Thursday, April 30, 2020

Movie with Abe: Bull

Directed by Annie Silverstein
Released May 1, 2020

A bond with an animal can have a truly transformative effect on a person. Those who act out and have trouble fitting in with society may behave completely differently when they’re with a pet, or, even more powerfully, an animal that they take care of and train for a particular purpose. A commitment to a sport or activity that requires cooperation and communication with something other than a human can ground and redirect the energy of someone who has a history of not playing well with others, and can reframe the way they approach every aspect of their life.

Kris (Amber Havard) is fourteen years old and living in Texas with her grandmother. Regular visits to see her mother in prison are not enough to prevent her from having plenty of anger to express, which manifests itself when she trashes the home of her curmudgeonly neighbor Abe (Rob Morgan). To make up for what she has done, Kris begins helping the aging bullfighter, first simply with tasks around the house and then learning from him at the rodeo. As the allure of a new passion calls, Kris finds that it isn’t so easy to rid herself of the pervasive influences that still remain in her old life.

This film is a quiet, intimate drama, one that features two equally lonely, malcontent people who are at opposite points in their lives. Abe’s glory days are behind him, and he knows that his body is longer in the same condition his mind is, prohibiting him from fully appreciating and enjoying his time. Kris is well aware of the circumstances that landed her mother in prison and that the groups she runs with and the situation she is in may well send her down that same path. Their connection allows them both to experience something they didn’t expect and that wouldn’t be possible without the perspectives and energies that they bring.

Actress Amber Havard makes an astounding debut as this troubled teenage protagonist, and she’s well-matched by Morgan, a familiar face from films like “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” and “Just Mercy” and the TV series “This Is Us.” Together, they anchor a moderately familiar story made to feel fresh in this strong first feature film from director Annie Silverstein. After a premiere at last year’s Cannes Film Festival and a cancelled showing at this year’s SXSW, this worthwhile drama will be available tomorrow on VOD.


Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Movie with Abe: The Other Story

The Other Story
Directed by Avi Nesher
Released June 28, 2019

Religion can be a source of comfort for people, giving them faith in a higher power and a belief that good deeds count for something since there is indeed someone watching over in judgment. It can also be extremely stifling, forcing those who don’t fit into a box to adhere to standards that suppress their individuality and prevent them from being able to thrive. Putting pressure on them to conform only serves to create more resentment, and there are those raised away from observant religion who find it later, which in turn can create friction with family members and friends who don’t understand or agree with their newfound perspective.

Yonatan (Yuval Segal) arrives in Israel from America after being summoned by his ex-wife Tali (Maya Dagan) and his father Shlomo (Sasson Gabai). The reason for his visit is the impending marriage of his daughter Anat (Joy Rieger) to popular musician Shahar (Nathan Goshen) following the rock star couple’s recent transition to very observant Judaism. As Yonatan gets to know the daughter he abandoned long ago, he begins to help his therapist father with two of his clients, Rami (Maayan Blum), a husband concerned about how his wife, Sari (Avigail Harari), who was raised religious, is involving their young son in the pagan rituals she is attending.

While religion plays a major role in the lives of Anat and Sari, this film doesn’t actually deal much with observance. The concern expressed by Tali and Shlomo about Anat’s wedding has less to do with their disagreements about piousness and how it changes a person and more to do with their lack of faith in Shlomo having actually changed from the former drug user’s bad influences. Rami can’t understand what his wife is doing with a pagan group in Jerusalem, and the fact that it is open only to women and children creates yet another barrier. Yonatan, who has alienated everyone he left behind, arrives and is able to analyze both situations objectively, uninterested in immersing himself in either of the religious worlds and instead trying to understand the people involved rather than only their ideologies.

This film reunites director Avi Nesher with the star of his previous film, “Past Life” (read my interview with him here), Rieger, who serves as the dramatic anchor of this multifaceted story. Dagan steals most of her scenes with a fiery energy, and it’s fun to see Gabai, a seasoned actor from films like “The Band’s Visit” and “Gett: The Trial of Vivianne Amsalem,” in a supporting turn that finds him providing comic relief. This film is involving and unusual in the threads it weaves together, building a thought-provoking experience that explores the intersection of different personalities and cultures.


Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Movie with Abe: Our Mothers

Our Mothers
Directed by César Díaz
Released May 1, 2020

At some point in their lives, everyone loses someone. That process is a painful one, and it can be made even more difficult by complicating circumstances either before or after death. Saying goodbye and providing a loved one with a proper resting place is very important to most people, and our present global situation is making that impossible for many mourners. When paying respects and burying someone are prevented not by a goal of safety but instead the suppression of dissent and the covering up of misdeeds and killings, closure may truly never be achieved for those left only to remember the people they once knew.

Ernesto (Armando Espitia) works as an anthropologist in Guatemala in 2018, receiving and investigating the stories of people who either know or suspect that their family members were murdered during the decades-long civil war that plagued his country. Ernesto is kind and generous in the way he interacts with those who come forward, but he is shaken by one account from a woman who shows him a picture of a guerilla soldier he believes is his father. Determined both to help this woman and to find answers about his own past, Ernesto presses to uncover the truth, even if it means going around the legal guidelines he otherwise always follows.

This film serves as a formidable reminder that many countries around the world are reckoning with a widely-experienced national trauma in their recent history. This deeply personal story inspired by the oral tradition of real-life women in Guatemalan villages serves as an excellent and powerful counterpoint to the Spanish documentary "The Silence of Others," which shows subversive efforts to grapple with what was lost during a dictatorship that its citizens have collectively agreed to forget. This film succeeds in bringing the horrors committed during the Guatemalan civil war to a wider audience and amplifying the voices of those who have vowed to keep the memories of those they have lost alive.

Actors Espitia and Emma Dib, who plays Ernesto's mother, anchor this story well, and the casting of non-actors from Guatemalan villages proves particularly poignant in creating an authentic narrative that pays tribute to so many who died in this universal story of unresolved anguish. Debut director César Díaz crafts a heartfelt and compelling film, which runs just seventy-eight minutes and was originally intended as a documentary, shining a spotlight on an unbelievably common situation that has left so many wondering about the fate of those who disappeared or were taken from them years earlier. After a successful premiere at last year's Cannes Film Festival, this Belgian-Guatemalan film will be available beginning later this week to watch at home via Virtual Cinema by supporting a local theater.


Sunday, April 26, 2020

Movie with Abe: The Assistant

The Assistant
Directed by Kitty Green
Released January 31, 2020

Almost everyone has worked a job they hated at some point in their life. There are various reasons for this, including unclear expectations, a high salary, a need for money, or, the most alluring of all, the chance to make important contacts that can lead to a better position. That last motivator is true most in the entertainment industry, where starting as a low-level employee is universally proclaimed as the best way to work your way up in the business. That mentality, however, brings with it an enormous potential for abuse and manipulation, with those in power often feeling entitled to treat their underlings in an extremely unacceptable manner.

Jane (Julia Garner) is picked up early in the morning from her Queens apartment and driven to Tribeca in New York City, where she begins powering up computers and making coffee. It’s still dark by the time other employees arrive, and as the day goes on, Jane finds herself doing everyone’s dirty work, including tasks others give to her because they know that the executive assistant won’t fight them on it. As she endures a seemingly never-ending day that includes multiple vicious phone calls from her angry boss, Jane becomes particularly concerned about the arrival of a young woman (Kristine Froseth) from Idaho with a suitcase in tow who has been hired as a new assistant and put up in a hotel by her boss.

The events and environment of this film will surely remind many audience members of how they were treated, saw others treated, or, in some cases, treated others in a given job. This is not an action-packed film or even one that offers those watching any sort of satisfaction regarding its Harvey Weinsteinesque villain. Its monotony feels deliberate, to make it clear that Jane’s circumstance is inescapable, and what’s worse is that this is by no means an extraordinary day aside from the fact that she notices something problematic that she decides she cannot abide.

Garner, who won an Emmy last year for her work on “Ozark,” turns in a subtle performance as Jane, who is the ideal employee in many ways because she never speaks up for herself and rarely fights when others assign her jobs she shouldn’t be doing. This film resonates not only because of what its protagonist has to do but the disappointing apathy with which others respond. Keeping the object of much of her misery off-screen reveals just how powerful the silence of others can be in this unsettling and thought-provoking snippet of one person’s representative experience.


