giovedì 20 aprile 2017

Big Little Lies (2017): Review

I'm really sorry I'm writing my reviews for Best Actor in a Leading Role 2016 in such a slow pace, but unfortunately I've been really busy lately and I didn't have the chance the movies I needed to. I will soon be able to write as often as I used to, but not quite yet. In the meantime, though, I decided to review HBO's new miniseries, "Big Little Lies", which, with its critical and commercial success and its all-star cast is pretty much bound to get quite a few nominations at the next Emmys. Let's see what I think about it.

Before watching the series, I actually had not idea what to expect. I really liked Jean-Marc Vallée's Dallas Buyers Club, but I found Wild to be an uneven mess and despite my best intentions I never managed to find the will to finish Demolition (as good as Jake Gyllenhaal was, it was really poor); but the cast was filled with actors/actresses I tend to like and admire, so I decided to give it a shot: and right from the first episode, I was absolutely hooked.

The plot revolves around three women who live in Monteray, California: Madeline (Reese Witherspoon) is a strong-willed, sassy, tart-tongued woman dealing with two daughters, her marriage with the kind-hearted but not particularly exciting Ed (Adam Scott) and her jealousy for her ex-husband's (James Tupper) new wife, Bonnie (Zoe Kravitz), who seems to have a close bond with Madeline's elder daughter; Celeste (Nicole Kidman) is a retired lawyer who lives a seemingly perfect life but is actually a victim of domestic abuse; Jane (Shailene Woodley) is a young, single mom who has moved Monteray for mysterious reasons and whose little son Ziggy (Iain Armitage) is accused of bullying Amabella, the daughter of Renata (Laura Dern), a fellow mother at the primary school who often clashes with Madeline. The miniseries follows their events in their lives leading up to the Trivia Night, a charity event at which a murder occurs, though the viewer does not know either who is the victim or who is the killer. 

I get that the plot itself might sound a little too much like a soap opera but, surprisingly enough, the series never indulges in needless melodrama: it's a surprisingly compelling and intimate portrayal of these women's life, dealing with topics like domestic abuse, rape and bullying in a thoughtful manner that is both delicate and raw and most importantly never shallow, and exploring themes like parenthood and the influence that parents have on their children in a very interesting and original fashion. Apparently one of the most divisive points about the series is the screenplay, written by David E. Kelley, and I perfectly get the criticism: not all of the dialogues work (in the first few episodes there are a couple of monologue thrown at Witherspoon' character that verge on cringe-worthy) but ultimately I think its strengths override its flaws rather easily. The writing in the first few episodes feels often a bit artificial and overly stylized, but I think it's intentional considering how much these women tend to cover up their true selves - Madeline hides her insecurities behind her shades and one-liners, Celeste cover up her physical bruises with make-up and the emotional ones with a graceful, poised façade, Jane tries to bury her past trauma inside her and Renata's self-confidence actually hides a woundrous vulnerability. As the series progresses and these women's lives unravel, the dialogue grows realer and rawer, with the scenes between Celeste and her therapist being an absolute masterclass in writing (and acting, but more about that later on). 

Jean-Marc Vallée's directing is also terrific as he manages to blend so well many different genres into ones: he handles the dark comedy of the series impeccably as he gives them a slightly more light-hearted tone without ever compromising the darkness of the remaining scenes and he makes the mystery side of the show extremely compelling and interesting to watch (I was literally on the edge of my seat throughout the whole final episode). But most importantly he treats his characters with profound respect - what I love is that Vallée gives every actor his time to shine and never allows any character to feel underwritten or underused. He treates the series' important topics in a delicate, intimate way that never feels heavy-handed. And, also thanks to the terrific cinematography, he manages to capture the beauty of the landscape in a truly impressive fashion - Madeline's monologue about the sea's symbolism is totally unneded because the camera says it all. The frequent shots of the ocean add a feeling of wild unpredictability until the end, when it just gives you a welcome sensation of peace. The scattershot editing, full of flashbacks and flashfowards, gives the series a thrilling, chaotic feeling that makes it all the more absorbing from start to finish.

