Wednesday, April 14, 2021

Movie with Abe: The One and Only Ivan

The One and Only Ivan
Directed by Thea Sharrock
Released August 21, 2020 (Disney Plus)

Humans have always had a complicated relationship with other animals. Some are treated as beloved pets, while others are killed and eaten for food, or even both depending on the animal and the culture. Causes like veganism and animal rights have led to a reexamination of the way that one species expresses dominance over all others, and humane associations monitor the treatment of animals used in commercial projects as well as risks of extinction and problematic captivity. It would certainly be helpful to know for sure how the animals felt about their own situations, and only in movies like this one is that actually possible.

Ivan is a gorilla who is the star of a mall attraction called The One and Only Ivan. Mack (Bryan Cranston) loyally looks after all of the animals, which include Stella, an elephant, Snickers, a poodle, Henrietta, a chicken, Murphy, a rabbit, Frankie, a sea lion, and Thelma, a parrot, while he would rather not encounter wandering dog Bob. Ivan delights at being the centerpiece of the show, and he experiences considerable jealousy when Mack, noting diminishing attendance and ticket sales, brings in a young elephant named Ruby to entice the audience. Despite his positive interactions with Julia (Ariana Greenblatt), the daughter of janitor George (Ramón Rodríguez), Ivan begins to see that he is destined to live in a freer space where he and his friends can control their own movements.

This film is actually adapted from a book based in part on the real story of a gorilla named Ivan who spent twenty-seven years in a Washington shopping center. The 2012 book by K.A. Applegate, who this reviewer enthusiastically remembers as the author of the “Animorphs” series, imagines Ivan talking and recounting his experiences, a concept mimicked in the film. That will probably appeal more to children than to adults, since familiar voices and animals who can speak are more distracting than anything else to this otherwise expected showcase of animals expressing themselves and campaigning for their right to be free just like the humans who keep them in cages.

This film was released on Disney Plus and is intended mostly for a young audience, one that should appreciate its visual and heartwarming appeal. Its Oscar nomination for Best Visual Effects honors the hard work of those who made the animals come to life and appear as if they are in fact speaking, though there’s nothing about it that feels especially creative or groundbreaking as compared with other similar efforts. Voice talent like Danny DeVito does make this more enjoyable, even if the animals talking isn’t a particular merit of the experience. This film’s title proclaims the uniqueness of its main character, and the surrounding project, while decent and pleasant enough, doesn’t feel all that extraordinary.

B-

Movie with Abe: Eurovision Song Contest

Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga
Directed by David Dobkin
Released June 26, 2020 (Netflix)

There is something about a competition that can rally those who would normally not get along to feel a sense of camaraderie and shared excitement. This is seen most often in sporting events, where those who wouldn’t ever speak to each other are rooting for the same teams and focused most on the moment rather than any conflicting opinions. Just as sports are centered around a city, school, or even country, international gatherings like Eurovision bring together aspiring musicians and talent from across the world. What’s represented in this Netflix comedy is obviously an exaggeration of real life, but many of its themes ring true despite being presented in this over-the-top narrative.

Lars Erickssong (Will Ferrell) and Sigrit Ericksdóttir (Rachel McAdams) have been friends since childhood in their small village of Husavik in Iceland. Lars hasn’t done much with his life, but he continues to try to fulfill his enduring dream of representing his country at Eurovision. Despite being the absolute last choice for Iceland thanks to a series of mishaps, Lars and Sigrit end up heading to Edinburgh to compete. They discover a giant stage waiting for them with sky-high expectations, and both Icelanders and the whole of Europe betting on them to embarrass Iceland and fail miserably.

Though he has waded into slightly more serious territory in the past, it’s a good bet that any film starring Ferrell is going to be a comedy, and so there isn’t much indication that this film should be taken at face value. Lars may have talent but he never picks the right music, and a major plot point of the film is that he doesn’t notice the romantic affection Sigrit has always had for him. She’s more clearly capable, and her eternal connection to him, in the eyes of other Husavik residents, has kept her from fulfilling her potential. McAdams is well-suited for the role, and she does a superb job of balancing the excess and the passion.

This film should prove entertaining even for those with little to no familiarity with the real Eurovision, and an enthusiasm towards the contest is likely to make it infinitely more enjoyable. Its humor and slightly fantastical elements are meant to poke fun at the stories people tell as defining of their homelands or nationalities, and, for the most part, it works since sophistication is not the goal. The ensemble cast is entertaining, including Dan Stevens as a flamboyant Russian singer and a host of other small parts. Most of all, the music is terrific, particularly the Oscar-nominated song “Husavik” that serves, like this film, as a tribute to the true beauty of Eurovision and a send-up of it at the same time.

B

Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Oscar Winner Predictions: Best Live Action Short

The nominees:
 
Feeling Through (B+)
A man struggling to figure out where he will sleep that night is compelled to help another man he sees on a street corner who is both deaf and blind, forging an unexpected relationship between the two of them. This short is endearing and enjoyable with two rich characters at its center. Watch it now on YouTube via Omeleto.

Two Distant Strangers (B+)
A Black man gets shot and killed over and over by a white police officer on his way home as he experiences a time loop. Similar in premise to the feature film “The Obituary of Tunde Johnson,” this short explores identity, connection, and conflict in a stark and unforgettable way. Content warning: this film does not censor its scenes, which is powerful but disturbing. Watch it on Netflix.

The Letter Room (B+)
Oscar Isaac stars as a prison guard put in charge of reading letters to inmates who takes a special interest in one correspondent. Its protagonist is lonely and isolated, and the connection he makes with someone through the words that she writes feels dynamic and energizing. Watch it on Topic.

The Present (B+)
A Palestinian man crosses into Israel with his young daughter to purchase a new refrigerator as a gift for his wife, a simple task that becomes a much more complicated and difficult ordeal. Its main characters are sympathetic, and though this story is strongly tied to its geopolitical setting, there is something universal and relatable to it. Watch it now on Netflix.

White Eye (B+)
An Israeli man finds his stolen bike outside of a restaurant and tries to get the police to intervene, which threatens the livelihood of the undocumented immigrant he believes has stolen it. This story is involving and complex, not set on portraying the situation as black-and-white but exploring it on a deeper level. Watch a trailer on YouTube.

Previous winners: The Neighbor’s Window, Skin, The Silent Child, Sing, Stutterer, The Phone Call, Helium

For your information: This is the first Oscar nomination for all filmmakers. “The Present” won the BAFTA for Best Short Film, though none of the other films here were in contention.

Who should win: Unlike last year’s list, I liked this one a lot. I’m not sure I have a clear preference and would probably be fine with any of them winning since they’re all impressive and worthwhile.
Who will win: I suspect that Two Distant Strangers in the frontrunner, but it could honestly be any of them.

Oscar Winner Predictions: Best Animated Short

The nominees:
 
Burrow (B+)
A rabbit has big plans for what her home will be like, and finds that reality is going to present obstacles and opportunities. This dialogue-free short is inventive and heartwarming, running just six minutes. Watch it now on Disney Plus.

