Sunday, October 25, 2020

AFI Fest Wrap

I'm officially done posting my coverage from AFI Fest. Check out my official wrap post for The Film Experience. Head over there to read about my favorites.

AFI Fest Spotlight: Notturno

I’m delighted to be covering a number of selections from AFI Fest 2020. The festival runs October 15th-22nd, 2020, and films are available to watch online during that time.

I offered my thoughts on the documentary “Notturno,” from director Gianfranco Rosi, for The Film Experience. Head over there to read my review.

AFI Fest Spotlight: Wildland

I’m delighted to be covering a number of selections from AFI Fest 2020. The festival runs October 15th-22nd, 2020, and films are available to watch online during that time.

Wildland
Directed by Jeanette Nordahl
Festival Information

It’s not easy to be surrounded by crime and not become involved with or affected by it. Presuming that certain neighborhoods or areas house only those who break the law is a negative and largely untrue generalization, but it’s likely that most within its boundaries have either seen or been part of something that could be construed as criminal. Those who choose not to be active participants may be tempted or unwillingly roped into activity that could come back to haunt them in the future, and reporting on others is a dangerous choice that can lead to deadly retribution.

Ida (Sandra Guldberg Kampp) is seventeen years old when her mother is killed in a car accident. She is sent to live with her aunt, Bodil (Sidse Babett Knudsen), and her adult cousins, Jonas (Joachim Fjelstrup), Mads (Besir Zeciri), and David (Elliott Crosset Hove). They welcome her and quickly bring her in to their collections and enforcements, ready to show her the violent reality of the world she has entered. Ida feels a particular connection to David’s girlfriend Anna (Carla Philip Røder), who Bodil vehemently dislikes and who has yet to become inextricably attached to the family in a way that Ida seems fated to be.

This film plays out for most of its exposition like “Animal Kingdom,” with the genders flipped and Ida encountering male cousins treating her as if she’s one of them. While that film is not the source material, numerous reviews make comparisons to it, and it does feel like a Danish-language remake of the same content, which has also spawned a television series on TNT. Ida is too embroiled in the family that her mother kept her from by the time that she forms an opinion on whether she should resist the allure of its closeness, and any innocence she is at the start of the film is long gone after she has stood by and watched what her cousins do without interfering.

In only her second film role, Kampp impresses, reminiscent of Thomasin McKenzie in the way that she carries herself and performs opposite adult actors. Knudsen, a familiar face from “After the Wedding” and “Westworld,” does an extraordinary job of playing a woman who exerts quiet authority, rarely rising to anger yet commanding respect and fear, even from her temperamental sons. This film’s plot diverges somewhat from its non-inspiration “Animal Kingdom,” offering a haunting and compelling portrait of the seduction of community and the lengths people will go to in order to preserve it.

B+

Saturday, October 24, 2020

AFI Fest Spotlight: Jumbo

I’m delighted to be covering a number of selections from AFI Fest 2020. The festival runs October 15th-22nd, 2020, and films are available to watch online during that time.

Jumbo
Directed by Zoé Wittock
Festival Information

Love comes in many different forms, and may not always be felt equally between two people. Over time, certain types of affection have become more and less acceptable. Close family members like first cousins, for instance, have in the past been married, which is not as common today, while same-sex relationships are more widely recognized and normalized in some places. What people feel for animals or inanimate objects, however, remains largely taboo, and even if it isn’t the same as what two people can feel for each other, there’s definitely something worth unpacking that goes into that strong emotion.

Jeanne (Noémie Merlant) works at an amusement park. She finds her life forever changed when she first sees the Move It, a new attraction that she nicknames Jumbo. It comes alive in a marvelous way for her, using its parts and lights to enthrall her. She finds her feelings to be completely normal, but when she shares them with her mother Margarette (Emmanuelle Bercot), the reaction she gets is one that makes her feel completely isolated. The judgment of others pales in comparison to the strength of what Jeanne feels for Jumbo, a connection she can’t truly explain to anyone else.

This film, which is based on a true story, does a marvelous job of conveying the intensity of how Jeanne interacts with Jumbo, animating this ride so that it does seem like an actual character. Margarette is a stand-in for the audience as someone who loves her daughter but can see that what she’s claiming to feel isn’t inherently normal. Jeanne’s behavior doesn’t suggest that she conforms to most expectations others have of her, but this feels like more of a departure, one that alternatively suggests a need for her to get help and that what she’s experiencing is perfectly acceptable and even healthy.

Merlant’s last big film role was as someone channeling a different kind of forbidden love in last year’s “Portrait of a Lady on Fire.” Here, she doesn’t have another actress mirroring how she feels, and therefore her performance feels distinctly different, in sync with an amusement park ride that she brings to life just as much as the film does. It’s a film overflowing with passion and endearing resistance to the notion of making people feel bad for who they are, one that still ends up being a bit strange due to the nature of its plot.

B

AFI Fest Spotlight: Apples

I’m delighted to be covering a number of selections from AFI Fest 2020. The festival runs October 15th-22nd, 2020, and films are available to watch online during that time.

Apples
Directed by Christos Nikou
Festival Information

A movie about a pandemic might be a tough sell right now, but it’s possible that a sense of shared and universal experience could actually make the concept all the more relatable. While it is true that coronavirus and other diseases that have spread throughout the world in the past don’t discriminate, those with means have a disproportionate advantage over those without since they have access to care and the ability to be largely unaffected by missed work or lost wages. Being alone is another factor that can affect the severity of a person’s case and their chances for recovery since support through a difficult time is critical.

In Greece, a number of people are experiencing amnesia for unknown reasons, with no way to reverse the unexplained phenomenon. Many who end up in the hospital are located by their family members, who identify them and bring them home so that they can return to their normal lives. With no papers on him and no one to claim him, Aris (Aris Servetalis) is released into a recovery program that is designed to help him acclimate to not knowing who he is, by following instructions and reintroducing elements of memory into his life.

This film is decidedly reminiscent of past projects of Yorgos Lanthimos and Efthymis Filippou, best known for their collaborations on “Dogtooth” and “The Lobster.” Like in those two films, there are distinct warning signs that what Aris is doing involves him blindly following instructions that may be designed to turn him into a specific type of person or to achieve an aim that will be of no benefit to him. It’s not clear if something slightly supernatural is at play or if any of the work done will serve to actually restore Aris’ memory, even to a functional degree, yet he has no choice but to do it because he does not possess the direction or knowledge to do anything else.

Servetalis is an expressive actor, who conveys much with his face that he does not through his infrequent and carefully-chosen words. As a fellow amnesiac, Sofia Georgovassili presents a different picture of the approach to the program in which Aris is enrolled, open to the activities and curious about them in a way that Aris is not. This film posits an extremely intriguing idea and explores it in an involving way, but ultimately, perhaps purposely, can’t reach a conclusion that feels appropriately satisfying.

B

AFI Fest Spotlight: The Big Scary S Word

I’m delighted to be covering a number of selections from AFI Fest 2020. The festival runs October 15th-22nd, 2020, and films are available to watch online during that time.

The Big Scary S Word
Directed by Yael Bridge
Festival Information

In today’s increasingly polarized world, there are many political positions and concepts that are portrayed as highly negative. Deeming something as extreme has a tendency to turn people off, and the more that is said to create fear or resentment around a notion, the less likely some people are to ask questions and actually do the research to educate themselves about what it actually means. This has been going on throughout history, and even though it might be hard to deem any analysis as fully objective, it is true that misinformation is incredibly easy to disseminate.

