Thursday, February 23, 2017

Oscar Winner Predictions: Best Sound


The competition: Arrival, Hacksaw Ridge, La La Land, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi

Previous winners: Mad Max: Fury Road, Whiplash, Gravity, Les Miserables, Hugo, Inception, The Hurt Locker, Slumdog Millionaire
My winner: To be announced soon!
The facts: Many of this year’s nominees have been honored before, and some quick analysis indicates that it’s way too much information to filter and count. The most-recognized nominee is Kevin O’Connell, who this year earns his twenty-first nomination in this category as part of the “Hacksaw Ridge” team. Despite his many nominations, he has yet to win. Usually, sci-fi films, action films, and musicals do well here. From the “Star Wars” saga, episodes four and five won this award, and six, seven, and one were nominated.

Who should win: I think I’d choose one of three very different audial experiences: the quiet mystery of “Arrival,” the charming melodies of “La La Land,” or the space adventures of “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.”
Who will win: Music movies like “Ray,” “Dreamgirls,” “Les Miserables” and “Whiplash” have done well in the recent past here, and I think that bodes well for La La Land.

Movie with Abe: 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi

13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi
Directed by Michael Bay
Released January 15, 2016

Michael Bay isn’t likely at the top of anyone’s list of filmmakers to turn recent international events into movies. Bay doesn’t have a great track record with adapting history, with “Pearl Harbor” proving a box office success but immense critical failure. Bay is certainly a fan of mindless action, and therefore dramatizing the story of the fall of the United States diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya in 2012 is an intriguing choice. Not one for strong dialogue or plot, Bay manages to deliver a decent if extremely overlong and mild action piece about the CIA team fighting hard to defend their stronghold.

The film opens with titles declaring Benghazi to be one of the most dangerous places in the world, and the diplomatic compound is all that remains of the United States’ presence in the city. A crew of military contractors led by a man known as The Chief (David Costabile) includes Rone Woods (James Badge Dale), new arrival Jack Silva (John Krasinski), Oz Geist (Max Martini), Tig Tiegen (Dominic Fumusa), Tanto Paronto (Pablo Schreiber), and Boon Benton (David Denman). When militants attack the compound, U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens (Matt Letscher)’s life in put in danger, and the “secret soldiers” must do their best to fight off an intense assault that feels like it will never end.

This film would never have made it onto my radar had it not been for my ridiculous attempt to watch every movie nominated for an Oscar in any category. I remember seeing a trailer for what looked like an all-out action movie and then being just as surprised by the title as I was by the fact that it was advertised as being directed by Bay. I thought it was much longer ago than just a full year, and it’s a rare thing that January releases end up with Oscar nominations. A more interesting statistic is that more than half of all the films Bay has made have actually been nominated for an Oscar, and in the Best Sound category, where this film contends this year. I’m not sure that this needed to be a movie, and listening to the acoustics for nearly two and a half hours isn’t really worth it. These actors mostly do good TV work and excel in comedic roles, and none of them stand out in this moderately-engaging film that’s prone to excessive theatrics and overindulgence but mostly stays on track.

B-

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Movie with Abe: Deepwater Horizon

Deepwater Horizon
Directed by Peter Berg
Released September 30, 2016

There is a tendency for major events in recent history to be dramatized and brought to the big screen in the form of action movies. That might seem like an insensitive trend, but the hope is that telling the story will pay tribute to the courage displayed by the survivors and to the heroic efforts of those who didn’t make it out alive. Peter Berg is a director often attached to films such as this, including another from 2016, “Patriots Day,” and therefore it’s no surprise that he is the one behind the movie version of the drilling rig explosion that caused the largest and most catastrophic oil spill in history.

This film features three primary protagonists around whom the story is told: chief electronics technician Mike Williams (Mark Wahlberg), navigation officer Andrea Fleytas (Gina Rodriguez), and rig supervisor Jimmy Harrell (Kurt Russell). The three of them share the unique quality of staying as calm as can be expected under pressure, reacting swiftly to the realization that there was something seriously wrong with the rig and that enormous destruction was about to follow. As soon as the explosions begin, there’s no turning back as this film hurtles without any relief towards its conclusion.

Since this is based on such an intense true story, there isn’t much extra fanfare or invention of events needed to make it immensely dramatic. This film doesn’t go into unnecessary survival mode, instead staying focused on its selected characters to take it through as they remain aboard a giant ship that is rapidly catching fire with increasingly little hope of putting it out. These people are simply putting their training to use and doing what they can to salvage a terrible situation that might have been prevented but can’t be stopped or reversed in the heat of the moment.

This is Wahlberg’s third straight collaboration with Berg, and while his Boston accent is noticeably missing, he is definitely a great fit to play Williams, displaying less comic charm than usual in a pretty standard serious role. Rodriguez makes a big departure from her “Jane the Virgin” image to play a more technical part, and the film doesn’t give her all that much to do while Russell has the opportunity to chew scenery throughout most of it. The film’s sound editing and visual effects, both of which earned Oscar nominations, drive and define it, helping to make this a better-than-average and better-than-expected blockbuster that does a fitting job of acknowledging its real-life inspiration as it ends.

B

Oscar Winner Predictions: Best Makeup and Hairstyling


The competition: A Man Called Ove, Star Trek Beyond, Suicide Squad

Previous winners: Mad Max: Fury Road, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Dallas Buyers Club, Les Miserables, The Iron Lady, The Wolfman, Star Trek, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
My winner: To be announced soon
The facts: In the past, such non-Oscar films as “The Wolfman” and “The Nutty Professor” have won this award, as have Best Picture contenders. Love Larson and Eva von Bahr contended last year for foreign comedy and are here again for “A Man Called Ove” this year. Joel Harlow, half of the “Star Trek Beyond” team, has been nominated twice before, winning in 2009 for “Star Trek.” On that note, three “Star Trek” films have contended over the past twenty-five years, and the 2009 reboot is the only one that won. Only Batman and Superman films have won Oscars before, so this would be the first for a spinoff. The last foreign winners in this category were “La Vie en Rose” and “Pan’s Labyrinth,” in 2007 and 2006, respectively. Only “A Man Called Ove” is nominated in another category, for Best Foreign Film.

Who should win: These are three totally different feats, all impressive. The lead actor is unrecognizable as Ove, buried under an exaggerated forehead and wearing misery on his face. Aliens aplenty are outlined and outfitted in the final frontier, and a handful of crazed villains with superpowers were present in the DC universe. I was astounded by the work in “A Man Called Ove,” and I think I’d vote for that or “Star Trek Beyond.”
Who will win: After its franchise-rebooter won this award seven years ago, I think Star Trek Beyond will take it this time around.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Movie with Abe: Star Trek Beyond

Star Trek Beyond
Directed by Justin Lin
Released July 22, 2016

Some series are meant to be franchises. “Star Trek” started out in the 1960s as a low-rated show that lasted only three seasons, and since then it has spawned four live-action TV spinoffs, over a dozen films, and succeeded well after a 2009 reboot with a young all-new cast. After J.J. Abrams reframed the two most recent movies, he hands it off to another director well-versed in sequel-making, Justin Lin, who helmed four “Fast and the Furious” films and now arrives take to steer this ship on the right track in yet another awesome epic adventure.

Though this 122-minute film covers a lot of ground (and space), its plot is actually relatively simple. At a monotonous point in the middle of their five-year mission, Captain James Kirk (Chris Pine) and his crew undertake a daring rescue attempt when a lone survivor shows up at a space station requesting help. When it turns out to be an ambush, the saucer of the Enterprise is cut off from the rest of the ship and those who are not taken prisoner by the planet’s natives, led by Krall (Idris Elba), must abandon ship. Trapped on an unfriendly planet, the separated crew members must find a way out and figure out how to defeat the swarm of aliens intent on wiping them out.

