Thursday, December 31, 2015

Movie with Abe: Straight Outta Compton

Straight Outta Compton
Directed by F. Gary Gray
Released August 14, 2015

It is often said and written that artists in all fields have the chance to change the world through their chosen form of expression. Music has a certain power that can allow a song, a singer, or a group the opportunity to define a generation. When music speaks for a particular community or subset of the population, its effect is exponentially amplified. “Straight Outta Compton,” which tells the story of hip hop group N.W.A. and the type of music the group made popular, definitely makes a case for gangsta rap and its impact during the formative years of the group that made it popular.

“Straight Outta Compton” begins before the formation of N.W.A., charting the individual careers of Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins), Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson, Jr.), and Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell) as they took different paths and came together to record their debut album that helped to launch their futures. One theme is clear above any other, and that is how much their music was shaped by their life experiences. In an early scene, Dr. Dre is told explicitly not to play rap, and Ice Cube appears on stage moments later to yell his profanity-laced lyrics at an eager audience. These rappers’ interactions with the police especially, and law enforcement’s understandable attempts to stifle them, form a major part of who they are and why they do what they do.

The events of “Straight Outta Compton” happened recently enough that much of them are still well-known, and the surviving players still have relatively thriving careers that have pushed them over the edge in terms of achieving inarguably meteoric success. This is very much a reenactment of their early days, one that feels authentic in many ways, a major factor of which may be that the actor portraying Ice Cue is the actor-musician’s real life son. That casting surely adds meaning to the film, and the entire ensemble was recognized with a SAG Award nomination for their work. The film is a solid recreation of events and an engaging depiction of people and music. Clocking in at a lengthy 147 minutes, it covers a long period of time and is fueled by the fury of its music and the renewed relevance of its content, pushing back to question whether where you come from or what you look like should dictate what you can accomplish in life.


Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Movie with Abe: Spy

Directed by Paul Feig
Released June 5, 2015

Anyone making a spy movie wouldn’t think of Melissa McCarthy as the first choice to be the star. On the other hand, headlining a comedy about an unlikely spy who spent her entire career behind a desk going into the field with an absurd cover is a much more fitting role for the comedienne. McCarthy is only the main star vehicle for this relatively absurd and occasionally on-point Golden Globe-nominated action comedy filled with other strong, funny turns in an overall silly experience.

“Spy” begins by firmly establishing the circumstances and roles in which its characters exist. Bradley Fine (Jude Law) is the impossibly charming spy who spends his days in the field infiltrating terrorist networks and taking down bad guys, and McCarthy’s Susan Cooper is the voice in his ear who helps him pull off daring feats and stunning takedowns. Fine’s untimely demise at the hands of the villainous Rayna Boyanov (Rose Byrne) prompts the CIA to send Susan in undercover, disguised as what can most accurately be called a cat lady, to find her and stop the sale of a deadly weapon to an even more evil party. In her transition to full-fledged field agent, Susan is assisted by Nancy (Miranda Hart), filling in for her former duties behind the desk and the microphone, and derailed constantly by the overconfident, inept agent Rick Ford (Jason Statham).

This film’s premise is that Susan is not at all fit for field duty and that, naturally, the only option for her to pose as in order to fool anyone would be a friendless mess. That’s how it’s set up from the start, and while both Rayna and Rick insist on continuing to look at Susan that way, everything changes once she actually gets into the field. It turns out that Susan is full of vicious and lewd insults, and such comments are hurled back and forth for the majority of the film’s second half, with most of them first coming from Susan. McCarthy is fun though this isn’t her best performance, and Byrne and Statham are the comedic standouts, showing that they might want to think about sticking to this genre more in their regular film work. This film is entertaining to be sure but hardly the resounding comedy classic it thinks it is.


Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Movie with Abe: Love and Mercy

Love and Mercy
Directed by Bill Pohlad
Released June 19, 2015

There is almost always a story behind most of the greatest songs ever written. Musicians in general have a reputation for leading wild, unhinged lives that are reflected in some way through their art. The groups and the songs are remembered, but their crazy and unexpected origins are often forgotten. In “Love and Mercy,” which gets its title from a famous 1988 song, Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys takes the spotlight, as his life is charted in two separate time periods, one of early eccentric success and another of a much later low point that threatened to undo all his accomplishments.

Brian is first introduced in the 1980s, played by John Cusack, sitting in a model car and flirting with saleswoman Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks). Brian is alluring and mysterious, and brushes off the fame he has amassed as unimportant and inconsequential, slowly becoming closer with Melinda. As she sees more and more of him, she notices the disconcerting and overbearing presence of his therapist Dr. Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti) which has put him into a permanent medicated state. Twenty years earlier, a young Brian (Paul Dano) writes some of his most well-known songs as signs of his eventual condition begin to emerge.

Telling Brian’s story by showing him at two very starkly different points in his life helps to illustrate the decline he experienced as a result of an illness that was never properly diagnosed, with a jump to schizophrenia permitting Landy to treat Brian however he saw fit. The two Brians seem like completely separate people, and it is almost as if they are two individual characters. As with many stories of decline, this film sags with its protagonist’s ups and downs, never achieving the dramatic potential it desires. The film’s strongest moments are when Brian makes a musical discovery and pens one of the many classic tunes best remembered by society today.

Cusack portrays Brian at a low point in his life, and he definitely seems like a broken man. The much more compelling performance comes from Golden Globe nominee Dano, who captures Brian’s brilliance and fuses it with his growingly insecure grasp on the world and reality. Banks is a standout in the cast as Melinda, the one true light in an older Brian’s life who helps ensure that he gets back on track. This film tells an intriguing story but hardly in the most compelling way, a decent ode to a great misunderstood man but not a true salute to his legacy.


Monday, December 28, 2015

Movie with Abe: Beasts of No Nation

Beasts of No Nation
Directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga
Released October 16, 2015

Netflix has revolutionized the TV landscape with a number of hit shows designed for binge-watching and earning many accolades in the process. “Beasts of No Nation,” which was released simultaneously in theaters and on Netflix back in October, marks the first non-documentary film originally produced by Netflix. It may also make history by managing to score an Oscar nomination for Best Picture, which would start to redefine what movies can look like. Regardless of whether it ends up being honored by Oscar voters, this film is a strong and immensely watchable look at the horrors of life in a purposely anonymous third-world country at war.

The film starts with playful, hand-drawn titles and introduces its eager young narrator, Agu (Abraham Attah). Agu and his friends do what they can to keep life interesting while war devastates their unnamed African country, including blocking the road with tree branches and charging passing drivers to remove it, and entirely harmless fun like selling an “imagination TV,” an empty television set with live performances from Agu’s friends as entertainment. Agu describes his life, touching on his relationship with his older brother and the father who also serves as his teacher. All that tranquility is cut short when government forces mistake Agu, his family, and members of his village for rebels, and Agu escapes only to be recruited by a rebel unit led by the Commandant (Idris Elba) and consisting almost entirely of child soldiers.

Watching Agu’s transformation from happy-go-lucky kid making the most of his life to fully engaged child soldier is an intense and frightening experience. Filmed in Ghana, the actual setting of this story is inconsequential to the idea it conveys. Watching children excitedly execute random people they meet who might be as innocent as Agu’s family was and cheer when they see violence on the horizon is disturbing, and as told in this film with Agu at its center, magnetically interesting.

Elba, who was been working in British and American cinema and television for a number of years, is attracting a lot of awards attention for his part as the uncompromising commander who indoctrinates and leads the young boys from their former lives into something entirely unrecognizable. The real breakthrough comes from Attah, a native of Ghana who delivers a revelatory performance as Agu, tackling subjects way beyond his age and maturity that capture the impossible existence of child soldiers. Cary Joji Fukunaga pulls triple duty as director, writer, and cinematographer to tell this important and powerful story, one that is beyond unsettling but also immensely well-crafted.


