Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Movie with Abe: Freeheld

Directed by Peter Sollett
Released October 2, 2015

Stories of overcoming adversity are common in filmmaking, and are usually told in two parts. The exposition is crucial since it must introduce characters and make them compelling in their own right before presenting specific obstacles that they must face. “Freeheld” begins by showing New Jersey police detective Laurel Hester (Julianne Moore) thriving in her work despite being surrounded by men, earning some needed relaxation in private with her much younger girlfriend Stacie (Ellen Page). Only when Laurel becomes sick and learns that her benefits will not go to her domestic partner does her public life merge with her private one, and a battle for justice and equality begins.

“Freeheld,” which is based on an Oscar-winning documentary short of the same name from 2007, succeeds in establishing Laurel as a dedicated, hard-working cop whose social life was limited mostly to a friendly relationship with her longtime partner Dane Wells (Michael Shannon). When she meets the less outwardly feminine Stacie at a volleyball game, Laurel begins to truly show her happiness while keeping her love life a secret from everyone. Laurel frequently acknowledges the extensive age difference – the two were actually nineteen years apart while the actresses are twenty-seven years apart – and it’s clear that their romance is genuine even though it rarely sees the light of day.

“Freeheld” experiences a distinct shift in tone when Laurel is diagnosed with advanced-stage cancer and her prospects are grim. While Dane rushes to her side to help her in the fight to award Stacie her pension, the freeholders’ association and other locals turn a blind eye to her cause. Steven Goldstein (Steve Carell), the founder of Garden State Equality, quickly latches on to Laurel and tries to utilize her specific fight as a larger case for the legalization of gay marriage. While this story represents an important benchmark in the progress of equality across the United States, this is ultimately an individual tale of people who want only to have what they built together remain after one of them is no longer alive thrust into the public sphere because of what they want means.

Moore won an Oscar last year for playing a woman diagnosed with early on-set Alzheimer’s in “Still Alice,” and she is no stranger to portraying strong-willed women forced to deal with unexpected hardship and physical decline. Page, who has come a long way from playing the spunky pregnant title teenager in “Juno,” plays well opposite Moore, and the two anchor the film’s dramatic core with help from Shannon as Laurel’s other loyal partner and Josh Charles as a freeholder with more sympathetic views, with some great comic support from an enthusiastic Carell. The film has its truly emotional and stirring moments, augmenting an already touching true story. Director Peter Sollett, whose previous feature films are “Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist” and “Raising Victor Vargas,” helms an affirming and memorable ode to two real people, their journey together, and the implications and aftereffects of that journey.


Friday, October 2, 2015

Movie with Abe: Shanghai

Directed by Mikael Hafstrom
Released October 2, 2015

Historical wars, namely World War II, are frequently the subject of films. The heart of the war and the havoc it causes on all sides is often the focus, but an equally compelling setting is the time before war has officially broken out, when chaos is just waiting to erupt yet has not quite reached a boiling point. “Shanghai” chooses its title city as its topic, a major Chinese port that in October 1941 was still relatively free from Japanese control and rife with rebellion, suspicion, treachery, and intrigue throughout and among the many cultures contained within its boundaries.

Paul Soames (John Cusack) is the film’s protagonist, an American spy sent by naval intelligence to the Far East following a stint in Germany where he posed as a Nazi-leaning journalist. Almost immediately upon arrival, Soames discovers that his best friend Conner (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), also a spy, has been murdered. He begins to piece together the last month or so of Conner’s life in which he checked in with his handler (David Morse) infrequently and had contact mainly with a mysterious Japanese woman. As he adjusts to his new life, Soames balances his time between a German friend, Leni Muller (Franka Potente), and an intriguing new relationship with local businessman Anthony Lan-Ting (Chow Yun-Fat) and his alluring wife Anna (Gong Li), who harbors more than a few secrets of her own.

