Monday, January 19, 2009

Doubt (2008)

Meryl Streep = A.
I'm going to preface my comments on Streep's performance by saying that this is Streep at the top of her game, which is sort of redundant; you hand Streep a great script and character and you're guaranteed a great performance. Which is exactly what she gives here. She haunts the movie from the first frame and her presence lingers even throughout those few scenes where she isn't presence, you feel she could be lingering under any one of the many black habits seen throughout the film. I have no Cherry Jones with which to compare, so I'm judging the performance on it's own significant merits. Occasionally Streep is a bit too forthright, though never hammy; you genuinely believe that this is Sister Aloysius just losing her grip on the situation just a little whenever she yells. I give immense credit to Streep for not simplifying her character as the final scene attempts to do, she layers Sister Aloysius with her trademark knack for a character tic and movement; you see the both the compassion and irritability when she gives Sister Veronica the fork, she refuses to embrace one part of the character while excluding the other. A full-bodied and perfectly aligned performance from an actress that has been at it for three decades.

Amy Adams = A-.
In the space of three years, Adams has reinvigorated herself from an actress of an insane amount of charm to hold up a character to a talented actress with a knack for playing doe-eyed innocence. However, to dismiss her performance as being similar to those in Junebug and Enchanted is an immense disservice to her performances in those, which were completely different plays on somewhat similar characters, and an insult to this performance. Yes, Sister James is an innocent nun, but she's not a pushover. Adams imbues James with a noticeable spine and individuality that breaks away from the innocence, she stands up to Aloysius in a way that Father Flynn doesn't even succeed at; she attacks what may be at the core of Aloysius' accusations. I don't blame Adams for the odd scene in which James tries to assert herself in class, but she tries her best to make it believable. Still, Adams turns in a performance of clarity and believability where she could have quite easily glided on her natural gifts.

Viola Davis = A.
I don't know what I can say about this performance that hasn't been said. Davis throws a massive wrench in the workings of the film with a completely heart-rending performance, that tugs and flays at any certainty that you may have had while watching the movie. Davis conveys the moral dilemma within Mrs. Miller, but also the guilt that she clearly has in seeing that, the self-inflicted ignorance. It's an incredible role that Davis gives an incredible reading of. She's breathtaking and powerful, nearly taking her scene away from Streep. An Oscar win would not be amiss.

Philip Seymour Hoffman = B+.
I don't like Hoffman. I know this much. I don't think he's ever given a performance which is in service to the film; he serves only himself as an actor, grabbing every scene and holding the camera so that nobody else gets a fair shot. How Keener managed to get a nomination opposite his most grabbiest performance is something that I won't understand. However, I find Hoffman to give a very delicate, if not particularly subtle performance. He's never actually quiet, even in scenes that might call for it; the scene in the gym. He's always acting and everything, but I think that works for the character of Father Flynn, he's constructing himself as a priest, a teacher, an opponent to Sister Aloysius, a friend to Sister James. It's a very canny performance of the most difficult role in the film; he has to inspire doubt without particularly asking for it. He never quite steals his scenes away from Streep, and there are certain moments during their more heated scenes where he achieves quite a tortured and genuine expression of hurt and hopelessness. My favourite performance by the man, who really needs to do this kind of subtle character work more often. (In saying that, I feel that the role would have been served by somebody who could have inspired doubt much easier. There's something inherently misanthropic about Hoffman that I couldn't get past even from the first scene.)

Notable Performances:
All The Little Actors - There's a lot of names to look up here, but I felt that all the little bit actors did their part well, sometimes making Shanley's sometimes hamfisty symbolism that more profound and heartfelt. Special notice to the boys who may or may not be overlooked victims of Father Flynn; aptly played reaction shots without being obvious about it.

Overall Film Grade: A-B. I flucuate from day to day.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Hysterical Blindness (2002)

Uma Thurman = A
Thurman gives her first Gena Rowlands performance, appropriately in a movie that features the actor. And by that I meant hat she is playing a woman who is quite tangibly on the edge, a woman who is so damaged for whatever reason that she can't even hold down a boyfriend if she tried. Thurman achieves grand, dizzying depths with the character of Debbie Miller, although the character isn't as layered as some of the Cassavetes 'heroines'. From the very first frame she's in, Thurman inhabits the woman, and she controls and dominates this sometimes uneven and messed film. She's awkward, she's too forthright, she understands far too little and she's pretty much an elegant mess. She doesn't achieve the same kind of greatness that Rowlands did with Cassavetes, but there's a lot to love here and Thurman does more than what the film asks of her. There's a tragic pathos in her second meeting with Rick that is so tragic, restrained and simply heartbreaking that it speaks volumes of what this woman can do on the screen. And nothing, nothing in this movie beats her much delayed and much needed realization: "What's wrong with me?" Can people start giving her more roles like this? (Kudos to director Mira Nair for using Uma Thurman's height to her advantage; Thurman has never looked so beautiful and yet so awkward on screen.)