If Anything Happens I Love You (B+)
Two parents mourning the loss of their child struggle to reconnect and come to terms with what they have suffered. This emotional film is definitely for adults, though it utilizes powerful imagery to convey the lingering spirit of their child’s presence. Watch it now on Netflix.

Genius Loci (B)
This striking French film uses its animation to tell its story in a particularly memorable way, interpreting the city and its characters through the ways in which they blend together. It’s certainly not easy to follow as a narrative, but there is an artistry to the movement of shapes that is powerful and enduring. Watch a teaser on Vimeo.

Opera (B+)
There’s so much going on in this very intricate and mesmerizing film, one that explores civilization and conflict, representing the way people interact with one another and how they function. It’s almost impossible to catch everything that is going on in this visual portrait of history through a constantly-operating pyramid, but what comes across is tremendous effort and immense thought. Watch a trailer on YouTube .

Yes-People (B+)
This Icelandic delight is indeed peculiar but also rather entertaining, almost wordlessly spending time with a group of people as they go about their day. Its character connections and minimal plot are clever, while its animation is particularly remarkable. Watch it on YouTube via The New Yorker .

Previous winners: Hair Love, Bao, Dear Basketball, Piper, Bear Story, Feast, Mr. Hublot

For your information: This is the first Oscar nomination for all filmmakers in this category. “Burrow” comes from Pixar, a major historical player in this category last nominated in 2018, for “Bao,” which won.

Who should win: I think I’d choose “If Anything Happens I Love You” or “Opera.”
Who will win: I think this will be If Anything Happens I Love You but it could also go to “Opera.”

Monday, April 12, 2021

Oscar Winner Predictions: Best Documentary Short

The nominees:
Colette (B+)
A ninety-year-old French woman decides to visit a Nazi concentration camp for the first time in tribute to her brother, a member of the French resistance, who was killed there. The bond she forms with a young student and museum docent is powerful and affecting, and its lessons of resilience continue to be relevant. Watch it now on the Guardian.

A Concerto Is a Conversation (B+)
A musician talks to his grandfather about the many experiences he had in his life that contributed to his love of music and to his need to express what he encountered and went through in an artistic manner. It’s a very sweet and touching film that feels incredibly intimate, a simple conversation between a grandfather and his grandson shared warmly with an audience. Watch it now via The New York Times.

Do Not Split (B+)
In a year filled with news-making protests all around the world, this short focuses on Hong Kong and the rights of protesters to gather and have their voices heard. Its classification of masks as a way to hide one’s identity rather than to protect others due to coronavirus is intriguing in our current moment, but it only adds to the effectiveness of this harrowing and urgent film. Watch it now on Field of Vision.

Hunger Ward (B+)
This spotlight on the humanitarian crisis in Yemen is certainly one of the most difficult and disturbing watches in this category, showing young children who weigh troublingly little. Its portrayal of the brave, hard work of the staff and the somehow-existent optimism of the literally starving patients is a forceful call to action. Watch it now on Pluto TV.

A Love Song for Latasha (B)
This tribute to a Black girl killed at the age of fifteen in 1992, shortly before the Los Angeles riots, is poetic and heartfelt, honoring her memory and challenging the system that could allow a teenager to be killed over a bottle of orange juice. It’s less structured overall than the rest, but still very moving. Watch it now on Netflix.

Previous winners: Period. End of Sentence., Heaven is a Traffic Jam on the 405, The White Helmets, A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness, Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1, The Lady in Number 6, Inocente
For your information: This is the first Oscar nomination for all filmmakers here except “Hunger Ward” director Skye Fitzgerald, who contended two years ago for his previous short “Lifeboat.” Only “Hunger Ward” was in the running for the Critics Choice Documentary Award prize, where it lost to a nominee in this category last year, “St. Louis Superman.”

Who should win: These are all strong. I think for me the most memorable were “A Concerto is a Conversation” and “Do Not Split.”
Who will win: In general, this category doesn’t always reward positivity, and therefore I think “Hunger Ward” could win, but I’ll choose A Concerto is a Conversation instead.

Oscar Winner Predictions: Best International Feature

The competition: Another Round (Denmark), Better Days (Hong Kong), Collective (Romania), The Man Who Sold His Skin (Tunisia), Quo Vadis, Aida? (Bosnia and Herzegovina)

Previous winners: Parasite (South Korea), Roma (Mexico), A Fantastic Woman (Chile), The Salesman (Iran), Son of Saul (Hungary), Ida (Poland), The Great Beauty (Italy), Amour (Austria)
My winner: Coming soon!
The facts: This is the third consecutive year that a nominee here also contends for Best Director, with Thomas Vinterberg (who I interviewed here) up for the honor for “Another Round.” Two of the past three directors to attain that honor won both this and that prize, though both “Roma” and “Parasite” were also nominated for Best Picture. Vinterberg is back after helming “The Hunt” in 2013, and this marks the thirteenth nomination for Denmark, which has been victorious three times: in 1987 for “Babette’s Feast,” in 1988 for “Pelle the Conqueror,” and in 2010 for “In a Better World.” Hong Kong has two previous nominations, both from the early 1990s. This is Romania’s first-ever nomination, and the second consecutive year that a film in this category has also been recognized as a nominee for Best Documentary. “Collective” is the fourth-ever documentary nominated in this category (thanks to Juan Carlos over at The Film Experience for a thorough historical analysis of this). This is also the first-ever nomination for Tunisia. Bosnia and Herzegovina returns with its second nomination after one previous bid, in 2001 for “No Man’s Land,” which also earned it a win. As far as I can tell, this is the first time since 2006 that two female directors are nominated, Kaouther Ben Hania for “The Man Who Sold His Skin” and Jasmila Žbanić for “Quo Vadis, Aida?” As tends to be the case, this slate is largely untested in regards to competing with each other. Only “Another Round” was nominated at the Golden Globes, while it beat “Quo Vadis, Aida?” at BAFTA.
Who should win: This is a very good list. I personally liked “The Man Who Sold His Skin” quite a bit, but I would be fine with “Another Round” or “Quo Vadis, Aida?” winning too. “Collective” is also a very good choice, and though it wouldn’t be my pick, “Better Days” is also a strong film.
Who will win: I’m tempted to predict that “Quo Vadis, Aida?” triumphs, but I think Another Round will have little trouble winning this.

Sunday, April 11, 2021

Oscar Winner Predictions: Best Documentary Feature

The competition: Collective, Crip Camp, The Moly Agent, My Octopus Teacher, Time

Previous winners: American Factory, Free Solo, Icarus, OJ: Made in America, Amy, Citizenfour, Twenty Feet from Stardom
My winner: Coming soon
The facts: This is the first nomination for all filmmakers in this category. After “Honeyland” last year, “Collective” becomes the second film nominated in this category to also be up for Best International Feature. Two of these films are foreign-language productions, which have won this category ten times since its inception, most recently in 2005 for “March of the Penguins.” There are a handful of precursors relevant to this category. “Crip Camp” and “Time” scored at the International Documentary Association, while “Dick Johnson Is Dead,” which isn’t nominated, won the Critics’ Choice Documentary Award, which also gave a cinematography prize to “My Octopus Teacher,” the PGA winner. The only film nominated for all those prizes was “Time.”
Who should win: I was very impressed with “Collective,” “Time,” and “Crip Camp,” and would be happy to see any of those win.
Who will win: This is a very competitive category this year, and I’m really not sure what will win. I’ll bet on Collective with “Crip Camp” also very possible.

