Monday, February 27, 2017

Oscar Night: The Morning After

It was well after 1am went I went to sleep last night, and therefore I chose to wait to post my reactions to the show until now. I started watching the show on DVR at around 9:15pm, and as a result I wasn’t posting live on social media or even holding on my phone so as not to have anything spoiled.

It turns out that recording this show wasn’t a great idea. The main reason for that is that we only extended the recording by thirty minutes, and the biggest moment of the show happened about thirty-three minutes after it was scheduled to end. While everyone who was watching live was scrambling to figure out what was going on with the Best Picture announcement, I was trying desperately to find a clip of it online to figure out who had actually won. There’s nothing like this that’s happened before at the Oscars, and it was an interesting ending to the night that would have been much more meaningful and impactful had it not gone down the way it did.

I woke up to an e-mail sent to the Academy press list with an apology for what happened. It doesn’t matter why it happened, but there’s something, especially when the Best Picture winner isn’t guaranteed, about hearing your film’s name called at the end of the night and celebrating the rush of the awards experience. Multiple winners made mention of the fact that they’ve gotten to know other nominees and films throughout awards season, and, more than ever before, we’ve come to a point of competition where a whole bunch of people are rooting for one film to overtake another. I was rooting for the film that was dominating throughout all of awards season this year, whereas last year I was hoping that the original frontrunner, which wasn’t doing so well by that point, would pull through, which it did.

I still stand by the fact that “Manchester by the Sea” was the best movie of 2016 and intend to honor it when I begin my AFT Awards very soon. I’m very happy that it won Best Original Screenplay, with Matt Damon excitedly announcing Kenneth Lonergan’s name followed by a sweet speech from the director-writer. And it’s great that Casey Affleck won Best Actor despite a last-minute surge from Denzel Washington at SAG, since it truly was an incredible performance. As anyone I’ve spoken to recently knows, I was a big fan of “La La Land,” and I was pulling for it to win Best Picture since I thought that was more realistic than Lonergan’s film or “Hell or High Water,” which didn’t take home any of its four bids.

I did like “Moonlight” a lot and I think that its win is far more impactful, save for the fact that it’s tarnished by it not being originally announced. The end-of-night Best Picture announcement is supposed to signal that the film made it, after so long, and that it was crowned the best of the year. It was sweet of Jordan Horowitz to say that he was going to be proud to the hand the award to his friends from “Moonlight.” It’s an independent film with an all-black cast that deals with gender and sexual identity in a mesmerizing way, and the fact that it won Best Picture is really cool. Like last year, the film that won the most awards didn’t clinch Best Picture. It just could have been so simple and elegant, and the fact that Warren Beatty was given the wrong envelope was a real shame, and there’s nothing that can be done to repair it.

“La La Land” ended up with six wins instead of the eleven I predicted, and “Moonlight” scored three. The love was spread pretty well, though I would have preferred that “Arrival” take the awards that “Hacksaw Ridge” won. I was particularly happy about “The White Helmets” winning Best Documentary Short, and the other two short winners were good choices too, which I haven’t always felt in the time since I started watching all of them. Though I wouldn’t have selected “The Salesman” to triumph for Best Foreign Film, I still think that it was better than “Toni Erdmann” and is a more meaningful representation of international cinema for this year.

Speaking of the poignancy of the awards, Jimmy Kimmel did a great job making many funny jokes about Donald Trump without making it feel like he was beating a dead horse. Dropping candy from the ceiling on multiple occasions was silly but fun, and having a tour bus come in and meet some of the biggest stars in Hollywood was fun too. Starting with Justin Timberlake performing his nominated song was a great way to open the night, and I think the structuring of the evening, even though it went long, was very solid.

As usual, Oscar night wasn’t my favorite part of Oscar season but it was quite an experience and will be talked about for a while. I scored 14/24, which isn’t all that bad but not too great either.

I’m much more excited to begin my own honors, the AFT Awards, which I look forward to getting underway very soon. Stick around for my choices for the best of the year!

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Your Guide to the Oscars

I came so close this year - scrambling to watch all of the shorts, finding time to screen all seven and a half hours of “OJ: Made in America” (I’ll be honest – as of this writing, I still have three hours left to watch this afternoon), and discovering a once-daily showtime at just one theater in New York City of “Passengers” only to see it cancelled when I showed up to buy tickets. As a result, I missed just two films – “Passengers” and “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them,” each nominated for two awards they probably won’t win.

I keep asking people what they think about “La La Land” since I loved it and continue to do so every day as I wake up to “Another Day of Sun” as my alarm and “Mia and Sebastian’s Theme” as my backup five minutes later. Lately, all I’ve been hearing is people, both critics at Sundance or at press roundtables and friends and family members, decrying how they couldn’t understand why everyone is so in love with it. The question is whether it’s unbeatable or not. Those who point to its SAG snub as a sign of its weakness aren’t considering that there really is no ensemble, and it probably never had a shot anyway. Had “Moonlight” triumphed in its absence, I’d be worried, but “Hidden Figures” doesn’t have enough nominations (three total) to take it on. For all those who hate “La La Land,” there are plenty, especially those in the industry, who love it.

We’re heading into the main categories with some decidedly uncertain races. Casey Affleck might lose to Denzel Washington, and Emma Stone and Mahershala Ali don’t have firm grips on their wins even though they’re likely to win. Viola Davis is the one performer who doesn’t have to worry at all. Out of all the other races, I’d say that the “La La Land” score, “Zootopia,” and “OJ: Made in America” are the only sure things. I think “The Salesman” will eclipse “Toni Erdmann” for Best Foreign Film and while I’m predicting lots of victories for “La La Land” though I’m not sure it will take them all.

What would make me happiest is if “Hell or High Water” won something. Screenplay or editing would be great, though Jeff Bridges pulling off a surprise win is probably likeliest and would at least represent something for the film. If “My Life as a Zucchini,” “Land of Mine,” or “13th” won, I’d be thrilled, but I don’t think there’s much hope of that in any of their races. Below, click on category headings to read detailed predictions for each race, and film names for full reviews of each contender. My predicted winner is in bold. Comment if you agree or disagree! Enjoy the show!