Gena Rowlands = B+
For the majority of the film, Gena Rowlands is a non-factor; merely radiating warmth from the edge of the frame and providing welcome support to Thurman's antics. It's not until a plot turn late-game that Rowlands comes into her prime and transmits to us a harrowing scene on the telephone. (A lot of actors do some of their best work on the telephone. Streep in Adaptation, Leung in Happy Together. Just a note. Not that this ranks among Rowlands best work, but her best work in the film definite.) It's a perfect example of why Rowlands is still one of the best working actresses of her generation that continues to deliver very subtle and nuanced performances even in roles that are are almost barely there.

Juliette Lewis = C
Lewis is a weak link in this film only because she shares her scenes with Thurman and cedes every one up to her star, which works for the film but not her performance. Lewis is never overtly bad, but there's very little to cling onto here. It's a paper-thin character and one that you can hardly remember after the credits roll.

Ben Gazzara = B
Gazzara doesn't have a great deal of scenes or a great deal of time within those scenes to make an impact, but he manages to transmit just as much warmth as Rowland's does and his closing scene in the film is a very warm and fuzzy moments in which he plays off Thurman well and almost steals a scene from her. But, this isn't a performance of greatness and it does what it needs to.

Overall Film Grade = A

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Six Degrees of Separation (1993)

Stockard Channing = C+
I really don't understand why Channing got an Oscar nomination for this, to tell you the truth. Not that I don't like Channing; she's a fantastically gifted actress who worked wonders in The Business of Strangers, The West Wing and even Grease. But I don't understand the love or at least acclaim that this performance has received. Perhaps I don't get the movie, perhaps I don't get the performance; but I found Channing to be quite simply stagey and overly shrill. The only feeble defence I can put up for her is that the film is stagey and far too pretentious, or at least trying to hard to parody pretentious that it still ends up being the thing it tries to parody. Channing isn't asked to perform a character as much as she is a symbol of upper class phoniness.

Donald Sutherland = C
Sutherland fairs only slightly worse than Channing in his role; which is a little bit more well defined than Channing's is, but it's a very stuffy character without any depth or detail to it. However, Sutherland aims for a more restrained performance than Channing does, but for whatever reason, he fails to achieve any nuance with that restraint. It's not to say that I don't love Sutherland, he's a supremely underrated actor who has been so since the 1970s. However, this performance should be one of his forgotten ones; it's not bad or anything. It's just not good.

Will Smith = B
Smith gives the best performance in the film, which should more accurately be defined as the least dull in the film. Much like Jennifer Garner in Juno, this is because he's given the least hackneyed dialogue in the film. With the exception of his scenes with the above two actors and their characters, he's gifted with rather natural dialogue that he sells quite easily. His character is a little bit of a cipher, he's very hard to define and even by the end of the film we don't really know him, which isn't so much as a knock on Smith as it is, once more, on the script. However, Smith has brief moments where he lets his indelible charisma shine through, and this performance foreshadows his better work in the likes of Ali and The Pursuit of Happyness.

Overall Film Grade: C-

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Best Supporting Actress Survey

I have decided to take up Edward Copeland's open offer to continue on his annual Oscar survey; (see here, here and here) for the ones from previous years. Continuing on what I see to be the pattern, I have decided to do a Best Supporting Actress Oscar survey. (It also helps that I have a personal interest in the category.)

