Tuesday, July 31, 2007

AFT Awards: Halfway List

It is a bit past the halfway mark, but I feel it is important to take stock of the great offerings that are released within the first half of the year. Come December, many of these films will have fallen off my (and Oscar's, for that matter) radar, and my list will have very much changed. After further reevaluation, some of the performances and films may have simply fallen off the list, so all the better to recognize them now. This list is comprised of 53 films I have seen, all released in theatres since January 1, 2007. Most of these films are either foreign or independent, so do not be concerned if you have not heard of them, but I recommend checking them out. Many are already available on DVD. Without further ado, if the year ended today, my list of nominees would be:

Best Picture
After the Wedding
Avenue Montaigne
Eagle vs. Shark
The Lives of Others
Starter for 10

Best Director
After the Wedding
Avenue Montaigne
First Snow
The Lives of Others
Waitress

Best Actor
Mads Mikkelsen, After the Wedding
Ulrich Muhe, The Lives of Others
Justin Kirk, Puccini for Beginners
Alan Rickman, Snow Cake
James McAvoy, Starter for 10

Best Actress
Cecile de France, Avenue Montaigne
Loren Horsley, Eagle vs. Shark
Katherine Heigl, Knocked Up
Marion Cotillard, La Vie en Rose
Keri Russell, Waitress

Best Supporting Actor
Rolf Lassgard, After the Wedding
Albert Dupontel, Avenue Montaigne
Paul Rudd, Knocked Up
Irfan Khan, A Mighty Heart
Ioan Gruffudd, The TV Set

Best Supporting Actress
Stine Fischer Christensen, After the Wedding
Gretchen Mol, Puccini for Beginners
Alice Eve, Starter for 10
Rebecca Hall, Starter for 10
Adrienne Shelly, Waitress

Best Original Screenplay
Avenue Montaigne
Eagle vs. Shark
The Lives of Others
Ratatouille
Waitress

Best Adapted Screenplay
Freedom Writers
Hairspray
A Mighty Heart
Paris, Je T'aime
Starter for 10

Best Cinematography
After the Wedding
Days of Glory
First Snow
The Lives of Others
Snow Cake

Best Film Editing
After the Wedding
Avenue Montaigne
The Lives of Others
A Mighty Heart
Smokin' Aces

Best Art Direction
After the Wedding
First Snow
Grindhouse
Hairspray
Smokin' Aces

Best Costumes
Black Book
Hairspray
Nomad
Ocean's Thirteen
Zodiac

Best Original Score
Days of Glory
The Hoax
The Lives of Others
The Lookout
Ratatouille

Best Original Song
Music & Lyrics, "Pop Goes My Heart"
Once, "Falling Slowly"
Once, "Leave"
Once, "Lies"
Once, "Mind's Made Up"

Best Sound
Days of Glory
The Lives of Others
Seraphim Falls
Shooter
Smokin' Aces

Best Sound Editing
Live Free or Die Hard
Seraphim Falls
Smokin' Aces

Best Visual Effects
Live Free or Die Hard
Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End
Spider-Man 3

Best Documentary
Sicko

Best Animated Film
Ratatouille

Thursday, July 26, 2007

The Loss of a Great Actor: Ulrich Muhe

I would like to take a moment to recognize Ulrich Muhe, a German actor, who passed away from stomach cancer this week. The actor has a long list of acting credits to his name, dating back over twenty years. The only film of his I have seen is the recent German film "The Lives of Others". He plays the lead, a stern agent named Wiesler tasked to spy on a suspected political dissident. His performance is excellent, and sticks with you well after the end of the film. I hope that his passing will encourage many to see this film and his amazing work in it.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Disappointing: Interview

Interview
Directed by Steve Buscemi
Released July 13, 2007

Steve Buscemi is both a talented comedic and dramatic actor (see "Fargo" for instances of both) and a masterful director (the "Pine Barrens" episode of "The Sopranos"). Unfortunately, this feature boasts neither of those attributes for Buscemi. A simple conversation drama that never takes off, "Interview" progresses too quickly yet nothing happens. It is far less intimate and powerful than it purports itself to be, and the evolution of the relationship of the characters is forced at best. The film is a mere 86 minutes, yet feels like it has dragged on for much longer, despite nothing really happening. Buscemi's acting here is nothing memorable. And Sienna Miller is persistently obnoxious as Buscemi's journalist's interview subject. Her performance seems effortless yet so painfully and continually annoying she must be trying to do something. Unlike, say "The Big Kahuna", this dialogue movie's dialogue is nothing to write home about. The biggest and most troubling problem with "Interview" is that neither of the characters are even remotely likeable, and more often than not creepy. It is hard to find sympathy for these characters and to become truly engaged in finding out what will happen to them.

