Category: Best Supporting Actress


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The first “important” book that I ever read was The Autobiography of Malcolm X as told to Alex Haley. I read it in middle school long before I could fully appreciate the complexity of Malcolm X and Alex Haley’s examination of what it meant to be a black man in America in the middle of the 20th century, but even as an adolescent, the power of El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz’s fury and critique of American culture stuck with me in a way that forever changed my life. Although I’m white, I have biracial family members of African-American lineage and, growing up, my family took care of a family of four African-American foster children for many years. And through my immersion in real life to the legacy of institutionalized racism (and the more casual kind that still lingers to this day) as well as my exposure to Malcolm X’s story at such a young age, I was always aware of and sensitive to issues of race in ways that few of my white friends are or ever will be.

Even as a child, I was always astounded by the ways that people in the American South (West Virginia may have technically been part of the North during the Civil War, but we were one of the last states still actively fighting racial integration in the 60s) romanticize antebellum chattel slavery. These are people who have seen Gone With the Wind one too many times, and their idea of slavery are happy Mammy’s and Prissy’s who were glad to serve at their master’s beck and call. Clearly, they never read Roots. It is impossible to read Roots or The Autobiography of Malcolm X and have any romantic feelings towards the factual history of slavery and institutional racism in America. Yet, people do. We can add British director Steve McQueen’s masterful film 12 Years a Slave to the list of must-see works on that dark page of American history.

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The Academy Award winner for Best Picture is easily the darkest and most complex film to win that award since Schindler‘s List although for my money 12 Years a Slave is an entirely different class of filmmaking, and it is easily one of the finest films of this decade so far. In fact, 12 Years a Slave has such a richly faceted point to make about morality and ethics that I’m unsure if the Academy actually understood the subtext of the film because films this fatalistic and cynical don’t generally win Academy Awards. As an examination of the way that society is capable of normalizing cruelty and how the institutionalization of cruelty against marginalized groups robs even victims of their ability to empathize with other sufferers as they simply try to avoid more victimization themselves, 12 Years a Slave is a masterful philosophical treatise at a Bergman level.

12 Years a Slave is the true story of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black man living in New York in the 1840s, making a living as a violinist with his wife and two children. Solomon accepts an offer from two men in a traveling circus to play his violin as part of their show, but when they reach Washington, D.C., they drug Solomon and sell him to slave traders. And it isn’t long before Solomon, who was born free and had never been a slave his entire life, is sold to a string of masters in the American South and is exposed to the cruelty and barbarity of antebellum slavery firsthand.

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Upon being kidnapped and sold into slavery, Solomon’s name is changed to Platt, and he is beaten several times within an inch of his life as he protests his new appellation. Solomon must also hide the fact that he can read and write from his new masters because a slave that could read was considered the most dangerous type, even more than runaways. And although Solomon is initially sold to a relatively decent master, Ford (Star Trek Into Darkness‘s Benedict Cumberbatch), it isn’t long before a fight with a cruel overseer results in Solomon’s sale to a brutal and barbaric rapist and sadist, Edwin Epps (X-Men: First Class‘s Michael Fassbender) where he will spend many long years, a witness to not only his own suffering but also that of Patsey (Oscar-winner Lupita Nyong’o), Edwin’s favorite slavegirl that he rapes and abuses at a whim.

The obvious “text” of 12 Years a Slave is that slavery was a barbaric, unfathomably cruel system that no civilized nation can ever explain away. The text is likely what 12 Years a Slave won its Academy Award for, and Steve McQueen captures the barbarism in no uncertain terms. Slave women are raped repeatedly. Solomon and Patsey are both beaten towards the point of death, and we are given graphic looks at their backs where the flesh has literally been ripped from the bone. Mothers and children are ripped apart and when the mothers cry, they are beaten for their tears. McQueen ensures that there is no way to sit through this film and think that slavery was anything other than the evil system of exploitation and cruelty that it was.

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But, what makes 12 Years a Slave the masterpiece it is (and easily the greatest Best Picture winner in over a decade) are the nearly countless levels of subtext in the film. There’s a moment somewhat early in the film where Solomon has nearly been lynched by a foreman of the first plantation he worked on, and although the plantation overseer stops the lynching, he leaves Solomon hanging from the tree for hours to make a point. And in a magnificent long take, you start to see other slaves leaving their dwellings and return to their daily routine. Almost none of them so much as look at Solomon (one kind soul gives him water) and slave children play in the background eventually. It shows how in the world of slaves where you can be beaten or killed for one stray look, no one sticks their neck out for one another. You simply try to survive, and because of that, the film resists the temptation to even romanticize the suffering of the slaves by trying to make them too heroic or noble.

On the other level, even the kindest whites (with one major exception) are only able to extend mercy or understanding to slaves to a certain point before it begins to inconvenience them. At that point, they simply revert to believing that the blacks aren’t real people and that they can’t risk themselves to help them. Ford is kinder to Solomon than any of his other owners, but when Solomon tries to tell Ford that he is truly a free man, Ford refuses to hear any of it and sells him to Edwin Epps even though it’s clear that Ford believes Solomon on some level. And a friendly plantation neighbor to Epps allows Solomon to keep his wages for playing his violin, but he still utilizes Solomon for slave labour in the cotton fields. And, one seemingly friendly white quickly sells Solomon out because he thinks it will make him a quick buck.

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But, the kicker to the film’s themes of how systematic repression and cruelty robs victims of their ability to empathize with one another is a scene with actress Alfre Woodward (Primal Fear) as a former slave who was freed when she married her master (the same man who allowed Solomon to keep his earnings for a violin performance). She has been a slave. She was in the same position that Patsey was in. But, now, she lives in the comfort that is provided to her on the back of the forced labour of her former people. She gives a small speech at the end about the karmic judgment waiting men like her husband, but she seems totally unaware of the hypocrisy of her own position. And it’s because her suffering has created a mindset of “at least, I’ve managed to escape the lash for now.”

It also doesn’t hurt 12 Years a Slave‘s case that it has one of the finest ensemble casts in years. Chiwetel Ejiofor gives one of the best leading man performances of last year (in a year overflowing with superb performances) by playing Solomon’s suffering as realistically and with as little melodrama as possible. Solomon is human, and even he becomes tone deaf to the suffering of those around him on occasion, and by simply making him a man (rather than a symbol for all of slave’s suffering), Ejiofor and McQueen turn him into one of the most well-crafted characters of the 2010s.

