by Philip Price
10. “Straight Outta Compton”
I was born in 1987. By this time the likes of Eazy-E, Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, MC Ren and DJ Yella were already beginning to make waves in their home town of Compton, Calif. In just a little over a year’s time these five individuals, collectively known as N.W.A, would release their seminal record that shares it's title with the group’s new biopic, “Straight Outta Compton.” “Straight Outta Compton” is full of energy, at least for the majority of its two and a half hour runtime. It is a film that grabs you right from the beginning. It throws the audience into the midst of what this generation was facing and experiencing as far as prejudice and pop culture was concerned. Because of its decade spanning timeline and the depths in which it covers the people involved in creating this music and the events that inspired them to do so it feels like something of an epic. Epic in the vein of narrating the deeds of these now historical figures and rap heroes that explains the caveats of the history of south Los Angeles county. Sure, it has its issues in trying to contain it's sprawling epic-ness (apparently the first cut of the film was nearly four hours), but I can't help but know that on repeat viewings I will only come to love and enjoy this movie more and more.
9. “The End of the Tour”
“The End of the Tour” is, on the surface, a road movie about one writer doing a profile on another writer, but more than that it is a film of conversation and constant introspection. It's almost exhausting to constantly think in the way our two main characters presented here do, throwing out ideas and immediately reassessing those ideas or deep-diving further to find the root of where such ideas come from. The talking. It can be a bit much, it can feel overbearing even, but it ultimately captures so much of the soul that it can't help but feel soothing at the same time. It's strange, to be sure, but it makes perfect sense, especially when it's so elegantly and perfectly phrased by writer David Foster Wallace. As portrayed by Jason Segel, Wallace doesn't so much convey the narcissistic pretension that we might expect from someone of his stature, but rather he is constantly wrestling with this idea of self-reflection and the awareness of one's self. Through this journey Segel's Wallace doesn't discount much of what we see as good, seductive commercial entertainment for the sake of feeling better than everyone else, but more he loves it as much as we do despite knowing it's akin to junk food. In this regard, the film is an insightful portrait of the male psyche and the messiness of life and all the bullshit one has to sift through in order to even catch a glimpse of something real.
8. “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”
Moving backward to move forward. In this first installment of a new ‘Star Wars’ trilogy that seems to be the sentiment everyone was after. In essence, that is what the fans have wanted for so long-for everything to change, but nothing at the same time. By evolving the characters yet keeping them within the same world director J.J. Abrams has appeased the masses that remain angry at George Lucas to this day over the prequels while at the same time enlisting a whole new generation of ‘Star Wars’ fans who have likely only heard whisperings of why this franchise is so great and means so much to so many people. With ‘The Force Awakens,’ Abrams and co-writer Lawrence Kasdan hammer home the idea that this universe has always centered around: legacy. With this in mind it makes sense that we see where Han Solo, Luke Skywalker and Leia Organa have been all these years and that despite them seeming to have everything under control when we last left them, that things don't always go the way we hope or expect. To see the fruition of these full lives come to life on the big screen makes it easy to want to relive this experience time and time again, but to also be able to discover compelling new characters and story arcs that make fans anxious for the next installment is truly gratifying, most of the time even pretty stimulating.
Alice in Wonderland has been used as inspiration for what are surely an innumerable number of stories. The idea of getting lost down a rabbit hole or your life not going the way you'd imagined it when you were a child is universal. The metaphors and analogies to be made are no doubt endless with any aspect of any single person's life, but “Room” is a certain kind of Alice story as you can feel the loss of our protagonist both physically and psychologically. Loss is a key word, a key theme if you will, given the circumstances of the situation presented in the film, but if you don't know that situation going in you're all the better for it. All that is necessary to know is that Brie Larson plays Joy Newsome, a woman who has seemingly been trapped in a single room for an ungodly amount of time while having raised her five-year old son, Jack (Jacob Tremblay), in this confinement for the entirety of his life. Larson is incredibly moving in the most genuine sense of the word. That sounds like a sound bite, I'm aware-"her performance is so real," but it is and the depths she brings to Joy's arc are incredible. The film itself operates as a tense and unnerving thriller for its first half before becoming an intense psychological trip in it's second. Both are equally engaging with the whole benefiting as it ends up being doubly compelling.
6. “Ex Machina”
Over the last few years, filmmakers and writers have become more and more fascinated with the idea of artificial intelligence. It is an idea that has always been present of course, but as we get closer to the actual realization of such a thing the consequences of it become all the more real and thus all the more frightening. You can look to “Her,” which is likely the closest in terms of what these films are saying about developing convincing relationships with artificial beings and their inability to stay with us for too long before moving on due to their superiority, but there are also films like “Transcendence” and “Chappie” that have come out within the last couple of years and have attempted to tackle the consequences of creating a God-like being. While “Transcendence” spun too many ideas that it couldn't keep track of, “Chappie” gave us the cliff notes for what make up the most interesting discussions in “Ex Machina.” It is the conversations here that propels the movie forward. Writer Alex Garland makes his directorial debut with this film and it couldn't be more impressive. It's clear the relationship and understanding he developed while crafting the script informed the making of the film as we can feel the themes and big idea jumping off the screen as if we were deep in the heart of a rapturous novel. “Ex Machina,” despite being heavy-handed and wordy, makes itself so inviting and fascinating time and time again if not for the conversation, but one unforgettable dance scene.
5. “The Big Short”
Adam McKay has been making movies like “The Big Short” for years now, he just hid them under the guise of broad comedy. That McKay has moved on to what is now simply classified more as a "drama" rather than a "comedy" doesn't seem to have changed his approach as “The Big Short” is still a frequently funny movie with McKay's hallmark sensibilities very much intact. The real difference between “The Big Short” and anything McKay has made in the past is that this time around he's been granted the ability to react to the material he's examining and get angry with the fact that what's been done is outrageous and wrong McKay takes author Michael Lewis' book and crafts a multiple arc story that focuses in on characters who have well-defined moral compasses and who come to their decisions to take on the big banks for the banks greed and lack of foresight rather than for the explicit reason of becoming rich. That McKay is able to bottle all of these emotions into a single film: the anger, the disgust, the outrageous quality of the situation and make us feel all of them while keeping us consistently entertained is a marvel in and of itself, but that it also teaches us more than we probably ever cared to learn is invaluable.
“Brooklyn” is gorgeous and moving and all things warm and fuzzy without ever devolving into a Hallmark Channel original. From the moment the film opens on a doe-eyed and innocent Saoirse Ronan working feverishly in a convenience shop in the early 1950s I was hooked by the effortless quality of the inviting atmosphere director John Crowley establishes. This immediate sense of safe familiarity allows for the rather objective-less story adapted from Colm Toibin's novel by Nick Hornby to feel all the more profound and affecting as it unravels. Thus is the power of simplicity and pure old-school filmmaking and storytelling. There is really no reason as to why “Brooklyn” should work as well as it does and upon my initial viewing I think I was simply surprised it ended up working as well as it did. I couldn't stop thinking about how happy the film made me though. It was, unlike say something meant to elicit awards chatter like “The Danish Girl,” a film that left a lasting impression. One that I couldn't shake and couldn't wait to share with others. Ronan's performance is absolutely brilliant as it combines pure devastation with real hope and optimism, but the MVP here is Emory Cohen as Ronan's love interest Tony. “Brooklyn” is solid from the start, but once Cohen shows up it becomes exceptional.
3. “Love & Mercy”
I've probably watched “Love & Mercy” more than any other film on this list. I saw it on the big screen, I watched it as soon as it was available on Blu-Ray, I watched it with the commentary from director Bill Pohland and writer Oren Moverman as well as making my wife watch it simply because I love it so much. Any time since its release in June when I've been asked to recommend a movie to friends or family I've used this one as a default. Any time anyone has followed up with me after checking out “Love & Mercy” I've heard nothing but appreciation and I can't help but to think that's due to the fact the film is about a popular figure who produced incredibly familiar songs, but is done in a unique fashion that features two equally impressive performances. Many music biopics take the route of exposing famous people and their personal demons rather than exploring why they came to be in the music business in the first place. In short, the love of music and the passion for the craft is largely left out of the mix, but as with last year’s “Get On Up,” “Love & Mercy” uses the music and how it influences the life of Brian Wilson to lead us to get to know this man better making John Cusack's performance all the more meaningful and Paul Dano's beyond fascinating.
2. “Steve Jobs”
Like with “Love & Mercy,” “Steve Jobs” is a biopic with a twist and thus the reason I probably find it so fascinating as well. I care to make no qualms about it: Aaron Sorkin is the best screenwriter working at the moment. The guy delivers precise, other-worldly dialogue that would never actually come from a human's mouth, but is somehow able to render itself immensely soulful. With the premise of yet another Steve Jobs movie the question would be in approach-how would they do it differently that might justify the reasoning for another movie about the same man? After all, we already have the Ashton Kutcher film and he looks way more convincing as the Apple founder than Michael Fassbender. Wait...Fassbender? Despite looking nothing like Jobs, Fassbender takes the role and turns Sorkin's rapid fire dialogue into a deadly combination of punches. If Fassbender were a boxer his opponents would have been knocked out in the first round. He's relentless. Stacked with credentials and structured as three acts backstage before the launch of a new product, “Steve Jobs” is an incomparable film that will undoubtedly stand the test of time and serve as a stirring portrait of one of the great minds of the twenty-first century.
