Saturday, October 31, 2009

Movie with Abe: Skin

Skin
Directed by Anthony Fabian
Released October 30, 2009

Sometimes there are stories that seem like they can’t possibly be true, and knowing that they are makes their impact all the more staggering. The case of a black girl born to white parents in South Africa during apartheid is just one of those stories, and its dramatization on screen is a harrowing portrait of a person whose life was so shaped and disrupted by societal conventions that she never knew quite what to make of herself. It’s a quietly effective film that, like its protagonist Sandra, doesn’t attempt to make a big show of things. She tries to go along living in an impossibly shifting situation, and the film follows her journey with careful, dutiful finesse.

Most of what makes Sandra’s story believable is the wonderful cast that portrays the people in her life. The role of Sandra is split between two actresses, starting with talented young newcomer Ella Ramangwane, whose face conveys innocence and an inability to do harm, even to those who make her life miserable. Seasoned actress Sophie Okonedo (“Hotel Rwanda”) takes over once Sandra grows up, and she captures the spunk Ramangwane has created but imbues the more mature character with a sense of when to hold her tongue and suffer in silence. Sam Neill (“The Triangle,” “Crusoe”) yields a fierce sense of elitist entitlement due to his race, and the emotive actor displays the pain he feels at both having a daughter who is black and at trying not to accept it extraordinarily. Alice Krige (the Borg Queen from “Star Trek”) shows her equally compelling softer side as Sandra’s initially protective, supporting mother who lets her husband and her prejudices get in the way of being true to her family. The cast contributes immensely to the powerful impact of the film, and they all deserve praise.

In the same way that Sandra was trapped in her body, “Skin” doesn’t offer any fantasy escapes. Sandra’s life is seen exactly as it played out, with no illusions along the way or daydreams to keep Sandra’s spirit alive. Sandra had an indisputably tough childhood, and her persistence and survival is inspiring. The horrors of the South African backdrop aren’t minimized, and it’s a starkly serious experience with few moments of genuine pleasure or anything approaching true happiness. It’s not a devastatingly depressing experience, however, due to Sandra’s function as a remarkably empathetic character whose ability to persevere guides the film along in its portrait of her life. Her drive to investigate a way of changing her life and to reconnect with those who abandoned her is what makes her story worth telling. At its core, “Skin” is a story of survival, and a look back at how apartheid and other forms of segregation can be utterly detrimental to a person’s well-being and very existence. This film doesn’t overstate any of that, but calmly captures and logs it for all the world to see. In many ways, it’s the most fitting tribute to Sandra and those who struggled just like her. In this case, fortunately, the movie is absolutely worthy of the story.

B+

Friday, October 30, 2009

Movie with Abe: House of the Devil

The House of the Devil
Directed by Ti West
Released October 30, 2009

The only horror movie being released this year at Halloween time doesn’t actually belong in 2009. Cell phones and UGGs are swapped out for landlines and acid washed jeans. Director Ti West describes it not as an homage but as an “accurate early 1980s period piece.” His film is a retro, subtler unfolding of the horrors that lurk within an enormous, secluded house where unknowing babysitter Sam has agreed to spend the night. West affectionately describes the house as a character, and notes that the “delayed suspense makes it so that you’re aligned to think nothing’s ever going to happen,” therefore making the scary scenes all the more terrifying. It’s a movie that will keep you on the edge of your seat, and even if you stay planted there the entire time, it’s still quite a nerve-racking experience.

The film’s isolation of its characters, who drive for seemingly endless hours into the woods to find this spooky house, is the prime reason that it works. It’s not that there’s no one to call in the event of an emergency, but that there’s simply nothing anywhere nearby, so help would take a hopelessly long time to arrive. It’s already established long before Sam (Jocelin Donahue) convinces her best friend Megan (Greta Gerwig) to drive her out to the home of the mysterious Mr. Ulman (Tom Noonan) that there’s something creepy about this babysitting assignment, and only a desperate college student with bills to pay would agree to do it. Much of the film is spent setting up the scene, but once Sam has stepped foot into the house and met its creepy caretakers, there’s no break from the vast, not-so-empty space where Sam is hopelessly trapped. Even if she wasn’t entirely sure that something was afoot, the film’s title reveals that Mr. and Mrs. Ulman aren’t your friendly neighborhood parents, and that’s one house you don’t want to be in.

“The House of the Devil” is an impressive undertaking and finished product, shooting for a reported budget of under one million dollars, and using mostly Connecticut-based crew members because of the location of the house. West describes the irony of the house not actually being secluded at all as a “super bummer,” but the film makes it work. Indie film star Gerwig (“Baghead,” “Hannah Takes the Stairs”) is quick to point out that “no one in a horror film knows they’re in a horror film, and the more jolly you can be, the more horrifying it will end up.” She also credits the genre for its potential in helping unknown actors and actresses break through. “People enjoy the pornography of horror, and you don’t big stars for that. As an actor, it’s a really nice way to focus yourself because there’s always stuff happening and it’s open-ended. You always have activities and a way to direct your energy.” A small cast and four very juicy roles provided the opportunity for relative newcomers Donahue and Gerwig to act alongside veteran actors Noonan (“Manhunter,” “Synecdoche, New York”) and Mary Woronov (“Eating Raoul,” “The Devil’s Rejects”).

The film manages to be frightening and enthralling without succumbing to overdone horror conventions and overextending too many lines of believability. The family Sam is babysitting for is creepy, and that’s all that’s important. Incorporating the devil into the mix was merely a reference to a big fear from the time in which the movie its set. West believes that “no one’s worried about the Devil anymore, there’s much more to worry about now.” Noonan recalls the “real emergencies of serial killers in the 70s and 80s,” though West notes that the “statistic of devil worshippers is actually so low, it’s just sensationalized.” West admits that “you can’t make a movie for everyone, it’s very polarizing. There’s either a strong hatred or strong appreciation for style.” West names “The Shining” as his favorite horror film, describing it “like a crazy person made that movie.” Gerwig, who was protected from horror films that were fetishized in her house growing up, describes West’s influences as “Polanski and atmospheric Hitchcock.” Most of the film’s effective thrills, like in many of the two acclaimed directors’ films, come simply from waiting to see what’s lurking around the corner. The existence or real-life prominence of satanic cults is almost inconsequential because, after all, the devil is in the details, and this film is rich with them.

B

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Movie with Abe: Where the Wild Things Are

Where the Wild Things Are
Directed by Spike Jonze
Released October 16, 2009

It’s risky adapting an illustrated children’s book into an animated movie. There’s even more pressure when the classic images of childhood are turned into something real and tangible. Putting Maurice Sendak’s book in the capable hands of wildly creative director Spike Jonze, whose previous projects include “Being John Malkovich” and “Adaptation,” certainly guarantees it a careful, effortful treatment, and turning it into a live-action film seems like just another challenge for a filmmaker who has defied reason and reality in the past to produce works of arguable genius. Even if it’s not entirely fulfilling, the journey to get to where the wild things in fact are is a notable, enthralling one.

The first positive step taken for the film version of “Where the Wild Things Are” is the casting of young actor Max Records as protagonist Max. Records is immensely talented and capable of conveying his yearning for a life full of adventure and acceptance with only his eyes. Starting the film off with Max burrowing himself in his igloo, only to find it carelessly destroyed by his sister’s friends in the midst of a snowball fight, is a fantastic way to begin and to establish Max as someone for whom the real world isn’t right and isn’t enough. The terribly short 1963 children’s book admits only that Max was creating mischief, and showing his discontent with the world around him makes his voyage to another world all the more mesmerizing.

Max’s exodus to the land of the wild things is a transformative experience for him, and the cinematography and landscape make his trip an absolutely worthwhile passage for the audience as well. The visuals are simply stunning, and the way that the wild things stand out from their surroundings is stark and magnificent. The sense of welcoming and community Max elicits from the wild things is wonderful, and communicating his finding happiness is perhaps the film’s greatest accomplishment. Max being accepted opens up the path for the audience to share, delight, and revel in the fact that’s he located this fantastic place where things work differently from the real world.

The film starts to falter when it adds too much to Sendak’s original work by giving the wild things ordinary dialogue, which they use to insult, berate, and joke with each other. The land of the wild things is supposed to be a magic place, and there’s something that doesn’t feel right about them speaking so casually. Looking at them connotes something grander about the way they live, and hearing them talk in such everyday language without really saying anything meaningful is a disappointment. Additionally, after a strong, intriguing start, the film doesn’t save any of its emotional punches for its latter half, and as a result it’s not entirely fulfilling. Even so, taking time out for a trip to where the wild things are is still a dazzling, worthwhile endeavor.

