Sunday, November 18, 2018

DOC NYC Spotlight: The Orange Years

I’m excited to have been able to screen a few selections from DOC NYC, America’s largest documentary festival, which presented its eighth year in New York City from November 8th-15th.


The Orange Years: The Nickelodeon Story
Directed by Scott Barber and Adam Sweeney
Festival Screenings

Everyone has formative experiences from their childhood, many of which involve sitting down in front of the television to watch their favorite programs. While it’s adults who are making the creative decisions behind what kind of shows make it to air, no matter what age group it’s meant for, kids can be highly affected by television that is both educational and enjoyable. The memories of and feelings that come from watching such shows can live on for years in the minds of those for whom it was a daily or weekly refuge from normal life.

Nickelodeon, first known as Pinwheel during its initial launch in 1977, was a network that dared to be different, offering programming for children that spoke to what their interests might be and which parts of their normative experience they might enjoy both seeing reflected and not reflected on the screen. A need to have morals and good values in the characters and settings portrayed is emphasized, but there is also special attention paid to having relatable characters that represent what’s good and forward-thinking about being a kid. Numerous now-classic series including “Clarissa Explains It All” and “Rugrats” are reviewed from their inception to their tremendously successful runs.

This documentary provides a fairly standard, narrative overview of how Nickelodeon came about when participatory television was becoming big, and how it grew at the height of its popularity. The surprisingly high percentage of female leadership within the company is highlighted through interviews with the many people responsible for the network’s wins, both behind the camera and in front of it. It’s especially informative to hear stars like Kenan Thompson and Melissa Joan Hart reflect on how their own childhoods were shaped by the characters they were playing, partially fictionalized but also very much mirrors of themselves.

This film stood out as interesting to this reviewer, who watched only PBS growing up since his family didn’t have cable, as a way of discouraging him from watching too much TV. Having previously seen only snippets of “The Rugrats,” “Doug,” and “Hey Arnold,” this documentary felt like a decent comprehensive look at what shaped Nickelodeon into what it wanted to be, singling out the “Orange Years” as its growth period before it truly exploded with “Spongebob Squarepants,” the series introduced in this film’s closing moments. For those feeling nostalgic about an active part of their childhoods, this should prove fun and heartwarming, and for those less familiar with Nickelodeon, it’s also plenty enjoyable and cool.

B+

DOC NYC Spotlight: Three Identical Strangers

I’m excited to have been able to screen a few selections from DOC NYC, America’s largest documentary festival, which presented its eighth year in New York City from November 8th-15th.


Three Identical Strangers
Directed by Tim Wardle
Festival Screenings

Family means different things to different people, based in no small part on their childhood experiences. Being raised by someone other than birth parents can have a dramatic effect on how a person turns out and how they relate to the world. Often, those who have been adopted seek to reconnect with those who were not, for whatever reason, able to provide a home for them when they were young. That reunion, if actualized, can have important implications on how someone comes to understand the factors that have shaped them into who they are.

The story that serves as the catalyst for this documentary is truly incredible: Bobby Shafran started at a community college at age nineteen and, upon being recognized by every person he passed, discovered that he had an identical twin brother, Eddy Galland. Once they went public with having found each other, a third young woman with the same face, David Kellman, confirmed that they were triplets. As they bonded and revelled in their similarities, they learned a much more disturbing truth about their separation that led to them being adopted without any knowledge of each other’s existence.

This film begins as a wondrous celebration of this miraculous coincidental union, with understandable excitement from magazines and news programs at the times. As the brothers move in together and start a restaurant, deeper issues are revealed, including a history of depression experienced by all three. Simultaneous research unveils that the three were deliberately split and monitored to conduct a study on how those who share the same DNA would develop and behave in isolation from each other. This film breaks down the actions and apparent motivations for a practice compared by the brothers to Nazi experiments, trying to understand how anyone could justify this separation.

This film, which covers one fantastical sequence of events and the far more troubling history that helped to create it, changes its tone dramatically as it delves into its story. Both its introductory excitement and its more devastating serious revelations are equally compelling, and featuring interviews with the brothers, through archive footage and in much more recent conversations, is the film’s strongest selling point, since seeing these brothers act in almost the same way despite never having known each other is truly mesmerizing. This documentary is truly terrific, a completely captivating look at this unbelievable situation which still has those involved struggling to find answers.

B+

Saturday, November 17, 2018

Saturday Night Movie Recommendations with Abe

Welcome back to a weekly feature here at Movies With Abe. I'm going to be providing a handy guide to a few choice movies currently playing in theatres as well as several films newly released on DVD and Netflix. I invite you to add in your thoughts on any films I haven’t seen in the comments below. I’m continuing with a new format started last week.


Now Playing in Theatres

I saw Widows almost a month ago, and I’ve been excited for it to come out ever since. Director Steve McQueen’s follow-up to the Oscar-winning “12 Years a Slave” is a superb thriller with excellent performances all around, and I’m betting it’s going to be a strong Oscar player too. I’m equally enthusiastic about recommending Jonathan, which I saw at the Tribeca Film Festival back in April. It’s a very creative and worthwhile film featuring a great double performance from Ansel Elgort. Of Fathers and Sons is an intense and eye-opening documentary that gets up close and personal with a radical jihadist in Syria – worth seeing if the subject matter isn’t too upsetting. And for fans of Vincent Van Gogh, At Eternity’s Gate, starring Willem Dafoe as the tortured painter, is also out, though you have to really be in the mood for director Julian Schnabel’s style if you want to enjoy it. I’m hoping to see “Green Book,” which is out in a few theaters this weekend, very soon.


New to DVD

I truly enjoyed Juliet, Naked, a winning comedy starring Rose Byrne and the omnipresent Ethan Hawke, when I saw it at Sundance. It’s very funny and enjoyable. It just arrived theatrically last week, but The New Romantic, another great choice, is already out on DVD. For a decent performance in a mediocre movie, check out Kelly Macdonald in Puzzle.


Now on Netflix Instant Streaming

To me, one of the most entertaining things I’ve seen this year was the opening vignette of The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, the new film from the Coen brothers which screened at the New York Film Festival. Unfortunately, the other segments aren’t nearly as good, and it’s probably for the best that this one is available in a format that allows audiences to skip past some of the less terrific parts.

DOC NYC Spotlight: On Her Shoulders

I’m excited to have been able to screen a few selections from DOC NYC, America’s largest documentary festival, which presented its eighth year in New York City from November 8th-15th.


On Her Shoulders
Directed by Alexandria Bombach
Festival Screenings

It is an unfortunate state of the world that there are so many humanitarian crises that some end up being less reported and prominent than others. An increasing number of documentaries deal with both current and past genocides and other horrors, with one express aim above all else: to broadcast the story of those affected, both the dead and the survivors, as widely as possible, with the notion that, the more people who know what has happened, the less likely it is to continue happening or to happen again somewhere else.

Nadia Murad is a twenty-three-year-old Yazidi woman from Iraq who was taken by ISIS when most of her village was killed. After enduring months of sex slavery, Murad was able to make a miraculous escape. Now, representing her entire people as one of the few survivors and one of the only ones willing to talk, Murad is telling her story to anyone who will listen, going on radio shows and making her case to the United Nations, firmly determined that she can make a difference and help wake the world up to the reality of a daily nightmare for those like her.

This film’s title is extremely fitting, ascribing the burden that Murad feels, not only in being the voice for those from her village but also for victims of similar abuse and violence all over the world. Murad speaks some English but usually has her words translated by an interpreter, which gives her testimony an even more potent effect because of the passion she exudes. Though she is brave, she retains an extraordinarily relatable humanity, one that reveals itself through her exhausted demeanor, so tired of having to relive these experiences over and over, and through the genuine tears she sheds both when she sees others moved and when she shares in their grief.

