REVIEW: “Brooklyn”

Brooklyn poster

Saoirse Ronan has quietly put together a fine acting career. For almost ten years she has steadily delivered one good performance after another. In 2007 she became one of the youngest actresses to ever receive an Academy Award nomination. But what is truly surprising is the fact that Ronan is only 21 years-old and with each new film she continues to mature as an actress. That has never been more evident than in her new picture “Brooklyn”.

This beautiful period drama is from director John Crowley and scripted by Nick Hornby. It’s based on Colm TĂłibĂ­n’s novel about a quiet Irish girl given an opportunity to make a better life for herself overseas in 1952 Brooklyn, New York. There is nothing cagey or complex about the story, but it’s simplicity is part of its charm and it works mainly due to a captivating lead performance.

Saoirse Ronan in Brooklyn

Ronan plays Eilis, an Irish girl whose life is dictated by the people and practices in her County Wexford village. She’s quiet and cordial even when working for her cuss of a boss at a local general store. Her older sister Rose (Fiona Glasscott) knows there is nothing for Eilis in the village so with the help of a priest named Father Flood (Jim Broadbent in a superb bit of casting), she arranges for Eilise to travel to New York to create a new and better life for herself.

There is one key thing I appreciate about the story itself and Crowley’s direction. There are several opportunities for the movie to wander down a conventional and clichĂ© path. When Eilise first arrives in Brooklyn she is clearly in a new world. But it doesn’t turn into your standard ‘fish out of water’ story. Her struggles, her loneliness, her homesickness – it is all handled and presented in a way that is thoughtful and genuine. But most importantly it serves the character without drowning the audience in overwrought depictions of her circumstances.

Her struggles ease a bit when she meets a nice, hard-working Italian plumber named Tony (Emory Cohen). Again, the movie could have ventured off into a number of directions including the predictable Irish/Italian relationship complications. Thankfully it does not. That’s not the story it wants to tell. Instead it unfolds into a sweet love story that allows us to see a number of new sides to Eilise. She becomes more comfortable and more confident. The longing for home slowly subsides and takes on a new form. We see a new and different young woman.

Brooklyn2

The idea of ‘home’ becomes one of the film’s central themes. Eilise is faced with a predicament that causes her to question where her true home is. Other people have no problems defining ‘home’ for her. The question becomes will she throw aside her newly found self-confidence to once again allow her life to be determined by the wishes of others? Or will she take the reins and define her ‘home’ and her life for herself?

“Brooklyn” maneuvers through a minefield of too much melodrama and sentimentality at times coming dangerously close to both. But it never overdoes it. Instead it focuses on its main character and everything works towards telling her story. And it is a lovely story. There is a rhythmic beauty to the storytelling and Crowley’s camera helps convey it. There are so many gorgeous shots that stuck with me well after the movie was over.

While the story is sweet and alluring and the film looks fantastic, this is mainly a sparkling showcase for Saoirse Ronan. I don’t know if there was a more sublimely expressive or emotionally earnest performance this year. I can’t imagine anyone else playing this role any better and Ronan deserves all the attention that is certain to come her way. This is her movie and she makes it one of the year’s finest.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

4.5 STARS

REVIEW: “The Grand Budapest Hotel”

Budapest Poster

When Wes Anderson releases a movie it’s almost like an event for me. I’m such a fan of his work and I enjoy each visit I make to his unique and eccentric world. Finally his latest film “The Grand Budapest Hotel” made its way to my area. After a grueling wait the film finally cured my impatience but did it meet my ridiculously high expectations? I’ve come to expect so much from Anderson’s movies and my lofty expectations seem almost unfair. And perhaps those same expectations contributed to my somewhat cold and indifferent reaction to this film.

“The Grand Budapest Hotel” features so many signature trademarks of other Wes Anderson films. We get the quirky period design, an assortment of offbeat characters, a host of stylistic visual flourishes, and a level of expected absurdity. All of those things are present here and they all work to the film’s advantage. These are some of the fingerprints I want to see all over a Wes Anderson movie. But there were other signatures that injects his movies with their own personality and vibrancy that I found missing in this film.

