REVIEW: Café Society

7 08 2016

Woody Allen haters, whether for his personal life or his professional output, need only look at the basic plot summary of “Café Society” to turn themselves away. On its face, the film repackages one of the most unfortunate clichés propagated by his body of work.

This, of course, is the doomed love triangle where a young, sexually blooming woman is courted by two men; one is an older and more distinguished gentleman, while the other is a younger but more intellectually and romantically capable match. Such a formation often seems like Allen wants to have it both ways, where his older and younger personas form a kind of sexual yin and yang.

This risible, repetitive plot invention looms over “Café Society,” imbuing every gorgeous frame from Vittorio Storraro’s lens with a faint stench of retrograde gender politics. In that way, the film plays a role similar to that friend you know has substance issues but dispenses valuable nuggets of drunk wisdom.

Look past the love triangle and beyond the outmoded attitudes, and “Café Society” marks Woody Allen at peak nostalgic autobiography. A few of the bad elements are here, sure, but much of the beauty and torment that marks Allen’s best work is present as well. From his culturally Jewish upbringing to his loathing of Hollywood and even his bleakly optimistic outlook on life, the film feels somewhat akin to a superhero origin story.

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REVIEW: Now You See Me 2

10 06 2016

Can two rabbits come out of the same metaphorical hat? Or two tricks from the same sleeve? Jon M. Chu’s “Now You See Me 2” does not really attempt such a feat. Rather than make a straightforward sequel to the 2013 magician caper, it goes in a totally new direction – essentially functioning like an “Ocean’s 11” style heist film. This entertains, sure, but it feels like a betrayal of the series’ core conceits.

The more interesting change from predecessor to sequel, however, is the transition of target for the magicians-cum-social crusaders known as the Four Horsemen. In the first film, their Robin Hood act harnessed the populist rage of the Occupy movement and used their cunning to get back at financiers who profited off the recession. Now, they face down a titan of technology with tyrannical aspirations of acquiring a chip that can surveil and sabotage any network on Earth. (On a pedantic note, it’s somewhat disappointing – yet maybe somewhat admirable – that the businessman is played by Daniel Radcliffe and no meta magic jokes are made around his appearance.)

Like “Spectre” last year, “Now You See Me 2” dives headfirst into Snowden-era debates over digital privacy. It only offers real commentary about the freedom from being seen in its conclusion, another predictably drawn-out labyrinthine affair. The film is primarily focused on the thrill; perhaps as it should be. When highly focused, as in an extended sequence showing the slight-of-hand of the disappearing card trick, it rightly claims the descriptor of “magical.”

But more often, it’s a lot of back-and-forth banter between the bickering magicians. The new presence of Lizzy Caplan’s enchantress Lula, a one-note annoying chatterbox with an aggravating infatuation for Dave Franco’s Jack Wilder, makes the interactions chafe a little more than before. Their dynamics feel like a potential deleted storyline from 2009’s “The Proposal,” the only other writing credit from “Now You See Me 2” scripter Pete Chiarelli. His sensibility coexists somewhat uneasily with writer Ed Solomon – the only credited writer returning from the original – whose previous work includes buddy action flicks like “Men in Black” and “Charlie’s Angels.” Their tag team gives the film a little bit of everything, just not a whole lot of consistency. C+ / 2stars





REVIEW: Louder Than Bombs

8 05 2016

Louder than Bombs

It feels quite fitting that Joachim Trier’s “Louder Than Bombs” features voiceover narration comes from all different characters. The writer/director frequently harbors novelistic ambitions in his work, and this feels like a stab at the ambitious multi-tongued narrations of Faulkner. Yet in trying to swing for the fences, Trier really just demonstrates how thin a grasp he has on the differences between literature and cinema.

Granted, this device is partly excused by the fact that the story has no real protagonist. Because “Louder Than Bombs” is a story about loss, it’s somewhat fitting that the center of the film is a departed character. The narrative is one of absence, not about presence. Such a choice comes with a cost, however. Trier’s film feels largely empty. Where one would normally find a heart, there is little more than stale air.

