Monday, December 31, 2012

Saying Goodbye to 2012

It’s been an exciting year here at Movies with Abe. A busy first half of the year resulted in me being able to see fewer movies than usual, and between July and November, I barely saw anything. That meant rushing around to see just about every awards contender out there in December, which proved to be a thrilling and exhausting adventure. In all, I posted more than ever in 2012, passing 500 posts on Movies with Abe and 1100 on TV with Abe. It’s been a productive year of contribution to other sites as well, namely Shockya, Jewcy, and my new Jewish Journal blog, Awards Material. Earlier today, I confirmed my attendance at the Sundance Film Festival, which I will be covering for the first time. The 6th Annual AFT Film Awards will begin shortly after the Oscar nominations are announced in less than two weeks. Looking forward to a great 2013 and plenty of movies! Thanks for reading, and happy new year!

Oscar Contender: This Is Not a Film


This Is Not a Film
Directed by Mojtaba Mirtahmasb and Jafar Panahi
Released February 29, 2012

Among this year’s finalists for the Best Documentary Oscar is “This Is Not a Film,” an exploration of the mind of Jafar Panahi, an acclaimed Iranian filmmaker banned by his government from making films for the next twenty years. “This Is Not a Film” begins as a straightforward view of Panahi’s daily life, conducted as if no camera were present and quickly demonstrative of the energy he possesses that is so limited by his current predicament. Watching Panahi stage and read aloud a scene from his new screenplay paints an intimate portrait of this man and artist, and it’s clear that the sentence he has received has compelled him more than ever to make his voice heard. Seeing Panahi live vicariously through clips of past movies and through the idea that talking to Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, the film’s co-director, will enable him to once again have an impact, makes him into a sympathetic character and an affecting protagonist. The film’s style is highly unconventional, and its pacing, while purposeful, is also occasionally agonizing, as the film runs just seventy-five minutes but feels much longer. That, however, is the point, and “This Is Not a Film” succeeds most in being immensely thought-provoking.

B

Movie with Abe: Looper

Looper
Directed by Rian Johnson
Released September 28, 2012 / DVD December 31, 2012

Time travel movies are always interesting. The notion of transforming one’s past by returning from the future is absolutely fascinating, and while there are some clear, agreed-upon universal facets of time travel, no two literary or cinematic conceptions are entirely alike. “Looper” takes the more pessimistic approach, assuming that, almost immediately after its invention, time travel would be used for evil and promptly outlawed. Guns for hire are sent anonymous victims to execute and dispose of since bodies are too identifiable in the future, and their work guarantees that their older selves will pay the price for their profession. This picture is a desolate, grim, and genuinely captivating outlook on one possible future and the kind of people it creates.

The most worthwhile component of “Looper” is the notion of the title characters, who are “looped” back bodies from the future, having their contracts ended by “closing their loops,” which means killing their future selves as their final job, given the next thirty years to live, knowing precisely what fate awaits them. That setup creates the opportunity for two action-centric actors to pair up for this particular story, with rising star Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who also appeared in “The Dark Knight Rises,” “Premium Rush,” and “Lincoln” this year, portraying the younger, less emotional Joe, and Bruce Willis, most recently seen in “The Expendables 2,” as his older self, desperate to modify his past to spare the life of the woman he loved.

“Looper” is the kind of dystopian film that presents only snippets of a technologically enhanced society, featuring bikes hovering in the air and a couple eye-popping devices. Instead, its focus is on the bleakness of the future, where violence runs rampant and few people have hope for a better world. Joe, in both his iterations, is a perfect fit for that universe, and watching his two selves try to reason out their differences over changing the past and affecting the future is truly intriguing. Ultimately, “Looper” heads in an unexpected direction, leaning more on its science fiction roots than anything else. Its conclusion comes about suddenly and its impact is strong, but the film as a whole doesn’t feel entirely complete. It is affirming to see “Brick” director Rian Johnson reteam with his star Gordon-Levitt and to see that, at the very least, they’re both capable of tackling interesting material and creating a compelling if not completely satisfying product.

B

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Oscar Predictions: Best Visual Effects

This year, Oscar nominations will be announced on Thursday, January 10th. As a result, most of the corresponding guilds won’t have announced their picks by then, so I’m making predictions in advance without being able to take those into consideration. I’ll be offering detailed predictions in most of the major categories, saving some of the biggest categories for last.


Last year’s nominees: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2, Hugo, Real Steel, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Transformers: Dark of the Moon

This year’s locks: The Dark Knight Rises, Life of Pi, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Very likely: Prometheus

Possible: The Avengers, Skyfall, The Amazing Spider-Man, Snow White and the Huntsman, Cloud Atlas

Unlikely: John Carter

The rundown: This category contains less suspense than other races since ten finalists have already been established, five of which will be nominated. That’s too bad half of this list, but honestly, not terrible odds for any of them. The only Best Picture contender in the mix is Life of Pi, which will surely be here, as should The Dark Knight Rises and The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. I’m hopeful that both Prometheus and The Avengers will be rightly recognized here, but I have a feeling that The Amazing Spider-Man and Snow White and the Huntsman will instead. Since I’ve been given Skyfall statistics in every other race, I’ll point out that the last James Bond film to be nominated in this race was “Moonraker” in 1979.

Forecasted winner: Maybe The Dark Knight Rises, but who knows?

Oscar Predictions: Best Makeup and Hairstyling

This year, Oscar nominations will be announced on Thursday, January 10th. As a result, most of the corresponding guilds won’t have announced their picks by then, so I’m making predictions in advance without being able to take those into consideration. I’ll be offering detailed predictions in most of the major categories, saving some of the biggest categories for last.


Last year’s nominees: Albert Nobbs, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2, The Iron Lady

This year’s locks: Lincoln, The Hobbit

Very likely: Les Miserables

Possible: Hitchcock, Looper, Men in Black III, Snow White and the Huntsman

The rundown: There’s less mystery to this category, which now officially includes hairstyling for the first time, than others since the field has already been narrowed down to seven contenders, three of which will be nominated. That doesn’t mean it’s immune to surprises, with nominees like “Norbit” and “Il Divo,” and other sure things like “Hugo” snubbed in the past. It’s hard to imagine that the carefully-composed presidential personality and all of his fellow period politicians wouldn’t be recognized in Lincoln, and the same goes for The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey for different reasons. Les Miserables seems likely, but Hitchcock could also show up here for the same reasons as “Lincoln.” Don’t count out Men In Black III since the first film won this race fifteen years ago, but the second film wasn’t even nominated. Looper and Snow White and the Huntsman may have better luck in other technical categories, but could easily pop up here as well.

Forecasted winner: Depends on who gets nominated, but maybe The Hobbit?

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Saturday Night Movie Recommendations with Abe

Welcome to a weekly feature here at Movies With Abe. I'm going to be providing a handy guide to a few choice movies currently playing in theatres as well as several films newly released on DVD. I’ll also aim to comment on those films I have not yet had the chance to see, and I invite you to add in your thoughts on any films I haven’t seen in the comments below. Understandably, some weeks will have considerably fewer releases to address than others.


Now Playing

Django Unchained (mixed bag): This wild saga is expected Quentin Tarantino fare, but it’s a far cry from the controlled excellence of “Inglourious Basterds,” opting instead for full-on comedy and absurdity. Christoph Waltz and Leonardo DiCaprio are, however, excellent, and the film has its moments. Now playing in wide release. Read Django Unchained my review from opening day.

The other big movie this week is, of course, Les Miserables. As I’m currently on vacation in a warm place, I haven’t yet had the opportunity to see it, but I’m hoping to do so on New Year’s Day. I’m in no rush to see either Parental Guidance or Promised Land.


New to DVD

The Well-Digger’s Daughter (recommended): This French period drama tackles a love story, family relationships, and class dynamics with grace, featuring excellent performances by director Daniel Auteil and the rest of his cast. It’s a simple but worthwhile and rewarding film. Also available via Netflix.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Oscar Predictions: Best Sound Editing

This year, Oscar nominations will be announced on Thursday, January 10th. As a result, most of the corresponding guilds won’t have announced their picks by then, so I’m making predictions in advance without being able to take those into consideration. I’ll be offering detailed predictions in most of the major categories, saving some of the biggest categories for last.


Last year’s nominees: Drive, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Hugo, Transformers: Dark of the Moon, War Horse

This year’s locks: Zero Dark Thirty

Very likely: The Dark Knight Rises, Life of Pi

Possible: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, Prometheus, The Avengers, Les Miserables, Argo, Lincoln, Skyfall, Looper

Unlikely: Plenty of others

The rundown: Unlike Best Sound, this category tends to lean more towards the technical, honoring genre films along with, on average, two Best Picture nominees. That probably gives Zero Dark Thirty and Life of Pi the edge over Les Miserables, Argo and Lincoln. I think that The Dark Knight Rises and The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey should have a good shot, and while I’m tentative about it, I think that Prometheus stands a better chance than The Avengers and Skyfall, which I don’t think will attract much Oscar attention.

