Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008)

Brad Pitt = B/B+.
Brad Pitt has the most difficult role to navigate in the film; the title role. As such, he has a huge responsibility to make the character believable, which I think he succeeds in. Just to give you the scope of how difficult this must have been: He has to physically communicate the outer-age of his character while keeping his inner life suitably young. And even though there's no big moments for him, he provides a very plush wall for the other actors to bounce off of. I can't really find any real flaws with his performance, I must say that he is especially great in the last act where he may be overshadowed by his co-star, and I can't blame the monotony of the middle part of the film on him. Based on my limited viewing of the contenders, an Oscar nomination would not be amiss for him here.

Cate Blanchett = A.
Let me say now that I am a fan of Cate Blanchett, but until this performance I wouldn't say that I was a huge fan, I felt she was amazing in Elizabeth, and has had moments of brilliance since but I would never call her a particularly amazing actress. But, this performance, while not being my favourite of hers, Elizabeth is still that milestone and she will never equal it, probably because she's a more experienced actress, it is the most unique performance that she's done so far. And, I'm horrified to see that she's being passed over for Oscar consideration. For the last hour, Blanchett carries the film and creates most of the heartbreak and emotional gravitas. But, even before that she is a captivating screen presence, and convinces with a character that's almost underwritten. There's just so much I can write about this performance, and that last hour may be one of her finest as an actress; I was just consistently amazed at how she lived in the character, physically, emotionally and with her voice. I must give special attention to her physical performance; her dancing is incredible and her voice; surely one of the best and most emotive in the business today, she is her generation's Lauren Bacall. Definitely a performance that will one day become legendary, and without seeing many of the contenders in this category, my favourite of the year.

Taraji P. Henson = B/B+.
Henson dazzles in her opening scenes and continues in the film with an aura of likeability. I place the blame on the writing here, she sort of plays like a stereotyped character, but she adds soul and reality to even that stereotype, and ably scales that obstacle. I blame the screenplay once more for not giving her a real exit scene, which would have completed her character arc quite nicely. Perhaps there was some reason for that, but I honestly can't see it. Henson has a difficult role to manage in that she's asked to provide very easy laughs and drama only some of the time, the movie seems like it doesn't know what to do with her. Still, I give Henson a lot of credit for pulling a character together from only occasional scenes, which she anchors with a warm homeliness and just a little dash of trademark sass. The performance seems slight for a nomination, but it's not exactly something I would object to.

Tilda Swinton = B+
This role seems a little bit slight to place here, because many actors had larger roles than she, but she's significant enough to the plot for me to review the performance. And, it's Tilda Swinton; she's the most talented actress of her generation. Her performance in the movie is one of the rare few that gets an extended amount of time all at once. Her performance is fantastically subtle and nuanced, she conveys a great deal of amount of her character without being particularly forthright, she hints at the small inner tragedies and insecurities delightfully. As with any Swinton performance, there is beauty in the details; how she packs her cigarettes into her jacket when she first meets Benjamin, the small tea conversation, it's all in service of the character. But the biggest compliment I can give this performance is that it makes you wish that you could watch all of her and Benjamin's conversation rather than just the montage, even in this sometimes overlong movie. (For the record, there is not a five-second scene late in the game where Swinton delivers the worst line-reading of her career. There simply is not.)

Other Notable Performances:
Julia Ormond - Makes the flash-forwards worthwhile. You can see flashes of her character outisde of the film. Once more; makes you wish it was just slightly about her.
Jared Harris - Vivid, if not particularly deep. Almost manages to make the whole seafaring part of the movie enjoyable.

Overall Film Grade: A-/B+

Friday, December 26, 2008

sex, lies, and videotape (1989)

Andie Macdowell = B+
Now, this is not to say that Andie MacDowell is a talented actress by any stretch of the imagination; she's not. But, I think she gives a great performance in this movie, despite or perhaps because of her limitations as an actress. Anne is a mundane character, or at least I think she's written as such, and MacDowell is a rather mundane actress with an unspecific, wooden kind of charisma. So, this actress is rather a perfect fit for the character. Limited as MacDowell is, I will give her a tremendous amoutn of credit for guiding the audience through her two character shifts; before her video interview and after it. She makes them totally believable andn ot at all a stretch for this character. Still; I feel like I'm giving MacDowell a lot of credit for doing a serviceable performance of a great character, I can only wonder what a more talented actress might have done with the part, a young Julianne Moore, Linda Fiorentino, Michelle Pfeiffer, Uma Thurman or even Julia Roberts. I'll give MacDowell credit where it's due, though.

James Spader = A
Is this the role that started Spader off on his chain of weird characters? And by chain, I mean Crash and Secretary. Which is more weird than many other actors put together. Anyway, this is really the kind of character that Spader excels at most. A lesser actor might possibly have played up the 'depravity' and made this character a kind of messed up, Norman Bates, kind of guy. However, Spader seems to empathize with his character and plays him as a human, he doesn't fall into the many pitfalls that he could have and creates Graham as a haracter that is plapably and ultimately real. I'm really going in circles with this, but it's a credit to Spader that his performance is so lived in and perfectly played that you can simply recognise it as a great performance, even if you can't describe exactly what makes it so.

