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.


Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Movie with Abe: The Second Mother

The Second Mother
Directed by Anna Muylaert
Released August 28, 2015

Class differences can be a complicated thing, especially if not everyone is on the same page about exactly where they stand in the world. This can be particularly tricky in a workplace setting, where one person’s sense of subservience is not matched or felt by another person. In “The Second Mother,” a live-in maid at a wealthy home finds her universe deeply disrupted when her daughter moves in to her room and fails to grasp the role she should inhabit, presenting an uncomfortable and often entertaining look at people existing in the same space with vastly different ideas of the world around them.

Val (Regina Casé) is introduced as a woman fully committed to her job, someone who goes above and beyond to cultivate deep, caring relationships with those she works for, treating them like family. The dynamics that she has with the three other inhabitants of the house vary, as patriarch Carlos (Lourenço Mutarelli) speaks rarely but is courteous enough, matriarch Barbara (Karine Teles) is relatively matter-of-fact and commanding, and Fabinho (Michel Joelsas) is close enough to her to climb into bed with her as a teenager when he can’t sleep. Val sees these roles as ordained and never thinks about anything being unjust or changing.

The arrival of Val’s headstrong daughter Jessica (Camila Mardila) shakes things up in a major way, one that transforms Val from a background object consistently and reliably doing her job to a much more visible element. Jessica’s presumptiveness finds her acting more like a guest than someone who should be grateful to her hosts for letting her live with them temporarily, something that makes Val extremely uncomfortable. Carlos and Fabinho obliviously egging Jessica on doesn’t help matters at all, infuriating Barbara and turning an awkward situation into something much more volatile.

This film, which was selected by Brazil as its official Oscar submission for Best Foreign Film this year, is a goodhearted picture of society that isn’t unique to its country. Casé is the center of the film, anchoring it with her portrayal of a docile worker who gives much of herself without receiving anything concrete back. Mardila’s performance helps to draw out that relationship and paint these characters as layered women whose lack of a solid connection only contributes to their bond when thrown together in someone else’s house. This film may not be satisfying or fully comfortable, but it’s definitely an enjoyable snapshot with a knowing and intelligent tone.


Saturday, September 12, 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.

The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution (recommended): This documentary is a strong and stirring chronicle of the Black Panthers from the organizations’ incitement to their redefinition both internally and by lawmaking authorities. Now playing at Film Forum and AMC Magic Johnson Harlem. Read my review from Sundance.

Sleeping with Other People (highly recommended): Jason Sudeikis and Allison Brie are both terrific in the funniest film from Sundance 2015, a hilarious tale of two friends who try not to be more than that but have trouble keeping themselves from falling for each other. Now playing at AMC Lincoln Square and Regal Union Square. Read my review from Sundance.

Z for Zachariah (recommended): Margot Robbie, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and Chris Pine are all terrific in this decent depiction of a post-apocalyptic world that doesn’t involve zombies, mutants, or anything of the sort. Read my review from Sundance.

New to DVD

Citizenfour (mixed bag): This Oscar-winning documentary is extremely overrated, featuring an extremely compelling subject, document-leaker Edward Snowden, but hardly made as a strong documentary. See one of the other nominees instead – this one isn’t nearly as invigorating as it purports to be.

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.

Now on Netflix Instant Streaming

Above and Beyond (highly recommended): This documentary about the birth of the Israeli air force is an extremely enjoyable, inspiring, and fresh look at how one young country was able to defend itself from attacks on old sides with the help of American and other volunteers eager to fight to safeguard Israel. Hearing from the senior citizens who flew the planes is a particular treat.

Miss Julie (mixed bag): Jessica Chastain and Colin Farell star in this realization of the famed 1888 play that probably is better suited for the stage. Chastain is always good but this is hardly the film to see her in any year.

6 Years (recommended): Taissa Farmiga and Ben Rosenfield star as Melanie and Dan, two people who have been dating for the title period of time and aren’t sure exactly where they are heading. This depiction of a relationship is honest and engaging if not entirely mesmerizing.

