Category: Best Actress


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Don’t let this astonishing film’s title fool you. If you’re expecting a tale of sapphic romance, look elsewhere. In one of the most remarkable studies of human sexuality that I’ve ever watched, not just from the 1960s but from any film ever, 1969’s Women in Love is mature and thought-provoking cinema at it’s finest. Tackling issues as taboo at the time as polyamory, bisexuality, and homosexuality, and then truly diving into why some relationships fail, why others can work, and why, to paraphrase Jack Kerouac, “boys and girls have such a sad time together” (though in this film’s case, men and women). It is exceedingly rare to see this type of rich, character-driven portraiture accomplished on the big screen and Women in Love is the antidote to your stale romantic drama blues.

Based on a 1920 novel by D.H. Lawrence, Women in Love‘s subject matter should be no surprise. Though, in his time, D.H. Lawrence was hounded as a pornographer and purveyor of smut, modern literary criticism has vindicated the man’s enormous talent. If you couldn’t tell by the figure of two naked men wrestling in the film’s poster, Women in Love is a very sensual and some may say racy film (though, it’s fairly tame by modern standards). Exploring an almost absurd number of themes that would fascinate an author after World War I, Women in Love is a tale of repressed homosexual longing, all-consuming heterosexual passion, the class divides that were ravaging Britain at the height of industrialization, the psychic wounds caused by World War I, and the alienation of passionate intellectuals.

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Set in the years following World War I, Women in Love is the story of four very different and very passionate men and women. Gudrun (Sunday Bloody Sunday‘s Glenda Jackson) and Ursula Brangwen (Jennie Linden) are two schoolteachers, bored with their lives that straddle the line between their working class neighbors and the wealthy bourgeois that they associate themselves with. This sense of not having a place in society is established in the very first scene where they are invited to a wealthy friend’s wedding but simply watch it from the cemetery next to the chapel. Their father was also a schoolteacher, and it has afforded these girls an opportunity in life that they neither fully appreciate or understand. And, it isn’t until their romantic lives intersect with two wealthy older men that their lives begin to take on any direction.

Ursula and Gudrun fall in love with Rupert Birkin (The Rose‘s Alan Bates) and Gerard Crich (Oliver Reed) respectively. Rupert is a manic-depressive, alienated intellectual whose stark and, for the time, radical world view makes him something of a joke and novelty among his bourgeois friends. He rejects his girlfriend at the beginning of the film because of her complete inability to express spontaneity and joy, though that may be Rupert’s rationalization to avoid discussing his own bisexuality. Rupert’s best friend is Gerard Crich, a cold and repressed industrialist who is as cruel to those who work in his coal mine as he is to the woman he pretends to love. After a naked wrestling match that oozes more homoeroticism than possibly any movie sequence ever, Rupert and Gerard decide to pursue their romantic attractions to Ursula and Gerard, and essentially nothing but misery follows for all involved.

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Women in Love isn’t just one of the most homoerotic films I’ve ever watched; it’s also easily one of the most erotic and sensual pieces of cinema I’ve ever seen. There’s a scene early in the film where Rupert discusses the fine art of eating a fig that makes any of the sexual fantasies from Belle de Jour seem hamfisted and vulgar in comparison. As a metaphor for the act of oral sex (which is sadly made a little too explicit at one point), it’s enough to make anyone a little hot under the collar. And the actual love scenes are rivaled only by Don’t Look Now in the tasteful and lush eroticism department. And, I don’t just mean the love scenes between the men with the women. Although I believe the implication is that Rupert and Gerard don’t actually consummate their physical attraction to one another, their wrestling sequence is still an astounding visual metaphor for their intense and fiery sexual attraction and how badly these two men want to be with one another but can’t allow that to be.

Ken Russell’s direction is marvelous. The visual composition of the film reminds one instantly of Martin Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence. The easy comparison would be to compare Women in Love to a Merchant/Ivory film like A Room with a View, but much like Scorsese’s nominal costume drama, Russell’s film has so much more going on underneath its surface than the period details. Though the film gets the period details right and obsessives of the 1920s would have much to enjoy there, Russell knows when to subvert period expectations to make an artistic statement. To wit, it is not uncommon to see Ursula and Gudrun in attire that seems anachronistic for the film’s time period and that would have been more appropriate in the late 1960s. And, Russell owes a great debt to the French New Wave with his unconventional use of jump cuts and jarring transitions.

