If you’re a music lover and missed this glorious documentary about the lives of back-up singers, you really missed it. Skip the more talked about but far inferior music doc Muscle Shoals and check this one out. The film features an astonishing array of talented female backup singers from the ones who set the rock template in the sixties to the modern ladies that keep the tradition going. Spending time with these ladies is incredibly fun. Merry Clayton is a vibrant force of nature, just like you’d think from hearing her astonishing backup vocals on the Stones’ Gimme Shelter; Darlene Love is a witty, warm presence and seeing her reunite with her old backup group to launch into a flawless Da Doo Ron Ron after having not sung together for over thirty years is a film moment for the ages. From the modern era, Lisa Fischer is intense, passionate and does an amazing vamp of scat singing that seems to last for several minutes, just her face in close up, a shifting tapestry of emotions and that amazing voice. These ladies are, to exaggerate not at all, legendary and they communicate their love of music in an immediate, vibrant way that makes this easily the most joyous music documentary I’ve ever seen. 20 feet? Don't believe a word of it. These ladies are stars all the way.
One of the pleasures of this template setting action classic, which I saw on the big screen for the first time this past year, is the really wonderful cast of fantastic character actors. The sheer volume of well-known (or soon to be well-known) names in the cast is impressive all by itself. Bill Paxton as the chicken**** William “Game over, man” Hudson; Paul Reiser as the slimy company representative; Lance Henriksen as the loyal, methodical android; the consistently underrated Michael Biehn as the stalwart Cpl. Hicks; and last, but not least, Sigourney Weaver as the impassioned Ellen “Get away from her, you BITCH” Ripley. The lesser known actors are every bit as good. William Hope is particularly good as the inexperienced Lieutenant Gorman, a soldier who finds himself in well over his head and struggling not to show it. Then there’s the wonderful Jenette Goldstein as the butch, ferocious Private Vasquez; with her hard-ass performance she basically sets the template for Michelle Rodriguez’ entire career. Sometimes genre films don’t get the respect they deserve when it comes to acting; this is one that deserves respect in spades. It’s a pitch perfect cast; everyone hits their character marks to perfection.
One of Nolan’s great strengths is his ability to assemble amazing ensembles. This was true all the way back to his first film, Memento, so it’s not necessarily just his star power. Regardless, this one draws heavily on extremely talented folks, all of whom are magnificent. Nolan go-tos Michael Caine and Christian Bale are excellent; Bale’s minimal performance is an overlooked one in his canon, I feel, but one of his best. Hugh Jackman, who’s been improving immensely of late, gives what I feel is his first genuinely great performance. Rebecca Hall, Scarlett Johansson and Andy Serkis all give able support. And, yes, let’s not forget the absolute gem of this movie, David Bowie in a surprising, yet absolutely perfect bit of casting, as the visionary Tesla. When you hear about the casting for the first time, it sounds incredibly strange; once you see it, it’s impossible to imagine anyone else, including Tesla himself, being better in the role.
Brie Larson commands this film like a master actress, but she gets able support from a fantastic ensemble. The story is about a crisis center for troubled teens and the film manages to create humanity in even its small characters. Keith Stanfield is very good as an aspiring rapper. Kaitlyn Dever is a real revelation as Jayden, a teen patient with more issues than at first appear. John Gallagher Jr. and Remi Malek are quite good in their supporting roles. One small strike against it: apparently Melora Walters got her part extremely cut. She’s in one shot in the whole movie and that’s a real waste of a wonderful actress.
Surely no one’s surprised to walk into a Simon Pegg/Nick Frost/Edgar Wright collab and find a frigging amazing ensemble cast. The main characters number six, which is a lot, but every part is perfectly cast. Simon Pegg as the arrogant, poisonous center of the movie; Nick Frost as the bitter, pained best friend; Martin Freeman as a pompous businessman; Paddy Considine as a lovelorn, hang-dog loser; Eddie Marsan as the awkward nerd; and Rosamund Pike, better than she’s ever been, as the sole female. Pierce Brosnan shows up in a devilish cameo. And then there’s the undeniably amazing actor Bill Nighy as The Network, but unfortunately even a man of his notable talents can’t save that brutally misbegotten ending. The ensemble includes some small parts that are perfectly cast and played as well. Stacy & Kelly Franklin are incredibly creepy and funny as twin sisters and a wonderfully blank and eerie group of kids that attack the main characters in a pub bathroom. Not sure from the cast list of their names unfortunately, but they’re genuinely scary, particularly the leader who first confronts Pegg’s character.
Next time, we’ll start the Top Ten Ensembles Awards. We’ll start with one of the most quietly disturbing films of the year. One of the major reasons it works as well as it does is the pitch perfect acting and casting.