Thursday, December 31, 2020

Movie with Abe: Nomadland

Directed by Chloé Zhao
To Be Released February 19th, 2021

Putting down roots can provide people with a sense of community and security. That lifestyle isn’t for everyone, however, and some embrace the continually changing nature of their existence, which might keep them moving from place to place and following whatever opportunities and palatable weather come along. Someone may also transition from being settled to a more transitory way of life, particularly if the elements that were grounding them, like family, friends, or a job, are no longer present and nowhere really feels like home anymore.

Fern (Frances McDormand) sees the factory in her Nevada town closed due to economic troubles in 2011, and her zip code discontinued as a result of the exodus of residents seeking work. Recently widowed, Fern lives in her van and explores the nomad lifestyle, working as a seasonal employee for Amazon to earn enough money and take advantage of the parking arrangement for what counts as her mobile home. Fern learns from other people about a range of topics, including changing tires and managing your own waste, while she keeps moving around from job to job in search of some way to stay afloat and continue wandering the country at her own pace.

This film is based on the 2017 nonfiction book “Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century” by Jessica Bruder. Fern encapsulates the experience of many who have chosen the nomad lifestyle, sometimes voluntarily but mostly due to financial troubles caused by the 2008 recession. She is told by multiple people, those who know her and strangers alike, that they are concerned about her and are happy to offer her a place to stay, but she realizes that an option like that might bring her temporary peace but ultimately wouldn’t be what she needs after seeing that which she held most dear – her husband and her community – disappear.

McDormand is a two-time Oscar-winning actress whose immersion into this role feels effortless. She creates the truest definition of a real person, someone who doesn’t want to be told what to do and acknowledges her own limitations. It’s a powerhouse turn supported by real-life nomads Charlene Swankie and Bob Wells, who embody a certain calm serenity and optimistic outlook about their atypical worldview, and David Strathairn, in a similarly toned-down performance. Director Chloé Zhao’s follow-up to the highly acclaimed “The Rider” is, like that film, a sensitive and captivating look at loneliness and mobility, with stunning cinematography and a beautiful score by Ludovico Einaudito assist its stark and haunting narrative.


Wednesday, December 30, 2020

Movie with Abe: The Way Back

The Way Back
Directed by Gavin O’Connor
Released March 6, 2020

People face a variety of setbacks throughout their lives, and having a support system to rely on during hard times can make all the difference. Unfortunately, not everyone has that, whether through a series of circumstances beyond their control or because of a willful desire not to accept help from others. Returning to a place of hope and happiness can seem impossibly distant, and getting there may require an intervention from someone else who notices suffering or outside influences that serve as a productive distraction and motivator.

Former high school basketball star Jack (Ben Affleck) consumes a worrisome amount of beer each day, struggling to find meaning in his construction job. When he is offered the chance to coach the lackluster basketball team at his old school, he reluctantly accepts. He finds his passion but also has immense difficulty tempering the anger he feels that manifests itself in foul language and other behavior deemed unacceptable by the school. His fractured relationship with his ex-wife (Janina Gavankar) and demons from his past threaten to derail a future that might actually allow him to channel his energy into something that will be good for the next generation.

This is, in many ways, a typical sports movie that also deals extensively with alcoholism and depression. As Jack debates whether to take the job, he cycles through a number of beer cans that he systematically moves from the refrigerator to the freezer, clearly rehearsing a process he has repeated many times. He snaps at his sister (Michaela Watkins) when she dares to question how often he is seen at the bar, and outright denies any lingering issues when pressed by his new assistant coach (Al Madrigal), who immediately defers to his expertise as soon as he first sets foot on the court. Everyone around Jack seems to be rooting for his success, but he is intent on punishing himself for past failures even if no one else seeks to put blame on him.

Affleck has received considerable praise for his performance, which does find him investing deeply in a character in a way vaguely reminiscent of his standout turn in 2006’s “Hollywoodland.” His star power might be enough to catapult him into the Oscar race, but there’s nothing especially extraordinary about this standard and relatively expected film. It’s still a worthwhile story, even if it travels a road many films have explored before, with some sports excitement thrown in to make Jack a fractured hero worth supporting even if his choices are rarely the best.


Movie with Abe: Borat Subsequent Moviefilm

Borat Subsequent Moviefilm
Directed by Jason Woliner
Released October 23, 2020 (Amazon Prime Video)

In 2006, Sacha Baron Cohen brought his bumbling Kazakh journalist Borat Sagdiyev to the big screen, highlighting the stupidity of the masses in a number of staged scenes mixed in with a loose fictionalized story. In the time since, the world has undeniably become more absurd, and it makes sense that Cohen would decide to bring the character back for another global misadventure. It’s important to know what to expect when preparing to watch Borat in action, spearheading a narrative that’s often obscene as a way to draw out the worse impulses in people who have no problem doing and saying deplorable things on camera.

This film, whose full title is “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm: Delivery of Prodigious Bribe to American Regime for Make Benefit Once Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan,” finds Borat being released from prison and charged with a mission to bribe President Donald Trump with a prized Kazakh monkey. When he arrives in America, he finds that the monkey has died but his teenage daughter Tutar (Maria Bakalova) is very much there and desperately seeking his approval. In his ill-advised quest to reach the top Republicans in power, Borat is forced to confront what he believes to be true in the midst of Tutar’s gradual yearning for independent thought.

The primary joke being made here is that Kazakhstan is a backwards country where women have absolutely no rights and are indoctrinated with preposterous lies to keep them from asking questions. As with the first film and much of Cohen’s work, portraying bigotry provides an opportunity for others to freely display their opinions, which can be quite disturbing and horrifying. Some of the material, like Borat panicking at the thought that the “national pride” of Kazakhstan that was the Holocaust didn’t happen and then being relieved when two Holocaust survivors assure him it did, is a bit much to take, and that which works better, particularly involving those who believe the coronavirus pandemic is a hoax and the government has no right to impose restrictions on its citizens, may be more upsetting than humorous in this present moment.

Even if this film does lean towards the immature and stupid, it’s best viewed as a mockery of what it showcases rather than an encouragement of it. More importantly, it manages to reach a conclusion that’s both clever and unexpectedly sweet, conveying a far more intelligent structure behind a less sophisticated finished product. Early on, Borat explains how his fame has made it difficult for him to operate unnoticed, and Cohen’s pranks and Borat’s legacy have indeed been influential on popular culture and even politics in some cases. As a whole, this film is a mixed bag, but an emphatic finish and the opportunity for reflection on its contents makes it feel considerably stronger and more worthwhile.


Tuesday, December 29, 2020

Movie with Abe: Crip Camp

Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution
Directed by James Lebrecht and Nicole Newnham
Released March 25, 2020 (Netflix)

There are many reasons that true equality doesn’t exist between all people in the United States and the larger world. Clear physical signs of difference inspire exaggerated reactions and attempts even by those meaning well to create a distinction between the able-bodied and those with disabilities. It’s possible that those who are deemed unlike the established norm will never have experienced a situation in which they are treated merely as people, not separated or given special attention because of the needs they have, which can understandably make them feel ostracized and as if they’ll never truly fit in.

In 1971, Camp Jened in upstate New York welcomed a diverse group of campers with disabilities, bringing in hippies to serve as counselors and offering attendees the chance to truly express themselves in a safe and warm environment. This documentary includes archive footage from the camp of daily activities and interviews with many of the people there, as well as more recent reflective conversations with those who were there and who translated their positive experience into advocacy for government legislation for official protections and accommodations to be mandated.