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And the performances are practically universally revelations. Glenda Jackson won an Academy Award for her performance in this film and though I did not find it as awe-inspiring as her work in Sunday Bloody Sunday, that may only be because she spent less time as the center of the film’s attention. After only seeing two of her films (ever as far as I can tell), Glenda Jackson is quickly making a case to be one of my all-time favorite British actresses. She has a toughness and resoluteness that runs counter-intuitive to practically everything I know about actresses from that period. Jennie Linden was quite good as her sister, but Gudrun was a more demanding role, and Jackson aptly captures the spiritual decay and torment that Gudrun continually suffers from the beginning to the end of the film. Glenda Jackson is a long-lost heroine of powerful female acting.

However, I honestly think that the two most entrancing performances of the film come from its male leads. Rupert is more or less an avatar of D.H. Lawrence himself, and he used the character in his novel to espouse his philosophical, religious, spiritual, and sexual beliefs. Oddly enough, Alan Bates bears more than a passing resemblance to Lawrence, and alongside Jake Gyllenhaal’s turn in Brokeback Mountain, it’s one of the truer portrayals of bisexuality in cinema. The Brokeback Mountain parallels are eerie if you interpret Rupert as a bisexual and Gerard as a deeply closeted homosexual (as I do). And Oliver Reed is no slouch himself as the far darker and more tormented Gerard. He has to tap into some fairly violent and damaging places in his performance and at the film’s brutal climax, you believe the pain that would lead him to such depravity.
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This review is getting lengthy so I suppose I shall draw it to a close. There are certain topics that consume all of us, or at least, there are certain topics that consume all of us who allow ourselves to be concerned with intellectual affairs. And for a great many people that fall into that category, “sexuality” and to a different extent “love” come to define our quests for meaning in our short, finite lives. And, Women in Love tackles the themes of love and sexuality with more skill and insight than practically any film I’ve ever seen. Ken Russell (and D.H. Lawrence) approached human sexuality and sensuality like adults instead of in a voyeuristic or condemning manner. The film is light on flashy spectacle, but for those that have the patience for a mature, character-driven portrait of the price of ignoring our sexual passions, Women in Love is a must-see film.

Final Score: A

 

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Every movie lover has that one film that you can put in a million times, and every time you watch it, you get something new out of it. With our favorite films, repeat viewings become not only a type of security blanket where we can bask in the predicted pleasures of a treasured piece of art, but they increasingly become extended sessions of wonder that one team of filmmakers (from the director on down) were able to get things so perfectly right. They are films that infiltrate every aspect of our lives and we learn and evolve with these experiences so that sometimes, if the film is great enough, something about the film grows to define part of you. I am a lifelong film lover, but 1977’s Annie Hall is my favorite film of all time, and not only is it the crowning jewel of Woody Allen’s career, it’s the most important romantic comedy ever made.

Manhattan may be deeper; Midnight in Paris may be more whimsical; and Crimes and Misdemeanors may be more tragic, but no other film in the Woody Allen canon has transformed cinema to the extent of Annie Hall. Taking the most overdone film genre of all time, the romantic comedy, Annie Hall turned every genre convention on its head. From expectations for a happy ending to the classic manic pixie dream girl archetype to the notions of linear storytelling to a respect for the existence of the fourth wall, Annie Hall obliterated the standards of 1970s storytelling and prior with a rapturous disregard for the way movies were meant to be made. Clearly enthralled with Fellini and Bergman, Woody Allen brought foreign art-house sensibilities into the mainstream.

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Like so much of the best cinema, Annie Hall is an especially autobiographical film. In a vein similar to Chasing Amy (or even Allen’s later Husbands and Wives), Annie Hall is a cinematic portrayal of a crumbling relationship played out by the real life partners in the relationship itself. Neé Annie Hall in real life, Diane Keaton (Love and Death) plays the titular object of Allen’s desire. Diane Keaton was Woody’s greatest muse of the 1970ss, and with Annie Hall, Allen fuses a fantastical and romanticized embellishment of his youth thrown into the tragic downfall of one of the great relationships of his life.

Thus, Annie Hall is the decades spanning tale of the life and loves of Alvy Singer, a purposefully transparent stand-in for Woody Allen. A marginally successful stand-up comedian, Alvy lives in New York. With his best friend Rob (Tony Roberts) and two ex-wives, Alvy’s life isn’t exactly a shining example of having your life together. And his world is only complicated when he’s introduced to the ditsy, sensitive, and complex Annie Hall who bounds into Alvy’s life like an electric jolt to the heart. But the gulf in their intellectual ambitions and Alvy’s own cynical, pessimistic outlook on life spell an inevitable doom for their on-again/off-again relationship.

