Friday, September 18, 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 Virtual Cinemas: Softie, Blackbird, The Dark Divide, God of the Piano, The Nest
New to DVD: Weathering with You, Tommaso
New to Netflix: Raising Victor Vargas, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
New to Hulu: Babyteeth, The Good Shepherd

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Movie with Abe: God of the Piano

God of the Piano
Directed by Itay Tal
Released September 18, 2020 (Virtual Cinema)

All parents have expectations of their children, but the way in which they express them and react when they likely don’t materialize into reality can vary. A family of doctors, lawyers, or some other profession will no doubt have a path paved towards the eventual attainment of that career which a child may or may not follow, depending on their desire to conform or to blaze their own trail. Parents may not take no for an answer, directing what their offspring do by consistently prioritizing it and barring them from participating in activities that could serve as a distraction or pique other interests.

Anat (Naama Preis) is a concert pianist so devoted to her craft that she finishes performing even after her water breaks. The news that her baby has been born deaf is crushing, and she takes unconscionable steps to ensure that her child will be able to follow in her footsteps. As Idan (Andy Levi) grows up, he develops incredible musical skills that rival Anat’s but still seem to fail to impress her accomplished father, Arieh (Ze'ev Shimshoni), who reserves the praise he withholds from Anat and Idan for her brother, Dror (Alon Openhaim). Anat’s will to have her son succeed and prove her own worth stand at odds with the priorities of her husband, Hanan (Ron Bitterman), as she seeks out approval from a celebrity pianist (Shimon Mimran) who seems more interested in a relationship with her than in helping her son.

This film’s entire premise is one that requires considerable suspension of disbelief and may prove difficult to accept for some viewers. Yet, regardless of what specific events are portrayed, the central theme of this film is that some parents will go to incredible lengths to create a mold of themselves in their children, ignoring morality for the sake of what they believe will be happiness. Unsurprisingly, that approach leads to considerable resentment and a constant yearning for something better, and, in this case, Anat’s controlling nature towards her son contradicts the supportive space she always wished her father had created for her, shaping Idan to feel similarly towards her as she does towards Arieh.

Preis tackles a difficult role with a careful precision, presenting a stoic and uncompromising front as Anat engages with those who believe her to be inferior. It’s nearly impossible to like Anat, but there’s still something appealing and relatable about her that helps to humanize the character and make her decisions minimally understandable. Levi, in his film debut, is compelling in his general compliance, indicating only moderate resistance to the control his mother wields over his life. Shimshoni, Bitterman, and Mimran enhance the supporting cast as extensions of Anat’s story. This film, which runs eighty minutes, is not always pleasant and probes a problematic relationship, but what it explores is deeply thought-provoking and far more applicable to many real-life experiences than might initially seem apparent.


Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Movie with Abe: The Dark Divide

The Dark Divide
Directed by Tom Putnam
Released September 18, 2020 (Virtual Cinema)

There are a number of reasons that people take on challenging assignments. In some cases, they may have no choice and are required to do so by an employer or because they know that no one else will do it. In others, it involves a personal penance of sorts or a need to isolate from the world and focus on something that will prove truly immersive. Making a solitary journey that involves tremendous physical labor and emotional strength is not easy, and the notion of undertaking something of that magnitude can be quite daunting and intimidating.

Robert Pyle (David Cross) is a renowned butterfly expert always on the verge of writing his next book. His dying wife Thea (Debra Messing), who creates illustrations to accompany his work, is not content with him simply sitting around and waiting for inspiration to strike. Robert sets out with a Guggenheim Fellowship and an optimistic attitude for the Gifford Pinchot National Forest in Washington, ready to traverse its vast space to find and study a new butterfly species. Locals balk at his lack of experience camping and surviving in the outdoors, but he is determined to make it through and come out reinvigorated.

This film is immediately reminiscent of recent films like “Wild” and “The Way,” which find characters taking on long, laborious treks to connect with themselves and those that they have lost. This film has a more upbeat, adventurous spirit, one that finds Robert gleefully unprepared for much of what he meets, far more prepared to lecture someone on their problematic behavior than to outrun any of the animals he might encounter on his journey. Based on the true story of Robert’s 1995 expedition and his subsequent book, “Where Bigfoot Walks: Crossing the Dark Divide,” this film emphasizes the human side of Robert’s exploration, offering lower stakes than similar projects which might see their protagonists fighting for their lives against the terrifying natural forces conjured up by this film’s title, the name for the area Robert sets out to chart.