The rules of this survey as are follows:
  1. You pick the FIVE BEST Best Supporting Actress Oscar performances that you consider to be the best to have won the award. Then, you also pick the FIVE WORST Best Supporting Actress performances to have won the award. You then rank them, from 1 to 5. 1 will receive 5 points, with each rank receiving one less point. (Note: These are more or less separate surveys run together; the points do not get counted together.)
  2. You then e-mail those choices to me at brookebrooks at gmail dot com. It would be a delight for those participating to comment on the performances in question and why you chose them, in as much length or brevity as you like. When I do the posts, I will corraborate all of the comments and integrate as many as I can into the post under each performance. If provided, names/pseudonyms and links will be added to the comments.
  3. You do this by February 10th, though I will extend this date if I feel it necessary to do so. I will streamline the posts at one a day, so that I will do the posts in groups rather than all at once (15 best, the rest of the best; 15 worst, the rest of the worst).
And that's how simple it is. I would also appreciate any word-of-mouth you can give this little survey; these things have been great back at Edward Copeland of Film, and I really want this to continue to be as much of a success as it has been in the past. So if you could link to it on your blog, or tell other film-minded people about it, I would be very, very indebted to you and you will be duly thanked in the final round-up.

A list of all the winners, just in case you need some refreshing:

1936 - Gale Sondergaard - Anthony Adverse
1937 - Alice Brady - In Old Chicago
1938 - Fay Bainter - Jezebel
1939 - Hattie McDaniel - Gone With The Wind
1940 - Jane Darwell - The Grapes of Wrath
1941 - Mary Astor - The Great Lie
1942 - Teresa Wright - Mrs. Miniver
1943 - Katina Paxinou - For Whom The Bell Tolls
1944 - Ethel Barrymore - None But The Lonely Heart
1945 - Anne Revere - National Velvet
1946 - Anne Baxter - The Razor's Edge
1947 - Celeste Holm - Gentleman's Agreement
1948 - Claire Trevor - Key Largo
1949 - Mercedes McCambridge - All The King's Men
1950 - Josephine Hull - Harvey
1951 - Kim Hunter - A Streetcar Named Desire
1952 - Gloria Grahame - The Bad and The Beautiful
1953 - Donna Reed - From Here To Eternity
1954 - Eva Marie Saint - On The Waterfront
1955 - Jo Van Fleet - East of Eden
1956 - Dorothy Malone - Written on the Wind
1957 - Miyoshi Umeki - Sayonara
1958 - Wendy Hiller - Separate Tables
1959 - Shelley Winters - The Diary of Anne Frank
1960 - Shirley Jones - Elmer Gantry
1961 - Rita Moreno - West Side Story
1962 - Patty Duke - The Miracle Worker
1963 - Margaret Rutherford - The V.I.P.s
1964 - Lila Kedrova - Zorba the Greek
1965 - Shelley Winters - A Patch of Blue
1966 - Sandy Dennis - Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf
1967 - Estelle Parsons - Bonnie and Clyde
1968 - Ruth Gordon - Rosemary's Baby
1969 - Goldie Hawn - Cactus Flower
1970 - Helen Hayes - Airport
1971 - Cloris Leachman - The Last Picture Show
1972 - Eileen Heckart - Butterflies are Free
1973 - Tatum O'Neal - Paper Moon
1974 - Ingrid Bergman - Murder on the Orient Express
1975 - Lee Grant - Shampoo
1976 - Beatrice Straight - Network
1977 - Vanessa Redgrave - Julia
1978 - Maggie Smith - California Suite
1979 - Meryl Streep - Kramer vs. Kramer
1980 - Mary Steenburgen - Melvin and Howard
1981 - Maureen Stapleton - Reds
1982 - Jessica Lange - Tootsie
1983 - Linda Hunt - The Year of Living Dangerously
1984 - Peggy Ashcroft - A Passage to India
1985 - Anjelica Huston - Prizzi's Honor
1986 - Diane Wiest - Hannah and Her Sisters
1987 - Olympia Dukakis - Moonstruck
1988 - Geena Davis - The Accidental Tourist
1989 - Brenda Fricker - My Left Foot
1990 - Whoopi Goldberg - Ghost
1991 - Mercedes Ruehl - The Fisher King
1992 - Marisa Tomei - My Cousin Vinny
1993 - Anna Paquin - The Piano
1994 - Diane Wiest - Bullets Over Broadway
1995 - Mira Sorvino - Mighty Aphrodite
1996 - Juliette Binoche - The English Patient
1997 - Kim Basinger - L.A Confidential
1998 - Judi Dench - Shakespeare in Love
1999 - Angelina Jolie - Girl, Interrupted
2000 - Marcia Gay Harden - Pollock
2001 - Jennifer Connelly - A Beautiful Mind
2002 - Catherine Zeta-Jones - Chicago
2003 - Renee Zellweger - Cold Mountain
2004 - Cate Blanchett - The Aviator
2005 - Rachel Weisz - The Constant Gardener
2006 - Jennifer Hudson - Dreamgirls
2007 - Tilda Swinton - Michael Clayton

Happy surveying!

