Wednesday, November 30, 2011

In Character: Michael Shannon

Welcome back to In Character, a weekly column dedicated to drawing attention to the actors many know but cannot name.  Here’s to giving credit to the character actors who deserve more of it.

In just a few short years, Michael Shannon has gone from being that guy – that guy who nearly zapped Clifton Collins Jr.’s balls off in Tigerland, that guy who screwed with Tom Cruise in Vanilla Sky, that guy who got the shit kicked out of him by Eminem in 8 Mile – to one of the most respected actors working in American independent film.

Michael Shannon, mind you, is no longer that guy. He’s Michael Shannon: the slim, often terrifying, always commanding actor reminiscent of a young Christopher Walken. Most of the films mentioned below feature starring turns by Shannon, and some of them, I fear, you may not have even heard of.

But fear not, because as I’ve found, going blind into a Michael Shannon film never proves to be fruitless.

Five Essential Roles
World Trade Center (2006)
Sergeant Dave Karnes
Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center was met with its fair share of criticism, some warranted, some not. Aside from its taboo subject matter, the film had a lot going against it. It was released just months after Paul Greengrass’ far superior United 93, it starred Nicolas Cage (which is either really good or really bad), and it was, quite frankly, a little too persistent with its patriotism.

In spite of all this, I felt that the film was a success. And with repeat viewings, I now know why. The supporting players, far more than the leads, completely make the film. There’s Stone-vet Frank Whaley, William Mapother, an unrecognizable Stephen Dorff, and, chiefly, Michael Shannon, who plays an ex Marine driven by God to search Ground Zero for survivors.

Most of Shannon’s lines, on paper, are canned clichés of heroism. “We do not turn back,” “They’ll need good men out there, to avenge… this,” “We are Marines. You. Are. Our. Mission,” and so on. But in Shannon’s hands, these lines are far from forced. They’re authentic declarations of love. Love for one’s country, love for fellow man, love, I suppose, for the brotherhood of war.

There’s a brief scene in the film when Shannon and Whaley are  looking for any sign of life amidst the rubble. Shannon thinks he hears a pipe banging below, then shakes it off as nothing. When he hears it again, the camera quickly pans in on his face. His wide-eyed, determined face. He rushes into action without hesitation. A thrilling moment that's impossible to shake.

Bug (2006)
Peter Evans
William Friedkin’s Bug is completely fucked up. There’s really no better way to put it. It’s about a kind yet obviously unstable war veteran (Shannon) who convinces his new girlfriend (Ashley Judd) that their hotel room is invested with tiny bugs. Despite this, the two never leave the room, and scene after scene, the film grows increasingly absurd and terrifying, which is meant as a compliment.

Bug is a film that rests solely on the talent of its actors. If the film does work (which for many it didn’t), then the people on screen deserve most of the credit. Shannon, Ashley Judd and Harry Connick Jr. (yes, Harry Connick Jr.) all inhabit the world the film creates with unhinged dedication. As the movie progresses, Shannon begins to adopt more bug-like mannerisms; the twitching, the slouching, the scratching. It’s reminiscent of Jeff Golblum’s masterful performance in The Fly. And considering the material, what could possibly be a better compliment than that?

Shotgun Stories (2007)
Son Hayes
The story for Jeff Nichols’ first film is so simple, I’m amazed that I’ve never seen it done before. After Michael Shannon’s estranged father dies, he and his biological brothers more or less crash his funeral.  Their father, we learn, was an abusive drunk who walked out on them years ago, only to sober up and start a new family a few towns over. After the funeral, Shannon and his brothers battle (both emotionally and physically) their father’s new family.

This tense, taunt, and all together remarkable family drama remains criminally underseen, which is such a shame. Shannon, along with the rest of the unknown cast, is utterly superb as the anguished eldest brother. If you liked Take Shelter, which Nichols also directed, then you’ll absolutely love Shotgun Stories. Describing plot details any further would simply be cruel. Trust me, it deserves to be seen.

My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done (2009)
Brad McCullum
Michael Shannon is no stranger to inhabiting a character of fleeting sanity. One of his best, most developed characters is his all-the-way gone Brad McCullum in Werner Herzog’s remarkable My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done.

On one bright, sunshiny day, McCullum, having apparently gone mad, holds his mother hostage inside his home. His girlfriend notifies the police, who barricade the residence, and it becomes very clear very quickly that McCullum intends to kill his mother, if he hasn’t already done so.

Like many of Herzog’s films, the reason for the motivations isn't nearly as thrilling as the motivations themselves. As the film evolves, we’re privy to glimpses of McCullum’s life (the film is based on true events), including his brief excursion to Peru where his sanity initially began to slip.  Shannon, it goes without saying, is flawless as McCullum. He embodies the man’s anger and lack of remorse to haunting results.

I haven’t the slightest clue why My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done didn’t receive the attention it deserved. In addition to its masterful director, it’s produced by David Lynch and co-stars Willem Dafoe (as the head hostage negotiator), Chloë Sevigny (as the girlfriend), and Grace Zabriskie (as the terrifying mother), with great supporting performances by Brad Dourif, Michael Peña, Udo Kier and more. It’s on Netflix Instant and demands to be seen.

