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Oscars 2016: Best Actress

Curse you, Charlotte Rampling (for a number of reasons). All of the women nominated in this category were nominated for films with one-word titles, but you couldn’t just star in “45” could you? I digress, although this may be the best category this year, full of outstanding actresses giving career-best performances. Three first-time nominees are going head-to-head with old Academy favorites, and the talent on display here is impeccable. Even though there may be a blatantly clear winner, like often happens with the Best Actress category, that doesn’t mean she’s out of the woods yet, as much can change in four weeks like we all know too well.

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Best Actress: The Nominees

Cate Blanchett, Carol

Brie Larson, Room – Will Win, Should Win

Jennifer Lawrence, Joy

Charlotte Rampling, 45 Years

Saoirse Ronan, Brooklyn

Power Rankings: Larson-Ronan-Rampling-Blanchett-Lawrence

Brie Larson has this one in the bag, and she deserves it. One of my favorites from last year, Larson is tremendous in Room, exhibiting probably every emotional possible within a two-hour time span. I called this one a long time ago, as Brie Larson was announced to be playing Ma, a pitch-perfect choice for such a brilliant novel. Besides destroying everything in her path at festivals and the guild awards (I managed to catch a glimpse of her at the BFI London Film Festival), the AMPAS adorned the film, and it managed to squeeze into Picture, Director, and Screenplay nominations, earning the big four.

So where does that leave the remaining nominees? Well, one could certainly make a case for the exquisite Saoirse Ronan in Brooklyn, another one of my favorites from 2015. While she may not have that scene like Larson, Rampling, and Lawrence, the young Irish actress has managed to snag a number of trophies, mostly from across the pond. Whatever her prospects, this definitely will not be the only nomination Ronan receives in her lifetime.

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Controversy aside, Charlotte Rampling is devastatingly compelling in Andrew Haigh’s 45 Years, which I finally managed to see over the weekend. She doesn’t have many lines, but when she does she delivers with such complexity. She is able to conjure up emotions from just the look on her face. Although it is a small film, Rampling definitely deserves her place. Unfortunately for Cate Blanchett, being a recent winner for Blue Jasmine in 2014 won’t do her any favors for her title role in Carol. I wasn’t as smitten by her performance as I was for her co-star Rooney Mara, but Blanchett does remarkable work (although when does she not?) Academy favorite Jennifer Lawrence takes the final spot for her role in Joy, the film’s only nomination. Her work with David O. Russell keeps paying dividends, and while she took home the Golden Globe in a traditionally weak category, she doesn’t hold a candle to the other ladies.

As for the snubs, there weren’t too many, as this is the strongest category this year. Many thought veterans Blythe Danner, Helen Mirren, or Maggie Smith would take a spot away from Lawrence, although history has shown the Academy loves to skew younger for this category. Wild card Amy Schumer would’ve been a breath of fresh air for her great work in Trainwreck, but the Academy doesn’t normally go for pure raunch. For my personal nomination, I give Bel Powley for The Diary of a Teenage Girl. The young newbie has years ahead of her, but like Rampling, is able to stir up emotions just by facial expression alone. The film may be too progressive for some voters (see the omission of Carol from the top prize), but Powley shines in the indie treasure, and I hope she takes home the Independent Spirit Award in a few weeks.

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Posted by on February 10, 2016 in 2016 Academy Awards

 

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Best of 2015: Movies

We’re right in the middle of awards season, and things are going to be heating up over the coming weeks as nominations are announced right and left. 2015 was a big year for movies, as we saw record-breaking grosses along with new distribution models and the domination of Walt Disney Studios. I gained a lot of new favorite movies this year, and my list runs the gamut of blockbusters to the art house specialties.

Honorable MentionsThe Walk, Clouds of Sils Maria, The Martian, Sicario, Kingsman: The Secret Service, Bridge of Spies

And now, my Top 10 Movies of 2015:

Carol

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Beautifully told and gorgeously shot, Carol succeeds in all departments. The story of two young women who fall for each other in 1950s New York feels like a relic of time gone by. Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara are convincing lovers, and sell you on their love with minimal dialogue. Sly looks, sensual provocations bring Carol and Therese together, and the film is a perfect representation of what makes people fall in love. Todd Haynes’s has such respect and admiration for his protagonists, and he extends that care to the filmmaking, with breathtaking cinematography and costume design.

