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Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Their Best Scenes: Oscar's Best Actress Nominees

Every time I look at Oscar's best actress category, it reminds me of nothing but missed opportunities (seriously, no Annette Bening, Amy Adams, or Taraji P. Henson?). So, choosing the best scenes from each of the nominated performances was not exactly an easy task. But, I put on my big girl pants and really thought long and hard about what makes each performance at least special.

Continuing my week-long series highlighting the best scenes in each acting nominee, here's what I think about best actress:

Isabelle Huppert, Elle
Somewhere deep in the midst of rape fantasy and victim neglect is a marginally interesting performance by French actress Huppert, who plays Michèle, an apathetic, successful businesswoman hated by most the people in her life—including her employees, ex-husband, and son. She's relentless, really, without a redeeming quality about her or any sense of vulnerability. So when she finally tells off her oblivious adult son, in a climactic scene we're anticipating the whole movie, it both re-affirms her lack of empathy and the satisfaction she feels about her own dominance.

Ruth Negga, Loving
Throughout Jeff Nichols's beautifully simple real-life drama is a landmark civil rights moment happening around its two protagonists, humble married couple Mildred (Negga) and Richard Loving (Joel Edgerton). And while Richard is the protector, Mildred appears to be the quiet, passive, doting wife who just wants to live happily with her husband. That is, until their case garners nationwide attention, with the possibility of their interracial union no longer being illegal. Mildred then becomes the driving force in their case, allowing a Life Magazine photographer into their home to capture their simple lifestyle. While both Edgerton and Negga are in this scene, just sitting on the living room couch, it is Negga's presence, the embodiment of hope, happiness, and defiance, that personifies the entire film.

Natalie Portman, Jackie
Much of this political portrait is shrouded in mystery over who its subject, First Lady Jackie Kennedy (Portman), really was. Reliving the tragedy of her husband's assassination, interwoven with a dodgy yet surprisingly revealing interview with a reporter (Billy Crudup), is director Pablo Larraín's approach here, which further aggravates the typical nonfiction narrative. Faced with a complex character, Portman's controlled performance is best highlighted in the scene when Jackie gets emotional recounting her death, lights up a cigarette, and tells the reporter that he can't publish any of what she just said (and that she's not a smoker). 

Emma Stone, La La Land
Beyond the romantic effects. choreography, singing on a highway, there is one scene in this otherwise hollow musical dramedy that actually differentiates budding actress Mia (Stone) from her beau musician Sebastian (Ryan Gosling). It's at the end of the film at Mia's make-or-break audition when she nervously sings the film's emblematic song, "Audition (The Fools Who Dream)," as her eyes well up with tears, overwhelmed with the desire to nail this and each lyric that directly relates to this moment in her life.

Meryl Streep, Florence Foster Jenkins
I'm going to need your help with this one, because I still haven't seen this film. So, I couldn't tell you if there are any actually compelling scenes here—with or without Streep. (But those I know who've seen it, fail to recall much about it aside from how wonderful Hugh Grant apparently is in it). Leave your reader's choice for favorite seen in the comments section.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Their Best Scenes: Oscar's Best Actor Nominees

Over the years, the Oscar telecast has neglected to show clips from the nominated performances, which has always bugged me - partly because it's the last time we get to see why those performances were chosen (especially the ones that seem to have no business being on the ballot) and it allows us to relive others. But even when clips were shown, I rarely agreed with the ones chosen. So, I've decided to come up with my own favorite scenes from each nominated performance—beginning with lead actor.

Casey Affleck, Manchester by the Sea
In writer/director Kenneth Lonergan's depressing family drama, the audience is put through the ringer when its central character, Lee Chandler (Affleck), discovers that his children have perished in their own home. Like most Affleck performances, he emotes inward, leaving audiences with equal levels of sympathy and bewilderment. That is, until his knees buckle and he nearly collapses onto the ground before his brother (Kyle Chandler) catches him

Andrew Garfield, Hacksaw Ridge
This one is difficult because, really, there are no standout scenes in this evangelical war film, and certainly none with Garfield in them. It's still unbelievable to me that this film has gone this far. But I digress. If I had to choose one, I'd go with the scene when Desmond Doss (Garfield) tells his veteran father (Hugo Weaving) that he's decided to join the war. It's basic, tells you everything you need to know about his character, and adds a sense of moral conflict and gravitas to Desmond's storyline. That's all I've got.

Ryan Gosling, La La Land
This is another one that's a needle in a haystack, because there isn't much to choose from. Beyond the pitter patter of dialogue between traditional jazz musician Sebastian (Gosling) and his sweetheart Mia (Emma Stone), it's the scenes with little dialogue, when Sebastian recognizes the dissolution of his professional dreams in silence--succumbing to the reality that has become his life. He's in the middle of a hyper fabricated photo shoot with the rest of his band, donning cool guy sunglasses, catches a glimpse of himself in the mirror, and the look on his face is a mix of failure and hopelessness - which personifies the trajectory of this character.

