Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Wednesday Oscar Watch with Abe

Welcome to a new weekly feature here at Movies with Abe, Wednesday Oscar Watch with Abe. It’s a bit early to be able to accurately predict the eventual Oscar nominees, but around this time, plenty of likely contenders are being released. I’ll be looking every Wednesday at the awards chances for all of the films released the previous week. Until I begin my official predictions, I’ll be adding and removing contenders as their popularity, buzz, or reviews rise and fall. Chime in with your thoughts on the Oscar chances for these films in the comments section.

Capitalism: A Love Story
After picking up an Oscar in 2002 for “Bowling for Columbine,” Michael Moore got cocky and tried to enter “Fahrenheit 9/11” in competition for Best Picture. He learned his lesson when the film got completely shut out in 2004. In 2007, he submitted “Sicko” in the Best Documentary category, earned a nomination, and lost to “Taxi to the Dark Side.” I’m fairly certain that Moore will wisely submit his latest in the Best Documentary category and should be a serious contender.

The Boys are Back
This movie shouldn’t really factor into any races with the possible exception of Best Actor. Clive Owen is a past nominee, and this seems very akin to when Will Smith got nominate for “The Pursuit of Happyness” in 2006. I don’t think that Owen’s chances are terribly good, due to middling reviews and much quieter buzz. This is likely the best of Owen’s three big roles this year (the other two being “The International” and “Duplicity”), but that kind of screen presence in one year can often lead a performer to be completely forgotten. Just ask Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale in 2006.

Coco before Chanel
Anne Fontaine’s biopic probably has the best chance in the Best Actress category, though I’m not convinced it will happen. Audrey Tautou gave tremendous performances in two magnificent French movies, “Amélie” and “A Very Long Engagement,” and didn’t come close to a nomination for either one, even though both films placed in other categories. It’s hard for foreign actresses to cross over, and Penelope Cruz has been the only one to do so recently, mostly under the direction of very notable auteurs Pedro Almodovar and Woody Allen. Tautou probably won’t make the cut because the film won’t be big enough, and the film being foreign may also keep it off the list for Best Costumes and Best Art Direction. As an additional note, it is not France’s official submission in the Best Foreign Film race.

Fame
This film earned pretty poor reviews, and the only way it could have a shot at putting “Oscar-nominated” on its DVD release is if it contains any original songs. The first “Fame” won both Best Original Song and Best Original Score. Then again, the original movie also got nominated for Best Original Screenplay, and I have a slight feeling that this one isn’t going to be a contender in any race based on dialogue or plot.

Brief Interviews with Hideous Men might have a prayer if it had earned better notices or been released more widely, but I’m sure it’s out of the race at this point. Regarding this week’s less highbrow releases, you’re kidding yourself if you think Pandorum, Surrogates, Paranormal Activity, or I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell could possibly come anywhere near Oscar.

Be sure to come back next Wednesday for a look at this Friday’s theatrical releases and their Oscar chances. And remember to offer your thoughts on the chances for these films in the comments!

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Tuesday's Top Trailer: Sherlock Holmes

Welcome to a new weekly feature here at Movies with Abe, Tuesday's Top Trailer. One of my favorite parts about going to see movies is the series of trailers that airs beforehand and, more often than not, the trailer is far better than the actual film. Each week, I'll be sharing a trailer I've recently seen. Please chime in with comments on what you think of the trailer and how you think the movie is going to be.

Sherlock Holmes - Opening December 25, 2009



I saw this one in its entirety for the first time before "The Informant" this past Friday. While the character teaser posters were fun, they weren't indicative of what this film would actually be like. The trailer doesn't waste any time amping up the action, and after a very legendary-style introduction to the character of Holmes, everything is very fast-paced and cool. It looks like Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law are going to make a fantastic team, and this should finally be a terrific role for the lovely Rachel McAdams. The best part, which I didn't know before seeing the trailer, is that Mark Strong, so excellent last year in both "Body of Lies" and "RocknRolla," is playing the villain. That's good to be great. In true action-adventure trailer fashion, the last quick cut is to a comic moment. This looks like it's going to be very much a Guy Ritchie film with slow-motion shots and a very rugged feel to it, which I think is fantastic. The use of Unstoppable by E.S. Posthumus tops it all off and just gets me very excited. Too bad we have to wait for so long!