Oscar Winner Predictions: Best Animated Feature

The competition: Onward, Over the Moon, A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon, Soul, Wolfwalkers

Previous winners: Toy Story 4, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, Coco, Zootopia, 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: Coming soon
The facts: Only one sequel is nominated this year, and the original “Shaun the Sheep Movie” contended in 2015. That’s the fourth nomination for Aardman, which won in 2005 for “Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit.” The only sequels that have every won were “Toy Story 3” and “Toy Story 4” (last year). Representing Pixar, which has won ten times out of thirteen nominations, are both “Onward” and “Soul.” From Cartoon Saloon, which has three previous nominations, comes “Wolfwalkers,” and “Over the Moon” is the second consecutive bid for Netflix, which was nominated last year for “Klaus.” Whereas last year, numerous films won precursors, “Soul” has been relatively dominant, and is expected to win the Annie Award later this week, where all but “Over the Moon” contend for top awards. The only film with a nomination in any other category is “Soul,” which contends for its score and sound.
Who should win: I’m totally fine with “Soul” winning, though I’d be thrilled if it was either “Wolfwalkers” or “Over the Moon.”
Who will win: This award is going to Soul.

Saturday, April 10, 2021

Movie with Abe: Moffie

Out this weekend in theaters and VOD is “Moffie.” I had the chance to look at this well-made, disturbing South African queer war drama for The Film Experience. Head over there to read my review.

Weekend Movie Recommendations with Abe

Every Friday, I'll be uploading a Minute with Abe: Weekend Movie Recommendations Edition, surveying new releases on DVD, and on streaming services. Check it out, and subscribe to the movieswithabe channel!


New to Theaters: Voyagers
New to Theaters and VOD: Moffie
New to DVD: Shadow in the Cloud
New to Netflix: Thunder Force, Coded Bias
New to Amazon Prime Video: High-Rise

Friday, April 9, 2021

Movie with Abe: Voyagers

Voyagers
Directed by Neil Burger
Released April 9, 2021 (Theaters)

It isn’t easy to think beyond oneself and to consider the positive implications of actions that can only benefit future generations. Philanthropy for already existent causes to assist those who are in need is common, and repairing a broken system is meant to lead to the eventual creation of something that works in its place. The concept that people are far more willing to engage in efforts that they can tangibly see through to their ends is one of the reasons that something like climate change has been put off for so long, since it will be felt and experienced more by those who aren’t born yet. Considering the future of humanity and the planet, however, is not an endeavor confined to any one person’s lifetime, as compellingly probed in this intriguing if not entirely fulfilling sci-fi meditation.

Earth is dying and will no longer be able to sustain human life, but there’s good news: another planet has been found that will prove habitable. Since the journey to get there will take eighty-six years, no astronauts aboard will live to be able to create a new civilization. Rather than find willing candidates who are willing to die in transit aboard a spaceship, recruits are specifically bred so that they can blindly follow orders and procreate to enable their grandchildren to take on the important task of colonization. Richard (Colin Farrell), a lead scientist on the project, goes with the group and supervises their journey as they slowly begin to awaken to the fact that their free will has been stifled for the sake of preserving the human race.

This film’s premise is remarkably interesting, and it almost seems that a movie with a runtime under two hours isn’t nearly enough time to explore all that could come with it. It finds its most startling and fascinating observations in how unexpected behavior plays out when knowledge starts to be discovered, like in the interchangeability of pain and pleasure since both are sensory experiences that these young people have never known. As rebellion foments and chaos ensues, this film becomes a perfectly ordinary and familiar instance of science fiction, one whose plot trajectory and denouement don’t deliver anything extraordinary. Given more time – like as a TV series – there might have been more opportunity for a deeper and more substantial focus on the ethical questions involve rather than merely a stark transition to violence and a thriller format.

Aside from Farrell, who is a fine choice for his relatively dry role, this cast includes a number of recognizable young stars who have been turning in impressive work over the last few years. Fionn Whitehead gets the juiciest role as the key instigator on board, while Tye Sheridan, Lily-Rose Depp, Isaac Hempstead Wright, and others contribute mostly subdued performances designed to mimic the almost robotic lives they have been trained to lead. Though it does feature several scenes in space and outside the ship, this is a mostly insular journey, one that is reminiscent of more memorable and emphatic explorations of this subject, like “High Life” and “Equals.” The debates it raises and grapples with are more lasting and worthwhile than this average cinematic space movie itself.

B-

Movie with Abe: Thunder Force

Thunder Force
Directed by Ben Falcone
Released April 9, 2021 (Netflix)

The expression “With great power comes great responsibility” will forever be linked with its usage as an early warning to Spider-Man about the weight his uncanny abilities carried. It’s applicable to so many situations in which a person is granted authority or might of some kind and must then be held accountable for what they do with it and the others they must manage and interact with in the process. There isn’t typically a way for those who are inherently more good and worthy to be bestowed with talent – or in the case of science fiction, superpowers – and if anything, the universe is far more random and malicious in its selection. This action comedy looks at how things might shape up if it was in fact the wrong people who hit the power lottery and needed to be kept in check by some force for good.

As teenagers, Lydia and Emily were unlikely friends, but ultimately had a falling out after Lydia’s desire to constantly have a good time nearly cost Emily her academic future. Years later, on the eve of their class reunion, Lydia (Melissa McCarthy), who now works construction, reaches out to Emily (Octavia Spencer), who has become the head of a tech organization advancing research to combat the Miscreants, superpowered sociopaths who regularly terrorize Chicago. Through a series of mishaps, Lydia becomes one of the first participants in Emily’s experiment designed to give good people powers of their own so that they can fight to protect Chicago from those who seek to destroy it.

It’s a busy time for comic book content, and while this film, from an original script by director Ben Falcone, isn’t based on any preexisting source material, it feels like it very much could be. The notion that those with an inclination towards problematic personality disorders are more likely to have powers presents an obvious setup for heroes to come to the rescue, and in the case of this certainly comedic film, Lydia doesn’t fit that bill at all. This kind of content blends well with humor, and therefore much of it works, though it’s not clear what audience this film is intended for, since a good chunk of its plotting feels cartoonish and designed for a much younger viewership than this film’s PG-13 rating would suggest.

