Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Wednesday Oscar Retrospective: The Big Snub of 2009

Welcome to a new weekly feature here at Movies with Abe, Wednesday Oscar Retrospective. The Big Snub is the second 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, the Oscar nominations announcement presents several notable omissions. This series is devoted to analyzing the biggest and most shocking snub of all (in any category). It has nothing to do with personal opinion but rather with what seemed likely at the time and what most people were predicting. Once again, this is a film/director/actor who didn’t even earn a nomination.

The Big Snub of 2009:
Invictus” for Best Picture

Why it was all set to happen: Even though it didn’t score a Best Motion Picture – Drama nod at the Golden Globes, the expanded field of ten Best Picture nominees seemed like it would certainly welcome it in. A Globe snub isn’t a death sentence: “Milk” made it in the previous year, and “Crash” even won without one. Clint Eastwood did earn a Best Director nomination, however, and also took home the National Board of Review prize. In 2006, his film “Letters from Iwo Jima” managed a Best Picture nomination somewhat surprisingly after winning the Best Foreign Film Golden Globe, and his 2004 film “Million Dollar Baby” came out of nowhere in November to eventually take home the Best Picture award. Good buzz for actors Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon made its chances seem even more secure. Some prognosticators even though of it as a safer bet than choices like “District 9” and “A Serious Man,” ranking it higher on their prediction lists.

Why it probably didn’t: There are likely as many Eastwood haters as there are Eastwood lovers in the Academy, and many who felt that “Million Dollar Baby” did not deserve its victory over “The Aviator.” Eastwood’s films are all somewhat alike, and if you didn’t like his previous movies, it’s unlikely that “Invictus” won you over. Another sports movie also emerged, like “Million Dollar Baby,” in the middle of November with no previous buzz behind it, and voters seem to have thrown their support behind a race relations story set on American soil, “The Blind Side.” Freeman already won in 2004 for “Million Dollar Baby,” so it wasn’t as if his excellent portrayal of Nelson Mandela came as a shock to anyone, whereas Sandra Bullock’s first nomination presented an exciting scenario for a hard-working comedienne to finally be honored for a dramatic performance.

What took its place: “The Blind Side

Consolation prize: Freeman still earned a Best Actor nod, and Damon managed to get a Best Supporting Actor nomination though many had doubted his chances. Neither won.

Come back next week for a look at the Big Snub of 2008. I have a feeling most readers have very strong opinions about this year in particular, so I’m curious to hear your thoughts!

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Tuesday’s Top Trailer: Scott Pilgrim vs. the World

Welcome 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.

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World – Opening August 13, 2010



This trailer debuted last week, and even though it’s technically only a teaser trailer, it provides enough of a snapshot of the film to make it worth exciting. Anyone who’s seen “Superbad,” “Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist,” and “Youth in Revolt” knows that Michael Cera pretty much plays the same role in every movie. Anyone who hasn’t seen those films probably knows that too. But this here is a different take on the same kind of part, and it looks to be all the more fun since there are superpowers involved. I’ve never read the graphic novels on which this movie is based, but it seems like they’re really popular and very enjoyable. Everyone here appears to be having a good time, and I like how the movie seems to preserve the onomatopoeia of comic books, where the sounds are written out. On screen, it has an amusing effect, and I imagine that will make it even more entertaining. Cera looks particularly young and easy to fluster, and he’s tried before to win the heart of some teenage girl, but now he has that added bonus of superpowers. Some fun names, including Kieran Culkin, Chris Evans, Brandon Routh, and Jason Schwartzman, ltter the cast, as well as breakout starlets Anna Kendrick (“Up in the Air”) and Alison Pill (“In Treatment”). The movie’s tagline, “an epic of epic epicness,” drives home the fact that this is a farce at heart, and as long as it doesn’t mimic “Epic Movie” (which I have not seen, but have heard uniformly abysmal things about), it should be alright. I especially like the humor espoused by Kendrick’s character when she tells Pilgrim not to date the girl with eleven evil ex-boyfriends and he corrects the figure to seven, and she responds, “oh well, that’s not that bad.” This one doesn’t hit theaters until August, but it’s sure to a blast at the end of the summer. Are you excited? Have you read the source material?

Monday, March 29, 2010

Monday Movie You Aught to See: The Deep End

Regardless of whether the decade ended already ended in 2009 or will end at the close of the current year, the 2000s were a wonderful period of cinema with many treasures that deserve to be remembered. Check in at Movies with Abe on Mondays for Movies You Aught to See, a look back at memorable movies from the aughts. They are posted in no particular order, and if you have a great film from the 2000s that you think merits consideration, leave a note in the comments!

The Deep End
Directed by Scott McGehee and David Siegel
Released August 8, 2001



Before Tilda Swinton delivered her film-making lead performance in "Julia," and before she won an Oscar for her so-so turn in "Michael Clayton," she starred in "The Deep End," an overlooked thriller which earned her a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actress in a Motion Picture - Drama. In a year of noir films, Entertainment Weekly dubbed it "soccer mom noir." It's the tale of a mother being blackmailed while her husband is overseas, trying desperately to protect the innocence and reputation of her son. It's a tour de force performance from Swinton, and a wonderfully impressive film that doesn't pull any cheap stunts or seem far-fetched at any point. A stunning musical score from Peter Nashel is haunting and memorable, and writer-director team Scott McGehee and David Siegel (who collaborated on last year's "Uncertainty") do a magnificent job of crafting a film about an ordinary woman in the most extraordinary of circumstances. This is a must-see movie that is absolutely one of the best of the decade.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Sunday Standout Performances: February

Welcome to a new semi-regular feature here at Movies with Abe. A lot of great performances from the first half of the year are forgotten by the time Oscar movies roll out and awards season comes around. This feature is designed to pay tribute to those actors and actresses who have demonstrated excellence in movies that likely will not be remembered at the end of the year. Maybe praise like this can help. Each edition of Sunday Standout Performances will look at a different month, referencing my reviews of the films mentioned. Since we’re still playing catchup, here’s a look at February.

Tahar Rahim (A Prophet)

“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. 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.”

Dominic Chianese (The Last New Yorker)

“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. ‘The Last New Yorker’ is a tender film that showcases meaningful performances and a whimsical appreciation of old age and forgotten traditions.”

Shahir Kabaha & Ranin Karim (Ajami)

“‘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.”

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Movie with Abe: Lbs.


Lbs.
Directed by Matthew Bonifacio
Released March 26, 2010

The story of a 300-pound man whose obsessive eating causes enormous problems for more people than just himself is bound to be either an inspirational film or a depressing film. “Lbs,” the new movie that serves as the debut (at the time of its original premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in 2004) of actor and co-writer Carmine Famiglietti, isn’t quite sure what message it wants to send, and that’s hardly the only subject on which the movie is unclear. There’s little cohesion and plenty of trite elements to be found in “Lbs.” and the good doesn’t come close to outweigh the bad.