As the family of acclaimed war photographer Isabelle Reed (Isabelle Huppert) picks up the shards left by her sudden departure, Trier seems to consciously avoid the clichés of similar movies. The widowed father (Gabriel Byrne) resists becoming emotionally absent; the eldest son (Jesse Eisenberg) remains cooly distant; the younger son (Devin Druid) feigns normalcy. Yet avoiding banality does not guarantee quality. It is not enough to merely remove the bad if it is not replaced with something else good. And Trier has little of substance to offer.

“Louder Than Bombs” plays like the kind of film made by someone who has seen movies and read books about grief but has never really experienced it – or at the very least, has never really come to terms with it. Be it in the performances, the tone or the content, every moment feels motivated by the art being imposed onto the events rather than the emotion that ought to flow from them. People grieve singularly, to be sure, and it is not for anyone to say how it should or should not be done. But Trier’s choice to stand so far outside the messy, complicated reality of mourning and rebuilding provides scant insight into the very thing he seeks to depict. C+ / 2stars





REVIEW: Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

29 03 2016

I miss Christopher Nolan. Never mind that it has been less than four years since his final Batman film and fewer than 18 months since his most recent directorial effort, “Interstellar.” He understood that the scope of a sprawling comic book movie could be an epic canvas for ambitious thematic and aesthetic content, not just an excuse for bombast and branding.

He has, inexplicably, turned over the keys to the kingdom to Zack Snyder, a director full of sound and fury that signifies nothing. He has an eye and a knack for style, to give him some credit, but Snyder never deploys it in use of a story or an idea. He’s all showmanship for its own sake – surfaces above substance, declaration over development.

As if 2013’s “Man of Steel” was not nauseating enough, he arrives with an “Avengers”-ified sequel in “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.” It’s roughly the cinematic equivalent of Kim Kardashian’s “Break the Internet” magazine cover. Call it “Break the Box Office,” if you will, as it’s already crushing at the box office this year. The film is practically incoherent and only gets more pointless and frustrating with each new turn. With each successive insipid development, the experience is as numbing as it is infuriating.

Snyder is more concerned that we notice the giant CGI pearls snapped at the murder of Bruce Wayne’s mother than providing context or rationale for this universe in which the film takes place. So two superheroes, Batman and Superman, have been living across the water from each other … and that was not worth mentioning in “Man of Steel?” While it’s nice that the film does not waste time rehashing an origin story, clearly Ben Affleck’s Batman is much different than Christian Bale’s. He’s more overtly villainous and cynical – but why?

Perhaps these questions might have been answered in the many scenes left on the cutting room floor. These crucial contextual bits are more important than ever as they could give the franchise a headwind as it launches a bevy of spinoffs and sequels. Marvel movies are bearable because their brain trust actually cares about their characters. They might ultimately succumb to formulaic plots, sure, but they at least understand that audiences want to get attached to these larger-than-life figures. Come and forget the action, stay and remember the characters.

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REVIEW: The End of the Tour

16 08 2015

The End of the TourThe celebrity interview in fiction is something that often gets fetishized, probably because it is so frequently fantasized.  I have done a few myself, and it can be tough not to get carried away just by breathing the rarefied air of a talented artist.  Rationalize the experience away as journalism, but that does not do justice to the nature of the interview.

It’s a transaction.  An exchange of goods disguised as an exchange of words.  A delicate dance. Chuck Klosterman, in his excellent book “Eating the Dinosaur,” offered a deft explanation of just how these performances work.  “The result (when things go well),” he wrote, “is a dynamic, adversarial, semi-real conversation.”

The End of the Tour” makes a movie out of a journalistic conversation for the ages, a battle of wits on a more even playing field than usual.  Jesse Eisenberg plays David Lipsky, a minimally successful novelist who pays the bills for his aspirations of fiction writing by penning non-fictional articles for Rolling Stone. Somehow, he convinces his boss to let him go on assignment to profile another writer, the first time the magazine dares to feature a wordsmith in over a decade.