This is a vital film that helps to amplify Murad’s message and share the painful, disturbing details that most people don’t think about when they consider the very broadly-discussed enemy of ISIS. Murad gives a face to a conflict that feels far away, showing that she is here to ensure that what she and the residents of her village went through will not be forgotten and will not be in vain. American-born director Alexandria Bombach, whose previous film looked at Afghanistan’s first free press, demonstrates her awareness of just what exists throughout the world, so far from much of its audience but so crucial to be seen.

B+

Friday, November 16, 2018

Movie with Abe: Of Fathers and Sons


Of Fathers and Sons
Directed by Talal Derki
Released November 16, 2018

It’s astonishing to see people who essentially confess to their complicity in criminal activities on camera. This can be a moment of true surprise where someone maintaining their innocence accidentally acknowledges a damning fact or revelation, unaware in the moment of just what it is that they have admitted. It can also be a free and unapologetic description of behavior or actions that may be against the laws of their land or another, one that they do not see as problematic because something much stronger is driving their words: a firm and uncompromising belief that what they are doing is right.

Director Talal Derki, whose previous film, “Return to Homs,” won a number of film festival awards several years ago, returns to his home country of Syria, where he befriends General Abu Osama, a militant jihadist who raises his sons to become fighters in the war on the West in the name of his religion. Keeping his camera trained on Osama, Derki follows his family for two years as they reflect on what they’ve endured and prepare for the next phase of their jihad, with the ultimate goal that all of Osama’s offspring should one day carry out missions of their own to achieve victory.

Osama is a remarkable subject, one who expresses his hatred for those who believe something different than him in an almost friendly, simply analytic manner. He celebrates the birth of one of his sons on September 11th as a fateful date, and proudly names his children after those who have died carrying out terrorist attacks, proclaiming his admiration for the Taliban. He believes so strongly in what he is doing, and it’s possible that his willingness to talk as much as Derki prompts him, and even beyond that, can be attributed to his desire to get his message out to the world, assuring them that he and those like him will never cave or stop fighting.

This is the latest of a number of documentaries to come out of Syria, though this may be the most intimate and disturbing of them all, since it showcases someone who continues to advocate for violence under the guise of doing God’s work rather than working tirelessly either to survive or proactively end the conflict. This unsettling film, which screened at DOC NYC and received a Film Independent Spirit Award nomination today, captures something that isn’t easy to convey and is even more difficult to understand: the perspective of someone perceived by most of the world as a terrorist who sees himself as a far nobler messenger of God.

B+

Movie with Abe: At Eternity’s Gate


At Eternity’s Gate
Directed by Julian Schnabel
Released November 16, 2018

Vincent Van Gogh was an exceptional painter, revered as many are only long after his life. His style was one that broke the mold of the times, and it’s fair to expect therefore that a story about the creation of his art would be told in a creative and inventive manner. Last year, the Oscar-nominated animated feature “Loving Vincent” captured his essence with a series of oil paintings, visually portraying his story in a way resembling his art. Now, Julian Schnabel, a filmmaker known for his own unique artistic approach, is giving the famed painter his own individualized showcase.

Van Gogh (Willem Dafoe) sees the world through a very particular lens. He can’t look at a landscape without picturing it as a painting, and he spends most of his time sitting in front of his canvas. Unable to convince the world of his talent, Van Gogh is financially supported by his brother Theo (Rupert Friend), and latches on to a fellow artist, Paul Gauguin (Oscar Isaac), who is far more comfortable than he is in social situations. Abandoned by everything but his art, Van Gogh immerses himself in it, isolating himself further from the world around him.

Schnabel is a renowned filmmaker whose career highlight was “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly,” which mesmerizingly told the story of a man paralyzed everywhere but his left eye. For what marks only the sixth film of his twenty-plus year career, Schnabel emphasizes the same visual style, lensing the film through Van Gogh’s eyes, including the bottom portion of his field of vision being blurred. The result is a series of intimate close-ups that invite audiences into Van Gogh’s head, often positioned directly in his line of sight or right in front of his face. It’s certainly one way to get to know the artist, but it feels jarring and unnecessary at times as well.

Schnabel’s fingerprints are all over this film, and he really makes the most significant mark on it. Dafoe, fresh off an Oscar nomination for his heartfelt role as a motel manager in “The Florida Project,” delivers another muted but evocative performance here as the tortured artist, conveying his passion for what he believes he must create in his every exchange. His performance, however, is overshadowed by the technical elements of the film, which are more distracting than anything else. There are a few moments of wonder but far more that feel too pensive and deliberate, trying to shape Van Gogh’s story in a way that doesn’t allow its main character to steer it.

B-

Thursday, November 15, 2018

Movie with Abe: Widows

Widows
Directed by Steve McQueen
Released November 16, 2018

There are certain things audiences have come to expect when they go to see a movie. The notion of “playing against type” involves an actor or actress taking on a role that doesn’t fit with their previous work, and it’s a gamble that often pays off. A film turning everything on its head, however, isn’t as common, reframing traditional ideas of strength and survival. Men might typically be at the center of movies about robbers, but this is far from an ordinary film in so many ways.

When her husband Harry (Liam Neeson) is killed in a botched robbery, Veronica (Viola Davis) learns that she is now responsible for paying back the man he stole from, Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry), who is exploring his political ambitions with the help of his enforcer brother Jatemme (Daniel Kaluuya). Mourning but resolved, Veronica finds two of her husband’s partners’ widows, Linda (Michelle Rodriguez) and Alice (Elizabeth Debicki), who, along with Linda’s babysitter Belle (Cynthia Erivo), will execute the job that Harry planned out before he died, settling their debts and leaving them each some moderate degree of financial support.

There are many elements of this film that turn what could be an ordinary heist and revenge tale into something much more complicated and sophisticated. Director Steve McQueen, whose last feature film, “12 Years a Slave,” won the Oscar for Best Picture, adapts a 2002 miniseries of the same name into this project, which confronts issues of race, class, and gender in present-day Chicago. McQueen and Davis described at a discussion after a screening how even Veronica’s interracial pairing with Harry seems jarring to many, and is not something often seen on screen. This confrontation of modern issues is smartly wrapped up and intriguingly embedded in a furiously interesting story full of drama and action.

Davis, who took home an Oscar in 2016 for “Fences,” delivers a powerful lead performance as Veronica, whose stern, unfaltering energy fuels the film. Debicki, who was also terrific in this year’s “The Tale” and “Breath,” is exceptional as Alice, whose appearance and demeanor doesn’t even come close to conveying her strength and ability. Erivo impresses in a comparatively minor role, and Henry of “Atlanta” and Kaluuya of “Get Out” trade their typically reserved personalities to play enormously compelling and terrifying villains. McQueen crafts a mesmerizing film that combines startling thriller moments with strong drama, tied together by its superb cast. This film delivers way beyond its potential, involving and exciting on all fronts.

A-

DOC NYC Spotlight: The Smartest Kids in the World

I’m excited to have been able to screen a few selections from DOC NYC, America’s largest documentary festival, which presents its eighth year in New York City from November 8th-15th.


The Smartest Kids in the World
Directed by Tracy Droz Tragos
Festival Screenings

It’s an unfortunate statistic that, despite being a world leader in so many areas, the education system in the United States ranks far behind so many other nations. There are strong debates between conservatives and liberals about the validity of different forms of schooling, and no shortage of controversy over the appointment of Besty DeVos as the Secretary of Education since her past deals extensively with private and charter schools rather than public schools. There are many theories about what can and should change in American education, and it is so true that those most affected by policy are least consulted: the students.