Peter Gallagher = B-
How bad do you need to be in a movie to have your scenes stolen from you by Andie MacDowell? I kid, I kid; because Peter Gallagher isn't really bad in this movie. The only reason why his character reads as less of an achievement than the others in the film is because it's written as such; we're very rarely provided his perspective on things and the film skims over any big moments that John could have. Gallagher does very well with what he's given, and if I had a better understanding of the film, I'm sure he's quite perfectly representing something in particular, but I don't so I won't go into that. The one thing I count against him is that towards the end, he tends to demonize and simplify his charater a bit, the confrontation with John isn't really believable because of him, but Gallagher finds ground with this character again in his final scene and so I forgive him for it. A little bit. (As a side-note, because I can't mention this anywhere else, John has a single worst moment in the film when he punches Graham and an -awful- sound-byte makes it sound as though he's punched Graham down the stairs, rather than just onto the floor. It kind of takes you out of the scene, not that I'm blaming Peter Gallagher for that.)

Laura San Giacomo = A
I really like Giacomo in this role, and it's sad that nobody capitalized on her vivacity and incisiveness after this film. (No, Just Shoot Me doesn't count. However much I like the show.) Giacomo has a heavy role in the film, she's the only character who really -does- anything, she catalyses the other characters and connects the links in the plot. She also acts the surrogate for the audience, it's mostly through her that we get an inside to all the lives and minds of these chaacters. However, my favourite achievement of Giacomo is that she does a reverse of what I love about many performances; she's not afraid to make her character likeable. That is to say, that I enjoy when actors don't make their characters particularly likeable and just play them straight. However, on paper, Cynthia is not a likeable character, but Giacomo makes her as such without seeming to strive to make her likeable. Major bonus points for the perfectly played video scene, all the little gestures and nuances in the performance mesh together to make it my favourite scene in the movie. (My personal best supporting actress of 1989, for the record.)

Film Grade: B+

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Burn After Reading (2008)

George Clooney = B+
The first of many performances in which the Coens have discerned the strengths of an actor and used them; and used them well. In Clooney's case it is his equal levels of charm, and in this case, smarm. However, one of Clooney's strengths that I hadn't seen before, even in his other Coen collaborations, is his gift for kooky and completely batshit crazy comedy. Nowhere is this more evident than his final scene, where he plays out the most hilarious mad scene of the year; deer in the headlights and all. He never quite disappears into the role, but that hardly matters in a role that was clearly tailormade for him; it's a riproaringly hilarious performance in a film full of them.

Brad Pitt = B+
Pitt is an actor I find to be both overrated and underrated at the same time; overrated because I don't find him to be anywhere near as attractive or as charming as his tabloid prominence would suggest, and underrated because he's a much better actor than people give him credit for. Without seeing The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, I can call this my favourite of his performances ever. It's hardly a deep performance, but it's one that has a rich and detailed surface, and above that: It's a very intelligently comic performance of a very stupid and sweet character. To his immense credit, he doesn't try and make Chad seem smart in another way, this character is just plain stupid. And like Jennifer Tilly's inimitable performance in Bullets Over Broadway, Pitt shows us what an achievement it is to play stupid in a performance with detail and nuance.
Frances McDormand = A-
My favourite performance in the film, not by a long shot; but by a noticeable lead. McDormand's Linda is stupid in a way that is endearing and heartwarming. Not only that, but like the other performances in the film; this is a consummate comic achievement. Giving the Coens credit for what is a very funny character and script; the entirety of the Russian debacle cracks me up even a day after seeing the film for the second time; McDormand makes Linda so much more funnier than the script ever imagined her to be, I think. On top of that, McDormand's performance is full of little moments that speaks oodles of this woman's comic talent; both viewings of the movie, the phonecall, the car 'chase'. Move this movie up to a November release, and she would have cinched an Oscar nomination. (Speaking of which, can we exchange her North Country nomination for this in the history books? Please?)

John Malkovich = C
Now we come to my least favourite performance of the bunch. I'm going to be blunt here, I don't like Malkovich as an actor, I don't think he's talented and although his specific brand of acting worked wonders in Dangerous Liaisons and Being John Malkovich, it does not work all the time. His face is mysteriously inert, his line-readings far too forthright and his performance lacks any real depth. But, it works somewhat for the character that Malkovich doesn't aim for any comedy, instead counting on the script and narrative to provide the laughs. But, Malkovich is the weakest link in a hilarious cast. An extra point is taken away for being so far overshadowed by Tilda Swinton in the scenes they share.

Tilda Swinton = B+/A-
I feel like this is a bit of favouritism; Swinton is the most talented actress of her generation. Bar none. The woman spins gold from straw, and when she's given gold, she spins whatever-is-better-than-gold from it. She's not handed a particularly funny role here, but her performance is hilarious in so many points. My favourite choice of hers is that she didn't aim to make her character sympathetic in any way; she's a 'cold stuck-up bitch' as the script calls her and we don't believe any different. Her deadpan style is hysterical in a way that Malkovich's is not; you get that she understands the gags and their meaning in a way that Malkovich simply doesn't. And, to borrow a term from Nick Davis, she completely 'Streeps' this performance; there's more moment-for-moment acting than the script ever imagined. Best moment: When she's asked to wait a day to see if she'll get divorced, she does this little movement with her head that I just giggled at. Overall; a great comic performance from an actress who doesn't do enough comedies.

