Friday, December 31, 2010

Movie with Abe: Another Year

Another Year
Directed by Mike Leigh
Released December 29, 2010

It’s fascinating to hear director Mike Leigh talk explain the way he makes movies. The six-time Oscar nominee creates characters and trains his actors to live and breath like the people they’re playing, constructing his own version of the script in his head as he goes along. After months of working with their characters, Leigh throws his actors together and builds a film. Often, his actors don’t even know what is supposed to happen next, making their performances all the more authentic. It may seem strange, but it’s a proven success given the extraordinary achievement of his many films, not least of which is his latest, “Another Year.”

It’s extremely difficult to summarize the plot of “Another Year,” and a viewing of the trailer doesn’t help matters much. Yet that’s exactly what Leigh is all about, crafting extraordinarily lifelike characters and then placing them into situations that aren’t nearly as crucial to the story as the definitions of their personalities. “Another Year” is an appropriate title because this is a simply a given year in the lives of these characters, and it’s the people that make it interesting rather than the sequence of events. For a film without a specific plot, this is an incredibly engaging experience full of realistic, believable conversations.

Leigh has a history of working with the same actors, often spotlighting one or two in a given film after they’ve played bit parts in his previous efforts. Last up was the wonderful Sally Hawkins, who does not appear here, in “Happy-Go-Lucky,” and before that, the incredible Imelda Staunton in “Vera Drake.” Staunton appears in just two short scenes in “Another Year,” but easily makes her mark. It’s often hard to distinguish between the lead players and the bit players, and that’s what makes a performance like that of Karina Fernandez as Katie, who is merely a tangential character, so surprisingly memorable. Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen are marvelous as a couple whose names happen to be Tom and Gerri, but the real find of this film is Lesley Manville, in her sixth collaboration with Leigh. Manville delivers one of the strongest performances of the year as the self-involved, blissfully ignorant but kind-hearted Mary, who attempts to live out her life through the happiness of others. The ensemble functions terrifically, and it’s difficult to classify all of the players as lead or supporting because no one is trying to steal the show and everyone is performing admirably. This film may not be constructed in the most typical fashion, but it’s entirely heartwarming and endearing, and ranks as one of this year’s best films.


Thursday, December 30, 2010

Documentary Spotlight: A Handful of Oscar Contenders

I’ve had the opportunity recently to screen six of the fifteen finalists for the Best Documentary Oscar. I’ve already reviewed one contender – “The Lottery” – and now I present a brief look at a few more, some caught on DVD, others in their limited or last leg runs, and one more at the closing night of a film festival.

Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer (B+) is a thoroughly-researched, aggressively compiled summary of one of the biggest public scandals in recent history, providing plenty of information about Spitzer’s political past and his most prominent foes. Director Alex Gibney, who also made “Casino Jack and the United States of Money,” does an excellent job of remaining objective, and proves himself once again extremely skilled at handling sensational manners appropriately and respectfully. It’s especially interesting to see Spitzer offer his own reserved, slightly apologetic take on his actions, and Gibney treats him just as he does his other subjects: a witness who has plenty to say.

Exit through the Gift Shop (B) is a wild look at the world of street art, and what’s most interesting about it (especially because it’s never explicitly explained) is that it transforms midway through and takes on a new specific subject shifting perspectives entirely. It’s most certainly intriguing, and the characters are fascinating, but there’s something about that disconnect that doesn’t track entirely evenly. Still, street art is such a unique and compelling topic that it’s hard not to be interested and often amazed by what these people do and how casually they discuss doing it, as if it’s just something they have no choice but to do.

Precious Life (B+) is a film made by Shlomi Eldar, an Israeli TV reporter, about his efforts to help a Palestinian woman save the life of her four-month old child. It doesn’t sport excited animations like some of the other films on this list, but it is a harrowing, moving story about people putting aside their differences to save someone’s life. One scene in particular, where the mother discusses how she proud of her son if he grows up to become a shahid (martyr), is pretty incredible, forcing Eldar to insert his own opinion since he can’t fathom why someone would bother to save a life just to have the person get killed. The film tackles that question throughout, and it spotlights an extremely complicated dilemma in the midst of an already complicated conflict.

Restrepo (B) is a film that takes its viewers directly into Afghanistan to the Korangal Valley in 2009. Set at an outpost named for one of the platoon’s fallen members, it presents an unfiltered picture of how inescapable and uncertain war can be. As documentation of reality, it’s effective since journalist and director Sebastian Junger and his photographer Tim Hetherington were embedded with platoon for the duration of their project, allowing them essentially unfettered access as well as the opportunity to experience it for themselves. As a film, however, it’s not especially well-constructed, and it often feels more like found footage than a finished product.

Waiting for Superman (B+) is so similar in concept to “The Lottery” that I thought the two were the same film when I first saw a trailer for one of them. This film, however, takes on a wider breadth than just Harlem, examining cause and effect in the decline of education across the country. As a film, this impressed me much more than director Davis Guggenheim’s last effort, “An Inconvenient Truth,” this time crafting a clever and entertaining presentation and merging it with a compelling narrative. This film boasts one of the year’s most powerful and heartbreaking scenes, where several students all wait anxiously to hear their names called in lotteries. Like last year’s Oscar winner “The Cove,” this film comes to a proactive end, urging its viewers to stand up and do something to help change the system.

Movie with Abe: Biutiful

Directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu
Released December 29, 2010

Director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu knows how to do tragedy. His Oscar-winning “Babel” is an extraordinarily difficult, tough portrait of pain and suffering as experienced by a few select individuals around the world. His underrated 2003 film, “21 Grams,” is entirely depressing and just as powerful, demonstrating just how much loss can affect multiple people. After working in the United States and collaborating with screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga, Inarritu returns to his native country of Mexico to make his latest affecting downer, the heart-wrenching and enormously effective “Biutiful.”

The title of “Biutiful” is best likened to that of “The Pursuit of Happyness,” a misspelling that comes from a child’s mind in an attempt to demonstrate his or her intelligence. That naming of the film is very telling of its focus. Uxbal (Javier Bardem) is a man struggling with trying to take care of his young children and prevent them from being overly influenced by his self-destructive wife, while at the same time earning a living by exploiting illegal immigrants and dealing with a grim cancer diagnosis. It’s clear that Uxbal is deeply dedicated to his children, yet he is being pulled in so many different directions that it’s difficult for him to focus and often impossible for him to devote as much time and attention to them as is necessary.

“Biutiful” is a complex, moving story carried by the performance of Javier Bardem. It’s refreshing to see Bardem follow up his Oscar-winning turn in “No Country for Old Men” with this kind of role after his effortless comic performance in Woody Allen’s “Vicky Cristina Barcelona.” Bardem, returning to his native language of Spanish, delivers a brave and deeply compelling performance, conveying so much pain and emotion with little more than a look. Bardem is skillfully directed by Inarritu, who focuses the film on Uxbal and only chooses to ignore everything else in the background when Uxbal is doing so. When something threatens to influence Uxbal, it becomes a central part of the film, and when it is inconsequential, the film appropriately forgets about it.

“Biutiful” also explores an unexplained image of Uxbal’s battle with certain death, opening the film with a conversation between an uncharacteristically relaxed and joyful Uxbal and an unknown stranger. The scene, juxtaposed with Uxbal’s nature throughout the rest of the film, is enormously powerful and helpful in establishing his character and the tone of the film. The film’s most impressive accomplishment is making its thieving, temperamental protagonist one of the most sympathetic characters in recent film history. This is a film that’s as excellent as it is depressing, and a considerable achievement on the part of Inarritu, Bardem, and everyone else involved.


Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Movie with Abe: Somewhere

Directed by Sofia Coppola
Released December 22, 2010

When Sofia Coppola makes a movie, it’s worth taking note. In eleven years, Coppola has only made four feature films, and they have all been quite distinctive and unique. Her first movie, “The Virgin Suicides,” was a tragic look at a group of doomed sisters whose lives become inconsolably lonely after a suicide. Her second was the Oscar-winning “Lost in Translation,” a film that got Bill Murray to be serious and truly established her as an artsy filmmaker with a taste for colors and careful cinematography. Her third was an overindulgent, lavish update on “Marie Antoinette” that just didn’t work. And now she presents “Somewhere,” a very subtle, often hypnotic look at celebrity and the relationship between a father and his daughter.

After utilizing too much pomp and noise in “Marie Antoinette,” Coppola is back to her token quietness, frequently lingering on the small moments and refusing to jump ahead to the next scene, even if little to nothing is happening. The almost-still cinematography is meant to illustrate the mundane nature of the life of actor Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff). Viewers of the film get the chance to experience life as Marco does, occasionally bringing glimmers of excitement and adventure, but just as often seeming unfulfilling and sober. Enormous credit is due to cinematographer Harris Savides, who has collaborated frequently with another extremely artsy (though sometimes less positively so) director, Gus Van Sant, for his unflinching dedication to finding and extracting meaning in the most meaningless of situations.

From its start, which features Marco driving around a course, all alone, repeatedly, this is very clearly a Sofia Coppola film. Coppola has enlisted Phoenix, as with her previous films, for musical accompaniment for the film, and the track “Love Like a Sunset” is extraordinarily effective as a theme for the ever-wandering Marco. The mood Coppola creates for her film is perfect for its lead character, firmly establishing his semi-realized frustration and sadness with the inescapability of the life he’s living. That sentiment is underlined by the arrival of his daughter Cleo (Elle Fanning), whose presence makes him contemplate everything.

Contemplative is a great word to describe “Somewhere,” and its performances are very much in line with that theme. Stephen Dorff, who has been acting for over a decade but hasn’t recently had any notable or very memorable roles, proves to be an excellent choice to play Marco. It’s especially fascinating to see his world-famous character interact with everyone he meets in such a muted, sad manner. Dorff also does a stellar job of understating Marco’s promiscuity, as the character beds nearly every woman he comes into contact with on screen. Fanning proves just as talented as her older sister Dakota, playing a very mature eleven-year-old but believably conveying her youth at the same time. In a film with precious little dialogue, it’s all worthwhile, thanks to the delivery by Dorff, Fanning, and the smaller players, and to a great script by Coppola. Oscar voters probably won’t take notice, but this film is entirely worthy of positive comparison to “Lost in Translation.”


Movie with Abe: Blue Valentine

Blue Valentine
Directed by Derek Cianfrance
Released December 29, 2010

It’s difficulty to accurately convey the intricacies of a relationship. A classic film like “Annie Hall” shows the ebb and flow of a romance that often mirrors a rollercoaster ride with plenty of foreseeable as well as unpredictable twists and turns. Grasping the seriousness and intensity of a relationship, especially a marriage, is a different thing entirely. Director Derek Cianfrance’s first feature film in twelve years, “Blue Valentine,” is a moving, heartbreaking portrait of a relationship in shambles, presenting both the pleasant start and tragic nadir of one couple’s union and juxtaposing them to try to figure out what went wrong in between.

The devolvement of the relationship between Dean (Ryan Gosling) and Cindy (Michelle Williams) isn’t meant to come as a surprise. The way their lives currently stand after six years together is shown at the beginning even before the two meet for the first time, and therefore their fate is inevitable, and it’s instead a matter of piecing together just what happened in the time between those two states. The start of their romance is almost surreal and somewhat happenstance, based on a brief exchange of glances that sticks with both parties, especially the determined Dean. That blissful, carefree happiness is even starker when compared to the gritty, rotten state of affairs six years down the road.

“Blue Valentine” is an extraordinarily authentic film that doesn’t try to sugarcoat or dampen anything about how Dean and Cindy interact. It’s that fearlessness that initially earned the film an NC-17 rating, something which the filmmaker and stars objected to strongly. Cianfrance said that they “tried to take a responsible approach to sexuality” and that “sex scenes should be treated in a raw, unflinching way.” The NC-17 rating greatly limits where the film can be seen, says Williams, and, Cianfrance believes, takes the choice away from parents. He sees his film more as a “cautionary tale rather than sex sensationalized.”

“Blue Valentine” is about two people in a relationship, and therefore it’s extraordinarily important to have strong performers in the lead roles. Gosling, who has delivered emotionally wrenching performances in films like “Half Nelson” and the underrated “The United States of Leland,” undergoes a monumentally impressive transformation from eager young suitor to hard-hearted, coarse slacker husband. He’s almost unrecognizable in the present-day scenes after seeing his optimistic smile in the film’s flashbacks. Williams also has a marvelous energy and warmth in the scenes that take place at the beginning of the relationship that is completely gone in the future version of herself. It’s an astonishing, brutally realistic vision of how time (and a child) can change a couple. It’s hard to forget some of the earlier moments, such as the first magical night that the youthful duo spends together singing, dancing, and laughing, and seeing what they’ve become only a few years later makes that initial meeting all the more moving.


Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Tuesday’s Top Trailer: Fast Five

Welcome back to a 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.

Fast Five – Opening April 29, 2011

File this under guilty pleasure. It took the fifth installment in ten years of a car racing film franchise for me to reinstitute the Tuesday’s Top Trailer series after sidelining in favor of busy December movie and Oscar coverage. I spotted this trailer on IMDB’s home page and had to watch it right away, not having even known it was scheduled to be made or released. What’s especially significant about this film is that, about nine years ago or so, Vin Diesel had his pick of three sequels to star in after enormous success with “The Fast and the Furious,” “XXX,” and “Pitch Black.” Puzzlingly, he chose the last film, while the other two still got made without their original star. After a third film in the FF series without any of the original players, a fourth installment came out in 2009 with the original stars surprisingly intact, restoring Diesel to the film that really made him famous. Now, he’s back again, along with original cast members Paul Walker and Jordana Brewster, for yet another film. Both Diesel and Walker are on the wrong side of the law here, and I love how enemy commander warns, “Whatever you do, do not let them get into cars.” The Rock, a.k.a. Dwayne Johnson, is a fantastic choice to play the man hunting down the two fugitives, following the awesome, AFT-nominated ending to the most recent film. I don’t know what exactly those two characters will be up to, but I’m in, no question. I’m a bit less thrilled about the film being released in IMAX since I’m not eager to pay the exorbitant surcharge, but at least it’s not as bad as 3-D. Even if this was hastily put together after the success of episode four, I’m sure the action will be superb. And clearly Diesel is going back on a few of his decisions, also appearing in the third XXX movie, slated for release next year as well. I didn’t see number two in that series, but I know I’m excited for “Fast Five.”

Monday, December 27, 2010

Home Video with Abe: Greenberg

Directed by Noah Baumbach
Released March 19, 2010

In director Noah Baumbach’s latest film, Ben Stiller plays Roger Greenberg, an established New Yorker who returns to the West Coast to stay at his brother’s home following a mental breakdown. The film is segmented by brief intermissions that detail the letters Greenberg writes to various public officials and companies complaining about poor or disappointing service. It’s the kind of sentiment that many people have but few actually express, and it’s Greenberg who does something about it, even if the only audience that hears his thoughts is the one watching the film. It helps add considerable personality to the otherwise prickly and selfish Greenberg to know that he’s fighting the good fight, at least on paper.

Baumbach has a tendency to write unlikeable characters. That has worked wonders in some cases, like “The Squid and the Whale,” while other instances, like “Margot at the Wedding,” haven’t produced as positive results. In “Greenberg,” Baumbach adds a purely sympathetic character, Florence (Greta Gerwig), who is Greenberg’s brother’s assistant. Florence is more than happy to do whatever anyone asks of her without a complaint, in contrast to the ever-negative Greenberg, and never puts herself first. Ivan (Rhys Ifans), Greenberg’s friend, is similarly subservient and equally kind-hearted, constantly sacrificing his own happiness in order to appease Greenberg.

