And the Nominees Are 2014: Round 3

I promise I do plan on continuing to blog about other things during awards season, but not today. My parents came to stay with me for the holiday, which I thought would slow down my award season viewing, but it really didn’t at all.

Top of the Lake

This show is almost unbearably tense. I meant to finish watching it before my parents arrived last Sunday, but I couldn’t watch more than one episode at a time. You can never tell which characters you should trust and whenever you start to feel yourself liking someone they start beating themselves with a belt maybe, or turn out to be a rapist… I know that this is the position that Robin (Elisabeth Moss) is in, but as a viewer you aren’t always clear if you can trust her. Every plot twist manages to take things to an even darker place up until the last minutes. (And the premise here is that a pregnant twelve year old girl has gone missing in remote New Zealand – it manges to find many, many ways to get darker than that.)

Overall I was left with an overwhelming feeling of “what the fuck” at the end of this: what the fuck are these people supposed to do? What the fuck did I just watch? What the fuck is up with Holly Hunter and those women living in shipping containers? (Actually I have a theory that they are there simply to give Robin a release valve, somewhere she can go in Lake Top to get away from the relentless violent misogyny.)

On a completely different note, I have to say I do not envy the Golden Globe voters, how do you compare something like this (a seven episode fully immersive mystery series) to something like Behind the Candelabra? They just simply aren’t the same medium, it would be really hard for me to choose.

Inside Llewyn Davis

I knew from the trailer that I was going to love this movie. And I was right. It’s brilliant, my favorite Coen brothers since O, Brother Where Art Thou? (Maybe I just want them to make more folk music movies? The Coens present “Americana Throughout the Ages”…? I would totally watch that.) I went to see this one with my parents, because it’s about my Dad’s “era” (as he is very fond of saying). I usually make fun of him for his constant claiming of the early ’60s, but this movie really captured a moment in time, and he gave it full marks.

Aside from the paternal seal of approval, what I loved about this movie was its dreamlike quality. It managed to have a plot while still feeling removed from linear time. That might seem like I’m saying that stuff seems to happen though nothing really happens, but isn’t that sort of the essence of a lot of life? And Llewyn’s life is punctuated by the most heartbreaking moments and populated with wonderful (and ridiculous) people. (In particular to see Adam Driver, Stark Sands, and Garrett Hedlund.) Oscar Isaac does a great job at playing numb and then emoting like crazy while singing. (Have I mentioned yet that the music is amazing? Well, it is…)

American Hustle

During The Hollywood Reporter Roundtable this year, Amy Adams referred to David O. Russell as the only “method director” she’d ever come across, meaning that his style seemed to drastically change between The Fighter and American Hustle. And I can see what she means, this movie is both a totally departure from last year’s Silver Linings Playbook and almost a companion piece to it. (How many forms of human desperation and yearning for connection can we fit into one crime caper?)

The costumes, beauty, and set dressing decisions make this initially feel like high camp, but even with their ridiculous hair these are still ridiculously human characters. I’m really glad they got an ensemble nomination at the SAGs because they totally a team here. With a few standouts of course – Amy Adams (whom I have loved since Junebug) is brilliant in this, switching from vulnerable to badass in the course of one accent-switching monologue. Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper are also captivating in smaller roles.

I had a complicated reaction to Christian Bale in this, he carries the meat of the movie well, but I would love to see him act in a role without torturing his body into the character or hiding behind a mask. I trust that he has commitment, but can he act?

Also “Dirty Work” is an amazing song.

Frozen

Without planning it, this past week was all about the music for me, that’s always the best part of a Disney animated movie and this one (ironically) warmed my musical theater nerd heart. Idina Menzel! Santino Fontana! Jonathan Groff!

But aside from the songs (which are good) this is a wonderful little modern fairy tale. (And that ice must have been hard to animate – that castle was intricate a beautiful.) Firstly, I agree with pretty much everything this Jezebel writer said. And I second her applause for Elsa’s “wait what? You’re marrying who?” reaction to her sister’s love at first sight betrothal.

Secondly, I highly recommend going to see this during the day on a Saturday, yes I know little kids are distracting, but they are who this movie is for and it was really charming to listen to the little girl next to me try to figure out whether the sister was “nice” or why Hans was  suddenly “mean to the princess.”

