lunedì 9 aprile 2018

Some news

Hi everyone!

I know I was supposed to finish Best Supporting Actor 2017 and that I had others years to review as well. But I'm having a hard time finding the motivation to go ahead with the reviews - the idea of following this strict pattern of reviewing performances year per year is starting to wear a little thin. It's just that I want to watch a movie whenever I feel like watching it instead of "having to do it" because I have to finish a certain year. It's been super fun writing these reviews and especially interacting with you, but I think I'm leaving this blog on hold for a little while. That said, I'm not going anywhere: I've decided to open a new blog, in which I'll review movies I watch: it won't be a review of just the performances, but my opinion on those movies as a whole. Perhaps it will be a little less exciting without the predictions, but I hope you will read my reviews there as well and your comments are, as always, more than welcome: you can ask me everything you want there, about movies, performances, ranking, ratings and stuff. I really hope you don't mind about this change and I hope you'll find my other blog just as interesting. 

I will not delete this blog and maybe I will return here when I feel like it, at least to fill the tables and give my top 10s for the acting categories. 

This is the link of my new blog. I hope I'll see you there 💓

sabato 31 marzo 2018

Best Actor in a Supporting Role 2017

And the nominees are...

Willem Dafoe - The Florida Project
Woody Harrelson - Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Richard Jenkins - The Shape of Water
Christopher Plummer - All the Money in the World
Sam Rockwell - Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

What are your predictions for my ranking? How would you personally rank the nominees?

lunedì 19 marzo 2018

Best Actress in a Supporting Role 2017: Ranking

5. Allison Janney in I, Tonya
Allison Janney delivers a rather entertaining performance and she has some moments of greatness throughout the movie, but she too often oversimplifies a potentially complex character and ends up being the least interesting aspect of an otherwise excellent movie.
Best scene: LaVona throws a knife at Tonya.

4. Octavia Spencer in The Shape of Water
The role of Zelda isn't the most complicated character even written, but Octavia Spencer gives a scene-stealing, fun performance while sharing a lovely chemistry with Sally Hawkins. Moreover, she excels in the latter section of the movie bringing the needed impact to her more dramatic scenes.
Best scene: Zelda is confronted by Strickland in her apartment.

3. Mary J. Blige in Mudbound
Mary J. Blige is quietly powerful in a small but challenging role, expressing a world of feelings while often staying in the background. She works wonderfully with all of her cast-members and imbues her character with warmth, strength, intelligence and dignity.
Best scene: Ronsel gives Florence a chocolate bar.

2. Lesley Manville in Phantom Thread
Lesley Manville delivers a marvelous performance that adds a lot to the movie despite never being its focus. She's an effectively steely, domineering presence but what's especially impressive is her amazing subtle work in the background in which she conveys the complexity of her relationships with both Reynolds and Alma and impeccably showing how her feelings evolves throughout the course of the movie.
Best scene: "Don't pick a fight with me"

1. Laurie Metcalf in Lady Bird
A very difficult choice, but I ended up giving the edge to Metcalf's performance because I found her so moving and powerful on a personal level. Metcalf delivers a beautiful turn, creating an unforgettable character that feels so wonderfully vivid and life-like. She shares an amazing chemistry with Saoirse Ronan and nails every single emotional beat of a layered, complex person.
Best scene: "Whatever we give you, it's never enough"

