Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Speaks Reviews: Strong Women Edition


I was raised by a single mother. She has five sisters and no brothers. All of my aunts have daughters. I am one of two boys on my Mom's side, as far as biological cousins are concerned. Let's just say strong women outnumber strong men in my family. I've known the struggles, the fights, the good times and bad and everything in between.


I recently wrote an incomplete Top Ten Movies of 2015 list. Basically, a list of movies I saw in a theater in 2015. Part of my recap of the year included the following paragraph:

It can't be denied that this was a big year for the ladies. I just watched two films with female leads, both absolutely lovely period pieces, set in the same year, that couldn't be more different in tone or style, Todd Haynes' Carol and John Crowley's Brooklyn. Of course, Charlize Thereon has been lauded for her show-stealing performance in Mad Max: Fury Road...It's good to find Hollywood taking note of the disparity so many have spoken out against in recent years.

To expand on that, here are brief reviews of the final three movies I saw in a movie theater in 2015:


★★★ out of ★★★★

My wife made it clear that this was the holiday season film she most wanted to see. She is a sucker for the comedy and mostly just humors me with my high-brow film obsession. We just had to go with her sister and her husband before our Winter Break ended. I was highly satisfied. 

Sisters only works for two reasons: Tina Fey and Amy Poehler. Apart from the huge emergence of Amy Schumer and the continuing undeniable presence of Melissa McCarthy, these two are still the fiercest ladies in comedy. It's only fitting that they should star as sisters in a movie called Sisters. 

Poehler stars as Maura Ellis, a career-oriented, recently divorced nurse, a classic do-gooder. She is a mother with no kids. Fey stars as Kate Ellis, the yin to Maura's yang, a struggling beautician (and for good reason). She has no direction. She is the type whose late-teen daughter is more like the mom. When their retired parents (James Brolin and Dianne Wiest) decide to sell the family home in Orlando, the titular sisters are brought together with a common goal...save the memories of the home they love. 

Of course, to them the home represents less childhood and more adolescence, the time when they transformed the place into an epic teen party pad when the parents were gone, a place known as "Ellis Island." It was Kate that truly made the memories. Maura was always the "party Mom." Anyway, the girls feel it's time for one last blast with all the old gang from high school. And it gets funny. Really funny. Great observations about aging and marriage and divorce and parenthood abound. 

Part of me wishes that Fey and Poehler had more of a hand in this script. No doubt there was plenty of improvisation, but we all know them to be the strongest of comedy writers. The screenplay, written by Paula Pell (an SNL veteran as well) is narratively thin. Fey could do better. No matter, for what this film lacks in narrative originality, it makes up for it laughs. Huge laughs. This is a movie where every single joke, bit, and gag works.

It is absolutely balls-to-the-wall with raunchy, drunken comedy. And, although it fails in some of the more touchy-feely aspects, specifically in the subplot involving the Fey character's daughter, it does have a great rom-com subplot featuring the Maura character and a new neighbor, James (Ike Barinholtz), and it is adequate in illustrating a late coming-of-age that is just fun. The cameos from the great John Leguizamo, Maya Rudolph, and SNL's Bobby Moynihan are top-notch, especially Moynihan (I almost pissed my pants at the bit where he does Pacino a la Scarface.). And, in the end, there is a nice twist that works in the issues of today's woman and the strength it takes to grow, even on the way to mid-life. 


★★★★ out of ★★★★

Carol is just a lovely film. It digs deep into what love means and how it surprises and develops in the most unexpected ways. It is also unexpected in the way it flies in the face of everything we might expect given the subject and time period of its setting. It features two of the strongest performances of 2015 and hovers quite close to my Top Ten. I am actually in awe of these actresses, especially Rooney Mara. She is a miracle here. 

Todd Haynes is a terrific filmmaker with a visual genius that continues to excite with each film. He makes quiet movies. Movies that take the style of films past. Much like his gorgeous 2002 film, Far From Heaven, here again he made a new film that roots itself in time period, a film that works now, in story, in the form of a film that would've worked then, as it somehow does now, in style. It is gorgeous to look at. Filmed in a grainy super 16mm format by cinematographer Edward Lachman, it captures a New York of the 1950s that is just right. It is subtle, slow moving, relying on close-ups, eyes, glances that ooze pure love and the pain that comes with it. He and his collaborators love this film and love this story, including also (I must add) composer Carter Burwell, who here has crafted the best score of 2015. 

Cate Blanchett is looking to pick up another Oscar as the title character, Carol Aird, a classic 1950s housewife, or so it seems at the outset, shopping for the right Christmas toy for her young daughter. The shopgirl at her aid that day is Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara), a young women in her early 20s, living the Bohemian lifestyle but dreaming for more. Therese keeps her male prospects at bay, including the sweet, big-dreaming Richard (Jake Lacy) and the newspaper man, Dannie (John Magaro). Meanwhile, she slowly but surely falls into the life of Carol, a repressed woman desperately making her way out of her marriage to Harge (Kyle Chandler), a man who loves Carol and their daughter and can only hold onto what hope he has of keeping his family together. 

But Carol is a strong woman, the strongest kind, and, as her relationship with Therese develops, we get a picture of what it was most certainly like, given the time period, for a women like Carol and Therese. Therese is equally strong, dealing with a crisis within a crisis impossible to avoid. And it all comes together in such a thoughtful way. 

The best thing about Carol is how easily it grabs ahold of us and makes us feel, so calmly loving of its heroines and its audience. It is fresh as much as it is old at heart. 


★★★★ out of ★★★★

While Carol is a film that rests just outside my Top Ten of 2015, as it is now, Brooklyn shot straight up near the top immediately. Carol is, in fact, slow, methodical, so lovely, but it's not one I will want to watch again and again. Brooklyn is. It is the best kind of movie, a nice movie about nice people, featuring a heroine crafted out of pure affection. 