One possible crazy scenario: It wouldn’t be that far outside the realm of possibility, but The Bourne Legacy placing after The Bourne Ultimatum won here five years ago would be a surprise based on its considerable lack of buzz.

Forecasted winner: This may be where The Dark Knight Rises gets to claim its prize, like the previous installment in the series did four years ago.

Oscar Predictions: Best Sound

This year, Oscar nominations will be announced on Thursday, January 10th. As a result, most of the corresponding guilds won’t have announced their picks by then, so I’m making predictions in advance without being able to take those into consideration. I’ll be offering detailed predictions in most of the major categories, saving some of the biggest categories for last.


Last year’s nominees: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Hugo, Moneyball, Transformers: Dark of the Moon, War Horse

This year’s locks: Les Miserables, Zero Dark Thirty

Very likely: The Dark Knight Rises, Argo

Possible: Life of Pi, Lincoln, The Avengers, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Unlikely: Skyfall, Prometheus

The rundown: This category tends to offer a mix of Best Picture contenders that meet with other music or action and the full-on technical contenders that wouldn’t ever make an appear in the top races. The former classification bodes well for Les Miserables and Zero Dark Thirty, and could be good for Argo, Life of Pi, and Lincoln as well. This should be a race where The Dark Knight Rises doesn’t have much trouble appearing, and could also be good for The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. I’m much less confident about the chances for Skyfall, which seems an obvious choice but, historically, it’s been forty-one years since a James Bond film was nominated in this category. Sci-fi hits The Avengers and Prometheus could also show up here too, but I wouldn’t count on it.

One possible crazy scenario: It turns out that someone really likes Cloud Atlas.

Forecasted winner: This is the place to honor Les Miserables.

Oscar Predictions: Best Costume Design

This year, Oscar nominations will be announced on Thursday, January 10th. As a result, most of the corresponding guilds won’t have announced their picks by then, so I’m making predictions in advance without being able to take those into consideration. I’ll be offering detailed predictions in most of the major categories, saving some of the biggest categories for last.


Last year’s nominees: Anonymous, The Artist, Hugo, Jane Eyre, W.E.

This year’s locks: Anna Karenina, Les Miserables

Very likely: Lincoln

Possible: Argo, The Hobbit, Hitchcock, Hyde Park on Hudson, Cloud Atlas, Snow White and the Huntsman

Unlikely: Moonrise Kingdom, Django Unchained, Mirror Mirror

The rundown: This award went to the Best Picture winner, “The Artist,” last year, an unusual occurrence given the fact that a film nominated only for technical awards had won the previous six years. Past successes of regal films like “Marie Antoinette” and “The Duchess” set Anna Karenina up well, and Les Miserables is sure to be here too. Best Picture rivals Lincoln and Argo will likely be here, and The Hobbit might be too following in the footsteps of the first and third installments of the related “Lord of the Rings” franchise. Period films Hitchcock and Hyde Park on Hudson could show up, as could genre pieces Cloud Atlas and Snow White and the Huntsman. I would be excited to see Moonrise Kingdom, but that may be asking for too much.

One possible crazy scenario: The uniforms worn by The Avengers are honored.

Forecasted winner: It might be “Les Miserables,” but for now, I’m lining up behind Anna Karenina.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Movie with Abe: The Guilt Trip

The Guilt Trip
Directed by Anne Fletcher
Released December 19, 2012

There are two types of films that come out around the end of the calendar year: Oscar bait and crowd-pleasers. This comedy falls in the latter category, a comedy designed to be broadly enjoyed by families and people of all ages. Appealing to such a wide spectrum, of course, isn’t easy, and “The Guilt Trip,” the story of an overbearing mother (Barbra Streisand) invited on a week-long road trip with her grown son (Seth Rogen) turns out not to be effective for any age group, opting for cheap laughs and absurd plotting over legitimate creativity and ingenuity.

Both Streisand and Rogen have firmly established reputations in film. Streisand’s dates back to her Oscar win for her debut film role in “Funny Girl” forty-five years ago, while Rogen’s cinematic resume is strongly linked to filmmaker Judd Apatow and has really developed only in the last five years. Objectively, they’re the perfect pair to play this duo, but the trouble is that neither of them is putting in the effort that has served them so well in the past. Streisand assumes her role more easily, while Rogen’s flabbergasted, buttoned-up performance is a far cry from his similar character in the film that put him on the map, “Knocked Up.”

“The Guilt Trip” is filled with expected setups, references, and jokes, not all of which were present in the film’s highly accurate trailer. As Rogen’s Andy weaves his way through a sea of product placement from companies like Kmart, Costco, and HSN to pitch his very scientific and unmarketable invention, Scieoclean, Streisand’s Joyce tags along for the ride, taking every opportunity she can find to emasculate and embarrass her son, which puts a definitive strain on their relationship and throws a wrench into his business efforts.

Like any comedy that’s only 5% drama, of course, it will all inevitably lead to them getting along magnificently, finally able to accept each other’s eccentricities as undeniable facts of life. “The Guilt Trip” takes an enormously predictable path to civility for its two characters, setting them up for explosive confrontation at a few key points in the film, providing them enough time to make up and come to a clearer understanding of how they can positively coexist. The notion of a road trip film with two adult family members is actually quite funny, and it’s a shame that this lamentable comedy doesn’t stretch the bounds of its premise at all, shooting instead for the lowest common denominator.

C

Oscar Predictions: Best Art Direction

This year, Oscar nominations will be announced on Thursday, January 10th. As a result, most of the corresponding guilds won’t have announced their picks by then, so I’m making predictions in advance without being able to take those into consideration. I’ll be offering detailed predictions in most of the major categories, saving some of the biggest categories for last.


Last year’s nominees: The Artist, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2, Hugo, Midnight in Paris, War Horse

This year’s locks: Les Miserables, Life of Pi

Very likely: Anna Karenina, Lincoln, Argo

Possible: Beasts of the Southern Wild, The Hobbit, The Dark Knight Rises, Moonrise Kingdom

Unlikely: The Master, Snow White and the Huntsman, Prometheus

The rundown: This category is friendly to epics and fantasy films, with half of the “Harry Potter” films making an appearance over the last decade. That’s good news for Les Miserables, which will definitely place here if nowhere else. Life of Pi is set too, and the lavishly-decorated Anna Karenina is a solid bet. Lincoln and Argo are two Best Picture rivals that should place here, but they’re not guaranteed. Beasts of the Southern Wild or Moonrise Kingdom could pop up here with the right support, and The Hobbit and The Dark Knight Rises may be safer genre choices.

One possible crazy scenario: A surprise appearance by Django Unchained.

Forecasted winner: It should be Les Miserables.

Oscar Predictions: Best Film Editing

This year, Oscar nominations will be announced on Thursday, January 10th. As a result, most of the corresponding guilds won’t have announced their picks by then, so I’m making predictions in advance without being able to take those into consideration. I’ll be offering detailed predictions in most of the major categories, saving some of the biggest categories for last.


Last year’s nominees: The Artist, The Descendants, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Hugo, Moneyball

This year’s locks: Zero Dark Thirty, Argo

Very likely: Lincoln, The Dark Knight Rises

Possible: Les Miserables, Django Unchained, Silver Linings Playbook, Life of Pi

Unlikely: Skyfall, Moonrise Kingdom

The rundown: This category usually likes Best Picture nominees, but not all the time, as evidenced by memorable snubs of “Inception” and “Brokeback Mountain.” The most secure nominee this year is Zero Dark Thirty, and Argo should be here as well. It stands to reason that the popular Lincoln would make the cut, and The Dark Knight Rises will be here unless voters really aren’t enthusiastic about the film. Les Miserables is far from a lock – “Chicago” won but “Dreamgirls” wasn’t even nominated – and it could easily be replaced by Django Unchained if that film is hot, Silver Linings Playbook if voters really love it, or Life of Pi if voters feel that the editing was the strongest part of that film (which it wasn’t).

One possible crazy scenario: The overlong The Hobbit finds itself nominated.

Forecasted winner: This one goes to Zero Dark Thirty unless they really love “Argo.”

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Movie with Abe: The Impossible

The Impossible
Directed by J.A. Bayona
Released December 21, 2012

Natural disasters make for extremely compelling movie subjects. The destructive gravity of the event, whatever it may be, is powerful all on its own, and as long as it’s told in a respectful manner, the result is usually a moving and positive one. Latching on to individual stories at the center of a tragedy is crucial in terms of evoking empathy and resonance. “The Impossible,” which chronicles one family’s harrowing journey back to each other in the wake of the 2004 tsunami that struck Southeast Asia, does just that, introducing its central characters and following them through their story of survival.