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If you have ever been in a failed relationship, Annie Hall is a sprawling, exquisitely detailed roadmap of everything that could have possibly gone wrong. Even if you’re a 24 year old kid from rural WV who had never even been to NYC until years after watching this film for the first time, Woody’s tale of lost love, regret, and the rush of dawning romance is timeless and universal in its appeal. I remember watching this film for the first time as a sophomore in high school and immediately being overwhelmed by a sympathy with Alvy Singer, and the relatable nature of this story has only gotten more painfully intense as I’ve gotten older and had more experience in the type of tale Woody has crafted.

And, that attention to detail and brutal effectiveness in detailing a relationship on its way up and just as quickly on its way out is what has made Woody Allen one of the greatest American filmmakers of all time. It would have been too easy to paint a one-sided portrait of the collapse of his time with Diane Keaton, but instead, Allen showed an honest, subtle look at the dynamics between men and women and the ways that we desire different things in life and how those desires can spell doom for love. Annie has become one of the go to examples of the “manic pixie dream girl” but if you actually watch the film, it’s clear that Annie is meant to deconstruct that typical male fantasy.

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But it isn’t just the effective realism and honest intentions of the film that makes Annie Hall the classic it’s become (though that’s certainly a major part of it). Annie Hall stands head and shoulders above its peer because it was the first major film to successfully incorporate serious themes and an actual emotional message with laugh-out-loud fourth wall shattering humor. Over the course of Annie Hall, Woody Allen doesn’t just lean on the proverbial fourth wall; he takes a chainsaw and demolishes it until you’re not sure if the fourth wall ever existed in the first place.

Having his characters directly address the camera, incorporating not only flashbacks but flashbacks where the present day characters can interact with the people in the past, using animated interludes, devolving into downright fantasy, and using sardonic thought bubbles to explain the actual thoughts of characters during dialogue, Annie Hall isn’t afraid to remind you that you’re watching a movie, and it’s better off for it. Some great films have aped this style since ( (500) Days of Summer an obvious example), but no movie has so successfully married the heartwrenching, the hilarious, and the surreal as well as Annie Hall.

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Diane Keaton won a well-deserved Best Actress Oscar at the 1977 Academy Awards for her portrayal of Annie, and the only performance by a woman in a comedy that I can think that is better than her turn in this film was Jennifer Lawrence last year in Silver Linings Playbook. Diane Keaton may have essentially been playing herself, but it was a fierce and now iconic portrayal. What makes Woody such a great writer is that he writes such complex roles for his female leads, and Annie is possibly the best role he’s ever written. Diane Keaton sees Annie through virtually the complete human emotional experience, and she never falters along the  way.

Woody lost that year for Best Actor to Richard Dreyfuss for The Goodbye Girl, and I actually agree with that decision from the Academy. Woody’s turn as Alvy is probably one of the top three performances of his career, but there’s simply no denying that Woody is better behind the camera than in front of it. There are moments here and there where Woody stops acting (even if he’s supposedly conversing with a friend in the film) and just starts performing one of his stand-up routines and the difference in his cadence is too apparent. Still, when the scene calls for it, Woody Allen too hits all the right emotional and dramatic points required for the film.

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I could go on an on about how Annie Hall is a perfect snapshot of life in the 1970s or how brilliant the “It Had to Be You” interludes are or how Allen’s neurotic, nebbish Alvy Singer became the basis of a million rom-com heroes to come, but I think I have probably bored all of you enough with my adoration bordering on worship of this masterful film. I’ve written three unpublished screenplays, and it’s no stretch of the imagination to say that Annie Hall is (with Chasing Amy and Pulp Fiction) the reason I want to be a film-maker. If, in my life, I can write a film that is one-fifth as good as Woody’s opus, I will consider my career a success. I’ll leave you with a quote.

Alvy Singer: [narrating] After that it got pretty late, and we both had to go, but it was great seeing Annie again. I… I realized what a terrific person she was, and… and how much fun it was just knowing her; and I… I, I thought of that old joke, y’know, the, this… this guy goes to a psychiatrist and says, “Doc, uh, my brother’s crazy; he thinks he’s a chicken.” And, uh, the doctor says, “Well, why don’t you turn him in?” The guy says, “I would, but I need the eggs.” Well, I guess that’s pretty much now how I feel about relationships; y’know, they’re totally irrational, and crazy, and absurd, and… but, uh, I guess we keep goin’ through it because, uh, most of us… need the eggs.

