Drew spent a lot of time out of town this month (a long weekend in North Dakota, and a 5-day work trip to Las Vegas), so I had a lot of time to myself. And what do I do with time to myself? I watch movies. 13 this month, to be exact. Whew! On the bright side, I’m very close to being all the way through every movie that’s ever won the Best Actress Oscar, which means just Supporting Actor, Supporting Actress, Documentary, and Foreign Film left. This is going to take me years.
Dallas Buyer’s Club: 7/10
I had been really hoping that this was finally Leo’s year for the Oscar (always an Oscar bridesmaid), so when he lost again, I was really curious to see the performance that beat him out. And Matthew McConaughey was actually amazing. He imbues Ron Woodroof with an incredible hustling energy. Ron goes hard, rigging betting pools and screwing girls and doing drugs, until he finds out he has AIDS and only 30 days to live. He almost immediately starts moving and hustling in response, finding a way to get promising drug AZT on the side, and then moving on to a more complicated drug regimen prescribed by a Mexican doctor. Furiously angry at the drug companies (and doctors) for promoting AZT as the only hope when it has significant flaws, he teams up with younger transgender woman, Rayon, that he had previously met in the hospital and is no stranger to the hustle herself. Ron is deeply homophobic, but needs Rayon’s access to the LGBT community to promote the treatment that has been working for him. Jared Leto moves way past Jordan Catalano in his performance as Rayon, creating a character that is strong and dignified and flawed all at once. Jennifer Garner also acquits herself well as a doctor participating in AZT trials and starting to question them. Besides the performances, the movie itself is pretty standard issue…but the performances are worth watching.
After Porn Ends: 5/10
One thing that is awesome about the internet is the way it opens up worlds totally outside of our own experience to us. When I was in law school, I spent about a year following a blog written by a male porn star. It humanized porn actors for me. He was always excited to film scenes with good-looking women, of course, but he also wrote about the strained relationship he had with his family and how insular the porn world can be. So when I saw that this documentary, about what happens to porn actors when they leave the industry, was streaming on Netflix, I knew it was worth a shot. And while the concept was good, I felt it skimmed across the surface too much, without developing real depth. On the one hand, it touched on many different experiences: the older era of porn v. the newer era, women v. men, those who regretted their time in porn v. those who didn’t. But it seemed like if they’d told more in-depth stories about fewer people, they could have developed a film with more impact. Is it worth seeing? Sure. Is it anything special? Nah.
Blue Jasmine: 6/10
Cate Blanchett is an amazing actress, you guys. She is so good in everything she does. I just love her. And this performance was worth the Oscar she won this year. Jasmine, in other hands, could have been a “quirky” collection of tics and an utterly repellant character. As played by Blanchett, though, she’s human, and even when she’s unsympathetic, which is often, she’s still a person. Sally Hawkins is also very good in her role as Jasmine’s sister Ginger, but no one can match up to Blanchett’s tour de force. The rest of movie is Bernie Madoff meets Streetcar Named Desire…it’s fine, but nothing worth writing home about on its own merits.
The Country Girl: 6/10
Grace Kelly’s life is the stuff that dreams are made of: beautiful, successful actress goes on to become real-life princess. But in her Oscar-winning turn as Georgie, the wife of Bing Crosby’s alcoholic, self-pitying, has-been actor, she plays against type: she’s dowdy and dour. I know the big controversy that year at the Oscars was that she beat out Judy Garland’s bravura performance in A Star Is Born, but evaluating Kelly’s role on it’s own merits rather than against Garland’s, she’s wonderful. She refuses to play softness into Georgie’s personality, hardened by years of pain. When we see her being the lovely Grace Kelly we know in a flashback to happier times, it’s startling to see not only the obvious difference in makeup/looks, but whole bearing and essence. The plot is pretty forgettable, setting up Georgie against her husband’s director in a play in a contrived conflict, then setting them up in an equally contrived romance that’s obviously never going to work out. Even with Kelly’s performance, though, it’s skippable unless you’re a hardcore Oscar junkie like me.
I’d never seen a movie with Bette Davis when she was young before this one. And although she’s pretty good in it (she won an Oscar for it), it’s a pretty terrible movie. Davis plays Julie, a headstrong Southern belle (clearly a poor man’s Scarlett O’Hara, but without the magnetic charm that made Scarlett interesting) trying to win back the man she loved and lost. Davis is good, but Julie as written is just a spoiled brat. The plot drags, and the end is just ridiculous. Pass.
The United States of Leland: 3/10
I wanted to see this when it first came out because Ryan Gosling. And when I looked at the cast recently, I thought I still wanted to see it: Gosling! Don Cheadle! Lena Olin! Michelle Williams! Kevin Spacey! It must be at least pretty good, right? WRONG. Terrible performances from everyone but Cheadle, and even he’s not more than serviceable. Gosling is worse than Chris Klein, who is just as wooden as ever. Not a single character is well-developed and the plot is just ludicrous. Skip.
An Affair to Remember: 7/10
It’s easy to see why this is described as one of the most romantic movies ever made. The last quarter or so of the movie just drove me a little crazy, though. I thought the barrier set up to keep our romantic leads apart was overwrought. The rest of it, though, was wonderful. Cary Grant is always so charming on-screen, and Deborah Kerr is every bit as delightful. It’s easy to say why they paired together onscreen more than once, they have great chemistry. Her grounded quality sets us his smooth charm just perfectly. And while usually I wouldn’t buy that a couple who were both planning on marrying other people fell in love over about a week, spend six months apart, and then both actually intend to meet up so they can get married, I got emotionally invested in them despite myself. I’m usually the one rolling my eyes at romances, but this one got under my skin. You have to give in to it a little, but it’s easy to do, and once you have it’s a really good movie.