B

Watch the Minute with Abe here.

Thursday Romantic Comedy Classic

Welcome to a new weekly feature here at Movies with Abe, Thursday Romantic Comedy Classic. I’m taking a course called The Romantic Comedy where we’re charting the history and development of romantic comedies from the 1920s to the present. We’ll be watching some pretty iconic films, some of which I haven’t seen before. Each week, I’ll be providing a short review of one romantic comedy classic from the annals of history.

Annie Hall
Directed by Woody Allen
Released April 20, 1977

“Annie Hall” is generally regarded as Woody Allen’s best movie, and certainly his first real foray into semi-serious dramedy. It marks the real start of the romantic comedy that doesn’t necessarily provide a happy ending and showcases the more serious, troublesome moments and times of a relationship. It’s clear that Allen’s classic has influenced recent films like “500 Days of Summer” and “Peter and Vandy” and has made this kind of movie into an almost completely separate genre: the relationship film. It’s also highly indicative of Allen’s oeuvre of work. I personally love “Manhattan” best, but this certainly has some tremendously wonderful scenes which Allen references and repeats many times in his later films. Among the most entertaining devices used and preferred by are inserting himself in a non-diegetic manner, revisiting his childhood classroom to find out what happened to all of his classmates when they grew up or pulling Marshall McLuhan into the scene to tell a talkative moviegoer that his thoughts and beliefs are all wrong. It’s especially intriguing to take a trip into Allen’s head, and it’s never felt more real since Alvy Singer is the closest character Allen has played to himself, as a stand-up comedian whose romances with women are plagued by his undying neuroses. It’s a role that fits Allen like a glove and one which he expanded upon for future parts in “Manhattan,” “Hannah and Her Sisters,” and “Crimes and Misdemeanors.” This isn’t the entirely goofy Allen from “Bananas,” but an only slightly more refined funnyman. And then there’s Diane Keaton, who won an Oscar for this part and whose “La dee da, la dee da,” complete with hat and tie, charmed moviegoers back then and still continues to do so. If this isn’t Allen’s best, it’s certainly one of his best.

A-

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Movie with Abe: Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs

Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs
Directed by Phil Lord and Chris Miller
Released September 18, 2009

Adapting a beloved children’s book is always a tricky gamble. That’s especially true when the movie runs considerably longer than the short length of the book, and therefore a significant amount of back story and material has to be added. It’s possible to radically transform a relatively short story into a completely different theatrical movie experience, and sometimes that can turn out to be less than satisfying. In this case, the film adaptation of “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs” is just as thrilling as the book and equally entertaining.

Animated movies often center on eccentric young protagonists who have trouble fitting into society and only find their true calling once they reach adulthood and their particular personality or skills turn out to be just what everyone needs. Flint Lockwood is just that kind of character, a zany inventor whose creations get him into trouble until one day he succeeds in actually making the sky rain food. The portal of animation allows for unlimited creativity in showcasing Flint’s bizarre concepts, and the special 3-D format (worth the upgrade) certainly enhances the experience.

The animation that brings “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs” to life is mesmerizing in the way it visualizes the small sardine-filled island and the way in which Flint changes everything for its residents. When Flint’s invention takes off and food starts to fall from the sky, it’s a wonderfully exciting phenomenon. The colors fly off the screen as pancakes and ice cream scoops drop from above and adorn the rooftops of houses. Like any good food movie, hunger is the obvious result, and it’s truly fascinating to see the way in which food is incorporated into the story of the film. Flint calculates weather patterns based on food, and it’s both fun and brilliant. A film with such a light title is mostly about having a good time, and that’s the effect of this recipe.

The characters and their accompanying voice characters also add tremendously to the overall experience. Flint’s perseverance and inventiveness is endearing, and he’s found the perfect female companion in nerdy weather girl Sam Sparks, who finds it necessary to hide her intelligence and savvy in order to appear air-headed and feminine. The supporting characters, from Flint’s sardine-selling father to the power-hungry mayor, all contribute to creating a marvelous feeling of community in the town. The ensemble is uniformly marvelous, with fabulous voices ranging from the youthful energy of Bill Hader and Anna Faris to the seasoned skill of James Caan and Bruce Campbell. There’s no weak link or flat plotline in this film, and the only question up for debate is whether it’s the food, animation, or cast that serves as its strongest element. In any case, it’s a fine adaptation of a wonderful classic book.

B+

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.

Amelia
This presumed contender has completely devastated its Oscar chances with the almost uniformly terrible, negative reviews it’s received recently. Boasting a Metacritic score (37) lower than Jeremy Piven’s recent bomb “The Goods: Live Hard, Sell Hard,” it’s pretty much dashed all its Oscar hopes. Star Hilary Swank was presumed to be a lock, and has an impressive record with Oscar nominations, winning both times. Director Mira Nair is a female director to watch, but this won’t be the film that earns her awards. The film could place in cinematography or art direction, but don’t bet it. Sometimes reviews really are just too damning.

Antichrist
Director Lars Von Trier flirted with Oscar in 1996 and 2000 with his acclaimed hits “Breaking the Waves” and “Dancer in the Dark,” respectively, which earned nominations in other categories. His latest film has critics divided, and it seems that many of them fall on the less approving side of the spectrum. Regardless of reviews, the film is likely too violent and objectionable for Oscar voters, and its controversial nature will probably leave it on the bench without any nominations.

Astro Boy
This film belongs to the category of animated movies that don’t stir up much of a fuss and probably won’t become an eventual Oscar nominee. That said, expected locks have been snubbed in past years to make room for surprise inclusions like “Surf’s Up” and “Bolt.” I think there are much bigger candidates this year like “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs” and “9” and that this film might impress a few voters but won’t make a resounding splash.

Middling to poor reviews won’t help Untitled or Motherhood, neither of which anyone has heard of anyway. The same is true for Thai import Ong Bak 2. Two Halloweentime films, Saw VI and Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant , opened to bad reviews and wouldn’t have been Oscar contenders anyway. As if its parodied sibling “Van Helsing” wasn’t berated enough by critics, the presumably dismal Stan Helsing will only be dismissed even more so, if not ignored altogether.

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, October 27, 2009

Movie with Abe: Capitalism: A Love Story

Capitalism: A Love Story
Directed by Michael Moore
Released September 25, 2009

Whenever Michael Moore finds a subject he wants to tackle, he goes for broke. In recent years, he’s looked at guns (“Bowling for Columbine”), September 11th (“Fahrenheit 9/11”), and the health care industry (“Sicko”). Now he’s examining the economy and the rather depressing state in which we find ourselves at this current time. When he takes aim at something or someone, he really sets out to take his target down. His critique of the economy is certainly valid, but it’s much more about pointing out that there’s a problem that exists and less about providing any sort of tangible potential solution. That’s not always the point for Moore, but this entry isn’t nearly as entertaining as his past offerings and takes far too long to really get going, only getting really interesting after an excess of less engaging material has been presented.

It’s perhaps the focus that initially diminishes the impact of Moore’s latest effort. Diagnosing America’s love affair with capitalism is a broad subject, and the lack of a specific target gives Moore too much ammunition and no one specific place to aim it. His vignettes include a smattering of major news items from the past few years, most notably airplane mishaps in the Hudson River and Buffalo, which Moore attributes to the improper structuring of the economic system. It’s not quite as scathing as some of Moore’s past productions, and there’s a lull in the middle where it seems like he’s on the verge of some monumental revelation, but he’s never quite going to get there.

The movie runs slightly over two hours, and it’s only well into the second hour that the film really gets going. Once that happens, the most poignant moments, as well as the more outwardly humorous scenes featured in the film’s excellent trailer, are presented and the film really gains its dramatic edge. Half powerful is far better than not powerful at all, but it lessens the shock factor and effect of Moore’s clearly extensive research and findings. For a while, however, it seems as if he’s either toned down his investigative reporting for fear of being censored by the very people whose corrupt ways he seeks to expose, or become lazy in his intrepid quest to cause trouble.

