Sunday, February 17, 2019

Oscar Winner Predictions: Best Makeup and Hairstyling

The competition: Border (Göran Lundström and Pamela Goldammer), Mary Queen of Scots (Jenny Shircore, Marc Pilcher, and Jessica Brooks), Vice (Greg Cannom, Kate Biscoe, and Patricia Dehaney)

Previous winners: Darkest Hour, Suicide Squad, Mad Max: Fury Road, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Dallas Buyers Club, Les Miserables, The Iron Lady
My winner: Announcing shortly after the Oscars!
The facts: Shircore won in 1998 for “Elizabeth” and was nominated in 2009 for “The Young Victoria.” Cannom has eight previous nominations, with wins in 1992 for “Bram Stoker’s Dracula,” in 1993 for “Mrs. Doutbfire,” and in 2008 for “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.” The last foreign-language films to win this prize were “La Vie en Rose” in 2007 and “Pan’s Labyrinth” in 2006. Six winners in the last ten years in this category have been Best Picture nominees, with “Vice” being the only one with that distinction this year. Both “Mary Queen of Scots” and “Vice” contend for two awards from the Hollywood Makeup Artist and Hair Stylist Guild Awards.

Who should win: The two leads in both “Border” and “Mary Queen of Scots” truly looked like the characters they were supposed to play, living in the worlds they inhabited, though the latter had the added benefit of purposeful hairstyling. Seeing Christian Bale look just like Dick Cheney is something else, and though there’s plenty I didn’t like about that film, out of this group, it gets my vote easily in this contest.
Who will win: It’s hard to imagine anything but Vice taking this.

Movie with Abe: Border

Directed by Ali Abbasi
Released October 26, 2018

Looking different can be one of the most significant factors in someone feeling out of place. The discrepancy between what someone sees in the mirror and what they see when they look around them will often pale in comparison to the way that others react upon first meeting them, which may be involuntary but still tends to acknowledge a classification of them as something apart. While it’s usually said that true beauty comes from within, that’s rarely how society anywhere practically functions, and therefore it can be particularly enlightening and eye-opening to meet another person with the same abnormal appearance.

Tina (Eva Melander) works as a border agent in Sweden, able to detect and stop undesirable elements from encountering the country thanks to her heightened sense of smell, which she says enables her to smell fear, guilt, and shame. Her physical facial deformity has led to a lonely life, and she has opened her home to a dog trainer named Roland (Jörgen Thorsson), who frequently takes advantage of her hospitality without taking her feelings into consideration. When she stops a man, Vore (Eero Milonoff), at the border whose face looks just like hers, Tina begins to learn about his life experiences and realize that she may have been looking at everything in a twisted, limited manner.

This film smartly begins by showing Tina at work, looked at questionably by those she surveys as they walk past her but respected by the agents that she instructs to search whatever person she flags. Her abilities are not in question because she gets results, and she knows that this is the right job for her because she’s able to do what no one else can. Vore’s arrival interrupts all that, since he truly sees her in a way that no one else ever has, and isn’t happy with the way that she lets other people treat her, forcing her to question how she has lived her entire life.

Sweden’s Oscar entry for Best Foreign Film didn’t end up making the cut in that race, but it did merit an Oscar nomination for Best Makeup and Hairstyling. Both Tina and Vore are made up to look distinctly different from those around them, though the performances by Melander and Milonoff also deserve commendation for the way they make their characters interact with the world around them and with each other. More than anything, this is a peculiar film that embraces the notion of the “other,” heading off on its own path much like its two protagonists. It’s intriguing but ultimately more weird than fulfilling, still a worthwhile watch for those who find its premise interesting.


Saturday, February 16, 2019

Movie with Abe: Serenity

I'm pleased to present my debut for the crime-mystery site Criminal Element, a review of the truly terrible "Serenity," released just a few weeks ago but already mostly gone from theaters. I'll link to any future reviews of mine published on Criminal Element - head over to the site to check it out!

Friday, February 15, 2019

Movie with Abe: Donnybrook

Directed by Tim Sutton
Released February 15, 2019

All parents try to provide in the way that they can for their children. For those who make six-figure salaries, that can mean offering luxuries and unparalleled comfort so that their children can achieve great things and in turn raise their own children in the same way. For those with a considerably less stable income, their dedication may be the same but their means entirely different. Molding minds and ensuring a safe environment are paramount, but not all people are able to do that in the same way depending on their skills and fortune.

Jarhead Earl (Jamie Bell) robs a local gun shop so that he can have some money to get him to a vicious fighting ring, the Donnybrook, that offers a high prize for the last to survive a brutal competition. Returning home to his family, Earl finds his wife Tammy (Dara Tiller) being tempted with drugs by local criminal Chainsaw Angus (Frank Grillo). Leaving town with his son Moses (Alexander Washburn), Earl begins his journey as Angus and his sister Delia (Margaret Qualley) remain all too close and a strung-out cop, Whalen (James Badge Dale), follows a trail of victims left by them.

This is inarguably a grim film, one that never presents much positivity for any of its characters. To try to get to this hellish competition, Earl leaves his wife and daughter in a motel room and has his son serve as an accomplice to help him stay one step ahead of the law. Angus seems to delight in the brutal killing of anyone he comes across, while the participatory Delia at times seems like an unwilling collaborator who is also a victim. Whalen is the least stable of all of them, stalking his ex-wife in the parking lot of her grocery store job and indulging in many of the criminal activities he as the law should be stopping. This is not a film for those seeking any sort of humor or even anything approaching happiness.

This is, however, a worthwhile film that shows the love that Earl has for his family yet must express in a way that involves doing whatever it takes to get to a place where he will ultimately need to fight another man to the death. Bell captures that mentality and portrays it effectively on screen, supported by Qualley as a conflicted criminal and Grillo as the cold, soulless villain. This film knows just how dark it wants to be and uses that to its advantage, engaging its audience in a foreboding, captivating thriller that proves to be inviting if far from appealing.


Thursday, February 14, 2019

Oscar Winner Predictions: Best Sound Editing

The competition: Black Panther (Benjamin A. Burtt and Steve Boeddeker), Bohemian Rhapsody (John Warhurst and Nina Hartstone), First Man (Ai-Ling Lee and Mildred Iatrou Morgan), A Quiet Place (Ethan Van der Ryn and Erik Aadahl), Roma (Sergio Díaz and Skip Lievsay)

Previous winners: Dunkirk, Arrival, Mad Max: Fury Road, American Sniper, Gravity, Skyfall/Zero Dark Thirty, Hugo
My winner: Announcing shortly after the Oscars!
The facts: Burtt has seven previous nominations, with three wins from the 1980s for “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial,” and “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.” Boeddeker was previously nominated in 2013 for “All is Lost” and also contends for sound mixing this year. Lee was nominated in 2016 for “La La Land” in this category and for sound mixing, and earned double nominations again this year. Morgan returns with her second bid after “La La Land.” Van der Ryan has five previous nominations, with wins for “The Two Towers” in 2002 and “King Kong” in 2005. Lievsay has previous nominations here for “No Country for Old Men” and “True Grit,” along with a win for “Gravity” in sound mixing and a nomination there this year too. All five of these films contend for multiple Golden Reel Awards from the Motion Picture Sound Editors, and only “A Quiet Place” is not also nominated for Best Sound.