Cross is an actor primarily known for comedy, but he is definitely a strong and effective choice to play Robert, whose social skills do not match his scientific expertise. His style of speaking and mannerisms help make Robert a gradually endearing character whose behavior doesn’t always evoke sympathy and who audiences can relate to as someone in way over his head in his desire to achieve a theoretically manageable task in a wildly unpredictable environment. Cross carries the film in conjunction with its soaring imagery, presenting beauty that makes the best case for the film’s quieter moments as its most potent. Though this film doesn’t feel wildly original, its story is told and showcased in a sufficient and mostly engaging manner.


Monday, September 14, 2020

Movie with Abe: Blackbird

Directed by Roger Michell
Released September 18, 2020 (Virtual Cinema)

Most people aren’t able to control the way that they leave this world. Death is usually something that can’t be foreseen, or at least not predicted to an exact moment or a circumstance that feels right. Accidents and disasters occur to cut life short, and illness takes many at a young age. There may be a progression that permits someone to notice the way in which their quality of life is changing. This can in turn prompt them, in certain situations, to make arrangements to be able to choose when it is that they want to die, rather than waiting for the inevitable.

Lily (Susan Sarandon) is suffering from ALS and has decided that she no longer wants to live knowing that her body will deteriorate as a result of her disease. Before she ends her life, she wants to spend one last weekend with her family at her beach house with her doting husband Paul (Sam Neill). That includes her straight-laced older daughter Jennifer (Kate Winslet), her impossibly dull son-in-law Michael (Rainn Wilson), and their free-spirited son Jonathan (Anson Boon), her younger, more rebellious daughter Anna (Mia Wasikowska) and her girlfriend Chris (Bex Taylor-Klaus), and her lifelong best friend Liz (Lindsay Duncan). Lily may be ready to say goodbye, but there are a host of complicated sentiments that emerge in different ways over the course of the weekend.

This film is brimming with talent, led by the dependable Sarandon, whose qualifications for this role, which she plays with ease, are well-established. Winslet in particular is almost unrecognizable as the uptight Jennifer, who believes she can control everything around her, something that stands in direct opposition to the freewheeling and less stable Anna, played by the always passionate Wasikowska. Wilson does well with a bit of drama, which isn’t his usual genre, while Neill and Duncan are strong in quieter roles. Taylor-Klaus and Boon stand out in parts that don’t seem central to the story but are memorable as a result of the actors’ energy.

This film’s subject is of particularly interest to me not as a film critic but as the spouse of someone who works in the end-of-life space and frequently teaches on physician-assisted death. This film makes clear that it is not legal for Lily to take a prescription that will induce death where she lives, but, thanks in part to Paul being a doctor, she has been able to procure one that she knows will enable her a painless and finite end. Lily exhibits a true satisfaction knowing that she has arranged a way to go out on her own terms, a decision that does not sit well with any of her family members, even if they disagree about why it is that they don’t like it and how it is at odds with the values she has taught them. This remake of the 2014 Danish film “Silent Heart,” which I have not seen, manages to be both sobering and entertaining, tackling a taboo subject with gravitas.


Sunday, September 13, 2020

Movie with Abe: Softie

Directed by Sam Soko
Released September 18, 2020 (Virtual Cinema)

The decision to run for political office is not one made lightly and without an understanding of the implications of both the campaign process and the responsibilities of the position if election proves successful. Committing to proving competence to prospective voters requires time and dedication, and events and functions may overlap with or detract from the ability to be with family or friends. In a country with a stable democratic government system, all that is required, but when corruption runs rampant and lawlessness leads to fatal consequences, an intent to inspire change can be met with dangerous opposition.

Boniface Mwangi, better known as Softie, is a photojournalist in Kenya. Tired of the violence he sees around him and the way that politicians, including the president, refuse to do anything to actually address much-needed reforms, he decides to become a candidate for a regional election. Getting local residents, who have become accustomed to his opponents and predecessors handing out money in order to attain their votes, to consider him worthy on his merits is an enormous uphill battle. Reports of colleagues and election officials being murdered threaten to derail Boniface’s optimism, and very real death threats force his family to leave the country while he continues his campaign, determined to forge ahead to achieve true progress.

There has been a recent spotlight in documentary films like “Surge,” “Knock Down the House,” and “Running with Beto” on a number of progressive Americans eager to become lawmakers and facing nearly impossible odds. Those stories are absolutely worth telling, but the stakes just don’t compare to what Boniface must endure merely to have the chance to begin chipping away at established traditions of bribery and malignant complacency. Boniface knows that he puts his family at risk by stepping into the public eye, and he has no way to ensure their safety other than keeping them far from him in the United States, something that is not emotionally tenable.

There is a realness to this film that comes across from its opening moments, with footage of violence in Kenya and the history of its government serving to underscore the seriousness of Boniface’s undertaking. Nothing about what he is doing is glamorized or framed in an overly optimistic manner, and interviews with his wife, Njeri, are particularly enlightening because of the supportive but extremely cautious attitude she conveys as she watches with trepidation every new obstacle that emerges. This film is a strong and stirring look at a world many of its viewers could never truly imagine and one man within it set on making it better.