C-

Monday, July 23, 2007

Absolutely Atrocious: Goya's Ghosts

Goya's Ghosts
Directed by Milos Forman
Released July 20, 2007

From the opening minute, I knew I had gone wrong choosing to see this film. It instantly brought to mind two other recent filmic disasters: "All the King's Men" and "Copying Beethoven". Like "All the King's Men", it is a film from a brilliant Oscar-winning director ("One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest") and a stellar cast including Javier Bardem, Natalie Portman, and Stellan Skarsgard. And like "All the King's Men", the resulting film and ensemble performance is unfathomably bad. Like the little-seen "Copying Beethoven", the period setting makes all the action come off as corny and dumb, and the title character (Goya in this case) is eccentric and jolly to a point of irreversible annoyance.

All three stars are tragically terrible. Bardem, like Penelope Cruz, seems to be one of those actors who is much better in his native language. Portman's charm is ineffective and she is way too cheery and naive for her own good. Skarsgard, as I mentioned earlier, is dumb and overly energetic. To do justice to these great actors, watch "The Sea Inside", "Garden State", and "Good Will Hunting". And just to top it off, Randy Quaid as the king of Spain? Please! Definitely skip this film. It is full of disturbing images and off-putting scenes for no apparent purpose. It drags despite showcasing very few actual plot developments. I should have known from the development hell this film went through (it was originally slated for release last year) that it was a huge misstep for all involved. Worst of the year to this point.

F

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Introducing TV with Abe

It is my pleasure to introduce the first "Movies with Abe" spin-off blog. TV with Abe will now be the forum for all my television-related articles and Emmy predictions. Effective immediately, all of my television-related posts have been moved to the new site. This site will be exclusively to films. For the remainder of the summer, I will be engaging in certain projects like an examination of some good and bad movie theatres in New York City and a "halfway mark" AFT Film Awards ballot. In the fall, I plan to see somewhere between two and four films each week and will be writing reviews all the time. I also plan to begin my Golden Globes and Oscars coverage when buzz begins to build sometime in the early to late fall.

Second Time Around: Puccini for Beginners

Puccini for Beginners
Directed by Maria Maggenti
Released February 2, 2007

I saw this film in theatres back on opening day, and it occupied my number one film of the year slot since that point. My initial take is below, back from when I was writing for Joe Critic:

Following a predictable break-up with her more stable girlfriend Samantha, New York-based writer Allegra prepares to obsess over Samantha and give up all hope for her romantic life. She is surprised to meet not one but two new acquaintances: Philip, an intelligent professor at Columbia, and Grace, an excitable hopeful glassblower. Allegra enters into a relationship with each of them, all the while unaware that Philip and Grace have just broken up after six years of dating each other.

“Puccini for Beginners” is a pleasantly and surprisingly fun and original comedy. The opening scene sets up the action with a flash forward to close to the end of the film. From that first moment, it is clear that it will be an amusing ride. The story is not anything ground-breaking in terms of originality, but the new spin on sexuality and sexual orientation is clever and works very well. The idea of such coincidence in New York City is fascinating, and while seemingly improbable, does not detract from the feeling of reality in the film.

The great screenplay is complimented very nicely by uniformly excellent performances. Each and every character is written so well, and all the actors even go above and beyond the roles written for them. It is difficult to pinpoint just a few examples for each performer. Elizabeth Reaser is fantastically oblivious and flirtatious as the “conflicted” Allegra. Justin Kirk is charming yet serious as Philip, and in a refreshing change, not overeager about the chance to sleep with a lesbian. Gretchen Mol, as Grace, is so na├»ve and excited by the possibility of experimenting by sleeping with a woman. Jennifer Dundas and Tina Benko as Allegra’s friends Molly and Nell, make their otherwise forgettable characters worth watching. And Julianne Nicholson, in a small role as Samantha, is intimidating yet vulnerable, and improves upon her already great work in last year’s “Flannel Pajamas.”