This rebooted franchise has done a great job of establishing its main characters, and it’s fantastic fun to see all of them featured here. Kirk is charming and has a superb sense of adventure that makes him extremely useful in a tight spot, and he’s well-matched by the sterner sensibility of logic-based Spock (Zachary Quinto) and sarcasm-fueled Dr. McCoy (Karl Urban). Sulu (John Cho), Scotty (Simon Pegg), Uhura (Zoe Saldana), and Chekhov (AntonYelchin) also provide wonderful support, and the late Yelchin proves particularly endearing in one of his final film performances.

This film earned just one Oscar nomination – for Best Makeup and Hairstyling – and it’s easily apparent that extreme effort was put into this film’s visual styling. Its effects are also excellent, and the music by Michael Giacchino is very effective in supporting the film’s overall energy. The plot here is far from complicated but the film works very well, and this entry doesn’t need to have too much connection to either the films before it or the ones after it, making it the rare standalone success story, equally capable of being part of a classic saga and doing just fine as a film in its own right.

B+

Movie with Abe: Suicide Squad

Suicide Squad
Directed by David Ayer
Released August 5, 2016

There are many television shows that are at this moment addressing the question of what it means to be a hero. Usually the word “super” precedes that term in the world of comic books, and the difference between having abilities and just being a normal brave person is very important. Those who do bad things in the name of making the world a better place are also subject to controversy, and no hero, good or bad, is beloved by all. When the protagonists are known criminals who have been brought together to fight off an even greater evil, it’s understandable that they wouldn’t be looked upon with favor or celebrated as the heroes they might eventually become.

Those passingly familiar with the Batman mythology will know a few of the characters from this film, starting the maniacal Joker (Jared Leto), whose devilish nature is responsible for the corruption and creation of the similarly wild and seemingly deranged Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie). Quinn is just one of a few infamous criminals, including Deadshot (Will Smith), Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney), El Diablo (Jay Hernandez), and Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), enlisted by high-ranking government agent Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) to assist Special Forces operative Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman) and his bodyguard Katana (Karen Fukuhara) in combating an ancient witch called Enchantress (Cara Delevingne) who has inhabited an archaeologist Flag has fallen in love with and who seeks to inflict suffering upon mankind.

If that seems like a lot, it is. There are so many characters here that it’s very difficult to keep track of who is who and what reasons they have for committing their crimes and then switching sides when compelled to do so by Waller and Flag. This film goes one step beyond the mode of something like “The Avengers” or television series “Legends of Tomorrow” to include so many characters interacting in one expansive universe. The experiment only works to a degree, since it proves to be a challenge to connect with these theoretically magnetic characters in such a crowded space where they are each only featured minimally. Why those with superpowers always need to fight witches or demonic forces is a mystery to me, and putting them up against any other threat, even aliens, would have made for a more impressive and (moderately) believable showdown. The actors, most of whom you wouldn’t expect to find in a film like this, are good, but this manic blockbuster was never supposed to be about the acting. Its Oscar nomination for Best Makeup and Hairstyling is well-deserved, certainly, and I can only hope that the sequel and whatever comes after it choose a stronger plot and nemesis for this deranged group.

C+

Monday, February 20, 2017

Oscar Winner Predictions: Best Foreign Film


The competition: Land of Mine (Denmark), A Man Called Ove (Sweden), The Salesman (Iran), Tanna (Australia), Toni Erdmann (Germany)

Previous winners: Son of Saul (Hungary), Ida (Poland), The Great Beauty (Italy), Amour (Austria), A Separation (Iran), In a Better World (Denmark), The Secret in their Eyes (Argentina), Departures (Japan)
My winner: To be announced soon!
The facts: This is the nineteenth nomination for Germany, which was won three times, most recently in 2006. This is the fifteenth nomination for Sweden, which has won three times, most recently in 1983. This is the fourteenth nomination for Denmark, which has won three times, most recently in 2010. This is the third nomination for Iran, which won in 2011 for another film directed by Asghar Farhadi, the only previously nominated filmmaker in this category. This is the first nomination for Australia, recognized for a film with Nauvhal and Nafe languages. “Elle,” which didn’t make the finalist list, won both the Golden Globe and the Critics’ Choice Award.

Who should win: I wasn’t in love with either of the two frontrunners, and “Tanna” took a bit of time to get into for me. “A Man Called Ove” was great, and I’d say that “Land of Mine” is far and away the best one here.
Who will win: I would have gone with “Toni Erdmann,” but I think that The Salesman will benefit from some late momentum to take it.

Oscar Winner Predictions: Best Animated Feature


The competition: Kubo and the Two Strings, Moana, My Life as a Zucchini, The Red Turtle, Zootopia

Previous winners: Inside Out, Big Hero 6, Frozen, Brave, Rango, Toy Story 3, Up, Wall-E, Ratatouille, Happy Feet, Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, The Incredibles, Finding Nemo, Spirited Away, Shrek
My winner: To be announced soon!
The facts: This category has existed since 2001. Both “Moana” and “Zootopia” come from Disney, which has won twice out of eight previous tries, for “Frozen” and “Big Hero 6.” The Japanese Studio Ghibli has won once out of six tries, back in 2002 for “Spirited Away,” and now contends for “The Red Turtle.” Laika has been nominated four times before, and this year contends for “Kubo and the Two Strings.” “My Life as a Zucchini” is the thirteenth foreign-language nominee in the history of this category. A number of the filmmakers behind these entries have been nominated once or twice before but none of them have won.

Who should win: I had trouble getting into “The Red Turtle,” enjoyed “Moana,” liked “Kubo and the Two Strings,” and was a big fan of “Zootopia.” But nothing impressed me as much as the one I saw list – “My Life as a Zucchini” – a sophisticated, endearing, and moving film that I think should take home this award. I would be fine if “Zootopia” did also, which is far more realistic.
Who will win: I imagine that it’s going to be Zootopia.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Oscar Winner Predictions: Best Original Song


The competition: "The Empty Chair" – Jim: The James Foley Story (J. Ralph & Sting), "Audition (The Fools Who Dream)" – La La Land (Justin Hurwitz and Pasek & Paul), "City of Stars" – La La Land (Justin Hurwitz and Pasek & Paul), "How Far I'll Go" – Moana (Lin-Manuel Miranda), "Can't Stop the Feeling!" – Trolls (Max Martin, Shellback, and Justin Timberlake)

Previous winners: Writing’s on the Wall (Spectre), Selma (Glory), Let It Go (Frozen), Skyfall (Skyfall), Man or Muppet (The Muppets), We Belong Together (Toy Story 3), The Weary Kind (Crazy Heart), Jai Ho (Slumdog Millionaire), Falling Slowly (Once), I Need To Wake Up (An Inconvenient Truth)
My winner: To be announced soon
The facts: This is the fourth nomination for Sting, the third for J. Ralph, and the first time they’re contending together. “City of Stars” won the Golden Globe. The good news for that particular nominee is that, while there used to be a trend where the Globe winner wasn’t even nominated for an Oscar, three out of the past four years the Globe winner has taken home the Oscar.

Who should win: I just listened again to all of these. “How Far I’ll Go” is okay but doesn’t match other animated tunes from previous years. “The Empty Chair” is decent but slow, and not my favorite from the bunch. “Can’t Stop the Feeling!” is undeniably catchy, just like “Happy” was a few years ago. I’d actually go with “Audition” over “City of Stars,” but both are great choices.
Who will win: It could be Lin-Manuel, but I think that City of Stars is way ahead.

Oscar Winner Predictions: Best Original Score


The competition: Jackie (Mica Levi), La La Land (Justin Hurwitz), Lion (Dustin O'Halloran and Hauschka), Moonlight (Nicholas Britell), Passengers (Thomas Newman)

Previous winners: The Hateful Eight, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Gravity, Life of Pi, The Artist, The Social Network, Up, Slumdog Millionaire
My winner: To be announced soon!
The facts: So here’s a crazy statistic: only one of these nominees is a returning Oscar contender, and he’s actually the most-nominated living person not to have won this award. This is Newman’s thirteenth bid, and he was up most recently in 2012 for “Skyfall” and 2013 for “Saving Mr. Banks.” Hurwitz is also nominated this year for writing the music for two original songs, and took home the Golden Globe award in this category.