Journalist and author Amanda Ripley, who spent the beginning of her career writing about topics like crime and terrorist attacks before finally settling on education, explains that the conversation about education in the United States has been extremely stagnant over the years. Through her book that shares the name of this film, Ripley follows four teenagers who travel to Finland, the Netherlands, South Korea, and Switzerland to study there and experience the way that education works in those places, and to understand why other countries are doing so well when America is not.

It’s always refreshing to see kids who are actually interested in learning, recognizing that their situations aren’t designed to their advantage. Those featured in this film can see that students are the ones who should most be asked about how to change a system that’s not working for them. The culture of sports in particular is addressed as something that is visually prioritized in schools and is often used as an excuse for students to miss class but doesn’t practically serve as a driving force in most people’s lives following college. Focusing on actual learning with an equal blend of both learning and creativity is the surest way to success, something that the countries featured in this film illustrate with their results.

What’s most interesting about this film is that it empowers its four teenage subjects to tell their own stories, explaining the conclusions they’ve reached about what is important in education. Comparing the different approaches taken by each of the countries they visit is enormously enlightening, especially because it doesn’t pretend that any of them are perfect, each with their own flaws and shortcomings that need to be analyzed. Watching the students return home and reflect on what being in school in America means to them is powerful, and this documentary makes a strong case for just a few ways to rethink what education should be.

B+

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

DOC NYC Spotlight: False Confessions

I’m excited to have been able to screen a few selections from DOC NYC, America’s largest documentary festival, which presents its eighth year in New York City from November 8th-15th.


False Confessions
Directed by Katrine Philp
Festival Screenings

There are many issues with the legal system in America, one of which is spotlighted in another DOC NYC selection, “Crime + Punishment.” There are, unfortunately, far too many people who have gone to jail and served or continue to serve years for crimes that they did not commit. There may be a number of reasons for that, and one of the most prominent is the failure of suspects to be adequately equipped with their right to remain silent, incriminating themselves with the most damning evidence of all – their own signed confession, regardless of whether or not its contents are true.

False confessions being attained during interrogations is much more common than most would expect, and accounts for a staggering percentage of convictions. Several prominent cases are highlighted that illustrate how those currently incarcerated were pressured into giving and signing confessions that did not reflect what actually happened. After that, getting a conviction becomes easy, and this filmmaker and featured defense attorney want to expose the prevalence of this practice and help to exonerate those who have suffered most as a result of something they were forced to do under duress.

This documentary is a mesmerizing examination of how people are bullied into giving false confessions. The universal assumption that audience members insist that this couldn’t happen to them is dispelled through video footage of interrogations that led to false confessions and a very precise breakdown of exactly what happens during that process. Looking at exactly how the questions are phrased and how they provide no way out for an innocent person sheds enormous light on just how confusing and manipulative withstanding an interrogation designed to get a confession can be. This is a very scientific analysis, one that is equally watchable and informative.

While there are indeed many injustices within the American legal system, this is one that discriminates in a far subtler way than most. Preying on people in their weakest moments and forcibly reframing the way they see their options can affect anyone accused of a crime, and it often affects those most vulnerable in society. The best summary of this film is that interrogating with the goal of getting a confession only works if the guilty party is arrested one hundred percent of the team, which can’t possibly occur. This overview is extremely educational and worthwhile, looking at this widespread problem and helping to shed light on a few people who have been penalized worst by it.

B+

DOC NYC Spotlight: Crime + Punishment

I’m excited to have been able to screen a few selections from DOC NYC, America’s largest documentary festival, which presents its eighth year in New York City from November 8th-15th.


Crime + Punishment
Directed by Stephen Maing
Festival Screenings

It is widely acknowledged that every person in the United States does not face the same treatment from law enforcement. The color of a person’s skin or the neighborhood that they’re from regularly impacts communities, often through legal means that have since been deemed discriminatory and prejudicial. Especially in recent years as minority populations, particularly African-Americans, have been needlessly killed by police officers when they were mistaken for someone committing a crime, this is an extraordinarily important and current issue. When police officers are themselves from such backgrounds, their experiences can be infinitely more complicated and problematic.

This documentary begins by covering the history of false arrests and illegal quotas in New York City, and how these practices have been officially outlawed after being standard practice for many years. A group of NYPD officers, who become known as the NYPD 12, come forward as whistleblowers to recount how their performance reviews were skewed negatively because they refused to make arrests based on arbitrary or deliberate orders that targeted minority populations and demanded results that led to harassment and unnecessary hardship for those stopped or arrested just to fulfill a quota. As the officers try to ensure that justice is served and their careers are not in jeopardy, a private investigator works to exonerate someone falsely arrested and serving time for no reason.

The NYPD 12 have a number of obstacles placed in their way, including threats of punitive actions and public assertions that they can’t be objective in their police work and are far too lenient on potential suspects who look like them. That makes this uphill battle all the more inspiring, since they truly want to change a system that most agree is broken. Though highly-publicized incidents like the death of Eric Garner are mentioned, this is not a film that deals with the oppositional stances of the Black Lives Matter movement and the Blue Lives Matter police response, but instead one that universally decrees that pre-judging anyone and requiring the attainment of statistics is a self-fulfilling prophecy that does no one any good.

This topic has been addressed recently in narrative films such as “Monsters and Men” and “Monster,” and in a different way in Spike Lee’s period piece “BlacKkKlansman.” Seeing how it works in the real world without any theatrics, when the police officers must stick to their convictions no matter how much pressure they endure and the private investigator has to simply press on and try to keep his client’s spirits up. This is a vital, disturbing account of what is happening in one of the most liberal areas of the United States, and hopefully showcasing it in film festivals and to audiences via Hulu will make this conversation even more prominent and start to end this epidemic.

B+

Monday, November 12, 2018

DOC NYC Spotlight: Exit

I’m excited to have been able to screen a few selections from DOC NYC, America’s largest documentary festival, which presents its eighth year in New York City from November 8th-15th.


Exit
Directed by Karen Winther
Festival Screenings

Technological advances and other modernizations have made it so that many of the tasks that used to take a good amount of time can be done instantaneously and with minimal effort. While this is often perceived as leading to millennials and other current generations being lazy, it has also given birth to an entirely new energy, one that inspires youth to become invested in causes with their energy, determined to create change and make their voices heard. This can be a positive thing, but immersion in certain interests can also be incredibly dangerous since nothing is more motivating than a belief system.

Director Karen Winther used to be an active member of a violent right-wing organization, and getting through that time and back to a healthier lifestyle and worldview has prompted her to find others with similar experiences of being in very deep and then finally getting out to the other side. Through interviews with several people from the United States, Germany, and Denmark, Winther looks at what motivates people to join extremist movements, both on the left and on the right, and how the fear and hate that they feel can be channeled into something much more productive once the hold on them has been broken and they are ready to leave that life behind.

The notion of escaping a pervasive ideology has been explored in a number of documentaries, often dealing with stringent religious groups or cults. As mass shootings in the United States become all too frequent and political conversations are laced with inciting rhetoric, this documentary feels especially timely. The stories told by these reformed extremists are disturbing, as they reflect back upon the violence they used and the vitriolic feelings they expressed regularly towards anyone who didn’t fit their idea of normal. While they now do what they can to educate others on the wrongness of their past, there’s a sense that it’s far too late for them, as they’ve done many things that they regret and can never hope to make up for, even with acts of love and inspiration.