McCarthy, who did receive an Oscar nomination recently for a more toned-down performance in “Can You Ever Forgive Me,” isn’t typically known for her subtlety, and very little of that is on display here. Instead, it’s a loud turn that’s impossible to ignore, but that’s also part of the appeal, since McCarthy is gifted with extraordinary comic timing and eagerly approaches every slapstick moment with all the energy she can muster. Spencer, who has many times provided humor in her supporting performances in dramatic films, is her more serious foil, and the two make a competent duo. The ensemble includes Melissa Leo, Bobby Cannavale, Pom Klementieff, Taylor Mosby, Falcone, and Jason Bateman having fun, and that’s the general spirit of this film. It’s hardly covering new ground or excelling at it, but it’s a decent enough and an amusing ride.

B-

Thursday, April 8, 2021

Oscar Winner Predictions: Best Adapted Screenplay

The competition: Borat Subsequent Moviefilm (Sacha Baron Cohen, Anthony Hines, Dan Swimer, Peter Baynham, Erica Rivinoja, Dan Mazer, Jena Friedman, Lee Kern, and Nina Pedrad),The Father (Christopher Hampton and Florian Zeller), Nomadland (Chloé Zhao), One Night in Miami (Kemp Powers), The White Tiger (Ramin Bahrani)

Previous winners: Jojo Rabbit, BlacKkKlansman, Call Me By Your Name, Moonlight, The Big Short, The Imitation Game, 12 Years a Slave
My winner: Coming soon!
The facts: Baron Cohen, Hines, Baynham, and Mazer were all nominated in this race in 2006 for the first “Borat” film, and Cohen is nominated this year for his performance in “The Trial of the Chicago 7.” Hampton won this prize in 1988 for “Dangerous Liaisons” and was nominated again in 2007 for “Atonement.” This is Zhao’s first time being nominated, and she contends also for directing, producing, and editing her film. Only “The Father” and “Nomadland” are up for Best Picture. “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm” defeated “One Night in Miami” and “The White Tiger” at the WGA Awards, where the other two nominees here weren’t eligible, and “Nomadland” won the USC Scripter Award, besting “One Night in Miami.”
Who should win: I’d give this to “One Night in Miami” without much hesitation.
Who will win: This feels like a safe win for Nomadland given that what might have been its closest competitor, “One Night in Miami,” didn’t perform all that well. It would be startling to see “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm” win given that the first film didn’t.

Oscar Winner Predictions: Best Original Screenplay

The competition: Judas and the Black Messiah (Will Berson, Shaka King, Kenneth Lucas, and Keith Lucas), Minari (Lee Isaac Chung), Promising Young Woman (Emerald Fennell), Sound of Metal (Darius Marder, Abraham Marder, and Derek Cianfrance), and The Trial of the Chicago 7 (Aaron Sorkin)

Previous winners: Parasite, Green Book, Get Out, Manchester by the Sea, Spotlight, Birdman, Her
My winner: Coming soon!
The facts: Amazingly, this is Sorkin’s first nomination in this category, though he’s contended three times for his adapted screenplays, in 2017 for “Molly’s Game,” in 2011 for “Moneyball,” and in 2010 for “The Social Network,” which earned him a win. This is the first nomination for all other writers in this category, though some picked up additional bids this year. King contends as a producer, Chung as a director, and Fennell as both. “Minari” was ineligible at the WGA Awards, where the other four films were nominated and “Promising Young Woman” won. The latter film lost to “The Trial of the Chicago 7” in the Golden Globes catch-all screenplay category.

Who should win: I would be happy with either “Promising Young Woman” or “The Trial of the Chicago 7” – they’re both terrific and very clever scripts.
Who will win: While it’s possible that “The Trial of the Chicago 7” will score its representative win here, I think that Promising Young Woman has enough momentum to pull off that feat.

Wednesday, April 7, 2021

Oscar Winner Predictions: Best Actress in a Supporting Role

The competition: Maria Bakalova (Borat Subsequent Moviefilm), Glenn Close (Hillbilly Elegy), Olivia Colman (The Father), Amanda Seyfried (Mank), Yuh-Jung Youn (Minari)

Previous winners: Laura Dern, Regina King, Allison Janney, Viola Davis, Alicia Vikander, Patricia Arquette, Lupita N’yongo
My winner: Coming soon!
The facts: Colman won an Oscar in 2018 for “The Favourite,” famously beating Close, who lost, on her seventh try, for “The Wife.” Her first three career nominations came in this category three years in a row in 1982, 1983, and 1984 for “The World According to Garp,” “The Big Chill,” and “The Natural.” This is the first nomination for Bakalova, Seyfried, and Youn. Colman, Seyfried, and Youn all have their films nominated for Best Picture. The Golden Globe winner in this race, Jodie Foster, isn’t cited here. Bakalova won the Critics Choice Award and Youn won the SAG Award.
Who should win: Seyfried or Bakalova
Who will win: It could very well be Bakalova, but I suspect Youn will repeat her SAG victory.

Oscar Winner Predictions: Best Actor in a Supporting Role

The competition: Sacha Baron Cohen (The Trial of the Chicago 7), Daniel Kaluuya (Judas and the Black Messiah), Leslie Odom Jr. (One Night in Miami), Paul Raci (Sound of Metal), Lakeith Stanfield (Judas and the Black Messiah)

Previous winners: Brad Pitt, Mahershala Ali, Sam Rockwell, Mahershala Ali, Mark Rylance, J.K. Simmons, Jared Leto
My winner: Coming soon!
The facts: Only one of these men has been nominated for an acting Oscar before, and that’s Kaluuya, who contended in 2017 for “Get Out.” Cohen was nominated in 2006 for writing the screenplay to “Borat” and is up again this year for the script for “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm.” Odom is also nominated this year for the song “Speak Now” from his film. Both Raci and Stanfield are here after missing out on many and all, respectively, precursors. All but Odom have their films nominated for Best Picture. Multiple nominees from one film happen occasionally, including last year for “The Irishman,” and the second most recent case – 2017 – resulted in a win for one of them. Kaluuya has won the Golden Globe, SAG, and Critics Choice Award. The only actor to win those three prizes and then lose this award was Eddie Murphy in 2006 for “Dreamgirls,” who ultimately lost to Alan Arkin for “Little Miss Sunshine.”
Who should win: This is a great list even if Stanfield really doesn’t belong in this category. I’d choose Kaluuya, Cohen, or Odom.
Who will win: Even with his unexpected internal competition, Kaluuya shouldn’t have any trouble winning.

Tuesday, April 6, 2021

Movie with Abe: The Forbidden Wish

The Forbidden Wish
Directed by Michael Carnick
Released April 6, 2021 (VOD)

Religion is something that can bring a great deal of comfort and can cause a great deal of pain. Those who find meaning in it will likely incorporate it into the moments that make them happiest and saddest, using it as a source of explanation and assigning a higher power to guide the seemingly random events that occur in the universe. Others will remember a difficult time in which it caused them nothing but anguish and associate it with misery and alienation. Yet even for those who have turned away from religion, a momentous development or tremendous struggle may send them searching in a space they never expected to return to, as in the case of this intriguing and thought-provoking two-person drama.

