Short Review: 20th Century Women

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I can imagine what a negative review of 20th Century Women would say. I can imagine someone making the argument that the movie is nothing but a male fantasy about the awesomeness of women, and about how three generations of strong females turn a young boy into a man. I can imagine such an argument, because we’ve seen movies that look like 20th Century Women falter in exactly those areas. They settle for a condescending male point of view, and relegate their female characters to the role of manic-pixie-dream-girl and wise motherly figure. This is not such a movie. This is so much better than that.

Mike Mills, who broke through with Beginnersa lovely memoir about his father, now makes a lovely memoir about his formative years alongside his mother. Annette Bening stars as Dorothea, a woman who grew up during the depression and now raises a son (Lucas Jade Zunmann) in late-seventies Santa Barbara. Fearing the lack of a strong male presence in her son’s life, she recruits the help of two other women. Abby (Greta Gerwig), a post-punk photographer who rents a room in her house, and Julie (Elle Fanning), the best friend who Dorothea’s son hopes would become “something more”. These women are not supporting characters to the boy’s growth as a person. They are real characters, with inner lives, desires, conflicts and flaws.

There are five main characters in the movie (the other being another room-renter played by Billy Crudup), and they are all treated with respect and complexity. The biggest strength of 20th Century Women might very well be how generous it is toward them. It is a fresh and breezy movie, that manages to pack an acute sentimental punch inside its visions of pleasurable sunny California. There are moments in the movie (such as an intimate role-playing session between Gerwig and Crudup) that jump back and forth between comedy and tragedy in a way that only a person with a deep interest in human life could pull off.

Every character in this magnificent cast gets their chance to shine, but none of them shines brighter than Bening’s Dorothea. Turning what is essentially an ode to his mother into an ensemble piece is one of the director’s most brilliant choices. Bening shines when interacting with other performers, revealing intense amounts of information in every interaction her character has with the people who populate her household. The easy, natural vibe of Bening’s performance binds the movie together. We don’t need to be told that Dorothea is a formidable woman, we experience it ourselves. 20th Century Women is a lovely experience of humanist filmmaking at its best, and if that weren’t enough, it serves as a reminder that one of our greatest living actresses is still turning out some of her best work.

Grade: 9 out of 10

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Silence: Because Nothing Says Christmas Like A Crippling Crisis of Faith

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Martin Scorsese is probably the most venerated film director alive. Therefore, there is little point in writing a review that points tries to point out flaws, or examine any kind of objective value in his latest movie. There is no denying the man’s filmmaking is effective, because it has impressed and meant so much to so many people, even if one doesn’t seem to feel much of anything when watching his movies. That is sadly my case. After years of dancing around the subject, I have finally concluded that Scorsese is not for me (though I really enjoy The Departed, weirdly enough).

Because he enjoys such high status as a master of the craft, I will always be interested in watching whatever he does next. For similar reasons, I have decided to not so much review Silence, as to simply point out how it fits into my overall indifference toward the director’s work. The thesis statement here is that Martin Scorsese’s cinematic interests are diametrically opposed to mine. I haven’t seen all of Scorsese’s work (and I do believe there is a movie of his that will some day gain my adoration), but I’ve seen enough to believe we have completely different world views.

Let’s move on -finally- to the movie at hand. Silence is one of Scorsese’s biggest passion projects. He’s been wanting to make this movie since he read Shusaku Endo’s novel of the same name sometime in the eighties. Both novel and film tell the story of a young 17th Century Portuguese priest (here played by Andrew Garfield), who journeys to Japan with a mission. Yes, he is there to spread the gospel of Christ, to deliver His Truth, and to offer salvation to the locals. More specifically, though, he is looking for his master (Liam Neeson), who left for Japan with the intention to evangelize, but is rumored to have given up his faith when confronted with violent persecution on part of the Japanese government.

Once Padre Rodrigues (that’s the name of Garfield’s character) and his colleague Padre Garrpe (the great Adam Driver) step foot on Japan, they are confronted with the miserable reality of being a Christian in that country. Those who converted after visits by previous Padres must keep their faith a secret less they be punished and tortured, yet are extremely happy to once again be in the presence of “real” priests who can perform all holy sacraments and absolve them from their sins through confession.