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Although I’ve yet to see any of the other Best Supporting Actress performances besides Julia Robert’s in August: Osage County (she’s great in that film, but the movie is terrible and also Roberts was the leading lady), I can’t imagine I’ll be at all upset about Lupita Nyong’o’s Oscar win. Although she spends much of her early moments on screen not actually speaking, Nyong’o’s role eventually blossoms into an example of the suffering slave women (particularly beuatiful slave women) faced at the hands of male master’s who saw them not as people but purely as tools for giving them pleasure. And, one of the most memorable scenes of the film’s involves Patsey begging Solomon to kill her and put her out of her misery and his refusal to do so because he knows how much trouble it would be for him if Epps found out.

Michael Fassbender got a well-deserved Academy Award nomination as well (I have trouble believing that Jared Leto was ever better than him in anything but I haven’t seen Dallas Buyer’s Club yet so I can’t judge) as the bordering on psychopathic Edwin Epps. Fassbender makes it clear how brutal and sadistic Epps can be, and his actions in the film are monstrous, but Fassbender never turns Epps into a total monster, and that’s the beauty of his performance. Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Giamatti, Garrett Dillahunt, Paul Dano, Brad Pitt, and Sarah Paulson also all shine in smaller roles.

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After a quick scan of the last 20 odd years of Best Picture winners, there seems to be little question that 12 Years a Slave is the best winner of that award since Unforgiven. Although I’ve enjoyed every Best Picture winner of the 2010s, I haven’t thought any of them were remotely Best Picture worthy, and it is beyond refreshing to see a film of this magnificent a caliber finally being rewarded with the highest honor in the film industry. I still have to see most of the other Best Picture winners (the only others I’ve seen so far are Captain Phillips and The Wolf of Wall Street), but 12 Years a Slave has set not only a high bar for them to clear but also any other prestige films to come out the rest of this decade. It is a must-see film event for all who love the fine art of film.

Final Score: A+

 

 

 

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Occasionally, I will watch a large-budget, Hollywood blockbuster that is such an unmitigated failure that I have to wonder how anyone, anywhere possibly thought this was a good idea. These are films that are an appalling mish-mash of over-acting, over-directing, absurd bombast, and melodramatic emoting. And it’s been a long time since I’ve watched a major Hollywood feature (let alone a Best Picture nominee) that was as much of a train-wreck as 2012′s film adaptation of the longest running stage musical of all time, Les Miserables. With a few shining rays of competence to make it even passably bearable, Les Miserables can be politely termed “catastrophic.”

Director Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech) should have his Best Director Academy Award retroactively revoked for this pompous, unfocused, absurd drivel. Not that he should have won in 2010 (that was clearly either Darren Aranofsky or David Fincher‘s year), but his Les Miserables is such an excruciatingly unwatchable mess that one has to wonder if this was even the same man. In fact, were it not for Tom Hooper’s love of the close-up (which he abuses beyond belief in this film, but more on that shortly), I would find it impossible to believe it was the same man. As a life-long lover of musical theater, Les Miserables was one of the most painful cinematic experiences of my adult life.

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For those unfamiliar with the Broadway musical or Victor Hugo’s excellent source novel, the plot of Les Miserables is almost like something out of Shakespeare (except where characters are even more unbearably archetypal). After serving a 19 year prison sentence for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his sister’s starving son, Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) is released from prison but his status as an ex-con makes him unemployable in Revolutionary France. After stealing silver from a church, the bishop (the original West End Jean Valjean) refuses to press charges against Jean Valjean and gives him the silver with the charge to turn his life around. And though Valjean keeps his word, that freedom comes with a price.

Jean Valjean breaks his parole and opens a factory though he spends the next eight years on the run from honorable but imperious Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe). After one of Valjean’s workers, the beautiful Fantine (Rachel Getting Married‘s Anne Hathaway), is fired by the foreman for having a child she’s kept secret, Fantine is forced into prostitution and destitution and it is only Valjean’s generosity that keeps her child from starving and dying alone. However, by showing Fantine kindness, Valjean awakens the suspicions of Inspector Javert and though Valjean plans on given Fantine’s daughter Corsette (played as a grown-up by Amanda Seyfried) a better life, he must do it knowing that Javert will hunt him for the rest of his life as the backdrop of the French Revolution takes hold.

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I’ll at least by kind enough to this disastrous film to assure you that there are, in fact, occasional bright spots to this otherwise unending torture. Anne Hathaway is only on screen for about 15 minutes, but her rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream” works very well even though her voice isn’t powerful enough for that iconic number. On one of the few occasions that the film’s over-use of close-ups works for its intended purposes, the song lets Hathaway show off some really impressive facial expressions and she nails the emotional subtext of the number. While I still think Sally Field did a better job in Lincoln, I can at least see why the Academy decided to give the award to Hathaway.

Sacha Baron Cohen (Hugo) and Helena Bonham Carter (Conversations With Other Women) brought some much needed levity to the film as the two inkeepers who “care” for Corsette and the performance of “Master of the House” was one of my two favorite numbers from the film (of only about three that I even enjoyed). However, the truest joy of the film was Samantha Barks turn as Eponine. It was one of the only unadulterated delights of the picture. Maybe because Eponine is the most compelling character in the musical, “On My Own” is the best song, and Samantha Barks played her in the West End production, but every too short moment that Eponine on the screen reminded me why I loved musicals and why Les Miserables failed to meet the standards of say Chicago or Sweeney Todd.

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But for those small blessings, you had to suffer through three hours of ineptitude. Even an established Broadway star like Hugh Jackman (who won a Tony for his fierce portrayal of Peter Allen in The Boy From Oz) was excruciatingly miscast as Jean Valjean. Jackman’s voice is simply too nasal for the part and it made him sound sharp on all of Jean Valjean’s high notes. Russell Crowe can not sing. That is just a scientific fact, and to quote a friend, “I think it was his singing that caused the French revolution.” Rex Harrison made it work as Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady even though he couldn’t sing. Not even the kindest critique could say the same thing about Russell Crowe.