It is the night before Yom Kippur, and Nate (Sammi Rotibi), an Ethiopian-born rabbi, practices his sermon in an empty sanctuary. The quiet of the large room is interrupted when Isaac (John Berchtold) arrives, having just walked from the airport after returning from Israel, where he has just buried his father. Isaac recounts how he attended Hebrew school at the synagogue and how he now wishes to end his life. Before he can do so, however, he wants Nate to bestow upon him the Mourner’s Kaddish, a prayer said for the dead. Resistant to the idea of saying it for someone who is living, Nate engages Isaac in conversation, which in turn leads to Nate also sharing that which haunts him.

This film is a captivating portrait of two men who seem impossibly alone, one who is indeed that way, with no real family or friends to care for him, and the other who will soon be surrounded by a congregation that will find his carefully-prepared words informative and educational. In many ways, it could be a play, given that the scenery barely changes and the two speak directly to each other for the entirety of the film, anchoring the story around their growing relationship. Its role as a film enables the camera to extract further emotion from close-up shots of its characters’ faces and how they respond to the statements made and questions asked by the other.

In this film is an interesting engagement with Judaism, one that requires a substantial knowledge of rituals and customs in the construction of its plot and puts a peculiar emphasis on a prayer that might be well known to many but certainly not as a requirement – or endorsement – for ending one’s life. Identity is another key theme, one that the script by writer-director Michael Carnick richly probes. Rotibi and Berchtold bring a relatable humanity to their fractured characters, and this exploration of purpose and connection proves memorable and lingering.

B

Monday, April 5, 2021

Oscar Winner Predictions: Best Actress in a Leading Role

The competition: Andra Day (The United States vs. Billie Holiday), Viola Davis (Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom), Vanessa Kirby (Pieces of a Woman), Frances McDormand (Nomadland), Carey Mulligan (Promising Young Woman)

Previous winners: Renee Zellweger, Olivia Colman, Frances McDormand, Emma Stone, Brie Larson, Julianne Moore, Cate Blanchett, Jennifer Lawrence
My winner: Coming soon!
The facts: McDormand has won this award twice, in 2017 for “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” and in 1996 for “Fargo.” She has three additional previous nominations, all in the supporting category, for “North Country,” “Almost Famous,” and “Mississippi Burning.” She is also nominated as a producer on her film this year. Davis won an Oscar in 2016 for “Fences” and was nominated before that for “The Help” and “Doubt.” Mulligan has contended once before, for “An Education” in 2009. This is the first nomination for both Day and Kirby. Only McDormand and Mulligan’s films are nominated for Best Picture.

This may well be the most interesting and unpredictable category of the year. Day won the Golden Globe, beating the other four nominees, but wasn’t even nominated by SAG. Mulligan won the Critics Choice prize, and Davis triumphed at SAG. Only McDormand and Kirby are nominated at BAFTA, which hands out its awards this weekend. I can’t find another historical instance of such discord between groups. When Sharon Stone and Isabelle Huppert won Globes and then weren’t nominated by SAG, they ended up losing the Oscar. This category is anyone’s guess!

Who should win: Mulligan
Who will win: I would be genuinely shocked if it was Kirby given the lack of other support for her film, but any of the other four could easily win. Though I’d love to see Mulligan, I think Day is going to win this.

Oscar Winner Predictions: Best Actor in a Leading Role

The competition: Riz Ahmed (Sound of Metal), Chadwick Boseman (Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom), Anthony Hopkins (The Father), Gary Oldman (Mank), Steven Yeun (Minari)

Previous winners: Joaquin Phoenix, Rami Malek, Gary Oldman, Casey Affleck, Leonardo DiCaprio, Eddie Redmayne, Matthew McConaughey
My winner: Coming soon!
The facts: This category includes two previous winners and three first-time nominees. Hopkins was nominated last year for “The Two Popes” and previously for “Amistad,” “Nixon,” and “The Remains of the Day.” He won on his first nomination in 1991 for “The Silence of the Lambs.” Oldman won in 2017 for “Darkest Hour” and was also nominated in 2011 for “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.” All five of these films are up for Best Picture, and this exact list contended at SAG, while Yeun was the only one not nominated for a Golden Globe. Five men have contended posthumously for this award, and only one – Peter Finch in 1976 – won. That’s likely to change this year since Chadwick Boseman, who died in August at the age of forty-three, was already awarded the Golden Globe, SAG, and Critics Choice Award. Only one actor in this category has won both the Globe and the SAG and then lost this prize, and that was Russell Crowe in 2001 for “A Beautiful Mind,” and he hardly had the same reputation as Boseman did.
Who should win: Boseman or Ahmed
Who will win: This is going to Boseman.

Sunday, April 4, 2021

Movie with Abe: A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon

A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon
Directed by Will Becher and Richard Phelan
Released February 14, 2020 (Netflix)

There are two common reactions to something that cannot initially be understood: fear and excitement. Those who worry that whatever new phenomenon has arrived or begun may upset the delicate balance of their lives may protest against its very existence and seek to root it out and destroy it. Others may express curiosity and be drawn to see or examine it up close, like the traffic that ensues after a car crash on the highway because so many have slowed down to get a look at what happened. When it comes to people or aliens showing up in an unfamiliar place and becoming the subject of both conversation and action, it’s a good bet that they’re just as eager to learn about their new neighbors and surroundings.

Shaun and his fellow sheep spend their time on the farm pushing boundaries and trying dangerous activities, only to be stopped each time by the watchful and serious dog Bitzer. They discover something much more new and exciting when an alien known as Lu-La comes to the farm. As Shaun and Lu-La bond and get into hijinks together, Farmer John sees an opportunity with the recent UFO sighting and plans to convert the farm into a theme park called Farmageddon. Agent Red of the Ministry of Alien Detection is in hot pursuit of this rogue alien, and sets her sights on Farmer John and his new UFO-centric operation.

This film is a follow-up to “Shaun the Sheep Movie,” a 2015 Oscar nominee for Best Animated Feature that I found unexpectedly entertaining, itself an offshoot of “Wallace and Gromit.” It requires absolutely no context for those who have completely forgotten the events of the original film, and manages to convey its characters and their relationships exceptionally well without a single line of discernable dialogue. The grunts and murmurs its human, alien, and animal characters do utter are more than sufficient to make clear that their interactions are simple and comprehensible from their body language and facial expressions.

The story here is one of persecution and acceptance, with Shaun’s inability to goof off without constant dampening oversight transformed into Lu-La being unable to merely exist without the threat of capture and extermination. Its G rating ensures that all audiences will be able to enjoy it, with adults picking up on layered themes and marveling along with children at the quality of the stop-motion animation. This film is charming and a pleasure to watch, and while there may not be another installment in the works yet, Shaun should definitely return for another round of memorable mischief.

B+

Saturday, April 3, 2021

Movie with Abe: Love and Monsters

Love and Monsters
Directed by Michael Matthews
Released October 16, 2020

With the state of the world today, it’s no surprise that many have imagined post-apocalyptic scenarios. Initially perceived as purely science fiction, there are now many plausible theories for how humanity might be decimated not by nature or some unpredictable event, but instead undone by the response to a perceived disaster with truly unfortunate and irreversible consequences. Those who do manage to live will be left to fend for themselves, and their chances of survival depend on their ability to outsmart others and to work together for a common good, which is far from a widely-accepted notion. All that serves as the structure of this fairly expected but moderately enjoyable monster movie.

