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My favorite lead male performances
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Far from Heaven (2002)
Far from all that heaven allows...
Hartford, Connecticut, 1957. Frank and Cathy Whitaker are what people might name "The American Dream come true": he's a successful salesman, she's a devoted housewife in charge of a perfect house in the suburbs and two lovely children, and committed to the social causes of the time. But this will fall apart when Cathy discovers a shocking truth about Frank, and she finds solace in Raymond, the black gardener, which will make her the center of the town's gossips.
Todd Haynes has declared himself as a great admirer of the highly stylized melodramas made back in the 50's (especially the ones directed by Douglas Sirk: Imitation of Life and All that heaven allows). His third feature Far from heaven is an open homage to these movies, and it's also a compelling approach for younger audiences to an often forgotten genre.
Haynes' splendid screenplays offers a sharp gaze to social troubles that sadly still remain just like in the 50's: sexual preferences treated as a disease and racial discrimination towards black people (let's remember they basically had zero rights at that time). In addition to this, tells a poignant story about forbidden love following the rules of melodrama (a plot that appeals to the heightened emotions of the audience, suffering protagonists (usually heroines) facing tremendous social pressures, threats, repression, fears, etc), escaping its clichés and conventionalities skilfully.
As mentioned, in Far from heaven, Haynes' intention is to accomplish a faithful recreation of the old-fashioned period dramas in which production values become another character of the movie (an essential one). Thus, Haynes' creative team is able to put together a visually-striking gem: from Edward Lachman's exquisite cinematography, Sandy Powell's alluring costumes and Elmer Bernstein (in one of his final works) and his evocative music (it's not an accident the fact that Haynes chose him to score the movie, since he worked in several of those period pieces): all of them are perfectly assembled without overshadowing the final result.
The third element that makes this movie so powerful and compelling is the acting: Haynes trusts in Julianne Moore's tremendous range and she portraits Cathy's tribulations with an affecting honesty (this is one of her top performances, for which she won the Best Actress Award at the Venice Film festival and received an Oscar nomination, among many other awards). Then there's Dennis Quaid, delivering the best performance of his career: as Frank he embraces his confusion and pain brilliantly, and creates empathy for a man whose "sin" to live a lie and hide his true desires. And behind them, there's a firs-rate supporting cast, including Dennis Haysbert as Raymond, the gardener who will comfort Cathy (even though this might cause him some pain) and Patricia Clarkson and Viola Davis in strong turns.
With this movie, Todd Haynes let us know his superb skills as director by taking in a misunderstood genre, infuse it with new life and keeping its essence at the same time.
Wonder Boys (2000)
Wonder Boys: Bring your brooms because this is a mess!
Professor Grady Tripp's life is an utter mess: his wife has left him, his lover (who also happens to be the chancellor of the university he works at) is pregnant, his editor is visiting him to verify whether his new novel is complete, he must deal with his two most brilliant students: Hannah Green, who has a huge crush on him and James Leer, a rather somber guy with a great talent for writing. Add to the mix a dead dog, a priceless jacket, a stolen car and a nasty case of writer's block and the result is a recipe for disaster.
The above mentioned plot is perfect for a delirious comedy of errors, but director Curtis Hanson and screenwriter Steve Kloves take Michael Chabon's renowned book Wonder Boys and they achieve an elegant, witty and exhilarating portrait of a man whose life demands to get fixed before things get worse. This made with an admirable balance between comedy and drama that few movies can accomplish.
Some people may claim this is a movie about mid-life crisis, and in some level it is, but it goes beyond that notion and addresses the search of identity in more than one way. Grady, for instance is looking for himself and tries to find out what went wrong and what's gonna happen next. James Leer, a gifted mind rejected by almost everyone will find in Grady the encouragement he might need to come out of his shell. Or Terry Crabtree, Grady's homosexual editor, who's in urgent need of a literary hit in order to stay relevant and keep his job (and he'll be a key element in James' coming of age). In addition to that search, they have to deal with the pressure of not living up the expectations created around them and see how others enjoy the success that possibly has been waiting for them, but they're unable to attain.