Monday, September 28, 2009

Movie with Abe: Brief Interview With Hideous Men

Sporadic Hints of Greatness from Two Very Different Men

Brief Interviews with Hideous Men
Directed by John Krasinski
Released September 25, 2009

As if the title weren’t intriguing enough, the match-up between the author of the original material and the man who adapted it for the screen is even more flabbergasting. The late David Foster Wallace wrote a collection of short stories in 1999 that examined the male psyche through off-putting characteristics of interview subjects. Actor John Krasinski, best known for his portrayal of sarcastic cubicle-dweller Jim Halpert on “The Office,” stepped behind the camera to write and direct his first feature film. The film serves both as a fitting tribute to the life and work of a great author and the turning of a new creative page for one industry player.

The most significant liberty taken by Krasinski in his reworking of Foster’s source material is the addition of a central character to anchor the story. The study is conducted by an unnamed, unseen interviewer on the page, but in the film, graduate student Sara (Julianne Nicholson) exists to make the story more relatable. Krasinski isn’t set on making the story feel too normalized or comfortable – characters still turn and address the screen and pop out as if they’re narrating the story. The movie’s not explicitly about Sara, she’s simply there to ask questions and respond to these males so desperate to vent about their bizarre urges and untraditional desires. Sara represents the audience; she’s there to take it in and analyze. Viewers can feel like they’re allowed to feel a certain way about the events on screen by picking up on the subtle visual cues on Sara’s face.

Recognizable actors, including Christopher Meloni (“Law & Order: Special Victims Unit”) and Dominic Cooper (“Mamma Mia”), parade in as Sara’s interview subjects, as if to imply that this isn’t merely a picture of particularly perverse or friendless men, but instead the everyman who could be anyone. The point is that these men aren’t necessarily physically unattractive (though some certainly are), instead that the way they visualize and objectify women turns them into despicable creatures. Only one interview, an especially moving scene in itself, strays from the film’s focus on gender interaction and depicts a man’s relation to his father’s job and the way it influenced the way he lives his life. Clearly this study is incomplete and there’s more to be gleaned from the unfettered ranting of men determined to share their inner thoughts than relates only to their sexual proclivity. Krasinski’s film runs a mere 80 minutes. This is more of a fleeting peek into the male psyche, but then again, that’s exactly what the title promises.

Following his dramatic performance in June’s “Away We Go,” Krasinski continues to prove that he’s capable of more than just indicative stares at a still camera. Here he utilizes a bare interview room to force his characters to truly open up and say what they really mean rather than retort smartly. While it’s hardly conclusive, it’s a fascinating look into the world of the unspoken that’s alternately hilarious and incredibly moving. Krasinski opts to place himself in the latter category as Sara’s ex-boyfriend, and has one stunning scene where he passionately recounts what led him to have an affair. Interspersed with the rest of the scattered interviews and midway through the film’s meditation on what should be perceived as acceptable and unacceptable, it’s the hint of a breakthrough. The film is finally getting somewhere, reaching some newfound thesis on what makes male the way they are. And then just like that, it’s over. There’s no reason these interviews needed to be so brief. A longer look could have given even more insight into a subject that’s so evidently interesting and a film that gets so frustratingly close to a real, true revelation.

B

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Movie with Abe: In the Loop

In the Loop
Directed by Armando Iannucci
Released July 24, 2009

Satire is often the best lens through which to examine politics. “In the Loop” is a sharp comic take on the often pointless way in that international relations are conducted. Its hero is a bumbling fool barely holding on to his office and shrewdly manipulated by those around him. His attempts to take on more responsibility himself are unsurprisingly ill-fated, but his exploits are certainly a lot of fun.