A number of prominent elected officials in the United States, including Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, identify as Democratic Socialists, giving their affiliation a much more prominent spotlight. This documentary traces the roots of socialism and how it was instrumental in the founding of the Republican party, among other influential moments in history. Its prominence during the era of McCarthyism in the 1950s and during the Cold War has now led to a vilifying of any association with socialism, something this film seeks to debunk as it explores what it truly means and how it may indeed be more inherently “American” and fair than the current – and younger – system of capitalism.

This film’s title references a line used by Lee Carter, a member of the Virginia House of Delegates, to describe the stigma against the ideology that he claims as his own. In one memorable clip, Carter is infuriated by a fellow House member who holds up a tablet showing the flag of China’s Communist party behind him while he is proposing a bill during a session. Carter, and many of the film’s interview subjects, argue that many policies that go against the bottom lines of big corporations or institutions are demonized as equivalent to authoritarian regimes that sound deplorable and horrific to those with alleged “American values,” when in fact they stand for much more than that and would have merit if actually considered.

Though this film speaks mostly to socialism as it exists in the United States, it offers a comprehensive and extremely eye-opening lesson on its history, applications, and its renewed relevance in contemporary politics. It’s unlikely that those who are staunchly opposed to any talk of its potential for good will screen this documentary, but if it does manage to reach an audience that was previously not open to the concept, it’s bound to leave an imprint. This film absolutely makes a strong case for at least giving socialism a chance, chronicling its merits and the way in which society and what constitutes “the left” has indeed shifted tremendously since the founding of this country.

B+

Friday, October 23, 2020

AFI Fest Spotlight: My Little Sister

I’m delighted to be covering a number of selections from AFI Fest 2020. The festival runs October 15th-22nd, 2020, and films are available to watch online during that time.

My Little Sister
Directed by Stéphanie Chuat and Véronique Reymond
Festival Information

There is a bond that exists between some siblings that is just as strong as the love between parents and children or even romantic partners. That’s strengthened when the siblings are twins, born at or around the same moment and sharing in many common experiences throughout their lives. What a relationship looks like changes over the course of their lives, which may be close or grow distant, and will almost certainly not end at the same time. Others may try to comment on what their connection feels like, but it’s likely something that cannot be understood except by those who genuinely experience it.

Lisa (Nina Hoss) is a former playwright who lives with her husband Martin (Jens Albinus) and their two children in Switzerland, where Martin teaches at an international school. Lisa’s twin brother Sven (Jens Albinus) is an actor in Berlin who requires considerable care when he is diagnosed with leukemia. Their mother Kathy (Marthe Keller) has no interest in seeing her son appear weak, while Lisa expresses an altogether different attitude, one of complete support that often stands in the face of reality. Both Sven and Lisa fully believe that Sven will return to the stage, and his strength in the face of illness may ultimately be what motivates Lisa to write again.

This film doesn’t waste time in introducing its protagonists, with Sven returning from the hospital to the rehearsal space to deliver his lines to stunned costars who ask immediately about his condition. His energy level is indicative of fatigue brought on my medication and his body weakening, but there is a spirit within him that lives for the theater. The wigs he wears in particular express personality, and though he knows that he will likely succumb to his sickness, he does not want to go out with a whimper. Lisa, who was born just moments after him, sees it as her responsibility to take care of him in the same way that, as children, he looked after her as her big brother.

Hoss has appeared in a number of international productions including the film “A Most Wanted Man” and the television series “Homeland.” Her performance here is simultaneously strong and vulnerable, representative of a dedication to her brother that makes her blind to the other demands of her life, including her husband who has his own aspirations and doesn’t want to base everything on Sven. Both Eidinger and Albinus contribute with their portrayals of the men in Lisa’s life, but ultimately, as this film’s title suggests, this is the story of a caregiver deeply attached to the patient she is caring for, who she sees in many ways as an extension of herself.

B+

AFI Fest Spotlight: My Donkey, My Lover and I

I’m delighted to be covering a number of selections from AFI Fest 2020. The festival runs October 15th-22nd, 2020, and films are available to watch online during that time.

My Donkey, My Lover and I
Directed by Caroline Vignal
Festival Information

There are bad ideas that only reveal themselves to be mistakes once they’ve been made and their consequences have become clear, and there are others that should never have been considered in the first place. One reason that the latter do occur and are given the opportunity to play themselves out in a painfully awkward way is that those who do not have anyone else to consult are forced to ratify their own opinions, which might not involve the proper degree of consideration and the recognition that hoping for a positive outcome that is very unlikely to happen won’t make it any more possible.

Antoinette (Laure Calamy) is a fifth-grade teacher in France having an affair with Vladimir (Benjamin Lavernhe), the father of one of her students, Eléonore (Olivia Côte). When she learns that Vladimir is postponing a trip they were supposed to take together to go hiking with Eléonore and his wife, Alice (Louise Vidal), she decides that the reasonable thing to do is to plan a hike of her own, complete with a donkey rental. When she arrives in the Cévennes, she finds herself utterly unprepared for the physical ordeal that lies ahead, as well as lacking a concrete plan for how to insert herself into Vladimir’s family without his wife – or his daughter – realizing that something is going on.

This film’s premise, and its title, are inherently comical, and the execution of this concept could have been less than serious and compelling. Instead, it embraces Antoinette’s nervous energy and uses it to tell a humorous and enjoyable tale of a woman completely blinded by love. Antoinette reveals what she has done to a table full of strangers upon her arrival, inviting curiosity and judgment. She is surprised to learn that no one else has booked a donkey, and only when she becomes frustrated with her slow-moving traveling companion does she begin to acknowledge that everything she is doing may not be in service of her happiness.

Calamy is bursting with so much enthusiasm and laughter that it’s hard not to like her even though her choices are so unfortunate. The glee she transmits is infectious, and Antoinette seems even to impress Alice, the happiest member of that family to encounter her on their trip far from home. This film could have been predictable and derivative, but, thanks to unexpected pivots in the script, instead it’s a joyful and entertaining trip to a place that is filled with beauty and people thinking about other things that get in the way of them noticing.

B+

Weekend Movie Recommendations with Abe

Every Friday, I'll be uploading a Minute with Abe: Weekend Movie Recommendations Edition, surveying new releases on DVD, and on streaming services. Check it out, and subscribe to the movieswithabe channel!


New to Theaters and VOD: The Place of No Words
New to Theaters and Virtual Cinema: Radium Girls
New to DVD: Clementine
New to Netflix: Over the Moon, ParaNorman, Carol
New to Apple TV Plus: On the Rocks

AFI Fest Spotlight: I Carry You with Me

I’m delighted to be covering a number of selections from AFI Fest 2020. The festival runs October 15th-22nd, 2020, and films are available to watch online during that time.

I Carry You with Me
Directed by Heidi Ewing
Festival Information

New opportunities rarely come without drawbacks. A promotion at a job may come with a higher salary but also usually involves more hours and more responsibility for others’ actions and mistakes. Those who seek a better life with the promise of opportunity often have to work very hard to achieve that, and it may not always be rewarding. There are many who make sacrifices to provide for their families and to build towards giving them what they perceive to be a better place to start, even if that life may be missing some of the defining elements that made them who they are.

In the 1990s, Iván (Armando Espitia) lives in Puebla, Mexico, where he works in a restaurant and tries to support his family. He meets Gerardo (Christian Vazquez) and feels a passionate connection, one rooted in secrecy because of the way the two of them have had to live their lives up to that point. The identity he keeps secret from those around him and the one that recognizes the man he loves threaten to intersect, forcing him to make a choice. Iván decides he must find a way to get across the border to create a life in America, and what he has built two decades later is portrayed at the start of and throughout the film as he recalls all that got him there.

