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The Maid, The Gardener, and The Prime Minister

7 Feb
Demian Bichir

Demian Bichir

I was tickled when I heard that Demian Bichir, the handsome Mexican actor, was nominated for Best Actor for his role in “A Better Life”. I had expected Ryan Gosling in “Drive”, or Michael Fassbender for “Shameless”, but not Bichir. I saw the movie last summer, and thought that he brought quiet dignity to the role of a father struggling to connect with his son and provide a better life for him in the U.S. I appreciate movies like “A Better Life” that show the lives of people who are normally invisible in society- “Under the Same Moon” with Kate del Castillo also falls in this category. So I was disappointed to see this headline on Guanabee a few days ago: “Mexican Actor Demian Bichir Receives Oscar Nomination- But for Playing a Gardener”. Why the “But”?

A similar debate has emerged regarding Viola Davis’ performance in “The Help”, which has also garnered her an Oscar nomination.  Some critics are mumbling that she only played a maid. I will not shield the movie “The Help” from criticism. I have difficulty watching a movie when I can’t accept the characters’ motivations, and I had trouble understanding why the maids would agree to tell their stories to young Skeeter Phelan. As a result of her chronicle of the lives of domestic maids in Jackson, Mississippi, Skeeter’s professional career skyrockets and Aibilene, played by Davis, is predictably fired. But Viola Davis imbues the character with patience, wariness and the disillusionment of a character living with daily oppression. Viola Davis has a wonderfully expressive face and could read the phone book (yes, that old thing) with aplomb, and it is good to see talented actors  using their gifts to give life to people whose inner lives are rarely glimpsed on the big screen.

Viola Davis

Viola Davis

“The Help”, while flawed, provided a showcase for a host of female actresses, and could launch the careers of Octavia Spencer and Viola Davis. But what roles will they continue to play as their careers skyrocket? Tyler Perry offers roles for African-American women actors. But will Viola Davis ever play a world leader on the scale of, say, Margaret Thatcher? An actress like Meryl Streep will never hurt for parts. Yet African-American actresses-especially those of a certain age- have fewer and fewer roles available to them. And what will Demain Bichir do to follow up his Oscar nomination? Again, while I applaud his portrayal of Javier in “A Better Life”, I hope that he finds roles in Hollywood that offer the same chance to give a nuanced performance. No gangsters or drug lords or cholos that hew to old stereotypes. Por favor.

 

Top 7 Movies of 2011

19 Dec
Ryan Gosling

Ryan Gosling

As always, the holiday season offers movie lovers an extra gift at this time of year: serious films aiming for Oscar gold. But there are good movies released throughout the year, and while I like reading the critic’s year-end top ten lists, I like coming up with my own. Based on nothing more than the movies that I enjoyed the most, here is my list of the best 7 movies of 2011 (and yes, I made a similar list last year):

One Day. I was lucky enough to start reading this book just a few eeks before it opened, so timing was perfect: I finished it just before the movie trailers really began to give things away. The movie was directed by Lone Sherfig, the Danish director of An Education, and she brings the same breezy, sure pace to this movie. Jim Sturgess and Anne Hathaway are great in their roles, and the plot of One Day, which may at first seem gimmicky, reveals itself to be a beautiful way to show the passage of time and the persistence of love across the years.

Crazy Stupid Love. There was one big hole in this movie, and it was the character of the babysitter, who is the object of affection of  Cal Weaver’s (Steve Carell) son, and who herself is in love with Mr. Weaver. The whole subplot with her infatuation with her much older employer was a little creepy. But the rest of the movie makes up for this, with a great story of an unlikely friendship  between the nerdy Cal and the smooth, suave Jacob (Ryan Gosling, deliciously pictured above). The love story that develops between Jacob and Emma Stone’s Hannah is unexpected and delightful, and I loved the supporting turns by Kevin Bacon and Josh Groban. Crazy, Stupid, Love was a winning, original romantic comedy.