This is a very affirming film, one that meets a number of people who have been made to feel marginalized and gives them an uninterrupted voice. It’s inspiring to hear about the spirit of openness that permeated Camp Jened and the incredible impact it made on so many. There seem to be no judgments made in the construction of this film, allowing each person featured an equal opportunity to share their story and contribute to the narrative, particularly if they might not typically be featured as an interviewee due to difficulty speaking or communicating. It’s a wonderful way to extend the legacy of an institution whose almost haphazard mission was one of radical inclusion.

The fact that this film was made and released widely on an extremely popular streaming service means that, at the very least, it should provide a chance for those unexposed to seeing how people with disabilities live and are often treated to have a better understanding, and to hopefully reach the conclusion that a notion like “separate but equal,” applied for any reason, is not acceptable. Fortunately, there are many advances that have happened since much of what is depicted in this film – in many cases as a result of activism by those portrayed – which have made the country a more accessible and navigable place. There is certainly still work to be done, and getting as many people as possible to see this very strong and stirring documentary is a great first step.


Movie with Abe: The Social Dilemma

The Social Dilemma
Directed by Jeff Orlowski
Released September 9, 2020 (Netflix)

It would be hard to find someone who doesn’t feel that they spend too much time on their phone. There are many reasons to believe that being online for too long can have detrimental effects, and only those who remember life before constantly-accessible technology can truly understand the possibilities and benefits of detachment and unplugging. While staring at a screen for too long may result in headaches or other minor health conditions, there are actually far more severe effects that should have anyone who owns a smartphone or a computer thinking twice about the way they engage with the digital world.

Who is more qualified to assess the dangers of social media than the people involved at the earliest points and highest levels of the biggest companies in the business? This documentary assembles an impressively – and worrisomely – large group of past presidents, founders, engineers, data scientists, and other experts with an intimate knowledge of both the design goals and growth objectives of Facebook, Google, Instagram, and others who share the problematic structures in place that seek to create a culture of addiction to technology rather than safeguard users from its potentially negative influences.

This film presents a startling amount of information, very little of which should put viewers at ease about their Internet habits. The interviewees selected represent a wide range of specialties, and each comes thoroughly recommended with their credentials listed on screen below their names. It says enough about the way that the industry is going that so many people who used to be – and in some cases may still be – high-up in positions of tech leadership feel that things have gone too far and are sure to have detrimental effects if the system isn’t substantially altered. It would surely be difficult for anyone to legitimately reject all of these arguments as invalid, merely as inferior to profitability aims.

This documentary should be more relatable than most since anyone who is able to watch it is at the very least a subscriber to Netflix and more than likely a casual user of some type of social media or web-based service. Taking its recommendations to monitor time spent and information given over to accounts will be considerably more challenging, as even those well aware of the pervasive pull present in their Internet habits find themselves unable to resist checking e-mail or scrolling through feeds. Representing the addictions created through acted scenes helps drive home the severity of the current state of technology. This film’s title is a strong and fitting one, offering a tremendous and undeniable serving of truth with the caveat that it may still be irresistible even after viewers know the adverse aspects of the recipe.


Monday, December 28, 2020

Movie with Abe: Bacurau

Directed by Juliano Dornelles and Kleber Mendonça Filho
Released March 6, 2020

People make assumptions about others based on where they come from and the kind of lives they lead. Those factors may be informative, but they’re not all that goes into what makes a person and how they interact with the world. Drawing a conclusion as a result of only circumstantial influencers is far from responsible, and it can have a detrimental effect on both parties, transforming whatever relationship might exist and erecting barriers that make communication strained and difficult. More dangerously, it risks leading to unforeseen and destructive consequences that could have been avoided with an open and less judgmental attitude.

In the near future, the small Brazilian town of Bacurau is an intimate community, one that comes together to mourn the death of Carmelita, a well-respected matriarch. The locals are concerned when a water truck arrives with leaks caused by several bullet holes, and other worrisome developments include a teacher’s inability to find Bacurau on an electronic map to show to his students. A local wanted criminal, Lunga (Silvero Pereira), contemplates a return to the town that celebrates him as a hero as a mysterious group led by Michael (Udo Kier) prepares for a subversive attack on its unsuspecting residents.

This film, which has been awarded a number of prizes citing it as the best foreign film of the year, is an unusual specimen, one that begins in a very slow manner and only gradually unfurls the various elements of its plot. It’s never clear exactly what’s going on, and much is conveyed in a subtle and ambiguous way through conversations between the people of Bacurau and the nefarious invaders who threaten their stability and safety. Its construction is unnerving, and each new revelation only adds to the feeling of dread that fills this stark, bare landscape.

This isn’t explicitly science fiction, employing minor instances of advanced technology that feels out of place in an otherwise undeveloped space lacking in much-needed resources. But there is something that feels unique about this invented town in Brazil and the disturbing events that occur within its boundaries. Those not eager to be deeply unsettled by the violent nature of its content and general premise should avoid this film because it offers no source of comfort, but anyone willing to engage with potentially upsetting material may find it intriguing and rewarding. Once its story becomes more comprehensible, it leaves plenty to be unpacked, functioning both as an interesting watch that becomes progressively more involving and a haunting metaphor about society ripe for analysis.


Movie with Abe: The Best Years

The Best Years
Directed by Gabriele Muccino
Release TBD

Relationships don’t always last forever. People change over time and the world changes with them, and to assume that everyone who gets along at a certain age might continue to do so after considerable life experience just isn’t always correct. There are those who know exactly what they want and can envision spending an eternity together, while others are prone to boredom and want to be surprised by the direction life takes them. In some cases, two people might be perfect for each other at one moment, wrong the next, and ultimately fated to reunite after many years and under completely different circumstances.

In 1980s Italy, Giulio (Francesco Centorame), Ricardo (Matteo De Buono), and Paolo (Andrea Pittorino) are inseparable friends. Paolo meets Gemma (Alma Noce) and is infatuated, and the two begin a romance that is short-lived when she is forced to move away. As the years progress, the four friends (Pierfrancesco Favino, Claudio Santamaria, Kim Rossi Stuart, and Micaela Ramazzotti) find their paths continually crossing as they navigate professional ambition, financial difficulties, rotating romantic entanglements, and the difficulty of achieving dreams.

This is a buoyant, energetic film, one that features strongly-written characters with plenty of passion. The younger cast does a superb job of creating those personalities, building a framework of relationships that seem simultaneously genuine and enhanced for cinematic effect. In their adult forms, they become fleshed-out and even more real, prone to the same setbacks as anyone watching their stories even if their lives may feel fantastical. They are distinctly Italian in the way that they speak, communicate, and argue, imparting their culture in their every interaction.

This film has a fun and wondrous rhythm, one that includes sporadic narration to catch audiences up to the moment in time that it has reached. The entire cast is terrific, with both sets of actors contributing vivid portrayals of these four characters at various points throughout their lives. Noce and Ramazzotti are particularly superb, painting Gemma as someone well aware of the way that men see her and determined to forge her own path, even if she encounters a number of obstacles along the way. Even though its presentation is inherently cinematic, there is a realness to the way in which each relationship – friendship or romantic – encounters difficulties and evolves over time. This film is a highly enjoyable and invigorating showcase of that, running 129 minutes and remaining involving and interesting the entire time.