There are many flaws of the American dream and all it offers for those who work tirelessly to attain it. This film is more about love and the lengths people will go to for those who may their lives meaningful, even if, contradictorily, it results in them getting to spend less time together. Iván knows that he cannot be with Gerardo regardless of the strength of his feelings, and he wants nothing more than to be reunited with his son, who is not with him in America. Because he crosses the border illegally, Iván does not have the ability to return home unless he wants the move to be permanent, undoing everything that he has building in the name of family.

This is a strong and poignant story anchored by a powerful performance from Espitia, who makes Iván an understated protagonist, someone who speaks unassumingly and always demonstrates a positive attitude regardless of the difficulty of his choices and actions. Seeing Iván years later riding the subway and imagining the time he spent with Gerardo is deeply affecting, and this film has a wonderful and effectively conveyed sense of nostalgia that, driven by those memories, is carried by Iván over the years, representative of so many stories of separation in many forms.

B+

Thursday, October 22, 2020

AFI Fest Spotlight: Pink Skies Ahead

I’m delighted to be covering a number of selections from AFI Fest 2020. The festival runs October 15th-22nd, 2020, and films are available to watch online during that time.

Pink Skies Ahead
Directed by Kelly Oxford
Festival Information

Expectations can serve as a great motivator for people, giving them a benchmark of what they should accomplish and a way to measure their own success. That’s not universally true, however, since some find living up to what others think they can do daunting and impossible to do, and they may as a result give up trying for fear of failure. Presuming that everyone can achieve the same things is not smart or effective, and those who know that they won’t be able to do as well as others will undoubtedly push back against every attempt to compel them to press on.

In 1998 Los Angeles, Winona (Jessica Barden) has dropped out of college and moved home with her parents, working for her eternally-distracted father (Michael McKean) and mostly avoiding her prying mother (Marcia Gay Harden). A visit to her pediatrician (Henry Winkler) for an imagined ailment produces a diagnosis of an anxiety disorder. Dubious because she’s never had a panic attack, Winona nonetheless finds herself preoccupied with this new explanation for the reason she hasn’t gotten so far in life as she spends her nights partying with her friends and her days trailing her father, who she believes is having an affair.

Disenchanted teenagers and young adults are frequent movie subjects, exploring their place in the world and struggling to find answers for why life isn’t as easy for them as it is for peers or parents. This film has a spunky energy to it best captured in Winona, who doesn’t much care what others think about her but doesn’t want to be seen as a disaster. Her father couldn’t be less interested in what she’s going through, and her mother is far too eager to know everything. Though they’re both unable to communicate it, they want their daughter, who they might argue is going through a phase, to be happy in her own skin and forging a path that feels both productive and comfortable.

Barden is a fantastic actress who has played roles similar to this before, with particularly strong showcases in “The New Romantic” and “The End of the F***ing World.” She’s a natural here, leading a great cast that also includes Rosa Salazar as a friend and Mary J. Blige as her therapist. This film is good at finding its characters where they are, all capable of saying plenty but not doing much. As a result, the direction that Winona lacks seeps into the film, making it a perfectly entertaining chapter in a story that isn’t entirely sure where it’s going.

B

AFI Fest Spotlight: Shadow in the Cloud

I’m delighted to be covering a number of selections from AFI Fest 2020. The festival runs October 15th-22nd, 2020, and films are available to watch online during that time.

Shadow in the Cloud
Directed by Roseanne Liang
Festival Information

Movies aren’t always taken the way those who made them intended. The implications of a film’s plot or the identity of its characters may be assigned undue relevance that influences the way critics or the moviegoing public digest it. Parodies or satires can also be misunderstood and taken as straightforward by an uninformed audience, which can either make them much better or much worse. A concept that creative forces thought was strong and compelling may in execution turn out to be less than impressive, and the result can be seen as of a completely different quality than pitches and summaries indicated.

During World War II, a female pilot, Maude (Chloë Grace Moretz), arrives on an airstrip tightly clutching a case that contains precious cargo. She boards a bomber plane and is immediately greeted by a hostile and chauvinistic all-male crew, who force her into the ball turret under the plane for takeoff. When she sees a Japanese plane flying close by, Maude tries to alert the crew, only to be mocked as hysterical and incompetent. The situation worsens when Maude sees a gremlin crawling on the wing and all the military men on the radio want to do is open the package, convinced that Maude is not at all who she claims to be.

This film is a wild mess that manages to get more and more preposterous as it goes on. Maude always seems to know more than everyone else on the plane, yet she doesn’t do much to make herself less suspicious. Her cover story is almost asking to be questioned, and her minimal efforts to keep the truth hidden are thin and ineffective. Once the gremlin shows up and the contents of the package are revealed, there’s no turning back for this fully ridiculous film, committed at that point to topping its already unbelievable content with as much absurdity as possible.

As a tribute to the many women who were underappreciated despite significant qualifications during World War II, this film might have been a fun action exercise. Instead, it’s described as an “exciting horror film,” one that is, unfortunately, neither exciting nor scary. It’s unclear whether its most startling moments are genuinely meant to be funny or are laughable only because of how terrible they are. Moretz is a talented actress who hasn’t previously had to contend with such a poor script, though she deserves some credit for her efforts to taking the material seriously. This film runs just eighty-three minutes but begins feeling like a true mistake within its first half hour. Its campiness doesn’t work, and the female empowerment story it’s trying to tell is lost within this truly baffling and plainly bad movie.

F

AFI Fest Spotlight: Sound of Metal

I’m delighted to be covering a number of selections from AFI Fest 2020. The festival runs October 15th-22nd, 2020, and films are available to watch online during that time.

Sound of Metal
Directed by Darius Marder
Festival Information

The loss of functionality can be devastating for any person and transform their life completely. There is a particular misery, however, that comes with those who depend on part of their body for their livelihood. In many cases, overuse of a particular organ or muscle may create or exacerbate the problem, and the only way to return to health – if that’s even possible – is to stop using it. It’s unlikely to be an easy decision, and the knowledge that senses may deplete completely has the potential to convince someone to experience it while they can even if that will only in time make it worse.

Ruben (Riz Ahmed) is a heavy metal drummer who travels from show to show in an RV with his singer girlfriend (Olivia Cooke). When he begins experiencing hearing loss, he goes straight to a pharmacy and meets with a doctor. Told that he would need expensive cochlear implants to restore the tremendous loss that has already occurred, Ruben, who is also a recovering addict, reluctantly relinquishes his keys and his phone to immerse himself in a deaf community where he is supposed to learn how to live with his new reality.

This film’s subject matter is made exponentially more vivid by Ahmed’s portrayal of Ruben. He is passionate about what he does, and he sees his newfound situation as something he has to fix, as quickly as possible, regardless of what he might have to do to make it happen. He isn’t willing to listen to what others say, and has a particularly difficult time acclimating to the rules of the place where he comes to stay. He doesn’t want to be patient and slowly learn how to communicate in a new way, but instead just wants to get past this hiccup, not willing to admit that, as he’d told repeatedly, this change might be permanent.

Ahmed’s powerhouse turn is complemented by this film’s very effective use of sound. The silence that Ruben hears is indeed disconcerting, and when he does hear at certain points throughout the film, the audience is fully in the experience with him, receiving only distorted or muffled noises that he knows must not be complete. It’s a fully involved, immersive experience conveyed magnificently by Ahmed in a role that should earn him well-deserved awards attention. This film is not an easy watch, but it’s a powerful and deeply resounding exploration of loss and challenges.