Luckily, it becomes clear that that’s not the case at all. Just as his material seems like it’s not compelling or convincing enough, Moore revealed his hand, showing that his most powerful arguments have been saved for last. By the end of the film, Moore has made a moving case for change. He even seems to see potential in a man who works out of the White House. Moore, however pushy and offensive he may try to be, is still a master of montage. His connections and insinuations may seem outlandish and at times may even be exaggerated to the point of falsity, but ultimately he really knows what he’s doing and he’s still a force with which to be reckoned. If he sees a story he thinks needs to be told, he’s going to tell it, and he’ll do it in style. It may not be one hundred percent rock-solid, but it still packs one hell of a punch.

B

Watch the Minute with Abe here.

Tuesday's Top Trailer: The Men Who Stare At Goats

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.

The Men Who Stare At Goats - Opening November 6, 2009



This trailer caught my eye a few weeks ago, though with a title like that, it hardly even needs a compelling preview to make it sound intriguing. This looks like the offbeat comedy cousin of “Syriana,” with grizzled star George Clooney and a starkly similar poster but a much more peculiar premise. The trailer is notable for not really revealing exactly what the film is about while still showing quite a few scenes from the film which seem like they would be helpful in deciphering just exactly what is going on. Two scenes in particular stand out for their sheer preposterousness. Clooney’s description of himself as a Jedi warrior seems highly redundant and referential when he’s talking to Ewan McGregor, who himself starred as a Jedi warrior in the “Star Wars” prequels. It’s a reference that seems to be repeated throughout the movie since it appears twice in the short span of the trailer, and while it could become tiresome, it seems like it’s all in good fun. The scene that defines and explains the title is equally puzzling and mesmerizing. Clooney’s character concentrates hard as he stares down a goat, and the goat just tumbles right over, felled by the power of Clooney’s thought. Those sitting around him sport shocked expressions likely similar to those of the audience. I hear that this movie is great, but even if it’s a bust, it’s sure to be one hell of an experience.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Movie with Abe: Food Beware

Food Beware: The French Organic Revolution
Directed by Jean-Paul Jaud
Released October 16, 2009

You don’t want to know what’s in your food. That’s been proven recently in films like “Fast Food Nation” and “Food, Inc.” Now that it’s settled, how about a film that probes the detrimental environmental and health-related effects of what we’re eating and even presents a possible alternative? It sounds like a good idea, but it’s certainly not anywhere near as interesting or exciting as the actual French Revolution.

“Food Beware: The French Organic Revolution” spotlights one small village in France and demonstrates how eating only organic can be realized. Schoolchildren try their organically-prepared food and admit that they like it, and success is declared. The point is made that it tastes okay, but how about the logic and legitimacy of expanding it beyond the borders of that one tiny town? Interviewees agree that people often don’t buy organic because it’s too expensive, and their response to that is simply that it’s well worth the added cost. Unfortunately, that won’t convince all those holdouts preventing the transition to a greener Earth.

The population showcased is far too small a sample, and its triumph in one location doesn’t necessarily guarantee that it will translate effectively to a mass implementation. The children eating the carefully-prepared menus in their school encased by white walls seem like they’ve been quarantined as part of an experiment in a mental institution. They’re happy with the medicine they’re being given, but why should that indicate that, outside in the real world, this food actually tastes good and satisfies its consumers? That is hardly the only reason for organic living, but the film fails in trying to prove that organic is better by looking only inward to a small, closed-off community.

“Food Beware” is also subject to the overwhelmingly intrusive hand of its director, a problem which often plagues documentaries. The subject material should be interesting enough on its merit, and while a director or narrator’s creative touch can certainly help, the film should be driven by its protagonist, be it a theme or a character. Michael Moore or somewhere else with his rather loud brand of charisma has nothing to do with this movie, so it’s up to the subject at hand to carry it.

In this case, the supposed organic revolution is meant to be the focus, yet the film contains incessant shots of the sun rising and setting. Every time a day ends it seems like the movie too will be finished, but no such luck. It ends and starts again more times than the final “Lord of the Rings” movie. There’s no place for such over-dramatization in a documentary, and clearly director Jean-Paul Jaud and his crew think too much of their little film. Perhaps the repeated setting and rising of the sun could represent the cycle of life which depends on a universal switch to organic consumption and living, but that seems like too bold a statement for the people who created this less than-inspiring movie to be making.

F

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

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Minute with Abe: Where the Wild Things Are

My live reactions after seeing the new film "Where the Wild Things Are."

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Into the Wild Blue Yonder: Amelia

Amelia Earhart is one of the most famous people in the world. Children learn in school about the famed aviator who flew across the Atlantic Ocean and disappeared in 1937 while attempting an even more daring flight. Earhart was one of the leading figures of her time, both in the field of aviation and in the way that she took many steps forward for women everywhere. It’s in that spirit that the new film based on Earhart’s life has been made, as an ode to the legendary aviatrix who refused to be held back or defined by her gender and accomplished so much in her short documented lifetime.

The Lockheed Electra plane used in the production of "Amelia"

The production of “Amelia” intricately involved many women, starting with Earhart and her legacy. Screenings of the film were enthusiastically attended by members of the 99s, a league of 99 women pilots started in 1929 by Earhart and other female aviators of the time. Now, the organization has over 5,000 members ranging from those who have just begun flying to those who have been flying for over 60 years. Susan Larson, president of the 99s, speaks admiringly of Earhart as “the icon…that gave them the inspiration to continue in a journey that would only start as seeds” and hopes the film will lead to “a resurgence to women believing in themselves.” She looks forward to “women of the 21st century being inspired by this movie, and moving into aviation and starting a whole new wonderful career and life for themselves.” For Larson, the two women behind the film are a big reason it is so inspiring.

Larson, Swank, and Nair

Mira Nair is one of the most prominent female directors working today, with past features such as “Monsoon Wedding” and “The Namesake” on her resume. Nair isn’t dismissive about the fortune she’s had, and speaks about the question that initially motivated her to enter the field: discovering “if art could change the world.” She’s a firm believer that “cinema is such a wide-ranging, entertaining, extremely powerful vehicle” and that “the idea is to tell our own stories, like Amelia did.” Nair worked on her second film, “Mississipi Masala” in Uganda and East Africa, and “noticed over the 20 years [she’s] lived there that there is very little of Africa on screen,” stressing that “the few times we see the stories of Africa, they are hardly every made by Africans.” As a result, Nair has established a scholarship-based film school in East Africa “based on the principle that if we don't tell our own stories, no one else will” that has been open for six years. Nair compares that charge to tell your own story to Earhart, explaining that “one of the big reasons I said I wanted to make ‘Amelia’ was because she had a dream, she pursued it, and she also had an incredible grace and responsibility to the world at the same time.”

Nair and Swank admire a gift from the 99s

Star Hilary Swank has plenty to say in praise of her director. “Mira being at the helm of this ship was such a perfect match because I think it's rare to see a woman carrying herself in the way in which [she does],” Swank says, adding that Mira “makes no apologies for her strengths.” Swank deeply admires Earhart, underlining the fact that she was “so supportive of other women when women aren't always supportive of another woman's strengths.” Swank believes that “powerful women are supportive of the underdog woman or the women suffering from inequality, yet when it's another woman's strength, they find it hard to muster up a lot of accolades.” The two-time Oscar-winning actress (“Boys Don’t Cry” and “Million Dollar Baby”) is no stranger to praise for her work, but she is still extraordinarily humble about her craft. While she admits that she wasn’t always longing to play Earhart, she does “long to play roles that challenge [her] and scare [her] and make [her] learn new things about the world, about [herself], about [her] art.” One of the things that attracted Swank to Earhart was “Amelia's way of going about her life, the way in which she carried herself and the way she expressed herself.” Swank is convinced that “it's really challenging to be that honest” and looks up to Earhart for living her life in a manner that was “very honest and very open.”

