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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


Monday, October 28, 2019

Monday Oscar Odds

If you’ve been visiting 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
Little Women
Marriage Story
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

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

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

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

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

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

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.


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.


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.


Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Movie with Abe: 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.


Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Movie with Abe: The Current War: Director’s Cut

The Current War: Director’s Cut
Directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon
Released October 25, 2019

Our civilization is powered by electricity, and, as such, it’s hard to imagine a time when that wasn’t the case. Today, different companies compete to market similar products, with repackaging and rebranding far more frequent than actual genuine innovation. Looking towards the future and seeing beyond that which is immediately attainable is the surest way to achieve lasting success and truly change the world. It’s rare that just one person with one idea charts the course, and competition, good-natured or not, can drive the path forward, powered by money, ambition, and, more than anything, vision.

In the late 1800s, Thomas Edison (Benedict Cumberbatch) brings the lightbulb to market and seeks to light the country using the direct current method. Confident that alternating current is the smarter alternative, George Westinghouse (Michael Shannon) tries to work with Edison, but, finding himself snubbed, begins testing and production separately. Initially hired by Edison but squandered and undervalued, futurist Nikola Tesla (Nicholas Hoult) blazes his own path towards a grand notion of powering the entire country. All three men believe they can accomplish great things yet rarely see eye-to-eye on the sticking point of credit and, most crucially, current.

This film is being released theatrically more than two years after premiering at the Toronto International Film Festival, apparently retooled due to poor reviews and to erase any trace of its former distributor, The Weinstein Company. The result is a visually impressive film teeming with strong performers, all thoroughly entrenched in their roles. The cinematography is more than a bit indulgent, and there isn’t any one narrative or editorial style consistent throughout the film, perhaps unintentionally representative of the incongruous relationship of these three geniuses.

Cumberbatch, previously nominated for an Oscar for playing another underappreciated inventor in “The Imitation Game,” immerses himself in the role of Edison, though his performance never feels fully genuine. Shannon is typically great even if the part doesn’t demand much of him, and Hoult is both having fun and delivering a fine turn in the process. In the supporting cast, Tom Holland, Katherine Waterston, and Matthew Macfadyen are well-cast as Edison’s secretary, Westinghouse’s wife, and funder J.P. Morgan, respectively. The plot is genuinely interesting – and often entertaining – and the aesthetic design aids an involving viewing experience. By film’s end, this story feels like it’s been worth telling, even if it’s not quite as lightbulb-brilliant as it could have been.


Monday, October 21, 2019

Movie with Abe: Black and Blue

Black and Blue
Directed by Deon Taylor
Released October 25, 2019

Racial tensions are high in today’s world, and a major contributor to that dynamic is the treatment of communities of color by the police. There have been a slew of films recently that have featured this complex relationship onscreen, with some featuring black police officers who are themselves pulled over or stopped by other members of law enforcement. Usually, the subject is given a dramatic treatment that continues to follow the story into the legal system. In an industry that sometimes just wants to deliver cheap thrills, there’s no reason to expect that this topic wouldn’t be adapted into an action movie format.

Alicia West (Naomie Harris) is a rookie cop just a few weeks into the job. When she takes a shift for her partner Kevin (Reid Scott), she witnesses the execution of a drug dealer by a group of corrupt cops led by Terry Malone (Frank Grillo). Aware that she has captured the footage on her body cam, Malone launches a full-on pursuit of West, framing her as the killer so that the victim’s mobster uncle, Darius (Mike Colter), will send his people after her as well. West must turn to the neighborhood she grew up in for survival, depending upon a man named Mouse (Tyrese Gibson) who is far from eager to become involved in the dangerous situation in which she finds herself.

The reputation of the police in real life is bad enough in some places that to presume that officers and detectives are completely corrupt to the point of killing those they find to be problematic in an almost casual way hardly seems necessary. Yet this film follows many established cinematic tropes, which include an inability to operate undetected within the ranks of the police department yet a shocking ineptness when it comes to being constantly outrun and outsmarted by the wounded newbie who manages to get away from them.

Harris, who was nominated for an Oscar for her maternal role in “Moonlight,” does her best to take this role seriously, though that’s admittedly difficult at times. She’s undeniably the strongest member of the cast, with Grillo playing the same villainous part he always does and Colter flailing in a role that doesn’t really fit him. This film skips over logic when it’s convenient, and the narrative that results is full of holes and absurdities. The dialogue is often laughable, and while this doesn’t need to have been a thinking piece, it should have been much better than this.


