Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Israel Film Festival Spotlight: Cause of Death

I’ve had the privilege of screening a few selections from the Israel Film Festival, which serves as a showcase for the best Israeli films each year. The 33rd Israel Film Festival takes place November 12th-26th, 2019.


Cause of Death
Directed by Ramy A. Katz
Festival Information

The loss of a close relative or friend is sure to trigger grief in a person, regardless of the manner in which that loss occurred. Often, the emotions stirred up and subsequent shifts in personality and attitude can be surprising, changing the way someone interacts with the world as a result of this missing piece. When violence is involved in the deceased’s final moments, that can amplify the trauma considerably, and if the circumstances surrounding the details of how that person died are mysterious or unknown, a mourner can be left struggling and searching for answers for years or even their whole lives.

On May 3rd, 2002, Druze policeman Salim Barakat was in the vicinity of a terrorist attack at the Seafood Market restaurant in Tel Aviv. When he saw what was going on, he sprang into action and shot the terrorist, who stabbed him to death before he died. Following his murder, Salim’s brother Jamal felt unresolved, uncertain about what exactly happened. Years later, he remains convinced that there is more to the story, and returns to many of the places and people involved in Salim’s life and death to determine whether Salim actually died the way everyone but him believes he did.

This film, which is also playing at the Other Israel Film Festival in New York this week, shines a light on the Druze community in Israel and how its members coexist with both Israelis and Palestinians, often serving alongside Israelis in arms of law enforcement and the military. Where Jamal’s concern arises is in the news footage that reveals that Salim was initially mistaken for the terrorist rather than the one subduing him, revealing unspoken discrimination that occurs within Israeli society. Some Jamal speaks to are open to the possibility that Salim’s death may be more complicated, while others insist that there’s no reason to open old wounds and that he should simply remember his brother as a hero.

In this documentary, the camera is set up right next to Jamal and sticks with him for the entirety of his search. Audiences watch footage of the attack and the aftermath with Jamal as he re-experiences it yet again, and accompany him as he tries to speak to anyone he possibly can who will help him get closer to the truth. It’s a deeply personal exploration, one that confirms much of Jamal’s suspicions about the nature of some facets of Israeli society and serves as a strong personal tribute to one man’s quest to achieve justice for a brother he shouldn’t have had to lose.

B+

Movie with Abe: The Laundromat

The Laundromat
Directed by Steven Soderbergh
Released September 27, 2019

There are many ways to adapt a true story into a movie. When the subject matter is something serious, there can be a humorous angle from which to tackle it. Yet, in those cases, there are often people who got hurt along the way and suffered as a result, and the mixture of exaggerated comedy and somber drama doesn’t always work. The product of such an effort can seem insensitive and be off-putting, and there’s a degree to which that can still manage to be effective. That’s not always true, however, and sometimes a film simply falters too much.

Jürgen Mossack (Gary Oldman) and Ramón Fonseca (Antonio Banderas) are law partners in Panama City running a firm that profits considerably from its many shell companies and its manipulation of the global insurance system, who also serve in this cinematic context as narrators who educate the audience on how to launder money and take advantage of others. When a woman (Meryl Streep) loses her husband in an unfortunate boating accident and later learns that she’ll receive nothing as compensation due to the proliferation of one such scheme, she refuses to stop until she uncovers and exposes how this could possibly have happened.

This film is a wild mess, one that is meant mostly to be tongue-in-cheek in its exploration of an unbelievable process that actually happens in the real world. By presenting Oldman and Banderas as eager instructors of crime, this film assumes a playful position that feels tasteless, and, worse still, isn’t all that entertaining. Streep’s storyline, which was invented as a stand-in for the audience, often feels as if it’s taking place in an entirely different film, one that isn’t nearly as gleeful as all the fun that Mossack and Fonseca, real-life figures whose firm sued Netflix for defamation before this film’s release, are having in explaining just how to exploit at every possible level.

There’s no denying that Oldman and Banderas are strong actors, but this is hardly the place for them to be putting their talents to use. Hopefully Banderas’ work here won’t impact his awards chances for a far better performance this year in “Pain and Glory,” and Streep may well earn accolades for this film given her commitment to the part, which is far more likeable than anyone else portrayed here. An ensemble that also includes Robert Patrick, David Schwimmer, Melissa Rauch, James Cromwell, and Jeffrey Wright egregiously wastes its talent. This story might have been worthy of a cinematic adaptation, but this effort is a severe and irritating disappointment.

