Sunday, February 28, 2010

Movie with Abe: Cop Out

Cop Out
Directed by Kevin Smith
Released February 26, 2010

This is not the film it could have been, by any stretch of the imagination. Action-comedies featuring cops have succeeded sometimes in the past, with “Bad Boys” and “Rush Hour” standing out as good enough to earn an equally entertaining and funny sequel each. The combination of onetime action hero Bruce Willis and TV funnyman Tracy Morgan in a movie that was originally supposed to be titled “A Couple of Dicks” could have made for comedy gold, but so much went wrong. The movie contains maybe four to five laughs and little to no action, but that quick dismissal of the film as poor doesn’t give it the beating it deserves.

The actors are a major part of the problem. Bruce Willis, who hasn’t exactly made a good movie in the past few years, has completely lost the subtlety of his famous “Die Hard” character John McClane. Now he’s prone to slowly moving his eyes to indicate frustration and bouts of shouting to let all the annoyance boiling within him loose. It’s no surprise that he’d act this way when paired with Tracy Morgan, who is typically out of control and unhinged, playing no one other than himself. When Morgan actually tries to act in one scene, it’s a painful experience.

Shockingly, Willis and Morgan are not the oddest couple in the movie. That dishonor goes to Kevin Pollak (“The Usual Suspects”) and Adam Brody (“The O.C.”) as a rival team of detectives. The actors, besides being 22 years apart in age, should really be doing better things. Even the villain here is terrible. Guillermo Diaz, who played drug dealer Guillermo on the TV show “Weeds” (and not Sucre on “Prison Break,” as one hopelessly confused audience member proudly shouted out when he appeared on screen) has proven that he can play a bad guy. Yet here he dumbs it all down as if he was instructed to match the dismal and unfunny quality of the script.

Though it didn’t have to be excellent, the plot is hopelessly inane and so predictably stupid. The end credits offer a stunning reminder that this is Kevin Smith’s work, an association which will undoubtedly serve as a black mark on his resume going forward. There’s no reason this film had to be this bad, and the pairing of Willis and Morgan alone should have been mildly amusing. This is one of those cases where the bits in the trailer aren’t just the only funny parts in the movie, but they’re not even funny in the movie. Perhaps Smith should have hired an editor other than himself, because the trailer spliced together the same material in an infinitely funnier manner. That comparison holds true for the entire film, and watching the trailer over and over forty-three times to mimic the runtime of the movie is likely to be a more enjoyable experience.


Oscar Winner Predictions: Best Documentary

The competition: Burma VJ, The Cove, Food Inc, The Most Dangerous Man in America, Which Way Home

Previous winners: Man on Wire, Taxi to the Dark Side, An Inconvenient Truth, March of the Penguins, Born into Brothels
Who should win: “The Cove,” but they’re all great
Who will win: Last year there was a distinctive frontrunner in this category, and I think it’s safe to say that this year it’s going to be all about the dolphins. I didn’t get a chance to see “Which Way Home,” which tells the story of Mexican children trying to reach their parents in the United States. “Burma VJ” is a compelling expose on reporting from a closed country (the film’s subtitle) and both “The Most Dangerous Man in America” and “Food, Inc.” are entertaining and informative riffs on two important national crises with far too little attention on them. And then there’s The Cove, where the former Flipper trainer heads into Japan to shed some light on the plight of the dolphins. It’s appealing and hits all the right notes to take home this award. (Please note: a review of “The Cove” and “Burma VJ” will be posted before the Oscar ceremony takes place)

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Movie with Abe: The Art of the Steal

The Art of the Steal
Directed by Don Argott
Released February 26, 2010

A documentary about a subject like art has the potential to be particularly interesting because it’s a field that tends to attract enthusiasts. It’s a tamer topic than something like politics, disease, or war, but the same sense of attachment and devotion still exists from the people who love it. The less sensitive nature of the material allows for an infusion of even more passion and fervor on the part of the filmmakers without the same need to be cutting-edge and incendiary to stand out from the rest. The wonder of what’s here is that it’s a timely expose that serves as a tribute to the desires of people long forgotten by many and completely unknown to the majority of the population.

“The Art of the Steal” is a chronicle of the history of the Barnes Foundation, an art collection based in Lower Merion, Pennsylvania. The film starts all the way back at the beginning with a profile of Albert C. Barnes and his vision for what his art should be and what should become of it. The film never loses sight of what Barnes wanted, and continues to posit his view in contrast to the actions taken by those who sought to go against his wishes and transform the nature, purpose, and location of his collection. To the same degree that the collection has lost the mark of its founder, it regains and becomes inseparable from it in this revealing documentary.

“The Art of the Steal” has a clever title that indicates both bemusement but at the same time a distinctly sad attitude about the state of things. It’s one of those films where the tone of the research and findings suggests that it’s impossible to believe that this is actually going on, yet it is. In that sense, it occasionally appears humorous, but that’s because there needs to be some way for those who have a deeply vested interest in the preservation of Barnes’ vision to cope with the reality of the situation. The position taken by the filmmakers is that the fact that this is going on right under the American people’s noses is an unbelievable tragedy, and they have the evidence and the interviews to prove it. “The Art of the Steal” isn’t just about documenting an event, but instead about documenting the process of a series of events throughout the past eighty-five years, and how the bad guys got away with it. While it may certainly present a tragedy, the film is a roaring, informative and entertaining success.


Oscar Winner Predictions: Best Animated Feature

The competition: Coraline, Fantastic Mr. Fox, The Princess and the Frog, The Secret of Kells, Up

Previous winners: Wall-E, Ratatouille, Happy Feet, Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, The Incredibles
My winner: 9
Who should win: Up
Who will win: This one is locked up, but let’s go through the contenders just to be thorough. There isn’t any chance of either “Coraline” or “The Princess and the Frog” winning because neither has enough buzz. Surprising inclusion “The Secret of Kells” (review coming in the next week) should consider its nomination its win since, despite being an intriguing underdog, it can’t compete with the must popular and beloved animated film of the year. While many were impressed with Wes Anderson’s stop-motion effort, it really isn’t going to defeat the heartwarming and lovely Up.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Movie with Abe: A Prophet

A Prophet
Directed by Jacques Audiard
Released February 26, 2010

One of this year’s Oscar nominees for Best Foreign Film is a frank portrait of a young man who grows into adulthood while in prison. It’s unflinching in its depiction of the horrors and the violence of prison life, and in that commitment to telling its story without whitewashing or softening the blows its characters experience, it permits the audience to adapt along with the protagonist. “A Prophet” is a brutal and honest film that digs deep into the heart and soul of one 19-year-old whose conviction for a relatively minor crime immerses him in a far more violent and treacherous world where he must rely on only himself to survive.

