Friday, June 21, 2019

Movie with Abe: The Command

The Command
Directed by Thomas Vinterberg
Released June 21, 2019

Historical films about large-scale disasters often fall into two categories: action epics about the scope of what went wrong and more intimate dramas about the people impacted. There are many stories of people being unexpectedly put into harm’s way when an unforeseen weather pattern or theoretically safe test goes hopelessly awry. These films stand both as a testament to those who lost their lives as a result and as a cinematic representation of what they endured. Truly capturing the sense of panic and hopelessness felt by those trapped in an impossible situation is the greatest challenge faced by a film like this.

Mikhail Averin (Matthias Schoenaerts) is a captain aboard the Russian Kursk submarine in 2000, conducting a routine naval exercise. When two explosions rock the ship, the crew struggles to survive, aware that they must do whatever they can to alert those who could send help that they are both in distress and still alive. Averin does his best to maintain a calm atmosphere as his men gradually become aware of their increasingly poor odds, while a British commodore (Colin Firth) watches closely from afar and seeks to offer assistance to a reticent Russian operation weary of having anything about their nuclear-powered submarine discovered in the process.

This is a film that emphasizes those aboard the Kursk and the commitment they have to survive, driven by a desire to be reunited with their families. Averin is just one of the characters portrayed, whose relationship with his pregnant wife (Léa Seydoux) and young son (Artemiy Spiridonov) serves to anchor his will to live. He is a fitting representation of true awareness of his circumstances, resolute that keeping his men sane is just as crucial as ensuring that they can be rescued. Due to the tragic nature of this story’s end, many of the scenes are likely invented, but the power and devotion shown within them is indeed representative of a heroism that was displayed even by documented events that led to their eventually being located.

Danish director Thomas Vintenberg, who was Oscar-nominated for his strong drama “The Hunt” in 2013, has assembled an entirely international cast for a film all in English that might have been better served by using original languages instead. It’s not a tremendous detriment, as performances from Schoenaerts, Seydoux, August Diehl, and others are just as strong as they might have been in a different language. This film runs almost two full hours, spending time with the people it seeks to commemorate in a film that effectively spotlights the unfortunate politics and unnecessary diplomatic obstacles that can result in devastating loss akin to another such disastrous event recently chronicled on HBO in “Chernobyl.”


Friday, June 14, 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!

Friday, June 7, 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, June 6, 2019

Israel Film Center Festival Spotlight: Shooting Life

I’m pleased to be covering the 7th Annual Israel Film Center Festival at the Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan, which runs June 3rd-12th.

Shooting Life
Directed by David Kreiner
Screening June 5 at 6:15pm

Filmmaking is an art that can capture many things. Watching a life on television or in the cinema that looks nothing like what someone experiences can inspire those in small towns far from the rest of civilization to dream of one day escaping and becoming part of a world that more closely resembles that ideological aim. Recording events on camera can serve an entirely different purpose, both documenting what is happening as it unfolds and also helping to glean unexpected observations and conclusions from examining life through a more reserved or intimate lens.

After a divorce, Yigal (Mickey Leon) arrives in the city of Sderot to teach filmmaking to high school students. He quickly learns that his class finds little motivation in their everyday lives, which are boring save for the frequent sounding of a red alert alarm that indicates a rocket on its way and the need to seek shelter immediately. As Yigal gets his students to open up and see that they can create extraordinary work with nothing more than a video camera and an interest in their subject matter, he confronts resistance from the principal (Evelin Hagoel) about the sentiments he is stirring up in the students by challenging them to be inquisitive.

Yigal, whose complicated relationship with his daughter who would much rather spend time with her mother and her new boyfriend is indeed interesting, is far from the most worthwhile character in a film full of dynamic personalities. Among his featured students are Libby (Noa Astanjelove), an aspiring singer whose religious parents want to keep her from being enlisted in the army, Ohad (Matan Lax), who has built a relationship with a police officer after the departure of his father, and Tal (Eyal Shikratzi), whose father lies unconscious in a hospital bed after being injured in a rocket attack.

These characters and stories all feel vibrant and true, enhanced from any sort of teen melodrama both by the performances and the film’s overall tone. There is plenty of comedy infused into an otherwise serious film that features a particularly resounding dramatic finish. It’s a three-dimensional portrait of an Israeli city known specifically for its proximity to Gaza and the frequent barrage of rockets its citizens endure, an endearing tribute to its residents with an excitable and refreshing energy.


Wednesday, June 5, 2019

Israel Film Center Festival Spotlight: The Unorthodox

I’m pleased to be covering the 7th Annual Israel Film Center Festival at the Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan, which runs June 3rd-12th.

The Unorthodox
Directed by Eliran Malka
Screening June 4 at 8:30pm

Every country has a unique political structure that evolves over time. How a nation came into being usually plays a part in the issues its future government representatives wish to advocate either for or against, as do the goals for what the country can become. The United States may be known as a land of immigrants, and that’s certainly true of Israel as well, especially as people from places with once-thriving Jewish populations moved there as conditions back home became increasingly dangerous. Like the United States, prejudices about the color of a person’s skin or their place of birth are far more common and influential than they should be.

In 1983, printer Yaakov Cohen (Shuli Rand) storms into his daughter’s yeshiva school, furious that she has been kicked out for no discernable reason other than her Middle Eastern roots. Angry with the dominance of European Ashkenazi leaders in Jerusalem city politics, Yaakov seeks to find a voice for the Sephardic community. With the help of a political operator (Yoav Levi) and a rabbi (Yaacov Cohen), Yaakov begins to exert his energy to form an ultra-Orthodox party that represents so many immigrants like himself, traveling an uphill battle to earn the required authorizations and permissions to form a new party with an actual shot at victory.