Also little kids love Olaf the snowman – and so will you

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And the Nominees are 2014: Round 2

This was my first official week of award season watching and it got off to a bit of mixed start, but there were some gems:

Nebraska

I was really excited to see this movie I really love the Alexander Payne movies that I’ve seen, and I’m always intrigued by the choice to shoot in black and white in this post-Technicolor age. And I wouldn’t say I was disappointed, but this wasn’t exactly what I expected either. First of all, in what world is this a comedy? Yes there are a few funny moments, and June Squibb’s entire character was clearly meant to be played for laughs, but this is a bleak film. If the premise, Bruce Dern believes what people tell him even when those people are the Publisher’s Clearinghouse, is meant to be the thing we’re laughing at I’m just not very interested in that (and neither were the other people in my theater.)

Ignoring the stupidity of genre distinctions, Dern really is spectacular in this, he plays Woody Grant’s doddering, selectively deaf, confusion perfectly, and in the moments where he lights up it’s truly wonderful to see. Unfortunately he is often playing against people who are so dim that the interactions play as slightly wooden. I’ll admit that will Forte grew on me, but Squibb continued to grate a bit throughout. As a whole the family was completely believable though.

The strength of this movie was in individual shots. Some of them were arresting. The one of Bruce Dern in profile that everyone knows from the poster is great, but by favorite was a close up of Forte exiting a bathroom slowly realizing his Dad has just spilled a secret to the whole town.

The shots are beautiful, but I’m just not sure they come together into anything.

Behind the Candelabra

Michael Douglas’s smile might be the creepiest thing I’ve seen this year. Especially when he’s standing shirtless, without his wig…Liberace has always creeped me out – that relentless cheeriness and strange voice…so I went a long time without seeing this. I knew the tabloid version of the story: the age difference (which was even more extreme in real life Thorson was 18!), the plastic surgery, and the palimony suit. But I was genuinely surprised by the actual tenderness between Damon’s Thorson and Liberace. (I know that it’s based on his memoir, but he seemed sort of wonderful to me, though his decisions baffled me.)

It’s pretty obvious that Steven Sodebergh had so much fun with the high camp style here, there’s no other way to tell this story, but he still managed to put his stamp on it too. The scene where Scott throws up in the adult bookstore while neon lights swirled around reminded me a lot of the similar drugged disillusionment sequences in Magic Mike.

I liked the funeral scene too, it reminded me of the end of All that Jazz, but here it made thematic sense.

Betty & Coretta

 

I know this only got one nomination for Angela Bassett at the SAGs, but really it was just bad. It’s a Lifetime movie, and it’s trying to be something more serious, which is the kiss of death for that genre. I will say that the story was an interesting one, I was totally unaware of the friendship between Betty Shabazz and Coretta Scott King, and I would love to see a film about it that treats these women like they have internal emotional lives, but that is not this movie. Instead it feels like an extended historical reenactment from an old PBS documentary, with Ruby Dee as the talking head. (Did Dee and Bassett not know what network they were working for?)

On the positive side (because I will always try to find one, the costumes were great.)

Philomena

Once again, genre distinctions make no sense, this is clearly a drama (as it is categorized), but it is so much funnier than Nebraska (which is competing as a comedy).

Anyway…we all know Judi Dench is amazing, and she is delightful as a woman who has so much more strength and dignity than Steve Coogan’s Martin (as the stand in for the intellectual upper class) gives her credit for.

The story of the Magdalene laundries is disgusting and heartbreaking, and I’m happy to see it handled in a straightforward, non-melodramatic way. The mystery of who Philomena’s son ended up being is a wonderful device even if it’s a “human interest piece.” (I also really appreciated the way the movie takes aim at the silly way we tier news stories, dismissing the forced servitude and unwilling revocation of maternal rights of hundreds of young catholic women is dismissible of course.)

Steve Coogan was really good at playing a sad sack straight man as always.

And the Nominees Are 2014: Round 1

It’s the most wonderful time of the year! No, not Christmas (though I’m also very happy about that…) with last week’s announcements of the SAG Award and Golden Globe nominations it is officially award season, which means that if you know me in real life I’ll probably be a little harder to reach for the next month or two, because I’ll be movie theater and Redbox hopping all over the city.

If you’re new to the blog, I try to see all the nominees for the SAG Awards, Golden Globes, BAFTAs and Oscars each year (well I tried to see all the nominees last year, this year I’m just going to attempt/blog about the nominees in the major categories (Acting, Directing, Writing, Best…) which is still an overwhemling list, but I did a pretty good job of seeing some in advance this year, namely they were:

Captain Phillips

First and foremost, despite Tom Hanks giving the best performance of his career since Castaway, this movie belongs to Barkhad Abdi, he was a taxi driver in Minneapolis, who went to a cattle call audition mostly on a whim and so inhabits his character (the lead pirate that invades Hanks’ ship) with such humanity that it takes what could have been a cut and dry story and makes it multi-dimensional. I’m not sure where he goes from here, but someone please put him in a movie – I mean he ad-libbed the one line that is absolutely guaranteed to be in at least one Oscar montage this year. (Watch this clip, you’ll know which line I’m talking about.)