Swank as Earhart

Swank has been moved by how “people, more than any of [her] movies, have come up to [her] and said, “I cannot wait to see ‘Amelia.’” She isn’t surprised by the enthusiasm and excitement women have for the movie, but she was caught off guard by the fact that men seem to be anticipating the film just as much. She thinks that “what people are kind of magnetized to is the idea that this person, Amelia, who lived her life the way she wanted to live it made no apologies for saying, ‘This is my life. And this is how I see it. And this is how I want it to be done.’” With the strength of an acclaimed actress, a powerful female director and over 5,000 female pilots behind her, Amelia Earhart is still relevant more than seventy years after her disappearance, and her story and her accomplishments continue to inspire many to this day. “Amelia” opened nationwide on Friday, October 23, 2009.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Movie with Abe: Ong Bak 2

Ong Bak 2
Directed by Tony Jaa & Panna Rittikrai
Released October 23, 2009

Some movies aren’t about acting or dialogue or even story. Sometimes there are movies that can be classified not as drama or thriller but only as action. “Ong Bak 2” is one of those films. The follow-up to 2003’s “Ong Bak” doesn’t require a screening of the first film because this is essentially a prequel which chronicles martial arts master Tien’s training and total takedown of pretty much anyone who crosses his path. Keep in mind that the verb “chronicle” should be understood loosely since this movie disregards story and all sense in favor of one man with a lot of aggression fighting off a whole horde of enemies that just keep popping up for over an hour and a half.

“Ong Bak 2” sets itself hundreds of years in the past in order to best pursue a freewheeling cycle of events that continuously pit Tien, who seems capable of only one facial expression, against an endless lineup of warriors determined to cut him to pieces but ultimately felled by his masterful, unbeatable swordsmanship and deadly punches. It’s an entirely repetitive film that doesn’t seek to offer any more satisfying plot developments or character growth, and if that’s all that’s expected, so be it. What’s excruciatingly mind-numbing about it is the sheer predictability and even ease with which Tien takes down all of his foes, one after another. Some of his moves are just plain bizarre – rallying the help of a herd of elephants – while others become tired after he uses them to knock out the first dozen or so nameless souls who dare to go up against him in combat. It’s a cut-and-dry case of expectations and delivery, and expecting anything more than mindless kicking and punching just isn’t a smart idea when it comes to this film.

There’s something to be said for a movie that is able to successfully fill 100 minutes with nothing but martial arts. While it’s not for everyone, it’s certainly a carefully and impressively choreographed extended fight scene that showcases the abilities of Tony Jaa and close to a million extras. Jaa stepping behind the camera to not only star but also co-direct is probably a good move because he is very skilled at staging fight scenes, and while it becomes extraordinarily difficult to keep track of exactly which tribe is getting revenge on which other tribe, the martial arts make much more sense. At the very least, it’s intriguing to catch a glimpse at Thai cinema and what it has to offer. In this case, it’s a violent, mindless trip to ancient villages where conversation comes second to fist-to-fist combat, and there’s something entertaining about that. It’s probably much more enjoyable if expectations aren’t high in terms of cinematic value.

D-

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Movie with Abe: Trucker

Trucker
Directed by James Mottern
Released October 9, 2009

Truck drivers are usually relegated to tiny supporting roles in films, often as a passerby who offers crucial life advice to a lost protagonist or an unidentified drifter-like murder victim. Trying to anchor someone who spends their daily life on the move to one specific location is a tough thing, and that story can get lost in all of the traveling. Fortunately, “Trucker” is a compelling story with strong performances and a great script.

The heart of the film is Michelle Monaghan as hard-headed trucker Diane. Monaghan first burst onto the scene with a seductive performance opposite Robert Downey Jr. and Val Kilmer in “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” and then had supporting roles in “North Country,” “Mission Impossible III,” and “Gone Baby Gone.” Her talents were most recently wasted in the entertaining but terrible action flick “Eagle Eye,” and it’s even clearer now that she does possess a great deal of talent. Diane is cut with the same toughness as Ana-Lucia from “Lost,” and lives a life of casual promiscuity while alienating nearly every person whose path she crosses. Looked at in terms of recent female-led independent cinema, she’s a character just as hopelessly not in control of the events in her life as Jenna (Keri Russell) in “Waitress” and Wendy (Michelle Williams) in “Wendy and Lucy.” Yet, unlike those women, she’s not determined to take her situation sitting down and wants to try to do the best she can under the circumstances.

“Trucker” is primarily about the relationship that develops between a mother and her son she’s never known. It’s different from most stories of parents who discover children they never knew they had since those films usually center on fathers unaware that a child exists. Diane clearly remembers that she had a child because she’s the one who gave birth, but it’s something that she’s chosen to discard and distance herself from in order to pursue a solitary lifestyle. It’s a movie that sees its characters transformed gradually like “Julia,” and it’s a terrific portrait of a family unit that comes together under surprising circumstances. Young actor Jimmy Bennett delivers an impressively mature performance as Diane’s son Peter, and the usually swaggering Nathan Fillion tones down his cowboy factor to play Diane’s one and only real friend. They’re a more fascinating family than many normative families, and their story is a sober but optimistic one. “Trucker” is a small independent film that doesn’t attempt to over-dramatize any of its characters or events, and as a result it’s a fine, nuanced glimpse of what it takes to truly influence someone with few, if any, attachments to anything that’s grounded.

B+

Thursday Romantic Comedy Classic

Welcome to a new weekly feature here at Movies with Abe, Thursday Romantic Comedy Classic. I’m taking a course called The Romantic Comedy where we’re charting the history and development of romantic comedies from the 1920s to the present. We’ll be watching some pretty iconic films, some of which I haven’t seen before. Each week, I’ll be providing a short review of one romantic comedy classic from the annals of history.

The Apartment
Directed by Billy Wilder
Released June 15, 1960

The first and only Billy Wilder film of the course is his classic Best Picture winner, which is a wonderful and pleasant movie. Jack Lemmon stars as the subdued and mild-mannered C.C. Baxter, a low-level employee at an insurance company who’s desperate for a good night’s sleep but finds it impossible since he’s made an arrangement with higher-ups in his company who have the privilege of using his apartment for their extramarital affairs in exchange for giving him good recommendations to move up in the company. Much of the comedy comes from Lemmon’s hopeless inability to stand up for himself, and his continuous acceptance of his unfortunate situation is simply entertaining. What gives the movie a true heart is the arrival of Shirley MacLaine as Fran Kubelik, a flirtatious, charming, reserved elevator girl who sparks a lovely interaction with Lemmon’s Baxter. MacLaine and Lemmon make for a fabulous duo, and their subtly-realized chemistry is delightful. The film has a superbly sedated feel, which helps add to the desperation of Baxter’s housing problem and the inescapability of his situation. Lemmon’s leading performance is perfectly matched with the tendency of his superiors to talk down to him as if he exists only for his service to them. There’s something terrific about his ability to become easily flabbergasted and then simply back down, and MacLaine’s easygoing, optimistic attitude helps turn this story from a tragedy into a comedy, and a splendid one at that.

B+

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Movie with Abe: Zombieland

Zombieland
Directed by Ruben Fleischer
Released October 2, 2009

A world with hardly any humans where zombies lurk around every corner isn’t necessarily a subject to be taken lightly. The most common genre which produces zombie movies is horror, and inducing terror isn’t something that’s usually showcased as funny. Yet “Zombieland” turns the notion of the undead running around trying to turn the last remaining humans into something gut-bustingly (often literally) hilarious. The extraordinarily effective parody boasts a spectacular cast that leads the charge and extremely entertaining dialogue fuels the film and keeps the energy of the dying human race alive. Killing zombies has never been so much fun.

The characters in “Zombieland” don’t have first names but are referred to instead by the areas from which they hail. The first protagonist to appear, Columbus, introduces the state of things and describes how life works in this newfound world plagued by disorder. Columbus outlines his list of rules that help to ensure his continued survival, and his recommendations pop up on the screen on top of the action. It’s his unique way of looking at his very unique, devastating situation that keeps the film aloft and thoroughly entertaining. Before any other people who are still people even show up, the geeky, nervous-looking Columbus has managed to charm the audience into rooting for his rather unlikely survival.

Fantastically enough, Columbus, played by the talented Jesse Eisenberg, who has already broken out with films like “Roger Dodger,” “The Emperor’s Club” and “The Squid and the Whale,” isn’t the best character in the film. That honor goes to Tallahassee, portrayed by the off-the-wagon Woody Harrelson, who has rarely been so completely unhinged and absolutely hilarious in everything he does. His very particular way of attracting zombies to his weapons, which include everything from shotguns to banjos, is priceless, and the way he speaks to the considerably more squeamish Columbus is just as spectacular. The two females rounding out the cast shouldn’t be overlooked since they’re both excellent as well. Emma Stone (“Superbad”) has an unmatched fiery quality about her and interacts marvelously with the two men. The young Abigail Breslin (“Little Miss Sunshine”) seems years older than she is in an impressively mature, fun performance. The four remnants of civilization make for a magnificently dysfunctional team capable of both humorous and occasionally dramatic interactions and camaraderie. They’re all perfectly cast in a film that highlights all the best elements of zombie movies and turns them into truly funny scenarios. “Zombieland” has an edgy, wicked sense of humor that’s fully loaded from the very start and doesn’t even think of letting up.

