Sunday, March 31, 2019

Movie with Abe: The Chaperone

The Chaperone
Directed by Michael Engler
Released March 29, 2019

The times tend to dictate how successful a particular person can be. There are those who advocate for themselves and manage to persevere beyond what has been allotted to them by the society in which they exist, but circumstances outside their control may eventually derail them from achieving their perceived destinies. Fame and fortune may be fleeting, and the lessons learned in the course of pursuing happiness will linger as the remnants of trying hard and not necessarily succeeding in the long run in the expected or desired way.

In the 1920s, Norma Carlisle (Elizabeth McGovern) jumps at the opportunity to offer herself as a chaperone for aspiring dancer Louise Brooks (Haley Lu Richardson), who wishes to attend a program in New York City. Leaving her well-to-do Wichita life and her husband Alan (Campbell Scott) behind, Norma is opened up to an entirely new world that she previously occupied only briefly as a child, leading her to learn new things about herself and to meet a kindly man named Joseph (Géza Röhrig). At the same time, Louise is drawn to the free thinking and general spirit of individual prosperity that exists in New York in a way that, at the time, would never be possible back in Kansas.

This film’s title places the emphasis on Norma rather than Louise, who became an actress and later an author, arguably the showier figure. Norma is enthusiastically greeted by an eager young waiter at a diner, only to be entirely ignored the moment that Louise walks in and takes his breath away. Lost and unfulfilled, Norma is seeking a reinvention that she doesn’t even realize is necessary, and Joseph is one of the rare few who sees her for who she is and not the people around her who have come to more strongly define her. As Norma is shocked by the lack of segregation and other progressive city novelties, she discovers the most about who she is meant to be and how she might be able to be truly happy.

McGovern, who spent many years on “Downton Abbey,” which will soon be continued in a feature film helmed by this film’s very director, Michael Engler, is the perfect fit for Norma, deferential to everyone else in her life yet full of passion where it counts. Richardson, who has impressed in films like “Support the Girls,” is energetic and provocative, even if the role doesn’t give her quite as much to do. This film showcases a worthwhile journey in a standard and mostly interesting manner, never quite gripping but completely watchable.


Saturday, March 30, 2019

Movie with Abe: Sobibor

Directed by Konstantin Khabenskiy
Released March 29, 2019

It is impossible to imagine the horrors of the Holocaust for those who did not live through it and experience it. Being systematically removed from public and societal life because of one’s religion was just one awful first step, and the daily existence in concentration camps is something that is often portrayed on film and always sobering to watch. Those who were sent to concentration camps came from many different professions and places, and to be forced into subservience to the whims of guards and brutal labor is a notion that seems completely unthinkable.

In 1943, Soviet soldier Alexander Pechersky (Konstantin Khabenskiy) is sent to the Sobibor death camp in Poland. Spared as a skilled laborer while many of those arriving with him are walked into gas chambers thinking they are being given a shower, Pechersky channels his spirit to fight and resist being broken and ultimately killed by the Nazi guards. Despite brutal retribution for anyone caught trying to escape, Pechersky gathers those closest to him to prepare for an uprising that feels even more vital by news that the camp may soon be liquidated.

There is a certain quality found in most Holocaust movies that is indeed present here, trapping audience members in the inescapable and unfathomable misery of the reality portrayed on screen. The sight of people being led into gas chambers is endlessly disturbing, and the degree to which the guards torment their prisoners is particularly upsetting, designed to break them mentally and morally just as much as it is to starve them and punish them physically. What this film manages to capture more than anything is the conflict between an instinct to fight back and a knowledge of when not to, illustrated most distressingly by the execution of every tenth person in the camp as the standard response to an attempted escape.

This film served as Russia’s official submission to the Oscar race for Best Foreign Film last year, and while it did not make the cut, it does stand as a worthwhile entry. Pechersky, who acts both as director and star, does a commendable job making a film that does feel sensational or overly-dramatized, focusing in on the emotions and struggles of all of its characters who want to protect their identities but understand the consequences of resistance that go far beyond them. Seeing this rare account of a successful uprising is just as affirming as it is tragic, given the millions who lost their lives. Though it may not have the scope or cinematic style of some other Holocaust movies, this treatment is respectful and appropriately commemorative of the history it portrays.


Friday, March 29, 2019

Movie with Abe: The Last

The Last
Directed by Jeff Lipsky
Released March 29, 2019

In tight-knit families, the identities of older generations that have overcome a great deal often come to define their descendants. This is particularly true of those who survived the Holocaust and came to America after enduring unimaginable suffering at the hands of people that sought to wipe them out because of their religion. While this caused some survivors to lose faith in a deity that could allow this to happen, some clung stronger to their beliefs, which in turn can lead to either a harsh resistance to observance or a full embrace of it by their own children and grandchildren.

Josh (AJ Cedeno) is the great-grandson of Claire (Rebecca Schull), a 92-year-old Holocaust survivor. His fiancée Olivia (Jill Durso) converts to Judaism before their wedding, and they constitute the most religiously observant members of the family, identifying as Modern Orthodox. After their wedding, they learn a very surprising truth about the aging Claire in a moment of unexpected honesty: that she worked as a nurse in Auschwitz and adopted a new identity when she left for America. Devastated at this revelation, Josh and the rest of his family grapple with how to deal with this news and how they should treat this matriarch that they now view in a completely different light.

This is a film that posits a wild development, one that shakes each member of this multi-general family to their core. What makes it less convincing is the extreme passion behind the views that Claire suddenly shares with her great-grandson and his wife, memories that may be bubbling to the surface after years of being repressed but which don’t track with the person that she has become and how she has molded her family as a result. Similarly, their reactions feel oddly specific and targeted, obsessed with circumcision and parenting practices that seem all too focused for what this means overall to their heritage and their identity, hardly true to life.

Like the script, the performances in this film are far from stellar, though ninety-year-old Schull does deliver a moderately compelling turn that, like her character, moves in and out of being truly coherent. Josh is a thinly-defined character and Cedeno portrays him as such, whereas Durso makes Olivia seem incredibly – and overly – enlightened, previously the only member of the family to choose Judaism and embrace it without any part of her past influencing her new life. This film has bold ambitions and doesn’t quite achieve them, taking questionable directions in terms of its plot and ultimately answering far fewer questions than it poses.


Thursday, March 28, 2019

Movie with Abe: 3 Faces

3 Faces
Directed by Jafar Panahi
Released March 29, 2019

People want to achieve career goals for a variety of different reasons. Some are driven by ambition and want to succeed beyond the wildest dreams of their humble origins, while others have a specific calling to a field to which they know they can contribute much. Depending on where someone grows up, the expectations of what they can accomplish can be dictated by religion and culture, often leading to a yearning for more and a desperate attempt to escape from the confines of a repressive identity from which they can only imagine ever actually leaving.

This film opens with popular Iranian actress Behnaz Jafari watching a video of a young girl named Marziyeh, who professes that she has tried to contact her and, as a result of her failure to help her get out of her small village to attend a drama conservatory, she will kill herself on camera. Disturbed by what appears to be her suicide but dubious about how the video was then sent to her, Jafari travels with filmmaker Jafar Panahi to find any trace of this young girl and determine whether she is in fact dead, encountering adoring fans from within insular traditional communities.

