Nerdy Girl Goes to the Movies: Captain America: The Winter Soldier

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Title: Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Rating: PG-13

Cast: Chris Evans (Steve Rogers), Scarlett Johansson (Natasha Romanoff), Samuel L. Jackson (Nick Fury), Anthony Mackie (Sam Wilson), Robert Redford (Alexander Pierce), Sebastian Stan (Bucky Barnes), Cobie Smulders (Maria Hill)

Director: Anthony Russo and Joe Russo

The Basics: Captain America: The Winter Soldier begins with Steve Rogers (aka the eponymous Captain America) still struggling to adjust to the modern world after being awoken from a frozen state that he remained in since the 1940s. His sense of unfamiliarity in this colder, bleaker world is made worse by his growing sense of distrust for S.H.I.E.L.D., the government intelligence and defense agency he’s a part of. Steve’s suspicions turn out to be more than just unfounded fears; a faction within S.H.I.E.L.D. is planning to use advanced surveillance methods to kill millions in the name of the greater good. Steve—along with Natasha Romanoff (aka Black Widow) and Sam Wilson (aka Falcon)—must confront old and new enemies, but one new enemy (the mysterious Winter Soldier) might not be so new after all. Captain America: The Winter Soldier succeeds not just as a highly entertaining superhero blockbuster; it also feels darker and more thematically complex than any Marvel Cinematic Universe film that came before it, while still being driven by the sharp writing, strong character development, and charismatic performances that have made Marvel films huge box-office draws season after season.

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Nerdy Girl Goes to the Movies: Frozen

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Title: Frozen

Rating: PG

Cast: Kristen Bell (Anna), Idina Menzel (Elsa), Jonathan Groff (Kristoff), Josh Gad (Olaf), Santino Fontana (Hans)

Director: Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck

The Basics: Frozen, Disney’s latest animated feature, is an adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen.” Sisters Anna and Elsa are separated from a young age after Elsa’s ability to magically create snow and ice put Anna’s safety in jeopardy. While Anna craves companionship and romance, Elsa’s powers and her fear of them being exposed make her crave solitude instead. After a disastrous Coronation Day for Elsa in which her powers are revealed, Anna goes in search of her sister to stop the eternal winter Elsa has wrought upon their kingdom. Along the way, Anna meets Olaf, a snowman who longs for summertime, and Kristoff, a young ice salesman who challenges her naïve beliefs about falling in love. Frozen has all the makings of a classic Disney film: great songs, stunning animation, a surprisingly strong sense of humor, and a heart worn firmly on its sleeve. But what makes this film special is the way it adds something new to the tradition of great Disney princess films. Frozen is a story about true love, but this true love is not the stuff of princes and princesses and love at first sight. Rather, it’s the love between sisters that drives this film. Frozen is an empowering film that celebrates all kinds of love—familial love, romantic love, and love for ourselves.

M.V.P. (Most Valuable Performer): Frozen is the first Disney film to focus on two princesses, and both Idina Menzel and Kristen Bell carry this film equally with their unique vocal skills. Menzel’s voice is peerless, and she gives Elsa a power and edge unlike any other Disney princess. Her control over her voice perfectly suits Elsa’s journey through the film—from the quiet tension in her part of “For the First Time in Forever” through her complete unleashing of her power in “Let It Go.” No other actress could have given this character the kind of depth Menzel gives her. Elsa is unlike any other Disney princess who came before her, and it seems fitting that she was given life by a woman whose voice is unlike any other.

The same can be said for Anna—she’s certainly not your stereotypical, poised and perfect princess. She’s awkward, naïve, and overly eager for companionship at times, but she’s also fiercely loving, brave, and warm. Bell brings a vivacity to this princess that jumps off the screen, but she’s also able to communicate a very real vulnerability in her voice. Bell’s pure, gorgeous singing voice was a huge surprise to me.

Menzel and Bell have very different but equally beautiful voices, and listening to them sing—alone and especially together—was a feast for the ears to rival the best Broadway performances.

Scene Stealer: Olaf the snowman is a character who could have gone extremely wrong, but instead turned out to be one of the highlights of the film. A lot of credit for that should go to the fact that he was used just enough to be entertaining and consistently funny but not so much that he became obnoxious. Also, a lot of credit should go to Josh Gad for the way he’s able to make Olaf silly enough for kids to love him and sweet enough to feel important to the story beyond just comedic relief. (“Some people are worth melting for” was one of my favorite lines.) His big music number, “In Summer,” is a highlight of the film and a fantastic moment of musical comedy. Gad makes the silly and the smart facets of the number work perfectly, and I found myself surprisingly charmed by this addition to the list of great Disney sidekicks.

Bring the Tissues? Frozen worked my heartstrings with a dexterity usually reserved for Pixar movies. It hits you with a sucker punch of heartbreak at the start (“Do You Want to Build a Snowman?” somehow manages to be both a cute and devastating musical number.), and the rest of the film has moments of real emotion that sneak up on you with their power. The climax of the film put more than a few tears in my eyes, and I have to imagine I wasn’t the only one moved by the film’s message of love and acceptance.