The story of Greenberg is hardly an overstuffed one, and little actually occurs over the course of the film. Yet it’s a pleasant, compelling break from the fast pace of other louder films that stops to explore one character and his influence on those around him who continue to stick by him despite never receiving so much as a thank you for their steadfastness. Though Greenberg’s brother Phillip allows him to stay in his home while his family vacations in Vietnam, their phone conversations during his trip show just how easily Phillip loses patience with his brother. Florence and Ivan, on the other hand, don’t give Greenberg a hard time even though he doesn’t extend them the same courtesy. The film’s title is appropriate because their lives often seem as if they revolve around him.

Stiller gets uncharacteristically serious to play Greenberg, delivering a muted and believable performance. Independent film actress Gerwig is endearing and pleasant as Florence, and she helps to anchor the film due to her extensive screen time and prominent role in both the story and this chapter of Greenberg’s life. The film even finds a small role for Merrit Wever, one of the standouts from the supporting cast of Showtime’s “Nurse Jackie,” as Florence’s sarcastic best friend. A strong ensemble and an enjoyable, entertaining script make for a fun, contemplative film experience.


Sunday, December 26, 2010

Movie with Abe: How Do You Know

How Do You Know
Directed by James L. Brooks
Released December 17, 2010

It’s not entirely wise to expect much from a holiday season romantic comedy. The time at which the year’s top Oscar contenders are released often offers up a slew of lesser quality films for movie-going audiences. But when three of the director’s five films are past Best Picture nominees, not to mention some highly acclaimed romantic comedies, and the star is a popular and funny comedic actress, expectations are considerably higher. Unfortunately, “How Do You Know,” a film that takes a question as its title, isn’t terribly sure of what it wants to be as a movie and that’s quite a problem.

Reese Witherspoon, whose last live-action feature film was the very lacking “Four Christmases” from 2008, is Lisa, a successful athlete who hasn’t found nearly as much success in the romance department. Though she’s staunchly aggressive and fierce on the field, Lisa is a character who doesn’t know exactly what it is she wants and definitely isn’t prepared to try to tell anyone else who might be interested what they’re not doing right or what they could be doing better. Instead, she panders to poor behavior on the part of her selfish boyfriend Mattie (Owen Wilson) by apologizing for her own perceived wrongdoing when he’s the one who’s done something wrong.

The question of “how do you know” is far less relevant and compelling if the characters in question don’t have many good qualities. That’s hardly the worst of the film’s problems, however. The film speedily loses its focus on Lisa’s love life by devoting too much attention to background characters and silly scenarios that don’t make much sense. The conversations and interactions in the film are highly unbelievable and forced, and it’s often painful to watch the generally likeable George (Paul Rudd) interact so awkwardly and uncomfortably with Lisa.

Lisa, for her part, isn’t terribly sympathetic either. In order to shed her American sweetheart image, Witherspoon puts most of her efforts into sounding like a tomboy uninterested in love rather than an able comedic lead. It’s hard to get behind a character who doesn’t seem to have many good qualities yet demands a good deal of pity. Wilson doesn’t appear to be acting at all, talking as loudly as possible in order to make the most of his excessively-showcased scenes. Jack Nicholson, who plays George’s CEO father, is just phoning his performance in, which is disappointing and grating. Rudd, probably the film’s strongest player, is essentially a loose cannon whose wild mannerisms are meant to make him endearing.

If, by some miracle, these characters are able to determine if in fact they do love each other, the audience will have a much tougher time. All of the players in the messy story are hopelessly underdeveloped, and their personalities are about as thin as they come. This is the definition of a romantic comedy that doesn’t even really try to be either romantic or funny. Looking at it alongside one of director James L. Brooks’ previous films, “As Good As It Gets,” it’s clear just how lazy this overlong, relatively boring and off-putting miserable holiday movie is.


Saturday, December 25, 2010

Movie with Abe: The Illusionist

The Illusionist
Directed by Sylvain Chomet
Released December 25, 2010

Animation offers a world of infinite possibilities since its characters and storyboards can take on any form and do anything. Characters need not be limited by what reality dictates, and hand-drawn images can often convey just as much as a three-dimensional capture of real-life. Animation can also be helpful in highlighting the simplicity of a particular thing, whether it’s a person or a lifestyle. Sylvain Chomet’s new film “The Illusionist” is a creative and clever animated film that tells the story of a magician whose road act continually takes him to new places.

“The Illusionist” treats its audience as sophisticated and old-fashioned because, after all, that’s how its main character functions. The illusionist practices a nostalgic trade, always dressing nicely and presenting his show in a dignified and elegant fashion. Early on, he finds his set continually delayed by young rock stars that drive the audience wild with their loud, aggressive music. The illusionist’s show is a return to simpler, quieter times for a man who’s never left them. The film follows his example, exploring the man’s life without much pizzazz or efforts to make him seem more enthusiastic.

That route is a gamble on the part of the film, offering up precious few lines of dialogue throughout its short eighty-minute run time. What little is said is mostly unintelligible and often in foreign languages, minus the use of subtitles or even the clear comprehension of the listener in the film. The absence of spoken words encourages the use of creative manners of expression such as body language, underlining the message that there are ways of communicating that don’t require excessive volume. The illusionist goes from town to town making his small impact on people, and once he is gone, his presence is likely forgotten. While he might prefer a more appreciative stable audience, he likely wouldn’t have it any other way. He is a simple man who seeks to mesmerize and entertain, if only for a moment.

As might be expected from a quiet, somber tale like this, the film is occasionally slow. Its subtlest minutes often feel like hours, and, like the oft-ignored illusionist himself, the film doesn’t outright demand the attention of its audience. Some will find the slower segments compelling and meaningful, while others may become easily distracted and find getting through the film to be a burden. For this viewer, it was an even mix of the two sentiments. At times, the film is meaningful and memorable, and, at others, overly pensive. Reminiscent of fellow Best Animated Feature Oscar contender “My Dog Tulip,” it works best when it shows the illusionist’s heartwarming and heartbreaking interactions with the girl to whom he gives kindness and the opportunity to see the world. Even if it’s not entirely engaging, “The Illusionist” is a thoughtful, contemplative, endearing story about one unconventional type of traveling salesman.


Friday, December 24, 2010

Double Movie with Abe: Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps & Inside Job

Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps
Directed by Oliver Stone
Released September 24, 2010

Inside Job
Directed by Charles Ferguson
Released October 8, 2010

It’s extraordinarily rare for a director to return to make a sequel to a well-received, Oscar-winning movie. It’s just as uncommon for the lead star (and previously mentioned Oscar winner) to reprise his role in the follow-up film. It’s even rarer for both to occur together over twenty years after the release of the first film. While all those factors can indicate potential for a strong film, sometimes it still doesn’t pan out too well. In the case of “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps,” which reunites director Oliver Stone with Michael Douglas, the star of his 1987 film, there’s much left to be desired.

It’s interesting to consider “Wall Street 2,” which opened back in September and is now available on DVD, alongside “Inside Job,” a highly buzzed-about documentary still playing in limited release. It might seem a bit strange to compare the fictionalized drama with a piece of nonfiction investigative reporting, but both films center on the same theme: the collapse of the economy and its effect on those whose daily lives revolve around the stock market. In some ways, it’s unfair to consider them in the same review, but in light of the former film’s positioning of its fictional characters in a parallel of real-life events, it feels especially appropriate.