“Shanghai” uses the bustle of its signature city to create an involving and compelling picture of a multicultural city largely free from organized conflict but plagued by the anticipatory energy of those just waiting for a crisis to explode. It’s reassuring to see Li and Yun-Fat in the cast, representing a true authentic Asian contribution to and presence in the film, along with the venerable Ken Watanabe, who portrays a Japanese policeman with his eye on the Lan-Tings and their new American friend. Cusack is a good actor to be in the center of many things happening without taking too much focus from those events, hardly delivering a tour de force performance but playing his part as he should. This isn’t an electric thriller but rather an in-depth period drama that, in its best moments, showcases the feeling of the era. This film, which was released in China and other countries back in 2010, is a worthwhile watch but not a vital one.


Thursday, October 1, 2015

Movie with Abe: Sicario

Directed by Denis Villeneuve
Released September 18, 2015

Some films put all their cards out on the table at the beginning, explaining to audiences just what story it is that they’re telling. Others shroud their plots in secrecy, eager for audiences to be kept in suspense as long as possible, piecing together the puzzle of just what is happening along with the protagonist. Both can work well, but they can also be frustrating, particularly the latter approach, which means that audiences need to be invested enough in what is clear to want to discover more. As a film, “Sicario” has some strong points but definitely suffers as a result of the direction from which it spins its story.

“Sicario” opens with FBI Agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) arriving as part of a hostage rescue team to a home in Chandler, Arizona. No hostages are found, but the gruesome discovery of countless bodies housed in the walls of the house and a devastating explosion cause the event to merit serious agency consideration as the onslaught of very bad things. Macer is then quickly appointed to an interagency task force led by the reckless and mysterious Matt Graver (Josh Brolin), who sits in meetings with a t-shirt and flip-flops, and his quieter, more intimidating associate Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro). Throughout it all, Macer has no idea what is going on, and continually says so, as her two new friends lead her on a treacherous tour of more than one country with unknown but certainly devious aims ahead.

There is an intensity to “Sicario” that works extremely well, and those moments are the few where the film’s lack of clarity does work to its advantage. One particularly tense scene set on the bridge between Juarez, Mexico and El Paso, Texas is an early indicator of the film’s strengths, but unfortunately that is one of a few isolated moments that demonstrate that this film might be strong in concept and the execution of selected scenes, but the overall experience is not a cohesive or fully fleshed-out one. As an action film, it’s occasionally strong, but less so as a thriller. Blunt is always reliable but should have more to do than point a gun and ask questions, and Brolin and Del Toro, which exactly the right fits for their characters, have done better work in the past. I’m not sure that this film could have been better, but it’s far more suspenseful than it is satisfying.


Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Movie with Abe: Black Mass

Black Mass
Directed by Scott Cooper
Released September 18, 2015

The gangster film has a rich history almost from the beginning of popular filmmaking, and it’s still just as prevalent as ever. The focus of any given gangster film can vary, with fictionalized turf wars and personalities often created to heighten drama and present the opportunity to showcase conflict with the police element. There are a few famed gangsters who are more than deserving of cinematic treatment, chief among them the infamous James “Whitey” Bulger, whose influence in South Boston in the 1970s and 1980s was felt in all corners. His story is undeniably interesting, and this film version of his life is definitely worth a watch.

What makes Bulger a particularly fascinating subject is the way that his existence and success ties in so closely with the FBI and its operations at that time. The film introduces John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), who grew up with Whitey in Southie and took a different path to become an FBI agent. Connolly, who is still friendly with Bulger’s brother Billy (Benedict Cumberbatch), a successful state senator, suggests to the infamous mobster that he should serve as an informant of sorts, feeding information about his competitors to help keep Boston relatively clean. That relationship blossoms into something that looks very much like the FBI sheltering and protecting the man who should in fact be the target of their most aggressive investigation.

“Black Mass” unfurls its plot in detail, showcasing the many characters involved in Bulger’s operations and home life, often interspersing brief moments of interviews from Bulger’s imprisoned deputies recalling events that led up to Bulger’s downfall and their incarceration. The story is extremely involving and interesting, and the film plays like a typical gangster thriller, balancing drama and suspense to create an immensely watchable and gripping experience. The film clocks in at just over two hours and could well have gone on longer without losing focus or audience attention.