B+

Watch the Minute with Abe here.

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.

Where the Wild Things Are
This adaptation of a beloved children’s book opened to mostly enthusiastic raves, and while it’s only achieved a score of 71 on Metacritic, it’s definitely won a whole host of people over with its unique vision and charm. It could well turn out to be a Best Picture contender if it’s likeable enough to please almost everyone, and if not, it’s probably has a shot at the Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay races. Otherwise, look for it to place as a runner-up or nominee in the Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction, and maybe Best Visual Effects (though it’s unlikely) categories. It will likely end up with one sole nomination, for Best Art Direction, but it’s certainly the strongest film of the week and one of the likeliest contenders at this point.

WTWTA is probably the only film with any kind of chance from this week. If the much more favorably-reviewed “Paris, Je T’Aime” didn’t stir up any Oscar traction, then its sequel New York, I Love You definitely won’t. Despite positive reception, The Maid and Black Dynamite are way too small for Oscar, and the same goes for The Ministers. Tiny documentary Food Beware: The French Organic Revolution doesn't stand much of a chance either. Two other movies from this week received expected dismal notices, and were never going to be Oscar contenders: The Stepfather and Law Abiding Citizen.

This wasn’t a big week for Oscar releases, but we’re getting closer to the time when everything starts to come out! 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, October 20, 2009

Movie with Abe: Whip It

Whip It
Directed by Drew Barrymore
Released October 2, 2009

This movie will inevitably be compared to another film about a spunky teenager who defies social conventions and happens to also be played by Ellen Page: “Juno.” It’s hardly an unfair comparison, since the two movies are inherently alike, but that doesn’t mean that this one is a carbon copy or rip-off of the earlier film. It’s a similarly semi-artsy story about a teenager who takes an unexpected trajectory to a new life which she’s still in high school, and it’s one that’s equally entertaining and altogether a whole lot of fun, and deserves to be appreciated and experienced just as much.

The important difference that sets “Whip It” apart from its older cousin “Juno” is its focus on the world of roller derby. Disgruntled high school student slash unwilling frequent beauty pageant participant Bliss is visibly dazzled when he first sees the roller girls, and there’s a constant fascination in her eyes every time she skates onto the track or revels in the friendship of her fellow derbyites. It’s an atypical kind of sports movie, which still highlights teamwork and camaraderie among the skaters and boasts exciting derby sequences which are both thrilling and entertaining. There’s a rush that Bliss gets every time she prepares to compete, and it’s something that’s captured wonderfully by the film and established through the clear boredom Bliss exhibits in every other mundane thing she does and experiences. But the movie isn’t just about one girl’s entry into the world of sports, it’s about her path from an unfulfilled life to something far more enriching.

“Whip It” is dedicated to showcasing a free spirit both through the way it is presented and through its characters. The film features fun fonts for its title credits and actresses who aren’t the typical leading female stars usually called upon to anchor romantic comedies. Page fits this role perfectly, and it’s just as exact a fit as “Juno.” She’s sarcastic and funny, but above all determined and endearing. Alia Shawkat, best known as Maybe from “Arrested Development,” is just as spectacularly well-cast as Page, and the two of them are marvelous together. Even their characters' names, Bliss and Pash, indicate a sort of rebellion they seem to be yearning for in the mundane repetitiveness of their daily lives. Their performances indicate that they have a bright future in the world of young adult cinema, and hopefully their future roles will utilize their potential just as well. The more experienced adult ensemble provides more than ample support, and standouts include Marcia Gay Harden and Daniel Stern as Bliss’ parents and Kristin Wiig as one of her roller derby pals. Wiig demonstrates that she’s capable of more than just her one-note “Saturday Night Live” comedic over-exaggeration, and she’s surprisingly effective at semi-dramatic acting. The least impressive performance comes from Drew Barrymore, but fortunately the first-time director wisely keeps herself mostly behind the camera and does a commendable job helming her first feature film. “Whip It” is more than just a fun field trip to the roller derby. It’s a fine film with great performances enhanced by the excitement of the roller derby and much more individualized and worthwhile than many who simply see the star of “Juno” on its marquee will give it credit for or expect.

B+

Watch the Minute with Abe here.

Tuesday's Top Trailer: The Lovely Bones

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.

The Lovely Bones - Opening December 11, 2009



I've been seeing this trailer before nearly every movie for the past month or so. I was excited about this movie from the first moment I watched the trailer online in August, and I figured it was about time that I highlighted it on Movies with Abe, and there were no other trailers which caught my attention this week. "The Lovely Bones" has many things going for it, including but not limited to an accomplished director, Peter Jackson ("Lord of the Rings," "King Kong") and a stellar ensemble cast, including Mark Wahlberg, Rachel Weisz, Susan Sarandon, Michael Imperioli, Stanley Tucci, and the very talented young Saoirse Ronan (Briony in "Atonement") as the protagonist, Susie Salmon. The trailer itself happens to be absolutely fantastic, and each time I'm even more excited to see it. The imagery looks wonderful, and the way that Susie narrates her post-mortem life is simply dazzling. The most wonderful thing about the trailer is the use of Audio Machine's "House of Cards" to heighten the suspense factor. The song has been used before in the equally awesome trailers for "Gone Baby Gone" and "Changeling," but this one looks like the best. Taking away Michael Imperioli's overbearing New York accent and giving Stanley Tucci the chance to play a terrifying villain are both great ideas, and it looks like the cast is in fine form. The story seems really interesting also, and I imagine that fans of the book are looking forward to this promising adaptation. I personally haven't read it, but I can't wait for this film to be released.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Movie with Abe: The Informant!

The Informant!
Directed by Steven Soderbergh
Released September 18, 2009

Un-believ-able! That’s what the promotional posters for this film declared about the true story of Mark Whitacre, an agriculture company vice president who proved to be a rather slippery, unreliable witness in a major sting operation. It’s meant to be over-the-top and considerably un-believ-able because it was in fact that way. Yet Whitacre’s tale is presented from the point of view of Whitacre himself, and therefore when Whitacre omits or outright lies and compromises his own case time and again, the viewer cringes because Whitacre wasn’t straight with his audience. Whitacre is just as slimy and unpredictable in his thoughts as he is in his actions, and therefore having him narrate the story is equally amusing and aggravating.

“The Informant!” starts out in a highly stylized manner with Whitacre pointing out simple random facts as he discusses things with daily lives in his daily life. The window into Whitacre’s mind is like a permanently open encyclopedia, and Whitacre’s witty observations are often quite entertaining. Once it becomes clear that Whitacre isn’t always telling the truth, however, the impact of his rattled-off facts is greatly diminished, and they just don’t seem nearly as impressive anymore. For its first hour or so, the movie seems like it’s building to something really big, and Whitacre’s whistle-blowing actions and side narration will all amount to some major takedown or epiphany. But there’s no such satisfying conclusion, and all of the buildup just levels off and doesn’t go anywhere. That seems to be the point of the film, though the movie loses it cleverness well before the end and there’s nothing to make up for the lack of gratification.

Director Steven Soderbergh flip-flops between tiny, very independent artsy projects like “Full Frontal” and the dreadful “The Girlfriend Experience” and big-budget mainstream releases like the “Ocean’s Eleven” trilogy. “The Informant!” is something different, a star vehicle for Damon that still prides itself on a unique viewpoint on life espoused by the title character. The explanation point in the title seems to represent a childlike, excitable take on the film’s characters and events, and that at least distinguishes the film from more serious dramas. Yet this film isn’t hilarious or even terribly humorous, and what could be interpreted as funny is often just too frustrating. Damon has a great time inhabiting the role of Whitacre, and his very silly mustache helps make the character a compelling lead despite the obvious drawbacks of his untrustworthiness and general flakiness. He’s easily the best part of a less impressive movie. It’s the kind of film that looks interesting at the start but just doesn’t ever deliver on its potential.