“Lbs.” presents an intriguing premise about a man who realizes that he needs to make a big change in his life but may not have the strength or energy to do it. For a number of reasons, it doesn’t follow through on its promise or potential. Its portrait of an excessively Italian family in Brooklyn downing pasta with meatballs at every turn paves the way for cartoonish fantasy sequences where main character Neil imagines indulging in carbohydrate-heavy delights. The film takes way too long in setting itself up and then devotes lengthy, mundane sequences to showing its protagonist exiling himself to the woods, and not nearly enough time is spent analyzing where the film and its character have gotten by the end.

There are many ups and downs in “Lbs,” which includes Neil’s weight, but overall there are far more downs. The film is ripe with familiar and trodden plot points without anywhere near enough originality. Bizarre choices of cinematography and editing add to the conception that this isn’t a terribly polished or well-produced project. Neil is an interesting character to a point, but overall, he’s not dynamic enough to carry a film. Two of the actresses in the film do turn in impressive performances that are a cut above the rest. Miriam Shor, recently seen as a sexually repressed 1970s housewife on “Swingtown,” has no trouble opening up as one of Neil’s lone friends out in the country, and brightens the otherwise lackluster scenes set outside of Brooklyn. Sharon Angela, who played mafia wife Rosalie Aprile on “The Sopranos,” once again nails the Italian prima donna character but also makes her considerably more complex than the script sets her out to be. There is much lacking in “Lbs.” and not enough weight behind it to make it worth undertaking.

C-

Friday, March 26, 2010

Movie with Abe: The Eclipse

The Eclipse
Directed by Conor McPherson
Released March 26, 2010

There is no lunar event that takes place in Conor McPherson’s new film. “The Eclipse” is the title of the new book by fictional author Lena Morelle, who is one of the distinguished guests at a local Irish literary convention. One of the phenomena discussed in Morelle’s novel is that of ghosts and what they signify. Morelle’s presence at the conference is both comforting and mystifying for one man involved in coordinating the events who just happens to be encountering a ghost of his own.

“The Eclipse” is a subtle and surprising film that breaches the seemingly mundane and safe world of authors with the deathly dangerous supernatural. It’s an utterly original premise that is both disarming and extremely powerful. The notion of a ghost of a person who’s still alive is troubling but just as intriguing, and the way it plays out onscreen is very interesting. This isn’t a movie obsessed with cheap thrills, horror, or shock. Every time it gets dark and a ghost appears on screen, it is completely terrifying, but the point is that it’s inescapable, and, perhaps more frighteningly, inexplicable. It’s a meditative film that dwells on concepts and ideas rather than villainizing its semi-undead to scare its audience.

The characters in “The Eclipse” are fascinating all by themselves, even before the story around them kicks into gear. Michael Farr is a widower with two kids who channels his passion for literature into behind-the-scenes work at the literary festival. He is stoic but entirely committed to do whatever the writers, however arrogantly and impolitely, ask of him. Lena Morelle is an author who writes about intense subjects but is petrified of spending even a few minutes alone in a dark house. The intersection of their two lives makes for a terrific and moving story, and their discussions about what may be going on in Farr’s life are extraordinary.

The caliber of the performances more than matches the depth and complexity of the characters. Ciaran Hinds, whose previous credits include background characters in “Munich” and “There Will Be Blood” and Julius Caesar on HBO’s “Rome,” is mesmerizing as Farr. He is muted and solitary but his face says so much when he speaks to his kids and to Morelle, and takes on an entirely different expression of terror when he faces the unknown in the form of a visiting ghost. Iben Hjejle is equally excellent as Morelle, and the way she interacts with Farr and with an egotistical writer named Nicholas Holden (Aidan Quinn) reveals so much about her. A ghost story is sometimes just a tale that involves ghosts, and that can be completely compelling. In this case, it’s not child’s play, and this adult ghost story is a magnificently worthwhile work.

B+

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Thursday American Cinema Classic

Welcome to a new weekly feature here at Movies with Abe, Thursday American Cinema Classic. I’m taking a course called American Cinema Since 1960 where we’re charting the history and development of American Cinema from the 1960s to the present. We’ll be watching some pretty iconic films, some of which I haven’t seen before. Each week, I’ll be providing a short review of one contemporary classic from the annals of recent history.

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance
Directed by John Ford
Released April 22, 1962



(Spoiler alert: Do not watch the clip if you haven't see the film!)

I took a course completely about Western films, and this film was screened in that class as one of the most intriguing instances of a Western since it brings together iconic stars James Stewart and John Wayne for the first time in the same movie. It also marks one of the final films in the long list of 21 collaborations between four-time Oscar-winning director John Ford and Wayne. Looking at this film in a different context other than one of the many great and unrewarded at the time Westerns sets it up as the classic Western in the history of American cinema from the 1960s to the present. It isn't a typical Western in many ways, and putting two very different character types together makes for a fascinating comparison of the old gunslinging West, exemplified by Wayne's Tom Doniphon, and the more civilized, literary East, typified by Stewart's Ransom Stoddard. It's a film that feels very dated due to the unintentionally comic nature of some of its interactions, especially those involving Lee Marvin's deep-voiced villain Liberty Valance, who calls everyone "dude." Still, it hasn't lost its relevance, and certainly gives its audiences plenty to think about and contemplate on in terms of the implications of violence and the transformation of an outlaw-ruled society into a civilized democracy. The added subplot of voting for statehood contributes to this film as a symbol of change. For me, the most powerful performance after having seen this film isn't Wayne's, or Stewart's, but rather that of Edmond O'Brien, who won an Oscar eight years earlier for his role in "The Barefoot Contessa," as newspaper man Dutton Peabody, whose dedication to his printing press was unrivaled. He's by far the most entertaining character in the movie, but at the same time, probably the smartest and noblest, second only to lawyer Stoddard. There's definitely much to say and discuss about this film, and it's absolutely worthy of preservation in the canon of film history. The clip above is the big reveal that features some great shouting from both Stewart and Wayne and provides the film with its title.

B+

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Wednesday Oscar Retrospective: The Forgotten Five of 2002

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 2002:


Antwone Fisher was the directorial debut for Denzel Washington, who won his second acting Oscar one year earlier for “Training Day.” It was a moving film based on a true story that garnered praise and nomination from the Black Reel Awards and the Image Awards, earning accolades mostly for lead actor Derek Luke, but no Oscar nods.

Igby Goes Down was a dysfunctional family dramedy similar to the previous year’s Oscar-nominated “The Royal Tenenbaums,” with a star-studded cast that included Susan Sarandon, Jeff Goldblum, and Bill Pullman. In addition to a special NBR award, it earned awards for Sarandon’s performance as well as star Kieran Culkin.

Punch-Drunk Love did the seemingly impossible and generated Oscar buzz for comedian Adam Sandler, who only ended up getting as far as a Golden Globe nomination. Director P.T. Anderson’s previous two films (“Magnolia” and “Boogie Nights”) earned multiple Oscar nods, and it would be his next (“There Will Be Blood”) that would finally be nommed for Best Picture.