Being a Catholic myself this could be seen as overcompensating, but there really were no issues with picking the best and most enthralling movie experience I had this year and that was with “Spotlight.” I don't like that these things happened, I don't like that they happened within an organization I affiliate myself with, but they did happen and we can't act like they didn't. The church has recently taken steps to be more transparent with their parishioners and I can appreciate that. What I appreciate about the film though, is that it never attacks the Catholic faith and it never criticizes those who choose to follow the church, but instead it simply tasks itself with exposing the repercussions of the victims while getting to the bottom of an investigation that was being covered up by some bad folks: clergy and lawyers alike. Director and co-writer Tom McCarthy has delivered a perfectly executed film with no hiccups, no time for second guesses and nothing narratively to take away from the main objective. “Spotlight” is a prime piece of meat with all of the fat trimmed and only the juiciest parts left so as to make the whole experience one of pure, concentrated excellence.
by Philip Price
In the context of the film it makes perfect sense, but to audiences smothered in cinematic choices this holiday season “The Big Short” is unfortunately one of the more forgettable titles. It helps marginally that the faces on the poster are four of Hollywood's heaviest hitters with Brad Pitt bringing in the biggest pull (and ironically putting in the least amount of screen time), but even this won't be enough to distract moviegoers from what might be a saturated market made worse by a complicated story that has been relayed in sardonic terms by the director of ‘Anchorman.’ Of course, if you've payed attention to any of Adam McKay's work you'd know the director of ‘Anchorman’ and other such Will Ferrell comedies including ‘Talladega Nights’ and “The Other Guys” is actually the perfect choice for a film that desires to tell of the housing market crash that occurred in America in 2008. It is a story in need of sharp social commentary, of a mind that might give the boring numbers game an insightful twist and McKay is able to deliver on all fronts by crafting a final product that is as funny and stinging as it is heartbreaking and tragic - a detriment, almost, to the American spirit. And yet, throughout the over two-hour runtime the film never ceases to be breathlessly entertaining. There is so much going on, so many words being spoken, so many deals being made, and so many new characters being introduced at such rapid rates that we never have time to settle in, but rather stay perched on the edge of our seats. With its hands in so many different pots it would be easy for the “The Big Short” to go off the rails, but somewhat unexpectedly the film finds a certain groove in its latter half that, while not matching the frenetic speed of the first two acts, brings in the necessary levity that strikes the perfect balance between both the ridiculousness of the situation and the dire real world consequences. McKay, working from his and Charles Randolph's screenplay that is based on the book by Michael Lewis, is able to remain so laser focused on what makes these characters so interesting in their own right that the fact they exist in this compelling real world situation is only icing on the cake.
Told through three separate perspectives on the same incident, but narrated by Ryan Gosling's Jared Venette we are eased into the introduction of the housing market crisis through the guy who discovered it nearly three years prior to it actually occurring, Dr. Michael Burry (Christian Bale). Burry is something of an odd guy, a socially awkward, heavy metal enthusiast with a glass eye, Burry keeps himself holed up in his office at the hedge fund company he founded. Described as something of a "risk-avoider," Burry essentially finds out the system has messed up in a big way and happened to pick up on it before anyone else by reading into the details of hundreds of thousands of mortgages. In doing so, Burry goes out to some of the biggest banks in New York City and bets against the housing market which seems foolish to everyone else given the housing market has always been solid. He will have to pay dues to the banks in the meantime, but when the collapse eventually happens in the last quarter of 2007 he will make his money back and then some-a lot of some. This brings us back to Venette who heard about some guy betting against the banks and the housing market and was the only one smart enough to research why someone would do such a thing. Venette then inadvertently tipped off Mark Baum (Steve Carell), a money manager at the Greenwich, Connecticut-based FrontPoint Partners LLC, a unit of Morgan Stanley, who turns out to be the only one that buys Venette's story. Meanwhile, upstart brokers Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock) and Charlie Geller (John Magaro) are made aware of the impending bubble burst and do their best to get in on making money off of the failing American economy with the help of an old school wall-street companion by the name of Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt).
While the story is key here and the point of the overall film being to advocate that more needs to be done both to those who got away with pulling such a stunt and to ensure that this doesn't happen again, there is no way the film would be as effective without the characters. The characters are what we come to invest in here and the performances by the four leading movie stars sell us on the fact we, as a society, need to stop paying so much attention to them and start looking really hard at the people who are pulling things over on us, the middle class, the unsuspecting victims. In order to make this point as boldly as he can, McKay enlists the likes of pop culture staples like Margot Robbie, chef Anthony Bourdain and Selena Gomez to deliver dialogue that more or less provides analogies for what exactly is going on with the banks, mortgages, CDO's and AAA ratings that all sound like a foreign language to the majority of mainstream America. It is both an acknowledgement of our misplaced interests while smartly subverting those interests to better help us understand the complicated jargon that is being thrown around constantly in the film.
As something of our surrogate into this world, Gosling is bar none the funniest guy at the table. The actor's ability to both be condescending, but completely forthright is the definition of the oxymoron that is a lovable douche. As outspoken and conflicted as Carell's Mark Baum is, and he has some really funny moments, he can't touch Gosling's timing in this role. Still, it is when both Carell and Gosling are on screen together, matching their egos, intelligence and credibility that sparks really begin to fly. Whereas Venette is our surrogate into this world, Baum is the moral compass. Baum is the guy that gets the grandstand moment where he asks us all when being a fraud became okay despite knowing it will never work out for the best in the end. It is nothing short of definitive and Carell sells everything he has in him to become this man every time he's on screen. Rafe Spall, Hamish Linklater and Jeremy Strong form a solid supporting team around Carell as well-servicing the film with added running gags and necessary insight. Like the character of Burry, Bale is secluded from the rest of the cast forcing him to perform something of a one-man show. While he might have the least to do in terms of action, the arc of Burry going from this cushioned, enthusiastic wunderkind of the financial world to someone made sick by having to go against the grain is genuinely felt. There is a particular scene in which Burry faces off against his boss (played by Tracey Letts) that gives us the scope of the type of persecution he faces, but the majority of the character arc must be conveyed through Bale's facial expressions. With such restraints, Burry sometimes only feels as if he's present because he's the guy who uncovered the impending doomsday, but Bale makes his presence all the more vital-proving the real guilt of being right when that means so much wrong will be taken out on innocent people. Relaying this feeling throughout the entire film is Pitt's Rickert who has been out of the financial game for some time, but is willing to help out Shipley and Geller if only to prove to them that making bunches of money is not what they thought it to be. Pitt, the most low-key and reserved of the performers here, is an idealist and may himself be an ideal.
To be completely honest, Adam McKay has been making this type of movie for years now, he just hid them under the guise of broad comedy. One can look at any of his Ferrell collaborations and find some kind of social commentary that ironically would sell what it was lampooning to the same audiences that would line up for an earnest buddy cop or NASCAR film. That McKay has moved on to what is now simply classified more as a "drama" rather than a "comedy" doesn't seem to have changed his approach much as “The Big Short” is still a frequently funny movie with McKay's hallmark sensibilities very much intact. The real difference between “The Big Short” and anything McKay has made in the past is that this time around he's been granted the ability to react to the material he's examining and get angry with the fact that what's been done is not only outrageous and wrong, but that it's even more shameful because no one was ever held accountable, save for the one banker with a Muslim name who went to prison for an infraction most bankers were committing on a daily basis. Whereas something like ‘Anchorman 2’ (which I very much enjoyed) simply made an effort to point and laugh at the devolving state of mainstream media without offering any real reaction, resolution, or moral compass, “The Big Short” takes Lewis' book and crafts a multiple arc story that focuses in on characters who have well-defined moral compasses and who come to their decisions to take on the big banks for the banks greed and lack of foresight rather than for the explicit reason of becoming rich. We come to root for these guys, hoping they win so that some kind of right might come of exposing all that is wrong in this purely fraudulent system despite them winning meaning we're rooting against our own well-being. That McKay is able to bottle all of these emotions into a single film: the anger, the disgust, the outrageous quality of the situation and make us feel all of them while keeping us consistently entertained is a marvel in and of itself, but that it also teaches us more than we probably ever cared to learn is invaluable.
by Philip Price
Everyone has a story. Even the woman who invented the miracle mop. In “Joy,” Jennifer Lawrence is the 1995 version of Joy Mangano as we become privy to the beyond hectic journey it took for this now entrepreneur and titan of industry to become such. In these terms, this is a real rags-to-riches story and would probably be a very compelling one at that if it were simply left to these devices, but in the hands of director David O. Russell it has to be more than that-it has to be mythic almost. There isn't necessarily anything wrong with this approach as a unique or different take on any type of material is always appreciated, but Russell's style is especially effective with some stories while not always finding it's rhythm with others. “Joy” lands somewhere in the middle of this scale as certain aspects of our titular character’s life service Russell's frantic style well while other times it seems to be fighting with the tranquility that the film so desperately craves. In a word, the film is relentless. And to a certain extent it should be in order to give audiences a real sense of what this character had to overcome to get to where she is today, but it is always key for journeys such as this to provide moments of calm reflection that, again, help to give audiences a sense of scope. Here, these moments are treated as flurries of flashbacks or mounting issues that are proclaimed one after another in sometimes painfully awkward dialogue. This technique works to a certain extent given there are moments when the relentless clawing and nagging of every supporting character in the movie ceases and something good is actually allowed to happen to Joy without them mingling and messing things up, but these are too few and far between. The real issues arise when it became clear we, as an audience, want to dig deeper into the psyche of our main character than the actual film does. Why does Joy continue to allow her family to pull her down? That “Joy,” unlike say Russell's “The Fighter,” never digs into the reasons as to why Joy can't leave these thwarted and painful relationships behind is ultimately what makes the project feel more barren than it wants to be.