But of course the series wouldn't work as well if it wasn't for its cast. Reese Witherspoon is an actress I usually enjoy but that I find only occasionally truly terrific - and this is definitely one of those times. The role is tailor-made for her and she does an absolutely riveting job with the character - she is the one who gets the juiciest dialogue and she is fully aware of it. She brings the needed sass, confidence and wit to the role and each of her one-liners couldn't be more hilarious - we already knew she had an excellent comedic timing, but it rarely has been used better. But she also digs deep into the role, and behind every shade thrown there is a painful hint of bitterness and sadness. Witherspoon is extremely moving at portraying Madeline's fears of losing her daughters as they grow up and her feelings for her husband Ed, whom she loves even if she thinks that the passion between them has somewhat waned. It's an interesting character study and Witherspoon really makes the most out of this scene-stealing role.

The MVP though is without a question Nicole Kidman: she has always been a fearless, brave actress but this performance is seriously on par with Dogville as her best performance ever. She never shies away from the ugly truth of domestic abuse: instead, she does not hold back anything and she dares you to keep looking. Kidman delivers an absolutely devastating performance as Celeste, communicating a lot with her eyes alone - she is a graceful, quiet, elegant presence whenever she shows up but in her gaze you can see the history of the character. It's a very subtle, internalized performance in which every small detail count: her physical acting is something astonishing, as she always carries herself in an uncomfortable fashion as if every single part of her body was aching; but she's even more effective at portraying the psychological effects that the abuses have on her: Kidman is absolutely phenomenal as she explores Celeste's psyche, portraying her as someone who is constantly rewriting the story in her head, trying to find excuses for her husband's behavior and placing on herself non-existent blame. Her conversations with her therapist (Robin Weigert in a compassionate, intelligent performance) are absolutely brilliant and Kidman's acting is painfully and brutally honest. She handles her character's arc, as Celeste slowly drifts away from her husband's influence, impeccably and gives a thoroughly heartbreaking performance that should win the Emmy hands down.  

As Jane, Shailene Woodley also delivers a great performance that should not be ignored: she might get a couple of awkward line-deliveries that feel a little too rehearsed, but otherwise she delivers a top notch portrayal of her character's own plight. She is subtly devastating at portraying Jane's inner turmoil due to her past trauma but she also does an amazing job at showing how Jane actually manages to find herself in Monteray: she grows progressively more confident and more comfortable - Woodley portrays this transition in such a subtle manner that you almost don't notice but when you see her in the last episode, dressed like Audrey Hepburn and smiling radiantly, you finally see how much she has changed since the first episode. And she also shares an amazing chamistry with the terrific Iain Armitrage, who plays her son Ziggy: together they find some of the series' most touching and heartrending moments. 

Laura Dern is absolutely fantastic as Renata, who is probably one of the show's most complicated characters. She is a character you are supposed to hate but also to be entertained by, and Dern solves this task brilliantly: she is hilarious at portraying Renata's phony, fake attitude towards everyone while also being properly vicious as Renata tries to ostracize Jane and Ziggy. But as the series progresses, Dern manages to make you see the humanity in Renata, even creating a certain understanding for her actions: she does some extremely subtle, intelligent acting in the final two episodes revealing an unexpectedly honorable side of the character that we would not have imagined in the first few episodes. It's quite an amazing performance because she makes so much out of what could have been a grating caricature and she would be a very worthy winner in the supporting category.

Out of the female characters in Big Little Lies, Bonnie might look like the least interesting and least complicated one but thanks to Zoe Kravitz she manages to be one of the show's most fascinating. Next to the other characters, the genuinely good-hearted, altruistic Bonnie could have been extremely boring but Kravitz delivers such a beautiful performance that she manages not to be overshadowed: she brings such a welcome sincerity and peacefulness to the character of Bonnie it's just wonderful to have her on-screen and she makes every single second of her performance count due to how lived in her portrayal is. The mini-series does not explore Bonnie's backstory like the book did, but it is not needed as Kravitz' performance works perfectly the way it is and does not feel incomplete in the slightest.