Take Shelter (2011)
Curtis
Ranking extremely high among Shannon’s performances of mad characters is Curtis, a kind, reserved man slowly descending into the madness of his own mind. As Curtis’ dreams rapidly become more violent, his subconscious begins bleeding into his life. Suddenly, the family dog is not to be trusted, the wife is given the shaft, the storm shelter is revamped, all in the name of paranoid safety.

As Curtis, Shannon does something very difficult at this state of his career: he proves, yet again, that he is an utter revelation.  We’ve seen Shannon go mad (don’t we all go a little mad sometimes?), but with Take Shelter, he takes his internal emotional expression to a whole new level.  In my original review, I said that Shannon’s performance in Take Shelter only further proved his apparent limitless depth.  Curtis ranks among his finest performances, which is saying a whole hell of a lot. Expect not only an Oscar nomination, but possible frontrunner status as well.

The Best of the Best­
Revolutionary Road (2008)
John Givings
In a lesser year, that is to say, in a year where one of our most talented actors hadn’t died unexpectedly, Michael Shannon would’ve won the Oscar for his spellbinding performance in Sam Mendes’ Revolutionary Road.

Recently released from a mental institution, John is thrown into suburban society by his well-to-do mother (Kathy Bates), by spending time with a seemingly happy couple, played by Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet. Problem is, DiCaprio and Winslet are a mess, and John has no problem throwing it directly in their faces.

John is the worst kind of crazy: the kind that is fully aware of how off they are. Equipped with virtually no social filter, he says what he wants when he wants, the result of which is jaw dropping bombs of dialogue that will make your head spin. Actually, in a film surrounded by characters who mean little of what they say, John is the only "real" character in the film.

It’s a raw, haunting performance that shakes me every time. You never quite know what John is going to do next. He may scream, he may swing, he may sit there silently. But whatever he’s doing, you cannot take your eyes off him.

Other Notable Roles
Shannon in Boardwalk Empire
Tigerland (2000)
Vanilla Sky (2001)
8 Mile (2002)
Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (2007)
The Missing Person (2009)
Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (2009)
Boardwalk Empire (2010-present)

(Okay, to be fair, Boardwalk Empire should probably be a part of Shannon’s five essential roles. Just because it isn’t, doesn’t make the show, or his performance, any less brilliant. Boardwalk Empire is worth watching for many reasons, Shannon chief among them.)

Previous installments of In Character include:
Emily Mortimer
John Hawkes
Jeffrey Wright
Elias Koteas
David Strathairn

How About Those Sprit Award Nominations?

I seriously dig the Film Independent Spirit Awards. I like the nonchalant, profane-laden style of its ceremony, the audacity of its choices (both in nominations and winners), but most of all, I like the Spirit Awards because they have the uncanny ability to shed light on the films that deserve more attention than they’re ever given.

Worthy films that lost the Best Picture Academy Award, including Pulp Fiction, Leaving Las Vegas, Fargo, Memento, Brokeback Mountain, and The Wrestler, were given a chance to shine by taking home the Spirit Awards’ top prize.  I don’t care about the numerous critics’ awards or the Golden Globes; aside from the Oscars, it’s all about the guilds and the Spirits.

The Oscars are far more revered, but in my world, the winners of the Spirit Awards are far more deserving.

Breaking down this year’s nominees, which were announced yesterday, is admittedly a bit premature. Like most people, I have yet to see The Artist (which, a month ago, I predicted would win the Best Picture Oscar), so my choices will undoubtedly be skewed once that film comes out next weekend.  And how about those snubs: Young AdultWe Need To Talk About KevinShame… Glenn Close… W.E. (joke)… all conspicuously absent.

Regardless, here are my picks for the 2011 Spirit Awards:

Best Feature
The Artist
Beginners
The Descendants
Drive
50/50
Take Shelter
I see five great films here, and 50/50, which I still attest is less than mediocre. Drive, for the win.

Best Director
Michel Hazanavicius, The Artist
Mike Mills, Beginners
Jeff Nichols, Take Shelter
Alexander Payne, The Descendants
Nicolas Winding Refn, Drive
Releasing a silent, black and white film is extremely ballsy, and I give Hazanavicius his due props, but no director's style blew me away more this year than Refn's.

Best Male Lead
Demián Bichir, A Better Life
Jean Dujardin, The Artist
Ryan Gosling, Drive
Woody Harrelson, Rampart
Michael Shannon, Take Shelter
Tough. Love seeing Bichir here, Dujardin is excellent I’m sure, Harrelson will be nothing less than stellar, but for me, it’s Gosling or Shannon. Both actors did very much by saying very little, but I gotta go Gosling.

Best Supporting Male
Albert Brooks, Drive
John Hawkes, Martha Marcy May Marlene
Christopher Plummer, Beginners
John C. Reilly, Cedar Rapids
Corey Stoll, Midnight in Paris
This is exactly what I’m talking about: where the hell else are you going to see Corey Stoll, who played Ernest Hemingway miraculously in Midnight in Paris, nominated for anything? Despite my praise, I have yet to shake Albert Brooks’ terrifying Bernie Rose. “My hands are a little dirty…” “… so are mine.” That’s damn right.