Friday, October 18, 2019

Movie with Abe: Joker

Directed by Todd Phillips
Released October 4, 2019

Comic book movies are so prominent these days that it’s nearly impossible to find a truly new and original idea. Some classic characters and stories continue to be explored over and over again, with Batman as a prime example. “Gotham” recently ended and now “Batwoman” has begun, and casting is currently underway for the latest reboot of a character whose last film franchise earned many accolades. Heath Ledger famously won an Oscar posthumously for his transformative portrayal of “The Dark Knight” a decade ago, and it would be reasonable to think that there couldn’t be a more compelling interpretation of the character, yet that’s not the case.

Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) aspires to be a comedian, living at home with his ailing mother (Frances Conroy) and earning money by dressing up as a clown and twirling a sign on the street. When he is attacked while at work and subsequently fired, Arthur begins to become fed up with the society that he sees decaying around him, all while billionaire Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen), who used to employ his mother, prepares a run for mayor. Sitting at home watching popular late-night host Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro), Arthur starts to see the humor in more disturbing ideas.

While this is a comic movie simply by nature of the origin of its central character, it’s much more of a portrait of a man suffering from mental illness who sees the world in a different way than many. Arthur hones in on small moments, like the way Franklin introduces a guest or how his attractive neighbor (Zazie Beetz) looks at him during a short elevator ride. This is a masterful look at one man and his descent into madness, which actually presents a sympathetic picture of someone whose intentions really are good even if he can rarely articulate or effect them.

This film’s success is due in large part to the incredible work of Phoenix, who truly becomes Arthur. This is an amazingly focused and magnetic performance, one that feels entirely genuine even while he is so detached from reality. The unnatural laugh that booms out of him at inappropriate times, due to an alleged medical condition, is particularly unnerving and compelling. Director Todd Phillips, whose previous projects including “The Hangover” and “Old School,” does a mesmerizing job of crafting a story that’s both funny and deeply frightening. This is not a typical supervillain movie, and it’s a fantastic argument for more such thought-provoking and contemplative pieces.


Sunday, October 13, 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!

Saturday, October 12, 2019

NYFF Spotlight: American Trial: The Eric Garner Story

I managed to catch two selections at this year’s 57th Annual New York Film Festival. Here’s the second.

American Trial: The Eric Garner Story
Directed by Roee Messinger
Special Events

On July 27, 2014, a black man in Staten Island named Eric Garner died while being arrested and subdued by multiple police officers. Video of the attempted arrest showed one of the officers, Daniel Pantaleo, placing Garner in a chokehold when he refused to be taken in, followed by Garner repeatedly saying “I can’t breathe” as he was wrestled to the ground. His death fueled Black Lives Matter and other movements to advocate for change in the way people of color are disproportionately killed by law enforcement, yet Pantaleo was never put on trial for his role in Garner’s death. This film explores that idea by imagining what might have transpired.

This film, which can’t quite be called a documentary, casts real people in the roles that they did play or would have played. Garner’s wife and friend portray themselves, testifying about what they knew about the man and what they saw and experienced that day. Two lawyers on each side act out those parts, while a lawyer plays the role of the judge. As questions are asked and accountability is explored, only Pantaleo is portrayed by an actor, Anthony Altieri. What happened is tackled from every angle, eliciting passionate responses and objections from the lawyers and those brought to the stand to give their testimony and analysis.

This is an intriguing experiment, one that posits the questions that anyone who watched the video – which is most people – would want to ask. What’s most emphasized, however, is that this isn’t the police department being put on trial or accused of any particular crime, but rather this one officer who, according to the charges, may be guilty of manslaughter and strangulation. The legal specifics are noted again and again by the defense lawyers and the judge as they debate whether what the officer did should be considered a chokehold, a move that is prohibited by police code, and if his intent was reckless and disregarded the possible result that the man he was trying to subdue could die, since only those things could result in a guilty verdict.

This film will surely stir emotions for anyone watching, with repeated video footage shown and Garner’s widow, Esaw Snipes Garner, painfully recounting the loss of her husband and snapping at anyone who would dare to manipulate her words. The format in which this trial is presented is not particularly riveting, even if its content is worthwhile and interesting. To presume that there wouldn’t be anything sensational about this trial if it did indeed occur is unwise, but there is something to be said for trying to look at this how it would have happened, with participants bringing their own legal knowledge and opinions in to try to help create justice where it wasn’t found.


Friday, October 11, 2019

NYFF Spotlight: Motherless Brooklyn

I managed to catch two selections at this year’s 57th Annual New York Film Festival. Here’s the first.