Panahi is a filmmaker well known for being banned from making films in Iran, and his last high-profile release in the United States was famously smuggled out of his home country on a flash drive hidden within a cake to premiere at Cannes. Unlike “This Is Not a Film,” this production has a clear narrative, one that sits with its protagonist as she grapples with the horror of having potentially contributed to someone’s suffering and death as a result of her inaction. There is clearly much that Panahi has to say about a society that dampens creative energies and dictates futures based on heritage and gender, and this film presents an honest investigation that doesn’t seek to dramatize or exaggerate any moment or interaction.

Jafari playing herself gives this film a decided authenticity, and it doesn’t feel as if these actors are indeed acting. Instead, this feels like a story that could easily play out in reality, with Panahi in particular blending into the background, driving Jafari and translating for her but not attempting to steal the spotlight, even in a place dominated by men as superiors. Its slow, contemplative nature doesn’t make for an overly engaging experience, but it is hard to look away from this quietly riveting meditation.


Thursday, March 21, 2019

SXSW with Abe: Body at Brighton Rock

Here's the last of my coverage from this year's SXSW Film Festival for Criminal Element. Head over there to read my take on a stressful, well-done thriller set in the middle of the woods, "Body at Brighton Rock."

Wednesday, March 20, 2019


It was a whirlwind week plus in Austin for my second South by Southwest, where I managed to catch 34 films. I've posted reviews of almost everything here, including links to my pieces on The Film Experience and Criminal Element. Read about my favorite films and performances in my wrap piece over at The Film Experience.

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

SXSW with Abe: Go Back to China

I’m excited to be attending the film festival at South by Southwest for the second time, and I’ll be posting reviews throughout the week as I see as many movies as possible!

Go Back to China
Directed by Emily Ting
Narrative Feature Competition

A person can’t control what they’re born into, and they’re responsible only for what they do when given the option. Some are fortunate enough to be provided with a stable home growing up and financial security that allows them to do whatever they want to when (and if) they graduate high school, including higher education and not necessarily getting a job right away. How someone treats the circumstances they enjoy can have a serious impact on how others view them, and it’s to be expected that a person who fails to see and acknowledge what they received won’t be able to hold onto it forever.

Sasha Li (Anna Akana) lives lavishly, burning through the money that her father (Richard Ng) gives her, lazily applying for jobs with her fashion degree to no avail. When her father tells her that he is cutting her off, the tantrum she throws does no good, resulting in her reluctant move to China to work in his toy factory, the only way he will agree to reactive her trust fund. Joining her older sister Carol (Lynn Chen) at the company and meeting other children she didn’t know her father had, Sasha is treated to an eye-opening look at how things work in China that forces her to confront the way she previously looked at the value of money and hard work.

It’s obvious from the start that Sasha has absolutely no self-awareness, blind to the way she lives her life as a victim when she’s given so much in exchange for nothing. Watching this unabashed brat arrive in China and complain constantly about her mistreatment is a mildly tolerable preface to her path to redemption, in which she actually contributes to society by listening to those who are yelled at by her father and utilizing her mind for something productive. While she never encounters any true adversity, still starting at the top in her father’s company, taking a chauffeured car home, and living in her father’s luxurious house, her journey to becoming a better person does follow a neat and entertaining arc.

Akana infuses Sasha with plenty of personality, making her feel more three-dimensional than the unlikeable protagonist could have been, and giving authenticity to her transformation, even if her obstacles are much more surmountable than she perceives. This is a very watchable film despite its predictable nature, and its blend of light comedy and introspective drama proves to be a perfectly fine formula for a fun movie.


SXSW with Abe: Sister Aimee

I'm covering some of the films from this year's SXSW Film Festival for The Film Experience. Head over there to read my take on an intriguing multi-genre film, "Sister Aimee," featuring a magnetic central performance from Anna Margaret Hollyman as a famed evangelist from the 1920s.

SXSW with Abe: Mother’s Little Helpers

I’m excited to be attending the film festival at South by Southwest for the second time, and I’ll be posting reviews throughout the week as I see as many movies as possible!

Mother’s Little Helpers
Directed by Kestrin Pantera
Narrative Spotlight

Aside from when children are young and being raised under one roof, the only time some families come together is either in preparation for or after the occurrence of a parent’s death. Those siblings who don’t have a tight-knit relationship may drift apart, and without annual get-togethers or life-cycle events, it’s possible for years to pass without everyone being in the same room or house. That eventual interaction is bound to be awkward, with old feelings bubbling to the surface and threatening to explode if there is plenty of baggage coming from all involved, ready to spill over as an unthinkable inevitability approaches.

Sadie (Kestrin Pantera) receives a call from her mother Joy (Melanie Hutsell) that she is dying of cancer, and reluctantly takes on her role as the only one of four siblings who every actively engages in caring for her. When she arrives to learn that, even though her mother has not seen a doctor, she is indeed dying, she contacts her siblings, who all slowly show up, bringing them together for the first time in many years. Her brother Jude (Sam Littlefield) is on house arrest and feeling particularly claustrophobic, Julia (Breeda Wool) has no idea how to use technology and seems like she comes from another planet, and Lucy (Milana Vayntrub), the only doctor in the family, has the least interest out of all of them in being there.

Getting to know these siblings through their present-day interactions and select visual-only flashbacks to momentous experiences with their mother proves to be a mesmerizing experience, one that truly gets to the heart of how their family dynamic has shaped them into who they are. Trapped in such close proximity helps increase the tension and lead to a number of boiling points, bringing to the forefront both the damage they feel has been inflicted by their mother and the resentment they have each developed towards each other as a result.

Pantera, who directed the film, explained at a Q and A following a SXSW screening that each of the five primary cast members, all credited as writers, went through something similar to this film in terms of loss before signing on to the project, a real-life investment that helps to explain the effectiveness of all the performances. They’re all equally competent and compelling, enhancing a story that might be universal but feels exceptionally personal. It alternates between funny and moving, painting an immensely watchable portrait of a dysfunctional family forced to function as they say goodbye to one of their own.


Monday, March 18, 2019

SXSW with Abe: Olympic Dreams

I’m excited to be attending the film festival at South by Southwest for the second time, and I’ll be posting reviews throughout the week as I see as many movies as possible!

Olympic Dreams
Directed by Jeremy Teicher
Narrative Spotlight

Sporting events have a power to bring people together that many other things do not, particularly because race, religion, and other identifying cultural factors don’t matter nearly as much when you’re cheering for the same team. That notion is amplified exponentially at the Olympics, where citizens of countries feel enormous pride in being represented by their chosen athletes, who in turn know that their entire nation’s hopes are riding on their success. It’s an already exciting and larger-than-life place to be, and setting a romance within it is a terrific idea.