“A Prophet” is particularly intriguing because of the identity of its protagonist. Malik El Djebana is a man with connections to different worlds. Malik is an Arab, but his first assignment in prison comes from Corsican capo Cesar Luciani, a do-or-die mission where Malik must murder a man in cold blood and then receive protection from the Corsicans or face death at the hands of the Corsicans because of his knowledge of their plot. Mailk can never fully be accepted by the Corsicans, however, because he is an Arab, so he must become their servant of sorts. Early on in the film, the intense nature of Malik’s situation is already present, and it’s fascinating to see the wheels spinning in this young man’s head. It’s impossible to believe that Malik can only be nineteen give the extreme encounters he experiences and the tough decisions he must face in prison.

“A Prophet” is a profile of one man who comes to prison not knowing anything about himself and ultimately amasses a vast network of contacts and friends through sheer dutifulness. What becomes of young Malik is extraordinary and impressive, and it’s amazing how subtle the transformation from lost, solitary loner to respected, connected veteran is. The movie doesn’t allow for any fantasy escapes from the harsh reality of Malik’s life. Two and a half hours is a long time to spend in prison, but the audience is right there with Malik. “A Prophet” doesn’t let the audience out of the experience for one second, creating a fascinating and irresistibly moving narrative.

A major part of what makes “A Prophet” so compelling is the lead performance by breakout star Tahar Rahim as Malik. It’s a remarkably subdued and simultaneously vivid portrayal, and permits the audience the opportunity to experience everything Malik goes through with the same seeming detachment and initial unresponsiveness as he exhibits. The ensemble players are also terrific, especially Niels Arestrup as Luciani, and their gritty performances contribute to the film’s effective realism. The film travels a dark and dreary path, but following it along to its surprising and satisfying conclusion is a truly rewarding effort.


Oscar Winner Predictions: Best Foreign Film

The competition: Ajami (Israel), The Milk of Sorrow (Peru), The Secret of Her Eyes (Argentina), A Prophet (France), The White Ribbon (Germany)

Previous winners: Departures (Japan), The Counterfeiters (Austria), The Lives of Others (Germany), Tsotsi (South Africa), The Sea Inside (Spain)
Who should win: “The White Ribbon” or “A Prophet,” but I haven’t seen two of the others
Who will win: It seems like we have a far-ahead frontrunner in the form of “The White Ribbon,” but it’s difficult to be certain. Last year, when two films, “The Class” and “Waltz with Bashir,” were ahead in the derby, a third, “Departures,” emerged from out of nowhere to take home the trophy. I had initially thought that “A Prophet” might be a formidable rival, but that doesn’t appear to be the case. “Ajami” is the third consecutive film from Israel nominated in this category, but it’s the weakest of the three and shouldn’t be able to win. I haven’t seen the other two, but it’s unlikely that they’ll be able to beat the films that have already been released, even though anyone who votes on this category has to see all five. Buzz is really strong for The White Ribbon, and it’s a great way to honor an eccentric director, Michael Haneke, for his far more mainstream work.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Double Movie with Abe: Shutter Island & The Ghost Writer

Shutter Island: Directed by Martin Scorsese
Ghost Writer: Directed by Roman Polanski
Released February 19, 2010

Two films from two respected directors who have been steadily making feature films for almost fifty years and have each arguably produced their best work, and finally won an elusive Oscar, in the past decade (“The Departed” and “The Pianist,” respectively). Both have been buzzed about for reasons other than their content, be it a release date pushed back five months or the arrest of the filmmaker during production. These two films have more in common than being startlingly noteworthy February releases, and tackling them together helps to reveal more about each of them.

“Shutter Island” and “The Ghost Writer” fall safely under the category heading of conspiracy thriller. One man begins to believe that he has become embroiled in a dangerous web of lies and deception, and can hardly trust anyone but himself before the truth devours him whole and he finds his life in peril. In Scorsese’s film, Leonardo DiCaprio is U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels, who travels with his partner Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo) to an island institution for the criminally insane to investigate the apparent escape of one of the facility’s patients. In Polanski’s film, Ewan McGregor is the writer selected to pen the memoirs of former British Prime Minister Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan) who, in the course of his research, comes to suspect that his predecessor may have been murdered. In both cases, talking to anyone about his beliefs may be deadly for the lead character, and therefore, it’s him and the audience versus everyone else.

The similarities don’t stop with a recap of the plot. Both films take place on islands off of Massachusetts, and in neither film is it the star who delivers the best performance. What’s pleasantly surprising in both movies is that they do feature stellar performances from old men who haven’t given up trying and still know how to put effort into their roles – Ben Kingsley and Max von Sydow as psychiatrists on Shutter Island and 94-year-old Eli Wallach and Tom Wilkinson as potential witnesses in the disappearance of the ghost’s forerunner. Additionally, the two films showcase masterful supporting performances from the likes of Shutter Island staff and inmates Ted Levine, John Carroll Lynch, Emily Mortimer, Patricia Clarkson, and Jackie Early Haley, and Adam Lang’s wife Olivia Williams and lawyer Timothy Hutton.

Both “Shutter Island” and “The Ghost Writer” are adapted from novels, by Dennis Lehane (“Gone Baby Gone,” “Mystic River”) and Robert Harris, respectively. The questionable twists that come near the end of both movies are in part related to their origins as books, but more important than the script of each is the treatment of the story by the director. This is hardly familiar territory for gangster moviemaker Scorsese, who has made period pieces before, like “Gangs of New York,” but never quite ventured into this kind of psychological thriller involving elements common to the horror film. It’s an exercise which serves to produce startling and scary moments throughout the film, but what works best is the transformation of a simple conversation in daylight into a chilling and disturbing scene. It’s the notion of being on edge even when there’s nothing to be scared of at that particular moment. Booming, ominous music thunders in even before the ferry first reaches the island, indicating that this is a place of doom, gloom, and death. It’s effective to a point, but the incorporation of supernatural elements explained away as hallucinations by the protagonist weaken the film considerably, and its web of deception is difficult to crack and to be convinced by once it has been spun completely.

Polanski, by contrast, has made movies like “Chinatown” where a man cracks a case wide open and has to deal with the implications of his discoveries. “The Ghost Writer” employs a charging score to heighten its drama and follows its protagonist through an extraordinarily reasonable and believable investigation which doesn’t employ the supernatural at all and instead stays grounded and fully fascinating for the whole of its runtime. Both films clock in at over two hours, making them a tad longer than most audiences might like. They’re both worthwhile in their own ways, but Polanski definitely outdoes Scorsese by keeping his film enthralling and captivating the whole way through, producing a more coherent narrative and a superior finished product, all the more impressive since the one film was finished from a prison cell while the other purposely delayed its release.