B+

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Movie with Abe: On the Rocks

On the Rocks
Directed by Sofia Coppola
Released October 23, 2020 (Apple TV Plus)

A marriage doesn’t look the same for every person. Some couples are partners in everything that they do, splitting work as evenly as possible and taking an active role in the raising of children. What their involvement is depends greatly on what their work and other commitments may be, but an effort can still be made to ensure that both parties are contributing in an equivalent manner. There are many models in which that is not the case, and some adult children also have an example set for them that they specifically do not want to emulate because what they have witnessed growing up strikes them as a cautionary tale.

Laura (Rashida Jones) is a writer but finds little time to concentrate between running around New York City to get her daughters up in the morning, to school, and to the various locations they need to be at each day. Her husband Dean (Marlon Wayans) is kind and supportive, but his seemingly constant trips out of town to work on growing his business mean that he is rarely around and almost always takes a backseat to his wife regarding important decisions and the physical labor of attending to their children. Laura makes the mistake of calling her father, Felix (Bill Murray), when she worries that, like he did to her mother many years earlier, Dean may be cheating on her. When Felix shows up in town, he insists on enlivening Laura’s spirits and helping to show her that Dean is indeed being unfaithful.

This film marks the third collaboration between Murray and director Sofia Coppola, whose joint greatest critical success is the Oscar-winning film they made together in 2003, “Lost in Translation.” Murray’s performance in that film earned him an Oscar nomination and featured a quieter departure from his typical comedic routine. Here, his demeanor is overwhelmingly sardonic, and he never lets a moment go by without making the most of it. He embarrasses Laura by flirting with every woman they meet, and, as Laura notes, his chauvinistic comments, wrapped up as intellectual analysis of the human condition, should not have allowed her to become a free-thinking woman capable of existing in the modern world.

The stylized filmmaking that defines much of Coppola’s work, which includes The Virgin Suicides and Somewhere, is mostly absent from this fairly straightforward and normative film. Yet it comes marvelously alive each time Felix shows up, riding in the back of his chauffeured town car or driving a classic Alfa Rameo that barely works through New York City traffic. His energy is indicative of another time that he has managed to remain in for himself, and his interference in his daughter’s life is his way of trying to infuse some of that liveliness into it. Jones is a terrific scene partner, and it’s wonderful to see the talented veteran of “The Office” and “Parks and Recreation” in a high-profile lead role like this, even if she doesn’t much opportunity to be funny. This dramedy feels relatable and unrealistic at the same time, and the subtle fusion of those two contradictory descriptors is what makes it such a watchable pleasure.

B+

Movie with Abe: Radium Girls

Radium Girls
Directed by Lydia Dean Pilcher and Ginny Mohler
Released October 23, 2020 (Theaters and Virtual Cinemas)

There are many chemicals and substances that have been used over time for positive purposes and later discovered to be dangerous both to those involved in the production process and consumers. New studies and evidence help to inform the public about substantial risks that might be undertaken in either the creation or purchase of something that could be toxic or cause illness. Unfortunately, there are many instances throughout history of companies or industries knowing full well the dangers of continuing to manufacture and market their products and declining to let those who should be informed know for the sake of making a profit.

Bessie (Joey King) works with her sister Jo (Abby Quinn) at the American Radium Factory painting watch dials in 1928 New Jersey. Bessie chooses not to lick the brush, something that all of the women have been told to do and which makes the process considerably quicker. When Jo becomes ill, they meet Wiley Stephens (Cara Seymour), an activist and lawyer who helps them to learn that the radium they interact with so frequently at work can have destructive and lasting effects. Unable to convince many colleagues to join in a lawsuit against American Radium for fear of losing their jobs, Bessie presses on to try to correct a major injustice she sees in the world that affects not only her but many others.

There have been many films made about those standing up to oppressive and unfair work conditions. While the structure of this story and its narrative may be familiar in certain respects, that doesn’t mean that it’s not worth telling, since this is in fact based on true events. This film succeeds well in portraying the horrifying frequency with which all the female employees were exposed directly to the paint after being told repeatedly that it was completely harmless. The energy of this uphill battle is palpable, and charting Bessie’s simultaneous immersion in countercultural interests helps to make her an engaging lead.

King is a talented actress who, before the age of twenty, has already proven herself very skilled with performances in “Wish I Was Here,” “Fargo,” and “The Act.” In this part, she displays strong passion, even if she feels like she could more believably exist in modern times than a century ago. Quinn, who has impressed in “Landline” and “After the Wedding,” delivers a particularly poignant turn, resigned to the state of her declining health and unsure how much and how long she can fight. This story is most effective when it represents the important benchmarks these “radium girls” wanted to achieve to address not only one very problematic practice but also to pave the way for others to combat similar situations in the future. With solid performances, vivid costumes, and purposeful editing, this film does a decent job of bringing its story to life.

B

Movie with Abe: Over the Moon

I'm delighted to report the existence of a wonderful new animated film coming to Netflix this week, “Over the Moon,” which I reviewed for The Film Experience. Head over there to read my review.

Tuesday, October 20, 2020

AFI Fest Spotlight: Wolfwalkers

I’m delighted to be covering a number of selections from AFI Fest 2020. The festival runs October 15th-22nd, 2020, and films are available to watch online during that time.

Wolfwalkers
Directed by Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart
Festival Information

People tend to be afraid of things they don’t understand, and that all too often turns into hate. The word homophobia, for instance, should indicate a fear of homosexuality, but instead it’s used almost all the time to refer to a hatred of it. Those who espouse extremist ideologies are rarely willing to take the time to get to know those whose very existence so offends them, and a normalization of behavior deemed different takes considerable time, and may never be accepted by everyone. There are – and will continue to be – many examples throughout history of the toxic effects of othering, which are illustrated wonderfully in this parable.

Robyn Goodfellowe moves with her father from England to Ireland so that he can help the Lord Protector defend the city from wolves. Her father knows that she is curious and eager to learn but urges her to remain within the city’s walls. When she ventures outside of them, she meets Mebh, a girl who calls her “townie” and turns into a wolf each night. As the Lord Protector orders her father to kill all the wolves and the townspeople tremble at the sight or sound of the pack, Robyn begins to learn more about who the wolves are and what they really want.

This is the fourth feature film from Irish studio Cartoon Saloon, which has a strong record with three past Oscar nominees for Best Animated Feature: “The Secret of Kells,” “Song of the Sea,” and “The Breadwinner.” Like its first two films, this one tackles a mythical notion, bringing to life the wolfwalkers who are mysteriously able to control the pack and to communicate with them. Though Robyn tries over and over to shoot with her crossbow when she first encounters this unknown phenomenon, her willingness to be open to a new idea is what ultimately allows her to see the beauty of the wolves and that the threat posed is from the humans to the wolves rather than the other way around.

This film positively echoes many animated productions before it with plucky protagonists who are woefully underestimated by all around them. Robyn is an energetic and passionate main character unwilling to be told what she can and can’t do, and her father is supportive even if his allegiance is to a tyrant who cares little for the people he is supposedly charged to protect. The voice cast, which includes Sean Bean and Simon McBurney, is great, and this film has a tremendous spirit. The animation, as expected, is beautiful, and this film is just as much a visual treat as it is an emotional one.

B+

AFI Fest Spotlight: Whirlybird

I’m delighted to be covering a number of selections from AFI Fest 2020. The festival runs October 15th-22nd, 2020, and films are available to watch online during that time.