Budapest3

The story is told in a fractured style but the vast majority of it takes place within a fictitious Eastern European country during 1932. We are introduced to Monsieur Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes), the concierge of The Grand Budapest Hotel during its glory days of luxury and prominence. Gustave is meticulous in his running of the hotel and his love for extravagance is only outdone by his adoration for strong cologne and for his elderly clientele. The story becomes a murder mystery after one of his close acquaintances Madame D (Tilda Swinton) is found dead and Gustave becomes the key suspect. It also becomes a heist film and of course a comedy.

The film is also loaded with a massive number of side characters. Some are like Fiennes and new to Wes Anderson’s world while others are old faithful stalwarts who find their way into nearly every one of his movies. Toni Revolori plays a young lobby boy named Zero who becomes Gustave’s protĂ©gĂ© and faithful sidekick. Adrien Brody plays Dmitri, the son of the murdered Madame D. Willem Dafoe plays a grunting snaggletoothed hitman. I could go on and on listing small characters who service the story (some better than others). They are all sprinkled onto stylistic canvases that include an alpine village, a prison, and of course The Grand Budapest itself. There is truly an artistry to the entire visual presentation and all of that worked for me.

But what was it about the film that at first held me at arm’s length? Why didn’t I have the same wonderful experience as I usually have with Wes Anderson pictures during a first viewing? First off I just didn’t find it as funny as I had hoped. Certainly there were moments where I laughed but as a whole the dry humor wasn’t that effective. Even the crowd I watched with had their giggles held to a minimum. This film was also coarse and crasser than most of Anderson’s other pictures. Much of it is played for laughs but I found it to be distracting and it felt as though Anderson, normally known for his creative freedom, was really stretching.

Budapest2

Another missing component for me was the deeper emotional thread that every Anderson film has had. For example in “The Royal Tenenbaums” you have the destructive results that a father’s behavior has had on his family. In “The Darjeeling Limited” you have three separated brothers each carrying the baggage of their father’s death. “Moonrise Kingdom” features two kids with no stable adult presence in their lives. They find their refuge by running away together. The same thing applies to “Rushmore” and “The Fantastic Mr. Fox”. Anderson has always had a knack for presenting a deeper and more piercing subject and effectively surrounding it with humor. Every sense of that is vague and almost absent from this entire film. He does tinker with a few themes via the impending war that lingers in the background, the desires for the nostalgic “better days”, etc. But none of these stood out to me at all.

This is the first screenplay that Anderson has written by himself. Does that play into the things I found lacking? I don’t know, perhaps. Anderson is also often accused of going overboard with his eccentric style. I’ve never found any merit to that accusation but this is the first film where there just might be. Could that be linked to Anderson’s solo screenplay? Again, I don’t know. What I do know is that there were parts of this film that really worked and after a second viewing I definitely began to appreciate the film more. At first “The Grand Budapest Hotel” didn’t fully work for me. It definitely comes more into focus the more times you see it.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

5 PHENOMENAL ACTRESSES TO WATCH OUT FOR

Movies have always been blessed with an assortment of wonderful actresses and it’s no different now. Amazing acting talents are springing up and making names for themselves. I thought it would be fun to consider 5 Phenomenal actresses that you should keep your eye on. These ladies aren’t exactly “seasoned” in the traditional sense but they have enough on their resume to prove that they are remarkable performers. Now I didn’t want this to be an up-and-coming list. Instead I’m wanting to give props to five ladies who I think have huge careers ahead of them. Now as always I wouldn’t call this the definitive list. But there’s no denying that these 5 actresses to watch out for are absolutely phenomenal.

#5 – MIA WASIKOWSKA

At only 22 years of age, Mia Wasikowska has already tackled a variety of great roles. She’s shared the screen with big names such as Johnny Depp, Michael Fassbender, Glenn Close, and Daniel Craig and she’s more than held her own. She’s made some great film choices and the future looks promising. She’s already lined up to be in “Lawless”, a film where she will co-star with big names such as Gary Oldman, Tom Hardy, and Guy Pearce.  Wasikowska is never overpowered by the material and her ability to handle challenging roles at such a young age is very impressive. Expect to see a lot from this phenomenal young talent.