Best Female Lead
Lauren Ambrose, Think of Me
Rachael Harris, Natural Selection
Adepero Oduye, Pariah
Elizabeth Olsen, Martha Marcy May Marlene
Michelle Williams, My Week With Marilyn
I’ve only seen Williams and Olsen, and it's Olsen by far.

Best Supporting Female
Jessica Chastain, Take Shelter
Anjelica Huston, 50/50
Janet McTeer, Albert Nobbs
Harmony Santana, Gun Hill Road
Shailene Woodley, The Descendants
Another tough one. Huston was the best part about 50/50 (which isn’t saying a lot), and Chastain has had a hell of a year, but Woodley did something in The Descendants that I haven’t seen in a long while: she actually acted how teenagers act, resulting in an unforgettable performance.

Best Screenplay
Michel Hazanavicius, The Artist
Mike Mills, Beginners
Alexander Payne, Nat Faxon, Jim Rash, The Descendants
Joseph Cedar, Footnote
Tom McCarthy, Win Win
The Descendants, simply because it was written how people speak, which is unfortunately extremely rare in today’s cinema.

Best First Screenplay
Mike Cahill & Brit Marling, Another Earth
Phil Johnston, Cedar Rapids
Will Reiser, 50/50
J.C. Chandor, Margin Call
Patrick deWitt, Terri

The only film I can possibly choose is Margin Call, which is the only one I haven’t seen. Didn’t like the other four at all.

Best First Feature
Another Earth
In the Family
Margin Call
Martha Marcy May Marlene
Natural Selection

MMMM.

So what about you? Who do you think should walk away with independent film’s most coveted prize?

Monday, November 28, 2011

Hugo

Why in the hell would someone like me ever doubt Martin Scorsese? Someone who considers the director to be the very best living American filmmaker we have.  Someone who has seen every single one of his films and accepts that even when he veers ever-so-slightly off course, there’s always something there. A grand catharsis, a worthy style, a stellar performance – something. With Hugo, I did what I rarely do: I judged a book by its cover.

The trailer for Hugo is uninspiring at best. It’s misguided, silly, and full of unneeded fluff. Having seen the film, I now understand why it misrepresents the inarticulable magic that Scorsese’s brilliant film contains. To spoil greatness in a two minute movie trailer would be, in my world, to commit an irreparable sin.  Make no mistake, to see Hugo is to witness utter greatness. Is it to witness that a man of nearly 70 years of age has absolutely no inclination of lower his game any time soon, of which we couldn’t benefit more.

Hugo tells the story of young Hugo Cabret, an orphan in 1930s Paris who lives stealthy in the walls of a grand train station, fixing the station’s many clocks (a skill taught by his drunken, now absent uncle). If he’s caught by the station’s nasty inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen) Hugo will surely be sent to an orphanage. So he bides his time, feigning for himself by nabbing a roll here, a few toys there, and so on.

The train station contains a slew of splendid characters that Hugo monitors on a regular basis. In addition to the inspector, there’s Lisette (Emily Mortimer) the quiet, lovely flower shop owner, Monsieur Labisse (Christopher Lee), the educated, helpful bookworm, and most importantly, Papa Georges (Ben Kingsley), the cranky, weathered toy store owner.

When Hugo is caught stealing from Georges (for reasons I won’t explain) the two embark on a tumultuous relationship that tests them and their loved ones including Georges’ wife, Jeanne (Helen McCrory) and his goddaughter Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz).
Now, I’ve literally described the initial 20 minutes of the film, and to divulge any further would be to do my readers a great disservice. Hugo is a film driven purely by magic; by self-reflecting awe of its craft. It takes you places so whimsical and unexpected, that to ruin it would be to impose many a sleepless night on myself.

So allow me to carefully skirt around the story by delivering a bit of hyperbolic praise. 

Hugo, above all, is a film about movies.  About watching them, living them; about feeling them. This may seem like a foreign concept to many, but for someone like me – someone who associates so much of their life to what they see in motion pictures – Hugo is nothing less than a Godsend.

The supporting cast, many of whom I haven’t mentioned, are all superb. Baron Cohen’s performance is so comically precise, it makes you wish you saw more of him. And while Moritmer, McCrory, Moretz all bring their mysterious charm to their respective roles, the film’s acting can primarily be judged by its two lead performances.

As Hugo, 14-year-old Asa Butterfield, is nothing short of marvelous. He’s in nearly every scene of the movie, most of which demand a fresh emotion. Even when we aren’t sure where the film is taking us, we trust Butterfield’s instincts (and those of his director) wholeheartedly.
And then there’s Ben Kingsley, who, as Georges, delivers one of the best performances of his impeccable career. It’s the best thing he’s done since Sexy Beast, rivaling his work in Schindler’s List and Gandhi (yes, he’s that good). Hugo is a profoundly moving film, and Kingsley’s performance is much to thank for this. A mere Oscar nomination seems paltry at best.