And, to watch Tom Hooper reduce one of the most beloved Broadway musicals of all time to essentially a three hour long music video was so frustrating. I say that because of the hectic, spastic directing and editing (not just because there is no spoken dialogue in the film. It’s all sung) which is frenetic without being meaningful. The only times Hooper lets the camera stay still for more than a couple seconds is during some of the more emotional musical numbers which are done in long takes, but he so overdoes the long close-up that it just becomes as gimmicky as the rest of the visual aesthetic of the film.

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Understanding that Les Miserables is a brutal and dark tale of fatalism, eternal suffering, tuberculosis, poverty, and the price of redemption, I know that Les Miserables will not be as fun or campy as most of the musicals I actually enjoy. But, the film never earns the emotional core it so desperately seeks and becomes a soulless shell of the epic tale it wishes to present. It also doesn’t help that the narrative structure of having everyone sing all of the lines adds a certain amount of “narm” to the proceedings. Because people singing about poverty and love and the French Revolution is impossible to always take seriously (especially when paired with Hooper’s catastrophic directing).

I don’t know who I can tell to watch this movie. If you’re a fan of the stage show, maybe you’ll like it. I have to question your sanity, but maybe you’d enjoy it. I disliked this movie so much that I almost have trouble believing I could even enjoy a full Broadway production of Les Miserables, and as I’ve said, I’m a lifelong fan of live musical theatre. What I will ultimately remember about Les Miserables is that it may come to define to me a film that is simply an avalanche of bad decisions and incompetence all rolled into one massive blockbuster clufsterf***. Leave this alone and just rewatch Chicago for the millionth time instead.

Final Score: C-

With 1965′s Repulsion, Roman Polanski proved himself to be the master of psycho-sexual horror. While the film took a while to get off it’s feet (apparently a trademark of Polanski pictures), few films have left me feeling so completely disturbed. With the unsettling subversions of Freudian sexual iconography (let’s not get into the hand’s extending from the walls) as well perversions of Catholic imagery, Repulsion transcended Catherine Deneuve’s stilted acting to scare the holy hell out of generations of viewers. Polanksi’s 1968 classic, Rosemary’s Baby, is far more well-known although ultimately less satisfying. It can be genuinely eerie and Polanski’s stylistic direction is as memorable as ever. But even more so than the tepidly paced Repulsion, Rosemary’s Baby tests the patience of its viewers and Mia Farrow’s performance is underwhelming to say the least.

At a conceptual level, Rosemary’s Baby could have even eclipsed the psychological mind-games of Repulsion. It was only in the actual execution where it really faltered. Struggling actor Guy Woodhouse (John Cassavetes) and his stay at home wife Rosemary (Radio Days‘ Mia Farrow) have just rented a room in a fancy apartment with a dark and storied past in the Upper West Side of Manhattan. They have two neighbors on their floor, the kindly but eccentric Castavets, Minnie (Ruth Gordon) and Roman (Sidney Blackmer). Guy and Rosemary want to have a baby, and after Rosemary has a nightmare where she’s raped by a demon as naked occultists (including her husband and the Castavets) watch. Shortly thereafter, Rosemary finds out she’s pregnant and slowly comes to the conclusion that her husband and neighbors are conspiring to hurt her and her baby. Is it real or is it all in her head?

One can applaud Polanski’s attempt to delay the introduction of any of the horror or thriller elements to the story if it meant he had spent the beginning of the film developing the characters in a meaningful way. That isn’t what happens. Although the film makes liberal use of foreshadowing (Rosemary’s old landlord detailing the history of their new apartment building, eerie chanting at night, the sudden suicide of a younger neighbor), the film makes you wait for any real plot development. And that time isn’t spent making us sympathize or understand Rosemary and Guy. Though it’s obvious Guy is a bit flippant and sarcastic, all you really learn about Rosemary throughout the entire film is that she’s willing to go to extreme lengths to take care of her unborn child. Compared to Polanski heroines like Tess of the D’Urbervilles, she is as one-dimensional as you can imagine.

However, from the second that Tess has her nightmare involving her rape by Satan, you realize you’re still in the world of Roman Polanski (pre-the murder of his wife by Charles Manson). During Rosemary’s multiple dream sequences (the film has Rosemary dream multiple times so that you are never really sure whether her nightmare was real or a dream), the film gains a surreal, Lynchian quality (though I suppose, since Polanski came first, it’s insulting to compare him to Lynch) that breaks the monotony of much of the rest of the film. Whether it’s a sudden stylistic shift where the film looks like it was shot on home video, or using hand-held cameras (Polanski was highly influenced by the French New Wave), Polanski infects the viewers with the same unease and paranoia that’s gripping the young and increasingly unhinged Rosemary.

Mia Farrow comes off (similar to Ingrid Bergman in For Whom the Bell Tolls) as slightly touched in the head and not quite in the way the role calls for. With her high-pitched voice, affected manner of speech, and general obliviousness to the world around her, you sometimes wonder if she’s a little disabled mentally. Although you innately sympathize with Rosemary’s situation (her doctor ignores her severe pregnancy pains, her husbands claims that the night of her demon nightmare he had sex with her while she was asleep), her performance alienates you because she seems so detached from the situation happening around her. It’s almost as if Mia Farrow doesn’t realize the severity of what’s going on in Rosemary’s world as her two modes are passive obliviousness or campish over-acting. She never finds a balance between the two.

Thankfully, the rest of the supporting performances are top-notch. Ruth Gordon excels as the nosy, talkative, and flamboyant Minnie Castevet. When she whirls into a scene, you may not catch every word out of her motor mouth, but you’ll certainly know she’s acting circles around everyone else in the scene. I’ve heard some call her performance “hammy” but it’s what the role called for. I haven’t seen any of the other nominees but Ruth Gordon’s Oscar seems well-deserved. John Cassavetes is a proto-Don Draper (with an even darker side) as the glib and narcissistic Guy. Sidney Blackmer also nails the difficult part of simultaneously being a kindly grandfather figure as well as an ominous, foreboding menace. The interplay between the three lead supporting stars is wonderful and nearly makes up for the non-presence of the actual star.