Tom Hollander stars as Simon Foster, and his short stature isn’t the only thing that allows people to hover over him and play him like a puppet. Foster’s lack of knowledge about anything ever going on is wonderfully conveyed by the talented Hollander, who displays doubt and desperation on his face with an eternally puzzled look. His loyal companion, Toby (Chris Addison), adds to the confusion by confounding every situation with a crucial misunderstanding of how politics should be played. It’s Toby’s first day on the job at the start of the film, but somehow Foster’s been employed for a while without much incident. “In the Loop” is only a snippet from Foster’s career, but an intriguing snapshot of how quickly and easily a fall from grace can occur. The rather inane, futile bantering between Hollander and Addison is what makes the film so effective and funny.

Spotlighting the relationship between the United States and England without making direct reference to one specific conflict (though obviously allegorical) is a clever way to poke fun at and expose the way things work without pissing off too many of the wrong people. “In the Loop” is based on a previous British television series featuring the character of Malcolm Tucker, and it’s impressive how he’s incorporated into the fray here without serving as the primary character. Peter Capaldi is terrific in his supporting role, and keeping him in the loop was certainly a good decision. “In the Loop” doesn’t come to any grandstanding conclusions besides the fact that the way politics work is problematic, but it’s great fun while it lasts, and seeing angry British people yell at each other never produces a dull moment.

B+

Watch the Minute with Abe here.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Movie with Abe: Coco Before Chanel

Coco Before Chanel
Directed by Anne Fontaine
Released September 25, 2009

What any good biopic needs to really distinguish itself is a compelling story that makes the central character’s life worth making into a movie. Originality is ideally key, but then again, the source material isn’t exactly editable, and often some stories look and sound just like others. In the case of Coco Chanel, her path from poor roots to worldwide fashion designer is an intriguing tale, but the movie chooses to focus only on her adventures and exploits before achieving fame and glory. It’s an interesting discourse that brings to mind recent films like “Bright Star” and “The Duchess,” but it’s important to remember that this is, after all, Coco’s true story.

The film is most comparable with a recent French hit, the Oscar-winning “La Vie en Rose.” Both are the stories of prominent French cultural icons that rose from humble beginnings to achieve renowned celebrity. The most striking similarity is the complete immersion into their lead roles by actresses Marion Cotillard and Audrey Tautou, respectively. Cotillard picked up an Oscar for her performance, and Tautou’s commitment to her role is similarly commendable. Tautou’s previous credits include fabulously optimistic and energetic portrayals in “Amélie” and “A Very Long Engagement,” and her utter scorn for the world around her as Coco is jarring to see. Playing against type, however, works for Tautou, and she turns in a muted but still lively performance. Her supporting cast is wonderful, particularly the effortlessly charming Alessandro Nivola as her British lover Boy.

It’s very interesting to see the young Coco, at first a destitute bar singer, overcome societal conventions and achieve success in a field most women of the time would never have even dreamed of entering. Unfortunately, the movie stops once Coco finally finds herself free to work as she pleases and skips past any of Chanel’s bright career. It’s all in the title – the film doesn’t claim to show Coco’s life anytime while she was trendsetter Chanel – and therefore the build-up to what might have been an equally fascinating story results in a somewhat expected letdown. It’s a stunningly-decorated and carefully-prepared period piece, but Coco’s own sense of redemption once she finally breaks through suggests that there’s more to say, yet the film doesn’t cover any of that. It’s still interesting in its own right, but the lack of a satisfying, success-filled third act makes it difficult to wholly separate from those other biopics.