Martin Scorsese knows how to make damn fine films. His power over the craft of cinema is nearly unparalleled.  He works mostly with the same crew (which includes, but is not limited to, editor Thelma Schoonmaker, production designer Dante Ferretti, costume designer Sandy Powell, and cinematographer Robert Richardson, who will all surely occupy a seat at this year’s Academy Awards), and often works off strong, bold scripts (this one by John Logan). I absolutely loved The Departed, but I proudly, boldly declare that Hugo is his finest achievement since Casino, possibly GoodFellas.
Rarely do I cry in movies, especially on first viewing. And I cannot remember for the life of me the last time I cried literal tears of joy from watching images being projected onto a large white screen. What Hugo does so masterfully is remind us why we love movies. As a lover of film, there’s really no greater gift than a film can bestow on us. See it, with your family, in 3D. It’s one of the very finest experiences (film or otherwise) that you’re likely to have this year. A

Sunday, November 27, 2011

The Descendants

It’s always a good sign when your biggest negative preconceived notion about a movie is tackled almost immediately in the film itself.  For me, I thought it’d be very difficult to take a movie like The Descendants seriously.  How can we possibly feel sorry for a George Clooney character who lives in 24/7 paradise? (It’s hard enough to feel sorry for Clooney as it is; the looks, the voice, the hair, etc.)

But if paradise is tending to your comatose wife, your two very obstinate daughters, your horribly destructive father-in-law and dozens of greedy relatives, then we certainly share a different definition of the word.

That, as it is, describes Matt King’s life. His wife, injured in a boating competition, has lain unconscious on a hospital bed for weeks.  His 10-year-old daughter, Scottie, is trying to make sense of her mother’s injury (with little help from Matt), while his 17-year-old, Alexandra, is doing the typical 17-year-old thing; the drugs, the booze, the older men, and so on.

Matt, you see, is the back-up parent.  The workaholic who let his wife do most of the child raising when she wasn’t drinking, water skiing, motorcycling, or, apparently, sleeping with other men.  When Matt gets wind of his wife’s alleged affair, it sends him into a whirlwind of emotion. He’s angry, pleased, vengeful, and, most of all, opportunistic. Finding his wife’s lover is a means for purpose. It gives him, and his daughters, something to do. Passing the time never felt so worthy.

If there’s one thing I’ve always loved about Alexander Payne’s films, it’s that they are written how people talk. The dialogue is often so honest and accurate to everyday conversation, that it can initially be jarring in its approach. You may even find it humorous when it’s not supposed to be.  But listen. Listen the next time you and your friends are sitting around talking. Listen to the words you use, the comfortable vernacular and relaxed cadence. Election, About Schmidt, Sideways, and especially his short in Paris Je’Taime, all contain dialogue that is true to life. This may seem like an unusual bit of praise to point out, but from a writer’s perspective, Payne’s method of screenwriting is inexplicably refreshing. (For the record, Payne’s screenplays are usually co-authored by Jim Taylor, but The Descendants cites character actors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash as co-authors).

Now, how about that Clooney? Year after year, film after film, Clooney reaffirms his emotional depth as an actor. The man, quite simply, can do no wrong. When he rarely sidesteps (The Men Who Stare at Goats, Leatherheads), it is easily forgotten among his exceptional body of work. Clooney has two scenes in particular in The Descendants that will land him his sixth Oscar nomination. Both are with his silent, unconscious wife; one is angry, one is heartfelt, both are tender, painful and marvelous.
Shailene Woodley
Special mention needs to be made to Shailene Woodley and Amara Miller, who play Alexandra and Scottie, respectively. I cannot describe how exhilarating it is to watch young characters in movies talk and act like young people. Bullies at school are called whores, their father is often given the middle finger, or told out right to fuck off, and so on. This can again be credited to the film’s screenplay, but Miller and especially Woodley are putting in good work here. (The antithesis of this is, for instance, the child acting in Cameron Crowe’s We Bought a Zoo, where the kids speak in clichés and always walk around with canned looks on their faces).

The Descendants, it must be said, is not perfect. It lags mildly toward the end, and its titular subplot, while necessary, arrives at an extremely predictable outcome. These are, mind you, slight quipples that should in no way deter you. The Descendants is a solid, authentic piece of adult, American filmmaking. Expect to hear its name in consideration come awards time. B+

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

My Favorite Scene: Philadelphia

Made two years after his Silence of the Lambs won the big five Oscars, Jonathan Demme’s Philadelphia did what no other film had done before: it openly discussed AIDS with unflinching candor. The film was searing and controversial; an all-around game changer.

While Philadelphia was met with its fair share of critics – right-winged pundits said the film’s message was misguided and pushed too far, film critics said its message wasn’t pushed far enough – I consider Philadelphia to be one of the best films released in a decade full of great ones.  There are many reasons for this: the way an explanation of an opera is lit, the way characters are framed, the way a book is slid across a table, the way Jason Robards inhabits a remorseless monster, and so on. The main reason the film works as well as it does, however, should be credited entirely to Mr. Hanks.

When we first meet Andrew Beckett, he’s happy, hardworking, and well into his battle with AIDS.  The very big, very rich, and very conservative law firm he works for has no idea of his illness. When Beckett is soon fired, he immediately cries foul play.  (The senior partners at his firm say Beckett was let go for nearly ruining the biggest case in the firm’s history, Beckett says he was sabotaged and fired because of his illness.)

Months after being fired, Beckett meets with Joe Miller (Denzel Washington, never better) the kind of lawyer who passes out his business cards to people in hospitals, and has a looping commercial on TV that promises, “no money from you until we get money for you.”