B-

Watch the Minute with Abe here.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Movie with Abe: Bronson

Bronson
Directed by Nicholas Winding Refn
Released October 9, 2009

Films with a character’s name in the title are expected to be the story of a single character, though it’s rare that a movie is so fully committed to telling one individual’s story with little to no regard for the existence or emotion of any supporting personages. When one character lives within his own world, closed off from the rest of society, going deep into his mind is a risky gamble. The focus will likely be fascinating, but being trapped in someone’s mind with no hope of escape is a dangerous thing, especially if the movie has no way out of the rabbit hole either.

“Bronson” is based on the true story of Michael Peterson, a Brit who went to jail at age 19 for a relatively minor crime and found his true passion: acting out violently against the guards to keep himself in jail with no hope of or attitude towards release. Peterson, who dubbed himself Charles Bronson, fashions himself a celebrity and tells his story as if everyone knows who he is, and if they don’t yet, they will when he’s done with them. He’s a prototypical Rupert Pupkin, who yearns for stardom and delusion ally believes he’s already achieved it when in fact the only audience privy to his accomplishments is his own psyche. He’s perpetually putting on a show, and the thought that a camera isn’t inside his head would never even occur to him.

Peterson/Bronson fancies himself an entertainer, and thus giving him a stage, as the film does, from which he can narrate his story and perform what he sees as his act is a fine choice. The audience really gets a full-access backstage pass to the Bronson show, and it’s a fascinating glimpse into a frightening mind. Yet the film is also ruled by Bronson’s unhinged mannerisms, and it’s somewhat problematic that the film never emerges from the deep rut that Bronson fell into when he first went to prison. Director Nicholas Winding Refn turns the movie over exclusively to Bronson and his inner dialogue, and as a result there are no additional points of view or perspectives probed. It’s an appropriate showcase for the volatile character, and performer Tom Hardy buries himself impressively into the role, and carries around a massive mustache and an uncontrollable anger that would be hard for a less skilled actor to match. It’s a grim look at his life, however, and there’s something excruciatingly depressing about a life that’s so utterly hopeless. It’s a dark film so entrenched in madness that never quite comes up for air. Since its lead character never does either, it’s fitting, but the movie is often too bleak to be compelling.

B-

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Movie with Abe: Peter and Vandy

Peter and Vandy
Directed by Jay DiPietro
Released October 9, 2009

Any movie with two names in the title is likely to be a story about romance. Two people meet and fall in and out of love. That’s what expected, and while there are deviations from the formula, that’s usually a neat way to sum it up. Every new couple brings with them a story that’s unique in some aspect, and a movie explicitly about a relationship also presents the opportunity for standout performances from its leads, who usually have extensive screen time because, after all, the film is all about them. This kind of film dates back to before mainstream success “Annie Hall,” and has recently been explored in films like “Flannel Pajamas” and “500 Days of Summer.”

“Peter and Vandy” sticks to the tried and true, but doesn’t present anything compelling or original. The starring couple never quite seems like a good fit, with a bantering, bickering back-and-forth providing the initial footing for their relationship. When they’re not actually screaming at each other, it feels like they could lash out with extreme severity at any moment. The male in the relationship is particularly volatile, picking fights almost from the very first time they meet. If it’s as they’re doomed from the start, because there’s never really a moment of actual bliss where it’s clear why they’re good for each other. It isn’t some majestic melancholy masterpiece either, but rather an unfinished chapter of a story that may have seemed initially interesting but ultimately doesn’t deliver.

“Peter and Vandy” tries hard to be artistic, especially in the way it frames its title characters. They walk down the street holding shopping bags in one shot, and then walk together identically in the next carrying something else. The point being made it that they do things together; they may have nothing in common and never get along, but at least they function on the same page sometimes. It’s a very calculated effort to ensure that these people seem like they’re right for each other, though actors Jason Ritter and Jess Weixler don’t have the necessary chemistry to anchor a romance or a film. Director DiPietro and the two leads pride themselves on depicting a realistic coupling, but that make its dramatization into an effective film. The ups and downs are purposely depicted out of chronological order to convey a sense of timelessness in the couple’s relationship. The structure seems there as a way to compensate for the lack of a convincing couple, and it’s just a reminder of how the aforementioned films have done it so much better.

C

Friday, October 16, 2009

Home Video: American Violet

American Violet
Directed by Tim Disney
Released April 17, 2009 / DVD October 13, 2009

There are many films out there about overcoming prejudice. Some recent entries like “North Country” and “Milk” have been moving and awe-inspiring, while others like “The Great Debaters” just lose most of the magic in the transition from real-life inspiration to big-screen adaptation. “American Violet” falls into the latter category, though it’s not as if it’s incredibly corny or wrought with agonizingly clich├ęd scenes of predictable triumphant success. Tim Disney’s new film, by contrast, just never quite takes off or makes its characters three-dimensional enough to illicit sympathy. The grander story is decently moving, sure, but not this particular focus.

In “American Violet,” a family is ripped apart by a shocking accusation and subsequent arrest which lands struggling single mother Dee Roberts (Nicole Beharie) in jail. The question of whether she should accept a guilty plea in order to prevent possibly extended jail time despite her own knowledge of her innocence brings into question the legitimacy of that kind of trick by district attorneys and the racial discrimination that lands a disproportionate ration of people of color in that situation. It’s a worthy topic for a film, but it’s nothing that hasn’t been seen before, and it doesn’t present any particularly compelling distinguishing factors that single it out as a worthwhile film project.

The cast is littered with actors who have delivered impressive performances before, but unfortunately this is hardly their best work. Alfre Woodard, Tim Blake Nelson, and Will Patton all fill roles they’re used to playing: Woodard as the headstrong, hard-working matriarch; Nelson as the bespectacled, slightly nebbish out-of-towner; and Patton as the hard-headed, silent do-gooder who seems reluctant to help at first but ultimately comes through. All three have given better performances in similar roles elsewhere, and Patton seems to have exhausted this part in a far superior race relations movie, “Remember the Titans.” Michael O’Keefe makes an intimidating villain, and while star Nicole Beharie’s breakthrough has been overstated by many, she does a decent job carrying the film, but nothing more.

“American Violet” is a simple example of what happens when an intriguing historical instance is presented as the basis for a film, and the mere fact that those events, in some form, actually transpired, seems enough of a reason for it to be made. When a film stands on nothing but inspirational events and contains mediocre performances and a standard script, it doesn’t have much hope of separating itself from dozens of other similar, more polished projects. Often, viewers tend to get wrapped up in the theatricality of the events behind the film and praise it for merits which really aren’t its own.

C

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Thursday Romantic Comedy Classic

Welcome to a new weekly feature here at Movies with Abe, Thursday Romantic Comedy Classic. I’m taking a course called The Romantic Comedy where we’re charting the history and development of romantic comedies from the 1920s to the present. We’ll be watching some pretty iconic films, some of which I haven’t seen before. Each week, I’ll be providing a short review of one romantic comedy classic from the annals of history.

Bringing Up Baby
Directed by Howard Hawks
Released February 18, 1938

This zany film is the ultimate comedy of errors, where a rather flappable zoologist Dr. David Huxley (Cary Grant) finds himself chasing his own tail after he meets Susan Vance (Katharine Hepburn), a woman completely on her own page in life oblivious to pretty much everything David says and does. The presence of a leopard, the title-referenced Baby, is certainly random and strange, but it fuels a film that’s never quite grounded in reality but perpetually elevated by slapstick brilliance. The film’s success is attributable mostly to the typical romantic comedy chemistry of its lead stars, or in this case, their ability to play their respective roles so determinedly against the other character. Grant is a neurotic mess constantly struggling to backstep David’s latest problem caused by Susan, and he’s effortlessly funny in his continuously deteriorating state of sanity. Hepburn has an incomparable screen presence where she completely inhabits her role, and this is a less serious performance where she’s just as effortlessly annoying but somehow still charming and absolutely a wonder to be seen on screen. The film gets wackier and crazier as it goes on, but its humor is also exponential and multiplies with time. At a point, it become difficult to chart exactly how the characters, situations, and leopards got to the place where they are, but it’s a fun ride and an unforgettable screwball comedy.

B+

Wednesday, October 14, 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.

An Education
This highly-anticipated film premiered to strong reviews, propelling breakout star Carey Mulligan to frontrunner status in the Best Actress race. She should be considered a lock considering the impressiveness and charming nature of her performance, but there’s one thing that scares me: Sally Hawkins was in a very similar situation last year for “Happy-Go-Lucky” and, despite positive indicators up until the SAG nominees, ended up getting snubbed in the end. For the moment, I’d say that Mulligan will be in, and the film is a likely Best Screenplay contender and possible Best Picture nominee.