B-

Read about the making of “Coco Before Chanel” in my roundtable feature story.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Movie with Abe: Inglourious Basterds

Inglourious Basterds
Directed by Quentin Tarantino
Released August 21, 2009

Previews and advance word for admired cult film director Quentin Tarantino’s latest movie made it seem exclusively like an exercise in fantasy revenge on the Nazis. Many found that appealing, and it’s likely that such a film dealing purely with that would have been successful. This film, however, isn’t just about revenge. Instead, it’s a shockingly layered fictional depiction of a number of struggles against the Nazi regime. Lieutenant Aldo Raines and his Nazi-scalping band of soldiers are certainly entertaining and often foolish, but “Inglourious Basterds” is a serious movie and a magnificent one at that. Truth be told, the Basterds aren’t even really the main part of the story, though they don’t detract the least bit from this excellent picture.

The opening scene of “Inglourious Basterds” sets a deathly serious tone for the rest of the movie as the ruthless and evil Colonel Hans Landa arrives at a Frenchman’s home looking for hidden Jews. That scene forces viewers to the edge of their seats, and the next two and a half hours should keep them there. Every moment of Tarantino’s lengthy effort is engrossing and thrilling, and it’s hard not to be interested in its multi-faceted exploits. It’s a typical Tarantino movie, and while that means that it doesn’t cut away when others might, it’s entirely incredible. Despite the impressiveness of “Reservoir Dogs,” “Pulp Fiction,” and “Kill Bill,” this may well be Tarantino’s best film yet. His signature tongue-in-cheek touch works wonders, and it’s the perfect way to tell the rather unique interconnected stories of the Basterds, Colonel Landa, and a Jewish woman named Shoshanna Dreyfus.

“Inglourious Basterds” is hardly a typical Holocaust movie. It doesn’t present itself in the same way as monumental classics like “Schindler’s List” and “The Pianist,” yet it still instills the same sense of terror and horror through its depictions of the acts of the Nazis. The difference is that there’s a recurring feeling of absurdist determination (present most in the tale of the Basterds) – a notion that you can’t save everyone, so you may as well go kill some Nazis while you can. The often comical story of the Basterds doesn’t detract from the film’s overall tone. When the Basterds have a troop of Nazi soldiers concerned, things become instantly terrifying and deathly serious. It’s not just a joke to them; they mean business, and they’re going to kill themselves some Nazis. Lines of good and evil aren’t clearly drawn, and deep parallels between the Basterds’ murder of defenseless, unarmed Nazis and the Nazi extermination of Jews are implied. It’s a stunning mediation on acceptability of actions, guilt, and violence.

“Inglourious Basterds” features one of the best casts in recent film history. Would-be insignificant members of the ensemble, such as the dairy farmer in the opening scene, become crucial elements of the film because their performances are just that good. Brad Pitt and the rest of the Basterds are perfect in the combination of brutality and oafishness they demonstrate. Christoph Waltz is outstanding as the inimitable Colonel Landa, and it’s a performance that needs to be seen to be appreciated. The real star of an all-around stunning cast is Melanie Laurent, who says more with her eyes before she ever speaks than many other performers do in an entire career. The three threads of the film are anchored by spectacular performances, but the entire ensemble deserves praise. It’s an amazingly assembled film, and everything about it is just mind-blowing. The basterds may be inglorious, but this film is nothing short of incredible, and the best of the year thus far.

A

Watch the Minute with Abe here.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The Legend before Her Fame: Coco before Chanel Roundtable

Coco Chanel is a name known throughout the world, and she had a singular impact on the world of fashion. The story behind her rise to fame is one that very few people know, and also a history with many gaps and holes. Director Anne Fontaine (“The Girl from Monaco”) was inspired to tell the unknown Chanel story after meeting Chanel’s late assistant. Fontaine was awed by how she was “independent, free, and original in a masculine way,” and adds that she likes “people who live, who are inventive – Chanel lies a lot. To love is to lie.” Fontaine describes a lifelong connection to Chanel, explaining, “I can do it since she’s been inside of me for a long a time.” Fontaine’s past work has been very personal, and therefore the undertaking of a larger-scale period piece was a new experience. She wanted period perfection so that nothing was inaccurate or wrong. But most of all, she wanted her star.