A-

Second time around: It is still very funny, and the performances are great, but it ultimately is just very light and does not hold up quite as well. Definitely a worthwhile comedy that deserves to be seen, but unfortunately not the stunning and amazing film I thought I saw the first time. As a result, my top ten of the year has once again been reordered, and "Puccini for Beginners" is now a close runner-up but no longer occupies a spot.

B+

Home Video: Saved!

Saved!
Directed by Brian Dannelly
Released May 28, 2004

This Christian high school mockery is an unfortunate and obnoxious waste of time. This is a case where trying to make a joke out of a grand concept falls flat and turns into a pitiful farce. From its very start, the movie is falsely upbeat and cheery, to a disastrous point. Usual talents like Mandy Moore and Mary-Louise Parker are stuck in dreadful roles and their performances do not reflect their skill. Even Jena Malone and Martin Donovan, who do their very best despite some despicable writing, cannot save this film (pun intended, sure). It is the kind of thing that is funny for a moment, but then you should realize it is so dumb it cannot possibly be funny.

F

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Dancing in the Streets: Hairspray

Hairspray (Advance Screening)
Directed by Adam Shankman
To be released July 20, 2007

The new version of "Hairspray" (the only one I have ever seen) is a foot-tapping, full-blown musical experience from its opening moments. The songs are bouncy and fun, not necessarily as sophisticated as those from say "Dreamgirls" or "Chicago", but it is still highly entertaining. The audience certainly loved it, especially John Travolta's cross-dressing performance as Edna Turnblad. Travolta is really great in that part, and he is supported by a fairly even and well-rounded cast. Christopher Walken does not have too much material as Edna's husband, but he does a fine enough job. Michelle Pfeiffer is fun as an evil television executive, and Brittany Snow ("American Dreams") is pretty perfectly cast as her daughter. Zac Efron, famous from "High School Musical", is a good male icon for the film's younger cast, and he fits very well into the time period (as does everyone, which is a rarity). Even Amanda Bynes is pretty good. I personally liked James Marsden as TV personality Corny Collins, who perfectly captured the "corniness" of the era. But of course the real star here is newcomer Nikki Blonsky, as main character Tracy, who is energetic the entire time and really dedicated to the role. There is a massive undercurrent of political material here, but the film might better be absorbed just taken as a buoyant musical.

B+

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Portrait of a Troubled Artist: La Vie en Rose

La Vie en Rose
Directed by Olivier Dahan
Released June 8, 2007

This biography of famous French singer Edith Piaf is a lengthy but expansive look at her life and the events which led to her great popularity and subsequent downfall. The story jumps around a bit too much for easy following, with dates flashing across the screen every five or ten minutes, muddling the timeline of the story to an often unrecognizable point. The undeniable reason to see this film is star Marion Cotillard. I am even more impressed with her performance after remembering her less-than-notable turns in "A Good Year" and "Big Fish". One of those stars who is indisputably better in her native language, 31-year-old Cotillard portrays Piaf from the age of twenty to nearly fifty with such a passion for the role. She gets so far into it, I was shocked to realize that it was all an act after discovering her past roles in the aforementioned films. A friend mentioned that she would win the Oscar for sure were she American, and I am tempted to agree as it is certainly one of the best lead performances I have seen so far this year. Just as Cotillard resembles Piaf, the film resembles her life, which is often choppy and hard to follow.