Sunday, December 27, 2020

Movie with Abe: Night of the Kings

Night of the Kings
Directed by Philippe Lacôte
Release TBD

Folklore and custom can have a powerful draw capable of uniting people from many different backgrounds and experiences. A belief in something can overpower other worldly desires, and bring together people who would otherwise have nothing to talk about and no way to honestly communicate. In developed countries with increasingly advanced technology, it is hard to find elements like this that transcend everything else, though organized religion still qualifies to a degree. When people are trapped in a specific place, like, for instance, a prison, getting on board with a particular way of approaching ritual and respecting traditions may be considerably more expected.

A new inmate (Bakary Koné) arrives at La Maca prison, deep in the forest of the Ivory Coast. He is unprepared for the night he is about to experience, which coincides with the red moon in the sky, a meaningful event for all within the prison. Blackbeard (Steve Tientcheu), who rules La Maca, is sick, and he is supposed to take his own life when he is no longer able to lead. He anoints the new arrival Roman, whose task it is to tell stories throughout the night to keep the inmates of the block, who participate enthusiastically by acting out parts of what he says, enthralled before morning eventually comes and Roman meets whatever fate awaits him.

This film, which made its premiere at fall film festivals including Venice, Toronto, and New York, is the official Oscar submission for Best International Feature from the Ivory Coast. It’s an immersive and fantastical tale that grounds itself in its moment, inviting unfamiliar audiences in to experience African culture through this ritual that is just as new and unknown to the renamed Roman. The stories he tells, about a legendary figure called Zama, are depicted not only by Roman’s words but also through cinematic recreations made even more real by the energetic and almost rhythmic physicality of the inmates who jump in to portray something he has just said.

This film is unlike many other prison movies because it leans so heavily into the story that Roman is sharing, indulging him in the liberties he takes and the manner in which the guards, seen only a few times throughout the film, stay away from the inmates knowing just how seriously they take this night and the likely casualties that will come from it. It’s the kind of foreign film that some may not find accessible but that others will appreciate greatly for the rich and truly different approach it takes both to the plot it features and the dedication to its characters that makes it a uniquely captivating experience.


Movies with Abe: The Wasteland and Made in Bangladesh

The Wasteland
Directed by Ahmad Bahrami

Made in Bangladesh
Directed by Rubaiyat Hossain

Workers’ rights are a universal issue that, unfortunately, aren’t afforded the same protections everywhere. Even when there are systems in place to ensure that employees are kept safe and fairly compensated for both their time and their effort, many people with power over others choose to take advantage and deprive those who deserve fair pay and treatment from getting it. Efforts to change the way things work and combat oppressive labor practices are rarely easy to achieve, and a lack of progress even despite taking all the right steps can be demoralizing, especially when the result is actually worse.

In “The Wasteland,” the owner of a brick factory in Iran gathers his workers to tell them that the factory is closing. His employees come to him asking for help, mostly in the form of money, to deal with various issues in their lives, including forbidden romances and family problems. In “Made in Bangladesh,” a young woman working at a textile factory Bangladesh is troubled by a safety incident and begins learning about a labor union, something all of her colleagues are terrified to explore given the almost-certain retaliation they will receive from their supervisors for even speaking about it.

These two films present starkly different approaches to similar concepts. “The Wasteland” is black-and-white and features minimalist scenes that contrast the vast desert with the people trying to be seen within it. The same speech by the factory owner is repeated multiple times, and even the conversations had between him and his employees feel like they are almost identical, though the particulars of the asks and the situations vary. “Made in Bangladesh” showcases the blunt cruelty of those who know that they can get away with whatever they want, unwilling to even consider minimal steps to appease those they know deserve better treatment. There may be more hope in the latter film of something productive happening, but that optimism, held by its protagonist Shimu (Rikita Nandini Shimu), is a dangerous thing because of the extraordinary uphill battle she faces.

These two films, more than anything else, are strong indicators of their countries of origin and how the labor force does not look the same in every place. There are rural locations like the one in “The Wasteland” where workers accept what they are given and endure brutally hot conditions and endlessly long hours to make a bare minimum salary. Even if unions are governmentally-approved entities and lawfully approved, there might still exist infinite hurdles and bureaucratic steps to discourage their formation, including a chauvinistic structure where women are considered inferior to men. These two films offer important and mostly unoptimistic portraits of the problems that exist and the way that people try to achieve something resembling fairness.

The setup and pacing on “Made in Bangladesh” makes it a far more invigorating watch than “The Wasteland,” which features its events again and again with minimally more information to drive home the irreversible nature of its proclamation and the true lack of options for its now-jobless employees. The latter is mostly a series of two-person conversations and silent shots of the barren landscape, while the former engages with its characters as they talk among themselves and explore new ideas. Shimu’s relationship with her husband is particularly intriguing since he has his own notions of a woman’s place that don’t reflect the independence and drive she feels. Neither film is pleasant, but both have interesting analyses to offer presented through straightforward storytelling.

The Wasteland: B-
Made in Bangladesh: B+

Saturday, December 26, 2020

Movie with Abe: Soul

Directed by Pete Docter and Kemp Powers
Released December 25, 2020 (Disney Plus)

There are many things that we just can’t know about the universe. Plenty of theories exist about how the world came into being and what the meaning of life is, and people search for years for answers that aren’t definitive and can’t be proven. One wonderful possibility that storytelling and cinema present is the opportunity to explore notions of identity and purpose through creative outlets, imagining the systems that could be in place to combine all the elements of personality and soul to create what it is that we perceive as life.

Joe is a middle school band teacher whose big dream is to play piano. He is elated when he receives a chance to perform with the famed Dorothea Williams, but falls into a manhole as he rushes around New York City in excitement. He finds himself in line for the great beyond and manages to escape to a place where young souls are cultivated and prepared for life. He poses as a mentor for the troublesome 22, a soul infamous for her resistant attitude, so that he can utilize the pass she’ll gain to return to Earth and his body. In the process of desperately trying to get home, Joe unexpectedly learns a lot from someone who hasn’t yet had the chance to live.

This marks the twenty-third film from Pixar, and, like its previous feature, “Onward,” it tackles a very adult subject in a way that’s accessible for all ages. It shouldn’t be thought of as a film about death since it doesn’t actually posit much about what comes next aside from a vast, mysterious image of the great beyond, and instead it’s a film about life. Joe has always been looking to what he might be able to accomplish and worried about what he hasn’t done yet, a preoccupation that keeps him from truly appreciating what he does have. All he needs to do in order to truly see it is step out of his body, something that this fantastical setup offers him.

This animated delight is best compared to “Inside Out,” another Pixar entry that sought to look behind what goes into people and dissect the ingredients that come together to form personality and purpose. As usual, it’s a remarkably successful experiment, one that sometimes matches the emotional power of “Up” and at others handles its comedy very well, including in the long line of impressive mentors from history who have become impossibly frustrated with 22 as a rebellious mentee determined to break their resolve. The voice cast, led by Jamie Foxx and Tina Fey, is wonderful, making this film a completely enjoyable and thought-provoking journey to find what makes us who we are.


Movie with Abe: Onward

Directed by Dan Scanlon
Released March 6, 2020

The creation of easier ways to accomplish difficult tasks tends to be heralded as a masterful scientific innovation and celebrated for the time and effort it can save. Eager consumers await the newest inventions and upgrade instantly to something that’s considered slightly better than what already exists, not content to be left behind with an outdated version. Yet there’s something lost in not understanding the processes that exist and the simple ingredients that can lead to complex results, and putting less thought into executing a particular action can give it significantly less meaning.