The happiness doesn’t last long. Soon enough, the persecution catches up to our Padres, and most of the movie deals with how Rodrigues tries to reconcile the extreme suffering he witnesses on a daily basis with the belief that God has a mission for him, and that God is good and will reward those who believe and honor Him. Rodrigues’s faith is tested unflinchingly throughout this two and a half hour movie, and even in the darkest moments, Scorsese provides evidence that he hasn’t given up completely. That his faith will be the last thing to go.

I believe Scorsese -who considered becoming a priest himself at some point in his youth- sees this as an exploration of what it means to believe in the grace of God, of the transcendence of belief beyond sacrifice. These messages are not lost on me, but the package in which they are presented -and my own personal experience with religion, I must admit- prompt me to reject them. I can’t help but see the last shot of this movie not as the small yet significant triumph it is intended to be, but as one last disappointment.

That ending -meant to be beautiful- makes me think of Silence as a tragedy about obstinate men who are unable to negotiate with those who believe something different. That is the thing about faith. It is immovable. And there is dogma. Isn’t there a certain arrogance in these priests  and their quest? They come to convert, and the transaction seems to be one-sided. It’s the Europeans delivering “truth” to pagans, without dialogue or exchange. The priests teach their language, but do not learn Japanese. They teach the gospel but have no interest in learning local customs, or understanding Buddhist beliefs.

At the same time, what to make of the Japanese Inquisitor, whose purpose is to exterminate Christianity from his country? He is an obstinate man, too. He is a violent monster, and he is as closed off to debate and exchange -if not more so- than the priests. Of course, he sees the spread of Christianity as a product of a foreign culture creeping into his world. A cultural development that, given our knowledge about colonialism, he is probably right to fear. There has to be a level of irony to his name, knowing that the word Inquisition is most often associated to horrors that were committed on behalf of the Catholic church.

It is hard, then, for me to watch a film about white priests being persecuted in a foreign land, especially when we consider how Judaism and Islam have been treated in the west. Throughout their persecution, these priests are offered the option of renouncing their faith and moving on to a life in Japanese society. A life that -is suggested- will afford them with a level of security, comfort, and respect that most Japanese people wouldn’t be afforded if they tried to integrate to life in European society. It is very clear to me that this film was not intended as an examination of colonialism, but it’s hard not to make parallels.

What this movie is -a tale about clinging to religion and faith throughout extreme circumstances- is far less interesting to me than other aspects that are touched upon but only mildly explored. Say, the intricacies and impossibilities of cultural exchange, the internal conflict and spiritual history of the Japanese Christians, or the tragedy that these must face because of their chosen faith. I see these Japanese believers as the true protagonists of this story. The priests strike me as villains who mean to save but in fact condemn the peasants.

This is what I meant when I said Scorsese and I are just too different. We were both raised in a Catholic environment, but religion meant different things to us. I’ve never felt comfortable in the church, and rejected it as soon as I hit puberty. It’s hard for me to see churches as something other than an enemy to society. I get such visceral reactions to it that I must constantly remind myself that religion is not an inherently bad thing, and that many people are better off because of it.

Maybe I was not prepared to respond to a movie like Silence, which is so narrowly focused on one man’s journey with his faith. I have, in the past, responded positively to movies about religion. I absolutely loved the Coen Brothers’ Hail, Caesar! earlier this year, for example. The difference between the movies, of course, is that the Coens examine faith as it relates to modern secularity, setting their movie behind-the-scenes of a trivial Hollywood studio, while Scorsese uses literal Catholic iconography to tell a story about Catholic anguish.

Perhaps I reacted better to Hail, Caesar! because its wager with faith struck me as more balanced. Because it is a movie about balancing the duties of faith with that which gives us pleasure. Silence is much more directly about holding on to faith, and not letting go no matter what is thrown at you. My personal beliefs are not based on faith, but on compromise and questioning. That is why I wouldn’t say Silence is a bad movie. I’d say that it was simply not made for me. 