Lipsky’s subject is no average writer, though. He tags along with David Foster Wallace, played by Jason Segel, at the last stop of his 1996 book tour for “Infinite Jest,” a thousand-page tome that reaps hyperbolic praise and adulation. After publishing such a novel, a kind of literary legend status extended to very few authors looms on the horizon.

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Random Factoid #577

14 07 2015

There’s rumors, in the Twittersphere… (to quote the great “21 Jump Street“)

…that people are angry with Jesse Eisenberg.  The Oscar nominee for “The Social Network” – and villain of next spring’s “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice” – was quoted saying something about Comic-Con that upset quite a few folks.  Here, to the best of my knowledge, are those remarks in context, courtesy of The Hollywood Reporter:

“It is like being screamed at by thousands of people. I don’t know what the experience is throughout history, probably some kind of genocide. I can’t think of anything that’s equivalent.”

IMG_0998 I would like to add some further context simply to explain Jesse Eisenberg, not Comic-Con.

“The Social Network” is one of my all-time favorite movies, so I have always been curious – naturally – to meet its star in person.  Almost two years ago at the 2013 London Film Festival, I got the chance.

I got a ticket to the gala screening of his film “Night Moves” (which wasn’t great but will almost assuredly be better than any movie Zack Snyder could ever concoct) and happened to be strolling around Leicester Square on my way to the theater when I noticed Eisenberg making his way down a line of fans to sign autographs.  Naturally, I jumped in.

Now, I’ve gotten the chance to interact with quite a few actors in my day, a fact I cite not to brag but to let you know that I speak with some mild authority when I say that Eisenberg moved particularly slowly down his wall of admirers.  He looked down towards the ground and made only the most meager of efforts to interact with the person in front of him.  Eisenberg signed whatever piece of paper a fan handed him but clearly ignored whatever praise they might heap on him.  In a mechanical fashion, he would mutter, “thank you so much,” essentially without being prompted.

IMG_1014(Seriously, I am not bitter about this, but when Eisenberg got to me, my Sharpie ran out of ink.  Rather than wait, he just moved on to the next person.)

I tell this story to let the film blog world know that Jesse Eisenberg is probably the most shy, introverted celebrity I have ever come across.  He sees fame as a negative externality of his acting prowess, not a reward for it.  I think his nightmares probably involve Facebook coming to life.

So if you are someone who regards Comic-Con as hallowed ground, just try to see it through his eyes.  All that attention, scrutiny, and adoration must feel so overwhelming, perhaps embarrassing, to Eisenberg.  Or think of it from the opposite extreme – Comic-Con for Jesse Eisenberg is what zero likes on Instagram is to Kim Kardashian.





REVIEW: Night Moves

2 09 2014

Night MovesLondon Film Festival, 2013

Kelly Reichardt’s ecoterrorist drama “Night Moves” starts off with all the right moves.  As she details the steps that a group of activists take to blow up a hydroelectric dam, the film holds us with the firm grip of a well-crafted procedural.  Reichardt never has to resort to the usual arsenal of cinematic tricks to create suspense because it arises organically from her laser-like focus on presenting the reality of the scene.

The film’s style works at first because we get a sense of who the characters are based on the way they act and react.  There’s no clunky exposition to give us an abundance of background information on them, yet these three resolute and very different figures just seem to make sense as they plot towards their bold action.

That’s largely due to the actors filling the nuances left by Reichardt’s script.  Jesse Eisenberg (yet again) plays the silent and bitterly angry type well, but “Night Moves” is more exciting for its surprising performances.  Dakota Fanning as a zealous untested college dropout and Peter Sarsgaard as a confident but somewhat shady ex-Marine make far more compelling characters because we aren’t sure the depths they can reach.

Once their planning is done and the deed is carried out (notice I didn’t say how successfully), the three split ways.  This occurs between a third and half of the way through the film, a rather odd structure given that we expect blowing up the dam to be the climax.  The unexpected plot development portends an exciting departure when it begins, but “Night Moves” sadly becomes an entirely different movie afterwards.