Final Score: A+

 

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(A quick aside before my actual review begins. After I put up this review, I will have now seen and reviewed all of this year’s Best Picture nominees except for Amour which still doesn’t even have a release date on Netflix yet. The Michael Haneke directed foreign film may take a while to make it to our shores in DVD/Blu-Ray form. Anyways, that’s exciting so I can finally move back to my core list of films which I’m still in the process of remaking.)

Perhaps because it is the most easily commercialized and most consistently mass-produced genre of film this side of low-budget horror movies, it’s real easy to cast aside most romantic comedies out of hand. With cookie-cutter plots, emotionally vapid stars, and diabetes-inducing sweetness, rom-coms are an easy contender for one of the worst film genres. Which is sort of funny when I consider that two of my top three films of all time are romantic comedies (Annie Hall and Chasing Amy). So, leave it to David O. Russell (whose The Fighter I found almost uniformly over-rated barring the performances) to provide one of the best romantic comedies in years with the darkly comic and subversive Silver Linings Playbook.

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Part of me is suspicious of how much I enjoy Silver Linings Playbook. Because despite the pitch black comedy trimmings, the film is still structured very much like a conventional romantic comedy. It’s only in the details where David O. Russell (and the author of the book the film is based on) finds ways to distinguish his tale. But, the details are so intimate and impressive that you almost forget the familiar story structure. And in a film where the lead performances are as electric as this one, it’s easy to forgive yourself for just wanting to bask in the glow of what will certainly be remembered as career-defining roles (not simply because Jennifer Lawrence won an Oscar for this film).

After spending eight months in a mental hospital for nearly beating a man to death who was sleeping with his wife, Pat Solitano (Wet Hot American Summer‘s Bradley Cooper) returns home to live with his parents in Philadelphia. Determined to win back his wife’s love (despite a restraining order), Pat tries to get in shape and turn his life around with the help of his dad (The Godfather: Part II‘s Robert De Niro) and mom. Diagnosed with bipolar disorder, life itself is a struggle for Pat and his anger, and all it takes to set him off in to a rage some nights is disappointment in the ending of Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms.

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One night, at a friend’s dinner, Pat meets Tiffany Maxwell (Winter’s Bone‘s Jennifer Lawrence), a widow whose sister is close friends with Pat’s ex-wife. Tiffany has her own mental problems and after suffering from severe depression after the death of her husband, Tiffany began sleeping with nearly any person she could just to feel something. Tiffany promises to give Pat’s wife a letter if he’ll help her enter a dancing competition. And so, as these two become closer and learn to deal with their anger and depression and mood swings together, the question becomes whether Pat will get back with his ex-wife or if he’ll find love in the arms of the wounded Tiffany.

Jennifer Lawrence is 22 years old. She is a full year younger than I am. Yet, she has now been nominated for two Oscars and won one for this film (making her the second youngest Best Actress winner behind Marlee Matlin for Children of a Lesser God). She’s starred in two of the biggest summer blockbusters of this decade (The Hunger Games and X-Men: First Class). Jennifer Lawrence hasn’t simply set herself up to be one of the greatest actors of her generation. She is easily the best actress of her peer group. If I thought she was great in Winter’s Bone, I was not prepared for the tour-de-force performance she brought to bear in this movie.

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Her performance as Tiffany in this film is the kind of role most actresses spend their entire career trying to land. The fact that she’s playing a character with such depth and emotional complexity at the age of 22 is just astounding beyond words. Jennifer Lawrence should only get more talented as she ages, and I expect her to rack up a Meryl Streep-esque career before it’s all said and done. Tiffany is a contradictory, explosive, deeply hurt woman who is barely hanging on by a thread, and with every second she spends on screen, Jennifer Lawrence makes you feel her pain, joy, and love. Congratulations Oscars. You actually got this one right.

And Bradley Cooper… I was almost at a loss for words when the film ended. I did not think Bradley Cooper was a good actor (except for his awesome work on Alias), let alone a great one before watching this movie. I literally could not have been more wrong. This may sound crazy, but Bradley Cooper was so much more interesting in this role than Daniel Day-Lewis was in Lincoln (though I still think Joaquin Phoenix should have won for The Master). Bradley Cooper committed so much to the craziness of Pat that it became frightening in some of the more intense scenes. Maybe this performance was a flash in the pan and a fluke, but I pray that it’s a sign of great things to come from Mr. Cooper.

