REVIEW: “Suffragette”

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suf·fra·gette (/səfrəˈjet/) noun • historical

a woman seeking the right to vote through organized protest.

That definition is true yet in no way does it adequately define the women and the movement they sparked in the late 19th and early 20th century. In Great Britain the suffragette movement became a force sometimes blurring the lines between lawful and militant protesting. Militant groups such as the WSPU led by Emmeline Pankhurst went from picketing, protesting, and hunger strikes to arson and bombings. While their tactics may have sometimes crossed the line, the rights they fought for were important and deserved. It was a complex time.

“Suffragette”, the new film from director Sarah Gavron, sets itself in this period and seeks to tell the story of passionate women standing up for their right to vote. But movies like this can be tricky. When you have a wealth of rich historical source material you automatically have a story to tell. It also offers a chance to deliver a powerful message. Movies have often stumbled when trying to balance these two creative opportunities.

The story is told through predominantly fictional characters but with a few historical figures included. Instead of telling a specific historical account, writer Abi Morgan creates several characters and reveals that period through their eyes and their experiences. The always absorbing Carey Mulligan serves as our main lens. She plays Maud Watts a wife and mother who also works long, strenuous hours as a laundress.

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It’s London in 1912. The suffragettes have only begun to make waves. Maud first witnesses the movement through street speakers and storefront vandalism. But her interest is mainly influenced by the inequalities she experiences at her workplace. She is also encouraged by the infectious enthusiasm of her friend Violet (Anne-Marie Duff). Maud becomes more involved as she meets inspirational women like Helena Bonham Carter’s Emily and Meryl Streep’s Emmeline Pankhurst.

Wisely, Gavron and Morgan don’t make Maud’s decisions easy. We get a compelling internal struggle and there is a constant wrestling with the potential consequences of going too far. The decisions are made even more difficult by her unsupportive husband Sonny (Ben Whishaw) and the thoughts of being separated from her young son. Add to that the dogged pursuit of the government assigned Inspector Steed (Brendan Gleeson). As the movie progresses that struggle evolves in a way that is very organic and satisfying.

The character and the struggle mainly works thanks to Mulligan. This is such an understated and subdued performance that plays in perfect sync with the character. She skillfully articulates every feeling and raw emotion. It’s no glamorous role. Mulligan sports a tired and worn face and she often expresses a convincing sense of physical and emotional exhaustion. It’s impressive watching her transition from a woman sadly content with the hand she has been dealt in life to a woman driven to action by that very same hand. It’s a fine performance.

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Then there is Meryl Streep. In a bit of promotional manipulation you would think Streep has a significant role. Actually she does not. It’s basically a glorified cameo. It’s almost as if they were positioning her for the obligatory Oscar nomination she gets every year (apparently no one feels “Ricki and the Flash” is going to do it for her). She’s not bad here, but there is nothing to her small appearance that stands out either.

Where “Suffragette” stumbles is in the omission department. The film looks at Maud’s life and tells her story well. But at the same time it wants to represent an important historical struggle and does so in broad strokes. Much of the struggle is thinly represented namely the motivations behind voter suppression and the political manipulation and posturing. So much in this area could have been explored. Instead we just get highlights. There is also the ending which is fine in concept but came sudden and abrupt.

“Suffragette” dances in numerous shades of gray both in the actions of the women shown in the film and in the film’s opinion about them. But it certainly doesn’t waver in its message about the plight of women during a time that wasn’t that long ago. Regardless of any hiccups, the film deals in powerful and important themes and does so in a way that can’t be ignored. There is such a great sense of time and place and falling into the life of Maud is effortless for us. It also helps to have a great performance by Carey Mulligan – one that could easily earn her a nomination come Oscar time.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4 Stars

REVIEW: “Inside Llewyn Davis”

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I am such a fan of Joel and Ethan Coen. Dating back to 1984 with their first film “Blood Simple”, the brothers have put together an incredible filmography, etching out a prominent name for themselves in the process. Not only that, they have developed into some of the greatest filmmakers of our time. Armed with a sharp wit and an undeniable style, the Coens have taken their special brand of cinema to a variety of places. Their latest is the early 1960s New York folk music scene. The film is “Inside Llewyn Davis” and while it may not be the best Coen brothers movie, it is undeniably theirs.