The film’s decision to wait until the very last scene to reveal whether Rosemary was crazy or actually at the center of a Satanic conspiracy was well-played (and assuages the primary complaint I have with The Exorcist). Although I would have certainly preferred the film to come down on the other side of conclusion it followed through on, the film’s last twist at least made the ending more bearable. While the film gives Rosemary plenty of evidence that she’s part of some plot, most of it sounds like crazy conspiracy theory talk if you look at it too deeply. Polanski gives you ample reason to believe that perhaps Rosemary is just got a few screws loose (and with Mia Farrow’s addled performance, it’s easy to believe it). Although the film can get a little too heavy-handed with its occult symbolism (666 makes numerous appearances), the film will leave you torn as to what’s real and what’s imaginary.

For classic horror fans, Rosemary’s Baby‘s place in the established canon makes it required viewing. It’s fans often see an undercurrent of feminist commentary (which would be in line with Polanski’s body of work) on the isolation and mistreatment of modern women, but I didn’t really catch that. I can see why people believe it’s there, but I don’t necessarily buy that was Polanski’s plan all along. At the end of the day, Rosemary’s Baby is a psychological thriller with enough truly inspired moments to warrant recommendation but at the same time, it is burdened by enough troublesome flaws that it doesn’t come whole-heartedly.

Final Score: B-

 

I’m not an Ernest Hemingway fan. He’s one of America’s most beloved authors. I’m not trying to take that away from him. Also, I would never call his masculinity into question (though the almost absurdly macho nature of all of his heroes makes me question if he has a sexual fixation on the idealized man); he fought in WW 1, wrestled lions (how the fuck is that true?!), and covered other military conflicts as a journalist including WW II and the Spanish Civil War (the latter serving as the inspiration for the novel that the film I’m reviewing was based on). Still, his spartan prose (i.e. minimalistic not Spartan in the Greek sense) and ridiculously idealized heroes and their representation of what a “man” should be have always turned me off to his novels. They’re just far too romantic (in the strange sense of the word that I’m using in reference to Hemingway and idealism). The Old Man and the Sea as well as A Farewell to Arms were two of the most miserable reads of my entire life. I don’t understand why he’s captured the imagination of generations of American readers. Well, I do understand. It’s his mild intellectualism combined with his machismo. It’s an unattainable fantasy for many American intellectual men who wish we could be as manly and poetic as Hemingway and his characters. I don’t buy the escapist fantasy. I just watched the film version of For Whom the Bell Tolls and in addition to needing a good hour of material cut from the film, it’s obvious that the source material is completely flawed and the romance at the heart of the tale is one of the weakest love stories in a so-called serious picture that I’ve seen in ages.

American expatriate Robert Jordan (High Noon‘s Gary Cooper) is a member of the Spanish resistance during the Spanish Civil War in 1937. After successfully bombing a train, he’s assigned to the likely suicide mission of blowing up an important bridge on the eve of a Republican assault against Nationalist forces. With the help of his elderly guide Anselmo, a peace-loving man who has taken up the gun with great reservation, Robert arrives at the camp of Republican forces who are almost nothing better than bandits. Nominally led by the cowardly Pablo (Akim Tamiroff), though actually led by his more charismatic and courageous wife Pilar (Oscar winner Katina Paxinou), the soldiers are a ragtag group of horse thieves hiding out in the mountains to commit the occasional raid against the Nationalist forces. Although Pablo doesn’t want to get his men involved in this obvious suicide mission, Pilar rallies the morale of the men and gets them to follow Robert’s (and the Republican army’s) orders. Still, when a freak May snow storm ruins their ability to acquire enough horses for everyone to make a clean escape after the bridge is blown, the specter of death looms over everyone and everything, including the fledgling romance between Robert and a local girl who’s joined the resistance (Casablanca‘s Ingrid Bergman).

This movie’s a mess in so many different departments that I don’t really know where to begin. First off, the acting is almost uniformly over-wrought. Gary Cooper is the only exception to that rule but he was so stoically masculine and reserved that there was little room for me to believe him as a man with enough charm to lead a group of distrustful foreigners fighting their own Civil War. If his goal was to represent the Hemingway ideal, then he succeeded (which to be fair, likely was his goal). If his goal was to have a complex and nuanced performance, he failed. Ingrid Bergman… Jesus. This movie might have ruined Casablanca a little bit for me. Was Maria supposed to be slow or suffering from some sort of mental deficiency? Because that’s the gist I got from her. She is obviously a grown woman but she acted like a small child (except when she was willing to kill people or to kill herself/Robert in case they were captured). Bergman played her as far too much of an innocent especially considering all of the terrible things that happened to her before the film began (like seeing her father and mother murdered by Nationalist soldiers and then being raped by said soldiers). I don’t even want to talk about her inability to mask her natural Swedish accent as she tried to adopt a Spanish accent. Akim Tamiroff was also a bit of a ham in the role of Pablo which is a shame because Pablo seems to be the only sharply realized character in the whole film. His moral ambiguities and cowardice were the most intriguing parts of the script. I’m not really sure why Katina Paxinou won an Oscar. There wasn’t really anything awful about her performance (though she emoted quite a bit), but there was nothing stellar either.

The film runs for nearly three hours but I felt like a good hour (if not more) of material could have been excised. I actually fell asleep forty minutes through the first time I tried to watch it, and before the first intermission (oh yeah, the movie has an intermission, Gone With the Wind style), I must have asked out loud “Does anything ever happen in this film” like twenty times. I enjoy slower, deliberately paced films. Synecdoche, New York could be incredibly slow at times but I gave it my rare score of “A+“. There just wasn’t anything happening in this film. It was a lot of talking without anyone saying anything interesting, and the characters were as broadly drawn as humanly possible. What do I know about why Robert Jordan was willing to risk his life in Spain to fight for foreigners? What do I know about why Maria seemed to fall in love with Robert so quickly? Why did Pablo go from a heroic leader of the revolution to a coward? I don’t have a definitive (or even partial) answer to any of these questions. The film picked up in the second half but that was because of the abundance of action sequences which at least helped to hammer home the film’s message which is that war is Hell and at times fruitless. Unfortunately, even those moments were bagged down by the romance between Maria and Robert which has to be the least believable screen romance I’ve seen in ages. Gary Cooper and Ingrid Bergman had absolutely zero chemistry together.