The acting in “Black Mass” is strong, and the most exceptional portrayal is that of Bulger himself. Johnny Depp, an actor known for taking on challenging roles, plays Bulger like he’s never played anyone before, hidden behind extensive makeup and making this gangster character a unique and intimidating mob boss with a penchant for anger and overreaction. It’s an exceptional turn, and he’s ably supported by a talented cast led by Edgerton and Cumberbatch, with standout supporting turns from David Harbour, Dakota Johnson, Julianne Nicholson, Corey Stoll, Rory Cochrane, Peter Sarsgaard, and Juno Temple. Scott Cooper, whose directorial debut was “Crazy Heart,” does a fine job of retelling history in dramatic fashion with this proper ode to one of Boston’s most notorious criminals.


Saturday, September 26, 2015

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.

Now Playing in Theatres

Becoming Bulletproof (recommended): This affirming look at the making of a film by a production company composed partly of disabled actors is a fun, fresh, and inspiring chance to see how a positive community environment can present a wonderful opportunity for cinematic contributions from all people. Now playing at IFC Center. Read my review from yesterday.

Mississippi Grind (highly recommended): Ryan Reynolds and Ben Mendelsohn are both excellent as gamblers unable to resist the allure of the game who form an unlikely partnership that leads them down a winding and immensely watchable road. Now playing at IFC Center. Read my review from Sundance.

Misunderstood (recommended): This film from Italian actress-director Asia Argento showcases a nine-year-old girl who has trouble fitting in thanks to her extravagantly destructive warring parents and other complications of childhood life. The acting is superb in this enjoyable and memorable movie. Now playing at IFC Center. Read my review from Thursday.

99 Homes (highly recommended): Michael Shannon and Andrew Garfield are fantastic as a real estate developer and the man he evicts from his home in this tense and involving drama about bank repossessions in Florida which is not to be missed. Now playing at IFC Center. Read my review from Sundance.

Western (anti-recommended): I saw this unmemorable, unengaging documentary at Sundance this past year, and it ranks as one of the worst films I’ve seen out of the 70+ I’ve screened there. Its look at a Texas border town and its Mexican counterpart should be much more interesting and involving than it is. Now playing at IFC Center. Read my review from Sundance.

New to DVD

Nothing to report this week!

Now on Netflix Instant Streaming

Because I Was a Painter (recommended): This documentary features artwork created in concentration camps during the Holocaust along with interviews with the survivors who created them. Its strongest asset is its theoretical exploration of finding beauty in something truly hideous.

Philomena (recommended): Judi Dench deserved her Best Actress nomination for her endearing performance as an older woman who tries to find the son she had to give up for adoption decades earlier, but her film isn’t exactly a worthy Best Picture nominee. It’s a fine light-hearted ride with a few memorable high points.

Serendipity (recommended): This 2001 romantic comedy about fate, destiny, and all that is a fun, enjoyable rides featuring likeable performances from John Cusack, Kate Beckinsale, and a pre-“Entourage” Jeremy Piven.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Movie with Abe: Becoming Bulletproof

Becoming Bulletproof
Directed by Michael Barnett
Released September 25, 2015

Sometimes, the story behind a movie is just as interesting as the movie itself. That’s definitely the case with “Becoming Bulletproof,” a documentary that documents the process of making a Western called “Bulletproof.” The hook is that the film is made by Zeno Films, an organization comprised of actors and crew both disabled and not, all of whom get to work on a film together each year. This behind-the-scenes chronicle of the making of this film and the people involved in it is a heartwarming and extremely worthwhile look at a great organization and the exceptional work it does.