A myth, by definition, is a traditional or legendary story that usually concerns a being, hero or event that deals in a scenario with or without a determinable basis of fact or natural explanation. Myths typically include the likes of deities or demigods in order to explain a practice, rite or phenomenon of nature. Sticking with this analogy Joy is clearly our hero as she is close to being the only reasonable person in the entire film which, in itself, is enough to be considered unnatural. Joy would certainly be classified as a deity or demigod given one would have to be as much in order to put up with all she does ultimately explaining the phenomenon that makes a random group of people connected only by genetics remain together over the course of many years despite their inherent differences being more than enough to prove their paths should have diverged long ago. Let us not forget that Hades and Loki are also deities, but could not be further from the noble and heroic persona we typically equate with such titles. If Joy is somewhere along the lines of Achilles or Hercules in this story, then her family are too, by default, Gods and would certainly line up more with the likes of Hades than Achilles.
In the beginning we are introduced to Joy as a young girl via the narration of her Mimi (Diane Ladd) who tells us the young girl always enjoyed creating things and that she was never the type of girl who needed a prince to complete her fairy tale. Of course, we all grow up, cease to exist in our own fairy tales, and deal with the hardships we as well as life brings down upon us. Fast-forward to 1995 and Joy is divorced from aspiring singer Tony Miranne (Édgar Ramírez) who still lives in the basement of their house (that is falling apart), she's trying to raise their two children while dealing with her mother, Terry (Virginia Madsen), who never leaves her bed and seems to suffer from some kind of anxiety while also being unhealthily obsessed with a soap opera. Mimi is more or less left to help raise the kids as Joy is the only one in the house with a steady job and on top of that her father, Rudy (Robert De Niro), tells his daughter he's moving back in after it hasn't worked out with his latest girlfriend. And that's not even including her half-sister, Peggy (Elisabeth Röhm), who's been gunning for Joy her entire life. Needless to say, things are poised to reach a breaking point. The inevitable comes soon after Rudy meets a new woman, Trudy (Isabella Rossellini), who is wealthy thanks to her late husband. One day, after taking Rudy and his daughters out on her boat in which red wine is spilled on her expensive deck Joy finds inspiration for her signature invention. Asking Trudy to invest in her company Joy puts her head down and bulls forward, unable to ignore her Mimi's hopes and her own dreams that lambaste her for giving up on her dreams.
For the first half hour or so, “Joy” is firing on all cylinders as Russell sets up his world, his characters and the story he is going to be using both for. I mean literally very literally when I say there's not a minute in between De Niro's character arriving and him smashing plates and pots after getting into an argument with his ex-wife. Russell utilizes the soap opera (starring Susan Lucci and Maurice Benard) to which Terry is addicted as something of a framing device in order to both convey the potential melodramatic pitfalls of the story as well as a way to better connect Joy's nightmares of slipping into the same trappings as her parents. It's an interesting choice and it works effectively for a period of time, but then is abruptly abandoned. Fortunately, this is due to the fact the film is moving in a much more intriguing direction as Tony suggests a friend he once worked with as a potential contact for selling Joy's mop to the masses. It turns out that friend is employed by the slightly new, but budding cable channel that is QVC. There, Joy is introduced to Neil (Bradley Cooper) an executive who chooses what products the channel will sell on air. For the first time in the film, outside of Dascha Polanco's Jackie who was Joy's childhood best friend, it feels as if someone is on our protagonist's side. Neil is still very much a business partner to Joy, but rather than tearing her down he is the first one who simply treats her with respect. This changes the tone of the film considerably, the atmosphere is lighter, the piano heavy score becomes something flightier and for the first time we feel the payoff of what Russell was building towards. Russell and writing partner Annie Mumolo make Joy's family so toxic and so aggravatingly demeaning that it almost makes zero sense as to why this woman would put up with such treatment for so long, but when the film crescendos in this moment of success we feel the weight of it. It's substantial. Too bad the film still has 45 minutes left with which it will use only to once again tear our hero down.
It is in these last 45 minutes that the exceptional quality of Jennifer Lawrence's performance comes through. Were the film to have given us one or two more scenes following this euphoric moment then this film would be receiving a higher recommendation, but that it goes back and essentially repeats the same beats one more time to drive home it's point of just how much Joy put up with until she finally had to bring the hammer down makes the overall experience more disjointed than it should be. As Joy though, Lawrence truly is terrific. She becomes this trapped woman, desperate for an opportunity to fulfill this position of great destiny her Mimi has always set her up for. As mentioned prior, we wonder why this woman would stand to put up with so much, why she feels the need to stay connected with these people who do nothing but take from her without giving anything back and while the movie never finds a way to explain such things we can see hints of what the reasons might be in Lawrence's performance. We can see the inability to blame anyone else, this destiny she seeks being her sole responsibility to fulfill, but not before making sure everyone else is happy and settled first. That Joy gave up going to college after being valedictorian for her parents or that she got a minimum wage job so that Tony might pursue his singing career tell us the lengths she'll go to, but Lawrence shows us through the way she carries herself, her defeated tone with which she speaks, and even the way she hides herself as much as she can in her plain outfits. The only downfall to the performance is that Lawrence, at 25, is playing Mangano when she was 39. While Lawrence is mostly believable, there are times when the inability to mature her natural state makes it clear it's not as progressed as it should be for this character's mindset. With everything that is thrown at Joy you expect her to be of a certain age and that Lawrence is not discredits the toll her family has taken on her slightly.
And so, “Joy” is a film that both has a lot going for it while at the same time seems to be fighting with itself to decide the best way to convey it's story. It’s a problem the principal family Russell is documenting is struggling with as well. Through Joy, through Tony and even through Rudy there can be seen glimmers of hope and of humanity, but at the same time there are these elements to each, these outside factors that are pulling at them, holding them back and ultimately making them less of a success than they might otherwise be. The biggest qualm with this depiction of a dysfunctional family is that we never come to really understand why these people are the way they are. Joy is constantly being told what she is or who she’s not, but it never gives us any clear indication of what right these characters have to make such assumptions or to ask such questions. We never understand fully why Joy’s mother is so afraid to get out of bed, why her father wanders from one woman to the next, or why her sister thrives on Joy’s failure. Were Russell to have spent more time digging into these aspects rather than creating surrealist devices or larger metaphors that make the film feel other-worldly we might not mind spending as much time with these people as we do. As it is though, “Joy” simply doesn't spend enough time in the right spots of Mangano's life to be truly effective.
by Philip Price
Dalton Trumbo is no doubt an interesting figure and a perfect case of someone whom it would be worthwhile to make a Hollywood biopic about. Maybe it's simply that director Jay Roach, who has mostly worked in broad comedy while mixing in politics lately with the likes of “Game Change” and “The Campaign,” doesn't know what else to do as a director, but his latest effort that profiles the rogue screenwriter feels all too complacent to accurately depict the radical and rebel ways of Trumbo. In short, this is a by the numbers biopic that tells us what happened, why it happened, and how the titular character lived out the rest of his days with the obligatory pre-credit note cards. That isn't to say the history isn't interesting or that there aren't good or intriguing moments throughout, but more that Roach does nothing with these moments to make them feel as vital or illuminating as they likely were for these people in the context of their actual lives. More than that, the biggest downfall of the film for me personally is that of the same mistake many biopics about musicians make in that they never explore what makes the artist want or need to create. To this effect, Trumbo never delves into its protagonist's writing process. Now, I understand that this film is not exclusively about the life of Dalton Trumbo, but more specifically the decade long fight he put up that saw him blacklisted and sent to prison due to his political beliefs. Still, this man was largely known as the biggest and best screenwriter working at the time his political entanglements began and is a large factor in how he fought back-managing to win two Academy Awards in a time when everyone in the industry shunned him. Writing was not just a part of who this man was, it was who he was and to essentially skim over this opportunity to explain not just that he was a good and prolific writer, but how he came to be this way and how he remained inspired is one that is missed in exchange for little more than hitting the cliff notes of who this man was and how he dealt with the biggest trial of his life. “Trumbo” is by no means a bad movie; it has a number of good to great performances and due simply to the nature of the story it is endlessly fascinating, but this particular representation is little more than average given all it had to work with.
Beginning in 1947 and introducing us to the fact that Trumbo (Bryan Cranston), while owning the title of communist given to him, was more fighting for the belief that he should be able to think the way he wanted without being reprimanded for doing so than anything else. For publicly coming out with this opinion though, he along with several other screenwriters and actors were forced to testify to Congress regarding alleged Communist propaganda in their widely received Hollywood films. Of course, when they testified in their own particular way it only pushed more buttons forcing Trumbo to serve an 11-month stint in a federal prison in Kentucky. That this man went to prison for essentially thinking a certain way stirs something in those around him-including fellow screenwriters Arlen Hird (Louis C.K.) and Ian McLellan Hunter (Alan Tudyk) while other lifelong friends, such as Edward G. Robinson (Michael Stuhlbarg) and producer Buddy Ross (Roger Bart), turn tail and run as fast as they can in hopes of keeping their careers as afloat as possible in the aftermath of Trumbo's actions. After being released from prison and moving into a smaller house with his wife, Cleo (Diane Lane), and their three children (which includes the likes of Elle Fanning at a certain age) the writer begins working under different pseudonyms for King Brothers productions (led by a boisterous John Goodman) churning out script after script of pure schlock for a less than lousy pay day. While consistently receiving push back from the likes of gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (Helen Mirren) and "The Duke" himself John Wayne (David James Elliott) it comes down to a small group of influential people in Hollywood that take notice of Trumbo's superior skill, no matter his political leaning, and grant him a second chance at recognition (or at least something other than notoriety) given he'd already won two Oscars, but was never able to accept the statues due to the fact it wasn't his name on the scripts.