Honorable Omissions: Perhaps the most surprising aspect of Blade Runner 2049 for me was Ana de Armas' phenomenal performance as Joi. The character itself is one of the most fascinating elements of the movie as it never clarifies whether she has a true conscience or she just does what she is programmed and designed to do: de Armas' performance plays with this ambiguity so well and its greatness lies in the fact that she allows both interpretations of the character to be perfectly reasonable. I personally think there are many indications that Joi has a soul and in my opinion de Armas is heartbreaking at portraying Joi's growing awareness of her artificial being and her longing to be like a real girl. Her chemistry with Ryan Gosling is nothing short of spectacular and the two of them make K's and Joi's relationship one of the most intriguing and moving romances ever. It's an incredible, underrated achievement. Sylvia Hoeks is also great as Luv in the same movie: she brings the needed viciousness to the character making her a genuinely terrifying and upsetting villain but her performance is more than what meets the eye and she actually adds a lot to the thematic complexity of the movie. Hoeks' Luv acts a striking counterpart to Gosling's K: whereas he searches for meaning in his life by trying to affirm is humanity, Luv reacts to her condition as a replicant by trying to  be the best one possible in order to gain the appreciation of her superior - there's an underlying eagerness to please Wallace in her interactions with Jared Leto that makes her performance incredibly interesting. There's another great, underrated performance in Blade Runner 2049 and that one is Carla Juri's: she has little more than a scene in it, but she gives a warm, down-to-earth and moving portrayal that makes the most out of its limited screen-time. Lois Smith is fantastic in Marjorie Prime: as Marjorie, she brings the needed life, spark and hunger for life in her moments of clarity and then she's devastating at portraying her mental decay; as Marjorie Prime, instead, she is great at conveying how the AI carefully absorbs everything she is told growing more and more similar to the real Marjorie, leading up to the heartbreaking closing scene of the movie. Geena Davis is also excellent in the same movie, powerfully portraying the vulnerability behind Tessa's unpleasant behavior and her character's growing descent into depression and despair is extremely harrowing. Giulia Lazzarini is marvelous in The Place: she exceptionally portrays her character's conflict between her wish to have her husband back and her horror at the cruel deed she is supposed to commit in order to fulfill her wish. Her final scene is one of the best acted moments of 2017 and Lazzarini brings such a powerful, satisfying closure to her character's emotional journey. There are many other great performances in the same movie (Valeria Puccini's, Alba Rohrwacher's and Silvia D'Amico's, all great at portraying the different facets of their character's desperations) with special kudos to Sabrina Ferilli, who works so well as the movie's center of sanity and brings a welcome amount of down-to-earth, playful warmth to the character. Downsizing is a rather problematic movie, but Hong Chau is wonderful in it: in what could have been an atrocious role, she is both hilarious and heartbreaking and steals every scene she's in with her heartfelt and committed portrayal. Holly Hunter is wonderful in The Big Sick, beautifully showing how her hostility towards Kumail gradually turns into fondness and subtly conveying her character's inner plight due to her own marital problems. On top of that, she has some exceptionally funny moments such as her outburst to the racist frat boy which is absolutely priceless. One of the things I admire the most about The Lost City of Z is how it handles Sienna Miller's character, which is far from the conventional, supportive wife role: she supports her husband not because she blindly believes in him but because she shares his adventurous spirits; and when she complains about his voyages is not because she wants him to be at home with her, but because she wants to take part in the journey. Miller is magnificent at portraying her character's strength, indipendence and intelligence and makes the moust out of her limited screen-time. Tilda Swinton is a delight in her dual role in Okja: as Lucy, she is hilarious at portraying her character's insecurities and emotional instability behind her attempts at efficiency and professionality; as Nancy, she delivers a fun villanous turn and makes her the heartless monster she is supposed to be while still portraying her role in a comical fashion. Get Out features three excellent female performances: Betty Gabriel does not have a whole lot of screen-time, but she is phenomenal whenever she appears with her "No, no, no" scene being one for the ages as she manages to be frightening, puzzling and moving all at once; Allison Williams is excellent at subverting the trope of the supportive girlfriend, with her performance in the last act being downright terrifying (the phone call scene is outstanding); and Catherine Kenner delivers a very sinister, disconcerting performance with her big scene opposite Daniel Kaluuya being the movie's highlight. I loved Bria Vinaite's performance in The Florida Project  as I thought she managed to portray impeccably her character's trashy, abrasive qualities without ever turning her into a caricature: she effectively portrays her as a very flawed person and an even more flawed mother, but she manages to make you sympathize with her and her final scenes in the movie are incredibly poignant. Nicole Kidman is excellent in The Killing of a Sacred Deer: it's a heavily stylized performance that works wonders for the movie, starting off as a sinister rendition of the typical, loving wife and mother and then becoming downright chilling with her razor-sharp portrayal of her character's progressive loss of faith in her husband. Novitiate features many excellent supporting performance: Julianne Nicholson delivers a realistic portrayal of a mother who can't understand her daughter's choices, Morgan Saylor is heartbreaking as an extremely vulnerable novice, Dianna Agron effectively portrays her character's growing inability to commit to her life as a nun and Rebecca Dayan is extremely powerful in her portrayal of her character's inner turmoil that she tries to repress. Kirsten Dunst delivers a touching portrayal of her character's loneliness in The Beguiled while Elle Fanning delivers a playful, entertaining turn as a seductive, bored student. Oona Laurence is also quite remarkable at portraying her character's progressive loss of innocence throughout the movie. Juno Temple is endearing and touching in Wonder Wheel and along with the cinematography she is its only redeeming quality. Carey Mulligan is rather remarkable in Mudbound and Beanie Feldstein makes Julie one of the most moving characters of Lady Bird. Tatiana Maslany is the best thing about Stronger delivering a powerful portrayal of her character's love for Jeff as well as her frustration for his lack of commitment, and Andrea Riseborough is excellent in The Death of Stalin, bringing the needed dramatic weight to Svetlana's plight while still being an extremely entertaining presence with her extremely intense portrayal of distress. 
The next year: Best Supporting Actor 2017.