Locating those who were able to make a break with the various movements that had a firm hold over their followers is a difficult enough task, and those willing to talk about what they did to others is an even more limited pool. Yet Winther succeeds at finding just a few subjects who help to illustrate the recruitment tactics used to compel people to join and then to stay, examining the role of gender and community in it as well. The strongest takeaway is that extremism in its many forms remains a threat to society all over the world, with this film as a great step in the right direction, highlighting its dangers and its potency to an audience that might hopefully include those who don’t believe it exists.

B+

Saturday, November 10, 2018

Saturday Night Movie Recommendations with Abe

Welcome back to a weekly feature here at Movies With Abe. I'm going to be providing a handy guide to a few choice movies currently playing in theatres as well as several films newly released on DVD and Netflix. I invite you to add in your thoughts on any films I haven’t seen in the comments below. I’m trying a new format this week – let me know if you like it!


Now Playing in Theatres

As I've been immersed in screening selections for both the Other Israel Film Festival and DOC NYC, there's plenty playing in regular cinemas too. The two movies I can recommend most highly I saw at SXSW and Sundance, respectively. The New Romantic is a lovely, engaging film with Jessica Barden at its center, and Jason Mantzoukas anchors the hilarious road trip buddy comedy The Long Dumb Road. It’s gotten mostly mixed reviews, but I really liked Bohemian Rhapsody and think it’s well worth seeing and experiencing. In a Relationship, which played at Tribeca earlier this year, is also a great choice. Boy Erased is an unsettling dramatization of a true story about gay conversion therapy, not quite as strong as “The Miseducation of Cameron Post” but still worthwhile. El Angel provides a compelling portrait of a notorious killer and also serves as Argentina’s Oscar submission for Best Foreign Film. Sarah Jessica Parker is the best reason to see Here and Now, which was called “Blue Night” back when I saw it at Tribeca. The Front Runner is decent but not nearly as involving as anything related to present-day elections. A Private War doesn’t quite do justice to its journalist subject Marie Colvin, but it has its moments. Despite the involvement of Julianne Nicholson and the usually dependable Alessandro Nivola, Weightless never really goes anywhere.


New to DVD

One of my favorite movies at the Sundance Film Festival this past year was Never Goin’ Back, billed as a stoner comedy but really much more than that. It features great lead performances from its female stars and is genuinely enjoyable. It’s hard not to like this year’s Israeli submission for Best Foreign Film, The Cakemaker. Likely Oscar contender BlacKkKlansman is worth watching and definitely has a valid perspective to offer, even if’s not my favorite Spike Lee film. Unless you’re a Pablo Escobar fanatic, it’s not necessary to watch Loving Pablo over “Narcos.”


Now on Netflix Instant Streaming

Alfonso Cuaron may well win his second Oscar for Best Director this year for “Roma,” but I still find Children of Men, a fantastic sci-fi film that didn’t go home with any Oscars, to be his strongest. A film that did net its director an Oscar bid that same year, United 93, is also now available, and it’s the ultimate definition of a respectful recreation of an incredibly tragic event in American history. I can also highly recommend Cloverfield and Equals, a handheld monster movie and intellectual dystopian film, respectively. A number of well-known Oscar winners can now be streamed, including Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Good Will Hunting, The English Patient, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, listed in descending order of affinity from me. Both Sixteen Candles and Sex and the City: The Movie have their fans, and subscribers should know what they’re in for with either of those. Finally, enjoy the appetizing and entertaining Julie and Julia and skip the dreary and aimless Sea of Trees.

DOC NYC Spotlight: Afterward

I’m excited to have been able to screen a few selections from DOC NYC, America’s largest documentary festival, which presents its eighth year in New York City from November 8th-15th.


Afterward
Directed by Ofra Bloch
Festival Screenings

Every documentary filmmaker has a reason for doing what they do, whether it’s a particular experience that compelled them to research something or a more general worldview that inspired them to share their stories. In creating a film for public consumption, the responsibility of a filmmaker is to portray whatever injustice they perceive while providing an appropriate context for those that may not have any prior experience with the subject matter. Evidently, someone must convey their own beliefs and perspective, but it’s likely that a large portion of their audience may confront their chosen topic for the first and potentially only time through their work.

Ofra Bloch is a psychoanalyst living in New York who returns to her native country of Israel to research the effects of trauma and how it can be passed down through generations. As she examines the nature of Israel’s relationship to its occupied citizens, she breaks down the connection of the Holocaust to the Palestinian experience. She interviews ex-Nazis and other non-Jewish Germans to understand how the history of the Holocaust shaped them, and speaks to a number of Palestinians who describe their subjugated lives and how they believe that any attempt to discuss the occupation with Israelis results in an immediate shutdown of the conversation by referencing the fact that the Holocaust happened as a justification for any present-day actions.

This film would actually have been a perfect fit for the recently-concluded Other Israel Film Festival because of its highlighting of the Palestinian narrative despite being made by an Israeli Jewish filmmaker. As a documentary at this festival tagged with “Jewish” and “Human Rights” as themes, it’s a bit more problematic. It emphasizes the suppression of Palestinians, and while giving Israelis the opportunity to defend their status might be seen as enabling the perpetrators, the only Israeli given any sort of voice is Bloch herself, who admits that she didn’t feel comfortable speaking up in defense of those who have experienced terror and loss at the hands of self-described Palestinian resistance fighters, who insist repeatedly that the term “violence” should not be used in reference to what they do. She has clearly become disillusioned with how her country operates, as many within Israel and in the Jewish diaspora have, but her scope of focus seems narrow and incomplete.

This subject matter is obviously of particular interest to this reviewer, who has attempted not to let his personal feelings get in the way of an honest and objective critique. This film bears some similarities to “Spiral,” which saw some connection between Israeli settlement activity and a resurgence in anti-Semitism in the world, the latter of which this film address very minimally. Most troublingly, Bloch interviews Palestinians who say that every conversation about their oppression is shut down by Israelis because they cite the Holocaust but then includes no one who went through the Holocaust either personally or ancestrally. By neglecting to feature interviews with any Israelis or Holocaust survivors, Bloch is endorsing just the opposite, saying that any argument made in defense of Israeli behavior is illegitimate. Showcasing the underrepresented in this case creates a dangerously limited perspective that, used as an education tool for what is happening in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as presented by a liberal Israeli, hardly does justice to anyone involved.

C+

Friday, November 9, 2018

DOC NYC Spotlight: The Candidates

I’m excited to have been able to screen a few selections from DOC NYC, America’s largest documentary festival, which presents its eighth year in New York City from November 8th-15th.


The Candidates
Directed by Alexandra Stergiou and Lexi Henigman
Festival Screenings

The 2016 presidential election is going to be remembered by everyone in America and so many worldwide for being such an incredible rollercoaster with multiple shocking moments that culminated in the surprise election of Donald Trump in defiance of considerable data and polling suggesting that Hillary Clinton was sure to triumph. Even in just the past two years, it has influenced many films and television shows, and that trend is only going to continue in the wake of historic voter turnout for this past week’s midterm elections. Much of those projects are far from optimistic, and it’s refreshing to see one film that uses it as an entirely positive base.

At Townsend Harris High School in Queens, New York, the senior class is putting on a mock election to mirror the timing of the actual presidential election. Misbah, who is Muslim, is selected to play Hillary Clinton, and Daniel is chosen to be Donald Trump, despite arguments that the classmate chosen to play Pence looks a lot more like the real candidate. Other students are also portraying Gary Johnson and Jill Stein, paying close attention to what’s happening with the election so that they can show what democracy might look like by learning the candidates’ positions and then trying to win over the student population.