Like any other disaster film, “The Impossible” begins with the calm before the storm, as its five-member family arrives from Japan to a brand-new Thailand resort on Christmas Eve. A few brief encounters with the family, whose members get along quite well despite an uncertainty about the next step in their lives, establish them as effective protagonists. When the first monstrous wave produced by the tsunami hits, the film segments into two parts, as the mother, Maria (Naomi Watts) and her son Lucas (Tom Hollander) experience their tribulations. Only later does the father, Henry (Ewan McGregor), reappear, alive and mostly well, with his two younger sons.

Spending so much uninterrupted time with Maria and Lucas as they cling to life and to each other as they are literally carried away by the water makes the devastation utterly inescapable, trapping viewers in the horrific reality of the situation. The imagery is graphic and brutal, and it’s especially difficult to watch Lucas and his younger siblings cope with the sight of grave injuries, dead bodies in the water, and the idea that the other half of their family is gone forever. Its recreation of the tsunami and its aftereffects is the film’s greatest asset, and it’s hard not to be drawn into the awful and heartbreaking fear present.

After achieving such adequate emotional intensity and triggering a likely response in the hearts of viewers, “The Impossible” veers into sensational territory, opportunistically placing its characters within feet of each other without knowledge of the presence of the others, staged as a suspenseful thriller rather than the drama this was meant to be. Excessive use of music and symbolic scenes are unnecessary since the film is able to achieve excellent and thoughtful representations of tragedy and loss without them. The actors are capable, but this film is all about visual mastery and corresponding emotional response, an area in which it, for the most part, succeeds.

B+

Oscar Predictions: Best Cinematography

This year, Oscar nominations will be announced on Thursday, January 10th. As a result, most of the corresponding guilds won’t have announced their picks by then, so I’m making predictions in advance without being able to take those into consideration. I’ll be offering detailed predictions in most of the major categories, saving some of the biggest categories for last.


Last year’s nominees: The Artist, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Hugo, The Tree of Life, War Horse

This year’s locks: Lincoln, Les Miserables, Zero Dark Thirty, Life of Pi

Very likely: None

Possible: Beasts of the Southern Wild, Argo, The Dark Knight Rises, Anna Karenina

Unlikely: The Master, Skyfall, The Hobbit

The rundown: This category is all about how things look. Sometimes, like in 2010, all the nominees are also up for Best Picture, and sometimes, like in 2006, none of them are. This year, four Best Picture frontrunners are also in the lead here. Lincoln contains plenty of war scenes and courtroom drama, Les Miserables is a big epic, Zero Dark Thirty is an intelligent thriller, and Life of Pi is here for obvious reasons. After that, it’s anyone’s game. If the film comes back strongly, The Dark Knight Rises should be here, especially considering that Christopher Nolan’s cinematographer Wally Pfister has been nominated for their last four collaborations. Skyfall is a strong choice, but no James Bond film has ever appeared in this category. I’m betting on a different horse altogether: Beasts of the Southern Wild, which I think may manage to enchant Oscar voters, earning newbie Ben Richardson his first Oscar nod.

One possible crazy scenario: Something like Prometheus pops up here.

Forecasted winner: It seems like this would be the place to honor Life of Pi.

Oscar Predictions: Best Adapted Screenplay

This year, Oscar nominations will be announced on Thursday, January 10th. As a result, most of the corresponding guilds won’t have announced their picks by then, so I’m making predictions in advance without being able to take those into consideration. I’ll be offering detailed predictions in most of the major categories, saving some of the biggest categories for last.


Last year’s nominees: The Descendants, Hugo, The Ides of March, Moneyball, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

This year’s locks: Silver Linings Playbook, Lincoln, Argo

Very likely: None

Possible: Beasts of the Southern Wild, The Sessions, Anna Karenina, Life of Pi, Les Miserables, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

Unlikely: The Dark Knight Rises, Quartet, Rust and Bone, The Intouchables

The rundown: It’s hardly as egregious as the Best Original Screenplay race, but it’s not helpful to wait for the Writers Guild of America to announce its picks on January 3rd since they’ve disqualified a handful of the films I’ve predicted above. It’s also worth noting that, last year, Oscar voters decided they weren’t keen on the scripts of two popular adaptations, “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” and “The Help,” and snubbed them here. I’m doubtful that will prove problematic for Silver Linings Playbook, Argo and Lincoln, which will all vie for the win. It would make sense that breakthrough Beasts of the Southern Wild and surefire acting contender The Sessions would take the last two slots, but there are a few films that might disagree, namely Best Picture contenders Life of Pi and Les Miserables, whose scripts are far from the best parts of them, and literary adaptation Anna Karenina. This category often boasts a surprising snub or inclusion, so look for something strange.

One possible crazy scenario: A nomination for This is 40 after “Knocked Up” got snubbed in the original race in 2007.

Forecasted winner: I think Silver Linings Playbook is the frontrunner.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Oscar Predictions: Best Original Screenplay

This year, Oscar nominations will be announced on Thursday, January 10th. As a result, most of the corresponding guilds won’t have announced their picks by then, so I’m making predictions in advance without being able to take those into consideration. I’ll be offering detailed predictions in most of the major categories, saving some of the biggest categories for last.


Last year’s nominees: The Artist, Bridesmaids, Margin Call, Midnight in Paris, A Separation

This year’s locks: Zero Dark Thirty, Moonrise Kingdom

Very likely: The Master, Django Unchained

Possible: Amour, Flight

Unlikely: Brave, Seven Psychopaths, Middle of Nowhere, Take This Waltz, The Impossible

The rundown: It’s useless to wait for the Writers Guild of America to announce its picks on January 3rd since they’ve disqualified more than half of the films I’ve predicted above. It’s smarter, therefore, to rely on past Oscar statistics. Mark Boal won this award for “The Hurt Locker” in 2009, and so it’s all but guaranteed that Zero Dark Thirty will be here this year. Wes Anderson, Paul Thomas Anderson, and Quentin Tarantino all have excellent track records in this category, even when their films haven’t been Best Picture contenders, which they may be this year. Count Moonrise Kingdom, The Master, and Django Unchained in. Michael Haneke should earn his first nomination in this race based on what I’ve heard about Amour, and he’ll be fighting popular films like Flight and Brave for that slot. Otherwise, the contenders could come from anywhere, so look out for a strange inclusion.

One possible crazy scenario: The fantastic Safety Not Guaranteed makes a surprise appearance.

Forecasted winner: I think this goes to Zero Dark Thirty.

Movie with Abe: Django Unchained


Django Unchained
Directed by Quentin Tarantino
Released December 25, 2012

Few filmmakers have made such a small number of feature films as Quentin Tarantino and achieved the same distinctive reputation. This is only Tarantino’s seventh solo effort behind the camera, and it’s immediately recognizable as such. While his first films, “Reservoir Dogs” and “Pulp Fiction,” were heavy on violence but less stylized, Tarantino has established a new model that worked superbly for him in “Inglourious Basterds,” to plant absurd characters in a historical setting and see what might have happened if they actually existed. While entertaining, “Django Unchained” is an exercise in ridiculousness, no longer tethered to reality in the way that his previous films managed to be.

“Django Unchained” opens with Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), dentist by certification, bounty hunter by trade, coming across slave traders in the middle of the night and arranging for the purchase of Django (Jamie Foxx), who Schultz needs to help him identify his latest bounty. A friendship quickly evolves between the two men, a definite odd couple for the 1858 South, and Schultz soon offers to help Django track down his wife (Kerry Washington) and secure her release. Their subsequent meeting with the illustrious Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) leads to further shenanigans, and, expectedly, much more bloodshed.

There are several scenes within “Django Unchained” that remind why Tarantino is revered, not for his unapologetic borrowing of music, styles, and even names from his favorite films (“Django” is a 1966 Western film with a similar plot), or his penchant for explosively bloody violence, but for his ability to create magnificently tense, breathless scenes that creep up on the audience, revealing themselves sometimes only moments after comedic occurrences. Those scenes, however, are overshadowed in this film by outright comedy, which proves distracting and tiresome, especially after two hours and forty-five minutes. For instance, white supremacists spend a full five minutes moaning about the small holes cut into the masks they are set to wear before a raid, a wholly unnecessary and futile focus for a film with more important goals.

The cast in “Django Unchained” is what makes it worth seeing. Waltz, who won an Oscar for his debut American role in “Inglourious Basterds,” makes the screen his own, talking his way through peculiar moments and making them utterly mesmerizing, and usually hilarious. While he’ll likely never have a role as perfect as Hans Landa, Tarantino definitely knows how to use him well. Leonardo DiCaprio also gets a fun opportunity to play a villain, embracing Tarantino’s delight for maniacal bad guys. Foxx and Tarantino favorite Samuel L. Jackson both hand in decent performances fitting for their material, and the crowded ensemble contains many familiar faces in amusing small parts.