Saturday, September 12, 2020

TIFF Spotlight: Akilla’s Escape

Akilla’s Escape
Directed by Charles Officer
TIFF Screening Schedule

It's not easy to escape your past, and an involvement in criminal activity makes it even more difficult. Geographic areas and socioeconomic factors contribute to the establishment of gangs and other groups that are distinguished based on any number of affiliations, including the defense of territory and the distribution of goods. There is a notion that people work their way up from the lowest on the totem pole to a position of power, if they decide or are given the opportunity to choose whether they would like to remain involved or use what they’ve learned to forge a different path in life.

In 1995 Brooklyn, Akilla Brown (Thamela Mpumlwana) is fifteen years old and being interrogated by police for what he knows about his father and the Garrison Army that protects him. Twenty-five years later, in the present day, Akilla (Saul Williams) is on the verge of a career change after the drug operation he runs with Benji (Colm Feore) is set to become legalized, something he sees no appeal in running. When he walks in on a robbery in progress, Akilla thinks fast and ends up subduing one of the thieves, Sheppard (also Mpumlwana). Charged by his associates with finding out who hired him, Akilla sees a startling mirror image of himself in the Jamaican boy in way over his head whose future will inevitably be shaped by his actions as a teenager.

This film opens very strongly and memorably with a montage of headlines and news footage charting nationwide events in Jamaica over the past few decades interspersed with Akilla dancing to an upbeat and distinct melody. The events it portrays are relatively stark, with Akilla faced with the reality of a gun in his face and almost certain death so many years after being just a small cog in a much larger machine during his youth. There is a full-circle narrative that builds as Akilla comes to understand both his role as a young member of a gang and a far higher-ranking leader who isn’t any more invulnerable to bullets.

As the adult Akilla, Williams displays a detached resolve, aware of his limitations of his own power and the necessity of what he must do to remain alive and in business. Playing two roles, Mpumlwana is quietly effective, subtly distinguishing the characters from each other while highlighting their similarities. This film has its own beat, one that elevates a familiar story given its own unique feel thanks to its spotlight on the Jamaican heritage of its protagonists and its worthwhile cinematic representation of inescapable cycles of violence.


Friday, September 11, 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 Virtual Cinemas: Buoyancy
New to Netflix: Waiting for Superman
New to Hulu: Prisoners

Thursday, September 10, 2020

Movie with Abe: Buoyancy

Directed by Rodd Rathjen
Released September 11, 2020

Many people dream of a better life and are told that it can be easily found in another place. The saying “the grass is greener on the other side” stems from the notion that what one person doesn’t have looks or sounds more appealing. Traveling to a city or country that is described as a paradise or haven for happiness from somewhere else that doesn’t feel like that is rarely easy, and as many who try unfortunately learn, there is quite often a high price to pay for freedom and luxuries that should be universally available.

Chakra (Sarm Heng) works in the rice fields in Cambodia, unable to understand why his parents chose to have more children than they are adequately able to support. Frustrated and inspired by stories of success in Thailand, Chakra sets out to go there. With no money to pay for his passage, he is forced to work aboard a Thai fishing boat to pay off his debt, which he is told will take just one month. As the days go by, Chakra witnesses the brutal treatment and murder of other Cambodian and Burmese men by the tyrannical boat captain, Rom Ran (Thanawut Ketsaro), who takes a liking to Chakra when he sees the survival instincts the fourteen-year-old boy possesses in an unimaginable and truly inescapable situation.

There are so many stories to be told about the perils of illegal immigration all across the world. In this case, Chakra isn’t fleeing persecution or violence but instead poverty, and he naively believes, like countless others, that he will be released from his indentured servitude when the agreed-upon term of service is done. What Chakra sees aboard the boat is horrific, but there is also a sense of sincere isolation that comes from its constant movement at sea, far both from the home he left and the land he so desperately wants to reach. Even if he manages not to get thrown overboard or beaten by his cruel captors, Chakra is still physically trapped in the middle of an ocean.

This film was Australia’s official selection for Best International Feature for last year’s Oscar race, a strong portrait of human trafficking that doesn’t shy away from harsh visuals and irreversibly scarring events. Heng delivers a remarkably impressive breakout turn as Chakra, conveying a yearning for something more while he feels powerless to avoid his fate. Ketsaro portrays a compelling villain who seeks not only to dehumanize Chakra but also to corrupt him and turn him into a worthy successor. This film is affecting, unpleasant, and important, shining a critical representative spotlight on the plight of many real victims of human trafficking.