Best Picture
Hacksaw Ridge
Hell or High Water
Hidden Figures
La La Land
Manchester by the Sea

Best Director
Denis Villeneuve (Arrival)
Mel Gibson (Hacksaw Ridge)
Damien Chazelle (La La Land)
Kenneth Lonergan (Manchester by the Sea)
Barry Jenkins (Moonlight)

Best Actor in a Leading Role
Casey Affleck (Manchester by the Sea)
Andrew Garfield (Hacksaw Ridge)
Ryan Gosling (La La Land)
Viggo Mortensen (Captain Fantastic)
Denzel Washington (Fences)

Best Actress in a Leading Role
Isabelle Huppert (Elle)
Ruth Negga (Loving)
Natalie Portman (Jackie)
Emma Stone (La La Land)
Meryl Streep (Florence Foster Jenkins)

Best Actor in a Supporting Role
Mahershala Ali (Moonlight)
Jeff Bridges (Hell or High Water)
Lucas Hegdes (Manchester by the Sea)
Dev Patel (Lion)
Michael Shannon (Nocturnal Animals)

Best Actress in a Supporting Role
Viola Davis (Fences)
Naomie Harris (Moonlight)
Nicole Kidman (Lion)
Octavia Spencer (Hidden Figures)
Michelle Williams (Manchester by the Sea)

Best Original Screenplay
Hell or High Water
La La Land
The Lobster
Manchester by the Sea
20th Century Women

Best Adapted Screenplay
Hidden Figures

Best Cinematography
La La Land

Best Art Direction
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
Hail, Caesar!
La La Land

Best Costume Design
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
Florence Foster Jenkins
La La Land

Best Film Editing
Hacksaw Ridge
Hell or High Water
La La Land

Best Original Score
La La Land

Best Original Song
“The Empty Chair” (Jim: The James Foley Story)
“Audition” (La La Land)
”City of Stars” (La La Land)
“How Far I’ll Go” (Moana)
“Can’t Stop the Feeling!” (Trolls)

Best Sound
Hacksaw Ridge
La La Land
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi

Best Sound Editing
Deepwater Horizon
Hacksaw Ridge
La La Land

Best Makeup and Hairstyling
A Man Called Ove
Star Trek Beyond
Suicide Squad

Best Visual Effects
Deepwater Horizon
Doctor Strange
The Jungle Book
Kubo and the Two Strings
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Best Animated Feature
Kubo and the Two Strings
My Life as a Zucchini
The Red Turtle

Best Documentary Short Film
4.1 Miles
Joe’s Violin
Watani: My Homeland
The White Helmets

Best Animated Short Film
Blind Vaysha
Borrowed Time
Pear Cider and Cigarettes

Best Live Action Short Film
Enemies Within
La Femme et le TGV
Silent Nights

Best Documentary
Fire at Sea
I Am Not Your Negro
Life, Animated
OJ: Made in America

Best Foreign Language Film
Land of Mine
A Man Called Ove
The Salesman
Toni Erdmann

Predicted totals:
La La Land - 11
Moonlight - 2
Fences – 1
The Jungle Book - 1
Lion - 1
Manchester by the Sea - 1
Star Trek Beyond - 1

Oscar Winner Predictions: Best Picture

The competition: Arrival, Fences, Hacksaw Ridge, Hell or High Water, Hidden Figures, La La Land, Lion, Manchester by the Sea, Moonlight

Previous winners: Spotlight, Birdman, 12 Years a Slave, Argo, The Artist, The King’s Speech, The Hurt Locker, Slumdog Millionaire
My winner: To be announced soon!
The facts: So, we’re finally here. “La La Land” leads with fourteen nominations and has won the top prize from the Golden Globes, DGA, PGA, BAFTA, and Critics Choice. It ties the record for the most nominations but can’t win all of them because two bids are for Best Song. Winning 12 would set a record. “Moonlight,” which won the Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture - Drama and is seen as the number one threat to topple the musical that isn’t winning everyone over, has eight nominations, as does “Arrival.” “Hacksaw Ridge,” “Lion,” and “Manchester by the Sea” all have six bids and are each missing something helpful for a win - mentions in screenplay, directing, and editing, respectively. Films have triumphed in this category with those things missing most recently in 1997, 2012, and 2014, but it’s rare. “Fences” and “Hell or High Water” both have four nominations. The nominee with the least nominations (three), “Hidden Figures,” may have gotten a big boost from its recent SAG win for Best Ensemble. “La La Land” wasn’t nominated but honestly was never in the running, and “Moonlight” was expected to win. Since the SAG Awards started handing out the ensemble prize, only the first year saw an eventual Best Picture Winner - “Braveheart” - not nominated. Aside from the first decade of the Oscars, no film has won with fewer than five nominations. The last time a musical won Best Picture was in 2002.

Who should win: This is definitely a good year for this category. I didn’t love “Hacksaw Ridge” and “Hidden Figures” but they’re both still decent movies. My favorite film of the year was “Manchester by the Sea,” followed closely by “Hell or High Water” and then “La La Land.” I’d be most excited about “Hell or High Water,” but I’ll still be happy when the expected frontrunner triumphs.
Who will win: Sure, there’s lots of backlash against La La Land, but it looked like “Spotlight” wouldn’t be able to pull off a win last year and it still squeaked through. Buzz isn’t strong enough for “Moonlight” at the moment and I don’t think “Hidden Figures” is strong enough to topple it. None of the other six films will be able to muster enough votes to win, so I think a film that is being bashed as overrated is still going to be able to win over voters and take the top prize.

Oscar Winner Predictions: Best Director

The competition: Denis Villeneuve (Arrival), Mel Gibson (Hacksaw Ridge), Damien Chazelle (La La Land), Kenneth Lonergan (Manchester by the Sea), Barry Jenkins (Moonlight)

Previous winners: Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (The Revenant), Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (Birdman), Alfonso Cuaron (Gravity), Ang Lee (Life of Pi), Michel Hazanavicius (The Artist), Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech), Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker), Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire)
My winner: To be announced soon!
The facts: Gibson is the only returning nominee in this category, previously winning in 1995 for “Braveheart.” Both Chazelle and Lonergan were previously nominated for screenwriting and both contend there also this year, along with Jenkins. “Hacksaw Ridge” is the only film in this category without its screenplay nominated, and “Manchester by the Sea” is the only film without a Best Film Editing bid. The past two Best Director victors have won without one of those accompanying nominations, but it is rare.