Up in the Air (highly recommended): This 2009 Best Picture nominee from director Jason Reitman is a superb and enjoyable look at a man who spends his life living out of a suitcase, with terrific performances from George Clooney, Anna Kendrick, and Vera Farmiga.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Movie with Abe: 6 Years

6 Years
Directed by Hannah Fidell
Released September 8, 2015 on Netflix

Conveying time and the history of any relationship in a film is a difficult task. There are intricacies and brief moments that need to demonstrate much more than they might explicitly do, giving those watching a sense that there exists a wealth of previous experiences and events that play into what is specifically occurring in the present. In “6 Years,” the title time period is the length of the romantic relationship between Melanie (Taissa Farmiga) and Dan (Ben Rosenfield), two young adults just starting to figure out where life will take them and forced to consider whether their paths will be together or separate.

Both Melanie and Dan, in their early years after college, are in relatively ideal positions. Melanie is getting hands-on experience in a classroom as an assistant teacher, and Dan is interning at a record label where getting kept on almost always translates to an impending job offer. Their relationship has not necessarily evolved with them, however, as after six years they are no closer to deciding what or when the next step will be. They have known each other forever, and therefore their parents are extremely familiar with each partner and invested in some way in the future of the relationship, which seems unknown at best given both parties’ attitudes and motivations.

Most of the interactions we see between Melanie and Dan find them in insolation, spending time in a room together or at a party. There is a disconcerting casual violence inserted into the romance when, in the middle of a fight, Melanie pushes Dan and injures him far more than might be expected. This becomes a trend throughout the film, as Melanie responds with unintentional physical consequences when Dan harms her emotionally by failing to consider her or outright disregarding her role in his life.

“6 Years” showcases an intriguing but familiar relationship dynamic and does not attempt to sugarcoat or whitewash the inherent flaws in both the individuals on their own and the couple together. Farmiga, who has spent much of her career starring on “American Horror Story,” is raw and real as Melanie, who remains headstrong despite her shortcomings and optimistic even with worries plaguing her mind. Rosenfield, who played Nucky Thompson’s nephew on “Boardwalk Empire,” builds up a wall around Dan’s emotions that makes its inevitable destruction all the more potent and powerful. This film is far from affirming, inspiring, or satisfying, but there is a certain intensity and roughness that makes it worthwhile.


Friday, September 4, 2015

Movie with Abe: Dirty Weekend

Dirty Weekend
Directed by Neil LaBute Released September 4, 2015

A film’s title can have different meanings, and as a result it’s helpful when characters do the job of defining exactly what it’s supposed to reference. Shortly into “Dirty Weekend,” Natalie (Alice Eve) cites a term for the type of behavior that two coworkers start to discuss when weather keeps their plane stranded in Albuquerque: a chance to be away and try things that aren’t normally acceptable. For Natalie and Les (Matthew Broderick), their unexpected time spent in Albuquerque provides a gradual and necessary departure from the banality of their everyday life.

As soon as he is introduced, it is entirely clear that Les is an uptight person. He does not like his schedule being disrupted and has a certain way of doing things, but he is also used to being ignored and not being heard. Natalie is also buttoned up in her own way, mainly in that she wears a turtleneck even in hot weather and refuses to disclose details of her personal life. Spending so much time together inevitably leads them to become closer as they begin to open up about their deepest secrets.

“Dirty Weekend” feels a lot like a play, with dialogue and conversations featured frequently with a small, tight-knit cast, including a cab driver (Phil Burke) who consistently appears every time Les and Natalie think to go into town. The setting of Albuquerque, which might as well be any unknown city, is an effective player in its own right, enabling them to experience something different than usual in transit from their base of operations to their delayed business in Dallas.

Ultimately, the film’s success is based on the quality of its performers. Broderick is an established actor who here gets to be as awkward and uncomfortable as possible, something he does well but that doesn’t lead to his being too endearing. Eve, who was charming in “Starter for 10,” “Star Trek Into Darkness,” and “Entourage,” does her best to give the film some charm but also proves a bit too bottled up to be inviting. Paired together, they make for an interesting duo, both appropriately muted but also prone to outbursts of energy, matched well by the calm, cool nature of those few people they encounter more than one in Albuquerque. This film is a fun idea but not one that ever really materializes into a substantial and winning concept.