Whirlybird
Directed by Matt Yoka
Festival Information

Journalism has evolved considerably over the past few decades, and what used to be cutting-edge and of most interest to consumers has been replaced by new technologies and formats. Television news still appeals to an older demographic that became accustomed to getting information in that way and are reticent to subscribe to digital publications or read about what’s going on in the world through social media. For those who never grew up with a sense of the importance and relevance of TV journalism, this documentary offers a mesmerizing window into its excitement and intensity.

Before transitioning, Zoey Tur was known as Bob, one of the top faces of news in Los Angeles in the 1980s and 1990s. Bob married Marika Gerrard and, together, they raced to scenes of crashes or fires on a regular basis, always eager to catch the next story and get there before anyone else. Driven to be everywhere across the city, Bob decided he needed to get a helicopter so that he and Marika could travel quickly to get aerial shots of car chases and other enticing events. Bob was indeed one of the most energetic and omnipresent reporters at the height of his career, but the drive he felt impacted those in his orbit in a lasting and mostly negative way.

This film features limited interviews with Zoey, who speaks about Bob as if he was another person guilty of many things due in large part to the testosterone that drove him to anger. A wealth of footage provides remarkable insight into the relationship between Bob and Marika that typically involves Bob yelling at her to get better shots or lean further out of the helicopter to more competently frame the scene. Bob’s now-adult children also offer commentary on their upbringing, which often found them accompanying their parents to a crime scene or seeing their father through the lens of his always-present camera.

This film isn’t a complete critique of Bob since he personified the energy necessary to be there to cover many influential moments, including the 1992 riots and the pre-arrest chase involving O.J. Simpson. This film allows most of what was recorded either by or featuring Bob to make the case that living this life means sometimes putting the wrong priorities first, which has adversely affected those closest to him. This documentary manages to be thrilling and meaningful, constructing its content in an enthralling manner that showcases the passion behind it and pairing it effectively with the measured fallout. Though Bob’s legacy is unquestionably tainted by the way he treated people, his effect on the news industry was sizable, and this film serves as an appropriately complex tribute to his contributions.

B+

AFI Fest Spotlight: New Order

I’m delighted to be covering a number of selections from AFI Fest 2020. The festival runs October 15th-22nd, 2020, and films are available to watch online during that time.

I wrote about the film “New Order,” which I absolutely do NOT recommend, for The Film Experience. Head over there to read my review.

Monday, October 19, 2020

AFI Fest Spotlight: I'm Your Woman

I’m delighted to be covering a number of selections from AFI Fest 2020. The festival runs October 15th-22nd, 2020, and films are available to watch online during that time.

I covered AFI Fest's Opening Night film “I'm Your Woman,” starring Rachel Brosnahan, for The Film Experience. Head over there to read my review.

AFI Fest Spotlight: 76 Days

I’m delighted to be covering a number of selections from AFI Fest 2020. The festival runs October 15th-22nd, 2020, and films are available to watch online during that time.

76 Days
Directed by Hao Wu, Weixi Chen and Anonymous
Festival Information

The entire world has been affected by the coronavirus pandemic. There are still many questions about how the virus can be spread and how it affects different people. What many do know, however, is that the virus originated in Wuhan, China. The city, which underwent a 76-day lockdown beginning in January, has been widely vilified as the cause of the international pandemic. This documentary offers a vivid and unflinching look at what it actually meant for a local hospital to deal with an outbreak of this scale.

There is no narration to introduce this film, which opens as nurses covered completely in protective gear struggle to manage the influx of new patients in the hospital. There are multiple moments when they go to open the door to the outside, where crowds have gathered, ready to push their way in, unhappy to wait for bureaucracy to allow them to be treated. From the other side, nurses plead with their future patients to understand how overrun they are and promise that they will in time admit everyone. There are few breaks for any of the staff, and they take on an extraordinary responsibility in caring for those unable to have any family members or loved ones by their side.

The mere fact that this film exists is incredible, and many viewers will surely wonder how it could have been filmed in a Communist country like China. Those questions are never addressed in a film that is fully free of any commentary or analysis and instead brings its audience fully into an impressively organized operation. The hospital staff is well-prepared for something they’ve never had to encounter before, and it’s affecting to see how they go beyond what might be expected of them, keeping phones and other personal items in clearly-labeled bags in the hopes that they might be able to return them to next of kin once the outbreak subsides. This response feels distinctly human even though we see so little of each person featured because of just how much protective equipment covers their bodies.

Spending time with sick patients in a hospital might be too much for some audiences right now, which is understandable. This film’s title covers the period of Wuhan’s lockdown, the end of which indicates that the city made it out of its worst period. Seeing the dedication and resilience with which these people care for their patients, including one particularly argumentative grandfather not content to sit by himself in his room, is inspiring, and helps to make this global crisis feel universal. To see the way medical professionals give so much of themselves when they’re already asked to do an extraordinary amount of extra work is affirming, and the kind of positivity that I would imagine is needed by so many right now.

B+

AFI Fest Spotlight: Really Love

I’m delighted to be covering a number of selections from AFI Fest 2020. The festival runs October 15th-22nd, 2020, and films are available to watch online during that time.

Really Love
Directed by Angel Kristi Williams
Festival Information

There are moments when people come into each other’s lives that can be extraordinarily influential and enduring. A chance meeting may occur when those involved are least expecting it, and when other factors in their lives leave them either open or closed to the idea of beginning a relationship. The mystery and excitement that comes at the start of a romance may not last, especially if what either party is sharing with the other isn’t actually their authentic self. The gradual fade of that façade can prove destructive to a relationship in its infancy.

Isaiah (Kofi Siriboe) is an up-and-coming painter eager to capture success, and a conversation at a friend’s show with a gallery manager (Uzo Aduba) gives him hope that it may soon happen for him. His attention is not fully on his work as he also can’t stop thinking about Stevie (Yootha Wong-Loi-Sing), a law student who he meets first at a showing and then again through friends. Their chemistry is obvious, and they begin spending a great deal of time together. As Stevie pursues her career aspirations, Isaiah’s mind returns to his work, demonstrating to Stevie that she may never be his first priority.

This film presents its central romance in an unassuming way, with Isaiah spotting Stevie from across the room and chatting her up without much expectation of anything more to come from it. When they meet again, it’s as if they’re old friends who have another chance to see each other, picking up from the brief introductions to move towards something concrete. Isaiah is a passionate person, and he conveys much of that energy towards Stevie, who is considerably less abstract about the way that she approaches the work she does and the way she lives her life. Those worldviews may indeed be incompatible, but it doesn’t change the strength of the emotions they feel for each other.

This film feels most emphatic because of its two leads. Siriboe’s energy makes Isaiah come alive, transmitting the creativity he expresses through his paintings to the way that he interacts with others, particularly the woman he sets his sights on at the gallery. Wong-Loi-Sing gives Stevie confidence and an appropriate sense of trepidation to tackle the world with caution, with her barriers down just enough to let someone else in. They anchor the feature directorial debut from Angel Kristi Williams that feels like a truthful and rightfully complicated portrait of how deep feelings truly manifest even when not everything is perfectly aligned.

B+

Sunday, October 18, 2020

NewFest Spotlight: Cowboys

I’m delighted to be covering a number of selections from the 32nd Annual New York LGBTQ+ Film Festival, NewFest. The festival runs October 16th-27th, 2020, and films are available to watch anywhere in the United States during that time.

I wrote about the film “Cowboys,” starring Steve Zahn, for The Film Experience. Head over there to read my review.

NewFest Spotlight: White Lie

I’m delighted to be covering a number of selections from the 32nd Annual New York LGBTQ+ Film Festival, NewFest. The festival runs October 16th-27th, 2020, and films are available to watch anywhere in the United States during that time.