Ian and Barley Lightfoot are elven brothers in modern-day New Mushroomtown. Ian is shy and insecure, while his older brother Barley is considerably more self-assured and directionless in his life. When Ian turns sixteen, his mother Laurel reveals a gift left behind by their late father: a magical staff with the ability to bring him back to life for one day. The spell goes awry, resulting in only the bottom half of their father being conjured, and Ian and Barley set off on a wild quest to find a way to get all of him back.

This marks the twenty-second film from Pixar, a studio that has proven time and time again its ability to endearingly bring fantastical concepts to the screen in a manner accessible to all audiences. The idea of getting to spend more time with someone who has been gone for a long time is indeed appealing, and there’s a wondrous maturity embedded in the premise of this film, that brings him back but without a face and the ability to speak. Much of the ensuing antics are comical, but there is a sweet-natured resonance about loss and relationships that drives all of that lighthearted action.

The structure of this film is fairly typical, and it’s nice to get to know both Ian and Barley along the way as they come to terms with who they are. Setting it within a world full of magic only makes the story more relatable, especially as characters come to realize the abilities they possess that can make small tasks and big actions more meaningful by recognizing their role in achieving them. The voice cast, led by Tom Holland and Chris Pratt, is superbly-assembled, helping to complete a thoroughly entertaining and worthwhile animated effort in great company with past Pixar projects.


Friday, December 25, 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: Promising Young Woman, One Night in Miami, The Dissident
New to Virtual Cinemas: Dear Comrades
New to DVD: The Place of No Words, Villains, Kajillionaire
New to Netflix: The Midnight Sky
New to Amazon: Sylvie’s Love

Movie with Abe: The Midnight Sky

The Midnight Sky
Directed by George Clooney
Released December 23, 2020 (Netflix)

There are many theories that the human race is headed towards its own end, likely as a result of drastic climate change or some other extinction-level event. What science fiction stories like to posit is that such an eventuality means only the loss of Earth as a habitable planet and not the end of humanity as we know it. Deep-space exploration probes for a new place to rebuild and try for a second chance, bringing with it immense hope and unknown danger. At the point of no turning back, forging into mysterious territory beats the alternative of remaining in an unsustainable situation destined for doom.

In the year 2049, Augustine (George Clooney) stays behind at his Arctic Circle base when the rest of the facility is evacuated in the wake of devastating radiation that has reached and killed off most of the world’s population. He soon discovers that a young girl, Iris (Caoilinn Springall), has been left behind, and the two begin the treacherous journey to a faraway radar station so that they can attempt to contact the crew of a space mission sent to survey the planet K-23 as a possible new home for humanity. Aboard the ship, Sully (Felicity Jones), Adewole (David Oyelowo), Maya (Tiffany Boone), Sanchez (Demian Bichir), and Mitchell (Kyle Chandler) struggle to maintain optimism as they receive nothing but radio silence from Earth and face unexpected challenges on their return path.

This is a return to space for Clooney following “Gravity,” and this time he’s working behind the camera as director in addition to his starring role. This is really two movies in one, chronicling Augustine’s desperate attempts to survive long enough to warn the crew of what awaits them back on Earth and the intrepid adventures of these astronauts in space. Both draw extensively on existing science-fiction films as clear influences, creating a toned-down version of something as grand and far-reaching as “Interstellar” with equally high stakes and harsh weather conditions.

While this film doesn’t necessarily introduce anything new in either its moderately predictable plot or its vision of a not-too-distant post-apocalyptic future, it does present a relatively involving and watchable story. A strongly-assembled cast ensures every role is worthwhile and relevant, while the sets and visuals serve to draw audiences in to the inescapable experiences, both in the arctic and in space. Those intimately familiar with other genre films may be less than satiated by this mediocre effort, but it’s one that works well enough and serves as a decently enthralling cinematic voyage into a future that might not be all that unlikely.


Thursday, December 24, 2020

Movie with Abe: One Night in Miami

One Night in Miami
Directed by Regina King
Released December 25, 2020

There is a certain liberty in storytelling that allows for the modification or even fabrication of events. Dramatic license might involve the outright creation of characters or moments that help to illustrate who a person was and enable the story to progress. A timeline might also be modified to make more narrative sense, even if the actual sequence didn’t play out in the same manner. All these things are meant to make the contents of a film more accessible to audiences and deliver the most compelling cinematic product.

On one night in 1964, four iconic Black men spend an evening together in a motel room in Miami. Fresh off a major win in a boxing match, Cassius Clay (Eli Goree) has plans to celebrate with his friends. He joins football player Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge) and soul singer Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.) in the room rented by Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir), whose idea of a good time is not in alignment with that of the other three. Instead of a raging party, the four have the opportunity to discuss their disagreements and engage with what it is that defines them as people and as famous members of the Black community.

This film is described as a fictional account of true events, since these four men did in fact come together on that night but what happened behind closed doors isn’t known. This adaptation of the play of the same name by Kemp Powers presents very much like it could be seen on stage but makes excellent use of close-ups of the characters’ faces and shifting camera angles to make the unspectacular motel room in which the majority of the film takes place feel like an infinite space. Making it into a film feels like a very worthwhile exercise that pays off thanks to many positive cinematic additions.

This cast is simply terrific, and it’s impossible to pick a standout. Each of the four makes the icon he is portraying individualized and passionate, aware of how the world sees them and unexcited about having their perspectives challenged by their closest friends. Amazon’s awards campaign has deemed Ben-Adir and Goree leads while Hodge and Odom Jr. are considered supporting players, which makes sense, but this is truly an ensemble effort that serves as an impressive directorial debut for actress Regina King. Its content and presentation feel resonant and powerful both for the history they convey and a thought-provoking engagement with the current state of race in America.


Movie with Abe: Dear Comrades

Dear Comrades
Directed by Andrey Konchalovskiy
Release December 25, 2020 (Virtual Cinemas)

The will of the people is a powerful thing. In democracies, constituents feel that they can make their voices heard by exercising their freedoms of speech and to vote for the candidates they believe will best represent their views and ideals. In less open societies based on other political structures, there is a culture of cohesion and obedience meant to suppress any sense of individual expression that might threaten the order of things. Totalitarian regimes often end in rebellion, as those who have been kept at bay reach a point at which they are no longer willing to accept that treatment.

In 1962, the communist government in the Soviet Union increases food prices, which puts a further strain on the already-struggling populace. In the town of Novocherkassk, the workers at a plant go on strike. Lyuda (Yuliya Vysotskaya) is a member of the city committee and a firm believer in the communist way of life who witnesses the way in which the government responds with violence to quell the workers and bury any story of unrest. When she is unable to find her daughter, Lyuda becomes obsessed with finding her as she processes the horror of what she has seen happen.

This film is based on the Novocherkassk massacre, a horrifying event that claimed many lives and led to numerous arrests in the aftermath. Its content is presented in a stark format, playing out slowly and following characters as they walk from place to place. As a result, viewers only know as much of what’s going on as the person or people featured on screen, which in most cases is Lyuda, who is initially supportive of efforts to get the workers to comply and gradually begins to see the deeply problematic nature of the response that ensues.

This is Russia’s official Oscar submission for Best International Feature, telling an important chapter of the history of the country that preceded it. It’s far from a positive or enjoyable experience, but it does manage to frame disturbing content in a compelling way, forcing those watching to continue paying attention since there is nowhere else to go. Lyuda, strongly portrayed by Vysotskaya, serves as a stand-in for the audience, proposing sweeping policy solutions that in reality turn to something far more violent and authoritarian. It is a disturbing, grueling watch, but one that is equally powerful and hard to forget.