Who should win: I remember really not liking the music in “Jackie,” and unfortunately I haven’t seen “Passengers,” though the pieces of the soundtrack I’ve listened to do seem strong. After seeing the films, I’ve had the chance to listen again to “Lion” and “Moonlight” and liked them, but nothing compares to the totally catchy, wonderful “La La Land” score.
Who will win: It could be any of them, but I think La La Land is far enough ahead.

Oscar Winner Predictions: Best Film Editing


The competition: Arrival (Joe Walker), Hacksaw Ridge (John Gilbert), Hell or High Water (Jake Roberts), La La Land (Tom Cross), Moonlight (Nat Sanders and Joi McMillon)

Previous winners: Mad Max: Fury Road, Whiplash, Gravity, Argo, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Social Network, The Hurt Locker, Slumdog Millionaire
My winner: To be announced soon!
The facts: Cross, Gilbert, and Walker have all been nominated exactly once before. Cross won for his previous collaboration with director Damien Chazelle on “Whiplash” in 2014. At the ACE Eddie Awards, the comedy award went to “La La Land,” and “Arrival” beat out the other three in the dramatic category. All but “Hell or High Water” are nominated for Best Director.

Who should win: I would be thrilled if “Hell or High Water” took this since it represented the smoothest and most suspenseful ride of the year for me. I didn’t find “Hacksaw Ridge” to be consistently well-assembled, and the other three would all be fine choices.
Who will win: It’s possible that “Hacksaw Ridge” or even “Moonlight” could take this, but I think La La Land will get it.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Oscar Winner Predictions: Best Costume Design


The competition: Allied (Joanna Johnston), Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (Colleen Atwood), Florence Foster Jenkins (Consolata Boyle), Jackie (Madeline Fontaine), La La Land (Mary Zophres)

Previous winners: Mad Max: Fury Road, The Grand Budapest Hotel, The Great Gatsby, Anna Karenina, The Artist, Alice in Wonderland, The Young Victoria, The Duchess
My winner: To be announced soon!
The facts: Atwood has twelve nominations and three wins, most recently for “Alice in Wonderland” in 2010. This is the second nomination for Boyle, Johnston, and Zophres. This is the first nomination for Fontaine. The CDG Awards have not been handed out yet, but all but “Allied” contend there across three separate categories.

Who should win: I haven’t seen “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them,” unfortunately, but this is one place where I’d be okay with “Florence Foster Jenkins” or “Jackie” winning. I wouldn’t vote for “Allied,” and I’m still picturing all the costumes in my choice, “La La Land.”
Who will win: It could be “Jackie,” but I still think La La Land will win here.

Oscar Winner Predictions: Best Art Direction


The competition: Arrival (Patrice Vermette and Paul Hotte), Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (Stuart Craig and Anna Pinnock), Hail, Caesar! (Jess Gonchor and Nancy Haigh), La La Land (David Wasco and Sandy Reynolds-Wasco), Passengers (Guy Hendrix Dyas and Gene Serdena)

Previous winners: Mad Max: Fury Road, The Grand Budapest Hotel, The Great Gatsby, Lincoln, Hugo, Alice in Wonderland, Avatar, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
My winner: To be announced soon!
The facts: This is Craig’s eleventh nomination, and he has prevailed three times, most recently in 1996. This is Haigh’s seventh nomination, and she won in 1991. This is Pinnock’s sixth nomination, and she won in 2014. This is the second nomination for Vermette, Gonchor, Hendrix Dyas, and Serdena. “Passengers” and “La La Land” took home ADG Awards in separate categories, with the former beating the other three nominees here.

Who should win: I’m sad to say that I didn’t see two of these films - “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” and “Passengers - because I underestimated their Oscar chances when they were in theaters, only to see both earn two nominations. I’m fond of “La La Land” and its purposeful colors over the rest here.
Who will win: I think that contemporary musical decorations will trump the sci-fi/period pieces and La La Land will take the win.

Oscar Winner Predictions: Best Cinematography


The competition: Arrival (Bradford Young), La La Land (Linus Sandgren), Lion (Greig Fraser), Moonlight (James Laxton), Silence (Rodrigo Prieto)

Previous winners: The Revenant, Birdman, Gravity, Life of Pi, Hugo, Inception, Avatar, Slumdog Millionaire
My winner: To be announced soon!
The facts: Just one of these nominees has been here before, and that’s Prieto, who contended in 2005 for “Brokeback Mountain,” and serves as the only nominee for his film. I can’t find a single instance in the past sixty years where a film only nominated in this category has won. The other four are Best Picture nominees with plenty of nominations. Interestingly, the actual Best Picture winner hasn’t taken this award since 2008. These five films represented the lineup at the ASC Awards, where “Lion” prevailed.

Who should win: I don’t know why “Silence” needs to be here. The other four are great choices, and I think I might go with “Lion” or “Moonlight” though I’m also fond of “La La Land.”
Who will win: Is this where things split or does “La La Land” sweep it all? I think this could go to Lion but it could just as easily go to any of the rest.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Movies with Abe: Allied

Allied
Directed by Robert Zemeckis
Released November 23, 2016

It’s a statistic that would be impossible to research or prove, but I’d be willing to bet that World War II is the most cinematically-realized conflict in history. The rise and fall of the Nazis is a big draw for moviemaking, the Holocaust is an important piece of history that many want to memorialize, and the scale of this “world war” present many opportunities for spotlighting different stories, with “Hacksaw Ridge” and “Land of Mine” serving as two completely unalike Oscar-nominated films about it this year. Another, up for Best Costume Design, is the less completely compelling “Allied.”

Max Vatan (Brad Pitt) is an intelligence officer in the Canadian Air Force sent to Casablanca, Morocco to pose as the husband of a socialite played by French resistance fighter Marianne Beausejour (Marion Cotillard). The two execute their mission - and a handful of Nazis - and return, together, to London to start a life and a family as real husband and wife. The pull of service constantly attracts Max back to the war, and he is dismayed to learn that his latest assignment is to determine whether the woman with whom he has made a home is in fact a Nazi spy.

Pitt and Cotillard are obvious choices for these roles because of their enormous public appeal and experience playing these types of characters. Pitt has made two World War II-set movies in the past five years (not to be confused with “World War Z”), "Fury" and "Inglourious Basterds," portraying commanders on the front lines, and here he gets to step back and play a far more subdued covert agent. Cotillard has achieved international fame after winning an Oscar for “La Vie en Rose,” and her seductive, duplicitous part in “Inception” is probably the best recommender for her to appear in this film. The chemistry between the two leads is undeniable, and they drive this movie more than anything else.

This film is better classified as a spy thriller than as a war movie, and while there is intrigue to be found, it’s far from the most enthralling story. In a conflict that can be considered global, this is an insular story of two people that barely includes anyone else, and those characters, intriguing as they may be, that do appear, are relatively underdeveloped. A running time over two hours does not feel justified, and this film serves as a passable if hardly mandatory cinematic experience, with its costumes as its best asset.

B-

Movie with Abe: Hail, Caesar!

Hail, Caesar!
Directed by Ethan and Joel Coen
Released February 6, 2016

The Coen Brothers are master storytellers. They have been making films for over thirty years, winning multiple Oscars and establishing a certain style that often features strong accents, black comedy, and some truly irreverent characters. Their most notable works include “Fargo,” “A Serious Man,” and “No Country for Old Men,” and while most of their films are major hits, there are also the occasional misfires that try and just miss the mark. An excellent example of this is their latest film, “Hail, Caesar!” which contends for one sole Oscar, for Best Art Direction, and represents the general idea of what Coen Brothers films often are but falters extraordinarily in its execution.

Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) is a Hollywood fixer in the 1950s, who, in typical movie comedy fashion, goes to confess to his priest on a far-too-regular basis, seeking absolution for the many sins he knows that he’s going to commit in the name of his work. Eddie’s job isn’t particularly easy, and it’s complicated considerably by the kidnapping of his biggest movie star, Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), by a group of Communists that call themselves The Future. Other minor obstacles Eddie must overcome over the course of the film are getting twin gossip columnists (Tilda Swinton) to sit on stories, a Western actor (Alden Ehrenreich) to star in a period piece, and dealing with an unmarried actress (Scarlett Johansson) who has become pregnant and whose career might be ended should her indiscretion come to light.

Like past Coen Brothers films, this production starts out from a point of disarray and chaos, with Eddie doing his best to keep it all under control. There are also elements in the duo’s films that also feel like they’ve come from out of nowhere and don’t end up serving some greater purpose, and this one is replete with them. It is reminiscent of a far better if still flawed film also starring Josh Brolin, “Inherent Vice,” but that film has a hidden darkness to it that makes it more tolerable. There’s a sense that there’s no real destination here, and that the bizarre and unsatisfying film itself is the journey.

There are so many big names here that it’s hard to believe this is such a mess. This isn’t Brolin’s best work, nor is it Clooney’s. Swinton, Johansson, Jonah Hill, Ralph Fiennes, and especially Channing Tatum have fun in small roles that don’t constitute more than a memorable scene or two. The indisputable breakout of the film is Ehrenreich, who commits so fully to his role and surely can cite this performance as a motivating factor for his upcoming stint as Han Solo in the next “Star Wars” film. This movie’s colors do pop and its art direction (and costume design) deserves praise, but beyond that, there’s not much of value here.

C-

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Movie with Abe: Land of Mine


Land of Mine
Directed by Martin Zandvliet
Released February 10, 2017

War takes a devastating, irreversible toll on any nation, all the more so if battles take place domestically. Coming out of a conflict, particularly one that lasted many years, is a harrowing challenge, and the road back to normalcy and prosperity can be very long, with plenty of casualties along the way. The balance of power in previously conquered countries can also shift dramatically, leading to a drastically transformed way of life that proves to be stagnant and miserable for all involved.

At the end of World War II, German prisoners-of-war in Denmark are kept in the country and put to work combing the beaches for the more than two million mines planted by their fellow soldiers during the war. Sergeant Carl Rasmussen (Roland Møller) is the Danish commander in charge of a group of fourteen very young German soldiers who quickly come to understand his authority and power. They are not fed, they are locked in a barn to sleep every night, and Sergeant Rasmussen regularly tells them that he hates them and does not care if they die. The stakes are enormously high as mines can – and do – detonate on a regular basis, costing these terribly young, seemingly innocent boys their limbs and their lives even after the war has ended.

“Land of Mine” begins with a powerful scene in which Sergeant Rasmussen sees a German soldier marching with a Danish flag and beats him up, taking the flag and carrying to it to the beach, defiantly declaring, “This is my land!” That’s where this film’s strong double-meaning of a title comes in, as the Danes struggle to reestablish their own national identity. Much of it has to do with dehumanizing the Germans they felt had done the same to them, and it’s only through time and experience that Rasmussen, who still remains gruff, begins to see that these are just children thrust into a conflict they couldn’t possibly be blamed completely for who have ended up in a horrific situation.

“Land of Mine” is a serious, compelling film about the aftereffects of war that is far from showy. Its production values are high, and its shots of the vast beach lined with many unknown threats and littered with prisoners of war seeking to literally clean up their mess are extremely effective. Møller is terrific, delivering an uncompromising turn as a man who believes firmly in what he is doing. The entire supporting cast is superb, with Louis Hoffman and real-life twin brothers Emil and Oskar Belton standing out for their contributions as memorable captured soldiers. This film is gut-wrenching, and feels real and vital. It’s certainly the best among this crop of Oscar nominees for Best Foreign Film and very much deserves to be seen.

B+

Movie with Abe: Tanna

Tanna
Directed by Martin Butler and Bentley Dean
Released September 16, 2016

The development of new technologies has helped to create potential and new opportunities for people to achieve great things and for societies to make progress on both social and institutional levels. Those rare places where advanced technology has not permeated often showcase simpler resolutions to problems since there are not additional complicating factors, but they can also be held back by traditions that might seem outdated and archaic. Arranged marriages are an example of this, and when the union of two people is vital to the survival and peaceful reconciliation of two nations, it’s an even more harrowing issue.

On the Vanuatuan island of Tanna, the Yakel tribe lives rather peacefully by following a certain code, not venturing outside boundaries that would infringe upon a neighboring tribe’s territory and thus spark violent conflict. Two young and optimistic grandchildren of tribal leaders, Selin (Marceline Rofit) and Dain (Mungau Dain), fall in love even though they know that it is not the custom of their society for people to choose their own partners. After an incident occurs, an agreement for a ceasefire between the tribes is reached, but only if these two idealistic young lovers are married off as part of a peace offering, a miserable ending to a love story that they cannot bear to see happen.

“Tanna” is a film without sophisticated production values, visual effects, or other enhancements that might turn it into an epic blockbuster. A story that has been compared to “Romeo and Juliet” is told in a completely straightforward manner, portraying these two people and the lives they lead as perfectly standard and far from extravagant, with people doing what they must do to survive and avoiding much conflict as a result, so long as they observe the established rules and traditions. Selin and Dain do not wish to conform, if only for the reason that they want to be together.

“Tanna” comes from Australian directors Martin Butler and Bentley Dean, who have collaborated previously on two well-received documentaries. The level of intimacy and engagement with these Vanuatuan non-actors is incredible, and Rofit and Dain are just the two who most stand out from a truly authentic and effective cast culled and educated by Butler and Dean to act out a story that is meaningful to them. It starts out slow, but its imagery and themes match its gradually more intriguing plot that carries it well as a deserving nominee for the Oscar for Best Foreign Film.

B+

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Movie with Abe: A Man Called Ove

A Man Called Ove
Directed by Hannes Holm
Released September 30, 2016

It is a common thing that, later in life, many people become irritable. Whether they were pleasant or unfriendly before that is often irrelevant, since circumstances and transformative events can change how they view the world. Loss is a major reason for people to turn against those around them and disregard them entirely, but often there’s little explanation for why someone seems to hate everyone and everything. Such stories can be full of entertainment, with more depth revealed as time goes on and the history behind a person at the end of his or her life unfolds.

Ove (Rolf Lassgård) shows just what kind of man he is in the film’s opening scene, angrily chewing out a poor supermarket clerk when he insists upon using a coupon that clearly articulates a discount on the purchase of two items to buy just one. Ove is prone to yelling at anyone who dares to drive in his neighborhood since vehicles are not allowed, and he treats all his neighbors as if they are bothering him when they so much as say hello. Eager to be reunited with the one person he does seem to like – his late wife – Ove plans to kill himself, but isn’t able to go through with the act because his neighbors just can’t seem to leave him in peace.

Any story about someone who starts out with a negative outlook on things is bound to head towards a more optimistic finish, and the whole of this film is very entertaining. As Ove tries to push people away, literally and figuratively, they just keep coming back and doing their best to enter his life, unconcerned with his lack of desire to give in or open up to their sunny ways. It turns out that there’s much more to Ove than meets the eye, and getting to know him both in his crotchety old age and in his younger, happier days is a treat.

This film earned two Oscar bids, one for Best Foreign Film, representing Sweden, and the other for Best Makeup. The latter is a true feat, since star Lassgård is completely unrecognizable as Ove, with his forehead exaggerated and his face made up to look incredibly different. Only upon seeing a regular photo of him did I realize that he played a tremendous role in the fantastic Danish film “After the Wedding,” and I awarded him the very first AFT Award for Best Supporting Actor. He’s just as great, if far less serious here, leading an endearing and funny film that deserves its nomination – and maybe even a win – for representing the best, if not the most epic, of international cinema.