Ezra (Nick Kroll) travels to PyeongChang, South Korea as a volunteer dentist for the Olympic Winter Games in 2018. As he takes in the wonder of his surroundings and chats up athletes from all around the world, he meets Penelope (Alexi Pappas), a cross-country skier about to compete on the harsh slopes. After her race, Penelope once again encounters Ezra, and the two develop a close bond that feels even more serene due to where they are, though Ezra has trouble fully investing in the relationship because of his lingering feelings for the ex-fiancée he may still have a chance of getting back together with back home.

This film is first and foremost an incredible technical achievement. Filmed on location at the Olympics as part of an Artist in Residence program, it was shot by just one man – director Jeremy Teicher – and involved just two cast actors, Kroll and Pappas, who is herself a real Olympic athlete, competing as a runner for Greece in the 2016 summer games. Real-life couple Teicher and Pappas used their knowledge of Olympian behavior to enlist other actual athletes to appear in the film in informal conversations with both Ezra and Penelope, giving this film an authenticity that others couldn’t possibly hope for since much of its magic was genuine thanks to its setting.

Kroll is primarily a comedic actor, and it’s great to see him in a hybrid dramatic role like this one which allows him to be awkward and funny, representing how most people would feel and act if they got to go to the Olympics in a similar capacity. His chemistry with Pappas, who appeared in Teicher’s previous film “Tracktown,” is exceptional, and the athlete is a complete natural on-screen as well. This film is a wonderful experience to behold, captivating both in the aesthetics of its location and the passion of its two leads.


SXSW with Abe: Mickey and the Bear

I’m excited to be attending the film festival at South by Southwest for the second time, and I’ll be posting reviews throughout the week as I see as many movies as possible!

Mickey and the Bear
Directed by Annabelle Attanasio
Narrative Feature Competition

It’s difficult to live life truly in the service of another person who does not reciprocate that behavior. Children are expected, even legally, to be dependent upon their parents until they have reached a certain age or achieved alternate independence, and there is a likelihood that the roles may be reversed later in life if faculties and capabilities are lost on the part of the aging or sick parent. Yet there are some circumstances in which children are required to take care of their less able parents, destined to remain faithful and tethered to them rather than to explore their own untapped potential elsewhere.

Mickey (Camila Morrone) lives in a very small Montana town with her father Hank (James Badge Dale), a veteran who spends most of his time drunk or taking the many medications he receives and often has his daughter refill for him. When she’s not at school or work, Mickey navigates her relationships with two classmates, Aron (Ben Rosenfield) and Wyatt (Calvin Demba), while thinking ahead to the future she’s never been sure she could have, secretly applying to a college in San Diego without any idea of how to broach the topic of leaving her father.

The tone of this film and the relationship of its protagonists is set immediately when Mickey is brought to the police station to bring her intoxicated father home and, after being told by the sheriff that no bail money is needed as long as she drives home, she smiles and tosses Hank the keys. There are a number of moments in which it’s extremely clear that he’s holding her back and preventing her from enjoying her life, including an ill-fated hunting trip with Wyatt. Mickey is mature enough to understand the pain her father is enduring and innocent enough to believe that her sacrifice may be necessary for his continued stability.

Morrone, who impressed in a more comedic turn in “Never Goin’ Back” last year, turns in a layered and dynamic performance as Mickey, expressing an equal amount of frustration and submission to those around her. Dale, who has been playing darker parts like this one in films such as “Donnybrook,” demonstrates great talent that should earn him more roles. This is a sensitive and engaging film with a premise that might not seem overly complex but still works extremely well.


SXSW with Abe: Come As You Are

I’m excited to be attending the film festival at South by Southwest for the second time, and I’ll be posting reviews throughout the week as I see as many movies as possible!

Come As You Are
Directed by Richard Wong
Narrative Spotlight

Everyone should be able to have an equal shot at great experiences in life. Unfortunately, that’s not always the case due to ability, be it financial, intellectual, or physical. While there are laws that help to make access available to those with disabilities, they can’t account for every factor that goes into how possible it actually is for a person to be able to do something. Those who care for and assist those who are unable to participate in certain things may feel they know what’s best for them, in some cases favoring the simpler, safer route over the riskier, more experimental one.

Scotty (Grant Rosenmeyer) is a foul-mouthed quadriplegic twenty-four-year-old who lives with his mother (Janeane Garofalo). When he learns of a specialty brothel called Come As You Are in Montreal that caters specifically to people with disabilities, he enlists wheelchair-bound Matt (Hayden Szeto) and blind Mo (Ravi Patel) to sneak away from their overprotective parents on a road trip up north with a no-nonsense van driver and nurse (Gabourey Sidibe). The four personalities clash considerably in tight quarters, but their hijinks ultimately help them learn about each other as they head out on adventure unlike any of them have ever had.

This is, most of all, a fun movie. It’s great to see these characters embracing their identities and, particularly in Scotty’s case, admitting that, while this isn’t how he’d first like to experience sex, he’s realized that he doesn’t have a better option. Typical road movie obstacles are enhanced here by the circumstances and attitudes of the people involved, with some truly hilarious and heartwarming scenes thrown in as the group tries to evade their parents in their pursuit of this northern destination.

This film is adapted from the Belgian film “Hasta la Vista,” which itself is based on a true story. The actors involved help to make this feel like a truly authentic and exciting journey. Rosenmeyer injects more than a little pent-up energy into Scotty, making him feel three-dimensional as his physical state leads to a general negativity. Szeto is more subdued, and along with Patel and Sidibe, contributes superbly to a sweet ensemble. Characters like this don’t often get this kind of spotlight, and it’s affirming to see this story brought to life on the big screen in an endearing and entertaining way.


SXSW with Abe: Alice

I’m excited to be attending the film festival at South by Southwest for the second time, and I’ll be posting reviews throughout the week as I see as many movies as possible!

Directed by Josephine Mackerras
Narrative Feature Competition

When two people get married, there’s an assumption of happiness and, in most cases, an ideal that they’ll spend the rest of their lives together. Circumstances evidently change, but there’s a honeymoon period in which most couples reside for a good period of time where things seem particularly idyllic. The birth of a child is a potential trigger for strife and discord, and how well two people come out of that milestone depends on their commitment to making it work and to getting back to a good place.

Alice (Emilie Piponnier) is a loyal mother, devoted to her young son. When her credit card is declined at a pharmacy, she is unable to reach her husband Francois (Martin Swabey), who she soon learns has spent all of her money, with her apartment set to be foreclosed on imminently. A call to a number on his computer reveals his addiction to high-end escorts, prompting Alice to take an unusual step to come up with the funds she needs to save her home. With another escort, Lisa (Chloé Boreham), showing her the ropes, Alice finds herself in a place she never expected to be, and not nearly as disgusted by her new reality as she would have thought.

This could be just the latest film in which a desperate woman turns to prostitution in order to support herself, like another SXSW entry, “La Mala Noche,” but it’s actually an entirely different film. When she begins meeting clients, Alice is hopelessly awkward, not sure what to do and devoid of any sort of confidence. She and Lisa discuss how they come to somewhat enjoy their occupation, something they believe shouldn’t be grouped in with human trafficking since there are clear rules in place and they are free to opt out at any point. The seriousness of what Alice is doing only hits her when she realizes the consequences it could have for her relationship with her son.