The Good Earth: 2/10
Goodness gracious this was terrible. I’ve got the book on my Kindle to read and I can only hope it’s not nearly as bad. Apart from the historically unavoidable yellowface cast, the movie is way too long, edited terribly, and has no character development or any other interest in its plot. It just skims from plot point to plot point without any sense of drama or historical sweep. Waste of two hours of my life. I can’t bring myself to waste any more time writing anything longer.
Citizen Kane: 8/10
This is regularly hyped as the greatest movie of all time and I hadn’t seen it yet! It was about to expire off Amazon Prime, so I decided now must be the time. And…it was really good, but greatest of all time? I don’t think I can go there. There’s a lot to love technically…the cinematography is amazing. Great use of chiaroscuro and camera angles, and the film actually pioneered the use of “deep focus”, a style of shooting that allows the entire frame to be in tight, clear focus and adds a richer sense of space to the film. The story has a Rashoman-like quality, with Charles Foster Kane’s life story being told only by multiple outside narrators, subject to their own sympathy or bitterness towards their subject. But in terms of watching a story about a young idealistic man who is corrupted by power and ends up alone, give me the first two Godfather movies any day. Citizen Kane is a great film, but I don’t think I can call it the greatest ever for me.
The American President: 5/10
For about the first half hour of this movie, I was entertained. I really like The West Wing, and this was almost like a prequel: the walk-and-talk! The rapid-fire Sorkin dialogue (especially from Michael J. Fox)! Even the silly meet-cute managed to be charming. But as the movie went on, the typical rom-com stuff started to annoy me. Highly unrealistic situations! Highly unbelievable behavior in those unlikely situations! The way we’re supposed to believe that a couple that we’ve never seen have a serious conversation are soooooo in luuuuurv. And the failure to develop Bening’s Sydney Ellen Wade is criminal: what was her life like before she got to DC? Even on just the romantic angle, what is her past like? Has she ever been married before? Even engaged? She seems to exist in the movie solely to react to Michael Douglas’ President Shepherd, she’s not an actual human being at all. Annette Bening does her best, but she can’t make up for the failures of the script all by herself. This movie reminded me why I usually don’t watch romantic comedies.
I’ve been a huge fan of Alfonso Curaon ever since the first time I saw Y Tu Mama Tambien over a decade ago. I’ve rewatched it many times since, and it just gets deeper and richer as time goes on. When I was a teenager, I identified with the coming-of-age story, and as I’ve gotten older, I’m drawn more and more to Luisa’s story. Anyways, the point is that Cuaron has a knack for making films that last because they speak to the power of the human spirit. See also: Children of Men. To finally get around to this movie, Gravity is a film that could have been technically amazing but empty but for two things: an amazing performance by Sandra Bullock and the direction of Alfonso Cuaron. Cauron never takes his eye off the ball, never forgets that this is fundamentally about Dr. Stone’s fight to survive against astronomical (no pun intended) odds. Even though we don’t know much besides the bare bones of her story, Cuaron and Bullock make sure that we know who she is. I am famously a movie crier if one hits me right emotionally, and this one definitely brought the tears out.
North by Northwest: 8/10
Cary Grant has been an actor that I’ve only really discovered fairly recently, and I just love him. As always, he’s great in this Hitchcock classic. Everything works here: the plot and direction sweeps along, twisting and turning and not leaving you any time to process too much but keeps you wondering how all the pieces are going to fit together in the end. Grant is fantastic, smooth and charming and funny and compelling. He has great screen presence and excellent chemistry with Eva Marie Saint, who plays her femme fatale role to the hilt. It almost feels James Bond-esque: suave leading man, beautiful woman of dubious trustworthiness, charismatic villain with evil plot, improbable chase sequence (I mean, Saint is really going to climb down Mount Rushmore in high heels?), lots of energy and wit. Really enjoyable stuff, and that ending shot of the train going into the tunnel was a hilarious middle finger to the Hays Code.
The Great Gatsby: 6/10
I first read The Great Gatsby in high school, and I didn’t like it very much. I didn’t understand it, really, and my English teacher droning on about the beautiful symbolism of the green light=hope didn’t really help. I picked it up again near the end of college. I don’t know quite why, but I’m glad that I did, because it’s become one of my all time favorites. One day, someone will make a great movie of this amazing book, but sadly it isn’t this one. It had a lot of promise. Baz Luhrmann was great choice of director for the jazz-age sensibility of the setting: no one does lurid better. Leonardo DiCaprio was a great choice for Gatsby, if a touch too old…I know he’s only 7 years older than Gatsby, but those 7 years have their mark on him. He looks significantly older than Carey Mulligan, who as much as I adore her, is miscast in the role of Daisy. She doesn’t have great chemistry with DiCaprio, and she’s too substantial (I am not referring to her spare frame, but her gravitas) to play the ephemeral Daisy. Also miscast is Tobey Maguire, who is both too old and doesn’t have enough substance to really ground the role. He plays Nick as a cipher, but somehow doesn’t really serve well for the audience surrogate. He seems more along for the ride than swept up. Elizabeth Debicki is probably the best cast role, her Jordan Baker hits all the right notes and steals every scene she’s in.