B

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

A New Zealand Gem: Eagle vs. Shark

Eagle vs. Shark
Directed by Taika Cohen
Released June 15, 2007

I cannot believe I did not see this film back in April when there was a free screening in New York. Not until I saw a trailer and realized that the male lead is Jemaine Clement from "Flight of the Conchords" did I have a burning desire to see it. I was not at all disappointed with what I saw. Here is a rare, small film that includes a splendid cast and some fantastic dialogue. The story of two extremely uncool people stuck in dead-end jobs who meet at a party and enter into an entirely awkward and unusual relationship is fresh, bizarre, and highly amusing. Jemaine Clement stars as rude and selfish video store employee Jarrod, and Loren Horsley is recently let-go fast food establishment employee Lily. Both performances are so wonderfully understated, and their facial expressions tell give so much additional information as to their characters. The writing here is awesome, and I highly recommend this comedy to those interested in something a bit out of the ordinary.

B+

Great Pixar: Ratatouille

Ratatouille
Directed by Brad Bird
Released June 29, 2007

Pixar's latest offering is just as fun as you might expect. A clever storyline involving rats, humans, and a good deal of cooking comes together very well in this amusing comedy. As with recent movies like "Cars", there are plently of simple comic moments which amuse young children yet a surprising amount of more mature material which provides a few laughs for the not-so-small crowd. The voices for the two principal characters, rat Remy and wannabe chef Linguini, are relative unknowns Patton Oswalt and Lou Romano, respectively, and they do a great job creating the vocal half of these great protagonists. Notable standouts from the supporting cast include Janeane Garofalo as a French cook and Peter O'Toole as an almost evil food critic. The film's commentary on the idea of criticism is particularly fun. The last third of the film gets a bit predictable and rushed, but nonetheless, it is a fun ride, and the best part is that it is great for everyone.

B+

Interesting To Be Sure: Sicko

Sicko
Directed by Michael Moore
Released June 22, 2007

Michael Moore's latest controversial documentary had a stunning and effective marketing campaign including two fantastic posters and some great taglines. His film is pretty much as one might expect it to be, full of crazy statistics and some compelling people and cases for Moore's point. I have only seen "Fahrenheit 9/11" out of all Moore's previous films, and "Sicko" seems more serious and possibly less far-fetched. I am not really familiar with the health care industry and whether Moore's statistics are correct, but he certainly goes very much in-depth with all his supporting facts and arguments, and if nothing else, I am certainly more compelled to vote for Hillary Clinton in the next presidential election. Generally, the film is an occasionally funny, more often distubing look at the effectiveness (or rather, ineffectiveness) of the health care industry in America. It is politically charged the whole way through, but Moore is still pretty crafty in the way he makes a case and uses archive footage to fuel it.

B+

Sunday, July 8, 2007

Period but Slow: Elizabeth

Elizabeth
Directed by Shekhar Kapur
Released November 6, 1998

I hastily rented this 1998 Best Picture nominee after seeing a preview for the upcoming October release "The Golden Age", which I realized was a sequel. The upcoming film looks like a fantastic epic adventure, but this first film is not such. It is certainly very in-depth with all the costumes and the makeup, and I am proud to say that all the performances fit in very well to that time period. However, the denouement is somewhat slow and not terribly exciting. The opening credits are a bit strange, and the film is somewhat stylized in a bizarre sort of way. Cate Blanchett is very good as Elizabeth, and I cannot believe or deal with the fact that Gwyneth Paltrow, who I despise, won the Oscar over her for "Shakespeare in Love", which I also despise. Two actors from "Shakespeare in Love" also appear in this film. Joseph Fiennes stands there looking dumb, just as he did in "Shakespeare in Love", and Geofrrey Rush goes far beyond his material and is great in a very small role. A memorable performance comes from Vincent Cassel, as a flamboyant French duke. It is also nice to see the birth of some great future talents who appear in very minor roles, including Daniel Craig, Emily Mortimer, Kelly McDonald, and James Frain. Overall, the film is very well thought-out but not terribly interesting. I do think that "The Golden Age" will be great and much more fast-paced (plus the addition of Clive Owen, which is never a bad thing).