My Best Supporting Actress Ballot
  1. Ana de Armas, Blade Runner 2049 - 5/5
  2. Laurie Metcalf, Lady Bird
  3. Lesley Manville, Phantom Thread
  4. Lois Smith, Marjorie Prime - 5/5
  5. Giulia Lazzarini, The Place - 4.5/5
  6. Sylvia Hoeks, Blade Runner 2049 - 4.5/5
  7. Hong Chau, Downsizing - 4.5/5
  8. Holly Hunter, The Big Sick - 4.5/5
  9. Sienna Miller, The Lost City of Z - 4.5/5
  10. Tilda Swinton, Okja - 4.5/5

venerdì 2 marzo 2018

Best Actress in a Supporting Role 2017: Lesley Manville in Phantom Thread

Lesley Manville received her first Oscar nomination for her performance as Cyril Woodcock in Phantom Thread.

Phantom Thread is a mesmerizing film set in 1950s London about a self-centered, controlling dressmaker whose carefully scheduled life is disrupted by the enigmatic, strong-minded waitress who becomes his muse and lover. An enthralling experience from start to finish, Phantom Thread is a movie in which every single element work in perfect tandem with each other creating an organic, armonic piece. Paul Thomas Anderson's achievement in directing is exemplary - he creates a movie that is stylistically perfect but in which the style never overshadows the substance: it enhances it, creating such an intense atmosphere, simultaneosly bewitching and alienating, that transports the viewer into the movie. It's storytelling at its finest - the story flows naturally and elegantly without any single wasted or superfluous moment yet without rushing any passage either. The bitingly funny and sharply intelligent screenplay, with its original examination on ego and gender roles, should have been far more acknowledged by the award industry, and the same goes to Vicky Krieps' first-rate performance in the leading role.

Lesley Manville's nomination was not a given, but not that much of a shock either: her main competitors for the fifth slot were Holly Hunter and Hong Chau, but the buzz surrounding the former's performance had been fading for a while and the latter, while excellent and supported by both a Golden Globe and a SAG nomination, had the misfortune of starring in one of the biggest disappointments of the year. Manville follows the tradition of a reliably great British character actress getting nominated as soon as she stars in a movie subsceptible to Oscar buzz (not to mention that she was in consideration for a nod in 2010 for her performance in Mike Leigh's Another Year). What makes Manville's nomination surprising is the role of Cyril Woodcock itself: it's not the showiest role in the movie, she is hardly ever the focus of the attention and does not get any typical Oscar-scene - the same can be said for her co-nominee Mary J. Blige but the latter played a more typically Oscar-friendly role, the long-suffering but supportive mother. So it is pretty surprising that the Academy decided to nominate such a reserved performance but it's without a doubt one of the best choices they've made this year: next to Daniel Day-Lewis' and Vicky Krieps' powerhouse performances the role of Cyril could have easily disappeared. If it does not is because Lesley Manville gives a subtly compelling performance that manages to give her realistic depth and personality while never resolving completely the enigma of the character, who remains a fascinating, haunting mystery.

Right from the start of the movie, Manville establishes Cyril as a perfect symbol of efficiency. There is not an ounce of self-doubt or uncertainty in her performance - from the way she walks to her stone-cold expression, everything in her performance feels calculated, studied and almost robotic in a way that is perfectly fitting to the character. Manville effectively portrays Cyril as an extremely, almost brutally pragmatic woman who never lets emotions stand in her way: she imbues her character with the right amount of intelligence, self-confidence and self-control and as soon as she appears in the movie her authority is never in question. There are a lot of unanswered question regarding her - why did she never marry? Does she ever feel lonely or is her job her whole life? Manville's performance never gives answers but they are not needed and there's nothing lacking about the character or her portrayal. The fact that we know so little of her only makes her a more intriguing, fascinating presence. And the movie is commendable for its refusal of turning Cyril into the stereotype of the repressed, embittered spinster that we often see on-screen.