Wednesday, December 23, 2020

Movie with Abe: The Truffle Hunters

The Truffle Hunters
Directed by Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw
To Be Released March 5, 2021

Many people work for a living, doing what they can in order to make a good amount of money. Some are fortunate to be able to choose how they want to spend their time, even if it won’t result in the same financial reward as a more lucrative opportunity. And then there are those who know what they do best, which may be their source of sustenance but is more about a passionate pursuit of a craft. Doing it well and doing it right can be more important than anything else, even if it fails to be as profitable as it could be with a different approach.

In the Piedmont region of Italy, a group of men in their seventies and eighties spend their time traipsing through the forest with their loyal canine companions on the hunt for truffles. They don’t know what they will find but have their established territories and methods of search. When they are successful, their goods sell for thousands of euros due to the tremendous appreciation for the truffles from restaurateurs and other interested parties.

There is a certain spirit conveyed by this film only possible by meeting these subjects where they are, which is comfortable in their own routines and unwilling to consider a new perspective that might both help them earn more and pass down their knowledge to a next generation. Those who ask their elders nicely both for advice and their trade secrets are turned away since they would, for the most part, rather hold up their successes as a point of pride than share them with someone else, even if it means that the best areas in which to find truffles will go uncultivated after they are no longer around to search them.

This is the kind of documentary that zeroes in on the people it’s presenting, saying more by showcasing their daily activities than by expressly interviewing them about who they are and how they came to be considered among the most respected and prolific truffle hunters. That style of filmmaking may not be immersive for all audiences, though there’s something appealing about the simplicity of their worldviews and the way in which they have their respected processes that are sacred and incontrovertible. Even those who can’t understand why people love truffles and are willing to pay exorbitant prices for mere shavings of them should appreciate the tenderness and wonder of this unusual spotlight.


Movie with Abe: Dick Johnson is Dead

Dick Johnson is Dead
Directed by Kirsten Johnson
Released October 2, 2020 (Netflix)

Everybody dies, but many people simply don’t want to talk about it. There are understandable reasons for aversion to mortality, since acknowledging that you will eventually die can make the process of living a bit more stressful or sad. But presuming that loved ones will endure forever even despite medical obstacles and other factors can lead to a very difficult separation process, one that feels all the more devastating because of how unprepared someone is to accept the idea of having to say goodbye.

Kirsten Johnson is a filmmaker whose father, Dick, is getting older. When she receives multiple concerning reports that his memory is deteriorating, she travels from New York City to Seattle to help him pack up his life so that he can move in with her. Knowing full well that he will eventually die, she prepares herself by staging a number of fake accidental deaths, using stunt doubles and her father himself to imagine the numerous ways in which he might meet his end. He participates in her elaborately-staged scenes and shares his own recollections from a long and memorable life.

This film engages with death head-on, dreaming up images of what heaven will be like for Dick in addition to the possible manner in which he might leave this earthly existence. The frequent and often absurd comedy is more than a coping mechanism for Kirsten, who tries to explore the religious prescriptions for what comes next and to prepare herself for something she knows will be deeply sad by experiencing it over and over again. Remembering what her mother went through as she suffered from Alzheimer’s disease and noticing her father’s failing memory emphasize the seriousness of the situation, something Kirsten isn’t trying to hide from but instead to make more bearable through an optimistic and positive approach.

In the same way that attending a wedding might remind a couple of their own joyous day, this process and the manner in which Kirsten frames it should trigger plenty of memories for audiences of their own loved ones. Kirsten just happens to be open to this angle and her father is willing to play along, and there are plentiful laughs and tears to be found on the journey. It’s unapologetically bizarre at times, but there is a tremendous resonance to the act of saying goodbye many times before the moment finally arrives, both before Dick loses parts of himself to dementia and is gone entirely once he dies. It may not be for everyone, but for those willing to stare death right in the face and smile, this fun is a rewarding experience.


Tuesday, December 22, 2020

Movie with Abe: Collective

Directed by Alexander Nanau
Released November 20, 2020 (VOD)

There are some tragedies that may not have been fully preventable, but that doesn’t mean the response isn’t very much capable of shaping what happens next. This is a phenomenon seen frequently, that communities band together to improve conditions and ensure that similar crises do not occur again, determined not to let the past repeat itself. Unfortunately, there are instances when, instead of true betterment, people either willfully or ignorantly attempt to rid themselves of blame and responsibility, insisting that things have improved even if that clearly is not the case.

On October 30th, 2015, a fire broke out at the Colectiv nightclub in Romania. Twenty-seven people were killed and nearly two hundred more injured. In the ensuing weeks, an additional thirty-seven people died while being treated in hospitals. Catalin Tolontan, a journalist for the Sports Gazette, investigated the reasons for their deaths and discovered that many of the disinfectants being used at the hospitals contained a tenth of the required chemicals. Along with his colleagues, Tolotan presses for transparency and a new plan from the government. After the resignation of key members of the ruling party, the new minister of health, Vlad Voiculescu, sets out to enact serious reforms despite considerable pushback from all sides.

This film has been collecting numerous documentary prizes and also serves as Romania’s official Oscar submission for Best International Feature. It’s a staggering indictment of the way in which abundant and pervasive bribery has completely tainted a healthcare system, where hundreds of hospital managers are suspected of being complicit. One particularly alarming comment comes from an accreditor who worries that public trust in hospitals will be compromised if it is revealed that he issued a certification that should never have been earned, but he acknowledges that the situation is exactly as it has been portrayed. Voiculescu’s plans also face resistance from those who assert he too is corrupt and has financial ties to the foreign hospital he believes can better treat patients than any local facility.

Much of this film is specific to the devastating Colectiv fire and to the way that Romanian politics function, but there is a universality to the very problematic conflicts of interest that exist and the desire to be able to report that things are going well even when that is far from the truth. That message should have particular resonance at the moment in the United States for those unhappy with the Trump administration’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, though the idea of diluted disinfectants might ultimately be more horrifying in a time where contagions are rampant. Both as an incisive chronicle of internal failings and an illustrative metaphor for self-interest anywhere, this film is a resounding and deeply haunting piece of journalism.


Movie with Abe: Time

Directed by Garrett Bradley
Released October 16, 2020 (Amazon Prime)

Relationships can in many instances withstand the greatest tests to their stability and endure despite tremendous obstacles. An idyllic life isn’t a universal guarantee, and some couples face difficult circumstances that complicate what could have been a simple and happy existence. Being kept apart for an extended period is never easy, and when that’s not something that either of them chose, it’s even more trying. To be with someone knowing that physical contact and even any form of communication may be severely limited takes dedication and love, two factors that may still not be strong enough on their own.

Fox Rich met her husband Rob in high school and they set out to start a business together in Shreveport, Louisiana. Financial struggles compelled them to rob a local bank, resulting in an extraordinarily harsh sixty-year prison sentence for Rob. After she was released following a three-year sentence, Fox worked to provide for her six children and to fight to bring Rob home. Home videos from before the crime and the arrest introduce Rob and his young children, and more recent footage meets Fox as she continues campaigning for clemency for her husband, as well as the actions of her teenage children who have been influenced by the absence of their father for so many years.

