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ReThink Review: Reaching for the Moon - Of Parks and Poetry

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For a long time, many have criticized the dearth of good leading female roles in movies. If Meryl Streep made a movie in a given year you could reliably expect her to win the Best Actress Oscar (often for doing yet another impeccable accent), while the more interesting race, performances, and new talent would be found in the Supporting Actress category. But if you've been watching the independent scene this year, you may have noticed what I have -- a host of excellent breakout lead performances by women that could/should give more established Hollywood actresses a run for their money.

The latest of those performances is by Miranda Otto, whom most of you will recognize as Eowyn from the Lord of the Rings movies for delivering perhaps the trilogy's best line before dispatching the Witch-King. Since then, Otto has mostly been appearing in supporting roles in films and on TV in movies and mini-series. But in Reaching For the Moon -- the wonderful film about Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Elizabeth Bishop and her relationship with Carlota de Macedo Soares, the creator of Rio de Janeiro's iconic Flamengo Park -- Otto shows that she is a leading woman to be reckoned with in a film that I feel deserves multiple Oscar nominations. Watch my ReThink Review of Reaching For the Moon below (transcript following).

Transcript:

2013 has been the strongest year for female performances in movies that I can remember. I'd be more than happy if either Greta Gerwig in Frances Ha, Brie Larson in Short Term 12, Kathryn Hahn in Afternoon Delight, or Adele Exarchopoulos in Blue Is the Warmest Color won the Oscar for Best Actress. And another actress I'd put on the list is Miranda Otto, who I, like many of you, knew only as Eowyn of the horse people from the Lord of the Rings movies. But Otto can do a lot more than slay Witch-Kings, which I learned watching the wonderful, luminous film Reaching For the Moon, where Otto's full range and gifts are on display in a movie that deserves awards nominations in multiple categories.

Otto plays Elizabeth Bishop, the poet and short story writer who was America's Poet Laureate from 1949 to 1950 and went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1956. Instead of a standard biopic seeking to summarize her whole life, Reaching For the Moon starts in 1951 with Bishop's arrival in Brazil and follows her time in that country and the roughly 15-year romance she had with Carlota de Macedo Soares (played by Glória Pires), who was the daughter of a wealthy and prominent Brazilian family and went on to be the mastermind behind Rio de Janeiro's famous and defining Flamengo Park, despite her having no formal architectural or design training.

Yes, Bishop was a lesbian, and while that may cause some to draw a lazy comparison between Reaching For the Moon and Palme D'Or winner Blue Is the Warmest Color, which is also about a lesbian relationship, the two films have little in common, especially since Bishop and Lota's sexuality was rarely an issue and the two mostly embodied traditional gender roles, with Lota being more masculine, direct, and decisive while Bishop is more feminine, delicate, and sensitive. Lota's brash and confident manner is best exemplified when she quickly dumps her live-in partner of 12 years Mary (played by Tracy Middendorf) shortly after Bishop arrives in Brazil, then has the audacity to not only ask Bishop to move into their home, but to have Mary continue living there in a platonic relationship in exchange for helping Mary adopt a child, with the three women sharing parental duties.

In keeping with director Bruno Barreto's desire to not have Reaching For the Moon be a standard biopic, the film stays true to the large events of Bishop's life and the personalities of the real people, but the conversations between the characters are freely fictionalized to emphasize the film's main themes of strength, love, and loss. When we first meet Bishop, she could hardly seem more fragile and spends much of the film battling a drinking problem, but the losses she suffered earlier in life has prepared and steeled her for the adversity she later faces with Lota, which is expressed beautifully in Bishop's poem "One Art," which is read in the film. Conversely, Lota, who's been getting her way her whole life, has a hard time handling the obstacles she faces with building the park, as well as what to do when her relationship with Bishop becomes strained.

Otto and Pires definitely deserve nominations for their performances, as does the screenplay, which is based on the book Rare and Commonplace Flowers by Carmen Oliveira. I'd also give nods to the cinematography, as well as the costumes, which evoke that time back when it seems like everyone dressed nicely for everything, as well as the set design, which highlights the beautiful art and furniture that would adorn the homes of creative, cultured people of that era.

I went into Reaching For the Moon as blind as could be, having never heard of Elizabeth Bishop, her poetry, Lota de Macedo Soares, or the creation of Flamengo Park, and I left totally curious and enthralled by all of it, and excited to read more of Bishop's poetry. Reaching For the Moon is only in limited release in California and New York, but it's definitely one I'll be rooting for this award season, and it's one you shouldn't miss.

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