Secretary, from yet another Steven whose last name ended in “berg” (this time Shainberg), was lauded at the Sundance Film Festival for its originality. It launched the career of future Oscar nominee Maggie Gyllenhaal, but just as many people were liked turned off by its subject matter as those who loved it.

25th Hour was a powerhouse post-9/11 ensemble drama led by two-time Oscar nominee Edward Norton that mysteriously didn’t fare well with awards. Norton had a few other roles that year that may have divided voters’ attention, but more relevantly, director Spike Lee has never helmed a Best Picture nominee, despite earning a screenplay nod for “Do the Right Thing.”

Take a look at past editions of the Forgotten Five, and get ready for an all-new Oscar Retrospective series starting next Wednesday!

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Tuesday's Top Trailer: Harry Brown

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.



Harry Brown – Opening April 30, 2010




Some stars, especially those with more Oscar nominations than can be counted on one hand, have earned a certain reputation as truly excellent actors. There are those who do that and then start churning out remarkably awful garbage, like Robert De Niro and Al Pacino, and then there are others who stick to the good stuff and don't need an "Everybody's Fine" to demonstrate to the world that they're still trying. Michael Caine is a terrific actor who is still turning in exceptional performances at the age of 77. He played the entertaining and loyal Alfred in both "Batman Begins" and "The Dark Knight," but look no further than his memorable and moving supporting turn in "Children of Men" a few years ago to find a truly admirable and respectable turn by the British actor. The difference here is that he gets to take his still-preserved talent and put it to good use in a leading role. I always wanted to but somehow never got around to seeing "The Quiet American," the 2002 film for which Caine earned his most recent Oscar nomination for Best Actor in a Leading Role, and I imagine Caine did a terrific job there. But when it comes to "Harry Brown," this part reminds me a lot of an amalgamation of the roles Clint Eastwood and Hal Holbrook played in "Gran Torino" and "That Evening Sun," respectively. All three characters are outliers from their communities, old timers who maintain the sensibilities and lifestyles they grew up knowing, refusing to adhere to what the young folk around them tell them they must do in order to assimilate. That approach worked well for the aforementioned two senior citizen actors, and I think it should do the same here for two-time Oscar winner Caine. It's true that a similar plotline about a faceless vigilante taking out the trash starring a two-time Oscar winner didn't work when it came out a few years ago, but I think this has much more potential than "The Brave One" did. Looking at the resume of the director, Daniel Barber, his lone previous credit is the Oscar-nominated short film "The Tonto Woman," which I detested, but the direction was probably the strongest part of the overlong western. "Harry Brown" has even more going for it, and that's the lovely and amazing Emily Mortimer as one of the cops who interrogates and presumably keeps an eye on Caine's Harry Brown. This is also one of those exceptions to the rule about movies in the first few months of the year being bad, since this is spillover from the UK and it's a reliable veteran actor in the starring slot. I'm looking very forward to this - what about you?

Monday, March 22, 2010

Monday Movie You Aught to See: Heights

Regardless of whether the decade ended already ended in 2009 or will end at the close of the current year, the 2000s were a wonderful period of cinema with many treasures that deserve to be remembered. Check in at Movies with Abe on Mondays for Movies You Aught to See, a look back at memorable movies from the aughts. They are posted in no particular order, and if you have a great film from the 2000s that you think merits consideration, leave a note in the comments!



Heights
Directed by Chris Terrio
Released June 17, 2005



This is an under-appreciated gem that takes place in New York City over a twenty-four hour period. It's an ensemble piece that somehow flew under the radar, featuring the talents of Glenn Close, Jesse Bradford, James Mardsen, and Isabella Rossellini. It also provides Elizabeth Banks with a lead role, and honestly it's probably the best part she's ever had, and she does a magnificent job with it. It's a magical ode to city rooftops that also incorporates urban photography into its smart and wonderful script. There are plenty of twists and surprises along the way, but getting to know these characters and the way they take in the city is what really makes this one worth it.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Sunday Standout Performances: January

Welcome to a new semi-regular feature here at Movies with Abe. A lot of great performances from the first half of the year are forgotten by the time Oscar movies roll out and awards season comes around. This feature is designed to pay tribute to those actors and actresses who have demonstrated excellence in movies that likely will not be remembered at the end of the year. Maybe praise like this can help. Each edition of Sunday Standout Performances will look at a different month, referencing my reviews of the films mentioned. Since we’re playing catchup now, let’s start by taking a look at January. This one is all about the lead actresses.

Portia Doubleday (Youth in Revolt)

“In the midst of the expected quality of [Michael] Cera’s work, there’s an even more exciting discovery for both Nick and audiences in the form of his muse, played by lovely unknown quantity Portia Doubleday. It’s the romantic chemistry between Doubleday and Cera that drives the story of “Youth in Revolt.” The drooling gaze that takes over Nick’s face after he first sees the impossibly attractive and enticing Sheeni Saunders is especially telling of the lasting infatuation that has overcome the young hero. Their conversations are excessively and hyperbolically mature, and they act as if they’re the only people in the world.”

Katie Jarvis (Fish Tank)

“The most astounding aspect of “Fish Tank” is the debut of its leading actress. Katie Jarvis was only seventeen years when the film was made (she’s now eighteen), and delivers an exceptionally mature performance that resonates well beyond her years. Her casting in the film, which came about as a result of a loud argument with her boyfriend in a train station, proves that Jarvis has an intimate relationship with this character, and she understands and sympathizes with the anger she has inside of her. Mia, the protagonist in “Fish Tank,” is like a cross between Jenny from “An Education” and Precious from “Precious,” but there’s something starkly different about her.”

Émilie Duquenne (The Girl on the Train)

“Few films are fortunate enough to find a starlet whose mere presence serves to electrify and enliven the entire film, where the surrounding story might as well be inconsequential because the lead performance is so captivating. The feat is even more impressive when the film and actress in question are French, a culture where charm might be very present but politeness often is not. Émilie Dequenne, who has been actively appearing in almost two dozen French films over the last decade, is the star whose radiance and beauty, coupled with a disdainful attitude towards productivity, serve to make her an extraordinarily enticing protagonist, Jeanne.”

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Movie with Abe: Stolen

Stolen
Directed by Anders Anderson
Released March 12, 2010

If made right, a thriller can be the most exciting film genre. An intriguing premise, legitimate suspense, solid performers, and a satisfying ending all contribute to the ideal thriller, which includes films such as “The Silence of the Lambs,” “Se7en,” “The Usual Suspects,” and “Red Dragon” in its cannon. It’s far easier, however, to fall into the trap of overly familiar and unoriginal plotting which instead becomes terribly plodding. This film falls flatly into the latter category, and it would probably be better termed a mystery film rather than a thriller since it proceeds forward at a devastatingly pensive pace.

