Suffragette packs a punch. It’s a soldiering tribute to the women who fought for the right to vote and paved the way for the feminist movement in the UK. While the script might be a little too biopic friendly, it’s still a rousing film full of outstanding performances. Director Sarah Gavron wisely frames the conflict through the eyes of Maud (Carey Mulligan), and she keeps the drama at an intimate level, all while hinting at the larger scope of the movement nationwide.

Instead of going big, Suffragette puts us in the shoes of Maud Watts, an outsider to the movement, who works as a launderer. What I really liked about the film is that you hear murmurs about this group led by the charismatic Emmeline Pankhurst (Meryl Streep) and their activities throughout the first half of the film. They are sort of portrayed as a small-scale movement that won’t cause much damage, but when Maud decides to get involved and get active, we see firsthand how powerful the group is. Obviously with a film like this many know the story already, yet Gavron and writer Abi Morgan literally put you in Maud’s shoes as she gets deeper into the action, with protests and bombings aplenty.

Carey Mulligan is a revelation as Maud. Her best performance since An Education, Mulligan is pitch perfect for the role. She’s such a natural actor that practically everything she feels, you feel alongside her. Gavron favors close-ups of the women in these harsh work conditions, and it works at getting underneath their skin and bringing the raw emotion to life. Other suffragettes Edith Ellyn (Helena Bonham Carter), Violet (Anne-Marie Duff), and Emily (Natalie Press) make quite an impact too. It isn’t exactly an ensemble cast – Mulligan carries most of the film’s weight – but it’s nice having supporting characters that make a lot of background noise and are actually memorable characters rather than props. Unfortunately Meryl Streep doesn’t have that same luxury. Her character is portrayed as a god-like being, and while this might have been true for the suffragettes, she is only present in the film for less than five minutes and doesn’t make a lasting impression on the audience.

The script is marvelous at bringing to life early 20th century London, and the production design is gorgeous. The murky city breathes deep, as the dark alleys where these women plot their attacks is paralleled with the brighter scenes of the lawmakers in Parliament. The film on the whole has a feeling of a pot on a burner, ready to boil over any minute. It’s a testament to the writing and direction that can convey a sense of natural urgency driven by history. Additionally a beautiful score from Alexandre Desplat (my favorite composer) accompanies the action and keeps the lows low and the highs high.

The brilliant script works at showing how Maud and the activists practiced civil disobedience and “unladylike” tactics while facing oppression from both home and the government. It does grow a bit tiresome towards the end, however, and the finale doesn’t quite have the impact that it might have expected. There are many moments that could be considered climactic, and the one chosen is brilliant, but the falling action leads to a poor final few minutes. Of course it ends with typical true story text and a list of countries when women gained the right to vote (which is genius), but the ending could’ve been a little more out-of-the-box than what we got. Another coat of polish could’ve elevated Suffragette from a striking biopic to something in a league of its own. Regardless, Suffragette falls under the category of “essential viewing,” and it manages to be both entertaining and important. Nailing that balance for films like this is key, and Suffragette brings a wallop.


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Posted by on October 8, 2015 in Movie Reviews


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The Walk


The Walk is more than just an “only see it in theaters” event. Director Robert Zemeckis has made such a beautiful film, one that balances whip smart family-friendly storytelling with 3D thrills from above, and the end result is staggering. The best cinematic event since Gravity, The Walk is a story of human endeavor, made better with IMAX but still standing on its own merits.

Structure-wise, The Walk is a bit by-the-books, but that’s not a bad thing. Brimming with exposition, the filmmakers know we’re all waiting for the main event, that is, the titular walk. But The Walk takes its sweet time getting there, and the payoff is quite worth it. We see Philippe Petit’s humble beginnings in France, his obsession with tightrope-walking, and the seeds are planted in him to hang his wire across the newly-completed Twin Towers in New York City. This first hour is immediately approachable, but not very complex or stirring. Petit narrates the entire film, removing a layer of subtlety but making the film very accessible. After all, this is a movie about a man walking across a wire, so the complexity is a bit transparent.

This is a wise decision, and it works narratively. Joseph Gordon-Levitt sells Petit and his ambitions, silly accent and all. The film has an aura of playfulness, and Gordon-Levitt has the kind of charm and charisma that draws you in and lingers the entire two hours. Zemeckis favors close-ups, and we see every pore of Petit in IMAX 3D. It makes the whole thing very personal, and we’re with Petit 100% in his ridiculous plan to walk across the Twin Towers.