Who should win: I love the work that Chazelle did staging such a great musical, and I think I’d choice him over Lonergan steering the best film of the year. Villeneuve is also a great choice, and I see why people like Jenkins, who I wouldn’t mind seeing win.
Who will win: I think Chazelle can hang onto a win after victories at the Golden Globes and SAG.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Oscar Winner Predictions: Best Documentary

The competition: Fire at Sea, I Am Not Your Negro, Life Animated, OJ: Made in America, 13th

Previous winners: Amy, Citizenfour, Twenty Feet from Stardom, Searching for Sugar Man, Undefeated, Inside Job, The Cove, Man on Wire
My winner: To be announced soon!
The facts: Every single filmmaker is a first-time nominee this year. Foreign nominees like “Fire at Sea” are common but don’t often win. “OJ: Made in America” runs almost eight hours - I can’t find definitive statistics, but I have to assume that it’s the longest film ever nominated in this category.

Who should win: I can’t understand how “OJ” can be judged alongside these much shorter films that actually feel like films. I’ll admit that I’m less than halfway through it and that I’m hoping to find another four plus hours before the Oscars air to finish - not sure a review is in the cards. It’s an intense and involving saga, but for me, “13th” was the indisputably effective standout of this category.
Who will win: I’d be the only person betting against OJ: Made in America if I didn’t predict it.

Oscar Winner Predictions: Best Live Action Short

The competition:
Enemies Within (B)
This French drama is fascinating from its start as a French-Algerian man finds himself questioned by a policeman about his entire background and whether he truly belongs in France. As it goes on, it tackles interesting territory but doesn’t manage to be quite as intriguing. This is a heavily dialogue-based short with some strong performances and a thought-provoking theme.

La Femme et le TGV (B+)
This sweet Swiss short centers on a lonely woman who runs a failing bakery and gets her daily joy from waving at the train that passes right by her window. When a train driver throws a letter out the window to her, she begins a correspondence that helps to reinvigorate her attitude and energize her life. Bonus: it’s based on a true story!

Silent Nights (B)
This Danish short tracks the development of an unlikely romance between an undocumented Ghanaian immigrant living in Cophenhagen and a local woman who spends her time volunteering at a homeless shelter. It’s not your typical romantic drama, with two endearing characters who may or may not be right for each other.

Sing (B+)
This Hungarian short finds a young girl starting to a new school and joining the choir, only to be instructed by its director not to sing out loud because her voice isn’t good enough to help them win the big competition in which they will soon compete. It’s a cool premise that leads to an endearing and great ending.

Timecode (B+)
This Spanish-language short’s title conjures up images of a fast-paced thriller with a countdown clock. It refers instead to the time displayed on the camera screens monitored by two security guards, one who works during the day and one who works at night, who develop an unexpected bond in this touching and truly funny film.

Previous winners: Stutterer, The Phone Call, Helium, Cufrew, The Shore, God of Love, The New Tenants, Toyland

Who should win: I liked “La Femme et le TGV” best, but I also see the case for voting for “Timecode” or “Sing.”
Who will win: I think La Femme et le TGV will win, though I understand why others think “Enemies Within” could take it too.

Oscar Winner Predictions: Best Documentary Short

The competition:
Extremis (B+)
This harrowing, heartbreaking film follows several patients in a hospital who are at the end of their lives. Unable to move and in some cases unable to communicate, the decisions are left to family members, who display incredible strength in their interactions with the doctors who face this kind of thing on a daily basis. It’s very well-done and extremely difficult to watch.

4.1 Miles (B)
This “Op-Doc” from the New York Times, which can be viewed online at their site, actually tackles the same topic as a feature documentary nominee this year, “Fire at Sea.” This take is set on a Greek Island during the European migrant crisis and serves as a more focused, and more upsetting, look at the difficult life of refugees.

Joe’s Violin (B+)
Count this one in as this year’s uplifting pick that still may have audiences reaching for the tissue box. A Holocaust survivor’s donation of the violin that he acquired in Poland at the end of the war turns out to be a wonderful new opportunity for a 12-year-old charter student in the Bronx. This is a heartwarming and deeply affecting about a truly unexpected and sweet connection. Watch it online for yourself!

Watani: My Homeland (B)
One of two movies about Syria, this one takes its central characters out of their native country as they are granted refugee entry into Germany. The juxtaposition of the youngest daughter carrying around a gun in their home in Aleppo and starting a new life, accepted by German children, in a new place, is powerful, and this film has its moments like that.

The White Helmets (A-)
If ever there was a topic that was relevant, it’s this one. At a time when Syrian refugees are no longer being admitted to the United States, this enormously compelling spotlight on those who stay in Syria and volunteer to run back into danger to rescue those who have been hurt any time violence occurs is truly astounding and inspiring.

Previous winners: A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness, Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1, The Lady in Number 6, Inocente, Saving Face, Strangers No More, Music by Prudence, Smile Pinki

Who should win: “Extremis” and “Joe’s Violin” are both effective in their own ways, but I think that “The White Helmets” is on a whole different level.
Who will win: I can’t imagine how this doesn’t go to The White Helmets, but any of these could feasibly win.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Oscar Winner Predictions: Best Animated Short

The competition:
Blind Vaysha (B)
This isn’t so much a narrative short film as it is a life lesson, presenting a parable in which its protagonist can only see the past with her left eye and the future with her right eye. As a result, she is never able to live in and experience the present, and removing one eye would cut her off either from what has happened or what will. It’s thought-provoking but presents more questions in eight minutes than answers.

Borrowed Time (B)
It’s rare to find an animated film, short or feature-length, that’s also a Western. This dramatic piece finds a sheriff grappling with a traumatizing childhood memory that has deeply affected him. There’s not all that much to it, but it does tell a simple and powerful story featuring just two characters and some decent scenery.

Pear Cider and Cigarettes (B+)
This is by far the longest of all the nominees - longer than all the others combined, in fact - and tells a magnetically interesting tale of a man and the way his life was defined by that of his charismatic friend. It's gripping and involving for its full 35 minutes, even if it ends somewhat abruptly.

Pearl (B+)
This one is cool since it tells the story of a car and the family that tours that country using it. It’s a wonderful, whimsical look at formative events in the life of a daughter and her father, all creatively told from the passenger seat of the car. It’s also available to watch in VR, which adds even more dynamism to its perspective.

Piper (B)
This is the token entry that played before a popular feature-length animated film - “Finding Dory” in this case - and has therefore been seen by a much wider audience than is normal. This sweet story of a bird who is afraid of the water is enormously entertaining and cute, and will certainly please children if not most adults as well.

Previous winners: Bear Story, Feast, Mr. Hublot, Paperman, The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore, The Lost Thing, Logorama, Le Maison en Petits Cubes

Who should win: I think I’d choose “Pear Cider and Cigarettes” over “Piper,” both any of these would be fine.
Who will win: I suspect that Pearl will be the winner, but Goldderby odds suggest it has the least likely shot. I’ll stick with it anyway even though the shorts races are notoriously unpredictable.