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It also doesn’t hurt that Robert De Niro gives what is arguably his finest performance since Goodfellas as Pat’s obsessive compulsive father. It becomes clear rather quickly that Pat Sr. has just as many anger problems as his son (with a serious OCD problem thrown in for good measure and a gambling addiction), and Silver Linings Playbook gives De Niro a chance to flex his acting muscles that he hasn’t been using after a decade of stale comedies. Chris Tucker is also surprisingly excellent as a fellow patient from Pat’s mental institution who is always escaping early with hare-brained excuses and plots.

Silver Linings Playbook‘s willingness to deal so frankly with mental illness and depression and anger is beyond refreshing. Though the film is a comedy (and my sister and I found ourselves laughing hysterically during the movie), the movie doesn’t make light of Pat’s bipolar disorder or Tiffany’s acting out. When it occurs, it is tragic and scary and real. And through this lens of actual human frailty, Silver Linings Playbook succeeds where most other rom-coms fail by presenting two realistic, flawed heroes to guide us through a tale of growth and redemption. That the film still manages to be hilarious is a testament to just how strong the writing is.

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If you pushed me to try and find flaws in the movie (and the reason I’m giving it an “A” instead of an “A+.” trust me it was close), I would have to say that perhaps the ending feels a tad bit rushed and that the visual direction of the film is a little stale. Otherwise, Silver Linings Playbook has even eclipsed the wonderful Life of Pi as my favorite of the Best Picture nominees of 2012. For fans of great acting, great storytelling, and great romance, Silver Linings Playbook has it all. And, I imagine it will be a couple years before another romantic comedy this great rolls around.

Final Score: A

There are certain events in your life that, if you’re old enough to formulate memories at all, will forever leave an imprint on you. Decades later, you will be able to recall exactly where you were when you heard the news and the most miniscule details of your life for at least a short while following those events. For my generation, 9/11 is an obvious contender. My dad has said he can remember exactly where he was John Lennon died as well as where he was when the Challenger exploded. For our grandparents, it’s the Kennedy assassination or Pearl Harbor. While 9/11 is my big external life event, the earliest that I can remember is the death of Diana, Princess of Wales one August 31st of 1997. I was only eight years old at the time (and American), but the massive public mourning made an extreme impact and I can’t remember a single death since that’s received that sort of attention.

I can remember my mother crying when she found out that Diana had died. A woman that she had never met, who lived in another nation, and had experienced a life of privilege that we (in rural WV) could never imagine. Yet, like many young American girls at the time, my mother was enthralled by the “fairy book” wedding between Diana and Prince Charles in 1981. As the Princess of Wales, Diana only solidified her legacy and love from the people with her various charitable activities as well as her obvious affection for the crown princes. So, when a combination of paparazzi as well as an intoxicated chauffeur resulted in her premature death at the tender age of 36, it was an international tragedy. What few get to see is what it was like for the royal family itself (which Diana was officially no longer a part of in 1997), and that seldom seen side of history is the subject of Stephen Frear’s fascinating biopic, The Queen.

Princess Di’s death coincided with another major event in British history. After 18 years of Tory control of the British government (see The Iron Lady for more on that), the Labour party, headed by Tony Blair (Michael Sheen), took control over the British parliament. Decidedly too modern for Queen Elizabeth II’s (Helen Mirren) tastes, Labour was another source of irritation in addition to the endless scandals and headlines involving the ex-wife of her son, Prince Charles. When Princess Diana passes away, the royal family (except for Charles) initially sees no reason to give Diana the royal treatment for her funeral and memorial because she was no longer a member of the royal family. However, this stubbornness generates unprecedented resentment against the royal family, and with pressure from Prime Minister Blair and the public, she is forced to bend to give Diana the service the public demands.

If that seems like an oddly specific view into the life of one of the most famous women in the world, watching the film will reveal The Queen to be a subtle and layered look into a world that most Americans can’t begin to comprehend. Although the film begins with the Queen bemoaning her inability to vote and a painter reminding her it’s still her government, it becomes quickly apparent throughout the film that almost nothing about England is the Queen’s beside her 40,000 acre estate in Scotland as well as Buckingham Palace. Sticklers to rules that go back hundreds of years, The Queen explores both the elegance of the royal family as well as their pride, their obstinance, and their ultimate humanity. Although the film doesn’t always place Queen Elizabeth II in the most flattering light (being more affected by the death of a 14 point stag than her ex daughter-in-law), you leave the film knowing that she’s a human being like the rest of us.