Piponnier delivers a refreshingly honest and genuine performance as Alice, reacting with understandable shock at the news that her husband has completely betrayed her and portraying a believable hysteria as she grapples with a situation that has spiraled fully out of her control without her ever even knowing about it. Boreham is a solid scene partner, helping to define Lisa as a three-dimensional character fully worthy of being featured alongside Alice. Writer-director Josephine Mackerras’s feature film debut is an immensely worthwhile portrait of a strong protagonist that revisits a familiar concept and shapes it in a compelling, vital way.


Sunday, March 17, 2019

SXSW with Abe: Running with Beto

I’m excited to be attending the film festival at South by Southwest for the second time, and I’ll be posting reviews throughout the week as I see as many movies as possible!

Running with Beto
Directed by David Modigliani
Documentary Spotlight

There were a number of high-profile candidates who made history or performed far better than expected in the most recent midterm election. Two of the victors – Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar – have already made considerable waves and been the subjects of their own documentaries. Beto O’Rourke may not have been able to defeat Ted Cruz in the race for the Texas Senate, but he captured an incredible following that represents changing times both in Texas and within the country, with no better place to premiere a film about his campaign than in the capital of the state that nearly elected a Democrat for the first time in thirty years.

This film wastes no time in gaining access to its protagonist, starting with Beto in the car as he travels to every county in Texas rather than covering his childhood or history. The film stays with its candidate for nearly its entire runtime, leaving him only to hear from those closest to him, both professionally and personally, and those who invested so much of themselves in trying to get him elected. As he spends every day trying to win over voters and demonstrate how atypically genuine he is a politician, Beto faces attacks from Cruz and President Trump that usually come back to the fact that he doesn’t represent the values of the red state of Texas.

It’s hard to deny that this is an affirming, inspiring documentary, even if the end result is one that didn’t result in the game changer beating his rival. The passion that those who work for him and urge others to consider him is truly infectious, and watching it with an audience that frequently burst into applause at some of the notions and policies Beto expresses definitely enhances the experience. This film paints Beto as authentic, committed to achieving his goals but not too confident to think that he has more to learn or that he shouldn’t be a strong advocate for issues that don’t directly affect him.

In light of Beto’s announcement this week that he is indeed running for president in 2020, this film, slated to premiere on HBO in the spring, will be an excellent campaign boost that can educate voters unfamiliar with him about just who he is. While it’s easy to be taken with Beto and what he represents, this film doesn’t shy away from showing how some view him as ruthlessly efficient, a trait he freely admits to possessing. He has big dreams and big ideas, and his resilience shines through in an incredible way in this exciting and hopeful portrait.


SXSW with Abe: X and Y

I'm covering some of the films from this year's SXSW Film Festival for The Film Experience. Head over there to read my take on the very peculiar Scandanivian film, "X and Y," which deals with established actors playing different version of other actors' personalities.

SXSW with Abe: Aurora

I’m excited to be attending the film festival at South by Southwest for the second time, and I’ll be posting reviews throughout the week as I see as many movies as possible!

Directed by Miia Tervo

Many people whose lives are out of control have an ability to recognize it, desiring to do something to get back on track or at least badgered by someone who cares about them to set themselves straight. Going unchecked for too long can lead to a loss of boundaries and ambition, resulting in a stagnant existence that can only be revitalized by a transformative and often traumatic event. In some cases, all it takes is a project to devote energy to, which in turn leads to effort being put in and a reduction of the more problematic and previously dominant activities.

Aurora (Mimosa Willamo) parties hard, a trait she inherited from her father, who returns to rehab for his latest stint as their home is repossessed. Staying with friends and not keeping out of trouble, Aurora meets Darian (Amir Escandari), an asylum seeker with a young daughter who bluntly tells her that his two choices are to get married or kill himself. As Darian stays with a kindhearted woman and her less trusting human, he becomes closer with Aurora, who, despite dismissing the possibility of marrying him herself, seeks to set him up with the right person for the high price of 3,000 euros that he has offered her in exchange for her matchmaking services.

Aurora is an immediately magnetic protagonist, first seen drinking milk straight from the carton off a shelf in a supermarket and expressing an aversion to doing whatever anyone expects her to do. She is hired by an elderly woman whose children insist on caring for her explicitly because of her unfiltered attitude, and while some of her behavior is irresponsible, she does succeed at connecting with her charge and helping her to feel more alive. She also impacts Darian, who is taken by the way she conducts herself and unable to stop thinking about her.

Willamo delivers a terrific lead performance that shows a complete investment in Aurora as a character. She’s a strong and more memorable personality than anyone else in the film, including Darian, which makes any scene in which she appears more engaging than any in which she doesn’t. This is a movie that feels off-kilter enough that it isn’t entirely normative or standard, but in the end it’s a story that does feel familiar, entertaining and intriguing even if it’s not resounding or overly fulfilling.


SXSW with Abe: Ms. White Light

I’m excited to be attending the film festival at South by Southwest for the second time, and I’ll be posting reviews throughout the week as I see as many movies as possible!

Ms. White Light
Directed by Paul Shoulberg
Narrative Feature Competition

Most people don’t want to talk about death. Though it’s the one thing that everyone has in common and will eventually experience, there are superstitious notions that talking about it will hasten its arrival. There are those, including this reviewer’s wife, who make it their mission to get people more comfortable with the idea of talking about death. That work comes in many forms and may occur at various points in the course of a person’s life, whether or not death is perceived as imminent. Broaching that conversation is never easy, and doing so with tact and respect is of the utmost importance.

Lex (Roberta Colindrez) specializes in helping terminally ill patients come to terms with letting go and accepting that they are about to die. Her bedside manner needs work, with her father and business partner Gary (John Ortiz) trying to push her to be more personable. An unexpected connection with a patient named Val (Judith Light) open to all forms of accompaniment as she lies sick in a hospital bed opens Lex up to new ideas, including Spencer (Zachary Spicer), a psychic, and a cured patient, Nora (Carson Meyer), who insists on paying Lex back for the care she provided for her when she needed it most.

It is cool to see a movie about someone who dwells in this space and, against the wishes of most families and patients she encounters, presents realities that so many are eager to diminish and deny. The perspective of this film, however, is a mostly comedic one, with Lex having a personality that seems to be in contrast to that of an individual designed to be with someone in the most difficult time of their life. The laughs the film plays for aren’t big, and the most resounding moments come when a step is taken back and the impact of Lex’s influence, good or bad, can be truly realized.

Colindrez, probably most recognizable from her role as Devon on the short-lived “I Love Dick,” has a sardonic energy that helps to define Lex, though it’s far from the strongest part of the film. Light, who played up her soap opera actress in “Before You Know It” at Sundance this year, delivers a more muted, sentimental performance that does serve as the heart of the film, opposite Ortiz’s expected turn as a parent most concerned with his daughter’s growth and success. As a whole, the film doesn’t pack much of a punch, but it’s a decent enough journey.


Saturday, March 16, 2019

SXSW with Abe: Good Boys

I’m excited to be attending the film festival at South by Southwest for the second time, and I’ll be posting reviews throughout the week as I see as many movies as possible!