C

Monday, November 18, 2019

Monday Oscar Odds


This week, I saw a number of films, most notably “The Irishman.” While it was undeniably long, it impressed me, and I think that De Niro, Pacino, and Pesci – my favorite – will all be in. I also got to see “Downton Abbey,” and given that there was a number of Academy members in the audience, their laughter at every one of Maggie Smith’s lines gives me confidence that she’ll probably be nominated unless other contenders emerge. “Just Mercy” probably won’t figure into the race, and aside from a Best Original Score bid, I think “A Hidden Life” won’t show up too much.

The film that I saw which will now figure into my predictions is “The Two Popes.” I didn’t think that Jonathan Pryce or Anthony Hopkins would be nominated, but I’m now pretty confident that Pryce will make the cut for Best Actor. I don’t see the film showing up anywhere else, but it’s possible Hopkins could contend or the film’s screenplay could if people really embrace it. I’m officially swapping Pryce in and Leonardo DiCaprio out.

I’m excited to be seeing “Bombshell” this coming week, along with “Queen and Slim,” a potential contender, and a few of the notable Best International Feature submissions. I may be able to catch a few more of the films I’ve noted below, but I’m not sure of my exact schedule just yet. The nominations for the Film Independent Spirit Awards will be announced on Thursday, and so that should give us a better framework of what to expect, likely prompting some big changes in next week’s lineup. Stay tuned!

Current predictions:

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

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

Best Actor
Antonio Banderas (Pain and Glory)
Robert De Niro (The Irishman)
Adam Driver (Marriage Story)
Joaquin Phoenix (Joker)
Jonathan Pryce (The Two Popes)

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

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

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

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

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

Best Makeup and Hairstyling
Bombshell
The Irishman
Rocketman

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

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

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

Sunday, November 17, 2019

Movie with Abe: The Irishman

The Irishman
Directed by Martin Scorsese
Released November 1, 2019

There are many ways to make a movie about the mob. There are typically many players involved at all different levels, and introducing every single one can be cumbersome and confusing to audiences. A decision must be made about how much violence to include onscreen since intimidation and killing are frequent occurrences, along with just how deep a dive to take into the mentality of those who may end up executing their closest friends. If anyone knows how best to portray the mob on screen, it’s the man who made some of the most influential movies about the subject: Martin Scorsese.

Truck driver and World War II veteran Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) meets mob boss Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) on his route one day in the 1950s in Pennsylvania, and is officially introduced after he stays quiet following an accusation of theft. Frank becomes increasingly loyal to Russell, doing anything he needs, including hits, and is eventually reassigned to help out a more public figure, Teamsters president Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), and ensure all of his goals are accomplished. As time goes on, Frank becomes further embedded in Jimmy and Russell’s operations, something that becomes problematic when he realizes that his two bosses don’t always see eye to eye.

This film does not come without serious expectations. Its three-and-a-half-hour runtime is undeniably excessive, but Scorsese manages to stuff it full of as much content as he possibly can, suggesting that it’s all worth including. Scorsese’s last film, “Silence,” was just as immersive but considerably less inviting, and this resembles something closer to his classic works like “Mean Streets,” “Taxi Driver,” and “Goodfellas.” There is plentiful humor to be found in this story full of brutality and betrayal, integrated in an effective and entertaining way that also makes all three protagonists endearing. Though they’re all unapologetic criminals, they’re incredibly likeable as presented in this light. The chosen device of identifying background characters by the ways in which they eventually met their deaths is a strong instance of black comedy put to good use.

What’s most worth celebrating here is the reunion of Scorsese with his frequent collaborators De Niro and Pesci, in addition to what’s shockingly his first time directing Pacino. Much has been made of the de-aging technology used to make all three actors, who are in their late seventies, look younger and transform gradually over the course of the film. While De Niro never quite seems like he’s thirty, it’s evident that Scorsese was certain that these performers were the right fits for their roles, and they certainly are. De Niro plays his role straight, while Pacino goes all out to make Jimmy an unforgettable eccentric and Pesci presents a more reserved take that works tremendously. The ensemble also includes Ray Romano, Bobby Cannavale, Stephen Graham, Jesse Plemons, and a handful of others who contribute superbly in just the way that they should. This film is an experience, one that shows a tremendous amount of work and an involving, seemingly inescapable product. Its streaming release on Netflix later this month will allow those wary of diving in for such an intensive commitment able to do so at their own pace, but this reviewer would recommend trying to digest it all at once, even at such a length.

