Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Movie with Abe: Carol

Directed by Todd Haynes
Released November 20, 2015

A stolen glance or lingering look can mean a great deal, and that’s even truer in any kind of storytelling. So many people cross paths on a given day, and they find themselves in certain places for a variety of reasons. Minor moments can lead to something much more, especially if it begins as imagining fantasy. For Therese (Rooney Mara), a shy department store clerk, locking eyes with an alluring older woman, Carol (Cate Blanchett), stirs incredible feelings, leading to a moody romance that, in 1950s New York City, is anything but permissible and socially accepted.

This film takes for its title the name of one of its characters, but Therese is actually the one introduced first (and just as much a lead). The young woman is soft-spoken and only opens up once she knows the people around her. She tends not to offer her opinion much and rarely refuses any offer, using sheepishness and decency as her only defenses in the rare instances that she does stand her ground. Her boyfriend Richard (Jake Lacy) is sweet but looking to move faster, and as evidenced by her immediate connection to Carol, who herself is in the midst of an ugly divorce with her alcoholic husband Harge (Kyle Chandler), she doesn’t know just what she wants.

“Carol” comes from director Todd Haynes, who made the colorful “Far From Heaven,” which also features a forbidden same-sex romance set in a close-minded, utterly unforgiving time. This film resembles that one in many ways, slowing down the courtship and rarely even actualizing it, instead having its performers show the tremendous emotion they feel towards each other before starting to think about whether it could be real. Those expecting to find the unfettered passion of “Blue is the Warmest Color” will be disappointed – this love story feels a lot more like the slow, deliberate pacing of “Brokeback Mountain.”

Mara and Blanchett are two actresses at very different points in their careers, and this film represents an important creative intersection for them. Mara, who earned an Oscar nomination for “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” shows that she can be effective in a romantic setting too, and she makes Therese a buttoned-up girl just waiting to bubble over and become something else. Two-time Oscar winner Blanchett is now the older woman, and she masterfully adopts that role and delivers a typically biting and ferocious take on someone who is tired of watching her life going by without having any say over what happens in it. Haynes’ direction enhances the performances, which are the main reason to see this slow-moving, hypnotic journey that leaves off on a puzzlingly open-ended note.


Saturday, November 21, 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

Carol (recommended): Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara both deliver strong, involved performances as a married woman and the younger sales clerk who catches her eye in “Far From Heaven” director Todd Haynes’ colorful forbidden love story set in 1950s New York City. Now playing at Angelika and the Paris Theatre. My review will be up shortly.

Democrats (highly recommended): This documentary is extremely informative and educational, chronicling the creation of a constitution by representatives from opposing political parties in Zimbabwe. The access and honesty is formidable, and this film’s story is pretty incredible to watch. Now playing at Film Forum. Read my review from Tribeca.

Brooklyn (recommended): Christopher Abbott, formerly of “Girls,” delivers a strong performance as the title character, an aimless DJ in New York City who has to contemplate making something of his life after his father dies and his mother gets sick in this involving independent film. Now playing at Landmark Sunshine. Read my review from Sundance.

New to DVD

Nothing to report this week!

Now Available on Instant Streaming

Anna Karenina (recommended): This gorgeous adaptation of the classic literary work comes from Joe Wright, director of “Pride and Prejudice” and “Atonement,” in his third collaboration with Keira Knightley, and bravely and boldly tells a timeless story with a creative approach to set design and a keen eye for costumes and colors.

Call Me Lucky (recommended): This documentary about comedian Barry Crimmins is a fascinating look at one comedian who has always colored outside the lines, with insightful commentary from a number of contemporaries and a surprisingly serious shift into some of his less comedic work.

I’m Still Here (mixed bag): There is something fascinating about director Casey Affleck’s chronicle of his friend Joaquin Phoenix’s highly public descent into madness, but it’s overshadowed by the fact that it all seemed like a publicity stunt and so little of this “documentary” actually feels authentic.

People, Places, Things (highly recommended): Jemaine Clement of “Flight of the Conchords” is a wonderful lead in this terrific comedy featuring a comic book artist father of two trying to get his life on track. The whole cast is great, and this film is a lot of fun.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Movie with Abe: Room

Directed by Lenny Abrahamson
Released October 16, 2015

A film’s primary task is to tell a story, but there is also the opportunity to tell that story in a creative way. How a character perceives the world is central to how they experience its events, and can greatly shape the way that those events are presented. “Room” is told from the perspective of Jack (Jacob Tremblay), a five-year-old boy who has never lived or been outside the confines of the room in which he was born. Seeing the title space and the world through Jack’s eyes is a moving, fascinating experience.