This documentary opens in a mesmerizing, powerful way, offering no introduction to the images it shows and accompanying the black-and-white scenes with a powerful musical score. It never feels like anyone shown on screen is talking to an interviewer, and instead they are merely going about their lives, working with people to achieve what’s important to them, both related to Rob’s incarceration and to their own ambitions and success. This film is an enlightening and fully open window into the Rich family, showcasing everything they put out into the world.

This film originally premiered at the Sundance Film Festival back in January and has been enjoying a steady stream of accolades from a number of critics’ groups. While it doesn’t follow a typical narrative in spelling out the exact circumstances under which Rob was convicted and everything that has happened since then, its layered title is indicative of the way in which this film approaches its subjects and the concept of time. Interspersing moments from years ago with recent developments is extremely effective in showcasing the enduring permanence of relationships and the unbreakable link that memory and love provide to any point the past, present, or future.


Monday, December 21, 2020

Movie with Abe: True Mothers

True Mothers
Directed by Naomi Kawese
Release TBD

The decision to start a family involves many factors and is not a simple one. Having children may be possible both physically and financially for some, and can require immense planning and sacrifice, if it is even feasible. A plan put together at the beginning of a relationship may begin to fall apart when unexpected developments occur, and a new way of thinking may be required to achieve something that looks like an original goal. Getting used to a revised reality can be difficult, but people do often come to accept the cards they’ve been dealt and find ways to appreciate what they have.

Satoko (Hiromi Nagasaku) and Kiyokazu (Arata Iura) marry and set out to build a life together. Their attempts to have a child are unsuccessful, and they realize they have a new option when they find an organization dedicated to helping those who are pregnant and unable to raise a child find a new home for the babies that will be born. They raise a son, Asato (Reio Sato), who fills them with joy. When Satoko receive a call from a woman claiming to be his birth mother, Hikari, she begins to worry that the happiness she has achieved may be undone.

This film tells its story in a compelling manner, presenting events in the present day with flashbacks to two different time periods, profiling Satoko and Hikari in their earlier days as they faced challenges and made crucial decisions about the direction of their lives. Its title is absolutely fitting, since both Satoko and Hikari have distinct and special connections to motherhood that can’t be replicated or even quite understood by anyone else. The exploration of those relationships and dynamics is a core success of this film.

Superb performances from the entire cast, led by Nagasaku, anchor a film that sensitively and poignantly looks at the difficulties of adoption and the associated issues that stick with parents long after a child has officially become part of their family. It also showcases the positive elements, and does so in a way that feels powerful and real. Japan’s official entry for the Oscar for Best International Feature is an involving drama that manages to stay interesting for its entire 140-minute runtime, tackling a sensitive subject with grace and weaving together multiple narratives for a stirring and affecting meditation on the meaning of family.


Movie with Abe: Beginning

Directed by Dea Kulumbegashvili
Release TBD

There is a safety that people feel in coming together in a space that can be pierced and irreversibly broken by an unwelcome intrusion. For many, that is their home, but there are also other places where people gather and consider a source of comfort and community. Natural disasters and accidents may result in their harm or destruction, but when an act is deliberate, there is a fear that can permeate previously familiar and positive associations. Rebuilding or relocating may not be sufficient to erase the trauma and the permanent feeling of unease that threatens to spread to other facets of a person’s life.

The Kingdom Hall of a Jehovah’s Witness congregation in Georgia is set on fire, and while those inside manage to escape, the damage has been done. Its leader, David (Rati Oneli), leaves to report what has happened as his wife, Yana (Ia Sukhitashvili), expresses anxiety about the potential repercussions. When a detective (Kakha Kintsurashvili) arrives to question her, she cooperates but then quickly becomes increasingly unnerved about the nature of his questions and the way in which he wields power over the defenseless woman whose house he has just entered.

This is an extremely unpleasant film, one that begins with a jarring act of violence and only worsens over the course of its 130-minute runtime. It is not easy to watch for multiple reasons, partly due to its content but also because of its monotonous pace, which often finds its lens centered on one spot for an extended amount of time before anyone enters the frame and something begins to happen. What does occur is disturbing and draining, making for an off-putting viewing experience.

There are elements of this film that are reminiscent of “The White Ribbon,” though that film takes a proactive approach to storytelling that is certainly not found here. This feels a lot like “4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days” in its onscreen representation of stark misery, a less than inviting perspective but one that does demonstrate artistry of a sort. Georgia’s official Oscar submission for Best International Feature will surely draw considerable praise from those admiring its harsh realism, and audiences should be prepared for a harrowing and miserable ordeal. Assessing it as strong filmmaking requires a desire to watch such fare, which this reviewer doesn’t find overly worthwhile if left unaccompanied, as in this case, by a resounding message.


Sunday, December 20, 2020

Movie with Abe: Sylvie’s Love

Sylvie’s Love
Directed by Eugene Ashe
Released December 23, 2020 (Amazon Prime)

In a perfect world, the formative events in a person’s life would all happen at just the right moments. That’s rarely the case since no one can plan for all the ups and downs they might experience, and even if they do, others might show up and throw all that off with their own perspectives and intentions. Falling in love is one thing that typically precedes a decision to date or get married, but that also may occur with another individual even after such a choice has already been made. Wrong or complicated as they may seem, feelings can be undeniable and unable to be suppressed.

Sylvie (Tessa Thompson) works at the record store run by her father Herbert (Lance Reddick) in 1950s Harlem. Robert (Nnamdi Asomugha), a saxophone player and member of a jazz quartet led by Dickie Brewster (Tone Bell), spots Sylvie in the store and promptly requests a job application. Initially uninterested, Sylvie soon becomes hypnotized by her new colleague despite the fact that she has a fiancé in the military. As the passion increases between them, Sylvie and Robert navigate a winding road of ambition and dreams.

This film tells its story over the course of a number of years, as Sylvie and Robert first meet and then reconnect after a time apart. While the title favors Sylvie, it’s very much about both of them and the way that they pursue their careers, dealing with setbacks and the influences of others who seek to decide for them what they can and can’t do. They each have different priorities, but what unites them is the way that they feel together and the inexplicable actions of the universe that continue to put their paths on a collision course.

This film is a formidable combination of casting and artistry, as the quality of the performances match the beauty of its technical elements, including its art direction and costume design. Thompson has proven herself to be skilled in many roles and makes Sylvie feel vivid and opinionated. Asomugha, a former football player who earned attention for “Crown Heights,” is appropriately subdued and quiet as his energy increases and he begins to feel more comfortable sharing how he feels. This film is equally a drama and a romance, one that meets two people where they are and charts the mesmerizing intersection of their lives.


Movie with Abe: The Dissident

The Dissident
Directed by Bryan Fogel
Released December 18, 2020

The internet and social media have become so prevalent that news can travel at an incredible speed to the entire world. Once a story is out there, it’s impossible to bottle it back up again, and things can spiral considerably as new information emerges. Because there’s always something else happening, public interest can quickly fade and only those particularly invested in the details will continue following the consequences and subsequent events. Returning to look at the whole picture after some time has passed can underline just how incredible it was and what implications it will have for the future.

In October 2018, Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi walked into the Saudi consulate in Istanbul and never came out. His highly publicized disappearance and the ensuing revelation that he was killed inside the consulate attracted tremendous media attention, but there is much more to the story that wasn’t covered extensively. Fellow Saudi dissident Omar Abdulaziz, who left his home country and sought refuge in Canada, recounts the timeline of his activities with Khashoggi and the factors that led to his coordinated and state-sponsored murder.