After telling Miller the circumstances of his termination, Miller tells Beckett that he has no case, and insinuates the fact that because Beckett is not only gay, but also has AIDS, he is utterly repulsed by him.

And now comes our scene.
With the drums of Bruce Springsteen’s Oscar-winning “Streets of Philadelphia” on the soundtrack, Hanks, in close up, walks out of the office and steps onto a crowded sidewalk. He closes the office door and stands there, his face initially struck with subtle, momentary frustration. He’s seen ten lawyers in regards to his case. Ten goddamn lawyers. As the camera slowly zooms in, Hanks’ face becomes hopeless, lost. He’s completely gone. He blinks, shakes it off, and looks up at the cold, overcast sky.

And that’s where the scene should end.

In most any other Hollywood film, the scene would’ve cut out by now, but Demme is too smart for that.  Instead, he keeps rolling, resulting in a brief bit of miraculous acting.
Hanks, his forehead wrinkled in anguish, stares out at the ground. “What am I going to do?” he may be thinking. “My God, what the hell am I going to do?” He’s a man unnoticed. Unnoticed by the people walking by, by the bosses who’ve fired him, by the lawyers who’ve rejected him; a man full of life and purpose who, for a fleeting moment, can’t find the strength to identify either.

The scene is, quite frankly, the very best moment of Tom Hanks’ often-great career. In just 30 seconds, Hanks manages to encapsulate everything you need to know about the character he’s playing. His motivations, his regret, his hidden turmoil; it’s all right there. It’s as moving a moment as you’re likely to find on film.

The scene in questions begins at 1:22 in the clip below

Monday, November 21, 2011

Who Is Your Favorite Titular Tim Burton Character?

I don’t usually pay much mind to IMDb’s daily poll, but today’s question is a damn fine one.

Tim Burton has 14 feature film credits to his name, 10 of which contain the name of the film’s main character in its title. (Actually 11, if you count the apes in Planet of the Apes, but really, who cares about Planet of the Apes?)

So, of all these titular characters, which is your favorite? Picking a character, in my mind, is chiefly based on how the actor plays him or her. Next, I incorporate how that character is written, the dialogue they’re given, and so on.

Here are your choices, chronologically:

Pee-Wee Herman (Paul Reubens) in Pee-Wee's Big Adventure

Beetlejuice (Michael Keaton) in Beetle Juice

Batman (Michael Keaton) in Batman and/or Batman Returns

Edward Scissorhands (Johnny Depp) in Edward Scissorhands

Edward D. Wood, Jr. (Johnny Depp) in Ed Wood

Charlie Bucket (Freddie Highmore) in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

Corpse Bride (Helena Bonham Carter) in Corpse Bride

Sweeney Todd (Johnny Depp) in Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

Alice (Mia Wasikowska) in Alice in Wonderland

For my money, Burton hasn’t made a good film since Sleepy Hollow (which was no masterpiece), so that eliminates Charlie, the Bride, Sweeney Todd and Alice. I love the disturbed energy exuded by Reubens’ Pee-Wee and Depp’s Ed Wood, and Edward Scissorhands will always hold a personal, nostalgic place in my heart, but for me, it’s all about Michael Keaton’s fantastically manic Beetle Juice.

A character like Beetle Juice is an actor’s dream, but it’s also a big risk. The only way to play a role like this is to let it fly off the fucking rails. Go all out, no holds barred. However, it’s important to only push it as far as the material will allow.  Go too far, and you’re the joke. A movie like Beettlejuice longs for your laughter, but there’s a difference between laughing at a film, and laughing at a film. Keaton finds that balance, and excels thrillingly in executing it.
According to IMDb, Keaton is only in Beettlejuice for 17 and a half minutes. Incredible.  It’s the skill of great writing, and even craftier acting, to make yourself that memorable in such a short period of screentime. Beetle Juice is larger than life, hyperbolically insane in all the best ways. It is a great, criminally overlooked performance, one that has me gasping for breath every time.

Now I want to hear from you, my beloved readers. Who is your favorite titular Tim Burton character? 

Saturday, November 19, 2011

The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn - Part 1


Dear Summit Entertainment,

I’ve just now come from your latest film, The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn - Part 1, and I am met with a profound sense of confusion.  I feel that, given the hype, midnight box office numbers, spirited cast and acclaimed director, I should’ve witnessed greatness, but alas, I’m struck with dumbfounded incoherence.

To explain.

Breaking Dawn - Part 1, you see, makes not the slightest bit of sense, both in plot and marketing execution. What’s happened?!  First off, as the many promos on television informed me, Breaking Dawn - Part 1 was to be the “best Twilight yet.” This, as I’m sure you know, is nearly an impossible feat. Everyone knows that, depending on what drinking game you’re playing, the second film in the saga, New Moon, is by far the best. It is, after all, the longest, which is never a bad thing. Who doesn’t want more Twilight?!

By raising our hopes with such praise (which was curiously declared without citation!) you got my hopes up far too high.  And although Bella, Edward and company have grown (and my how they have grown), Breaking Dawn - Part 1 doesn’t deserve the esteemed title of best Twilight yet.