Sunday, December 27, 2015

Movie with Abe: Ex Machina

Ex Machina
Directed by Alex Garland
Released April 24, 2015

There are some scientific advancements that are the stuff of science fiction but may not be all that far off from becoming just science. Setting a story in a time that might as well today with a few mechanical tweaks can make it all the more effective since it feels like it could actually happen in present-day society. “Ex Machina” does just that, following talented programmer Caleb (Domnhall Gleeson) as he is taken to the remote home of Nathan (Oscar Isaac), a rich inventor and CEO who has enlisted Caleb’s help to analyze the humanity of his great creation: Ava (Alicia Vikander), a robot designed with artificial intelligence who looks like a human.

The audience begins the experience with Caleb, unaware of what will come with the prize that this programmer has won. When, aboard a helicopter, Caleb asks how close they are to Nathan’s estate, he is told that they have already been flying over it for two hours. The pilot is not even allowed to approach the compound, and as soon as Caleb exits the plane, he steps into a large maze of rooms, some which he may enter and others that he may not, and meets the eccentric Nathan, who is short on small talk but all about getting into Caleb’s head, which is precisely what he wants Caleb to do as he gets to know Ava.

Caleb’s interactions with Ava are the centerpiece of this film, and they are definitely interesting. Caleb has been charged by Nathan with performing a “Turing test,” during which he must determine how human Ava seems and whether she has convinced him that she is indeed more than artificial intelligence. It is clear from the start that Ava is a worthwhile match for Caleb, redirecting questions he asks her back to him, and Nathan’s opinion on the situation, and the way in which he only seldom parts with important and useful information, is just as intriguing.

The direction “Ex Machina” takes is hardly a surprising one, but it is told in a subtle and very effective way with just three main characters representing the whole film. Gleeson is a fitting lead who does not steal attention away from the other players, and Isaac does a remarkable job of negotiating Nathan’s brilliance with his ego. Vikander, who earned a Golden Globe nomination for her role as Ava and also impressed in “The Danish Girl” this year, is the real find here, making Ava a magnificently interesting character who really does seem human at times. The film’s visual effects are superb, and this small independent film is worth a watch for those to whom the subject matter appeals.


Saturday, December 26, 2015

Movie with Abe: Trainwreck

Directed by Judd Apatow
Released July 17, 2015

Amy Schumer had a great year in 2015. Her Comedy Central show won an Emmy for Outstanding Variety Sketch Series, and she was nominated as a lead actress in a comedy series. In July, she made a successful transition to film with a starring role in the comedy “Trainwreck,” which she also wrote. Teaming up with Judd Apatow, director of “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” and “Knocked Up,” creates the opportunity for plenty of R-rated signature comedy in this film that takes a while to get started but manages to inch its way towards endearing over the course of its very long runtime.

Schumer stars as Amy, a commitment-phobic journalist who was taught by her father at a young age that monogamy and relationships just don’t work. Amy is seen conking out during sex with a random guy – a ruse to end the effort early – and trying to navigate repeated dates with an oversensitive lug humorously played by wrestler John Cena. When her insane boss (Tilda Swinton) urges her to step outside her comfort zone to write a story on sports featuring Aaron (Bill Hader), a kindhearted sports doctor, Amy has to confront the reality that maybe a normal relationship is just what she needs.

The nature of the humor in “Trainwreck,” which scored a Golden Globe nod for Best Motion Picture – Comedy/Musical, is best described as irreverent rather than crude, though there is some of that to be found too. Aaron’s role as a sports doctor brings with it regular appearances by the likes of LeBron James and Amar’e Stoudemire, basketball players parodying themselves, as well as a handful of other celebrities who pop up over the course of the film. There’s a lot assembled into this comedy, which clocks in at over two hours, and though that runtime is pretty standard for Apatow, it feels like the film goes on forever, with the better second half moving along more quickly than the first. Those who like Schumer will probably enjoy this film, and it’s clear that she’s capable of anchoring a movie. Hader, who has graduated from “Saturday Night Live” and gone on to score a handful of film roles, is very entertaining opposite Schumer, and Brie Larson, who starred this past year in “Room,” is one of the more capable and funny cast members as Amy’s sister. This film’s title prepares its viewers for a mess, and that’s sort of what this movie feels like for a while, until it ultimately becomes the romantic comedy it was always meant to be despite Amy’s best efforts.


Friday, December 25, 2015

Movie with Abe: Concussion

Directed by Peter Landesman
Released December 25, 2015

There are so many films that deal with important moments in history, bringing them to the big screen so that stories can be told and that people don’t forget about monumental developments, achievements, or discoveries. It often takes a while for such stories to be realized and adapted, but sometimes recent history makes its way into theaters quickly. That’s the case with “Concussion,” the new film starring Will Smith as forensic pathologist Bennet Omalu, who, in 2005, discovered that football players were receiving traumatizing concussions that threatened their wellbeing in a major way and took on the NFL to ensure that his research was not dismissed.

The film starts off from two distinctly different vantage points to frame its story. One is the culture of American football, a pastime that, more than any other sport, unites Americans, at least as posited by this film. One famous player, Mike Webster (David Morse) of the Pittsburgh Steelers, discusses the impact of the game as a montage of glorious football moments plays, and he is seen just moments later at a much lower and more disjointed point in his life. At the same time, Omalu is introduced, a breathing representation of the American dream, having earned numerous degrees since beginning his career in Nigeria. His chance assignment of Webster’s autopsy following his untimely death at fifty sets in motion a trajectory that puts Omalu at odds with every American who loves football unconditionally.

Smith earned a Golden Globe nomination for his performance as Omalu, a considerably more toned-down character than Smith tends to play. His good nature shines through, and he feels authentic as a foreigner even though Smith is one of the most recognizable American actors working today. The film deservedly earned a spot on the finalist list for the Oscar Best Makeup field, making Smith look just different enough to appear wholly like someone else. Smith’s most valuable support comes from Gugu Mbatha-Raw as the supportive woman who will eventually become his wife and Albert Brooks, who steals all of his scenes as Omalu’s supervisor with his witty cynicism. The film, on the other hand, is not nearly as polished as some of its performances, telling a worthwhile in a very typical and uninventive fashion. The dramatization of certain football players’ mental anguish and the villainizing of the NFL, in particular, feel over-the-top, and keep this film from being a well-rounded realization of a true story.


Thursday, December 24, 2015

Movie with Abe: The Hateful Eight

The Hateful Eight
Directed by Quentin Tarantino
Released December 25, 2015

Quentin Tarantino is one of those filmmakers whose name is the reason that most people go to see his movies. It hardly seems like a coincidence that his eighth film would be titled “The Hateful Eight,” and that’s not the only recognizable trait of his latest effort. This expectedly violent opus is best compared with his two previous films, “Inglourious Basterds” and “Django Unchained,” a wild period piece with many colorful characters played by Tarantino regulars and first-timers alike prone to occasional anachronistic tendencies and laced with as much brutal language as bloody violence. Those eager for such things won’t be disappointed.

“The Hateful Eight” begins in snowy Wyoming sometime after the Civil War, with Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson), also known as “The Bounty Hunter,” stranded with no horse to take him to shelter. He stops an approaching carriage which has been chartered by John Ruth (Kurt Russell), better known as “The Hangman,” a bounty hunter who has captured Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and is transporting her to the town of Red Rock to claim his reward and see her hang. Their next pickup is Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins), a Confederate hooligan who purports to be the new sheriff of Red Rock, and the odd bunch make their way together to a stagecoach stopover, where they meet a few more eccentric players, including Tim Roth’s Oswaldo Mobray, an English hangman, and Bruce Dern’s General Sanford Smithers, a former Confederate general.

It’s no surprise that the summary of this film’s plot is populated mostly by creative character names and the wacky ways in which they meet. As usual, Tarantino has fashioned a story with temperamental personalities with itchy trigger fingers just waiting to blow each other away after they hurl vicious insults and slurs at each other with a smile on their faces. The avalanche of snow falling outside and the one-room inside setting are very effective to help hasten the antics and interactions of these characters, though this film still clocks in at over three hours, including an overture and an intermission, marking Tarantino’s longest film yet.