This is director Bryan Fogel’s follow-up to his Oscar-winning documentary “Icarus,” which began by investigating Olympic doping and uncovered far deeper secrets about subversive Russian activity along the way. Like that film, this highly detailed cinematic essay weaves a fascinating narrative, one that focuses on the way in which technology, and social media in particular, was used by Saudi Arabia to suppress opposing voices. Abdulaziz and other players are interviewed to share what they did and what happened to them as a result, but this is about more than just individual people.

This film is an important chronicle of human rights and a very deliberate effort to subvert them, and the information to back up what is presented here is conveyed in a clever and involving manner. Recreated screenshots of tweets or text message conversations are shown frequently, and computer-animated simulations spell out the intricacies of systems like the “flies” and “bees” that combat each other to spread governmental propaganda and to try to get the real truth out. It’s a helpful companion piece to “Kingdom of Silence,” which spends more time on the history of Saudi Arabia and less on the timeline of Khashoggi’s murder, which relates directly to his work with Abdulaziz and the fight to pull back the curtain on Saudi corruption. This film contains many unsettling and outright disturbing moments in its role as a crucial and frightening examination of crimes committed out in the open with alarmingly few repercussions.


Saturday, December 19, 2020

Movie with Abe: I’m Thinking of Ending Things

I’m Thinking of Ending Things
Directed by Charlie Kaufman
Released September 4, 2020 (Netflix)

The passage of time is one major way in which people are able to understand life and what they experience. Being able to tether events to a specific date and moment provides a narrative that makes them more comprehensible and referable after the fact. Without a sense of when something is taking place, it’s possible to get confused and to misrepresent certain aspects of a situation since, without that context, it doesn’t have the same meaning. In cinema, the manipulation of time is a frequent device that serves to intensify storytelling, offering many opportunities for unexpected revelations based on the crucial grounding of when something is happening.

A young woman (Jessie Buckley) sits in a car next to her boyfriend Jake (Jesse Plemons), who is driving them through the snow to meet his parents for the first time. Jake tries to engage in banal conversation, repeatedly interrupting the woman’s wandering thoughts that center on doubting the longevity of the relationship. When she arrives at the house, she meets his mother (Toni Collette) and father (David Thewlis), who both seem energetic and intent on embarrassing an uncomfortable Jake. As the night progresses, the woman becomes increasingly less confident in her surroundings and who she is.

This film, which is based on Iain Reid’s novel of the same name, comes from writer-director Charlie Kaufman, best known for truly bizarre films like “Being John Malkovich,” “Adaptation,” “Synecdoche, New York,” and “Anomalisa.” Knowing his involvement is a useful way to approach this film, which offers no explanation for the strange lack of detail and the inconsistencies that become gradually more apparent as the woman loses sight of where she is, mistaking, for instance, a young Jake in a photo for a younger version of herself as his parents’ age continually change. Categorizing this film as psychological horror is accurate in that it does involve a fully present sense of unease that gives way to a complete loss of anchoring, presented primarily in the unassuming interior of a car.

Even if it’s nearly impossible to make sense of what happens in this film, the performances at its center are deeply compelling. Buckley, who has impressed in “Beast,” “Wild Rose,” and the fourth season of “Fargo,” could talk for the entire film without stopping and still be fascinating, and she does a formidable job of representing a type of concentration and intellect that still doesn’t allow her to see how much she is losing herself. Plemons brings a different kind of presumed superiority to a character who isn’t nearly as smart as he’d like to think. It’s easy to be both captivated and befuddled by watching this film, one that does a great deal with very little, slowly and unnerving peeling away layers of dependable reality for a truly dizzying and unsettling journey that’s sometimes a bit too mind-numbing.


Movie with Abe: First Cow

First Cow
Directed by Kelly Reichardt
Released March 6, 2020

There is a theory that anyone can accomplish anything if they merely set their mind to it. What that fails to take into account is that, in most cases, acquiring the bare materials or starting points necessary to do something requires some means. In other words, to make money, one must have money, at least enough to be able to get started. When opportunities arise, there are ways to get around that, but getting past the initial hurdle of needing to depend on a workaround is rarely an easy feat, and consequences can catch up with a person before they’re able to clear that stepping stone.

In 1820 Oregon, Otis Figowitz (John Magaro), better known as Cookie, works as a cook for ungrateful fur trappers. He encounters King-Lu (Orion Lee), a Chinese immigrant hiding out after he killed a Russian man for taking the life of his friend, and helps him to escape. When their paths cross again a short time later, they concoct a plan to use the milk cow owned by the wealthy Chief Factor (Toby Jones) to make biscuits. Realizing that they have stumbled upon a remarkably lucrative enterprise, Cookie and King-Lu continue secretly milking the cow each night to create a new supply of wildly popular baked goods that eventually attract the attention of the clueless Factor.

This film comes from director Kelly Reichardt, known for slow-paced, contemplative character studies like “Wendy and Lucy,” “Meek’s Cutoff,” and “Night Moves.” This fits well with those in its approach and tone, one that is most interested in getting to know Cookie and King-Lu even if not all that much happens around them. At its peak, the story is indeed interesting and engaging, but there is what feels like a lengthy introduction and epilogue in which events move at a reduced rhythm, providing the chance to truly take in these characters’ surroundings and to embrace the simplicity of a situation in which they’ve found an impressive loophole.

The performances here are very strong, and it’s great to see Magaro, a familiar recurring player from “Orange is the New Black” and other projects, in a lead role that suits him quite well. Lee is also terrific, portraying King-Lu as an equally gracious and clever entrepreneur, one aware of the potential consequences of being exposed but perfectly content to use what others don’t know about him to his advantage. This film is primarily about a friendship, one that stands out very starkly in a narrative populated by disdainful, bigoted characters who might never deign to acknowledge the existence of either protagonist.


Friday, December 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 Theaters and VOD: Sister of the Groom
New to Digital and VOD: Modern Persuasion
New to VOD: Lupin III: The First
New to DVD: Tenet, Aviva, The Last Sermon, The German Lesson
New to Netflix: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
New to Amazon: Education, Blackbird
New to Hulu: Dirt Music

Israel Film Festival Spotlight: Perfect

I’ve had the privilege of screening a number of selections from the Israel Film Festival, which serves as a showcase for the best Israeli films each year. The 34rd Israel Film Festival takes place online this year from December 13th-27th, 2020.

Directed by Yaniv Segalovich
Ticket Information

Throughout history, there have been many definitions of what is considered normal. People are expected to look and behave in a certain way, and a lack of conformity has led to destructive institutions like slavery, discrimination, and ethnic cleansing. Over time, different ways of life, such as sexual orientation and gender identity, may become gradually more accepted. There remain, however, things that cannot be changed or hidden and will continue to influence how people are seen by others. Any negative associations that come from those identifiers can only be combated by education and a willingness to engage with why it is that discomfort with difference exists.

This film looks at a number of individuals in Israel with physical disabilities. Asaf, whose left side was affected in an accident when he was young, offers a perspective on his own experience while interviewing others about what happened to them and how it affects their daily lives. What society might consider their limitations, including being in a wheelchair or being unable to move their limbs or arms without assistance, may vary, but they share a common bond in how they are treated and othered constantly by those who believe that they know both how they feel and what they want people to do or not do for them.

This film is all about conversations and improving understanding, allowing its interview subjects to speak for themselves about what they’ve been through and how, generally speaking, people want to tell them how to view their own disabilities. Asaf guides the dialogues by asking pointed questions and bringing up controversial notions, like the fact that he would prefer not to go on a date with a disabled person, something that doesn’t necessarily track with his hope that others would consider him the same as a typically-abled person.