White Lie
Directed by Yonah Lewis and Calvin Thomas
Ticket Information

It’s easy to get caught up in the fallout that comes from one simple untruth. Saying or asserting something that isn’t quite correct is often done without much forethought, and certainly without a plan for the implications that it might have should it be taken as more impactful or serious than it was intended to be. Keeping up appearances and maintaining a misperception can be complicated, and a mistake along the way is entirely possible. There comes a point at which going back can no longer be done, and trying to turn something that was never real into history is an arduous and usually insurmountable task.

Katie (Kacey Rohl) is a star at her college, known as a sympathetic student standing up to cancer. She has a great relationship with her girlfriend Jennifer (Amber Anderson), and is warmly accepted by Jennifer’s family. But when Katie needs to come up with medical forms to document her illness for a grant, her confidence begins to falter since she isn’t actually sick. Going to her estranged father (Martin Donovan) for money to pay off an unscrupulous doctor proves to be a grave mistake, as he sees right through her, intent on exposing her façade. Katie scrambles to forge the paperwork she needs before her entire life comes crumbling down around her.

The festival’s description of this film as a “heart-racing lesbian character-study-turned-thriller” piqued my interest and motivated me to watch it. Interestingly, Katie’s identity as a lesbian is the most authentic and unfabricated thing about her. She faces no adversity during the film as a result of her sexual orientation, and Jennifer is entirely supportive of her at every turn. Katie has gotten herself in over her head in large part because she didn’t trust the right people, and therefore she can’t possibly depend on someone who doesn’t actually understand who she is.

It’s precisely that sense of panic and the dread that comes with realizing that she never thought the truth could come out that keeps this film going. Rohl captures her frantic sensibility, keeping herself focused enough not to do anything especially stupid but too committed to the lie to see a way out. Anderson is a great foil, someone who has such passion for her partner that audiences know will eventually erode once she even begins to doubt the veracity of one of the keystone points of their relationship. This film never quite reaches the point of truly becoming a thriller, but it should keep viewers on the edge of their seats, conflicted about whether to root for a protagonist who has dug her own grave.

B+

NewFest Spotlight: Welcome to the USA

I’m delighted to be covering a number of selections from the 32nd Annual New York LGBTQ+ Film Festival, NewFest. The festival runs October 16th-27th, 2020, and films are available to watch anywhere in the United States during that time.

Welcome to the USA
Directed by Assel Aushakimova
Ticket Information

Leaving one’s home for a place that is allegedly better is not an easy process. There is no guarantee that things will indeed be quite as formidable as they have been made out to be, and moving also means a departure from what is normal and familiar. Even if what has become standard is painful and problematic, there are still elements that will be absent from a person’s new life and which, no matter how hard they try, they may never be able to get back. Taking that step assumes a risk that the end will not necessarily be worth the means.

Aliya (Saltanat Nauruz) is elated to discover that she has won the Green Card lottery and the chance to move to the fabled United States of America. As a lesbian who is not religious, Aliya must keep much of her lifestyle in Kazakhstan a secret. Yet as she prepares for her likely departure, she realizes that she enjoys a relatively comfortable existence filled with great friends and numerous romantic partners. She also examines her fortunes in comparison to those of her sister, whose husband has found a second wife and fails to recognize – or care about – the impact it has had on her feelings of self-worth and happiness.

Opening with this film with Aliya receiving her good news is an interesting narrative choice, one that finds her struggling to verbalize the life-changing information she has learned to anyone close to her and contemplating whether it’s a step she should really take. As she hears radio pronouncements of the glory of the communist Kazakh president and digests her brother-in-law’s opinion of her as parroted by her niece, Aliya sees the appeal of living in a free country. But she realizes that starting over won’t help to fix her own commitment issues, and that she will be leaving behind people that she loves and who she may need just as much as they need her.

Nauruz seems very comfortable in Aliya’s skin, expressing herself through simple pleasures in her own home or smoking in public. She understands how she must live her life but also refuses to conform to what is expected of her, even by her mother or her sister. This feature film debut from writer-director Assel Aushakimova is a sensitive, engrossing drama that engages with complex concepts and the contradictory elements of the life she leads and the one she might soon have. It feels honest and enlivening at the same time, a narrow window into a foreign country where America truly is a dream may will likely never see.

B+

Saturday, October 17, 2020

NewFest Spotlight: Forgotten Roads

I’m delighted to be covering a number of selections from the 32nd Annual New York LGBTQ+ Film Festival, NewFest. The festival runs October 16th-27th, 2020, and films are available to watch anywhere in the United States during that time.

Forgotten Roads
Directed by Nicol Ruiz Benavides
Ticket Information

It’s rare to find a film with an older woman as its protagonist, and it’s even rarer that the story centered around her won’t depend on a younger character and her relationship with them. The notion that a senior citizen could be appealing enough to audiences to anchor a film isn’t widely accepted, and therefore it’s particularly refreshing to find the instances where that’s precisely the case. Unsurprisingly, these atypical projects are especially interesting since they spotlight a segment of the population that is often written off by many as less relevant than younger generations.

Claudina (Rosa Ramirez) is a seventy-year-old woman in Chile who moves from the countryside following the death of her husband to move in with her daughter, Alejandra (Gabriela Arancibia). The rapport she has with Alejandra is less than warm, though she loves seeing her grandson Cristóbal (Cristóbal Ruiz). Her lackluster outlook on life changes when she meets her new neighbor Elsa (Romana Satt). Despite the fact that Elsa is married, the two begin a romantic relationship that makes Claudina feel truly alive. Their romance blossoms in a quiet town that tends toward the traditional aside from its intense preoccupation with UFO sightings.

This film is quite slow despite its brief seventy-one-minute runtime, in no hurry to have Claudina find herself as she adjusts to a new living experience and life without a partner. But it comes alive as Claudina rediscovers the passion that she has not felt for a long time, something that Elsa triggers for her and feeds into with her recognition of Claudina for the person that she is. Since the town is small and hardly anonymous, Claudina’s actions, however private they may seem, are not guaranteed to stay that way, presenting yet another obstacle to her happiness since her daughter does not want to feel judged for the choices Claudina makes for her own life.

Ramirez and Satt deliver tender performances that help to give this film its poignant and accessible feel. The incorporation of the town-wide obsession with extraterrestrial life serves as an odd addition, though the frequent flashes of light that come at unexpected moments each night serve as an opportunity for Claudina to reexamine her reality, suddenly illuminated when she isn’t expecting it and ready to return to normal almost right away with no definitive proof of what may have transpired. This film feels a bit like an extended version of that dreamlike state, an imagined existence for Claudina that has the chance to become real so long after she had ever hoped to forge her own path in life. It’s not always riveting, but it is a decent and worthwhile story.

B

NewFest Spotlight: Cicada

I’m delighted to be covering a number of selections from the 32nd Annual New York LGBTQ+ Film Festival, NewFest. The festival runs October 16th-27th, 2020, and films are available to watch anywhere in the United States during that time.

Cicada
Directed by Matthew Fifer and Kieran Mulcare
Ticket Information

A theme that’s been explored in a number of many NewFest selections is the disparate experiences of people involved in romantic relationships regarding the public perception of their sexuality. If one person has come out to family or friends, they may be less reticent to appear intimate while others are around, whereas someone who has not yet done that may be particularly secretive or careful so that there is no risk of anyone finding out before they are comfortable sharing that with others. There is much that goes into the decision to share a personal part of a person’s identity with those closest to them, and such a monumental move shouldn’t be taken lightly.

