Best Film Performances of the 2010s

1 Comment

CREDIT: YouTube Screenshots

Back in April, I revealed my lists of the best podcasts, TV shows, TV episodes, albums, songs, and movies of the 2010s. I declared that that was it for my Best of the Decade curating for this particular ten-year cycle. But now I’m back with a few more, baby! I’ve been participating in a series of Best of the 2010s polls with some of my online friends, and I wanted to share my selections with you. We’re including film performances, TV performances, directors, and musical artists, so get ready for all that.

First up is Film Performances. Any individual performance from any movie released between January 1, 2010 and December 31, 2019 was eligible, whether it was live-action, voice-only, or whatever other forms on-screen acting take nowadays. For actors who played the same character in multiple movies, each movie was considered separately.

More

Movie Review: ‘Dark Phoenix’ Plays It Way Too Safe by Both X-Men and General Movie Standards

Leave a comment

CREDIT: Twentieth Century Fox

Starring: Sophie Turner, James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Nicholas Hoult, Jessica Chastain, Tye Sheridan, Evan Peters, Alexandra Shipp, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Scott Shepherd, Ato Essandoh

Director: Simon Kinberg

Running Time: 114 Minute

Rating: PG-13 for Getting Suddenly Violently Tossed About by Telekinesis

Release Date: June 7, 2019

I love the X-Men. They’re my favorite superhero team, and still, through it all, my favorite superhero movie franchise. They’ve delivered some dizzying cinematic heights but also some flicks that have driven me batty. So it pains me to say that Dark Phoenix did not make me feel much in the way of any strong emotions.

Some say that the X-Men series is burdened by tangled, contradictory continuity. I say it’s bolstered by it. Whereas other cinematic universes are careful to keep every little thread in line for the health of a sturdy timeline, the Merry Mutants traverse decades willy-nilly, tossing off whatever plotlines just aren’t working and cruising along with whatever’s exciting and vibrant, paradoxes be damned! Dark Phoenix doesn’t reject that approach, but it doesn’t embrace it either. It’s mostly content to tell a straightforward story, while occasionally throwing out some half-baked ideas. It’s a movie unstuck in time, instead of proudly giving the middle finger to any temporal concepts.

Dark Phoenix is clearly a labor of love. It’s the directorial debut of Simon Kinberg, who’s been with the franchise for over a decade, and it’s based on one of the most beloved comics storylines, in which telepathic telekinetic Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) bonds with a super-hot cosmic force to become the most powerful creature on the planet, perhaps the whole universe. It’s a huge climactic big screen culmination that’s been promised to us for quite some time, but after seeing how it’s turned out, I mainly want to say: we would have been okay without this movie. Or maybe now just wasn’t the right time for it. It’s arriving hot on the heels of an X-Men movie whose title literally referred to the end of the world and another that said a fitting goodbye to a pair of iconic X-characters.

But it shouldn’t have been impossible for Dark Phoenix to be another rousing, revolutionary statement so soon after those conclusive paradigm changes. In fact, it would have totally been in keeping with this franchise’s always-moving-forward ethos. But that’s not going to happen when a climactic battle scene takes place in some random New York hotel or when Professor X and Magneto run through the same old rigamarole of bickering and then making a temporary peace. When the stakes are this high, you have to go for broke.

Dark Phoenix is Recommended If You Like: X-Men completism, if you gotta

Grade: 2.5 out of 5 Firebirds

This Is a Movie Review: Jennifer Lawrence Goes Deep in the Graphic Spy Thriller ‘Red Sparrow’

Leave a comment

CREDIT: Murray Close/Twentieth Century Fox

This review was originally posted on News Cult in February 2018.

Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Joel Edgerton, Matthias Schoenaerts, Charlotte Rampling, Jeremy Irons, Ciaran Hinds, Bill Camp, Joely Richardson, Sakina Jaffrey, Mary-Louise Parker

Director: Francis Lawrence

Running Time: 139 Minutes

Rating: R for Nudity as Power, Pleasure, and Disgrace; Spycraft Violence; and Slice-and-Dice, Pounding Torture

Release Date: March 2, 2018

Red Sparrow is the latest spy story that hinges on a final act revelation of a mole. the logic (or lack thereof) of such a twist is something I often can’t make heads or tails out of. The narrative-consuming part of my brain just is not that wired that way. But as far as I can tell, this particular mole’s exposure does pass the plausibility test, though it is not especially impactful. But Red Sparrow’s intrigue thankfully goes beyond any straightforward conception of traitors and double agents. In fact, it questions and pokes at (without quite fully deconstructing) the entire concept of double agency when it involves someone who seems to be an ideal fit for the job but does not want anything to do with professional deception.

Jennifer Lawrence stars as Dominika Egorova, a Bolshoi ballerina who suffers a career-ending injury and then faces the crisis of how she will be able to continue to take care of her widowed mother. So her uncle Ivan (Matthias Schoenaerts) recruits her to become a spy at the Red Sparrow School, which essentially requires its trainees to sacrifice their entire identities to the Russian government. Meanwhile, CIA agent Nathaniel Nash (Joel Edgerton) gets mixed up with Dominika as he hunts down high-level Russian spies. (He is temporarily suspended after making a huge mistake out in the field, but that does not affect matters as it much as it seems like it is supposed to.) Nash and Dominika’s motivations appear to match up, but of course there is that age-old question: can opposing sides truly trust each other when working together? In this case, the answer actually does appear to be yes, and a more pressing question is: is it possible for individuals to get what they want when insidious bureaucratic forces are pulling the strings everywhere?

Fundamentally driving Red Sparrow and several of its characters is the idea that the Cold War never really ended (it just broke into many pieces, as one of them puts it). That may sound a little over-the-top for a film aiming for some degree of verisimilitude, but then you see what former KGB agent Vladimir Putin is up to, and all the alleged Russian hacking in foreign elections, and on second thought, maybe this does not sound so farfetched at all. Even if it did, it would be perfectly legitimate to put something insanely conspiratorial on film. The problem is that we have seen this sort of cinematic Russian subterfuge plenty of times before.

That familiarity is overcome a decent amount by Charlotte Rampling, whose performance sets the tone for the state of modern Russian spycraft. She is the headmistress of the Sparrow School, and she insists that you call her “Matron.” We have seen this sort of officious, beat-you-down-and-re-mold-you character in plenty of other iterations, but Rampling brings a level of camp and matter-of-factness hitherto unseen. Not only, in her parlance, is every person “a puzzle of need,” but also so many people today are “drunk on shopping and social media,” which would normally sound irritatingly reductive but comes off as venomously delicious when she says it.

Red Sparrow’s most lasting impact is derived less from espionage and more from its examination of human behavior and interpersonal power dynamics. There are several scenes featuring graphic torture and nudity (including rape and attempted rape), and they do not come off as simply exploitative, because they are there to elucidate the effects they have on individuals. It is heavily implied that Sparrows are really groomed from birth to give themselves over entirely to the government. They are indoctrinated that their bodies are not their own, that they must give themselves up to give their marks exactly what they want in service of a greater power. Dominika, while in many ways an ideal recruit, never fully gives in. She decides that she is willing to make her body available, but she maintains a level of resistance. When naked, she asserts her power, which is resonant in the Me Too era (and eternally so) and metatextually, it works as a statement from Lawrence, herself a victim of a nude photo hack, that she will work this intimately only on her own terms. Thanks to her steely performance, Red Sparrow works as a defense of the dignity of every individual human being.

Red Sparrow is Recommended If You Like: The Americans, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Oppressed women taking control, Oppressed citizens taking control, Frightening headmistresses, Torture scenes with a purpose

Grade: 3 out of 5 Floppy Disks

This Is a Movie Review: mother!