Beyond everything that makes Trumbo feel stagnant though, there is the question of the rather exceptional cast and it is in their hands that much of the film is saved. As our protagonist, Cranston is more than capable and he handles every line of perfectly crafted dialogue, every scene of the writer picking away at his scripts in his bathtub, and every encounter with vastly different individuals with the utmost credibility. Playing the man over the course of more than a decade Cranston is required to not just transform physically, but to show a man slowly deteriorating by the toll standing up for what he believes in is taking on him. We see his addiction to Benzedrine increase as he searches for ways to remain motivated while writing, editing and re-writing his own as well as others countless crap scripts for low pay in order to keep his family afloat. As much as Cranston is able to play this workaholic who simultaneously spearheaded the communist movement against the American Film Association with a strong balance of sternness and comic relief this is another issue the film as a whole faces. There are moments when the film needs to be deathly serious for the audience to understand the stakes and risks involved in the scenarios our characters are willingly placing themselves in, but there is a consistent undertone of light, breezy comedy that undermines the heaviness that is fighting for its space on the shelf. Were it not for Cranston's ability to maneuver from a wholly likable personality to an intimidating one in the blink of an eye there is no doubt the film wouldn't work as well as it does. In other key roles, Louis C.K. is nothing short of fantastic and the same can be said for Goodman and the always reliable, always fantastic Stuhlbarg. Unfortunately, Mirren isn't given much to do despite her character being outrageously flashy while the likes of Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje and Christian Berkel show up for only a few scenes, but are memorable even in their short time. It is in its performers that “Trumbo” finds life and in their interpretations of their characters that we don't simply remain complacent, but are able to reach peaks the script and crew alone could not have been able to ascend.
It's difficult to pinpoint exactly what is so nagging about Roach's film given it seemingly does everything it's supposed to and even finds something of a groove early on, and yet it simply didn't hit the necessary sweet spot I felt it needed to. More than anything, there was a desire for the film to be more insightful into the industry considering the type of person who would seemingly enjoy a movie about Dalton Trumbo would be someone who finds film history fascinating. Maybe this type of person would be more impressed with the film than me, but given I consider myself a fan if not an aficionado of film history I feel as if I should demand more from the film rather than to simply accept the delivery of facts I could read on a Wikipedia page as presented by gifted actors. I hate to harp on Roach, but for a movie about movie makers and the passion for creating film the directing here also feels rather stilted. The production in and of itself, while made for a cool $15 million, looks as if it were a made for TV movie that exists within the clean and sheen world that we stereotypically think the entire decade of the fifties looked like. That screenwriter John McNamara decided to focus on the broad scope of Trumbo's blacklisting rather than zeroing in on a specific angle doesn't aid in the feeling the film merely skims the surface of just how devastating and life-altering what not only the titular character experienced, but his family and friends as well. Were McNamara to take a more deep-seated investment in say, Trumbo's involvement in the making of “Spartacus,” he could have delved deeper into the trenches about how much of a limb Kirk Douglas (a spot-on Dean O'Gorman) must have had to go out on to ask for Trumbo's help or the no doubt intense conversations and dynamics between Douglas and many a studio heads to get them to release the film with Trumbo's name on it. Such a perspective would seemingly illustrate the larger scope of Trumbo's situation by zeroing in on a prime example thus giving more weight and drama to the presented situations while at the same time essentially teaching the same history we learn here.
by Philip Price
“Concussion” is a really solid movie that wants to be as important as the topic it’s discussing. The problem with approaching a film in this manner though, is that it immediately sets a precedent for the film to be as weighty and influential in its cultural impact as the topic it's discussing and “Concussion” simply isn't that. It will start conversations, sure, and if it does its job well enough it may even convert a few football fans to the belief there are serious long-run repercussions to playing the game, but as a piece of art or simply infotainment, is it as effective as it sets out to be? Sometimes. Through writer/director Peter Landesman the film has some really inspiring moments as it attempts to not simply irritate those who are huge fans of the sport, but attempts to logically explain why we need to step back and take a serious look at if the type of lifestyle these men experience down the road is worth a few hours of entertainment on Sunday. Other times, in between the scenes of Dr. Bennet Omalu (Will Smith) drawing some kind of scientific conclusion or making his case with an NFL board member, the film tends to have lulls that concern itself with a romantic subplot that doesn't connect or one too many time lapses that aren't clearly illustrated. Where the film does tend to stand out is in the scenes that feature Smith's protagonist pushing back against any force that comes between him and his research. If you've seen the trailer you've heard Omalu's speech about how America is the next best thing to heaven and that he was the wrong man to discover such a disease as his entire life he's dreamed of being an American. That, to have discovered a disease that more or less states human beings were never made to play football, makes him public enemy number one and it is in the face of this adversity that Smith and the film shine most.
Adapted from the GQ article "Game Brain", written by Jeanne Marie Laskas the film begins in 2002 and first introduces us to former NFL star and Pittsburgh Steeler Mike Webster (David Morse). The opening sequence of the film overlays Webster's speech from the 1997 Pro Football Hall of Fame Enshrinement with footage from his playing days *with an emphasis on the number of hits he took as a center* as well as footage that highlights just how much the sport of football has become ingrained in American culture. Suggesting how impossible it would be for the majority of the league's patrons to turn up their nose to football we begin with the man who most embodied the image of the league in the ‘80s. Webster is also patient zero in the scheme of Omalu's research that forms the basis for CTE or chronic traumatic encephalopathy. We are introduced to Omalu via his testimony in a murder case that displays not only his level of intelligence through the listing of his many degrees and honors, but through his explanation that he thinks more about the way people die than the way they lived. As a coroner in Pittsburgh under the service of Dr. Cyril Wecht (Albert Brooks) it is only natural that Omalu would be the one to receive Webster's body. While his co-worker, Daniel Sullivan (Mike O'Malley), is a huge football fan and expects Omalu to leave the body alone without performing an autopsy it is immediately striking that a man of Webster's seeming health and age would have gone as mad as he seemingly did. This lunges Omalu into the discovery of the to-be-named CTE which can be summed up as a degenerative brain disease that is caused by repetitive brain trauma. To support this theory Omalu seeks out Dr. Ron Hamilton (Stephen Moyer) and Dr. Steven DeKosky (Eddie Marsan), the director of the Alzheimer's Disease Research Center at the University of Pittsburgh. After publishing his findings with the help of these credible colleagues though, things take an ugly turn as this pits Omalu against one of the most powerful institutions in the world.
If we're to get down to what “Concussion” really is, beyond the ambition of bringing an even bigger audience to the debate of just how dangerous football can be, it is a platform for Smith to give something of an awards-worthy performance as he adopts a Nigerian accent and grays his hair on the sides. Of course, once one comes to actually experience his performance it's easy to see it's much more than this. The thing that concerned me most going into “Concussion” was that I wouldn't be able to separate the celebrity that is Will Smith from this persona he would be taking on. Dr. Omalu is someone with a unique worldview when discussing America and one that doesn't exactly align with how audiences typically see Smith in any form or fashion. To be able to distance himself from this image for two hours and make audiences believe he is a forensic pathologist would certainly be something of a task. And while one can still see the lingering swag of Smith in some of his body language, especially in the opening scene as we're still accommodating ourselves, I was never distracted. The moment we see Omalu delve into his particular process while performing an autopsy though, we forget we're watching Smith and understand without consciously acknowledging it that he too has delved into his work. The film is essentially a collection of scenes that chronicle Omalu's uphill battle to be heard and taken as credible by a "corporation that owns a day of the week," as Dr. Wecht puts it. Of course, the NFL is doing all they can to discredit anything that would threaten their empire. While this succession of events could easily become repetitive it is the charisma and pure gravitas of Smith's performance, as well as his solid supporting cast, that makes each new battle, each new argument tenser and more immediate. As an audience we understand what's at stake and that the wider the audience Omalu reaches the more drastic of measures the NFL is going to take and so while the pattern is familiar, the natural raising of the stakes give good reason to continue moving towards the edge of your seat.
Speaking of the solid supporting cast, it is with the help of the likes of Alec Baldwin and Gugu Mbatha-Raw that what are or could have been some of the films weaker spots are made to, at the very least, be acceptable and get the necessary points across. For instance, as Omalu's future wife, Prema Mutiso, Mbatha-Raw is given the unenviable task of making the tacked on romantic angle work and feel natural when she and Smith are literally given zero time to develop anything resembling affection. Instead, the film pushes the two characters from simple acquaintances to roommates and then to lovers in the span of an hour and even less than that given they only share a handful of scenes within this first hour. While it might have been easier to go ahead and make Omalu a happily married man in the beginning rather than adding this task to the movie's to-do list Landesman clearly thought it important that we see the level of dedication Omalu has with his work prior to developing a social life. That this work ethic doesn't change afterward renders this point invalid though, and so it seems unnecessary the movie has to accomplish both its main goal as well as giving Omalu and Mutiso a love story that spans several years and thus events that include a deeper connection than we believe the characters have. This isn't necessarily the fault of the actors as Smith and Mbatha-Raw do what they can with the limited number of scenes they have together, but it certainly feels as if the film should have either given them more to do with one another or cut the romantic angle completely. Of course, Omalu and Mutiso's love story might have fallen victim to the cutting room floor as it's clear the film has been slightly gutted given actors like Paul Reiser and Luke Wilson were brought in to play Dr. Elliot Pellman, a former team doctor and the NFL's one-time chairman of their Mild Traumatic Brain Injury Committee, and current league commissioner Roger Goodell while only appearing on screen for a handful of minutes. On the other hand, Baldwin as Dr. Julian Bailes or the Steelers former team doctor and neurologist for the Players Association, enhances the film by enhancing the fight that Omalu is taking on with real credibility.