Other Notable Performances:
JK Simmons - Simmons is gifted with a very brief, but hilarious role around at the end of the second act and then closing the film; and brilliantly sums up the movie: "So what did we learn?" A very good turn around from his usual, admittedly decent, schtick on The Closer

Overall Movie Grade: (A-)

Friday, December 19, 2008

Pulp Fiction (1994)

John Travolta = B
Travolta fares better than Willis, perhaps due to an abundance of brilliant dialogue and a more interesting character but doesn't match up to his other two co-stars. The main obstacle which Travolta fails to overcome, as he fails to do in every single one of his performances except Hairspray (and that performance has a whole other range of issues) is his monotonous, wooden voice. This is particularly glaring in the opening scenes, where every line is delivered with the same dazed speech and it sort of cuts his often inspired dialogue off at the knees. However, despite that, Travolta manages to be at the very least an ample springboard for his more able co-stars and reaches what I believe is his peak as an actor during the restaurant scene, which I credit more to Tarantino and Thurman than any input or innovation from Travolta himself. An adept, if flawed, performance from a flawed if occasionally adept actor.

Samuel L. Jackson = A-
In the years that have followed Pulp Fiction, this performance is the one that Samuel L. Jackson has relied on for goodwill. And unless you've been sensory deprived for the last ten years, it's worked. Many of his performances, aside from his excellence in Black Snake Moan, have been lame rehashes of this one (Snakes on a Plane, Afro Samurai), sometimes toned down, occasionally dialed up and never with the same depth or aplomb that Jackson achieved here. It seems to be a little bit of a cliche to credit Tarantino with making this performance as great as it is, from both the standpoint of a director and a writer. However, a large part of the credit lies with Jackson, obviously; he has calibrated himself so finely to the material and the character that this isn't some lame creation of pulp fiction (no pun intended, shut up) but Jules Winfield is a fully realized creation that Jackson makes larger than life, inhabiting the movie even from the edge of the frame. My personal highlight here is the restaurant standoff; beautifully played, loud without being hammy and conveying what I can only describe as layers of coolness with characteristic style. Bonus points for actually using the dialogue he's given, unlike the actors above and below this paragraph.

Bruce Willis = B-
Some of this may come from the fact that I simply do not like Bruce Willis that much; I mean, we all have actors or actresses that we find ourselves simply unable to like no matter what the role or performance. Bruce Willis is one of those performers. I may have misread the role or something like that, but I don't think that Willis adjusted his performance or his mannerisms to the film and it's style at all. He was stilted when he should have been expressive, overacting when he should have been more restrained. If I am misunderstanding the performance or the role, feel free to correct me; but Willis is merely adequate among a pitch-perfect cast, and I wish he shined throughout his whole performance as he does when he wields the katana, a rare stroke of genius for an actor who coasts too far on assumed charisma.

Uma Thurman = A-
And now we come to my favourite performance of the bunch, though Jackson is a very close second. Thurman commits her second best Tarantino character to film with this eccentric gangster wife; which is a performance I find very hard to describe and evaluate, but I'll try and do it anyway. Thurman's claim to fame as an actress, in my personal opinion, is a kind of offbeat charisma and persona that permeates into every one of her characters, from her legendary performance in Kill Bill to trash such as Paycheck; and it is rarely more effective than it is here. Interestingly, she delivers Tarantino's dialogue like it is dialogue, but that works for the character of Mia, trying to impress or work her way around a bewildered Vincent. Even more interestingly, she manages to dial down and dilute that eccentricity and charisma when she tells her corny joke, making it a surprisingly poignant moment in a film that plays at a frenetic speed.

Other Notable Performances:
Amanda Plummer - Plummer gets the film off to a great start with a hilarious switch from sweet and romantic to crazed with a few sides of wacko. She sets the audience up for this great film in an unforgettably unique way. (So good that it's done twice!)
Christopher Walken - Walken ends up being another unique player in this film, adding equal shades of sadness and hilarious in a rather oddly placed scene.
Rosanna Arquette - Just as I dislike Willis for no real reason, I like Arquette for no real reason. One of many players that is counted upon to provide black comedy, but I like her brand more than some of the others, popping tension during the overdose scene with ease and managing to be shrill without being particularly offputting.
Harvey Keitel - In one extended scene, Keitel rivals Jackson for 'coolness' factor, completely believable as a man who is sent to fix things. Something tells me taht maybe the character wasn't intended to be so deadpan, but regardless of whether it was or wasn't, Keitel achieves hilarity without being particularly comic.

Overall Film Grade: A+

The Performance Review: An Introduction

Basically, I decided that I write about the performances a lot in my reviews, so I've decided to create a blog dedicated solely to writing about the performances in any given movie I watch. Fun times! So stay tuned for several films each week as I make my way across them.

First up, Pulp Fiction!