Wonder Boys avoids favorably most of clichés seen in movies about writers thanks to Kloves' brilliant approach to Chabon's provocative work, remaining faithful to it, but giving in life on its own way. And Hanson's expert hand makes the movie flow with great pace and timing. But it's safe to say Hanson's best quality (as seen in his previous movie L.A. Confidential) is to push the right buttons with his actors. In this case we have people like Katie Holmes, Frances McDormand and Robert Downey delivering superb work, Tobey Maguire who captures James' vulnerability and sadness in a very unique way. And Michael Douglas in a career-best performance as Grady (superior to his Oscar-winning work in Wall Street and close to his Emmy- winning one in Behind the Candelabra). Is hard to imagine someone else playing a very conflicted and distressed man with such sense of humanity and plenty of irony and humor.
One thing must be clear: Wonder Boys is a comedy, but not in the traditional sense of the word: it's a sophisticated and smart piece about what we really want and need to do in life and how to do it before it's too late.
Y tu mamá también (2001)
And Cuaron's mother too... loved this movie
Way before sweeping the Oscars with Gravity, and right before being in charge of Harry Potter's third movie, Alfonso Cuarón filmed in Mexico a little road movie that became a sudden hit around the world (and gave him and his brother Carlos an Oscar nomination for the screenplay), cemented his reputation as one of the top filmmakers currently working (and truth be told, his Potter gig wouldn't have happened without this one), and made the lead trio (Gael García Bernal, Diego Luna and Maribel Verdú) international celebrities.
In Y tu mama tambien, Cuarón tells the story of Tenoch and Julio, two best friends, fresh off their high school graduation and looking for summer action after their girlfriends leave for European vacations. After they meet Luisa (the Spanish wife of Tenoch's cousin), they invite her to a trip to the beach (a fictional one) and she declines the offer at first, but when she receives life- changing news, Tenoch and Julio are forced to improvise everything for the journey along with her.
Cuarón goes beyond the typical road movie and offers a luscious portrait of a Mexico marked by overwhelming social contrasts, as seen in Tenoch and Julio's friendship, the former son of a prominent politician with a turbulent past, and the latter, son of a working- class single mother, and also seen in the many places visited by them during their unusual trip (a country filled with poverty and misery, but with a strange vitality and beauty). At the same time, it's a seductive and fervid vision about sexuality, with a verve and naturalness closer to the French Nouvelle Vague, unafraid to question double standards that still prevail when it comes to sex and masculinity, especially in a society like the Mexican one.
A movie of such nature requires the right actors, committed to this fearless task. And Cuarón chose wisely with Luna and Bernal to play Tenoch and Julio, for they've been friends in real life since their days as child actors in Mexican TV and their chemistry is indeed remarkable. But the movie's revelation is Maribel Verdú (already famous in Spain before this movie), who finds in Luisa the perfect opportunity to show her acting skills as a vulnerable woman, ready to leave the pain behind and enjoy life in every way.
One can say Y tu mama tambien is a curious mix of coming of age movie + road tip + raunchy teen comedy, but the result is nothing like any of those. It just happens to be an invigorating creation from a master of storytelling.
Atonement: When making amends might not be enough
Briony Tallis has seen something. Something that will change her life forever, but not only hers: Cecilia, her older sister and Robbie Turner (the housemaid's son) will also be dragged into a spiral of lies and regrets that will last for years and decades.
Atonement is Ian McEwan's most famous novel: an intense, heartbreaking story about mistakes, their power to ruin lives and the atonement that might lead or not to forgiveness. Director Joe Wright, after revisiting Jane Austen in Pride and prejudice, goes for another period piece (this time set in pre-WWII England) taking McEwan's novel and the final result is just as provocative and moving as the book, but favored by ravishing costume design (that green dress worn by Keira Knightley is already a fashion icon), Seamus McGarvey's breathtaking cinematography, an incredible art direction and Dario Marianelli's captivating score (for which he won the Oscar). All these elements are perfectly assembled by Wright and help to create a bigger impact in the audience.