Tarantino managed to modify history and craft an engaging, fascinating film out of “Inglourious Basterds,” but that’s just not the case here. Schultz, for all of Waltz’s film-carrying abilities – and they should not be minimized – doesn’t fit at all with his surroundings, and that fact makes it hard to accept “Django Unchained” as anything other than absurd. The excessive violence is only occasionally effective for the sake of the story, and it does seem that Tarantino is getting carried unnecessarily. If more effort was put into stylizing the non-violent parts of “Django Unchained,” it might have been a stronger, more even film.

B-

Monday, December 24, 2012

Movie with Abe: Backwards

Backwards
Directed by Ben Hickernell
Released September 21, 2012 / December 11, 2012

There’s a certain type of movie setup that finds a protagonist, often female, not too far removed from her college years, unsatisfied with the place that she has thus far found for herself in life, and unprepared for an altogether different opportunity that threatens to change everything she thinks and knows. This movie has been made many times before, and while its versions hardly constitute classics, it’s generally a good framework. “Backwards,” which arrived on DVD earlier this month after a tiny theatrical release in less than ten theatres for three weeks this fall, is an acceptable if unexceptional take on one young woman’s journey of self-discovery.

Sarah Megan Thomas stars as Abi, a rower training for the Olympics whose failure to secure the top slot for the big game prompts her to move home and, at the less-than-gentle nudging of her mother, go find a job. Thomas is best described as a cross between Zosia Mamet and Elizabeth Olsen, giving off a tempered energy that makes her charming but not entirely alluring, seductive at the right moment but never aggressively trying to achieve that aim. Thomas portrays Abi as subdued, honest, and determined, a combination that doesn’t always work to her advantage for the spirited athlete.

James Van Der Beek joins Thomas as Geoff, the former classmate and coach with whom Abi has a random run-in and subsequently helps Abi get a job coaching his athletic department’s rowing team. It’s jarring to see Van Der Beek rather ably play a nice guy with his heart in the right place after seeming him parody himself on ABC’s “Apartment 23” each week, and it’s reassuring to see that the actor knows exactly the kind of part he should be taking on at this point in his career. It’s obvious from the start that Abi and Geoff have both a romantic past and a romantic future, and Thomas and Van Der Beek complement each together well and create believable sexual tension and compatibility.

Once she attains the job that will inevitably change her outlook on competitive sports and teamwork, Abi is paired with two young rowers, both broadly defined, one as being too overconfident and disrespectful, and the other as shy and lacking that confidence that could propel her to greatness. Their differences are quickly resolved without much time spent on them, however, since the film is much more Abi’s story than anything else. The film’s appropriate PG rating and peppy tagline “Define Your Moment” underscore the fact that it is a family film rather than some sort of adult coming-of-age drama, and, in that respect, it’s a perfectly competent and decent film.

B

Movie with Abe: Zero Dark Thirty

Zero Dark Thirty
Directed by Kathryn Bigelow
Released December 19, 2012

Kathryn Bigelow is definitely one of the hottest filmmakers currently working, highly respected for her groundbreaking Oscar win for Best Director for “The Hurt Locker” three years ago. Anticipation over her follow-up project, which documents the run-up to the operation that killed Obama bin Laden, was rewarded with the release of this film’s trailer in August. What Bigelow and her screenwriter Mark Boal have crafted is a sophisticated, comprehensive, gripping chronicle of an extensive program that took almost a decade to see true success, a devastating and entirely captivating portrait of life in the trenches lived with an immutable spirit of determination.

Bigelow chose a strong story to echo her own history-making Oscar win as the first woman to claim the Best Director prize. Jessica Chastain, who had a banner year in 2011 with six major performances, stars as Maya, who is sent to Pakistan after the September 11th attacks and takes an interest in locating one terrorist that all of the members of Bin Laden’s organization seem to know. Her obsession with finding him is established through lengthy time jumps, checking in at crucial, often deadly, points of the operation, demonstrating setbacks and the unbelievably slow nature of the process. The film’s conclusion may be inevitable, but the road there is equally compelling and worthwhile.

Like two other Oscar contenders this year, “Argo” and “Lincoln,” “Zero Dark Thirty” is littered with familiar faces. Among the ensemble can be found Joel Edgerton, Chris Pratt, Kyle Chandler, Mark Duplass, Edgar Ramirez, Harold Perrineau, and James Gandolfini, and the film includes standout supporting performances from Jason Clarke as a skilled interrogator and Mark Strong as Maya’s stateside boss. The actors are used to tremendous effect to create a cohesive picture of all that went into the search and ultimately the raid that killed the target at the top of everyone’s list. Chastain in particular delivers a stunning performance, truly capturing the exhaustion and passion of someone set on the same goal despite countless obstacles.

There is violence, death, and torture to be found throughout “Zero Dark Thirty.” The film has come under fire for its depiction of torture, with politicians calling it both inaccurate and excessive. Yet the film doesn’t attempt to aggrandize or legitimize the practice, rather to tell a story about a painstakingly long and tragedy-filled process. The film is based on facts and does not claim to represent them in full. “Zero Dark Thirty” bears some noticeable similarities to Showtime’s entirely fictionalized hit “Homeland,” and it’s intriguing to see a more tempered and subdued yet equally thrilling depiction of the war on terror. The film is respectful and powerful, unflinching and gritty, and it’s rare to find a film that doesn’t let up once during an 157-minute runtime. As it tests the waters with a five-screen limited release for the end of the year before a wide release on January 14th, “Zero Dark Thirty” is sure to be rightly appreciated as one of the strongest and most effective films of the year.

A-

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Movie with Abe: The Deep Blue Sea

The Deep Blue Sea
Directed by Terence Davies
Released March 23, 2012 / DVD July 24, 2012

This Golden Globe nominee for Best Actress in a Motion Picture – Drama features Rachel Weisz as a deeply unhappy woman in 1950s England caught between her passionate relationship with a younger man and her marriage to a kindhearted older judge. The plot is quite similar in structure to that of “Anna Karenina,” but this is a much more contained, reflective tale. Weisz is inarguably the strongest part of the film, investing herself fully in the role of Hester Collyer, whose greatest difficulty is accepting that she feels differently about the men in her life than they do about her. The film, which mostly follows Hester through both emotional and actual isolation, proceeds along at an extremely slow pace. The theatrical score by Samuel Barber introduces the film, which is sparse on dialogue during its opening scene, establishing this as an introspective experience much more than an involving cinematic one. Weisz does her best to create a complex, human character, but her movie ultimately just isn’t that involving.

C+

Movie with Abe: Trouble with the Curve

Trouble with the Curve
Directed by Robert Lorenz
Released September 21, 2012 / DVD December 18, 2012

Clint Eastwood has established a reputation for himself in his later years as a filmmaker still regularly putting out quality films in his late 70s and early 80s. The now 82-year-old actor routinely plays gruff old men with a distaste for the way society has gone, and the people who encompass it, whose meeting with a younger, brighter free spirit changes all that, which worked marvelously in “Gran Torino” and “Million Dollar Baby.” Eastwood hasn’t starred in a movie directed by someone else in nineteen years (since “In the Line of Fire”), and it’s hard to recognize that this effort, the debut of Eastwood’s former go-to first assistant director, isn’t of his own creation, the latest mediocre attempt at recapturing a familiar premise.

It’s not to the credit of “Trouble with the Curve” that it comes just one year after the hugely successful “Moneyball,” which presented a marvelously compelling argument for the effectiveness of computer-generated baseball statistics. Eastwood stars in this film as Gus, an aging scout with a strong dislike for anything electronic, convinced that being at the field and hearing the sounds of the game are crucial to making accurate and solid picks for future stars. Gus contends with two young up-and-comers with distinctly different viewpoints on the matter, Justin Timberlake’s Johnny, a former player who scouts as a building block to being an announcer, and Matthew Lillard’s Phillip, who dismisses Gus as irrelevant because of his age and style. As Gus heads to North Carolina to look at a buzzed-about hitter, it’s obvious where the story is headed, and that old ways will prevail over new and untested quick fixes.

Eastwood has given much stronger performances, particularly in his previous screen role in “Gran Torino.” Here, it’s clear that he’s not trying as hard, partially because Gus just isn’t a compelling character. Amy Adams is also lackluster as his lawyer daughter with a love of her own for the sport, and Timberlake has had much better material to work with in most of his past screen roles. This is an over-simplified story with all too convenient twists and plot points, and the sentimentality inserted is excessive and forced, hardly comparable with the finessed emotionality of Eastwood’s previous films. The script from debut screenwriter Randy Brown is uncreative and contrived, and Lorenz’s first time in the lead behind the camera is unmemorable. This movie may be about having trouble with the curve, but it's ultimately more trouble than it's worth.