At its core, “Wall Street 2” is a story about individual people and their own quests for the good life. “Inside Job” chronicles one man’s efforts to unmask the motivations and, more importantly, the actions of those people who managed to walk away from their extensive involvement in the collapse of the economy without their roles in the lead-up to the crisis or their hefty takeaways revealed. “Wall Street 2” lays out the culprits for the audience to see and allows them a direct view of all of their actions, while “Inside Job” director Charles Ferguson has to do his own poking and prodding to locate the culprits.

Ultimately, “Wall Street 2” is little more than a story of revenge with an emphasis on the often shaky difference between good and evil. Go-to franchise rebooter Shia LaBeouf, who has also assisted in the revival of both the “Indiana Jones” and “Transformers” series the recent years, is supposed to be the moral core of the film, but he turns out to be a rather one-dimensional character, focusing most of his efforts on trying to sound and act like a Long Island native. Josh Brolin is especially cartoonish as a bad guy billionaire, and Carey Mulligan needs to pick more substantial roles than this. The film really does belong to Douglas, who effortlessly uses his fantastic cinematic voice to anchor an otherwise uninventive and poorly told story.

In contrast, “Inside Job” is chock full of facts and figures, providing a comprehensive report on the international causes of the economic collapse and how it could have been prevented. While he’s nowhere near as annoying and pushy as Michael Moore, Ferguson does press some of his subjects, responding “are you kidding me?” to their assertions and refusing to back down. It’s often hard to tell whether the interviewee has been selected as a witness for the prosecution or the defense, and that’s one of the film’s strongest assets. “Inside Job” is easily one of this year’s most interesting, enlightening, and entertaining documentaries. In this case, stick with the truth – it will be a more rewarding (though not necessarily financially) experience.

Wall Street 2: C-
Inside Job: B+

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Movie with Abe: True Grit

True Grit
Directed by Joel & Ethan Coen
Released December 22, 2010

It’s fair to say that the Coen brothers have made their mark on cinema. Over the course of twenty-five years and fourteen films, Joel and Ethan Coen have established a distinctive style of moviemaking, often instilling stories of quirky characters in dark, violent situations with considerable humor and wit. It’s easy to recognize something like “Fargo” or last year’s “A Serious Man” as a Coen brothers film due to the pensive pacing and foreboding tone, not to mention the often hilarious nature of the characters. It’s more difficult to find traces of their signature in their latest venture, the period western “True Grit.”

While the Coen brothers often do their best work when they use their own original ideas (look no further than “Fargo” for proof of that), they have demonstrated their versatility in the past with the Oscar-winning “No Country for Old Men,” adapted from the book by Cormac McCarthy. “True Grit” is based on the 1968 novel by Charles Portis, which was also the basis for a 1969 film staring John Wayne. It’s interesting to see how the Coen brothers work with concepts developed by others, though in this case, it would have been nice to see them put more of a stamp on their project.

It wouldn’t be right to say that “True Grit” is a bad movie. It’s a fine picture, but there’s simply nothing that makes it stand out. The dialogue doesn’t feel like it fits any of the characters, even if it does blend in more smoothly with their background settings. The productions values are strong but the cinematography isn’t as compelling as one might think for this kind of sweeping western. There are moments that present a glimpse of the Coen brothers ensemble potential, with familiar names like composer Carter Burwell and cinematographer Roger Deakins on hand as they have been for nearly every Coen brothers film, but they are few and far in between.

The story of Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld), a fourteen-year-old girl who hires a drunken U.S. Marshal named Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) to hunt down Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), the man who murdered her father, is simple enough. In truth, there’s not actually much to it, and that becomes apparent when the film comes to an end and all that’s transpired is a good deal of talking and a decent amount of shooting. A relatively thin story could have been couched and improved by some wondrous eccentricity on the part of the characters, but it’s just not there.

Bridges’ Cogburn is little more than a muttering drunkard whose stubbornness gets in his way more often than it proves helpful to him, and his role illustrates this film’s notion of good comedy as big and broad more than any other in the film. Steinfeld delivers an impressive, fast-talking performance as Mattie, but it’s never explained how she’s so learned and well-versed in every bit of knowledge about which two grown men have no knowledge. Matt Damon demonstrates continued proficiency with accents (following last year’s “Invictus”) as Texas Ranger LaBoeuf, and Barry Pepper stands out in a miniature role as villain Lucky Ned Pepper. In all, there’s not much to recommend “True Grit,” and the Coen brothers should consider a return to a subtler approach to the delicate balance between deathly serious drama and lighter comic moments.


Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Wednesday Oscar Watch

Welcome to a weekly feature here at Movies with Abe, Wednesday Oscar Watch with Abe. At this point, 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. Additionally, I’ll be recapping any awards-related developments and announcements from the past week. Chime in with your thoughts on the Oscar chances for these films in the comments section.

Films released December 17, 2010

Rabbit Hole
Nicole Kidman has both a Golden Globe nomination and a SAG nomination for her lead performance, and it’s possible that’s all the film will get, though she’s also vulnerable to an overcrowded category. Since it’s adapted from a successful play, it may also snag a Best Adapted Screenplay nod. Costars Aaron Eckhart and Dianne Wiest could still figure into their respective races, but it’s a little late at this point and there are at least six solid contenders vying for five slots in each race already.

Casino Jack
Kevin Spacey landed a Golden Globe nomination for his performance as Jack Abramoff. His last Comedy/Musical nomination, for “Beyond the Sea” in 2004, was as far as he went, and I think he’ll have to be content with that recognition (and a potential win in a category with no frontrunner). The film isn’t buzzing for any reason besides his performance.

Tron: Legacy
This film is one of the fifteen finalists for Best Visual Effects, and may well show up there. It could also score bids for Best Sound and Best Sound Editing.

Awards Happenings

This week isn’t nearly as hectic as last week, but it’s still somewhat hard to keep up. In some cases, we have critics and awards groups bestowing awards after presenting nominations last week. Since it may be more manageable, I’ll take it group by group and hopefully won’t miss much. I’m also ignoring individual critics’ top ten lists, but there’s plenty out there, and you can read about all them at The Film Experience and Awards Daily. If it loads, you can try using this chart as well.

SAG Nominations: Read about each of the five categories separately, but here’s the scoop: “True Grit” is back in the game thanks to nods for Jeff Bridges and Hailee Steinfeld, ditto Robert Duvall, Mila Kunis is stronger than ever, so are “Black Swan” and “The Fighter,” and watch out for two surprise nominees, one very deserving (John Hawkes from “Winter’s Bone”) and the other not so much (Hilary Swank from “Conviction”).

Las Vegas Film Critics Society doles out its winners along with a list of nominees. Of note in the Best Picture list of ten is “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World,” with “Toy Story 3” conspicuously missing (and “The Kids Are All Right"). Winners include TSN, Fincher, Franco, Portman, Bale, and Adams.

Detroit Film Critics go for TSN, Danny Boyle, Firth, Jennifer Lawrence, Bale, and Adams. “Winter’s Bone” wins Best Ensemble.

Chicago Film Critics nominations swap “The Fighter” for “Winter’s Bone” in the Best Picture category and nominate Lesley Manville (woohoo!) though it’s Nicole Kidman who misses out in favor of Michelle Williams. A cool category: Most Promising Filmmaker, which nominated Banksy (Exit Through the Gift Shop), Derek Cianfrance (Blue Valentine), David Michod (Animal Kingdom), Aaron Schneider (Get Low), and John Wells (The Company Men). All solid choices. Cianfrance won the category, and the rest of the winners are all as expected.

Dallas-Fort Worth Critics do awards plus a top ten Best Picture list, again leaving off “Toy Story 3” in favor of “The Town.” Could this happen at the Oscars too? Doubtful. It’s all TSN, Franco, Portman, Bale, Leo. Nothing new, though “127 Hours” takes Best Cinematography.

Houston Film Critics awards TSN Best Picture, Director, Actor, and Screenplay, handing out the other awards to Portman, Bale, and Steinfeld. Awards Daily points out that their fun inclusion is “We Are Sex Bob-Omb” from “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World.”

