Post Date Sep 19

Michelle Monaghan’s Five Favorite Female Performances

Michelle Monaghan has shown her versatility in a wide variety of films over the years, from comedies like "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang" and "Made of Honor" to dramas like "Gone Baby Gone" and "North Country" to sci-fi thrillers like "Source Code" and "Eagle Eye."

But she's been at her best when she's had the opportunity to play complicated, flawed and sometimes unlikable women, as she has as the star of the indie drama "Trucker" and in her recent turn as Woody Harrelson's frustrated wife on HBO's "True Detective." In her latest film, "Fort Bliss" -- which opened Friday in limited release and on video on demand -- Monaghan stars as an Army medic who returns from Afghanistan and struggles to reconnect with the 5-year-old son who barely remembers her. While the character can be emotionally closed-off and makes some questionable decisions, Monaghan always keeps her strong and grounded and conveys the sense that she's trying to do the right thing.

So it makes sense that, when asked to pick five favorite female performances, Monaghan also chose actresses who played complicated, flawed and sometimes unlikable women. (Full disclosure: She’s a friend and fellow school mom, although I first met her a few years ago when I interviewed her on stage at Ebertfest after a screening of “Trucker.”)  Here are her choices, in no particular order and in her own words — with thanks from me for taking the time to do it.

Gena Rowlands in "A Woman Under the Influence" (1974): My favorite actress of all time. I don't know if I've ever seen a performance so raw. She cuts me to the core. A role perfectly embodied with such truth. And from someone who lives right next door. What I live for.

Frances McDormand in "Fargo" (1996): I appreciate her comedic physicality in this role. It is so subtle and simple and specific. The way Fran tilts her chin, moves her eyeballs, blinks....I think it's brilliant character work.

Elizabeth Taylor in "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" (1966): Range, range and more range! This woman can do it all - and in one scene! It's the most powerful, riveting and bold performance I think I have ever seen. She is an inspiration and example of what it truly means to be "in the moment."

Meryl Streep in "The Bridges of Madison County" (1995): Impossible to choose just one from this goddess but this film is near and dear to my heart as it was shot in Iowa. I love how delicate her performance is. She radiates warmth and longing and desire. I feel everything she feels and that final scene breaks me every time. It's such a poignantly beautiful and heart-wrenching performance.

Every actress in "Steel Magnolias" (1989): This was one of the first movies I ever really emotionally responded to. Upon reflecting on it, I think it may have been my first indication that a career in acting was in my future. My cousins and I would always re-enact these scenes and I would always play Sally Field. I love that all these powerhouse actresses are in one movie. I adore the cemetery scene.

Post Date Sep 18 — The Maze Runner

The Maze Runner Movie ReviewIn a rigidly structured dystopian future, one plucky teenager dares to think for himself, shake up the status quo and start a revolution. This is a story that has never been told before! Actually, “The Maze Runner” distinguishes itself from the many other YA adaptations we’ve seen lately with a strong cast and a pleasingly low-tech aesthetic. But the ending is a disaster. My review.

Read the review here

Post Date Sep 14

No Good Deed

No Good Deed Movie ReviewSony Screen Gems
Rated PG-13 for sequences of violence, terror, menace, and for language.
Running time: 84 minutes.
One star out of four.

“Do you want me to just tell you what the twist is?” I asked my husband after going by myself to a Sunday-morning matinee of “No Good Deed.” “‘Cause you’re never gonna see it.”

“Sure,” he said.

The twist, you see, is supposedly such a crucial and startling thing that Sony decided critics couldn’t possibly be trusted with it. That’s the official reason that media screenings nationwide were cancelled at the last minute this past week: to preserve the element of surprise. This has got to be something truly groundbreaking along the lines of Bruce Willis being dead the whole time, or Jaye Davidson having a penis, or Rosebud being the name of a sled, right?

Not so much. I wouldn’t dream of spoiling it for you guys. That just wouldn’t be cool. But after laying it all out for Chris, his response was: “That’s not a twist. That’s a plot point.” And he’s right — it’s not much of a twist. It’s barely even a curve. It’s more likely that Sony didn’t want to be in the awkward position of promoting a film that features violence against women as a source of thrills, given the release this week of a video clip showing Baltimore Ravens star running back Ray Rice punching his then-fiancee in the face in an elevator. (Not that the studio’s possible concern over bad PR mattered: “No Good Deed” opened at No. 1 at the box office this weekend with $24.3 million.)

