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Entries in Mia Wasikowska (4)

Wednesday
Aug292012

Lawless

John Hillcoat is one of cinema’s most underappreciated directors and his movies are maddeningly underseen. His last film from 2009, The Road, was one of the best of that year, but was largely ignored by most everyone, including the supposed film experts who snubbed it of all Oscar nominations. That was a film that dared to face death and despair head on. It wasn’t a pleasant movie, but it was thematically deep and emotionally complex. It was everything movies should be, but it’s grim nature assured it would never overcome that bittersweet underrated status. Hillcoat’s latest, Lawless, based on the book “The Wettest County in the World” by Matt Bondurant, is once again brimming with greatness. It demands to be seen by a wide audience, but if history really does repeat itself, it’s destined for a quiet greatness, one that is known by those who have seen it and ignored by those who haven’t. Lawless has flaws, more so than The Road, and it’s not as contemplative, but it’s nevertheless one of the best of the year.

The film takes place in Franklin, Virginia in 1931 and stars Shia LaBeouf as Jack Bondurant, the younger brother to Forrest and Howard, played by Tom Hardy and Jason Clarke, respectively. It’s the Prohibition era and alcohol has been illegalized. As anyone who has ever cracked open a history book knows, this led to lots of unlawful practices surrounding the distribution (and ingestion) of alcohol. The Bondurant brothers are just one group of many who decided to profit off of  the law, but it has become a problem in their little town and a hot shot deputy from Chicago, Charlie Rakes, played by Guy Pearce, is brought in to fix it. In the midst of all this, Jack begins to fall in love with a pretty young girl named Bertha, played by Mia Wasikowska. She comes from a more traditional, conservative family and is expected to act and dress a certain way, but she begins to reciprocate Jack’s feeling, which leads her astray and puts her in danger. By the end, tragedies will befall the characters and blood will be spilled.

This story, based on a true one about the author’s own family, is as gripping as any to come out this year. Movies about Prohibition are no rarity, the most popular being 1987’s horribly overrated Brian De Palma film, The Untouchables, but whereas that movie featured a wooden central performance from Kevin Costner and inconsequential shootouts with unnamed baddies, Lawless is rich in characterization and every event matters, causing a ripple effect to its amazing and inevitable conclusion. The brotherly bond is there and the romances are never played as hokey. These feel like real people living through a tough time in history, when the simple sale of alcohol threatened violence. The three brothers are far from upstanding citizens, but there’s a humanity to them and you understand their actions, even when you disagree with them. You may not approve of what they’re doing at a certain point in time, but you’ll never condemn them. Everything they do has a reason and the way they’re portrayed in the film—as flawed, but ultimately good people—is excellent.

These characters are three dimensional, there’s no doubt about that, and the dialogue they recite leads to some of the best and most intense dialogue driven scenes since Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, but Lawless isn’t all talk. In fact, it’s quite violent, brutally and uncomfortably so at times, but that makes the movie all the better. It doesn’t glorify it in any way and it exists for a purpose, to both give the characters some motivational weight and to give the film a gritty, raw and realistic feel. Lawless never feels exploitative in these scenes and knows when to leave things up to the imagination, like an early rape that is only implied, effectively eliminating that feeling of hopelessness many rape scenes elicit while still providing the anger and understanding such a scene hopes to instill in its audience.

If there’s anything wrong with Lawless, it comes from a lack of screen time for two of cinema’s most underrated actors, Guy Pearce and the as yet unmentioned Gary Oldman. Oldman features prominently in the beginning of the film and his utter disregard for the sanctity of human life makes him a captivating villain, but he’s quickly forgotten in favor of other narrative exploits, serving only as a catalyst for Jack’s eventual bootlegging ways. Pearce on the other hand is there from beginning to end, but his performance is so breathtaking and wholeheartedly deserving of an Oscar nomination that you just want him to be there more. All of the performances are great, in fact, but it’s the writing that allows them to be. Everything comes together beautifully in Lawless. It’s the perfect way to end the summer movie season.

Lawless receives 4.5/5

Friday
Dec232011

Albert Nobbs

Albert Nobbs is a movie that will be overlooked. It’s a small film only getting a limited release and if the recent awards lists have been any indication, even Glenn Close’s captivating performance won’t do much to change it. It’s a shame because Albert Nobbs is entertaining, humorous, touching and thematically interesting, even if those themes have already been tackled in other films. Explain the plot synopsis and that wouldn’t be readily apparently, so even though this isn’t one of the year’s best, it’s certainly the most surprising.