I’ve started a bit of flame war on Facebook with people who usually agree with me 95% of the times on film, literature, and music because of my dislike for Hemingway, so I understand just how much in the minority I am in this department. And honestly, maybe the book could be good. There were aspects of the story that seemed really interesting, but they obviously didn’t translate to the big screen well, and the film’s director obviously didn’t know the first thing about editing. If there’s one good thing I can say about the film, it’s that it had wonderful color cinematography for the time (when color was still sort of a novelty). For Hemingway, Gary Cooper, and Ingrid Bergman fans, I can recommend the movie. I love Gary Cooper even if this wasn’t his best role, and it was very surreal seeing him in color instead of black and white (same with Ingrid Bergman). Still, this film reinforces my belief that Hemingway is incredibly over-rated, and I hope that it’s a while before any other films based on his novels crop up on this list. I didn’t see any on my current Netflix queue so that’s as good a sign as any.

Final Score: C

Well, it’s that time of year again. The Oscar nominations came out a week or so ago, and much like last year, I’m beginning my attempts to watch every single film that was nominated for Best Picture. All of the films that received Oscar nominations in these categories (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor/Actress, Best Supporting Actor/Actress, Best Original/Adapted Screenplay, Best Animated Film, Best Documentary Feature, and Best Foreign Language Film) along with similar awards from the BAFTA’s, Golden Globes, and the Independent Spirit Awards have been placed in the master list for my blog which has been randomized again to take into account this new slew of films. However, the films nominated for Best Picture are so culturally relevant that I try to watch all of them as soon as I get the chance so they take precedence over everything else on my blog. I did the same thing last year and was pleasantly surprised with the quality of films nominated for Best Picture (even when I thought about half of the fim’s nominated for Best Picture were better than The King’s Speech, particularly The Social Network and Winter’s Bone) since the lowest score was a B (The Fighter) and every other of the 9 films scored a B+ or higher. Well, 2011′s crops of film isn’t off to as good a start as The Help is the worst film I’ve watched nominated for Best Picture since The Blind Side, and the only reason it isn’t a completely racist (I’ll explain what I mean there in a second) failure is the strength of its many exceptional performances.

The Help, based off the 2009 fictional (I can’t begin to express how frustrated I was when I found out this wasn’t real) novel of the same name, is the story of aspiring author Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan (Superbad‘s Emma Stone), who has just finished college and moved back to her hometown of Jackson, Miss., to write for the local newspaper during the 1960s. Assigned to the housekeeping column, Skeeter seeks cleaning advice from the maid, Aibileen Clark (a phenomenal Viola Davis), of a family friend. Witnessing the shame and injustice that these maids are regularly forced to endure (the last straw being her former friend Hilly (Bryce Dallas Howard) trying to push through a law requiring separate bathrooms for black housekeepers in everyone’s home), Skeeter decides to write a book from the point of view of the help. The first nanny she’s able to convince to come to her side is the stoic Aibileen, but when local maid Minny (Octavia Spencer) is fired for using Hilly’s mother’s bathroom (rather than go outside during a fierce thunderstorm that claimed over a dozen lives) and accused of thievery so she can’t gain any future employment, it leads to a revolution of local help agreeing to help Skeeter write her book and shed light on the racial injustices occurring in this town.

I’m shortly about to tear this film a whole new asshole, but before I begin ruthlessly eviscerating it, I do want to talk about the one shining light of the film which was its absurdly good ensemble cast. I mostly think of Emma Stone as a comic actress, but she handled dramatic material like an old pro and she was what held the film together. Despite the title of the film, Skeeter was the main character, not “the help,” and Emma aptly carried the weight of this story on her shoulders. Viola Davis has had some smaller parts (Doubt), but this will be the film that likely wins her an Oscar (even if I’d rather see it go to Rooney Mara for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) and shoots her to widestream attention. She deserves it. She imbued Aibileen with such nuanced anger and pain in an intensely quiet role that would have been far too easy to overplay. She showed the perfect amount of restraint. Jessica Chastain has been everywhere this year, and she was a scene-stealer as local white-trash Celia Foote who was the only person to hire Minnie after Hilly fired her. There was just an innocence and naivete in her very natural performance. Octavia Spencer was also excellent as the fiery and sardonic Minnie. Playing the villain of the film, Bryce Dallas Howard proved that her career is more than nepotism and she was the perfect embodiment of southern belle racism.

Let’s start off with the film’s biggest problem. Much like Driving Miss Daisy and Dances with Wolves, this film is an incredibly offensive, condescending, and exploitative bit of revisionist history made to make modern bourgeois liberals feel better about themselves. This is not a film about African-Americans overcoming injustice and hardships. It’s about a white woman who helped bring the plight of black maids to the public eye. Except, it isn’t even a true story. It’s completely made up. None of this really happened (except the details of being a maid which the author allegedly stole from someone and never compensated them for). Modern audiences are meant to watch this and congratulate themselves on how far we’ve come since segregation. I think it was Stanley Kubrick who said that Schindler’s List wasn’t a film about the Holocaust (i.e. genocide and the attempted extermination of the Jewish race). It was a film about a thousand Jews that didn’t die and the man who tried to help them. This film doesn’t deal with race relations in any relevant way (unlike say a good Spike Lee or John Singleton film). Instead, it tries to create a white hero that modern audiences can go back and cheer for when in reality, nothing like what Skeeter was doing happened, and the realities of being a maid during these days was much worse (sexual assault was a large problem) than this film portrayed. If this film were a true story or had it come out during the 60′s, maybe it would have been more relevant. Instead, it simply contributes to the list of films that want to paint our nation’s unforgivable past in a more acceptable light so that we can feel better about what epic assholes we used to be as a nation.

It doesn’t help the film’s cause that it was also yawn-inducingly boring and that most of the “emotional” moments simply didn’t ring true (Aibileen’s scenes the notable exception thanks solely to Davis’s acting). People can be forgiven for enjoying this film if they think it’s a true story (which you would have to think because the film really wants you to feel that it’s real), but if you know that none of this really happened, it should be impossible to move past how simply condescending and unintentionally racist this film turned out. This does not shed a good light on the crop of films that I’ll be reviewing from 2011 for the upcoming Oscars. The next one that I’ll view is a new Woody Allen film, Midnight in Paris! So that should hopefully get us back on the right track. Don’t just accept this film at face level because you’ll allow yourself to fall for the image it wants to project. Dig a little deeper and you’ll see just how flawed The Help truly is.