I was so glad to hear that Oscar Isaac had gotten the lead role. This criminally underrated actor has amazing acting chops yet rarely gets big leading parts. Here he plays Llewyn Davis, a down-on-his-luck musician struggling to get by in 1961 New York City. Llewyn’s singing partner has committed suicide, his solo album isn’t selling, and he is flat broke. He spends his nights on the couches of different acquaintances and his days trying to get enough gigs to get by until his big break comes.

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There really isn’t a lot of plot in “Inside Llewyn Davis”. We basically spend a few days with Llewyn witnessing his routine and seeing the nature of his struggles. It doesn’t take long to learn that Llewyn is his own worst enemy. He’s constantly driving people away whether it’s fellow musicians, family, hospitable friends, or even girlfriends. Llewyn is selfish, uncompromising, and irresponsible yet he never casts an examining light on himself. He’s not a character who will draw the audience’s affection. Much like the other people in his life, we can’t get that close to him even though we feel sympathy towards him. Llewyn is an extremely talented musician. He just needs to get himself out of the way.

This is a colder Coen brothers picture that clearly has no desire to be hopeful or uplifting. Perhaps that why I had trouble embracing the film at first. Don’t misunderstand me, I’m not saying a movie has to be uplifting or hopeful. I don’t believe that at all. But watching Llewyn continually self-destruct for the entire film had me wishing for a glimmer of hope. There are a few scenes of the Coen’s signature dark humor that occasionally lighten things up, but mostly this is a pointed, unflinching character drama that captivated me while still holding me at arms length.

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As with all Coen brothers films this one is loaded with an assortment of interesting characters and captivating faces. We get quick but great roles for John Goodman and F. Murray Abraham. Justin Timberlake is surprisingly good as a fellow musician who is married to Llewyn’s ex-girlfriend Jean. She’s played by Carey Mulligan who is very good in the role. But her character is one of the few Coen creations that could have been handled better. She’s abrasive and profane to the point of being distracting. There is a subtle attempt at humor with Jean and her harsh personality but she disappears before we are allowed to see the compassionate side we are teased with. But this is Oscar Isaac’s show and he gives an Oscar-worthy performance. He brilliantly flexes his acting and singing muscles in what I hope is some career-launching work.

“Inside Llewyn Davis” has all the other traits you would expect from Joel and Ethan Coen. There is beautiful cinematography. The sense of time and place is impeccable. The music is unforgettable and the film features arguably the best soundtrack of the year. And it’s certainly a smart film featuring great vision and unquestionable craftsmanship. But for me it doesn’t quite rank up there with the Coen’s best pictures. That said, this is another time capsule experience brought to us by two of the best in the business, and anytime they make a movie it’s something special. Better yet, it has stuck with me and different themes from the film keep coming to mind. That a sign of something good.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

REVIEW: “Drive”

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The opening scene of “Drive” is a slick and stylistic introduction to what the rest of the film aims to be – a tense yet deliberate car driving action picture. The opening scene happens to be one of the film’s best and its one of the few scenes that could be called memorable. But that’s not saying “Drive” is a bad movie. It has several things going for it. But underneath the crafty and stylish surface lies a fairly simple and conventional action film. From its lead character to the story development, everything moves along at a pretty measured pace with a straightforward narrative. Yet in the end I never connected with it like many others have.

Ryan Gosling plays a movie stunt driver who moonlights as a getaway wheelman for an assortment of shady characters. He’s only refered to as “the driver” or “the kid”. Gosling’s dialogue is sparse and he is required to reveal his character mainly through expressions and actions. We never get any background information on him and his character really isn’t fleshed out all that well. But in a way I liked that. I liked drawing my own conclusions based on his associations, occasional turns towards violence, and his compassion for Irene (Carey Mulligan), a neighbor from his apartment building with whom he begins a relationship. Their relationship consists of several scenes of the two looking and grinning at each other along with the occasional afternoon drive. Irene is raising her young son while her husband is away in prison and the driver is instantly attached to them both.