“Stolen” follows two very different men in their struggle to cope with the disappearance of their sons. Jon Hamm, famous as the humorless Don Draper on “Mad Men,” is a detective in the present day trying to retain a clear focus in his investigations while still searching desperately for his son, who has been missing for nearly a decade. Josh Lucas costars as a newly single father in 1958 who, after the suicide of his wife, must find a new life for three young sons. The two stories are meant to invoke parallels between the two distraught fathers, but the connections are mostly forced and aided considerably by an obnoxious device which serves to physically transition the scene from one time period to the other.

Both fathers are obviously tied together to some degree by a shared understanding of their troubles, but there’s no reason that they need to appear in the same movie. It’s very much like “Frequency” without the supernatural space-time connection, an omission which undermines any reason to link the two stories. The problem is that neither is remotely strong enough to carry a movie by itself, and therefore combining them seems like an effort to create something more effective. Unfortunately there’s little intrigue since most of the film’s disappointingly few twists are hopelessly drawn out and obvious. For a movie that is supposedly about the shared plight of two parents, there’s precious little character development.

A cast littered with impressive stars doesn’t contribute much to the overall film, but it isn’t necessarily the fault of the actors. Hamm needs a better script, and Lucas needs a better role, which they have both had in the past and will have again in the future. Morena Baccarin, a familiar television face from “Firefly” and “V,” needs more movie work immediately because she’s incredible and stands out as the most memorable aspect of the film with only ten minutes or so of screen time. Compliments to Ms. Baccarin aside, the fact that she was the best in show doesn’t say very much about an otherwise throwaway film.

D-

Friday, March 19, 2010

Movie with Abe: Vincere

Vincere
Directed by Marco Bellocchio
Released March 19, 2010

The word “vincere” means “win” in Italian. That’s certainly a fitting verb to describe the goals and outlook of one Benito Mussolini. This movie starts out as a stunning portrait of Mussolini the man as he becomes Mussolini the legend. A fantastic scene at the beginning of the film shows Mussolini declaring in front of a party meeting that he will prove that God does not exist by challenging God to strike him dead, and if he remain standing, he has successfully made his point. Ida Dalser, Mussolini’s first wife, sneaks in to look on admiringly, and it’s clear that this man means the world to her. It’s a strong introduction to a story about passion for power and for love.

After that positive start, however, things become increasingly less clear. This is supposed to be the story of Ida Dalser, the woman who was ignored and denied as the legitimate first wife of Mussolini. Yet the film seems infinitely more focused on his rise to power and his continued legacy, with a frenzied Dalser, declared insane to discredit her allegations, frantically watching and trying desperately to have her story heard. It’s almost as if the creative team behind this film treated her in the same manner as Mussolini did, considering her mildly interesting for a while but ultimately unworthy of a place in the overarching chronicle of Mussolini’s history.

“Vincere” weaves together scenes featuring actor Filippo Timi as Mussolini and archive footage of the real Mussolini in order to portray the man, close and tangible as he was at first to Ida and then distant and untouchable as he later ended up when he refused to acknowledge her anymore. It’s a device that works somewhat well to explain the pain and disconnect Ida felt, but it takes the viewer out of the experience more, feeling just as out of touch with reality as Ida. Another disappointment isn’t the fault of the filmmakers, but is rather due to the accuracy and depth of historical records. There isn’t much detailed information about what actually became of Ida, and therefore the later portions of the film are considerably hazier, which makes it seem like the movie falls with its main character, losing its sense of reality along with its protagonist.

The performances in “Vincere” are, fortunately, extremely strong and the best reason to see the film. Timi is fearsome and impressive as Mussolini, and his work in the opening scene alone makes the film. Giovanna Mezzogiorno, who previously played a crazed, disrespected wife in the 2001 film “L’ultimo bacio” (the original version of “The Last Kiss” starring Zach Braff), is extraordinarily capable of channeling emotion, devotion, rage, and passion into the character of Ida Dalser. The fine work by the actors is far above the strength of the material here, however, which is hardly a testament to their portrayals and to the legacy of the real-life people whose lives are being depicted here.

C

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Thursday American Cinema Classic

Welcome to a new weekly feature here at Movies with Abe, Thursday American Cinema Classic. I’m taking a course called American Cinema Since 1960 where we’re charting the history and development of American Cinema from the 1960s to the present. We’ll be watching some pretty iconic films, some of which I haven’t seen before. Each week, I’ll be providing a short review of one contemporary classic from the annals of recent history.

The Graduate
Directed by Mike Nichols
Released December 22, 1967



This is a universally agreed-upon fantastic film that launched the very prolific career of actor Dustin Hoffman and contains so many classic scenes that it’s hard to pick just a few to mention in a quick review. This certainly wasn’t my first time screening it, but watching it with a classroom full of people and appreciating the dated nature of the film just makes it all the more entertaining. The soundtrack by Simon and Garfunkel helps to give it a distinctive sedated feel, and that’s also aided by the performances from the entire cast. This film came out over forty years ago, which is quite unbelievable considering the fact that both director Mike Nichols and star Dustin Hoffman are still making quality films, like “Charlie Wilson’s War” and “Last Chance Harvey.” Of course they can’t possibly live up to the greatness of “The Graduate,” though some of Hoffman’s follow-up films certainly did, like “Tootsie” and “Rain Man.” This film is particularly important because, along with “Bonnie & Clyde” the same year, it represented explicit, previously unexplored and prohibited pictures of indecency in a non-gratuitous way that appealed greatly to audiences. The revamping of the motion picture rating system the following year enabled more films like this to be released, but this was really one of the trailblazers that paved the way for it. Hoffman’s performance is hilariously muted and dry, and Anne Bancroft does a magnificent job of not letting him get away with anything. The script is brilliant, and the transitions in the film are stellar. This is a classic that needs no revision, and those who try, like Rob Reiner, Jennifer Aniston, and Kevin Costner with 2005’s “Rumor Has It,” surely think better of it after the fact. As I mentioned earlier, it’s difficult to find just one scene to represent the film, but I think the above clip does a fine job.

A

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Wednesday Oscar Retrospective: The Forgotten Five of 2003

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 2003:



Kill Bill Volume 1 was a wildly violent film from Oscar winner Quentin Tarantino, who won the Best Screenplay award for his second feature, 1994 Best Picture nominee “Pulp Fiction.” His subsequent film, “Jackie Brown,” earned just an acting nod for Robert Forster. This film, despite starring past Oscar nominee Uma Thurman, didn’t do the same, probably because it was too gratuitous and off-putting for some.

The Life of David Gale wasn’t a serious contender by the time Oscar season finally rolled around, but when this movie was originally supposed to come out, it had everything going for it: a two-time Oscar winning star (Kevin Spacey), two Oscar-nominated actresses (Kate Winslet and Laura Linney), an Oscar-nominated director (Alan Parker), and a weighty premise about an anti-death penalty activist suddenly on death row.