B+

Movie with Abe: Downton Abbey

Downton Abbey
Directed by Michael Engler
Released September 20, 2019

Such a high percentage of films being released at the moment are remakes, reboots, and franchise entries that it can become tiresome to not see anything original in theaters. When a successful TV series is brought back on the big screen, there’s always a question of just how necessary it is and whether it’s merely a way to try to make more money from fan service and the knowledge that tickets will sell. Whether there’s a value beyond that may be subjective, and the merits of a film should be judged independently from its source material, particularly on its ability to stand on its own as a single experience.

The residents and staff at Downton Abbey are startled by the announcement that the king (Simon Jones) and queen (Geraldine James) will be visiting. Mrs. Patmore (Lesley Nicol) and Daisy (Sophie McShera) prepare the kitchen, while Mary (Michelle Dockery) doubts the ability of butler Barrow (Robert James-Collier) to handle the visit, prompting her to bring Mr. Carson (Jim Carter) back on board. As the visit approaches, Mrs. Hughes (Phyllis Logan) and the staff are disappointed to learn that they’re supposed to play no role in serving the regals, inspiring Anna (Joanne Froggatt) and Mr. Bates (Brendan Coyle) to hatch a plan. Violet (Maggie Smith) prepares for a confrontation with her cousin Maud (Imelda Staunton) over who should be her rightful heir, while Tom (Allen Leech) is approached by someone he believes is monitoring his behavior to ensure he will not cause a scene based on his politics.

It may be difficult to read that summary without feeling lost if this is a viewer’s first trip to Downton, but the plot and action are appropriately super-sized for the big screen. There are no questions of whether servants deserve more in life when those they wait upon have so much more than they need, but rather that the servants should be entitled to demonstrate their skills and pride in their work to the most important guests the estate has ever hosted. It’s a fun upgrade that feels fitting for this major event that takes this story and elevates it to a wider audience than might choose to tune in to PBS at home.

The cast is exceptional as always, with Kevin Doyle standing out particularly as the overager Mr. Molesley. The new additions are all great, including Tuppence Middleton from “Sense8” as Maud’s maid. There’s definitely a positive dimension that comes with watching this film on a larger screen with the reactions of others audible, which also suggests that Smith may be a popular choice for awards groups for nailing every one of her scene-stealing lines. Though this film, like the show that came before it, will likely be marketed as a drama, this film is a pure comedy delight, presenting fully-drawn characters committed to their parts in this highly enjoyable and completely engaging film that demonstrates that this world is more than worth revisiting.

B+

Saturday, November 16, 2019

Other Israel Film Festival Spotlight: Samaritan

I’m delighted to be returning for the seventh time to cover the Other Israel Film Festival, which features a diverse crop of Israeli and Palestinian cinema and is hosted by the JCC Manhattan. The 13th Annual Other Israel Film Festival takes place November 14th-21st, 2019.


Samaritan
Directed by Julien Menanteau
Festival Information

There are many religions in the world, and a good number of them intersect closely with others, differing slightly based on readings of texts and particular practices and observances that define them. It’s also the case that the holiest places for multiple religions that share similar roots are the same, interpreted by each as holding meaning for a specific purpose. When people from different faiths live in such close proximity to each other, it can lead to plenty of conflict, but there’s also the possibility that it can create an enriching space for coexistence, providing everyone is committed to living with their neighbors with more understanding than judgment.

The Samaritans once numbered more than one million; now they are fewer than eight hundred. They live in the West Bank in an area that permits them to be holders of both Palestinian and Israeli citizenship, frequently communicating with those around them even if many they meet know little about their culture and how they identify. While Israelis mistake them for Palestinians and Palestinians mistake them for Israelis, they face their own internal struggles about how to keep their religion alive, holding firm to practices passed down from generation to generation through oral tradition and kept sustainable by those who bring new members into the faith through marriage.

This film focuses on Abdallah Cohen, the grandson of the high priest, who learns from the leader of the community and tries to have his own life at the same time. His activities are normal for a young man, eager to meet women and enjoy simple pleasures. He delights at confusing people by speaking Hebrew, Arabic, and English fluently and getting puzzled questions about where he comes from and who he is. He’s a relatable subject, emblematic of a transition from past to present that ensures the preservation of tradition.