#4 – EMILY BLUNT

Emily Blunt as an example of a very talented actress who is still looking for that one big role. She starred in several films that I’ve enjoyed and several that I haven’t but yet she’s always delivered a strong and steady performance. She’s clearly comfortable with comedy or drama and her assortment of films show that to be true. She was in several smaller but entertaining films before really drawing attention for her work in “Young Victoria”. From there she has starred in everything from family films, quirky British comedies, sci-fi thrillers, and romantic comedies. Through them all she has shown an amazing range and an ability to handle any material she has given. She’s a magnetic actress who will be around for a long time.

#3 – SAOIRSE RONAN

An even younger but equally talented actress is Saoirse Ronan. At 18 years of age she has steered clear of some of the movie traps that many young performers fall into. She first gained major attention for her wonderful work in “Atonement”, a performance that earned her an Academy Award nomination at the age of 13. She was also very good in Peter Jackson’s “The Lovely Bones”, a film that doesn’t hold up well despite her fantastic performance. I was really impressed with her work in “The Way Back”, a very underappreciated film. And in 2011 she showed what kind of range she has by playing a trained assassin in “Hanna”. Ronan has a wonderful screen presence and has grown with each performance. She’s certainly one to watch.

#2- JENNIFER LAWRENCE

While her resume may not be as plump as the other actresses on this list, Jennifer Lawrence has blown me away by her work so far. Lawrence has never been to acting school or taken an acting class yet she has what seems to be a natural ability. It was her starring role in 2010’s “Winter’s Bone” that immediately caught the attention of the movie world. She gives a tough and gritty performance that earned her a Best Actress Oscar nomination. It was a performance that still amazes me today. She had a great role in “The Beaver” and she was also very good in “X-Men: First Class”. Most recently she’s been seen starring in a little movie you may have heard of, “The Hunger Games”. The movie has catapulted her into the more mainstream spotlight. And while the film isn’t perfect, there’s no denying that Lawrence is brilliant in the lead role. She has several projects in the works and, of course, more Hunger Games sequels. Expect to hear Jennifer Lawrence’s name for a while.

#1 – JESSICA CHASTAIN

2011 can officially be called a break-out year for Jessica Chastain. After a small career in television, Chastain made her feature film debut in 2008. But it was last year that she truly made her mark on the film industry with some amazing work. She was really good in “The Help” and received a Best Supporting Actress nomination for her performance. But that wasn’t even her best work of the year. She was mesmerizing in Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life”. She was even better alongside Michael Shannon in the underappreciated film “Take Shelter” and it’s there that she gives what I felt was the best supporting work of the year. She was also fantastic with Ralph Fiennes in “Coriolanus” and this year she will be in the above mentioned “Lawless”. Chastain has a grounded and almost natural grace about her and it translates so well on screen. With all of the attention she’s getting for her recent work, you can count on good director’s wanting to work with her even more.

And there they are. Do you agree or disagree with my list? Do you know of someone I missed? Please leave a comment and share your thoughts.

“HANNA” – 4 STARS

In “Hanna” Saoirse Ronan plays the title character who lives in isolation with her father Erik (Eric Bana) in the snow-covered forests of Finland. While there, he’s instructs her in methods of survival and trains her in hand-to-hand combat which immediately let’s you know there is more going on under the surface. Hanna finds out she has been trained to kill Marissa Wiegler (Cate Blanchett), a corrupt CIA agent who has a history with Erik. But after setting out on her mission things go wrong and Hanna finds herself running for her life while trying to piece together who she really is and where she came from.

Ronan again proves she is one of the top young acting talents in film today. She’s simply magnificent as the sheltered but lethal Hanna. She captures the conflict within Hanna through some tender scenes that show her innocent curiosity and some intense action sequences that show the violent nature of her training. Hanna hasn’t experienced any of the modern conveniences or technologies of today and it truly feels as if you are watching her enter a whole new world. It’s also great to see Eric Bana giving a good performance in a very nice role for him. But the usually solid Cate Blanchett is surprisingly inconsistent as C.I.A. agent Wiegler. She sometimes comes across as unconvincing and her odd southern accent seems to come and go. But overall this is Ronan’s show and she is fantastic.