Reichardt, so ably steering clear of genre cliches at the start of the film, sets a course straight into them at the back half.  As the three characters struggle with guilt, responsibility, and many other feelings, “Night Moves” assumes the tenor of formulaic melodrama. Though this conventional chapter of the story ultimately caps off with a surprising plot development, the familiar waters taint the powerful experience of riding through such uncharted ones.  B2halfstars





REVIEW: The Double

25 08 2014

The DoubleIt’s always interesting to see how two different filmmakers approach the same text and wind up with completely different interpretations.  Richard Ayode directly derives his film “The Double” from a novella of the same name by Fyodor Dostoyesvsky, while Darren Aronofsky drew heavily from it to create his Oscar-winning 2010 masterpiece “Black Swan.”

These films are not cinematic siblings, so to speak, but they are blood relatives of sorts and provide a fertile ground for analysis in tandem.  The same blood runs through their veins, but they manifest its influence in divergent fashions.  At the very least, anyone who has seen “Black Swan” will come away from watching “The Double” with an appreciation for the many choices facing the artists tasked with adapting a text.  (And I make the assumption that the majority of people interested in the latter are the kind of moviegoers who made a point to see the former.)

Aronofsky’s take on the doppelganger tale results in a horror film replete with corporal anxieties, while Ayoade finds just about the opposite in the Russian yarn.  His film is a dark comedy that often times veers into the absurd.  Its bizarre flavor regarding the humor regarding the humdrum mechanisms of the workplace  is about as far from the werewolf-swan movie as one can get.

And yet, there’s still the same underlying fear of being replaced by a better version of yourself that resonates in “The Double.”  It’s somewhat clouded by the fog of Ayoade’s peculiar funnybone, but it’s nonetheless there.  Jesse Eisenberg, essentially playing the same stammering character that won him an Oscar nomination for “The Social Network,” is an inspired choice to convey this paranoia to an audience.  He begins the film as the timid Simon James and then later appears as the supremely confident James Simon to steal all the thunder in the world of work and romance with the alluring Hannah (Mia Wasikowska).

It’s too bad we’re used to seeing Eisenberg play this character because “The Double” comes off as a bit old hat for the actor.  Either James or Simon could pop up in any of Eisenberg’s other movies as a doppelganger to induce a similar identity crisis in the native character.  He’s really doubled down, so to pun-nily speak, on this bumbling neurotic everyman.  Once or twice more, and he may very well veer into the perilous grounds of self-parody.  B-2stars





REVIEW: Now You See Me

10 06 2013

Now You See MeNo one would ever mistake Louis Letterier’s “Now You See Me” for Christopher Nolan’s “The Prestige,” that’s for certain.  But if not living up to the Nolan standard was a crime punishable by death in Hollywood, we’d have corpses lining Sunset Boulevard.

We pretty much know the drill in these magic movies by now and have come to expect the unexpected.  However, even if you know that the rug is going to get pulled out from underneath you, that’s better than watching a mind-numbing formulaic genre pic.  “Now You See Me” at least engages the audience and tries to get them guessing.  Granted, the film is only about as deep as the bag of popcorn.  But at least it’s something!

Leterrier does a half-decent job of playing to the film’s strengths: the off-color comedic stylings of Jesse Eisenberg and Woody Harrelson, the allure of Isla Fisher and Dave Franco, and that singular authority commanded by Morgan Freeman when he comes into the frame.  Less effective is the FBI/Interpol duo of Mark Ruffalo and Melanie Laurent that try to get to the bottom of the magic.  They’re an awkward pairing made worse by their segueing into a dumb and forced romance. (Sorry to semi-spoil, but you’ll see it coming the second they make eye contact.)

The film packs enough twists and turns to stay captivating and interesting even through the duller Ruffalo/Laurent segments.  Leterrier is smart enough not to dwell on the novelty and gimmickry of magic as audiences have been numbed to its power thanks to decades of CGI; his emphasis on the thrill and the audacity is what makes “Now You See Me” such fun.  Though it takes one surprise twist too many, it’s still a highly enjoyable movie that makes for great summer entertainment.  The fact that such a feat is accomplished with little more than a well-imagined story is quite magical indeed.  B2halfstars





REVIEW: To Rome With Love

31 07 2012

So maybe it lacks the timely thematic punch of “Midnight in Paris,” but that doesn’t mean I didn’t thoroughly enjoy Woody Allen’s latest, “To Rome With Love,” thoroughly and completely.  Sure, it’s not going to be rise to the top of his filmography.  Yet it’s a solid reminder of just how much of a comedic master Allen really is and just how effortlessly the laughs flow.