Manville's is a perfect exemple of a supporting performance as she not only creates a memorable and remarkable character on her own right but she also strengthens the leading performances: in fact, Manville shares an excellent chemistry with both of her co-stars and her portrayal of Cyril actually brings further complexity to the central relatioship. In her scenes with Day-Lewis, Manville is amazing at portraying Cyril's subtle ways of manipulating her brother while letting him have the convintion that he is the one making decisions. Cyril does not speak a lot, but Manville makes every line count finding the hidden intention even behind the most meaningless line. She's excellent at showing how Cyril gives orders masking them as suggestions, convincing Reynolds to do what pleases her without making him fully realize the influence and power she has over him. The scene in which she calmly but firmly shuts him down when he tells her to shut up is downright perfection: Manville is fantastic at keeping a seemingly calm tone but her underlying bluntness tolerates no response - and when she says "I'll go right through you and it'll be you who ends up on the floor" you know it's true. She carefully avoids turning Cyril into an unloving, controlling monster though: she shows a genuine warmth in her interactions with him and a great patience and acceptance towards his often rude and obnoxious behavior, as well as a profound respect for his craft and ability as a dressmaker. The two actors are both amazing in the scenes depicting the two characters working as they both convey the dedication and commitment Reynolds and Cyril put in their work.

Cyril's relationship with Alma might be even more fascinating. In their first scene together, Manville is terrific at showing how Cyril considers Alma to be little more than a piece of meat - in the way she examines her, Manville perfectly conveys Cyril's utter disregard of Alma as a human being. As the movie progresses, once Alma becomes Reynolds' lover and starts living in their house, Manville subtly and effectively shows how, even if she behaves politely towards her, she still does not hold Alma in high esteem - after all, she is used at seeing Reynolds' lovers coming and going, one after the other. It's not a disdain she feels for her, just a lack of interest in her persona and maybe a little bit of pity as she's fully aware of her brother's unpleasant behavior when someone does not play by his rules, something which Alma isn't keen on doing. Then, in the second half of the movie, Manville is fantastic as she conveys a subtle change of heart in Cyril and a growing respect and admiration for her determination - she is fierce and brutal in the scene in which the two of them clash over what they ought to do when Reynolds falls sick, but at the same time she shows how Cyril begins to see Alma under a different light. In their later moments, Manville subtly shows how Cyril now sees Alma as an equal in terms of intelligence and personality.

This is an amazing performance from Lesley Manville who makes the most out of her character and turns Cyril into a unique and unforgettable character. She spends a lot of time in the background, but her presence is always felt, her eyes always searching, quietly observing and reacting to her surroundings. She works wonderfully with both of her co-stars and adds a lot to the central relationship and the movie itself. It's an outstanding performance that I'm glad wasn't overlooked.


domenica 25 febbraio 2018

Best Actress in a Supporting Role 2017: Allison Janney in I, Tonya

Allison Janney won the Socar from her first nomination for her performance as LaVona Golden in I, Tonya.

One of the reasons why I, Tonya is among my favorite movies of the year is its moral complexity and ambiguity: this is especially evident in its depiction of the two central characters that, both due to the writing and the brilliant performances from Margot Robbie and Sebastian Stan, evoke conflicting emotions in the viewer. Their actions are reprehensible, even despicable, and the movie never shies away from that, but they also realistic, three-dimensional human beings that you grow to understand even if you condemn their actions. Allison Janney's performance as Tonya Harding's abusive mother has been one of the most praised and awarded aspects of the movie, but I have to say right away I don't share the intense admiration most people feel towards her work: in a movie I admire for its ability to be thought-provoking and contemporarily objective and empathetic, Janney's LaVona is by far its most straightforward element. She's a character that captures your attention while watching the movie but not one that stays with you or that evoke a reflection regarding her motivations and feelings. It's a flashy performance but not an especially deep one and for all the impressively done showboating I was far more fascinated and captivated by Robbie's and Stan's far richer performances. In the context of the movie, Janney's performance works: she is an effective villain of sorts, she's an entertaining presence on screen and certainly doesn't detract from the overall experience. But looking closely at her work it's a rather thin performance and I think that Janney herself sometimes missed the potential complexity that the script offered her.