The Damned United
This sports drama stars two-time Oscar snubbee Michael Sheen, just itching to get his hands on an Oscar as his showier leads continue to be nominated when he isn’t. Here, he’s most certainly not second fiddle to any screen legend (like Helen Mirren and Frank Langella) and he presumably carries the whole film with his energy and wit. Nonetheless, it’s probably his most comic performance, and if he wasn’t getting in for one of his more dramatic roles, there’s no way this rather obscure British film will catapult him to the head of the pack in the Best Actor race. Perhaps at the Golden Globes?

Believe: The Eddie Izzard Story
If this is eligible in the Best Documentary Field, which it may be, it could place due to Izzard being relatively well-known and his Emmy wins for his "Dressed to Kill" special a few years back. I think Izzard is a bit less than traditional for Oscar voters, and the film as it is looks pretty odd with its style of filmmaking before Izzarrd even steps onscreen. I think it will have to really garner monumentally positive reviews to stand a chance.

Bronson
In a parallel universe, Tom Hardy’s deranged, terrifying performance as England’s most expensive prisoner might have half a chance at earning an Oscar nomination. In this dimension, however, he’ll barely be a blip on anyone’s radar and may make headlines only if he gets nominated by some tiny awards group or if anyone really, really loves the film.

Independent releases this week like Trucker and Peter and Vandy won’t get much Oscar traction, though the former bears some similarity to last year’s nominated “Frozen River,” though it certainly doesn’t have nearly as positive reviews. Four more films that were never made to be Oscar material: Couples Retreat, Free Style, Good Hair, and St. Trinian’s.

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, October 13, 2009

Tuesday's Top Trailer: The Private Lives of Pippa Lee

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.

The Private Lives of Pippa Lee - Opening November 27, 2009



I caught this trailer before "Capitalism: A Love Story" this past Friday, and while it's hardly a showy extravaganza like either of the past two Tuesday's Top Trailers, "Sherlock Holmes" and "2012," but it's probably the safest best to actually be a solid film. It's a layered drama with a complex main character (played by two different actresses) and a stellar cast. Talented actress Robin Wright Penn hasn't done much in the past few years besides play the wife to hotshot actors Ben Affleck ("State of Play"), Robert DeNiro ("What Just Happened"), and Jude Law ("Breaking and Entering"). It will be nice to see her reclaim the spotlight, and her younger counterpart is Blake Lively, star of TV's "Gossip Girl," and it looks like this performance may just bring out the actress in her too. Alan Arkin, toupee and all, is always a welcome presence, and Julianne Moore with wacky hair may mean crazy like in "The Big Lebowski" but will more likely be like Moore in most of her roles where she's simply astonishing. My favorite part of the trailer is the opening scene where the title character is described as an enigma and the voiceover narration by Pippa details her desire to break free and be known. I'm eager to get to know her come November - how about you?

Monday, October 12, 2009

Movie with Abe: 9

9
Directed by Shane Acker
Released September 9, 2009

The recent slate of animated films from Pixar has become increasingly mature, with grown-up themes in “Cars” and serious mediations on life in the future and getting older in “Wall-E” and “Up.” Dating back to its first feature, “Toy Story,” Pixar has always produced animated classics that appeal both to children and adults. Darker, more explicitly mature fare like “Waking Life,” “A Scanner Darkly,” and “Waltz with Bashir” has been released in recent years, which is meant for a different crowd. The new film “9” looks more like the first kind of film but is certainly well-equipped to stand in the second category. It’s an impressive use of animation to convey an altogether intriguing story that wouldn’t have nearly the same effect in a live-action format.

It’s a rather ragtag tale of, well, rag dolls and it’s completely stunning and engaging from start to finish. After humans are annihilated by the robots they created, a scientist brings nine rag dolls to life as the last defense against the machines. The last to awaken, 9, is a spunky and courageous hero determined to leave no rag doll behind. The spirit of community and brotherhood that is so quickly fostered among some of the rag dolls is inspiring, and this film charges ahead through the character of 9 with a childlike curiosity into a terrifying world comparable to that of “The Matrix.” The nine last salvations of humanity aren’t childish or immature at all, and their adult attitude is what helps to separate “9” from traditional animated fare and elevate it to a different kind of filmmaking.

“9” is unusually short, running only an hour and 19 minutes, but there’s plenty of action and suspense packed in there. The film contains unexpectedly astounding scenes, including one set to “Somewhere over the Rainbow,” which are rarely found in animated movies and really showcase its characters as legendary and awe-inspiring. It’s a fully engaging experience that uses all the impressive techniques that the animated form allows while drawing on more adult themes to create an altogether astonishing film. The movie itself seems sort of like wide-eyed protagonist 9, a small film that somehow made it big and triumphed in the most unlikely of circumstances.

B+

Watch the Minute with Abe here.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Movie with Abe: Extract

Extract
Directed by Mike Judge
Released September 4, 2009

“Extract” is probably best dissected by looking at director Mike Judge’s previous two films. The rather simple story of the manager of an extract plant isn’t nearly as focused as Judge’s 1999 cult classic “Office Space,” but it’s far more mature than his unreleased 2006 futuristic farce “Idiocracy.” It’s still very much a sardonic, slow-moving, slightly more suggestive comedy that’s enjoyable but not overly memorable. David Koechner’s irritating neighbor Nathan is almost a reincarnation of Gary Cole’s Bill Lumbergh from “Office Space,” so fans of that film will likely enjoy seeing such a similar sideline character. But like that film, and more problematically so, this one isn’t determined to get anywhere fast, and as a result, its characters feel kept down and the outrageous humor is fairly muted.

Jason Bateman, the former patriarch on “Arrested Development” who has since graduated to the role of legitimate movie star, is the perfect actor to headline this film. He has a sarcastic attitude and a sedated energy about him where he never quite gets excited or loses his temper, no matter how frustrating his situation might be. He’s surrounded by an odd but entertaining troop of performers, including a grizzly, grimy Ben Affleck, a ruffled redneck Clifton Collins, Jr., and a scheming, seductive Mila Kunis. Kristin Wiig (“Saturday Night Live”) and the fantastic J.K. Simmons (“Juno,” “The Closer”) round out an impressive cast that, since the extract plant really doesn’t operate too well, keeps the film running surprisingly well.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with “Extract,” but it doesn’t exactly end with any sort of sense of fulfillment. It doesn’t pretend to be high-minded, meaningful comedy, but it’s not nearly as outlandish or inappropriately fun as it could be. It’s not even necessarily childish, which might have been hilarious, but instead it just doesn’t quite deliver. It’s the kind of film that seems like it’s waiting for some big event to get things going, though it never quite happens. There are moments of entertaining humor throughout, but there’s never a big scene that really makes it all worth it. It’s a fun, fleeting, faraway look at one man’s very lackluster life, and that’s all it is.

B-

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Saturday, October 10, 2009

Minute with Abe: Capitalism: A Love Story

My live reactions after seeing Michael Moore's new film "Capitalism: A Love Story."

Friday, October 9, 2009

Movie with Abe: An Education

An Education
Directed by Lone Scherfig
Released October 9, 2009

An actor can make a movie. Very often it happens that a performance is all that’s talked about when referring to a film, and that’s because, while the acting is unbelievably incredible, the movie sometimes isn’t. Many praise Marion Cotillard (“La Vie en Rose”), Forest Whitaker (“The Last King of Scotland”), and Peter O’Toole (“Venus”) but don’t give much credit to their films. It’s immensely gratifying, therefore, to a find a film that confidently defies that trend. Carey Mulligan’s lead performance is refreshingly brilliant, and her surrounding film is wonderful and fun.

Twenty-four-year-old Mulligan is effortlessly charming and absolutely marvelous as Jenny, a young girl in 1960s London destined for a bright future at Oxford whose plans get a bit delayed when she meets an older man. Mulligan completely inhabits the role, and it’s a performance reminiscent of Sally Hawkins (who appears in a small role in this film) in last year’s “Happy-Go-Lucky.” Both Brits display an incomparable ability to embrace life and delight in simple pleasures. Mulligan seems years more mature than her age, but also imbues Jenny with appropriate naivety. It’s a simply delightful performance, and a sign that Mulligan should have a bright future ahead of her.