Love Actually really was the ultimate romantic comedy, pitting together a smattering of stars, including former Oscar nominees Liam Neeson, Emma Thompson, and Laura Linney. The entertainment value was high, and the film even received a surprise screenplay nomination from the Hollywood Foreign Press Association. It still couldn’t overcome the Oscar’s lack of enthusiasm for comedies.

Shattered Glass was a cutting-edge look at a true-life journalistic scandal involving fabricated sources. Most of the kudos it scored were from the Independent Spirit Awards and for its value as an exposé. Still, supporting actor Peter Sarsgaard and the adapted screenplay by Billy Ray racked up an impressive slate of honors, and a Best Picture mention probably wasn’t too far out of the picture.

The Station Agent was a runaway success with the Screen Actors Guild, earning nominations for lead actors Peter Dinklage and Patricia Clarkson as well as its ensemble cast. The trouble was, it couldn’t muster up much other awards attention, and most of Clarkson’s accolades were also for her the performance that resulted in an Oscar nomination for her, another tiny indie called “Pieces of April.”

Get started on 2002 (the final edition of this project) and come back next Wednesday for a look at the Forgotten Five of that year!

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Tuesday’s Top Trailer: Get Him to the Greek

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.

Get Him to the Greek – Opening June 4, 2010



This week’s top trailer is more of a cautious entry since this one could either soar or flop. It’s a movie that takes a supporting scene-stealing character from a film and gives him his own chance to headline a movie. The same director, Nicholas Stoller, is in charge, but the strange thing is that another scene-stealing actor from the first film, “Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” gets a whole new role, going from Matthew the Waiter to record company intern Aaron Green. It’s probably more believable not to have Matthew inexplicably turned into a success by interning at a record company, and therefore a fresh start could be good for the actor in this story. I personally loved “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” and I’ll admit that Aldous Snow was one of the funniest parts of the movie. Russell Brand is certainly unhinged, and having him take drugs and do other mild-altering things could result in some unfettered zaniness, but for the most part it should be fun. I never saw “The Rocker” with Rainn Wilson, but this strikes me as something akin to what I imagine that to be. What I expect from this kind of movie is an exceptional use of cameo roles, like that of Aziz Ansari as a record company employee, and a very gross-out sense of humor. Hill pushing away the face of a girl who is trying to make out with Aldous is an excellent example from the trailer of what should fill this movie’s runtime. I particularly enjoy Brand’s uttering of “behind the curtain is this sweating little drunk idiot covered in puke.” Hill is a master of understated delivery, of course, and his final statement of “are you kidding around?” in response to Aldous’ suggestion that they go jogging at 5am is great. This could be a monumental failure, sure, but I had a ball with “Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” and hopefully the same type of jokes and the presence of two of the same scene-stealers should be a recipe for comedy gold.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Monday Movie You Aught to See: Reprise

Regardless of whether the decade ended already ended in 2009 or will end at the close of the current year, the 2000s were a wonderful period of cinema with many treasures that deserve to be remembered. Check in at Movies with Abe on Mondays for Movies You Aught to See, a look back at memorable movies from the aughts. They are posted in no particular order, and if you have a great film from the 2000s that you think merits consideration, leave a note in the comments!

Reprise
Directed by Joachim Trier
Released May 16, 2008



This Norwegian film is a stunning export that tells the parallel stories of two friends who submit their writing for publication at the same time. The film is particularly magnificent because it tells its entire story in its opening moments through a hypothetical look into the future where the two authors grin at each other from the photographs that will go on the back cover of their books. It’s a wonderful story that explores inspirations, love, literature, and so much more, and features standout performances from the entire Norwegian cast. The entire film is well worth it, but you can also watch the opening seven minutes on YouTube.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Movie with Abe: The Exploding Girl

Check out my feature article written from an interview with director Bradley Rust Gray and star Zoe Kazan on the new film "The Exploding Girl" for the Washington Square News.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Movie with Abe: Mother

Mother
Directed by Joon-ho Bong
Released March 12, 2010

There is no one more protective of her young than a mother, but you haven’t seen anything yet until you’ve seen this mother. Her son may not be the brightest bulb in the box, and that only makes her protective instincts stronger. She trained him to fight back if anyone insults his intelligence, and dotes on him in a way that most would consider too close for comfort. He is all she has, and she is not going to let anything happen to him, even if it requires her to take extraordinary measures.

If her son is considered a bit of a quirky character then it’s near impossible to describe his mother. She is first seen dancing to imagined music in the middle of a meadow, and it is clear that she lives in her own world. When her son is arrested for his involvement at a fight, she hurriedly arrives at the police station with small gifts for each of the detectives and officers. They are fully aware of her reputation and it no longer comes as a shock to them. This odd boy and his even odder mother are well known in the community, but unfortunately for them, they are not terribly well-liked, prompting even more motherly action from this immutable matriarch.

What starts out as an entertaining if somewhat startling comedy quickly morphs into a serious thriller when the mother’s son, Yoon Do-joon, is jailed for a gruesome murder with no hope of a proper defense. The mother takes it upon herself to clear his name, and if she is unable to fully prove his innocence, she will still do her best to find anyone and everyone that knows something important. The same cast and characters are featured in the second half of the film but the genre and tone have been radically transformed. Both parts work equally well, and it is stunning to see such a subtle change that ends up being so intriguing and effective.

It should not come as a surprise that this hybrid of a film is what it is considering its director, Joon-ho Bong, who made the highly acclaimed film “The Host” several years ago. This is a story that strongly emphasizes its local and national culture, and it is extraordinarily interesting to see the kind of films that the Korean cinema industry is producing. Equally staggering and remarkable are the performances contained in this film. The portrayal of the Yoon Do-joon by Bin Won sets up the framework of the film and positions him perfectly in the story. But it’s the performance of Hye-ja Kim as the mother that really ties the film together. She throws herself completely into the role and presents a woman so fiercely loyal to her offspring whose dedication other proud mothers might yearn to mimic, albeit in a less eccentric and crazed manner. After all, the film is about one mother in particular, but the title doesn’t contain her real name. It may be a stretch to say that this film is a cinematic realization of the maternal instinct, but if any film could be classified that way, this would be it.

B+

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

Friday, March 12, 2010

Movie with Abe: Severe Clear

Severe Clear
Directed by Kristian Farga
Released March 12, 2010

This year’s Best Picture winner “The Hurt Locker” isn’t the only Iraq war movie opening in (or expanding to) a number of theatres today. There’s also the movie that has been termed the “real Hurt Locker.” That film is the documentary “Severe Clear,” an extremely revealing snapshot of the Iraq war in a specific time period. First Lieutenant Mike Scotti used his camera as a diary and video journal in preparation for the book he was planning to write, and the film preserves his breakdown of titled chapters and his segmented narrative of the beginning of the war on terror.