Fontaine told actress Audrey Tautou that if Tautou was interested in playing Chanel, she would make the film. Otherwise, she would pass. Tautou is best known for her enthusiastic lead roles in “Amélie” and “A Very Long Engagement,” and made a crossover to American cinema several years ago when she starred alongside Tom Hanks in “The Da Vinci Code.” Fontaine describes Tautou as “very French, incredibly thin, and a reincarnation.” Tautou does credit her casting in part to the physical resemblance between her and Chanel, pointing out that they’re both “gents de la terre” from deep France. Tautou is aware that she isn’t necessarily everyone’s cup of tea, and firmly believes that “to please everyone is to please no one.” She was adamant that she didn’t want to show only the strong Chanel that everyone knows, and this was the perfect opportunity for that. The movie tells the story of Chanel’s relationship with two men who treated her in very different ways, both of which shaped the person she became.

One of those men was “Boy” Capel, played by Alessandro Nivola. The actor, a native of Massachusetts, had a particularly transformative experience filming the movie among an almost entirely French cast and crew. Nivola explains that he is one of the few American actors who have worked overseas extensively, though his venture into international films wasn’t planned. He has played other aristocratic characters and become skilled with different accents, and therefore taking on the role of a Brit who speaks the entire time in French wasn’t as daunting a challenge. He did not, however, know French before accepting the role, and lied to Fontaine about his familiarity with the language. He quickly “hit the French grammar books,” and lived alone in Paris for months where he was forced to speak French on set all day. He was initially told by Fontaine that he “walked like a cowboy,” but describes the experience of making a film in France as “very civilized” and typically French. The film took four months to shoot, and without all of the long meals in between, he believes the film could have been completed in six weeks in the United States. He notes, however, that “French cinema is what American independent film bases itself on,” and that French films are translating very well in the United States. Nivola had a unique opportunity with his role as Chanel’s doomed love Capel, who “wasn’t so well known, where material was available but the performance didn’t need to be an impersonation.” Capel was only an influence on Chanel, and this isn’t primarily his story, but rather a look at the way he provided Chanel with an outlet for her creativity.

Fontaine discusses the difference between fashion and style, determining that “only style remains” if fashion is broken down into “personality and clothes.” Fontaine was never fascinated by fashion, and explains that Chanel created her own fashion to feel more alive in her time, and that to want to work as a woman at that time was something amazing. Tautou echoes Fontaine’s sentiments, classifying her personal relationship to fashion prior to making the film as distant. Now, style and clothes don’t intrigue her any more than ever before, but her way of looking at Chanel style and creations has changed, and she’s particularly awed by their singular nature. She attributes Chanel’s appeal to the fact that her sense of style comes from a woman who made clothes for herself first, and created a breakthrough way of seduction for women. Chanel was a woman unlike any other in her time, though modern women can still relate to her struggles. Nivola describes the modern career woman as “faced with the same kind of dilemma, to have an impact, or conform to normalcy.” Chanel certainly stood out, and a story that charts her journey from anonymous bar singer to fashion magnate is sure to stand out as well. “Coco Before Chanel” opens in select cities this Friday, September 25.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Movie with Abe: District 9

District 9
Directed by Neill Blomkamp
Released August 14, 2009

It’s always refreshing to see a movie that isn’t really like anything else out there. The story of an alien spacecraft hovering above Johannesburg for twenty years and the alien population subjected to a rather discriminatory quarantine and inhumane treatment is just that. It’s an allegorical take on interracial relations and the way one stronger culture often subjugates another with little reason, but it’s also a superb sci-fi film with a spectacular sense of futuristic alien technology. A film that works equally well on two levels is just as wondrous a treat.

“District 9” is presented alternately as a collection of found-footage intended to be made into a documentary, but the smooth intercutting of unframed filming makes it come wonderfully alive. It’s a film that starts off quietly and ominously, and it’s not until about halfway through that things really start to take off. The two halves of the film are equally enticing, though the action-packed second art is incredibly exciting and altogether thrilling. “District 9” is smarter and far more well-writen than its somewhat similar predecessor “Cloverfield,” but the awesome thrill ride of the latter film exists in similar form in the tail end of the former. In other words, if the film starts out slowly, rest assured that it picks up and delivers in terms of excitement.