In what is the culmination of these sometimes stirring and other times only necessary moments that can plod along and do little more than feed us exposition is a movie that is largely fascinating simply by virtue of its topic, but one that could have certainly stood to be more poetic and, in the end, weightier. The movie yearns to be great and you can feel that. It yearns to paint a full picture of how football can be a mindless, violent game while simultaneously being something on the level of Shakespeare. That while, on the surface, football makes little sense as to why anyone would find such satisfaction in it, that to those who have grown up with it as part of their lives it is a drug they can't give up. Football is a habit they can't kick, an exciting and beautiful metaphor for life on a grand scale. To accept that it might not be all that it seemingly promises to be is a hard pill to swallow and while “Concussion” gives the beauty of the game its due its main order of business is to bring to light how something you love can screw you over in the end. It's a heavy handed piece of advocacy for CTE that comes to be undone by small mistakes such as not making clear the lapses in time that give the film a slightly disjointed feel. Little things like several on the nose shots of both actual NFL footage and of pee wee football that can feel like a bit much, but more times than not work in the context of the film and really drive home Omalu's point and make us appreciate his resilience. It must have been as tough for a well-known, well-liked star such as Smith to take on this role as it was for Omalu to have been the one to discover such a disease, but that he did lends the film the heft necessary to fill in the moments of weakness between those that truly make this film work.
by Philip Price
“Sisters” is a comedy of errors that works more because of its sisters than its errors. It's a movie that is amusing based solely on the appeal of its two lead stars rather than the thin premise that presents a situation made amusing by Amy Poehler's bungling and Tina Fey's incompetence. Of course, when one has stars as appealing and with as much chemistry between them as Fey and Poehler the premise doesn't have to be extravagant and even the execution doesn't necessarily have to be flawless-it just needs to give the two stars it's serving a solid jumping off point. In what seems like a move that should have been made a long time ago, Poehler and Fey finally find themselves playing sisters with their relationship being put to the test when their parents decide to sell their childhood home. Of course, given this is a light, rather breezy comedy things don't become too bogged down in the themes of material versus memories, but rather the polar opposites decide to throw one last party to commemorate all the good times they had on what they consider to be hallowed ground. What is great about “Sisters” is that it so clearly knows what it is and what it wants to be that it aspires to be nothing more than an excuse to watch Fey and Poehler rift for two hours while bringing in some of their closest “Saturday Night Live” friends to play along with them. Like that sketch comedy show, the material may not always be the strongest, but it can go a long way based on the ability of the players it is in the hands of and while longtime ‘SNL’ writer Paula Pell is behind this script (and one can catch how in tune Pell is with her stars at certain points) it is in the players that this material really finds life. The dynamic between Fey and Poehler is ripe for comedic opportunity and by casting each of them against type rather than going with the assumed roles it makes for a more interesting film despite the somewhat indulgent running time that could have been trimmed by 20 minutes in the middle. It's not that “Sisters” is bad or out of touch, but it's not a transcendent comedy, either (not that it was expected to be); the movie simply fulfills one's basic expectations and little more. That said, I had a fun enough time with it.
Poehler is Maura and Fey is Kate. Together they are the Ellis sisters born of Bucky (James Brolin) and Deana (Dianne Wiest) who reside in Orlando. There comes a day when Bucky and Deana are tired of the upkeep and clutter that mounts with owning the house they've had for the majority of their lives. They decide to put the house on the market and move into a luxurious senior citizen community where their cares can be reduced to zero. They break this news to the responsible daughter, Maura, through Skype where her worst fears of losing both her parents within a close amount of time conjure themselves up again. Maura is a nurse, recently divorced, and is constantly going out of her way to try and help people even when things don't turn out to be as she assumed. Her parents also ask Maura to take on the responsibility of telling her sister, Kate, because she doesn't take bad news well and they don't particularly want to tell her. And so, we meet Kate who, in short, is a mess. Kate is beyond immature with a career as a stylist who, at present time, is working out of an apartment she shares with someone she hardly knows. Kate has a teenage daughter, Haley (Madison Davenport), who leaves to stay with friends for extended periods of time given her mother can barely take care of herself, much less her. Maura's call to break the bad news to her sister comes at a perfect time given Kate's friend is given good reason to kick her out in the introductory scene and so both Kate and Maura pick up and take a trip to Orlando. Upon arrival they run into an old high school friend, Dave (John Leguizamo), sparking memories of their old "Ellis Island" parties. As they make their way to their parents' house they come across James (Ike Barinholtz) who they objectify based solely on the fact he's a sweaty man doing yard work. Once they arrive at their old home though, it's revealed their parents have already sold the house and that Kate and Maura are only necessary to clean out their childhood bedrooms.
Directed by “Pitch Perfect” helmer Jason Moore one can feel the overseeing of this film with the intention of being both a broad comedy that is easy to sell to the masses and the actual, R-rated product it ends up being. While it's somewhat jarring to see Fey and Poehler operate in this no holds barred world of comedy given we typically see them restricted to PG-13 territory it is both a help and a hindrance. Naturally, it allows them to go further with certain jokes and to say whatever they'd like without concern over language, but it also allows many comics to get lazy and rely on that punch line that can so often just be the F-word. Fortunately, Poehler's character is too timid and meek to use such language while Fey only enlists it when she's either really angry or really drunk and even then the actress uses it in contrast with something like "a-hole" instead of just saying "asshole" making her judgement seem all the more out of whack with what is conventionally expected. That Fey was willing to play this outlandish type rather than opt for the safe, buttoned-up Maura is the ultimate decision that makes “Sisters” worth seeing though, because despite Fey always being a better writer than she is an actress we've never seen her in this fashion before. While it was the obvious choice to go with given if they were to make Poehler the crazy one and Fey the conservative one again they would have essentially been making an extension of “Baby Mama,” that each of the actresses really immerses themselves in these personas make it all the more fun. That isn't too say either are doing transformative work, you still know it's Poehler and Fey bouncing improv and inside jokes off one another, but that they aren't so lazy to simply play themselves, but give real credence to their created characters and that character's arc is heartening and adds the necessary weight that when we see them come full circle it means a little something. Poehler is especially noteworthy as she is giving something fresh in every shot. One could simply watch her facial expressions the entire time and likely be just as amused as when trying to take in the full picture.
The stars are only as good as the support around them though, especially when it comes to selling the most subjective of material. With comedy it's always true that no matter how funny the central characters are there needs to be the necessary environment to set them up for situations in which that humor can flourish and, lucky for us, “Sisters” has its supporting game at top speed. In the first 10 minutes we get a Chris Parnell cameo, in the first half hour we're introduced to both Barinholtz (who you may recognize as the scene-stealer in “Neighbors”), acting as a great foil for Poehler's Maura as she attempts to let her freak flag fly, as well as Kate's arch nemesis Brinda (the always astounding Maya Rudolph). By the time we actually come around to the party that takes up the majority of the running time we have Leguizamo's creepy but well-connected Dave bringing in John Cena as drug-dealer Pazuzu and if you thought his bit part in “Trainwreck” was a fluke this will cancel any doubt as the guy is a comedic force both literally and figuratively. Then there are Maura and Kate's old high school friends that are populated by familiar faces like Bobby Moynihan as the guy who thinks he's funny but isn't, Rachel Dratch as the fun girl in high school that has become the depressed old woman ravaged by time, and Kate McKinnon as the class lesbian who lets them borrow her and her partner's lawn chairs for the party. Jon Glaser and Emily Tarver show up for a few minutes, but the real scene-stealer here is Greta Lee as Vicki AKA Hae-Won as a woman at the nail salon where the titular duo are getting pedicures before the party. Lee and Poehler's characters have an exchange about Hae-Won's actual name that further illustrates Maura's need to constantly help others, but in the attempt to pronounce Won's name properly things are lost in translation making for a scene that Moore allows to linger in order to let the ridiculousness of it all consume the viewer. Sure, I'd hoped a few set-ups might pay off better and that it didn't lag as much in the middle, but “Sisters” is great at pulling out the little things between Poehler and Fey that makes their chemistry palpable and that's all this film was ever going to need anyway.
by Philip Price
It's difficult to delineate the difference in nostalgia-fueled adoration and a subjective acknowledgement of quality when it comes to judging a film such as “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.” There was never going to be any true way that a film such as this could separate itself from all that has come before it (and it doesn't want to), but the same is true for those of a certain age who will be seeing the film or are excited for the film in the first place. For most, unless you're under the age of 10 or so and even then the majority are at least familiar with and likely enjoy ‘Star Wars’ to some degree, the idea of ‘Episode VII’ is something of a redemption story-a new hope if you will, that what was once so magical about ‘Star Wars’ will return and enable you to forget the overly glossy sheen of the prequel trilogy that revealed George Lucas' green screen obsession and his true lack of skill in directing actors. ‘Episode VII’ would mark the hope that we might, once again, venture to a galaxy far, far away and find both what we loved about the original films while being introduced to new and exciting characters and going on new and exciting adventures with the accompaniment of John Williams’ fantastic score (seriously, "Rey's Theme" is great). It is here that director J.J. Abrams, who rejuvenated the ‘Star Trek’ franchise before, is able to demonstrate his finely tuned skill for walking that line to great effect. In all of his feature directing work Abrams has been able to elicit the spirit of a past property or genre and most of the time bring a new energy to it even if the freshness of the story isn't always as ripe as it could be. The same can be said of ‘The Force Awakens’ as it hues very close to the narrative beats of ‘A New Hope,’ but has enough of a unique take on them and deviates enough from the narrative with the new character arcs, new revelations, and flat-out solid performances from the incredible cast that this is most clearly the best ‘Star Wars’ film we've had since ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ in 1980.