This simulation boasts extraordinarily productive educational components, particularly for those actively engaged in the experiment. Daniel notes towards the beginning of the film that he has taken on a more conservative outlook in his own life, and that he has an uphill battle to convince the mostly liberal students at his school that Trump is best for the country. He notes that it’s often more difficult to get his points across as Trump, but it does give him a louder soapbox on which to stand. Misbah laughs that she is now referred to in the hallways as Hillary and wonders whether the positions she has gotten to know so well do in fact represent her own beliefs, either in part or in full. Raya, cast as Stein, acknowledges that she isn’t given the same support from the administration as the top two candidates, mirroring the minimal role third-party candidates usually play in presidential elections.

Having teenagers get into an election more than most adult voters before they’re able to cast a ballot is a wondrous idea that most on any side of the aisle should support. There are moments of immaturity, of course, as can be expected from high schoolers, but mostly what’s portrayed is an impressive devotion to the project, and an immersion of interest from all at this school, or at the very least appropriately disengaged and apathetic as many Americans are. This film is fun and inspiring, and it’s truly a delight to see how these excited youth deal with real-world issues that those with much more life experience are hopeless to be able to explain.

B+

Thursday, November 8, 2018

Movie with Abe: El Angel


El Angel
Directed by Luis Ortega
Released November 9, 2018

The term “serial killer” encompasses a number of definitions. There are stories throughout history of those who took many lives, following a ritual pattern that made victims easy to identify and attribute to their particular brand of execution. Some, like Jack the Ripper, were never caught, while others, like Son of Sam, were apprehended and continue to serve prison terms to this day. The motivations for killing sprees vary greatly, with some describing voices telling them to do harm and others simply doing it for the fun of it. And then there are those for whom killing is merely a side effect of their primary activities.

Seventeen-year-old Carlos (Lorenzo Ferro), better known as Carlitos, loves stealing things, taking small or large items from empty homes or wherever he finds them. When he meets Ramón (Chino Darín), he begins planning his crimes ahead of time, working also with Ramón’s father, José (Daniel Fanego), who appreciates Carlitos’ talent but worries about his unpredictability and his penchant for doing whatever he feels like it in the moment. When things go awry, Carlitos has no problem pulling the trigger without a moment’s hesitation, resulting in a number of deaths that eventually catch up with Carlitos as he uses his childlike appearance to his advantage at every turn.

This film, which serves as Argentina’s Oscar submission for Best Foreign Film, chronicles one of the most notorious real-life cases in the country’s history. It presents its events literally and without much preface, introducing Carlitos as a teenager who doesn’t care what anyone thinks of him and who sees the world through his own eyes, locking on to activities and prizes that appeal to him without much concern for any collateral damage. He ups his game to impress Ramón, but that still doesn’t mean he’s going to give any thought to what might happen if he gets caught since he’s having so much fun on the ride.

Much of this film’s success hinges on Ferro’s performance, since Carlitos is mostly silent, looking around at things that catch his eye and wondering what he might do to obtain them. It’s a formidable, understated turn, one that portrays him as someone merely searching for excitement, never bothering to consider any other path than the one he’s on. This film is fully driven by its plot, and its robbery scenes in particular sparkle with an unpredictable energy. The story is pretty incredible on its own, and this film does a great job of bringing it to the screen.

B+

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Movie with Abe: Weightless


Weightless
Directed by Jaron Albertin
Released November 9, 2018

Being a parent doesn’t come with a manual, and unlike many other big life decisions, it doesn’t necessarily require the same legwork or research, nor proof of competency. There are couples who talk out the optics of having children and plan heavily ahead of time, while others may not be in a committed relationship or may be surprised by the news that they are expecting. As soon as the baby arrives, parents must step into that role, and for some that moment may come later on in a child’s life due to unforeseen circumstances, which can present the same challenges and realities: that someone in just not ready or equipped to be a parent.

Joel (Alessandro Nivola) works in waste management, transporting and organizing trash. He goes for drinks with his work colleagues, and carries on a romantic relationship with a local doctor, Janeece (Julianne Nicholson). Otherwise, he lives a mostly solitary life, perceived by many as a strange loner. His quiet, uneventful life is upended when he receives a call that he must now take responsibility for his son, Will (Eli Haley), a ten-year-old boy he’s never met. Though he is told by social workers that Will is better off in foster care, Joel seems intent on maintaining his attachment to the son he really doesn’t know.

Both Joel and Will express similar detachments from social life, with Joel choosing to isolate himself and Will experiencing a form of post-traumatic stress disorder that keeps his sentences short and infrequent. He opens up only to one girl from his quiet neighborhood, while other kids torment him by taunting his weight and lack of social skills. Janeece serves as the sole element who supports them both, seeing Will for the scared boy he is and Joel for his positive attributes and silent charm. Those relationships are endearing, and they create the strongest points of a meandering film without a real center.

Nivola delivers a muted performance that can’t possibly compare to his far more resounding and meditative turn in “Disobedience” earlier this year. He’s a talented actor but not used to much effect. Nicholson, on the other hand, is typically wonderful, and she is the only real saving grace of the film. Its title might apply to the feeling that either Joel or Will have as they experience the world, but it’s an unfinished idea, one that doesn’t particularly go anywhere. This is a miserable, depressing film that doesn’t appear to have a point, exploring this family unit’s lives without achieving any sort of realization either for them or the audience.

C-

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Movie with Abe: The Front Runner

The Front Runner
Directed by Jason Reitman
Released November 6, 2018

The way that news is both reported and consumed has changed drastically over the years. The notion of getting a newspaper with a breaking headline or watching a live news report being the primary way of digesting information is something that just doesn’t exist in the same way anymore. While there is still a lifespan of any story that may eventually die and fade out of the public eye, the idea of a news cycle has changed completely. The manner in which news is released and disseminated has had exponential effects on much of society.

After a solid effort in the 1984 election, Gary Hart (Hugh Jackman) announces his intention to run for president in 1988. Polling far ahead of other candidates, Hart enjoys very positive press and a great relationship with the journalists that travel with his campaign. When a journalist receives a tip that the married Hart may be having an affair, everything becomes about a potential moral stain on this extraordinarily likeable candidate, which threatens to derail his campaign and distract from all that he hopes to accomplish.

It’s astonishing to think that, only a decade after this, the president would confess to having an affair in office and finish out his term, and nearly twenty years after that, numerous accusations of extramarital activity and a damning released audio recording of heinous language about women wouldn’t deter the latest candidate from being elected to that office. There should be many comparisons made between this film and last year’s “The Post,” depicting an era in which journalism looked completely different but in which civility was recognizable and paramount.

This film manages to paint Hart as a man so driven by his desire to change the country that he wasn’t prepared to let anything get in the way of that message. The actions that killed his campaign may not be commendable, but his steadfast belief in private life being kept private is something so far lost in today’s era that stands as a firm recommender of Hart’s character. This presentation of his story is at times fast-paced, as if it was written by Aaron Sorkin, and at others feels like it’s not headed anywhere fast. Jackman is a fitting choice to play Hart, passionate until the end, and the standouts of the crowded supporting cast are Molly Ephraim, as Hart’s lone female senior campaign worker, and J.K. Simmons as his campaign manager. For those who don’t know this story, it may be interesting, but there’s little about this film that feels transformative or urgent, which proves disappointing considering the timing of its release on Election Day.

B

Monday, November 5, 2018

Other Israel Film Festival Spotlight: Unsettling

I’m delighted to be returning for the seventh time to cover the Other Israel Film Festival, which features a diverse crop of Israeli and Palestinian cinema and is hosted by the JCC Manhattan. The 12th Annual Other Israel Film Festival takes place November 1st-8th, 2018.