“Becoming Bulletproof” begins by showing one of its actors, A.J. Murray, at home. A.J. has cerebral palsy, and he describes the many struggles he has faced as a result of his condition over the course of his life. He also proclaims how lucky he is to have such a supportive family and to have been given many great opportunities along the way. Working with Zeno Films is cited as a defining and transformative experience, enabling him to achieve a dream of starring in a film and being treated just like anyone else.

Other actors with various conditions are introduced throughout the film as “Bulletproof” begins production. The methodology of pairing crew members without disabilities with each actor shows how the organization enables all of its cast and crew to work together to be part of a real movie. Everyone comes into the project with such a positive and wonderful attitude – all as unpaid volunteers – and it is rewarding and inspiring to see them overcome the limitations of their conditions to do their part and contribute to a unique and fantastic process.

What differentiates the film-within-a-film here from other projects Zeno Films has produced is that “Bulletproof” was designed to be a full-fledged movie that could make the film festival circuit, a graduation to a longer and more professional project than the already ambitious organization had previously made. The film has in fact been shown at festivals throughout the United States, and whether or not it has a bright and remembered future, it is clear that Zeno Films will continue to do terrific work. Their commitment to the players involved is remarkable, and this sweet, energizing snapshot of what they do makes for a great film and story in its own right.


Thursday, September 24, 2015

Movie with Abe: Misunderstood

Directed by Asia Argento
Released September 25, 2015

Misfits and outcasts of one generation can often be the trailblazers of the next era. The promise of future redemption isn’t much of a comfort during the time at which said rebellion or atypical behavior is occurring, especially since fame and praise often don’t come until after death. Childhood is a particularly trying time where being different or even seeming different can cause society to turn a cold shoulder. “Misunderstood” is a bold, colorful look at one young girl who faced all odds against her and still persisted to be her own person and exist despite obstacles and closed doors at every turn.

Aria (Giulia Salerno) is a nine-year-old in Rome with two sisters and parents who couldn’t possibly hate each other more. Each sister belongs to only one parent, which makes them the natural favorite of their respective parents. Aria is shuttled back and forth from her oblivious famous actor father (Gabriel Garko) and her torrential mess of a musician mother (Charlotte Gainsbourg), cast out repeatedly by each at the first sign of trouble, even and especially if such disturbances are instigated by the preferred sibling. At school, Aria is a star student detested and mocked by all except her kindhearted best friend, Angelica (Alice Pea), who nervously resists any attempts at rebellion that Aria instigates with her.

Aria’s life is exaggerated, with parents who are true caricatures of bad role models and children in adult form, which only makes her school experience all the more bitter since her home life doesn’t afford her any appreciation of the one place in which she can actually excel. Through it all, however, Aria is starry-eyed and hopeful, often imagining a more positive outcome of events, and continuing to try to latch on to each parent in the sparing moments in which they do pay attention to her and spend a few seconds with her doing something other than scolding, hitting, or outright ejecting her from their lives.

Fourteen-year-old Salerno, who has already been appearing in Italian projects for several years, does a superb job of making Aria a relatable protagonist who still pushes the limits of normal and conventional even if her particular circumstances did not exist. The actors portraying her parents, particularly the dependable Gainsbourg, contribute strongly in creating monsters so self-obsessed and fickle that it’s a wonder they even hang on to their children for as long as they do. This film is an occasionally funny, occasionally disturbing, and fully engaging experience from Italian actress-director Asia Argento that works well in any language.


Wednesday, September 23, 2015

VEFFNY Spotlight: Gone with the River

The third edition of the Venezuelan Film Festival in New York begins today, September 23rd, and runs through September 27th at the Village East Cinema. The film's tagline is: Many Venezuelas. Many stories. One film festival.