B+

Movie with Abe: Fire at Sea


Fire at Sea
Directed by Gianfranco Rosi
Released October 21, 2016

The fate of immigrants and refugees is an especially poignant topic these days considering the recent moves by the new administration in the United States to limit entry based on country of origin and other factors which have sparked protests and much turmoil. A spotlight on the difficulty encountered by those coming from Muslim-majority countries to try to find new homes on a Sicilian island should be just as intriguing. This contemplative look at Lampedusa during the European migrant crisis tackles an enticing topic but its style leaves something to be desired.

“Fire at Sea,” an Oscar nominee for Best Documentary that will contend for the award next weekend, was also selected by Italy as its submission for Best Foreign Film, though it didn’t make the cut. This quiet, somber nonfiction film splits its time between showcasing life on Lampedusa, which proceeds at a slow pace and involves little fanfare, and radio conversations with passing ships ill-prepared for their treacherous journeys through the sea from nearby countries such as Libya and Tunisia. They are heard more than they are seen, but both are deeply affecting and heart-wrenching since few survive this arduous trip to one last hope for salvation.

There are those for whom “Fire at Sea” will be a potent, moving juxtaposition of two very different things - one a stable if unexciting normalcy on a small island and the other a harrowing and entirely unglamorous voyage towards a better life. The problem is that the film offers little insight of its own, allowing its captured events and interactions to do the talking and leaving the viewer to conclude what he or she might about the dynamic disparity between these two existences.

“Fire at Sea” is not a documentary that posits any particular argument or seeks to resolve any crisis or issue other than to showcase it for the world (appropriate, in the case of its Oscars attention) to see. Instead, it puts forth what established Italian documentary filmmaker Gianfranco Rosi has collected as the most literal type of documenting, assembling it together to provide two stories diverging from the same starting point. There is value to it, but it hardly compares to a number of other stronger nonfiction films this year that feel considerably more vital due to the energy and powerful nature of the cases they make.

B-

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Oscar Winner Predictions: Best Adapted Screenplay


The competition: Arrival (Eric Heisserer), Fences (August Wilson), Hidden Figures (Theodore Melfi and Allison Schroeder), Lion (Luke Davies), Moonlight (Barry Jenkins and Tarell Alvin McCraney)

Previous winners: The Big Short, The Imitation Game, 12 Years a Slave, Argo, The Descendants, The Social Network, Precious, Slumdog Millionaire, No Country for Old Men
My winner: To be announced soon!
The facts: Every nominee here is new to the Oscars this year. Wilson, who passed away in 2005, was awarded a Tony and a Pulitzer for the play version of “Fences” in 1987. All five films are nominated for Best Picture, and Jenkins also contends for Best Director this year. “Moonlight” has been classified by some awards groups as an original screenplay, which has led “Arrival” and “Lion” to win from different groups.

Who should win: Based on the actual script, I’d go with “Fences” or “Arrival.” “Moonlight” and “Lion” are definitely great choices too.
Who will win: I think this goes to Moonlight as an important win for the film, which is second in line to win Best Picture.

Oscar Winner Predictions: Best Original Screenplay


The competition: Hell or High Water (Taylor Sheridan), La La Land (Damien Chazelle), The Lobster (Yorgos Lanthimos and Efthimis Filippou), Manchester by the Sea (Kenneth Lonergan), 20th Century Women (Mike Mills)

Previous winners: Spotlight, Birdman, Her, Django Unchained, Midnight in Paris, The King’s Speech, The Hurt Locker, Milk, Juno
My winner: To be announced soon!
The facts: Lonergan has been nominated twice before in this category, for “You Can Count on Me” and “Gangs of New York,” and is also recognized for directing his film. Chazelle, who was previously nominated for adapting the screenplay of “Whiplash,” also contends for Best Director. Lanthimos was previously nominated for Best Foreign Film for “Dogtooth.” “Hell or High Water,” “La La Land,” and “Manchester by the Sea” are all up for Best Picture, and this is the only nomination for both “The Lobster” and “20th Century Women.” Since the expansion of this category to include more than five films, all winners have been Best Picture nominees. Previously, “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” took home this award in 2004 despite not being nominated for Best Picture.

Who should win: I really liked “Manchester by the Sea” but these are all terrific nominees. Any of them would be deserving if they won.
Who will win: Though “Manchester by the Sea” just took home the BAFTA, I think that Globe champ La La Land is seen as so original and beloved that it’s going to win here too.

Oscar Winner Predictions: Best Supporting Actress


The competition: Viola Davis (Fences), Naomie Harris (Moonlight), Nicole Kidman (Lion), Octavia Spencer (Hidden Figures), Michelle Williams (Manchester by the Sea)

Previous winners: Alicia Vikander, Patricia Arquette, Lupita N’yongo, Anne Hathaway, Octavia Spencer, Melissa Leo, Mo’Nique, Penelope Cruz
My winner: To be announced soon!
The facts: This category has been pretty consistent all awards season long. Davis, who has two previous nominations, has won just about everything and should have nothing standing in her way to get to the Oscar. Spencer won on her only nomination in 2011, and Kidman, who has three previous nominations, was rewarded in 2002. Williams has been nominated three times before, and this is Harris’ first mention. They’re both strong parts of films that will likely win awards for other actors in the cast. All five of these films are up for Best Picture.

Who should win: Davis was undeniably good, but my enthusiasm is behind Williams, who was excellent in my top film of the year. They’re honestly all good choices, though I would have picked Janelle Monae over Spencer for “Hidden Figures.”
Who will win: There’s no way this won’t be Davis.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Oscar Winner Predictions: Best Supporting Actor


The competition: Mahershala Ali (Moonlight), Jeff Bridges (Hell or High Water), Lucas Hedges (Manchester by the Sea), Dev Patel (Lion), Michael Shannon (Nocturnal Animals)

Previous winners: Mark Rylance, J.K. Simmons, Jared Leto, Christoph Waltz, Christopher Plummer, Christian Bale, Christoph Waltz, Heath Ledger
My winner: To be announced soon!
The facts: Bridges has been nominated six times in the past, winning in 2009 for “Crazy Heart.” Shannon is the only other nominee who contended previously, in 2008 for “Revolutionary Road.” Shannon serves as the only representative of his film this year, while the other four all star in Best Picture nominees. Shannon’s costar, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, who isn’t nominated here, took home the Globe, and Ali won both the Critics Choice Award, where all these nominees were up for the award, and the SAG. Patel triumphed over Ali with BAFTA, but that’s likely because he’s British.

Who should win: I really liked both Hedges and Patel and would be very happy if either of them won. Ali, a dependable actor who was a strong part of his film, would be a great choice too. I loved Bridges’ film but don’t feel that he was the strongest part, and I’m also a huge fan of Shannon’s but don’t think this was anywhere near his best performance, even if he was the only saving grace about a movie I hated.
Who will win: Barring a big surprise, I think all signs point to Ali, especially since his beloved film may not win in any other category and this would be an important recognition for it.

Oscar Winner Predictions: Best Actress


The competition: Isabelle Huppert (Elle), Ruth Negga (Loving), Natalie Portman (Jackie), Emma Stone (La La Land), Meryl Streep (Florence Foster Jenkins)

Previous winners: Brie Larson, Julianne Moore, Cate Blanchett, Jennifer Lawrence, Meryl Streep, Natalie Portman, Sandra Bullock, Kate Winslet
My winner: To be announced soon!
The facts: This category is not shaping up the way I – and many others – expected. Portman started off strong with a win at the Critics Choice Awards, where all these nominees save for Streep contended. Huppert took home the Golden Globe for Drama, and Stone, who won the Globe for Comedy, beat out Portman without Huppert in the running at SAG. Given the momentum of Stone’s film and the lack of any enthusiasm post-Globes for Huppert’s, I think she may still be ahead. Stone has one previous nomination from 2014, while Portman has two, including a win in this category in 2010 for “Black Swan” (which also means she’s already been rewarded). Huppert and Negga are both first-time nominees, and this is Streep’s astounding twentieth nomination. She was won three times, in 1979, 1982, and 2012. If she wins this year, which is in no way likely, she’ll tie Katharine Hepburn as the most-awarded performer in Oscar history. Stone’s film is the only one up for Best Picture. Portman’s film and Streep’s are both up for Best Costume Design, and Portman’s also contends for Best Original Score.