As always, Helen Mirren is a marvel. Although I would argue that The Last Station was her best role, her Academy Award for The Queen was well deserved. Her performance was a master-class in restraint and subtlety. Even the way the film shot her showed a sort of dignified elegance that is part and parcel with her character. When the Queen goes off on her own on the Balmoral estate in Scotland, she finally has an emotional response to the death of Princess Diana (though it may be as much about the negative reaction to her lack of a response to Di’s death as any sadness about Di’s passing). And with small movements of the body, Mirren is able to communicate leagues of information. That she is able to do this while being shot almost entirely from behind is the true marvel, and the film is full of quiet moments like that (such as when a child gives the Queen flowers at Buckingham Palace) that achieve more than any loud, in-your-face scene could hope to accomplish.

Michael Sheen was nearly as good. In fact, he was so convincing as Tony Blair that he would ultimately play the beleaguered Labour leader two more times. Tony Blair was a modern man (with an anti-Monarchist wife) thrust into an archaic world of being constitutionally obliged (insofar as England has anything that you could call a constitution which is up for serious debate) to let the Queen ask him to form a Parliament even though he was democratically elected by the people. He has to toe the line of giving the people what they want in regards to a remembrance for Princess Di without feeling as if he’s stepping on the toes of the royal family, for whom he gains a grudging respect (particularly Queen Elizabeth II). Michael Sheen encapsulates the charm and charisma which got Blair elected in the first place as well as the sense of him being a man torn apart by a million different demands.

The film could be a little plodding at times, and if you’re an America, it may be difficult to grasp what the big deal about the monarchy is in the first place. I’ve always said that if I were born into the monarchy as the heir apparent, I would disband it upon ascending to the throne and sell all of the properties and give the proceeds to charity. Because the actions of the royal family seem so archaic and so out of touch with the modern world, it can be difficult to sympathize with certain characters (particularly Prince Philip, the Queen’s husband), but Stephen Frears and screenwriter Peter Morgan never fail to humanize these characters without letting the audience forget they come from a different world. For all anglophiles, The Queen is required viewing especially for those who appreciate Helen Mirren’s talents as one of the finest actresses of her age.

Final Score: B+

The Academy Awards has a really annoying habit of awarding Oscars to filmmakers and actors/actresses based on their “career” rather than the particular film they’ve been nominated for. As much I love the original True Grit, I would never say it was one of John Wayne’s best performances and I don’t think he gave half the performance of Dustin Hoffman or Jon Voight in Midnight Cowboy. Similarly, The Departed is a really fun crime film but it’s towards the bottom of Scorsese’s body of work and it wasn’t nearly as exceptional as Clint Eastwood’s Letters From Iwo Jima. I could go on with lists like these all day. I truly believe that Meryl Streep might be the greatest actress of all time, but her third Academy Award for Best Actress for her role as Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady has to be one of the biggest screw-ups since someone thought it was a good idea to nominate Sandra Bullock for Best Actress (let alone let her win). Let there be no mistakes, Meryl Streep gives another phenomenal performance in this film. She’s the greatest actress of her age, but there were two far more astonishing and fiery performances from breakthrough actresses (Viola Davis and Rooney Mara) that deserved this award more. Instead, the Academy chose yet again to honor someone’s career rather than the actual best from that year. It doesn’t help that this film is historical biopic disaster but more on that later.

The film shuttles back and forth between the present (I was very shocked to learn that Margaret Thatcher was still alive. She’s only 86.) and Thatcher’s (Meryl Streep’s) younger days both before joining Parliament and her eventual reign as England’s first female Prime Minister. In the modern day, Thatcher is in the grips of dementia, suffering from hallucinations of her long dead husband Dennis (Harry Potter’s Jim Broadbent in the present, Game of Thrones’ Harry Lloyd in the past) and unable to tell when or where she is or remember the whereabouts of her estranged son. Over the course of a troubled day where she is giving away her husband’s belongings and finds herself reminiscing over the many years she devoted to public service and to the fierce battles she waged against the entrenched forces controlling the government. Whether it was breaking the back of Britain’s labor unions, declaring war with Argentina over the Falkland Islands, or deregulating virtually every major industry in England, Thatcher left a legacy of legislative accomplishments (whether they are good or terribly evil is up for you to decide) that are all she has to comfort in her old age and frazzled mental state.