Final Score: C

How much goodwill can a film earn just through the sheer strength of its performances alone? Without Christian Bale, The Fighter would have been a terribly mediocre boxing movie that simply rehashed every sports underdog cliche known to man. Without Colin Firth’s incendiary performance, The King’s Speech would never have been a Best Picture contender, let alone won. Sometimes I question whether I adore There Will Be Blood as much as I do because of the beautiful cinematography and the haunting tale of the spiritual rot of rampant greed or simply because Daniel Day Lewis gives arguably the greatest performance in the history of cinema (it’s probably a little of both). The exception to this rule is the Rob Marshall musical Nine which despite have 6 Academy Award winning actors/actresses in it was a nearly unwatchable piece of garbage. 1999′s Girl, Interrupted (adapted from the memoirs of the same name) is a film chock full of splendid female performances but abysmal pacing and an unfortunate tendency for melodramatics made it fall short of being a truly great film.

As mentioned earlier, Girl, Interruped is the true story of Susanna Kaysen (Winona Ryder) who is sent to a mental institution in the late 1960′s after a failed suicide attempt. With little to no direction in life and a pariah in her home, Susanna is essentially forced into the hospital with little to no say in the matter. Despite her suicide attempts, Susanna is easily the most sane person in the hospital where she is placed in the same ward as Wizard of Oz obsessed Georgina (Carnivale‘s Clea Duvall), self-inflicted burn victim Polly (Mad Men‘s Elisabeth Moss), withdrawn Daisy (Brittany Murphy) who suffers from an eating disorder (among other more significant problems), anorexic Janet, and sociopathic but charismatic Lisa (Angelina Jolie). While Susanna is initially drawn to the rebellious and magnetic Lisa and joins her in many of her little revolts against the system, tragedy eventually hits the group and Susanna is forced to re-evaluate exactly why she’s in this hospital in the first place and what she needs to do in order to get well.

Since she won her only Oscar for the film, it should come as no surprise that Angelina Jolie stole the show. Way back when I reviewed her Oscar-nominated role in Changeling, I puzzled over how Jolie could have ever won an Oscar because nothing in her career had impressed me, and not even her performance in Changeling which I thought wasn’t powerful enough for such a complex part. I obviously hadn’t seen Girl, Interrupted yet. She is able to flip between seductive charm, terrifying anger, and heart-wrenching grief like the mental pinball sociopath her character is. She oscillates between so many different modes and and emotions, and she never seems less than 100% genuine in any of them. If this remains the single greatest performance of her career, she should remain happy that she could ever have a high like this because nothing else I’ve ever seen from her has come anywhere close. Winona Ryder was fantastic as well, and I’ve long been of the opinion that if you want the role of a young, neurotic adult/teenager, she was the perfect choice. Watching Susanna’s emotional development throughout the film is one of its strong points, and Winona is responsible for much of the power. Clea Duvall and Brittany Murphy were also strong in their smaller roles.

However, despite the strength of the performances (and they were truly superb), the writing itself just couldn’t keep up with the talent on display. The film ultimately tries to subvert the classic One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest rebellion against the stern psychiatric community that is in vogue for most mental hospital films, but the film doesn’t do a convincing enough job at the end to sustain that theme. It spends much of the first two acts of the film gleefully showing Susanna finding her voice after her depression by bucking authority alongside Lisa, and while Lisa is obviously unhinged from the beginning, the movie never really makes me buy anything more than that Susanna is depressed, not some borderline personality disorder. About 3/4 of the way through the film, Susanna suddenly begins to view the people at the mental hospital as sympathetic comrades rather than some vestige of a society intent on keeping women down (which is how much of it is played at the beginning). I want to buy that these people helped cure her depression but the film didn’t do a good enough job of showing how that exactly came to be. I imagine the book goes into more detail about what led to Susanna’s recovery (and the author is a vocal critic of the film) so perhaps I should consider reading it in the future.

Matters were only compounded by the film’s inability to go more than ten minutes without turning a scene into something artificially sweet and trite. The film’s truest moments are painful and almost too raw to watch (Lisa bullying Daisy, Polly suffering a break down over her own lack of an ability to be loved because of her burns, Susanna’s last night in the ward), but far too often, it seems exceedingly obvious that scenes most likely weren’t in the original book as they lack the grit and hurt that permeates the rest of the film. Perhaps, it is unfair to compare this film to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest yet again, but even Cuckoo’s Nest subverted its own rebellious message when it ends with the essential lobotomization of Nicholson’s Randal McMurtry. Girl, Interrupted tries to combat that image from the very beginning, but its attempted cynicism at first is immediately drowned out by its disappointingly naive optimism at the end that seems to go against much of the darkness that preceded it.

For all fans of powerhouse acting, this is must see, and even Angelina Jolie’s most adamant detractors will be forced to recognize just how passionate and intense she is in this film. It also serves to re-affirm my theory that Winona Ryder could have been a much bigger star had it not been for her personal problems. The movie has its share of flaws, but it remained interesting through out and though I may nit-pick at its thematic inconsistencies, I still enjoyed it quite a bit. Films with strong female casts are a discouragingly rare find, but Girl, Interrupted has great female performances coming at you from all sides. I wish it had been a little more raw and intense, but even with its problems, Girl, Interrupted is a movie guaranteed to make you think.

Final Score: B+

As odd a statement as this may seem, as it refers to a fiendishly neurotic comedian with several failed marriages and a current relationship with the adopted daughter of one of his ex-wives, there’s a distinct possibility that Woody Allen has one of the most natural eyes for romantic storytelling in all of Hollywood. This isn’t to say that he tells conventional Hollywood romantic fairy tales where everyone’s found their happy ending by film’s end. Instead, this comments on his ability to draw gut-wrenchingly realistic tales of love, lust, and heart break from the most natural of settings. Annie Hall is widely considered one of the greatest romantic comedies of all time for its achingly heart-felt deconstruction of the star-crossed lovers story, and Manhattan remains an under-appreciated classic for its similarly mature take on the evolving definition of love and relationships in the modern world. While I’ve yet to see Hannah and Her Sisters, it too has a reputation for being one of the great love stories among intellectual circles. 2008′s Academy Award winning Vicky Cristina Barcelona feels like a modern (and bohemian) successor to the tangled love legacy of Allen’s Manhattan and is perhaps Allen’s best film since his prime in the late 70′s and early 1980′s.

In Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Vicky (Rebecca Hall, The Prestige) and Cristina (Scarlett Johansson, Lost in Translation) are two American tourists spending the summer in Barcelona, Spain. Vicky is intelligent but uptight and cautious, as well as engaged to her safe fiancee living back in the States. Cristina is more adventurous and free but is wracked with self doubt because she has no idea what she wants from life, only what she doesn’t want. While in Barcelona, the two meet the rakish and flamboyant Juan Antonio Gonzalo (Javier Bardem, No Country for Old Men) who invites the pair to a weekend in a beautiful Spanish village with the expressed intent of sex. While Vicky protests, Cristina is immediately enamored with this mysterious artist and Vicky comes along to protect Cristina. However, during the trip, Cristina becomes ill and bed-ridden and after a surprisingly sensitive evening out with Juan Antonio, Vicky sleeps with Juan. When the trio returns to Barcelona, Vicky attempts to return to her normal life with a fiancee (who has moved to Barcelona as well) and Juan and Cristina quickly develop a fiery passion. This love triangle is even more complicated with the arrival of Juan’s mentally unstable ex-wife Maria Elena (Penelope Cruz in an Oscar-winning role), whose recent suicide attempt has forced her into the guest room of Juan’s house, a house that Cristina has recently moved into.

While I’ll dive more into the thematic and stylistic strengths of the film in a second, the movie’s real strengths are centered in its absolutely stellar cast. Woody Allen has a gift of writing exceptional roles for his female actresses, and when they put up the goods, they’re guaranteed to get nominated for Oscars, if not win. Scarlett Johansson proves yet again why she is consistently ranked as one of the most simultaneously talented and sexiest women in Hollywood with this courageous performance as the sexually adventurous but sensitive and troubled Cristina. Despite having seen her in other works, this is the first film where I ever really noticed Rebecca Hall, and she reminds of a young Diane Keaton (though significantly more attractive) in her combination of neuroticism and moral ambiguity. Javier Bardem is excellent as always and it’s easy to see in his effervescent charm how he would be able to so completely sweep these women off their feet. He is quickly making a name for himself as one of the most top-tier foreign actors working in Hollywood today, and I won’t be surprised if he adds another Oscar alongside his No Country for Old Men win one of these days.

The real star-turn however comes from Penelope Cruz. Having not seen all of the other supporting female performances from 2008, I can’t make a comment on whether or not she deserved her Oscar, but I can definitely say that Penelope Cruz is mesmerizing as the fiery Maria Elena. While I was enjoying the film prior to her appearance, the moment that she arrived in the film, the overall quality of the picture increased tenfold. While she was certainly spell-binding in her Oscar-nominated turn in Pedro Almodavar’s Volver, nothing else in Cruz’s ouevre prepared me for this tour-de-force of a performance. As Juan Antonio’s ex-wife and muse (as well as his greatest source of irritation), Cruz brings such intensity and manic energy to the part. There’s a dry and sardonic sense of humor inherent to all of Allen’s greatest roles, but there’s also an incredible amount of pain and tenderness as well. It’s easily one of the most complex roles that Cruz has been forced to take on, and I only wish that she had more of a significant role in the film as she was easily the most interesting part of the whole movie.

Where Manhattan dealt with the relationship drama and neuroses of a very specific hipster-intellectual subset of the New York City population, Vicky Cristina Barcelona is more interested in a modern deconstruction of the bohemian fantasy of the European artistic community whilst simultaneously celebrating the life and joie de vivre of that same community. Woody Allen’s script is chock full of the sort of pseudo-intellectual and artistic conversations that have become part and parcel of his most celebrated pieces, yet rather than having non-artists spew this pretentious babble, it comes from the mouths of the artists themselves and it lends credence to the film’s fairly simple tale. Similarly, rather than judging the relationship that grows between Cristina, Juan Antonio, and Maria Elena, Allen simply shows the beauty and peace it brings to these troubled individuals though subverts an easy story with the realistic crisis of identity issues in young bohemians. Allen is able to tap into that most basic of romantic impulses and desires and shows it with more sexual appeal and erotic power than Hollywood could ever must, but he lends the film its artistic credo by denying the audience easy answers or escapist fantasy.

The cinematography of the film is absolutely gorgeous on more levels than one viewing will allow me to fully comprehend. For one, it was shot on location for all of the different scenes, and much like David Lean’s Summertime, this film is a travelholic’s tourist dream film. the beautiful architecture, beaches, and mountains surrounding Barcelona are used to such marvelous aesthetic affect that I at times wondered if Allen had been taking a page out of John Ford’s playbook on how to shoot scenery. In the more conventional aspects of how to shoot a film, Allen also employs a large number of one-shot scenes without any cuts, and by preserving the continuity of motion in the scenes, Allen is able to more deeply immerse us in the psychological and sexual tension of these conversations and trysts than if he had spliced them up with endless fast cuts. Movie viewing has trained us to barely even notice when scene cuts so if a film makes you notice that a director is intentionally maintaining the continuity of his shots, it’s always quite impressive. It reminded me of Children of Men in that regards, although far less impressive technically.

For Woody Allen fans, this movie is just another piece of evidence showing the late 2000′s were a period of creative resurgence for Allen that brought him nearly back to his glory days. For fans of intellectually engaging romance stories, you need not look much further than this thought-provoking and intentionally unconventional tale of polyamorous love. It might not be the best film Allen has ever produced for surely Manhattan and Annie Hall are among some of the greatest films ever made, but the romantic comedy pool is notoriously shallow, and when artistically significant films like this come along, viewers can’t afford to let movies like this pass them by. While those who cling desperately to conventional moral structures may find this film patently offensive and those who need more traditional and resolution-centric love stories may find this film frustratingly ambiguous, for everyone out there who likes to be challenged and who enjoys the unconventional, this film is for you.

Final Score: A-

Any film designed specifically to appeal to one ethnic group or another runs the risk of encountering two major problems. It is either so full of obscure and esoteric ethnic detail that it locks out non-members of the ethnic community from fully enjoying or appreciating the film (A Serious Man, although one of the more positive examples of this problem) or it is so full of stereotype and cliche representations of the ethnicity meant to enjoy the film that it instead ends up insulting its target audience (Tyler Perry’s entire ouevre). This problem can be avoided through real and honest presentations of the character while maintaining a level of detail and setting that doesn’t overwhelm outside audiences, but it’s simply a trap that many “ethnic” American films fall prey to. From the opening chords of Dean Martin crooning “Amore”, the multiple Oscar-winning Moonstruck falls into the cliched stereotypes territory and not even a surprisingly nuanced performance from Olympia Dukakis (Oscar winner for this film) could save this film from awkward acting and a forced, uneventful script that failed to produce even the slightest chuckle until its legitimately entertaining final moments.