Tuesday, September 8, 2020

Movie with Abe: Surge

Directed by Hannah Rosenzweig and Wendy Sachs
Released September 8, 2020 (SHOxBET)

It’s a tempestuous time for politics in the United States, with parties becoming increasingly at odds and divided on almost all issues. Many career politicians who have held office for a number of years face new challengers set on upending what they see as a problematic endorsement of the status quo, and many of those candidates are women. They face an uphill battle to defeat those who have become ingrained in their communities and to combat the societal tendency to picture presidents, senators and representatives as one thing above all else: a man.

This documentary follows three candidates running for Congress in 2018, all facing a slate of Democratic primary opponents seeking to take on the Republican in office. Jana Lynne Sanchez is running to represent Texas US House District 6, which has been red for over three decades. Liz Watson is running for Indiana US House District 9, a particularly conservative area of the state. Lauren Underwood is a running for Illinois US House District 14. All three women are determined to make their mark, rallying supporters to ride a blue wave and flip their districts so that they can act on the issues that are important to them and help make Congress a bit more diverse.

This film, which is premiering on SHOxBet, the new partnership platform between Showtime and BET, follows the success of Netflix’s “Knock Down the House,” which spotlights four female Congressional candidates in that same primary election, all of whom belong to the more progressive wing of the party. Sanchez, Watson, and Underwood all bring a passion that involves liberal sentiments but places them more in line with traditional Democratic platforms that still prove controversial for where they reside. Underwood in particular receives the endorsement of President Obama and Vice-President Joe Biden, promoting her as a face for change and leading to her becoming the youngest Black woman in Congress at age thirty-two.

Films like this and last year’s “Running with Beto” are simultaneously exciting and depressing, since they include such fervent positive energy that inevitably leads to disappointment. Chronicling unsuccessful campaigns is still very worthwhile especially since those who didn’t end up winning their elections still made significant progress in working to turn their districts blue and signaling a real chance to continue that swing in the upcoming 2020 election. The big question that is asked multiple times in this film – is this a moment or a movement – is best answered by the spirit captured here, which is that defeat doesn’t mean the end of progress. This documentary can be seen as a sharp and energizing call to a future where its subjects won’t be seen as anything close to revolutionary because of what’s been achieved.


Sunday, September 6, 2020

Movie with Abe: First One In

First One In
Directed by Gina O’Brien
Released September 8, 2020 (VOD)

In today’s vastly interconnected society, it’s easy for one social media faux pas to go viral and completely ruin someone’s life. Usually, a misstep or error in judgment is rather sizeable in nature, leaving little to interpretation or at least not much that anyone who has seen damning footage wants to hear. Some are able to use notoriety to their advantage to achieve a new degree of fame, while others shy away from the limelight and retreat from public spaces to avoid harassment. Building a new reputation may be possible, but it’s unlikely that past actions can ever be truly forgotten.

Madi Cooke (Kat Foster) is a contestant on a reality show and finds herself dismissed after accidentally killing an endangered animal on camera. Shunned by protesters outside her home and fired from her job, Madi puts on a disguise and adopts a new last name to interview with a wildly popular real estate kingpin, Bobbi Mason (Georgia King). Bobbi’s determination to continue winning her local tennis tournament prompts Madi to train vigorously to become the best player and most ideal candidate for the job, meeting pro Fernando (Josh Segarra) and teammates Jane (Catherine Curtin), Ceecee (Emy Coligado), Preeti (Aneesh Sheth), and Valentina (Karina Arroyave), along with her former best friend Ollie (Alana O’Brien), who is well aware of the person she really is and is trying to hide from her new circle.

Much of this film’s premise is exaggerated, though real-life celebrities have been called out for less significant transgressions. Madi’s disguise is a small step up from Clark Kent taking off his glasses so that no one will recognize him as Superman, but that’s not where this film’s heart lies. Instead, it follows a woman trying to remain afloat who immerses herself in something new, which in turn gives her a supportive community and an outlet for her to attempt to make peace with an embattled world that wants her to remain eternally unforgiven.

Foster is best known for roles in TV shows like “Til Death” and “Weeds” and does a decent job as a moderately enthusiastic lead here. King, a standout player from “Eastbound and Down,” is the best reason to see this film, leaning into the excessive zaniness of her role. “Orange is the New Black” stars Curtin and Arroyave are standouts in the supporting cast, which functions well enough. This film is ultimately light entertainment more than anything enduring, aware of what it is and sufficiently able to embrace that approach.


Friday, September 4, 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 Virtual Cinemas: Healing from Hate: Battle for the Soul of a Nation
New to DVD: Irresistible
New to Netflix: Back to the Future, Back to the Future II, Back to the Future III, Glory, Grease, Red Dragon, Wildlife
New to Hulu: The Impossible, The Terminator, Wanted