Good Boys
Directed by Gene Stupnitsky

Writer Lee Eisenberg and director Gene Stupnitsky discuss the film

There’s a sense in filmmaking that movies should be based on new ideas, and do something that hasn’t been done before in order to be relevant and worthwhile. While that is usually true, and there is an overwhelming amount of fare that feels all too uncreative, it’s also sometimes the case that more of the same is a recipe for tremendous success. In 2007, Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg wrote a story that, had it been released a decade earlier, would have starred them, and now they’re back producing a formidable follow-up to “Superbad” that takes a few years off its protagonists’ age to deliver laughs just as big.

Producers Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg discuss the film

Max (Jacob Tremblay), Thor (Brady Noon), and Lucas (Keith L. Williams) are the Bean Bag Boys, sixth-grade best friends who do everything together. When Max is invited to a kissing party where he hopes to finally kiss the girl he has a crush on, the boys use Max’s dad’s drone to try to spy on their neighbors for tips. When two young women (Molly Gordon and Midori Francis) simply looking to get high take their drone hostage, the three boys must do everything possible to get the drone back before Max’s dad returns home, leading to considerable ill-fated hijinks.

The cast discusses the film

Watching this film with an audience at SXSW was incredibly enjoyable, and seeing the twelve-year-old actors on stage was a true delight. Rogen and Goldberg infuse their typical vulgar humor into every aspect of this film, leading to the three “tween” leads cursing constantly and engaging with objects and concepts hopefully far beyond the comprehension of their young minds. That does make it funnier, adding a dimension to this already humorous and absurd film that includes unexpectedly positive messages about consent and friendship that are rarely found in this kind of project.

Jacob Tremblay discusses the film

Tremblay, who has starred in “Room” and “Wonder” is the best-known of the three actors, and he described his simultaneous excitement and nervousness at doing his first comedy. All three are truly terrific, and though it’s impossible to know where their careers will go when they’re capable of making film decisions without their parents’ permission, they all demonstrate extraordinary comedic talent. Though this film often pushes boundaries, there’s a greater sense of a heartwarming if highly inappropriate story, one that truly takes it to fantastic and hilarious places well worth a visit.


SXSW with Abe: Teen Spirit

I'm covering some of the films from this year's SXSW Film Festival for The Film Experience. Head over there to read my take on the directorial debut of actor Max Minghella, "Teen Spirit," which stars Elle Fanning as a talented but unconvincing singer who auditions for a music competition.

SXSW with Abe: Sword of Trust

I’m excited to be attending the film festival at South by Southwest for the second time, and I’ll be posting reviews throughout the week as I see as many movies as possible!

Sword of Trust
Directed by Lynn Shelton
Narrative Spotlight

There are many notions and events from throughout history about which people can’t agree upon one universal truth. Lack of documentation or scientific evidence to support a theory may cause it not to be widely accepted, and for differing established points of view to exist that are equally valid. And then there are those things that have in fact been proven beyond a reasonable doubt, and nearly everyone accepts them without question. There do exist groups, most often termed conspiracy theorists, that stand by something that directly contradicts what is almost universally believed.

Cynthia (Jillian Bell) and Mary (Michaela Watkins) show up to collect the house that they assume Cynthia’s late grandfather has left them, and are disappointed to learn that it is now owned by the bank, with their only inheritance being a mysterious sword. Upon finding documentation that claims this sword is proof that the South actually won the Civil War, Cynthia and Mary bring it to a pawn shop and try to sell it to Mel (Marc Maron), who rejects it as a hoax until some brief online research indicates that there is a group willing to pay thousands for it. Along with Mel and his hapless employee Nathaniel (Jon Bass), Cynthia and Mary set out to sell this bizarrely-treasured artifact to a shady buyer whose beliefs lie far outside the norm.

This film comes from Lynn Shelton, who has directed a number of films including “Laggies,” “Touchy Feely,” and a personal favorite of this reviewer’s, “Your Sister’s Sister.” This latest effort is an exercise in conversation, following its main characters’ improvised dialogue wherever it takes them, infusing the film with incredible humor as they banter, alternatively spewing nonsense and actually connecting on a real level about the absurdity of what they are doing. The characterizations of its protagonists are entertaining, particularly the lazy Nathaniel, who himself is too prone to propaganda and believes that the earth is flat, and once the true Southerners show up, there’s more than enough material to make them hilariously absurd.

This film provides fantastic showcase for all the actors involved, particularly Maron from “GLOW” as the sarcastic Mel and Watkins from “Casual” as the argumentative, self-assured Mary. This misadventure proves quite funny and engaging, even if it doesn’t manage to be all that sophisticated as it reaches its end. It’s still a fun, mind-boggling ride that does a great job sending up the idea of conspiracy theories that quite literally have been proven to be false.


SXSW with Abe: Extra Ordinary

I’m excited to be attending the film festival at South by Southwest for the second time, and I’ll be posting reviews throughout the week as I see as many movies as possible!

Extra Ordinary
Directed by Mike Ahern and Enda Loughman
Narrative Feature Competition

There are established tropes in most genres that make them easy to mock and, in many cases, the most popular renditions serve simultaneously as legitimate entries and self-parodies. Appreciating a more lighthearted, humorous approach to a subject does require some knowledge of and familiarity with more typical work of the same sort. Even with that, some attempts at making a comedy out of something that might (or might not) work better in a less comic manner still fall flat.

Rose (Maeve Higgins) runs her own driving school as a way to distance herself from the paranormal ghost-consulting services that defined her father’s career. When Martin (Barry Ward), who has never been able to get rid of his dead wife’s presence in his house, finds his daughter levitating above her bed, summoned in preparation to be sacrificed to the devil by failed rock star Christian Winter (Will Forte), he calls Rose for a driving lesson with a plan to beg her to return to her previous work and save his daughter from eternal damnation. Guilted into action and simultaneously attracted to the kindhearted Martin, Rose does her best to help him while trying not to make a fatal mistake like the one that prompted her to turn her back on the business years earlier.

This isn’t a film that pretends to be good, fully aware of the fact that any films of this sort about devil sacrifices or ghosts aren’t inherently serious even if they’re explicitly classified as horror. Forte’s portrayal of a one-hit wonder rocker who is so terrible at making music that he must resort to demonic sorcery in a warped attempt to achieve glory is particularly over-the-top, occasionally funny but ultimately the biggest proof that this film doesn’t have too much intelligence embedded within it. Its absurdity is not an asset.

Higgins, on the other hand, is a fantastic fit for the lead role, seemingly much more aware of what this film is trying to be than any other element in it. Her talents should be reserved for far better projects in the future. Ward is decent as the nervous Martin, but he and Higgins are about the only things worth praising in this irritating film that feels hopelessly unending at just ninety-five minutes. Describing the eventual direction of its plot highlights some potential that might have existed, but this finished product evidently values stupidity over anything else.


Friday, March 15, 2019

SXSW with Abe: Long Shot

I’m excited to be attending the film festival at South by Southwest for the second time, and I’ll be posting reviews throughout the week as I see as many movies as possible!