Source Code. This one I watched on cable, but I still thought it was mesmerizing. I am a sucker for action thrillers that delve into the philosophy of consciousness, but it is still so rare to find this most niche of movies (though The Matrix and Memento come to mind). Source Code revolves around a secret military operation to continuously rewind time and figure out who planted a bomb on a Chicago commuter train. This is done by Jake Gyllenhaal’s character as his consciousness inhabits the body of a man riding the train that fateful morning. The action is exciting and fast-paced, but as the plot thickens and we learn how Gyllenhaal is able to re-enter the past, the movie becomes more and more fascinating. You’ll be talking about this one for days. A good movie for philosophy majors.

Bridesmaids. I will keep this one short, since I have previously written about Bridesmaids not once but twice, during my month of daily blogging. What else to say besides, it’s funny, it introduced America to Melissa McCarthy, it explored the thorny terrain of female friendship (frenemies) and featured a guest appearance by Wilson Philips. Hell yes.

Midnight in Paris. Who knew Owen Wilson was a good Woody Allen stand-in? Or that a filmmaker synonymous with New York could so lovingly capture the essence of Paris? This movie had me at the very first scenes, which were long shots of Paris. I’ve spent a lot of time in the city, and there is a sense walking through it that you are breathing history, taking in the same views as the great artists of the past (this is doubly true for any stroll through Montmartre). Midnight in Paris captures this brilliantly. For anyone who knows their history of early 20th century art and literature, it is a joy to see the giants of the time portrayed convincingly, such as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein and a spot-on Ernest Hemingway. Bonus points for Rachel McAdams playing a thoroughly bitchy character.

Super 8. This one is an action movie, a sci-fi movie, a nostalgic homage to 70’s era summer blockbusters (not for nothing is Steven Spielberg a Producer of the film), as well as a buddy movie and a story of first love. The action is thrilling and the characters, all pre-pubescent boys and aspiring filmmakers, are endearing. Super 8 is proof that there is more to a good action movie than big explosions. This one has heart.

The Descendants. The scene of Shailene Woodley sobbing silently in the deep end of the swimming pool after she is told that her mother will never wake from her coma and will soon die is still with me, and I saw The Descendants a month ago. George Clooney stars as Matt King, the scion of a wealthy old Hawaiian family who faces the prospect of saying goodbye to his dying wife and selling his ancestral land in a matter of days. The film provides a good showcase for Clooney to excel at what he does best- not flashy, in your face, give me my Oscar kind of acting, but rather showing how an ordinary man faces a crisis (see also: Michael Clayton). The movie is a serious drama with plenty of laughs sprinkled in for good measure, and the landscapes- Hawai’i, Oahu and Kaui- are breathtaking. Director Alexander Payne shows us the real Hawaii, far from the tourist resorts. For its stellar acting and expert direction, The Descendants is a great movie.

Bridesmaids: Girls Being Funny Part II

15 May
Best Scene in Bridesmaids

Best Scene in Bridesmaids

This morning I finally went to see Bridesmaids (matinee price=$6, woo hoo)! While many of the scenes in the commercials are not in the movie, this is also not a movie where the best scenes are all in the trailer.  There is plenty of funny from beginning to end, and the serious stuff of female frenemies and the pain of seeing a friendship fade are also worthwhile.  Seeing the movie is not uncomfortable if you’re an unwed woman of a certain age; it IS a bit uncomfortable to watch if you’ve ever experienced a falling out with an old friend.

As I expressed before, it is heartening to see that Hollywood is throwing its weight behind a cast featuring women being funny, and also focusing on a woman and her relationships (it also helps that this woman is played by neither Kate Hudson or Katherine Heigl). The script was very well-written by Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo, expertly balancing humor and pathos while developing great comic characters (special mention has to be made of Melissa McCarthy, who nearly steals the movie as Megan, the future sister-in-law of Maya Rudolph’s character Lillian) and allowing a love interest for Kristen Wiig’s Annie to blossom (every girl’s a sucker for an Irish accent.  Chris O’Dowd proves to be quite charming).  And yes, there is some tension between Annie, Lillian’s oldest friend, and Helen, a newer friend of Lillian’s who tries to bogart her way into the Maid of Honor job. The photo above is of a great scene where the two women vie to give the most heartfelt toast ever. Hilarious.

Congratulations to the makers of this great comedy made by and for women. I can’t wait to laugh my way through more movies like this one.