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Mood lighting + a toothpick = The Goz

Their growing relationship hits a speed bump when her husband Standard (Oscar Isaac) gets out of prison. Standard genuinely wants to turn his life around but some old debts make that a little hard. The driver agrees to help Standard mainly due to his affection for Irene and her son. Albert Brooks is good as mob guy Bernie Rose who, along with his partner Nino (Ron Perlman), are tied into Shannon (Bryan Cranston), a garage owner who supplies the driver with getaway jobs. Brooks’ character is the prototypical mob “bad guy” but with his own idiosyncrasies. He provides some fantastic scenes but unfortunately he all but disappears through the middle of the film. That’s a shame because I would love to see him get a little more screen time.

As I mentioned, “Drive” and its story are pretty straightforward. There’s not much that broadsides you nor is there anything that calls for your extra attention. There’s nothing especially unique and there aren’t any big surprises with the exception of a couple of brutally violent scenes that can be quite jarring. Speaking of the violence, it’s implementation into the movie is actually quite strange. The more graphic scenes of violence tend to involve lower level characters but what should be the more important scenes seem to be depicted through shadows, quick cut-aways, or far off camera shots. I feel this was obviously a stylistic choice but I found it more puzzling than engaging.

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A look we see about 150 times in “Drive”

Speaking of style, “Drive” looks fantastic. Director Nicolas Winding Refn cleverly uses light and camera angles to give the picture its own unique look. The driving scenes from inside the car look great with Refn transitioning from one camera angle to another with an artistic flare. And yet with all he’s trying to do, he never loses control of his camera whether in a high-speed car chase or a conversation at the dinner table. I also loved his use of sound. Many times he cuts the music and just let’s the natural sound effects carry the scene. “Drive” is just an all-around technically impressive picture.

While it seems I’ve been a little hard on “Drive” and it’s almost run-of-the-mill action movie storyline, I was drawn to many things in the picture. The opening scene does an amazing job grabbing its audience and immediately getting them involved. And while the story may lack a real feel of originality, I see it more as an homage to not only several particular films but to a specific style of movies. I also found myself interested and invested throughout. I think the performances are uniformly strong. Gosling is given the most restrictions but he manages to do a nice job. Carey Mulligan is wonderful as always and Brooks, Cranston, and Isaac are particularly good. Like I said, there’s plenty to like about “Drive”.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

Top 10 Most Anticipated Films of 2012

TOP 10 MOST ANTICIPATED FILMS OF 2012

2011 gave us some memorable movies but overall it wasn’t the best year for film lovers. But fear not, 2012 seems to have a fantastic lineup of potentially great films. The year’s lineup is loaded with big-budget sequels, action-packed ensembles, trilogy finales, historical dramas, and much more. Here are my Top 10 Most Anticipated Films of 2012:

#10 – “THE BOURNE LEGACY”

The fourth installment of the popular Bourne series brings with it some major changes. Tony Gilroy directs but the biggest draw for me is the addition of Jeremy Renner in the lead role. Renner plays Aaron Cross and is joined by fellow cast members Rachel Weisz, Edward Norton, Albert Finney, Scott Glenn, and Oscar Isaac. I’m a huge Renner fan and if anyone can capture the intensity of a Jason Bourne styled character, it will be him.

#9 – “THE GREAT GATSBY”

There have been several adaptations of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby”. 2012’s big screen version brings a strong cast including Leonardo DiCaprio, Carey Mulligan, Joel Edgerton, and Tobey Maquire. It’s set for a December 25th release which often times indicates that the film is aimed at awards season. Here’s hoping that this classic story gets a classic treatment in 2012.

#8 – “DJANGO UNCHAINED”

Speaking of stellar casts, how can you not be excited about a film that features the talents of Jaime Fox, Leonardo DiCaprio, Christoph Waltz, Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell, Sacha Baron Cohen, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and Don Johnson? Quentin Tarantino writes and directs this film described as a spaghetti western but I’m sure with a Tarantino twist. With Tarantino you never know what to expect but it’s always new, fresh, and unlike anything you have seen before.