Shutter Island: B
The Ghost Writer: B+

Oscar Winner Predictions: Best Visual Effects

The competition: Avatar, District 9, Star Trek

Previous winners: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, The Golden Compass, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, King Kong, Spider-Man 2
Who should win: Avatar
Who will win: While it’s true that “The Golden Compass” did pull off a shocking upset over “Transformers” two years ago, there is no way that Avatar is losing. This is the most secure category that has ever existed in the history of the Oscars.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Wednesday Oscar Retrospective: The Forgotten Five of 2006

Welcome to a new weekly feature here at Movies with Abe, Wednesday Oscar Retrospective. The Forgotten Five is the first in a series of projects looking back at the past eight years of the Oscars, dating back to the first ceremony I watched and closely followed.

Each year, a number of films are left off of Oscar’s Best Picture list. This year, even with ten nominees, films still didn’t make the cut. What I’m interested in looking at is the Forgotten Five – five films that probably came closest to getting nominated for Best Picture and ended up without a single nomination.

Each week, I’ll be working backwards one week. The rules are that the film cannot have earned any Oscar nominations at all. These are the movies that came so close and had buzz but just couldn’t ultimately cut it. If you disagree with my choices or think I missed one, please leave a note in the comments. This is designed to be a fun look back at some of the movies that may have been great (or not) and just missed the mark.

The Forgotten Five of 2006:

Bobby brought together so many stars in just one film, and it involved a historical figure with no actor playing him just like in a Best Picture nominee from the previous year, “Good Night, and Good Luck.” It earned a Golden Globe nomination for Best Motion Picture – Drama, but ultimately it just wasn’t serious enough to contend at the Oscars, and fell behind a number of other more well-received films.

The Fountain probably brought director Darren Aronofsky closer than ever before to scoring an Oscar nomination for his time-spanning scenery-heavy epic, a far more mainstream and fantastical film than his previous two features, “Pi” and “Requiem for a Dream.” It turned just as many off as it did on, and Aronofksy had to settle for helping another actor to an Oscar nod two years later, Mickey Rourke in “The Wrestler.”

For Your Consideration would be the Christopher Guest movie to get in given its subject matter, satirizing Oscar season, but it failed to pick up any momentum prior to the Oscars save for its supporting actress Catherine O’Hara. It may have hit just a little too close to home for voters, and its failure to earn any Golden Globe nods or other nominations along the way probably didn’t help.

The Painted Veil had a lot going for it at the beginning, with two fantastic Oscar-nominated stars headlining a film that was named as one of the top ten films of the year by the National Board of Review. It wasn’t a flop but it just didn’t catch fire. Maybe the fact that it was a movie about love in the time of cholera had people mistakenly confusing it with the film that actually had that title?

Thank You For Smoking could well have been a nominee, given the future success of director Jason Reitman, whose successive two features, “Juno” and “Up in the Air,” both scored Best Picture nominations. With “Little Miss Sunshine” and “Borat” in the running, this just wasn’t the year for this politically astute comedy. Voters didn’t even give it a nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay.

Get started on 2005 and come back next Wednesday for a look at the Forgotten Five of that year!

Oscar Winner Predictions: Best Makeup

The competition: Il Divo, Star Trek, The Young Victoria

Previous winners: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, La Vie en Rose, Pan’s Labyrinth, The Chronicles of Narnia, Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events
My winner: Zombieland
Who should win: Star Trek (though I haven’t seen “Il Divo”)
Who will win: This category threw me for a loop by snubbing “District 9” and “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus,” two films which presumably would have duked it out for the win. With the three nominees left, I remember some brilliant quote (can’t remember from who) about how one single eyebrow was more impressive than hundreds of Morlocks when “Frida” defeated “The Time Machine” in 2002, so I tend to believe that “Star Trek” won’t win, and I can’t imagine “Il Divo,” a film that even I haven’t heard of, taking it home. Therefore it will probably be the royalty of The Young Victoria, though honestly it could just as easily be a bunch of aliens.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Tuesday’s Top Trailer: Chloe

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.

Chloe – Opening March 26, 2010

This trailer surfaced online recently, and fortunately the film’s release date isn’t too far away. While the fact that it’s a remake of a foreign film from the past decade is often cited as a negative for many films, I think it may be a plus. The original film, “Nathalie,” from “Coco Before Chanel” director Anne Fontaine, was well-received, and translating it into English should hopefully prove to be a successful endeavor. The director behind the project is Atom Egoyan, an Oscar nominee for penning and helming 1997’s “The Sweet Hereafter.” The three stars each bring something incredible to the film. Liam Neeson is a veteran actor who hasn’t had the opportunity to give a tremendous performance possible since “Schindler’s List” way back in 1993. Last year, he amplified the quality of “Taken” in an extraordinarily impressive way, and having him play the loyal husband who falls victim to the seduction of the woman his wife hires to test his fidelity to her. Julianne Moore is a wonderful actress who gave an exceptional performance in “A Single Man” last year, and hopefully this part can give her similarly excellent material to work with to craft an awesome character. And then there’s Amanda Seyfried. After breaking out in the movie world with the lead role opposite Meryl Streep in “Mamma Mia!” in 2008, Seyfried seems like she can now only appear in movies about letter writing, be it this month’s “Dear John” or the upcoming “Letters from Juliet.” Seeing Seyfried in such a fiery, seemingly villainous role looks like a delightful treat. The movie also appears to be just as much about the sexual relationship between Chloe (Seyfried) and Catherine (Moore) as it is about Chloe and David (Neeson). The film is titled “Chloe” rather than Catherine, David, or something about adultery, so it appears that this is the story of Chloe and how she impacts this previously happy married couple. The violent turns in the trailer and the indication that it gets all dangerous is just another reason to anticipate this thriller that should hopefully be a hell of a lot better than most people say Neeson’s last adulterous effort “The Other Man” was.