Gone with the River
Directed by Mario Crespo
Screening September 24 at 8:30pm

Venezuela’s official submission for Best Foreign Film at the Oscars this year is an intriguing look at a woman who sought to fight cultural conventions and live her own life despite expectations from all sides of what it is that she should be doing. Dauna is a strong-willed, determined native whose indigenous people frown upon women’s equality, education, and any sort of deference from the traditional path. Dauna is a formidable lead character, soft-spoken but firmly committed to her ideals and ready to face the hardships that come along with standing by them. This film boasts no special cinematic qualities, but it does offer an involving and informative portrait of one person struggling to achieve change in a society that might be specific to the Orinoco Delta of Venezuela but might as well be representative of similar stories elsewhere too.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

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.

Now Playing in Theatres

Breathe (recommended): Mélanie Laurent’s film about two high school girls and their occasionally close, usually volatile relationship is an involving exploration of the nature of high school popularity and how it completely rules teenagers’ lives. Now playing at Laemmle’s Royal and Laemmle’s Playhouse in Los Angeles. Read my review from yesterday.

New to DVD

Heaven Knows What (mixed bag): Everyone seems to love this story about a homeless drug addict in New York City, but it really didn’t do it for me when I saw it at the New York Film Festival last fall. Actress Arielle Holmes, playing a version of herself, is compelling, but that’s about it.

The Overnight (highly recommended): This irreverent comedy was one of the funniest films I saw at Sundance this past year, thanks in large part to superb performances all around from Taylor Schilling, Adam Scott, Jason Schwartzman, and French actress Judith Godrèche as two couples brought together by their young children for an unforgettable wild night.

Now on Netflix Instant Streaming

Closer to the Moon (anti-recommended): This dramatization of a real life heist by Jewish Romanian resistance fighters staged to look like it was a movie being filmed takes what could have been an interesting story and incorporates none of its involving elements into its execution, resulting in a bland and uninviting disappointment of a film. Also available on DVD.

Moonrise Kingdom (highly recommended): His next film, “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” got all the Oscar love, but Wes Anderson’s 2012 period piece about two young campers trying to connect is far better, utilizing his token extended ensemble to tremendous comedic and dramatic effect. The screenplay is perfect, the music is great, and everything about this film is involving and enjoyable.

Friday, September 18, 2015

Movie with Abe: Breathe

Directed by Mélanie Laurent
Released September 18, 2015

The teenage years can be an especially volatile time, and culture only contributes to that. “Mean Girls” was a particularly appropriate title to describe the behavior that often occurs with high school girls that can find someone ostracized for no reason and made miserable simply because one popular “queen bee” deems it her will and others choose to follow her every command. “Breathe” focuses on Sarah (Lou de Laâge), who takes a powerful hold over the sensible and less abrasive Charlie (Joséphine Japy), dragging her along on whatever adventures she chooses and then casting her aside whenever she feels like it.

The relationship between Sarah and Charlie is a very typical one in terms of its stark difference in the interactions when they are around others and when they are alone. When left to themselves, Sarah and Charlie experience a deep intimacy, spending every moment together and sharing more than a few secrets with each other. When they return to real life, namely school, Sarah can’t be bothered to acknowledge Charlie’s existence, and that’s the best case. When Sarah realizes that Charlie is clinging to her, she makes it her mission to eviscerate the poor girl who did nothing wrong aside from trying to be a good friend and not accepting her lower place on the totem pole.

“Breathe,” which is directed by French actress Mélanie Laurent, star of “Inglourious Basterds” and “Beginners,” is reminiscent of a cross between two recent French films. “Blue is the Warmest Color” showed the blossoming of a lesbian relationship between an impressionable high school student and an older, alluring artist. “Being 14,” which showed at the Tribeca Film Festival earlier this year, followed several French teenagers who treated each other horrendously, giving the term “mean girls” a whole new meaning. Charlie’s experience with Sarah often feels as intense as that in “Blue is the Warmest Color” even though sexual feelings for each other are never verbalized, and it approaches the level of fury and viciousness that comes with being a popular girl and using it to destructive ends. The actresses here are talented and the material is intriguing, but the film doesn’t quite make it as far as those other two in terms of fleshing out the characters and the way that they see the world according to their perceptions of each other. It’s an intriguing start, but doesn’t feel like a finished product.