Most Memorable Scene: Every Disney princess movie has a moment where the heroine sings about what she really wants and who she really is, and those are often my favorite moments in the film. “Let It Go” is another one of those moments, where Elsa embraces her power and vows to leave behind a lifetime of repression and fear of letting her true self be seen by the world. Sung with Menzel’s characteristic power, this song is sure to become an instant Disney classic. This is a love song a princess sings about herself, and it’s one of the best songs a Disney movie has featured in a long time.

The animation in this scene is just as incredible as the vocal talent on display. As the song builds, so does Elsa’s ice castle, and the combination of stunning visuals and inspiring music combine to make this scene a moment worthy of its place among others that defined their respective Disney films: Ariel singing as the waves crash behind her; Belle and Beast in the ballroom; and Rapunzel and Flynn Rider watching the lanterns.

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Nerdy Girl Goes to the Movies: Gravity

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Title: Gravity

Rating: PG-13

Cast: Sandra Bullock (Ryan Stone), George Clooney (Matt Kowalski)

Director: Alfonso Cuarón

The Basics: Gravity is a story of survival in a world where life is factually impossible. After being detached from the space station she was working on as part of her first mission, NASA medical engineer Ryan Stone finds herself adrift in space, with a rapidly depleting supply of oxygen. Tethered to veteran astronaut Matt Kowalski, Stone must fight seemingly insurmountable external obstacles to get back to Earth, which mirrors her internal struggle to survive after the death of her young daughter. The way the themes of isolation, birth, death, and survival are developed and reflected in every moment of the film is nothing short of masterful. Technically, this film is like nothing that has ever been seen before, but the reason Gravity is so special—such a masterpiece—is that it never lets its technical achievements overshadow its emotional ones. Anchored by the best performance of Sandra Bullock’s career, this film is about so much more than the terrifying beauty of space; it’s about the struggle for a woman to survive in both a physical and emotional environment that would destroy most people.

M.V.P. (Most Valuable Performer): Sandra Bullock has been known as many things throughout her career—adorable, funny, sharp-tongued, relatable, and warm. But after seeing Gravity, I think the best word to describe her work as an actress is fearless. Her performance in Gravity is astoundingly brave in its vulnerability, its humanity, and its incredible mixture of strength and weakness. Ryan Stone feels like a real woman—not a superhero. For most of the film, she’s terrified, and Bullock makes that fear almost painfully palpable. We see so much of this film from Stone’s perspective; her voice is the only one we hear for most of it; her helmet is the one we see the chaos through. And in order for Gravity to succeed, the actress bringing Stone to life needed to be someone who could captivate audiences on her own for nearly the entire 91 minutes of the film’s runtime. Bullock is exactly that; she’s utterly captivating every moment she’s onscreen. Ryan Stone is a fascinating character, a woman whose strength manifests itself not in big moments of heroics but in choosing to live rather than give up, despite having every reason to want to die. We see Ryan as a hero because we are able to believe her at her lowest—in the quiet depths of her grief and the panicked extremes of her fear—and at her best. Her hero’s journey is a story of rebirth, and Bullock makes it resonate with an emotional intensity and honesty that should put her at the top of any Best Actress race this year.

Scene Stealer: From the very first moments of Gravity, I was in awe of its score. Steven Price’s work is unsettling from the start, and its hold on my emotions never let up. It made the hair on the back of my neck stand up, it made me hold my breath, and it even made me cry. Price’s score captures the grandeur and danger of space as brilliantly as it captures the grief and hope coexisting in Stone’s character. I don’t normally single out a film’s score as something worthy of intense praise, but this wasn’t any ordinary film—or any ordinary score, for that matter.

Bring the Tissues? I cried way more than I was expecting to during Gravity. Bullock’s fierce vulnerability has a way of getting under your skin and going straight to your heart. When she reveals how her daughter died, I started tearing up, but once she started talking to a man back on Earth (whom she reached while trying to unsuccessfully contact Houston), I started genuinely sobbing. Her loneliness—both in the vastness of empty space and in the grief-stricken life she lived back on Earth—moved me beyond anything else I’ve seen in a movie theater so far this year.

Most Memorable Scene: On a technical level, I’m not sure any scene in any of this year’s Oscar contenders will be more memorable than the opening minutes of Gravity. Filmed in one, unbroken shot, this scene builds spectacularly from awe-inspiring to terrifying. The way Cuarón captures the feeling of weightlessness is extraordinary; it puts you off balance just by watching the action unfold. And that’s all before the debris begins to rain down on Stone and Kowalski. In that moment, the strange serenity of space is turned into sheer panic, and the feelings it invokes are oppressive in their intensity. I felt like I was holding my breath through the entire sequence, and I know I was gripping my armrest with white knuckles. The direction, the sound mixing and editing, and Bullock’s performance all combined to create one of the most visceral experiences of panic I’ve ever felt while watching a movie. It was—at the risk of sounding hyperbolic—breathtaking.

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Nerdy Girl Goes to the Movies: Catching Fire

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Just as a warning, this review is not spoiler-free, so read at your own risk if you haven’t seen the movie yet! 