Going Out in Style – A Review of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

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Those of you who saw 2014’s Godzilla will recognize director Gareth Edwards as a man who knows how to shoot an action set piece. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story takes a line from the opening crawl of the original Star Wars -“Rebel spies managed to steal secret plans to the Empire’s ultimate weapon”- into a feature length adventure detailing precisely how these spies managed to acquire said plans. How much you enjoy this movie as a whole, and whether or not you find to be a “good” movie, will depend largely on your relationship to the ever growing Star Wars franchise. One thing is certain, though. The set pieces, particularly in the last third of the film, provide some of the best filmmaking this operatic saga has ever seen.

Edwards’s most fundamental asset as a bankable filmmaker is his ability to make things look cool. And I mean really cool. This was apparent in Godzilla, and it’s apparent in how he finds infinite ways to present Star Wars iconography from a point of view we haven’t seen before. Looking at spaceships, planets, and the ominously famous Death Star from up, down, and sideways perspectives I suspect fans had been dreaming about since they had their first encounter with these movies. That’s a good start in and on itself, but thankfully the director’s eye for visuals is put to use with more varied purposes than simply “making shit look dope.”

The commercial goal here is pretty transparently to keep the brand name high and make lots of money. The artistic goal, to somehow deepen the world of the original movies. To explicitly explore the “wars” aspect of the saga’s title. To consider how this Rebellion against the evil Galactic Empire would affect the lives of the people on the ground, to consider the sacrifice and the messiness of life during wartime. To make the Star Wars universe equivalent of The Battle of Algiers, to explore in more nuanced and realistic fashion what being at war in a galaxy far, far away would be like.

I’m not sure how to feel about this approach to introduce darkness and realism to these movies. I fell in love with Star Wars when I was a kid, and in my opinion, the franchise should respect its place as an epic adventure that manages to rule our culture the way it does thanks to the overwhelming response it elicits in children. Rogue One is very clearly trying to go for a more mature audience (as far as caring about spaceships and robots can be considered a mature activity). Whether or not I feel comfortable with this decision from a philosophical perspective, I must admit that I had a hell of a blast watching this movie.

There was definitely something satisfying about seeing a familiar (fictional) world be explored from a distinctively different perspective. This is another front in which Edwards and his team deserve to be praised. They reconstruct the world of Star Wars as a tactile, grounded environment. Leaving behind the sheen and computer-generated excess of most science fiction blockbusters (including the George Lucas directed prequels) in favor of real-world locals. The movie opens in a uniquely dewy desert landscape that I must assume is Iceland, then moves to a crowded desert city (which explicitly evokes recent conflicts in Iraq and Syria), and culminates in a tropical beach (which explicitly evokes the Pacific theater of World War II). Characters get to be part of these environments, and cinematographer Greig Fraser (Zero Dark Thirty), makes the most to make these places feel real.

Those are the sort of decisions that make Rogue One the most visually exciting and carefully considered Star Wars movie since the immaculately beautiful The Empire Strikes Back (give or take the mythical first act of last year’s The Force Awakens). On other fronts, however, the movie is less successful. As a piece of screenwriting, it cannot be described as anything but a mess. There were reports earlier this year that Disney ordered the production team to come back for reshoots after principal photography had wrapped. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that the original cut of this movie was very, very different from what we got in theaters.

I assume, however, that most of the re-writing and re-editing were used to reshape the first and second acts of the movie, which are the most plot-heavy and not coincidentally least effective. As far as plot is concerned, the movie focuses on Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), a tough young woman who is tapped by the Rebel Alliance to help them find her father (Mads Mikkelsen), the engineer responsible for building the Death Star. Even though she is joined by a ragtag group of racially diverse warriors (including Diego Luna and Donnie Yen), she remains the protagonist, and the one character with an arc. She goes from an uninvolved lone wolf who survives on the fringes of the Empire, to a dedicated hero willing to sacrifice her life for a cause bigger than herself.

The character transformation doesn’t work that well. Very few of the character bits do, honestly, thanks in large part to a structure that jumps from planet to planet, follows many different characters and seems only half-interested in fleshing out their inner lives and motivations. There are three credited editors in this movie, as well as a fourth person credited for “additional editing”, which is never a good sign. I suspect the movie might’ve been more effective with less time committed to exploring familial relationships and more time devoted to the process of pulling off an impossible mission. Less hero’s journey and more heist movie.