Oscar Winner Predictions: Best Sound Editing

The competition: Avatar, The Hurt Locker, Inglourious Basterds, Star Trek, Up

Previous winners: The Dark Knight, The Bourne Ultimatum, Letters from Iwo Jima, King Kong, The Incredibles
My winner: Watchmen
Who should win: Avatar
Who will win: The sound categories are where I have to guess most since I’m hardly an expert in the art of sound design or editing. I’m predicting “Avatar” to take the sound design award, and something tells me that it will lose this to a less showy film, in the same way that war movie “Letters from Iwo Jima” triumphed a few years ago. Therefore, I’ll guess The Hurt Locker, but it could just easily be the other.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Movie with Abe: The Wolfman

The Wolfman
Directed by Joe Johnston
Released February 12, 2010

Monster movies aren’t supposed to be Shakespeare. The same expectations aren’t in play. Writing and story come second to visual effects and a good chance to scare the hell out of the audience. What matters most is a villain that can truly inspire fear in the hearts and minds of its characters, and by doing so, grip and captivate its audience. Usually it takes a while for the villain to physically appear on screen, so that part of the thrill is not knowing exactly what to expect. This film’s title provides an obvious spoiler about the identity of the monster in question, but that shouldn’t change how frightening the film is.

It’s not the fact that the true form of the villain is known that makes “The Wolfman” a bad film, but rather the lack of anything else to make it good. The period setting was a good way to forgo the safety and comfort of electronics and modernity to make it all the more scary, but that advantage is wasted. The setting instead serves as an excuse for poor dialogue and messy scenery. Despite the presence of the lovely Emily Blunt, the performances from Oscar winners and onetime greats Anthony Hopkins and Benicio Del Toro are regrettable. While this isn’t a movie about acting, they contribute negatively to the experience by not using any of their proven talents and phoning in their characters.

“The Wolfman” features excessively cartoonish gore, with multiple fingers being ripped off at once and helpless victims clutching and moaning at their bloody predicament. Instead of being legitimately fearsome and scary, the mauling is played almost for laughs. There are no terrifying moments in the film, and few jump scenes to wake the audience up from the slumber that is induced by viewing the film. The story is remarkably simplistic, and it’s awfully devoid of real content that should contain so much gruesome violence and horror. Instead, it feels like it goes on for age when in fact nothing actually happens. Worse still, there isn’t even a shocking or controversial twist in place, and everything plays out exactly how anyone who casually wandered into the theatre might expect. Any hope of salvation in the film’s latter half or final third should not be held out for because it’s not coming. Don’t fear the wolfman, because there’s nothing to be scared of, except the disappointing reaction you’ll have upon exiting the theatre after seeing this movie.


Oscar Winner Predictions: Best Sound

The competition: Avatar, The Hurt Locker, Inglourious Basterds, Star Trek, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen

Previous winners: Slumdog Millionaire, The Bourne Ultimatum, Dreamgirls, King Kong, Ray
My winner: Watchmen
Who should win: Avatar
Who will win: The sound categories are where I have to guess most since I’m hardly an expert in the art of sound design or editing. To begin with, throw out “Inglourious Basterds” and “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen,” and probably “Star Trek,” leaving this just another of the technical fields between this year’s too unstoppable juggernauts. I think this one goes to the 160-minute technological breakthrough, Avatar.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Movie with Abe: Valentine’s Day

Valentine’s Day
Directed by Garry Marshall
Released February 12, 2010

Even before this film came out, most people boiled it down to one concise sentence: the American version of “Love Actually.” It’s an accurate description if taken in the same way that many often condescendingly refer to American remakes and their tendency to suck the life and humor out of the British originals. This new film sets itself around a holiday centered primarily on love and partnership, whereas Richard Curtis’ 2003 film takes place at Christmas, a holiday with religious and secular functionality in addition to its obvious coupling potential. That’s hardly the only thing this disappointing movie lacks.

The smattering of popular actors is a trait shared by both films, but the important difference is that the stars of “Love Actually” are actually actors. “Valentine’s Day” has a few notable and proven talented actors, such as old guard Kathy Bates, Julia Roberts, Hector Elizondo, and Shirley Maclaine, and more newly minted thespians such as Anne Hathaway, Jamie Foxx, and Jennifer Garner. The fact that they’ve had film roles before doesn’t mean they’re necessarily acting here, however, but it’s certainly much better than the distinct non-actors present, most notably Taylor Swift. Her cringe-inducing performance as a self-involved cheerleader sticks out like a sore thumb, though the other portrayals aren’t much better. Perhaps it’s insulting to group the likes of Jessica Alba and Ashton Kutcher in with her, but this film certainly isn’t overly concerned about the acting its cast is doing, or rather not doing.

What the film is focused on is just as problematic. Despite incorporating a web of characters, the definable protagonist is probably excitable florist Reed Bennett, played by Kutcher. While he did a decent job anchoring 2004’s dark thriller “The Butterfly Effect,” it appears it was a one-hit wonder. Kutcher, adorned in his pink florist uniform throughout the film, doesn’t do much in the way of humor and tries to act his serious best. He’s incapable of it, however, and the movie starts to fall apart before any of the other characters are introduced. Relying on Kutcher to keep the film together is a miserable idea, and just one indication of why it fails.

Not all is completely awful in this film, but the bad certainly outweighs the good. Some of the arcs and performances are more tolerable than others. One such example finds Roberts and Bradley Cooper flirting aboard a flight as they both endure a long trip to make it home to their loved ones. In a film that offers few delights, the best surprise is Jessica Biel, who delivers what may well be the most enjoyable performance of her career as one of the more bearable characters in the film, a publicist who throws an annual I Hate Valentine’s Day dinner with her friends.

Ultimately, the dialogue is hopelessly poor and the stories fail in their attempts to be whimsical and sweet. The token older generation story featuring Elizondo and Maclaine is one such instance where it should be infinitely more moving than it is. What saves “Valentine’s Day” from being just as insufferable as many find the holiday is the aspect of putting all the characters together and figuring out how they’re all connected. Surveyed at the film’s end, it’s actually the most impressive part of the project, mixing and matching the characters until all their links and threads make sense. It’s a shame that less time was spent creating a compelling film.


Oscar Winner Predictions: Best Original Song

The competition: “The Weary Kind” (Crazy Heart), “Take It All” (Nine), “Loin de Paname” (Paris 36), “Almost There” (The Princess and the Frog), “Down in New Orleans” (The Princess and the Frog)

Previous winners: “Jai Ho” (Slumdog Millionaire), “Falling Slowly” (Once), “I Need To Wake Up” (An Inconvenient Truth), “It’s Hard Out There For A Pimp” (Hustle & Flow), “Al otro lado del rio” (The Motorcycle Diaries)
Who should win: “The Weary Kind”
Who will win: This decade, most of the Golden Globe winners in this category have been snubbed and not even nominated for the Oscar. But if you go back another ten years, things change remarkably, and the Golden Globe-winning song usually takes home the Oscar, as it did every year from 1991-1997. This year, only one Globe nominee (the winner) is present here, and it would be hard to believe that any of the other four could give it any competition. With the exception of last year, films with multiple nominations usually don’t score a win in this category, and the absence of high-profile names like Bono and Paul McCartney all but guarantees that this will go to the real Ryan Bingham and T-Bone Burnett for “The Weary Kind” from Crazy Heart.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Movie with Abe: The Last New Yorker

The Last New Yorker
Directed by Harvey Wang
Released February 19, 2010

Dominic Chianese has certainly earned his reputation as a real New Yorker. He spent seven years battling with his onscreen nephew James Gandolfini for control of the New Jersey mob, and was one of the only people who could actually intimidate the burly Tony Soprano. In the new film from director Harvey Wang, the septuagenarian struts around New York City as if he owns the place. His character, Lenny Sugarman, hasn’t even left the city since he was ten years old, and he is dead set on staying there until his dying day.