C

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Saturday Night Movie Recommendations with Abe

Welcome to a weekly feature here at Movies With Abe. I'm going to be providing a handy guide to a few choice movies currently playing in theatres as well as several films newly released on DVD. I’ll also aim to comment on those films I have not yet had the chance to see, and I invite you to add in your thoughts on any films I haven’t seen in the comments below. Understandably, some weeks will have considerably fewer releases to address than others.

Now Playing

I'm playing catch-up on movies that have come out in the past month or so that are getting nominated for awards, and my most anticipated new release this week, which I’m planning to see this weekend, is Zero Dark Thirty. I’ll also try to catch Amour and maybe On the Road when I have a chance. This is 40 and Jack Reacher would be on my list if they were released at another time, and I’m not sure The Guilt Trip would make it any point, though I may end up seeing it with other interested parties.


New to DVD

Arbitrage (recommended): This thriller earned a Golden Globe nomination for Richard Gere’s focused performance as a moneyman whose carefully-composed life is spiraling out of control. Gere is terrific, and the film is a strong, suspenseful drama.

10 Years (anti-recommended): This dramatic comedy, which played in theatres throughout September, is a messy compilation of broad character tropes and imagined romances among a group of adults coming together for a high school reunion. Some of the name actors are decent, but the film is entirely missable.

Trouble with the Curve (mixed bag): This Clint Eastwood starrer is actually directed by his former first assistant director, but it feels like a pale imitation of his far better recent films. It can't compare to last year's "Moneyball," and all of the actors have had far superior roles and performances. Look for my review tomorrow.


Now on Netflix Instant Streaming

The Assault (recommended): This dramatization of the 1994 hijacking of an Air France flight is, like “United 93,” a literal story-to-screen adaptation that doesn’t feature much filmic creativity, which is fine and makes for a powerful and relatively captivating experience.

The Babymakers (mixed bag): This R-rated Broken Lizard comedy has the makings of a funny movie, but it doesn’t deliver the laughs by offering a relatively tame and unexciting story featuring affable enough lead performances from Paul Schneider and Olivia Munn.

The Polar Express (recommended): I don’t remember loving this animated fantasy from director Robert Zemeckis when I first saw it in theatres in 2004, but it’s hard to deny the magical appeal of a flying train and a conductor played by Tom Hanks in an eerily recognizable animated part. It’s a good film for kids, and a passable one for adults.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Movie with Abe: The Hobbit

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
Directed by Peter Jackson
Released December 14, 2012

It’s hard to forget the “Lord of the Rings” film series. Based on the popular novels by J.R.R. Tolkien, they clock in at 178, 179 and 209 minutes each, respectively, making for one very long saga. Nominated for a collective thirty Oscars, the trilogy earned its due with a whopping eleven wins, including Best Picture, for its final installment. Director Peter Jackson, who also took home a trophy in 2003 for the third film in the series, has decided that he’s not done with Middle Earth just yet, and, in fact, he’s just getting started with the unsurprisingly lengthy “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.”

Set before the events of the trilogy, the novel “The Hobbit” chronicles Bilbo Baggins’ first adventures with Gandalf and a bunch of dwarves. What the film version does differently is insert the older Bilbo and his younger cousin Frodo, to provide some sort of context for the story Bilbo is recalling that comes to cinematic life as a prequel to the preexisting films. The forced comparison that occurs as a result diminishes the impact of this earlier tale, which, to its disadvantage, isn’t nearly exciting as the ring-centric journey to Mordor that encompasses the trilogy. It also presents the unique problem of having actors now a decade older portray their younger selves, which proves especially tricky in the case of Christopher Lee, now 90, who plays the wizard Saruman.

What sets “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” apart from the “Lord of the Rings” films more than anything is its emphasis on humor. There are dramatic moments to be occasionally found in this new film, but most scenes features a much more comedic approach, painting Bilbo as a silly idiot who, despite his best efforts to fight it, gets inexplicably sucked into a seriously dangerous mission to overcome impossible odds. Martin Freeman, whose straight man sensibilities served him well in the original British version of “The Office” and in films like “Love Actually,” plays Bilbo broadly, far too comic and overstated for his own good. There are in fact no tempered performances aside from those reprising their roles to be found in the entirety of the film.

Instead, what ensues for almost three hours is a long, almost painstaking trek through obstacle after obstacle to reclaim the dwarf kingdom on the Lonely Mountain. Jackson, who is never in much of a rush, has decided to partition the novel into three parts to make yet another trilogy, which means that, predictably, the first film ends on a cliffhanger, having resolved little and instead just several hours into the extensive adventure. The effects are still impressive, as are the New Zealand landscapes, but the awe-inspiring feeling created by the original trilogy is missing. This journey certainly is unexpected, but that’s mainly because the greater production has already been completed.

C

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Movie with Abe: Skyfall

Skyfall
Directed by Sam Mendes
Released November 9, 2012

James Bond has now been appearing in movies for fifty years. This marks the third time that Daniel Craig, an unusual candidate to play 007 mainly because of his hair color, has taken on the role. After reinvigorating the franchise with “Casino Royale,” Craig returned with “Quantum of Solace,” one of the less well-received Bond installments. Sam Mendes, best known for his Oscar-winning debut, “American Beauty,” steps behind the camera to direct his first Bond film (only his sixth film overall) and the result is a fast-paced, exciting tale of one man giving his all to serve his country.

“Skyfall” gets off to a ferocious start with Bond and his partner (Naomie Harris) pursuing a suspect who has stolen a classified and very potentially damaging list of MI-6 undercover operatives. When they fail to take back the list, Bond goes off the grid and returns only after a bombing of MI-6 executed expressly to send a message to his handler M (Judi Dench). Bond’s connection to M has been established throughout the past six films, and therefore it makes sense that Bond would stick his neck out to protect the one person who has, for the most part, always had his back. While not necessarily as inventive as other Bond plots, this setup works, and positions Bond to do what he does best: fight bad guys.

While a Bond girl isn’t necessarily identifiable – the closest thing is Harris’ MI-6 agent, whose romance with Bond is only alluded to – “Skyfall” doesn’t skimp on its villain. Javier Bardem, who delivered an Oscar-winning villainous turn as the frightening Anton Chigurh in “No Country for Old Men,” creates an altogether different kind of nemesis in this film, as Raoul Silva, a brilliant hacker whose past association with MI-6 and with M in particular drives him to get revenge on England and its best and brightest. Bardem’s SAG-nominated turn is maniacal but focused, and he’s definitely one of the more intellectual Bond villains to grace the screen.

As can only be expected in a Bond movie, there are car chases and explosions to be had on a regular basis, with some hand-to-hand combat and extensive firearms thrown in as well. Craig is skilled at creating a more dramatic Bond, one clearly pained by loss and exhausted by injuries sustained during the film’s opening scene. With fun supporting turns from Ralph Fiennes, Ben Wishaw, and Albert Finney, not to mention Dench, “Skyfall” is a thinking man’s Bond, but also a familiar underdog story. It may not be the most exciting Bond film made, but this one holds up just fine.

B+

Movie with Abe: Anna Karenina

Anna Karenina
Directed by Joe Wright
Released November 9, 2012

Keira Knightley seems to like literature. This marks her third cinematic collaboration with director Joe Wright, who previously brought the classic “Pride and Prejudice” to the screen in 2005 and then the more recent novel “Atonement” in 2007. Knightley and Wright, along with some of Wright’s regular crew members, like cinematographer Seamus McGarvey and composer Dario Marianelli, reteam to adapt Leo Tolstoy’s 1877 epic about a woman in a respected social position whose burning desire for forbidden love leads her to follow her heart and risk the devastating consequences.

Knightley is well-versed in carrying period pieces, and “Anna Karenina” is a stacked production with plenty of working parts. At its center is Knightley’s Anna, the wife of Alexei Karenin (Jude Law), who is drawn to Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s Count Vronsky after meeting him during a visit to Moscow to see her brother, the mustachioed Oblonsky (Matthew Macfayden). While Anna and Vronsky begin their affair, Oblonsky’s kindhearted friend Konstantin Levin (Domhnall Gleeson) works up the courage to woo Kitty (Alicia Vikander), the former object of Vronky’s attention. This majestic, tragic tale of interwoven love is gorgeously told with spirited performances from each of the cast members. Gleeson, a dead ringer for his father, actor Brendan, and Vikander are especially wonderful, and Kelly Macdonald shines in a small part as Oblonsky’s wife Dolly, whose discovery of her husband’s marital indiscretion sets the film’s events in motion.