Title: The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

Rating: PG-13

Cast: Jennifer Lawrence (Katniss Everdeen), Josh Hutcherson (Peeta Mellark), Liam Hemsworth (Gale Hawthorne), Woody Harrelson (Haymitch Abernathy), Elizabeth Banks (Effie Trinket), Sam Claflin (Finnick Odair), Jena Malone (Johanna Mason), Lenny Kravitz (Cinna), Donald Sutherland (President Snow), Stanley Tucci (Caesar Flickerman), Philip Seymour Hoffman (Plutarch Heavensbee)

Director: Francis Lawrence

The Basics: The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is the second of what will be a four-film franchise based on Suzanne Collins’s trilogy of Young Adult novels. This installment focuses on Katniss Everdeen’s inadvertent role as the spark behind a revolution in the 12 districts of Panem after she defied the Capitol to keep herself and her partner, Peeta Mellark, alive in the 74th Hunger Games. While still plagued by crippling nightmares and PTSD after the Games, Katniss attempts to return to life back home in District 12 after a grueling Victory Tour, but a surprise twists sends her and Peeta back into the arena to fight amongst other former victors in the 75th Hunger Games. Catching Fire was my favorite book in Collins’s trilogy, and this film met even my high expectations. The special effects, the character development, and the chemistry between all of the major players was even better than it was in the first film in the franchise. And it doesn’t hurt to have Jennifer Lawrence leading the way with a performance as fearless and as faithful as any fan of Katniss could hope to see.

M.V.P. (Most Valuable Performer): Jennifer Lawrence was born to play the role of Katniss Everdeen. In the novels, everything we experience comes from Katniss’s point of view, but the films don’t have that luxury (and thank God we haven’t had to deal with cheesy voiceovers to make up for that fact). Somehow, though, Lawrence makes you feel every single one of Katniss’s emotions—from the most painfully open ones to the ones she hides even from herself. Lawrence acts with every fiber of her being; she’s such a physical actress—her whole body shakes with fear in one scene and rage in another, and she makes both feel so completely different from one another. Lawrence’s eyes are a character all on their own; pay special attention to the very end of the film when they are her only tool to convey what’s going on in Katniss’s head and heart, and marvel at how she makes you want to cry, cheer for, and even fear this girl on fire who has everything and nothing to lose. The Hunger Games franchise is Katniss Everdeen’s story, and it’s not a simple story to tell. It requires an actor whose fearless pursuit of honesty makes every moment she’s onscreen crackle with an intensity that dares you to look away all the while knowing you will never be able to take your eyes off her for a moment. Lawrence is such an actor—perhaps the best one of her generation.

Scene Stealer: Every member of the supporting cast of Catching Fire was wonderful, but I have to give special recognition to the actor who surprised me the most. That was Elizabeth Banks, who gave Effie so much depth and compassion in this film while still maintaining the same sense of overbearing propriety that made her such a strong source of comedic relief in The Hunger Games. Banks manages to bring both the laughs (another excellent “mahogany” reference) and the tears in this film. Her work in the reaping scene is incredibly powerful in its subtlety. The war waging in Effie between her need to maintain decorum and her overwhelming sadness at watching these people she’s come to care for go back into the arena has to stay just under the surface, but you can feel it in every second the camera spends focused on her tear-filled eyes. And her goodbye to Katniss and Peeta was one of the most moving moments in the film. Banks’s control over her emotions was brilliant, and it made those rare moments when Effie’s prim and proper exterior begins to crack all the more powerful. I didn’t care about Effie all that much while reading the books, but Banks makes it impossible not to care about this woman who has grown from an annoying symbol of the Capitol to a beloved member of a team bonded by love and loss.

Bring the Tissues? If you think the answer could possibly be “no,” then you have no idea what this series is about. The big emotional moments deliver with a breathless kind of power, but there’s a special kind of potency to the film’s smaller moments of love and friendship, too. A show of unity among the former victors, Peeta’s face when the Quarter Quell is announced, Haymitch hugging Katniss, and Peeta helping Katniss through her nightmares with a perfectly-delivered “Always”—each of those moments blindsided me with how much they moved me. And if you’ve read Mockingjay, some scenes will be almost brutally sad to watch because you know what’s coming for these characters in the next films. (I’m thinking especially of Peeta and Katniss’s last kiss and an early conversation they have about favorite colors.)

Most Memorable Scene: It was almost impossible for me to choose just one scene. I could have picked the District 11 Victory Tour scene for its emotional impact, the announcement of the Quarter Quell for the great performances put on display without any of the actors saying a word, the jabberjay scene for its ability to bring one of the most powerful scenes in the book to life, or the beach scene between Katniss and Peeta for its quiet intimacy. However, the scene that is still haunting me a day later was the scene between Katniss and Haymitch near the end of the film. I didn’t think anything could equal the power of that scene in the book, with Katniss trying to scratch Haymitch’s eyes out over his part in saving her and letting Peeta become a prisoner of the Capitol, but this scene matched it in every possible way. Lawrence astounded me with how fearlessly she attacked that moment; she made Katniss’s pain, grief, and anger so palpable it made me grip the armrests of my theater seat.