At this point I’ve talked too much about the movie that could’ve been and not enough about the movie that actually exists. And before I go on to the strongest part of the movie, I do have to address what is probably the most disappointing decision in the film, and the one element that seems to be in total contradiction to Edwards’s vision for a visceral, spies of war adventure. If you remember the original Star Wars movie, then you’ll know the Imperial Commander in charge of the Death Star was one Grand Moff Tarkin, played by the late Peter Cushing in what is probably the best performance in any Star Wars movie. Grand Moff Tarkin not only appears, but has a substantial and integral role in Rogue One. And the character is played (in a way) by the late Peter Cushing.

Instead of casting a contemporary actor who looks like Cushing, or try to make his role as small as possible, the filmmakers decide to “revive” Grand Moff Tarkin by creating a computer generated image of Peter Cushing. It’s a ghastly decision that strikes all sorts of wrong notes in all sorts of different ways. Not only does this show immense disrespect to the memory of Cushing, it shows a complete lack of respect for the concept of humanity on the part of the Disney Corporation who has deemed the value of Tarkin as a piece of intellectual property to be greater than the value of Peter Cushing as a professional, an artist, and a human being.

But it’s not only the extra-textual implications of the technique that are problematic. It is a technological gamble that simply doesn’t pay off. It is immensely distracting to see a creature right out of the uncanny valley interact with actual human beings. Our brains cannot pretend that this character is anything but a creepy-looking cartoon. Bring in everything else, and not only can you not think of anything else while watching the Tarkin sequences, you often find yourself still thinking about this misguided decision during whatever scene follows his appearances. If there ever was a thing that took me out of a movie, this was it.

And yet, despite slapdash screenplays and computerized resurrections, once Rogue One reaches its final act, and our heroes do go on their final mission to retrieve the plans to the Death Star from an Imperial base, the movie doesn’t just fly, it fucking soars.

This is when Gareth Edwards shows what he’s made of. This is one of the most satisfyingly climactic action sequences in a blockbuster film I have ever seen. The sense of scale, or space, of direction, it is all precise, and it is constantly moving forward without missing a beat. In the midst of the mayhem, Edwards finds moments to show us the dopest shit he can imagine. Taking the fantasies of every kid who played with Star Wars spaceships as a kid and making them a reality. You can call it a very expensive exercise in fan fiction, but what an exercise! What is even more impressive, is the final moments of the film, which connect directly to the opening moments of the 1977 feature film Star Wars, and somehow manage what almost every prequel fails to do. It imbues the original movie with a newly found sense of urgency, and depth.

I would go back to the theater just to watch that third act again. It was something.

Grade: 7 out of 10

 

Dancing with the Stars: A Review of La La Land

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Original movie musicals are so rare one should cherish them deeply, even if they’re flawed. Not that Damien Chazelle’s newest musical, La La Land, will have trouble being cherished. Its stars, after all, are Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, two performers known for sharing some of the most electric chemistry the screen has seen in at least a couple decades. People going in to swoon at the sight of these two will not be disappointed. La La Land does so many things, and does so many of them so right, that I can wholeheartedly recommend people seeing it, even if I do have one big reservation with the movie as a whole.

To put it simply, La La Land is a love-letter to the kind of movie musicals that don’t get made anymore. Fittingly, it tells the story of two young and beautiful people falling in and out of love. Stone is the struggling actress who dreams of becoming a star, though the way things are going for her she’d be satisfied with just getting a role. Gosling is the self-serious jazz pianist who dreams of owning his own jazz club, one that will be true to the legacy of the genre. Like in those classic Hollywood musicals, the two don’t get along at first, then fall in love, then things get complicated before the grand finale.

The whole thing is one big throwback. From the font of title card, to the technicolor cinematography, and art direction and costumes that suggest the fifties despite the movie not being a period piece. You might call it a gimmick, but aesthetics play a role in the movie’s narrative. As the story progresses, our heroes go from the magic of falling in love to the problems of making a relationship work. Dreams become harder to achieve and their possibilities start to dwindle. At that point, the movie too moves away from the big production numbers and recedes into more crude, realistic film making.