Tarantino’s script is full of witty and entertaining comments, and it won’t be a surprise if the two-time Oscar-winning screenwriter earns another nomination for this screenplay. The ensemble is a formidable assembly of talent, all so well cast for their roles. Leigh seems to be earning the most praise for her portrayal of Domergue, who goes toe-to-toe with the vile men around her for the most despicable of the bunch. Roth, a Tarantino favorite who returns to work with the director for the first time in twenty years, is especially entertaining, and Goggins, making an important transition from TV excellence to standout film work, is the best of the bunch as the giddy, racist rebel-turned-lawman Mannix, dominating a number of his scenes with his singular charm. This film is an improvement of “Django Unchained” but doesn’t come anywhere near reaching the excellence of “Inglourious Basterds.” It takes a considerable plunge following its intermission, fulfilling its function as a bloody, stylized Quarantino feature in every possible way.


Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Movie with Abe: 45 Years

45 Years
Directed by Andrew Haigh
Released December 23, 2015

The title “45 Years” offers up a few possibilities for what its subject and content will be. Following the relationship of two people over the course of that time seems like a pretty good bet, and casting those two as a couple is also logical. Where it meets those people is an unresolved question, and where it starts and ends is also not set in stone. In this case, “45 Years” finds Kate (Charlotte Rampling) and Geoff (Tom Courtenay) preparing for their forty-fifth anniversary party, an occasion that should be entirely festive but is dampened by the arrival of unexpected news that throws their entire relationship into question.

Kate and Geoff are a mild-mannered, older couple without children who have been married for decades. Their fortieth anniversary party was cancelled five years earlier due to an unanticipated surgery for Geoff, and as a result this occasion calls for celebration in the form of an elegant gathering with all of their friends. The tranquil calm and monotony of their lives is interrupted by a letter Geoff receives informing him that the body of the girlfriend he had fifty years earlier, Katya, who was killed in a hiking accident before he met Kate, has been located. This news dominates Geoff’s every thought, and the poor timing of the discovery makes Kate feel less and less connected to the man with whom she has made her life, and forces her to compete with memories of someone she never even met who has been dead for half a century.

“45 Years” is a quiet film that involves little dialogue, and even fewer instances of shouting or true emotion bubbling over. Kate and Geoff are perfectly content with each other, and the party they are planning is as much for their friends to come together and spend time with them as it is a marker of the time that they have been married. Their romance is not one filled with warmth or affection, and it feels like it may never have been, not indicating any lack of love on each of their parts, but rather that this is how they have come to know and to be with each other. The sudden insertion of a third party into their relationship so far into it is detrimental and unsettling.

Rampling and Courtenay are actors who have been performing for decades, acting on screen for longer than their alter egos have been married. It’s refreshing to see that they are both still very capable of creating complex, believable characters, and playing well off each other in a way that does not suggest a high level of interactive intimacy. It’s likely that Rampling will end up being rewarded for her work here with an Oscar nomination, and she certainly is the strongest part of this effective if unexciting story of two people and how time together can truly feel.


Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Movie with Abe: Mad Max: Fury Road

Mad Max: Fury Road
Directed by George Miller
Released May 20, 2015

It’s hard to find a film these days that doesn’t belong to a franchise of some sort, and remakes and reboots of classics of all kinds are becoming increasingly popular. An interesting thing that seems to happen more than would seem normal lately is when a director remakes his or her own film years later. Mel Gibson’s Mad Max first appeared in George Romero’s cult classic film in 1979 and two subsequent sequels, and now Miller has made a new film, “Mad Max: Fury Road” that presents a reimagining of the violent, desolate future landscape in which Max exists. The film has received tremendous praise from critics and fans alike, and this reviewer, who found the concept and trailer entirely unappealing, decided it was time to see and judge for himself.

Summarizing the plot of “Mad Max: Fury Road” doesn’t quite do it justice, since it’s a film better seen and experienced than described. Set in a post-apocalyptic Australia, Max (Tom Hardy) is a drifter who is captured and branded by the minions of a brutal emperor who lets his populace have precious small quantities of water to keep them wanting more as the world obsesses over oil, having already destroyed itself enough to be nearly unrecognizable. Max is hardly a good person, but the circumstances of his escape coinciding with a brave attempt at rebellion by Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) force him to make some important choices that may just bring back his humanity.

“Mad Max: Fury Road” is an unapologetically ferocious, vicious film. The utter chaos is what drives it and gives it a sense of uneven meter and off-kilter rhythm. Its use of a mostly undecorated backdrop and spiked cars adorned with skulls and flame torches makes its every interaction much more intense and electric, in a way far more effective than “300.” The score serves to heighten the brutality and underscore the finality of the film’s events. As it progresses, the film’s story becomes nearly as prominent as the film’s violence, making it more appealing as it nears its finish. It’s still difficult to grasp why this film has received the adoration and adulation that has been heaped upon this film, which will likely be an Oscar nominee for Best Picture. This film, which is sure to spawn sequels of its own, has its merits, but it’s hardly one of the best films of the year.


Monday, December 21, 2015

Movie with Abe: The Fencer

The Fencer
Directed by Klaus Härö
Not Yet Released

The aftermath of any war, especially one in which nations have been conquered, leaves many people stranded in incomprehensible positions and looked at in a much different manner. War heroes might now be enemies of the state, but often things are not so clear cut, and there is plenty of ambiguity to be found in terms of roles and what behaviors and allegiances are demonized. Going on the run is an obvious path for many, though getting caught is all the more likely if those keeping a low profile can’t resist returning to the passions they so loved in their former lives. Such is the case with the protagonist of the Golden Globe-nominated film “The Fencer.”

After World War II, the Soviet Union dominated a large part of Europe and villainized the Nazi regime while emphasizing Communist values and sentiments. Endel (Märt Avandi) is on the run from the secret police, and his journey brings him to a school in a small village in Estonia. One of Endel’s primary responsibilities is managing and running the sports club, and his own past experience leads him to spotlight one sport in particular: fencing. As his students take interest in this extracurricular offering, the administration also takes notice and does its best to suppress this new form of expression, leading closer and closer to Endel’s true identity being discovered.

There are serious undertones to this film and to the kind of society in which Endel and the children with whom he bonds despite his repeated claims that he has no patience or talent with children exist. Yet it is not quite as stark or dramatic as other such stories of persecution and art, told with a focused perspective but not a dark or grim one. The stoic enthusiasm that comes with Endel practicing his passion and passing on his love for a stylized sport to a new generation is appealing, and that makes Finland’s Oscar submission for Best Foreign Film an enjoyable crowdpleaser. It may not have the resounding impact that other international entries have, but it serves as another reliable instance of Nordic filmmaking that has sent over a number of strong, creative films over the past few years. This coproduction of Finland, Estonia, and Germany is a great case of international collaboration in bringing to cinema a story of a shared history.


Sunday, December 20, 2015

Movie with Abe: Son of Saul

Son of Saul
Directed by László Nemes
Released December 18, 2015

Movies about the Holocaust tend to receive plenty of awards attention because they tackle a difficult subject with respect and care, and find a way to tell a horrific, important story in a sensitive and fitting way. Often, such films pick a protagonist with a unique experience, like Oskar Schindler, who saved hundreds of Jews by employing them in his factory, or Władysław Szpilman, whose life was spared by a Nazi officer because of his extraordinary piano-playing skills. “Son of Saul” tells a fictional story of a man with a particularly despicable job in the Auschwitz concentration camp: to clean the gas chamber after every time it is used to exterminate helpless prisoners.

Saul Ausländer (Géza Röhrig) first appears as he is walking silently through the camp, bowing his head and removing his hat whenever he passes a Nazi officer and marching forward rather than letting himself be distracted by anything going on around him. He assists unwitting prisoners as they are told to disrobe and put their belongings on hooks, and stands by as they are told to remember their hook number so that they may retrieve their belongings after their shower and before the hot soup they have been promised. Of course, they will never have the opportunity to do this, and Saul is the one who will clean and empty the gas chamber for the next group of people to be killed.

Saul’s individuality comes through when a young boy is pulled from the gas chamber and is not yet dead, but expires soon after. Saul treats the boy as if he were his son, and furiously begins looking for a rabbi to help him give him a proper burial, casting all caution aside and risking being spotted as disruptive and killed to give this anonymous boy some symbolic closure. This notion contrasts greatly with Saul’s assigned role in the camp, one that seems inconceivable and impossible, since standing up and refusing to assist in such activities would have meant immediate execution, and therefore he or those like him would not have lived on to tell the story.