Directed by Norman Jewison (In the Heat of the Night) with an Oscar-winning script by John Patrick Shanley, Moonstruck is the tale of a love-lorn Brooklyn widow, Loretta Casterini (Cher in an Oscar-winning performance) who has decided to marry Johnny Cammarerri (Danny Aiello), a nice enough fellow that she doesn’t love but knows will take care of her. Johnny leaves for Sicily to care for his dying mother and wishes for Loretta to contact his brother who he hasn’t spoken to in years and invite him to the wedding. The brother, Ronny (Nicolas Cage in his breakout role), is one-armed baker who lost his hand and ultimately his fiancee in an accident and blames Johnny for everything. Ronny and Loretta fall in love at first sight and have an amorous one night stand, and Loretta has to choose between the more unstable but passionate Ronny or her true fiancee, Johnny, knowing that either choice will tear this family even further apart. Olympia Dukakis rounds out the main cast as Loretta’s mother who must live through the infidelity and distance of her cold and unloving husband.

Olympia Dukakis’s role as Loreta’s mother was the only aspect of the film that didn’t appear to come straight out of some offensive list of Italian-American stereotypes. Combining a volatile mixture of quiet intensity and intelligence with a vulnerability as an ignored wife, Dukakis nailed all of the traits and mannerisms of the only realistically written character in the entire film. Her scenes with John Mahoney where he plays a rakish college professor are among the film’s finest. Cher’s character and performance simply never take off the ground. The film gives her romance with Nic Cage no development and we are simply supposed to believe that she is deeply in love with this man who is an ethnic amalgam of anger, tragedy, and opera. Cage and Cher had little to no on-screen chemistry and their romance was beyond difficult to believe. Nic Cage gives one of the most memorable performances of cinematic history in Leaving Las Vegas, but his early role her as Ronny can only be described as a train-wreck of epic proportions as his thick and fake Brooklyn accent alongside his ridiculously over the top delivery just cemented every second he was on screen as being nearly unwatchable.

For a film that is ostensibly designed as a comedy, the laughs nearly never arrive in the film. A lot of the humor is meant to arise through the awkwardness and insanity of the situations that Loretta finds herself in, but it only served to reinforce the terribly unrealistic and poorly written nature of the situational humor. The dialogue itself does little to add to the overall film experience and if one more character had started yammering off in Italian for no apparent reason, one would have been forgiven for thinking you had found yourself in the Bada Bing on The Sopranos (although a really poorly written episode). These characters seemed to be so defined by their Italian American heritage that the film rarely gave them an opportunity to develop past staid stereotypes. Ronny could have had the opportunity to be an interesting and expectation subverting love interest if his uncharacteristic love of opera (as a blue collar baker) had been given a chance to grow rather than simply being used for a chance to doll both him and Cher up for the scene at the opera.

This film has a reputation as a classic and is still one of the most loved romantic comedies to come out of the 1980′s, but on a look from the perspective of where the genre has gone over the last twenty years, the film simply comes off as stale and conventional. Olympia Dukakis is a delight and so is John Mahoney (although it’s a small role), but other than that, virtually no other aspect of the film stands out as a delight or even good for that matter. Poor writing, poor acting, and a generally tepid pace keep this film from ever getting off the floor. For fans of Cher, it’s interesting to see the film where she finally won her Academy Award but Mermaids was arguably a more challenging and interesting role, although neither film was particularly good. At the end of the day, the only way that I can recommend this film is to fans of its principal cast or for those who like this type of romantic comedy which simply doesn’t work for me on either an emotional or intellectual level.

Final Score: C-

Ever since Rocky climbed up the steps of the Philadelphia Public Library, there has been something about the under dog story that has enchanted movie-goers ever since. Seeing somebody who is put down, not expected to succeed, up against insurmountable odds, and seeing him succeed fulfills a certain amount of catharsis and escapism that everybody needs to feel every once in a while. Generally speaking (Rocky being the most notable exception), a lot of these under dog stories are based off true events because the story might be too happy and escapist if it were fictional. So, 2010′s The Fighter, while not necessarily being a great film, serves as another fine entry into the classic under dog genre.

The Fighter is the true story of Mickey Ward (Mark Wahlberg), a boxer who is suffering from an extended losing streak and is on the verge of his career falling apart due to disappearing from the radar. Mickey is trained by his older brother Dicky (Christian Bale in an Oscar-winning performance), who was a semi-successful boxer in his hey-day but has descended into self-destructive drug abuse. The film focuses as much on the dysfunctional relationship between the various members of this family including the brothers controlling mother Alice (Melissa Leo in an Oscar-winning role), the veritable army of daughters, and Mickey’s new girlfriend Charlene (Amy Adams) as it focuses on the comeback story of Mickey’s career. The film offers a pretty harrowing and heart-breaking look at the way the drug problem tears apart families.

The films story isn’t something you haven’t heard before and it left more bored on occasion and waiting something more interesting to happen. However, this is a performance film where there are several performances that if you’re a fan of great acting, this movie is a must watch. This is easily Christian Bale’s best performance since American Psycho. He is terrifyingly accurate in his portrayal of the junky brother. He looks, acts, and just radiates the part. He inhabited the character and just became Dicky. Melissa Leo was great as the mother, but I was actually much more impressed with Amy Adams performance as Mickey’s girlfriend. She should have won the Oscar in my opinion. Mark Wahlberg was also great, but this wasn’t as good as his performance in The Departed or Boogie Nights.

I can recommend this film to any body who likes a good sports movie, or if you’re a serious Christian Bale fan, then you definitely need to watch it. I’m sure that if the Academy was still only nominating 5 films a year for Best Picture instead of the current 10, this one wouldn’t have received a Best Picture nomination, but it’s still worth a watch. I’ll probably forget a lot of things about this film years from now, but Christian Bale’s incendiary performance will stay with me for a long time.

Final Score: B

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