This film, which is based on true events in the creation of the Israeli party Shas, or Shomrei Torah Sepharadim, begins from a lighthearted point as Yaakov seems ready to bulldoze any obstacle in his way in order to get justice first for his daughter and then for his people. As he enters politics, the landscape is described through narration and still images, blending history with humor as Yaakov and his allies do their best to survive in a system not set up for splintered identities. At its most moving, this film depicts Yaakov as a dreamer, still aware of his own limitations as evidenced by his visit to his former school to stomp out any chance of him stuttering before an important meeting. Yaakov is fired up, but he’s also human.

Rand is a religious actor best known for written and starring in “Ushpizin,” his last film role before this one. He is deeply charismatic and endearing, leaving other characters to shine in scenes that are meant to have him in the background, even if the story is still framed from his point of view. Levi, Cohen, and the rest of the cast offer solid support in this enlightening and entertaining look at the origins of an operation that now looks so little like what its first visionary dreamed for it several decades ago.


Tuesday, June 4, 2019

Israel Film Center Festival Spotlight: Red Cow

I’m pleased to be covering the 7th Annual Israel Film Center Festival at the Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan, which runs June 3rd-12th.

Red Cow
Directed by Tsivia Barkai Yacov
Screening June 4 at 6:15pm

Devotion to a particular faith or idea can often inspire people to see meaning in everything that happens in their lives. What they see and interpret from it may differ even from those with a similar outlook on goals and aspirations for themselves and others, and the discord among conflicting points of view can create unrest, confusion, and lead to problematic interactions. When taken too far, it can threaten the stability and happiness of those with fervent faith and even lead to dangerous violence and unavoidable consequences for a wider population.

Benni (Avigail Kovari) is a teenager being raised by Yehoshua (Gal Toren) after the death of her mother in childbirth. They live in East Jerusalem in a settlement, and Yehoshua embodies a religious extremist ideology that pervades every aspect of his life. The birth of a red cow on the same day as the death of his mother makes him believe in the imminent arrival of the Messiah, and Benny is charged with caring for the cow. She finds an intense distraction in the form of Yael (Moran Rosenblatt), developing a forbidden attraction that will never meet her father’s approval on multiple levels.

This film, which describes itself as being set in the days leading up to the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin by a man with beliefs similar to those of Yehoshua, captures a zealotry in its characters that makes them immensely watchable and complex. Yehoshua, in an unusual move, permits – and requires – his daughter to wrap tefillin, or phylacteries, each morning, a practice restricted to men in ultra-Orthodox tradition. He sees what is forming between his daughter and Yael, and initially declines to interfere since he finds it to be harmless. As the film progresses, it becomes clear that this isn’t an innocent rebellion on Benny’s part, but instead an expression of her identity that doesn’t match her father’s worldview.

Kovari, who has a small role in another Israel Film Center Festival film, “Redemption,” and picked up a prize at the Jerusalem Film Festival for her performance, delivers a passionate and genuine turn as Benny, who doesn’t seek to contradict her father’s beliefs but to be her own person within the context of his reputation and energy. Toren infuses Yehoshua with an immutable drive, one that makes him an enormously compelling character. Rosenblatt, who won an Ophir Israeli Oscar for “Wedding Doll,” rounds out an exceptional cast as Yael, a worthwhile character in her own right even though this really isn’t her story. This film spotlights a fascinating facet of society with a rich and involving portrait of an atypical father-daughter relationship.


Monday, June 3, 2019

Israel Film Center Festival Spotlight: Redemption

I’m pleased to be covering the 7th Annual Israel Film Center Festival at the Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan, which runs June 3rd-12th.

Directed by Joseph Madmony and Boaz Yehonatan Yacov
Opening Night

Religion is something that can guide a person’s every waking moment. There are many different motivations for someone to become religious at a given point in their lives, and often a dramatic shift from a secular lifestyle to an observant one creates an entirely new worldview. When elements from a dissimilar past collide with a more stringent present, the disparity can be seen in a stark way that forces the person at the center to examine their beliefs and choices to determine if how they see the world is compatible with what they need or what others need from them.

Menachem (Moshe Folkenflick) is a devout Orthodox Jew who works at a local supermarket to support his young daughter Geula (Emily Granin), who is undergoing chemotherapy for a cancer similar to the one that took his wife’s life. Desperate for money to pay for the treatments, Menachem enlists his former bandmates, Avi (Sivan Shtivi), Gouli (Yonatan Galila), and Danny (Shahar Even-Tzur), to play weddings. Though it’s a far cry from the clubs and the music they used to play, Menachem finds a surprising release in returning to his musical roots while trying ardently not to stray from a faithful path.

What could be a familiar tale of someone having to leave religion behind in order to become the man he used to be and make ends meet feels completely fresh, aided by the specifics of its storyline. Whenever his bandmates express their excitement at the feeling of playing together, Menachem is quick to respond that rejoicing with a bride and groom is a ritual duty. The loss of his wife and the illness of his daughter have only served to strengthen his beliefs, but being in such close proximity with people who can’t understand the way he sees his relationship with Judaism and God threatens to unseat whatever balance he still has left.

The performances in this film are extraordinary. Folkenflick immerses himself into Menachem, displaying compassion, humor, and the gravity of his situation in all of his interactions, particularly the dates he goes on in order to find a potential new wife. In her debut film role, Granin is wonderful, and the two leads are ably supported by the portrayers of the band and by Avigail Kovari as a neighbor who steps in to babysit every time Menachem’s two worlds collide. This is an endearing and powerful film, one that finds the humanity in each of its characters and delivers a resounding and enjoyable portrait of their struggles and victories. The music is a great added touch too.