Wright relies on the work of Oscar winner Christopher Hampton ad whilst he doesn't derail too much from the original source, he achieves an emotionally compelling adaptation, that keeps most of the moral dilemmas pointed out by McEwan, such as how to make amends (and for how long) for something like Briony did? Or Is truly possible to forgive when the damage is too much? Briony's conflict is a tough one, and even though her action can be perceived as vicious and mean, she's not a bad person and as we can see she tries to fix things in her own way.
To play Briony through the years, Wright casts three actresses: the first is Saoirse Ronan (her Oscar-nominated breakthrough performance) as the young Briony, a girl enthralled by writing and whose imagination leads to the dramatic confusion that will cause Robbie's disgrace. Then comes Romola Garai, the adult Briony, the one who finally understands the consequences of her actions. And finally Vanessa Redgrave as old Briony at the end of her life, ready to end her atonement after living with the guilt all those years. All of them provide Briony's range of emotions with an adroit virtuosity. Also James McAvoy shines as Robbie with an affecting turn, we can feel his pain, frustration and anger, as he's sent to the war field and becomes a witness of the horror caused by it. And Keira Knightley offers a really mature performance as Cecilia.
Atonement is what can be distinguished as a beautiful ache: you know it'll hurt you, but it's inevitable to not watch due to its striking beauty.
45 Years (2015)
Smoke gets in our eyes...
There are directors with the rare skill to make movies that don't require big, loud moments to leave a lasting impression in the audiences. Andrew Haigh is one of the best examples of this, and after his critically acclaimed debut Weekend, he's back with 45 years, in which he explores relationships from an engaging point of view: the marriage of two people who've been together for almost half a century.
In the eve of Geoff and Kate's 45th anniversary wedding, he's informed about Katya, his girlfriend who died in an accident in the Swiss Alps: her body has been found. And what seems like a curious anecdote from Geoff's past, slowly will become a painful shadow, poised to threat their happiness.
With this movie, Haigh confirms himself as a storyteller with a great sensibility, able to show a wide range of emotions using few resources. Taking as reference David Constantine short story In Another Country, he constructs with an unusual elegance and delicacy for a director as young as him, an absorbing study about two characters in a tranquil environment, which is about to fracture abruptly, due to an invisible (and yet, very visible) presence, that will uncover secrets and untold truths.
Haigh's mastery in the use of long sequences, close-ups and building pace reminds of Bergman's work (especially in Scenes of a Marriage) and like him, relies upon his actors who must be able to unfold the characters' internal conflicts and reactions in such situations. British legends Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay offer a master class in acting: two supreme performances that depict Kate and Geoff's struggle with the past with a raw honesty and creating and affecting empathy for both. Is Rampling, nevertheless, the one with the bigger emotional burden: Kate's distress grows as Geoff becomes more absent than ever: she knows her husband is chasing a ghost and he's kind of becoming one as well, and her frustration and resentment as she finds out more details about Katya are beautifully displayed by Rampling, especially in two specific scenes with the potential to become iconic moments of modern cinema.
Another element brilliantly used by Haigh is the music, there's no original score, but he makes an exquisite selection of songs that work as emotional accompaniment of Geoff and Kate's predicament (this selection includes among others Leonard Cohen, Dusty Springfield, The Moody Blues and Aaron Neville) and the best example of this is The Platters' Smoke gets in your eyes, which plays in one of the film's most powerful moments.
45 years is one of the best movies of 2015, a smashing affirmation of Andrew Haigh's status as one of the best new filmmakers working nowadays, and a sensational reminder of the talents of Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay.
Shaun the Sheep Movie (2015)
Shaun the sheep: Breaking Baaaaaaaa...