Friday, April 24, 2020

Weekend Movie Recommendations with Abe

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

New to Fandango Now: To the Stars, Robert the Bruce, Blush
New to Vudu: Abe
New to Hulu: Abominable

Thursday, April 23, 2020

Five Films to Watch Next If You Liked Unorthodox

Over at TV with Abe, I wrote about Netflix’s limited series “Unorthodox,” which follows a young woman named Esty (Shira Haas) as she escapes her ultra-Orthodox Jewish community in Brooklyn and seeks a new life in Berlin. You can watch my YouTube interview with series co-creator Alexa Karolinski below, but if you’re looking to experience more cinematic stories about observant Judaism that do their subject matter justice, check out these five films. All of them are available to rent (or stream) on Amazon Prime and other platforms.

#1: Fill the Void

This film is set within the Hasidic community in Tel Aviv and stars Hadas Yaron as Shira, a woman whose sister dies in childbirth. That tragedy inspires pressure from her family members and peers to marry her widowed brother-in-law. Orthodox female filmmaker Rama Burshtein astounds with a powerful directorial debut, which won Israel’s equivalent of the Oscar for Best Picture, that never once finds Shira contemplating abandoning an observant lifestyle but instead grappling with whether to put her own desires ahead of what her community believes is best.

#2: The Wedding Plan

Rama Burshtein’s second film is a considerably more lighthearted endeavor. Michal, played by the absolutely terrific Noa Koler, is the main character whose fiancé decides he doesn’t want to get married just before their wedding. Determined to hold the ceremony anyway, Michal looks to her faith in God to help her find a new man to marry in just thirty days. It’s a fun comedy that finds the charming if overzealous Michal trying her best to great creative within the confines of her religion.

#3: Menashe

There’s no romance at the center of this almost entirely Yiddish film that premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2017. Menashe has been widowed and is struggling to get custody back of his ten-year-old son Rieven, presenting an unusual circumstance within his Hasidic enclave in Brooklyn. As Menashe and Rieven, actors Menashe Lustig and Ruben Niborski turn in tender performances that humanize them as their relationship is tested throughout an ordeal influenced by rabbis, community members, and those that judge Menashe as a single parent.

#4: Gett: The Trial of Vivianne Amsalem

This Golden Globe-nominated film comes from brother-sister duo Ronit Elkabetz, often referred to as Israel’s Meryl Streep, and Shlomi Elkabetz, who starred in HBO’s excellent miniseries “Our Boys.” Ronit, who sadly died of lung cancer in 2016, delivers an incredible performance as the title character, who is seeking a divorce in a religious court in Israel that gives her absent husband far too much power in the proceedings. It’s an extraordinarily powerful and heartbreaking story about perseverance in the face of an impossibly and unfairly weighted system.

#5: Disobedience

The only English-language film on this list is also the most well-known. Non-Jewish Chilean director Sebastián Lelio took care to get the details right in his construction of a close-knit religious environment in London visited for the first time in a while by its protagonist, Ronit, played by Rachel Weisz, when her prominent rabbi father dies. Alessandro Nivola and Rachel McAdams are both terrific as a rising rabbi and his wife whose lives are irreversibly altered by Ronit’s return and reminders of a forbidden romance.

If you haven’t already, enjoy my interview with Alexa Karolinski, embedded below.

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Movies with Abe: Robert the Bruce

Robert the Bruce
Directed by Richard Gray
Released April 24, 2020

The film “Braveheart” took home the Oscar for Best Picture in 1995, along with a handful of other technical prizes, for its epic cinematic retelling of the story of William Wallace, who fought for Scottish independence in the thirteenth century. It’s certainly among the larger-scale films to be crowned best of the year in recent memory, and ranks as one of the less controversial movies directed by Mel Gibson. Twenty-five years later, that saga continues with a sequel that picks up the story after Wallace to focus on its new central character, the king of an embattled Scotland: Robert the Bruce.

Robert (Angus Macfadyen) and his followers are losing the war, finding their numbers thinned and their spirits crushed. Feeling no hope, Robert disbands his army and retreats. Evading capture by the many people eager to collect the reward offered by the King of England, Robert finds himself at the home of Morag (Anna Hutchinson), a peasant looking after three young children. As those seeking his head scour the countryside calling his name, Robert begins to understand the common people he should be serving as he in turn inspires them to reconsider their worldviews.

This is a much smaller and subtler film than “Braveheart,” though it does feature a good deal of gore that occurs on the battlefield and when those wielding weapons want to leave their mark. Its focus is instead on a man fighting for his principles who has the opportunity to step back from the big picture and learn to appreciate the true value of life and relationships. Its effectiveness is enhanced by the fact that, at the start of the film, Morag tells stories about the legendary Robert the Bruce that have become lore and which don’t entirely reflect the reality of who he is when he arrives looking for a place to hide.