“Anna Karenina” opens memorably with a swiftly-changing background, setting up the story and its many outdoor settings as painted slates adorning a stage. Most of the film is structured in such a manner, imagining its transitions as set changes and often following just one or two characters as they move through a sea of stillness, animating those around them only as they pass. This technique, which starts to disappear as the film nears its end, gives the film a certain playful feel, paired with Marianelli’s sweeping score to set the film to a rhythmic beat. That deliberate structuring serves to underscore Anna’s break from an established routine, identifying her as an outlier, not content to conform to societal expectations. Adorned with marvelous costumes and especially countless stylish hats, “Anna Karenina” is a visual masterpiece to behold, decorating its events with appropriate lavishness. Watching and digesting the film’s luscious visuals and creative style enhance the grand tale it tells. This literary adaptation is a highly competent and extremely worthwhile vision of a classic story.

B+

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Wednesday Oscar Watch

Welcome to a seasonal weekly feature here at Movies with Abe, Wednesday Oscar Watch with Abe. It’s a bit early to be able to accurately predict the eventual Oscar nominees, but around this time, plenty of likely contenders are being released. I’ll be looking every Wednesday at the awards chances for all of the films released the previous week. I’ve tabled this feature for the last few weeks, so here’s a look back at all of December thus far. Chime in with your thoughts on the Oscar chances for these films in the comments section. Also, if I’ve missed any films from the previous months, please say so!


Films released December 7th-14th, 2012

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
It’s difficult to judge how this new entry in the “Lord of the Rings” saga will fare. The first two films performed well, with thirteen nominations and four wins, and six nominations and two wins, respectively. The third movie won all the trophies for the whole trilogy, taking home awards for all of its eleven nominations. Many will likely feel that the series has been rewarded, and mixed reviews won’t help. A Best Picture nomination isn’t out of the question because of the expanded field, and technical nominations like Best Makeup and Best Visual Effects are all but guaranteed. This is a wild card to be sure.

Hyde Park on Hudson
Bill Murray isn’t the type of actor who can play a renowned President of the United States and have everyone talking. While Daniel Day-Lewis is getting all the attention for his portrayal of Abraham Lincoln, and will almost definitely win the Best Actor Oscar, Murray is being cited mainly for a surprisingly strong performance. A Best Actor in a Motion Picture – Comedy/Musical bid is probably as far as he’ll go.

Quartet
In theory, this directorial debut from Oscar favorite actor Dustin Hoffman should be a good threat to earn some nominations, but one single Golden Globe nomination for star Maggie Smith, who will likely earn more buzz for “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel,” suggests that it won’t ultimately contend. A screenplay based on his own play by Ronald Harwood, who won an Oscar for penning “The Pianist,” may earn some votes, but I’m not sure this can crack a crowded race this year. That said, it is definitely the kind of movie made for Oscar voters.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Movie with Abe: 10 Years

10 Years
Directed by James Linden
Released September 14, 2012 / DVD December 18, 2012

This film’s title doesn’t leave much to the imagination. At a ten-year high school reunion, a diverse cast of characters is brought back together to revisit old memories and relationships. Among the cast are a number of familiar faces, all with remarkably different resumes. Rather than have the actors portray their younger selves in flashbacks and show how much they’ve changed in a decade, “10 Years” chooses to show only their present-day activities, gradually revealing secrets of the past throughout the film. Without knowing anything about these characters and with just over 100 minutes to get to know them, it’s hard to feel empathy for any of the broadly defined character tropes. The film seems somewhat trapped in the mindset of the characters it’s featuring, stuck in high school mode and unable to dream more creatively of how the classmates might have turned out. Some storylines, like the one featuring famous musician Oscar Isaac and his longtime crush Kate Mara, are more effective than others, like Aubrey Plaza’s displeasure at learning of her husband’s high school behavior and Chris Pratt’s overzealous attempts to make up for his days as a bully. The childish relationship between Justin Long and Max Minghella is meant to be the film’s comedic core, but it too falls flat. Channing Tatum and Rosario Dawson take center stage as a couple separated by circumstances and now both in serious relationships, a plotline whose resolution is obvious from its start. This comedy had some potential, but trying to incorporate too large an ensemble leaves it an unsatisfying, crowded movie without any truly memorable moments.

C-

Movie with Abe: Arbitrage

Arbitrage
Directed by Nicholas Jarecki
Released September 14, 2012 / DVD December 18, 2012

The thriller is an ideal genre, a film that finds a delicate balance between invigorating drama and appropriate suspense. “Arbitrage” starts out as an enticing chronicle of one man’s impending legal troubles after he realizes that the financial fraud he has committed with his hedge fund may soon bring him down. After a late-night visit to the home of his mistress, however, “Arbitrage” changes directions and turns into an intense thriller with a guilty man at its center, trying his best to ensure that he doesn’t spend the rest of his life in prison and lose everything he has built.

Richard Gere, who has been working in film for thirty-five years, earned a well-deserved Golden Globe nomination for Best Actor in a Motion Picture – Drama, an award for which he was last in contention exactly thirty years ago, for his performance as fast-talking moneyman Richard Miller. While he clearly loves his money and emphasizes business over the people in his life, Miller shouldn’t be confused for another Gordon Gekko. Miller is a man so entrenched in his career that he’s lost track of what matters, and it’s truly interesting to watch him try to dig his way out of the hole he has dug for himself.

Miller starts out at the beginning of the film on top, and Gere paints him as a businessman defined by success. His subsequent decline is enormously watchable, and Gere turns in his finest performance in a long time, fully immersing himself in the role. He has plenty of support in his costars, namely Susan Sarandon as his strong-willed wife, Brit Marling as his straight-arrow daughter and business associate, Tim Roth as a belligerent detective intent on putting him away, and Nate Parker as the young man Miller calls when he finds himself in trouble who finds his own livelihood in jeopardy as a result.

“Arbitrage” follows its lead character down a treacherous path, never reaching too far to conjure up overly convenient circumstances and instead examining the specific actions of all of the characters. Gere’s nuanced performance drives the film, and his character is equally strongly written, which makes him an excellent lead. The complexity of the characters and the events create an extremely intriguing and captivating backdrop for this story, and it’s not difficult to become entranced by the film’s twists and turns. “Arbitrage” succeeds both as a drama and a thriller, weaving a compelling tale of deception.

B+

Monday, December 17, 2012

Movie with Abe: Salmon Fishing in the Yemen

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen
Directed by Lasse Hallström
Released March 9, 2012 / DVD July 17, 2012

This dramatic comedy surprised many by earning three Golden Globe nominations, including a bid for Best Motion Picture – Comedy/Musical. Based on the novel by Paul Torday, this gradually endearing film spotlights the fictionalized effort by the British government to drum up some positive press in the Arab world after an embarrassing incident in Afghanistan by trying to transplant fly fishing to Yemen. In the lead roles are the always charming Ewan McGregor and Emily Blunt, cast as a buttoned-up government employee and the financial advisor determined to make her desire endeavor possible, respectively, both delivering decent performances hardly as compelling as some of their previous parts. Kristin Scott Thomas dominates a good portion of the film as the Prime Minister’s overbearing press secretary, stepping on all of her subordinates and ensuring that her will is done. Lasse Hallström, well known for “Chocolat” and “The Cider House Rules,” creates a meagerly memorable cinematic experience with minimal dramatic impact. Several excessively serious moments seem out of place in this light story, and, overall, the film feels fleeting. A few enjoyable and inspirational scenes aside, “Salmon Fishing in the Yemen” doesn’t offer much to remember.

C+

Movie with Abe: The Sessions


The Sessions
Directed by Ben Lewin
Released October 19, 2012

John Hawkes is most certainly a character actor. After establishing himself over the past decade and a half as an eccentric supporting player usually cast in odd bit parts, Hawkes broke out in 2005 for a starring turn in “Me and You and Everyone We Know” and earned his first Oscar nomination for playing against type as the fearsome Teardrop in “Winter’s Bone.” Hawkes’ latest role is quite possibly his best, a wonderful interpretation of a real-life poet confined to an iron lung seeking his first-ever sexual interpretation in this sweet and moving drama.

Hawkes is known for his distinctive speaking style, and here his voice is almost unrecognizable, transformed into a soft, higher-pitched, friendly tone. As Mark O’Brien, who was paralyzed by polio as a child and later confined to an iron lung for most of his life, Hawkes projects a marvelous sense of decency, using humor in many situations to make the best of his physical state. It’s hard not to like Mark, who becomes both especially talkative and especially nervous when his first meeting with a sex surrogate named Cheryl, played by Helen Hunt, is approaching. He’s a perfectly endearing lead character, so positive and optimistic despite the certainty and permanence of his situation.