Shaun the sheep quickly became one of the most beloved characters from the Wallace and Gromit world, after his appearance in A close shave, back in 1995. His popularity led to the creation of a very successful TV series, and the transition to the movies was only a matter of time. And the wait was definitely worth it.
In this feature-length adventure, Shaun and the rest of the flock decide to take a break from daily duties and have a good time by sending the Farmer to sleep all day, but things will go out of control when he gets lost and amnesiac in the big city. Then Shaun, the flock and Bitzer (the Farmer's dog) go to the rescue of their owner in a dangerous and unknown place for them.
All the Shaun the sheep characters have always been silent, and it could have been tempting for the directors to give them voices, but in a clever move, they chose not to do it, which allowed them to work brilliantly with slapstick comedy and providing truly hilarious gags using pop culture references such as Breaking Bad, The Silence of the Lambs, The Beatles and some others that movie fans will recognize.
Another advantage of not using dialogue is that through highly expressive characters, the movie is able to deliver thrilling sequences and touching scenes with no need of words (this is the moment to praise Aardman's refined style, since stop-motion is one of the hardest animation techniques to work with, but they've mastered in an extraordinary way), and for younger audiences has a lovely message about friendship, loyalty and dealing with responsibilities.
The Shaun the sheep movie is Aardman's return to form after some weak works and it's great to have them back.
Revolutionary Road (2008)
Objects in mirror are sadder than they appear
Richard Yates' seminal novel Revolutionary Road, published in 1961 has become one of the quintessential books to understand the post-WWII America with all of its virtues (the promise of a better life, the notion of happiness being attainable by achieving economic abundance, the society and communities as emotional anchors), but also its flaws (the shallowness of a society more concerned about economical success, the fear to see beyond and look for a change, the lack of ambitions and dreams or how they get lost in the way in order to seek comfort.
Frank and April Wheeler have a life other people would die for: a beautiful house in the suburbs, two charming children and they're beloved by their neighbors. Together, they're gonna make a plan to escape from this suffocating and lifeless environment. This is how April finds the perfect solution: they'll sell the house and then move to Paris, where they can find their real purpose in life. Things, however, won't be so easy, as Frank starts to have second thoughts about this idea after he gets promoted at his job, and April is not willing to give up her dream, for it represents her salvation from misery.
Director Sam Mendes assumes the challenge to bring Yates' provocative prose to the big screen with a very faithful adaptation (penned by Justin Haythe), that remarkably recalls that feeling of "Hopeless Emptiness" described by Yates, which ends up devouring silently not only Frank and April's mettlesome minds, but also the ones from the people around them (even if they're not fully aware of it).
Thus Mendes develops a subtle, but emotionally powerful work, backed up by admirable production values, such as Roger Deakins' enticing cinematography, Thomas Newman's delicate music and Kristi Zea's eye-catching production design, that perfectly captures the 50's atmosphere without making it obvious nor redundant.
It is, nevertheless, the acting the stand-out element of the movie. Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet find not only an excuse for a long-awaited reunion, but also a perfect vehicle to deliver vividly affecting performances as Frank and April Wheeler. Leaving behind the ghosts of Jack and Rose, they succeed by embodying the souls of two lost people trying to find out who they really are and how they drag each other into a spiral of regrets and frustration.
Along with them, there's a superb supporting casting, featuring Kathy Bates as Helen Givings, the real-state agent enthralled by the Wheelers' "immaculate life" and Michael Shannon (in an Oscar-nominated performance) as John (Helen's son), and emotionally disturbed man, who ironically is the only one able to see Frank and April's distress and will become the voice of truth when everything falls apart for them.
Just like Mendes' Oscar-winning debut American Beauty, this movie is a harsh and effective dissection of life in American suburbia, which by the way hasn't changed that much in over half a century.