Who should win: I haven’t made my own list yet, but Huppert and Stone would both definitely be at the top of it. I don’t think this is a Streep performance that needs to be honored here, and while I did like Negga, hers wasn’t one of the very best of the year. Portman’s is just like Helen Mirren in “The Queen,” an extraordinary act of imitation but not the strongest all-around turn of the year in this category.
Who will win: Given the energy for “La La Land,” which could well find itself snubbed in the top race due to backlash, I think that Stone is the heavy frontrunner here and shouldn’t have much of a problem winning. I think Huppert scoring would be great, but I don’t think it’s going to happen. It’s also possible that Portman surges and ends up ahead.

Oscar Winner Predictions: Best Actor


The competition: Casey Affleck (Manchester by the Sea), Andrew Garfield (Hacksaw Ridge), Ryan Gosling (La La Land), Viggo Mortensen (Captain Fantastic), Denzel Washington (Fences)

Previous winners: Leonardo DiCaprio, Eddie Redmayne, Matthew McConaughey, Daniel Day-Lewis, Jean Dujardin, Colin Firth, Jeff Bridges, Sean Penn
My winner: To be announced soon!
The facts: Washington, who took home his first SAG award a few weeks ago for this performance, has been nominated six times before and won twice, in 1989 for “Glory” and in 2001 for “Training Day.” Gosling, Affleck, and Mortensen have all each been nominated once before, in 2006, 2007, and 2007, respectively. This is Garfield’s first nomination. All but Mortensen’s film are nominated for Best Picture. Affleck has won virtually everything so far this awards season, but Washington’s recent SAG win casts doubt on the certainty of his Oscar chances. The main thing going against him is the revelation of a number of sexual harassment cases in his past, and it’s very possible that Washington will win again due in part to the frontrunner being undone by his own actions (Russell Crowe’s bad behavior during the 2001 awards season may have cost him his Oscar for “A Beautiful Mind,” which instead went to Washington). The good thing is…

Who should win: …even though Affleck is far-and-away my choice, Washington was also undeniably excellent. I’d also be happy with a Gosling win although I think he’s the only nominated part of that movie with no shot.
Who will win: SAG may just have awarded Washington because they never had before, so I think that Affleck can still win this. I’m not too confident in that prediction, but for now I’ll stick with him.

Friday, February 10, 2017

Movie with Abe: A United Kingdom

A United Kingdom
Directed by Amma Assante
Released February 10, 2017


Oyelowo and Pike star in the film

Love is not always an easy thing. For those who want to be together and happen to come from the same community, or those for whom such things don’t matter, it may not be complicated. But in many cases, stepping outside one’s culture, nationality, or religion can be mired in conflict. When race and royalty are inserted into the mix, the difficulty becomes exponentially greater, since there is an entire history to be factored into just one relationship. Fortunately, such forward-thinking unions do happen sometimes, and looked back upon, they are incredibly inspiring.


Assante discusses the film at a roundtable interview

While studying at university in London, Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo), the prince and future king of Bechuanaland, which is now the country of Botswana, meets and falls in love with Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike). Ruth’s family does not approve of her marrying a black man, but that does not compare to the reaction of Seretse’s uncle and many of the members of his tribe at his bringing home a white woman to be their queen. Seretse and Ruth might fight for their love to be accepted by everyone around them as the threat of increased British colonial rule looms with Seretse’s claim to leadership uncertain.


Pike discusses the film at a roundtable interview

Director Amma Assante, whose previous film was the highly-regarded “Belle,” describes this film as instantly appealing as a “sweeping romance.” This story of two continents and of political disagreement is centered more than anything on the love between these two people. Assante admits that this film isn’t really about the politics and doesn’t show the “rawness of colonialism” since that would have taken viewers out of the experience. As one a black female director working today, she acknowledges that she still has something to prove, and making a film that truly represents Botswana was a rewarding process. Oyelowo stresses the value of “different perspective gaining a larger platform in terms of storytelling” since they have been marginalized, and cites this film as his third time recently working with a female director of color. He also notes that, for him, there was a “magical and powerful” overlap between him as a person and him as a character when he delivered a passionate speech about Seretse’s love for Ruth, due in part to his own interracial marriage. Pike describes not previously having “seen the experience of a white person craving inclusion in an African world,” and how filming in Botswana in many of the places where the film actually takes place was a transformative and educational experience.


Oyelowo discusses the film at a roundtable interview

Coupled with “Loving,” a film that came up during roundtable interviews with the cast and director, this film shows important historical instances of people declaring their love above all in a society that wasn’t anywhere near ready to accept them. Discussing racism in the UK, Oyelowo points to a scene in the film where Ruth is surprised to see a “whites only” sign outside an entrance in Botswana, saying that he’d have that and know where he stands than deal with something more “insidious and undercover.” Though it favors love over a grittier, more realistic representation of the challenges presented to people of color who are not in power, this film is an endearing, affirming representation of what it means to stand for something that should still ring incredibly true today. Assante demonstrates herself to be a reliable and talented director with Oyelowo and Pike fitting their roles very well and delivering passionate, evocative performances in this positive film about a remarkable development in recent African history.

B+

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Movie with Abe: David Brent: Life on the Road

David Brent: Life on the Road
Directed by Ricky Gervais
Released February 10, 2017

For anyone craving a reboot of “The Office,” this is about as close as they’re going to get. While the American remake starring Steve Carell may be far more popular in the United States, it’s the British original that spawned at least seven international versions that started it all. Ricky Gervais didn’t achieve all that much popularity until he wandered on stage to accept his two Golden Globe wins in 2003 for producing and starring in the show that made the workplace fun. Now, more than a decade and a half after he launched the show, Gervais is back as David Brent in a new film about what the world’s worst boss has been up to since he signed off the air.

This film’s title purposely doesn’t mention an office since, while part of it does take place in one, it’s not really a continuation of the British series. Brent is the only character from the original series to appear in the film, and he’s no longer the man in charge. Instead, he works as a sales rep in an office where he sits at a cubicle and still continues to make everyone shudder with his inappropriate comments and activities. On the side, he’s pursuing his dream of becoming a musician, shelling out absurd amounts of money to fund a band called Foregone Conclusion, whose talented members must constantly deal with Brent’s insatiable desire to hog the spotlight.

It would be near impossible to tally the number of uncomfortable and awkward moments in this film, which runs just over an hour and a half. Brent almost doesn’t need to try in order to offend everyone around him, and the fact that he always keeps pushing after he’s already sunk so low is not an attribute. What’s refreshing about this film is that it features honest takes from those in his life as part of its mockumentary style, with most describing that they believe he really can’t help it, and something just goes off in his brain to force him to make every situation worse after he’s already obliterated any chance of it being acceptable. Better yet, there are a few endearing colleagues who have chosen to look at their relationship with the one and only Brent as something not all that negative.

Getting to spend time with Brent and come to that same realization – that he’s not all that bad – is what makes this film worthwhile. While this reviewer and many others might prefer Michael Scott to David Brent, they’re very much the same kind of person, just as well-intentioned as they are misguided and just as seemingly selfish as they are selectively generous. Watching that transformation as it plays out with new characters by Brent’s side in a full-length film turs out to be an enriching and entertaining experience, with some music that’s not nearly as bad as those in Brent’s bad seem to think it is.

B+

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Movie with Abe: My Life as a Zucchini

My Life as a Zucchini
Directed by Claude Barras
To be released February 24, 2017

The Oscar category for Best Animated Feature is a relatively recent addition to the annual awards, marking its sixteenth year of existence in 2016. Overall, it has included many Disney and Pixar efforts as well as other American productions. Most years, there are one or two foreign inclusions, like something from Studio Ghibli, which usually tend to skew towards a more mature audience even if they are still kid-friendly. And then there are those strong, intriguing picks that really stand out from the pack which might feature children as their protagonists but are hardly meant for the younger viewer.