There are many reasons for this, the main one being the lagging plot. It just keeps going! Take Bella and Edward’s honeymoon. It’s half the movie! Never in the history of life has a virgin woman begged to be given the dick more than Bella does here. No virgin wants dead dick that bad, you should research your history more!

(And, yeah, how does that whole thing work exactly, anyway? How does sperm from a vampire impregnate a human?  If Edward is in fact dead, how is his sperm alive? Plot hole!)

Sorry. To continue. The honeymoon simply lasts too long. It’s takes up 45 minutes and it easily could’ve been done in 10. That way you could’ve only made one movie, no need to makes us wait for Part 2!

Also, can you clarify the motivations of the werewolf Jacob? For the first half of the movie, he tells the king wolf how much he wants to kill Edward. The king wolf orders him to leave Edward and his family alone. But when Bella and Edward return, the king wolf now wants them dead, and Jacob is supposed to protect them. Huh?! What happened? When did the sides change? Plot hole!

And where were those creepy vampires that dress in all black? I thought they were the badguys?! They only show up for five seconds in a dream. But they’re all over the trailer!

I could go on, but I’m probably boring you as much as your movie bored me. Payback! I suppose I just don’t understand the need for two films to tell a story that only takes one. Oh well.

I can’t believe I have to wait an entire year until Breaking Dawn - Part 2! Where will the saga take us?!  You know it’s funny: I’ve spent more than eight hours watching this saga unfold, and somehow I feel suspiciously less intelligent than before it all began!

With great disdain and virtually no admiration,
Alex Withrow

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

In Character: Emily Mortimer

Welcome back to In Character, a weekly column dedicated to drawing attention to the actors many know but cannot name.  Here’s to giving credit to the character actors who deserve more of it.

To be fair, I don’t exactly consider Emily Mortimer a character actress.  Although many people recognize her without knowing her name, I can’t in good conscious concede that one of my favorite current actresses (third only to Marion Cotillard and Naomi Watts), doesn't have as high a celebrity status as she should.  Perhaps this is wishful thinking on my part, but whether you know her name or not, there’s no denying the subtle power of an Emily Mortimer performance.

There are a handful of rather mediocre films on this list, and the sole reason those films are here is because the name Emily Mortimer caused me to see them. I may find City Island forgettable or Lars and the Real Girl downright silly, but Mortimer’s performances (in those films and anything, really) couldn’t be more noteworthy.

Plus, not since Al Pacino has an actor made such poetic use of a David Mamet-penned “fuck.” If that’s not saying something, I’m not quite sure what is.

Five Six Essentials
Match Point (2005)
Chloe Hewett Wilton
As the moral center of Woody Allen’s masterful Match Point, Mortimer is the perfect incarnation of British high class. She’s proper, kind, intelligent, and most importantly for the film’s purposes, completely unaware.  All of these traits, mind you, do not make for a wealthy floozy. In Mortimer’s hands, Chloe is given a depth beyond the written material.  She’s likeable yet strong, wealthy yet humbled.

Let me put it this way, for the film’s ending to be as convincing as it is, Mortimer must deliver a performance of charm, elegance, and reliability.  In short, she has to be worth killing for.  If Match Point works for you, then much of its success is owed to Mortimer.

Lars and the Real Girl (2007)
Karin
Karin is a tough role to play. The understanding wife character that could very easily be written off as a cliché.  She’s the only character in Lars and the Real Girl who, from the onset, supports Lars’ decision to date a life-sized plastic doll.  She spends a great deal of the movie helping Lars through his endeavor and convincing her husband, Lars’ brother, to say something nice or nothing at all.  She’s a beacon of support, until, in a shattering monologue, she lets her frustration get the best of her.

Giving yourself less than two minutes to say everything you’ve wanted to say for 90 minutes of film isn’t exactly easy.  But when I first watched the scene in which Karin calls Lars out on his behavior, I leaned back in my chair, wowed by Mortimer’s execution.  It’s a great performance lost in an otherwise mediocre film.  If the film’s plot scenario has turned potential viewers away, believe me, your hesitation is not without merit.  You are, however, missing out on a genuinely great performance.

Redbelt (2008)
Laura Black
“Yeah, I can’t find the fucking pharmacy,” is the first thing we hear Mortimer’s Laura say in David Mamet’s Redbelt.  And from there, we’re off and running.

Laura is a complicated woman. The victim of sexual assault, she is headstrong, lost, desperate for affection, and utterly incapable of dealing with her mental anguish.  That is until Chiwetel Ejiofor’s martial arts instructor forcibly makes her.

In one harrowing scene, Ejiofor spends 10 seconds doing what 20 years of therapy may fail to achieve: he makes her accept what she’s been through.  He throws her insecurities right in her face and gives her no choice but to confront them.  It’s a gut-wrenching moment that shakes me every time I watch the film. Two actors at the top of their game.

Transsiberian (2008)
Jessie
In a lot of ways, Jessie is the perfect mix of Mortimer’s best characters.  She’s quiet and reserved, opting usual to smoke and stare while her boisterous husband (Woody Harrelson) rambles on.  She’s smart and kind, but not without her deadly wits.  Push her into a corner and you better believe she’ll push back.