Long Shot
Directed by Jonathan Levine

Most romantic comedies follow the same formula – another film showing at the SXSW Film Festival, entitled “Romantic Comedy,” traces the familiar and problematic representation of women and men in the popular genre. Reality and impressionability aside, the goal of a film that wants to be seen as unique and vital is both to be truly funny and to engage a talented cast in a narrative that might not be creative in its own right but puts a moderate spin on established tropes. This well-timed odd couple movie does just that, positing an entertaining premise and taking it to great, hilarious heights.

Rogen and Theron star in the film

Fred Flarsky (Seth Rogen) survives a brush with a white nationalist sect he attempts to infiltrate for a story and then promptly quits his job when he learns that a mass media publisher has just acquired the newspaper that employs him. A chance run-in with his former babysitter, Charlotte Field (Charlize Theron), who is the now the United States Secretary of State, creates the perfect opportunity for the politician to bring a new voice on board as she crafts a groundbreaking treaty that will pave the way for the announcement of a presidential run. Fred’s childish behavior and unkempt appearance do not mesh well with Charlotte’s fast-paced lifestyle and earn him the contempt of her two loyal staffers (June Diane Raphael and Ravi Patel), but there remains something between Fred and Charlotte that has been there since they first saw eye-to-eye as teenagers with lofty notions of making high school more environmentally friendly.

The director and cast discuss the film

This film’s title refers both to the prospects for romance between its two lead characters and her chances at winning the presidency, particularly as she must constantly appease the idiot actor (Bob Odenkirk) who currently occupies the White House and will endorse her only if she does as he says. Scenes like the ones in which the president watches himself playing the president on television are barely even disguised as mockery of the real-life commander-in-chief, and there’s never been a better moment to have a strong female candidate for president featured in a film like this.

Rogen and Theron discuss the film

Not all the humor is terribly sophisticated, but when things get over-the-top in terms of believability, the laughs only increase. Theron is dynamic and genuine, capable of commanding respect but also aware of her limitations and insecurities. Rogen gives all of himself, dialing up his aggression and energy level to maximize his character’s excessiveness. Raphael, Patel, Odenkirk, and O’Shea Jackson Jr., as Fred’s best friend, offer great support from the supporting cast. This full two-hour film is worth every minute, entertaining and enjoyable the whole way through, making the most of an established concept and delivering it in fantastic form.


SXSW with Abe: Apollo 11

I’m excited to be attending the film festival at South by Southwest for the second time, and I’ll be posting reviews throughout the week as I see as many movies as possible!

Apollo 11
Directed by Todd Douglas Miller
Festival Favorites

The moment man first set foot on the moon was an incredible development watched by millions around the world. Neil Armstrong’s famous line, “that’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” has been memorialized as one of the most impactful quotes of all time. Director Damien Chazelle offered a look at the lengthy process undertaken by NASA and the astronauts involved to make the daring journey with last year’s “First Man,” which didn’t land as triumphantly as expected but still impressed with its technical achievements. Now comes an even more astonishing representation: the entire trip as captured by cameras while was it happening.

Any history leading up to the launch of Apollo 11 is addressed only briefly in news announcements that preface the historic mission which will finally attempt to have man walk on the moon. Tremendous crowds gather to watch it take off, and multiple teams stand by to take over during the course of the lengthy flight to assist the astronauts enter and disengage from the orbits of the Earth and the moon. Once in space, astronauts Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins share their feed with the eyes of the world, leading right up to the pivotal descent and monumental first walk.

It is truly unbelievable to see just how much footage was captured in July 1969 when this mission actually took place, and even more mind-boggling that a film can be constructed entirely of the recordings of many different cameras. This feels like minute-by-minute coverage, fast-forwarding only when the astronauts go to sleep or are out of contact, which is when those watching had to disengage as well, as if it had been prepared directly for editing into this film rather than put together decades later. It feels like a living, breathing piece of history that, if not for the clothes and style, could easily be happening right now.

This is an inarguably impressive technical feat, with credit deserved most for the vision of making this film and the expert skill with which it is assembled. Those seeking new knowledge about this moon landing will experience a deep dive that allows them to essentially ride along with the astronauts and breathe heavily with those back on the ground guiding and watching them. The footage is aided by illustrations and reconstructions that explain part of the process, and this documentary notably features no outside commentary or guiding narration, instead fully involved in the events being portrayed and relayed on screen.


SXSW with Abe: The Day Shall Come

I’m excited to be attending the film festival at South by Southwest for the second time, and I’ll be posting reviews throughout the week as I see as many movies as possible!

The Day Shall Come
Directed by Chris Morris
Narrative Spotlight

There’s so much going on in the world today that’s ripe to be made fun of, some of it lighthearted and some much direr. Becoming politically active and advocating for change is one route, and while broadcasting a problematic aspect of society through a humorous lens won’t necessarily create any progress, it is capable of reaching a wider audience. Depending on how outrageous the parody is, it is possible that those watching it won’t actually comprehend that it is indeed being presenting in a larger-than-life manner, and whether it lands or not may have little to do with if it is funny.

Moses (Marchánt Davis) is a preacher who commands three followers and the members of his family in his blend of multiple faiths that believes in, among other things, a Black Santa and the eventual superiority of the black race. When his home and church is threatened by an eviction notice, Moses is offered a large sum of money from a mysterious Middle Eastern investor (Kayvan Novak), unaware that he is working for the FBI, whose Agent Glack (Anna Kendrick) has identified Moses as a potential threat and is looking to get him arrested on weapons charges before he can truly cause problems of his own invention.

It seems at times as if only Moses has no trouble taking himself seriously, while everyone else, including his mostly loyal wife (Danielle Brooks), is far from convinced that he and his horse have magical powers and that he really does speak directly to God. Agent Glack and her supervisor Andy (Denis O’Hare) roll their eyes at his expressed ideas almost as much as they assess him to be a true threat. There is evidently delusion at the heart of his well-meaning crusade, which of course is significant to the FBI’s preemptive threats to get him off the streets even though he doesn’t understand the weight of the things they hope to put him away for doing or attempting.

This is a case where less would indeed be more, though the fault lies not with the portrayal of Moses and his passionate religion but more with the FBI, whose agents make every effort to go the easy route and score a PR win rather than calculate if someone with less than a dozen disciples should be given so much attention. Described as “based on 100 true stories,” this skewering look at how the government and law enforcement treat political insurgents, especially those who are black, aims way too high and ends up with a messy, unfulfilling product. “Four Lions,” which also stars Novak, is a far funnier and more worthwhile send-up of terrorism in this vein. While O’Hare is dependable in this kind of sardonic role, Kendrick really needs to be picking better roles since she’s capable of so much more. After so much humor, this film attempts a serious, thought-provoking finish which feels all too unconvincing.


SXSW with Abe: Adopt a Highway

I’m excited to be attending the film festival at South by Southwest for the second time, and I’ll be posting reviews throughout the week as I see as many movies as possible!