Part of my love of this movie could just be that I was in Rome a month before seeing it, though I will admit Rome gets a far more shallow portrayal than Paris.  Nevertheless, while we miss out on the Eternal City, we are treated to generous helpings of Woody Allen.  Since the story consists of four vignettes (which are really totally unrelated aside from their setting), we are treated to not one, not two, not three, but FOUR neurotic Woody Allen surrogates in one movie!

Now, if you hate the archetypical Woody Allen character with his nebbish misanthropy and his self-deprecatingly intellectual wit, then “To Rome With Love” will sound a lot like nails on a chalkboard to you.  However, if you are like me and willing to sit through something dreadful like “You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger” in the hopes of one classic Allen moment, then you could probably care less about a statement on nostalgia or beautiful, city-encapsulating ambiental cinematography.  You’re just happy to see another Woody Allen movie.  And for me, that’s enough.

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REVIEW: Rio

2 04 2012

2011 will likely go down in the comedy record books as a year where raunch ruled the roost.  Yet it is possible that “Rio,” a G-rated animated comedy from BlueSky, packed the most laughs of them all (save perhaps “Bridesmaids“).  Without ever uttering a curse word or resorting to the profane, the animals take the day in a wholly unexpected and delightful way.

While it may not be able to boast the complex emotions or deep storyline of a Pixar film, “Rio” is just like a beach ball, meant for fun and little else.  And I’m totally fine with that.  Its clean, innocent humor charms anyone willing to resume the persona of a child.

The movie boasts some hilarious characters thanks to very clever voice casting.  Neurotic Jesse Eisenberg plays opposite the sassy Anne Hathaway as a macaw returning to the Brazilian wild after years living in a Minnesota bookstore.  It’s a journey done many times before, but when you take it alongside Tracy Morgan as a drooling bulldog, it can still be fun.  Add in a few toe-tapping musical numbers that are not necessarily well incorporated (but still enjoyable nonetheless) and a setting against the backdrop of the Brazilian Carnaval, and you just might want to book your ticket to Rio for 2016.  Or maybe just watch it repeatedly on TV.  A-





F.I.LM. of the Week (August 12, 2011)

12 08 2011

Long before Jesse Eisenberg got slapped by Laura Linney, worked at an amusement park with the annoying “Twilight” chickfought zombies, escorted grey-haired Michael Douglas around a college campuscreated social networks, or robbed a bank with a bomb strapped to his chest, he made one heck of a performance in a little movie called “Roger Dodger,” my pick for the “F.I.L.M. of the Week.”  His cinematic debut at the age of 19 still stands as one of his most impressive works, full of the same richness, depth, and neuroticism that has made the Oscar-nominated actor one of the brightest shining faces of a new Hollywood order.  Alongside seasoned pros like Campbell Scott and Isabella Rossellini, Eisenberg propels the movie to some impressively high heights.

Long before Ryan Gosling turned bar pick-ups into an art in “Crazy Stupid Love,” Campbell Scott’s Roger Swanson saw everything in the world through the lens of sex.  In a brilliant take on evolution in the opening scene, he composedly explains how it is the final utility to left to man – and how in the future, once it’s gone, men will be totally obsolete and unnecessary.  Soon after, he’s dumped by his stalwart mistress and boss Joyce (Rossellini) and left in the doldrums to wallow in fear of his irrelevance.

But a surprise comes in the form of his 16-year-old nephew Nick, played by the tense and naive Eisenberg, who has heard that his uncle is quite the libido-driven lothario and wants a sort of real-world sex-ed class.  Roger begins by exposing Nick to all the sex around him that he’s totally oblivious too and then dumps him in situations for seduction with some beautiful older women.  Despite being with a living, breathing manual for these kinds of moments, Nick can never execute, scaring Roger into thinking that the night will have to end with a prostitute.