Director Joe Wright starts the film with a bang and keeps it moving at a break-neck pace. It never loses it’s frantic energy or momentum. The gritty techno soundtrack by The Chemical Brothers isn’t overused and, along with the quick camera cuts and sharp angles, contributes to the overall feel of the picture. “Hanna” moves from one country to another and is filmed in some beautiful locations including Finland, Germany, and Morocco. There’s also a unique style to the way “Hanna” is made. At times it has an almost fantasy feel to it due to the way it’s shot and edited. Other times it shows some pretty standard elements from other action/revenge thrillers.

But the film does have a few issues. Throughout the picture you feel there is more to the story than there really is. The abrupt ending is satisfying in one sense but it’s also conventional and predictable. The tension that nicely builds up seems a little hollow as the film reveals itself to be nothing more than a high-octane action/chase picture. Now don’t get me wrong, I love a good action/chase picture. But “Hanna” seemed to be breaking away from the traditional action movie formula. Unfortunately it doesn’t see it through to the end.

The few gripes aside, “Hanna” is a fun and stylish movie as well as a showcase for young Saoirse Ronan. I can’t say enough about her performance. And while Blanchett’s performance is a little distracting and the ending may be somewhat of a letdown, it doesn’t kill the film. There’s many other things to like about “Hanna” and many things that separates it from most action thrillers. So sit down, buckle up, and enjoy the ride. I know I did.

TOP 5 BEST LEAD ACTRESS PERFORMANCES OF 2011

TOP 5 BEST LEAD ACTRESS PERFORMANCES OF 2011

I hate to repeat myself but this was a good year for women in Hollywood. It was tough narrowing down my favorite lead actress performances to just 5. But after painfully omitting some genuinely great performances, I’ve come up with a list that I think shows the talent and range found from women leads in 2011. Here’s my top 5 lead actress performances of the year:

#5 – Michelle Williams (Meek’s Cutoff)

While the movie’s out-of-the-blue ambiguous ending didn’t work for me, Michelle Williams’ performance certainly did. Williams’ acting range certainly can’t be questioned and she is fantastic in this rugged film about the Oregon Trail. She always stays controlled in a film that counts on deliberateness. While she’s received an Oscar nomination for her portrayal of Marilyn Monroe, I was drawn more to this unique and challenging performance.

#4 – Viola Davis (The Help)

The performances in “The Help” more than make up for the occasional stumbling blocks found in the writing and Viola Davis is particularly good. She gives a stirring performance that often times rises above the material and there are several scenes where she takes the movie and carries it. That’s a mark of a great actress and Davis certainly has the chops. She always feels genuine and she’s able to relay the raw emotion that many of her scenes call for. She has certainly earned the Oscar buzz she has received.

#3 – Saoirse Ronan (Hanna)

I really like Saoirse Ronan and her work in “Hanna” is just another reason why. It’s a tricky role in that it requires a child-like charm and an action movie-styled physicality. She keeps a steady balance to her character throughout the picture and had me sold hook, line, and sinker. Ronan shined in “The Lovely Bones” and I loved her in “The Way Back”, but this is her best performance yet and just a taste of what lies ahead for this immensely talented young actress.

#2 – Vera Farmiga (Higher Ground)

Vera Farmiga’s “Higher Ground” is a movie many people may have not seen, but it features one of the best performances of Farmiga’s career. She also directs the film but it’s her lead performance that carries the picture. She treats her material with care and compassion and I never found her anything but compelling. She was completely overlooked by Oscar which comes as no surprise. But there is no way I can’t include her performance as one of 2011’s best.

#1 – Juliette Binoche (Certified Copy)

From the start of “Certified Copy” I found myself absorbed in Juliette Binoche’s Elle. Who is she? I spent most of the movie mesmerized by her conversations and trying to figure out if she was real or simply a copy. I know that sounds vague but once you see the film you’ll know what I mean. Binoche is marvelous and her work stood above the other great female lead performances I saw last year. If you haven’t seen “Certified Copy”, see it. When you do you’ll be treated to a brilliant actress who knows her craft and shows it with her performance.

Agree or disagree? Please share you thoughts. Comment on who your Top 5 were.