Adopt a Highway
Directed by Logan Marshall-Green
Narrative Spotlight

Cinema is designed to immerse people in experiences that might not be their own, and to get them to feel empathy for a connection with the characters portrayed on screen. That may not always be possible, depending upon the motivation of a protagonist or antagonist, but becoming invested in what is being shown is crucial to the success of most movie-watching experiences. Predicting the events that will happen as a result of poor decision-making on the part of character doesn’t necessarily diminish the effectiveness of a film, but it rarely enhances it.

Russell Millings (Ethan Hawke) is released from prison after serving twenty years for drug possession on his third strike. Though he has no idea how to interact with modern society, not owning a cell phone or having an e-mail account, Russell exhibits a gentleness atypical of those who have spent considerable time behind bars. When he finds a baby in a dumpster behind the fast food restaurant where he works, his impulse to take her home and care for her rather than to call the police sets his life on a new course, one that he’s hopeless to control as he simply tries his best to do the right thing.

Hawke is having a tremendous renaissance in his career right now, directing “Blaze” and starring in a number of films, including “Juliet, Naked,” “Stockholm,” and the critically-lauded “First Reformed,” last year. He definitely has the right sensibility to play this character in actor Logan Marshall-Green’s directorial debut, meek in most of his interactions merely because he doesn’t have much to say, and isn’t looking to get into any trouble after a mistake cost him so much of his life. It’s hardly his most emotive or compelling performance, but there isn’t another actor who might have been better-suited for the part.

As a whole, the film doesn’t feel terribly timely or enticing, lacking a true urgency in both its plot and pacing. Though Russell is obviously affected by a fear of doing something wrong, it seems abundantly clear that his ill-fated plans to care for an infant that isn’t his will go awry. Watching that process is unrewarding, and this film, which clocks in at a strangely short seventy-eight minutes, doesn’t demonstrate its value. An extended scene featuring the very talented Elaine Hendrix in a puzzling role shows that there may have been potential, but it’s not on display in this very lackluster finished product.


Thursday, March 14, 2019

SXSW with Abe: Booksmart

I'm covering some of the films from this year's SXSW Film Festival for The Film Experience. Head over there to read my take on the fantastic feature directorial debut of Olivia Wilde, "Booksmart," with hilarious performances from Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever.

SXSW with Abe: Pink Wall

I’m excited to be attending the film festival at South by Southwest for the second time, and I’ll be posting reviews throughout the week as I see as many movies as possible!

Pink Wall
Directed by Tom Cullen
Narrative Spotlight

Capturing a relationship on film is a complicated task. Showing two people in love or in the middle of a fight can shed some light on how they interact, and a romance is often charted from the beginning so that the people involved can be introduced on their own before the influence of the other on them. Honing in on the problems that present themselves over the course of a lot of time spent together rarely produces optimistic results, but an authentic, truthful cinematic representation of a relationship won’t merely include the positive moments.

Duplass and Maslany star in the film

Jenna (Tatiana Maslany) and Leon (Jay Duplass) are shown at six different points in six years, early on in their relationship and much later after they’ve endured plenty together and apart. In one, they casually chat with Jenna’s family until a comment from her brother sends them both over the edge and leads to a spectacular argument outside. In another, Leon surprises Jenna with a home-cooked dinner only to learn that she has bigger news for him. And in another, friends have gathered to celebrate Jenna’s birthday at a dinner party, which ends up revealing much more about how they act around others than either of them expect.

Duplass, Maslany, and Cullen star in the film

Director Tom Cullen, who makes an astounding debut behind the camera after a career in acting, explains that showing this relationship through six extended moments was deliberate. He stresses the value of building the emotional landscape of the film in a way that was not linear, designed instead to be constructed through the cross-referencing of the memories shown. The film was shot over only nine days, and while Cullen says such a short timeframe prevented him from doing more with the camera, he is ultimately very happy with the finished product, citing that the “beauty of the lack of time is that there are restrictions, out of which come really great things.”

Duplass and Maslany discuss the film

Cullen also directed his real-life girlfriend Maslany, and he says that they were in the sixth year of their relationship when he started writing the film. Both highly recommend working with someone you care deeply about since, as Maslany puts it, “It’s so rewarding. It requires a lot of trust and communication. You’re working with someone who knows you so well and will challenge you and also give you this massive love and safety that feels limitless. The possibilities are endless.” Duplass, who has worked closely with his brother Mark on many occasions and with his wife on early projects, jokes that, perhaps in retrospect he should have been more concerned about working with a real couple, but that he “never felt like a third wheel. We were trying to find the truth we were searching for together.”

Duplass, Abe, Cullen, and Maslany after our interview

Cullen, Maslany, and Duplass all have great things to share about the process of making this film, and the effort shows. They give immense credit to director of photography Bobby Shore, whose intimate and comforting style helps to make the audience feel as if they’re truly in the room with these people as they navigate their romance and lives together. The editing is crucial to this experience, as is the music, which adds drama and depth to each moment as the protagonists alternately delight in each other’s company and express pent-up aggression about problems that need to be seriously addressed. This doesn’t feel like just another relationship on display in cinema, but a vital and extremely powerful immersion into a relationship with terrific performances making it feel even more real.


SXSW with Abe: The Weekend

I’m excited to be attending the film festival at South by Southwest for the second time, and I’ll be posting reviews throughout the week as I see as many movies as possible!

The Weekend
Directed by Stella Meghie
Festival Favorites

Characters who have been dumped and haven’t gotten over it, even if it’s been a very long time, are often found in film and television. Going away for a weekend that proves transformative is a frequent device, one that can be extremely enticing to watch and can also feel previously explored without a fresh compelling angle from which to see it. Having the ex that has caused so much strife be one of the friends with whom the protagonist is vacationing definitely changes the situation, and, in this case, makes what could have been a lackluster film considerably more engaging.

Zadie (Sasheer Zamata) is a stand-up comedian who frequently describes herself in her sets as “extremely single.” Even though her relationship with Bradford (Tone Bell) ended three years earlier, she hasn’t moved on, which is made more difficult by the fact that the high school sweethearts are still best friends. When they go away to the bed and breakfast run by her mother (Kym Whitley) for the weekend, Bradford invites his new girlfriend Margo (DeWanda Wise) along, irritating Zadie and putting Bradford on edge as a result. The presence of another lodger, Aubrey (Y’lan Noel), presents Zadie with an unexpected opportunity for romance that creates plenty of tension with an overprotective Bradford and neglected Margo.

This film succeeds well at creating an involving narrative with just five characters, set mostly in one place. There is no overarching style to this film that defines or frames it; instead, events occur and conversations happen without too much fanfare. That makes it an accessible experience, one made all the more inviting due to Zadie’s casual nature and her inability to be serious even for a moment, constantly making a joke either at her expense or designed to chip away at Bradford and Margo’s relationship.

Zamata, who was a cast member on “Saturday Night Live” for several years, is the best reason to see this film, demonstrating enormous potential and a natural talent as Zadie. Bell and Noel offer considerable support as the two men that are the focus of her attention, and Wise and Whitley contribute positively as well. The straightforward nature of this film works to its advantage, and though it doesn’t feel as if it’s breaking any new ground, what it’s trying to do, it does well and serves as a perfectly adequate look at how (not) to get over a breakup.