Oscar Winner Predictions: Best Visual Effects

The competition: Deepwater Horizon, Doctor Strange, The Jungle Book, Kubo and the Two Strings, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Previous winners: Ex Machina, Interstellar, Gravity, Life of Pi, Hugo, Inception, Avatar, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
My winner: To be announced soon!
The facts: Last year I made a comment about there being a staggering three Best Picture nominees in this category - this year, we have zero. Sci-fi films often win unless there is a major frontrunner out there, which there really isn’t this year. Last year, “Ex Machina” pulled off a shocking victory, so who knows what will happen this year. This is the seventh nomination for a “Star Wars” film in this category, and the series won for its first three installments. “Kubo and the Two Strings” is the first animated film since 1993 to be nominated here. While Marvel has earned a number of nominations in the past, it has yet to win this award, and could do so for the first time this year with “Doctor Strange.” From the “Deepwater Horizon” team, Burt Dalton has three previous nominations and one win, for “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.” From the “Doctor Strange” team, both Stephane Ceretti and Paul Corbould were nominated two years ago for “Guardians of the Galaxy.” The team behind “The Jungle Book” collectively has four previous nominations and two previous wins, both for James Cameron movies (“Titanic” and “Avatar”). The “Kubo” team is all brand-new. The “Rogue One” crew collectively has twelve previous nominations, with wins for “Gladiator,” “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest,” and “Gravity.”

Who should win: I was pretty wowed by what I saw in the opening scene of “Doctor Strange” and I think that would be my pick. The rest are all good choices too!
Who will win: The consensus seems to be The Jungle Book, which I’ll also predict with “Doctor Strange” as my daring alternate.

Movie with Abe: Doctor Strange

Doctor Strange
Directed by Scott Derrickson
Released November 4, 2016

Superhero films are all the rage right now, with Marvel and DC racing to release more movies each year and both airing a handful of regular TV series across multiple networks. In addition to the umpteenth incarnations of Batman, Superman, Spider-Man, and the X-Men to hit the big screen, this newfound enthusiasm has allowed for the spotlighting of lesser-known comic book characters in their own showcases. “Deadpool” was the more talked-about Marvel movie of the year, but it turns out that “Doctor Strange” makes quite an impression too.

Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is an impossibly arrogant neurosurgeon in New York City. After his reckless driving habits send his car diving off a cliff, he is dismayed to learn that he can no longer use his hands. Desperate for a way to undo the damage, Strange is inspired by the story of a paraplegic who was able to walk again and travels to Kathmandu for answers. When he meets Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), Strange learns to see the world in a whole new way filled with astral planes and other dimensions, and through his training is warned of the corruptive powers that have made Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) obsessed with eternal life.

There’s always a degree of humor to be found in comic book movies, especially with the likes of Tony Stark and Deadpool anchoring them. Strange is no different, dryly cracking jokes for the entirety of the film with few people laughing in return. His name also provides entertainment, as he responds to being called “mister” with “doctor” and then, upon adding “strange,” receives the reply, “Who am I to judge?” That fun spirit actually works well with this film’s more mystical and magic-based plot, presented in dizzying fashion as Strange is exposed to a truly wild and unfathomable world.

Cumberbatch’s profile has been rising in recent years, and after an Oscar nomination for “The Imitation Game,” it’s fun to see him anchoring this kind of movie and putting his talents to a different but equally worthwhile use. Ejiofor, Swinton, and Rachel McAdams, as a fellow doctor, provide good support for this film’s front-and-center action. An Oscar nomination for Best Visual Effects was well-earned since this film uses its backdrops and the way that people normally perceive things around them to eye-popping effect. This Marvel movie may be more fantasy than science fiction, but it’s still a hit.


Thursday, February 23, 2017

Oscar Winner Predictions: Best Sound Editing

The competition: Arrival, Deepwater Horizon, Hacksaw Ridge, La La Land, Sully

Previous winners: Mad Max: Fury Road, American Sniper, Gravity, Skyfall/Zero Dark Thirty, Hugo, Inception, The Hurt Locker, The Dark Knight
My winner: To be announced soon!
The facts: “Deepwater Horizon” co-editor Wylie Stateman has been previously nominated six times, the most for anyone in this category without a win. Robert Mackenzie and Andy Wright, first-time nominees this year, are both also nominated for sound mixing for “Hacksaw Ridge,” and the same goes for Ai-Ling Lee for “La La Land.” “Sully” co-editors Alan Robert Murray and Bub Asman are big names in this category, with nine nominations and two wins, and six nominations and two wins, respectively.

Who should win: I’m a big fan of “Sully” and think it should be nominated across the board, especially here, though I’d be fine with any of the other nominees except “Hacksaw Ridge” winning also.
Who will win: Consensus seems to suggest that “Hacksaw Ridge” will take this but I think it will go to La La Land instead.

Oscar Winner Predictions: Best Sound

The competition: Arrival, Hacksaw Ridge, La La Land, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi

Previous winners: Mad Max: Fury Road, Whiplash, Gravity, Les Miserables, Hugo, Inception, The Hurt Locker, Slumdog Millionaire
My winner: To be announced soon!
The facts: Many of this year’s nominees have been honored before, and some quick analysis indicates that it’s way too much information to filter and count. The most-recognized nominee is Kevin O’Connell, who this year earns his twenty-first nomination in this category as part of the “Hacksaw Ridge” team. Despite his many nominations, he has yet to win. Usually, sci-fi films, action films, and musicals do well here. From the “Star Wars” saga, episodes four and five won this award, and six, seven, and one were nominated.

Who should win: I think I’d choose one of three very different audial experiences: the quiet mystery of “Arrival,” the charming melodies of “La La Land,” or the space adventures of “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.”
Who will win: Music movies like “Ray,” “Dreamgirls,” “Les Miserables” and “Whiplash” have done well in the recent past here, and I think that bodes well for La La Land.

Movie with Abe: 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi

13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi
Directed by Michael Bay
Released January 15, 2016

Michael Bay isn’t likely at the top of anyone’s list of filmmakers to turn recent international events into movies. Bay doesn’t have a great track record with adapting history, with “Pearl Harbor” proving a box office success but immense critical failure. Bay is certainly a fan of mindless action, and therefore dramatizing the story of the fall of the United States diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya in 2012 is an intriguing choice. Not one for strong dialogue or plot, Bay manages to deliver a decent if extremely overlong and mild action piece about the CIA team fighting hard to defend their stronghold.