Who should win: I distinctly remember the experiencing of hearing “Roma” just as strongly as seeing it, and “First Man” was also an incredible auditory product.
Who will win: It could be any of these, but I’m betting on First Man.

Oscar Winner Predictions: Best Sound

The competition: Black Panther (Steve Boeddeker, Brandon Proctor and Peter Devlin), Bohemian Rhapsody (Paul Massey, Tim Cavagin and John Casali), First Man (Jon Taylor, Frank A. Montaño, Ai-Ling Lee and Mary H. Ellis), Roma (Skip Lievsay, Craig Henighan and José Antonio Garcia), A Star is Born (Tom Ozanich, Dean Zupancic, Jason Ruder and Steve Morrow)

Previous winners: Dunkirk, Hacksaw Ridge, Mad Max: Fury Road, Whiplash, Gravity, Les Miserables, Hugo
My winner: Announcing shortly after the Oscars!
The facts: Boeddeker also contends for sound editing this year and was previously nominated in this category for “All is Lost” in 2013. Devlin has four previous nominations, three of which are from the “Transformers” franchise. Massey has seven previous nominations, the most recent of which was in 2015 for “The Martian.” Cavagin and Ellis were both up for “Baby Driver” last year. Taylor has three previous nominations and Montaño has eight, both last nominated together in 2015 for “The Revenant.” Lee contended for “La La Land” in 2016 in both this category and sound editing, and earned that same double nomination this year. Lievsay won this prize in 2013 for “Gravity” with three additional previous nominations in this race, along with one for sound editing this year. Garcia contended in 2012 for “Argo.” All but “Roma” are nominated at the Cinema Audio Society Awards, and “A Star is Born” is the only film here not also contending for Best Sound Editing.

Who should win: All of these films sound great. To me, the definitive beat of life and combat in “Black Panther” or the toe-tapping concert acoustics in “Bohemian Rhapsody” are the most memorable.
Who will win: I think that Bohemian Rhapsody can take this, though I would have said “A Star is Born” a while back.

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Oscar Winner Predictions: Best Original Song

The competition: “When a Cowboy Trades His Spurs for Wings” – The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (David Rawlings and Gillian Welch), “All the Stars” – Black Panther (Kendrick Lamar, Sounwave, Anthony Tiffith, and SZA), “The Place Where Lost Things Go” – Mary Poppins Returns (Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman), “I’ll Fight” – RBG (Diane Warren), “Shallow” – A Star is Born (Lady Gaga, Mark Ronson, Anthony Rossomando and Andrew Wyatt)

Previous winners: Remember Me (Coco), City of Stars (La La Land), Writing’s on the Wall (Spectre), Glory (Selma), Let It Go (Frozen), Skyfall (Skyfall), Man or Muppet (The Muppets)
My winner: Announcing shortly after the Oscars!
The facts: Gaga and Warren were nominated together in 2015 for their song from “The Hunting Ground.” Warren has eight additional nominations, including one last year for her song from “Marshall.” Shaiman has two previous nominations in this category for songs from “Sleepless in Seattle” in 1993 and “South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut” in 1999, in addition to three previous score bids and a mention in that category this year. The only song from a documentary ever to win was from “An Inconvenient Truth” in 2006. The first “Mary Poppins” film won this prize in 1964 for “Chim Chim Cher-ee.” The last six Golden Globe winners have gone on to be nominated here, with four of them triumphing. “Shallow” won the Globe this year.

Who should win: I’ve listened to every one of these songs many, many times and remember the three that were performed during the actual films well. I’m not so into “All the Stars,” though I appreciate its value as an anthem for its film. “The Place Where Lost Things Go” was much more tolerable to me than the other song from that same film that made the finalist list, and it has a good message even if it’s not my favorite. “I’ll Fight” does a strong job representing it’s film themes. “When a Cowboy Trades His Spurs for Wings” was part of what made the title segment so hilarious. Nothing compares to the incredible energy of “Swallow,” my clear choice and everyone else’s.
Who will win: Whenever there’s a clear frontrunner in this category, it tends to win. There’s no reason to predict anything but Shallow.

Oscar Winner Predictions: Best Original Score

The competition: BlacKkKlansman (Terence Blanchard), Black Panther (Ludwig Göransson), If Beale Street Could Talk (Nicholas Britell), Isle of Dogs (Alexandre Desplat), Mary Poppins Returns (Marc Shaiman)

Previous winners: The Shape of Water, La La Land, The Hateful Eight, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Gravity, Life of Pi, The Artist
My winner: Announcing shortly after the Oscars!
The facts: Britell was nominated two years ago for his last collaboration with director Barry Jenkins, “Moonlight.” This is the tenth nomination for last year’s winner Desplat, who triumphed in 2017 for “The Shape of Water” and in 2014 for “The Grand Budapest Hotel.” Shaiman has three nominations from the 1990s in the now-defunct Original Musical or Comedy Score category for “The American President,” “The First Wives Club,” and “Patch Adams.” He also contends for the song from his film this year. The Golden Globe winner, “First Man,” didn’t end up getting nominated. In the past two decades, this award has gone to a film not nominated for Best Picture only three times.
Who should win: I didn’t remember the score from “Mary Poppins Returns” so fondly, but listening to it again, I can appreciate its energy. “BlacKkKlansman” was sufficiently moody, and I’m happy to see Blanchard finally earn his first nomination. I’m all for any of the other three taking this because they were both memorable and unique in their own ways.
Who will win: Without the Globe winner in the mix, I’m not so sure, but I think it might be the only win for Black Panther.

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Oscar Winner Predictions: Best Film Editing

The competition: BlacKkKlansman (Barry Alexander Brown), Bohemian Rhapsody (John Ottman), The Favourite (Yorgos Mavropsaridis), Green Book (Patrick J. Don Vito), Vice (Hank Corwin)

Previous winners: Dunkirk, Hacksaw Ridge, Mad Max: Fury Road, Whiplash, Gravity, Argo, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
My winner: Announcing shortly after the Oscars!
The facts: Only Corwin has been nominated before, for his last collaboration with director Adam McKay, “The Big Short,” in 2015. All five of these films were nominated for the ACE Eddie Award, with “The Favourite” winning the comedy prize and “Bohemian Rhapsody” taking the dramatic honor. “Vice” won the BAFTA, defeating both ACE Eddie recipients. Four of the last ten Oscars winners didn’t win either ACE Eddie. The winner of this award hasn’t gone on to win Best Picture since “Argo” in 2012, and it’s actually much more common for the two not to match up, though all but two of the last ten winners were nominated for the top prize. All five of these films are nominated for Best Picture.

Who should win: This is a strange list in a lot of ways. “Vice” was an irritating film, and its very purposeful construction was a big reason for that. “BlacKkKlansman” is made moodier and more stylized by the imprint of its editor, which made it moderately effective for me. “Bohemian Rhapsody,” which I liked more than most critics, is long but feels energizing because of the way it’s assembled. “Green Book” features an entertaining road trip in which every scene feels vital and relevant. There’s no matching the pace of “The Favourite,” however, which weaves together its wild characters and even more outrageous story stunningly.
Who will win: This is tough. Some might say that “BlacKkKlansman” shows up to surprise, and “Vice” will also probably get votes. It’s hard to imagine “Green Book” triumphing here, especially without a Best Director bid. I’m going to go ahead and pick Bohemian Rhapsody over a film I’m predicting to triumph in other technical races, “The Favourite.”