There is a great deal of humor to be found in this insightful documentary as its subjects all recount stories of absurd moments and judgments that may not have been quite as funny at the time. It’s enlightening and educational to learn what this representative sample of people deem offensive and would like to see from others, which of course starts with normalizing the idea of being different and how no one else should dictate how someone wants to be seen or treated. This film cites statistics in Israel but is very universal, and while it doesn’t purport to have all the answers, it’s a great way to begin confronting stigma and working towards a more inclusive and informed society.


Thursday, December 17, 2020

Israel Film Festival Spotlight: Honeymood

I’ve had the privilege of screening a number of selections from the Israel Film Festival, which serves as a showcase for the best Israeli films each year. The 34rd Israel Film Festival takes place online this year from December 13th-27th, 2020.

Directed by Talya Lavie
Ticket Information

A wedding night is, for many, the happiest moment in the lives of the couple that has just tied the knot. They know that they have married someone with whom they can make important memories, and that they will operate differently than they have before now that their commitment to each other has been affirmed. There can be complicating factors with the potential to derail that inherent joy, including problems that have arisen either prior to or during the ceremony. Lingering doubts about previous relationships, for instance, can be detrimental, particularly if feelings appear to be unresolved.

Eleanor (Avigail Harari) and Noam (Ran Danker) arrive at the honeymoon suite of a fancy hotel in Jerusalem, and the initial excitement quickly dissipates when they are locked out of the suite and Eleanor finds an envelope from Noam’s ex-girlfriend, Renana, in his pocket. Determined to put an end to whatever bond still exists between them, Eleanor insists that they seek her out to return the gift, resulting in a tumultuous trip around the city that finds them both questioning the decision they’ve made to spend their lives together given the ease and frequency with which they find themselves at odds.

There is a great comedic rhythm to this film from its opening moments as the feelings of elation sour and Eleanor refuses to let Noam simply dismiss her concerns about things he might be holding onto that could affect their marriage. Eleanor has a wondrously adventurous energy, one that frustrates Noam to no end. It’s entertaining – and often uncomfortable – to watch the two of them bicker, but there’s even more fun to be had once they begin traveling and interacting with others, including a congratulatory cab driver and the various people from both of their lives who they end up seeing on their wedding night.

This is the second feature film from writer-director Talya Lavie, whose first film, “Zero Motivation,” was a superb and highly memorable dark comedy. Her follow-up is a bit stranger, with the occasional dance interlude and a host of overenthusiastic supporting characters, but it’s a welcome return. The number one reason to see this film is Harari, a familiar face from “The Other Story,” who turns in a fantastically unhinged performance that lets audiences truly see who she is and how she doesn’t want to settle for what might be a monotonous life if she has anything to say about it. Like Eleanor, this film has a great spirit, one that makes it a very worthwhile watch.


Israel Film Festival Spotlight: Menachem Begin: Peace and War

I’ve had the privilege of screening a number of selections from the Israel Film Festival, which serves as a showcase for the best Israeli films each year. The 34rd Israel Film Festival takes place online this year from December 13th-27th, 2020.

Menachem Begin: Peace and War
Directed by Levi Zini
Ticket Information

Every political leader has supporters and detractors, and it’s rare to find someone whose every move and act is remembered fondly after their time in office has concluded. Complicated legacies are common, especially if certain political camps embrace some moments positively and see others as detrimental. Governing a nation comes with many challenges, and, even if tremendous consideration goes into a particularly difficult decision, having a firm resolve that it is the correct one is important to maintain an image of confidence and quell questions of competence from those eager and ready to pick apart policy.

Menachem Begin was elected the sixth prime minister of Israel in 1977 after an early start fighting the British as a member of the Haganah and many years in politics as member of the opposition. His participation in the groundbreaking peace treaty brokered by United States President Jimmy Carter with Egyptian President Anwar Sadat was considered a monumental controversial accomplishment that has had enduring effects, while his attitude towards the expansion of settlements and the start of the Lebanon War in 1982 are regarded with considerable controversy, creating a cloud of mystery around the true motivations and intentions of the strongly opinionated orator.

This film offers a fascinating deep dive into Begin’s career, interspersing information about his life before the founding of the state of Israel with events that occurred during his leadership of the country. The way that the narrative is built, introducing important factors that may have happened years earlier only when they become relevant, is effective and engaging. There is a good deal of footage of Begin speaking that exists to give insight into his mannerisms and the way in which he defended his positions, and numerous individuals who worked with him complement that picture with their own experiences and memories.

This documentary’s subtitle references the two most lasting accomplishments of the Begin administration, and this film doesn’t offer a concrete conclusion on whether what he did was ultimately good or bad. Instead, it smartly and responsibly assembles a great deal of evidence, anecdotes, and arguments to analyze his lengthy ascent to power and the way in which he wielded it. Among its most poignant moments are those in which he and Sadat manage to see each other as people, reaching across an aisle that neither of their populations seem to fully support crossing to break down barriers perceived by others as unmovable. This film will surely interest those eager to learn more about Israeli history and a fascinating chapter in the Middle East.


Wednesday, December 16, 2020

Israel Film Festival Spotlight: Murder at Cinema North

I’ve had the privilege of screening a number of selections from the Israel Film Festival, which serves as a showcase for the best Israeli films each year. The 34rd Israel Film Festival takes place online this year from December 13th-27th, 2020.

Murder at Cinema North
Directed by Avida Livny
Ticket Information

The death of one person has an effect on a number of other people. In the case of an unnatural end where someone is responsible, that is even truer since the person who might be charged with a crime will have consequences, as will those within their circle and anyone who may have witnessed it. Such events don’t always receive an equal degree of publicity, but when they shake the foundation of a community and lead to a far more unexpected and complicated story, they have a tendency to be remembered and discussed for years to come.

In 1957, engineer Fidia Fiatelli is killed while standing in line to buy a ticket at the Cinema North. He is an unintended victim of Tommy Blitz, whose robbery attempt turns deadly and lands Blitz in jail after a substantial manhunt. Over the course of his imprisonment, much comes to light about Blitz, which includes his history as a Holocaust survivor and his bold decision to ask for the forgiveness of Fiatelli’s widow. An escape from prison and secrets surrounding his own mother’s actions during the Holocaust reveal a surprising chain of events that offer a window into who Blitz was and who he wanted to be.

This isn’t the kind of story I’ve seen explored in any other Israeli film, and it’s definitely intriguing to learn about all the layers that make it an unusual scenario. It begins with the jarring nature of the crime, one that didn’t involve terrorism or a vendetta against Jews or Israel’s existence. Instead, it was motivated simply by emotion and a desire for money, and resulted in a completely unexpected relationship between this accidental murderer and the Christian-born German woman who taught and practiced Buddhism whose husband he killed.

This is a documentary that doesn’t seem to have a set course, following every new revelation as it dramatically changes the perspective from which this situation should be viewed. There are numerous people who recount their experiences and the way in which they became involved, tangentially, with Blitz’s mother, Blitz, Fiatelli, or his widow. The web created by the unfortunate intersection of Blitz and Fiatelli’s paths is indeed fascinating, and this film can’t hope to find all of the answers it seeks since there is still so much about Blitz’s past and his mother’s identity that remain unknown. This film travels down a very winding road, one that should pull in most audiences even if it doesn’t necessarily take them somewhere definitive.