Reviews

Oscars 2014: August: Osage County

(It’s 10:30pm right now so hopefully I can finish this before midnight to keep with my one post a day goal!)

Another film down in my aim to watch all movies nominated for Oscars in the major categories before March 2nd! Today I’ll be giving you my thoughts on August: Osage County, which is nominated for Best Actress (Meryl Streep) and Best Supporting Actress (Julia Roberts). The movie is based on the Tony Award-winning play that I somehow never got around to seeing on Broadway.

Quick Synopsis– August: Osage County is the story of one week in the lives of a very dysfunctional family. Streep plays Violet, the matriarch of said family, whom everyone gathers around when her husband has gone missing, and is later found dead of suicide. Violet is a self-admitted drug addict with a vibrant rage that can turn on a dime. Roberts plays her eldest daughter, Barbara, who has been estranged from her mother for years. Throughout the days everyone spends together, tempers flare and secrets are revealed.

Thoughts– Okay, I’m really going to try to avoid major spoilers here. My gut reaction after I finished watching the movie was, “Wow, what powerful performances!” But after I let it sit for awhile the film just kind of… floated out of my mind. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy what I was seeing, and every actor on screen was at the top of their game, but for whatever reason, the film as a whole didn’t overwhelm me. I can absolutely see why it mesmerized people as a play; to be in the same room and feel the energy coming off of the actors in those roles must have been a simply intoxicating audience experience. But thought the camera something is lost, and I’m not familiar enough with the source material to exactly describe why.

Meryl Streep, who is always amazing, is of course amazing here, but what I really love about her performance is how dirty it gets. She is not afraid to crawl in through the grime of Violet’s soul and really let some demons fly. Her vocal work alone here is stunning. Like I said, she’s always great, and I expected nothing less. Julia Roberts though… I went on her IMDB page to figure out just what the last Julia Roberts movie I saw was. Negating Mirror Mirror (which everyone really should, as it was shit), the last Julia Roberts movie I saw was Oceans Twelve in 2004!!! (I also saw her in Closer that same year.) I never got around to seeing Charlie Wilson’s War, purposely avoided Valentine’s Day and Eat, Pray, Love, and forgot Larry Crowne was even a thing until I clicked on the link. It’s been 10 years since Julia Roberts has really made any kind of impression on me and, dear God, is she good. I haven’t seen Erin Brockovich in years but her performance here blows what I remember out of the water. Talk about playing in the dirt. She is disheveled, almost gargoyle-esque at one point, every emotion on display. Please, please, please. See this movie just for her, to remind you what a force she is. You will not be able to tear your eyes away from her.

The rest of the cast is also terrific, across the board, but I want to pull out three people in particular. Margo Martindale has always been a wonderful supporting actress, and she’s finally been getting the recognition she so rightfully deserves in the last few years. She is fantastic here, oscillating between ease and tension within seconds. Chris Cooper, as her husband, plays one of the only truly warm people in the entire movie, and his quiet presence is at first mistaken as weakness until later in the film when he shows how strong he can be. It wasn’t until I was writing his name right now that his rap from The Muppets even entered my mind. Finally, there is Julianne Nicholson whom, I have to admit, I only recognized from that terrible Brittany Murphy movie Little Black Book. Yikes. She plays the youngest sister, Ivy, who never left the town she grew up in and is finally deciding to stand up for the life she wants to lead. I don’t want to give anything, but the scene towards the end between her, Violet, and Barbara was probably my favorite scene in the entire movie, all thanks to those three women really forcing each other to up the stakes with every line.

(I want to give a special shout out to Benedict Cumberbatch who really isn’t given much to do, but makes quite an impression in the very few scenes he has.)

There are so many themes running through this movie that I don’t think I should really get into all of them, but I did want to discuss one that really struck out at me: becoming our mothers. Violet’s mother was a taunting, reckless woman who didn’t seem very concerned at all for her daughters’ happiness or even safety. Violet monologues about what a better life she’s given to her daughters but in the end, she is also taunting and destructive, and she doesn’t have a single healthy relationship with any of her offspring. Neither does her sister for that matter. Finally, for as much as she loathes her mother and resents her childhood, Barbara lashes out at her daughter in a way that directly parallels how her mother treats her. In the world of August: Osage County, we are fated to carry on the sins of our parents, and to have those relationships influence everything. Karen, played by Juliette Lewis, the middle daughter, is desperately seeking her mother’s approval, and so she turns a blind eye to the flaws of her fiance, determined that something will work out for her, for once in her life. It’s an interesting construct that is never played too heavy-handedly.