Ben (Matthew Fifer) is a bisexual man living in New York City. He navigates hookups and relationships during the hot summer, connecting occasionally in a meaningful way with the many people he meets. Things are different when Sam (Sheldon D. Brown) comes along. He is still finding himself and dealing with deep scars from his past and present that involve his sexuality and the color of his skin. Ben falls for him but finds a barrier in their relationship as Sam processes what he needs and feels in a way that Ben can never really understand.

This film is a contemplative, quiet exploration of intimacy. Ben in particular almost fades into the background in every room that he is in, indicating enthusiasm for his company but not matching that with actual energy. Sam, in stark contrast, is much more vibrant and buoyant, but that inviting exterior masks a pain protected by walls that Sam is not eager to let down, even when Ben wants to be let in to truly know his partner. Their shared experiences are limited, and the ways in which their paths diverge make their outlooks on the world and the possibilities it offers distinctly incongruent.

This film is a personal project based on the lives of both Fifer and Brown, which adds a level of involvement and investment that shows through in their heartfelt and authentic performances. There is no showboating for the camera or over-dramatization of scenes or moments, and instead this film feels like a series of conversations in which the audience is merely present rather than watching. A supporting turn from Cobie Smulders as a wholly inappropriate therapist give this film a dark comic edge also felt in some of its lighter and more awkward moments. Ultimately, however, this is a drama about two people trying to forge a connection who may just not be fated to be together the passion they feel for each other.

B+

Movie with Abe: Lupin III: The First

Lupin III: The First
Directed by Takashi Yamazaki
Released October 18, 2020 (Fathom Events and Theaters)

The notion of a “gentleman thief” is an interesting contradiction, one that implies that breaking the law is acceptable and maybe even charming if done with the proper degree of politeness and style. The image of a criminal is typically less refined and sophisticated, and those who make a name for themselves by choosing to steal can be seen as almost intellectual in their pursuits. That’s certainly the case for Lupin III, a character created in 1967 by the Japanese artist Monkey Punch, who returns for his latest adventure, presented for the first time in CGI.

In the 1960s, Lupin shows up at an auction to extract the Bresson Diary, a book sought by many parties, including his casual nemesis Fujiko and a young woman named Laetitia, who is working to make her grandfather happy. On the run from Inspector Zenigata, who is always eager to arrest him, Lupin finds himself teaming up with those he never expected to so that he can stop the efforts of Nazis seeking to establish permanent dominance over the rest of the world.

This character originally appeared in a manga series and has been adapted many times, including by the Japanese legend Hayao Miyazaki. He’s best described as a cocky, enthusiastic troublemaker who is only slightly less concerned with getting the credit than he is having a good time pulling each of his daring escapades off. This film is described as a standalone installment, and this reviewer, who hadn’t encountered Lupin in any form before, didn’t feel especially lost, meeting the protagonist as if this had been his first appearance on screen.

This film’s particular focus makes it feel like Indiana Jones mixed with “Up,” featuring villains who wouldn’t even pretend that their intentions are anything but evil and heroes that rarely follow even law and rule in their pursuit of whatever looks like justice. This film certainly isn’t made for children, even if its content is presented in a format that makes the nefarious aims of its bad guys feel less serious and world-ending than they actually are. The animation is visually striking and the action sequences are vivid and engaging. This film, which comes to the United States from distributor GKIDS and begins its theatrical run with a two-night Fathom Events premiere, is an enthralling immersion in a world that’s often predictable and expected but still serves as superb entertainment.

B+

Friday, October 16, 2020

Weekend Movie Recommendations with Abe

Every Friday, I'll be uploading a Minute with Abe: Weekend Movie Recommendations Edition, surveying new releases on DVD, and on streaming services. Check it out, and subscribe to the movieswithabe channel!


New to Theaters and VOD: S#!&house
New to Theaters and Virtual Cinema: Martin Eden
New to Theaters: Honest Thief
New to Netflix: The Trial of the Chicago 7
New to Hulu: The Painted Bird

NewFest Spotlight: Three Very Jewish Movies

I’m delighted to be covering a number of selections from the 32nd Annual New York LGBTQ+ Film Festival, NewFest. The festival runs October 16th-27th, 2020, and films are available to watch anywhere in the United States during that time.

Many of the films at NewFest highlight minority groups other than the LGBTQ+ community, which offer informative portraits about diverse experiences. As a Jewish film critic, I’m always on the lookout for projects that feature Jewish characters that are more than just broad stereotypes and invoke casual knowledge that isn’t entirely accurate. I was pleased therefore to find three films at this year’s festival that all feature a Hebrew word in their titles and coincidentally all deal with rituals related to death. Each is intriguing and bizarre in its own way, but it felt appropriate to tackle them together.

“Minyan” is set in 1980s Brooklyn and follows David (Samuel H. Levine), an unenthusiastic yeshiva student who agrees to be one of the ten men for a minyan so that his grandfather (Ron Rifkin) can move into a prime apartment that has just become available. His grandfather is aware of his lack of passion for religion, and David has a completely separately existence from the one dominated by his Russian parents when he goes to bars and parties to meet men, including a bartender (Alex Hurt).

“Tahara” takes place at a synagogue during the funeral of a high schooler who died by suicide. Hannah (Rachel Sennott) couldn’t be less interested in being there, and has her eyes set on Tristan (Daniel Taveras), a clueless classmate. Her best friend Carrie (Madeline Grey DeFreece) is more sensitive, and she’s thrown off by Hannah’s request to test her kissing abilities out on her, which trigger deeper romantic feelings that the self-involved Rachel couldn’t possibly bother to notice.

“Shiva Baby” finds Danielle (also Sennott) attending a shiva with her parents (Polly Draper and Fred Melamed) and unexpectedly running into the sugar daddy (Danny Deferrari) she just slept with that morning, who is both married and has a baby. As she fends off comments about her weight and her career from other shiva attendees and runs into her high school girlfriend (Molly Gordon), Danielle quickly starts to panic as two distinctly separate parts of her life collide in an irreversible way.
It’s worth separating “Minyan” out from the other two because it is absolutely a drama while the other two are inherently comedic. In all three of these films, the protagonists have a good working knowledge of Jewish tradition and aren’t necessarily interested in learning more. David doesn’t resent going to minyan but doesn’t really engage with the meaning of it that has so affected his grandfather, or has meant a great deal to two best friends who live next door to him, Itzik (Mark Margolis) and Herschel (Christopher McCann), whose connection with each other is the only thing that really seems to move David. The exploration of his complicated identity is worthwhile but proceeds at a slow and unengaging pace that drags for its nearly two-hour runtime.

“Tahara” and “Shiva Baby,” on the other hand, both run closer to eighty minutes, remaining in or right outside one building for the entire time. “Tahara” makes use of social media imagery, Claymation, and subtitles during silent conversations conducted only with expressions and head movements to enliven Hannah’s droning experience and Carrie’s unexpected awakening. “Shiva Baby” has a score that sounds most like a horror movie, bringing to life Danielle’s sense of being trapped in an inescapable situation between the bagels and being outed as someone’s mistress. Both are creative in their approaches to stories that feel far more vivid and engaging because audiences are stuck in this synagogue and shiva house with these characters.
Knowledgeable viewers may still question accents or specific moments that don’t feel entirely accurate, but overall these three films represent intriguing and worthwhile windows into experiences that are certainly not universal but will likely speak to many who haven’t felt entirely comfortable being themselves in the presence of their community. All three lean heavily on parental influences who proscribe a certain way of life for their children that involves, at the very least, being in Jewish spaces if only for the sake of tradition and education. What could be considered acts of rebellion here by these protagonists are still done while they are taking part, at least physically, in some sort of Jewish ritual.