Macfadyen is the only actor in the cast reprising his role from the original film, and he does so with a humanity that’s gradually evident as he transforms from worn-down warrior to simple family man. Hutchinson is likeable and endearing, and a cast that’s populated primarily by American actors, including Zach McGowan and Emma Kenney from “Shameless,” performs sufficiently. This film is a more down-to-earth tribute to the history of Scotland than its predecessor, one that presents a relatable intimate story within a visually compelling and moderately memorable cinematic showcase.


Monday, April 20, 2020

Movie with Abe: The Call of the Wild

The Call of the Wild
Directed by Chris Sanders
Released February 21, 2020

The protagonists of most films are, typically, human. If the main character is an animal, the movie is usually animated, and allows them to speak in a way that they can be understood by an audience. Crafting a serious story around an animal that doesn’t talk is an arduous task, though films like “War Horse” have done it in the past, usually showcasing impressive technical effects in the creation of a lifelike star. Their life and journey have to be appealing, and cheering for their survival and success must motivate anyone watching to connect with their story.

Buck is a boisterous St. Bernard-Scott Collie living a pleasant life in Northern California in the late 1890s. When he is put outside at night by his owner (Bradley Whitford) as punishment for eating through a carefully prepared buffet, he is stolen and shipped to Alaska, enduring abusive owners until he joins a sled dog team for a Canadian mailman (Omar Sy) where he stands up to the vicious lead dog, Spitz, to exert his dominance. When the mail route is terminated, Buck and his team are purchased by an equally heartless and incompetent prospector (Dan Stevens). Along the way, Buck continually crosses paths with the kindly John Thornton (Harrison Ford), a lonely man who sees Buck for the hard-working and caring dog he is.

This is far from the first cinematic adaptation of Jack London’s classic 1903 novel. It is the first in a while, and one that makes great use of CGI technology to allow motion capture actor Terry Notary to portray the endearing dog. While not all audiences will rave about the computer-animated animals, they serve their purpose, acting as fully functional characters whose relationships are almost more central to the narrative than any of the people who are actually able to speak. It’s a movie that dog lovers will surely enjoy, while those seeking a family-friendly adventure should also find it perfectly adequate.

Buck is the true star of this film, but a handful of well-known human actors show up throughout to provide recognizable faces. Stevens, who initially became famous for playing the impossibly nice and virtuous Matthew on “Downton Abbey,” is now embracing his villainous, often cartoonish side that he honed on “Legion.” Ford, who has been acting for more than half a century, is right at home in the role of a man who has mostly resigned himself to being alone, only to find the best form of companionship in Buck. This film shouldn’t be approached as an overly resounding, emphatic tale, but instead a revitalizing exploration of nature and the allure of the great outdoors that can be enjoyed by the whole family.


Friday, April 17, 2020

Weekend Movie Recommendations with Abe

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

Film Movement’s Virtual Cinema: A White, White Day
New to DVD: Just Mercy
New to Netflix: Sergio, Despicable Me, Catfish, Hail, Caesar
New to Amazon: Selah and the Spades, The Lighthouse
New to Hulu: The Messenger

Thursday, April 16, 2020

Movie with Abe: A White, White Day

A White, White Day
Directed by Hlynur Palmason
Released April 17, 2020

The thriller genre denotes a film that, in some way or another, keeps its audiences on the edge of their seats as they anticipate a grim outcome and watch unfortunate ends befall those who should meet better fates. There exists a huge variety of tones and themes for such films, and each can look very different as a result. A thriller doesn’t require the presence of a villain or even a conflict, and some of the subtlest and most effective films build tension from a growing uncertainty created by a sense of dread of unknown origin or, worse still, that emerges from a seeming tranquility.

Ingimundur (Ingvar Sigurdsson) is the police chief in a small Icelandic town who spends most of his time working on the house he wants to build for his daughter and taking care of his young granddaughter Salka (Ída Mekkín Hlynsdóttir). He meets with a counselor regularly who attempts to unpack the grief he feels over the death of his wife in an accident two years earlier, something he refuses to discuss and denies haunts him when confronted. Yet the questionable circumstances surrounding the accident have him caught in a loop, one that sends him down a dangerous route towards a breaking point.