Viggo Mortensen, Captain Fantastic
I still think it's pretty funny that a classic tough guy like Mortensen (who's amazing in such films as A History of Violence and Eastern Promises) found himself in a quirky little indie about a father of six living an unconventional life in the woods who's suddenly forced to conform to a traditional lifestyle. I didn't love the movie, but the scene at the end of the film with Ben (Mortensen) saying goodbye to his eldest son Bo (George MacKay) tugs at the heartstrings and embodies the type of father Ben is and is compelled to be in just a matter of a few words.

Denzel Washington, Fences
Unlike many of the other fellas in this category, there is so much to choose from Washington's tour de force performance in one of the best self-directed ones of all time. If you've seen the film, about a black family in the 1950s collectively crumbling under the weight of unfulfilled ambition, you know that Troy (Washington) has a ton of lines ranging from brutal monologues often aimed at his son Cory (Jovan Adepo) to rambling elation. But the scene that sticks out the most is when Troy realizes his last ditch effort to reclaim some sense of control over a life that got away from him has also failed and left him with a shattered marriage with nothing but a newborn baby to show for it. He leans out his bedroom window and comes close to waving the white  flag in a scene that is as frightening as it is deeply sad. 

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Trailer Watch: 2017 Oscar Nominees Natalie Portman and Ryan Gosling Star in Terrence Malick's SONG TO SONG

As some of you may already know, I'm not a fan of writer/director Terrence Malick. I guess you can identify me as someone who appreciates his work but, like so many other revered filmmakers and movies, I can do without it. So, I can't say I'm all that excited to see the trailer for his latest film, premiering at SXSW, SONG TO SONG, though it does star three of my favorite actors Natalie Portman, Michael Fassbender, Ryan Gosling, and Rooney Mara. (I'm still warming up to Mara).

Here's the gist of the plot:

In this modern love story set against the Austin, Texas music scene, two entangled couples - struggling songwriters Faye (Rooney Mara) and BV (Ryan Gosling), and music mogul Cook (Michael Fassbender) and the waitress whom he ensnares (Natalie Portman) - chase success through a rock 'n' roll landscape of seduction and betrayal. 

Watch the trailer:

I just hope it doesn't turn into a beautiful nap, like The Tree of Life or Knight of Cups. Also, is it just me or has Gosling just become....unremarkable in films lately? I know I know, he's just been nominated for an Academy Award for La La Land (don't even get me started on that movie again), but I long for the Blue Valentine or Half Nelson Gosling, the one who could rip my heart out then make me angry by the next scene. He was effective, and now I feel like he's become...wallpaper. And SONG TO SONG looks on par with that. Gosling, please come back. End semi-rant.

I'm trying to be cautiously optimistic, really I am. SONG TO SONG opens in theaters in Los Angeles and New York on March 17. Thoughts?

Monday, February 13, 2017

You've Got to See Jason Momoa and Keanu Reeves in the Trailer for THE BAD BATCH (Directed by Ana Lily Amirpour)

You may remember how much I salivated over 2015's A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night directed by Ana Lily Amirpour. It was a striking, haunting, and completely out-of-left field full length feature debut from a director who continues to shock and allure audiences in the best way possible with trailer for her upcoming film, THE BAD BATCH.

Brief plot synopsis:

A post-apocalyptic story set in a Texas wasteland populated by a motley assortment of rugged folks, including cannibals.

Jason Momoa, Keanu Reeves, and Suki Waterhouse star. Watch the trailer:

I'm here for it. THE BAD BATCH opens in theaters September 6. 

Friday, February 10, 2017

GET OUT: See Stills from Jordan Peele's New Speculative Horror

Few situations are as anxiety-inducing as meeting your significant other's parents for the first time. While you're eager to find out whether they'll like you, you're also sizing them up on your end, hoping to eliminate any last minute doubts you may have about your own relationship. We've seen this play out a lot in Hollywood films (mostly comedies), including the Meet the Parents franchise and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner. But writer/director Jordan Peele (Key and Peele) attempts to turn this premise on its head with GET OUT, an upcoming speculative thriller told through the eyes of a black man (Daniel Kaluuya) meeting his white girlfriend's (Allison Williams) parents (Catherine Keener and Bradley Whitford) in a society that continues to deny its fear of the black man.

And from what I can gather by watching the trailer, it looks like Peele has drawn on that white fear as the real villain in the story, when Chris (Kaluuya) becomes an unsuspecting target in what was supposed to be a warm invite. More in the synopsis:

In Universal Pictures' Get Out, a speculative thriller from Blumhouse (producers of The Visit, Insidious series and The Gift) and the mind of Jordan Peele, when a young African-American man visits his white girlfriend's family estate, he becomes ensnared in a more sinister real reason for the invitation.