The Big Short

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The Big Short, like Steve Jobs, is a riveting drama with its own rhythm. Adam McKay’s film gives you a behind-the-curtain look at what caused the housing collapse of 2008, and if this sounds like a bore, trust me, it’s anything but. The accessible approach makes it an appropriate film for any adult looking to learn some economics but also what caused them to lose their job. It’s a film that will make you mad but also intrigue you. The Big Short‘s ensemble of characters gives you a new perspective on the national economy.

Trainwreck

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Judd Apatow’s protagonists are always stunted in emotional growth, and what makes Trainwreck so invigorating is Amy’s transformation over the course of the two-hour film. She goes from carefree serial dater to mature professional 21st century woman, but her journey never feels like an “A to B.” Her speed bumps along the way harden her emotionally, and you’ll lust for her new relationship with Aaron to go well for her own sake. The film never makes judgments about behavior, as every character in Amy’s life has flaws of their own. Amy Schumer’s star vehicle is more than a great case for her leading lady status, it’s a complex yet straightforward raunchy comedy with an unforgiving cast of characters and sharp writing.

Love & Mercy

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Music biopics are a dime a dozen, but the best ones are the ones that truly understand their subject. Comparing it to Straight Outta Compton might seem presumptuous, but both these films are creative endeavors that reflect the artists’ music as an extension of the artist themselves. Bill Pohlad’s Love & Mercy, however, is unique in its take on Beach Boys’ frontman Brian Wilson’s life, as it tells a parallel narrative of Wilson’s life in the 1960s and his life in the 1980s. The two different actors show Wilson’s transformation from troubled creative to patient zero but never feel disconnected from the overall narrative. Gorgeously directed music recording sequences are contrasted with the somber reflective second half of Wilson’s life, and the links between the two are never ostentatious, always accessible.

Spotlight

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Spotlight is unbelievable. Tough subject matter aside, this is a thrilling film, back when journalism would be described as “hard-hitting.” The ensemble is remarkable, and seeing them grapple with the personal and professional stress of the story is made riveting thanks to director Tom McCarthy’s emotionally rich script. It’s a film about deception and scandal, but also one about truth and justice, as the Spotlight team knows the stakes behind this story are sky-high. Coupled with great production design and more than a few standout sequences, Spotlight joins the ranks of Zero Dark Thirty and the podcast Serial as the best modern-day journalistic endeavors.

Mistress America

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Screwball at its finest, Noah Baumbach’s second film of 2015 is one of his greatest, and marks his collaborations with Greta Gerwig as one of the finest in the indie business. There are a lot of films and programs about millennials in New York City, and Mistress America‘s take on a young college girl who bonds with her soon-to-be sister is simply a delight. There’s shades of Woody Allen here as the city comes to life as a supporting character, but the friendship between Tracy and Brooke is the real heart and soul, and gives the film a personality of its own. It’s the kind of film that you put in on a rainy afternoon, as it sucks you into their world and makes you feel not like an observer of the hijinks, but a real participator.

Brooklyn

Saoirse Ronan in Brooklyn

On the surface, there may not be anything immediately fascinating about the movie Brooklyn. The story is not the most complex one, and it may look like a typical immigrant tale if you’re just window shopping. But Brooklyn’s simplicity is what makes it stand out, and it was refreshing to see a movie so classically told, one that won’t make you scream or shout, but rather one you’ll be admiring for years to come. Saoirse Ronan sells you on Eilis’s experience, as she’s torn between her new home in New York and her old one in Ireland. The elegant simplicity of the filmmaking and writing allows Brooklyn to focus on other things, and the result is a new classic, one that will never feel old or dated.

Room

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I was possibly the biggest emotional wreck in the theater after the movie Room. Based on the novel of the same name by Emma Donoghue, and brought to the screen by director Lenny Abrahamson, Room has such a marvelous first act that you might wonder if the film can keep up the pace for the remainder of the film. Told beautifully and made with the tender touch of a mother, Room makes such a convincing bond between Ma and Jack. You’ll grow frustrated with them but also yearn for their release, and both Brie Larson and young actor Jacob Tremblay tap into these fictional characters and make them feel “ripped from the headlines” real.