I realize I spent my entire opening paragraph attacking the Academy’s decision to award the Best Actress honors to Meryl Streep, but regardless, she was as excellent as she’s ever been in this role. I couldn’t get a handle on where the filmmaker’s political loyalties lie (which is perhaps why I felt the film was such a muddled mess with its blurry and fleeting description of historical events with no real context or statement) but Streep did her damnedest to make Thatcher as sympathetic a figure as possible. While I still believe that her makeup did a significant portion of her acting in the sequences where she was an old woman (the film’s Best Makeup Oscar was well-deserved), there was an incredible amount of nuance to her performance. She showed the nastier sides of Thatcher (her ambition, her pride, her lack of tact), but we also saw her as a loving wife and as a frail, vulnerable old woman as opposed to the image of the “iron lady” that is so popular in the modern retellings of her legacy. Streep will be (and almost already is) one of the legends of the big screen that will be uttered in the same breath as Katherine Hepburn, Bette Davis, and Marilyn Monroe (in terms of cultural impact. All of those actresses are infinitely better than Monroe). If anyone doubted her ability to project the fierceness and toughness that Thatcher possessed, they obviously weren’t familiar with Streep’s career. However, what was most impressive was her ability to add in all of Thatcher’s weaknesses so naturally and in such an understated manner among side her most glaring features.

However, as great as Streep was, the film’s script is a terrible mess.  I appreciate the attempts to humanize Margaret Thatcher by showing her as the mentally deteriorating old woman she’s become, but it causes the meditations on her political legacy to be weak and without substance. I’m going to betray my own political leanings here when I say that I think Margaret Thatcher was one of the most despicable figures of the post WW II world (along with her buddy Ronald Reagan), and she did more to set England on the road to fascism than the threat of Hitler ever did (Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta was largely a response to “Thatcherism”). So, how does the film handle the controversial political legacy of one of England’s most divisive figures? It treats them as pat transitional scenes with little thought towards the effects that her heavy-handed political decision making ultimately caused. The film makes no judgments on her decisions, only the resoluteness and obstinancy with which she made them. I just don’t think you can make a film about Margaret Thatcher and not have it make an ultimate statement about her political legacy one way or the other. This film took the easiest way out when discussing her achievements, and for all history buffs and political junkies, it will obviously suffer for it. I can’t even imagine that Thatcher’s admirers will enjoy the way the film has almost nothing to say (besides repeating historical facts) about her time at 10 Downing Street.

Besides Streep’s virtuoso performance, the only other thing the film had going for it was the elements of surrealism that creeped in when we witnessed the elderly Thatcher at the lowest depths of her dementia. It added a stylistic touch that at times made up for the dryness of the storytelling. At the end of the day though, this film was a dud, and if the Iron Lady herself still had the mental faculties to see this film, I can’t imagine she’d appreciate the weak picture it painted of her (the film’s weaknesses not her own). I can only recommend it to the most stalwart Meryl Streep fans and to those who take it upon themselves to see the year’s culturally relevant films (Meryl Streep’s Oscar win makes it one such film). Everyone else can give this tepid and overwrought biopic a pass.

Final Score: C+

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-

Well, we’re continuing the series of me reviewing films that were nominated for Best Picture at the 2010 Academy Awards with the second film on the list, Darren Aranofsky’s psychological thriller Black Swan. I almost didn’t want to review this film just after my first viewing because I pretty much (and I can guarantee that I will watch it again within the week) want to watch it one more time as soon as possible so that I can go back and try to put this jigsaw puzzle back together. My mind is currently blown in the kind of way that only a David Lynch film can normally accomplish. While the first half of the film might have left something to be desired and is what keeps this film from perfection, I can honestly say that last acts of this film left me trying to unravel the various psychological threads of Aranofsky’s brilliance in a way that no film has since Mulholland Drive.

Black Swan is the story of Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman in a career-defining performance), a ballerina who has been cast as the Swan Queen in her ballet company’s production of the classic Swan Lake. When the film begins, you are led to believe that Nina is a sweet, good girl who is perhaps a little unhinged in her desperation for perfection in ballet and to be a star in her ballet company. When she is cast as the Swan Queen, the dark and seductive role of the titular Black Swan is seen to be difficult for her because she is frigid, meek, and cold. She feels threatened by a rival ballerina, Lily (Mila Kunis) who better embodies the darkness of the Black Swan. As the film progresses and the parallels between the story of the actual ballet itself and the film begin to merge in incredibly meta-textual ways, the line between the White Swan and the Black Swan, between good and evil, and between reality and delusion become twisted in ways that can only be comprehended by multiple viewings of the film.

I always knew Natalie Portman was a talented actress ever since she made The Professional back when she was a child. She has the sort of natural stage presence and delivery that most actresses can only dream of, and to top it all off, she has a beauty and elegance that is simply unmatched by anyone else in Hollywood today. However, I never thought she was capable of this sort of power-house performance. This is the kind of role actresses dream of, and if you do this right, you go down in the history books. I can easily say and say it without any qualifications that Natalie Portman has given one of the most intense and powerful performances of any female actress that I’ve ever seen. I would honestly put this performance in the same league as Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood or Colin Firth in A Single Man. It was just phenomenal. If you have any interest in the sort of acting that makes you believe in the power of movies, then Natalie’s performance is worth the price of admission alone. It was flawless.