As Celeste's abusive husband Perry, Alexander Skarsgard delivers an absolutely excellent performance: Perry could have easily been a one-note monster, but Skarsgard makes him a very fascinating and complicated figure. Skarsgard brings a painful sincerity  to the few moments in which his character reflects on his actions and genuinely feels guilty for them, but then he is absolutely terrifying in the scenes depicting the abuses - he is such a frightening presence that I found myself feeling uncomfortable every time he showed up. He's that good. Skarsgard is an actor who is very charismatic, which works perfectly for the role - his charm makes you understand why Celeste would not want to leave him, even if his depiction of his character's behavior is totally uncompromising and brutal. Skarsgard never shies away from the fact that Perry is indeed a monster, but he makes him an incredibly human one as well, which is even more frightening and disturbing. 

As Madeline's husband Ed, Adam Scott is extremely good as he makes for such a genuinely sweet, heartwarming presence on-screen, sincerely portraying his character love for his wife, but also being very touching at portraying his growing fear that she might not love him as much as he does love her. It's a very moving performance and his chemistry with Witherspoon is absolutely top notch, with the two actors realizing so well their characters' relationship. James Tupper as Nathan, Madeline's ex-husband and Bonnie's husband, is entertainingly smug and Jeffrey Nordling brings the needed sort of arrogance and superficiality to the role of Gordon, Renata's husband. 

I could see why the mystery's resolution could be disappointing to some: the identity of the victim might be a little predictable to some, and the motivations of the murderer might feel a little too weak. I personally don't think so, but even if I did, I don't think I would mind that much because ultimately the murder is not really what the show is about. The show is about the vulnerabilities but especially the strength of its female characters, about compassion, allegiance and solidarity, and the ending proves it. I get why not everyone would like this show, but personally I loved it: by the end of it, not only I cared about all of the characters, but I felt like I really got to know them.

domenica 9 aprile 2017

Best Actor in a Leading Role 2016: Denzel Washington in Fences

Denzel Washington received his seventh Oscar nomination for his performance as Troy Maxson in Fences.

Denzel Washington is not an actor I am particularly fond of. I obviously don't think he is a bad actor as he clearly possesses a great deal of talent, but I feel he often wastes his abilities by just going way too far with many of his performances. He is not afraid of going big, and too often he comes across as a bit hammy, at least to me. When I first watched Fences, I was curious about his performance because of the critics' enthusiasm towards it but also my impression, based on the movie's trailer, that it was going to be another disappointment for me. But, much to my surprise, in the span of a few minutes he completely managed to won me over and I was completely stunned and captivated by his performance. The first scenes of the movie are actually the ones I like the least, mainly because it's where the stagey nature of the screenplay shines the most: the dialogue is extremely thick and it can occasionally become a little overbearing, but Washington manages to pull it off completely and makes the viewer invested in the character of Troy right from the very beginning. To say that this performance is not subtle would be an understatement, but his loud approach is, in this case, completely justified as Troy himself is a person who likes to show off and be at the center of the attention: Washington does a brilliant job at portraying his character's big ego but at the same time he never makes you doubt that all the people around him would enjoy listening to his stories - he just owns the screen, making his character incredibly captivating, charismatic and entertaining and bringing a great deal of passion, grit and humor to the man's telling of various tales, whether they are true or not. Washington does not uses this scenes only to establish Troy as a man who likes to talk and to be listened: he uses this moments to add a great deal of depth to the character and uncover new layers about him. For example, I really like the moments in which Troy talks about his past, talking about how he never managed to become a great baseball player due to the discrimination of the separate leagues back in his days: in these moments, Washington is extremely effective at conveying his bitterness and anger behind his voice - here, Washington is terrific as he shows the embittered soul behind the showboating, larger-than-life persona that Troy created for himself. He is also amazing in a later scene in which he opens up about his rough childood: it's a particularly great moment because, for once, Troy doesn't seem to be talking just for the sake of putting on a show - Washington manages to be rather moving in his portrayal of Troy's reflection over his past and in this moment he manages to give us a little more of an understanding for Troy's often despicable actions. 