The film opens with titles declaring Benghazi to be one of the most dangerous places in the world, and the diplomatic compound is all that remains of the United States’ presence in the city. A crew of military contractors led by a man known as The Chief (David Costabile) includes Rone Woods (James Badge Dale), new arrival Jack Silva (John Krasinski), Oz Geist (Max Martini), Tig Tiegen (Dominic Fumusa), Tanto Paronto (Pablo Schreiber), and Boon Benton (David Denman). When militants attack the compound, U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens (Matt Letscher)’s life in put in danger, and the “secret soldiers” must do their best to fight off an intense assault that feels like it will never end.

This film would never have made it onto my radar had it not been for my ridiculous attempt to watch every movie nominated for an Oscar in any category. I remember seeing a trailer for what looked like an all-out action movie and then being just as surprised by the title as I was by the fact that it was advertised as being directed by Bay. I thought it was much longer ago than just a full year, and it’s a rare thing that January releases end up with Oscar nominations. A more interesting statistic is that more than half of all the films Bay has made have actually been nominated for an Oscar, and in the Best Sound category, where this film contends this year. I’m not sure that this needed to be a movie, and listening to the acoustics for nearly two and a half hours isn’t really worth it. These actors mostly do good TV work and excel in comedic roles, and none of them stand out in this moderately-engaging film that’s prone to excessive theatrics and overindulgence but mostly stays on track.


Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Movie with Abe: Deepwater Horizon

Deepwater Horizon
Directed by Peter Berg
Released September 30, 2016

There is a tendency for major events in recent history to be dramatized and brought to the big screen in the form of action movies. That might seem like an insensitive trend, but the hope is that telling the story will pay tribute to the courage displayed by the survivors and to the heroic efforts of those who didn’t make it out alive. Peter Berg is a director often attached to films such as this, including another from 2016, “Patriots Day,” and therefore it’s no surprise that he is the one behind the movie version of the drilling rig explosion that caused the largest and most catastrophic oil spill in history.

This film features three primary protagonists around whom the story is told: chief electronics technician Mike Williams (Mark Wahlberg), navigation officer Andrea Fleytas (Gina Rodriguez), and rig supervisor Jimmy Harrell (Kurt Russell). The three of them share the unique quality of staying as calm as can be expected under pressure, reacting swiftly to the realization that there was something seriously wrong with the rig and that enormous destruction was about to follow. As soon as the explosions begin, there’s no turning back as this film hurtles without any relief towards its conclusion.

Since this is based on such an intense true story, there isn’t much extra fanfare or invention of events needed to make it immensely dramatic. This film doesn’t go into unnecessary survival mode, instead staying focused on its selected characters to take it through as they remain aboard a giant ship that is rapidly catching fire with increasingly little hope of putting it out. These people are simply putting their training to use and doing what they can to salvage a terrible situation that might have been prevented but can’t be stopped or reversed in the heat of the moment.

This is Wahlberg’s third straight collaboration with Berg, and while his Boston accent is noticeably missing, he is definitely a great fit to play Williams, displaying less comic charm than usual in a pretty standard serious role. Rodriguez makes a big departure from her “Jane the Virgin” image to play a more technical part, and the film doesn’t give her all that much to do while Russell has the opportunity to chew scenery throughout most of it. The film’s sound editing and visual effects, both of which earned Oscar nominations, drive and define it, helping to make this a better-than-average and better-than-expected blockbuster that does a fitting job of acknowledging its real-life inspiration as it ends.


Oscar Winner Predictions: Best Makeup and Hairstyling

The competition: A Man Called Ove, Star Trek Beyond, Suicide Squad

Previous winners: Mad Max: Fury Road, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Dallas Buyers Club, Les Miserables, The Iron Lady, The Wolfman, Star Trek, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
My winner: To be announced soon
The facts: In the past, such non-Oscar films as “The Wolfman” and “The Nutty Professor” have won this award, as have Best Picture contenders. Love Larson and Eva von Bahr contended last year for foreign comedy and are here again for “A Man Called Ove” this year. Joel Harlow, half of the “Star Trek Beyond” team, has been nominated twice before, winning in 2009 for “Star Trek.” On that note, three “Star Trek” films have contended over the past twenty-five years, and the 2009 reboot is the only one that won. Only Batman and Superman films have won Oscars before, so this would be the first for a spinoff. The last foreign winners in this category were “La Vie en Rose” and “Pan’s Labyrinth,” in 2007 and 2006, respectively. Only “A Man Called Ove” is nominated in another category, for Best Foreign Film.

Who should win: These are three totally different feats, all impressive. The lead actor is unrecognizable as Ove, buried under an exaggerated forehead and wearing misery on his face. Aliens aplenty are outlined and outfitted in the final frontier, and a handful of crazed villains with superpowers were present in the DC universe. I was astounded by the work in “A Man Called Ove,” and I think I’d vote for that or “Star Trek Beyond.”
Who will win: After its franchise-rebooter won this award seven years ago, I think Star Trek Beyond will take it this time around.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Movie with Abe: Star Trek Beyond

Star Trek Beyond
Directed by Justin Lin
Released July 22, 2016

Some series are meant to be franchises. “Star Trek” started out in the 1960s as a low-rated show that lasted only three seasons, and since then it has spawned four live-action TV spinoffs, over a dozen films, and succeeded well after a 2009 reboot with a young all-new cast. After J.J. Abrams reframed the two most recent movies, he hands it off to another director well-versed in sequel-making, Justin Lin, who helmed four “Fast and the Furious” films and now arrives take to steer this ship on the right track in yet another awesome epic adventure.

Though this 122-minute film covers a lot of ground (and space), its plot is actually relatively simple. At a monotonous point in the middle of their five-year mission, Captain James Kirk (Chris Pine) and his crew undertake a daring rescue attempt when a lone survivor shows up at a space station requesting help. When it turns out to be an ambush, the saucer of the Enterprise is cut off from the rest of the ship and those who are not taken prisoner by the planet’s natives, led by Krall (Idris Elba), must abandon ship. Trapped on an unfriendly planet, the separated crew members must find a way out and figure out how to defeat the swarm of aliens intent on wiping them out.

This rebooted franchise has done a great job of establishing its main characters, and it’s fantastic fun to see all of them featured here. Kirk is charming and has a superb sense of adventure that makes him extremely useful in a tight spot, and he’s well-matched by the sterner sensibility of logic-based Spock (Zachary Quinto) and sarcasm-fueled Dr. McCoy (Karl Urban). Sulu (John Cho), Scotty (Simon Pegg), Uhura (Zoe Saldana), and Chekhov (Anton Yelchin) also provide wonderful support, and the late Yelchin proves particularly endearing in one of his final film performances.