Jack introduces his life by greeting the things within Room, such as a bathtub, a sink, a bed, a closet, and the skylight that serves as the only portal to the outside world. Jack watches TV on a regular basis, but his mother Mia (Brie Larson) has taught him to believe that TV is actually captured from other planets, and they are all that exist. The regular nightly arrival of the unfriendly Old Nick (Sean Bridgers) through a locked door with a code serves as the only hint that something more might exist. Mia has raised her son under impossible circumstances and made careful choices about how to educate him about his circumstances.

“Room” provides an astonishing look at one child’s worldview, something that is transformed considerably when Jack and Mia make their daring escape and are reintroduced to life outside Room. The time spent in Room and the time spent readjusting to the world Jack never knew existed are equally compelling, full of so much light, energy, and extraordinary simplicity, especially as seen through a five-year-old’s eyes. This film, adapted from a novel of the same name, is extremely captivating from start to finish, constantly maintaining a suitable pace fitting for the progression of its events.

The performances in “Room” are simply incredible, and it won’t be a surprise if they end up being serious Oscar contenders when awards season kicks into high gear. Larson, who has starred in a few major films and impressed already, is tremendous as Mia, who gives so much of herself to make Jack’s life a pleasant one, and watching her come to the brink of insanity and losing her composure is marvelously watchable. Tremblay is a true revelation, delivering an incredibly mature performance that makes Jack an unforgettable protagonist in this powerful, memorable film.


Thursday, November 12, 2015

Movie with Abe: The Walk

The Walk
Directed by Robert Zemeckis
Released September 30, 2015

Performance as an art can mean many things. The most visible professions in the world require a degree of performance, some quite literally, with actors pretending to be other people on a stage or in front of a camera. And then there is a more specific art, one that involves pulling off a daring, visually impressive feat, one that requires courage, preparation, and the utmost concentration. Of the many theatric events that have been performed throughout history, a man walking on a tightrope between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center ranks quite high in more than one sense.

“The Walk” presents its astounding tale by having its jolly protagonist, Philippe Petit (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), stand against a backdrop of the Statue of Liberty and the Twin Towers and narrate his entire story. From his early days as an eager performer whose family didn’t support his dreams, Petit is overwhelmed by a desire to do what others tell him can’t be done. The helpful mentorship of a respected and seasoned circus performer, Papa Rudy (Ben Kingsley), enables him to pursue that which he desires, which begins with a move to the big city of Paris and then a chance glimpse of the Twin Towers, slated for completion in 1973, which puts his life on only one course: to be able to hang his wire and walk between the two tallest buildings in the world.

“The Walk” is based on an excellent Oscar-winning 2008 documentary, “Man on Wire,” in which the real Petit has the opportunity to convey his true nature, an obsessive craziness centered on outdoing expectations and the excitement of the unexpected. Portraying a man like that is no small task, and Gordon-Levitt, who has played a wide range of roles over the past few years, is a capable performer who rises to the occasion. The film wisely chooses not to make the film a fully serious rendition, but instead takes a more lighthearted approach to paint Petit as a jovial reader of his own grand narrative.

The film is full of comedy, particularly when it comes to Petit’s merry band of accomplices. Clément Sibony, César Domboy, Steve Valentine, James Badge Dale, Ben Schwartz, and Benedict Samuel make up the diverse cast of characters who serve as important contributors to Petit’s daring and illegal feat. Most charming of all is the lovely Charlotte Le Bon as Annie, who starts out as a rival street performer but quickly becomes Petit’s number one advocate. The film is fun and entertaining throughout, and it becomes simply exhilarating for the entirety of the time that Petit spends far above the ground at the top of the towers. The visual effects are extraordinary, recreating a place that we all know no longer exists. This film, which was dedicated to those who died on September 11th, is an enthralling and wonderful ode to two magnificent buildings and one man who could only see a place to hang his wire.


Monday, November 9, 2015

Movie with Abe: Spotlight

Directed by Tom McCarthy
Released November 6, 2015

The news industry has changed so much over the last two decades, and there may be no more effective way to demonstrate that than to show how a story was researched and reported as recently as 2002. The mere existence of a newspaper team tasked with culling together months of background, interviews, and confirmations feels like an impossible dream in today’s age of citizen journalism and instant online verification. Cell phones and the Internet already exist in “Spotlight,” but they don’t rule the old-fashioned news investigation that comprises one of the most well put-together and invigorating cinematic stories of journalism in a long time.