Florida Film Critics Circle chooses TSN, Firth, Portman, Bale, Leo. Sound familiar? What people are pointing out about this particular group is that they gave four honors to “Inception,” for cinematography, art direction, screenplay, and visual effects. All decently likely wins at the Oscars.

St. Louis Film Critics hand out their awards to the usual suspects, though "Micmacs" takes Best Foreign Film and Best Artistic/Creative Film, and there's also a cool best scene category, shared by "127 Hours" and "Inception."

London Critics Circle has nominations which are, of course, British, which means that they have special categories for British films, directors, and actors. This results in a few fun modifications to what we’ve been normatively seeing. “127 Hours” scores nods for British Film and British Director, but not for star James Franco, while plenty of other Americans, like Jeff Bridges and Ryan Gosling, do make the cut. A few performers get double nods, like Andrew Garfield (The Social Network and Never Let Me Go), Helena Bonham Carter (The King’s Speech and Alice in Wonderland), and Rosamund Pike (Made in Dagenham and Barney’s Version). Lesley Manville obviously gets mentioned for “Another Year,” as do four of her cast mates! Two especially cool nominations: Tom Hardy for British Supporting Actor for “Inception” and Jessica Barden for Young British Performer for “Tamara Drewe.”

Satellite Awards, my personal favorite. The nominations came out three weeks ago, and now we have the winners. Sure, we have “The Social Network” for Best Motion Picture – Drama, Fincher for director, Firth for actor, and Bale for supporting actor, but then it gets interesting. “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” wins Best Motion Picture – Comedy/Musical, and star Michael Cera also takes his category. Noomi Rapace takes Best Drama Actress over Natalie Portman and Anne Hathaway wins the comedy category over Annette Bening. In a more Oscar-plausible bit of excitement, Jacki Weaver snags Best Supporting Actress. My favorite win, of course, is “Please Give” for Best Film Editing over the likes of “Inception,” “Shutter Island,” “The Social Network,” “The Town,” and “Unstoppable.” You don’t see that anywhere else.

Additionally, Awards Daily has the list of the 248 films officially eligible for the Best Picture race. I’ve screened 170 films so far this year, and what’s crazy is that only 95 of them are on this list.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Movie with Abe: Burlesque

Directed by Steve Antin
Released November 24, 2010

Imagine a sweet-natured small town girl with the lungs of a banshee who decides to pack up and leave her lackluster Iowa home and try to make it in the big city. She journeys to Hollywood, where she thinks she can succeed as a big star. Her over-simplified, rather short search for fame lands her in a burlesque parlor where she hires herself as a waitress and promises herself that, one day, she’s going to make it up onto the stage and become a star in her own right. This excessively familiar tale boasts two strong original songs, but that’s about it when it comes to anything new or worthwhile.

As Ali (Christina Aguilera) struggles to make it in showbiz, she doesn’t really struggle all that much. She immediately wins the affection of eyeliner-wearing bartender Jack (Cam Gigandet), who hastily offers up his couch for the starving artist to stay on, and her hardships aren’t terribly hard at all. Tess (Cher) is positioned to be the lofty, high-powered diva of the burlesque parlor, but her soft side shines through far too transparently, and there’s never much doubt that Tess will warm to the considerable charms of the cute-as-a-button Ali (in other words, she’s hardly Miranda Priestly).

In a movie musical such as this, it’s important to have performers with magnificent voices. But does acting need to be sacrificed? Christina Aguilera makes her horrific film debut, and the discrepancy between the quality of her singing and the quality of her acting makes it hard to believe that both are coming from the same person. In one scene, Ali chastises Tess for never letting anyone else speak. Yet Ali barely stops talking for the entire run of the movie, save for her singing bits, and Aguilera charges excitedly charges through all of her lines, transforming an entire page of dialogue into one run-on sentence, underlining the fact that she is no actress.

It doesn’t help one bit that the script is simply abysmal. The writing is laughable, and the predictable, uninventive story, with only a burlesque twist to define it, is infinitely better than any of the words these actors painfully have to utter. Cher’s spoken performance is horrendous as well, and she’s even given an unnecessary song called “You Haven’t Seen the Last of Me” (admittedly, a terrific number), seemingly inserted only to honor her and tribute her greatness. Eric Dane of “Grey’s Anatomy” McSteaminess feels extremely out of place, and Stanley Tucci, in an obviously effortless performance, delivers the only decent turn in the whole film. “Burlesque” does know how to use some of its musical numbers, however, and Aguilera’s crooning of “Bound to You” is probably the film’s standout moment. The film succeeds occasionally as a spectacle, creating an entertaining enough experience, but this shouldn’t be mistaken for a good movie.


Monday, December 20, 2010

Movie with Abe: The Tourist

The Tourist
Directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck
Released December 10, 2010

“The Tourist,” the American remake of the 2005 French film “Anthony Zimmer,” is the brainchild of three Oscar-winning screenwriters. All three won their Oscars for original work, and therefore their choice to adapt an existing work together is especially interesting. Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, who also directs, won the Best Foreign Language Film award for “The Lives of Others” in 2006. Julian Fellowes penned the screenplay to Robert Altman’s who-cares-whodunnit 2001 ensemble comedy “Gosford Park.” Christopher McQuarrie’s signature achievement is the 1995 classic thriller “The Usual Suspects.” One would expect a film from these three talented men to be especially clever and intelligent.

Yet that’s not quite the case. International superstars Angelina Jolie and Johnny Depp are thrown into a web of intrigue and slow-paced action that has a team of British agents following a woman with a connection to a mysterious and unknown thief. Both Jolie and Depp stick out like sore thumbs, Jolie because of her beauty (and the way she uses it to her advantage) and Depp because of the baffled, out-of-place look stamped onto his face. They’re a peculiar pair, and what’s even more puzzling is why Depp’s Frank Tupelo so willingly goes along with everything Jolie’s Elise Ward tells him to do think and do.

That’s one of the extreme liberties taken by this film all too frequently: presuming that its wild plot is nothing out of the ordinary for its characters. After an energetic start that establishes the film as little more than successfully entertaining, the film devolves considerably as it becomes distracted by a dogged investigator obsessed with finding his elusive target at any cost, a cartoonish gangster and his hoodlums on the same trail, and a rather hard-to-believe twist that comes midway through the film. At its start, “The Tourist” appears to be the most multilingual film since last year’s “Inglourious Basterds.” That doesn’t last long, however, as the characters utter a line or two of their native dialogue before immediately switching to the more user-friendly English.

That’s only one of the disappointments in this film, one that should have been far smarter and more polished. All of the effort spent of polish was devoted to making Jolie look good and Depp look confused, rather than elevating a lackluster piece of entertainment into something like the great films of which all three scribes have demonstrated themselves capable. The film’s ending provides a hint of possible brilliance, but, like all that leads up to it, it takes too much for granted and assumes that the audience will buy its plot developments, no matter how ridiculous or unsupportable. No one is putting in their best efforts here, and a December release with this kind of talent behind it should be much stronger.


Sunday, December 19, 2010

Movie with Abe: Rabbit Hole

Rabbit Hole
Directed by John Cameron Mitchell
Released December 17, 2010

Losing a child is an extraordinarily terrible thing. It’s difficult to convey on screen the pain associated with a loss since it’s such an individual experience, and it’s also a challenge to make the realization of such a story bearable. David Lindsay-Abaire’s “Rabbit Hole” was a play that has been produced a number of times over the last five years, and this marks its first transition from stage to screen. Lindsay-Abaire is on hand as the screenwriter, and John Cameron Mitchell, director of “Shortbus” and “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” directors this harrowing and occasionally quirky film.