Jessie is thrown repeatedly into situations in which she can cower and give up, or fight the good fight.  It’s refreshing to watch the sidekick wife actually be given a chance to instill a little feminine ferociousness.  Transsiberian is a surprisingly good film, and Mortimer, you may have guessed, is by far the best part of it.

“Kill off all my demons and my angels might die too.” That’s goddamn right.

Shutter Island (2010)
Rachel Solando
Mortimer isn’t in Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island that much, but when she is, it’s impossible to take your eyes off her.  Take the scene in her cell in which she describes what she did that morning.  What starts as a simple chronicling of daily routine quickly grows tremendously threatening.  She mistakes Leonardo DiCaprio for her husband, then corrects her mistake, all with wide eyes and a shifting demeanor.

Then there’s the shot of her bathed in blood, standing above her recently-slain children.  She stares at DiCaprio with an embarrassed smile, as if she’s just dropped the main course of dinner on the kitchen floor.  Shutter Island produces a great many frights, none more prevalent than a blood-splattered Mortimer dressed in her Sunday best.

City Island (2010)
Molly
Usually, character actors often make a decent movie better by stealing a few scenes.  Mortimer, however, has the uncanny ability to steal an entire movie, thereby making the film completely worthy. City Island is a lot of things: close-to-aimless, weakly scripted, and far too playful.  But it is also a platform of some of Mortimer’s best work. 

To quote my original review: City Island’s plot is a bit flimsy, rarely do the characters take matters seriously, so why should we?  The movie, I think, wants to be a comedy, but at times, strives to hit some real emotional depth. Enter Ms. Mortimer.

With her deeply poignant performance in City Island, Emily Mortimer proves, yet again, that she is the most underrated actress working in movies. There’s a scene in the film, in which Mortimer and Andy Garcia have a candid conversation on a dock, that makes the film nearly necessary. Watch her face as she shares her most personal secret. Listen to the pitch of her voice. That, my friends, is acting.

The Best of the Best
Lovely and Amazing (2001)
Elizabeth Marks
For Nicole Holofcener’s aptly titled second film, Mortimer plays Elizabeth, a struggling actress from a well-to-do family who, like the other women in her family, is letting her insecurities get the better of her.

Because she was recently denied a role based solely on her looks, Elizabeth’s most pressing insecurity is in her apparent lack of beauty. This is interesting for a few reasons: one, because Elizabeth is far from unattractive, and two, because instead of being angry (or resorting to elective surgery) Elizabeth’s fading confidence manifests itself internally.  In fact, when she speaks about it, she almost comes off as indifferent, which is anything but.

Take, for example, the film’s best scene, which also marks the best scene of Mortimer’s career. After sleeping with Kevin, a successful actor played with perfect restrained smugness by Dermot Mulroney, Elizabeth politely asks if he’ll critique every physical imperfection he notices on her. Assuming this to be a trap, Kevin denies profusely, but eventually relents once Elizabeth promises not to get upset.  She stands up, void of any clothes, walks to the corner of the room and listens as Kevin talks about her skinny body, uneven breasts, flabby arms, and so on.  Elizabeth stands there, only asking for more. Her face stoic yet pleasant. When Kevin is done, she gets dressed and the scene ends.

Obviously, standing butt naked in front of a camera for several minutes is an extremely courageous feat, but it’s how Mortimer plays the scene perfectly against-type that makes it so memorable.  To be clear, and hopefully not perverse, when a woman as attractive as Emily Mortimer stands naked on camera and you find yourself unable to look at anything but her face, then something is being done right.

It’s a truly great performance, one that launched the impressive, ever-evolving career of one of our finest contemporary actresses.

Other Notable Roles
Rufus Sewell and Emily Mortimer in Paris, Je T'Aime
Notting Hill (1999)
Scream 3 (2000)
Young Adam (2003)
Dear Frankie (2004)
The Pink Panther (2006)
30 Rock (2007)
Paris, Je T'Aime (2007)
Harry Brown (2009)
Our Idiot Brother (2011)

Previous installments of In Character include:
John Hawkes
Jeffrey Wright
Elias Koteas
David Strathairn

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The Skin I Live In

Allow me to tell you a little about Pedro Almodóvar’s The Skin I Live In.  About its ingenuity and craftiness, its lush canvas and delicious originality.  Allow me to tell you why The Skin I Live In not only ranks among the best films Almodóvar’s has made, but also among The Tree of Life and Drive as the best film released so far this year.

In The Skin I Live In, perception is everything.  What starts as a simple story with a straight narrative slowly develops into something completely opposite.  Basically, we think we know the kind of film we’re watching, until one jolting scene makes us realize that The Skin I Live In is something completely different than anything we could’ve expected.

But more on that later.

The film starts as most Almodóvar films do: immersed in its own world, with not the slightest urge of helping its viewer along.  You have to catch up, with is ultimately half the fun.  What’s different this time around is that on top of Almodóvar’s familiar gloss, we’re thrown a little David Lynchian mystique.

Robert (Antonio Banderas), a wildly successful surgeon, lives on his large estate with Marilia (Marias Paredes) his head housekeeper, and three other maids.  Upstairs, out of sight and seemingly out of mind, sits Vera (Elena Anaya), a beautiful young woman who, we soon learn, has been held against her will in Robert’s home for many years.  She’s given food when she’s hungry, TV when she’s bored, opium when she’s jonesing, a bed when she’s tired, and so on.  Despite the facts that a.) her door is always locked, and b.) she doesn’t appear to mind that she’s there, Vera is monitored endlessly via security cameras.  She never leaves and no one but Robert enters.