Oscar Winner Predictions: Best Costume Design

The competition: The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (Mary Zophres), Black Panther (Ruth E. Carter), The Favourite (Sandy Powell), Mary Poppins Returns (Sandy Powell), Mary Queen of Scots (Alexandra Byrne)

Previous winners: Phantom Thread, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, Mad Max: Fury Road, The Grand Budapest Hotel, The Great Gatsby, Anna Karenina, The Artist
My winner: Announcing shortly after the Oscars!
The facts: Zophres was previously nominated in 2010 for “True Grit” and in 2016 for “La La Land.” Carter was nominated in 1992 for “Malcolm X” and in 1997 for “Amistad.” Byrne was nominated in 1996 for “Hamlet,” in 1998 for “Elizabeth,” in 2004 for “Finding Neverland,” and in 2007 for “Elizabeth: The Golden Age,” her only win. This is the third time that Powell has earned two nominations in a single year, first in 1998 when she won for “Shakespeare in Love” in addition to a bid for “Velvet Goldmine,” and then in 2015 when she contended for “Carol” and “Cinderella.” She won for “The Aviator” in 2004 and “The Young Victoria” in 2009, with eight additional nominations. All but “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” contend for the Costume Designers Guild prizes for period or sci-fi/fantasy films, which will be handed out next week. Four times in the past decade, this award went to a Best Picture nominee.

Who should win: Though I didn’t like the film, I can appreciate the top-notch costuming in all the vignettes of “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs.” The wardrobe in “Mary Queen of Scots” is one of its strongest and most vibrant elements. “Mary Poppins Returns” owes much of its magic to the way that its characters are outfitted. It’s a hard pick between “The Favourite” and “Black Panther,” two extraordinarily different films, and I’d be happy with either being rewarded.
Who will win: This is extremely competitive. My money is on The Favourite though it could honestly be any of them.

Monday, February 11, 2019

Oscar Winner Predictions: Best Production Design

The competition: Black Panther (Hannah Beachler and Jay Hart), The Favourite (Fiona Crombie and Alice Felton), First Man (Nathan Crowley and Kathy Lucas), Mary Poppins Returns (John Myhre and Gordon Sim), Roma (Eugene Caballero and Bárbara Enrı́quez)

Previous winners: The Shape of Water, La La Land, Mad Max: Fury Road, The Grand Budapest Hotel, The Great Gatsby, Lincoln, Hugo
My winner: Announcing shortly after the Oscars!
The facts: Hart was nominated in 1997 for “L.A. Confidential” and 1998 for “Pleasantville.” This is the fourth nomination for Crowley and his first for a film not directed by Christopher Nolan after bids for “The Prestige,” “The Dark Knight,” “Interstellar,” and “Dunkirk.” Myhre has five previous nominations, including wins for “Chicago” in 2002 and “Memoirs of a Geisha” in 2005. Sim also shares that win for “Chicago” in addition to a nomination for “Nine.” Caballero won in 2006 for “Pan’s Labyrinth,” his only previous bid. This is the first nomination for all other nominees. All five of these films were nominated by the Art Directors Guild, where “Black Panther” triumphed in the fantasy category and “The Favourite” took the period award in addition to the BAFTA. Eight times in the past decade, this award went to a Best Picture nominee, which neither “First Man” nor “Mary Poppins Returns” are.

Who should win: These films are all visually astounding in completely different ways. “Roma” is starkly portrayed, which helps its effectiveness, while “First Man” is enhanced so that its scenery feels real. “Mary Poppins Returns” is colorful and vibrant. “The Favourite” is striking and vivid, though I’d probably choose “Black Panther” for its creation of a stunning nation.
Who will win: It might be either “Black Panther” or “Mary Poppins Returns,” but I think that the energy and enthusiasm for The Favourite will lead to its victory.

Oscar Winner Predictions: Best Cinematography

The competition: Cold War (Łukasz Żal), The Favourite (Robbie Ryan), Never Look Away (Caleb Deschanel), Roma (Alfonso Cuarón), A Star is Born (Matthew Libatique)

Previous winners: Blade Runner 2049, La La Land, The Revenant, Birdman, Gravity, Life of Pi, Hugo
My winner: Announcing shortly after the Oscars!
The facts: This is the sixth nomination for Deschanel, who was last nominated in 2004 for “The Passion of the Christ.” This is Cuarón’s first bid in this category, but, in addition to a 2013 win for directing “Gravity,” he also contends for directing, writing, and producing his film this year. Libatique was previously nominated for “Black Swan” in 2010. This is the first nomination for Zal and Ryan. The last time three foreign-language films were honored here was in 2004, and foreign films have won this award before, with “Pan’s Labyrinth” and “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” being the most recent ones to do so. Only “Never Look Away” is not nominated for the ASC Award, which went to “Cold War.” Since the ASC has existed, its winner has only gone on to win the Oscar fourteen out of thirty-two times, and six times in the past decade. The BAFTA was awarded to “Roma.” A Best Picture nominee has won this award every year over the past decade except for last year, which may dilute the chances for “Cold War” and “Never Look Away.” The last black-and-white film to win this award was “Schindler’s List” in 1993, with “Cold War” and “Roma” looking to update that statistic this year.

Who should win: These are all formidable selections. Both “Cold War” and “Roma” were exceptionally-shot, seeming like they were in color despite its absence. “A Star is Born” had a look to it that made the story feel even more personal. “Never Look Away” is a fantastic choice, framing its lengthy narrative vividly. My favorite is, in fact, “The Favourite,” an enthralling tale brought even more to life thanks to its focused lensing.
Who will win: I think it’s a competition between Roma and “The Favourite” with “Cold War” coming up as a potential spoiler, and I’ll give the edge to the latter with minimal confidence.

Sunday, February 10, 2019

Oscar Winner Predictions: Best Adapted Screenplay

The competition: The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (Joel and Ethan Coen), BlacKkKlansman (Spike Lee, David Rabinowitz, Charlie Wachtel and Kevin Willmott), Can You Ever Forgive Me? (Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty), If Beale Street Could Talk (Barry Jenkins), A Star is Born (Bradley Cooper, Will Fetters and Eric Roth)

Previous winners: Call Me By Your Name, Moonlight, The Big Short, The Imitation Game, 12 Years a Slave, Argo, The Descendants
My winner: Announcing shortly after the Oscars!
The facts: This is the sixth screenplay bid for the Coen Brothers, who won writing prizes for “Fargo” and “No Country for Old Men” in addition to a directing win for the latter. Lee was nominated for his screenplay for “Do the Right Thing” in 1989, and also contends this year for directing and producing his film. Jenkins won this award in 2016 for “Moonlight” in addition to a directing bid for that film. This is Cooper’s first writing nomination, and he’s also up for acting (his fourth time) and producing (his second) this year. Roth won this award in 1994 for “Forrest Gump” and he has been nominated here three times since. This is the first nomination for all the other writers. The last film to win this award without a Best Picture nod was “Gods and Monsters” in 1998, which may change this year since only “BlacKkKlansman,” which won the corresponding BAFTA, and “A Star is Born” are up for the top award. Only “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” isn’t nominated for a WGA Award. “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” and “If Beale Street Could Talk” were both nominated for the USC Scripter Award, which went to “Leave No Trace.”
Who should win: I loved the first segment of “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” but found everything after that less than impressive. “A Star is Born” was a good film, but I wouldn’t cite its screenplay as its strongest element. I wasn’t as fond of “BlacKkKlansman” as most, but I can appreciate its quality. “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” was entertaining and solid. My choice would be “If Beale Street Could Talk,” a wondrous and rich film with superb dialogue.
Who will win: I’d like to think that If Beale Street Could Talk wins this just as easily as “Call Me By Your Name” did last year without momentum in other categories. Watch out for “BlacKkKlansman” or “A Star is Born” to earn some love here and potentially knock it out.