#7 – “PROMETHEUS”

If you enjoyed the “Alien” pictures (particularly the first two), then you have to be excited about Ridley Scott’s “Prometheus”. While it’s said to definitely be connected to the “Alien” movies, “Prometheus” is essentially its own story and as a Ridley Scott fan, I can’t wait to see what he has in store for us. Michael Fassbender, Noomi Rapace, Guy Pearce, and Charlize Theron only make the prospects sweeter. The teaser trailer looks moody, mysterious, and downright creepy. I can’t wait.

#6 – “THE AVENGERS”

I’m a long time comic book reader and super-hero fan so Marvel’s “The Avengers” certainly is on my radar. I’ve had loads of fun with the movies focused on the individual heroes and now we get them all together in what could be a really, really good film or a cluttered mess. I’m optimistic especially considering that Marvel has had this in the works well before the individual films were made. That bigger vision could equal one fun summer popcorn flick. Downey, Jr., Evans, Johansson, Hiddleston, Ruffalo, Jackson, Hemsworth, and Renner provide plenty of acting muscle to pull this thing off.

#5 – “THE HOBBIT”

2012 also gives us the first part of Peter Jackson’s “The Hobbit”. As a huge fan of what he did with “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy, I have full confidence that he will give us another exciting experience in Middle-Earth. Many actors reprise their roles including Ian McKellen, Hugo Weaving, Orlando Bloom, Elijah Wood, Cate Blanchett, and Andy Serkis. I fully expect this to be another rousing visual accomplishment and Jackson’s familiarity with the material will be evident. Set for a December release, what a way to end the year!

#4 – “SKYFALL”

I have never been the biggest James Bond fan but that all changed when Daniel Craig took over the role in “Casino Royale”. “Skyfall” is Craig’s third film as 007 and the first since 2008. Adding to the excitement is the casting of Javier Bardem as Bond’s main antagonist. Craig’s Bond has passed over the overtly cheesy dialogue and suave sophistication and replaced it with a tougher, grittier Bond that’s more grounded in reality. I’ve loved his first two films and can’t wait for “Skyfall“.

#3 – “THE WETTEST COUNTY”

The Wettest County” is a film that excites me on the sheer strength of its cast and it’s depression-era setting. It instantly makes my list just for starring personal favorites of mine Tom Hardy, Guy Pearce, and Gary Oldman plus 2011 breakout actress Jessica Chastain. Australian John Hillcoat, also known for 2009’s “The Road”, directs the Nick Cave screenplay. This film has flown under most people’s radar but I see it as loaded with potential and featuring some brilliant talent. “The Wettest County” hits select theaters in August.

#2 – “LINCOLN”

Some have mentioned having “Spielberg Fatigue” but I can’t say that fits me. But to be honest Steven Spielberg isn’t the reason I’m excited about 2012’s “Lincoln”. Daniel Day-Lewis is one of the most gifted actors in film and his last work in 2007’s “There Will Be Blood” was one of the single best performances I have ever seen. Needless to say I can’t wait to see him portray Abraham Lincoln. A fantastic supporting cast has been placed around him featuring Sally Field, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Tommy Lee Jones, David Strathairn, John Hawkes, Hal Holbrook, and more. If Spielberg keeps himself under control, this could turn out to be a true motion picture classic.

#1 – “THE DARK KNIGHT RISES”

Christopher Nolan has made super-hero movies into more than just summer popcorn pictures. His brilliant “The Dark Knight” wasn’t just a comic book movie. It was a dark and complex film featuring perfect direction, great performances, and impeccable sound and visuals. Nolan’s trilogy comes to an end with “The Dark Knight Rises” and everything points to this being another amazing picture. Joining the cast for the final installment are Tom Hardy, Anne Hathaway, Marion Cotillard, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Returning is Gary Oldman, Michael Caine, and Morgan Freeman. Nolan is one of the top directors in Hollywood and there is no reason to think he’s not going to finish his Batman run with a phenomenal final chapter.

Agree or disagree? Maybe there’s a movie you’re looking forward to seeing that didn’t make my list. Leave your comments below and share what you think of the 2012 movie releases.