This documentary runs just fifty-two minutes, which allows time to get to know Abdallah and learn a bit about his faith, but not much more. As a full exploration of what it means to be a devoted Samaritan and the origins of the religion, this film doesn’t do much more than offer a basic introduction requiring further independent research by anyone whose curiosity is piqued by it. As a selection of the Other Israel Film Festival, it offers an eye-opening and thought-provoking look at a culture not often profiled among the diversity that exists in the Middle East.

B

Other Israel Film Festival Spotlight: Breaking Bread

I’m delighted to be returning for the seventh time to cover the Other Israel Film Festival, which features a diverse crop of Israeli and Palestinian cinema and is hosted by the JCC Manhattan. The 13th Annual Other Israel Film Festival takes place November 14th-21st, 2019.


Breaking Bread
Directed by Beth Elise Hawk
Festival Information

“Breaking bread” is a term used to signify the literal ripping of bread that starts a meal in many cultures, but it also has a metaphorical meaning that references coming together, usually done over food. People need to eat, and that can often be a common ground. The dinner table is also known as a place where those who don’t agree sometimes gather for family or holiday meals, and where politics can be aired in a way that can truly disrupt the mood. Yet expressing a shared love for cuisine and good eating can be an entirely positive experience if approached in the right way.

After Dr. Nof Atamna-Ismaeel became the first Muslim Arab to win Israel’s MasterChef, she decided to start an Arab food festival in Haifa. Among the goals are to pair Jewish and Arab chefs, as well as to place Jewish chefs at Arab restaurant and Arab chefs at Jewish restaurants. Through her work, she helps people from different cultures realize that they have more in common than they think. This joyful exploration of food captures the collaborative energy that cuisine can help create while exploring the conversations, both positive and negative, that emerge as a result of people from different backgrounds talking to each other.

This film joins fellow Other Israel Film Festival entry “Abe” as an optimistic presentation of coexistence centered on food. This documentary features many appetizing shots of food and explanations of what goes into the recipe, both in terms of actual ingredients and historical context. Hearing from each of the chefs and other participants in this festival is inspirational and enticing, presenting a variety of stories about their upbringing, traditions, and how they came to be so enthusiastic about food.

The people showcased in this film aren’t shy about sharing their opinions and talking openly to the camera. A married Jew and Arab express how they don’t discuss politics and how they celebrate whatever holidays come along regardless of religion. It’s not a film, however, that pretends conflict doesn’t exact at all, as evidenced by an examination of the Israeli salad by chefs who believe it is actually a traditional Arabic salad, and liken changing its name to presuming that an egg roll served in a non-Chinese restaurant isn’t Chinese. This film isn’t as light as it could be, providing a hearty serving of appealing food and worthwhile strides towards peace and communication in a place where that’s not always the goal of every person.

B+

Friday, November 15, 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!

Other Israel Film Festival Spotlight: Comrade Dov

I’m delighted to be returning for the seventh time to cover the Other Israel Film Festival, which features a diverse crop of Israeli and Palestinian cinema and is hosted by the JCC Manhattan. The 13th Annual Other Israel Film Festival takes place November 14th-21st, 2019.


Comrade Dov
Directed by Barak Heymann
Festival Information

In politics, those who get noticed most either adhere strictly to conventional positions or deviate considerably from them. It’s not always a badge of honor, especially for those who don’t agree with what someone advocates, and may lead to a difficult career that can include many obstacles on the path to substantial achievement. For those who continue to persevere and fight against a status quo, the journey can be rewarding, filled with impactful milestones that represent important work in support of their passions on behalf of those they most believe require a voice in government.

Dov Khenin was elected to Israel’s Parliament, the Knesset, in 2006 as a member of the national communist party. During his time in office, Dov worked tirelessly for communities he felt were underserved and lacked representation, including Arabs and Palestinians that he saw being treated unfairly by the country. His expression of support for peace is met with skepticism by many, including those who see him either as too left-leaning or too accepting of an Israeli occupation, yet he remains an ally of many groups, determined to help all those he sees in need and speak his voice at every possible opportunity.

Dov is a figure who doesn’t try to hide what he believes, seen in one piece of archive footage sitting next to Israeli President Reuven Rivlin and remaining silent while everyone else in the room sings the national anthem. He is more than eager to explain his position on any issue, including that one, noting that he feels that it’s not right for him to sing about the Jewish heart when it can’t be similarly sung by Arab residents of the country. There are certainly those that don’t like him, yet he is warmly received by some surprising parties who respect his commitment to what he believes in above all else.