Unsettling
Directed by Iris Zaki
Festival Information

Settlements are among the most controversial elements of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Israeli development and communities built on land considered to be part of the Palestinian Territories is widely considered to be an obstacle to peace, but there’s no simple solution. Many of those communities have existed for decades, and a simple retreat, like the Gaza disengagement in 2005, does not lead to any more accord and can produce more problematic issues subsequently. The majority of settlers are painted as right-wing and nationalistic, but there’s more to the story there too.

Filmmaker Iris Zaki moves from Tel Aviv to Tekoa, a settlement in the West Bank. Arriving and proudly describing herself as “left-wing,” Zaki seeks to understand the perspective of those living in Tekoa and how they see the situation in the country. While some initially balk at her presence and the notion of having a camera around, a number of residents are more than willing to talk. As they express their feelings about why they are there and how they relate to the Arab population surrounding them, Zaki presses them on whether there are truly considering the way their disenfranchised neighbors live and how it contrasts greatly with their happy existence.

What Zaki manages to do here is, in one way, remarkable. Announcing herself unapologetically as a leftist and challenging those she interviews with charges of occupation and apartheid, she has conversations with those completely on the opposite end of the political spectrum. They may get passionate, but at no time are they disrespectful, which says something in our current society. For Americans watching, this should be particularly heartwarming, given just how aggressively party divides have made it so that people who don’t agree also don’t talk to each other.

Zaki probes some interesting questions and inarguably gets interesting results. Those she speaks to don’t hold back, and even wrestle audibly with exactly how they feel and what parts of their narratives are contradictory. This film runs just an hour and ten minutes, and given the intriguing nature of what just a few residents share, there’s evidently a much bigger project here. Zaki presses those she speaks to for solutions, but she doesn’t seem to have many of her own, merely an interest in ensuring that people don’t simply accept their realities. Her most compelling conversation comes with a young woman who survived a stabbing attack and, as a result, realized that a more understanding and pluralistic approach to Israeli-Palestinian relations is necessary. Such optimistic ideas of coexistence are inspiring, and films like this one, which fittingly closes the Other Israel Film Festival, are great conversations starters.

B

Other Israel Film Festival Spotlight: In Her Footsteps

I’m delighted to be returning for the seventh time to cover the Other Israel Film Festival, which features a diverse crop of Israeli and Palestinian cinema and is hosted by the JCC Manhattan. The 12th Annual Other Israel Film Festival takes place November 1st-8th, 2018.


In Her Footsteps
Directed by Ranu Abu Fraiha
Festival Information

Home can mean everything to members of a community. It’s a place in which the ways of life can be preserved, without outsiders or interruption, mostly immune to modernization and other reforms. The comfort that it brings its most devoted residents can be just as strong a force to drive those who aren’t eager to live within it away. The liberties and opportunities gained by leaving a tight-knit community may be great, but with them comes a price. If one place doesn’t feel entirely right, trying somewhere new may prove to be just as dissatisfying or disheartening, offering its own challenges along with the benefits.

Rana Abu Fraiha interviews her parents to learn their story about fleeing from their Bedouin village in the middle of the night to start a new life in Omer, a very nearby Jewish town in Israel. When her mother’s breast cancer spreads and gets her thinking about her impending death, she shares her desire to be buried in Omer. Dealing with a Muslim burial in a Jewish cemetery proves to be a new question for the town, and as Ranu waits to hear back on whether it will be allowed, she focuses in on her family and how where they lived has shaped who they are.

Video footage of Ranu’s parents’ wedding day serves as a frequent reminder of another time before the family relocated to Omer. As they discuss their hopes and wishes for the future, Rana and her siblings contemplate what their identity really is. They don’t feel authentically Arab because they have lived side-by-side with Jews for all of their lives, yet, as becomes especially clear when the question of what happens after death comes up, they can’t fit in with their surrounding community even though they speak Hebrew and engage regularly with their neighbors.

This film represents a fitting and enlightening exploration of what belonging means when someone doesn’t match a particular mold. It’s not a question of Israelis against Palestinians or anyone feeling that their land and their country have been taken from them. Instead, it’s about existing on the periphery without fully acknowledging it until a simple matter that everyone must deal with becomes incontrovertibly complicated and impossible to negotiate. It’s also an affecting story about loss and inevitability, one that is, to a degree, universally relatable and all the more poignant due to the surrounding circumstances.

B+

Sunday, November 4, 2018

Other Israel Film Festival Spotlight: Foreign Land

I’m delighted to be returning for the seventh time to cover the Other Israel Film Festival, which features a diverse crop of Israeli and Palestinian cinema and is hosted by the JCC Manhattan. The 12th Annual Other Israel Film Festival takes place November 1st-8th, 2018.


Foreign Land
Directed by Shlomi Eldar
Festival Information

Not every Israeli filmmaker can claim to be able to understand what Palestinians endure as marginalized members of Israeli society, and few have proven how much they care by devoting so much time and energy to showcasing the experiences of those who are disenfranchised and underrepresented. After covering the Palestinian Authority and the Gaza Strip as a news reporter for years, Shlomi Eldar made his directorial debut in 2010 with “Precious Life,” a moving documentary about a Palestinian woman trying to save the life of her four-month-old child. His follow-up is expectedly layered, tackling another complicated instance of identity.

Eldar is very much a main character in his own nonfiction story, explaining his own move to the United States following many years as a liberal Israeli journalist. His film focuses on Arab TV star Ghassan Abbas and his role in a play about called “I Shall Not Hate,” based on Palestinian doctor Izzeldin Abuelaish, born in Gaza and employed at an Israeli hospital, who lost his daughters when they were killed in their home by Israeli fire during the Gaza war. The continued striving for peace by Abuelaish and by Ghassan in his promotion of the play come into conflict with the permanent sense of being an outsider and a foreigner that they feel.

As a Jew from Israel living in America and focusing on highlighting the incredible attitudes of these Palestinian men calling for peace despite what they’ve experienced, Eldar is himself unsure about his own place in the world. Heavy snow is shown falling in his backyard during the winter, something that he would never experience in Israel, and there are still so many things that feel different about where he is and how far away he is from the places that are so important for him personally and professionally for him to need to showcase.

Abbas is a charismatic personality, one who isn’t afraid to speak his mind. He has no problem refusing to bow when a right-wing mayor attends his performance, and he discusses how hard it is to relate to Abuelaish, since his first thought is that any man who lost family members in such a way should hate those responsible rather than argue that there must be a path to peace. It’s not clear how wide an audience will see this film, but it being made and being showcased at the Other Israel Film Festival is a fantastic start, ensuring that at least some people who need to see this will understand that even those who have experienced true pain unnecessarily see that more disagreement and violence is not the answer.

B+

Other Israel Film Festival Spotlight: Death of a Poetess

I’m delighted to be returning for the seventh time to cover the Other Israel Film Festival, which features a diverse crop of Israeli and Palestinian cinema and is hosted by the JCC Manhattan. The 12th Annual Other Israel Film Festival takes place November 1st-8th, 2018.


Death of a Poetess
Directed by Dana Goldberg and Efrat Mishori
Festival Information

One of the primary reasons that the Other Israel Film Festival exists is to showcase the fact that there is more than one type of person living in Israel. The complexities of a Jewish state and a native Palestinian population, much of which was displaced during its creation, make Israel especially poignant as a place for this kind of focus, but it’s true in so many areas that where someone comes from can greatly affect how they go through the world. Two people walking through the same streets may have extraordinarily disparate experiences based on little more than the color of their skin or the identifiable nature of their accent.

Two narratives simultaneously play out in this film, happening at different times with separate main characters. Yasmin (Samira Saraya) is an Arab nurse from Jaffa who is being interrogated by the police for her alleged role in a crime. As she insists that she is innocent, she is repeatedly told that she isn’t being honest. Lenny (Evgenia Dodina) is an Israeli scholar from Tel Aviv trying hard to get the clothing she was promised at a shop. The two stories converge as more details of what comes after Lenny’s day and before Yasmin’s become clear and they meet at a bar.