The writing was superb. The original playwright adapted his script and, aside from one scene where Barbara and her husband Bill (Ewan McGregor) argue about the word “forsook,” it doesn’t really seem as if it was intended for the stage. Still, and I can go on and on about the performances forever, there was still something missing in the end. I guess when it comes down to it, I’m left wondering why it was adapted into a film. The direction didn’t bring anything new to the table and, as thrilled as I am to have these actors on tape, the story of this family seems meant for the immediacy of live theater. The camera does nothing except show us what is there. Compare that to 12 Years a Slave where what or how the camera chose to show you every shot directly influenced how the audience themselves felt. I was captivated by that movie; in August: Osage County, although the acting thrilled me, I simply felt like I was being kept at arm’s length.

(11:36pm: made it!)

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Disney War: Frozen vs. Tangled

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I first saw Frozen with my sister over the Christmas holiday and instantly fell in love with. The moment I left the theater I started raving to everyone who would listen that they should run and see it immediately. Now, a lot of people that I recommended it to loved it (my coworker likes to break the tension during stressful work days by blasting “Let It Go” at random times), but I’ve also heard from multiple people (five and counting) this exact sentence: “It was fine, but I liked Tangled better.”

Okay what? At first I couldn’t understand why you would compare the two. Tangled came out in 2010, almost four years ago, why would they be in direct competition with each other? But then, after the third time I heard that reaction, it started making a bit more sense. They’re both the only two Disney princess movies created using CG characters, and both went through title changes to distance themselves from their original fairy tales and become more “boy-friendly” flicks. After last night, when yet another friend compared Frozen to Tangled, I thought it could make a fun blog post to argue my thoughts on the matter. Thus, here is why I prefer Frozen over Tangled. Please be sure to leave me a comment and tell me what you think! I love to debate these things (obviously).Tangled

(I should note, lots of spoilers below if you haven’t seen both films–and if so, seriously what are you waiting for?!)

Plot
Both movies quickly set themselves apart from their source material. Tangled is not just the story of a princess needing to be rescued from her tower by a handsome prince; instead, Rapunzel’s story is more about her quest for self-realization than just fleeing a witch. Frozen has almost nothing in common with “The Snow Queen” fable that I grew up with. Basically there’s magic and snow… and that’s about all that overlaps. For those of you who haven’t read the original Hans Christian Anderson story, it is about a young girl who goes on a long quest to save her best friend from the clutches of the evil Snow Queen. Frozen is about sisters, secrets and love. This one’s really a toss up, based on your own preferences. For me personally, Tangled is a fun adaptation of a classic story we all know but not much more than that, whereas Frozen is completely unique and really speaks to me, as both a modern feminist (I use that term more in the “women can do anything!” meaning and less in the bra-burning sense, by the way) and sister.

Heroines
Frozen is already ahead of Tangled here just by the 1-2 punch of having two kickass princess leads, whereas Tangled just as Rapunzel. All three princess have spent their lives locked up away from other people, and that definitely influences their characters and their choices. Rapunzel is naive, enthusiastic and energetic, and my favorite part of the movie is the scene where she flip flops from being thrilled to terrified after having finally left her tower. Anna actually shares a lot of traits with Rapunzel, now that I look at it this way. Both are a little awkward  and funny, and both prove to be quite adept at handling the outside world, having never been out there before. I guess the biggest difference between the two are the stakes at hand. Rapunzel’s whole purpose of leaving her tower is to go see the floating lights without her mother knowing; Anna needs to salvage her relationship with her sister and bring back summer before her entire kingdom freezes to death (a direct consequence of her publicly pushing Elsa past her breaking point). When Rapunzel’s stakes finally do get high (given the choice between her freedom or saving Flynn/Eugene), she doesn’t actually get to make the choice. Eugene chops off her hair himself, sacrificing his life for hers. Anna also has to decide between saving herself or saving her sister, and she instinctively chooses to sacrifice herself for her sister (not knowing, of course, that doing so will break the spell).

Anna is definitely the heroine of Frozen, but it would be wrong to leave Elsa out. Her journey is an internal one, as she goes from letting her powers control and define her while locking herself away from the world in fear, to finally accepting her powers, learning to control them and letting herself be loved. It’s still a heroic journey, in my mind, although not the traditional one.