Oscar Winner Predictions: Best Original Screenplay

The competition: The Favourite (Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara), First Reformed (Paul Schrader), Green Book (Brian Currie, Peter Farrelly, and Nick Vallelonga), Roma (Alfonso Cuaron), Vice (Adam McKay)

Previous winners: Get Out, Manchester by the Sea, Spotlight, Birdman, Her, Django Unchained, Midnight in Paris
My winner: Announcing shortly after the Oscars!
The facts: Cuaron has contended for screenwriting twice, for “Y Tu Mama Tambien” in 2001 and “Children of Men” in 2006, and, in addition to a 2013 directing win for “Gravity,” he is also nominated this year for directing, producing, and shooting his film. McKay won in 2015 for his screenplay for “The Big Short” and is also nominated this year for directing and producing his film. All three of the writers from “Green Book” are also nominated as producers of the film. Despite penning the screenplays for “Taxi Driver” and “Raging Bull,” this is Schrader’s first nomination, along with both writers from “The Favourite.” Only five foreign-language entries have ever won this award, the most recent of which was “Talk to Her” in 2002. Four films in the past fifteen years have triumphed without a corresponding Best Picture nomination, and the last of those was “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.” That would apply only to “First Reformed” this year, with this bid serving as its only nomination.

Who should win: I had problems with “Vice” and don’t think it’s worth rewarding this obnoxious script. I didn’t love “First Reformed” nearly as much as anyone else I talked to, and a win here would not make me happy. “Roma” is good, but I don’t think the script is its strongest asset. “Green Book” is delightful and enjoyable, and the writing is indeed strong. Nothing compares, though, to “The Favourite,” an extremely witty and entertaining life brought to life in part by its fabulous screenplay.
Who will win: This could go any number of ways. I don’t see “First Reformed” having a shot, even though it won the Critics’ Choice Award. “Vice” is divisive, but obviously it was popular enough to merit every major nomination it could have. “Roma” might get swept up by love for the film and win here, but I don’t see it. “Green Book,” which took home the Golden Globe, is probably the smart pick, but I’m going with nominations co-leader The Favourite instead.

Saturday, February 9, 2019

Oscar Winner Predictions: Best Actress in a Supporting Role

The competition: Amy Adams (Vice), Marina de Tavira (Roma), Regina King (If Beale Street Could Talk), Emma Stone (The Favourite), Rachel Weisz (The Favourite)

Previous winners: Allison Janney, Viola Davis, Alicia Vikander, Patricia Arquette, Lupita N’yongo, Anne Hathaway, Octavia Spencer
My winner: Announcing shortly after the Oscars!
The facts: Adams has five previous nominations, the most recent of which came in 2013 for “American Hustle.” Stone won in 2016 for “La La Land” and was nominated before that in 2014 for “Birdman.” Weisz won on her only nomination in 2005 for “The Constant Gardener.” This is the first nomination for both de Tavira and King. De Tavira would be the first performer to win this award for an entirely foreign-language performance, since Penelope Cruz’s performance in “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” included plenty of English. Starring in a Best Picture nominee isn’t crucial – five of the past fifteen winners have triumphed despite that handicap, and King is the one who would benefit most this year. This category is no stranger to double nominees from the same film. In fact, it happened all four years between 2008 and 2011, with two of those cases resulting in wins for one of those two nominated women. King won the Globe and the Critics’ Choice Award but wasn’t nominated at SAG, where Emily Blunt, who isn’t on this list, won for “A Quiet Place.”

Who should win: I’m all for anyone in this category. De Tavira impressed in her film, embedding humor and humanity in her portrayal of a frazzled mother and wife. Though I didn’t like her film, Adams was completely on point, funnier than usual and totally committed to the role. King was a strong element of an underrated and underrepresented film, and even if I’d choose some of its technical aspects to reward instead, she’s definitely worthy of praise. Both Adams and Weisz were absolutely terrific, and though I’ve picked Weisz when I’ve had to, I’d be ecstatic and perfectly satisfied if either of them won.
Who will win: The expectation was that Adams would win the SAG with King out of the running, but when she didn’t, it suggested that King can overcome that problematic snub to triumph. The only thing that would be her undoing would be a surge in popularity for the three stars of the two nominations leaders, but I don’t see it happening.

Oscar Winner Predictions: Best Actor in a Supporting Role

The competition: Mahershala Ali (Green Book), Adam Driver (BlacKkKlansman), Sam Elliott (A Star is Born), Richard E. Grant (Can You Ever Forgive Me?), Sam Rockwell (Vice)

Previous winners: Sam Rockwell, Mahershala Ali, Mark Rylance, J.K. Simmons, Jared Leto, Christoph Waltz, Christopher Plummer
My winner: Announcing shortly after the Oscars!
The facts: This is very simple: we have the past two winners in this category – Rockwell and Ali – earning their second nominations, and the other three are all first-time nominees. Both of their previous wins came from roles in Best Picture nominees (in Ali’s case, a winner), and that’s the case again. The last actor to win this award twice was Christoph Waltz, who was awarded in both 2009 and 2012. Grant is the only one whose film isn’t nominated for Best Picture, though that hasn’t been a problem for four of the past fifteen champs in this category. Ali has won the Globe, SAG, and Critics’ Choice Award.

Who should win: Rockwell was entertaining as George W. Bush, but his role doesn’t compare to last year’s, which also didn’t enthrall me as much as it did most people. I also like Driver but wasn’t wowed by this particular performance. Elliott is a superb actor, and his small part in a film dominated by other actors was indeed great. Grant was engaging and charming, and I’d be happy to see him win, even if my top choice is the very talented and endearing Ali.
Who will win: Rockwell’s repeat nomination is his reward. Driver’s film might outperform in other races, but not here. Elliott would have needed a much stronger awards season showing for his film, which it weirdly has not gotten. There’s still a chance that Grant could pull ahead and score this win, but Ali feels far enough ahead, and he’s a great, controversy-free way to award a movie that people obviously love.

Friday, February 8, 2019

Oscar Winner Predictions: Best Actress in a Leading Role

The competition: Yalitza Aparicio (Roma), Glenn Close (The Wife), Olivia Colman (The Favourite), Lady Gaga (A Star is Born), Melissa McCarthy (Can You Ever Forgive Me?)