Some have raised objections that Cynthia Nixon of “Sex and the City” fame, who won a Tony for her performance in the show on Broadway, did not remain in the role for the film. This situation is similar to that of “Doubt” several years ago, when Meryl Streep took over a role originated by Cherry Jones on Broadway. While Nixon’s absence may be lamentable, Nicole Kidman is as good a choice as any to replace her, just as Streep was for Jones. This is a welcome return to prominence for Kidman, who effortlessly slips into the role of the prickly Becca, a complex character whose steeliness is just a front for the fact that she doesn’t know how she’s supposed to mourn the loss of someone who died so young. Kidman conveys so much in her hastily shot glances and snide comments, and she’s not the only terrific performer whose talents are on display. Aaron Eckhart, whose most memorable role prior to this, in “Thank You For Smoking,” has been comedic, does a magnificent job of playing a broken and troubled spouse who isn’t so willing to suppress his feelings and suffer in silence. The two make for an electric and compelling pair.

The dialogue of “Rabbit Hole” reveals its theatrical roots, yet the lines don’t feel out of place as spoken in the context of this filmic universe. Eckhart and Kidman create an intimate dynamic that still functions well when they are surrounded by a physical rather than imagined world. The film is occasionally inventive, utilizing a comic book from its universe to both literally and figuratively illustrate the struggle undergone by the characters, and usually simply effective in a straightforward way, telling an interesting story and combining top-notch performances with strong writing and tight direction to create a worthwhile and meaningful film.


Saturday, December 18, 2010

Animation Spotlight: Despicable Me, How to Train Your Dragon & Tangled

Despicable Me: Directed by Pierre Coffin & Chris Renaud
How to Train Your Dragon: Directed by Dean DeBlois & Chris Sanders
Tangled: Directed by Nathan Greno & Byron Howard

Two of this year’s top contenders for the Best Animated Feature Oscar are now available on DVD, while a third remains in theatres following a Thanksgiving opening date. In a year that’s been somewhat sparse on animation (the only animated film reviews you’ll find on so far are for “Toy Story 3” and “My Dog Tulip,” both also eligible for the Oscar), here’s a brief look at three of this year’s most notable animated features. Look also for a review of French animated contender “The Illusionist” around the time it opens in limited release on December 25th.

“Despicable Me” is the least impressive of the three, mostly in terms of narrative storytelling. The film’s two teaser trailers from last summer presented wholly different pictures of the film’s plot, one the story of a mysterious villain seeking to steal massive monuments and the other a tale of two competing super-villains. The film doesn’t do all that much to clarify, presenting a rather underdeveloped and lackluster narrative about a selfish mastermind named Gru (entertainingly voiced by Steve Carell) who adopts several orphans in order to complete his lifelong dream of succeeding in super-villainy. “Despicable Me” also fails the perhaps unnecessary and unfair qualification that adults should be able to enjoy its content just (or nearly) as much as young children.

“How to Train Your Dragon” falls into that same category to an extent, though it certainly contains more believable, complex characters and an intriguing storyline about a young boy in a Viking community who realizes that the dragons his people have spent their lives hunting aren’t actually dangerous. “How to Train Your Dragon” works better metaphorically than literally since it doesn’t prove to be much more than a parable about trying peace before exercising violence. While simplistic, it’s visually enthralling and accompanied by a score that gives the feel an authentic and distinctive feel.

And then there’s “Tangled,” the simply wonderful classic Disney film that re-imagines the famous story of Rapunzel and her lengthy, magical hair. From its start, “Tangled” is magnificently energetic and entirely captivating, telling a familiar tale in a new, creative way with typically dazzling storyboarding and animation. Its use of original songs is extraordinarily effective as well, giving its characters and voice actors the opportunity to perform dance numbers that enhance an already top-notch story. The best part of “Tangled,” as It turns out, is its talented voice actors. “Chuck” star Zachary Levi is charismatic and hilarious as vagabond Flynn Rider, and Mandy Moore is charming and endearing as the sweet, sheltered Rapunzel. If “Toy Story 3” hadn’t been realized this year, “Tangled” would easily be the best, most enjoyable animated film of 2010.

Despicable Me: C
How to Train Your Dragon: B-
Tangled: A-

Friday, December 17, 2010

Movie with Abe: Casino Jack

Casino Jack
Directed by George Hickenlooper
Released December 17, 2010

Earlier this year, a documentary called “Casino Jack and the United States of Money” chronicled the activities of Washington super-lobbyist Jack Abramoff, whose corrupt wheelings and dealings landed him a six-year federal prison sentence. Abramoff’s trial was sensational mostly for the sheer amount of influence he exerted and the number of people involved in unlawful activities in connection with him. The late director George Hickenlooper, who passed away suddenly in Denver in October at the age of 47, brings Abramoff’s story to the screen in an inspired take with a diverse cast that even includes funnyman Jon Lovitz of “Saturday Night Live” and “Rat Race” in a supporting role, if only to emphasize its status as a comedy.

Two-time Oscar winner Kevin Spacey plays Abramoff, the smooth-talking, extraordinarily popular lobbyist with connections to and dirt on pretty much everyone in Washington. Spacey is fierce, furious, and energetic in his portrayal of Abramoff, fervently declaring in front of a mirror, toothbrush in hand, in the film’s opening scene, “I’m Jack Abramoff and, oh yeah, I work out every day.” There’s a sense that perhaps Spacey is just playing Spacey since the real Abramoff couldn’t possibly be this wild a character. Like Robin Williams and his portrayal of real-life radio personality Adrian Cronauer in “Good Morning, Vietnam,” however, it’s hardly a bad thing, since seeing the performer craft a creative take on a real person is infinitely more fascinating than mimicry (see also Jesse Eisenberg’s Mark Zuckerberg in “The Social Network" for a more subdued example).

Spacey did actually speak to Abramoff while he was in jail during the production of the film, and he was certain not to do too much research beforehand that might influence his perception of the man. Spacey particularly wanted to be sure that he didn’t play Abramoff as the “caricature he had become; a one-dimensional villain made out to be the greediest devil incarnate on earth.” the other actors took a different approach. Lovitz, who plays Abramoff associate and mattress franchise owner Adam Kidan, researched his character but emphasized sticking to the script over basing the performance on the real-life person.

On the surface, the events of “Casino Jack” might seem serious and even rather disturbing. Yet the way they’re documented and realized in the film is considerably lighter than might be expected, enabling it to be superbly entertaining and quite funny. Lovitz notes that there was humor in the script that was obvious and that there was “simply no other way to do it.” Costar Barry Pepper, who plays Abramoff’s good friend and number one partner Michael Scanlon, notes that the film is still a “cautionary and morality tale about democracy” and can “help open our eyes to our responsibility as citizens.” Whether it’s a retelling of actual events or a comical farce, “Casino Jack” is an amusing and fun film, if nothing more than that.


Thursday, December 16, 2010

SAG Nominees: Best Ensemble Cast

My predictions: 2/5, picking only “The King’s Speech” and “The Social Network
Who’s missing:Inception,” “The Town,” “Winter’s Bone,” “True Grit”

This category offers a few surprises, and they’re not necessarily good ones. Black Swan is mirroring the trajectory of “Precious” last year, performing better than I both expected and desired. It's bothersome for one thing because there isn’t much of an ensemble aside from four main actors. Its nod here all but solidifies it as one of the top five, which is more relevant these days for the Best Director race than it is for Best Picture since this one already had a Best Picture nod locked up. The absence of “Inception” is curious but not too troubling since it’s more a collection of good actors than good performances. “The Town” not being here isn’t a bad omen, but its presence here would have been a good sign for its chances. Instead, we get another big boost for The Fighter, though it’s not as if this puts it ahead of “127 Hours” since that film obviously couldn’t have contended here (it's also not right that the ensemble award apparently only includes the four main players and Jack McGee, rather than all of the actresses who played Mickey's many sisters). I shouldn’t have bet against The Kids Are All Right, and I don’t know anyone who would have bet against The King’s Speech and The Social Network. Every film here has at least two acting nods except for TSN, officially making this one of the only awards bodies where it’s not as much of a frontrunner.