Zucchini is the chosen nickname of Icare, a young boy who lives at home with his drunk mother. When the tower he has built in the attic with his mother’s used beer cans tumbles and catches the attention of his irate mother, he panics and slams the door to the attic, sending his mother falling down the stairs. Unable to fully comprehend that she has died, Zucchini is placed in an orphanage, where he meets other children who have been victims of negligent or abusive parents, including a bully named Simon and a girl named Camille who immediately becomes the object of his affection.

“My Life as a Zucchini” runs just seventy minutes, yet it manages to tell an extremely compelling, affecting story in that time. Its use of stop-motion animation serves to highlight the emotions its children wear on their faces and in their expressions due to the tough things that they have had to endure over the course of their short lives. Though it deals with such a complex, adult topic, the plot of this film is relatively simple and straightforward, offering a refreshingly pure take on innocence and how children can grow up in an incredible way when faced with adverse circumstances.

More than anything, this is a sweet love story, with abusive adults and the real world as the main threats to the happiness that they might enjoy. They’re children, of course, and therefore whatever future they have is completely unknown and uncertain, but, for the time being, it’s all that they have. This may not be a good film for children to watch, but it is a sweet, wonderful experience for those up to dealing with the subject matter. This French-Swiss film isn’t likely to win the Oscar in a few weeks, but it would be a truly fantastic choice.

B+

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Movie with Abe: The Red Turtle

The Red Turtle
Directed by Michael Dudok de Wit
Released January 20, 2017

Movies don’t need words to tell their stories. Since talkies became popular at the end of the 1920s, however, most films have employed the use of dialogue to assist and bring to life their plots, mainly because it tends to engage the audience more. In rare instances, films like “The Artist” return cinema to a long-forgotten age, bringing back the excitement and prominence of silent films. In recent years, however, there have been a number of animated features that include no dialogue and have done well. The latest is a very intriguing collaboration between international distributor Wild Bunch and Japanese production company Studio Ghibli.

“The Red Turtle” begins with a man cast overboard from his canoe in the middle of violent waves who ends up stranded on an island. Numerous attempts to build a raft fail when some unknown animal comes up beneath it as he begins to make headway and destroys it. After a few tries, he finally identifies the animal as a giant red turtle, and when he finds the turtle washed up on shore, he angrily hits it and turns it upside down. After regretting his decision and realizing that the turtle has died, the man is astounded to discover that the turtle has in fact turned into a human woman, giving him someone to share his lonely life on the island with and end his incessant attempts to escape the island.

The story is what drives this film as it must because there are no spoken words. Summarized, the film sounds powerful, and while there are moments at which it achieves that, it’s also very tiresome since there are few points of engagement to truly entice the viewer into active viewing. Once the man finds the turtle on the beach, the film’s pace picks up considerably, but by that point it has gone through nearly half of its short eighty-minute runtime, which feels endless when presented without dialogue.

There is, still, a certain beauty to be found in this film, and it’s an impressive wonder that it can be told with no conversation and instead just with eye-popping animation. The story is poignant, and its telling suggests many deeper levels of meaning that can be explored and considered while a viewer is watching attentively without words to serve as a distraction. Unfortunately, the film lacks a certain pull due to its style, and though it should manage to draw in viewers by its end, it can’t be enthralling for all of its theoretically brief eighty minutes.

B

Movie with Abe: Moana

Moana
Directed by Ron Clements and John Musker
Released November 23, 2016

The Disney princess is an important fixture of film history. Decades ago, before gender equality was something spoken about in mainstream circles, this character was a beacon of hope, not always relegated to the supporting role of damsel in distress and usually capable of making her own decisions. In the past decade, Disney and Pixar have expanded their focuses to include a number of other cultures, transplanting the same story of one forward-thinking young person and adapting it based on the setting and the way that society functions there, which proves to be another positive experiment with “Moana.”

Moana is lives on the island of Motunui in ancient Polynesia. She is the daughter of respected chief Tui and heir to his role. She develops a strong love for the ocean as a child but is always told by her father that she should not venture out past the reef since everything they need is on the island. As she grows up and begins to assume her position of leadership, she clashes with her father about the best way to find more resources as they begin to dry up on land. Determined, Moana sets sail to find Maui, a demigod whose theft of a powerful stone years earlier is what she believes has led to the present circumstances, and resolved to make him fix his mistake and restore things to the way they should be.

From the moment that she is first introduced, Moana is a fearless, formidable protagonist. As a young child, she is “chosen” by the ocean as the one to set things back on course, and she responds to being gently swept out by a wave and then returned to shore with wonder and glee, and that excitement is transformed into a desire to sail the ocean freely, something that proves considerably more challenging with the sarcastic Maui who does everything in his power to run from his responsibility to right things. The two do make an entertaining team that, as time goes on and one would expect from this type of movie, gradually becomes much more sweetly endearing.

What sets this film apart from other Disney productions is that it roots itself in ancient Polynesian culture, casting a Hawaiian actress, Auli'i Cravalh, as the voice behind Moana. Cravalh is great, and she’s matched by the always fun Dwayne Johnson as Maui. This film’s commitment to bringing its focus to life with actors from South Pacific backgrounds is admirable, and its music from “Hamilton” superstar Lin-Manuel Miranda and Opetaia Foa'i gives it a signature energy. Its specific story isn’t the most invigorating of Disney tales, but, by its end, it’s still easy to get behind the mood of this movie.

B+

Monday, February 6, 2017

Movie with Abe: 13th

13th
Directed by Ava DuVernay
Released October 7, 2016

Ava DuVernay is an acclaimed director who has received rave reviews for most of the stories she has brought to the life on the big (and small) screen. After winning awards at the Sundance Film Festival for “Middle of Nowhere” in 2012, she made “Selma” in 2014, focused on Martin Luther King, Jr. and his role in the march from Selma to Montgomery. The failure of the Oscars to recognize both her and a number of actors and technical elements of the film was one of the main reasons that the organization has recently been criticized for its lack of diversity, and in her follow-up film, DuVernay returns to documentary with no intention of stifling her voice, bringing another important story to light.

“13th” is an exploration of the thirteenth amendment to the constitution, which in 1865 abolished slavery. The film charts the immediate aftermath of its passage and everything that has happened since to argue that slavery is very much alive in today’s society, since the United States set up a system that has led to the mass incarceration of African-Americans. The damning statistic that the United States accounts for less than five percent of the world population but for a quarter of the world’s prisoners speaks for itself, and DuVernay defends the position that there is an inherent racism in America that has only been perpetuated by the efforts of politicians – both Republicans and Democrats – to crack down on crime, leading to a self-fulfilling prophecy in which there is no hope for anyone to succeed given expectations and circumstances.

“13th” is a film that knows what it’s doing, presenting case after case to support its arguments and doing so in a way that conveys careful thought and extensive research. It’s a film that proves upsetting and infuriating to watch at times, particularly when it invokes recent publicized tragedies that went unpunished and unaddressed or when it features those currently in power who, even before their election, made the final cut for their incendiary acts. Some might watch and not agree with everything asserted in the film, but there is more than enough evidence here to clearly show that there is a problem with the way that the United States prison system works and the way in which it adversely affects African-Americans. Especially in light of recent political events, this film feels vital, and its excellent execution will undoubtedly help to those who see it to take action.

B+

Movie with Abe: I Am Not Your Negro

I Am Not Your Negro
Directed by Raoul Peck
Released February 3, 2017

There were many influential players during the height of the civil rights movement. Some, like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X, are widely-known by almost all Americans, while others, like Medgar Evers and James Baldwin, are fondly remembered by those with a more intimate knowledge of the times as among the most important figures who helped to achieve the beginnings of change in America. Baldwin, a novelist who regularly spoke publicly about the subjugation of African-Americans, died in 1987, leaving behind an unfinished manuscript that offers incredible commentary on race in America that feels especially relevant today.