The film’s first act was slow, and while watching the intricacies of the ballet system was quite interesting from an educational standpoint (this film, I imagine, will do much for ballet what Aranofsky’s The Wrestler did for wrestling), I was wondering where all of the hype from the film was coming from besides Portman’s performance anyways. Then, somewhere around a little after half-way through the film, Black Swan just shot off into outer-space and never slowed down til the credits rolled. The second half dripped with the sort of style and sheer psychological terror that seasoned masters like David Lynch or Stanley Kubrick throw out with ease. Ever since I saw The Wrestler, I always thought Aranofsky was going to be a big name someday in film, and this movie just cemented those suspicions. He is a top-tier talent and the director that I will now watch every film he makes out of a loyalty to his craft and legacy so far.

I haven’t seen a film that blurred the line between fiction and reality as well as Black Swan since either Mulholland Drive or Lost Highway. If you have any sort of interest in postmodern, psychological cinema, there is absolutely no excuse not to see this film. I honestly can’t decide if this was better than The Social Network or not, which prior to watching Black Swan currently had my vote for best movie of 2010. They are both going to have to have a couple more viewings before I can ultimately make that decision. This film was a hell of a ride, and something I have to watch many more times, and I can’t wait to go right back.

Final Score: A

Well, we’ve gotten to the second film for this blog that won Best Picture at the Academy awards, the first being my review for No Country For Old Men. This time around we have 1983’s Best Picture, the tear-jerker family drama Terms of Endearment, which also picked up awards for direction, screenplay, and acting Oscars for Shirley MacLaine and Jack Nicholson. Where I often have conflicted feelings towards No Country For Old Men as to whether it was truly a great film and worthy of that place in cinema history, I definitely know that I don’t think Terms of Endearment is the kind of film that I would name as the best picture of the year (unless the year was just really awful), but it wasn’t a bad movie either. It just wasn’t great, although the performances from Shirley MacLaine and Jack Nicholson were absolutely fantastic and saved the film from utter mediocrity.

The movie is about a mother and a daughter, Aurora (the mother played to absolute perfection by Shirley MacLaine) and Emma (Debra Winger) Greenway. Aurora is a generally nasty, neurotic, and over-bearing woman, and her daughter is much more care-free and full of life. Emma marries Flap Horton (a very young Jeff Daniels). Jack Nicholson enters the fray as the lecherous, drunk, lout of a neighbor who was also a former astronaut by the name of Garrett Breedlove who starts to thaw the ice queen that is Aurora. The movie is almost 30 years old now so I don’t think I’m giving too much away by saying that eventually Emma is diagnosed with cancer, and that is the heart of the last act of the film which is just absolutely heart-breaking. I was bawling my eyes out, but it’s not necessarily that difficult to make me cry.

The film’s story is nothing to write home about and it’s something that you’ve seen a million times. However, the writing is, during some scenes, actually pretty excellent. The movie can be riotously funny, especially when it focuses on the relationship between Aurora and Garrett. They both deserved every single accolade and award that they won for this film. Jack Nicholson is still at the top of his game and Shirley MacLaine gives the performance of her career. However, when the moment calls for incredible dramatic acting, Shirley MacLaine is able to deliver there as well. Probably the most famous scene of the film is her yelling to “give my daughter her shots”. She stands right now as having given the best female performance that I’ve reviewed for this blog so far. She was (in Aurora’s words) “fan-fucking-tastic”. I can’t say the same thing for Debra Winger. Every second she was on screen, prior to when she got sick, I just wanted to turn the movie off. Her story and plot was not interesting and her performance was not up to par with the rest of the cast. However, she did manage to do better when she was dying. The last scene with her and her children had me an emotional wreck.

Well, if you’re a woman, you’ll probably enjoy this movie more than I did. I hope that I didn’t come off as sexist, but this is a film about two women and their troubled relationships with men. Perhaps, I had some difficulty relating to the predicaments because of what chromosomes I have. But, this movie was ok. I was expecting it to be much worse and much more maudlin, and there was actually a lot more life to the film than what I was expecting. Obviously, if you’re a real movie buff, you need to watch it since it won Best Picture, but that’s really the only main reason I would give to watching it.

Final Score: B