I took a mini blog break over the holidays. (Mostly, I just didn’t feel like lugging my laptop back and forth to New Haven…) which means I have a couple of weeks worth of watching to update on. I saw some really good stuff! Including my second favorite film of the year. (You can see my full list on Twitter.)
First things first, Meryl Streep, is obviously the best actress of this generation and maby any generation. But honestly, I feel like I had seen her play this character before, and after awhile the humor of bad singing got kind of old for me.
But, I must say that I was delighted by Hugh Grant‘s performance in this. He does a great job of riding the line between sleezy and charming (like in real life) that kept me wondering if he truly loved Florence or just her money and position. Simon Helberg is also very good and it’s nice to see him do something other thank broad nerd jokes on The Big Bang Theory.
Overall, I found this to be a nice way to spend a few hours on a rainy Sunday afternoon, but I’m glad that I didn’t pay theater prices for it. I did appreciate the warmth and compassion it had for all its characters, and its acknowledgement that there is more than one kind of successful marriage. (Though I do wonder if it is truly a kindness to treat a grown woman like a child, even when it stems form a loving, protective impulse.)
Look. There was no possible version of this movie that I wouldn’t love. A jazzy musical that is both an original score and a love letter to Old Hollywood musicals, directed by Damien Chazelle, starring Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone. That’s got my name written all over it. And I have to say I think this is the best possible version of that movie possible.
The performances are overflowing with charm, but its tempered by real emotion. The music is at turns effervescent, haunting, catchy, and heartbreaking. And the choreography, by Mandy Moore (the So You Think You Can Dance one not the This Is Us/”Candy” one).
(Spoilers below the photo.)
I also found Chazelle’s take on the traditional musical plot very refreshing. It’s tough for two people with equally demanding dreams to find balance, and both are treated as equally important. And a happy ending does not automatically mean a wedding (even an implied one), sometimes it’s a Gene Kelly dream ballet and a slight smile and nod across a room.
I’m not sure why I waited so long to see this. It’s an Austen adaptation starring Kate Beckinsale (whom I’ve always found very charming) and directed by Whit Stillman, whom I have often been told I would love. But it came and went in theaters, and despite great reviews, I couldn’t motivate myself to go. It may be because Lady Susan, the novella this is based on, has never been my favorite Austen. It takes the mean wit she keeps on the edges of her longer works and puts it at the center, which is to borrow a phrase, “a bit tedious.”
But, watching this with my mom on the last night of Christmas vacation, I was pleasantly surprised by how bright and cheerful it was. Stillman uses the score to zip us along through the ridiculous drama that his conniving heroine (Beckinsale) creates for herself, and swiftly blames on others. The heightened tone and delightfully mannered performances (particularly from Tom Bennett as the suitor that makes Pride & Prejudice‘s Mr. Collins seem like a genius of a catch worth holding out for) make it clear that this a trifle. No moralizing or grand romance, so its almost not Austen, but it is a lot of a fun.
I’ll admit right at the top that I didn’t really give this movie my full attention. I rented it from Redbox and was paying my bills and attending to other tedious tasks while watching. But it never really grabbed me in and compelled me to stop puttering. (But that might not be a fair standard for film criticism.)
It’s a little funny that I would preoccupied by paying my student loan while watching a movie that centers around the desperate actions of two men whose mother was screwed over by a predatory bank.
But I digress.
The performances in this are very good. Jeff Bridges is always brilliant and my love Ben Foster does his best scenery chewing Ben Foster thing as the crazed criminaly half of a brother bank heist team. Though, as always, I like him best when he gets quiet and thoughtful. (Now I want to go watch Ain’t Them Bodies Saints again…)
Chris Pine was a revelation for me here. I tend to think of him as a generically-handsome, competent leading man, but he has a real depth and maturity in this.
So, the acting was good. The cinematography captured the bleak beauty of West Texas really well. But that’s all I can really think to say. I don’t have any big gripes. It was fine.
The performances in this movie as very good. Octavia Spencer particularly got the entire packed theater to cheer for her multiple times. And the African-American women who helped get Americans into space deserve absolutely to be remembered and celebrated. And for those reasons, I encourage you to go see this movie.
But, there are moments in this that felt so overwrought that it became close to laughable. The discrimination these woman faced and persevered through was real and harrowing and I don’t want to downplay that at all. But there were speeches that felt written with Oscar clip packages in mind (rather than what the characters’ would actually so/say.)
I’m pretty sure I’m not being fair to this movie. It’s good. Really good even. It’s just that I’ve seen Loving and Jackie recently. So, I have evidence that historical dramas and “issue” movies can be subtle and moving without hitting the audience over the head with a message.
*OK, with the distance of a few days and after reading some positive posts on Facebook, I admit that I may have been being a bit of a snob. This movie is important in that it centers the stories of black women who were not slaves of maids. That is depressingly rare, and we should go buy tickets to support this.
I read a review of this that said it was too much like the play. By which I think the reviewer meant that, by keeping the single setting of the Maxson family home in the Pittsburgh Hill district, makes the story feel caged in or stilted. But frankly, that’s bullshit. August Wilson‘s language is engrossing and stylized. There are monologues in this that sound like Shakespeare. And this cast is as legendary as any British Shakespearean troupe you could show me.
This is an emotionally rough watch. Even when things are going relatively well for this family, you can feel the precariousness of their lives.
Denzel is as solidly great as always as the broken patriarch, Jovan Adepo is excellent as the vulnerable son learning how to be defiant. But the real star here is Viola Davis. She is soul-shakingly fantastic in this. Her speeches will tear your heart out, and she can command a scene with just a look. Which brings me to my rant:
Why the fuck is she being submitted as a Best Supporting Actress? I know she’ll win, as she should. But she should be winning Best Actress. And I believe she would. This is the same strange BS they pulled with Alicia Vikander last year, and while I’m glad she has an Oscar, this is some sexist BS I’m sure. I wish producers would have more confidence in their female leading players. Especially when they are Viola fucking Davis.