It’s a fascinating evening as Nick is forced to confront his sexual limits amidst Roger’s mid-life crisis which is forcing him to confront the implications and consequences of his own sexual behavior.  Scott and Eisenberg animate these fascinating self-examinations with a humorous yet probing seriousness.  They are undoubtedly helped by writer/director Dylan Kidd, whose script is intelligent and asks some challenging questions to both the characters on screen and the audience watching them.  A fan can only hope that Eisenberg keeps getting golden material like this to highlight his exceptional showmanship.





REVIEW: 30 Minutes or Less

10 08 2011

Comparison sucks, especially when you invite yourself to be judged against a fantastically entertaining comedic marvel like “Zombieland.”  While Ruben Fleischer’s directorial debut was a fun, creative comedy, his second go-round,”30 Minutes or Less,” is exactly the opposite.  It feels like something Adam Sandler didn’t have time to squeeze in his schedule between “The Waterboy” and “Big Daddy.”

It’s full of stupid, expected gags that produce some mild laughs, but we’re long past the point of diminishing returns with these worn-out premises.  Not to mention it’s disappointing to watch two emerging comedic stars and one very funny serious actor fail to breathe any sort of energy into this limp vehicle for cheap humor.  The movie is hardly bad by anyone’s standards, and summer 2011 has seen a lot worse in this genre (cough, “The Change-Up“).  But as I often add on middling movies, there have been a lot better (case in point, “Bridesmaids“), and if you just HAVE to watch something funny, this may provide a little more than the minimum satisfaction level you need to make your time and money worthwhile.

The movie serves up double the buddy comedy as moronic pals Dwayne and Travis (Danny McBride and Nick Swardson) strap a homemade bomb to unsuspecting pizza boy Nick (Jesse Eisenberg) in order to make him rob a bank so they can pay a crazed assassin (Michael Peña) to put the hit on Dwayne’s dad.  Reeling, Nick hits up his friend Chet (Aziz Ansari) – while he is teaching middle schoolers no less – to help him commit a multitude of criminal acts.  As their day spirals out of control and into the realm of the farcical, the wild ride of both pair of companions manages to garner a few decent (albeit cheap) laughs.

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F.I.L.M. of the Week (February 11, 2011)

11 02 2011

Wes Craven has made many a good horror movie, helming such classics as “The Last House on the Left” and “A Nightmare on Elm Street” but arguably leaving his biggest mark on the genre with the revolutionary self-aware “Scream” series.  He merges the two together to form the irresistible guilty pleasure “Cursed.”

Yes, I fully realize that by labeling it a guilty pleasure, I’m saying that you could easily hate this movie.  But if you love that seamless blend of comedy and horror with a touch of irony, I think you will be drawn in by the cultish appeal of “Cursed.”  In an era marked by movies that are emasculating such fearsome beasts as werewolves and vampires, Craven delivers a werewolf movie with true bite!

Not to mention that it features fun performances from plenty of ’90s stars like Christina Ricci and Joshua Jackson that have disappeared, as well as providing one of cinema’s first glances at an Academy Award-nominated actor by the name of Jesse Eisenberg.  In one of his earliest screen roles, Eisenberg still has the same fast-talking and dorky awkwardness that has marked his career ever since.  (“The Social Network” just served to refine and harness that power.)

As for the movie’s plot, it’s a mash-up of the typical werewolf curse stories as two siblings, Eisenberg’s high-school dork Jimmy and Ricci’s professional Ellie, are attacked and are forced to confront and kill the beast if they want to avoid total transformation.  But along the way, they find little changes make a big difference.

…Ok, it sounds dumb on paper, but I loved this movie because in all the ways it should have failed, it somehow worked!





10 for ’10: Performances

30 12 2010

Catch up with the idea behind this series here.

It’s impossible to celebrate a year in film without mentioning the performances that riveted us.  Without further ado or fanfare, here are the 10 actors who reminded me of the power of their craft with their work in 2010.