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Hero/Romantic Lead
Flynn smolderI won’t fight it: Flynn Rider (or Eugene, whichever) is awesome. He’s a bit arrogant at first, definitely in the category of Reluctant Hero, but he shows himself to be charming and sensitive, and he really seems to love Rapunzel, enough to sacrifice his life to keep her from remaining Mother Gothel’s prisoner. That said… dude’s still a thief. I mean, I know he allegedly gave up thieving after falling for Rapunzel but, unlike Aladdin, he didn’t steal because he needed to eat, he stole to get rich and because he really liked stealing. And then he’s rewarded by… marrying the princess and getting rich. It’s just a little weird to me. Plus, The Princess and the Frog had done a similar arc with Naveen just a year earlier. He too just wanted to be rich and have an easy going life, but he falls in love with Tiana and lives happily ever after… working really hard to make he dreams come true for the rest of his life.

Frozen doesn’t really have a hero in the traditional sense of the word. In saving her sister, Anna saves herself. But there are twohans anna love interests. First, there’s Prince Hans, whom Anna meets literally seconds after she steps outside the castle for the first time since she was a child. That night after about an hour and a half/two hours of conversation and one rousing song complete with the robot dance (hard not to love a man who can robot), they’re engaged, and about 20 minutes after that (give or take) she’s leaving him in charge of the entire kingdom in her absence. Yeah… Anna’s been reading way too many books from Giselle’s library. But then in an awesome twist I seriously didn’t see coming (although my sister did, or at least she said she did), dude’s evil! His entire reason for being in Arrendale for the coronation is to claim the throne by getting either sister to fall in love with him.

Kristoff trollsFrozen also has Kristoff, who falls into the same Reluctant Hero trope that Flynn does, and although he slowly realizes that he is falling for Anna, his story ends up with only a kiss, not a declaration of love or marriage proposal in sight. Tangled follows the more traditional structure of love interest, whereas Frozen subverts it making the bolder, and more modern view, in my opinion, of having the final moral be about familial love as the love that saves, not romantic.

Here’s a funny comparison: both Rapunzel and Anna fall in love with the first person they meet outside of their tower/castle. Rapunzel ends up married to the guy; Anna ends up getting engaged but then learning that he’s a douchebag in a nice outfit, and that it’s silly to marry the first person that sweeps you off your feet. Love it!

Villains
Mother Gothel is a great villain, manipulative in a sense that reminds one of Scar or Ursula. She knows exactly what to say to gothelcontrol Rapunzel, and she utilizes it to her advantage almost every day. That said, the one thing I really didn’t like about her role within Tangled is that Rapunzel 100% believes her to be her mother (until the end of the story) and loves her as one for 18 years, and then as soon as she finds out she’s not really her mother, she flat out despises her and doesn’t blink when she dies. That’s a little weird for someone you believed was your mom for your entire life.

WeseltonFrozen doesn’t have a stereotypical villain, but I don’t think it suffers from this. Elsa can almost qualify as one, although she really only uses her powers against people out of fear, in self-defense or, as in the confrontation with Anna, to protect her sister. The Duke of Weselton is a minor villain, ordering the death of Elsa to protect his interest in trades with Arrendale, but aside from a terrifyingly accurate version of Lindsay Bluth’s Chicken Dance, he’s of little consequence. Prince Hans is the truest villain in this form, although we aren’t aware of his nature until the last quarter of the film. Up until that point, he proves himself to be a very capable leader and in tune with the suffering of the kingdom, which I don’t think could all be an act. When he admits his plan to rule Arrendale to Anna, and then later tries to kill Elsa himself, he claims the role of the primary antagonist and is rightfully brought down… but I can’t help but think he wouldn’t have been a half-bad king if his plan had worked out. I’m glad it didn’t, but it was an interesting choice for Disney to make him ambitious without eliminating all of his compassion. Okay I’m rambling.

Music
Let It Go 5Hands down I think Frozen has better music, and “Let It Go” in particular has skyrocketed quickly into the kind of universal popularity that a Disney movie hasn’t seen since “Colors of the Wind.” I was at a drive through ATM the other day and this song was playing and the teenage boys in the car behind me called out without a hint of sarcasm, “Turn it up, I love this song!” I could see in my rear view mirror that they knew every word. That’s pretty unique for a song from an animated movie. “Let It Go” trumps the entire soundtrack of Tangled by itself, but let’s take a closer look and examine the other songs we’re working with.