In the early scenes of the movie, there is no denying that Janney is a force to be reckoned with: she doesn't hold back on LaVona's abrasive, unloving behavior and she makes her the overbearing presence she is supposed to be - it's a performance that dares you not to pay attention. But at the same time I never felt she truly captured the horror of LaVona's abuse, remaining too often on a purely surface-level in her performance - Sebastain Stan managed to give an entertaining performance while still effectively depicting the terrifying tragedy of his abusive behavior towards Tonya, something that I don't think Janney managed to do. In fact, it's through Margot Robbie's portrayal of Tonya's trauma that we feel the real severity of the impact of LaVona's behavior because Janney's performance feels too often one-note and even a little shallow. She never truly becomes a caricature, but at times she comes dangerously close. She is appropriately grotesque in the part but she rarely feels truly real. I do think there are moments of greatness in her performance: the scene in which she tells Tonya "You fuck dumb, you don't marry dumb" at her wedding is an incredibly hard-hitting moment and Janney is terrific in her delivery of LaVona's fatal blow to Tonya. And she is excellent in the scene in which she has a fight with Tonya and ends up throwing a knife at her: Janney is fantastic at showing that, for once, LaVona is stunned by her own behavior and for a moment seems to feel genuine remorse for her action. It's my favorite scene of her performance: in it, she manages to balance the louder qualities of the character while bringing a hint of depth to it. But her whole performance is too uneven to truly excel as a whole - for every moment in which she lets you see the damaged humanity of her character, there is one in which she feels paper-thin and one-dimensional.

In the second half of the movie, Janney gets progressively less screen-time, having only a handful scenes devoted to her character, and again I found her performance to be rather inconsistent, with moments of greatness intertwined with others that are a bit underwhelming. Her confrontation at the diner with Tonya is perhaps one of her most celebrated scenes of the movie, but to be perfectly honest I found her to be completely overshadowed by Margot Robbie's heartbreaking portrayal of her character's plight. LaVona's "I made you a champion" speech could have been an opportunity for Janney to give more insight into LaVona's mind but I felt it was a bit of a missed opportunity - she is a one-note of aggressiveness, and though a well played one I felt there was room for more. And I thought the few scenes focusing on her reactionary shots at the diner while watching Tonya skates were a bit of a mixed bag: the "I want to see her face" is perhaps the most interesting scene of her performance and Janney is absolutely brilliant in it, but other moments felt more vague than subtle - the camera focuses on her face but there's not much subtext to be found in her reactions. But I thought she was great in her final scene with Robbie, delivering an uncomprominsingly brutal portrayal of LaVona's selfishness and opportunism - Janney is effective in her portrayal of LaVona's feigned sympathy until gradually revealing that the sleazy nature has not changed. 

In regards to the interview scenes, Allison Janney is very entertaining, even hilarious at times, but those scenes don't really add to the character as much as Stan's and Robbie's interview scenes add to Jeff and Tonya. The two bring depth and subtle irony to those moments, while LaVona's interview never really amount to anything more than entertaining, except for a very small moment in which Janney seems to suggest that LaVona is genuinely sad about the fact that Tonya cut ties with her. 

I think Allison Janney is an absolutely superb actress and she's a presence I always enjoy watching on-screen. She's probably going to win the Oscar next week, and I'm fine with it, because she is an excellent actress who deserves recognition. But in my opinion her performance in I, Tonya is not something award-worthy: it's an enjoyable performance with sparse moments of greatness, but overall it's a thin portrayal in a movie that is anything but. It's a performance that works perfectly well in the context of the movie, but that is a little lacking itself.


giovedì 22 febbraio 2018

Best Actress in a Supporting Role 2017: Octavia Spencer in The Shape of Water

Octavia Spencer received her third Oscar nomination for her performance as Zelda Delilah Fuller in The Shape of Water.