“Son of Saul” captures the sheer horrors of the Holocaust that have been presented in literature and previous films, and it ranks as one of the more effective fictional narratives written for the big screen. What sets it apart is that it begins inside Auschwitz, never permitting Saul any true backstory, with only a few muttered comments by him and others about his life before to give him any context aside from his unimaginable circumstances. Hungary’s Oscar submission for Best Foreign Film is a difficult, at times unbearable film, one that represents a serious and enormously effective tribute to so many victims of the Holocaust.


Saturday, December 19, 2015

Movie with Abe: Mustang

Directed by Deniz Gamze Ergüven
Released November 20, 2015

Childhood, teenage years, and young adulthood are particularly influential times for people. They shape so many aspects of what an adult will eventually become, culling together personality traits, opinions, and values based on experiences, interactions, and observing what others do. In many cultures, how children grow up can be extremely different and influenced heavily by the dominant religious or political landscapes. The Turkish-French film “Mustang” is an enlightening and intriguing look at how five young sisters find their own upbringing shaped by the customs of their family and the irreversible moments that lead them through life.

When we first meet Lale, Selma, Ece, Nur, and Sonay, the youngest among them, Lale, who is most accurately the film’s primary protagonist, says goodbye to a favorite teacher headed from their small village in Turkey to the major city of Istanbul before the girls walk home, stopping along the way to play in the water with some boys. Their behavior is discovered by their grandmother and uncle, and their flaunting of modest values gets them permanently shut in to their home, imprisoned until they will all eventually be sent off for marriage. They still all have each other and can see sunlight through the bars put on their windows, but the outside world, for them, is no longer a daily part of their lives.

“Mustang” is a focused, character-driven film that shows how these five young girls, who range in age, react to their new reality. None of them quite adapt, since a life spent in confinement and without access to other people and places can hardly be described as a life at all. Most engage in minimally rebellious activities, dressing in clothing their elders would certainly not approve of when no one is around, and occasionally true revolt is practiced with a secretive trip outside the boundaries of the house. Training sessions on how to become a good wife hardly make up for the lack of any true enriching activities in their lives.

This film, which is France’s official submission for Best Foreign Film at the Oscars this year and a Golden Globe nominee already, has a deceptive title that casts it as something completely different than what it is. Advanced civilization is a faraway concept in this tale of desolation told through the starry eyes of Lale, who is extremely smart and perceptive for her age, yet hopelessly unaware of what truly exists in the world. All five young actresses deliver mature, thoughtful performances in this involving, thought-provoking exploration of repression, individuality, and how much value society-imposed definitions of modesty really have.


Friday, December 18, 2015

Movie with Abe: The Danish Girl

The Danish Girl
Directed by Tom Hooper
Released November 27, 2015

Eddie Redmayne went from likeable, charming actor with solid mentions for supporting roles to Oscar winner last year with his winning, endearing portrayal of Stephen Hawking in “The Theory of Everything.” It’s no surprise that Redmayne, who earned considerable respect for that part, chose for his next film an equally ambitious subject: the story of one of the first men to become a woman. Like his previous film, Redmayne’s new vehicle features him delivering a strong performance opposite an equally talented and immensely capable leading lady who exhibits a remarkable degree of perseverance and loyalty to a husband who is hardly the man she once knew.

When “The Danish Girl” begins, painter Einar Wegener (Redmayne) is a shy, quiet artist in 1920s Copenhagen who is overshadowed by his outspoken and ahead-of-the-times wife Gerda (Alicia Vikander), who also has aspirations of becoming a painter but has a more difficult time making strides in male-dominated society. Einar and Gerda have a wonderful relationship, one that is complicated when Gerda asks Einar to pose wearing a woman’s dress for her latest work of art, and a subsequent outing to a party with Einar dressed up as a woman stirs up confusing feelings for Einar that he cannot hope to suppress.

What ensues is an extremely externalized journey of transformation, as Einar spends time dressed up as Lili, who purports to be Einar’s cousin, and lives a separate life, speaking in a different way and claiming to experience memories, dreams, and moments as an entirely separate person. That transformation, clearly something that has been repressed and building for a while, is most fascinating to watch through Gerda’s eyes. She is immensely supportive of her husband’s needs and desires, but it soon becomes evident that for him to fully become Lili, she has to lose the man with whom she fell in love and built her life.

There is something about this film and the way that its events play out that feels lacking, not inauthentic but also not complete. Director Tom Hooper’s last two films were “Les Miserables” and the Oscar-winning “The King’s Speech,” two considerably grander stories of many people. This film is about two people and their intricate relationship and, predictably, the performances are what make it most worthwhile. Redmayne is understated and moving as someone caught between two lives and fully aware of the one in which he belongs, and Vikander, who is having a real breakout year, is fantastic as the passionate, unfiltered Gerda, full of personality matched only by her loyalty to her husband. The film’s artistic elements, particularly its score and its costumes, are strong, but the best reason to see it is its stars.


Thursday, December 17, 2015

Movie with Abe: The Big Short

The Big Short
Directed by Adam McKay
Released December 11, 2015

The housing and financial crisis that hit the United States this past decade is a subject ripe for cinematic adaptation. The American economy and its downward spiral have been the focus of a number of recent films, particularly documentaries about all the warning signs that could have prevented it and dramas about job loss and the unfortunate circumstances experienced by those who lost everything or close to it. Rarely are such films as jovial and equally packed full with data and humor as Adam McKay’s new film based on the book of the same name.

The story here is introduced by its de facto narrator, trader Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling), who talks directly to the audience as he profiles the other players who were crucial in the run-up to the biggest financial disaster in recent U.S. history. Among them are eccentric doctor-turned-hedge fund manager Dr. Michael Burry (Christian Bale), angry money manager Mark Baum (Steve Carell), and paranoid retired banker Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt). Their stories play out individually but intersect occasionally, and the thread that links them all together is that they all saw the subprime mortgage crisis coming while the rest of the world didn’t.

“The Big Short” is heavy on information, and is fully cognizant of that. Jared assures the audience that certain topics will be revisited later while others are explained immediately. The film employs a humorous device throughout where celebrities are picked to explain a complicated economical concept, an acknowledgement of the fact that what they are saying goes over most people’s heads. Margot Robbie in a bubble bath is probably the film’s smartest tongue-in-cheek move, and that structure speaks volumes about the complexity of what this film is trying to argue. It’s confusing and daunting, certainly, but one thing is clear: most of the people complicit in this crisis didn’t even comprehend the things they were making up.

It’s difficult to pick out just one performer who steals the show, though Carell and Bale have been honored by various awards bodies for their performances. The ensemble interacts exceptionally well, and the ability of this film to feature so many different plotlines all tangentially connected at once is impressive. The script is smart and includes such a data dump that it’s incredible it manages to be remotely comprehensible. The film is undeniably eccentric and perhaps a bit too creative at times, but it’s a wildly entertaining and mind-boggling ride.


Sunday, December 13, 2015

Movie with Abe: Boy and the World (Capsule Review)

Boy and the World
Directed by Ale Abreu
Released December 11, 2015

Traditionally, films tell stories using sounds and images. That wasn’t always the case, of course, and there’s a reason that “The Artist” went over so well a few years ago when it brought back the silent film. A lack of dialogue almost never means the absence of sound, and very often a musical score or ambient noise can speak even louder than words. Telling a dialogue-free story with animation makes it even more enticing, and that is how one boy’s search to find his father is chronicled in this colorful and creative new film. This contender for this year’s Oscar for Best Animated Feature features a Brazilian flavor and a monumental trip through to new places and new experiences through the eyes of an eager child. The eighty-minute runtime feels long without the use of any conversation or language present, but there is definitely much to be said for its use of energetic and evocative animated images to showcase one perspective of the world.