After radiation from bombs shot to destroy an approaching asteroid turn the animal kingdom into giant monsters, the human race is not doing very well. Pockets of people live underground, and Joel (Dylan O’Brien) is among them. He is not what anyone would describe as battle-ready, but learning that his girlfriend Aimee (Jessica Henwick) is only eighty-five miles away prompts him to brave the surface and try to find him. Along the way, he meets a dog, a handful of large and terrifying mutated animals, and other humans that are either trustworthy and helpful or devious and ready to sacrifice him so that they can continue to prosper in post-apocalyptic times.

This film is Oscar-nominated for its visual effects, which serve mostly to transform its cold-blooded animals into something much more threatening. While those are indeed impressive and part of the more memorable scenes in this film, they actually play a surprisingly small role in a film that isn’t actually about nonhuman monsters at all. What Joel discovers most in the course of his brave journey on land is that it’s the people he meets and who talk to him in language he can understand that may be much more dangerous than the animals that can’t communicate what they think and feel.

In an overwhelming landscape of films and television shows that check in with humanity long past its expiration date, this one doesn’t particularly stand out. It feels as if it has been inspired by and assembled from a number of familiar projects featuring zombies or other villains, and what remains is mildly appealing but certainly not fresh. O’Brien is a competent lead, and Henwick, a recognizable face from “Iron Fist” and other media, makes Aimee a compelling character, while Michael Rooker, Arianna Greenblatt, and Dan Ewing provide adequate support as fellow survivors. This film is nothing extraordinary but does manage to fulfill its title’s promise, offering some humor and action mixed with romance and giant reptiles.

B-

Interview with Abe: The Trial of the Chicago 7

I had the pleasure of chatting with producer Ryan Donnell Smith about one of the best films I saw last year, the Oscar-nominated “The Trial of the Chicago 7.” Check out my great conversation with him at Awards Radar. Read my rave review of the film here!

Friday, April 2, 2021

Weekend Movie Recommendations with Abe

Every Friday, I'll be uploading a Minute with Abe: Weekend Movie Recommendations Edition, surveying new releases on DVD, and on streaming services. Check it out, and subscribe to the movieswithabe channel!


New to Theaters: The Man Who Sold His Skin
New to Theaters and VOD: Shiva Baby
New to DVD: Another Round, Our Friend
New to Netflix: Concrete Cowboy, Legally Blonde, The Pianist
New to Amazon Prime Video: The Ghost Writer, Anna Karenina, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Four Weddings and a Funeral, Inception, Minority Report
New to Hulu: Die Hard, Friends with Benefits, Garden State, Star Trek: Generations

Thursday, April 1, 2021

Movie with Abe: Concrete Cowboy

Out tomorrow on Netflix is the new film “Concrete Cowboy,” which I had the chance to write up for Cinema Daily US. Head over there to read my review of this intriguing spotlight of an urban riding community starring Caleb McLaughlin.

Wednesday, March 31, 2021

SAG Winner Predictions: Best Ensemble in a Motion Picture

The competition: Da 5 Bloods, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Minari, One Night in Miami, The Trial of the Chicago 7

For your information: The first three alphabetical films have three performers nominated, while the last two have just one each. Chadwick Boseman appears in two of these nominees. Only two of these nominees – “Minari” and “The Trial of the Chicago 7” – are up for the Oscar for Best Picture, making this the year of least crossover since 2015 (2007 is the most distinct with only “No Country for Old Men,” which won both prizes, cited by both groups). Neither Golden Globe Best Picture winner, “Nomadland” (also the Critics Choice victor) or “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm,” is represented here. The winner of this award has gone on to win the Best Picture Oscar eleven twelve since its inception in 1995.

Who should win? This is a very strong category. It’s hard to argue with a dedicated and diverse group in “Da 5 Bloods,” the range of talent in “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” the fantastic four in “One Night in Miami,” so many superb actors in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” and the earnestness of everyone in “Minari.” I’d choose “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” but wouldn’t mind any of these winning.

Who will win? If it’s “Minari,” that would be very exciting and a great Korean-language follow-up to “Parasite” winning last year. The likelier and just as deserving option is The Trial of the Chicago 7.

Tuesday, March 30, 2021

SAG Winner Predictions: Best Female Actor in a Supporting Role

The competition: Maria Bakalova’s Kazakh traveler (Borat Subsequent Moviefilm), Glenn Close’s protective grandmother (Hillbilly Elegy), Olivia Colman’s devoted daughter (The Father), Yuh-Jung Youn’s immigrant grandmother (Minari), and Helena Zengel’s quiet orphan (News of the World).

For your information: Close won a SAG Award in 2018 for “The Wife” and in 2004 for the TV movie “The Lion in Winter.” She has seven additional nominations for her film and TV work, though interestingly has never contended as a part of any ensemble. Colman is also nominated this year for her performance in the series “The Crown” and as part of its ensemble, which took home this trophy last year. She was nominated for that role last year as well as for being part of the “Fleabag” ensemble, and also contended in 2018 for her turn in “The Favourite.” This is the first nomination for Bakalova, Youn, and Zengel. Only Youn is nominated as part of her ensemble. All but Zengel are nominated for the corresponding Oscar. Bakalova (as a lead), Close, Colman, and Zengel were all nominated for Golden Globes but lost to Rosamund Pike and Jodie Foster, respectively, while Bakalova defeated all but Zengel at the Critics Choice Awards. All but seven times since the SAG Awards’ inception in 1994, the winner of this award has gone on to win the corresponding Oscar.

Who should win? None of these performances are at the top of my list. I think I’d choose Bakalova or Youn.

Who will win? This should safely be Bakalova, but who knows.

Monday, March 29, 2021

SAG Winner Predictions: Best Male Actor in a Supporting Role

The competition: Sacha Baron Cohen’s inflammatory activist (The Trial of the Chicago 7), Chadwick Boseman’s young soldier (Da 5 Bloods), Daniel Kaluuya’s energizing organizer (Judas and the Black Messiah), Jared Leto’s murder suspect (The Little Things), and Leslie Odom Jr.’s opinionated singer (One Night in Miami).

For your information: Baron Cohen was nominated in 2012 as part of the “Les Miserables” ensemble. The late Boseman won an ensemble prize for “Black Panther” in 2018 and makes history this year as the first performer to earn two individual nominations and two ensemble nominations, thanks to his role in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” in one year. Kaluuya won an ensemble prize in 2018 for “Black Panther” after contending the previous year both individually and as part of the “Get Out” cast. Leto won this prize in 2013 for “Dallas Buyers Club” and was also nominated as part of its ensemble. This is the first nomination for Odom. Baron Cohen, Boseman, and Odom are also nominated as part of their ensembles. Baron Cohen, Kaluuya, and Odom are all nominated for Oscars for these roles. Kaluuya won the Golden Globe and Critics Choice Award. All but seven times since the SAG Awards’ inception in 1994, the winner of this award has gone on to win the corresponding Oscar.