This film earned just one Oscar nomination – for Best Makeup and Hairstyling – and it’s easily apparent that extreme effort was put into this film’s visual styling. Its effects are also excellent, and the music by Michael Giacchino is very effective in supporting the film’s overall energy. The plot here is far from complicated but the film works very well, and this entry doesn’t need to have too much connection to either the films before it or the ones after it, making it the rare standalone success story, equally capable of being part of a classic saga and doing just fine as a film in its own right.


Movie with Abe: Suicide Squad

Suicide Squad
Directed by David Ayer
Released August 5, 2016

There are many television shows that are at this moment addressing the question of what it means to be a hero. Usually the word “super” precedes that term in the world of comic books, and the difference between having abilities and just being a normal brave person is very important. Those who do bad things in the name of making the world a better place are also subject to controversy, and no hero, good or bad, is beloved by all. When the protagonists are known criminals who have been brought together to fight off an even greater evil, it’s understandable that they wouldn’t be looked upon with favor or celebrated as the heroes they might eventually become.

Those passingly familiar with the Batman mythology will know a few of the characters from this film, starting the maniacal Joker (Jared Leto), whose devilish nature is responsible for the corruption and creation of the similarly wild and seemingly deranged Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie). Quinn is just one of a few infamous criminals, including Deadshot (Will Smith), Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney), El Diablo (Jay Hernandez), and Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), enlisted by high-ranking government agent Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) to assist Special Forces operative Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman) and his bodyguard Katana (Karen Fukuhara) in combating an ancient witch called Enchantress (Cara Delevingne) who has inhabited an archaeologist Flag has fallen in love with and who seeks to inflict suffering upon mankind.

If that seems like a lot, it is. There are so many characters here that it’s very difficult to keep track of who is who and what reasons they have for committing their crimes and then switching sides when compelled to do so by Waller and Flag. This film goes one step beyond the mode of something like “The Avengers” or television series “Legends of Tomorrow” to include so many characters interacting in one expansive universe. The experiment only works to a degree, since it proves to be a challenge to connect with these theoretically magnetic characters in such a crowded space where they are each only featured minimally. Why those with superpowers always need to fight witches or demonic forces is a mystery to me, and putting them up against any other threat, even aliens, would have made for a more impressive and (moderately) believable showdown. The actors, most of whom you wouldn’t expect to find in a film like this, are good, but this manic blockbuster was never supposed to be about the acting. Its Oscar nomination for Best Makeup and Hairstyling is well-deserved, certainly, and I can only hope that the sequel and whatever comes after it choose a stronger plot and nemesis for this deranged group.


Monday, February 20, 2017

Oscar Winner Predictions: Best Foreign Film

The competition: Land of Mine (Denmark), A Man Called Ove (Sweden), The Salesman (Iran), Tanna (Australia), Toni Erdmann (Germany)

Previous winners: Son of Saul (Hungary), Ida (Poland), The Great Beauty (Italy), Amour (Austria), A Separation (Iran), In a Better World (Denmark), The Secret in their Eyes (Argentina), Departures (Japan)
My winner: To be announced soon!
The facts: This is the nineteenth nomination for Germany, which was won three times, most recently in 2006. This is the fifteenth nomination for Sweden, which has won three times, most recently in 1983. This is the fourteenth nomination for Denmark, which has won three times, most recently in 2010. This is the third nomination for Iran, which won in 2011 for another film directed by Asghar Farhadi, the only previously nominated filmmaker in this category. This is the first nomination for Australia, recognized for a film with Nauvhal and Nafe languages. “Elle,” which didn’t make the finalist list, won both the Golden Globe and the Critics’ Choice Award.

Who should win: I wasn’t in love with either of the two frontrunners, and “Tanna” took a bit of time to get into for me. “A Man Called Ove” was great, and I’d say that “Land of Mine” is far and away the best one here.
Who will win: I would have gone with “Toni Erdmann,” but I think that The Salesman will benefit from some late momentum to take it.

Oscar Winner Predictions: Best Animated Feature

The competition: Kubo and the Two Strings, Moana, My Life as a Zucchini, The Red Turtle, Zootopia

Previous winners: Inside Out, Big Hero 6, Frozen, Brave, Rango, Toy Story 3, Up, Wall-E, Ratatouille, Happy Feet, Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, The Incredibles, Finding Nemo, Spirited Away, Shrek
My winner: To be announced soon!
The facts: This category has existed since 2001. Both “Moana” and “Zootopia” come from Disney, which has won twice out of eight previous tries, for “Frozen” and “Big Hero 6.” The Japanese Studio Ghibli has won once out of six tries, back in 2002 for “Spirited Away,” and now contends for “The Red Turtle.” Laika has been nominated four times before, and this year contends for “Kubo and the Two Strings.” “My Life as a Zucchini” is the thirteenth foreign-language nominee in the history of this category. A number of the filmmakers behind these entries have been nominated once or twice before but none of them have won.

Who should win: I had trouble getting into “The Red Turtle,” enjoyed “Moana,” liked “Kubo and the Two Strings,” and was a big fan of “Zootopia.” But nothing impressed me as much as the one I saw list – “My Life as a Zucchini” – a sophisticated, endearing, and moving film that I think should take home this award. I would be fine if “Zootopia” did also, which is far more realistic.
Who will win: I imagine that it’s going to be Zootopia.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Oscar Winner Predictions: Best Original Song

The competition: "The Empty Chair" – Jim: The James Foley Story (J. Ralph & Sting), "Audition (The Fools Who Dream)" – La La Land (Justin Hurwitz and Pasek & Paul), "City of Stars" – La La Land (Justin Hurwitz and Pasek & Paul), "How Far I'll Go" – Moana (Lin-Manuel Miranda), "Can't Stop the Feeling!" – Trolls (Max Martin, Shellback, and Justin Timberlake)

Previous winners: Writing’s on the Wall (Spectre), Selma (Glory), Let It Go (Frozen), Skyfall (Skyfall), Man or Muppet (The Muppets), We Belong Together (Toy Story 3), The Weary Kind (Crazy Heart), Jai Ho (Slumdog Millionaire), Falling Slowly (Once), I Need To Wake Up (An Inconvenient Truth)
My winner: To be announced soon
The facts: This is the fourth nomination for Sting, the third for J. Ralph, and the first time they’re contending together. “City of Stars” won the Golden Globe. The good news for that particular nominee is that, while there used to be a trend where the Globe winner wasn’t even nominated for an Oscar, three out of the past four years the Globe winner has taken home the Oscar.