The set-up is pretty simple: There is a new Empire: the First Order and there is a new rebellion: the Resistance. The Resistance still includes Leia Organa (Carrie Fischer) except now she is a General while her brother, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), has disappeared to a place where no one can find him. In the opening moments of the film we meet an aged warrior (Max von Sydow) on the desert planet of Jakku who gives the best pilot in the Resistance, Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), a portion of a map that tells of the whereabouts of Skywalker. Of course, the First Order and its leader Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) also want to know where Skywalker is so that Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) might finally be able to do away with the last Jedi in the galaxy. In a race to retrieve the map, Poe is captured by Ren, but not before dispatching the map with his trusty droid, BB-8, whom he tells to get as far away as he can. BB-8, then picked up by a collector some distance from where his owner was kidnapped, comes to be in the hands of Rey (Daisy Ridley), a scavenger who works day and night just to feed herself as she waits for someone who doesn't seem to have the intention of returning. Meanwhile, a stormtrooper by the name of FN-2187 (John Boyega) is set to go rogue and after a somewhat successful escape from the Star Killer space station aka the Death Star, he crash-lands back on Jakku where he comes in contact with Rey and the BB-8 droid both the First Order and the Resistance are looking for. If this all sounds vaguely similar that's because, like I said, the script tends to hue pretty close to the overall arc of ‘Episode IV.. Where screenwriters Lawrence Kasdan and Abrams deviate is in the smaller aspects that actually make up this arc. None of these new characters are meant to mirror the ones we used to love, which is nice, but what's even nicer is that this is due to the fact Harrison Ford is still willing to show up and play Han Solo.
Almost more than the abundance of green screen, the worst thing about the prequel trilogy was that of the lackluster acting from anyone who didn't already know what they were doing. Within the first 10 minutes of ‘The Force Awakens’ one can already see just how much more mature of a film this is going to be and that Abrams and his crew have chosen a group of actors who have real chops and who can make, what are essentially these goofy stories, come to life in a credible way. While Ford is not remotely the star of this film, he kind of is. In many ways, ‘The Force Awakens’ needed to be about the passing of the torch as much as it was a closing chapter for some of the characters in the original trilogy. Another fine line for Abrams and Kasdan to walk, but one that is handled deftly by allowing Solo to essentially reprise not just the role of Solo, but the role Solo played in the original dynamic of the three leads. Ridley and Boyega, as the major newcomers to the universe, are simply magnificent. As a former Stormtrooper, Boyega is able to bring a new perspective to the proceedings that we've never seen before. He knows the mindset of the villain, but is not explicitly ready to help the Resistance as he lets on. More, he is only interested in getting as far away from them as he can before being captured, but an affinity for Rey keeps him hooked (sure, that's reminiscent of Solo, but Solo's already here). Abrams enjoys this idea as he shows many of the same scenarios from ‘A New Hope,’ but from a different perspective. To this effect, the elements reminiscent of ‘A New Hope’ are both in line, while varied enough that I expect the audience to see this as a wholly new adventure. Rey, on the other hand, is this abandoned soul who has become so self-sufficient she doesn't realize her own worth. Ridley offers this sense of lacking self-worth in her performance early on, but makes the necessary strides in confidence that we buy into the integrity of her transformation. Also, kudos to whoever made the decision to give Rey the reigns to this trilogy as I can't imagine how thrilling it must be for every little girl in the audience to look up and see this strong, independent woman wielding the power she does.
There are plenty of other aspects to discuss, but that of Kylo Ren seems to be the appropriate place to go next. Given what we were shown in the trailers I was fearful that this villain might simply be a substitute for the all-powerful Darth Vader, but instead there is some real depth and complexity to Ren. Driver, for the amount of time he wears a mask in this film, is really able to connect with the dark side in a way that, while paying homage to the previous big bad through the hope of living up to him, makes the evil palpable rather than just a run of the mill, hell bent on destroying the world type of antagonist. I was surprised by his backstory and happy Abrams didn't feel the need to keep it hidden from audiences any longer than he does. That said, I was disappointed in this Supreme Leader Snoke fella. We don't learn who this guy is, where he came from, or why he is worth following-heck, we don't even see him in the movie outside of giant hologram form, but that he was completely CG and more or less a hybrid of characters Serkis has played before was something of a let-down. Hopefully future films will rectify this, but as of now this was a major disappointment for a film that tried so hard in other areas to return to the grubbiness of the originals. While Snoke isn't necessarily a worthy villain as of yet, Domhnall Gleeson should certainly be singled out as General Hux if, for nothing else, a single scene in which his speech elicits the ideals (and color scheme) of the Nazi party. As Dameron, Isaac simply oozes charisma and will undoubtedly play a more key role in the upcoming films whereas the likes of Lupita Nyong'o creates a fully digital character in all the right ways. Maz Kanata is completely her own and makes a memorable section of the film even more so with her charm powered by Nyong'o's performance. Oh, and BB-8 is indeed as cool as you've heard.
What is interesting about this new trilogy though is that, for many of the younger fans, it will be the first time we go into a ‘Star Wars’ film not ultimately knowing where it is all heading. When I went into the prequel films at the ages of 12, 15, and 18 I knew that Obi-Wan would end up in a lightsaber duel with Anakin Skywalker, I knew Anakin and Amidala would eventually get married and have twins, and that he would become Darth Vader leading to the biggest of cinematic reveals in ‘Empire’ that, if you were born any time after 1980, you already knew before having the chance to see the film. And so, going into ‘The Force Awakens’ and not knowing what to expect and then having seen it and having legitimate anticipation for what comes next is something new. Something akin to the original trilogy that Lucas was never able to replicate in the prequels. This is also true of the idea that, because they came before the original trilogy, the prequels were never able to bring back what fans of the originals loved most-the trio of main characters. Here, Abrams is able to give fans what they've been craving since 1999. Because ‘Star Wars’ has always been about the idea of legacy as much as anything it makes sense to see where Han, Luke and Leia have been all these years and that despite them seeming to have everything under control when we last left them, that things don't always go the way we hope or expect. To see the fruition of these full lives come to life on the big screen is the biggest reward ‘The Force Awakens’ has to offer, but that it is also able to deliver compelling new characters and story arcs that make fans truly anxious for the next installment is even more gratifying. Sometimes even stimulating. It's certainly better than just hoping the next one doesn't suck, that's for sure.
by Philip Price
There is no greater influence on my imagination than the ‘Star Wars’ saga. Throughout junior high, high school and college I always looked to the stories for a place of inspiration. Watching the making-of documentaries of the original trilogy and the individual ones we were given on the prequel DVD's over and over led to nothing short of a yearning to create my own universe. Needless to say, the ‘Star Wars’ saga means a lot to me and in light of ‘Episode VII - The Force Awakens’ opening this weekend I've been re-visiting both the original trilogy and the prequel trilogy to get a sense of the universe I would be returning to once again. I was 12-years old when I was introduced to the world of Jedis, droids and Darth Vader and now that J.J. Abrams is bringing most of them back to the big screen I thought a retrospective might be in order as I haven't talked as much about my love for the series on this site as I probably should have. Going into the ‘The Phantom Menace’ in the summer of 1999 (yes, I watched the prequels first) I didn't know what I was in for and was transported to a world that very much spoke to everything I assumed the movies were supposed to be (yes, I enjoyed ‘The Phantom Menace’-don't act like you didn't). At that point in my development though, ‘The Phantom Menace’ was mind blowing. I immediately went home and begged my parents to buy me the original trilogy. I officially became a ‘Star Wars’ nerd at that point, but I didn't really care-it was beginning to become the cool thing anyway. I remained fascinated by the universe as I made my way through the original trilogy and though, by the time I was 18 and able to finally see what ‘Revenge of the Sith’ had to offer, I'd become slightly disappointed in where things had gone Sith was a good enough payoff to let things rest in peace. As that peace will now be disturbed though, I decided to take a look back at each of the six films that formed that galaxy far, far away.
A New Hope
The original film, the one that started it all, the one that were it never made we would have none of the others (especially ‘Empire’). Of course, the introduction to this world and the film that changed the landscape of cinema from that point on while becoming a little hokier with age is still a movie I could watch over and over. The chronicling of seeing Mark Hamill's Luke, ignorant of his past, yearn to leave Tatooine as he re-connects with Ben AKA Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness) is especially spine-tingling if you were introduced to the prequels first. The initial meeting with Harrison Ford's Han Solo now feels like something of legend. The film moves at a perfect pace and connects the different plot points with just the right symmetry. It is the only film in the original trilogy that can stand on its own. It is easy to see how original audiences saw this as nothing short of magical. Because of the stigma that surrounds it now, it is easy to get carried away with just how great the actual product is, but because it truly is enjoyable it more or less stands the test of time. It is a coming of age story that hits the necessary beats to be credible with both adults and children. It was the first film to portray a futuristic world as not being all sleek and shiny. It used old archetypes inspired by Joseph Campbell's Mythology and serials such as Flash Gordon and placed them in a wholly unique universe. Getting to the bottom of it, ‘Star Wars’ was technologically innovative for its time and created three lead heroes that audiences connected with. Now, it is a piece of history and even if it might not be the best or your personal favorite it will always be the one that started it all.