I’ve never seen Paul Greengrass’ Bourne films, but his previous takes on historical events, particularly Bloody Sunday about the Troubles in Northern Ireland, are almost documentaries in my mind for his ability to show all sides of a tense situation without pandering or automatically making the underdog likeable, that’s true here, and more than that this movie does what Argo did last year which is keep me on the edge of my seat even though I knew the outcome.

Blue Jasmine

There are two kinds of Woody Allen movies: ones where the formula works (Annie Hall, Midnight in Paris, Manhattan, etc.) and ones where it doesn’t (last year’s aimless To Rome with Love to name just one). This movie is definitely on the good side of the coin, but it doesn’t really deserve any awards for originality. It’s essentially a riff on A Streetcar Named Desire, but with Blanche’s tragic backstory spelled out in flashback. Cate Blanchett does a wonderful Blanche, but her performance never really rises above that for me.

As with any good Woody movie the strength of this film is its cast, and I am so happy that the Golden Globes have nominated Sally Hawkins for her performance, she can’t help but be wonderfully human in every moment she’s on-screen even when she’s playing against caricatures.

12 Years a Slave

It took me forever to force myself to watch this, Steve McQueen’s reputation for unflinching depictions of disturbing subject matter scared me a lot and I just wasn’t sure that I was going to be able to take this, but then I realized that thought process reeks of privilege and I don’t want to be that kind of person so…I went. And I cried, and shook and said “Oh my Lord” out loud so many times that I must have pissed off the nice people in the theater next to me.

It seems this year is the year of the supporting performance, because my memories of this film are haunted by Lupita Nyong’o as the Patsy, slave girl coveted and tortured by her sadistic master (Michael Fassbender – who made me believe that he was truly evil and is such a talented man.) Not to say that Chiwitel Ejiofor isn’t amazing, because he is, and he plays Solomon as a full human being, not a pitiful victim.

This movie is Important, note the capital I, but it’s also visually interesting and arresting without being condescending. There are some supporting/cameo actors that I could feel “acting,” but McQueen’s refusal to turn away from the horrors of slavery is remarkable and valuable.

Dallas Buyers Club

This movie depicts a side of the AIDS crisis that doesn’t get talked about, that of straight victims and the controversy surrounding the administration of early treatments like AZT. It’s fascinating in many ways and disturbing in others. Matthew McConaughey does a wonderful job showing us a complicated human, not just a victim, but an opportunist who grows to know people he wouldn’t have talked to without punching them. That sounds trite, but his brashness keeps it from actually being so.

Going with my theme – Jared Leto’s supporting turn here is breathtaking. Everyone will focus on when he’s in drag, but the real acting triumph in my opinion comes in the scene where he puts on an ill-fitting suit to go beg from his father, it’s the truest moment of emotion in the movie.

On the other side of things, Jennifer Garner’s performance confirms my thoughts about her – she seems like a very nice, strong woman, but I never thought of her as anything other than Jennifer Garner in a doctor’s coat. She is a really good ugly crier though. (As is McConaughey…)

The movie has a major problem with how it portrays women in general, there is a real Madonna/whore thing going one that I really didn’t expect. I get that the real man probably had misogynist relationships with strippers etc. but the graphic images of women’s bodies were really jarring to me.

Gravity

This was the first 3D movie I’ve ever seen that actually needed to be seen in 3D. It was engrossing, I felt genuinely dizzy at the end. This also could have been because it was so tense, I got afraid that it was a horror movie at the beginning, but it quickly becomes clear that it is really a character study. And Sandra Bullock carries the whole weight of that so well. She retroactively has earned her Oscar for The Blind Side now in my eyes. Beyond being visually arresting, I really enjoyed the unexpected humaneness of the story, there was hope for her even when all seemed lost, but again not in a trite way.

Bonus Adventure: Great Expectations at Strawdog

(it’s been extended through the 22nd)

I’m probably the only former English major in the world that didn’t know the story of Great Expectations. I knew there was a character named Pip and that it was by Charles Dickens and that Mrs. Havisham is a crazy lady who stopped all clocks on her wedding day, but that was it.