Bridesmaids: Girls Being Funny

13 May
Bridesmaids

Bridesmaids

Well this one’s gonna be brief cause I’m going out soon. I will not, however, be going out to see “Bridesmaids”.  I stopped by the nearest multiplex where it’s showing, and it turns out, the 5:00, 8:00 and 11:00 shows are SOLD OUT.  Damn. I was bummed to not be able to see the movie I’ve been looking forward to for weeks now.  I love a good gross out comedy as much as the next girl, especially those guided by the expert hand of Judd Apatow (though don’t get me started on Seth Rogan. How this ordinary stoner managed to become a movie star is beyond me). But you see, a woman as schlubby and chubby as Seth Rogan could never make it as a comedy star.  You have to start out looking as pretty as Kristen Wiig and Maya Rudolph to get in the door.  Oh, and you have to be as hilarious, too.

A gross-out comedy with a talented female cast that also covers on the very touchy subject of female friendship and competition? And Jon Hamm is in it? I’m there.

Gratuitous Jon Hamm photo

Gratuitous Jon Hamm photo

Top 5 Movies of 2010

17 Dec
Jean Dujardin

Jean Dujardin

So the nice thing about having a blog is that I can take what has always been a mental ritual every December- making a list of my favorite movies of the year- and actually write it down.  I went to IMDB, perused the list of all movies released this year to refresh my memory, and came up with…well, not even ten. Okay, not a lot of movies knocked my socks off this year.  But five did.  The brief list, as well as a brief justification for my eclectic taste in film. In order of release date:

Dear John. I think 90% of romantic comedies are a giant waste of Hollywood’s best actresses (see: Amy Adams), perpetuate romantic myths (he’s so mean to her so…they must be meant for each other!) and are usually just woefully unfunny. I do, however, love a good romantic drama.  Dear John told the story of two young people falling in love that was not ripped from a Disney fairy tale…ok, it was ripped from the pages of a Nicholas Sparks novel. But it was well-told, heart-warming, and brought back the old art of letter-writing.  A bit of a guilty pleasure, and I loved it.

OSS 117: Lost in Rio. The French don’t always do arthouse cinema, though many would be forgiven for thinking that. Trust me, I lived there. Often, they do achingly bad comedy (just ask Thierry L’Hermitte).  And occasionally, original, enormously funny comedy.  This is the second movie in what I hope is a long series.  Think Austin Powers, but extremely politically incorrect, in exotic locales, and with a very handsome leading man, Jean Dujardin. And with lots of Nazis. Hilarious.

El Secreto en Sus Ojos. This movie tells a simple story- cop is obsessed with hunting down the one murderer that eluded him.  Cop is in love with the young lawyer he works with.  Cop and lawyer hunger for justice.  But this story is so well-paced, well-acted, and the ending is so twisted and satisfying, that if you enjoy crime dramas, it’s one of the best you’ll see in the genre.  The words “Usted dijo perpetua” lingered in my head for days after this movie.

Mesrine: Killer Instinct. Vincent Cassel is one bad-ass movie star.  He’s got the sex appeal of George Clooney, the acting chops of a young Robert DeNiro, and the masculinity of a young Marcello Mastroianni. He plays the real-life criminal legend Jacques Mesrine, who ruled the French criminal underworld, escaped from prison multiple times and orchestrated a kidnapping and a massive prison break, on three continents over two decades. This was the best action movie I’ve seen in a long time.  And Cassel deserves an Oscar for playing Mesrine so effectively.

The Social Network. Yes, it’s on everyone’s year-end list.  Yes, it tells the story of the little blue and white website that could.  Yes, there may inevitably be a “Social Network” backlash- it’s almost too praised, there have to be some flaws, right? Well, yes, there are inaccuracies.  The real Mark Zuckerberg has had the same girlfriend since before Facebook started. But allow creative genius Aaron Sorkin a few liberties as he crafts the story of how an anti-social computer geek started a tool that connected the world…and lost his closest friend in the process. I loved the pulsing soundtrack by Trent Reznor (yes, THAT Trent Reznor), the acting by Andrew Garfield, Jesse Eisenberg, and even Justin Timberlake. The story of a young entrepreneur gaining an empire and losing his soul is as old as Citizen Kane. But although there may be nothing new under the sun, what matters is how the story is told. And “The Social Network” had me at the opening chords of “Ball & Biscuit” by The White Stripes. This movie deserves all the accolades.