This is a film that proceeds along slowly, opening with a disquieting tracking shot of a car traveling down a snowy road before veering off and over the edge of a cliff. Many scenes feature the house that Ingimundur is building seen from the same spot a distance away, refreshed each moment by a new sky and changed weather. When Ingimundur is on screen, he is the focus of attention, keeping his face unreadable as he faces questions he doesn’t want to answer, driving his car on the windy Icelandic roads, or running backwards while playing soccer. He’s gruff and antisocial, but there is evidently a layer of kindness buried underneath that comes out most when he dotes on the impressionable and precocious Salka.

Sigurdsson delivers a nuanced performance that anchors this film and showcases Ingimundur as a man overcome with loneliness who simply keeps moving forward because that’s what he believe he needs to do and to provide something to leave behind for those he loves. This Toronto International Film Festival selection, which served as Iceland’s Oscar submission last year for Best International Film, is similar in pacing to Norway’s yet-to-be-released “Out Stealing Horses,” yet the execution and particularly the purposeful cinematography here work more effectively. It’s hardly an urgent, pulse-pounding film, but instead one that gradually establishes its narrative and purposes.

“A White, White Day” will premiere tomorrow, April 17th, as part of Film Movement’s Virtual Cinema. To watch the film, purchase virtual tickets through participating theaters here.


Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Movie with Abe: Selah and the Spades

Selah and the Spades
Directed by Tayarish Poe
Released April 17, 2020

High school can be hard for even the smartest and most socially well-adjusted teenagers. The pressures of success can lead to tremendous stress, and that doesn’t take into account cliques and drama. Boarding schools create a contained environment where that can all be amplified, opening the door to more opportunities and also more potential pitfalls. School life can feel like what teenagers assume real life will be, with distinct groups forming to exert control over commerce and communication. Such scenarios have been adapted into many films across various genres showcasing the wild and often cutthroat antics of taking the wrong parts of high school way too seriously.

Selah (Lovie Simone), along with Maxxie (Jharrel Jerome), leads the Spades, one of the five “factions” at Haldwell, a boarding school in Pennsylvania. She rules with an iron fist, intolerant of disloyalty and always eager to stay one step ahead of her rivals, especially the ambitious Bobby (Ana Mulvoy Ten). When a new student, Paloma (Celeste O’Connor), arrives, Selah takes her under her wing, transforming her from amateur photographer to formidable second-in-command. Selah’s strict attitude and her mistrust of others threatens her reign, forcing her to confront the consequences of her actions and the reality of her fast-approaching future beyond the walls of Haldwell.

This film starts with style, as narration explains the structure of Haldwell and just who Selah is in the scheme of things. Selah is a force of nature, unintimidated by those who try to tell her that she’s not in control or, worse, that she’s making the wrong call. Maxxie represents a more relatable ally who is committed to his friend and partner but far less willing to leave others behind in his pursuit of power. Paloma is innocent but susceptible, drawn in by the allure of acceptance offered to her by Selah and others. Bobby, the most visible presence from among the other factions, feels much more artificial, but that’s merely because she’s not the focus of the film. While these can hardly represent all the archetypes of students that exist, it’s a great sample that works very well in this context.

Simone delivers an incredible breakout turn, imbuing Selah with an uncompromising personality and making her layered by showing her vulnerabilities when she does let her defenses down. Jerome, an Emmy winner for his superb turn in “When They See Us,” plays well opposite her as an amiable enforcer who prefers being liked to being feared. O’Connor impressively rounds out the lead cast as the lone main character who hasn’t been drawn into this world and might have some hope of escaping it before being completely indoctrinated. This film, which premiered at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival in the NEXT section, is an energetic and appealing cinematic story that may remind audiences of some part of their own experiences in high school and will surely delight and intrigue them even if that’s not the case.


Friday, April 10, 2020

Weekend Movie Recommendations with Abe

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

New to DVD: Little Women
New to Netflix: The Florida Project, The Killing of a Sacred Deer
New to Amazon: Invisible Life, Les Miserables
New to Hulu: Parasite

Friday, April 3, 2020

Weekend Movie Recommendations with Abe

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

New to DVD: Standing Up, Falling Down, The Current War, and Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker
New to Netflix: Mud, Minority Report, The Social Network, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, and The Death of Stalin
New to Amazon: I Am Legend
New to Hulu: Blazing Saddles, The Full Monty, Misery, Kill Bill, Vol. 1, Kill Bill, Vol. 2, The Mexican, and Zombieland