Now, that's not to say this film is easy or without conflict. Life is full of pain, and screenwriter Nick Hornby, working from a novel by Colm Tóibín, knows this so well. This is what makes it so universally relatable and lovable. Even the best people experience the harshness of life, and Brooklyn is also a movie about that. It is just so effortless in how it hooks into the audience. It literally extracted emotions from me--feelings of warmth, mostly, and happiness, sometimes longing, sometimes fear. I cried. I laughed. I left the film filled with hope. It's much like falling in love. 

The reason for all of this is Saoirse Ronan. She has grown up, and she is an actress to be reckoned with. She plays Eilis (pronounced Ailish), a bored young woman from Ireland with a ticket to America. A place awaits her in Brooklyn, New York, where she will live in a boarding house of other young immigrant women under the tutelage of Mrs. Keogh (Julie Walters) and attend classes in bookkeeping, sponsored by Father Flood (Jim Broadbent), both purely good. She gets part-time work in a department store, battles homesickness, goes out with the other ladies of her house to the local Irish dances, all with the hopes of meeting "a nice fella." And the homesickness fades as she meets and quickly falls for Tony (Emory Cohen), a kind Italian boy, who likes Irish girls, and doesn't talk much "about baseball and his mother," until he does. And that's good as well.

Whisked back to Ireland, Eilis is torn, as one would expect, between the home that beckons her with several prospects, including that of the hand of hometown boy, Jim Farrell (Domhnall Gleeson), and the new home she has grown to love. But everything we expect here, much like in Carol, is handled with such love and care that it, in its own way, becomes unexpected at every turn. It is focused full-force on Ronan's perfectly delivered performance, an inspired piece of work that should be cherished for years to come by strong young women, dealing with all of the things, even now, that women face. And, smartly, director John Crowley and his cinematographer Yves Bélanger lay their focus on Ronan's face, one that carries every single emotion at which they aimed, striking their target with expert precision and accuracy. 

I have not been romanced by a movie this strongly since 2013's The Spectacular Now. I can't compare the two films in any way, except in how perfectly they seem to understand the mixture of the pain of life and love and the goodness that can be found in both. 

13 comments:

  1. I haven't seen Sisters or Carol yet but Brooklyn is one of my favorite films of the year as well. (Great book too) Eilis was a fantastic character. I loved how quietly sarcastic she was and how even though she's afraid, she really goes out and tries to make the best life for herself. Her decision in the end is one of my favorites too. I'm buying that movie for sure when it comes out on DVD.

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    1. Brooklyn is one of those characters that comes along every so often and breathes life into the world. That sounds hyperbolic, but there is no other way to put it. If I had my way, I would somehow feed this film into people's TVs. It needs to be seen by everyone.

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  2. Beautiful reviews of two beautiful films, Carol and Brooklyn. Brooklyn is my #1 of the year so far (still need to see Joy, The Revenant, and Big Short of the big dogs) and godDAMN if it isn't just the best ensemble of the year. Everyone is so on point and the film so clearly loves them all, even the not-so-nice ones. How Julie Walters's scene-stealing boarding house matron isn't in the Best Supporting Actress conversation I'll never know. And Saoirse Ronan. What a freaking glorious performance.

    Carol is perfection on every craft level. I think I just don't "get" Rooney Mara, though. I haven't liked her in anything (except Side Effects, in which she was well-cast as a sleepwalker). I found her to be particularly somnambulant in Carol, which is a fine choice in the first half of the film, but she doesn't seem to come out of it even by the end. She does have good moments (the first meeting and lunch scenes are perfection), but Blanchett totally outshines her with the way a smile creeps across her face. This film, though, is an across the board nominee for me right now.

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    1. Thanks, man. Brooklyn is so very close to the top for me, as well. Just an absolute good in movies this year. Walters is great. Broadbent as well. All of the supporting work is just fucking perfect. I'm in love of Ronan. In fucking LOVE. (And she looks a lot like my high school girlfriend, my first love.)

      Yes on Carol as well. I "get" Rooney Mara, and I am in love with her too. My wife and I both preferred her work (and her character arc) to Blanchett's (she was great too!!). It is a perfectly crafted film for sure. Just absolutely lovely.

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    2. I agree with Julie Walters. She was fabulous as the boarding house "mom." But I get Rooney Mara. Did you not love her in Girl with Dragon Tattoo? She was on point! -- Amanda (Speak's wife

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    3. Ok that is enough of the "I fucking love" hers. ;)

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    4. Easy there, baby! You're the only one I need.

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  3. Haven't gotten to any of these, just yet. Soon, hopefully.

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    1. Get on it, man. Solid stuff. Can't wait to hear your thoughts.

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  4. Great reviews! I have yet to see Sisters, I love Tina Fey and Amy Poelher and I hope to enjoy the movie. Carol was a wonderful film; I really liked Rooney Mara here. I didn't love Brooklyn as much as everybody did but Saoirse Ronan was great.

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    1. Thanks! Sisters is fun. Not a GREAT comedy, but I laughed pretty much nonstop. Rooney really did it for me as well.

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  5. Brooklyn was so amazing. The acting, the direction, the screenplay, all excellent. But the greatest things were Saoirse Ronan's performance, the film score, the costume design, the production design, & the cinematography. Oh, it was so emotional, but so excellent. Truly, one of the best films of the year.

    Seeing Carol this weekend. Looks really good.

    I may see Sisters when it comes out on Blu-ray. I really like Fey & Poehler.

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    1. Agreed. Brooklyn is about as perfect as it gets this year for me.

      Hope you like Carol. It's beautiful.

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