This film, which offers a short seventy-five-minute profile of this politician, zeroes in on several meetings and events to best illustrate Dov’s uphill battle and his resilience. It also explores the difficulty he faces even from those more closely aligned with him, like a Palestinian interviewee who believes that he is too Israeli and too white to properly represent her, and that his mere holding of a position within the Israeli government is too passive for him to truly be promoting peace. This film offers an uncompromising portrait of a politician who is willing to speak with anyone, no matter how they feel, a welcome rarity in today’s world.

B

Thursday, November 14, 2019

Movie with Abe: Ford v Ferrari

Ford v Ferrari
Directed by James Mangold
Released November 15, 2019

Cars are a way for people to get from place to place, and they have greatly opened up many geographical areas to accessibility and, as a result, habitability. For some, however, cars represent something much greater. Going as fast as possible is a remarkable allure, and racing presents enthusiasts with a chance to realize that potential – and beat it – by pressing the gas and pushing a vehicle to the maximum. It’s one addiction that can prove truly debilitating, with safety and caution thrown to the wind in favor of an incredible thrill.

Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) retires from racing early in his career due to a heart condition, moving into car sales. When a deal with Ferrari goes sour, the top marketing guru at Ford, Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal), approaches Shelby for his help in designing a car to beat Ferrari at the world’s premiere race on behalf of frustrated president Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts). Shelby immediately selects the volatile but brilliant Ken Miles (Christian Bale) as his top choice to help build and eventually drive the car, putting his weight behind his choice despite strong objections from Ford’s top lieutenant, Leo Beebe (Josh Lucas), about how Miles doesn’t represent the Ford brand.

This film’s title is a bit of a misnomer, as Ferrari figures minimally into the plot, and it’s much more about Shelby and Miles, two men who mostly see eye-to-eye, standing up to the unimaginative and narrow-minded leadership at Ford in their quest to build something they know can win. Miles doesn’t do well with authority, and Shelby, better at suppressing his urges to speak his mind at each moment, also finds frequent ways to toy with those who seek to tell him what he can and can’t do. Together, they make a formidable team, hard to contain but capable of remarkable innovations when they’re permitted to put their minds and hands to productive use.

This is a role that’s seemingly tailor-made for Bale, whose infamous real-life aggression is positively channeled into an unexpectedly endearing fearless character. This is neither his nor Damon’s finest work, though they both have fun while strongly portraying these two people who are major figures in sports history. Letts is particularly entertaining as Ford’s head honcho, with Noah Jupe and Caitriona Balfe helping to humanize Miles as his son and wife, respectively. This film isn’t always as vital or mesmerizing as something like “Rush,” but it does have its moments, and manages to make its lengthy 152-minute runtime mostly engaging. Like its protagonists, when this film hits high speed, it really delivers.

B+

Other Israel Film Festival Spotlight: Advocate

I’m delighted to be returning for the seventh time to cover the Other Israel Film Festival, which features a diverse crop of Israeli and Palestinian cinema and is hosted by the JCC Manhattan. The 13th Annual Other Israel Film Festival takes place November 14th-21st, 2019.


Advocate
Directed by Philippe Bellaiche and Rachel Leah Jones
Festival Information

It’s rare to find a film that’s truly honest, one that treats its subject completely objectively and allows it to stand on its own. In narrative filmmaking, there’s a tendency to play up the reputation and stature of a protagonist, and documentaries often become so intertwined with the people and cause they’re following that they can’t be separated from them. If it’s not clear how the filmmakers feel about the people, organizations, or events they’re profiling, it’s the mark of a presentation that truly seeks to showcase life as it is, passing no judgment on what it is that’s because spotlighted, no matter how controversial.

Israeli lawyer Lea Tsemel has earned plenty of notoriety for herself over the years, defending Palestinians in court when few of her peers do so. While a law student at Hebrew University in the 1960s, Tsemel became involved in Matzpen, an anti-occupation organization, and met her future husband Michel, who also works in human rights. Tsemel proudly represents Palestinians accused of any crime, including violent acts deemed terrorism, fighting to give those she sees as prejudiced against by the legal system in Israel a chance since she believes that everyone is entitled to a defense.

At multiple points throughout this film, Tsemel is asked whether there’s a “red line” that she uses to gauge whether or not to take someone on as a client, to which she responds that there is not. The primary case featured here is that of a thirteen-year-old Palestinian boy whose brother was killed while carrying out a stabbing attack, and Tsemel does her best to argue that his intent wasn’t to kill and that he didn’t actually stab anyone. There’s something to be said for her eagerness to give anyone who needs representation, especially in an environment where that is not at all common and public opinion is decidedly against those who carry out attacks on Israelis.