Now that Chris (Daniel Kaluuya, Sicario) and his girlfriend, Rose (Allison Williams, Girls), have reached the meet-the-parents milestone of dating, she invites him for a weekend getaway upstate with Missy (Catherine Keener, Captain Phillips) and Dean (Bradley Whitford, The Cabin in the Woods).

At first, Chris reads the family's overly accommodating behavior as nervous attempts to deal with their daughter's interracial relationship, but as the weekend progresses, a series of increasingly disturbing discoveries lead him to a truth that he could have never imagined.

So, I'll admit I was not a fan of Peele and Keegan Michael Key's big screen comedy, Keanu (like, at all). But I would like to remain cautiously optimistic about this one, mostly because of its ingenious premise and genre placement. Check out a few additional stills from the film:

GET OUT opens in theaters February 24. 

A UNITED KINGDOM: Amma Asante's Romantic Drama Loses Its Allure

I have now attempted to write this review of director Amma Asante's new film, A UNITED KINGDOM, four times. Which is weird because it's not a bad film; it just doesn't leave an impression. So coming up with what to write about it has turned into a task. Beginning with Belle in 2013, Asante has explored the politicization of interracial relationships throughout history, across cultures and the world in a way that is personal, urgent, and impactful. But with A UNITED KINGDOM, it feels, distant, cold, and disconnected.

For what it's worth, the true life story of the marriage between Prince Seretse Khama of Botswana and Ruth Williams from London, whose romance sparked political turmoil (and his ultimate exile from his own country), is one worth exploring and sharing. Is it worth a movie? Perhaps not. But it does deserve to be known. Depicted through two solid performances by David Oyelowo (Seretse) and Rosamund Pike (Ruth), the story of A UNITED KINGDOM spans several years portraying multiple efforts by its protagonists to maintain a relationship amid public outcry accusing Seretse (destined to become Botswana's first president) of betraying his country to be in the arms of a white woman considered to be the enemy. Set in the 1940s in the Southern Africa country, the film follows the couple even as they're forced to be separated for the entire duration of Ruth's pregnancy. While apart, Ruth works to gain the respect of her fellow citizens as an outsider, while an exiled Seretse, viewed by  his political counterparts as the insubordinate black man with too much confidence, fights to gain reentry into his country. Throughout it all, their love endures.

Asante's flair for romance once again serves a critical role in this film, using warm colors in an attempt to retain the intimacy of the couple (an unsuccessful one, as you always feel like you are sharing their personal moments with their varied, persistent obstacles around them). The story itself (and Guy Hibbert's screenplay) is far too broad and slow-paced -- ranging from gigantic political assemblies, to opposing two-person scenes in stark colored offices, to fleeting romantic rendezvous between the couple. The way the narrative is structured here makes it look like their romance relies almost strictly on the challenges it faces, and not on the actual relationship. That's mostly because we don't get to spend enough time with Seretse and Ruth as a couple. We get a pretty good sense of who they are individually, as they're each faced with their own challenges in separate provinces, but then it makes you wonder what the actual objective of the film is: the political landscape, their romance, Ruth immersing herself in a culture of which she's not a native, or Seretse's struggle to prove himself personally and professionally?

The best scene in the film is toward the end, after the battle has been won and the couple is sitting side by side clutching cool drinks in garden chairs across their political opponent, who's just learned he's lost. The smugness, the mutual connection, the perfect lighting of the scene (directly beneath a high sun) and the chemistry between the two leads -- knowing that they have come full circle -- is palpable, and seems to finally relay something the film had been struggling to say throughout its arduous two-hour run time.

Asante still deserves credit for bringing stories like this to the big screen, dodging what is likely one Hollywood executive after another determined to box her in as "a one-note black woman director." I love that she has found a particular narrative that means something to her, at which she continues to scratch away -- something many seasoned filmmakers before her have made lots of money not even attempting to accomplish. But still, A UNITED KINGDOM is a disappointing effort from a promising director.

Rating: C (**1/2 out of *****)

A UNITED KINGDOM opens in theaters today.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Trailer Watch: I'm Here for Sofia Coppola's Seductive New Thriller

I'll admit, the first few seconds of this trailer for THE BEGUILED, writer/director Sofia Coppola's latest, had me bored stiff. Another well draped period film that entails several women whose one person is to claim the one man in town (played by Colin Farrell)? No, thank you.

But wait, there seems to be so much more to this decadent drama, which also stars Nicole Kidman, Elle Fanning and Kirsten Dunst. These women are not your average damsels in distress found in too many period dramas. They're savvy, seductive, and completely in control.

Take a look at the teaser trailer:

Focus Features will release THE BEGUILED in select cities on June 23, expanding to more theaters on June 30. 

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