The whole film builds to this moment of Katniss lashing out in response to people controlling everything about her life, and it’s even more powerful because she’s lashing out at Haymitch, one of the only people she trusted. Lawrence makes you believe that losing Peeta has finally pushed Katniss over the edge; he was her anchor in this film, keeping her from getting lost in the darkness because she had someone to navigate that darkness with her. And now he’s gone, a prisoner of the Capitol because others—including Haymitch—deemed Katniss more important to save. The sense of betrayal Katniss feels knowing Haymitch left Peeta to die—or at least to be tortured—is so visceral, and it hurts even more because we understand it. The juxtaposition of that scene and the earlier beach scene puts everything into perspective; Katniss is the only one who needs Peeta, and when he’s gone (with Haymitch being partly responsible), she has no one left to trust. The absence of Peeta for mere moments has such a profound impact on Katniss, and it’s an impact that will reverberate through the rest of the series. To see both Lawrence and Woody Harrelson approach this brutal scene with such honesty was something special. It broke my heart, but it made me feel proud that such brilliant actors were bringing to life a book I love so much.

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Nerdy Girl Goes to the Movies: The Butler

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Title: Lee Daniels’ The Butler

Rating: PG-13

Cast: Forest Whitaker (Cecil Gaines), Oprah Winfrey (Gloria Gaines), David Oyelowo (Louis Gaines), Elijah Kelley (Charlie Gaines), Cuba Gooding Jr. (Carter Wilson), Lenny Kravitz (James Holloway), Robin Williams (Dwight D. Eisenhower), John Cusack (Richard Nixon), James Marsden (John F. Kennedy), Liev Schreiber (Lyndon B. Johnson), Alan Rickman (Ronald Reagan), Jane Fonda (Nancy Reagan)

Director: Lee Daniels

The Basics: The Butler is a sweeping portrait of the civil rights movement in America, told through the eyes of Cecil Gaines, who served as a butler in the White House from Eisenhower to Reagan. While the film highlights important moments in American history from inside the White House, the true heart of this film lies in Cecil’s house, where he struggles with an alcoholic but loving wife, a son in Vietnam, and another son making his voice heard as a Freedom Rider and later as a member of the Black Panther Party. This film takes the fight for equal rights—from a sharecropping field in the 1920s to the election of President Obama—and makes it intensely personal. This is a story that needs to be told, and its told through some truly fantastic performances. Yes, some of the presidential stunt casting was unbelievable to the point of taking away from the film, but, ultimately, what really mattered where the performances given by Whitaker, Winfrey, and Oyelowo. This trio of actors anchored the film with performances that were nuanced, powerful, and completely compelling.

M.V.P. (Most Valuable Performer): Without a strong actor taking on the role of Cecil, this film could have felt like a dry history lesson, jumping from one milestone to the next without any real emotional connection. Thankfully, Forest Whitaker gives his performance the quiet strength that we’ve come to expect from such a brilliant actor. Cecil never feels like a caricature or anything less than a real, three-dimensional person. We can feel the toll that years of hard work and suffering have taken on this man, but we can also feel the pride he takes in his job and the life he was able to build for his family. There is a quiet dignity to Whitaker’s performance that could get lost among the more flashy performances to come as “Oscar season” approaches. But his work should not be forgotten or lost in the shuffle because he is able to make you believe in this man and in the values by which he lives his life. It’s a testament to Whitaker’s performance that I found myself crying by the end of the film because I felt like I could understand what the election of President Obama would mean to Cecil Gaines. That ability to make the audience connect so strongly with a character in just a couple of hours is something only the best actors possess.

Scene Stealer: David Oyelowo might be a relative unknown (to me at least), but I walked away from this film incredibly impressed with him. There was such passion in his performance, and that uncontrolled fire of purpose worked so well opposite Whitaker’s more quietly powerful Cecil. The generation gap between Louis and Cecil is a driving force in this film, and it works because you are able to understand both sides of that gap. Whitaker makes you believe in Cecil’s reasons for acting the way he does (the murder of his father being the horrible foundation for his views on acting out too strongly), but Oyelowo also makes you understand Louis’s need to take action and to fight. He’s not just some rebellious kid; he’s someone who wants a better life for his future family the same way Cecil did. He doesn’t hate his father; he just doesn’t understand him. And that kind of universal struggle between generations takes on such a unique life in this film, a life that rings with authenticity because of the honesty Oyelowo gives to Louis’s journey.

Bring the Tissues? If you remain unmoved while watching Cecil react to the 2008 Election Night results, then I’m not sure you were really watching the movie. I was on the verge of tears a few times throughout the film, but that moment is what made me actually start crying because I could feel how much it meant to these characters, especially Cecil.

Most Memorable Scene: The generation gap that fuels the tension throughout the film comes to a powerful head in a dinner table confrontation between Cecil, Louis, Gloria, and Louis’s girlfriend. With Louis in his Black Panther clothing and his girlfriend sporting a huge afro while sitting with the modestly dressed Cecil and Gloria, the contrast is evident before any of the characters even begin speaking. And when they do begin speaking, it erupts into the best scene in the film. A discussion about Sidney Poitier turns from small-talk to fighting words when Louis scoffs at men like him and, by extension, his father. Louis’s inability to understand the pride his father takes in his job finally proves too much for the usually stoic Cecil, who explodes with a force we only see once in the film—but it’s enough.

But the true “scene stealing” moment belongs to Oprah. I know it’s been shown in every commercial and trailer for the film, but the moment when she slaps her son and tells him that everything he is and has is because of “that butler,” I still got chills like I was hearing it for the first time. And I wanted to cheer when she kicked his horrible girlfriend out of her house. I was worried going into the film that Oprah wouldn’t be able to disappear into this role as much as she would need to, but this scene was the moment when I knew my concerns were unfounded.