While this probably says a lot about my tendency to choose less canonical writers to focus on in college, it actually set me up quite nicely to enjoy Strawdog Theater’s production of Great Expectations last night. The energetic production kept me on the edge of my seat wondering exactly what Dickensian coincidences would occur to make the inclusion of a convict running through a marsh necessary to a story of a “course common boy” becoming a “gentleman.”

Mike Tepeli charms his way through Pip’s story, backed up beautifully by the whole ensemble, but particularly memorably by John Taflan as his roommate turned best friend Hector and the chameleon-esque John Ferrick as both the heartbreakingly humble Joe and the smarmy rival for Estella’s affections. (I have issues with the character of Estella by the way, but those issues are with Dickens not the lovely Amanda Drinkall or director Jason Gerace so I’ll leave them to when – if ever – I get around to actually reading the book.)

To pull off Dickens with a cast of six is an achievement in of itself, and these six in particular were spectacular. (And judging by Julia’s equally enthusiastic reaction, even if you do know the story beforehand it’s totally worth seeing.)

 

The show runs through December 22nd at the Strawdog Theater at 3829 N. Broadway

Weekly Adventure: The Upstairs Concierge at the Goodman

I like free things, free theater especially, so when I get e-mails from wonderful institutions like the Goodman Theater offering me free tickets to a new play festival, I get really excited. Which is how I ended up with really good seats at last night’s workshop performance of Kristoffer Diaz’s new farce The Upstairs Concierge.

I’m not going to write a full review, because the script isn’t done, and I can only hope that the (few) places that dragged will be tightened up in the revision process. But I will say that there are some really funny bits, and lots of good old style opening the wrong door choreography.

Mostly, I’m writing because I want to praise a couple members of the cast, who were remarkably well prepared and entertaining on three weeks of rehearsal. The titular Concierge is played with real warmth by Tawny Newsome, and she manages to transition from being the butt of the joke at the beginning to the likeable everywoman at the end. She’s helped along by a delightfully cast crew of misfits, Lawrence Grimm, Christina Nieves, and Travis Turner are particularly wonderful.

The workshop runs through December 22nd at the Owen Theater at the Goodman – 170 N Dearborn St.

Classics from the Queue: Flirting with Disaster

I’ve had this DVD from Netlix for over a month, because although the trailer looked funny, it looked very self-consciously “wacky,” and it was hard to motivate myself to sit down and watch a movie that according to all of the packaging seems to build to a scene where Josh Brolin licks Patricia Arquette’s armpit. Then I learned while watching The Hollywood Reporter’s Director’s Roundtable for this year that Flirting with Disaster was directed by David O. Russell, whose last two movies (The Fighter especially) have really stuck with me.

So I decided to give this one a chance. And…it’s not as good as his recent work, but it is really fun. It’s a cute little farce that ably showcases Ben Stiller’s neurotic charm and a delightful madcap supporting cast. Seriously everyone is in the movie – Mary Tyler Moore? Lily Tomlin? Alan Alda? – Yep. Plus that guy who played the Dad on “Just Shoot Me” and Richard Jenkins. Who I really have to single out as amazing, he plays a character that should be pathetic with such warmth that I wanted to watch a whole sequel just about him and Josh Brolin.

This movie isn’t trying to do anything more than have fun. And it succeeds there, and even though the premise – Mel (Stiller) looks across the country for his birth parents – so that he can finally feel secure enough to name his four-month old child, reads potentially grating on paper. I did spend most of the movie wondering why Patricia Arquette’s seemingly intelligent Nancy, would put up with Mel’s bullshit, but at least the movie asks that question too.

Weekly Adventure: Weekend in Galena Edition

So I’ve been a bit of an unplanned blogging hiatus (but that should be ending with all the fun holiday things coming up in the next few weeks.) Anyway this past weekend I and a few friends went up to my boyfriend’s family’s beautiful country house in Galena, IL, which is an adorable little town, where I took too many pictures:

The house was gorgeous

The house was gorgeous

And so is the town!

Galena's "little Italy" - Vinny Vanucci's - and Adam laughing at me for taking so many pictures

Galena’s “little Italy” – Vinny Vanucci’s – and Adam laughing at me for taking so many pictures

The Great American Popcorn Company – aka Heaven

Civil War reenactors - raising money for the Salvation Army

Civil War reenactors – raising money for the Salvation Army

Ulysses S. Grant’s House

Mrs. Julia Dent Grant (who sounds like she was awesome) One of 3 statues of first ladies in the country according to a plaque)

Mrs. Julia Dent Grant (who sounds like she was awesome) One of 3 statues of first ladies in the country according to a plaque)

Stay tuned for more holiday cheer!