Friday, December 11, 2015

Movie with Abe: Don Verdean

Don Verdean
Directed by Jared Hess
Released December 11, 2015

Jared Hess is a director known for making questionably intellectual farce. His first film, “Napoleon Dynamite,” sent up high school awkwardness and satirized school elections. His second film, “Nacho Libre,” cast Jack Black as a monk who wanted to become a Mexican wrestler. His third film, “Gentlemen Broncos,” poked fun at writers, science fiction, and all brands of creativity. Now, for his fourth film, Hess takes on a broad concept – religion – and does his best to make it as outrageous and ridiculous as possible in this wacky story about biblical archaeologists and the power of blind faith.

Like Hess’ previous projects, his characters aren’t meant to be taken too seriously, but that means that they take themselves incredibly seriously so the audience can appreciate their absurdity all the more. Enter Don Verdean (Sam Rockwell), an energetic adventurer of sorts who has appointed himself an official and renowned biblical archeologist. Newsreel footage shows his eccentric nature, and his collaboration with an oily pastor (Danny McBride) sends him on a furtive hunt for biblical artifacts like the remains of Lot’s wife whose discovery promises high attendance at church but not much in the way of actual betterment of any flock.

There are many things about this film that make it a recognizable Hess production. The most notable one is the presence of Jemaine Clement of “Flight of the Conchords” fame. While Clement was the best part about the less than terrific “Gentlemen Broncos” as a thieving celebrity writer, here he is so out of place that it’s obvious that this film doesn’t care about being believable or intelligent at all. Clement plays Boaz, an Israeli slacker with helpful connections for Don in the Holy Land. Clement’s excessive performance is just what we might expect of the usually New Zealand stellar comedian if he walked into a role without putting anything into it, which is a disappointment.

There is definitely some intentionality behind this film, and other cast members are much more well-suited and prepared for their parts. Rockwell, I’ve always argued, is much better in comedy than drama, and that’s true here though this is hardly on the level of “The Way, Way Back.” Amy Ryan, always a dependable supporting character, is entertaining as Don’s loyal assistant and follower. Will Forte, Leslie Bibb, and McBride are particularly fun as rival bible thumpers fighting over congregants and a race towards biblical prestige. This film has a few laughs, but ultimately it’s a mess that doesn’t seem like it could really ever have been put together too well.


Thursday, December 10, 2015

Golden Globe Nominees: Best Motion Picture – Comedy/Musical

My predictions: 3/5, picking “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” and “Our Brand Is Crisis” over “Spy” and “Trainwreck”
What’s missing? Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, Our Brand Is Crisis, Grandma, The Lady in the Van

What we have here are two films that experienced major SAG shutouts but rebounded today: The Martian and Joy, both from experienced directors with plenty of awards nominations in the past. The Big Short earned a screenplay nomination and two acting bids, so it may be a serious contender. Rounding out the list we have two lower-brow comedies, Spy and Trainwreck, both of which are available on DVD and I should probably plan to see soon to offer more insight on this category!

What will win? I think it will be The Martian.

Golden Globe Nominees: Best Motion Picture – Drama

My predictions: 3/5, picking “The Hateful Eight” and “Steve Jobs” over “Mad Max: Fury Road” and “Room”
What’s missing? The Hateful Eight, Steve Jobs, The Danish Girl, Trumbo

This list makes a lot of sense given what critics have so far selected as their favorites. The Revenant is the only one that isn’t out yet, but clearly it’s a favorite. “The Hateful Eight” may not have seen by enough people. Instead, we get a strange pick from earlier in the year, Mad Max: Fury Road, that I’m going to have to make time to see and which seems like it’s headed for Oscar in a big way. Spotlight was the frontrunner, but I’m not so sure about that anymore. Carol is picking up a lot of steam, and I’m happy to see Room included here.

What will win? I think it will still end up being Spotlight.

Golden Globe Nominees: Best Director – Motion Picture

My predictions: 3/5, picking Tarantino and Boyle over Haynes and Miller
Who’s missing? Quentin Tarantino, Danny Boyle, Lenny Abrahamson

The two films I picked that didn’t get in here were recognized for their screenplays, while the two that made the cut over them weren’t, so maybe I was just predicting the wrong race. Todd Haynes (Carol) and George Miller (Max Max: Fury Road) getting in show that the critics’ awards that have been handed out so far have been accurate in showing what’s most beloved this year. This is the first nomination for both of them, along with Tom McCarthy (Spotlight). This is the third nomination for Ridley Scott (The Martian), the lone comedy contender in the bunch, and the third for Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (The Revenant), who lost this award last year before winning the Oscar. More on this race once I’ve seen the remaining two films.

Who will win? I think it may well be Miller.

Golden Globe Nominees: Best Screenplay – Motion Picture

My predictions: 4/5, picking “The Martian” over “The Big Short”
What’s missing? Carol, The Martian, The Revenant, Joy, Mad Max: Fury Road

This list isn’t too surprising, with comedy The Big Short, which I’m hoping to see tomorrow, taking a spot I thought would go to “The Martian,” which still had a good showing today. Room fared better than some (including me expected), earning a Best Motion Picture – Drama mention. Steve Jobs unfortunately did not, but I’m glad that it’s still here, giving Aaron Sorkin his sixth nomination. The Hateful Eight didn’t make the cut in the top race either but is here, setting Quentin Tarantino up for a possible third career Globe. Spotlight, which didn’t score as resoundingly as I and others expected, rounds out the race. I’ve only seen three of these, but the three I have are all excellently written.

What will win? Even though it’s not nominated in the top field, I’ll pick Steve Jobs right now.

Golden Globe Nominees: Best Foreign Film

My predictions: 2/5, picking only “Mustang” and “Son of Saul”
Who’s missing? The Second Mother, Felix and Meira, Labyrinth of Lies, The Assassin, countless others

As usual, this list completely redistributes expectations, and this time all five are Oscar eligible. Son of Saul (Hungary) and Mustang (France), both of which will be playing in New York as of next week, were the predicted choices. I’m surprised that “The Second Mother” isn’t here since that seemed like a sure thing, but it may still show up in the Oscar field. Instead, we get three films that weren’t even on my radar. The Brand New Testament (Belgium), whose tagline reads “God exists. He lives in Brussels,” looks very silly. The Club (Chile) is notable for being directed by “No” helmer Pablo Larrain. The Fencer (Finland) rounds out the list. I haven’t seen any of these but plan to see the first two soon and hopefully the other three at some point if they get released or screened.

Who will win? It seems like Son of Saul has this in the bag no matter what it’s up against.

Golden Globe Nominees: Best Animated Film

My predictions: 4/5, picking “Minions” over “Shaun the Sheep Movie”
What’s missing? “Minions”

I noted in my predictions that I hadn't seen most of the contenders here, and I do expect that the Oscar lineup will contain a few more eclectic foreign choices. Instead of the loveable “Minions,” we get Shaun the Sheep Movie to go along with The Peanuts Movie and The Good Dinosaur and the films that will actually compete for the award: crowdpleaser for all ages Inside Out and the more adult-skewing Anomalisa.

Who will win? I think Inside Out is way ahead.

Golden Globe Nominees: Best Original Song

My predictions: 3/5, missing the songs from “Fifty Shades of Grey” and “Youth”
What’s missing? Too many to count and I don’t even know what they are

This is quite the list of films. There are two about music, “One Kind of Love” from Love and Mercy and “Simple Song #3” from Youth. The latter is an interesting selection that does have a crucial role in the film but isn't as traditional a song for this race. It's endearing to see the song dedicated to the late Paul Walker, “See You Again,” from Furious 7 honored, and the latest James Bond tune, “Writings on the Wall” from Spectre. And of course a song from Fifty Shades of Grey, apparently, “Love Me Like You Do.” As far as I can tell, every musician here is nominated for the very first time. I'll have to start listening to these on repeat before I have more thoughts.

What will win? I think it will be See You Again.

Golden Globe Nominees: Best Original Score

My predictions: 2/5, picking only “Carol” and “The Danish Girl”
What’s missing? Spotlight, Bridge of Spies, The Martian, Room

This list could easily have been a Best Picture field. I'm surprised that “Spotlight” isn't here, but I still have to see three of these films. Frequent Coen Brothers collaborator Carter Burwell earns his second career Globe nomination for Carol, which is recognized in the top race along with The Revenant, composed by two-time winner Ryuichi Sakamoto and first-time nominee Alva Noto. Alexandre Desplat scored his eighth Globe nod for The Danish Girl, joined by first-time nominee Daniel Pemberton for Steve Jobs and veteran Ennio Morricone, earning his ninth nomination, for The Hateful Eight. More thoughts once I've seen all the films and heard their music.