You can think of this shift as a weakness in the script, or you can think of it as an instance of form reflecting content. The romance, the singing, the dancing, that’s all in the dreaming, in the longing, in the possibility of a brighter future. It’s a deeply Romantic sentiment befitting a director like Damien Chazelle, who could be described as a passion-obsessed Romantic. Judging by the two movies of his that I’ve seen, Chazelle finds the idea of being too passionate to maintain a relationship incredibly Romantic. I mean romantic as in falling in love, sure, but also in the 19th-century-poet sense of the word.

There is no boy-meets-girl romance in Chazelle’s previous movie Whiplash, but the passionate fury with which its protagonist drummed himself to ambiguous death makes for a story Keats and Shelley would have approved of. This inflexible view of work-life balance works better in the melancholic conflicts of La La Land than it did in the reductively masculine Whiplash, but it still doesn’t sit well with me. “Sacrificing one’s self for one’s art” is the insistent message that has weakened the resolution of Chazelle’s movies for me, despite both of them featuring incredibly ambitious finales. In Whiplash, it simplified the psychology of its villain to oblivion, and in La La Land, tries to sell a bittersweet ending the movie doesn’t quite earn.

I’m afraid Chazelle is a director I will never be able to love, but at least he’s one that I can admire. He clearly feels nothing but love for the musical genre, and who can blame him? Who can watch Rogers and Astaire dancing cheek to cheek, or Gene Kelly splashing in the rain, and not be transported into a space of pure joy? Even though it has waned considerably in popularity, the musical is one of the purest and most effective genres in the cinematic language. The movie screen is perfectly equipped to capture the nuances of a good singer who also happens to be a great performer, and it is even better at capturing movement and dancing. I don’t know about you, but thinking back to the best moments in musical movie history, I always go back to dancing bodies.

The dance sequences, unsurprisingly, are when La La Land works best. Some people have complained that Gosling and Stone are not the best singers -and they’re not- but that doesn’t quite matter. Who cares about adequate singing when you have one of the most charismatic couples in recent Hollywood history, and when the chemistry they share extends so beautifully into their dancing. Gosling and Stone aren’t the most skilled dancers individually, but they are remarkable dancing partners, capable of carrying Chazelle’s ambitious homages to classic dance moments from The Band Wagon and Singin’ in the Rain. These are the moments that make La La Land truly shine, the moments that will fill you up with joy.

But truth is, joy isn’t the only emotion the movie wants to elicit from its audience, and that is sadly where it fumbles. Again, I will go back to Chazelle’s ambitious final number, and without spoiling what happens, I will say that while I recognized it as a moment that should sweep me off my feet and overflow me with emotion, I didn’t quite felt that way. I admired the audacity of making a musical of this kind in 2016, and of ending it in this particular way, but I wasn’t crying. Chazelle’s touch, to me, is most effective when it’s at its lightest. When he sits back and lets two fabulous performers express themselves through dance. That’s when things are cooking.

Grade: 7 out of 10

Jackie is the Best American Movie of the Year

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John F. Kennedy was President of the United States for two years, ten months, and two days. That’s not a very long time as far as presidents are concerned. Most of the big accomplishments we associate with the sixties weren’t really achieved during his Presidency. Civil Rights legislation was passed under Johnson. Man landed on the moon under Nixon. Tricky Dick’s reputation as President is understandably soured by the illegal activities taken during his administration, and in Johnson’s case, there is a stark contrast between his legislative legacy and the way he is remembered as a person. In Lee Daniels’ The Butler, for example, Liev Schreiber plays him as a cooky Texan who still uses the n-word and shits with the door open. Kennedy, meanwhile, is remembered as an icon.

Along comes Jackie, the best American movie of the year. Natalie Portman stars as the legendary first lady in the days following Jack Kennedy’s assassination in a movie that suggests maybe Jack’s wife had a lot to do with the way we remember the 35th President.

(What does it mean that the best American movie of the year was not directed by an America, but by Chilean director Pablo Larraín? I honestly don’t know, but thought it was worth mentioning.)

Jackie Kennedy is an icon of elegance and poise in her own right. While her husband was in office, she hosted a Emmy-winning television tour of the White House in which she mostly talked about the furniture and the decorative changes she made to the place. The world was an even more rigid place for women back in the sixties. It was assumed the first lady’s role didn’t extend beyond making the White House look nice, and yet, Jackie was criticized for spending too much money redecorating, and throwing lavish parties with famous musicians performing and lots of champagne. These were all frivolities. Women’s things. Even her husband joked that she going to bankrupt the government.