Previous winners: Frances McDormand, Emma Stone, Brie Larson, Julianne Moore, Cate Blanchett, Jennifer Lawrence, Meryl Streep
My winner: Announcing shortly after the Oscars!
The facts: Aparicio joins a small list of actresses who have received an Oscar nomination for their debut film performances. Only the likes of Barbra Streisand and Julie Andrews managed to win. She is also contending for a foreign-language performance, which last led to victory for Marion Cotillard in “La Vie en Rose” in 2007. Close has six previous nominations, five in the 1980s and one in 2011 for “Albert Nobbs.” Gaga was nominated for writing a song for “The Hunting Ground” in 2016 and also contends for the very popular song “Shallow” from her film this year. McCarthy was nominated in 2011 for “Bridesmaids.” This is Colman’s first nomination. Unlike the Best Actor category, this award more frequently goes to actresses who aren’t stars of Best Picture nominees, like Julianne Moore in 2014 and Cate Blanchett in 2013. Close won the Globe and the SAG, and tied with Gaga for the Critics’ Choice Award. Colman won the comedy Globe.

Who should win: This is actually a very solid list, and I wouldn’t find any of them undeserving. McCarthy made an impressive transition to drama with this role, remaining funny and still believable. Aparicio was formidable in her film debut. Close was a tour de force who completely sold her character. Gaga embodied her ingénue’s wondrous worldview. Colman is my favorite, however, leaning into the hilarity of her manipulated monarch.
Who will win: McCarthy is really the only one without a shot. Colman might have been most poised for an upset before Aparicio joined the race without participating in most of the precursors. They’re the stars of the most-nominated films this year and will clearly have fans, and might have been able to benefit from a vote-split had Gaga fared better earlier this awards season. The fact remains that Close still hasn’t won an Oscar, and I think voters will reward her for an incredible career.

Oscar Winner Predictions: Best Actor in a Leading Role

The competition: Bradley Cooper (A Star is Born), Christian Bale (Vice), Willem Dafoe (At Eternity’s Gate), Rami Malek (Bohemian Rhapsody), Viggo Mortensen (Green Book)

Previous winners: Gary Oldman, Casey Affleck, Leonardo DiCaprio, Eddie Redmayne, Matthew McConaughey, Daniel Day-Lewis, Jean Dujardin
My winner: Announcing shortly after the Oscars!
The facts: Though he missed out on a Best Director bid, Cooper, who has three previous acting nominations, also contends for producing and writing his film. Bale won on his first of three prior bids for “The Fighter” in 2010, and in this is his second time contending for an Adam McKay film after “The Big Short” in 2015. The two of them were both nominees for “American Hustle” in 2013. Dafoe was nominated last year for “The Florida Project,” marking his second consecutive go as the sole representative from his film. He was previously nominated was back in 2000 and 1986. Mortensen was nominated twice before, for “Captain Fantastic” in 2016 and “Eastern Promises” in 2007. This is Malek’s first nomination. The last time the star of a film not nominated for Best Picture won this prize was Jeff Bridges for “Crazy Heart” in 2009, which applies only to Dafoe this year. After they both won Golden Globes, Bale took home the Critics’ Choice Award and Malek won the SAG. In the two times that the split has happened the same way among the three groups, the SAG victor prevailed.

Who should win: I was rooting for Dafoe much more last year than this time around, as his portrayal of Vincent Van Gogh was indeed one of the strongest elements of his film but doesn’t compare to his performance as a hotel manager in my favorite film from 2017. I also get that Bale’s imitation is impressive, but both the role and the movie are so interlinked that I’d be frustrated with him winning. Cooper getting an accolade for his directorial debut wouldn’t upset me since it was one of his better performances. Mortensen was great in his film, and I’d be perfectly happy if he won. It’s hard to argue with Malek’s turn though, and I’d be very pleased to see the surprise Emmy winner for “Mr. Robot” from a few years ago earn an Oscar.
Who will win: Count out Mortensen and Dafoe. It’s possible that Cooper could upset given that the last director-star this happened to, Ben Affleck, didn’t have the benefit of a Best Actor bid where voters could reward him. Bale has a strong shot given his film’s performance in major categories, but Malek feels far enough ahead given the season-long embrace of his film.

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Movie with Abe: Lords of Chaos

Lords of Chaos
Directed by Jonas Åkerlund
Released February 8, 2019

There are often behaviors and worldviews associated with certain types of art. That’s especially true when it comes to music, with religion, politics, and other cultural factors affecting the people who write and sing it. Not all motivators are positive, and that can be reflected in the genre of music produced and the way in which songs are broadcast out to the public. It can be difficult to separate the legacy of a type of music from the history related to it, which will always come to define it.

Euronymous (Rory Culkin) is a guitarist in Norway in the 1980s who puts together the black metal band Mayhem. Early events include the hiring of a Swedish singer named Dead (Jack Kilmer) who commits suicide not long after joining the band, forever altering their trajectory and the attitude they express. As Euronymous begins associating with a passionate fan, Varg (Emory Cohen), they start burning down churches as an expression of their liberal religious beliefs. A desire for more publicity and an acknowledgment of their uniqueness leads to a breaking point between Euronymous and Varg over who truly embodies their movement.

The kind of music portrayed in this film is described by some as hard on the ears, and that expectation is logical going in. The story, unfortunately, mirrors the aggressiveness of the audio, filled with many angry and volatile moments. Watching these two people hell-bent on popularizing their music and getting it out into the world go to war over how to best represent their countercultural notions is far from appealing, especially when this film reaches a disturbing point defined by violence, approaching the questionable categorization of this film as horror, a mildly accurate depiction of some of its events.

As with many films about international historical figures, even ones as recent and on the fringe as these ones, all the characters speak with American accents, not concerned at all with putting any effort into mimicking the way the real-life people they portray actually speak. What they say is also far from riveting, seemingly too simplistic and whiny compared with the depth of the story depicted here. Its plot takes unsettling turns, and, in addition to being horrific and off-putting, they don’t feel believable. The documented true story is indeed incredible, but this adaptation fails to create a stirring and compelling representation of both the music and the people who created it.


Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Slamdance with Arielle: History of Love

It’s my pleasure to introduce Arielle, my wife and an eager new contributor who is covering the Slamdance Film Festival in Park City this year, along with a few Sundance selections.

Director Sonja Prosenc discusses the film

History of Love
Directed by Sonja Prosenc
Breakout Features

Portraying a narrative about love and loss, “History of Love” tells the story of a family mourning the death of their wife and mother. As they uncover secrets about the life she lived, they are forced to engage with their grief and the world around them in unusual and unexpected ways. Felt by the audience as a real and raw experience of grief, director Sonja Prosenc explained that she was actually grieving a family member who was dying during the filming process, making this story all the more real, painful, and necessary for her to share with the world.

The film employs vivid imagery and sound to convey the overwhelming, sometimes drowning, effects of grief on loved ones. The director intentionally uses water to illustrate fluidity of bereavement and the sadness that often overtakes life, though the film sometimes feels as if it was moving at a trickling pace. Nonetheless, as an aspiring chaplain, I feel this film does a tremendous job of capturing the vastly different ways in which individuals grieve, even within a single family. Age, relationship to the deceased, and anxiety about loss can all be tremendous influencers in one’s grief process, and I appreciate the fact that the characters do not try to alter how the others experience their loss. Through anger, sadness, despair, and reminiscing, each character is able to find some peace within the pain, learning and showing us how to live again after loss.