After the exposition, the film really gets rolling, as Petit and his girlfriend Annie (Charlotte Le Bon) assemble a crew to sneak into the towers and set up shop. It’s all very fun as the gang plans the math and plans the heist to help Petit achieve his death-defying goal. When Petit finally takes his first step on his wire, it feels like the culmination of a job well done, and the thrills only go up from here.

The Walk is a cinematic event, and a perfect family film. The climax is made better by the somber finale, with a brilliant final tag. Anchored by an impressive performance by Joseph Gordon-Levitt – one of his best – The Walk succeeds in wowing both the thrill seekers and the storytellers.

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Posted by on October 2, 2015 in Movie Reviews


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The Martian


Like the astronaut the film is named for, The Martian is very focused and practical. It doesn’t match the ambition or spectacle of Gravity or Interstellar, but The Martian is a no-nonsense science fiction film that knows exactly what it needs to do. Director Ridley Scott and screenwriter Drew Goddard adapt Andy Weir’s fantastic book with the same grit and humor of the writing style and keep it close to earth, resulting in a satisfying film full of awe.

Survival stories are one in a million, yet what makes The Martian different is that Mark Watney is literally thousands of miles away on Mars. There’s little human drama, not many tears, despite the fact that this situation is life or death and couldn’t get much more dire. Matt Damon brings Watney to life with the same sarcastic wit of Guardians of the Galaxy’s Starlord but with the practicality of Macgyver. He’s a brilliant protagonist, never wasting any time as he awaits rescue on the red planet.

While reading “The Martian,” I was surprised to see that Mark wasn’t the only main character. The trailers gave that away, but the supporting characters in The Martian are doing just as much heavy lifting as Mark. It’s an ensemble piece with a stellar cast despite being about one man. The way everyone unites around bringing Mark home gives the film a sense of community. We have three main camps: Mark on Mars, the Hermes crew in space, and the NASA crew on earth. These three different perspectives make the film never feel repetitive, as I couldn’t imagine being stuck with Mark for 150 minutes.

The Martian is a love letter to space exploration, and it shows. The film is an impressive craft, with strict attention to detail and scientific accuracy. Every character gets to shine, whether its the devoted Hermes Commander Lewis (Jessica Chastain, who always shines), to the behind the scenes work of satellite specialist Mindy Park (Mackenzie Davis). Apart from a miscast Donald Glover as the eccentric Rich Purnell, the supporting cast is terrific, especially Chastain and Chiwetel Ejiofor. I also wanted to especially give a shoutout to the score from veteran Harry Gregson-Williams, which creates tension yet keeps the pace steady the entire way through; add The Martian to the list of sci-fi films with impressive scores.

What I love about The Martian is its ability to balance all of these elements yet still not feel overlong. It’s a long film, to be sure, but I never grew tired of any individual element. Sure, the script could use a few less sci-fi cliches – I can’t stand when a character says “in English, please” to any technological talk – but The Martian wisely avoids the pitfalls of other survival stories. I recently saw the film Everest, another survival film of a different nature, and it was a mess of a film. What sets these two films apart is that I actually cared for Mark Watney. He made the best of a bad situation, and its his engineering and botany skills but also his attitude that got him back home in one piece. The Martian is a smart film made for smart moviegoers with an impressive cast and awe-inspiring 3D moments, overflowing with character.

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Posted by on October 1, 2015 in Movie Reviews


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Masters of Sex Season 3

One of my favorite dramas on TV, Showtime’s Masters of Sex continues to be such an understated show. It’s not particularly showy – the production draws you in but doesn’t linger – and sometimes the plot can be at a standstill. But Masters of Sex, like its eponymous sex researchers Masters and Johnson, understands interpersonal relationships on such an intimate scale that results in riveting one-on-one moments that hit every emotional beat. These very well-developed characters continue to frustrate and make mistakes, yet they remain utterly compelling. This is due to the success of showrunner Michelle Ashford’s deep understanding of these fascinating figures and the wonderful performances of the show’s two leads.

Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan continue to carry the show and season three had plenty of outstanding moments between the two. A time jump takes us into 1965, when Masters and Johnson have officially been recognized for their contributions to the community and are essentially celebrities. The show throws many obstacles their way including grappling with fame in interesting ways, shoving unorthodox patients into their clinic (movie stars? gorillas?), and seeking a way to expand their research by way of a surrogacy program and potential investors.


That’s already a lot, and I wish the show did a bit more with these plots. The previous seasons were grounded in a lot of wordy scientific fact, so thematically the drama this time around isn’t as compelling. A few stumbles here and there include a surrogacy program handled as confusingly as it sounds to the patients and an entire episode devoted to treating a sexually dysfunctional gorilla. That’s right, you heard it correctly. Masters of Sex has never shied away from the extremes – they are, after all, ahead of their time – and many times it’s paid off, but when Johnson flashed a gorilla I thought it might spell the end of the series.

Luckily I was wrong, as Masters of Sex continues to excel at the quieter moments that get at the heart of the complicated web that is Masters and Johnson’s relationship. Virginia’s struggle to achieve her professional goals while still putting her happiness first gets her in a complicated mess with investor Dan Logan (Josh Charles). Her relationship with Bill maintains the ‘walking on eggshells’ feel as the two dive into their research while many things remain unsaid. Things get even more complicated when an old friend of Bill’s appears (Emily Kinney) and implants herself in the research and Bill’s life. These are the kinds of threads that work because Sheen and Caplan have irresistible chemistry. It’s not showy, and the two remain experts in leaving things unsaid, but their faces show their truer selves. Josh Charles adds to this excellent mix as he matches the two in charisma and poise.

So we have great episodes like “Three’s a Crowd” and “Matters of Gravity” along with some misfires like “Monkey Business,” but Masters of Sex doesn’t end with Virginia and Johnson. Yes, that’s right, Libby Johnson is still around to stir things up, but this time around I appreciated her plot much more than last season’s. Libby’s attempt to find purpose in her life leads her to her neighbor Paul Edley, whose wife suffered a traumatic accident. While the traditional ‘Libby speech’ still finds its way into every episode, actress Caitlin Fitzgerald seems to have become more confident and gotten a grip on what makes Libby tick. The expanded focus on family this season, both Masters’s and Johnson’s, has given her more to do than just meddle, as Libby has legitimate stake with the livelihood of her family.


Some other plots come up episodically, and some work better than others. I wish Virginia’s daughter Tessa had more to do as she had the most heartbreaking scenes early in the season. Young actress Isabelle Fuhrman is fascinating and she avoids the trap of being an obnoxious entitled teenager (Dana Brody, anybody?). Even the Scullys pop in for an episode or two, most likely going for that Guest Actress nomination (if that’s the only award that this show will garner), and Beau Bridges and Allison Janney are always welcome on my television. These ones worked, but I can’t help but feel more time should’ve been spent in the clinic with Virginia and Bill, as some of the plots I mentioned above could use some sanding around the edges. The show wastes an astronomical amount of time with Helen (Sarah Silverman) and Betty’s (Annaleigh Ashford) quest to have a baby, going so far as to dig up Austin Langham’s (Teddy Sears) character for a quick fix. This was perhaps the season’s second biggest mistake, as we aren’t invested in the two’s relationship in the slightest. It only worked to advance the surrogacy plot and not add any real depth to these characters.

When Masters of Sex is focusing on Bill and Virginia’s relationship and not messing around with supporting characters or messy plot threads, everything sings in harmony. Sheen and Caplan have gotten so deep into these characters, so much that despite knowing how these historical figures get on, we still remain invested at every corner. This season was the best thematically as many things came to light, especially in the explosive penultimate episode and harrowing, somber finale. The series gets at the role of women in a professional environment, sexual mores of the late 20th century, and how to account for emotion in objective research. It’s all fascinating stuff, and with brilliant production and phenomenal performances, the show fills my period drama void just fine.


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Posted by on September 27, 2015 in TV Reviews


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Difficult People


Well this one was definitely a surprise. The last thing we need is a show about unlikable people living in New York City, navigating their love life and careers. But Difficult People came out of nowhere, featuring a pair of hysterical protagonists that push people away, yet are always there for each other.