What sets “Severe Clear” apart from other films about the current conflict in Iraq is not only that it’s Scotti’s story, but that it was also shot by him. He wasn’t an embedded reporter and never intended for it to be a motion picture. The finished product paints a picture of a certain time period without the need to update it with any new information, a sort of time capsule. The key to success, according to director Kristian Fraga, is to keep the film to the time period during which the footage was filmed. Fraga explains that “we see how we went in and how things begin to unravel. When [Scotti] is back, that’s a whole other movie. The Mike Scotti of 2005 and 2006 is irrelevant.” Scotti emphasizes that this kind of project wouldn’t be possible today since such an unsupervised and free ability to shoot wouldn’t be permitted in the military.

The film’s relevancy today, however, isn’t lost in any way. Scotti explains that seeing the film creates a shared experience, especially for the families and loved ones who have served in the war. There’s a scene in the film where soldiers talk about how it’s hard for movies to represent what actually happens in war. Personally, Scotti says he “couldn’t think of a better type of therapy than getting everything down on paper.” Discussing the success of “The Hurt Locker,” Scotti notes that he saw the film because other marines saw it and recommended it to him. He isn’t concerned with alleged factual discrepancies, and points out that no one cares about the historical inaccuracy of an epic film like “Lawrence of Arabia.” He speaks particularly passionately about the lengthy desert scene that comes midway through “The Hurt Locker,” noting that he was nervous and sweating, and that the “awesome” scene affected him emotionally and physically. Fraga and Scotti speak highly of the film as a positive example of a war film.

For both Fraga and Scotti, one of the most satisfying reactions to their own film is that affirmation that they too got it right. Scotti’s immense efforts to film as much as he could in the midst of everything help to ensure a sense of reality without any sort of filter. Soldiers share their feelings and vent without attempting to smile and look good in front of the camera. It doesn’t take any political stance, even though both director and star are well aware that people will bring their politics to the film. It’s an incredibly real film that is at times surprisingly amusing and at others extremely unsettling. The story isn’t sugar-coated or glorified in any way, and its honesty is what makes it a crucial film not for those who seek concrete answers for why the country entered the war but rather a better understanding of what it’s like to be in the throes of war.

B+

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Movie with Abe: Harlem Aria

Harlem Aria
Directed by William Jennings
Released March 5, 2010

Everyone has the right to have a dream. Trying to achieve it may be trickier, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth putting in the effort. The story of a kind-hearted, somewhat slow African-American young man from Harlem who yearns to become an opera singer can certainly be seen as an inspiring tale of someone no one else believed in who still sought to prevail over the starkest of odds. Watching as Anton tries hard to realize his lifelong dream is compelling at times, but its presentation diminishes the considerable impact that Anton’s journey could have had.

This is absolutely one of those cases where the concept is far better than the execution. Those involved probably pitched it well and had it received positively, but it doesn’t work terribly well as a film. The inspirational nature of Anton’s transformation into an opera singer as a result of his newfound partnership with a piano player in the park instead comes off as immensely hokey, counteracting any positive possibilities it may have had. There’s nothing particularly inventive or stylized about the filmmaking, and the sappy, predictable story can’t tell itself.

Lead actor Gabriel Casseus gives his performance his all, perfectly mimicking the tics and naivety that the well-meaning Anton exhibits. It’s his portrayal that serves as the key element of the film that makes it worthwhile. The same can’t be said for his two buddies, however. As a homeless hustler who constantly takes advantage of Anton’s handicap, Damon Wayans is obscenely obnoxious and altogether too over-the-top. As the park pianist who more quickly takes to Anton due to his talent and good nature, Christian Camargo, recently seen in powerful roles in both TV’s “Dexter” and the Oscar-winning film “The Hurt Locker,” is sort of useless as a sap and doesn’t add much. The trio is ultimately more comic than compelling, which poses a problem for this allegedly moving film.

What carries “Harlem Aria” in some limited capacity is the essence of the film – Anton’s passion for and love of music. The scenes where Anton throws himself completely into the opera singing he so adores are by far the best in the film. At a point, however, there’s little left to be excited about, but opera lovers will easily be taken in by Casseus’ voice and energy. Those not prone to opera may not look as kindly on this film that presents an uplifting tale but tells it in a less than polished way.

C-

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Wednesday Oscar Retrospective: The Forgotten Five of 2004

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 2004:



Fahrenheit 9/11 was submitted by Michael Moore for consideration in the Best Picture category instead of the Best Documentary one in an attempt to follow up on Moore’s win in the latter category in 2002 for “Bowling for Columbine.” The film and the stunt presumably pissed a number of people off and didn’t pan out, though I predicted the film to get in for Best Picture and Best Director.

Garden State was the directorial debut of “Scrubs” actor Zach Braff. Despite turning in a surprisingly mature performance and showcasing the wonderful Natalie Portman, the film didn’t win many awards other than honors for Braff’s debut. His take on life in New Jersey earned a WGA nod for its original screenplay, but didn’t cater to the older block of Oscar voters.

Kill Bill Volume 2 was the second part of Quentin Tarantino’s bloody revenge saga. Uma Thurman earned Golden Globe nominations for both parts, and Bill himself picked up a nod for this part (the late David Carradine). The first one didn’t earn any accolades, but it was possible that the second might earn the duo’s due. It’s likely that the strong amount of violence and excessive swordplay may have diminished its chances.

Mean Girls was a searing send-up of high school life featuring starlet Lindsay Lohan before her days of crazy partying. “Saturday Night Live” stalwart player Tina Fey adapted the screenplay and the film was a critical success. This precursor to “Gossip Girl” didn’t get much farther than a WGA nod for Fey’s script, demonstrating that Oscar voters aren’t known for their sense of humor.

The Notebook made teenage girls across the country swoon. Rising stars Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams were certainly a major part of that, but the presence of veteran actors and past Oscar nominees James Garner, who earned a SAG Award nomination and Gena Rowlands seemed like it might propel the film to a spot on Oscar radar. This great love story just wasn’t destined to win awards.

Get started on 2003 and come back next Wednesday for a look at the Forgotten Five of that year!

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Tuesday’s Top Trailer: Date Night

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.