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Nerdy Girl Goes to the Movies: The Heat

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Title: The Heat

Rating: R

Cast: Sandra Bullock (Sarah Ashburn), Melissa McCarthy (Shannon Mullins), Marlon Wayans (Levy), Demian Bichir (Hale), Michael Rapaport (Jason Mullins), Taran Killam (Adam)

Director: Paul Feig

The Basics: The Heat is a classic buddy-cop comedy about an uptight, conceited FBI agent who’s forced to work with a gruff and unorthodox detective from Boston in order to bring down a drug kingpin and murderer. The unique thing about this film is that both the FBI agent and Boston detective are women. Although it’s probably not the greatest cop film anyone will ever see, this film should be remembered for its dedication to focusing solely on the relationship between these two female characters—and what great characters they are. Melissa McCarthy and Sandra Bullock both bring such different but equally fantastic comedic energies to this film, proving once again that a film driven by women can be just as funny as (if not funnier than) a male-centric comedy.

M.V.P. (Most Valuable Performer): There’s no way to separate McCarthy and Bullock when talking about this film, especially not when trying to judge who was better. They were a true team, bringing different comedic styles to the table and bouncing those styles off each other to create something genuinely entertaining. Both actors played variations on roles we’re familiar with (McCarthy’s Mullins was in many ways similar to her role in Bridesmaids, and Bullock’s Ashburn had notes of her performances in both Miss Congeniality and The Proposal.), but the combination of the two of them together was lightning in a bottle. They’re each skilled in so many different ways to be funny—from physical comedy to deadpan delivery to the perfect time to drop an f-bomb (or 10). When I first heard that McCarthy and Bullock were making a buddy-cop comedy together, I knew they would be a dream team, but they exceeded even my high expectations. They seemed to bring out the best and funniest in each other, creating a kind of comedic chemistry that can’t be forced. Actors either have it or they wish they did, and these two have it in spades.

Scene Stealer: The movie really belonged to Bullock and McCarthy—to the point where it was hard to pick someone who diverted any attention away from them. The closest this movie came to having any scene stealers was Mullins’s family. From Joey McIntyre as one of her loudmouthed brothers to Jane Curtin as her constantly disapproving mother, the casting of this family was excellent. The scene where Mullins and Ashburn cram the whole family into a van to get them out of their neighborhood was absolutely hilarious.

Bring the Tissues? Only if you have a tendency to cry when you laugh really hard.

Should I Stay or Should I Go? Stay in your seat during the credits for an extra scene featuring Ashburn, Mullins, and the cat Ashburn likes to borrow from her neighbor. It’s worth sticking around for a little bit to get one last laugh in before you leave.

Most Memorable Scene: There were a lot of memorable, hilarious scenes in The Heat, but the funniest scene—the one that combines all of Bullock and McCarthy’s comedic strengths—is the scene where Mullins and Ashburn follow a suspect into a club and attempt to get close to him to bug his phone. Yes, one of the biggest laughs was spoiled in the trailers and commercials for the film (Mullins asking “What’s gonna come popping out?” when she learns what Spanx are for). However, that scene is so much more than just one punch line. When Mullins tells Ashburn to ventilate the area usually covered by her Spanx, I couldn’t breathe because I was laughing so hard. It’s a kind of humor that appeals to women because we can relate and I’d think appeals to men as well because McCarthy and Bullock’s delivery is just so good. And once the women leave the bathroom and go back into the club, it’s physical comedy gold. Watching Bullock try to seduce the suspect while McCarthy yells out encouragement (“Use your boobs!”) was hilarious, and I loved watching them try to get rid of one woman who kept trying to get herself in the middle of their seduction attempt.

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Nerdy Girl Goes to the Movies: Much Ado About Nothing

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Title: Much Ado About Nothing

Rating: PG-13

Cast: Amy Acker (Beatrice), Alexis Denisof (Benedick), Clark Gregg (Leonato), Jillian Morgese (Hero), Fran Kranz (Claudio), Reed Diamond (Don Pedro), Sean Maher (Don John), Nathan Fillion (Dogberry)

Director: Joss Whedon

The Basics: This most recent cinematic version of Shakespeare’s classic comedy tells the story of two relationships: the love-at-first sight romance between Hero and Claudio and the bickering buildup of love and passion between Beatrice and Benedick. A game of matchmaking initially draws the latter couple closer together, but it’s only when Benedick sides with Beatrice after her cousin Hero is wrongly shamed by Claudio that the two fall in love in earnest. Set in modern times but told using all of Shakespeare’s dialogue (though it has been slightly condensed), Joss Whedon’s take on this story heightens all of its comedy as well as all of its tragic undertones. This film is already the stuff of legend for being shot in only 12 days in Whedon’s own home, and it deserves all the praise that can be sent its way. The cast is brilliant, the direction is smart, and the cinematography is gorgeous. In a movie season usually filled with explosions and animated characters, Much Ado About Nothing is a welcome bit of culture and substance—while still being a whole lot of fun.