Who could win? Since it is the SAGs, I’ll go with The Kids Are All Right to eclipse probable winner “The Social Network.”

SAG Nominees: Best Actress in a Supporting Role

My predictions: 4/5, picking Weaver over Kunis
Who’s missing: Jacki Weaver (Animal Kingdom), Barbara Hershey (Black Swan), Dianne Wiest (Rabbit Hole), Marion Cotillard (Inception), Miranda Richardson (Made in Dagenham)

This is disconcerting. Mila Kunis (Black Swan) is performing exceptionally well with awards right now, and she really doesn’t deserve it for such a small, however decent, turn in a film that’s also performing better than expected. She certainly shouldn’t be taking Jacki Weaver’s spot. Hailee Steinfeld (True Grit) gets a good boost after her Globe snub, and she’s now much more on track for an Oscar nod. All the unseen contenders mentioned after Weaver above are becoming less and less likely to become Oscar nominees, and Kunis’ continued presence means that one of these five (plus Weaver) won’t make the final cut. The other three nominees do seem pretty safe, especially considering how well their films performed, taking four nominations each: Amy Adams and Melissa Leo (The Fighter) and Helena Bonham Carter (The King’s Speech).

Who could win? A toss-up. It depends who wins the Globe, but maybe Carter?

SAG Nominees: Best Actor in a Supporting Role

My predictions: 4/5, picking Garfield over Hawkes
Who’s missing: Golden Globe nominees Andrew Garfield (The Social Network) and Michael Douglas (Wall Street 2: Money Never Sleeps), Sam Rockwell (Conviction), Justin Timberlake (The Social Network), Ed Harris (The Way Back)

I yelped out loud in joy when I heard John Hawkes (Winter’s Bone) announced as a nominee. The long-working character actor delivered a terrific performance in one of this summer’s best movies, and I’m so thrilled to see him getting recognition for it, even if the film didn’t earn an ensemble nomination as I had predicted.Mark Ruffalo (The Kids Are All Right), whose film did earn an ensemble nod, gets back into the running here, which is good for him, though not so good for Andrew Garfield (The Social Network), whose film performed more quietly than ever with the SAGs with only two mentions. The absence of Michael Douglas (Wall Street 2: Money Never Sleeps) suggests that perhaps he’s not as strong of a dark horse as anticipated, and instead Jeremy Renner (The Town), all on his own without an ensemble nod, really might go the distance. And then we have frontrunners Christian Bale (The Fighter) and Geoffrey Rush (The King’s Speech), both in good company with two other performers and their entire ensembles nominated. Sam Rockwell (Conviction)’s snub stings even more since costar Hilary Swank, who most would agree isn’t as good, did make it in for Best Actress.

Who could win? Probably Bale, but how cool would it be if it was Hawkes?

SAG Nominees: Best Actress in a Leading Role

My predictions: 4/5, picking Manville over Swank
Who’s missing: Golden Globe nominees Halle Berry (Frankie and Alice), Julianne Moore (The Kids Are All Right), and Michelle Williams (Blue Valentine); Lesley Manville (Another Year)

I usually like Hilary Swank. I even didn’t hate last year’s flop “Amelia” nearly as much as anyone I know. But her nomination for “Conviction” just isn’t necessary or deserved, and it upsets me greatly that the wonderful Lesley Manville now has to come from out of nowhere and take this up-for-grabs last spot if she wants to be recognized at all. The other four Oscar nominees are now set in stone: Annette Bening (The Kids Are All Right), Nicole Kidman (Rabbit Hole), Jennifer Lawrence (Winter’s Bone), and Natalie Portman (Black Swan).

Who could win? A battle to the death between Bening and Portman; my money is on Bening here.

SAG Nominees: Best Actor in a Leading Role

My predictions: 5/5
Who’s missing: Golden Globe nominees Ryan Gosling (Blue Valentine) and Mark Wahlberg (The Fighter), Javier Bardem (Biutiful)

After their mysterious absence at the Golden Globes, Jeff Bridges (True Grit) and Robert Duvall (Get Low) join the list of frontrunners Jesse Eisenberg (The Social Network), Colin Firth (The King’s Speech), and James Franco (127 Hours). That complicates matters because the Globes had made it seem like Bridges and Duvall might not be as strong as they initially seemed and that maybe Gosling could take one of their spots. That’s still true now, but the Oscar race is definitely at least six wide, and we haven’t even seen Bardem anywhere yet.

Who could win? I’d say Firth takes this.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

SAG Predictions

With so many awards happenings this week, it’s hard to believe there’s even more coming tomorrow. Most Oscar nominees start out with either a Golden Globe nod, a SAG nod, or both, so we may see some of the Globe-snubbed contenders – like the stars of “True Grit,” “Get Low,” and “Another Year” – tomorrow. I won’t offer any additional commentary since I feel like I’ve said so much already, but here are my predictions. Nominations will be announced tomorrow morning. Check back tomorrow to see the nominees and commentary.

Best Actor in a Leading Role
Jeff Bridges (True Grit)
Robert Duvall (Get Low)
Jesse Eisenberg (The Social Network)
Colin Firth (The King’s Speech)
James Franco (127 Hours)

Best Actress in a Leading Role
Annette Bening (The Kids Are All Right)
Nicole Kidman (Rabbit Hole)
Jennifer Lawrence (Winter’s Bone)
Lesley Manville (Another Year)
Natalie Portman (Black Swan)

Best Actor in a Supporting Role
Christian Bale (The Fighter)
Andrew Garfield (The Social Network)
Jeremy Renner (The Town)
Geoffrey Rush (The King’s Speech)
Mark Ruffalo (The Kids Are All Right)

Best Actress in a Supporting Role
Amy Adams (The Fighter)
Helena Bonham Carter (The King’s Speech)
Melissa Leo (The Fighter)
Hailee Steinfeld (True Grit)
Jacki Weaver (Animal Kingdom)

Best Ensemble Cast
The King’s Speech
The Social Network
The Town
Winter’s Bone

Wednesday Oscar Watch

Welcome to a weekly feature here at Movies with Abe, Wednesday Oscar Watch with Abe. At this point, 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. Additionally, I’ll be recapping any awards-related developments and announcements from the past week. Chime in with your thoughts on the Oscar chances for these films in the comments section.

Films released December 10, 2010

The Fighter
This film has been doing well recently, picking up plenty of buzz for supporting performers Christian Bale and Melissa Leo. While Bale’s bad-boy reputation may hurt him, the performance really is that good and the reviews are that strong for him that it shouldn’t be a problem. Leo is definitely in, and costar Amy Adams is probably in too. Mark Wahlberg doesn’t stand much of a shot because, as stated in my review, his role doesn’t demand that much of him. The film is probably fine – though not safe – for Best Picture, and sliding into categories like Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, and Best Film Editing may be tougher.

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
Film number one in the series scored three nods, for Makeup (which it won), Sound, and Visual Effects. Nothing for number two, but this one has been announced as a finalist for Best Visual Effects (see all the way below), so it could contend there, but doubtful anywhere else.

The Company Men
This film stars a few Oscar winners, including Ben Affleck (who won for writing), Kevin Costner (who won for directing), and Tommy Lee Jones (who actually won for acting). Unsurprisingly, Jones has the best shot out of any, though it’s hardly a good one and quite unlikely.