Who should win: I just listened again to all of these. “How Far I’ll Go” is okay but doesn’t match other animated tunes from previous years. “The Empty Chair” is decent but slow, and not my favorite from the bunch. “Can’t Stop the Feeling!” is undeniably catchy, just like “Happy” was a few years ago. I’d actually go with “Audition” over “City of Stars,” but both are great choices.
Who will win: It could be Lin-Manuel, but I think that City of Stars is way ahead.

Oscar Winner Predictions: Best Original Score

The competition: Jackie (Mica Levi), La La Land (Justin Hurwitz), Lion (Dustin O'Halloran and Hauschka), Moonlight (Nicholas Britell), Passengers (Thomas Newman)

Previous winners: The Hateful Eight, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Gravity, Life of Pi, The Artist, The Social Network, Up, Slumdog Millionaire
My winner: To be announced soon!
The facts: So here’s a crazy statistic: only one of these nominees is a returning Oscar contender, and he’s actually the most-nominated living person not to have won this award. This is Newman’s thirteenth bid, and he was up most recently in 2012 for “Skyfall” and 2013 for “Saving Mr. Banks.” Hurwitz is also nominated this year for writing the music for two original songs, and took home the Golden Globe award in this category.

Who should win: I remember really not liking the music in “Jackie,” and unfortunately I haven’t seen “Passengers,” though the pieces of the soundtrack I’ve listened to do seem strong. After seeing the films, I’ve had the chance to listen again to “Lion” and “Moonlight” and liked them, but nothing compares to the totally catchy, wonderful “La La Land” score.
Who will win: It could be any of them, but I think La La Land is far enough ahead.

Oscar Winner Predictions: Best Film Editing

The competition: Arrival (Joe Walker), Hacksaw Ridge (John Gilbert), Hell or High Water (Jake Roberts), La La Land (Tom Cross), Moonlight (Nat Sanders and Joi McMillon)

Previous winners: Mad Max: Fury Road, Whiplash, Gravity, Argo, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Social Network, The Hurt Locker, Slumdog Millionaire
My winner: To be announced soon!
The facts: Cross, Gilbert, and Walker have all been nominated exactly once before. Cross won for his previous collaboration with director Damien Chazelle on “Whiplash” in 2014. At the ACE Eddie Awards, the comedy award went to “La La Land,” and “Arrival” beat out the other three in the dramatic category. All but “Hell or High Water” are nominated for Best Director.

Who should win: I would be thrilled if “Hell or High Water” took this since it represented the smoothest and most suspenseful ride of the year for me. I didn’t find “Hacksaw Ridge” to be consistently well-assembled, and the other three would all be fine choices.
Who will win: It’s possible that “Hacksaw Ridge” or even “Moonlight” could take this, but I think La La Land will get it.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Oscar Winner Predictions: Best Costume Design

The competition: Allied (Joanna Johnston), Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (Colleen Atwood), Florence Foster Jenkins (Consolata Boyle), Jackie (Madeline Fontaine), La La Land (Mary Zophres)

Previous winners: Mad Max: Fury Road, The Grand Budapest Hotel, The Great Gatsby, Anna Karenina, The Artist, Alice in Wonderland, The Young Victoria, The Duchess
My winner: To be announced soon!
The facts: Atwood has twelve nominations and three wins, most recently for “Alice in Wonderland” in 2010. This is the second nomination for Boyle, Johnston, and Zophres. This is the first nomination for Fontaine. The CDG Awards have not been handed out yet, but all but “Allied” contend there across three separate categories.

Who should win: I haven’t seen “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them,” unfortunately, but this is one place where I’d be okay with “Florence Foster Jenkins” or “Jackie” winning. I wouldn’t vote for “Allied,” and I’m still picturing all the costumes in my choice, “La La Land.”
Who will win: It could be “Jackie,” but I still think La La Land will win here.

Oscar Winner Predictions: Best Art Direction

The competition: Arrival (Patrice Vermette and Paul Hotte), Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (Stuart Craig and Anna Pinnock), Hail, Caesar! (Jess Gonchor and Nancy Haigh), La La Land (David Wasco and Sandy Reynolds-Wasco), Passengers (Guy Hendrix Dyas and Gene Serdena)

Previous winners: Mad Max: Fury Road, The Grand Budapest Hotel, The Great Gatsby, Lincoln, Hugo, Alice in Wonderland, Avatar, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
My winner: To be announced soon!
The facts: This is Craig’s eleventh nomination, and he has prevailed three times, most recently in 1996. This is Haigh’s seventh nomination, and she won in 1991. This is Pinnock’s sixth nomination, and she won in 2014. This is the second nomination for Vermette, Gonchor, Hendrix Dyas, and Serdena. “Passengers” and “La La Land” took home ADG Awards in separate categories, with the former beating the other three nominees here.

Who should win: I’m sad to say that I didn’t see two of these films - “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” and “Passengers - because I underestimated their Oscar chances when they were in theaters, only to see both earn two nominations. I’m fond of “La La Land” and its purposeful colors over the rest here.
Who will win: I think that contemporary musical decorations will trump the sci-fi/period pieces and La La Land will take the win.

Oscar Winner Predictions: Best Cinematography

The competition: Arrival (Bradford Young), La La Land (Linus Sandgren), Lion (Greig Fraser), Moonlight (James Laxton), Silence (Rodrigo Prieto)

Previous winners: The Revenant, Birdman, Gravity, Life of Pi, Hugo, Inception, Avatar, Slumdog Millionaire
My winner: To be announced soon!
The facts: Just one of these nominees has been here before, and that’s Prieto, who contended in 2005 for “Brokeback Mountain,” and serves as the only nominee for his film. I can’t find a single instance in the past sixty years where a film only nominated in this category has won. The other four are Best Picture nominees with plenty of nominations. Interestingly, the actual Best Picture winner hasn’t taken this award since 2008. These five films represented the lineup at the ASC Awards, where “Lion” prevailed.