Who should win? Baron Cohen, Kaluuya, and Odom were all terrific.

Who will win? I think that Kaluuya is set to win this.

Sunday, March 28, 2021

SAG Winner Predictions: Best Female Actor in a Leading Role

The competition: Amy Adams’ troubled mother (Hillbilly Elegy), Viola Davis’ talented performer (Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom), Vanessa Kirby’s grieving mother (Pieces of a Woman), Frances McDormand’s exploring nomad (Nomadland), and Carey Mulligan’s revenge-seeker (Promising Young Woman).

For your information: Adams has six previous individual nominations, most recently double bids for “Sharp Objects” and “Vice” in 2018, plus three ensemble bids, one of which she won, in 2013 for “American Hustle.” Davis has won four individual prizes, for “The Help” in 2011, “How to Get Away with Murder” in 2014 and 2015, and “Fences” in 2016. She won the ensemble prize for the first of those and earned another individual nod and two more ensemble bids. Kirby was previously nominated twice as part of the cast of “The Crown.” McDormand has won three individual prizes, for “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” in 2017, “Olive Kitteridge” in 2014, and “Fargo” in 1996. She won the ensemble prize for the first of those and earned another two individual nods and one more ensemble bid. Mulligan was nominated in 2009 for “An Education” both individually and as part of the ensemble and as part of the “Mudbound” cast in 2017. All but Adams are nominated for the corresponding Oscar, and the other four all lost to Andra Day at the Golden Globes. Mulligan triumphed at the Critics Choice Awards. All but seven times since the SAG Awards’ inception in 1994, the winner of this award has gone on to win the corresponding Oscar.

Who should win? Mulligan is my clear favorite from this very good list.

Who will win? I’m betting tentatively on Mulligan over McDormand and Davis.

Saturday, March 27, 2021

SAG Winner Predictions: Best Male Actor in a Leading Role

The competition: Riz Ahmed’s newly deaf drummer (Sound of Metal), Chadwick Boseman’s passionate musician (Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom), Anthony Hopkins’ dementia-stricken parent (The Father), Gary Oldman’s determined screenwriter (Mank), and Steven Yeun’s hard-working father (Minari).

For your information: Ahmed was previously nominated in 2016 for his performance in the limited series “The Night Of.” The late Boseman won an ensemble prize for “Black Panther” in 2018 and makes history this year as the first performer to earn two individual nominations and two ensemble nominations, thanks to his role in “Da 5 Bloods,” in one year. Hopkins has three previous individual nominations, most recently in 2018 for “King Lear,” and three ensemble bids. Oldman won this prize in 2017 for “Darkest Hour” and was nominated in 2000 for “The Contender.” Yeun is the lone first-time nominee, and, like Boseman, is nominated as part of his ensemble. All five of these men earned Oscar nominations, and Yeun was the only one not in contention at the Golden Globes, where Boseman prevailed. He also triumphed at the Critics Choice Awards. All but four times since the SAG Awards’ inception in 1994, the winner of this award has gone on to win an Oscar. The most recent time it didn’t happen was in 2016 when Denzel Washington beat eventually Oscar champ Casey Affleck here.

Who should win? It’s a superb group. I’d choose Boseman or Ahmed.

Who will win? I think the quadruple nomination all but ensures a victory for Boseman.

Friday, March 26, 2021

Weekend Movie Recommendations with Abe

Every Friday, I'll be uploading a Minute with Abe: Weekend Movie Recommendations Edition, surveying new releases on DVD, and on streaming services. Check it out, and subscribe to the movieswithabe channel!


New to Theaters: Nobody
New to Theaters and VOD: Senior Moment
New to VOD: The Father, Donny’s Bar Mitzvah
New to DVD: Soul, News of the World, Breaking News in Yuba County
New to Hulu: Collective

Thursday, March 25, 2021

Movie with Abe: Nobody

One of this week's high-profile theatrical releases is the new film “Nobody,” which I had the chance to write up for Cinema Daily US. Head over there to read my review of this very violent but engaging film starring Bob Odenkirk

Wednesday, March 24, 2021

Movie with Abe: Senior Moment

Senior Moment
Directed by Giorgio Serafini
Released March 26, 2021

It never feels good to be considered irrelevant. In a society that thrives on increasingly advanced technology, those who aren’t as up to date or might prefer more old-fashioned approaches can get left behind and shut out of many places and activities. Older populations are typically made to feel like their voices shouldn’t be heard and that they are not as capable as they used to be, even if most functionality remains clear. Some will go to incredible lengths to assert their continued existence, which rarely leads to good results. In this mediocre comedy, a car and an unexpected romances compel one man to make sure everyone knows he’s still around with something to say.

Victor Martin (William Shatner) is a retired NASA pilot who spends a good chunk of his time driving his prized Porsche with his friend Sal (Christopher Lloyd). After a few too many encounters with the law, Victor finds his license and car taken away. Now that he has to take the bus, he has the chance to meet Caroline (Jean Smart), who runs a café. As he prepares to fight for the right to get back on the road in court, Victor reconsiders his priorities and wonders whether settling down late in life might actually be the smart choice for him.

This film’s title has a clear double meaning, referencing the tendency for older people to forget something briefly, often in the middle of a sentence. There are scenes where Victor finds himself suddenly lost and not aware of exactly what is going on, and he’s certainly out of touch with how the world operates in a number of ways, as his familiarity with local police would indicate. Being left without the ability to get around on his own strikes him as more urgent and important than anything that has happened in a long time, and his introduction to Caroline allows him to have one more thing to focus on and keep his going.

Shatner is an actor who’s always had a particular charm, from his early days as a leading man on “Star Trek” to his more recent comic relief work in “Boston Legal” and other projects. Having just celebrated his ninetieth birthday earlier this week, he shows no signs of slowing down, and he’s a great fit for this part, opposite a typically dependable Smart. This film is light and feels like a relic of the past, one that may not be all that modern and in no way groundbreaking, but a harmless piece of entertainment that delivers exactly what it promises.

B-

Tuesday, March 23, 2021

Movie with Abe: Donny’s Bar Mitzvah

Donny’s Bar Mitzvah
Directed by Jonny Comebacks
Released March 23, 2021 (VOD)

A Bar Mitzvah officially signifies a Jewish boy becoming an adult and a part of the Jewish people. Typically, the religious ceremony is also accompanied by a big party filled with friends and family. Those who grew up in Jewish communities likely remember the excess that went along with some celebrations, and as kids may not have noticed how parents were behaving when they had the chance to interact their own friends at such an event. The wildest occurrences are exaggerated in every possible way in this lewd and absurd send-up of the late 1990s and the most over-the-top people you’d ever meet at a Bar Mitzvah party.