For “I Wish” songs, we have “When Will My Life Begin” from Tangled and “For the First Time in Forever” from Frozen. Now, I’ve foreveralways been a big fan of “When Will My Life Begin,” but when you compare the two directly, you immediately notice that it’s basically just a list of activities sung to a fun melody. Comparatively, “For the First Time in Forever” is chock-full of personality. I’d have to give the edge to Frozen on this one as well.

tangled lightAs far as love songs go, Tangled has that contest in the bag. “I See the Light” is a traditional Disney love ballad, and nothing really compares to it in Frozen. “Love is an Open Door” is much poppy-er and can’t really fit in the canon of songs that include “A Whole New World,” “Beauty and the Beast” and “Kiss the Girl.” However, it’s much more suitable for those characters in this particular story (especially with the twist that happens) that they don’t have the traditional ballad.

“When Will My Life Begin” (which gets reprised twice, ugh!) and “I See the Light” are really the only two songs from Tangled that stick out after watching it. Donna Murphy does an amazing job with what she’s given on “Mother Knows Best,” but its Broadway style panache doesn’t really fit in with the rest of the pop-infused score, and honestly I don’t think I’ve ever listened to “I’ve Got a Dream” outside of watching the actual movie. Why do we give an entire song to secondary characters we’ll never see again? Obviously Frozen has “Fixer Upper,” but the purpose of that song is to let Anna and the audience know more about Kristoff than it is about the people who are singing it.

Frozen FTW.

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Note: I cannot take credit for any images used on this post. All .gifs were acquired from giphy.com. If you would like your gif removed, please let me know and I will happily take it down!

Oscars 2014: 12 Years a Slave

12 Years a Slave

“12 Years a Slave” was the first Oscar nominee I watched this awards season. Now I don’t want to make a judgment about the other films that I haven’t seen yet, but after seeing this I can’t imagine why American Hustle swept the Globes instead of this film. But I’ll get more into that after I see Hustle.

Quick Synopsis– “12 Years a Slave” is based on the true story of Solomon Northup, who was a free man living in the north with his wife and two children before he was kidnapped, brought south and sold into slavery. The film documents his time as a slave, as well as his struggle to keep believing that he will one day see freedom again as he endures countless, unbearable hardships.

Thoughts– In my opinion, this movie has all the makings of a Best Picture winner. Or at least the tropes. It’s an inspirational (1) historical (2) biopic (3) based on a book (4) about a man facing extreme suffering (5). Whew! But honestly, it’s a great film. As excruciating as it is to watch, you can’t tear your eyes away. The acting across the board is superb; the pacing is deliberate but entrancing; and the film stays with you long after you leave it.

Steve McQueen is a fearless director here. He uses every tool in his arsenal to keep the audience as close to Solomon’s suffering as possible, and it works. I felt like I didn’t breathe for the entire length of the film. Chiwetel Ejiofor is just as fearless, and every new pain seems different and deeper than the one that came before it. His relief at being freed at the end is beautiful, and I dare you not to weep. His journey is long, but his performance is never anything less than 100% committed. Michael Fassbender, playing Solomon’s seriously sociopathic second master, is terrifying and unpredictable. The tension between him and Ejiofor is fantastic and stomach-churning. Lupita Nyong’o plays the object of Fassbender’s obsession (to the ire of Sarah Paulson, his wife). Her desperate plea to Solomon is heart-wrenching. I know I’ve used way too many adjectives here, but I seriously cannot describe this film positively enough. Like I said before, I can’t imagine any film besting this one in my opinion, but it’ll be interesting to watch them try!

I’ve heard people say that it didn’t do very well at the Globes (taking home the top prize for Drama but none of the acting or directing prizes) because it’s too difficult to sit through. I call bullshit on that. Yes, it is difficult to sit through. But it’s important to sit through. Human suffering shouldn’t be easy to watch. For too long in American cinema, slavery has been a supporting character  to the Civil War or simply breezed past… It’s beyond time for a major film to deal with it in an honest, brutal way. Slavery was a major part of our country’s history and we need films like “12 Years a Slave” to spark a conversation, and to continue to help heal our country (because if you think racism is dead, get to know more people and go to more places). I know I promised no more pretension, but I can’t help it here. Everyone should watch this movie, and everyone should be talking about it.