One of Fences' strongest assests is its ensemble: not only because each member is very good, but because all of them work with each other with such a perfect armony. This applies also to Denzel Washington, who works brilliantly with all of his co-stars. I love his scenes with Stephen Henderson (who plays Troy's best friend, Bono): together they share a deep and poignant chemistry, making the friendship between the two characters feel sincere and meaningful. Bono is probably the only character who is not mistreated in some way by Troy, and Washington does a very strong job at showing Troy's sincere affection towards his friend. He also works impeccably with the two actors portraying Troy's sons, especially Jovan Adepo as his younger son Cory, who too wishes to become a baseball star: Washington is amazing in his interactions with Adepo as he gives such a realistic depiction of his character's cruelty towards his son - he never becomes one-note in his portrayal of his mistreatment and never oversimplifies his behavior, but instead is incredibly frightening and disconcerting by delivering such an uncomprising portrayal of an unloving father. His "What law says I've got to like you?" speech to his son is a truly chilling moment due to Washington's brutal and ferocious delivery - there is real venom in his eyes and voice, and Washington does a truly terrific job at showing Troy's pathetic jealousy and insecurity as he does not want to have his son succeed where he failed. Washington is also terrific in his scenes with Mykelti Williamson, who portrays Gabriel, Troy's brother who is handicapped due to a war injury: Washington is a bit more subtle in his scenes with him and he thrives at showing his sincere love for his brother but also his guilt for using the money that the state gave Gabriel for the injury for buying his own. 

But Washington is at his best in his scenes with Viola Davis (whom I'm seriously considering bumping up to a five since she is dynamite in this), who plays Rose, Troy's loyal wife: the two actors are terrific in their scenes together as they convey so well the history between the two characters, and Washington on his own is great at showing his genuine love for his wife but also bringing the needed selfishness to Troy, who often gives Rose too much for granted and ignores her plea to listen to Cory's needs. One of the best moments of his performance is the scene in which Troy reveals to Rose that he has been carrying an affair with another woman and that she is pregnant: although I feel this scene belongs to Davis, who is absolutely heartbreaking, Washington is amazing as well at portraying his character's attempts to justify his behavior and I particularly like the moment in which Troy admits he won't stop seeing his mistress - he is so good in that moment because in his eyes he shows his awareness of being disrespectful towards Rose but also his unwillingness to change the situation. And all of his later scenes with her are absolute brilliance on both ends: when Rose confronts Troy about him getting Gabriel transferred to a psychiatric facility, Washington is phenomenal at showing Troy's guilt for his actions just with his own eyes; and then he is groundbreaking in the scene in which he finds out his mistress died in childbirth - he does an excellent job at portraying Troy's fury and rage upon this discovery, and his challenge to the Grim Reaper (whom he claimed to have fought against once) is one of the most powerful moments of his performance. His last few scenes in the movie are terrific as Washington does such a fantastic job at portraying Troy as a man who doesn't have the strength to pretend anymore: he is not charismatic or showman-like as he used to be - he's just a pathetic, lonely man that is simply nothing without his delusions of grandeur. 

This is a truly terrific performance from Denzel Washington who delivers a truly compelling depiction of the great character that Troy Maxson is. He's truly a force to be reckoned with, but behind his loud theatrics, which are entirely justified, he manages to find the complexity of Troy, delivering a very human and realistic portrayal of a deeply flawed person. It's an amazing, powerful turn and, out of what I've seen, it's by far his best work.