M.V.P. (Most Valuable Performer): I didn’t know much about Amy Acker going into this movie: I knew her from her small roles on Alias and Once Upon a Time, and I knew she was a popular Whedonverse actress—but that was it. It took only a few minutes for me to be completely bowled over by her talents and her charm, and now I want to see everything she’s ever been in (and I want her to be the lead in many more films after this one). Acker was truly the perfect Beatrice. Shakespearean English doesn’t sound great coming out of everyone’s mouth, but each line of dialogue rolled off her tongue like she was born to play this role. She brought such a compelling mixture of poise and spunk to her performance, deftly balancing both the comedy of the part and its dramatic moments. Acker proved to be great at both physical comedy (falling down the stairs upon hearing of Benedick’s affection for her) and verbal sparring matches (with her well-matched partner, Alexis Denisof). However, I found her to be most compelling in Beatrice’s darker and quieter moments. Her delivery of Beatrice’s “Oh that I were a man!” monologue was incredibly powerful; I felt all of her pain, anger, and helplessness. And I bought every step along the way in her relationship with Benedick. Acker positively glowed in her softer moments with Denisof, creating a Beatrice who is a gorgeously multifaceted character in life and in love.

Scene Stealer: Much Ado About Nothing is first and foremost a comedy, and the funniest thing about thing about this film was Nathan Fillion’s performance as the pompous-yet-inept officer of the law, Dogberry. He played the part with a shocking amount of subtlety, considering how easy it could be to go overboard with this kind of role. And that decision made every moment he was on screen all the funnier. Fillion, like Acker, delivered each line like he came out of the womb reading Shakespeare, his smooth voice and great comedic timing working their magic to full effect. His gift for physical comedy was also on display, and those small moments—from trying to get on a suit jacket that’s far too small to locking himself out of his car at the end of the film—were just perfect. As a huge fan of Fillion’s work on Castle, it was fun to see the role reversal of him playing a cop, even if Dogberry might be the most ridiculous (and yet ultimately effective) cop in literary history.

Bring the Tissues: While there are some very powerful emotional moments, this is still a Shakespearean comedy, which means you can probably leave the tissues at home for this one.

Should I Stay or Should I Go? There’s nothing hidden after the credits for this film.

Most Memorable Scene: This film felt like a string of one memorable scene after another: the first party scene (which I found more fun and more entertaining than the first party in Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby), all of the matchmaking exploits (Denisof’s attemps to eavesdrop made me cry with laughter), Hero and Caludio’s dramatic wedding, every scene featuring Dogberry, the joyous party at the end…

But if I had to pick just one scene, I think my selection would be surprisingly dramatic for a Shakespearean comedy. The scene where Beatrice and Benedick confess their love after Hero’s wedding disaster was incredibly powerful. Acker and Denisof both brought such a sense of total commitment to that scene and to each other as scene partners—it was a beautiful thing to behold. Acker’s grief was painfully palpable; I believed every tear that ran down her face. And Denisof was equally convincing in his dedication to her and his desire to do whatever it takes to make her pain end. This scene jumps back and forth so sharply between tragedy and romance that it calls for two actors who are strong as individuals but even stronger together, and that’s exactly what Acker and Denisof were in this film. This scene was the best showcase for their chemistry. Yes, I loved their bantering scenes, but this scene—with its sweeping undercurrent of passion and devotion—made me truly believe the love between Beatrice and Benedick in a way I don’t normally believe most Shakespearean love stories.

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Nerdy Girl Goes to the Movies: Monsters University

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Title: Monsters University

Rating: G

Cast: Billy Crystal (Mike Wazowski), John Goodman (James Sullivan, aka “Sulley”), Steve Buscemi (Randall), Helen Mirren (Dean Hardscrabble), Peter Sohn (Squishy), Joel Murray (Don), Sean Hayes/Dave Foley (Terri/Terry), Charlie Day (Art), Nathan Fillion (Johnny Worthington III)

Director: Dan Scanlon

The Basics: In this long-awaited prequel to Pixar’s 2001 hit Monsters, Inc., we travel back in time to when Mike met Sulley as freshmen in the prestigious Monsters University Scare Program. The monsters initially clash (Mike is a hard-working bookworm while Sulley tries to get by on pure talent and family reputation), but they learn to work together when both join Oozma Kappa, a fraternity full of lovable outcasts. This colorful, hilarious, and surprisingly deep film is more than just Pixar’s take on Revenge of the Nerds. It’s a story about what happens to our goals and dreams as we grow up and learn that sometimes life doesn’t go according to our best-laid plans. While it may not be as narratively original as the best of Pixar’s films, Monsters University is still a great example of what this studio does better than any other.

M.V.P. (Most Valuable Performer): The animators on this film deserve to be singled out for their incredible achievements. No two monsters look exactly alike (with the exception of the PNK sorority sisters), and that’s no easy feat. The color palette in this film was brilliant. The vibrant colors were a great fit for the energetic and youthful tone of the film; when you first go to college, it’s like entering a bright new world filled with colorful new people, and the animators captured that feeling perfectly. Also, they did an incredible job with the amount of detail shown on each monster. From the scales on Don’s skin to each strand of fur on Sulley’s body (especially his totally in-character spike of hair), I was blown away by the care taken to make each monster look as lifelike as possible.

Scene Stealer: While the entire voice cast was stellar, I cannot get over how genius it was to cast Helen Mirren as the voice of Dean Hardscrabble. Her voice oozes class and poise but also a sense of controlled intensity that was ideal for the character. Every time her character was onscreen, I found myself hanging on every word she said, which is exactly the way students feel when addressed by such an important faculty member. Pixar always manages to surprise me with the talent they put in their films, and this was no exception.