Still, director Sam Miller’s film is uncomfortable to watch (for a number of reasons), which would have been true regardless of timing. The blending of sex and violence is by no means a new phenomenon. The second a pretty, young woman strips down and steps into the shower in a horror movie, you know she’s a goner. But “No Good Deed” practically fetishizes the brutality Idris Elba’s character inflicts on a number of women. It sexualizes him as a killing machine. It wants us to salivate over him and tremble before him simultaneously.

Because, let’s face it: He’s Idris Elba.

Miller, working from a script by Aimee Lagos, paints Elba’s Colin Evans as a charismatic figure. He’s a cunning seducer — although “malignant narcissist” is the official psychological label placed on the character. Colin is handsome and muscular, charming and quick-witted — but he’s also a clever and has a taste for pain, which makes him extremely dangerous. His victims and potential victims (the ones we see on screen, at least) are all gorgeous, too: beautiful women with a variety of pleasing figures but a similar preference for tight, suggestive clothing. Flirting often precedes the fury. Again, we’re meant to be titllated and aghast in a single breath.

In execution, though, “No Good Deed” is a rather standard home-invasion thriller. It telegraphs its scares and signals how we’re supposed to feel through a smothering, intrusive score and rather obvious sound design (a thunderstorm, a car alarm, a window breaking). While it’s often more stomach-turning that frightening, it also might not be crazy enough. Sure, some of the characters make incredibly stupid choices, but full-blown Tyler Perry-style wackiness would have been welcome. Instead, the results are often just boring, despite the best efforts of overqualified stars Elba and Taraji P. Henson.

At the film’s start, Colin is on the verge of being paroled from a Tennessee prison after serving five years for manslaughter. We’re told in a lengthy and expository TV news voiceover that he’d also been the suspect in the disappearances of five women, although he’d never been charged. On the way back to prison after his hearing, Colin wipes out his guards and escapes. His destination is Atlanta, where he pays a surprise visit to his ex-fiancee (Kate del Castillo) and learns that she’s been involved with someone else in his absence. The beating he gives her is savage and bloody, complete with an audible neck snap. “No Good Deed” returns to this moment in repeated flashbacks, as if we needed a reminder of the rage that lurks within him.

After crashing a stolen truck into a tree during a thunderstorm and suffering a bad cut on his forehead, Colin knocks on the door of a beautiful home in an affluent suburb, seeking help. Henson’s Terri answers. Although she’s busy with the bedtime routine for her young daughter and infant son, she opens the door and graciously agrees to let him use her phone. Then she does something mind-blowingly idiotic, especially given that her husband (Henry Simmons) is out of town for the weekend on a golf trip: She invites this stranger inside. Ostensibly, she’s just a kindhearted woman, but she’s also been feeling lonely and unloved lately. Plus, as we mentioned earlier: He’s Idris Elba.

And so Terri treats Colin’s cut. She gives him a dry shirt. She makes him tea. She listens to the sad tale of his broken engagement. When her sexually aggressive best friend (Leslie Bibb) comes over with a bottle of wine for a much-needed girls’ night, she pours him a glass. She should know better and protect herself, especially since she was a prosecutor specializing in crimes against women before choosing to be a stay-at-home mother. In no time, Colin will show her true colors and make her realize the enormous mistake she made by tormenting her and endangering her children (which is also difficult to watch).

At its most sickening, “No Good Deed” features Colin forcing Terri into the shower with him, and then hovering over her, wet and naked, as he steps back into his jeans and makes her change clothes, too. He is a specimen to behold — hulking and chiseled — but the sexually predatory nature of this act is inescapable.

“No Good Deed” ultimately tries to be an inspiring movie about a woman rediscovering her power and protecting her family, but by then it’s too late. The damage already has been done.

Post Date Sep 12 — The Skeleton Twins

The Skeleton Twins Movie ReviewBill Hader and Kristen Wiig have tremendous chemistry as estranged siblings fumbling to reconnect after a decade apart. It’s an unusual dramatic film for them both — although there’s a great deal of twisted laughs in the mix — and the “Saturday Night Live” alumni rise to the challenge spectacularly. A rare rave from me at

Read the review here

Post Date Sep 12 — I Am Eleven

I Am Eleven Movie ReviewDocumentarian Genevieve Bailey certainly means well with “I Am Eleven,” in which she interviews 11-year-old boys and girls from around the world on topics ranging from love and marriage to war and religion to culture and the environment. But she’s included so many kids and she skips around between them so quickly with so little context, the result feels frustratingly superficial. My review.

Read the review here