Women

Amy Adams as Charlene Fleming in “The Fighter

My original review:
Adams, usually the delightfully effervescent charmer, plays gritty and unapologetic in “The Fighter” and pulls it off to Oscar-worthy standards.  She’s able to pull off just about any sort of character she takes, and the tenacious Charlene is different than anything we’ve ever seen her do before.  It’s exciting to see an actress nowadays who isn’t content with finding one adjective to act and then carve themselves a niche, and Adams is quickly proving herself one of the most versatile actresses of our day.

Reflection:
Amy Adams has wowed me in a variety of different roles, from her unassuming nun in “Doubt” to the ditzy princess in “Enchanted.”  Yet as Charlene, I think she may have hit the most beautiful note in her career so far with her heartfelt conversation with Bale’s Dickie on her front porch.  As she reflects on her life and her good intentions, it’s such a wonderful moment filled with every ounce of sincerity that she has to give.

Barbara Hershey as Erica Sayers in Black Swan

My original review:
The best of the supporting bunch [in “Black Swan”] is by far and away Hershey as the pushy and demanding stage mom.  Such roles often become stock characters; however, Hershey takes the role in frightening and invigorating new directions.

Reflection:
There wasn’t a more frightening performance this year than Hershey as Natalie Portman’s mother.  There’s a whole lot of subtext that Hershey has to act, perhaps a whole hidden backstory as director Darren Aronofsky alluded to, and that’s usually a daunting task for actors to pull off.  Hershey shows no dust from her long hiatus from acting, keeping us scared and entranced at the same time.

Julianne Moore as Jules in “The Kids Are All Right

My original review:
It’s Julianne Moore who absolutely brings down the house [in “The Kids Are All Right”].  As the more flighty, free-spirited Jules, she wins our hearts from the get-go, even if her antics only illicit groans from her other half.  The character is very complex as she begins reeling from Paul’s introduction, exploring sides of herself she didn’t know even existed.  It’s glorious to watch Moore dig deeper and deeper into her character as the movie goes on.  She’s responsible for some of the movie’s funniest moments but also for its most effective emotional scene.  Academy, take note.

Reflection:
Throughout the awards season, many pundits have thrown out that Annette Bening’s role in “The Kids Are All Right” is the character the audience is meant to sympathize with and thus makes her the better candidate for Best Actress.  Without dragging politics into it, I found Julianne Moore’s Jules the more sympathetic character and, by the end, the only one I actually cared about.  Moore has delivered so many fantastic performances, but what makes this one stand head and shoulders over the rest is her total emotional engagement in the role.  We feel her torment, her frustration, and her confusion so profoundly because of how engrossed she is in the character.  And what she puts in, we get out of the performance.

Natalie Portman as Nina Sayers in “Black Swan

My original review:
The star of the show is Portman, and “Black Swan” is made all the more fascinating by how Nina’s development mirrors her performance.  Much like Nina must lose herself in the role of the Swan Princess, Portman absolutely disappears into her character.  It’s a shocking and startling transformation due to Portman’s dedication to learning the craft of ballet and her impeccable acting.  The movie stands as a testament to the fact that she is one of the best emerging actresses of her generation, and her flawless showing here deserves to be minted in history alongside the greatest of all time.  Portman gives a once-in-a-lifetime performance, and to miss it would be to deny yourself the chance to see as close to perfection as is cinematically possible.

Reflection:
Perfect.  It was perfect.

Hailee Steinfeld as Mattie Ross in “True Grit”

Reflection:
I have yet to review “True Grit,” but when I do, expect the highest of praise for newcomer Hailee Steinfeld.  There are very few actors that can spit out period dialogue at lightning speed with confidence, and there are probably even fewer that can do the same with the dialogue of the Coen Brothers.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone do both so well, a feat that would impress me from an Academy Award-winning actress but floors me when I consider that this is a debut performer.  At such a young age, she has a complete and total mastery of her character’s deepest desires and feelings, and such a strong presence out in front of “True Grit” makes it a movie and a performance I won’t soon forget.