The Boston Globe is a hometown newspaper with an overwhelming Catholic subscriber base and season tickets for its staff members to Red Sox games, among other local ties. The arrival of an outsider editor, Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber), prompts a new focus for the four-person Spotlight team tasked with thorough projects, one of which might last months or a year: Catholic priests who have repeatedly abused children and whose actions have prompted no legitimate response from the Church and who have even been placed back into circulation after their unforgivable misdeeds. This investigation is a deep and intense one, with so many confirmations along the way that it seems impossible that it has not come to light sooner.

One of the best facets of “Spotlight” is the way in which it delivers damning and shocking information that comes as a surprise to its reporters. Much of it has to do with the reactions of the dogged journalists, but there is also an appropriately sensational presentation that amplifies the effect of these bombshells. Robby Robinson (Michael Keaton), Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), and Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James) all believe strongly in the impact of what they are doing, and they want to bring the truth to light, no matter the cost to Boston institutions or the way in which they might be personally villainized. Nothing is overstated, and a haunting score from Howard Shore just does the trick in properly emphasizing the significance of what they are doing.

This is a film where all elements are firing on all cylinders. McCarthy, who previously directed “The Station Agent” and “Win Win,” does an excellent job of managing a large cast and allowing each member to play into the story in just the right way. Stanley Tucci, Billy Crudup, John Slattery, and Jamey Sheridan are particularly strong contributors in addition to the starring five previously mentioned. This is an extremely solid film driven by true events and told in just the right way, building to an emotional and superbly effective finale that only extends its impact.


Sunday, November 8, 2015

Movie with Abe: Theeb

Directed by Naji Abu Nowar
Released November 6, 2015

The Middle East is a complicated place, and today’s conflicts have reached a particularly volatile height. The region has a storied history, one populated with just as much internal and external strife as currently exists today. “Theeb” sets its events in 1916 in an Ottoman Empire province while World War I is at its height and bandits and mercenaries are even more dangerous than enemy forces. A young Bedouin boy with a great knowledge of the desert is at the center of this isolating, harrowing journey that endows him with infinite life experience in a short period of time.

Theeb (Jacir Eid Al-Hwietat), which translates to “wolf,” is the younger brother of Hussein (Hussein Salameh Al-Sweilhiyeen), and both are members of a Bedouin community with an uncanny familiarity with their surroundings, which to any visitor might seem simply like endless desert. A British officer arrives and requests to be guided through the desert by Hussein, and, naturally, Theeb cannot resist tagging along, staying back from the group as he follows the officer towards his unknown destination. Disaster quickly strikes as repeated warnings about the danger of where they are going are confirmed by the presence of vicious attacking raiders, and Theeb must do what he can to survive that and subsequent encounters.

“Theeb” takes tremendous advantages of its vast and indiscernible surroundings to amplify the effect of the trek its protagonist takes, as daylight brings an enormity of caves, cliffs, and indistinguishable directions, and nightfall brings a sense of truly being lost as there is nothing at all that can be seen without lights. Before the group begins its trip, talk is heard of the train interrupting the simple lifestyle of the place, and this story is very much a timeless one, dismissing technology as irrelevant as it applies to anything but guns, the one modern development seen in the film.

“Theeb” is described on IMBD as belonging to the adventure, drama, and thriller genres. While the first recalls something like Indiana Jones, a comparison worthwhile because of the setting, costumes, and British influence, this hardly contains the same excitement and intrigue. Not much happens over the course of the film, which is, of course, the point, as Theeb cannot speed through the rough path that he must take towards survival with all odds against him. Ultimately, Jordan’s Oscar entry for Best Foreign Film starts out on an intriguing note with a strong resolve but never manages to be as gripping or involving as it wants to be.


Saturday, November 7, 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

Brooklyn (recommended): The dependable Saiorse Ronan shines in this gorgeous, sweeping tale of coming to America, a story that feels vibrant and fresh despite its familiar premise. Now playing at AMC Lincoln Square, Regal Union Square, and City Cinemas 123. Read my review from Sundance.

Sand Dollars (recommended): Geraldine Chaplin carries her weight in this intriguing and moderately involving tale of a young Dominican woman living two lives in the Dominican Republic's official Oscar submission for this year. Now playing at Cinema Village. Read my review from yesterday.

Spotlight (highly recommended): Michael Keaton leads a large and strong ensemble cast in this extremely well-crafted and interesting dramatization of the Boston Globe's long-term probe into the abuses of the Catholic Church in a surefire Best Picture Oscar nominee. Now playing at AMC Lincoln Square and Regal Union Square. My review will be up on Monday.