“The Last New Yorker” is positively reminiscent of other recent “last hurrah” films like “Starting Out in the Evening” and “Venus” where a wise, stubborn old man, portrayed by a veteran cinema actor, refuses to be told how to live out the last years of his life. In Lenny’s case, he has not done much with his life, and his mishandling of the market has led to the unfortunate depletion of his savings. His stock broker nephew wants to give him an allowance, which he outright rejects, and his lifelong best friend Ruben wants him to leave the city and move with him to Alabama. Lenny can’t seem to find anyone who sees things from his point of view

He is utterly captivated, however, when he spots the woman of his dreams, and he decides to do anything he can to get the opportunity to know her better. In preparation for his first date with her, he purchases a fancy new suit and new shoes, because deeply ingrained in his nature is an appreciation of the long-lost art of formality. What ensues is an often pleasantly awkward and altogether entertaining courtship where the chivalrous and well-mannered Lenny sets out to convince Mimi that she is the woman for him, and that he wants to love her just as much as he loves his city.

There is something truly wonderful about a man who has only lived in one place all his life and sees no reason to leave. It’s not as if Lenny spends his days sitting in his small apartment or keeping to himself. He meets Ruben every morning for breakfast at the same restaurant, a tradition they have upheld for nearly two decades. He puts on a suit in the morning without the need for a special occasion, walks from corner to corner with delight, purchases his newspaper from a familiar street stand, and boards buses frequently and with ease. This is a man who knows his city.

Lenny is a remnant of an older society where people got dressed up on a daily basis and took their hats off when they spoke to a lady. Though the world around him may have changed, Lenny certainly has not. This character might as well be real, and a survey of lifelong New Yorkers in their seventies or eighties would surely yield personalities just like these. “The Last New Yorker” is a tender film that showcases meaningful performances and a whimsical appreciation of old age and forgotten traditions.


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

Oscar Winner Predictions: Best Original Score

The competition: Avatar, Fantastic Mr. Fox, The Hurt Locker, Sherlock Holmes, Up

Previous winners: Slumdog Millionaire, Atonement, Babel, Brokeback Mountain, Finding Neverland
My winner: A Single Man
Who should win: Up
Who will win: There are several notable things about the history of this category. For the past six years, the winner has been a Best Picture nominee. In the past five years, every winning composer was a first-time nominee (though Gustavo Santaolalla did win two years in a row), and this award often serves as a consolation prize for a Best Picture nominee that takes home no other awards. Still, it’s really the quality of the score that matters most, evidenced by wins for “The Red Violin” and “Frida.” The race this year is pretty much down to “Avatar” and “Up,” and I am well aware that there more than a few people who detest the former score. Additionally, James Horner already won for “Titanic” back in 1997, and Michael Giacchino, nominated in 2007 for scoring “Ratatouille,” should repeat with the recognition he got and deserved at the Golden Globes and take home this trophy for Up.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Movie with Abe: The Good Guy

The Good Guy
Directed by Julio DePietro
Released February 19, 2010

The biggest question in “The Good Guy” is just who exactly is being referred to in the title. Is it the fast-talking Wall Street wunderkind who, despite exhibiting some of the same shameful characteristics of his cohorts, seems to see that such a frivolous and casual lifestyle isn’t for him, or is it the shy, impossibly kindly tech geek who is given the opportunity to enter the fast-paced world of Wall Street and become a wholly different person? And, more crucially, will either one of them end up with the sweet young woman yearning for a fantasy trip to Italy and the perfect guy?

All these questions and more are probed, if not quite fully answered, in this new comedy from first-time director Juli DePietro. “The Good Guy” is a devastatingly familiar story that is basically a less effective version of the “500 Days of Summer” formula where it’s made abundantly clear from the very first moment that the guy loses the girl. With such expectations out there from the start, there aren’t many places to go, and it’s hard to craft a compelling film when the characters seem dead set on ending up unhappy.

“The Good Guy,” despite its attempts to define the notion of what a good guy really is, stays fully and unflinchingly on the surface. It doesn’t dig deep into the characters and try to explore their motivations or emotions. Characters talk and talk but don’t really say anything, and the story turns on frivolous moments instead of legitimate plot progressions. The twists are often surprising and don’t really track with the developments of the story up until then. There’s no sense that the audience is really getting to know any of the characters, not that there really seems to be much to discover about any of them. One character even utters the line “we’re only ugly on the inside, so it’s okay,” lending little credence to the depth of the script.

There’s little fresh or ultimately intriguing about this story, and figuring out who the good guy is just isn’t all that worthwhile. The cast contains some talented actors who have performed commendably in signature performances in the past, but that experience hardly translates here. Scott Porter (“Friday Night Lights”) oozes charisma and smarminess even when he’s trying to appear like the nicest guy ever. His excessive enthusiasm makes up for the relative sedateness of Alexis Bledel (“Gilmore Girls”) and Bryan Greenberg (“October Road”), both of who seem intent on staying put in the background and not fostering up too much emotion. Andrew McCarthy, in his brief appearance as the man who likely taught Porter’s eager young salesman everything he knows, makes sure to milk his screen time for as much as it’s worth, but it’s a bit too much. The unimpressive ensemble performance and disappointing screenplay are made up for, in part, by the one thing the film really has going for it, a strong and ever-present soundtrack that nicely complements the various lifestyles its protagonists lead.