What will win? I think it will be The Danish Girl.

Golden Globe Nominees: Best Supporting Actress in a Motion Picture

My predictions: 4/5, picking Stewart over Vikander
Who’s missing? Kristen Stewart, Rachel McAdams, Elizabeth Banks

I was confused when I heard Alicia Vikander (Ex Machina) announced during the nominations broadcast, but I turns out that she managed to score two nominations this year, making her a very hot commodity. I have to see that film as soon as I can. She’s joined by two other SAG snubees: Jane Fonda (Youth), representing her film, and Jennifer Jason Leigh (The Hateful Eight), whose film also got mentions for screenplay and score. Though her film didn’t crack the top race, I’m happy to see Kate Winslet (Steve Jobs) here, and Helen Mirren (Trumbo) is now looking like a very strong Oscar contender. Is it too late for Kristen Stewart? I’m not so sure.

Who will win? I’m going to say Vikander, though it’s a longshot.

Golden Globe Nominees: Best Supporting Actor in a Motion Picture

My predictions: 2/5, picking only Elba and Rylance
Who’s missing? Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Jacob Tremblay, Benicio Del Toro

So this list only ports over three nominees from yesterday’s SAG slate, but still manages to leave off Keaton and Ruffalo, a very puzzling omission given how much it seems that the film was loved, earning three top nominations today. SAG nominee Christian Bale got moved to the lead race, making room for Paul Dano (Love and Mercy), making it clear that I have to see that film as soon as I can. And I really didn’t want to have to see Sylvester Stallone (Creed) in his film, and even passed up the opportunity to do so earlier this week in the hopes that he wouldn’t be nominated. I’m ecstatic that Michael Shannon (99 Homes) is here, and even though he wasn’t really supporting, it’s hardly a big deal since he was so good. Idris Elba (Beasts of No Nation) and Mark Rylance (Bridge of Spies), who are also both nominated for their TV work in the same category, are the sole representatives of their films.

Who will win? I’m not sure there is a frontrunner, but I’ll say Dano for now.

Golden Globe Nominees: Best Actress in a Motion Picture – Comedy/Musical

My predictions: 4/5, picking Streep over McCarthy
Who’s missing? Meryl Streep

I did pretty well here, not expecting the love for Melissa McCarthy (Spy), who this group snubbed for “Bridesmaids” before she eventually landed an Oscar nomination for the role. Her film surprisingly scored a Best Motion Picture – Comedy/Musical nomination, along with that of another nominee: Amy Schumer (Trainwreck), who presenter Dennis Quaid was visibly excited for given his frequent starring on her show. Jennifer Lawrence (Joy) rebounded from yesterday’s SAG snub with an okay showing for her film, which also appeared in the top category only. Lily Tomlin (Grandma) is a double nominee this year with a mention on the TV side of things for “Grace and Frankie.” Rounding out the list is Maggie Smith (The Lady in the Van), who I’m embarrassed to say is the only nominee in this race whose performance I’ve seen. Time to get on that.

Who will win? I think Lawrence will eclipse the others.

Golden Globe Nominees: Best Actor in a Motion Picture – Comedy/Musical

My predictions: 3/5, picking De Niro and Murray over Bale and Ruffalo
Who’s missing? Robert De Niro, Bill Murray, Bill Hader

After yesterday’s shocking SAG snub, Matt Damon (The Martian) is officially back in the race. A surprising SAG inclusion in the supporting race, Christian Bale (The Big Short), showed up here alongside costar Steve Carell (The Big Short), suggesting that Oscar chances are mixed if his category classification is uncertain. Al Pacino (Danny Collins) showed up as expected for a film that came out way back at the beginning of the year. Most exciting is the inclusion of an actor who wasn’t even on my radar for this performance: Mark Ruffalo (Infinitely Polar Bear). I liked him a lot in that sweet film I saw at Sundance almost two years ago, and it’s a better performance than the one for which he was snubbed, “Spotlight.”

Who will win? I’ll go with Damon.

Golden Globe Nominees: Best Actress in a Motion Picture – Drama

My predictions: 5/5
Who’s missing? Sarah Silverman, Helen Mirren, Carey Mulligan, Charlotte Rampling

This category was my only 100% race today, and it’s a good thing considering yesterday’s shocking surprises. Both Rooney Mara (Carol) and Alicia Vikander (The Danish Girl) got successfully promoted from the supporting race to here, though I got confused when I heard Vikander’s name called in the supporting race during the choppy livestream of the nominations, but that’s just because she was nominated there for “Ex Machina.” She could well be a double Oscar nominee if she stays in these categories. Cate Blanchett (Carol) is here as expected, and Brie Larson (Room) saw her film get a Best Motion Picture – Drama nomination while the fifth nominee, Saiorse Ronan (Brooklyn), is the sole representative of her film today. I’m planning to see “The Danish Girl” tonight, and then I’ll have seen this entire category.

Who will win? I think Larson unless one of the “Carol” women takes it.

Golden Globe Nominees: Best Actor in a Motion Picture – Drama

My predictions: 3/5, picking Depp and Hanks over Cranston and Smith
Who’s missing? Johnny Depp, Tom Hanks

I didn’t even realize when the nominees were announced that Depp, who got nominated yesterday for a SAG Award, wasn’t among them. Instead, we got Bryan Cranston (Trumbo), who was recognized yesterday and whose film appears to have performed better than expected, and Will Smith (Concussion), who may or may not make it all the way to the Oscar finals. Joining them are three expected inclusions: Leonardo DiCaprio (The Revenant), the only actor in this category whose film is nominated for the top prize, Eddie Redmayne (The Danish Girl), and Michael Fassbender (Steve Jobs).

Who will win? It’s hard to say at this point, but probably DiCaprio.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Final Golden Globe Predictions

Please find my final Golden Globe predictions for all film categories below. This morning’s SAG Awards nominations announcement featured so many surprising and exciting inclusions, but as usual, rather than be reactionary, I’ve modified my predictions in only one or two places. I recognize that these are very different films than the ones honored by SAG, but I still this is how things are going to go down. You can see my TV predix over at TV with Abe. Check in all day tomorrow for reactions by category!

Best Motion Picture – Drama
The Hateful Eight
The Revenant
Steve Jobs

Best Motion Picture – Comedy/Musical
The Big Short
The Martian
Me and Earl and the Dying Girl
Our Brand Is Crisis

Best Actor in a Motion Picture – Drama
Johnny Depp (Black Mass)
Leonardo DiCaprio (The Revenant)
Michael Fassbender (Steve Jobs)
Tom Hanks (Bridge of Spies)
Eddie Redmayne (The Danish Girl)

Best Actress in a Motion Picture – Drama
Cate Blanchett (Carol)
Brie Larson (Room)
Rooney Mara (Carol)
Saoirse Ronan (Brooklyn)
Alicia Vikander (The Danish Girl)

Best Actor in a Motion Picture – Comedy/Musical
Steve Carell (The Big Short)
Matt Damon (The Martian)
Robert De Niro (The Intern)
Bill Murray (Rock the Kasbah)
Al Pacino (Danny Collins)

Best Actress in a Motion Picture – Comedy/Musical
Jennifer Lawrence (Joy)
Amy Schumer (Trainwreck)
Maggie Smith (The Lady in the Van)
Meryl Streep (Ricki and the Flash)
Lily Tomlin (Grandma)

Best Actor in a Supporting Role in a Motion Picture
Benicio Del Toro (Sicario)
Idris Elba (Beasts of No Nation)
Michael Keaton (Spotlight)
Mark Ruffalo (Spotlight)
Mark Rylance (Bridge of Spies)

Best Actress in a Supporting Role in a Motion Picture
Jane Fonda (Youth)
Jennifer Jason Leigh (The Hateful Eight)
Helen Mirren (Trumbo)
Kristen Stewart (Clouds of Sils Maria)
Kate Winslet (Steve Jobs)