Awards Happenings

What didn’t happen this week when it comes to awards? Besides the Golden Globe nominations (announced yesterday) and the SAG nods (announcing tomorrow – predictions coming tonight), both of which have/will have individual commentary by category, there are plenty of critics groups that have revealed their honorees this week. To avoid reposting everything, I’ll go category by category and try to aggregate everything. Read the Best Picture blurb first in order to get the abbreviations. This is another Very Long Post, so apologies for any inadvertent acronym or group mix-up. If you’re interested in all the nominations for all the critics groups, click the links for each group that should take you to either The Film Experience or Awards Daily – those are the sources I always use. These groups don’t necessarily have the same (or any) weight on eventual Oscar nominations, but it’s always worth noting what a certain group of people pick just to see what a lineup can look like.

Best Picture: It’s looking increasingly likely that the list is going to be “127 Hours,” “Black Swan,” “The Fighter,” “Inception,” “The Kids Are All Right,” “The King’s Speech,” “The Social Network,” “Toy Story 3,” “True Grit,” and “Winter’s Bone.” Nipping strongly on the heels of “The Kids Are All Right” (snubbed by the Broadcast Film Critics Association) is “The Town,” which also took the spot of ineligible British production “The King’s Speech” on the American Film Institute (AFI)’s list. The New York Film Critics Online (NYFCO) honored “Another Year” (a legitimate contender) and true longshots “Blue Valentine,” “The Ghost Writer,” and “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” (not a contender). Otherwise, the frontrunner appears to be “The Social Network,” which won the Best Picture prize from the New York Film Critics Circle (NYFCC), Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), Boston Society of Film Critics (BSFC), NYFCO, Toronto Film Critics Assocaition, San Francisco Film Critics, Southeastern Film Critics Association (SEFCA). I’ve always thought TSN would win Best Picture, and though it’s still early to call, I’m still thinking that. And since I neglected to post about it last week, it’s worth noting that the National Board of Review (NBR) included “Hereafter” and “Shutter Island” in their top ten list, and, not nearly as relevant, the Houston Area Film Critics swapped out “Winter’s Bone” for “Kick-Ass” in their top ten. Phoenix subbed in “Shutter Island” and “Never Let Me Go” for “Black Swan” and “The Fighter.” San Diego crowned "Winter's Bone" its winner. Golden Globes impact: Besides some quirky comedy additions – “Alice in Wonderland,” “Burlesque,” “Red,” and “The Tourist” – the most notable thing about the Globes is that “True Grit” and “Another Year” were completely shut out, while “Winter’s Bone” and “The Town” each earned only one nomination (for acting) apiece.

Best Director: David Fincher gets a huge boost by winning everything, though it’s worth noting that at the LAFCA he tied with Olivier Assayas for the foreign production “Carlos,” presumably inconsequential and even ineligible due to its technical status as a television mini-series (I haven’t seen it – if you know more than me, please say so). Nothing else to report, just add Nolan, Hooper, Boyle, Aronofsky, and maybe the Coen brothers (though San Diego did nominate Debra Granik, and award Aronofsky). Golden Globes impact: And let’s be sure to throw David O. Russell (The Fighter) into the race after his Golden Globe nod, where he replaced Boyle and joined Fincher, Hooper, Nolan, and Aronofsky.

Best Actor: It’s all about Colin Firth this week, though Jesse Eisenberg squeaked by with one more vote from the BSFC. BFCA had six nominees, giving Ryan Gosling a nod along with Bridges, Duvall, and Franco. St. Louis and San Francisco both had five nominees, leaving off Gosling. San Diego also recognized Aaron Eckhart (Rabbit Hole) and Colin Farrell (Ondine), their winner. Golden Globes impact: Good news for Gosling; not so much for Bridges and Duvall, both of whose films were shut out completely. Also, Kevin Spacey (Casino Jack) earns a comedy nod, and Johnny Depp earns two.

Best Actress: Natalie Portman takes Boston, NYFCO, and SEFCA, and Annette Bening wins the NYFCC. In a wonderful surprise, Kim Hye-Ja gets crowned Best Actress in LA for “Mother,” which was eligible for Best Foreign Film last year but, since it didn’t make the cut, could still get honored this year. Doubtful, of course. The same goes for Tilda Swinton (I Am Love), honored by San Diego. Another surprise inclusion from the BFCA: Noomi Rapace for “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” (also nominated by St. Louis and Houston), joining Portman, Bening, Williams, Lawrence, and Kidman. Naomi Watts is also in the mix thanks to the St. Louis Film Critics Association, which bizarrely left Bening off its list. Detroit, Phoenix, and San Diego throw in Carey Mulligan for “Never Let Me Go” (why not “The Greatest”?). Lawrence wins Toronto, while Williams takes the San Francisco prize. No Lesley Manville anywhere yet except for her National Board of Review win (and a supporting nomination & win from San Diego) – very troubling. Golden Globes impact: Still no Lesley Manville, but Halle Berry (Frankie and Alice)? Also Angelina Jolie (The Tourist) for comedy, and a boost for Michelle Williams (Blue Valentine).

Best Supporting Actor: A whole lot of Christian Bale and Geoffrey Rush, though LAFCA once again mixes it up and throws in the terrific Niels Arestup for “A Prophet,” ineligible because the film got nominated for Best Foreign Film last year. Mark Ruffalo takes the NYFCC, which is important since he hasn’t gotten all that much lately. Joining Bale, Rush, and Ruffalo at the BFCA are Garfield, Renner, and Rockwell. Who misses the boat when it gets whittled down to five? St. Louis only had five nods, and both Garfield and Ruffalo missed the boat in favor of the awesome John Hawkes for “Winter’s Bone.” Houston substituted Rockwell and Ruffalo for Bill Murray, whereas Detroit opted for six and voted for Hawkes over Ruffalo. San Francisco and San Diego went with Hawkes and Toronto chose Armie Hammer (The Social Network), a fun pick. Phoenix threw in Matt Damon (True Grit) and San Diego nominated John Hurt (44 Inch Chest). Golden Globes impact: Hello, Michael Douglas (Wall Street 2: Money Never Sleeps). Goodbye, Rockwell and Ruffalo?

Best Supporting Actress: Names like Melissa Leo, Jacki Weaver, and Hailee Steinfeld, plus Juliette Lewis from “Conviction” thrown in by Boston. BFCA nods include the first three and Amy Adams, Helena Bonham Carter, and, interestingly, Mila Kunis. Minus Kunis is probably the Oscar list at this point. St. Louis adds a different “Black Swan” actress, Barbara Hershey, leaving off Weaver. Houston demoted Julianne Moore to supporting, while Detroit put Greta Gerwig of “Greenberg” (such alliteration) here. Phoenix tossed in Chloe Moretz (Kick-Ass) and Kristin Scott Thomas (Nowhere Boy). San Diego added Dale Dickey (Winter's Bone) and Blake Lively (The Town). Golden Globes impact: Maybe Kunis isn’t off the Oscar list, as she joins the ranks in this category.

Other categories:

Best Foreign Film: Though it’s ineligible at the Oscars, I’m still excited that “Micmacs” got nominated by St. Louis, in both this category and the Best Comedy race, where it joined “Easy A,” “I Love You Phillip Morris,” Jack-Ass 3-D,” and “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World.”

Best Animated Feature: With the NYFCC only, “The Illusionist” managed to eclipse “Toy Story 3,” which won all other prizes.

The Best Visual Effects contenders have been narrowed to fifteen: "Alice in Wonderland,” "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader," "Clash of the Titans," "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1," "Hereafter," "Inception," "Iron Man 2," "The Last Airbender," "Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief," "Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time," "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World," "Shutter Island," "The Sorcerer’s Apprentice," "Tron: Legacy," and "Unstoppable." My comments: There’s no way that “The Last Airbender” deserves to be honored for anything, least of all its unimpressive effects. “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World,” on the other hand, was awesome, and I would love to see that happen. Otherwise, it sure appears that serving as background to Leonardo DiCaprio is helpful in this category, huh? This list will be trimmed to seven in January.