Oscar Winner Predictions: Best Film Editing

The competition: Avatar, District 9, The Hurt Locker, Inglourious Basterds, Precious

Previous winners: Slumdog Millionaire, The Bourne Ultimatum, The Departed, Crash, The Aviator
Who should win: The Hurt Locker
Who will win: While most of the time the winner of this category also takes home Best Picture, that’s not always the case. This year, all five nominees are up for Best Picture, but that doesn’t mean the two will sync up. It will almost surely be either “Avatar” or “The Hurt Locker” since the only time that this award hasn’t gone to one of the two frontrunners for Best Picture is when it went to a film that wasn’t even in the running, like in 2007 for “The Bourne Ultimatum.” Any prediction here should really be decided based on the toss of a coin, but I think this is one race where the small-budget war movie can triumph over the humongous juggernaut sci-fi extravaganza. The winner: The Hurt Locker.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Movie with Abe: The Most Dangerous Man in America

The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers
Directed by Judith Ehrlich & Rick Goldsmith
Released February 5, 2010

Any movie with a title like “The Most Dangerous Man in America” purports to be about a subject of great importance. What’s particularly wonderful about this film is that it’s marvelously tongue-in-cheek. The line comes from a quote spoken by Henry Kissinger, classifying Dr. Daniel Ellsberg as a threat that needed to be stopped. Ellsberg is the man who leaked the Pentagon Papers to the press, and it’s no surprise that the government considered him a menace. Part of what’s mesmerizing about one of this year’s Oscar nominees for Best Documentary Feature is the excitement with which the protagonist and his cohorts hurtle towards changing the course of American history and foreign policy.

“The Most Dangerous Man in America” is a chronicle of the events leading up to the release of the Pentagon Papers, but it’s first and foremost a biography of the man. He’s humorously described by his future wife as a dangerous man, a lady killer of sorts, in addition to his obvious decision to leak top secret documents to the public. Ellsberg’s life up until that point is covered in detail, and he even draws a fascinating parallel between the death of his mother and sister when he was fifteen due to his father falling asleep at the wheel and his understanding of the fact that even the most seemingly trustworthy people still need to be carefully watched.

Like last year’s fabulous documentary “Man on Wire,” this film poses itself as a crime caper where the main actors get delight from the revolutionary and radical decisions they make and actions they undertake. It’s an exciting thriller that gains its suspense and intrigue from the expressions on the faces of the interview subjects and a comprehension of the gravity of the situation. The scathing critique of the administration as told by Ellsberg and the people who worked and interacted with him paints four presidents as villains, offering up an extraordinarily compelling analysis of the path to war and misconduct of government. It’s applicable and highly relevant to the current never-ending crisis and misguided war in the United States today, but the comparisons make themselves rather than being explicitly stated by the interview subjects. What is most powerful about the story of the Most Dangerous Man in America is the narration not by some celebrity but by the man himself, Daniel Ellsberg, now in his late seventies and just as passionate as ever about making a difference in this life. Hearing it straight from the horse’s mouth makes all the difference in the world.


Oscar Winner Predictions: Best Costume Design

The competition: Bright Star, Coco Before Chanel, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, Nine, The Young Victoria

Previous winners: The Duchess, Elizabeth: The Golden Age, Marie Antoinette, Memoirs of a Geisha, The Aviator
My winner: Inglourious Basterds
Who should win: The Young Victoria
Who will win: Notice a trend developing over the past few years? Designing royalty seems to be all the rage in this category, and I’m therefore inclined to think that “The Young Victoria” will be the next winner. This could be the place where “Nine” takes home a prize, but it’s pretty much between the two of them. “Bright Star” and “Coco Before Chanel” aren’t nearly as showy, and unless voters really like visiting the visually mind-blowing “Imaginarium,” I don’t see that winning. Stick with the regal choice – two-time winner Sandy Powell (“The Aviator” and “Shakespeare in Love”) for The Young Victoria.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Wednesday Oscar Retrospective: The Forgotten Five of 2007

Welcome to a new weekly feature here at Movies with Abe, Wednesday Oscar Retrospective. The Forgotten Five is the first in a series of projects looking back at the past eight years of the Oscars, dating back to the first ceremony I watched and closely followed.

Each year, a number of films are left off of Oscar’s Best Picture list. This year, even with ten nominees, films still didn’t make the cut. What I’m interested in looking at is the Forgotten Five – five films that probably came closest to getting nominated for Best Picture and ended up without a single nomination.

Each week, I’ll be working backwards one week. The rules are that the film cannot have earned any Oscar nominations at all. These are the movies that came so close and had buzz but just couldn’t ultimately cut it. If you disagree with my choices or think I missed one, please leave a note in the comments. This is designed to be a fun look back at some of the movies that may have been great (or not) and just missed the mark.

The Forgotten Five of 2007:

Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead was directed by five-time Oscar nominee Sidney Lumet, who at the time of the film’s release was 83 years old. Lumet had previously helmed four Best Picture nominees but never won, and he was a strong contender for a Best Director career nod. The film didn’t pick up enough buzz, and ended up being the only one of three Philip Seymour Hoffman movies in 2007 not to be nominated for an Oscar.

The Great Debaters came from out of nowhere with a lone Golden Globe nomination for Best Motion Picture – Drama with an expanded seven-nominee field. In a year where there were eight legitimate contenders for Best Picture up until the very last moment, there was no room for this film that had no other precursors of any kind except Image Award nominations, and it got shut out, just like director Denzel Washington’s previous feature, “Antwone Fisher.”

Hairspray had everyone singing and dancing at the Golden Globes with three nominations, including one for a cross-dressing John Travolta. While it was likely a long shot for the Best Picture prize, people definitely loved it and its colorful visuals. On nomination day, it wasn’t just missing a Best Picture nod, but also mentions for Best Art Direction and Best Costumes, among others. Perhaps it was a victim of another much drearier musical, “Sweeney Todd.”

Knocked Up was even more popular and well-reviewed than director Judd Apatow’s first feature film, “The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” and earned a WGA nod. It probably didn’t help that similar films like “Superbad” and “Walk Hard” were released in the same year, but the biggest challenge it faced in winning over Oscar voters was its use of gross-out humor and foul language, which the Academy still hasn’t endorsed with two thumbs up.

Zodiac was made by a great filmmaker, but despite having directed cult hits like “Se7en” and “Fight Club,” David Fincher had never been nominated for an Oscar, and he would have to wait another year until he finally landed his first nod for “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.” Many liked his dark examination of 1970s menace to society, but it may have been too dismal and grisly to win. It probably helped to reboot Robert Downey Jr.’s career, though he too would have to wait another year to earn an Oscar nod.

Get started on 2006 and come back next Wednesday for a look at the Forgotten Five of that year!