Best Director – Motion Picture
Quentin Tarantino (The Hateful Eight)
Ridley Scott (The Martian)
Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (The Revenant)
Tom McCarthy (Spotlight)
Danny Boyle (Steve Jobs)

Best Screenplay – Motion Picture
The Hateful Eight
The Martian
Steve Jobs

Best Animated Feature Film
The Good Dinosaur
Inside Out
The Peanuts Movie

Best Foreign Language Film
The Second Mother (Brazil)
Felix and Meira (Canada)
Mustang (France)
Labyrinth of Lies (Germany)
Son of Saul (Hungary)

Best Original Score
Bridge of Spies
The Danish Girl
The Martian

Best Original Song
See You Again (Furious 7)
Until It Happens to You (The Hunting Ground)
One Kind of Love (Love and Mercy)
Writing on the Wall (Spectre)
Cold One (Ricki and the Flash)

SAG Nominees: Best Ensemble Cast

My predictions: 2/5, picking only “Spotlight” and “Trumbo”
Who’s missing: Carol, The Hateful Eight, Joy, The Revenant, Room, Steve Jobs

This was a pretty surprising category, ditching ensembles with big names and instead going with the likes of Beasts of No Nation and The Big Short. The adventurous choice is definitely Straight Outta Compton, which I think I should probably see. It’s a good thing that Spotlight still made the cut after its surprising acting snubs, and I’m pleased to have called Trumbo being included – the cast was definitely diverse and great in that one.

Who could win? I’ll go with Spotlight still taking it.

SAG Nominees: Best Actress in a Supporting Role

My predictions: 3/5, picking Banks and Fonda over McAdams and Mirren
Who’s missing: Jennifer Jason Leigh, Jane Fonda, Elizabeth Banks, Kristen Stewart

This category played out a bit as expected, and will surely look very different when the Golden Globe nominations are announced tomorrow since Rooney Mara (Carol) and Alicia Vikander (The Danish Girl) will be considered leads. Kate Winslet (Steve Jobs) was another sure thing, and a very deserving one at that. Helen Mirren (Trumbo) ended up being a double nominee for a movie that scored an unexpected three nominations. And then there’s Rachel McAdams (Spotlight), an odd choice to represent her film as the only individually-nominated performer since she was not the best in show. At least this is somewhat interesting, and this category is up for grabs a bit.

Who could win? I think Mara, but it might be Vikander too.

SAG Nominees: Best Actor in a Supporting Role

My predictions: 1/5, picking only Rylance
Who’s missing: Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Benicio Del Toro, Tom Hardy, Paul Dano, Sylvester Stallone

Whoa! 1/5 is not good, and I didn’t even predict Mark Rylance (Bridge of Spies) in my initial write-up of this category (fortunately, I included it by the time I posted). They still got nominated as part of the film’s ensemble, but not seeing Keaton or Ruffalo here is disconcerting. I’m surprised that Christian Bale (The Big Short) made the cut, especially in this category, but I haven’t seen the film just yet, so more on that soon. Idris Elba (Beasts of No Nation) showing up here and having his film nominated in the ensemble race is big, and I definitely need to watch that film too. Jacob Tremblay (Room) is a great choice, even if he’s not quite in the right category, and I am beyond ecstatic about Michael Shannon (99 Homes), who I didn’t think was a legitimate contender despite being excellent in an excellent film that I hope people will see now.

Who could win? I’d say Rylance just because everyone else here is so surprising, but I’m not positive.

SAG Nominees: Best Actress in a Leading Role

My predictions: 3/5, picking Lawrence and Smith over Mirren and Silverman
Who’s missing: Jennifer Lawrence, Maggie Smith

I was so bowled over by the two surprise inclusions here that I didn’t even process the major omission: Jennifer Lawrence, whose film may have been too late-breaking to be seen by SAG voters, though I’m not sure that’s the case. In her place we have two shocking inclusions: Sarah Silverman (I Smile Back), who was good in her dramatic turn but not necessarily worthy of placement among this group. That’s also true of Helen Mirren (Woman in Gold), who starred in a likeable movie and is actually a double nominee today, which was not expected at all. The other three nominees are far more normative: Cate Blanchett (Carol), Brie Larson (Room), and Saiorse Ronan (Brooklyn). I’ve actually seen this entire group – it’s definitely not my list, but it’s an interesting one.

Who could win? Unless Blanchett or Ronan surges, it will be Larson.

SAG Nominees: Best Actor in a Leading Role

My predictions: 4/5, picking Damon over Cranston
Who’s missing: Matt Damon!

Now this is an intense start to an awards season that I definitely didn’t see coming: Matt Damon got snubbed for his much-loved performance in “The Martian.” Hopefully the Golden Globes will honor him tomorrow even though the film isn’t necessarily a comedy. It’s not a great start from him for sure, especially since he got beat out by Bryan Cranston (Trumbo), whose film earned two additional nominations, making it a much more major player than I think people expected. The other four are pretty solid and expected. Last year’s winner Eddie Redmayne (The Danish Girl) is back, joined by three previously nominated actors, Michael Fassbender (Steve Jobs) and Johnny Depp (Trumbo), both of who were terrific, and Leonardo DiCaprio (The Revenant), whose film I have yet to see.

Who could win? I’m really not sure! This may be the chance for DiCaprio to take home his first SAG trophy, but I’m not certain.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

SAG Predictions: Best Ensemble Cast

Last year’s nominees: Birdman, Boyhood, The Grand Budapest Hotel, The Imitation Game, The Theory of Everything

The rundown: This category is usually made up mostly of Best Picture contenders and a colorful choice or two. The safest bet and likely winner here is Spotlight, and it will probably be joined by Steve Jobs and Joy. After those, it’s a question of whether two late-breaking films, The Revenant and The Hateful Eight, can make the cut, or if other ensemble-centric films like Carol, Brooklyn, Bridge of Spies, or Trumbo will take their place.

Current predictions: Carol, Joy, Spotlight, Steve Jobs, Trumbo

SAG Predictions: Best Actress in a Supporting Role

Last year’s nominees: Patricia Arquette (Boyhood), Keira Knightley (The Imitation Game), Emma Stone (Birdman), Meryl Streep (Into the Woods), and Naomi Watts (St. Vincent).

The rundown: I don’t expect any of last year’s nominees to be back, though voters might go overboard for Meryl Streep (Suffragette) in a minor role. The frontrunner here is Kate Winslet (Steve Jobs), who will earn her eighth nomination. Likely to join her are Rooney Mara (Carol) and Alicia Vikander (The Danish Girl), who will compete in the lead race at the Golden Globes. I’m not confident that Jennifer Jason Leigh (The Hateful Eight) will have her film seen in time to win over voters, and she may lose out to contenders from earlier in the year like Elizabeth Banks (Love and Mercy) and Helen Mirren (Trumbo). This could be a good place to honor Jane Fonda (Youth), and it will be a struggle for Kristen Stewart (Clouds of Sils Maria) to make the cut, but she may well do it.

Current predictions: Banks, Fonda, Mara, Vikander, Winslet

Monday, December 7, 2015

SAG Predictions: Best Actor in a Supporting Role

Last year’s nominees: Robert Duvall (The Judge), Ethan Hawke (Boyhood), Edward Norton (Birdman), Mark Ruffalo (Foxcatcher), and J.K. Simmons (Whiplash)

The rundown: One nominee from last year should be back again: Mark Ruffalo (Spotlight), and he’ll probably be joined by another nominee from last year, his costar Michael Keaton (Spotlight), who was chosen as Best Actor by NYFCC. I’m not sold on who will join them just yet, but things are looking up for Mark Rylance (Bridge of Spies) based on his performance and Tom Hardy (The Revenant) based on buzz for the film. If Sylvester Stallone (Creed) is really in the race, he may show up here, and SAG favorite Benicio Del Toro (Sicario) will also need a boost from this group. Idris Elba (Beasts of No Nation) is a possibility, as are Jacob Tremblay (Room) and Harvey Keitel (Youth), and I’m sure someone completely surprising to join the race.