Bring the Tissues: Monsters University may not be a sobfest like Toy Story 3 or the opening minutes of Up, but it still offers some very powerful scenes about the realities of growing up and the struggles we all face in trying to determine if the dreams we had as children are compatible with the realities of who we are as adults. To make a long story short, if you’re 18 or over, you should probably be prepared to shed a tear or two.

Should I Stay or Should I Go? If you stay until after the (very long) credits, you’ll be rewarded with a cute and funny scene referencing an earlier gag in the film. It has no bearing on the plot or any future films, but it’s fun and gives you a chance to hear Bill Hader’s voice again.

Most Memorable Scene: I don’t want to give away any spoilers for the end of the film, so I’ll just say there’s a nice twist that takes Monsters University from being a cute film about a group of outcasts overcoming obstacles to a much deeper film about one of the hardest lessons of adulthood: Sometimes things don’t turn out the way you think they’re supposed to. With that twist (involving Mike, Sulley, Dean Hardscrabble, and a scare simulator), this film joined the pantheon of great Pixar films about growing up. It has lessons for kids about honesty and the importance of working hard, but it also has an important message for young adults struggling to carve out their identity: There’s more than one way to be successful, and being unable to live up to the expectations we put on ourselves (or our parents/teachers put on us) doesn’t mean we’ve failed. It just means we get to find a new dream—one more realistic to who we’ve become. Without that plot twist, this film is just another typical underdog success story, but with that twist, it becomes so much more.

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Nerdy Girl Goes to the Movies: The Great Gatsby

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Title: The Great Gatsby

Rating: PG-13

Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio (Jay Gatsby), Tobey Maguire (Nick Carraway), Carey Mulligan (Daisy Buchanan), Joel Edgerton (Tom Buchanan), Elizabeth Debicki (Jordan Baker), Isla Fisher (Myrtle Wilson)

Director: Baz Luhrmann

The Basics: This adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Jazz Age classic takes Jay Gatsby’s quest to reclaim his lost past by reclaiming his lost love and puts a loud and raucous spin on it that can only be describe as Luhrmannian in nature. This quintessentially American story of Gatsby, the tragic dreamer; Daisy, the “golden girl;” and Nick, the man whose own life becomes tangled in their reunion, is presented for audiences with lavish cinematography, gorgeous costumes, and a modern soundtrack. All this adds up to a film that has a clear sense of style but not enough substance. There are moments when it comes close to the heart of the novel, but those moments are too-often undercut by a heavy-handed script, misguided direction, and one of the worst casting decisions in recent memory.

M.V.P. (Most Valuable Performer): When I was 13 and read The Great Gatsby for the first time, I was convinced that Leonardo DiCaprio would make the perfect Jay Gatsby. Eleven years later, I left the theater feeling vindicated: This movie had its share of flaws, but DiCaprio wasn’t one of them. He was everything I could have hoped for in an adaptation of my favorite literary character, and that’s not just hyperbole. It was refreshing to watch DiCaprio turn on the charm in this role and act every bit the charismatic star he so rarely allows himself to be onscreen. But underneath that golden charm Gatsby wears as easily as one of his pink suits is a desperation that could have been lost in the hands of a lesser actor. Instead, DiCaprio allowed the audience perfect little glimpses behind Gatsby’s carefully constructed façade, reminding us that this is a desperate man as well as a debonair one. Above all else, though, DiCaprio excelled at making Gatsby a real man rather than just a symbol or a mythic figure. He gets every dimension right—from Gatsby’s sense of hope to his deluded belief that Daisy is worthy of that hope. While many may argue the true “greatness” of Jay Gatsby, I don’t think there can be any arguing over the greatness of DiCaprio’s turn as one of literature’s most iconic (and complicated) characters.

Scene Stealer: I didn’t know who Joel Edgerton was before seeing The Great Gatsby, but now I can’t stop thinking about his brilliant turn as Tom Buchanan. Yes, he gave the role the sense of brute physicality and gruff menace necessary to contrast with DiCaprio’s smooth and romantic take on Gatsby. However, he was also able to take the Tom Buchanan of Fitzgerald’s prose and elevate him to something resembling a human being—albeit a reprehensible one. Edgerton had one foot on each side of the line between humanity and heartlessness, and that worked incredibly for the character. Tom can’t be someone you root for, but he doesn’t have to be cartoonishly evil, either. Edgerton’s work in the hotel room confrontation was some of the most captivating and nuanced acting in the whole film. Every time he was onscreen, I could feel the tension between him and almost all the other characters, and that’s exactly what I’d hoped to feel when it came to Tom Buchanan.

Bring the Tissues? There are opportunities for tears in this film, but I found myself dry-eyed throughout all of it. Others may feel differently, though—especially if they have somehow managed to avoid any knowledge of how the story ends.

Should I Stay or Should I Go? To the best of my knowledge, there aren’t any hidden gems during or after the credits, so you can head out as soon as they start rolling.

Most Memorable Scene: For most viewers, the lasting impression of The Great Gatsby is probably the first party scene, and that’s because it makes quite the impression. In this one scene, Luhrmann’s style worked like a charm: the anachronistic music, the chaotic action, the lush colors, and the opulent set pieces came together in a way I think Fitzgerald himself would have approved of.