Both Yasmin and Lenny’s journeys are portrayed in black and white, which helps to add a starkness to the ordeal that Yasmin goes through and a monotony to Lenny’s mindless but important errands. Framing them opposite each other highlights the true gap in treatment that exists between people of different cultures and economic classes, with judgments made even before anything is done or said based simply on appearance and nationality. The emphasis that Yasmin’s interrogators place on her evident dishonesty particularly stings since she must go out of her way to prove, repeatedly, that she has done nothing wrong when someone else who didn’t look or sound like her wouldn’t need to say anything in order to avoid suspicion.

The strongest part of this film is the selection of the two actresses who play Yasmin and Lenny. Saraya delivers an emotional performance as a woman well aware of what she’s had to do her entire life to defend her identity pushed past her breaking point with every new insult. Dodina, a six-time Ophir Israel Academy Award nominee with recent performances in “Virgins” and “One Week and a Day,” commands her scenes with a sense of having already experienced plenty in the world and hardly interested in a new perspective. This film has a powerful message, one that shines through even as its seventy-seven-minute runtime occasionally feels long.

B

Saturday, November 3, 2018

Other Israel Film Festival Spotlight: The Optimists

I’m delighted to be returning for the seventh time to cover the Other Israel Film Festival, which features a diverse crop of Israeli and Palestinian cinema and is hosted by the JCC Manhattan. The 12th Annual Other Israel Film Festival takes place November 1st-8th, 2018.


The Optimists
Directed by Eliezer Yaari
Festival Information

If there’s one thing that’s truly lacking in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the Middle East, and here at home in America, it’s optimism. The sense that so much has happened which simply can’t be reversed and that politics have become too divisive and isolating is shared by people on opposing sides of issues, with a middle ground seeming like an impossibility because working together in pursuit of a compromise that could, to some degree, please all is no longer anyone’s first priority. This film seeks to combat that notion by showcasing a small subset that does believe a happy ending is possible.

Mandy Patinkin introduces and narrates the film, which primarily looks at the roots of Kibbutz Ketura, which was founded by members of the Young Judaea youth group decades ago. As its history is explored, there is an eye to the future, with the ambitious goal of creating an Arab kibbutz that can coexist alongside it. The proposal is met with mixed responses, and one of its most passionate supporters is Dr. Tariq Abu Hammad, a Palestinian chemist whose daily commute into Israel proved to be too stressful and unpredictable. The work of the Arava Institute, which strives to unite those living within Israel and its border countries, also comes into sharp focus as one potential sign of hope from a deeply conflicted region.

Having Patinkin explain much of what is shown in the film helps to give this film an affirming context, utilizing a popular American actor well-known for his immersion in Judaism as the mouthpiece for this effort to do away with cultural labels that encourage division and to think productively about to come together and truly work for peace. If nothing else, those interviewed in the film are honest, with certain residents of the kibbutz expressing fear about not knowing who their neighbors would be and others telling stories of artificial obstacles that threatened to destroy friendships and relationships only when explicitly revealed long after an initial meeting.

Running just fifty-four minutes, this film is evidently merely a starting point in the conversation. It acknowledges that in its inability to find or even propose a specific solution that could actually work, but it manages to cover a handful of different facets. Some, such as a glimpse of the Women of the Wall, a women’s prayer group that meets monthly at the Western Wall to hold egalitarian services not typically allowed at the site, feel tangential and unexplored, but hopefully this film can be exactly what it wants to be: a way to get people talking and to continue this work.

B

Other Israel Film Festival Spotlight: Megiddo

I’m delighted to be returning for the seventh time to cover the Other Israel Film Festival, which features a diverse crop of Israeli and Palestinian cinema and is hosted by the JCC Manhattan. The 12th Annual Other Israel Film Festival takes place November 1st-8th, 2018.


Megiddo
Directed by Itzik Lerner
Festival Information

Going inside a prison with a video camera is always an opportunity to tell a story and to expose the way that its unwilling residents are being treated. While they are incarcerated for crimes they have committed, there is still a basic human dignity that must be preserved, with the hope that those who are released emerge rehabilitated and eager to contribute positively to society. That concept is much more complicated in Israel, where many are imprisoned for involvement in activities against their occupiers, and being confined to a space that is not their own and guarded by the very people they detest creates an altogether different sentiment.

Megiddo is a high-security prison in Israel which includes a number of Palestinian prisoners from different factions, including Hamas and Fatah. They introduce themselves and note their charges to the camera, with many instances of lengthy sentences for crimes including shooting at soldiers and setting off bombs that resulted in no injuries and no casualties, or something more general like involvement in terrorist activities. In their present situation, they still advocate for themselves, electing spokesmen to ensure humane treatment and to combat disciplinary measures that seek to punish everyone for one inmate’s infraction.

One of the focuses of this film is to highlight the discrepancy afforded to those affiliated with Fatah and with Hamas, which in addition to being a political party is also widely regarded as a terrorist organization. Some of the film’s most powerful moments come when a prisoner scheduled for release after his third term in jail talks to a guard, who tells him that any man who gets sent to jail three times is likely to be back for a fourth, since it obviously means that he values his ideology over his family. Though there’s little mention of any sort of remorse or reformed attitudes, there is a strong emphasis on the prisoners as family men who yearn for the day that they might be reunited with their loved ones.

The level of access granted to these filmmakers is incredible, and it definitely presents an eye-opening look into what life in this prison is like. What the documentarians fail to do, perhaps purposely, is to take a side in what it is that they’re documenting. The prisoners mostly express dissatisfaction with some of their conditions despite appearing relatively comfortable, and there’s a sense that protest is almost mandatory as a way of life, which then elicits surprise from the prisoners when repercussions ensue. It’s the kind of film that should definitely be shown at a festival such as the Other Israel Film Festival, but it’s more of a conversation starter than a fully-realized finished product.

B

Friday, November 2, 2018

Other Israel Film Festival Spotlight: Working Woman

I’m delighted to be returning for the seventh time to cover the Other Israel Film Festival, which features a diverse crop of Israeli and Palestinian cinema and is hosted by the JCC Manhattan. The 12th Annual Other Israel Film Festival takes place November 1st-8th, 2018.


Working Woman
Directed by Michael Aviad
Festival Information

Something that has come to the forefront of the modern conversation is that sexual harassment is far too prevalent everywhere. The notion that a woman needs to work harder to get ahead is widely accepted as an unfortunate reality, and, as has been exposed within Hollywood and other areas, men use power as a tool to make women feel subservient and as if they have to do things they aren’t comfortable with in order to stay employed. This problem is rampant in America but exists in other places all around the world, in workplaces and environments of all shapes and sizes.

Orna (Liron Ben-Shlush) is trying to support her family and her chef husband (Oshri Cohen) as he works to get his restaurant license. As she begins a job in real estate working for Benny (Menashe Noy), Orna discovers that she has a real talent. Benny commends her performance and also expresses a more personal interest in Orna, one that she immediately rejects. Though she makes her commitment to her husband and family clear, as she continues to enjoy professional successes, Benny asserts his attraction to her more and more, forcing her to decide whether she can continue to excel in this role if it involves accepting such behavior.