Hawkes is the standout member of the cast, quietly commanding the film, but he’s ably supported by the entire ensemble. Hunt delivers her first award-worthy film performance in fifteen years, when she won an Oscar for “As Good As It Gets,” making Helen entirely open and honest, matching Mark’s bluntness with a productive attitude towards sex and its potential effects. William H. Macy is enormously entertaining as Father Brendan, the priest who becomes close with Mark after he consults him about the religious ethics of trying to lose his virginity out of wedlock. Moon Bloodgood and Annika Marks are also strong as two of Mark’s devoted attendants.

It’s easy to like “The Sessions” because of how Mark sees the world, narrating his life with energy and a smile. His encounters with Cheryl are laced with nervous humor, and they feel authentic because of the dynamic, straightforward interactions between Mark and Cheryl. This is first and foremost Mark’s story, and it’s clear that he affected the lives of so many around him with his upbeat nature and kindness. “The Sessions” captures that superbly, and, by film’s end, audiences will certainly feel connected to this marvelous character and this charming excerpt from his life.

A-

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Movie with Abe: Rust and Bone

Rust and Bone
Directed by Jacques Audiard
Released November 23, 2012

Marion Cotillard has been working in film for a while, and, after a few appearances in American films such as “Big Fish” and “A Good Year,” made her mark with an Oscar-winning performance in “La Vie en Rose” as Edith Piaf. Since then, she has commanded major American roles, in films like “Inception,” “The Dark Knight Rises,” and “Nine.” Director Jacques Audiard, a well-respected French filmmaker, is known in France for his talents but only recently made himself the talk of American film enthusiasts with the Oscar-nominated “A Prophet.” This highly wrenching and emotional film brings together these two talents for a formidable if overly devastating collaboration.

Cotillard, who plays killer whale trailer Stéphanie, doesn’t even appear in the film for its first few scenes. The story begins with Alain (Matthias Schoenaerts), a Belgian father with a young son who travels to his sister’s home in search of work and a way to provide for his child. Alain is hardly a motivational father figure, lacking the sensitivity required to speak to children and easily and detrimentally distracted by attractive women. It’s no surprise, therefore, that a run-in at a club with the equally troublesome Stéphanie forcibly inserts them into each other’s lives, shortly before Stéphanie is struck by tragedy as a result of a horrific work accident.

“Rust and Bone” has no clear, specific focus, switching back intermittently from in-depth spotlights on Alain and Stephanie in their individual lives, both struggling to return to some sense of normalcy following the cruel paths life has set for them. Neither has a positive attitude, and their interactions are far from sentimental. Schoenaerts’ performance is appropriately detached, presenting Alain as someone not wholly concerned with where his life is headed, and certainly not for his own sake. Cotillard delivers her finest turn since “La Vie en Rose,” indicating such pain and inspiration in Stéphanie’s eyes and capturing the spirit of her character in every scene.

As a film, “Rust and Bone” takes many rollercoaster turns, allowing its audience few moments of true peace and serenity. When it does afford such a rare flicker of joy, it succeeds enormously, best illustrated on the film’s poster, where Stéphanie holds on to Alain’s shoulders as they both go for a swim in the sparkling ocean. “Rust and Bone” is filled with misery, with moments of hope sprinkled in only occasionally. The weight of the sadness contained within is difficult to bear, but, overall, “Rust and Bone” serves as an effective and emotional character study with one truly strong performance at its center.

B

Movie with Abe: Quartet

Quartet
Directed by Dustin Hoffman
Released December 7, 2012

Earlier this year, John Madden’s “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” gathered together a handful of esteemed older British actors to play disgruntled retirees heading to India to spend their later years. Now, American actor Dustin Hoffman steps behind the camera for the first time to adapt the play by Ronald Harwood, Oscar-winning screenwriter of “The Pianist” and “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.” A trip to India may sound magical, but visiting colorful characters in a retirement home for musicians is a true delight, and a winning combination of laughs and drama in this terrific comedy.

Maggie Smith is the other connective link between the two British senior citizen-centric films of the year, appearing as a crotchety loner in “Marigold” and in this movie as Jean, a newly arrived resident less than eager to perform again. Smith is far more likeable in this role, appearing snobbish at first but quickly showing Jean to be kindhearted and generous despite her firm belief that she should be seen more highly than anyone else when it comes to her art form. By the time that Smith, who was singled out by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association for a Golden Globe nomination, joins the film’s events, the rest of its cast has already established a marvelous musical community.

“Quartet” gathers together for its title grouping a fantastic foursome. Two-time Oscar nominee Tom Courtenay takes the serious part of Reggie, a slightly younger resident who teaches young students about opera and used to be married to Jean. His sentimental performance, coupled with Smith’s, is well balanced out by two lovely humorous turns, from Billy Connolly as the ever-flirtatious Wilf and Pauline Collins as Cissy, who has a sweet heart and a deteriorating memory. Watching the four of them interact is a blissful, extremely entertaining endeavor. The cast is enhanced by Michael Gambon as Cedric, the hilariously dictatorial director of the home’s annual concert, and one of the youngest members of the ensemble, Sheridan Smith, as the home’s very pleasant director, Dr. Lucy Cogan.

A tremendously talented cast contributes to an equally charming story, with some knockout musical performances along the way. In many ways, it’s a familiar tale in an unusual setting, following opera singers into a time way past their prime when they still love to engage in their beloved art, unable to avoid other human interactions along the way. Following these characters into old age is a magnificent treat. Hoffman’s first effort behind the camera is a roaring success, and this is easily one of the year’s best and most consistent dramatic comedies.

B+

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Saturday Night Movie Recommendations with Abe

Welcome to a weekly feature here at Movies With Abe. I'm going to be providing a handy guide to a few choice movies currently playing in theatres as well as several films newly released on DVD. I’ll also aim to comment on those films I have not yet had the chance to see, and I invite you to add in your thoughts on any films I haven’t seen in the comments below. Understandably, some weeks will have considerably fewer releases to address than others.

Now Playing

The notable release of this week was The Hobbit, which I’m in no rush to see since I loved the first two “Lord of the Rings” films but was annoyed with the excessive love bestowed upon the third film. I may see it Tuesday if time allows. This past week, I accomplished a first-ever feat: a quintuple feature, at the Landmark theatre in Los Angeles. Reviews of Hitchcock and Hyde Park on Hudson went up yesterday, and look for Quartet and Rust and Bone tomorrow. I’ll offer thoughts on Django Unchained when it’s released theatrically.

New to DVD

The high-profile releases this week are The Bourne Legacy, Ted, and Ice Age: Continental Drift, all of which would pique my interest much more if they were Oscar contenders.


Now on Netflix Instant Streaming

The Adventures of Tintin (highly recommended): This inexplicably snubbed animated features is one of the year’s most exciting, enthralling adventures seen on screen in a while, serving both as a landmark achievement in its format and a perfectly excellent film for all ages in its own right.

The Great Mouse Detective (recommended): It has to have been at least since a decade since I saw this 1986 Disney hit, but as a young child, I remember loving it. Sherlock Holmes as a mouse? Definitely a fantastic idea, and a thrilling and effective execution to make it worthwhile, at least for children and maybe for adults too.

Maria My Love (recommended): This 2011 Tribeca Film Festival entry never made it to DVD but is now available via multiple streaming platforms. It’s wonderful to see Judy Marte, who broke out in “Raising Victor Vargas,” back on the screen in a role filled with depth, in an intimate film with a strong cast.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Movie with Abe: Hyde Park on Hudson

Hyde Park on Hudson
Directed by Roger Michell
Released December 7, 2012

This film’s title should immediately conjure up an image of President Franklin D. Roosevelt relaxing in his home away from Washington during his presidency. “Hyde Park on Hudson” follows the mold of two types of films recently seen in plenty. The first is the biopic of a historical figure, such as “Lincoln” or “Hitchcock,” segmented down to just one important brief period of time, and the second is a once-in-a-lifetime encounter between an everyday person and a celebrity, so magical for such a short while, as seen in “Me and Orson Welles” and “My Week with Marilyn.”

Laura Linney introduces the film as Daisy, the sixth cousin of FDR, who is summoned to his Hyde Park home to cheer him up. As time progresses, Daisy and FDR become closer, and she spends much time around him. When Daisy finds herself out in the cold during a 1939 visit to Hyde Park by the King and Queen of England, she becomes utterly irrelevant to her own story, disappearing for a while as the film finds its most fascinating moments. Ultimately, Daisy returns to close the chapter of her relationship with FDR, but the film is at its peak without her.