The three roles that garnered Octavia Spencer three Oscar nominations are actually quite similar to each other. It would be unfair to say, as some do, that she got three nominations for playing the same character - her character as Dorothy Vaughan in Hidden Figures is far subtler than the other two while her Oscar-winning role as Minnie Jackson in The Help has a richer, more layered characterization and a larger screen-time - but there is no denying that the three roles have a lot in common, from the setting of the three movies (all set in the 1950s/the beginning of the 1960s) to the nature of the role. Yet, there isn't a single performance that feels like a lesser reprisal of a previous one: Spencer brings energy, life and commitment to all of her performances, subtly and intelligently finding the small nuances that allow all three characters to trascend the stereotype of the sassy black friend. With her impeccable comedic timing, an incredibly expressive face and a scene-stealing screen-presence, Spencer manages to elevate characters that on paper could have been stereotypes. This is especially true for Zelda who, like many of the supporting characters of The Shape of Water, could have been a mere stereotype writing-wise - the reason she does not is Guillermo Del Toro's expert, empathetic direction and Spencer's committed performance. 

To be perfectly honest, Zelda is probably the most limited out of the main characters of the film: Michael Shannon, as the movie's villain, has quite a few scene devoted to him to add some depth and dimension to Strickland, while Richard Jenkins, whose character has a similar function to Spencer's, gets his own sidestory and gets a huge amount of screen-time. Zelda does not have a lot of scenes of her own and for most of the movie she serves as a comic relief and supporting friend to Elisa (Sally Hawkins): Spencer though does not just do both things perfectly, she also breathes life and feeling to the part. Even though her role never amounts to anything particularly complex on a psychological level, Spencer brings heart and believability to her. Regarding the comedic side of her performance, Spencer is, as usual, hilarious: she has an absolutely brilliant comedic timing and an even more brilliant delivery, turning every line into absolute gold. The sassy, sarcastic friend is a character that can lead to annoying overacting, but that's never the case for Spencer - she's scene-stealing without being overbearing, loud without being grating. Actually, the ease with which she delivers her lines with what makes them so funny. Not to mention that she nails every single reaction, turning a single look into a comedic gem - I've seen the movie more than the once, and the moment in which she  is holding in the smoke from a cigarette in front of her boss only to exhale and keep on smoking as soon as he leaves the room never fails to crack me up. The other main aspect of her performance is Zelda's friendship with Elisa and the two actresses couldn't be more wonderful in their scenes together: the two of them convey exceptionally the history between the two - something especially impressive considering that Hawkins' performnce is silent - and on her part Spencer is fantastic at conveying Zelda' protectiveness towards her friend. Once Zelda becomes involved in the plan of freeing the creature, Spencer effectively shows her character's reservations and uncertainties (her "We should burn in hell" is hilariously perfect) but also her loyalty towards her friend and, as the story progresses, a growing understanding of the latter's feeling towards the so-called asset.

Though Spencer's performance is largely comical, she also has a few more serious moments. One of the main themes of the movie is social oppression and Spencer powerfully conveys tet feeling of being constantly looked down at both for being a janitor and especially for being a black woman. There's a terrific moment at the beginning in which Strickland makes some casually racist comments regarding black people and Spencer is fantastic at showing Zelda's inner rage but also her awareness that she can't afford to express her thoughts. But her best dramatic moments come towards the end with the highlight being the scene in which Strickland goes to her house and threatens her in an attempt to find out where the creature is: Spencer's work in the scene is largely reactionary but she does an absolutely excellent job at portraying Zelda's terrified state, her eyes wide open with tears rolling down her face, as she witnesses Strickland's unhinged outburst but also her unwillingness to betray her friend. And her subsequent lashing out at her husband is another nicely delivered moment, bringing a little more insight into Zelda's troubled domestic life that was previously only hinted at.

Zenda Fuller isn't an especially complex character but Octavia Spencer still manages to give a wonderful performance within the limitations of the role. She delivers a funny, scene-stealing turn that brightens up the film whenever she appears, but also breathes life into a potentially stock part and carries a surprisingly strong emotional weight. It's a strong performance from an excellent actress, and one of the elements that make The Shape of Water such an enchanting, remarkable experience.


domenica 18 febbraio 2018

Best Actress in a Supporting Role 2017: Mary J. Blige in Mudbound

Mary J. Blige received her first Oscar nomination for her performance as Florence Jackson in Mudbound.