The Empire Strikes Back
With time, and in retrospect, it is easy to see why ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ is most people's pick when it comes to deciding what the best ‘Star Wars’ film is. After the success of the first film, writer Lawrence Kasdan and director Irvin Kershner were brought in to both punch up the script and lend the sequel a new visual prowess. The results are clear. ‘Empire’ is the bridge between the first and third film while also being the darkest in terms of tone. ‘Empire’ is segmented into very distinct parts and each section is a distinct achievement in all that is good about this saga. The war between the galactic empire and the rebellion alliance rages on and besides the grand opening battle on the snow covered climate of a planet in the Hoth system, we are introduced to Yoda as Luke travels to Dagobah. Han and Leia then escape to find refuge in cloud city as governed by Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams). From the outset there is a more regal quality to the production. Beyond even the look of the film the story brings in so many new layers and complex questions that as enthralled as we are in the current world we also can't wait to see what happens next. It is intense to a degree none of the other films can touch. It is somewhat strange to think that neither the first installment or the final one don't resonate most with the fans, but instead this middle tale with an unresolved plot that. It is, in many ways, the gold standard for blockbuster sequels.
Return of the Jedi
Upon delving into the original series I initially thought of ‘Return of the Jedi’ as my favorite. It had Luke going full on Jedi, Leia in the gold bikini and the simple advantage of being the final film in the series that would tie all the plot strands together. It would connect all the dots, tie up all the loose ends, and naturally offer plenty of thrills along the way. Too bad it also had the Ewoks...a lot of them. Like Jar Jar Binks, these furry little creatures offset the tone of the film and detract from the seriousness of the stakes between the ‘Empire’ and the rebel alliance. I still enjoy the (maybe overly long) opening sequence as we find Luke back on Tatooine and looking to free Han and Leia from Jabba the Hutt. We know going in he will again come face to face with his father and in that is part of the issue with ‘Jedi’-it retreads too much of the same ground-pushing the narrative forward, but doing so in too familiar of ways. ‘Jedi’ is, by no means, a bad movie and to this day I still enjoy it very much, but it is also the only film in the original trilogy that I would rank as equal or lesser than one of the prequels. Having watched ‘Episode I’ before these ‘Jedi’ is especially resonant for the layers of Anakin gaining perspective and glimpses of the man he could have been. This is where the discussion of watching order could come into play as watch ‘Sith’ just before ‘Jedi’ amplifies these themes all the more.
The Phantom Menace
Like I said in my opening paragraph, this was my introduction to the ‘Star Wars’ universe and at the time it was thrilling. In many ways, it still is. While I understand the anticipation that was swirling around the film and the unprecedented expectations it was never going to meet, the backlash as well as certain factors the film does indeed fudge, have subsequently caused a culture of vitriol to remain towards the film. In hindsight I can certainly understand why people complained of Anakin being too young (though this fault shouldn't fall on Jake Lloyd) and of course that Jar Jar completely takes away from an otherwise very serious movie, but both of those factors were included largely for the sake of children and that it was mainly adults complaining about the film's shortcomings makes one wonder exactly who George Lucas was making these films for. This would mark the first Lucas-directed ‘Star Wars’ since the original and as an introductory course to this universe it supplied a new generation with inspiration to seek out the history of what they had just experienced. So, if nothing else give ‘The Phantom Menace’ credit for referencing countless of younger viewers to the original series. Still, there is much to like here. The pod race is as thrilling a sequence in any of the films and for my money's worth this film also features the best lightsaber battle in any of the films. Not to mention, Darth Maul. That this was the last ‘Star Wars’ to be shot on film (until ‘The Force Awakens’ that is) also makes it the only one of the prequels that really feels like a ‘Star Wars’ film. As Lucas would get so obsessed with the technology in ‘Episodes II’ and ‘III’ spending less time with his actors developing their characters-the story and ultimately the aesthetic of the films would suffer.
Attack of the Clones
I can't hardly pretend to even like the second installment of Lucas's saga. This should have been the pivotal chapter, the one where we see Anakin show glimpses of change from innocent child to that of a disturbed young man who can't seem to find a balance between anger and passion. The film is plagued by Lucas' obsession with CGI and special effects and exposes his knack for writing horrible dialogue that plays awkwardly between two young actors who clearly have no direction for how they're supposed to play such scenes. Natalie Portman, while a good actor, struggles here and like Lloyd in Menace, Hayden Christensen has become synonymous with his less than stellar performances in these second and third ‘Star Wars’ films. Ultimately, the advancement of the technology, the choice to shoot digital (in this case), and the amount of pure sheen on every surface and space character allow this to end up looking like a cheap space opera. Whereas ‘The Phantom Menace’ still feels grounded in some kind of reality ‘Attack of the Clones’ is like a poorly written, horribly executed bore of a film that was shot completely on green screen. The opening chase sequence through Coruscant seemed like a lazy excuse to infuse some excitement and the addition of a young Jango Fett seems unnecessary. The beginning of the Clone Wars and the epic final battle between the Jedi and federation droids in a Gladiator-like setting is a highlight, but it is all overshadowed by the wooden romance and rushed wedding of Anakin and Amidala or what is supposed to be the backbone of this entire prequel trilogy.
Revenge of the Sith
No one will dispute the fact ‘Revenge of the Sith’ is the best of the prequel trilogy. I certainly won't. As much as I don't mind defending ‘Phantom’ I can't deny that this finale is easily the best of the series and that's undoubtedly due to the fact it gave us what we'd all been looking forward to. It has an overall darker tone and Lucas doesn't throw in any gags here to undermine that tone (unless you count Christensen's acting). The film solidifies that Ewan McGregor was the best thing about the prequels as his Obi-Wan Kenobi is the rock of which the original series grows from. McGregor serves as a credible talent that makes Lucas' dialogue sound common whereas everyone else hardly seems to know what to do with it. I'd hoped that Anakin and Amidala's awkward relationship might grow and develop into something more mature between ‘Clones’ and ‘Sith,’ but no. Christensen is simply never able to play the biggest bad of this entire universe as anything more than moody and bad-tempered and so it discredits all that has come before it. There are no facets to Anakin as represented here that make us fully understand his turn to the dark side. Though we get to see the physical transformation of Anakin into Darth Vader it never feels as earned as it could have been. That said, the final battle between Obi-Wan and Anakin was all we expected it to be with John Williams (the MVP of this franchise from the very beginning) score being more powerful than ever. While ‘Sith’ is more or less a fitting addition to the ‘Star Wars’ canon it will always be plagued by the idea it could have been better had Lucas cast someone else in the most pivotal role of all time.
And now, we wait for ‘Episode VII - The Force Awakens.’
by Philip Price
It's clear there is a driving force of sorts behind Angelina Jolie Pitt's (who I'll simply refer to as Jolie throughout this review because I'm not typing Jolie Pitt 300 times) writing and direction, it's just not clear what that force is. While I never saw her debut, “In the Land of Blood and Honey,” last year's insanely promising but ultimately disappointing “Unbroken” more or less set the prospects for any future Jolie pictures to that of being hopeful, but not necessarily optimistic. While the less than enthusiastic response to “Unbroken” must have been a blow to not only the writer/director’s ego, but to the faith she has in herself and her abilities it seems her reaction has been to return to the forum with a much lower-key project, inspired by the films of yesteryear and containing only a select number of characters. Jolie sets her film in the ‘70s and then isolates her characters to a French Riviera where this character study is almost forced into existence. Taking the idea of a strained marriage and somewhat bravely allowing such a dysfunctional portrait to be painted with herself and real-life husband Brad Pitt in the roles Jolie goes for a restrained and bleakly artistic look at two people at the end of their ropes for reasons we're not exactly clear on. In fact, while I can appreciate a good slow burn, “By the Sea” is such a staggering epic of quietness and indulgence that the boredom overtakes the measured emotions by the time the 20-minute mark hits. The problem is the quiet characters and their inability to communicate make it difficult for the viewer to find anything interesting or worth investing in about them and thus the patience wears thin before the film ever glimpses its portions that might seem interesting. There is a good movie in here somewhere, no doubt, a wholly engaging film about the natural dynamics of a seasoned couple and how the dealings of going through something unbelievably difficult while initially testing their bond might eventually lead to an even stronger one. Unfortunately, “By the Sea” is too generous with the amount of time we spend with this couple and too tedious in the events it depicts to be that film.
Beginning with Roland (Pitt) and his wife Vanessa (Jolie) arriving at a seaside hotel we are introduced to a starkly quiet couple that immediately make themselves cozy with the bartender (Niels Arestrup) downstairs at the café while they hardly speak once they get into their room. The tone is immediately set as France during the mid-1970s is a color palette of yellows and browns with the only breaking of this barrier being the lush turquoise sea outside their upstairs window. The tone between Vanessa, a former dancer, and Roland, an American writer, is immediately set as well given the moment they enter their room they rearrange the furniture to fit one another's needs. They no one another well enough to not have to speak, but it's clear a discussion needs to be had. Roland's typewriter is set up just in front of the window while Vanessa immediately takes to lying in bed for long periods with no hint of a plan to leave the room. They seem to be a couple who enjoys their leisure and utilizes their flexible careers (though Vanessa has long since retired due to nothing more than her seeming age) to travel the country together for extended periods of time, but as we come to know the couple we realize their relationship is barley holding itself together. To say they seem to be growing apart is something of an understatement as Vanessa is in pain, but won't let anyone in and Roland is desperate to reconcile the love they once shared. In the wake of Vanessa completely shutting him out though, Roland has turned to the drink and worse, seems to be suffering a case of writer's block. It is when they linger in this one quiet, seaside spot that they begin to draw on inspiration from their newlywed neighbors (Mélanie Laurent and Melvil Poupaud) in ways that could both irreparably damage their relationship or give cause for a new spark in their story. The destination is not always obvious given the stressed dynamic between the two, but the journey isn't consistently appealing enough to make that destination worthy of our attention either.