Oscar Winner Predictions: Best Art Direction

The competition: Avatar, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, Nine, Sherlock Holmes, The Young Victoria

Previous winners: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Sweeney Todd, Pan’s Labyrinth, Memoirs of a Geisha, The Aviator
My winner: A Single Man
Who should win: Avatar
Who will win: This category pits films with mostly technical nominations and a grand total of ten mentions between them against Oscar’s biggest juggernaut this year, which has nine nominations all by itself. That doesn’t mean the rest of them can’t win; it simply puts Rick Carter, Kim Sinclair, and Robert Stronbergh ahead of the pack. Plus, “The Hurt Locker” isn’t in the running here, so is one of the places where the “Avatar” camp can securely pitch a tent. It could be “Nine,” but I think it has to be Avatar.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Tuesday’s Top Trailer: The Ghost Writer

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 Ghost Writer – Opening February 19, 2010

There are plenty of reasons that this film looks incredibly exciting, but the main one is that it appears to be an above-average telling of an average story, sort of like what many people thought “Michael Clayton” was. A writer is hired to ghost write the former British prime minister’s memoirs and stumbles upon information that leads him to believe his situation is infinitely more serious and deadly than he might ever have expected. What makes that sound especially fantastic? First and foremost, it comes from Roman Polanski, a master of taking seemingly harmless subject matter and making it incredibly volatile and gripping, evidenced primarily in his 1974 classic “Chinatown.” The fact that Polanski was arrested midway through production and completed the film from his jail cell is also especially impressive, and it’s almost intriguing enough to make it worth seeing on that note alone. The cast is another positive factor, using two actors in roles that work well and putting another two in parts that don’t necessarily suit them but look to be good fits based on their appearances in the trailer. Ewan McGregor is the man in trouble, blind to the perils of his situation as he uncovers mystery after mystery, and he seems reminiscent of Cary Grant in “North by Northwest.” Olivia Williams’ role isn’t clear in the trailer, but her character’s name indicates that she might be the prime minister’s wife or ex-wife. Either way, the way she speaks stirs up the best recollections of her fearsome performance in “Dollhouse” on television this past season. Kim Cattrall gets serious as one of the prime minister’s right-hand men and delivers the best line of the trailer: “you’re the writer, that makes you an accomplice.” And then there’s Pierce Brosnan, who trades fast-talking and, heaven forbid, singing, for silent and intimidating as the prime minister himself. The director and the cast are certainly worthwhile arguments to see this film, but plain and simple, this looks like a return to noir, and that’s quite a compelling reason to check this one out. Despite relatively recent buzz, it’s out in theatres this Friday, so I’ll be seeing it as soon as I can, and you can expect a review on Movies With Abe in the coming weeks.

Oscar Winner Predictions: Best Cinematography

The competition: Avatar, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, The Hurt Locker, Inglourious Basterds, The White Ribbon

Previous winners: Slumdog Millionaire, There Will Be Blood, Pan’s Labyrinth, Memoirs of a Geisha, The Aviator
My winner: A Single Man
Who should win: Avatar
Who will win: There are two veteran nominees in this category, two-time nominee Bruno Delbonnel (“A Very Long Engagement” and “Amelie”) up for “Harry Potter,” and two-time winner Robert Richardson (“The Aviator” and “JFK”), up for “Inglourious Basterds.” That’s not too relevant, however, since it’s usually about the film voters like to look at best rather than the resume of the cinematographer, and first-time nominees have triumphed every year since Richardson last won. This is probably just the first of many technical categories where “Avatar” and “The Hurt Locker” will duke it out, and I have a feeling that the groundbreaking visual nature of Avatar will result in Mauro Fiore winning his first Oscar.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Oscar Winner Predictions: Best Adapted Screenplay

The competition: District 9, An Education, In the Loop, Precious, Up in the Air

Previous winners: Slumdog Millionaire, No Country for Old Men, The Departed, Brokeback Mountain, Sideways
Who should win: In the Loop
Who will win: This category hasn’t seen a real contest in over five years, since the expected winner has prevailed every year since 2003 when “The Return of the King” swallowed it up as part of its staggering eleven wins. This year should be no different. Despite the hilarious and absurd dialogue strung together in “In the Loop” and the powerful adaptation of the novel by Sapphire in “Precious,” this award will go to “Up in the Air,” and at this point looks like it will be the film’s only win. Neither “District 9” (sci-fi) nor “An Education” (too light) has a shot either, so call it now for Up in the Air.

Oscar Winner Predictions: Best Original Screenplay

The competition: The Hurt Locker, Inglourious Basterds, The Messenger, A Serious Man, Up

Previous winners: Milk, Juno, Little Miss Sunshine, Crash, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Who should win: Inglourious Basterds
Who will win: Don’t expect “The Messenger” to take this home since it’s the only film not nominated for Best Picture here. That’s not a disqualifier by any means, but it won’t receive many votes over the other four. Despite four nods over the past six years, no animated film has ever won this award, so don’t bet on “Up,” even though it is only the second animated film nominated for Best Picture, and the first didn’t have its screenplay under consideration. The Coen brothers may garner some votes for their latest script, and they won this award back in 1996 for “Fargo,” but it isn’t likely that it will win. That narrows the race to two contenders that are pretty much deadlocked. My bet is that the more writing-intensive script will win, as opposed to the film cited for its taut direction and impressive technical elements. It could well be “The Hurt Locker,” but I think that Quentin Tarantino will take home his second trophy (he won in 1994 for “Pulp Fiction”) for Inglourious Basterds.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Oscar Winner Predictions: Best Actress in a Supporting Role

The competition: Penelope Cruz’s mistress (Nine), Vera Farmiga’s frequent flyer girlfriend (Up in the Air), Maggie Gyllenhaal’s single mom journalist (Crazy Heart), Anna Kendrick’s game-changing wunderkind (Up in the Air), and Mo’Nique’s abusive deadbeat mother (Precious).

Previous winners: Penelope Cruz, Tilda Swinton, Jennifer Hudson, Rachel Weisz, Cate Blanchett
My winner: Melanie Laurent
Who should win: Kendrick
Who will win: Last year, Kate Winslet’s promotion to lead actress come Oscar time opened the field wide open, and the year before that, a shocking winner triumphed due to the lack of a frontrunner. But prior to that, the winner of this category was set in stone well before the big night, and this year should mark a return to that. Mo’Nique has won pretty much everything thus far, and since her film probably won’t win in any other category, it makes sense that she would take this award. First-time nominees Farmiga and Kendrick probably cancel each other out. Gyllenhaal’s nomination was a surprise, and that’s definitely as far as it’s going to go. Ethan Hawke got in for “Training Day” when he rode on costar Denzel Washington’s buzz, but like Hawke, Gyllenhaal’s nomination is her award. Cruz is last year’s winner, and it’s too soon for her to win again. Back-to-back wins are rare in Oscar history, occurring only five times (Tom Hanks, Jason Robards, Katharine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy, and Luise Rainer). Is Cruz really going to join that quintet? No, this is going to Mo’Nique.