Birdman or the totally unexpected virtue of failed superheroes
Riggan Thomson is an actor whose glory years are now in the past; in an attempt to regain the acclaim and leave behind the shadow of Birdman (the superhero that launched him to fame 20 years ago), he ventures to make a Broadway adaptation of Raymond Carver's What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, acted, directed and produced by himself. Just before the preview performances one of the players is injured, forcing the production to find a replacement, which comes in the skin of Mike Shiner, a brilliant but highly conflictive actor, due to his excessive commitment to the acting method. However, Mike is just one of the many issues Riggan must deal with before the opening night: his daughter Sam, fresh out of rehab and who's working as his assistant; Laura, her scene partner with who is having an affair; a potential claim by the injured player; the pressure that brings the Times critic Tabitha Dickinson, who has the necessary influence to ensure the success or failure of the play, and finally is the voice in his head which manifests as Birdman and that makes him fantasize (or go delirious?) about his time of splendor.
In his fifth feature film, director Alejandro González Iñárritu takes a radical turn to his narrative style and bets for the black comedy and satire. This change fits perfect, as he moves away from the stories infested of tragedy and suffering closer to what is known as "misery porn", and while they worked in the past for him, in his previous work Biutiful already showed that this formula was wearing out quickly. But he does not abandons them totally, since in Birdman explores the emotional misery of a man looking for a new opportunity to prove he is not finished and so redeem his failures as a father, husband and even as actor and how this search can cost him the sanity, all this with a very corrosive humor. Not coincidentally, Iñárritu has chosen the work of Raymond Carver, since it works as an irony about what love means for each of the characters: for Sam, the lack of it throughout his life; for Mike the love that borders on insane vanity and blinds him to the perception of others towards him and Riggan himself, looking for love in the form of success and lost admiration. At the same time Iñárritu with his co-writers throw a subtle but accurate critique of current Hollywood production system, concerned about over-exploiting movie sub-genres like the superheroes one and make endless franchises for the sole purpose of generating profits and how the same industry relegates and denies opportunities for older actors who are forced in many cases to create their own opportunities in order to stay relevant. On the other hand, it has no mercy with critics and how their work can turn into pure snobbery and some of them forget the sense of objective criticism and move it to the personal level.
Iñarritu has managed to polish his skills as a director and this time assumes a big risk by taking them to the limit, knowing that the result could have been disastrous. However, what he achieves is a hypnotic and captivating work. This with the help of a great technical team led by Oscar winner Emmanuel Lubezki, who continues to surpass himself, editors Stephen Mirrione and Douglas Crise, who executed perfectly the idea that the viewer is watching a long tracking shot and drummer Antonio Sanchez, who created based on jazz rhythms an energetic and disturbing score at the same time.
However, Iñarritu's best ability is the one that shines the most in this movie, and that's the capacity to create empathy with his actor so they can give the best of themselves and achieve unforgettable performances. This skill has been a constant since his film debut Amores perros and in Birdman takes advantage of a virtuoso cast with Naomi Watts, Andrea Riseborough and Amy Ryan in small but juicy roles, Emma Stone as Sam, Edward Norton who find in Mike his best performance in years. But certainly Michael Keaton is the soul, heart and brain of Birdman, at this point is difficult to conceive the film without his extraordinary performance as Riggan with all its nuances, from his emotional vulnerability caused by the fear of failure to his anger caused by his frustration.
This is how Birdman stands as one of the best films of 2014 and confirms Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu as a voice
Frankenweenie or bringing Tim Burton's mojo back from the dead
In 1984, when Tim Burton worked for Disney made a short film called Frankenweenie, which tells the story of Victor, a boy who after losing his dog Sparky in an accident decides to bring him back to life in the purest Frankenstein style, without considering the consequences this may cause. This work helps us to understand the basics of Burton's thematic and visual style, which became his trademark over the years: dark worlds with isolated and/or solitary characters faced to the reality of the world that confronts or rejects them.
It is almost 30 years later and a streak of quite irregular films that Burton returns to his roots and decided to resume the story of Frankenweenie to make an animated feature making use of the stop- motion technique, with which he created some of his best works such as the Nightmare Before Christmas and Corpse Bride, and Frankenweenie is no exception, as it represents a return to the best films of Burton.