Slamdance with Arielle: Impetus

It’s my pleasure to introduce Arielle, my wife and an eager new contributor who is covering the Slamdance Film Festival in Park City this year, along with a few Sundance selections.

Director Jennifer Alleyn discusses the film

Directed by Jennifer Alleyn
Narrative Features

“Impetus” tells the story of loss, grief, and continued life through varied stories of resilience. Though intended as a fictional film, director Jennifer Alleyn describes it as a hybrid film where “life just sort of burst into it.” She felt that this film was made up of many little miracles. “Everyone on board had hit a wall in their lives,” and was able to work through their despair or frustration by being part of this project. The original actor cast in the fictional movie became so busy throughout the process that it was impossible to complete the filming, so the director returned to the original idea of having a female protagonist, one who happened to be a good friend of hers, and found herself with a finished product unlike anything she could have imagined.

As a Jewish critic, I was intrigued by the two Jewish references made in the film – one shot of Hasidic Jews in a restaurant, and the other a mention of the actor playing a Jew in a film. Alleyn said that she is totally fascinated by the Jewish faith and culture, and the ways that its influence in New York can be omnipresent, but also inaccessible. In fact, the original script included a conversation between the protagonist and a rabbi on a Hasidic bus, but that scene never ended up being filmed.

From maintaining a level of distraction by keeping busy, to feeling completely serene, I really appreciated the ways in which this film honored the varied stories of human resilience and coping, and the day-to-day movement between them. However, by the end of the film, it seemed that those involved with creating the film gained more from their experiences than I had from watching it.


Monday, February 4, 2019

Sundance with Arielle: Untouchable

It’s my pleasure to introduce Arielle, my wife and an eager new contributor who is covering the Slamdance Film Festival in Park City this year, along with a few Sundance selections.

Directed by Ursula Macfarlane
Documentary Premieres

“Untouchable,” the documentary film about film mogul and alleged sexual molester, Harvey Weinstein, was disturbing and disheartening, making it all the more necessary and relevant. The film tells the story of Weinstein’s rise to notoriety and the presence he had when he got there, with former colleagues, employees, and clients voicing the concerns they had along the way. A tyrant who took what he wanted when he wanted it, Weinstein threatened to destroy careers if someone refused to do what he asked, no matter how inappropriate or repulsive.

The brave men and women who spoke out in this film, and the dozens who came forward off-camera, should be praised for outing a man who behaved in abominable ways. Many of them shared that they did not speak up sooner because they were afraid of Weinstein, his physical size and power, and the enormous sphere of influence he had in Hollywood. What puzzled me, however, was that there were individuals in the film who expressed being in uncomfortable situations with Weinstein more than once, and while I would never say that any of those experiences are the fault of the victim, I do wonder how they could make themselves susceptible to him yet again. Perhaps they wanted to give Weinstein the benefit of the doubt; perhaps his charm made them believe he was different the second time around; perhaps they were naïve and hopeful. In any case, I’m grateful they had the courage to come forward and share their experiences so that Weinstein could finally be held accountable for his behavior.

I hope that we as a society can learn from the example Weinstein set for us: when we see a monster in power who abuses their position and the people around them, perhaps we should put ourselves at risk in order to push them from their pedestals to protect the greater good and those who cannot stand up against them.


Slamdance with Arielle: Behind the Bullet

It’s my pleasure to introduce Arielle, my wife and an eager new contributor who is covering the Slamdance Film Festival in Park City this year, along with a few Sundance selections.

Behind the Bullet
Directed by Heidi Yewman
Documentary Features

“Behind the Bullet” offers a new perspective in the conversation about shootings and gun violence, striving to look at the issue from the perspective of the shooter. When I first learned what the film was about, I was shocked, assuming its aim was to offer compassion and empathy for a mass shooting perpetrator. However, after watching the film, it became clear that the purpose of the film was to understand the impact that a shooting – whether accidental or intentional – has on the shooter, and how the incident affects their lives going forward; mass shootings were not even addressed.

The film follows Taylor, Will, Kevin, and Christen, who, aside from the fact that their lives were all drastically changed by pulling the trigger, had very few experiences that connected their lives or stories. Through discussions of protection, murder, suicide, and accident, this film allows the audience to open their minds and hearts to the experiences of other human beings and the tragic events they endure. The film’s director, ­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­Heidi Yewman, graduated from Columbine High School 13 years before the mass shooting there which claimed the life of her basketball coach. At his funeral, “something snapped” and she knew she had to get involved in the fight for gun control. After writing a book about 19 people who were affected by gun violence, she felt like she and others needed to get out of this discourse pattern and away from the political allegiances on the issue. She wanted to bring something new to the conversation that had not been explored in great detail – the perspective of the shooter. It took about three years to film, in large part because Yewman and her crew needed to establish trust with each of the victims in order to ensure they would not be portrayed as evildoers.

After seeing the film, I questioned whether the film could offer glorification for the shooters, the act, or the event’s aftermath, allowing audiences to see that people do move on from the trauma of firing a gun, though their lives may be forever changed. But Yewman’s response opened my eyes and my heart to a level of empathy I had not imagined I would feel for the shooters when she asserted that there are no support groups for these people. There are resources available to individuals who lose a loved one because of gun violence, but there are few, if any, resources allocated to helping the shooters survive after such a life-changing event, likely because the impression we have as a society is that their action was intentional and morally wrong, and we do not need to help them live through it. Or perhaps we do not even think about them; when we speak of survivors, we mean only the victims on the other side of the gun.

Still, I do feel uncomfortable with some of the ways in which the shooters have continued to live their lives. For example, the subjects did not discuss therapy, which I believe should be crucial in coping with their experiences. For some of them, despite the trauma of the shooting, they continue to handle guns and engage in risky behavior. For Taylor in particular, I would have imagined that his parents would have forbidden him from playing with guns or fireworks after the incident he had as a child, and yet, his father expressed pride that he taught his son gun safety. I wonder if they agree with one of his friends that it would be God’s will if he were to get injured or killed, and if so, would faith be enough to carry them through another tragic loss?

The film is definitely a necessary part of the conversation on gun violence that we’re not talking about, and it’s worth seeing and opening our minds to the issue. Try to go in without judgment or bias, and be open to the experiences the film will share with you. It may or may not change your perspective, but it’s certainly worth opening the conversation.


Sundance with Arielle: Moonlight Sonata

It’s my pleasure to introduce Arielle, my wife and an eager new contributor who is covering the Slamdance Film Festival in Park City this year, along with a few Sundance selections.

Moonlight Sonata: Deafness in Three Movements
Directed by Irene Taylor Brodsky
U.S. Documentary Competition

I ran into a couple of friends earlier this week who I had met on the first morning of Sundance, and they told me I had to see “Moonlight Sonata: Deafness in Three Movements.” I had no idea what it was about, but I kept it on my radar and I was so excited there was availability for me to see it. But it was not until the end of the film that I realized how truly fortunate I had been, for this movie was eye-opening, engaging, and authentically touching and vulnerable in all the right ways.