Current predictions: Del Toro, Hardy, Keaton, Ruffalo, Rylance

SAG Predictions: Best Actress in a Leading Role

Last year’s nominees: Jennifer Aniston (Cake), Felicity Jones (The Theory of Everything), Julianne Moore (Still Alice), Rosamund Pike (Gone Girl), and Reese Witherspoon (Wild).

The rundown: None of last year’s nominees will return this year, but there are a few solid frontrunners. Brie Larson (Room) will earn her first nomination as Cate Blanchett (Carol) will vie for her eighth. Jennifer Lawrence (Joy) is a good bet to earn her fourth nomination, and Saoirse Ronan (Brooklyn) may earn her first. After that, it’s anyone’s guess: veterans like Charlotte Rampling (45 Years), Lily Tomlin (Grandma), or Maggie Smith (The Lady in the Van) or younger selections like Carey Mulligan (Suffragette). Maybe we’ll get a nice surprise like Aniston again this year.

Current predictions: Blanchett, Larson, Lawrence, Ronan, Smith

Sunday, December 6, 2015

SAG Predictions: Best Actor in a Leading Role

Last year’s nominees: Steve Carell (Foxcatcher), Benedict Cumberbatch (The Imitation Game), Jake Gyllenhaal (Nightcrawler), Michael Keaton (Birdman), and Eddie Redmayne (The Theory of Everything).

The rundown: Last year’s winner, Eddie Redmayne (The Danish Girl) is sure to return, while another nominee, Keaton, will probably be recognized in the supporting category. Likely joining him are Leonardo DiCaprio (The Revenant), Michael Fassbender (Steve Jobs) and Matt Damon (The Martian). After that, there’s plenty of competition. Michael Caine (Youth) has never been nominated for a SAG and could earn his first nomination, and Will Smith (Concussion) could earn his second. Two-time TV honoree Bryan Cranston (Trumbo) has a decent shot at his first solo film nod, but I’m betting on Johnny Depp (Black Mass), who won this award twelve years ago for “Pirates of the Caribbean.”

Current predictions: Damon, Depp, DiCaprio, Fassbender, Redmayne

Movie with Abe: The Lady in the Van

The Lady in the Van
Directed by Nicholas Hytner
Released December 4, 2015

Some stories are almost too crazy to be believed, and it’s important to ground them in some way to make their telling more digestible. Such is the case of the titular character here, the eccentric Miss Shepherd (Maggie Smith), who lived on the street and in the driveway of playwright Alan Bennett (Alex Jennings) for fifteen years in London. This true story is entertaining and fanciful, and the way it is told here does justice to that, finding a creative outlet and style to make its admittedly wild events feel legitimate, worthwhile, and, above all, a delight to watch.

By the time Bennett moves into his home in Camden, Shepherd is already an established feature of the neighborhood, constantly moving her run-down van, which she insists on painting the most putrid shades of yellow, nearer to someone else’s home. She does not shower or bathe and takes care of whatever bodily functions within the confines of her van. She sees no oddity in her own situation yet feels perfectly at liberty to insist that others behave a certain way around her, not playing music or being too loud even though she is the one encroaching upon their owned space. She acts and speaks like a deranged individual, and somehow she goes on day to day without changing her routine.

Bennett’s arrival signals a gradual change in her experience in the world since he cannot help but be slightly more helpful and charitable to her, even though he would rather not have to deal with her and immediately regrets almost every decision he makes that puts her physically closer to his property. Naturally, she almost never thanks him, and takes for granted his generosity. The bond that develops between them is an endearing but not sentimental one, and it’s marvelous to watch it play out over the course of the film.

The strongest decision employed is to have Bennett become just as strong a focal point, split into two versions of himself, one who lives life and the other who writes about it. That device enhances the lighthearted storytelling here greatly, molding this sensational tale into something just as fragmented as Shepherd’s life was. Smith is typically excellent, so well cast for this role that it’s no surprise she’s played it twice before, both on stage and in a radio adaptation. Jennings is great too, adding just the right dose of bewildered amazement tempered by his imagined split personality. This film is fun and a seemingly appropriate ode to a woman with a complicated life and the famous writer she so influenced.


Friday, December 4, 2015

Movie with Abe: Youth

Directed by Paolo Sorrentino
Released December 4, 2015

A one-word title can often say much more than a few words or even a short sentence can. Naming a film may well be the most difficult part of making it, capturing its essence when its themes are varied and not contained to a particular character whose name could easily serve as its identifier. “Youth” is a word that evokes images of childhood and strength, and, as a result, calling a film that features two actors pushing eighty in the lead roles presents much opportunity for contemplation. That’s a good way to describe this film, a meditation on plenty of things, age, art, and fame chief among them.

Fred Ballinger (Michael Caine) is a mild-mannered man, one who speaks rarely and deliberately and spends much more time observing the world around him. If not for the Queen’s emissary trying to convince him to conduct a performance for Her Majesty, those on holiday alongside him would have no idea that Fred was once a revered conductor and composer. His friend Mick (Harvey Keitel) is prestigious enough in his own right, working with a handful of younger writers to pen the script for his next film. Others vacationing alongside them, such as Jimmy (Paul Dano), a young method actor, and Fred’s daughter Lena (Rachel Weisz), are unfazed by Fred, well aware of who he is and the advantages and pitfalls of being in his company.

Knowing that this film is Italian director Paolo Sorrentino’s follow-up to his Oscar winner “The Great Beauty” helps this film make a lot more sense. Its central story, following characters on their explorations of their current states and all that has led up to the present moment, is undoubtedly intriguing, yet plot is hardly central to this film. There are moments at which the film drifts off into fantasies and other imagined hallucinations, putting its events on hold as characters are distracted by a sound or a memory. Sometimes, it feels that the camera itself has been compelled by something other than the film’s own story, which adds depth at times and serves as a detriment at others.

Caine and Keitel are actors who have been working for decades and, unlike some colleagues and contemporaries, they have maintained a relatively solid and respectable quality of work. Caine is, as usual, subdued and effective, and Keitel is particularly well-cast as the director who still thinks he is brilliant and needs the reminder to continue along. Weisz and Jane Fonda both have standout supporting scenes as women from the men’s lives who play a much larger part than they might admit in shaping who they were and are. “Youth” is a haunting, insightful film that sometimes overreaches or seems to get lost, but when it is focused, it is mesmerizing.


Thursday, December 3, 2015

Movie with Abe: Moomins on the Riviera (Capsule Review)

Moomins on the Riviera
Directed by Hanna Hemilä and Xavier Picard
Released December 4, 2015

Every year, the handful of films that qualify for the Oscar for Best Animated Feature include at least a few interesting foreign offerings. One such entry this year is this Finnish adaptation of a popular comic strip about world-traveling animals with kind hearts and big dreams. The Moomins, who look a lot like hippopotamuses, find unexpected adventure and excitement when they travel far from home and find a life of luxury based on the invented premise of their nobility roots. There is a certain simplicity to this film and its story that is contradicted by its more complex themes, as those with pure imaginations are confronted with inconceivable fleeting realities. This is a film that’s fine for all ages, and an alluring if somewhat odd diversion from typical films featuring solid animation.


Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Golden Globe Musings: Best Motion Picture – Comedy/Musical

Golden Globe nominations for this year will be announced in just a few weeks, so here’s a survey of the contenders and the most likely predictions at this time. Weigh in with your thoughts, and let me know if I’ve left off anything important. A reminder that the Globes are wildly unpredictable and that it is still a bit early to gauge the reception or awards potential of a number of the so-called “contenders” at this point.

Last year’s nominees:
The Grand Budapest Hotel
Into the Woods
St. Vincent

This category doesn’t have much consistency, often going for R-rated humor like “Bridesmaids” and “The Hangover” and other times concentrating on more serious fare. Two films that should dominate here are The Martian and Joy. After that, it’s anyone’s guess. The Big Short seems like a safe inclusion, and then we get to contenders like Trainwreck, The Intern, and Spy, as well as more sophisticated fare like Grandma and The Lady in the Van. I’m not sure Globe voters are ready for Tangerine, but they might be more into Our Brand is Crisis. I’m hoping for what would be the best nominee ever: Me and Earl and the Dying Girl.

Current predictions:
The Big Short
The Martian
Me and Earl and the Dying Girl
Our Brand is Crisis