This film, like its subject matter, doesn’t apologize at all for the work it’s showcasing. It’s certainly a hot-button topic, especially since Tsemel makes no acknowledgment of the severity of crimes committed, equating the term “terrorist” to “freedom fighter” under a different dictionary’s definition. This is a straightforward portrait of a woman who isn’t typically awarded that privilege, and who is more than happy to share her opinion whenever asked as well as when she isn’t. It will surely be unsettling to some audiences, but it’s the perfect film to open the Other Israel Film Festival, shining a light on part of society that, as Tsemel would argue, deserves some representation.

B

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

DOC NYC Spotlight: On Broadway

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


On Broadway
Directed by Oren Jacoby
DOC NYC Screenings

In the early days of cinema, there was an incomparable excitement that came with getting the chance to see it. People flocked to moviehouses to be able to experience it firsthand, in a way that’s just no longer the case with the advent of home video and the prevalence of streaming services where it’s not necessary to even have a copy of what you want to watch since it’s so readily available. One industry that has aged but hasn’t evolved technologically in the same way is live theater, which requires performers to offer a fresh turn each time the show begins. And for theater, there’s one place that encapsulates it above all: Broadway.

The history of the artistic capital of New York City is told through interviews with a number of famous personalities well-known for their theater work, including Helen Mirren, Ian McKellen, Hugh Jackman, Christine Baranski, and Alec Baldwin. The dangerous neighborhood that Times Square used to be is explored as a potential roadblock on the way to a continued thriving industry, as well as the ownership stakes of several high-profile individuals in theaters and shows. Along the journey to the present, there are many innovative stops, including bold productions such as “Cats” and “The Lion King,” boundary-pushing plays like “Angels in America” and “Rent,” and more recent explorations of transgender identity where transgender people actually have the opportunity to represent themselves.

Any theater lover is sure to enjoy this film, which can’t possibly capture the entire scope of Broadway over the course of many years of well-known musicals and plays but manages to highlight a whole lot of fun standouts. Hearing from the stars who are still well-known today, not just for their theater work, isn’t quite as enticing as seeing footage of these daring shows that defied conventions and sought to bring an entirely new audience in while changing the art form with new additions and mesmerizing perspectives. This documentary doesn’t come to any conclusions that should shock casual theatergoers or the most avid fans, but its exploration is one tinged with curiosity and humor, making for a fully engaging and enthralling trip back in time to some of the most formative and influential moments in Broadway history. One memorable quote addressing the rising prices of theater tickets – “It’s not called show charity, it’s called show business” – perfectly sums up this film’s tone and message: this is a changing game, and one that, for many, is always worth watching, no matter how expensive it may get.

B+

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Interviews with Abe: Incitement


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

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

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

What were you most surprised to learn?

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

Did you speak to Yigal Amir?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Was anything created or embellished for the film?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 11, 2019

Monday Oscar Odds


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

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

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

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

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

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

Current predictions:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Best Makeup and Hairstyling
Bombshell
The Irishman
Rocketman

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

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

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

DOC NYC Spotlight: Desert One

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


Desert One
Directed by Barbara Kopple
DOC NYC Screenings

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

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

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

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

B+

Friday, November 8, 2019

Weekend Movie Recommendations with Abe

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

Movie with Abe: Marriage Story


Marriage Story
Directed by Noah Baumbach
Released November 6, 2019

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

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

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

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

B+

Thursday, November 7, 2019

DOC NYC Spotlight: Healing from Hate

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


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

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

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

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

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

B+

DOC NYC Shortlist Spotlight: The Cave

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


The Cave
Directed by Feras Fayyad
DOC NYC Screenings

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

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

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

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

B+

Wednesday, November 6, 2019

DOC NYC Shortlist Spotlight: The Apollo

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


The Apollo
Directed by Roger Ross Williams
DOC NYC Screenings

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

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

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

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

B+

Tuesday, November 5, 2019

DOC NYC Shortlist Spotlight: Honeyland

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


Honeyland
Directed by Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov
DOC NYC Screenings

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

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

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

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

B

Monday, November 4, 2019

Monday Oscar Odds


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

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

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

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

Current predictions:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 3, 2019

Movie with Abe: Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

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

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

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

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

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

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

B-

Saturday, November 2, 2019

Movie with Abe: Parasite


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

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

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

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

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

A-

Friday, November 1, 2019

Weekend Movie Recommendations with Abe

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