Cast and crew discuss the film

Irene Taylor Brodsky turns the camera on her own family in this film, exploring the intersection of the deaf and hearing worlds through the eyes and ears of her son and parents. As Jonas, Brodsky’s eldest son, learns to play Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, he also learns about himself and the ways in which his deafness enhances and inhibits his life, as well as about his grandparents’ experiences growing up deaf and gaining hearing as adults. With the help of producer Tahria Sheather, this documentary is able to reveal the trials and tribulations that this family encounters from the inside while allowing one of its main characters, the director herself, to be present in the moments in real-time. And the audience is forever indebted to each and every member of the family for opening themselves up on camera and letting us in to some of those deep and vulnerable moments.

Arielle with Irene's parents

Whether you know someone who is deaf or not, you do not want to miss this film. It is moving, funny, and informative, opening the doors to a world few of us experience and even fewer understand. I am forever grateful I was able to experience it, and I know you will be too.


Sundance with Abe: Paradise Hills

I’m thrilled to be attending and covering the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah for the sixth time. I’m seeing as many movies as I can each day and will post reviews of each as I can.

Paradise Hills
Directed by Alice Waddington

It’s difficult to truly change a person. Over the course of their life, they may adapt new viewpoints based on events and experiences, but, unless there is tremendous work matched by a similarly staunch will, truly becoming something else is uncommon. When someone does transform considerably, there’s usually reason for alarm, raising questions about whether the change has come about as a result of outside influences that might be deemed dangerous or oppressive. When fantasy and science fiction elements are involved, it’s even more crucial to analyze why and how it is that someone’s personality has become unrecognizable.

Uma (Emma Roberts) finds herself on an island known as Paradise, unaware of how she has arrived there. She quickly learns that the facility is one that aims to provide emotional healing so that its troubled residents can return home cured of the ailments from which they suffer, which in Uma’s case is an unwillingness to marry the high-powered man who wants her hand. Bonding with her roommates Chloe (Danielle Macdonald), who is overweight, and Yu (Awkwafina), who suffers from panic attacks, Uma joins popular musician Amarna (Eiza González) in trying desperately to escape the confines of this mysterious prison that holds many secrets, all carefully guarded by its sinister headmistress, the Duchess (Milla Jovovich).

It’s hard to peg this film when it begins, featuring its captive women in lavish costumes and given a carefully-proportioned specific meal each night. What exactly is going is not clear, and all that Uma and Amarna know for sure is that things are not at all right. Diving deep into that mystery leads to a somewhat expected surprise revelation about Paradise Hills’ true nature, though the film earns back points for cleverly tying up its threads and using its narrative to its dramatic advantage.

Roberts was probably the right choice to play the lead role here, serving as the typical questioning force who won’t take anything at face value and, unlike everyone else, including Amarna, who plays the game so that she can soon be released, loudly refuses to accept any occurrence as legitimate or acceptable. Macdonald, Awkwafina, and Gonzalez all fill their supporting parts well, while Jovovich, who portrayed a curious figure in a science fiction film two decades ago in “The Fifth Element,” appropriately chews her scenery as directed. This is an odd film that embraces its strangeness, framing a version of a story that’s been told many times before through a new lens, one that mostly impresses.


Sundance with Abe: Imaginary Order

I’m thrilled to be attending and covering the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah for the sixth time. I’m seeing as many movies as I can each day and will post reviews of each as I can.

Imaginary Order
Directed by Debra Eisenstadt
U.S. Dramatic Competition

Midlife crises are common in film, though the circumstances that provoke them can be extremely diverse. A sense that life isn’t going anywhere is usually most prominent in prompting someone to do things that aren’t at all characteristic, and the acceleration of events around them that don’t propel them forward in any way can also contribute. Often, such journeys are sensationalized in film, especially independent dramas, with some truly peculiar decisions from which a person shouldn’t actually be able to come back. That can work on occasion, but in other cases, it’s an illogical mess.

Cathy (Wendi McLendon-Covey) is a stay-at-home mom whose husband Matthew (Steve Little) has little interest in her and whose thirteen-year-old daughter Tara (Kate Alberts) is drifting further away from her every day. While she is cat-sitting for her sister (Catherine Curtin), Cathy meets her eccentric neighbor Gemma Jean (Christine Woods), who introduces her to unexpected activities she hasn’t contemplated in a long time. Losing her grip on normalcy, Cathy gets too comfortable with Gemma Jean’s husband Paul (Graham Sibley) and even begins a friendship that borders on extremely inappropriate with their antisocial son Xander (Max Burkholder).

This is a film that starts out from an interesting point, finding Cathy utterly bored by her life but not yet cognizant that there’s anything she can do about it. Gemma Jean opens her up to a different way of thinking about things, one which is immediately alarming because of the complete lack of consistency and responsibility in her operational manner. Once Cathy starts to realize that she can act however she wants, she begins down a questionable path, one that encounters numerous strange events that are both odd and unconnected.

The notion of this film might have made sense based on a plot summary, but it goes very quickly downhill as Cathy begins to do things outside of her normal mode. McLendon-Covey, who stars on “The Goldbergs,” delivers a decent lead performance, and Woods is wide-eyed and entertaining, but their characters are so broadly written that it’s hard to predict anything that they’re going to do, and not in a good way. This film feels fully out of control, steered by a desire to startle and amuse but so devoid of any coherence or logic that its eventual resolution is utterly unsatisfying. This is a concept gone wrong, one that seems like it might be headed somewhere until it proves that it truly is not.


Sunday, February 3, 2019

Sundance with Abe: To the Stars

I’m thrilled to be attending and covering the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah for the sixth time. I’m seeing as many movies as I can each day and will post reviews of each as I can.

To the Stars
Directed by Martha Stephens
U.S. Dramatic Competition

Feeling like an outsider is not unique to any time period or place. While teenagers are prone to be especially cruel to those they perceive as atypical and different, adults can be just as close-minded and horrible, turning youthful immaturities into full-fledged prejudices that govern their lives. As more identities formerly thought to be distinctly “other” become accepted in the mainstream, this problem may lessen, but it still exists in so many circles and communities in various forms. Years ago, hope of treating someone who didn’t fit into an easy mold with kindness and without judgment was far from likely.

In 1960s rural Oklahoma, Iris Deerborne (Kara Hayward) faces daily harassment from classmates on her walk to work based in part on her appearance and on rumors of her incontinence. When Maggie Richmond (Liana Liberato) moves from the city and shows up to defend Iris, she begins to see a whole new side of herself thanks to her open and enthusiastic energy. As the popular girls try to lure Maggie away from Iris and into their clique, her presence quickly becomes controversial as the real reason for her family’s relocation begins to become clearer and the people of the town demonstrate their true intolerance for anything they don’t see as upholding their Christian family values.

This film is director Martha Stephen’s Sundance follow-up to “Land Ho,” this reviewer’s favorite film from the 2014 festival and the year as a whole. This black-and-white drama, while laced with comedy, doesn’t resemble her previous film at all, moving away from, as Stephens put, two horny old men to two young teenagers trying to find their place within a society that isn’t prepared to accept them for who they are. Maggie’s physical appearance makes her an easier fit, though her reluctance to distance herself from Iris while still playing the game makes her an enigma who is not destined to fully thrive in a close-minded town far too small for her.