Donny (Steele Stebbins) isn’t looking forward to his big night. His mom (Wendy Braun) is way too stressed out and nervous about everything going right, including the dance he’s supposed to do with his friends, and he’s worried that one of his buddies is going to mess things up with his new girlfriend, Hannah (Isabelle Anaya). Among the many other subplots are his sister Michelle (Jessica Renee Russell) trying to appease her matchmaker grandmother by pretending to date her friend David (Radek Lord), who’s actually gay and interested in both her brother and her father, an emcee (Jeremy Tardy) on the hunt for a party disrupter, and a table of parents ready to indulge in their worst habits all night.

This film is best described as “The Hebrew Hammer” meets “Super Troopers,” taking remembered experiences and amplifying them exponentially to the absurd. The numerous lunacies portrayed here might have happened, or likelier people wish they had happened, in real life. This excessive gathering is the theoretical product of every single adult guest being that crazy relative you didn’t want to come or the work colleague you wish you didn’t have to invite. That mixed with an unhealthy helping of teenage testosterone plus a good deal of vomiting, defecation, descriptive sex, and completely random subplots represents the major ingredients in this delirious concoction.

The actors do seem like they’re having fun here, with the younger cast, led by Stebbins and Russell, imitating the more obnoxious and awkward tendencies of teenagers assigning too much weight to minor moments and childish impulses. The adult ensemble generally opts for broader comedy, though some of the performances, like those from Michael Patrick McGill and Noureen DeWulf, are especially entertaining. Those searching for sophistication or some actual representation of a Bar Mitzvah ceremony won’t find either here, but there’s an oddly appealing rhythm to this film’s unchecked lunacy. Its commitment to offending everyone isn’t necessarily laudable, but its parody of a time period and a state of mind does have decent zany entertainment value.

C

Monday, March 22, 2021

Movie with Abe: Judas and the Black Messiah

One of this year's late-breaking contenders that built up enough steam to earn six Oscar nominations, including a bid for Best Picture, was “Judas and the Black Messiah.” I had the chance to take an extensive look at this film for Cinema Daily US. Head over there to read my review of this powerful film featuring strong Oscar-nominated performances from Daniel Kaluuya and Lakeith Stanfield (the quality isn't diminished despite them both being bafflingly categorized as supporting actors).

Sunday, March 21, 2021

SXSW with Abe: Violet

I’m thrilled to be covering SXSW for the third time. This year, I’m not in Austin, but watching films virtually and reviewing them as soon as I can.

Violet
Directed by Justine Bateman
2020 Spotlight

Many people experience self-doubt. Impostor syndrome can often set in at the worst possible moments, when work that has been legitimately done to get a person somewhere is invalidated by overwhelming thoughts that they don’t belong there or deserve to have achieved what they have. What that looks like and how it manifests can be different on a case-by-case basis, but those who experience crippling anxiety about the legitimacy of their decisions and their own self-worth can be very much impeded from success. Justine Bateman’s feature directorial debut offers a vivid, captivating vision of inner workings given all too much power.

Violet (Olivia Munn) works as an executive in film development, where she is forced to manage incompetent, lazy underlings and endure minimizing harassment from her boss and studio heads. The main reason she has done nothing to stand up for herself is that her every move and thought is criticized by a voice (Justin Theroux), which she refers to as the “committee” in her head. Optimistic conversations with a loyal friend (Erica Ash) and supportive temporary roommate (Luke Bracey) inspire her to consider something she has never done before – fight back against the committee and take charge of her life.

To convey what Violet experiences in her own mind, this film employs multiple techniques that serve as an assault on the senses. She frequently flashes to seemingly violent and unpleasant memories as the loud voice commands her not to do the brave or difficult thing, and cursive text appears scrawled across the screen to externalize what Violet wishes she could do in that moment. It’s a powerful combination of devices that proves impossible to ignore, and serves only to support the film’s narrative, which extracts key moments from a short time in Violet’s adult life that is evidently representative of a similarly subservient whole.

Munn is a fantastic choice to play the title role, channeling a deep frustration with Violet’s decisions that has built up consistently and yet always been knocked down again by that doubting and demeaning voice. It’s a very impressive performance stripped of any lightheartedness or charm that is slowly injected back in as Violet builds confidence and begins to resist. A flurry of recognizable faces provide support throughout but never distract from this simultaneously focused and schizophrenic portrait. Its denouement comes with conflicted morality, but it’s an entirely involved experience that isn’t easy to shake.

B+

SXSW with Abe: The Fallout

I’m thrilled to be covering SXSW for the third time. This year, I’m not in Austin, but watching films virtually and reviewing them as soon as I can.

I'm writing up some of the films I see for the brand new site Cinema Daily US. Head over there to read my take on “The Fallout,” a sensitive and powerful drama about the aftermath of a school shooting that won the Narrative Feature Competition Grand Jury Prize.

SXSW with Abe: Best Summer Ever

I’m thrilled to be covering SXSW for the third time. This year, I’m not in Austin, but watching films virtually and reviewing them as soon as I can.

Best Summer Ever
Directed by Michael Parks Randa and Lauren Smitelli
2020 Spotlight

There has been much made in recent years about representation in media. Actors earn accolades for transforming themselves into someone with experiences they can’t relate to or haven’t personally been through, and questions are asked about why someone whose life more closely resembles a role wasn’t approached for it instead. If someone can effectively mimic the way someone else acts, why shouldn’t the opposite be true, and is the aim of a performance to deceive an audience or to elicit an emotional response? This wonderful musical makes excellence use of a diverse cast to prove that acting requires energy and passion above all else, and other projects should follow suit.

Sage (Shannon DeVido) and Tony (Rickey Wilson Jr.) meet at dance camp and fall for each other. When the summer ends, Sage gets on the road with her mothers to the next place they can set up their marijuana-growing operation. Vehicle problems and Sage’s desire to have a normal life result in them putting down temporary roots in the same small town that Tony, who told Sage that he lived in Manhattan and went to a fancy private school, happens to be the star football player. As they are unexpected and awkwardly reunited, they become the targets of a popularity-seeking cheerleader (MuMu) and a rival football player (Jacob Waltuck).

This film has what it describes as a “fully integrated cast and crew of people with and without disabilities.” Like another beloved musical, “Hamilton,” this film opts for a position of radical inclusion, one that invites any actor to play any role, regardless of any physical or societal trait that might typically impede them from being cast. It’s a marvelously successful experiment, one that discovers extraordinary talent among all of its players. They sing, they dance, and they’re clearly having a good time, which, predictably, leads to an enthralling and enjoyable experience for audiences as well.

The entire ensemble is worthy of praise, but it’s worth singling out the superb turn by DeVido, who imbues Sage with a lust for life and a discerning eye towards ridiculousness that others don’t seem to possess. The dance numbers are fun and the songs, which include sing-along lyrics on the bottom of the screen, are also strong. While this clear sendup of “Grease” and other more recent high school-set musicals isn’t always sophisticated in its plotting, it’s a remarkably entertaining time, one that captures the best of the genre and executes it with a marvelously competent cast and crew.

B+