None of these films are particularly recommended for viewing by the whole family (or in a synagogue), due mainly to explicit content expressed both visually and in language. Part of the purpose of NewFest is to give voice to diverse storytellers and normalize their experiences, and their representation in film to make them less objectionable or startling. As a film, “Minyan” is probably the most standard of these three, while “Tahara” and “Shiva Baby” are decidedly more experimental and strange. They each offer something interesting and deserve to be seen, likely by an audience completely unprepared for what to expect.

Thursday, October 15, 2020

Movie with Abe: The Trial of the Chicago 7

The Trial of the Chicago 7
Directed by Aaron Sorkin
Released October 16, 2020 (Netflix)

History has a lot to tell us about the present. Examining documented events through a new lens can be both informative and disturbing, since in many cases what may have been perceived as a corrected facet of society reveals itself to be very much still existent. Injustice in criminal courts and discrimination in the justice system remain rampant today as they were in the era of segregation, and political parties remain committed to achieving their agendas regardless of who might be marginalized along the way. This dramatization of an infamous trial from the late 1960s feels extraordinarily relevant in this moment.

Richard Schultz (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is brought in by U.S. Attorney Tom Foran (J.C. MacKenzie) to try eight defendants accused of conspiracy and starting riots in Chicago in the summer of 1968. Among them, Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen) and Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong) are Yippies, and their countercultural conduct stands in opposition to the more polished appearances of intellectual Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne) and suit-wearing pacifist David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch). Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), the co-founder of the Black Panther Party, is looped in with the rest despite a short visit to Chicago and the absence of his lawyer, who requires emergency surgery. As their attorneys William Kunstler (Mark Rylance) and Leonard Weinglass (Ben Shenkman) try the case, the disdain for all the defendants and their lawyers is continuously clear from the haughty and unforgiving Judge Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella).

This is a relatively well-known chapter of American history that was dramatized in “Chicago 10,” an animated documentary from 2008 that includes the lawyers in its count as part of the activist team. This film, in different iterations, has been in development since that time, and its manifestation in this form was well worth the wait. Writer-director Aaron Sorkin makes excellent use of his patented fast-talking scripts to convey a wealth of information in a tremendously engaging format. Historical analysis indicates that certain characters and events have been questionably altered for dramatic purposes, though those changes don’t make it a weaker film in its own right. Flashbacks used to reveal the activities of this group are neatly folded into this film’s rhythm, thoroughly involving for the entirety of its 129-minute runtime, which could have been much longer and still been riveting.

A film like this offers a tremendous opportunity for talent, and none of the actors disappoint. It’s actually difficult to pinpoint a standout since even the more minor players that appear on screen for only a scene or two are terrific. Sacha Baron Cohen is particularly formidable as defendant Hoffman, just as skilled as this film in balancing entertaining humor and moving drama. Abdul-Mateen and Redmayne offer powerful pictures of resistance and values, while Langella conveys Judge Hoffman’s despicable nature without making him seem cartoonish. This film will be seen by most audiences at home on Netflix, and despite the fact that it can be paused, it’s unlikely that anyone will choose to look away when this film’s content and presentation are equally captivating.

A-

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

Movie with Abe: S#!&house

S#!&house
Directed by Cooper Raiff
Released October 16, 2020 (VOD and Theaters)

College presents a chance for many to reinvent themselves and forge a new identity free from high school cliques and remembered behavior from many years earlier. Popularity isn’t nearly as key since students come from different places and can share with others selected pieces of their histories and personalities. It is not, however, a universally positive experience, since some miss the comforts of being at home and with family, finding little company in a strange place and a lack of stable activity that require specific buy-in. For those people, college is still memorable, but it may be seen as more of a challenge than an opportunity.

Alex (Cooper Raiff) is a freshman who has very little in common with his roommate Sam (Logan Miller). Attending a party at the notorious Shithouse ends up making him feel even more isolated and alone. His perspective changes completely when he’s given the opportunity to spend time with Maggie (Dylan Gelula), his RA who is bored and just wants a companion for the night. The next morning, Alex has to confront the vast difference between his expectations for what that means for their day-to-day relationship and the reality of what Maggie wants.

This film is an entertaining presentation of the college experience, the one that pertains to those trying to fit in at the party rather than throw it. It’s not as if Alex puts in much effort, but his dejected attitude makes what he does do all the more refreshing and entertaining. His humorous response to Maggie’s less-than-subtle advances emphasizes the fact that things are indeed done differently in college, which gives him every right to call her out for not knowing his name as it gives her to choose to spend her time however she desires. It won’t be relatable for all, but there’s fantastic truth present in Alex as a typically awkward freshman desperate to find his place but not willing to do much to make it happen.

This film represents an astounding debut for Raiff both in front of and behind the camera. I had the chance to chat with Raiff about shooting the film that would then become this one with the help of Jay Duplass and why he had to go with this title. You can watch that conversation below. This film was supposed to premiere at SXSW back in March, and it managed to win a grand jury prize even after the festival was cancelled. Now, months later, premiering during quarantine may make its already appealing and clever plot feel even more entertaining and wonderful.

B+


Tuesday, October 13, 2020

Movie with Abe: Honest Thief

Honest Thief
Directed by Mark Williams
Released October 16, 2020 (Theaters)

There are actors who are cast in a number of similar roles and, at a point, audiences come to expect that they will see them that way. Part of that has to do with being typecast and offered certain parts, but actors do feed into the idea by delivering a consistent and, to a degree, predictable portrayal. Liam Neeson is one such performer, who has become a dependable action star since anchoring the first “Taken” film in 2009. The words “Liam Neeson thriller” are a likely draw for a particular audience, and they know exactly what’s in store based on that description.

Tom (Liam Neeson) moves to Boston and meets Annie (Kate Walsh), who works at the storage facility where he rents a unit. After falling for her, Tom decides that he must confess that he is the In-and-Out Bandit, a bank robber who has never been caught, and turn himself in to the FBI in exchange for a reduced sentence. Unfortunately for him, the agents who arrive, Nivens (Jai Courtney) and Hall (Anthony Ramos), decide to steal the money and try to silence him. Determined to protect Annie and make the agents pay for their betrayal, Tom sets out to exact revenge while a good-natured agent, Meyers (Jeffrey Donovan), continues investigating the case.

It’s obvious why Neeson was chosen for this part, and Tom seems to possess the same kind of training that previous characters of Neeson’s have, even if that’s not part of his backstory. Tom’s hand-to-hand combat skills can be explained by his military background, but his assertion that he hasn’t spent any of the millions he stole doesn’t track with his ability to easily afford getaway vehicles and countless technical materials. The film’s plot holes aren’t overly problematic because this is actually a relatively simplistic film that posits that Tom is not a bad guy and just wants to take responsibility for his actions for the sake of love.

This film smartly doesn’t try to make itself much grander than what it wants to be, opting not for excessive stunts or conspiracy theories and instead spotlighting people who are motivated by clear desires. Nivens and Hall are eager to get rich regardless of who gets hurts – even if there is disagreement between the two about how far they’ll go – while Meyers is a straight arrow without much enthusiasm. Thanks to Walsh, Annie is fiery and memorable, eager to be relevant to the story, and Neeson is doing exactly what he’s paid to do, play a version of his cinematic persona who feels real enough since we’ve met him so many times before. This film is throwaway entertainment, but still manages to be watchable and relatively enthralling.

C+