Date Night – Opening April 9, 2010



There’s enough reason to be excited for this movie before even seeing a trailer: it brings together the two people who really brought back NBC’s Must-See TV Thursday night. Steve Carrell is the undisputed star of “The Office,” and I’ve always considered Tina Fey to be the true lead of “30 Rock.” Before Alec Baldwin had two Emmys and three Golden Globes spouting “Best Actor in a Leading Role,” I had always considered him a supporting actor. More importantly, though, Fey works behind-the-scenes as a writer of the show. Unfortunately, Fey didn’t pen this film (her last and only film screenwriting credit was “Mean Girls”), but she should have a grand chance to show off the acting comedy chops she has demonstrated time and again on the four seasons of her hit TV show. Carrell should have no problem either, and he also proved his action-comedy abilities as the strongest part of “Get Smart,” but the question is: which one is the straight man? Fey usually plays that part, but it’s hard to decide which one of them is more of an oddball. But on to the movie! I was very surprised when I saw the trailer after hearing about this movie that it wasn’t a straight comedy a la “Knocked Up.” Instead, it’s an action comedy flick that, while still certainly emphasizing the latter, features killers and dangers aplently. In a sense that’s a relief because its something wildly original that doesn’t just depend, or worse, fall back on, the likeability and popularity of its two stars. They both do look like they’re having a blast though, playing low-key, fairly bland spouses who gradually let their inner crazy out as they’re on the run from hitmen who think they’re a different couple. The fact that the real couple is played by Mila Kunis and James Franco, as revealed ever-so-briefly in the trailer, is great considering their successful work in recent Judd Apatow troupe films, “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” and “Pineapple Express,” respectively. Simply put, even if the script isn’t sharp, the thespian talent involved should make it more than compelling, and I’ll definitely be thrilled to see it. Are you looking forward to it?

Monday, March 8, 2010

Movie with Abe: Toe to Toe

Toe to Toe
Directed by Emily Abt
Released February 26, 2010

After the same core story is told over and over in assorted variations and iterations, it begins to lose some of its impact. A revealing look at two teenagers with nothing in common who come together as a result of an unexpected share passion can only reveal so much before the trail has already been adequately covered. Treading the same ground with only slighted altered versions of the same archetype doesn’t automatically make the new take interesting or worthwhile. Those that imitate but don’t go above and beyond what came before risk fading into oblivion in the realm of the hundreds of film released each year.

“Toe to Toe” is the tale of two girls from different sides of the track who are united by their talent for playing lacrosse. Jesse is a rich white girl who has essentially been raised by her nanny due to her traveling workaholic mother’s busy schedule. Tosha is a black girl who comes from a bad neighborhood but has the drive to succeed so that she can get a scholarship to Princeton and leave the memories of her destitute world behind. They are brought together by lacrosse, but like last year’s “The Blind Side,” this is a sports movie that fails to adequately play up the love for the sport itself and therefore remains painfully ordinary.

It’s not a terribly original story, but that doesn’t mean it can’t still resonate and have some meaning, even if it’s diminished considerably. These are two characters who, despite fitting very broadly and loosely defined caricatures that hardly make them unique, are living their own individual lives. The intersection of their stories creates an interesting dynamic that, above all, showcases the strong performances of young actresses Louisa Krause and Sonequa Martin, both of who have a limited professional resume and deliver admirably. They should not be penalized if the characters written for them are not as three-dimensional as their portrayals.

There’s little more to say about “Toe to Toe” than to emphasize the fact that this is a familiar story which could have been more meaningful and effective if it had made use of more creative filmic and storytelling devices. There’s nothing to distinguish this particular tale and these specific characters from any such personages in a similar film. It isn’t a bad film, but it’s certainly not a terribly good one either. Expect more from these young and talented actresses in the future, but don’t spend too much time on this movie.

C+

Oscar Winner Reactions

Well, the annual awards season has officially come to a close. After the Oscars aired last night, we now have four first-time acting winners, the first woman ever to win best director, an underdog that defeated a film that earned over thirty times as much money at the box office for the top prize, and a few surprises along the way. None of the surprises are too exciting, since “Precious” did not deserve to beat “Up in the Air” for Best Adapted Screenplay and I, like pretty much every person who isn’t an Oscar voter who voted in the Best Foreign Film category, haven’t seen “The Secret in their Eyes,” which doesn’t open in U.S. theatres until April 16, so I can’t say whether or not it deserves it. I’m happy to report that the two most deserving short films (live action and animated) did in fact win, with the amazing “Logorama” defeating the equally entertaining but not quite as creative Wallace & Gromit entry “A Matter of Loaf and Death” and the incomparable “The New Tenants” winning the other award.

Predictions-wise, I did alright but not excellently. I missed seven categories in total – both screenplays, sound, makeup, foreign language film, documentary short, and animated short. For those keeping track, 17/24 (71%) is one more category up from last year, when I predicted 16/24, and five up from two years ago, when I got 12/24. More importantly, I got the top six categories right this time around, which wasn’t necessarily an easy feat considering many didn’t have faith in “The Hurt Locker.” Anyway, it’s been a fun season.

Ceremony-wise, I don’t have much to say because there wasn’t anything too exciting about it. Neil Patrick Harris’ appearance was fun, but Alec Baldwin and Steve Martin didn’t really have a chance to do too much funny stuff. Ben Stiller’s Avatar appearance was entertaining, and the mix of presenters worked pretty well. Some at my Oscar-watching party took issue with having Barbra Streisand present Best Director and endorse two candidates before handing out the award, not unjustly. I prefer a subtler choice which honors all directors, like when Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, and Steven Spielberg presented because everyone thought that Martin Scorsese was going to win and it still would have been meaningful if someone else had taken home the trophy. Streisand is also a strange choice because she is not one of the other three women who was nominated for Best Director, despite having helmed a Best Picture nominee.

What were your favorite moments from the Oscars and what did you think of the winners? Post a comment and below and share your thoughts!

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Your Guide to the Oscars

Movies with Abe presents your guide to tonight's Oscars. Click on each category heading for detailed analysis, reference the asterisk for the predicted winner, and click on each movie title for a full review of the film in question. Post your own predictions in the comments, and enjoy the ceremony! I'm hosting a party so I won't be live-blogging, but good luck on your own pools and enjoy the show.


Best Motion Picture Of The Year
Avatar
The Blind Side
District 9
An Education
*The Hurt Locker
Inglourious Basterds
Precious
A Serious Man
Up
Up In The Air

Best Performance By An Actor In A Leading Role
*Jeff Bridges (Crazy Heart)
George Clooney (Up in the Air)
Colin Firth (A Single Man)
Morgan Freeman (Invictus)
Jeremy Renner (The Hurt Locker)

Best Performance By An Actress In A Leading Role
*Sandra Bullock (The Blind Side)
Helen Mirren (The Last Station)
Carey Mulligan (An Education)
Gabourey Sidibe (Precious)
Meryl Streep (Julie & Julia)

Best Performance By An Actor In A Supporting Role
Matt Damon (Invictus)
Woody Harrelson (The Messenger)
Christopher Plummer (The Last Station)
Stanley Tucci (The Lovely Bones)
*Christoph Waltz (Inglourious Basterds)

Best Performance By An Actress In A Supporting Role
Penelope Cruz (Nine)
Vera Farmiga (Up in the Air)
Maggie Gyllenhaal (Crazy Heart)
Anna Kendrick (Up in the Air)
*Mo'Nique (Precious)

Best Achievement In Directing
*Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker)
James Cameron (Avatar)
Lee Daniels (Precious)
Jason Reitman (Up in the Air)
Quentin Tarantino (Inglourious Basterds)