Bill Murray is an odd choice, objectively, to play FDR. Yet his performance is surprisingly natural, delivered mostly from a seated position and demonstrating a warm, welcoming nature, and imbuing FDR with a wonderful sense of humor that helps to keep the film light and accessible. Most impressive, however, is the boldness of the film to portray King George VI, better known as Bertie, and his wife Queen Elizabeth, both showcased so memorably in the Oscar-winning “The King’s Speech” two years ago. Samuel West is charming as the nervous Bertie, who forms a delightful bond with the President, and Olivia Colman is magnificent as Elizabeth, who has no issue emphasizing her distaste with American culture. The two enliven the film during their trip to Hyde Park, and, for the duration of their stay, the film takes on a different, and far more appealing, identity.

While the film’s narrator may seem incorrect for its given story, its title is, and Hyde Park is used to great effect as its setting. Two members of FDR’s entourage stand out – 91-year-old actress Elizabeth Wilson in a humorous small role as FDR’s endearing but controlling mother and Elizabeth Marvel as Marguerite LeHand, his secretary and trusted adviser. Watching the workings of the Presidential home at Hyde Park is like a far less stressful version of “Downton Abbey,” intriguing in its machinations but hardly as organized as should be the case for the leader of a nation. This is a film with a lackluster beginning and end but an extremely strong middle, more effective in its showcase of the relationship between high-level political leaders than as a characterization of FDR and his close acquaintance.

B

Movie with Abe: Hitchcock


Hitchcock
Directed by Sacha Gervasi
Released November 23, 2012

Alfred Hitchcock is well-known as the Master of Suspense. For decades, Hitchcock directed mysteries and thrillers and kept movie-going audiences on the edge of their seats. His trademark was a momentary cameo in each of his films, a shot of him walking or asking a question that would have gone unnoticed if not for his distinctive physical form. In Sacha Gervasi’s film, Hitchcock steps out from behind the camera to star in his own story, an examination on a man living through his imagination that is initially intriguing but ultimately leaves much to be desired.

Like another notable biopic released this year, “Lincoln,” this story chooses a figure known for an illustrious career with many accomplishments and zeroes in on one particularly memorable and uncertain time. The production of “Psycho,” a film about which none besides Hitchcock himself were optimistic, has the makings of a great movie subject. The entire story is told tongue-in-cheek, since everyone repeatedly emphasizes the failure potential of “Psycho” and that people would be simply revolted by seeing a woman stabbed to death in a shower. Only Hitchcock is the wiser, believing emphatically in his vision.

The costumes and backgrounds in “Hitchcock” help to establish its 1960 setting and to make its events feel real and relevant. The way the story is told and acted, however, lacks the same energy and draw of Hitchcock’s films, presenting blunt characterizations of its principal players and unveiling its conclusive feelings about them all too early. Hitchcock in particular is portrayed very negatively, magnificently stubborn and prone to letting himself get wrapped up in his work, unable to give the rest of the world any consideration. Rather than investigative who Hitchcock was by spotlighting him at different times throughout his career, the narrow focus prevents him from displaying any sort of redeeming behavior.

Getting Anthony Hopkins, so terrifically chilling as serial killer Hannibal Lecter in “The Silence of the Lambs,” to play Hitchcock seems like dream casting. Yet Hopkins is covered completely in makeup to ensure that his face resembles the director’s, and from behind that mask, his performance lacks mystery, presenting a cut-and-dry impression of the director, who speaks loudly and demands to be heard. Helen Mirren, who has been earning accolades for her portrayal of the strong-willed Mrs. Lecter, delivers a decent performance that’s hardly worthy of comparison to some of her past roles. The trip into Hitchcock’s psyche is guided by imagined conversations with Ed Gein, the serial killer who inspired both Norman Bates and Lecter, allowing Hitchcock to dream up new villains and understand their motivations. “Hitchcock” the film just can’t decide what it wants to be, alternately shaping itself as a thriller and other times having Hitchcock directly address the camera. In other words, it’s an interesting peek behind the curtain, but far from a satisfying one.

B-

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Golden Globe Nominees: Best Motion Picture – Comedy/Musical


My predictions: 4/5, picking “Quartet” over “Salmon Fishing in the Yemen”
What’s missing? Magic Mike, Ted

This category looked pretty secure in terms of four nominees, and, as tends to be the case, the fifth nominee was a total wild card. Salmon Fishing in the Yemen scored three nominations, and I’m going to have to watch it on DVD this weekend before I dub it another “The Tourist.” The frontrunners are clearly Les Miserables and Silver Linings Playbook, both of which earned four nominations. Sadly, Moonrise Kingdom earned just one, which is a shame, especially since its score isn’t eligible for the Oscars. Rounding out the list is The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, which had a great couple of days with two matching SAG bids, for ensemble and for Maggie Smith, to go with this citation and the Best Actress mention for Judi Dench. I’m still missing two of these films, but it looks like a fun category to me.

What could win? I think it’s Les Miserables without a question.

Golden Globe Nominees: Best Motion Picture – Drama


My predictions: 5/5
What’s missing? Beasts of the Southern Wild, Flight, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey,The Master

It’s always exciting to guess the top category correctly. This list makes complete sense given Globe voters’ historic tastes, and it’s just a shame that the wonderful “Beasts of the Southern Wild” couldn’t make the cut. Hopefully it can still fit into Oscar’s expanded field. Lincoln has a whopping seven nominations, while Argo and Django Unchained each have five. Zero Dark Thirty has four, and Life of Pi has three. It’s a competitive category, and ultimately it should boil down to the battle between “Lincoln” and “Argo,” with one underdog film poised to upset. I think that, like in 2009 with “The Hurt Locker,” it’s not going to happen until after the Globes. All of these films are nominated for Best Director as well.

Who could win? I vote for Argo over “Lincoln.”

Golden Globe Nominees: Best Director – Motion Picture


My predictions 4/5, picking Tom Hooper over Ang Lee
Who’s missing? Paul Thomas Anderson (The Master), Tom Hooper (Les Miserables), David O. Russell (Silver Linings Playbook)

This category is a big slap in the face to Tom Hooper, who was nominated for “The King’s Speech” in 2010 and went on to win the Oscar. “Les Miserables” is clearly one of the movies of the year, and apparently voters aren’t interested in rewarding him for what looks to be a luxurious effort (I still haven’t seen it). Taking his place, technically, is Ang Lee (Life of Pi), who was least likely of the nominees to appear, though he is a Globe favorite with two previous wins. Both Kathryn Bigelow (Zero Dark Thirty) and Quentin Tarantino (Django Unchained) have been here before, actually up against each other last in 2009 (James Cameron won). This is the eleventh nomination in this category for Steven Spielberg (Lincoln), and his first since “Munich” in 2005. Joining the veterans is newbie Ben Affleck (Argo), a past acting nominee and screenplay winner. Quite a list, and also all nominated for Best Motion Picture – Drama.

Who could win? My money is on Affleck, but that could change.

Golden Globe Nominees: Best Screenplay – Motion Picture


My predictions: 4/5, picking “Moonrise Kingdom” over “Zero Dark Thirty”
What’s missing? Beasts of the Southern Wild, Les Miserables, Moonrise Kingdom

And here we have the five films that, were it still the case, would be the frontrunners for the Best Picture Oscar list. Argo and Lincoln were guaranteed inclusions, and the other three help to solidify their films’ reputations. Silver Linings Playbook is the only comedy that makes the cut, and its placement here is good considering it was always a longshot for Best Director, where it didn’t show up. Zero Dark Thirty, still unseen by many, got a big boost from its Globes showing, and the same is certainly true for Django Unchained, which rebounded from a shut-out yesterday from SAG. This should be a competitive category for sure.

What could win? Any of them, theoretically, depending on whether a film sweeps. I’ll go with the underdog, Silver Linings Playbook, for now.

Golden Globe Nominees: Best Foreign Language Film


My predictions: 4/5
What’s missing? No (Chile), plenty of others

Going in relatively blind, I managed to predict all but Kon-Tiki (Norway). I’ve seen just one of these films, Rust and Bone (France), which is the one film not eligible for the Oscar. I’ve heard incredible things about both The Intouchables (France) and Amour (Austria), and they’re joined by A Royal Affair (Denmark). I’m going to do my best to see more of these nominees by Globes night – if you’ve seen them, please share your thoughts in the comments!

What could win? I’ll go with Amour over “The Intouchables.”

Golden Globe Nominees: Best Animated Feature Film


My predictions: 4/5
What’s missing? ParaNorman

I’ve seen just one entry in this category, and that’s Brave. It seemed obvious that Frakenweenie and Wreck-It Ralph would make the cut based on reviews, and I had assumed that “ParaNorman” had a stronger shot than Rise of the Guardians, but it turns out that wasn’t the case. Instead, we got Hotel Transylvania to round out the list. All five of these nominees, plus sixteen more, are eligible for the corresponding Oscar category. I hope to have seen more of these by the Globes ceremony night, but I’m not rushing to see them before I see some of the more visible contenders in other categories.

What could win? I’ll stick with Brave even though it’s far from a sure thing.