Theeb (mixed bag): Jordan’s official Oscar submission is a film that makes the most of its desert setting for its story of impossible endurance and survival in the Ottoman Empire in the 1916, but isn’t quite as excellent as most seem to find it. Now playing at Lincoln Plaza. My review will be up tomorrow.

Trumbo (recommended): Bryan Cranston is the standout as the outlandish proudly Communist-affiliated screenwriter Dalton Trumbo in this colorful and enlightening story of Hollywood in a strange and censored time. Now playing at AMC Lincoln Square and AMC Village. Read my review from Wednesday.

New to DVD

Best of Enemies (highly recommended): This extremely engaging documentary chronicles the rivalry between Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley, Jr., intellectual pundits from complete opposite ends of the spectrum, who, after both have died, have their relationship analyzed for all to see, an effective and informative look at what happened when opposing opinions were presented in the same space rather than on different networks.

The End of the Tour (recommended): This recreation of the time shared by an eager journalist and one of the most prolific authors in recent history who died far too soon is an interesting and immensely watchable portrait of two people with sharp, memorable dialogue. Jason Segel does a great take on David Foster Wallace in this appealing if unresounding film.

Inside Out (highly recommended): I still haven’t written a review, but rest assured that this animated film is a real winner, an endlessly entertaining and equally clever externalization of emotions that I somehow neglected to review when I saw it. Amy Poehler and Phyllis Smith are just two of the many great voice actors to help animate this lovely story about the emotions at work within the brain of a young girl struggling to adapt to a difficult move.

Now Available on Instant Streaming.

August: Osage County (mixed bag): This adaptation of the popular play features an astounding cast, led by Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts, but it’s not nearly as satisfying or even as it should be. Margo Martindale is the standout player, and it’s the subtler background performances in this loud film that make it most worthwhile.

Five Star (recommended): This 2014 Tribeca entry is a matter-of-fact look at two men, one following a stint in jail and the other just starting to get into criminal enterprises. The performances are strong and the film is involving if not too memorable.

The Gunman (anti-recommended): This film may feel a lot like “Taken,” and while the two share a director, this mindless action blockbuster doesn’t have nearly the brains of that already questionable prototype. Sean Penn is at his least enthusiastic in this truly absurd flick.

She’s Lost Control (recommended): Brooke Bloom is a true breakout as a sex surrogate in this intimate and affecting drama that serves as a reliable and involving independent film.

Friday, November 6, 2015

Movie with Abe: Sand Dollars

Sand Dollars
Directed by Israel Cárdenas and Laura Amelia Guzmán
Released November 6, 2015

Sometimes, a film’s setting speaks louder than its events. The Dominican Republic’s official submission for Best Foreign Film at this year’s Oscars uses the backdrop of its country to paint an idyllic picture of romance and passion in a nation where there is an overwhelming disparity of wealth between the native population and foreigners who visit or choose to make it their home. “Sand Dollars” explores the dual lives lived by Noeli (Yanet Mojica), a young Dominican woman who splits her time pulling scams with her boyfriend and playing into the desires of Anne (Geraldine Chaplin), an older French woman, representing the two poles of experience in everyday Dominican life.

Noeli has an undeniable charm to her, capable of being gritty and down-to-earth with the boyfriend who shares her upbringing and outlook on life, and equally able to present a more airy, alluring façade that enchants the older woman with whom she spends a good portion of her days. Her boyfriend sees her as a partner-in-crime and someone relatively equal to him, and Anne has fallen hopelessly head over heels for her, much in the way a professor might fall for his or her student, well aware of the difference in what they have seen in their lives yet blinded by the exuberance of lust.

There is much to be said about class and social tiers in this film, which tells a specific narrative but also manages to get across a grander point about who people are in different contexts. Noeli tells her boyfriend, who she introduces to Anne as her brother, that she is merely playing Anne, doing whatever she requests so that she can best take advantage of the generosity and affection heaped upon her, which includes the promise of a trip abroad. But there is something about the relationship and the way they interact as conveyed by Mojica that suggests that there may in fact be more between them, and though Anne is definitely more into Noeli, she does reciprocate her feelings to a degree and gain a great deal of comfort from their romance.

Casting Chaplin, an established actress who over the last fifty years has proven herself to be a talent worthy of her last name, with roles from “Nashville” to “Talk to Her” across many languages and countries, with novice actress Mojica gives the film a sense of authenticity and ownership over the story it wants to tell. Both actresses are very capable and do a tremendous job of transmitting the passion they are experiencing, even though they both come from different worlds and approaches to what it is in which they are engaging. The film doesn’t end on a definitive note, preserving its dreamlike feel in a way that makes its events linger but appear as if they may have been just as fleeting and forgettable as Noeli constantly claimed.


Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Movie with Abe: Trumbo

Directed by Jay Roach
Released November 6, 2015

Writers in any medium have an interesting and important job: to tell a story. Often, writers draw from their own life experiences to craft a compelling narrative and create a piece of fiction very much based on true events and actual people. In the case of Dalton Trumbo, a famed Hollywood screenwriter in the 1940s, his works were excellent, but not nearly as fascinating as his own life, something which had nothing to do with the content of the screenplays he wrote. In “Trumbo,” the writer is entirely the story.

Trumbo (Bryan Cranston) is an animated, charismatic facet of the film industry in 1947, a popular figure with one particularly outspoken trait: he is a proud member of the Communist party. He stands in stark contrast to such Hollywood heavies as actor John Wayne (David James Elliott) and gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (Helen Mirren), but finds himself in good company with a handful of other players, including actor Edward G. Robinson (Michael Stuhlbarg) and screenwriters Arlen Hird (Louis C.K.) and Ian McLellan Hunter (Alan Tudyk). When the time comes to discredit Communists and force them to name names and be blacklisted, Trumbo is unapologetic, and finds his life transformed in an irreversibly negative way.

What happens after Trumbo serves his time in prison for refusing to name names is when this film truly comes alive. Unimpressed with the way that his industry has handled things, Trumbo begins ghostwriting terrible films and even enlisting a number of his blacklisted colleagues to do the same. Inevitably, Trumbo even gets to write a few top-notch scripts which make their way to award wins for which other people must take credit. The way that Trumbo gets, in a way, back on top, makes this film feel like “Argo,” which also featured Cranston and John Goodman, who here plays the executive churning out dreck, in that it features a preposterous plan to deceive many that couldn’t possibly work but did.

The film has a distinctly lighthearted feel despite a subject matter that did adversely affect a large number of people and families. That seems to be the best way to tackle it, and it serves as a fun and engaging manner in which to share Trumbo’s undeniably interesting story. Cranston inhabits the role of Trumbo with gusto and energy, ably supported by the likes of Mirren, Tudyk, and Goodman in their period parts. C.K., on the other hand, sticks out considerably, one of the few things about the film that dents its pristine appearance. The film has its moments of grandeur and spectacle, and ultimately serves as an enlightening and entertaining exposé about one of Hollywood’s nuttiest times.


Thursday, October 29, 2015

Movie with Abe: Bridge of Spies

Bridge of Spies
Directed by Steven Spielberg
Released October 16, 2015

The Cold War was an interesting time for the parties involved since it was defined by a constant state of uneasiness and covert operations, with few military engagements and visible confrontations occurring. That extended time period presents a world of storytelling possibilities. Director Steven Spielberg, no stranger to historical films and ones set during wartime, reunites with his “Saving Private Ryan” star Tom Hanks to put on screen the true story of James Donovan, an American lawyer tasked with providing a defense for an accused Russian spy, who defied the spirit of his era by giving it his all and risking even more to save American lives.

This drama begins with the arrest of Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), who is suspected of being a Russian spy. Donovan, a charismatic lawyer, agrees to take on his case, and it quickly becomes clear that it is all a show to make his conviction legally acceptable. Donovan pushes to argue against the automatic presumption of guilt, but learns that he may have better luck keeping his client alive so that, if Americans are taken prisoner by the Soviet Union, the United States has something to trade. When that inevitably happens, it’s hardly a shock that Donovan is the one called upon to act as the negotiator between two parties who can’t officially acknowledge the existence of any situation.

There is a surprising amount of humor infused into this otherwise dark and dreary tale, and most of it comes from Hanks. Donovan cracks plenty of jokes, some about how he will be the second most-hated man in America for defending number one and others about the state of affairs in Germany, which, on the eve of the building of the Berlin Wall, is the unstable site for negotiations between the United States and the Soviet Union. That lightheartedness sometimes feels inappropriate, though it often also helps to invigorate a story that, while interesting, is far from thrilling. There is little action and few thrills to be found in a film that, while marketed as a thriller, is merely a dramatic period piece. Hanks and Rylance are right for their parts, and strengthen a decent film that isn’t Spielberg’s best. It captures the feeling of the times and remains engaging for the majority of its 141-minute runtime, but lacks a certain excitement and powerful impact that other films from the venerable director have mastered.