Mudbound is an excellent movie about two families, one white and one black, living in rural Mississippi in the aftermath of World War II. I found the movie to be a rather striking depiction of that historical period and director Dee Rees deserves a lot of credit for crafting this story in a way that can be both shatteringly brutal and subtly, beautifully delicate. Voice-over is a tricky technique as it can often come off as an overly easy expedient, but it works here because of how exsquisitely written those inner monologues are: the screenplay is great not just because of the eloquence and beauty of the lines but also because of its ability to humanize most of its central characters. It's an empathetic movie with great attention for subtleties and details and it is certainly enriched by a strong ensemble, with Jason Mitchell and Garrett Hedlund being especially remarkable. Rachel Morrison's cinematography effectively captures the lonesome beauty of the landscape enhancing the sometimes threatening, sometimes tender and sometimes sad atmosphere of the movie. 

When the movie premiered at Sundance, Blige's performance received a rapturous response from critics: the extremely high expectations were probably the reasons why quite a few people found themselves quite disappointed by her work once the movie was released by Netflix. It's easy to see why Blige's work was underwhelming to some people: it's a character that spends a lot of its screen-time in the background and that doesn't get many big scenes, especially if compared to other characters in the movie. I went into the movie without expecting much for Blige's performance - and by the end of the movie, I was completely won over. This is not a showy performance, but her quiet performance is in many ways the movie's backbone. I found her work here to be exceptionally intriguing: I found myself searching for her reactionary work in the corner of the frame - even if the other actors get showier parts, I often found myself looking for the character of Florence, looking forward to see her quiet reaction to the events. She rarely gets the spotlight, but she doesn't need it: she says everything without needing to speak at all.

One of the most remarkable aspects of Blige's performance is her ability to get rid of her usual persona and disappear effortlessly into the role. But not only she convincingly portrays the character, but she has a surprisingly brilliant understanding of the character, which is especially impressive if you consider she does not have a lot of experience in acting: in her stoic, silent performance you can read the character's whole history to the point that you don't need the voice-over to know what she's thinking - Blige conveys everything through her confident, assured performance. She is excellent in her scenes with her family: Blige imbues Florence with an underlying yet firm sense of warmth though without a hint of sentimentality. And she shares an amazing chemistry with both Jason Mitchell, who plays her eldest son Ronsel, and Rob Morgan, who plays her husband Hap. In her scenes with the former, she's great at portraying Florence's motherly love: their first scene in the movie, in which she tells him goodbye but refuses to look at him as he goes away, is a heartbreaking moment outstandingly acted by Blige who portrays so well Florence's plight but also her strength and determination to keep it bottled up. Once Ronsel returns from the war, Blige captures so well the concern and helplessness of a mother who wants to help her son but doesn't know how. This doesn't mean their relationship turns sour though and together they create one of the most heartwarming moments of the whole movie: the scene I'm referring to is the one in which Ronsel buys a chocolate bar for Florence and insists that she doesn't share it with anyone else because he wants to have it all for herself. It's a beautiful moment, and Blige's heartfelt, moving reaction is a big reason why. And she's splendid in her moments with Morgan, wih the two actors conveying so beautifully the love between Florence and Hap in such an unassaming, heartfelt fashion. Their dancing scene is a tender, lovely moment and the two actors are absolutely wonderful in it.

She is also terrific in the scenes that depict Florence working for the McAllans, the white family. I particularly love the scene in which Hap tells her he doesn't her to work for white people but she says "I wouldn't be working for them, I'd be working for us": Blige is fantastic at portraying Florence's pragmatism above everything else - she isn't crazy about the idea herself, but she knows that she has to accept some compromises for the family to move somewhere better. In the scenes at work, Blige excels at showing her pride and unwillingness to be treated like a slave - she's polite but never subservient - but also her awareness that she does not have the McAllans' social privilege. I particularly love her chemistry with Carey Mulligan - Blige is outstanding at showing how Florence does genuinely like Laura and think of her as a good person, but also her unwillingness to get close to her and to consider her a friend. She's especially great in the scene in which Florence comforts Laura after the latter has suffered a miscarriage - Blige brings just enough warmth to the scene but also conveys a certain distance in her manner: Florence can't afford to get attached to Laura - there's too much at stake for her and for her own family. 

I get that this performance might not appeal to anyone, and I can see why someone would feel she did nothing in this movie. But for me this is a fantastic performance from Mary J. Blige, who makes Florence the beating heart of the movie: it's a subtle, reserved, layered and rich piece of work, crafting a three-dimensional human being despite often staying in the background. She quietly leaves an impression whenever she appears and when the movie is over it's her performance that leaves the strongest impact. A terrific piece of work.