SUPPORTING ACTRESS BLOG-A-THON: Natalie Portman as Leslie in My Blueberry Nights

Film criticism is a subjective topic, which is why I find it so interesting. People get different things out of movies, directors and, in this case, performances. What one person sees in a performance, may not be the same thing that another sees in it. The same is true in terms of quality; where some people see a horrible performance, others see a thing of beauty, depth and clarity.

Ironically, Natalie Portman's performance doesn't really fall into the area between that; she is one of the few parts of this movie that has been consistently praised. Which makes it kind of odd that it's getting none of attention at year's end. However; the movie is a thing of calm divisiveness. Nobody loves this movie, and nobody hates it. I fall into the 'sort of love' category, even though this is the 'least strong' of Wong Kar-Wai's films. (I just feel a little bit traitorish calling any of his films weakest.)

Onto the point; Natalie Portman's performance in the role of Leslie is my favourite of hers, and she's had an underrated career with Leon, Closer and Garden State under her belt. But, this performance is all of the things I described above: A thing of a beauty, of depth, and of clarity.

As a character, Leslie is a quiet mess. She's a gambler, with her cards held close to her chest. Excuse the pun. She has no big scenes, except maybe the confession scene, but Portman illuminates parts of her character with simple gestures, like the way she stands or even tilts her head and her line-reading of: "But always cut the cards." is my choice for the best line-reading of the year.

To bring things full circle; Portman's performances is a thing of greatness to me because it touches me, it speaks to me. There's something about the character of Leslie, and how Portman interprets it, that makes me empathize. She's a bunch of contradictions; wanting to achieve but not wanting to compromise herself to get that; cynical but with enough core ideals that she's not flat, and much more overtly and to reuse the pun, to keep her cards close to her chest while bravely playing them.

Come and see more performances at StinkyLulu's!

Saturday, January 3, 2009

SUPPORTING ACTRESS BLOG-A-THON: Sarah Brightman as Blind Mag in Repo! The Genetic Opera

A few disclaimers before I go into why I chose this performance:
  • Repo! The Genetic Opera is not, by any means, a good or well-made movie. There's a very good reason why it was released practically nowhere: It sucks. It's a messy, shoddily made piece of trash that features a few decent-to-good performances from it's cast. If you can get it on DVD, I recommend just ignoring any bit that doesn't focus on Ms. Brightman.
  • I love Sarah Brightman. Her voice is one of the most unique, instantly recogniseable and gorgeous on this planet, and it doesn't hurt that she is one of the most beautiful people walking the earth right now. Both of these impact upon why I chose this performance.
  • This is a grand performance that could well go unnoticed without devotees like me.
So, here I go.

Brightman plays Blind Mag, an opera singer who is set for organ reposession and I can't really decipher any more of the plot than that. But it's hardly important, because Brightman is the shining spot in this mess of the film. If you haven't got it yet: This is not a good film. Unless you want to see Brightman, do not see this film.

Brightman is good, perhaps even great in this role for several reasons. The first of these is obvious: She spends practically all of it singing. Brightman is an excellent vocalist, and she nails these songs with stunning ease; this is the woman who hit the high Es as Christine, remember. Still; the emotion and class she brings to songs such as "Chromaggia" and "At The Opera Tonight!" is to be admired.

She also aligns herself physically to the role, and by that I mean that she moves naturally and looks natural. Here I must give note to the movie's best special effect: Blind Mag's robotic eyes. They really do look amazing and beautiful and Brightman's porcelain-esque face frames it neatly. Brightman also looks amazing in the role, not only in terms of her physical lokos, but her costume and make-up. I really shouldn't give her credit for this, but she manages to be the one vivid point among more shades of black, brown and red than I've ever seen.

I find it hard to judge this along the standards of a normal performance, Brightman really doesn't have any chances to simply stand there and 'act'; she's almost always singing when she's onscreen and the movie is hardly calling for her to pull a Streep. But, the reason why I love it, and the reason why I'm doing a post on it for this blog-a-thon; is that she manages to be a truly unique part in a film that strives to be unique but ends up just being a pile of muck and disorder. And, even in some moments, she gives a palpably human and tragic layer to a character that should be so; but the film hardly allows her to act as such. Basically: Brightman works against the film to give a great performance, and I pray, I pray that this isn't her last venture onto celluloid.

Go and see the other performances mentioned by bloggers at StinkyLulu's!