Close plays Albert Nobbs, a woman in the 1800's working as a butler at a hotel under the guise of being a man. She hides her figure, wears no make-up and slicks her hair back. She has everybody fooled, which is a necessity if she hopes to keep her job and raise enough money to open her own shop. One night, however, she is forced to share her room with a guest, Hubert, played by Janet McTeer, and her secret is accidentally revealed. However, by strange luck, the man in her room is also really a woman. The two form a bond and the more Nobbs learns of her life, the more she envies it. Hubert is actually living with and married to another woman, so Nobbs begins to court one of the maids she works with, Helen, played by Mia Wasikowska.

Although surprising in quality, Albert Nobbs offers no surprises narratively. The plot turns it takes are obvious and all but those who are paying close to no attention will be able to see them coming. I battled with myself over whether or not to reveal that Hubert was actually a man as well, but then I realized it was hardly a spoiler. Once the viewer finally comes to the realization that the film is Oscar bait, the ending is a foregone conclusion, but that in no way diminishes its quality. The path to that ending is well structured with interesting characters and contemplative themes.

Nobbs is unaware of who she really is and has had a tragic past that included a brutal raping. Nevertheless, she’s a hopeful optimist, one that is looking to start a business in a time when women weren’t even allowed to hold certain jobs. At the same time, there’s an inner struggle that is never expressly stated, but nonetheless apparent. Nobbs needs a change. She needs to get away from her job where she is unappreciated and poorly paid. She needs someone to love and she’s finally working up the courage to follow her feelings, even though those feelings are contrary to what society says is the correct way to feel. You can tell she has been unhappy for a while, but after she meets Hubert and begins to make some changes with the way she lives her life, you see the hope begin to build.

You can’t help but love and root for Nobbs. When another character begins to take advantage of her, there’s a simultaneous feeling of anger and sadness. How could anyone do that to such a sweet, loving person? Of course, the driving force behind this character is Glenn Close, who gives one of the best performances of her career. She’s vulnerable, but strong, and her facial expressions are deep and nuanced. You can tell she has a lot invested in her character; she’s so good, she makes the movie.

The costumes and set design are top notch as well. Where Albert Nobbs leaves a little to be desired is in its direction, which is generally flat and uninteresting. While there’s certainly nothing in the film requiring flare, a constant string of shot-reverse-shots don’t do it any good. There might not be much there visually, but that’s a small flaw in an otherwise great movie.

Albert Nobbs receives 4/5

Friday
Jul162010

The Kids Are All Right

Movies are an expressive art form and many filmmakers use them as a means to get their messages across. When walking into a movie about a controversial or taboo topic, it’s only natural to assume it will take a position. However, some filmmakers break the mold and like to explore issues within the issues. Last year’s brilliant war film The Hurt Locker never criticized nor praised the Iraq war and instead showed the indisputable effects it has on select soldiers fighting in it. The Kids Are All Right does something similar. It’s about a married lesbian couple with two children, but doesn’t seem to make a statement on homosexuality. It’s simply a story about an imperfect family, like all families, that go through trials and tribulations and must stick together to overcome them.

The film’s story is simple. Jules (Julianne Moore) and Nic (Annette Bening) have been married for quite some time. Unable to have children on their own, they go to a sperm bank and artificially inseminate themselves. Both have a baby, producing Joni (Mia Wasikowska) and Laser (Josh Hutcherson). Now they are all grown up and Joni is about to head off to college. Before doing so, she contacts her and her brother’s sperm donor, Paul (Mark Ruffalo). Despite Laser’s initial unwillingness to open up, the three bond. When Jules and Nic find out, they take it upon themselves to meet Paul, but conflicting emotions threaten to tear the once stable family apart.

The beauty of The Kids Are All Right is that it treats its characters with respect. It never looks at Jules and Nic as a gay couple. It simply sees them as a couple. They have normal conversations about their jobs. They have problems. They worry about their children and want to share their lives with them. They’re just like any married couple. The filmmakers ensure that their relationship is authentic through and through.

Even better is that their mannerisms make sense. When Paul comes into the picture, Nic understands why her kids sought him out, but questions why they felt the need to. Isn’t her love enough? So she becomes upset, especially after meeting him. Paul is unkempt, rugged and says what’s on his mind, though he means well. Still, Nic doesn’t like him. She was content with her family before, but now fears for its survival with him around. Some may argue her behavior is irrational, which is perfectly justifiable, but it’s believable and that’s why the film works.

You can understand her point of view, even if she is coming off as a little hot-headed. All of the characters are handled this way, even the uncouth Paul. Because of this, you can relate to each and every person and don’t want to see any of them get hurt, but due to a plot turn (that I’ve purposely skipped to avoid spoilers), that outcome is impossible.

Quite simply, the filmmakers do an excellent job of fleshing out their characters. You will relate to somebody in this movie, guaranteed. Even more remarkable are the performances, all of which are spot-on. Although never directly stated, you can tell which child came from which mother because they have similar personalities. Nic’s abrasiveness trickled into Laser while Jules’ easy-going nature clearly penetrated Joni, though both have physical quirks that attach them to their biological father. It’s really quite astounding.