This movie stars no well-known actors and assigns little importance to any of its characters besides its lead, Wikus Van De Merwe. What that means is that it’s intent on proving itself on the merit of its story, which is absolutely enticing and thoroughly intriguing. The film isn’t really a mystery that needs to be solved, but instead a ride that should be taken. It’s unassuming and disarming, and that’s the main part of why it works so well. It’s not as loud or showy as either “Transformers” or “Terminator,” but that’s what makes it all the more appealing: a subtle science fiction film that’s surprisingly great.

B+

Watch the Minute with Abe here.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Movie with Abe: Bright Star

Bright Star
Directed by Jane Campion
Released September 16, 2009

Tales of lovelorn women stranded in olden times, unable to realize their true passion with the men they so desire, aren’t sparse these days. Over the past few years, films like "The Duchess," "Becoming Jane," and "Pride & Prejudice" have probed the stories of women far ahead of their time who seek to marry for love instead of merely money or power. While these films are often based on truth, they run the risk of all blending together and appearing to be the same. The new film by Academy Award-winner Jane Campion is just that kind of movie, but fortunately it stands apart from the pack due to an unexpected sense of humor and a fantastic lead performance by the wonderful Abbie Cornish.

Bright Star is about a poet, and it’s fitting therefore that Campion weaves a poetic narrative about a woman who falls in love with creativity. The story is based on the short life of the legendary Romantic poet John Keats, and the love letters exchanged between him and his muse Fanny Brawne. The movie isn’t primarily about Keats, however. This is the story of Fanny, and how she sought to immerse herself in the world of poetry and literature while everyone else told her to be content doing little in her comfortable life other than sewing. The title references a sonnet written by Keats, and the film’s tagline suggests “first love burns brightest.” Keats may only have lived until the age of 25, but what he shared with Brawne was deep and meaningful, and it’s implied that their love was something that presumably stuck with Brawne for the whole of her considerably lengthier life.

Brawne is made magnificently three-dimensional by the performance of rising star Abbie Cornish. Until now, Cornish’s credits have included scene-stealing small parts in "A Good Year," "Elizabeth: The Golden Age," and "Stop-Loss." This is Cornish’s first chance to take on a leading role, and she’s a revelation. She’s hardly the typical romantic lead, not quite as obviously aesthetically pleasing as Keira Knightley or as utterly charming as Anne Hathaway. What she possesses that those more common choices lack is a startling ability to be scornful and sarcastic while still seducing all those around her. The chemistry she has with costar Ben Wishaw, who plays Keats, is mostly unspoken and almost entirely implied, and Cornish takes on the brunt of the relationship with her ambitious efforts to improve the joy in Brawne’s life. Paul Schneider, known for his dramatic contributions to films like "The Assassination of Jesse James" and "Lars and the Real Girl," shows his funnier side as the irritable Irish foil to Brawne who wants Keats all to himself. The three form a fantastic love triangle far more entertaining than might be expected for a period piece. In short, it comes alive and seems just as relevant as a modern-day tragic love story. It’s impressive early on, but unfortunately drags on and loses some of its magic. Fortunately, Cornish’s excellent performance doesn’t ever lose its fire and more than keeps the film engaging.

B+

Please note: a version of this review was originally published in the Washington Square News.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Minute with Abe: Triple Feature Part Three

My live reactions to the third film of this week's triple feature, "9."

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Monday, September 14, 2009

Minute with Abe: Triple Feature Part Two

My live reactions to the second film of this week's triple feature, "Extract."

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Saturday, September 12, 2009

Minute with Abe: Triple Feature Part One

My live reactions to the first film of this week's triple feature, "Whiteout."