Steve Jobs

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Steve Jobs is electric filmmaking. The film retains such a rhythm throughout its entire run, and it makes the experience feel like you’re watching history being made, which you kind of are. Michael Fassbender gives the best performance of his career as the enigmatic Jobs, and Danny Boyle’s film allows him to explore new angles of Jobs that we may not have previously known. The brilliant three-act structure gives a Shakespearian atmosphere to the whole affair, and Boyle and writer Aaron Sorkin never let the film lose momentum. Boasting brilliant direction and some great supporting turns from Kate Winslet and Jeff Daniels, Steve Jobs is unlike any other film you’ll see this year.

Inside Out

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Many (including this writer) thought that Pixar’s glory days were behind them, yet Inside Out is the studio’s best film to date. It’s worth repeating that Inside Out is a creative masterpiece, overflowing with ingenuity and attention to detail, with accomplished voice actors and a beautiful score. But then again, so are all of Pixar’s films. What makes Inside Out so special is that it may be the first animated film truly made for adults and children. Yeah, there are jokes that range from slapstick to witty quips, but the emotional mileage that Inside Out gets out of its protagonist Riley is simply unprecedented. You’ll think of your own adolescence as Riley struggles with hers, you’ll relate to Joy and Sadness and their adventure through Riley’s head, you’ll laugh and cry along with Riley’s parents as they adjust to a new home. What Inside Out does is make these experiences universal, while allowing the viewer to make it personal. All of this is coated with the signature Disney-Pixar polish that we’ve known and loved, and you’ve got a new classic for the ages.

 
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Posted by on January 4, 2016 in Other

 

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Joy

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Loosely based on the life of entrepreneur Joy Mangano, David O. Russell’s Joy is a bit of a mess on the surface. It has such great ideas centered around a riveting main character, yet getting there is a bit sloppy. While the performances are riveting like always – we’d expect no less from Russell – the plot suffers from an over reliance on exposition. The result is a mixed bag of underdeveloped and overdeveloped emotions, but it’s nothing the Miracle Mop can’t clean up.

The structure of the film is as unorthodoxly ‘biopic’ as they come. While the film is technically based on the life of a real woman, the film is dedicated to the ‘true stories of daring women,’ Joy herself is an amalgamation of the creative spirit women like her possess. She’s a thinker, a dreamer, and the film makes that known to us since the beginning. The exposition and narration from Joy’s grandmother Mimi (Diane Ladd) helps ease us into her world and introduces us to her unpredictable family. But this is a misstep from Russell, breaking the “show, don’t tell” rule. It works in some ways, as Joy and Mimi are the only normal members of the clan, adding a unique perspective to the mix, but at other time it’s an overbearing device that doesn’t treat its audience like adults.

The beginning of Joy gets us acquainted with Joy and her family, including her two children, father Rudy (Robert DeNiro), mother Terry (Virginia Madsen), and sister Peggy (Elisabeth Rohm). They’re an interesting bunch, Russell is no stranger to these kinds of family dynamics, and the characters work well as foils for Joy. Joy’s a doer, always thinking and making things with her hands, but her dreams have been sidelined by her family. Her father Rudy’s new girlfriend Trudy, the effervescent Isabella Rossellini, helps Joy get her invention off the ground, and from here the film begins to gain traction.

Joy isn’t known as the “Miracle Mop” movie, as it’s neither a biopic nor a prestige drama. Joy’s invention is groundbreaking, to be sure, but the film isn’t interested in exploring angles related to product development or business strategy. It’s Joy’s film at its core – the supporting characters are mostly background noise – and the film gets most of its emotional mileage from the decisions she makes towards making her dream a reality at her personal and professional expense.

The film’s highlights take place at QVC, when Joy takes her product to executive Neil Walker (Bradley Cooper) and pitches it to the station. It’s here where the film really delivers, both thematically and creatively. The beautifully shot scenes of Joy presenting at QVC put Lawrence to the test, as she must lay it all on the line in such a vulnerable situation. She goes through an array of emotions so complex in this short time that it cements the Lawrence-Russell partnerships as one of the best in the business. The colors of the studio are contrasted with the brights of the kitchen set itself, and it sings.