Who should win: I don’t know why “Silence” needs to be here. The other four are great choices, and I think I might go with “Lion” or “Moonlight” though I’m also fond of “La La Land.”
Who will win: Is this where things split or does “La La Land” sweep it all? I think this could go to Lion but it could just as easily go to any of the rest.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Movies with Abe: Allied

Directed by Robert Zemeckis
Released November 23, 2016

It’s a statistic that would be impossible to research or prove, but I’d be willing to bet that World War II is the most cinematically-realized conflict in history. The rise and fall of the Nazis is a big draw for moviemaking, the Holocaust is an important piece of history that many want to memorialize, and the scale of this “world war” present many opportunities for spotlighting different stories, with “Hacksaw Ridge” and “Land of Mine” serving as two completely unalike Oscar-nominated films about it this year. Another, up for Best Costume Design, is the less completely compelling “Allied.”

Max Vatan (Brad Pitt) is an intelligence officer in the Canadian Air Force sent to Casablanca, Morocco to pose as the husband of a socialite played by French resistance fighter Marianne Beausejour (Marion Cotillard). The two execute their mission - and a handful of Nazis - and return, together, to London to start a life and a family as real husband and wife. The pull of service constantly attracts Max back to the war, and he is dismayed to learn that his latest assignment is to determine whether the woman with whom he has made a home is in fact a Nazi spy.

Pitt and Cotillard are obvious choices for these roles because of their enormous public appeal and experience playing these types of characters. Pitt has made two World War II-set movies in the past five years (not to be confused with “World War Z”), "Fury" and "Inglourious Basterds," portraying commanders on the front lines, and here he gets to step back and play a far more subdued covert agent. Cotillard has achieved international fame after winning an Oscar for “La Vie en Rose,” and her seductive, duplicitous part in “Inception” is probably the best recommender for her to appear in this film. The chemistry between the two leads is undeniable, and they drive this movie more than anything else.

This film is better classified as a spy thriller than as a war movie, and while there is intrigue to be found, it’s far from the most enthralling story. In a conflict that can be considered global, this is an insular story of two people that barely includes anyone else, and those characters, intriguing as they may be, that do appear, are relatively underdeveloped. A running time over two hours does not feel justified, and this film serves as a passable if hardly mandatory cinematic experience, with its costumes as its best asset.


Movie with Abe: Hail, Caesar!

Hail, Caesar!
Directed by Ethan and Joel Coen
Released February 6, 2016

The Coen Brothers are master storytellers. They have been making films for over thirty years, winning multiple Oscars and establishing a certain style that often features strong accents, black comedy, and some truly irreverent characters. Their most notable works include “Fargo,” “A Serious Man,” and “No Country for Old Men,” and while most of their films are major hits, there are also the occasional misfires that try and just miss the mark. An excellent example of this is their latest film, “Hail, Caesar!” which contends for one sole Oscar, for Best Art Direction, and represents the general idea of what Coen Brothers films often are but falters extraordinarily in its execution.

Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) is a Hollywood fixer in the 1950s, who, in typical movie comedy fashion, goes to confess to his priest on a far-too-regular basis, seeking absolution for the many sins he knows that he’s going to commit in the name of his work. Eddie’s job isn’t particularly easy, and it’s complicated considerably by the kidnapping of his biggest movie star, Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), by a group of Communists that call themselves The Future. Other minor obstacles Eddie must overcome over the course of the film are getting twin gossip columnists (Tilda Swinton) to sit on stories, a Western actor (Alden Ehrenreich) to star in a period piece, and dealing with an unmarried actress (Scarlett Johansson) who has become pregnant and whose career might be ended should her indiscretion come to light.

Like past Coen Brothers films, this production starts out from a point of disarray and chaos, with Eddie doing his best to keep it all under control. There are also elements in the duo’s films that also feel like they’ve come from out of nowhere and don’t end up serving some greater purpose, and this one is replete with them. It is reminiscent of a far better if still flawed film also starring Josh Brolin, “Inherent Vice,” but that film has a hidden darkness to it that makes it more tolerable. There’s a sense that there’s no real destination here, and that the bizarre and unsatisfying film itself is the journey.

There are so many big names here that it’s hard to believe this is such a mess. This isn’t Brolin’s best work, nor is it Clooney’s. Swinton, Johansson, Jonah Hill, Ralph Fiennes, and especially Channing Tatum have fun in small roles that don’t constitute more than a memorable scene or two. The indisputable breakout of the film is Ehrenreich, who commits so fully to his role and surely can cite this performance as a motivating factor for his upcoming stint as Han Solo in the next “Star Wars” film. This movie’s colors do pop and its art direction (and costume design) deserves praise, but beyond that, there’s not much of value here.


Thursday, February 16, 2017

Movie with Abe: Land of Mine

Land of Mine
Directed by Martin Zandvliet
Released February 10, 2017

War takes a devastating, irreversible toll on any nation, all the more so if battles take place domestically. Coming out of a conflict, particularly one that lasted many years, is a harrowing challenge, and the road back to normalcy and prosperity can be very long, with plenty of casualties along the way. The balance of power in previously conquered countries can also shift dramatically, leading to a drastically transformed way of life that proves to be stagnant and miserable for all involved.

At the end of World War II, German prisoners-of-war in Denmark are kept in the country and put to work combing the beaches for the more than two million mines planted by their fellow soldiers during the war. Sergeant Carl Rasmussen (Roland Møller) is the Danish commander in charge of a group of fourteen very young German soldiers who quickly come to understand his authority and power. They are not fed, they are locked in a barn to sleep every night, and Sergeant Rasmussen regularly tells them that he hates them and does not care if they die. The stakes are enormously high as mines can – and do – detonate on a regular basis, costing these terribly young, seemingly innocent boys their limbs and their lives even after the war has ended.

“Land of Mine” begins with a powerful scene in which Sergeant Rasmussen sees a German soldier marching with a Danish flag and beats him up, taking the flag and carrying to it to the beach, defiantly declaring, “This is my land!” That’s where this film’s strong double-meaning of a title comes in, as the Danes struggle to reestablish their own national identity. Much of it has to do with dehumanizing the Germans they felt had done the same to them, and it’s only through time and experience that Rasmussen, who still remains gruff, begins to see that these are just children thrust into a conflict they couldn’t possibly be blamed completely for who have ended up in a horrific situation.

“Land of Mine” is a serious, compelling film about the aftereffects of war that is far from showy. Its production values are high, and its shots of the vast beach lined with many unknown threats and littered with prisoners of war seeking to literally clean up their mess are extremely effective. Møller is terrific, delivering an uncompromising turn as a man who believes firmly in what he is doing. The entire supporting cast is superb, with Louis Hoffman and real-life twin brothers Emil and Oskar Belton standing out for their contributions as memorable captured soldiers. This film is gut-wrenching, and feels real and vital. It’s certainly the best among this crop of Oscar nominees for Best Foreign Film and very much deserves to be seen.