So yes, this is a serious film, but not always. At times, it can be rather funny. I laughed quite a bit, especially from some early sexual double entendres, which goes to show how much thought and care went into the film's production. The Kids Are All Right is in limited release and most likely won’t get the audience it deserves, which is a shame. It may be about a gay couple with sperm donor kids, but I'd be willing to bet you'll see a little bit of your family in here too.

The Kids Are All Right receives 4/5

Friday
Mar052010

Alice in Wonderland

When director Tim Burton and Golden Globe award winner Johnny Depp team up for a film, the result is always magical. From 1990's Edward Scissorhands to the 2007 masterpiece Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, the two have been more or less successful in every picture they've made together. Now uniting again for the seventh time, Depp and Burton have created an enchanting tale in Alice in Wonderland. Working more as a sequel to the title story (following the 1951 Disney animated feature closer than any other) rather than another iteration in itself, the film creates a fantastical world that feels alive and is brimming with imagination. It is a must see.

The film begins in the real world with Alice as a young girl (played by Mairi Ella Challen at this age). She tells her father that she thinks she's going mad because of a recurring dream she is having, but he tells her that some of the best people are mad. Flash forward thirteen years later and Alice is a young adult (played by Mia Wasikowska) and on her way to a party where she is asked for her hand in marriage by a gentleman she does not love. As he asks her, in front of seemingly hundreds of people no less, she spots a white rabbit (voiced by Michael Sheen) and she chases after it, only to fall down a hole into Wonderland. She quickly meets a colorful cast of characters including Tweedledee and Tweedledum (both played by Matt Lucas), Cheshire Cat (voiced by Stephen Fry), and of course, the Mad Hatter (played by Johnny Depp). She swears she's never been there before despite their insistence that she has. They believe she has come back to stop the evil Red Queen (played by Helena Bonham Carter) and take down her jabberwocky, a giant mythical beast, thus giving power of the land back to her sister, the kind White Queen (played by Anne Hathaway).

Alice in Wonderland is a timeless story and no matter whether you've read its source material, "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland," or seen one of the dozens of adaptations of it (including a 1976 porn version that, unfortunately, I've yet to get my hands on), you should be familiar with the gist of it, but you've never seen it like this. Alice's trip down the rabbit hole begins much like it usually does, with Alice growing taller and shrinking smaller before finally making it through the tiny door too little for her to crawl through, but Burton takes the rest of the film down a completely different path, one met with an unabashed amount of wonderment and a strong sense of peril, two things its previous Disney counterpart was missing.

That 1951 animated movie looked good, but was bogged down by poor musical numbers and a story that went nowhere. Alice's adventure never took a deeper meaning other than her desire to live in a more illusory world where she wouldn't succumb to boredom. This modern update--or more accurately labeled sequel--thankfully does more and you do feel like Alice has a purpose in this world. (Not to mention it does away with the singing.)

Still, I will admit that much like previous iterations, the story isn't as interesting as simply looking at the lush visuals on display. You may brush the story off as nonsense, but you'll still sit there in bewilderment at the film's artistry. It's bedazzling in a way that makes you feel like a kid again because the world you're looking at could only be realized by someone with a childlike sensibility, of which Burton, however dark it may be, has in spades. Every frame fills each corner of the screen with something remarkable to look at and the 3D makes it pop. The extra dimension gives added depth to an already stunning landscape, rarely resorting to the annoying things-flying-at-your-face gimmick too many 3D films employ.

Each character in the movie is wonderfully well rounded with distinct personalities and Burton juggles them perfectly, giving you enough time to meet and like (or hate) them. Depp, as great as an actor as he is, does not overpower the film because he's working with solid material (unlike Public Enemies where he was forced to work with mediocrity) and the actors around him do more than a capable job of playing against him. Wasikowska, who plays the titular character, does a particularly excellent job in her first starring role. I see big things on her horizon and much how Edward Scissorhands catapulted Depp into the spotlight, I expect Wasikowska to start gaining exposure after her star turn in this.

As better as this is when compared to the 1951 Disney animated version, it could have followed its footsteps in one regard. In that film, Alice quickly lands in Wonderland and when she finds her way out, the movie ends almost immediately. It never bothers with real world back story. This does a bit too much. I could have done without the real world affairs and found the whole engagement story to be a distraction. Although I like how she relates the people she knows in the real world to the zany creatures in Wonderland, it adds nothing in the way of depth.

That quibble aside, Alice in Wonderland is a real treat and will best be enjoyed by those still with the ability to dream and believe in the impossible.

Alice in Wonderland receives 4.5/5