There is an intimacy to this film and the portrayal of its three primary characters that makes the topic it deals with all the more impactful. Though there are others who work at the real estate company, Orna spends nearly all of her time with Benny, who sees in her a pretty face at the very least and a cunning operator at best, and seeks to cultivate that at every turn. He is also very aware of the power he holds over her, a dynamic that should be unfortunately familiar to many viewers of this film. His frequent accolades directed towards Orna in the company of others sting even more because of how he abuses his position, and that’s no more evident than in a scene when he brings Oran in to her husband’s restaurant and puts on an uncomfortable show to demonstrate just how much influence he exerts on her.

Ben-Shlush gives a formidable lead performance, imbuing strength and determination in an impossible situation, one that she seems to view at first as manageable before realizing just how Benny, who initially seems like a terrific boss, ignores the abusive nature of his own actions. Noy, who defended a mistreated woman onscreen in “Gett: The Trial of Vivianne Amsalem,” crafts a perfectly horrific offender, one who is charismatic and charming up until the moment that he crosses a line he would never acknowledge exists. Sadly, this film may not really portray an “other” in Israeli or any society, but it does present an effective and unsettling look at something so many people endure and can’t hope to escape.

B+

Thursday, November 1, 2018

Other Israel Film Festival Spotlight: The Cousin

I’m delighted to be returning for the seventh time to cover the Other Israel Film Festival, which features a diverse crop of Israeli and Palestinian cinema and is hosted by the JCC Manhattan. The 12th Annual Other Israel Film Festival takes place November 1st-8th, 2018.


The Cousin
Directed by Tzahi Grad
Festival Information

Groups within society have an inherent distrust for the other, someone outside their community, nationality, religion, or any other possible divider. Normalized expectations of what people from various backgrounds should be doing, namely in regard to professional employment, can also lead to conflict, since an assumption of commitment to work and to a degree of honesty also prejudice people against each other. Among the many complicated facets of both Israeli and Palestinian societies is the work deemed suitable – and attainable – for people based on where they were born and where they live.

Naftali (Tzahi Grad) is an open-minded Israeli man with big goals for peace initiatives between Israelis and Palestinians. When he goes to pick up a handyman recommended by his gardener, he finds the man’s brother, Fahed (Ala Dakka) instead, and has him get started on a renovation project he’s been putting off for a long time. When a local woman is attacked, everyone in Naftali’s village immediately suspects his new Palestinian employee. Naftali may be eager to give him a chance, but he finds that nearly everyone around him, including his wife, is more than ready to believe that a Palestinian is likely to blame for whatever crime occurred in their Israeli village.

This is a perfect film to open the latest round of the Other Israel Film Festival, looking not at a hot-button subject like terrorism or developments but instead the simple interaction of Israelis and Palestinians as part of daily life. This film is billed as a comedy, mainly because it provides a humorous look at the way the most vocal members of the village seek to insert themselves into something that shouldn’t concern them, eager to find a scapegoat in part to make themselves feel more secure about the sanctity and homogeneity of their neighborhood. It’s a great specific instance that can easily be applied broadly to so many different areas and people in the world.

Grad serves as director, writer, and star of this film, playing Naftali as a man living in his own world, hopeful for the future and immune to the realities of those less open to new ideas. Dakka turns in an endearing performance as Fahed, who quickly becomes annoyed with his situation and the fact that he can’t get work done because of the way he’s being treated. This is an entertaining and enlightening experience, one that views serious real-life issues through an inviting comic lens.

B+

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Movie with Abe: Boy Erased

Boy Erased
Directed by Joel Edgerton
Released November 2, 2018

The relationship between religion and sexuality is very complicated, and usually the associations between the two are not positive given scriptural references that indicate less traditional understandings of gender and attraction as forbidden and abhorrent. Modern interpretations are far more liberal and accepting of those whose personal and family values differ from what has been established over many centuries, but it’s hardly the standard. Many still experience extremely negative and often truly disturbing responses to their attempts to express themselves.

Jared Eamons (Lucas Hedges) is the only son of Marshall, a Baptist preacher (Russell Crowe), and his wife Nancy (Nicole Kidman) living in Arkansas. Harrowing events at college lead Marshall and Nancy to receive a call that Jared has engaged in purportedly sinful activity, and Jared, aware that he is attracted to men, accepts his father’s decision to send him to a conversion therapy program. As he meets Victor Sykes (Joel Edgerton), the charismatic man in charge of the program, Jared begins to understand that what he sees as a perfectly logical process to get back to what he is supposed to be is an awful and truly damaging thing with brutal and damaging implications.

This is the second major film this year to deal with conversion therapy, with “The Miseducation of Cameron Post” taking a more comedic look at a camp with similar aims. While that film takes its inspiration from real-life events and is based on a novel, this one is adapted specifically from Garrard Conley’s memoir of his own experiences going through this program and then deciding to expose it to the world. While it’s impossible to truly grasp what he experienced, this film paints a vivid and highly unsettling portrait that is at times very difficult to watch, and appropriately so.

Hedges, who is just twenty-one years old, has been working steadily for the past two years since his Oscar nomination for “Manchester by the Sea,” with major roles in two other films this year. His performance here is simple but passionate, conflicted about his feelings but unresistant to his situation until he sees it for what it is. Edgerton, who also wrote and directed the film, casts himself in a very effective role as the influencer of these young minds, twisting convenient verses and facts to his manipulative advantage. Russell Crowe also turns in a subdued and thoughtful take on Jared’s father, who can’t possibly reconcile who Jared might be with his beliefs. This film does its subject matter justice, confronting hard truths through the incredible and important story of one person who managed to survive this terrible process.

B+

Movie with Abe: What They Had


What They Had
Directed by Elizabeth Chomko
Released October 19, 2018

Getting older isn’t known to be an easy process. As people begin to see personality traits and physical prowess that they depended on for years and took for granted fade away, admitting the loss of those reliable things tends to be just as challenging. A couple that has been together for many years may experience deterioration of function at different levels and speeds, and the notion of separating to provide the proper care for one without the other is almost unthinkable. Adult children pushing for that outcome are almost always met with tremendous pushback from the more stable parent who won’t hear of it.

Ruth (Blythe Danner), who is suffering from Alzheimer’s, wanders out into a snowstorm one night, leaving her husband, Norbert (Robert Forster), panic-stricken. Their son Nicky (Michael Shannon), who lives nearby, calls his sister Bridget (Hilary Swank), who promptly arrives with her daughter Emma (Taissa Farmiga) to try to help. Nicky’s eagerness to get Ruth into a facility capable of providing the best treatment for her falls on deaf ears with Norbert, and Bridget doesn’t prove to be the ally he had hoped, as she watches the way her parents care for each other and starts to wonder if she has anything that resembles that in her own marriage and life.

From this film’s first moment in which Ruth steps outside in the middle of the night, what she is going through and how it is affecting those around her is painfully clear. Fortunately, there is plenty of humor to be found in this film and in the way these family members talk to each other, often injecting serious and depressing moments with a lighter touch. Nicky proves to be a particularly prickly and entertaining character, clashing with everyone, including rebellious college student Emma, who can’t stand her mother but describes her uncle in unfavorable terms. Audience members should be able to easily identify recognizable traits of their own family members in each character.

This film assembles a terrific cast, led by an unusual choice for a film of this nature. Swank, who has won two Oscars, hasn’t had a lead role like this in a few years, and this one is nice because it enables her to smile more than usual and convey a good deal of personality and energy in her portrayal of a woman who hasn’t even stopped to realize that she’s unhappy. Shannon, while usually crotchety on screen, is also cast well in a less severe part. The young Farmiga is superb as always, and Forster is the standout as the strong-willed and unflinching husband not at all willing to compromise the way that he wants to be with his wife. This is a film to avoid for those who may have endured a similar experience because it may be too painful to watch, but Elizabeth Chomko’s directorial debut is a true success that handles a universal topic with grace.

B+