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Thursday, September 10, 2009

Home Video: The Soloist

The Soloist
Directed by Joe Wright
Released April 24, 2009

Last year when previews first premiered for this movie, it had a lot of buzz and was slated for a smartly-timed fall release. Then it was suddenly pushed back to the depths of the spring, the worst time to launch a highly anticipated film, and it came and went with little hoopla. I missed it during this theatrical release, and therefore opted to rent it as soon as it came out on DVD to renewed buzz. I suppose it’s not much of a surprise, then, that it wasn’t anything too special.

Joe Wright’s previous credits include romance-fueled period pieces “Pride & Prejudice” and “Atonement.” He’s very talented in that particular field, and this movie branches out from his particular comfort zone into entirely new territory. It shouldn’t come as much of a shock that it’s not nearly as fine-tuned or well-crafted as either of those well-regarded films, and it’s far less enticing. To begin with, two male leads without much in the way of romantic connections aren’t a great starting point, and the story is set mostly in the present. The flashbacks to talented musician Nathaniel Ayers’ childhood seem to be Wright’s way of coping with the story being set in the present day, but all those scenes feel horribly out of place. The most unfortunate part of all this is that the movie’s based on a true story. A notable director with two high-profile actors in a movie based on real life should be a recipe for success. Sadly, that’s just not the case here.

It’s understandable that a movie about a musician would devote an enormous chunk of itself to showcasing the performer at work or thinking about his life in terms of music. Watching the mentally disturbed Ayers sit down and play magnificently isn’t immensely gratifying because it’s obvious that he’ll be talented. Perhaps discovering it in reality might have been pretty incredible, but it doesn’t translate to the screen. Portraying mental illness on film has also been done to far more incredible effect in movies like “Rain Man” and “A Beautiful Mind.” L.A. Times reporter Steve Lopez may have thought Nathaniel Ayers’ story was worthwhile, but the movie doesn’t really demonstrate what’s so special about their relationship, and it’s not nearly as meaningful or evocative as it could be.

Robert Downey Jr. has recently experienced a career comeback after struggling with drug addiction. His less-than-life-changing bike injury seems extremely similar to his real-life story, and therefore it’s as if the actor is playing his disgruntled, post-crisis self. That said, he’s not a very compelling character, and it seems that a story about just Nathaniel might have made for a better movie. Jamie Foxx also had a great streak a few years ago with great performances in “Collateral” and “Ray,” and while he’s not terrible in this film, it’s not as good as the likes of, well, Dustin Hoffman and Russell Crowe. Perhaps it’s an unfair comparison, but this film just doesn’t have much to offer, and its stars don't quite deliver.

C

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Home Video: Julia

Julia
Directed by Erick Zonca
Released May 8, 2009

Every once in a while, a movie comes along that has a prime focus on telling one character’s story. Many films, especially biopics, bear their protagonist’s name in the title, but few are so completely about that one person. There may be several, though few, supporting characters, but they are important only for the way in which they interact with the main character. This special brand of movie is so fully invested in one character that appears in all of its scenes and makes or breaks the story. It’s a challenge to fill 144 minutes with the story of just one woman, but “Julia” is fascinating and engaging from start to finish.

The success of a movie so tightly focused on one character is highly dependent on its lead performer. Tilda Swinton throws herself completely into the role of Julia, and within minutes makes it clear that she’s an out-of-control drunk struggling to hold down her menial life. Things quickly spiral downward, and Swinton immediately rolls with the punches every time. The performance is incredibly complex, and Julia is extremely unsympathetic, but because the movie is all about her, it’s hard not to feel her pain. The brilliant ability of Swinton to inhabit the role is particularly commendable. It’s truly a shame that Swinton won her (first) Oscar for her lackluster performance in “Michael Clayton” two years ago since she’s clearly capable of so much more (like “The Deep End”). She could very well earn another nomination for this film come Oscar time.