B

Action-Packed: Live Free or Die Hard

Live Free or Die Hard
Directed by Len Wiseman
Released June 27, 2007

Well this is a lot of fun. It matches, if not outdoes, its three predecessors in the tremendousness of its action scenes. Bruce Willis is back as John McClane, the hot-tempered New York cop who always ends up in the wrong place at the wrong time. He has not lost any of his token personality, and his character is only further developed as he interacts with a hacker played by Justin Long, famous as the Mac guy in the Mac/PC commercials. Long at first comes off as obnoxious, but his character becomes easier to like as the film goes on. Timothy Olyphant ("Deadwood") is the villain this time around, and while his character is not that well-written, and not nearly as fascinating as either of the Gruber brothers from the first and third films, he does a great job going above his character, making him both occasionally scary and often very funny. Mary Elizabeth Winstead appears as McClane's daughter in a generally throwaway role, most memorable for her strongheadedness reminiscent of her father. The plot here is more than a bit thin and pretty far-fetched, but the action scenes and Willis' charisma really make it work. And talk about a great action movie.

B+

Monday, July 2, 2007

Powerful and Appropriate: A Mighty Heart

A Mighty Heart
Directed by Michael Winterbottom
Released June 22, 2007

This is the film version of the story of the tragic murder of Daniel Pearl, a U.S. journalist captured and murdered in Pakistan. This story centers around Mariane Pearl, Daniel's wife, a journalist herself who tries desperately to find her missing husband. This kind of subject is very sensitive and tricky to pull off without offending many people. Luckily, the end result here is most comparable to "United 93", last year's dramatization of the hijacked 9/11 flight where the passengers fought back. The material is treated very delicately, with no unnecessary theatrics or big-name actors who distract from the based-on-truth plot. While Angelina Jolie, the only "big-name" star in the cast, did not completely blow me away as Mariane, she was generally pretty good. The best member of the cast has to be Irfan Khan, as the CID Captain investigating Daniel's kidnapping, fresh off of an unenthusiastic turn in "The Namesake". He really gives it his all here in a subtle but excellent performance. The film feels a bit long after only an hour and 48 minutes, but the editing is sharp and the cinematography feels very real. The stark look of the film adds the reality, and it is an all-around impressive effort from all involved. Most impressive is the dramatic impact of the film made possible wisely without the inclusion of actual footage of the murder.

B+

Sunday, July 1, 2007

Letdown: Evening

Evening
Directed by Lajos Koltai
Released June 29, 2007

A tremendous cast of award-winning actresses comes together for a massive exercise in disappointment. I hate to use quotes from other reviews, but I happened to read an excerpt from Roger Eberts' thoughts: "There are few things more depressing than a weeper that doesn't make you weep." I wholeheartedly agree with these sentiments. He also points that such an impressive cast does not necessarily merit an impressive film, and that is true. "Evening" never quite takes off, with simultaneous occurences in the past and present, neither of which are terribly intriguing. The usually great Claire Danes stars as the young version of Ann, a strong-willed and energetic woman whose life will eventually turn into an unhappy mess, the last moments of which are lived out by an unexceptional Vanessa Redgrave. Danes seems terribly out of place, in the way that she acts and speaks, in the 1950s past, to the point that it becomes a nuisance to try to suspend disbelief enough to presume that she would have acted like that when everyone else clearly acts so differently. No one in the cast is terribly impressive, save for the always great Toni Collette and a decent enough performance from Mamie Gummer, Meryl Streep's daughter. Both Streep and Glenn Close are wasted in unmemorable bit roles. The character of Harris, played by the likeable Patrick Wilson, is beloved by every character in the film, yet there is really nothing too special about him. I felt the same way about the film.

C+

Third Time Around: Pan's Labyrinth

Pan's Labyrinth
Directed by Guillermo Del Toro
Released December 29, 2006

I went into this film the first time with high hopes and expectations, after hearing that it was pretty much the greatest thing ever. I saw it in theatres in mid-January, and was not necessarily let down but rather slightly underwhelmed. It was certainly fascinating, but only to a point - there was something missing. There were certain elements I really liked, such as the opening shot of the film, but overall I needed just a bit more. The second viewing, about a month and a half ago, did not change my mind at all. I am still intrigued but have found that it was a bit too bizarre without enough to tie it together. I do not want to say too much so as to allow people who have not seen it to go into it without any knowledge of the film's plot. On a third viewing, I feel exactly the same way. I liked it, but wanted to like it more. It was fascinating, but need just a bit more to be totally captivating.

B