Motherless Brooklyn
Directed by Edward Norton
Closing Night Selection

There is something distinctive about old-fashioned mysteries, capers involving shadowy villains and conflicted protagonists whose motivations to take them down may be less than entirely noble. Police officers, detectives, or private investigators are typically led down a rabbit hole as they follow the leads – and the leading lady – to a place where they are forced to decide whether to do the right thing or to serve their own best interests. There are variations, of course, and the strength of the characters and the storyline can make or break the experience of traveling this journey.

Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Willem Dafoe, and Edward Norton discuss the film

Lionel Essrog (Edward Norton) is a private investigator in 1950s New York City who works with Frank Minna (Bruce Willis). When he realizes that Frank is in over his head on a mysterious assignment, Lionel, who suffers from Tourette’s Syndrome, must attempt to put together the pieces and determine what connects an ambitious aide (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) fighting discrimination in the city, a disturbed protestor (Willem Dafoe), and a powerful real estate mogul (Alec Baldwin). The undiagnosed condition he has often causes disruptive outbursts, but it also allows him to focus intently on the details and see things no one else can, setting him up as the only one capable of cracking this case.

Edward Norton discusses the film

This film is adapted from a 1999 novel of the same name by Jonathan Lethem, which preserves its protagonist’s defining characteristics but takes considerable other liberties, primarily in setting its story in the 1950s, which Norton cites as a classic time period which enhances the feeling of the film. The costumes, set direction, and moody score by Daniel Pemberton certainly do their part in grounding the audience experience in this mystery, which also feels clunky and expected. Running nearly two and a half hours, this film often explores themes and styles for just a moment before cutting away to an entirely different aesthetic, indicating great potential but a muddled result.

Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Willem Dafoe discuss the film

Norton is an undeniably terrific (and often underrated) actor, and there’s no denying that he applies himself here in addition to serving as producer, writer, and director. Yet this performance doesn’t feel nearly as transformative or three-dimensional, akin to the surrounding story, which travels a predictable path without discovering anything new along the way. Willis is fun, Mbatha-Raw and Dafoe are good as always, and it’s hard to hear Baldwin speak without picturing Donald Trump, though the comparison is apt in many ways here. The crowded ensemble also includes Bobby Cannavale, Leslie Mann, Michael K. Williams, and Cherry Jones, yet another instance of certifiable talent present and put to only moderate effect. There’s simply nothing extraordinary about this film which could have been great.


Monday, October 7, 2019

Avengers: Endgame Oscar Chances?

I had the opportunity to attend a guild screening of "Avengers: Endgame" in Los Angeles last week, which included a talkback with the film's writers, on behalf of The Film Experience. Head over there to read my take on the film's Oscar chances and some great takeaways from the conversation.

Friday, October 4, 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!

Wednesday, October 2, 2019

Movie with Abe: Abominable

Directed by Jill Culton and Todd Wilderman
Released September 27, 2019

Animated movies have historically cast a light on mystical phenomena and other creatures or characters typically perceived as villains. Monsters, beasts, and other theoretical “bad guys” have been rewritten as misunderstood and stuck in their fates as a result of magic or some act of their own doing, just waiting for the right person to come along and help to show them and the world that they mean no harm. Most often, those ready and willing to listen are children, whose sense of imagination and creativity can overcome the initial feelings and presuppositions created by a physical impression.

After the death of her father, teenage Yi works numerous jobs tirelessly so that she can make enough money to complete the trip across China that the two of them always dreamed of taking, ignoring her mother and grandmother in the process. When she finds an enormous yeti hiding out on her roof, she realizes it has tremendous power, and follows her new friend, nicknamed Everest, on an incredible journey with her neighbors Peng and Jin in tow. As she tries to get Everest home, this ragtag group is pursued by a wealthy collector and a scientist determined to put this rare creature on display.

This film tracks a similar course to many other recent animated films, picking a self-made outcast and showing her path towards finding happiness again in the wake of tremendous sadness. Once she sees that the escaped yeti is in pain, her attitude towards this terrifyingly large and unknown beast changes, and her only desire is to help Everest find his way home. Peng and Jin are appropriate tagalongs, each expressing completely different notions about the adventure they’re on while Yi merely charges ahead selflessly. The way they experience this expedition is inviting and enticing, welcoming in the audience to take the trip with them.

This film serves as a worthy entry into a collection of heartwarming animated productions from the last few decades, capturing the same sense of exploratory wonder as “Up” and the fearless spirit of “Brave” in its signature heroine, among many other elements. Like other animated films, it’s not just for children, with plenty of humor aimed at adults and dazzling visuals that should impress all ages. Voice contributions from Chloe Bennet, Albert Tsai, Tenzing Norgay Trainor, Sarah Paulson, and Eddie Izzard enhance an already enjoyable experience, one that manages to present magical ideas through a deeply human lens.