Men

Christian Bale as Dickie Ecklund in The Fighter

My original review:
The knockout punch of “The Fighter” is the performance of Christian Bale, a totally authentic portrayal of a drug addict, former boxer, jealous trainer – and all simultaneously.  He doesn’t act or perform as the real life Dickie Ecklund so much as he becomes him and inhabits him.  Every twitch, every word is meticulously planned by Bale, who slimmed down from his Batman physique to play the gaunt Dickie.

Reflection:
“The Fighter” is Micky Ward’s story, but it’s Dickie Ecklund’s movie.  Bale, completely lost in the character, brings together all of his strengths to deliver what could be the quintessential performance of his career.  It shows his physical commitment, his uncompromising authenticity, and a strangely pervasive sense of heart that’s often a little rough around the edges.

Jesse Eisenberg as Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network

My original review:
Eisenberg nails all the eccentricities of the fast-talking technological wiz, and the nuances in his portrayal of Mark Zuckerberg will captivate for endless viewings.

Reflection:
Who is Mark Zuckerberg?  After “The Social Network” was released, millions of people were left trying to answer the question.  Is he the savior of the Internet and the symbol of a new era, or is he the force that will inadvertently bring it down and destroy all the comforts of our former lives?  What makes this screen version of Zuckerberg so captivating is that Jesse Eisenberg doesn’t attempt to answer this question.  Eisenberg gets to the core of what he thinks is motivating Zuckerberg, going so deep that no bias or opinion can color his interpretation.  Then, he lays it all out on the screen and leaves it up to the viewer to decide who Mark Zuckerberg is.  With the magazine TIME naming the entrepreneur their person of the year, Eisenberg may have made Mark Zuckerberg the folk hero of the digital age.

Colin Firth as King George VI in “The King’s Speech

My original review:
It’s Firth’s show in the flashy role of King George, a character that must be inhabited, not just performed.  Firth nails it, getting inside every thought and stammer of the king.  He doesn’t just brush the surface as many actors playing historical figures do; he makes George vulnerable and sentimental.  Firth’s poignant performance reminds us that what we should be looking for in movies like this is heart.

Reflections:
The royal family of England always feels so distant on film, living a life filmmakers believe is so different that ours that they have to put them in an ivory tower.  Yet Colin Firth, armed with a fantastically written human being by the name of King George VI, tears their mythological status down brick by brick until his royal figure is so down to earth that he feels like an old friend.  The movie wouldn’t have been half as inspiring had Firth not brought such an enormously relatable pathos to the role.

James Franco as Aron Ralston in “127 Hours

My original review:
There’s never a dull or wasted moment to be found in the movie thanks to Franco’s sublime and enlightened performance.  While shooting on location, Boyle consistently had him act in character for 20 minutes straight and then relied on the editor to find 30 seconds to make it into the final cut.  This total immersion into Ralston’s desperation makes Franco all the more raw and moving.

Reflection:
The blasting score, fancy editing, and flashy cinematography of “127 Hours” can only go so far to make a static movie work.  It requires a dynamic actor, both heartbreaking and heartwarming, that we can stick with until the bitter end.  James Franco does just that and more as he makes pain and hope so tangible and so authentic that the movie never feels anything less than real.  If anyone ever had a doubt that we need actors more than ever, Franco’s flawless work is all that’s needed to silence any critic.

Andrew Garfield as Eduardo Saverin in “The Social Network

My original review:
Andrew Garfield as the upright Saverin is a force to be reckoned with, a true presence throughout the movie with his very likable charm.  For just that reason, he makes it wrenching to watch the inevitable turn when Saverin gets cheated.

Reflection:
While Zuckerberg’s prickly exterior prevents us from ever liking him too much, Andrew Garfield endows Eduardo Saverin with a sharp mind, firm beliefs, and a strong moral compass, making us fall head over heels for his character.  He’s an irresistible force on the screen, the good angel resting on Zuckerberg’s right shoulder whispering in his ear to follow common wisdom.  The movie’s emotional climax wouldn’t work if we weren’t rooting for Saverin the entire time, and when he explodes with anger, you’ll want to jump in the frame and punch the jerks who wronged him.