On this occasion the original story remains intact and makes a bigger emphasis on the impact of the resurrection of Sparky among Victor's friends and as they'll try to emulate the feat with catastrophic results for the small town they live in. Likewise, the relationship between Victor and Elsa, her neighbor and school crush is explored, through which a great reference to The Bride of Frankenstein is made, although it'snot the only one, since along the film there are winks to classic monsters movies from the 30's as the Mummy, Creature from Black Lagoon, Cabinet of Dr. Cagliari and even classic monsters like Godzilla. And the film itself is a homage to this cinema being filmed in black and white and with music in perfect tone by Danny Elfman (Burton's closest collaborator).
An innate quality of Burton is the skill to create endearing characters out of the dark and grotesque and the best example of it is Sparky, a little dog now part of the most adorable creations on the burtonian universe, and that somehow reflects many of elements or themes that have remained constant in most of Burton's filmography: childhood, loneliness, friendship and a strange fixation with death and what happens after this.
Excepting the end that seems to betray the original concept, it is safe to say that Burton needs to do more films like Frankenweenie and much less like Alice in Wonderland.
Prince not required
The canon of Disney princesses has offered us over the years iconic characters such as Snow White, Cinderella, Ariel and Aurora, which nevertheless suffer a mild "problem": they teach us that happiness depends on a prince who comes to rescue. Times have changed and apparently Disney has begun to understand this, introducing gradually female characters able to see beyond a "And they lived happily ever after."
An example of this is Merida, daughter of kings Fergus and Elinor, who must marry one of the heirs of the kingdoms that are part of the great kingdom of Dubroch in order to preserve the alliances; however there is one small detail: Merida refuses the idea of an arranged marriage, which leads her to confront her mother, who insists on keeping the tradition by educating and preparing Merida to assume her role as Queen in the future (and Merida, of course also opposes to this). The clash between the two is inevitable and in the midst of her despair Merida meets (by chance or fate perhaps?) a witch to which she asks for a spell to make change her mother. The problem is that the spell ends up being too literal and Elinor turns into a bear. With the witch gone, Merida along with her triplets brothers must reverse the spell before Elinor becomes a bear forever.
With characters like Mulan or Giselle from Enchanted, Disney had already begun to give a twist to the stories of princesses, but with Tiana from The Princess and the Frog and now Merida (in collaboration with Pixar) leads to a new stage in which the female central characters look for personal fulfillment instead of finding a man that will provide a happy future. At the same time keeps them away from the "submissive woman" role model seen in the media for decades; in Brave, Merida is a girl with a strong and determined character who enjoys her freedom, and she's willing to take the necessary risks to correct her mistakes.
Another key element for this movie work is the mother/daughter relationship, which is an unexplored factor in previous Disney movies (as most of their characters are orphaned or taken away from their family environment). The constant friction between Merida and Elinor is a reflection of the need for communication between parents and children and how the lack of understanding can force to take wrong decisions.
It has been questioned whether Merida's reluctance to marriage reflects a suggestive comment about her sexual identity, but that's not necessarily part of the central idea of the film, although it is an indication that the audiences begin to look for stories they can feel more identified with. On the technical level, there's nothing to complain about, which is understandable considering the very high visual level that Pixar keeps in all of their movies, and the recreation of the scenarios of medieval Scotland is extraordinary. And last but not least, it's required to highlight the vocal work of Kelly McDonald as Merida, who gives her a unique vitality and energy, Oscar winner Emma Thompson as Queen Elinor, serene, proud and with a strong temper and Billy Connolly as King Fergus. On the other hand, the masterful score courtesy of Patrick Doyle, who makes use of classic Scottish musical instruments and captures the essence of their sound away from the cliché and with a highly emotional charge.
Brave is a clear sign that times change and while Prince Charming can remain as an ideal for many women, in fact he's not so indispensable anymore.