The supporting cast is equally splendid. Alfred Molina and Cara Seymour make a great family unit as Jenny’s parents driven to see her succeed. Peter Sarsgaard dons a British accent and oozes charisma as her older suitor, and seeing the four performers on screen together feels very real. They all fit in nicely against a 1960s backdrop, and the film feels perfectly timeless. It’s a pleasant story that stands out due to its lively attitude and generally positive nature. That and, of course, the incredible, career-making performance by one Carey Mulligan.

B+

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Minute with Abe: Zombieland

My live reactions after seeing the new film "Zombieland."

Thursday Romantic Comedy Classic

Welcome to a new weekly feature here at Movies with Abe, Thursday Romantic Comedy Classic. I’m taking a course called The Romantic Comedy where we’re charting the history and development of romantic comedies from the 1920s to the present. We’ll be watching some pretty iconic films, some of which I haven’t seen before. Each week, I’ll be providing a short review of one romantic comedy classic from the annals of history.

It Happened One Night
Directed by Frank Capra
Released February 23, 1934

This film bears the distinct honor of being one of only three movies to take home the top five Oscars: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Screenplay (along with “One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and “The Silence of the Lambs”). It’s fitting that this film won those specific awards, because its success really is due to the smartness of the script, the eye and mind of the director, and the chemistry of the lead performers. Clark Gable is irritating but charming as a reporter looking for his next big scoop, and Claudette Colbert is equally annoying but quite hilarious as the heiress who crosses paths with him. Their initial mutual dislike is a common element seen in many romantic comedies of the time, and it plays out perfectly here as Peter (Gable) and Ellie (Colbert) banter continuously and just can’t seem to get along. Their increasingly frequent misadventures imply that they are destined for something more, and the film provides a fittingly amusing conclusion that wouldn’t necessarily be termed a traditionally “neat” ending. The bickering between Gable and Colbert is thoroughly entertaining, and it’s the two of them who really make the most of every scene in the film. They both know so well how to play off of each other, and seeing the two of them light up the screen together is a delight.

B+

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Movie with Abe: Whiteout

Whiteout
Directed by Dominic Sena
Released September 11, 2009

In weather movies, it’s presumed that the weather is the villain. A race against time to avoid a monstrous natural disaster or tropical storm that threatens to wipe out the main characters should easily serve as the catalytic event for a film. Putting other bad guys in the way often results in pure stupidity (see NBC’s “Meteor”) and distracts from the primary plotline. After all, when Mother Nature threatens to wipe everyone out, who cares about a measly blackmail or murder case? There is one major movie from cinema history, however, which uses the weather as its launching event but features other prominent villains. “Whiteout” is no “Wizard of Oz.”

The notion of a killer running rampant in Antarctica is appealing, but there’s one very crucial factor the writers forgot to consider – the killer has no inherent advantage over anyone else. Unless this is supernatural fare, which it isn’t, the killer has no special powers or abilities that allow him to stay one step ahead of the law. He’s vulnerable to the same degree of cold weather and sun setting for six months as everyone else. The idea that this is the first murder in Antarctica is all hearsay, because there’s no way of knowing what deeds go on in one of the vastest, most unknown landscapes in the world. Those are merely the conceptual problems with the setup and premise of the film.

This is the fourth feature film from director Dominic Sena. It’s on exactly the same level of trashiness as previous entries “Swordfish” and “Gone in 60 Seconds,” though hardly as preposterousness or entertaining, respectively. It’s a shame that Sena couldn’t tap his impressive, frightening rendering of a serial killer from “Kalifornia” and bring some of that experience over to this film to enhance it. “Whiteout” is purely stupid and rarely the least bit thrilling. Chase scenes that are supposed to be terrifying are comical and all the twists, with one positive exception, can be seen coming from the first moments of the film. Kate Beckinsale is unable to anchor the movie, and it’s unfortunate that all of her supporting actors aren’t even as mediocre to poor as her. It’s the risk of setting a loosely-conceived story way outside of the scope of civilization – if things go wrong, there’s no one out there who can hear you scream, or save your movie.

F

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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.

A Serious Man
The latest film from the Coen brothers is their most personal, and based on overwhelmingly positive reviews, it could be a very strong contender for the newly-widened best picture field. The Coens have had two films nominated for Best Picture: “Fargo” and “No Country for Old Men” (which won). “O Brother, Where Art Thou” was up for Best Adapted Screenplay, but all of their other films didn’t end up on Oscar’s radar. This one could easily contend for Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay, and possibly Best Director and Best Actor. Tom O'Neil suggests also Best Supporting Actor (Fred Melamed and Richard Kind), though I'm not sure this one will go quite that far. It would be cool if it did; I just don't expect it.

Whip It
Drew Barrymore’s directional debut is receiving mixed reviews. She definitely won’t factor into the Best Director race, since other actors have tried their hand at helming films with similar or better results and been snubbed (like Ben Affleck with “Gone Baby Gone”). Ellen Page also won’t repeat if only because the performance is too similar to her role in “Juno,” and while she got nominated for that movie, she has her fair share of detractors. These two ladies could place at the Golden Globes, but not the Oscars.

Zombieland
While this movie was surprisingly well-received, it’s no Oscar movie. Woody Harrelson is a former nominee, but that was for his interpretation of Larry Flynt in 1996. His starring role in this film is hilarious, but Oscar voters won’t notice it. It’s possible it could get in for Best Makeup, though movies with the undead haven’t made it into that category since 2000 (“Shadow of the Vampire”). Once again, this isn’t an Oscar movie, and therefore its eventual snubs shouldn’t be much of a surprise.

The Invention of Lying
Ricky Gervais may be a popular television star in the United Kingdom and a crossover hit in the United States, but his movies don’t exactly spell Oscar. He missed out on a Golden Globe nomination for heading up “Ghost Town” last year, and this new gimmicky film shouldn’t help him get anywhere closer to an Oscar nod. He’ll probably have to remake “The Office” or “Extras” into a feature film to catch Oscar voters’ attention.

Other releases this week that won’t factor into the race: More Than a Game. Not many big movies out this week.

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, October 6, 2009

Movie with Abe: Taking Woodstock

Taking Woodstock
Directed by Ang Lee
Released August 28, 2009

Renowned director Ang Lee has built up quite a reputation for himself after directing universally-praised films like “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and “Brokeback Mountain.” Audiences have come to expect something incredible from him, and when his films aren’t quite as stunning (like “Lust, Caution”), they are often ignored and quickly fade from the public conversation. That’s what seems to have happened with “Taking Woodstock,” but it doesn’t deserve the less-than-friendly reception it got. It may not be a carefully-choreographed revitalization of film technique, but it’s still a great film that’s entertaining and engrossing.

The theatrical release of this film coincided with the 40th anniversary of the so-called taking of Woodstock, and this movie seems meant as a tribute to those times. Therefore, it’s perhaps a bit peculiar that the film doesn’t actually show the concert itself and really only tells the story of one person. It’s actually an effective strategy, however, because it captures the experience of one person that was actually felt by so many. It’s especially interesting because the man who helped make it happen by offering up lodging and space for the thousands of attendees wasn’t actually personally invested in the concert. This film could have tackled a dozen threads like “Bobby” did a few years ago, but this route seems to have been the way to go because it provides a look at how this monumental event came together from the perspective of the guy who pretty much made it happen.

Music is, of course, the background for this story, and the soundtrack is very fitting, especially since the actual concert isn’t ever quite visualized amid all the craziness Elliot encounters. The performances are also fun, particularly Imelda Staunton as Elliot’s hard-headed mother and Liev Schreiber as the cross-dressing head of security. Demetri Martin makes for a good lead because he’s not concerned with stealing the focus of the story, and therefore interacts with all the zanier characters but doesn’t get too wacky himself. The film is wise in not wasting too much time on drug-induced hallucinations, and one extended scene doesn’t detract from the overall magic of the film and the experience.

“Taking Woodstock” is a funny dramatization of a historic event, and where it could have gone wrong with hundreds of young actors acting like stoned hippies, it succeeds marvelously. It isn’t an incredible film to be remembered for ages, but it’s harmless and serves as a fine tribute to a legendary musical event. The story of Elliot may not be as interesting to some as that of those who actually thought up the concert, but it succeeds where something more focused on the content rather than the experience might not have.

B+

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