Award-winning actor Samuel L. Jackson, who in recent years has become famous for numerous appearances as the eye-patch-wearing Nick Fury in almost every Marvel project, serves as the narrator of “I Am Not Your Negro,” a film assembled from Baldwin’s writings. Jackson speaks Baldwin’s words as written on the page, and they are accompanied by images of formative and crucial events in civil rights history. Stills and video of recent and current racially-motivated instances show that the problem has not been fixed in any way in contemporary society, and that everything Baldwin spoke and wrote about is just as prevalent in today’s America as it was when he was alive and speaking out to address the issues facing the nation.

There is an immense power to be found in the pairing of Baldwin’s words and the images that are presented to illustrate his ideas. The film reaches its most unsettling and uncomfortable points when it showcases clips from popular films of the time that show an idealized vision of happiness that is entirely white, often with African-American people in positions of subservience. Zooming in quite literally on an ad that features a smiling white family with an African-American servant is enormously effective and deeply disquieting. This is a documentary whose direction by Raoul Peck and editing by Alexandra Strauss are vital to its success, adapting an unfinished work written thirty years ago to create a film that feels like it was created explicitly for the present moment.

This film, which is nominated for an Oscar for Best Documentary, first premiered in Toronto in September and, after a short qualifying run in December, is out in theaters at another turning point in American history, when so many, particularly those with loud voices in Hollywood, are not happy with their president and the direction in which he is taking the country. Coupled with another nominee, “13th,” this film presents an excellent argument for the vitality of the documentary and its ability to foment change, a fitting testament to Baldwin’s legacy. It’s hardly a pleasant experience, but an important and contemplative one.

B

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Movie with Abe: The Salesman

The Salesman
Directed by Asghar Farhadi
Released January 27, 2017

It’s hard to come back from an experience which involves extreme vulnerability in a space that previously felt safe. When a person is attacked in his or her own home, the road back to being able to function normally in a private setting can be extraordinarily difficult, for obvious reasons. When a home is impermanent or new, it means that the person has not had the chance to feel comfortable somewhere and likely will not ever achieve that. Presenting such a situation as the basis for a foreign film showcases the response of one family in another culture, offering up an intriguing perspective on an intimate crime.

Emad (Shahab Hosseini) and Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti) are married members of a theater troupe that is putting on a rendition of “Death of a Salesman.” Emad spends his days teaching young students and then joins his wife onstage each evening as they rehearse for the eventual opening of the play that they have created together. When circumstances prohibit them from returning to their home, they are directed to a vacant apartment by a colleague. After Rana buzzes in someone she believes to be her husband one evening, she finds herself brutally attacked and unable to cope with her new reality. Emad, though unhurt since he was not there, becomes obsessed with finding the man who did this, determined to hold him accountable for what he has done to his wife.

Asghar Farhadi is an Iranian director who has enjoyed steady success with a number of films released in the United States, winning an Oscar in 2011 for “A Separation.” That film and his follow-up “The Past” focused in on an Iranian families dealing with troubling events in their lives, and his latest is certainly no exception. It is poignant, to be sure, but fails to be quite as engaging or captivating as his previous works. The way in which it features “Death of a Salesman” and chooses its title purposefully suggests immense depth to be found within its story, but that can’t all be conveyed in its slow pacing and execution. Hosseini, who was awarded Best Actor at the Cannes Film Festival, is well-directed by Farhadi to craft a believable and relatable performance as the traditional household head who seeks justice for his wounded wife, also played strongly by Alidoosti. As an Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Film this year, this film serves as an exemplary illustration of filmmaking in another culture, and how people respond in a particular manner informed by their culture to a situation that could happen anywhere.

B

Friday, February 3, 2017

Movie with Abe: The Space Between Us

The Space Between Us
Directed by Peter Chelsom
Released February 3, 2017

There is something incredibly intriguing and alluring about exploring the galaxy. Most people spend their entire lives on Earth, and precious few get to venture into space and truly understand what exists beyond just our planet. Numerous missions to space, to the moon, and to investigate other planets have been undertaken, and many science fiction films depict futures where the only possible option for humanity’s survival is to populate another planet. That notion, and an unexpected consequence of such a migration, is explored in the new film “The Space Between Us.”

Nathaniel Shepherd (Gary Oldman) is a scientist working with NASA who determines that the best hope for the human race is to send a mission to begin to colonize Mars. While in space, mission leader Sarah Elliot (Janet Montgomery) discovers that she is pregnant. Gardner (Asa Butterfield) is born in East Texas, the first human settlement on Mars, and grows up there in secret since the death of his mother in childbirth is not something that has been publicized for fear of jeopardizing the future of Mars as the last outpost of civilization. Gardner’s inevitable journey to Earth, motivated by his desire to find his father and meet Tulsa (Britt Robertson), the girl that he has been videochatting with us under the guise of being confined to a Park Avenue penthouse, is an epic voyage that deeply affects all those who know and meet him.

The concept of someone being born on another planet opens the door for a number of complications, like organs that function differently when subjected to another gravity and a high level of intelligence due to being raised by scientists, a fact Gardner sarcastically states multiple times throughout the film. His view of the world differs from Tulsa’s, but they both experience the same loneliness of not being treated the same as others and not being given the opportunity to explore their full potential. When they do eventually meet, the film takes on a new sense of shared wonder as they tackle the massiveness of their experiences together after being so far apart for so long.

Butterfield and Robertson are among the most talented young actors working today, with past credits in “Hugo” and “Tomorrowland,” respectively, and a number of other projects. They both possess exactly the right energy for these roles, and the young adult love story that plays out between them is sweet. Oldman and Carla Gugino, as Gardner’s astronaut mother figure, are fine, but this is ultimately about the two representatives of the future generation. The plot is engaging and involving, and even though it hurtles towards a hokey finish, this science-fiction film proves to be a worthwhile foray into space, certainly not deserving of the mostly very negative reviews it seems to have garnered.

B

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Movie with Abe: Life, Animated


Life, Animated
Directed by Roger Ross Williams
Released July 1, 2016

Not everyone sees the world the same way. Movies are an interesting representation of life because they’re created based on how a director envisions the world as told by a screenwriter and presented to the audience via a cast of performers. Animation offers another portal into the world by drawing images to show what could be and not conforming to the same three-dimensional interpretation of life. Disney movies hold a special place in the history of cinema, appealing broadly to children and adults throughout the ages, and to see how one man communicates with the world through his love for Disney movies is truly incredible.

“Life, Animated” tells the heartwarming, inspiring story of Owen Suskind, who at the age of three was diagnosed with autism and became mostly nonverbal after that point. As Owen grows up, his parents realize that he is at his brightest and most energetic when he is watching Disney films, and that it goes way beyond that. He has internalized and memorized so much of his favorite films that he is able to view and express himself to the world through his understanding of what happens in those movies. As his family and those around him realize what he sees and what he can say to them, the possibilities for how Owen can thrive become considerably less bounded by what was initially viewed as a severe limitation.

It’s hard not to find a soft spot for Disney movies, and to see someone relate to them on such an unparalleled level to the point that he uses them as his way to talk to the world is eye-opening and extremely enticing. The clips that are shown throughout this documentary illustrate the most poignant and helpful scenes that Owen comes back to again and again and that he can quote word-for-word. He has latched on to the romanticized ideas that make up Disney movies and used that as his framework for what the world should be like.

The construction of this Oscar-nominated documentary uses animation at various points to convey how Owen is feeling about something and how he relates to an experience, and that combined with heartfelt testimonials from his family members and from Owen himself results in a very effective and involving look at his life. It’s all but guaranteed that there are few adults that love Disney as much as he does, but to see the joy he gets from the wealth of popular films that have been formative for so many children drives an affirming and optimistic nonfiction spotlight on one man achieving and thriving thanks to his connection to something that for him has deep meaning.

B+