Friday, March 18, 2016

Movie with Abe: My Golden Days

My Golden Days
Directed by Arnaud Desplechin
Released March 18, 2016

There’s nothing quite like youthful years, especially when reflected back upon later in life. There exists a certain simplicity to not knowing about larger problems that end up surfacing and coming up as people grow older, and almost anything seems possible. “My Golden Days,” the new film from noted French filmmaker Arnaud Desplechin, simplifies its original title, “Trois souvenirs de ma jeunesse” (Three memories of my childhood), and finds anthropologist Paul Dédalus (Mathieu Amalric) moving on to the next stage of his career and completely entranced by formative moments from his teenage years.

As he leaves Tajikistan, Dédalus is stopped by airport police who question him about a few discrepancies from his past. A perplexed and nostalgic Dédalus recalls the influential scenes from his childhood and young adulthood that led him down the path he took. The film shifts to introduce an adolescent Dédalus (Quentin Dolmaire), who, after growing up early due to the mental conditions of his parents, begins a lengthy and complicated relationship with the alluring Esther (Lou Roy-Lecollinet) while exploring his intellectual interests.

There are many adventures to be found in the life of the young Paul Dédalus, including a school trip to the USSR involving a side mission to smuggle passports to Soviet Jews looking to escape oppression. The nature of his relationship with Esther, which begins as less than warm but turns into a deep, haunting love that is conveyed via letters back and forth and infrequent visits that go from casual to furiously intense within moments. Dédalus’ story is a fantastical one, and his long-running romance is just one of its many interesting parts.

Amalric has worked with Desplechin before in the wonderful “A Christmas Tale,” and though he isn’t necessarily the star here, the “Diving Bell and the Butterfly” actor does a magnificent job portraying the adult Dédalus. Dolmaire and Roy-Lecollinet are great finds, each embodying a tremendous youthful energy that also shows them to be wise beyond their years while having no true grasp on what really awaits them later in life. This film isn’t necessarily a series of vignettes as its French title would suggest; instead it’s a collection of reflections neatly woven into a very compelling and engaging narrative that doesn’t lead to an entirely fulfilling resolution but is still hard to shake or forget once it’s come to its end.


Wednesday, March 16, 2016

AFT Awards: Worst Movie of the Year

This is the twenty-third category of the 9th Annual AFT Film Awards to be announced. The AFT Awards are my own personal choices for the best in film of each year and the best in television of each season. The AFT Film Awards include the traditional Oscar categories and a number of additional specific honors, or dishonors in this case. Nominees are pictured in the order I’ve ranked them. Click here to see previous years of this category. I’m fortunate not to see too many truly awful movies, but here are the ones I hated this year.

The winner:
The Gunman still has me laughing, and I can’t decide whether Sean Penn wrapping himself in a towel to protect himself from deadly active flames is more ridiculous than him managing to get the drop on his pursuer after passing out cold in the middle of a chase. Truly terrible stuff.

Other nominees:
The Face of An Angel was a perfect example of a film with decent actors that should have been good but focused on all the wrong things. Western was my least favorite film at the Sundance Film Festival in 2015, a documentary that never managed to get anywhere and billed itself as much more interesting than it actually was. Effie Gray could have benefited from a different actress in the lead role – I suggested Saiorse Ronan – and any number of more interesting moments than the ones ultimately included. Closer to the Moon set out to tell an intriguing story-within-a-story, but it didn’t end up covering any worthwhile ground or making either story inviting.

Friday, March 11, 2016

Movie with Abe: Eye in the Sky

Eye in the Sky
Directed by Gavin Hood
Released March 11, 2016

Military engagement in foreign countries has been the subject of numerous films and television shows, be it fictional, based on fact, or documentary. Drone warfare is a more specific subtopic that played into the fourth season of “Homeland” and has been featured elsewhere as a hot and highly contested issue. “Eye in the Sky” presents a fictional dramatization of a situation in which an imminent threat presents itself but complicating factors threaten to ruin the entire operation, taking audiences through the layers of approval and rationalization that are needed to pull off a deadly and definitive strike.

“Eye in the Sky” introduces four primary protagonists, who are each in a different place and a different role. Colonel Katherine Powell (Helen Mirren) is the British officer in charge of the capture of two highly-wanted terrorists whose actions put them directly in the range of a missile that could easily take them out. Lieutenant General Frank Benson (Alan Rickman) sits in a room with high-ranking government officials who have the power to give the go-ahead for the mission. Steve Watts (Aaron Paul) is the drone pilot sitting in Las Vegas with his finger on the trigger. Jama Farah (Barkhad Abdi) is the agent on the ground in Nairobi, Kenya, who is forced to go in to try to diffuse the situation when a little girl sets up shop selling bread within the blast range of the intended target.

“Eye in the Sky” is a deconstructed experience, one that shows every level and step needed to release one missile. Things change quickly, as a capture mission is transformed into a potential drone strike once suicide vests and massive artillery are detected within the home where the terrorists are meeting. The unfortunate arrival of a certain civilian casualty prompts each group to question the validity and ethical quality of the operation and proceed accordingly. Similar to the cinematic trope of the literal ticking time bomb, this may not be how things play out in reality, but this is a fitting and thrilling moral exercise.