Both Hayward and Liberato turn in strong performances as the lead characters, and they’re offered considerable support from the adults in the film, including Jordana Spiro as Iris’ miserable mother, Tony Hale in an unexpectedly dramatic turn as Maggie’s controlling father, and Adelaide Clemens as a hairdresser who feels just as out of place as Maggie. This film, which switches gears between entertaining and enlightening as it goes on, offers a compelling and unsettling portrait of life in a conservative town that feels relevant and haunting.


Sundance with Abe: Big Time Adolescence

I’m thrilled to be attending and covering the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah for the sixth time. I’m seeing as many movies as I can each day and will post reviews of each as I can.

Big Time Adolescence
Directed by Jason Orley
U.S. Dramatic Competition

Some people just don’t want to grow up. Those with supportive and present families may be pushed more to get their acts together and make something of their lives, while those who are mostly alone assess their own progress, which can still lead to success if the motivation to achieve something is there. For those without that drive, it’s easy to reach a moment where time has suddenly flown by and little has changed during it. Recognizing when that is may take the objectivity of an external source, and those who are told they’ve become stagnant may not be at all open to hearing that feedback or doing anything to change it.

Mo (Griffin Gluck) looks up to his older sister’s boyfriend, Zeke (Pete Davidson) as a young kid, and when they break up, he continues his friendship, spending nearly all of his time with the drug-smoking, hard-drinking partier who hasn’t made much of his life. As his father (Jon Cryer) years to spend time with him, Mo continues hanging out with Zeke, even venturing into casual drug dealing at high school parties. Smitten with a girl in his class, Sophie (Oona Laurence), Mo turns to Zeke for advice, as he gradually learns that his best friend may not in fact be the best role model.

A character like Zeke is hardly original, but “Saturday Night Live” player Davidson makes him a hilarious and occasionally endearing figure, one who almost always says and does the wrong thing but expresses such a natural confidence about it that it somehow feels believable and even at times excusable. Opposite him, Gluck has plenty of awkward charm, trying to be cool while mildly recognizing the disparity in his life and potential and that of his best bud. In the supporting cast, Sydney Sweeney, doing a full turn from her performance as a devout follower on “The Handmaid’s Tale,” shines as Zeke’s girlfriend Holly, who likes Zeke but can also see the big picture of what Mo’s future holds.

While drugs and alcohol are consumed freely throughout this film, it’s not accurate to describe it as a stoner comedy. The term “coming of age” feels more appropriate, but mostly it’s a film about friendship, and about how Mo views Zeke, who he says early on never treated him like a kid, with admiration. That does become more problematic as they get older, and Mo starting to realize that is crucial to his own growth. Overall, this film is full of laughs, and any points it may get off for not being wholly innovative it earns back for nailing its characters and making them feel real and rich.


Sundance with Abe: Sonja – The White Swan

I’m thrilled to be attending and covering the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah for the sixth time. I’m seeing as many movies as I can each day and will post reviews of each as I can.

Sonja – The White Swan
Directed by Anne Sewitsky

Hollywood is very much unlike what it used to be, evolved to the point now where screen personalities aren’t defined in the same way. There are prominent actors who take home incredible paychecks for their work, and others who command respect and earn numerous accolades for their standout performances. Back in the early age of the movies, there were big stars whose names and reputations were enough to attract audiences, and whose studio contracts were legendary, until the point where they were no longer seen as bankable or controllable, usually leading to an untimely end to their once-flourishing careers.

Sonja Henie (Ine Marie Wilmann) starts off as an Olympic skating champion, spurred to go into acting when her celebrated abilities bring her to Los Angeles for a performance. Extremely skilled at finding ways to value herself, Sonja launches into an extraordinary and prolific run as an actress, winning over audiences worldwide with her skating and her screen presence. Unable to hide certain aspects of her personal life and not far enough away to forget her past, Sonja begins a descent into loneliness, isolating her from her most ardent fans and putting her entire future in jeopardy.

The character of Sonja, a real-life staple of the late 1930s and early 1940s, is established in great detail as she is seen moving smoothly across the ice and heard making the most irrefutable case for herself, once saving her job and doubling her salary by arguing that she could get Germany to support her film, referencing a friendly meal she had with Goebbels at Hitler’s house. The Norwegian star is a force to be reckoned with, fiercely in control when others are the ones making mistakes but unable to assess her own weaknesses.

Norwegian actress Wilmann, who could easily be mistaken for Kate Hudson, fully engages in the role of Sonja, dazzling on the ice and on screen while revealing a deeper suffering behind closed doors. While her portrayal has merit, little about the film aside from the main character herself makes this biopic feel unique. Director Anne Lewitsky won a Sundance prize back in 2011 for her feature film debut “Happy, Happy,” a completely different and much quieter character piece, one that manages to represent its protagonist in a more poignant way in a far more reserved setting. This film’s visual elements are strong, as are its score and its editing, which splices together much of Sonja’s best moments on screen, but the way that this story is delivered to its audience is not entirely engaging.


Sundance with Abe: Gaza

I’m thrilled to be attending and covering the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah for the sixth time. I’m seeing as many movies as I can each day and will post reviews of each as I can.

Directed by Garry Keane
World Cinema Documentary Competition

It’s almost impossible to go into any film that involves a political situation without being predisposed to expect certain things. Existing knowledge of history and events informs the viewing experience, and can lead to a laser-focused analysis that questions whether each case study or data point truly captures the whole picture. There are few regions with more controversy than the Middle East, and most who are even mildly informed will have an opinion about the role of Israelis and Palestinians in the ongoing conflict. The aim of this documentary seems clear, though the picture it paints is far from complete.

“Gaza” takes audiences into a land inhabited by passionate people with big dreams, though most have not been able to achieve them because of the way their lives are regulated by Israeli occupation. Ahmed, who drives a taxi in Gaza City, gets to talk with the different personalities who gets in his cab, all of whom share a similar sensibility about how they are forced to live. The sea serves as a vision of hope, as it offers beauty and the promise of something beyond and aspirational for a better future.

This film opens with a brief but sparing historical lesson, noting the withdrawal of Israel from settlements in Gaza in 2005, the subsequent democratic election of Hamas to govern the territory, and the blockade imposed on the region by Israel as a result. After that, all frustration and anger is directed at Israel for the control it continues to exert, with barely a mention of the negative and destructive influence that is Hamas. The argument, made by multiple Gazans interviewed, that Israeli response to the throwing of rocks at soldiers is unjust because the rocks weren’t going to hurt them anyway is far from convincing, and that serves as the basis for the call to resistance against Israeli occupation.

Though its portrayal of the way things are between Israel and Gaza may not be accurate, which is problematic enough in itself for those will take this as a factual educational lesson, this film is mostly about the people in Gaza and how they go about their daily lives given the way they perceive things to be. In that sense, it is visually appealing and striking, showcasing the diversity and promise that exists within its boundaries. As a documentary, it’s deeply irresponsible, but its presentation has some artistic merit.