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Oscars 2016: Best Actress

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

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Best Actress: The Nominees

Cate Blanchett, Carol

Brie Larson, Room – Will Win, Should Win

Jennifer Lawrence, Joy

Charlotte Rampling, 45 Years

Saoirse Ronan, Brooklyn

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

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

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

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

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

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Posted by on February 10, 2016 in 2016 Academy Awards

 

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Joy

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

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

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

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

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

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

 
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Posted by on December 26, 2015 in Movie Reviews

 

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Carol

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Todd Haynes’s Carol is one of the most romantic films I’ve seen. It’s a film that understands the passion and work that goes into falling in love, including all of the messy complications along the way. With beautiful production design that complements the fiery story, and two fine actresses giving some of the most nuanced performances this year, Carol is a delight for both the heart and the eyes.

When Therese first meets Carol in the department store, sparks don’t immediately fly, but you can see the curiosity in both of their eyes as they contemplate this new crush. The brilliance of Carol lies in the film’s ability to say so much about a forbidden romance in 1950s New York all while being a fairly straightforward film plot wise. Carol (Cate Blanchett) is dealing with the aftermath of a divorce from her husband Harge (Kyle Chandler), while Therese (Rooney Mara) is looking for something more in her life than her boyfriend Richard (Jake Lacy). The stage is set for the two to meet and when they do, it’s pure magic.

As the two women get to know and each other and learn more about one another, the performances beautifully complement the tone. Going from a playful first meet, to more flirtatious dates, to a trip cross-country where they finally acknowledge their feelings for one another; each stage in their romance is more intense than the next, as each lover considers their stake in the relationship as well as the implications it might have.

This is easily a career best for the young Rooney Mara, who last crushed it on-screen in 2011’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. She’s such a refined performer, and she brings Therese’s complexities to life with every calculated look, every nuanced move of her fingers. Notice how her poise changes depending on whom she is with. With Richard she can be more relaxed and contentious when she is upset. But with Carol she regresses into a schoolgirl, her camera being her window into this woman’s life. It’s a meticulous performance that should garner attention next spring.

As for Blanchett, what a top-notch performance she gives, even this late into her excellent filmography. Carol’s the one who initiates the relationship, who gets the ball rolling. Struggling with a nasty custody case over her daughter Rindy and a homophobic husband, Carol carries herself as if everything is fine. She has the aura of a sensual New York socialite but her eyes and face tell a different story. When she “accidentally” leaves her gloves at Therese’s store, she invites her into her world and Therese never looks back.

Carol additionally might have the best production of any film this year. Cinematography, costume design, and production design all complement each other beautifully, and never feel like afterthoughts. It’s so strong that Haynes can evoke such strong emotions and feelings simply through the use of color (simply look at the breathtaking poster above). In this case, red represents Carol herself, and I found myself noticing this subtle and delicate use of color many times, and it’s genius. Other colors make an impression as well, including when Therese is painting her home with her reporter friend. The craftsmanship present here is simply remarkable, with Haynes opting for close-up shots in an intimate car ride as well as more wide shots of New York City. Additionally, the score from Carter Burwell is gorgeous and intimate, with small scale chord progression lying beneath the romance.

Carol’s forbidden romance is one of desire, but also one of escape and curiosity. The film posits the question “how would your life be different if you hadn’t met this one person?” and the film explores many themes regarding sexuality and feminism in the 1950s. But Carol is also a masterpiece of production and performance, with two knockout lead performances that play off each other, creating an irresistible chemistry that only someone like Haynes could conjure up.

 

 
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Posted by on December 2, 2015 in Movie Reviews

 

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Room

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Room is a harrowing thriller, but not in the traditional sense of the word. It deals with a dark subject matter and the first half of the film can be quite disturbing. Yet director Lenny Abrahamson (Frank) has adapted the best-selling novel with grace and grandeur. Here is a film so artistically unique and deviant, chock full of genuine emotion thanks to two outstanding performances, that isn’t afraid to take risks and surprise at every turn.

Based on the novel by Emma Donoghue, Room introduces us to Ma and Jack, a mother and son held captive in a garden shed. As we learn more about their captivity, their world becomes clearer and clearer to us. They live by a routine, have names for every object in room, and Ma must be careful as her son grows older and more curious.

The film is structured into two halves, and by now it’s no spoiler that the second half deals with their readjustment into the outside world, and Jack’s first time outside of room. The film is thematically complex, yet never overwhelming. At its core it’s about motherhood, but Jack’s unique upbringing complicates things.

Director Lenny Abrahamson is no stranger to the strange, and with Room he’s made a masterpiece of filmmaking. The entire idea of ‘room,’ the abstract concept of space, is ever-present in the production. In their bubble of room, Ma and Jack are restricted, as evident by Abrahamson’s close angles and tight shots. The small space allows for high concept filmmaking, and when they get out of room, it only gets better, with a new color palette and experimental camera angles through Jack’s eyes. The entire film is seen through the eyes of this child, and it’s genius. What I loved about the book was its focus on Jack and how he adjusts to seeing this new world for the first time, and the movie never loses sight of that.

I wrote about the pressure placed on child actors in my review for the incredible Beasts of No Nation, and Jacob Tremblay fits like a glove. Like Abraham Attah, he isn’t a child actor, but an actor who just happens to be of a younger age. His wide eyes and expressive thoughts are very believable, and when he sees the outside world for the first time, it’s a thing of beauty. Tremblay has brilliant chemistry with Brie Larson, and for one second I never doubted her devotion to him. As Ma faces frustrating upon leaving room, from her parents, doctors, and the media, she never forgets her son Jack, and always puts his wellbeing first. Larson taps into this character, one that undergoes a stunning transformation as she basically lost seven years of her life being locked up. Her performance will blow you away.

The best actors are the ones able to transport you into their characters’ own universes, no matter how isolated from society they happen to be. Larson, Tremblay, and Joan Allen all have a tremendous range of emotional ability and are able to sell you on their story not just for two hours, but for an entire lifetime. With Room, Abrahamson goes the extra mile with his direction, and director of photography Danny Cohen keeps all eyes on Jack. The film asks us to examine how we view the world and how this viewpoint is shaped by our nurtured upbringing. The result is a breathtaking experience brought to life, one you won’t soon forget.

 

 
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Posted by on October 11, 2015 in Movie Reviews

 

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