Leave a comment

I don’t want to get into too many specifics, or really any specifics at all about mother!, even though I could just include a spoiler alert, and I imagine plenty of people reading this review have already seen it anyway. The plain truth is, this movie benefits particularly from going into it with as few preconceived notions as possible, perhaps more so than any other movie ever (give or take a Cabin in the Woods). The marketing has been so vague that anyone who feels like they’ve been misled really shouldn’t feel that way. For those who knew that they were getting into something unpredictable, there have been some criticisms that it is too heavy-handed, too unsubtle, and/or too cacophonous to effectively work as metaphor. And that may well be, but the whole thing is too deliriously energetic to not be enjoyable. This is… cinema.

One more note: if she weren’t already famous with her SNL persona, Kristen Wiig could easily establish a reputation as a character actress specializing in publicist/agent/manager roles.

I give mother! my acknowledgement that it exists.

This Is a Movie Review: Passengers

Leave a comment

passengers-jen-looks-sad

This review was originally published on News Cult in December 2016.

Starring: Chris Pratt, Jennifer Lawrence, Michael Sheen

Director: Morten Tyldum

Running Time: 116 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Pratt Butt and J-Law Sideboob

Release Date: December 21, 2016

WARNING: This review is SPOILER-heavy.

The first 30 minutes or so of Passengers is not exactly what you have seen advertised in the trailers. That is surely on purpose, because it is not the sort of thing that pops in whizbang mainstream cinema. The ads might lead you to believe that Jim Preston (Chris Pratt) and Aurora Lane (Jennifer Lawrence) wake up simultaneously 90 years too soon from their faulty hibernation pods, but in fact, Jim is all by his lonesome for about a year. Thus the film kicks off with Pratt knocking about in Homeless Lumberjack Chic.

Personally, I would be happy to watch 2 hours of this. There is plenty of hilarity in Jim’s interactions with a spaceship programmed to promise a bright future, which play like a horror satire of cultish weekend resorts. Jim however turns to despair, with only Android Bartender Michael Sheen keeping him from sliding into complete insanity. Robot companions make so many things bearable.

This particular robot companion, however, is not built to solve Jim’s dilemma. So when he discovers Aurora, he believes he has found the human connection to shake him back to life … this despite really only having her looks to establish an attraction. But I get it – sometimes a photo of a rando has struck my fancy, leading me to wonder, “What is the mystery behind this person?” The film also tries to suggest that Jim is won over by Aurora’s writing, but the words of hers we are privy to are rather banal – that nagging movie shortcoming in which a supposed expert’s works are not particularly impressive.

The more pressing issue is the ethical quandary regarding the appropriateness of Jim waking Aurora up. While his motives are presented as primarily selfish, they are not without justification. The ship is critically malfunctioning, and he does not have access to any of the areas that would allow him to fix it. Nor can he wake up any crew members, as he does not have access to their hibernation pods either. But from Aurora’s perspective, this is a huge violation of her agency. There is a chance to play this as a horror movie about the loss of control, and Lawrence is all ready to go to that vein of darkness, but she is granted precious little time to do so.

Passengers climaxes as Titanic in Space, which is to say: those who made the spaceship had the hubris to claim that there is no way it can possibly fail. The A.I. running the ship is categorically unable to process any malfunction. This is at least the third promising premise this film has at its disposal but also the least interestingly executed. The action moves along briskly, but it is overly methodical and flavorless, too concerned with just getting from Point A to Point B.

Despite its shortcomings, I generally enjoyed Passengers. Part of that is surely due to the magnetism of Pratt and Lawrence (and the slyness of Sheen). But even moreso, I am amused by the off-kilter dialogue, in which absurdly large numbers like “8 quadrillion dollars” are bandied about like they’re nothing. (Why are there such big numbers? Because, it’s THE FUTURE!) Then there are the indelible neologisms like “Ultimate Geographical Suicide.” The flaws of Passengers are unavoidable, but so are its irrepressible bursts of personality.

Passengers is Recommended If You LikeTitanic minus all the extras and supporting cast crossed with the post-apocalypse

The First 30 Minutes of Passengers Are Recommended If You Like: The pilot episode of The Last Man on Earth

Grade: 3 out of 5 Space Basketball Pickup Games