SXSW with Abe: South Mountain

I’m excited to be attending the film festival at South by Southwest for the second time, and I’ll be posting reviews throughout the week as I see as many movies as possible!

South Mountain
Directed by Hilary Brougher
Narrative Feature Competition

A marriage takes work, and there are many factors that can complicate a situation which makes dealing with it particularly delicate. Children are one such element, and in some cases parents stay together until their children are grown solely to be able to provide a stable home for their offspring while they are young. Determining the point at which children may be sufficiently old and mature to be able to function on their own is subjective and highly dependent on each individual case, and the way that an adult changes during that time must be accounted for as well to honestly chart the course for a couple fated not to stay together.

Lila (Talia Balsam) begins the summer in the Catskills with her family and her best friend Gigi (Andrus Nichols), unaware that her husband Edgar (Scott Cohen) is in the next room watching a woman he has impregnated give birth while he claims to be getting notes from a producer. Once he admits what has happened and announces his intention to move with the baby’s mother to Brooklyn, Lila struggles to maintain a sense of sanity and purpose as Gigi undergoes chemotherapy and her daughters slowly distance themselves from home. Her daughter Sam’s friend Jonah (Michael Oberholtzer) proves to be an unexpected kindred spirit, desiring to spend time with Sam and paying attention to her in a way no one else does.

This film’s scenes are broken up by the dates that accompany their beginnings, charting a course from the start of the summer as time passes slowly and uneventfully. The moments in which Edgar is absent almost feel more comfortable than the ones where he is present, since Lila still holds on to the belief that they can get through this as they have past hurdles. The attitude he expresses is definitely unhealthy, in part blaming Lila for being a willing participant in the dissolution of her marriage which was indeed undone purely by Edgar’s infidelity. Lila is hopeless to affect events around her and yearns for some sort of power that she does not have.

Balsam, who has played recurring roles on “Divorce” and “Mad Men,” turns in a fine performance that is much more focused and intentional than much of this movie, which tries to capture the spirit of a polluted summer oasis yet doesn’t succeed. Cohen is unlikeable as he should be, yet he doesn’t serve as a strong scene partner for Balsam. This film approaches worthwhile notions and ideas but doesn’t feel sure enough of where it wants to go to be compelling.


Wednesday, March 13, 2019

SXSW with Abe: The Art of Self-Defense

I'm covering some of the films from this year's SXSW Film Festival for The Film Experience. Head over there to read my take on a film I didn't love starring Jesse Eisenberg as a karate student, "The Art of Self-Defense."

SXSW with Abe: Villains

In addition to The Film Experience, I'm also covering some of the films from this year's SXSW Film Festival for Criminal Element. Head over there to read my take on a comedy-thriller that impressed me, "Villains."

SXSW with Abe: Frances Ferguson

I’m excited to be attending the film festival at South by Southwest for the second time, and I’ll be posting reviews throughout the week as I see as many movies as possible!

Frances Ferguson
Directed by Bob Byington
Narrative Spotlight

Not all crimes happen the same way, and it’s definitely true that the punishment doled out is extraordinarily dependent not only on the circumstances but also on the cultural identity of the perpetrators and victims. In many films, particularly documentaries, that injustice is explored and highlighted for the world to see. In drama, it may be just as compelling, and there are sometimes portraits that find those accused far less concerned than they likely should be, ready to accept the consequences of their actions, resigned and relatively relaxed about following whatever the new course of their life may be.

Frances Ferguson (Kaley Wheless) lives with her mother, her loser husband (Keith Poulson), and infant daughter Parfait in the small town of North Platte, Nebraska. Miserable and bored out of her mind, Frances seizes upon a temptation after she substitutes in a class at the high school, engaging in a relationship with a student. Promptly arrested and sentenced to serve time in jail, Frances faces her time on the inside with a sarcastic attitude, going through the motions both while incarcerated and after release on a prescribed road to recovery that leaves her feeling little other than annoyance at the uninteresting nature of the world.

This is a bizarre film, one that showcases consequences in a way that isn’t really at all in line with reality, as Frances might get lightly pushed around by a guard but otherwise enjoys a perfectly liberating time while she’s locked up. Comparing this film to “Orange is the New Black” is unavoidable, if even more than its plot because Wheless looks nearly identical to Taylor Schilling, and her facial expressions, which are the highlight of this film, are eerily similar. Frances’ approach to her situation is what makes watching her worthwhile, since she just doesn’t care and is going to roll her eyes at anything that happens.

As a film, however, there doesn’t seem to be too much of a point being made. Nick Offerman, always a welcome participant in any film, serves as the narrator, slyly detailing each new revelation and development. He also has a tendency to bid characters goodbye, announcing to the audience that this is the last time we’ll see a particular supporting player. Frances is undeniably more interesting than anyone else in the film, and so much of this weird, unfulfilling journey feels unnecessary, ending both far too soon and far too late after just seventy-five perplexing minutes.


SXSW with Abe: Run This Town

I’m excited to be attending the film festival at South by Southwest for the second time, and I’ll be posting reviews throughout the week as I see as many movies as possible!

Run This Town
Directed by Ricky Tollman
Narrative Spotlight

When a major scandal occurs, there’s often a desire to take the story and dramatize it. Whatever events may be concretely confirmed can be featured, but it’s rare to find an adaptation that doesn’t take considerable liberties in both framing the situation and creating scenes and characters to help enhance the drama. Sometimes the focus even shifts so much that the scandal might be at the core of the plot, but the person or people involved most centrally become tangential to someone’s else story. That can work, but it can also prove to be considerably less interesting than the actual subject matter.

Bram (Ben Platt) graduates from college and gets a job working at a local newspaper in Toronto. Assigned by his editor (Scott Speedman) to write banal top ten lists about food and culture, he yearns for something more. When he answers a phone call from someone claiming to have damning evidence of illegal conduct by Mayor Rob Ford (Damian Lewis), Bram latches on to the story, eager to see it through even when he’s told that he’s not ready for it. Simultaneously, staffers (Mena Massoud and Nina Dobrev) weigh the ethics of working for Ford when they witness him engage in questionable behavior with no hint of remorse.

Ford was indeed investigated and implicated, and that might very well have been worth a spotlight. Yet framing it from the perspective of Bram, a self-professed millennial who demonstrates his overconfidence among friends and an insistent pushiness with those far more experienced in his filed, doesn’t result in a compelling product. There are elements that feel all too familiar and less than engaging as presented here, and for this viewer who didn’t realize before watching the film that Ford was a real person, this narrative feels somewhat unfocused and extraneous.

Platt, a Tony winner for “Dear Evan Hansen,” makes a major leap to a starring film role here, playing someone much less likeable who persists in the face of every single person telling him to back off and do what he’s expected to do. Dobrev, best known for her role on “The Vampire Diaries,” demonstrates that she should be cast in much bigger parts in great projects. Lewis, disguised with makeup and prosthetics to play the extremely overweight Ford, is recognizable by voice only, and his character exemplifies a problematic workplace hierarchy, one that is embedded within a rather standard and unspectacular millennial-centric journalism film.