecting turn. Though some audience members were erupting riotously with laughter, it did take some time for this reviewer to get on board with this concept, which gradually demonstrates its value. It might be parody more than satire, which itself is still worth some contemplation and consideration.

B+

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Movie with Abe: Synonyms

Synonyms
Directed by Nadav Lapid
Released October 25, 2019

Where someone comes from doesn’t represent or shape everything about them, but for some, one or many facets or their geographical background may prove limiting or debilitating. Moving to a new place and starting a new life can open up incredible new possibilities and transform the way they are able to see themselves. Yet a physical location can’t capture or cure everything about a person’s identity, and therefore going somewhere different may only be a temporary fix to a greater problem, fated to begin unraveling at some point.

Yoav (Tom Mercier) is completely disillusioned with Israel, arriving in France determined never to speak Hebrew again. He shows an eager interest in the French language and learning new words. He befriends Emile (Quentin Dolmaire) and Caroline (Louise Chevillotte), sharing stories of his past with them and taking in their culture while working security with an Israeli colleague (Uria Hayik) who seeks to preemptively confront European anti-Semitism by boldly announcing his nationality and religion to anyone he meets, pulling him in two distinctly different directions that cause him to grapple with whether he can actually change who he is.

This film has a particular style to it, presenting its protagonist as utterly lost and in his own world when he is first introduced, soaking in every opportunity to assimilate and act like he’s always been French when that’s far from the case. He reacts negatively to any mention of his being Israeli, and garners most of his energy from a love for words and emphasis on their meanings. His frequent repetition of similar words gives his life some sort of structure and a substantial anchor to where he is at that moment of time, running fast from his past and stumbling uncertainly towards his future.

Mercier makes his film debut with his extremely involved and magnetic lead performance, giving Yoav substance and presenting him in a sympathetic manner. Dolmaire, Chevillotte, and Hayik provide ample support as they color his experiences in France representative of a very disillusioned and detached state where Yoav is grasping for something that may or may not exit. It’s certainly representative of one facet of the Israeli population, even if it’s far from universal. The film as a whole isn’t always focused, but when it is, it’s deeply compelling and captivating, and its protagonist’s self-exploration feels well worth featuring.

B