The worst thing about “By the Sea,” beyond the issues with boredom and over-indulgence, is that it purports to be really trying to say something and in the end it just doesn't connect. If one is paying attention (and trust me, that's hard to do sometimes) they can glean what Vanessa's issues are within the first 20 minutes of the film and so the remainder is simply waiting for the tension between she and Roland to boil to a point where they might finally say something about it out loud. Jolie takes her time by treating audiences to an hour's worth of exposition that shows how little the couple care to be around one another while on this beautiful vacation. Roland comes and goes as he pleases, becoming good friends with Arestrup's Michel while occasionally attempting to talk with his wife to no success. Vanessa, remaining largely cooped up in their room discovers a hole in the wall where a pipe once occupied the space that allows her to see into the neighboring room. It is here she becomes somewhat fascinated with the sexual escapades of Lea (Laurent) and François (Poupaud) as they tend to be making love any time they're inside their room given they're on their honeymoon. The longing for this type of connection by Vanessa is clear in the way Jolie positions her eyes and by her body language afterwards. Why she won't allow Roland to play such a role in her life is still a mystery though. And thus, we have come full circle to that critical issue with the film in that it desperately wants to be a character study of these two contrasting personalities around the same issue, but also wants to play things so subtly that neither approach wins out and what we're left with accomplishes nothing that I imagine Jolie set out to capture. It's evident that Jolie is digging here, searching herself for what unique angle might be found within this simple set-up and there are clearly themes and ideas she is intent to explore so as to make a statement that not all things are as they appear, but if any of this is true her latest piece of art is simply something pretty to look at with no weight to the proceedings and nowhere near the amount of depth she seemed to hope it might have.
Where “By the Sea” does indeed stand to be intriguing is that it does in fact star two of the biggest stars on the planet who are actually married and who typically remain quite mum about their private lives. For Pitt and Jolie to so boldly make a film about the trials of marriage is interesting on the basis of purely seeing them interact with one another in this environment and the idea that this is some kind of weird kaleidoscope into their personal lives. Of course, only a rock solid and assured marriage would be able to go to the lengths that are necessary to act out the issues on display here or to even have such conversations which essentially render the idea this is based on their actual marriage mute, but nonetheless it remains the single point of intrigue. Per usual, the two are rather charismatic screen presences despite having little to do. Pitt is playing a desperate drunkard of sorts that has reached a point of helplessness that it's the only reason we stand to care about what has happened and why his wife has shut him out. To stick around and endure such seeming hate is taken to mean Roland is a good man and as Pitt portrays him there's reason to believe he's only drinking as much as he does so that he might not care as much. Jolie positions her Vanessa as the victim though. Vanessa is a woman who is clearly full of angst, but by the way Jolie is able to convey her willingness to look into the unknown we come to understand she might be more adventurous than first impression would have us believe. This is presumably the woman Roland married and the one he'd like back, but the point of the film is to understand the journey Vanessa has endured that has created this elegant yet reserved woman who is afraid of the world despite being curious. Laurent and Poupaud display an ideal couple for Vanessa and Roland to take note of, but they aren't full formed characters. Jolie puts the sole focus on her and her husband's portrayals and while both are fine enough they, like their movie, simply don't say enough-or anything-that makes us care.
by Philip Price
There is something to the quietness of “Carol.” There is nothing especially profound about what the film has to say on the surface or what it does with a rather straightforward story, but more the suggestions below the surface that crawl into the way this straightforward story is conveyed. Director Todd Haynes is not one to deliver straightforward though, in fact he is more inclined to get to the heart of what makes something or someone tick than he is to simply adhere to what is expected. The same could be said of his latest. And so, while at the outset, “Carol” seems to be little more than a story of the forbidden love between two women in the 1950s there is clearly many more, larger implications of the type of world we lived and still live in as well as how things have or have not changed as much as most of us would like to think they have. Haynes is a deliberate filmmaker and one that gives us still moments and slight observations that culminate after being strolled out one by one into something immeasurably affecting. That is to say that while I watched the events of “Carol” unfold I couldn't necessarily connect with or understand exactly what the film was going for or why it seemed to be deliberately unfolding at a pace not intended to entertain, but to incite contemplation. It is a film that wants to move you to the edge of your seat not through the tactics of great tension or breathtaking stunts, but more through the unknown that is life and the uneasiness that comes with uncertainty. There is a steady truth to the film that it never wavers from. The film never feels the need to dip itself into more dramatic waters simply for the sake of something happening, but rather it is a film that holds steady to what it values most about its characters and the silent tragedies they must forever keep to themselves. Again, it is this quietness of both the film and its characters that is consistently emphasized to the point that once the film begins to draw to a close and the greater ramifications of the life these characters choose are realized that it becomes all the more clear we, the viewer, are truly rewarded for both ours and the films practice of patience.
With “Carol,” Phyllis Nagy adapts Patricia Highsmith's 1952 novel, originally titled The Price of Salt, for the screen with a story that follows two women from very different backgrounds who find themselves in an unexpected love affair in 1950's New York. At the end of a loveless marriage, Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett), along with her husband Harge (Kyle Chandler) are readying for a divorce with their young daughter, Rindy (Sadie and Kk Heim), at the heart of it. Harge is keen to his wife's unconventional ways as she's more or less admitted to something of an affair with longtime friend Abby Gerhard (Sarah Paulson). While this kind of action has more or less put their divorce on the fast track Harge continues to work hard to regain his normalcy. On the other hand, Carol sees the separation as a relief, a freeing action that might finally offer her the ability to live the life she's always desired. This only becomes more difficult for Harge and more tempting for Carol when she meets a young woman in her 20s while out shopping for her daughter's Christmas gift. Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara), is a lowly, quiet, and somewhat odd department store clerk working in Manhattan who has a passion for photography and an expectation for something more out of life than the obligatory relationship she currently occupies with the all-around nice, but rather plain Richard Semco (Jake Lacy). It is when she glimpses Carol, an alluring woman with blonde hair and a lavish fur coat whose make-up couldn't seem to be applied more perfectly, that Therese glimpses what she might find fulfilling. There is an immediate connection between the two, despite the age difference and despite the multiple societal norms they begin to challenge as their relationship and connection continues to deepen.
And thus we have the heart of what Haynes seems to be prodding the surface for: the idea of challenging the conventional norms of the time with what is nothing more than a simple and honest story about the resilience of the heart in the face of change. What's most impressive about the film is that it could have very easily been a grandstanding picture that preached about its message (and would have preached only to the choir) in ways that might have made for a greater sense of instant gratification, but in the approach of Haynes what we have is a reserved portrayal that lingers long after the credits roll. The director is able to do this through a use of framing his main players in settings and circumstances that bring out their insecurities, their questions, and their longing looks that immediately strike that chord of there being something more between the two immediate albeit awkward friends. There are constant rumblings under the surface and Haynes plays off this dynamic by utilizing Highsmith's tender yet direct dialogue to elicit the chemistry. Of course, Blanchett and Mara have much to do with this as well, but were it not for the way in which they are outlined so delicately by long-time Haynes collaborator Edward Lachman's beautiful lighting and period aesthetic as well as being accompanied so perfectly by composer Carter Burwell's score we wouldn't have the striking sense of place and time that makes the film as lasting as it feels given its lingering effect. The film is no doubt in much debt to its two lead performances that capture the heartbreak of the situation, but Haynes and his team use every inch of the frame to enhance these performances by giving us subtle hints of who they are beyond their looks and words. The obvious example of this would be in the difference in wardrobe between Carol and Therese, the lavish and the humble, but furthermore it is the style of not just the clothes but the film as a whole-as if we're in some sort of constant dream state, a state our protagonists wish they might remain in rather than having to come out to face the world that deems them unacceptable.
Of course, it is the two leading performances that ultimately set “Carol” apart-bringing it up from simply being a collection of suggestions to a piece of profound storytelling. At first it does seem Blanchett is the obvious choice for a prestige film such as this, but it would be wrong to not cast the talented actress simply on the grounds she is the obvious choice. Of course, Blanchett clears any preconceived notions the instant Therese sees her for the first time. On the other hand, the presence of Mara is something immediately intriguing as her limited work outside of her starring role in “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” makes her as much a mystery to Carol as she is to us, the audience. In these performances, much like in the costume and set design, it is how they react to one another that sets them apart while drawing them closer together. Each of these women are clearly at vastly different points in their lives and yet, each are what the other needs at that point in time to feel optimistic about the future. Carol needs Therese's inherent youthfulness and Therese needs the encouragement of someone with more perspective. They are complimentary and that's all that is necessary to be moving in terms of the obvious odds the two will face. That Blanchett and Mara push this dynamic to higher levels only makes it even more so. If one is ignorant enough to think homosexuality hasn't always existed and needs to be reassured that it has, but that such individuals had to lead sad lives and then die, Carol makes that necessary point. This is obviously not the main objective of the film though, and so to make this point without it overriding the more intimate ideas and moments Highsmith and Haynes develop minor, but substantial character arcs in the likes of Harge and Richard. In the capable hands of Chandler and Lacy the film hits some truly emotional lows that will make the converted even more heartbroken while hopefully speaking to those not yet convinced of such a loves authenticity to at least feel sympathetic. “Carol” is by no means a message movie, but is more a simple story about the complexities life carries and why living an authentic life is made to be so difficult based solely on what others expect of us.