Oscar Winner Predictions: Best Actor in a Supporting Role

The competition: Matt Damon’s Afrikaner Rugby captain (Invictus), Woody Harrelson’s Casualty Notification officer (The Messenger), Christopher Plummer’s Leo Tolstoy (The Last Station), Stanley Tucci’s vicious killer (The Lovely Bones), and Christoph Waltz’s crazed Nazi Jew Hunter (Inglourious Basterds).

Previous winners: Heath Ledger, Javier Bardem, Alan Arkin, George Clooney, Morgan Freeman
Who should win: Waltz
Who will win: There hasn’t been any diversity in this race at any awards show yet, with Waltz taking home the prize nearly every time. There’s no reason to suggest he won’t triumph at the Oscars, but let’s take a quick look at the other contenders. It’s a wonder that Tucci even get nominated considering his film bombed. Plummer earned his first nomination at age 80, so he could certainly win like Alan Arkin did three years ago. The crucial difference is that the frontrunner didn’t open a film called “Norbit” right at the time ballots were being filled out. It could still happen, but it’s doubtful. Damon’s chances are blown since his film was left off the Best Picture list, and Harrelson’s film is still too small for him to get noticed. Especially since Quentin Tarantino’s hit probably won’t take home the top prize, this award will surely go to Waltz, and I’m excited to hear him deliver another brilliant speech.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Oscar Winner Predictions: Best Actress in a Leading Role

The competition: Sandra Bullock’s Southern humanitarian housewife (The Blind Side), Helen Mirren’s Countess Tolstoy (The Last Station), Carey Mulligan’s perky student (An Education), Gabourey Sidibe’s pregnant underprivileged 16-year-old (Precious), and Meryl Streep’s Julia Child (Julie & Julia).

Previous winners: Kate Winslet, Marion Cotillard, Helen Mirren, Reese Witherspoon, Hilary Swank
Who should win: Mulligan
Who will win: Given the way this race has gone at precursor awards, it’s looking like one person and one person only, and that’s Bullock, which is really a shame. Mirren is out because her film is way too small and she just won three years ago. Mulligan should have had this one in the bag, but the sudden surge of Bullock has all but thrown her out of the competition. People seem to really love Sidibe, and the strong affection for her film may help her secure a surprising win. It still seems unlikely, though, consider how far ahead Bullock appears to be. Streep in now on her sixteenth nomination and hasn’t won since her fourth twenty-seven years ago, so now doesn’t seem like the time for her to finally win again more so than any of her previous roles. The lack of other nominations for her film and the inclusion of Bullock’s in the Best Picture race signal that the first-time nominee is actually the frontrunner, and Bullock is set to win this.

Oscar Winner Predictions: Best Actor in a Leading Role

The competition: Jeff Bridges’ aging musician (Crazy Heart), George Clooney’s traveling transition man (Up in the Air), Colin Firth’s 60s professor (A Single Man), Morgan Freeman’s Nelson Mandela (Invictus), and Jeremy Renner’s bomb technician (The Hurt Locker).

Previous winners: Sean Penn, Daniel Day-Lewis, Forest Whitaker, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jamie Foxx
Who should win: Firth
Who will win: The past two winners were collecting their second trophies, and last year, Sean Penn, who had already won only five years before, eclipsed comeback kid Mickey Rourke. Along those same lines, Clooney could do the same thing and beat out Bridges. The difference is that Bridges seems to be the clear favorite and never really went anywhere – this is his fifth nomination and he’s never won. It’s his turn. Firth has no chance, tragically, because Bridges takes all of his buzz away and his film didn’t receive any other nominations. Freeman won in 2003 and this year, his film got shut out of the Best Picture race, so he won’t win either. The one nominee with the potential to upset is breakthrough performer Jeremy Renner, whose turn as a fearless bomb expert might be just as much of an underdog as his film seems to be. Bridges should have this one locked up, so don’t put too much faith in that surprise actually happening. (One random statistic that works against Bridges: with the exception of Whitaker, every winner in this category since 1995 has had their film nominated for Best Picture. That doesn’t actually mean anything, but it’s somewhat interesting.)

Friday, February 12, 2010

Movie with Abe: Ajami

Directed by Scandar Copti & Yaron Shani
Released February 3, 2010

This year marks the third consecutive Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Film for the country of Israel, and this year’s film is just as poignant and relevant as the previous two. What separates “Ajami” from “Waltz with Bashir” and “Beaufort” is that it doesn’t focus primarily on Jewish Israelis, but instead takes a broader look at the conflicts that plague a mixed neighborhood in Tel Aviv called Ajami. What the film makes devastatingly clear is that the current conflict is hardly black and white, and it’s not merely based on Arab and Jewish ethnicity. The film presents a searing portrait of the violence and unrest in Ajami and doesn’t stop short of showing anything too disturbing or provocative.

“Ajami” is made extremely powerful by the use of non-professional actors to portray its characters, which helps to make the film feel even more real. With this kind of story, a sense of reality is extraordinarily important, and that’s perhaps its strongest asset. The ensemble is not focused on honing professional and polished performances but instead on getting to the roots of human tragedy, bigotry, and difficulties in coexistence, and all the actors do a marvelous job. Two members of the cast, Shahir Kabaha, who plays the hard-headed and brave Muslim Omar, and Ranin Karim, who plays his forbidden Christian love Hadir, turn in exceptionally terrific performances.

“Ajami” definitely represents the complexity of the situation, and underlines the fact that it isn’t even merely two-sided, Muslims against the Jews. But what’s troubling is that, despite coming from a directing team made up of one Jew and one Arab, is that it certainly is not pro-Israeli as far as the Jews as concerned. It doesn’t make the distinction easy, pitting each ethnic tribe against another, but the general consensus seems to be that no one likes the Jews (which may well be true), and they’re not portrayed terribly sympathetically either. That certainly doesn’t make it a bad film by any means, but it’s somewhat disconcerting. The film was fairly well-received in Israel, winning its Best Picture prize, and it still is a worthwhile and compelling movie.

Where the film does falter is in its brisk editing that mimics the out-of-order presentation of other films like “Pulp Fiction,” where characters are shot to death in one scene and reappear completely fine in the next. While this structure helps to reveal unknown information in a dynamic, intriguing, and surprising way, the film gets lost in its own web of plotlines and separate arcs, making its dramatic resolution all the more difficult to pinpoint. When it’s all over, the pieces still need to be reassembled, making the film’s impact lasting but more than a bit dizzying and unsatisfying.


Best Films of 2009: #5-1

#5: Broken Embraces

#4: Avatar

#3: Up in the Air

#2: A Single Man

#1: Inglourious Basterds