Duo Billy Eichner and Julie Klausner (also the creator) have irresistible chemistry, and the show is instantly quotable. They both work as comedians, a laughable career that any struggling professional can relate to. As they attempt to get their work appreciated, they work part-time at cafes and write TV recaps. Difficult People is surprisingly accurate in its modern depiction of show business in 2015. They lose jobs to twitter comedians and people half their age, and spend their time bickering and wallowing in their self-pity.

The writing in Difficult People is outstanding. While initially it may seem to rely solely on celebrity name drops and overuse of expletives, you realize this is simply Billy and Julie’s characters. They’re salty and bitter, so their only solace is talking smack on twitter about people more successful than them. Of course the show can only rely on Uber references and Woody Allen jokes for so long, and that’s why the best episodes, The Children’s Menu and Premium Membership, are the ones where Billy and Julie try out-of-the-box entrepreneurial ventures, that sound straight out of the Shark Tank reject bin. The show is relentlessly creative, and you can’t wait to see what dumb ideas they come up with next. The show pokes fun at everything from podcast culture to telethons to Jewish hospitality, and almost nothing is safe.

Plot-wise there isn’t much going on here, but this is an eight episode season (it’s already been renewed), so a lack of character development is expected. Supporting characters make a surprisingly strong impact, with Julie’s boyfriend Arthur playing the straight man to Billy and Julie’s zaniness. Additionally, Andrea Martin has plenty of scene stealers as Julie’s mother, who misses her shows to treat her therapy patients over the phone.

Difficult People definitely relies on the strength of its stars to carry the weight, and carry this weight they do. Eichner and Klausner may not sell the emotional scenes, and some flat character development requires the focus to be solely on the comedy, but it’s always on point. I can see a lot of people being turned off by the show, either because of Billy and Julie’s snarkiness or the unrelatability of the premises. But its observations into showbiz in NYC, modern gay culture, and what it means to be a comedian in 2015 are eerily accurate and it’s clear the show has plenty more up its sleeve.

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Posted by on September 16, 2015 in Uncategorized


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Show Me a Hero

I’ve been really into miniseries lately, and I’ve learned that some shows are best suited for the shorter style. Show Me a Hero is one of those. While it spans several years in the life of mayor Nick Wasicsko, it tells a grander tale, one of community integration, back door politics, and a tragic marriage. The title is derived from an F. Scott Fitzgerald quote – show me a hero and I’ll write you a tragedy – and that’s exactly what writer David Simon has done. What they’ve made is nothing short of a masterpiece, a 6-part series with winning performances that hits some major themes and develops outstanding characters.

Show Me a Hero is a timely tale, at a time when racial tension is still rampart. It’s tempting to call it “relevant” because in many ways it is, but at the same time this is the story of a city at a crossroads. The first few episodes introduce us to Yonkers and newly elected official Wasicsko, and the housing crisis they are facing. Essentially it boils down to this: the city was forced to erect new low-income townhouses after an investigation revealed that the city had segregated the units. The city and its leaders faced fines as they had to get the approval passed, and things got quite nasty as they navigated the complicated politics of the late 1980s.


Writers David Simon and William Zorzi wisely frame the drama in a variety of ways, with a cast of characters that will never meet, but are directly affected by the city’s actions. We open with Wasicsko, a wide-eyed young official eager to enter the world of politics. Haunted by his father’s passing and the city’s expectations of him, Nick is a tragic figure. Oscar Isaac nails the New York bravado and in-your-face attitude Nick possesses at work, but at home with his wife Nay (the terrific Carla Quevedo), he’s a different story. Initially, Nick is all business as he just wants Yonkers to avoid going under, but his views shift as his ego gets the best of him and he wants to make history as mayor.

The other half of the story is seen through the eyes of a few Yonkers residents. Chief of these are those who are hoping to earn a spot in the new townhomes. Norma, Billie, Doreen, Carmen, and others are the real protagonists of the series, as their struggles are paralleled with their desire for a better life for their children, significant others, etc. As they hope to leave the projects and assimilate in the white neighborhoods in their housing units, the drama takes place around them, but doesn’t portray their struggles as insignificant. The young Billie, for instance, with two children and a boyfriend on parole, ended up being my favorite character. Her resilience at a turning point in her young life makes her stand out amidst all of the white councilmen and the politics at play. All of the stories are given equal weight in Show Me a Hero, nothing is inconsequential.