Best Writing, Screenplay Written Directly For The Screen

The Hurt Locker
*Inglourious Basterds
The Messenger
A Serious Man
Up

Best Writing, Screenplay Based On Material Previously Produced Or Published
District 9
An Education
In the Loop
Precious
*Up In The Air

Best Achievement In Cinematography
*Avatar
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
The Hurt Locker
Inglourious Basterds
The White Ribbon

Best Achievement In Art Direction
*Avatar
The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus
Nine
Sherlock Holmes
The Young Victoria

Best Achievement In Costume Design
Bright Star
Coco Before Chanel
The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus

Nine
*The Young Victoria

Best Achievement In Editing
Avatar
District 9
*The Hurt Locker
Inglourious Basterds
Precious

Best Achievement In Music Written For Motion Pictures, Original Score
Avatar
Fantastic Mr. Fox
The Hurt Locker
Sherlock Holmes
*Up

Best Achievement In Music Written For Motion Pictures, Original Song
*“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)

Best Achievement In Sound

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

Best Achievement In Sound Editing
Avatar
*The Hurt Locker
Inglourious Basterds
Star Trek
Up

Best Achievement In Makeup
Il Divo
Star Trek
*The Young Victoria

Best Achievement In Visual Effects
*Avatar
District 9
Star Trek

Best Documentary, Features
Burma VJ
*The Cove
Food, Inc.
The Most Dangerous Man in America
Which Way Home

Best Foreign Language Film Of The Year
Ajami
The Milk of Sorrow
A Prophet
The Secret of Her Eyes
*The White Ribbon

Best Animated Feature Film of The Year
Coraline
Fantastic Mr. Fox
The Princess and the Frog
The Secret of Kells
*Up

Best Documentary Short Film
China’s Unnatural Disaster
The Last Campaign of Governor Booth Gardner
*The Last Truck: Closing of a GM Plant
Music by Prudence
Rabbit à la Berlin

Best Animated Short Film
French Roast
Granny O’Grimm’s Sleeping Beauty
The Lady and the Reaper
Logorama
*A Matter of Loaf and Death

Best Live Action Short Film
The Door
Instead of Abracadabra
Kavi
Miracle Fish
*The New Tenants

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Oscar-Nominated Documentaries: Burma VJ & The Cove

Burma VJ: Reporting from a Closed Country
Directed by Anders Ostergaard
Released May 20, 2009

The Cove
Directed by Louie Psihoyos
Released July 31, 2009

Two of the films nominated for this weekend’s Oscar for Best Documentary are no longer in theatres. While “The Cove” has been out on DVD since December, “Burma VJ,” which enjoyed an extremely brief theatrical run last May, won’t be available on DVD until around June. Luckily, the IFC Center in New York City brought the latter film back for one night as part of the Stranger than Fiction series last week. These two films actually have quite a bit in common, and it’s very interesting to look at these two posited beside each other.

With any hard-hitting documentary, exposing the facts requires a certain determination on the part of the researchers and often forces them to put their lives in serious danger. In the case of “Burma VJ,” the Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB) faces life imprisonment by the military government and the destruction of all of the video material its members have worked to assemble. In “The Cove,” former Flipper trainer Richard O’Barry and his team of dolphin rescuers also risk the daily possibility of being apprehended and held without anyone back home to come and save them. The stories of people being beaten and shot versus dolphins being murdered might not exactly carry the same weight, but through these two films, each presents an extraordinarily compelling tale.

In both “The Cove” and “Burma VJ,” a brave few try to expose some truth about which the rest of the world seems hopelessly unaware. In the effort to save the dolphins, the small crew seeks to film as much as they can so that they can use it to inspire others back in the United States and other countries to take part in the cause. In Burma, however, the most significant part of the work done by the DVB is the transmission of the footage taken to the rest of the world and even back into the closed country of Burma. Spreading information is paramount, and if a small number of people can inspire hundreds, thousands, or millions, then maybe the world can be changed one step at a time.

The two films take different tones in spotlighting their respective injustices. “Burma VJ” is an ultra-serious instance of true groundbreaking reporting from a closed country, as the subtitle suggests, and it operates under the premise that everyone is watching and therefore it’s simply unbelievable that nothing is changing. “The Cove” starts with the opening line “we tried to do this legally” while operating as a thriller of sorts, but there’s a fair amount of humor in the film, including O’Barry deliberately lying to police in interviews and answering the question “how many times have you been arrested” with “this year?” O’Barry also utters a distinctly trademark line that no other person in thee world could call their own: “if there’s a dolphin in trouble anywhere in the world, my phone rings.” The DVB similarly attempts to prevent any government misconduct in the country of Burma. These watchdogs are doing incredible work, and these films do their stories justice.

Burma VJ: B+
The Cove: B+

Movie with Abe: The Secret of Kells

The Secret of Kells
Directed by Tomm Moore & Nora Twomey
Released March 5, 2010

This year’s surprise nominee for Best Animated Feature is finally here, and it’s quite an interesting experience. It’s one of the most astonishing uses of traditional two-dimensional animation to tell a story about the writing of the Book of Kells amid an impending invasion of Kells by the murderous Vikings. There’s something inherently fascinating and intoxicating about the film, but there seems to be something missing in the impact and overall effectiveness of the film in seeming like a finished project and a complete story.

In a sense, “The Secret of Kells” is like a film adaptation of a children’s book. While it tells a dark history often wrought with gruesome violence (though it isn’t rated by the MPAA, it would likely earn a PG-13), the way it presents it is through the eyes of the impressionable young Brendan, the nephew of the Abbot who has never left the confines of the abbey. Brendan’s curiosity always gets the best of him, and the arrival of the legendary Brother Aidan of Iona, illustrator of the Book of Kells, propels him into a whirlwind adventure that pits him both against the wrath of his overprotective uncle and much more gravely dangerous forces in his path.

Brendan’s real journey begins when he runs deep into a mysterious forest which he has been forbidden to enter by his uncle. The way he so quickly becomes simultaneously lost and awed by his fantastical surroundings is reminiscent of “Pan’s Labyrinth,” where magic often aids the main character and things are never quite as they seem. The energy with which the excitable young protagonist runs headfirst into danger and the dominance of fascination over fear by what he finds is also similar in a wonderful way. The presence of Brendan’s fairy friend Aisling is probably the most amazing part of the film, and a haunting song that she sings to help spirit Brendan to safety is simply mesmerizing.

The two-dimensional animation is particularly impressive considering the current predominance of computer animation today. The active workings of Brendan’s imagination are spectacularly illustrated and represented by the startling and incredible designs that play out on screen. Aesthetically and technically speaking, it’s a marvelous achievement that serves as a strong argument for the continued use of hand-drawn animation, and its resemblance to a children’s story book only helps make it all the more compelling. As a narrative film, however, it falls somewhat short because its 75-minute runtime doesn’t allow it the time to fully develop, and more crucially, finish telling, its intriguing tale.

B