However, the scene that will stay with me the most is the scene I think comes closest to the spirit of the novel. It’s a quiet conversation between Gatsby and Nick outside the former’s mansion in which Gatsby reveals his obsessive need to recreate the past, and Nick concludes (in his voiceover) that Gatsby isn’t so much in pursuit of Daisy as he is in pursuit of who he was when he first loved her. It took one of the most meaningful passages in the novel—the passage that gets to the heart of who Jay Gatsby is perhaps better than any other—and brought it to life:

He talked a lot about the past, and I gathered that he wanted to recover something, some idea of himself perhaps, that had gone into loving Daisy. His life had been confused and disordered since then, but if he could return to a certain starting place and go over it all slowly, he could find out what that thing was…

In a film that tried so hard to make The Great Gatsby a love story between Daisy and Gatsby, I was shocked to see this scene done so well because it reveals that the real love story is between Gatsby and the innocence he had when he had first loved Daisy. This is the true spirit of the novel—it’s a story about a man searching for a way to go back in time in the midst of a country and time period that were all about moving forward. For one brief moment, I felt like the filmmakers actually understood the soul of the novel they were adapting, and that made me happier than I excepted to be at any point during my viewing of The Great Gatsby.

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Nerdy Girl Goes to the Movies: Iron Man 3

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Title: Iron Man 3

Rating: PG-13

Cast: Robert Downey Jr. (Tony Stark), Gwyneth Paltrow (Pepper Potts), Don Cheadle (Colonel James Rhodes), Guy Pearce (Aldrich Killian), Rebecca Hall (Maya Hansen), Jon Favreau (Happy Hogan), Sir Ben Kingsley (The Mandarin), Ty Simpkins (Harley Keener)

Director: Shane Black

The Basics: The third installment of Marvel’s successful Iron Man franchise finds Tony Stark still haunted by the alien attack he helped fend off in The Avengers, throwing himself into the construction of Iron Man suit after Iron Man suit in a feeble attempt to keep his PTSD at bay. However, when the Mandarin, a terrorist waging war on the United States, brings destruction to Tony’s doorstep, he is forced to rely on only himself (and young Harley Keener) to protect those closest to him and the country as a whole. In the process, he confronts the question of whether or not Iron Man can be a hero outside of his suit. Iron Man 3 is the best of the franchise. Its action-packed moments were breathtaking, but the film was even more impressive in its quieter moments of character development. And, as always, it was anchored by a charming, funny, and surprisingly nuanced performance from Robert Downey Jr.

M.V.P. (Most Valuable Performer): Any superhero movie is only as good as its superhero. What’s made the Iron Man films stand out above almost any other in the genre is the easy charisma Downey lends to Tony Stark. His rapid-fire delivery and natural sense of “cool” make it impossible to see where actor ends and character begins, and that’s always been the selling point for this franchise. Downey was once again excellent in Iron Man 3, but the real strength of his performance was not in how cool he made Tony appear but in the exact opposite: the sense of barely-contained anxiety he brought to every scene. Yes, he was still brilliant in his smooth-talking, sharp-shooting moments of dialogue, but he was even better in the moments where he had to convey to us just how damaged Tony had become since the events of The Avengers. This time, his fast-paced delivery hinted not at a “too cool for school” attitude but instead at a crippling panic he’s trying to push down with every word spoken. In this film, Downey had to show more sides to Tony than ever before, and he proved himself more than up to the challenge.

Scene Stealer: Child actors can often make or break a film. A bad one makes you roll your eyes or cringe with every line of dialogue, but a good one brings an energy to a film that only a child can bring. I think it’s safe to say that Ty Simpkins is one of the good ones. I would have never thought that the missing emotional piece in the Iron Man franchise was a little boy, but Simpkins’s performance added a warmth to Iron Man 3 that was absent in both the first and second films. His chemistry with Downey was incredible; the scene where Harley talked to Tony during one of his panic attacks was one of my favorite moments in the film. He was sweet but not cloyingly so, and his solid delivery was a strong match for the great things Downey can do with dialogue. Best of all, his presence in the film added another dimension to Tony as a character and brought out another side of Downey as an actor. The genuine bond between Tony and Harley was such a pleasant surprise, and it really helped make this the best Iron Man film yet.

Bring the Tissues? I think you can leave the tissue box at home for this one. While there were plenty of strong emotional moments, there weren’t any that reduced me to tears.

Should I Stay or Should I Go? Stay until after the credits are all over for a hilarious scene featuring one of my favorite members of the cast of The Avengers. It does nothing to tease future movies or enhance this one’s plot in any way, but the surprise cameo was probably one of my favorite parts of Iron Man 3.

Most Memorable Scene: While Iron Man 3 was elevated above traditional “popcorn flick” status by its moments of serious character study, it was also an incredibly entertaining thrill ride—and in no scene was that more evident than in the film’s climatic action sequence. The moment when all of the Iron Man suits appeared on command was a gorgeously triumphant moment, and the action that followed was a breathless adrenaline rush. Coupled with the emotional stakes in the scene for Tony and Pepper, this was everything I love about big action movies rolled up into one incredibly fun scene.

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