From here until the finale, Joy settles back into its not-so-interesting role of a murky story about a woman of ideas. Most of the conflict revolves around problems with her manufacturer in Texas, another patent owner of a similar mop, and her family who keeps bailing her out of debt. If Joy had taken more risks thematically and relied less on small random bursts of plot development to keep up the pace, we could have been looking at something special. Joy is still a good film, but it could have been a great one. Inspiring performances (one of Lawrence’s best) and well-developed characters keep the film aloft, and Russell’s direction has never been better, but a murky script holds Joy back from being the hot item this Christmas.

 
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Posted by on December 26, 2015 in Movie Reviews

 

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Casual

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From the mind of Jason Reitman and Zander Lehmann, Casual is the best new show to come out of the fall, and it came to us from none other than Hulu, who has really stepped up in the original programming department. While it might seem coated in the indie dramedy gloss, Casual goes deeper than you might expect, with multifaceted characters that feel like such a tight-knit group by the end of the 10-episode season.

Casual introduces us to Valerie (Michaela Watkins), fresh out of a divorce from her husband Drew (Zak Orth), who moves in with her brother Alex (Tommy Dewey) along with her daughter Laura (Tara Lynne Barr). She’s the principal player in what is mostly a three-person cast. In the prime of her middle-aged years and working as a therapist, Valerie is looking for an escape. Her brother Alex, seems like he might have it figured out, running a semi-successful online dating site, but he’s just as lost as she is. Even the precocious Laura is stuck at a crossroads after developing feelings for her photography teacher (Patrick Heusinger).

So the stage is set for indie shenanigans, and although initially the series might seem to draw from other dysfunctional dramedies such as Transparent or Master of None, but Casual truly belongs in a league of its own. What sets it apart is its quick dialogue and the introspective moments into these characters, all while having something to say about modern romance and the generational divide when it comes to sex and dating.

The series draws excellent development from Valerie’s newfound romantic life, as her desire for casual relationships gets her into some not-so-ideal situations. Meanwhile, while Alex’s virtual life on dating sites might seem the stuff of late-night comedy quips, he might be the one who grows the most. His relationship with Leon (Nyasha Hatendi, the standout), Valerie’s one-night stand, evolves into one of the deepest male friendships this side of Chandler and Joey. When Alex gets more than he bargained for in an open relationship with Emmy (Eliza Coupe), he manages to keep an open mind even when he might not be the most comfortable. The series’s sex-positivity is refreshing, and it’s wonderful to see a series that explores polyamory and casual sex without judgment.

The performances here are excellent, especially from Watkins and Barr. SNL alum Watkins has been previously relegated to supporting roles, but putting her in the spotlight here was a brilliant move. She gives Valerie so many different sides that we see depending on who she is with, and her performance is tremendous. Just look at her moment in the elevator in episode four, it’s Emmy-worthy. Tommy Dewey also grew on me as the series went on. At first childish and overbearing, he brings Alex to life and never keeps him locked in the “man-child” trope for too long.

Casual has an absolutely brilliant string of five episodes in its middle, but it does falter a bit towards the end. The introduction of Alex and Valerie’s divorced parents, played by Frances Conroy and Fred Melamed, is a slight misstep, as their characters only serve to antagonize and put our leads in a bad mood. This isn’t the fault of the performers, and Conroy in particular is great in a Thanksgiving dinner scene, but rather the script which doesn’t give these characters much to do. Alex and Valerie’s father comes across as a villain for the sake of being one, and hopefully we don’t see much of him in the future. The sobering finale is probably the weakest episode, as it quickly rushes to wrap everything up in an awkward confrontation scene. This is fine except that it feels too staged and unnatural, with characters saying what they feel simply to move the plot, an indie trope that the series had previously done so well at repressing.

Apart from the finale, however, Casual is a breath of fresh air for the comedy-drama genre. Examining themes of modern dating and casual sex, the series features a trio of standout performances and cinematography that emphasizes the most tragic but also the most hilarious moments. White colors abound, especially in their modern California abode, and director Reitman along with Max Winkler and Tricia Brock, keep the focus tight on our leads, making what could have been another indie tragicom into a deeper character study.

 

 
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Posted by on December 3, 2015 in TV Reviews

 

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