It almost seems like the plot isn’t as important since the movie has such a strong central character. Regardless, it’s a whirlwind adventure that just keeps getting darker and darker. It’s fully interesting, but it’s hard to believe that a movie that started out at such a depraved, relatively harmless point finds itself headed towards such a dangerous place. It feels very much like a mix between the gritty horror of “Frozen River” and the stark realism of “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead,” trading human trafficking and bank robberies for child kidnapping. It’s hard to predict how things are going to end up because one thing just keeps going wrong after another, but “Julia” is an inventive thriller that just keeps its lens tightly on its main character, and her struggles become the failures and successes of the viewer. It’s unlike traditional dramas in the way that it’s unapologetic and unconcerned with creating bravado happy endings, but that just makes it darker and much more interesting.

B+

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Minute with Abe: Taking Woodstock

My live reactions to Ang Lee's new film "Taking Woodstock."

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Friday, September 4, 2009

Movie with Abe: The Time Traveler’s Wife

The Time Traveler’s Wife
Directed by Robert Schwentke
Released August 14, 2009

When it’s done right, time travel is the coolest phenomenon ever, and makes for an incredible movie. The “Back to the Future” trilogy is the quintessential example of effective cinema time travel, and “The Butterfly Effect” is one example of a fresh, different, darker take on the implications of bending the space-time continuum. Recent follies like “Heroes” have failed in the way that they emphasize the uncontrollable nature of people being unwillingly pulled away in time, with time passing as normal while they’re away. This movie falls safely in the latter category, but that’s the least of its transgressions.

From its title, the film would seem to chronicle the extraordinary life of a woman whose husband is able to transcend the boundaries of time but who herself is forced to live out a lonely chronological existence. The second part is true – she is doomed to be abandoned by this man unstuck in time – but it isn’t her story. The time traveler is the focal point of the story, which is even more of a shame since this could have been a unique take on time travel, and, tragically, it’s a flop. No new territory is explored, and it’s a generally uninteresting look at nothing much in particular.

The most stressed facet of time-traveling hero Henry’s “condition” is that his clothes don’t come with him when he’s whisked away by unknown forces to a mysterious new time period. He’s not conveniently equipped with plot-defying purple shorts that somehow stay attached to him like another one of actor Eric Bana’s rather green movie characters. This wouldn’t be a problem if it weren’t the focal point of the film. The most constantly repeated fact about Henry’s time-traveling is that he has to run from the police because he ends up everywhere naked. Talk about getting bogged down in the details, and truly missing the point of what could have been a fascinating meditation on a life sent out of whack by an inability to stay grounded in time.

It’s been stated by some that the source material for the film was poor to begin with, and perhaps that should be blamed for the film’s unimpressive quality. Yet much of the finger-pointing should be directed at the casting choices. Eric Bana doesn’t have much to offer when he’s playing an American – he was so infinitely better in his small role “Funny People” when he donned his native Australian accent – and that really hinders the film. He never seems sure of what he’s going to say, and each of his lines look like they’ve been so carefully and painfully delivered. Ron Livingston’s presence in this film as Henry’s best friend is a huge misstep, and his supposed purpose as comic relief falls unbelievably flat. And then there’s the lovely Rachel McAdams, who has outdone her material lately (“State of Play” and “The Lucky Ones”) and should really be given better roles and scripts where she can showcase her incredible talents (look instead at “Red Eye,” “Wedding Crashers,” “Mean Girls,” and “The Notebook”).

The disappearing-Henry effects in the film are absolutely laughable, and that takes away greatly from the saddening effect Henry’s inevitable departure is supposed to create. Much of the film is corny in the same way, and the characters’ uniform acknowledgment of Henry’s condition as an unchangeable, unscientific fact is lackluster and makes the film less than engaging. Simply put, there’s no new ground covered here, and everyone merely accepts that Henry time-travels and that’s just the way it is. It’s problematic because Henry’s story just isn’t that interesting, and as the same thing happens over and over with no surprises or clever end points, the movie loses all its merits. Nothing about “The Time Traveler’s Wife” is particularly attractive or enticing, and just because the lead moves throughout time, that doesn’t mean his tale is worth telling.

D-