Even to this day, there are people who don’t understand that these things matter. The feminine, the seemingly superficial, it can speak volumes. It can be more powerful than anything you do. Jackie Kennedy, her insistence on referring to her husband’s presidency as “Camelot” (based on his favorite musical), is what preserved his legacy. Those are the things that turned him, and her, into a legend. Jackie understood -perhaps to an oppressive extend- that appearances matter. When you are a woman growing up at the time she did, you understand that a nice Chanel suit can be your best political tool. When said suit is covered in your recently assassinated husband’s blood, that tool can become a weapon. These images stay in our minds, they send messages. Jackie, the movie, understands this too. It reminded me, at times, of The Grand Budapest Hotela very different but equally great movie about the value of beautiful things in a fragile civilization.

I’m afraid we’re about to learn, in the next four years, that American democracy might be one of those very fragile civilizations. I wonder if it’s different in a place like Great Britain. I wonder if political upheaval or a vote to leave the European Union feels counterbalanced by the centuries-long stability of the monarchy. No matter what happens, I imagine, the British will know the royals will still be there. There is no royalty in America. There is no institution that has endured for millennia. The Kennedy’s have been called American royalty, though. I think it has to do with Jackie understanding the Presidency to be a delicate position. It needs to be perceived as a rock-solid pillar in the Nation, because it can so easily be disrupted. By a bullet in the head, for example.

These themes are what make Jackie a good movie. What makes it great is the fact that it doesn’t restrict the thematics to the script. It’s not a movie that just talks about its themes, it’s a movie that becomes them. Jackie Kennedy is a woman obsessed with appearances, with putting up a specific persona even on the face of extreme pressure and tragedy. The movie is obsessed with appearances, too. It is ready to confront us with the artifice not just of Jackie the character, but of Jackie the movie. There are moments, for example, in which Larraín inserts Natalie Portman into stock footage of the time, and then there are little moments in which the footage shows the real Jackie. It’s not close-ups or anything, but it’s clear enough to recognize the woman walking in front of you is not Natalie Portman. It’s a little reminder that you’re not watching the real thing.

Not that you need a lot of that. Portman’s stylized performance is a constant reminder that you’re watching an actor act. There will be people who find her work as Jackie to be too excessive, too superficial, too focused on putting on a voice and a wig. To me, it’s an explicit attempt at putting a barrier of artifice around a performance. Portman is only a few degrees away from a drag performer, beautifully slipping into moments of camp such as when Jackie, cigarette in hand, informs a journalist that she doesn’t smoke. People sometimes criticize Portman for being too cold, too elegant, too distant as an actress. But Jackie, as well as her Oscar-winning role in Black Swan, suggest she isn’t afraid -and is at her best- when she is willing to forget naturalism and goes for the silly, the ridiculous, the grand, the artificial.

Portman is putting on a performance, but so was the real Jackie. It doesn’t make the immense loss she experienced any less real. Despite taking place at an emotionally draining moment in the woman’s life, the movie insists in detaching us from the raw emotion of the situation. There are scenes of immense grief, there is a close-up of Jackie crying her eyes out, but they are detached, observant, distant. The score does the same thing. The magnificent Mica Levi is quickly becoming the best composer in the business, with a deflating score that is almost silly at times. It is as confrontational as it gets, and it works beautifully to jolt you out of becoming too involved in the drama.

Keeping your distance is important. This is one of the most careful and rewarding explorations of America’s relationship with the people who lead them. It’s a movie that asks us to think of elegance and crassness. Of the importance of appearances for all sort of things. The way you look, the way you walk, the way you mourn. Caring about superficialities might seem trivial, but it’s anything but. I wouldn’t be surprised if Jackie, a serious film with the edge to remind you that it’s just a movie, was rejected by general audiences. It is not what we usually associate with prestige drama, even if its premise makes it sound like your typical Oscar bait. I, for one, think it’s one of the best movies I’ve seen all year.

Grade: 9 out of 10