A couple other supporting characters keep the stories afloat, principally Mary Dorman, played by the almost unrecognizable Catherine Keener. A white homeowner in the neighborhoods where the apartments are being erected, she initially disapproves of the notion due to economic concerns, but she comes around. It could be easy to make her a white savior, but her behavior mirrors that of a person who is simply seeing the errors of her ways. She has the best arc of the series, and her storyline resembles Wasicsko’s in similar ways, although not as tragic.

But it doesn’t end there. Show Me a Hero is incredibly complex. It’s difficult to review for many reasons because it has many moving parts. It’s hugely ambitious in just six episodes, yet manages to make the story intimate and high stakes for everyone involved. The NAACP plays a big part in the first few episodes, with Jon Bernthal and Peter Riegert as city planner Oscar Newman, whose defensible space theories play an integral part in the planning of the city and the neighborhood units.


As I was watching it, I kept thinking that Show Me a Hero would make an excellent staged play. The different stories portrayed here make for excellent dramatic tension and the host of characters keeps it from going dull. Production wise, though, we would miss very much. Director Paul Haggis (of Crash) does great work with the tight hallways of Yonkers city hall and the tight hallways of the housing projects. He films the angry town hall meetings with gusto, balancing all the noise with somber close-ups and bracing cuts. The direction goes the extra mile to making you feel involved in the action even as an observer, much like you are taking a stand on the issue along with the rest of Yonkers.

Show Me a Hero is the best miniseries I’ve ever seen. The character development at play here is outstanding, with more complex characters than a five season full-length drama. The true life issues being debated here are important, and their importance isn’t understated in the two groups highlighted throughout. Show Me a Hero draws you in with Oscar Isaac (Emmy please?) and the other terrific actors, but you’ll stick around for the complexity and the outstanding script.


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Posted by on September 1, 2015 in TV Reviews


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Mistress America


I have a soft spot for films set in New York City, and what a surprise Mistress America turned out to be. Noah Baumbach’s second film this year, Mistress America makes great use of its protagonists in a film about female friendship and coming of age in an urban jungle.

When college freshman Tracy first reaches out to Brooke, she does so out of loneliness and sense of duty. Their parents are getting married, but she isn’t ready for what Brooke has in store for her. Tracy, played by wide-eyed newcomer Lola Kirke, is that awkward freshman that we all were. Not quite yet an adult, but full of ambition and desire. This ambition is mirrored in Tracy’s interactions with Brooke, an almost thirty-something who has dreams of opening a restaurant-slash-hair salon-slash-grocery store. Brooke is full of ideas, and you can literally see the spark behind Gerwig’s eyes. She fiercely steps into Brooke’s shoes, matching the role she took on in Frances Ha. Her confidence and ambition is contagious, and Tracy catches this. Baumbach has examined young ambition and vigor many times before, but not quite like this.

Mistress America is overflowing with quotable one-liners, mostly from Brooke herself. She’s straight out of the show Girls yet with more independence and likability. We all know someone like Brooke, a young someone who laments about the need to document our lives on social media yet would take more than five minutes to send out a crafty tweet. Someone who is full of ideas but not quite sure how to get there, instead harboring hatred at her rival for stealing her fiancé and her t-shirt line. Brooke spews out these truths like nobody’s business, and you wonder if Brooke is actually the prophet she claims to be or if it comes to her on the fly. The term “free spirit” is used a lot these days, often incorrectly, but Brooke Cardinas definitely fits the bill.

In Lola, we get the creativity of a young writer hoping to make it big. In this case, ‘make it’ means earning a spot in her school’s prestigious writer’s club. Her chemistry with Brooke is inspirational one moment, and self-reflective in another. It helps that Gerwig and Kirke have a natural rapport. The two feel like old friends by the end of the movie, despite only having a few months pass.

Mistress America is screwball at its finest, with a host of supporting characters adding to the zaniness of the whole affair. A lengthly sequence that plays out at Brooke’s rival’s suburban Connecticut home is a huge highlight in the film that puts such focus on the busy streets of NYC. It’s almost Shakespearian the way that the comedic beats keep coming one after another, barely giving you time to process before another character enters the room delivering the next witty zinger. Mistress America is Baumbach at his best. Two incredible young actresses play two different yet similar characters with some of the best writing I’ve seen this year.

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Posted by on August 21, 2015 in Movie Reviews


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