This shouldn’t be a termed an action movie, but might better be described as a suspense-laden drama. The performers are all up to the task, each appearing in scenes filmed completely separately but woven seamlessly together by sharp editing by Megan Gill. Mirren is an obvious fit for the determined military commander who doesn’t want ethics to hold her back, while Paul matches up just right as a kindhearted pilot driven by sentimentality. The late Rickman is dryly endearing in his final live action performance, and Abdi proves that “Captain Phillips” wasn’t a fluke with an appropriately subtle and nuanced performance. It’s hard to know how to feel after finishing this film, but it’s clear that this layered drama from the director of the similarly-themed “Rendition,” Gavin Hood, does its due diligence in crafting a complex and thought-provoking exploration of the legitimacy of military engagement.


Friday, March 4, 2016

Movie with Abe: London Has Fallen

London Has Fallen
Directed by Babak Najafi
Released March 4, 2016

For those crazy people who thought that “Olympus Has Fallen” deserved a sequel, here it is. Looking back, I realize that I never wrote a full review of the first film, instead choosing to summarize it a bit more kindly than I remember it as part of my post in which I gave away a Blu-Ray DVD combo pack courtesy of Sony Pictures Home Entertainment. I described it as an energetic thrill ride that might not be the brainiest or most logically supportable movie of the year. Multiply the latter sentiment by the highest number you can think of and you have this highly unnecessary and absurd sequel.

After (spoiler) successfully stopping North Korea from invading the White House and ending the United States of America as we know it, Secret Service agent Mike Banning (Gerard Butler) is now a father-to-be, thinking of turning in his resignation to spend more time with his wife and child. Naturally, that gets put on hold when he travels with the president (Aaron Eckhart) to London for the Prime Minister’s funeral. Understandably, vengeful terrorists have actually set a trap to take out a number of world leaders, and it’s up to Mike to single-handedly stop them and save the president.

All the excess and over-the-top action in the first film is amplified tremendously in this sequel that also doesn’t much let up. It does, however, go way too far on way too many occasions to be remotely believable. The entertainment value suffers because it’s just too much to take. Somehow, a band of terrorists operating out of another country have managed to attain the security details for multiple international dignitaries, and they have infiltrated the British police force in preposterously high numbers that make it so that they nearly outnumber the true cops. It’s a lot to take.

This film is considerably more fun when digested with a large bag of popcorn, as this reviewer did when it was screened earlier this week. It’s mindless entertainment that serves little purposes but still enthralls minimally. The experience will be bettered if audience members are applauding frequently, since there’s no other way to really absorb this inane film. The film’s best line, “Prepare for sacrificing,” uttered by pilots of a nearby helicopter when it becomes clear that the president is in imminent danger, exemplifies this film’s belief that it is much smarter than it is. No one should go in expecting that, and maybe this silly shoot-em-up blockbuster will prove satisfying.


Thursday, March 3, 2016

Movie with Abe: Triple 9

Triple 9
Directed by John Hillcoat
Released February 26, 2016

In the cinematic world, it sometimes seems like there are just as many corrupt cops as there are true-blue good-natured officers of the law. There are degrees of corruption, starting with taking bribes or letting people off when they receive speeding tickets. In some cases, however, there is little distinguishing a cop from a criminal, and that has likely never been truer than in “Triple 9,” which finds a group of cops desperate to pull off a heist turn to the commission of a 9-9-9, killing a police officer, to distract the attention of those who might get in their way.

However vulgar and violent it may be, “Triple 9” has assembled a truly all-star cast. Introduced in the opening scene are the main players, military man Michael Atwood (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and his cop friends, Marcus Belmont (Anthony Mackie), brothers Russell Welch (Norman Reedus) and Gabe Welch (Aaron Paul), and Franco Rodriguez (Clifton Collins, Jr.). Atwood comes with considerable baggage, namely a son with the woman who happens to be the sister of a powerful Russian mafia queen, Irina Vlaslov (Kate Winslet). Marcus sets his sights on his new entitled partner, Chris Allen (Casey Affleck), whose uncle, Jeffrey Allen (Woody Harrelson), is the lead detective investigating the crimes they are perpetrating, as the target of their planned execution.

One thing that “Triple 9” does extremely well is to create and maintain suspense. From the start, it’s a furious and intense journey filled with excessive violence and brutality. Irina and her henchmen are particularly awful, delighting at causing others pain. The cops aren’t much better, though their horrific acts seem much more focused and part of a larger plan rather than simply to inspire terror. It’s difficult to watch the disturbing events that make up much of this story, and it feels like a similar film with less deplorable and unsettling violence might have gotten the same point across.

Mackie’s Marcus makes sense as a cool cop with a secret dark side, but he’s about the only one. Collins’ seedy homicide detective Franco is too creepy to be believed as a good guy by anyone, and Paul’s Gabe is far too drugged-out and disheveled for anyone to take him seriously. Irina is also magnificently exaggerated, and the portrayal of her henchmen as religious Jews is a pointless and wholly unnecessary subplot. The most legitimate character in the film is Ejiofor’s Michael, a man willing to do anything to stay alive and protect his son. The film that surrounds him is much less put-together and committed.