After several screen minutes (nearly the entire first act) of this routine, a man dressed as a tiger (stay with me here), shows up unexpectedly to Robert’s home.  We learn that the tiger is Marilia’s long lost son, and since the good doctor is away, Marilia let’s her son into the home.  Surprises are revealed, violence soon ensues, and a convincing backstory is delivered to help make sense of it all.

But this, mind you, isn’t the turning point.

Up until now (the first hour of the film, or so), The Skin I Live In has played like a mysterious romance. Like Georges Franju’s Eyes Without a Face mixed with Lynch’s Blue Velvet, topped with Almodóvar’s own Talk to Her.  Then something happens.  Something so dangerous and risky, that it could either make or break the film.  Suddenly, out of nowhere, a title card appears: “Six Years Earlier.”

And this, I’m afraid, is where plot detail must cease.  The Skin I Live In, you see, is one of the most ingeniously crafted suspense thrillers that I’ve seen in years.  It’s unlike anything Almodóvar has done before, yet it feels warmly familiar.  Once the film flashes back, it takes on a whole new depth, one that is intriguing, unique and all together extraordinary.

To say that his role as Robert is the best performance of Antonio Banderas’ career would be doing the actor a serious injustice.  As Robert, Banderas isn’t simply good, he’s wholly revelatory.  Although I’ve seen him beyond the safe fluff of Puss in Boots, Zorro, and El Mariachi, I’ve never seen him do anything like this.  His Robert is a perfect match of sadist and lover; he’s cruel yet endearing, remorseful yet remorseless. I simply cannot speak highly enough of Banderas’ performance here.

Likewise the rest of the cast, namely Elena Anaya, who doesn’t appear to be doing much in the first act, but once more is learned, you realize just how much she actually is doing. 
I’m an insatiable Pedro Almodóvar fan. His films, such as Live Flesh, All About My Mother, Talk to Her, Volver and Broken Embraces, aren’t just films, they’re scenery-chewing works of moving art.  His movies, equal to any director current making pictures, actually feel alive.  They pulsate with stunning beauty, frank sexuality and realistic violence.

It’s funny, sometime during The Skin I Live In, everything clicked into place.  I realized that I was watching nothing more than an elaborate Spanish soap opera. One that, on paper, is laughably absurd.  But in execution, I find extremely difficult to label as nothing less than masterful.

See it by any means necessary. A

Monday, November 14, 2011

Take Shelter

I have an odd fascination with watching a person’s slow descent into madness.

From R.P McMurphy to Travis Bickle, Patrick Batemen to Daniel Plainview, nothing beats watching a movie character slowly blur the lines between fiction and reality.  That is, of course, assuming the character is written and portrayed properly.  Far too many times have we seen a film characters’ impending insanity manifest itself into laughable obscurity. 

Thankfully for us, Michael Shannon’s Curtis in Take Shelter not only feels authentic, but damn horrifying, too.

When we meet Curtis, he’s doing what he’ll soon find himself doing often: looking up at the sky with frightened puzzlement.  When Curtis looks up, he doesn’t see what we see. He sees black clouds move like battle-ready soldiers, or tornado(es) slowly creep toward his home, or thousands of birds move with the majestic rhythm of ballet dancers; when Curtis looks up, he sees hell.

If only anyone else could.

Most of the time, these apocalyptic visions occupy Curtis’ dreams, which, in turn, cause him to act irrationally when he’s conscious.  The house dog is chained outside, the understanding wife (Jessica Chastain) is neglected, the best friend (She Whigham) is shafted,  and, as the title indicates, everything is set aside to make way for one big goddamn fallout shelter.

All of this, mind you, is merely plot exposition, and if you’ve seen director Jeff Nichols’ only other film, the exceptional Shotgun Stories (also starring Shannon), then you know that plot ain’t the half of it.  Like that film, Take Shelter immerses its audience in the situation, the fear, the paranoia. The film makes you acutely aware of what is going on, and the inevitable danger that will stem from it.

We’re given hints as to why Curtis is acting the way he’s acting, but that’d be best not mentioned here.  Instead of further describing what happens, our time would be better spent detailing why the film succeeds as fabulously as it does.

Michael Shannon, I have no hesitation stating, has managed to become one of the finest actors working in film (or television, as is evident in Boardwalk Empire). Shannon has always managed to steal scenes. Tigerland, Vanilla Sky, 8 Mile, World Trade Center, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, all contain excellent brief performances.  And after achieving greatness in Revolutionary Road, he’s only continued to up the ante.  Little-seen indies like Werner Herzog’s My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done, Shotgun Stories and now Take Shelter, only further prove his apparent limitless depth.  Take Shelter ranks among his finest performances, which is saying a whole hell of a lot.

I’d be really sick of writing about Jessica Chastain if it weren’t for the fact that she’s so damn good.  Add her innocent, frustrated wife in Take Shelter to her stellar performances in The Tree of Life, The Help and The Debt, and you’ve got the makings of a surefire star.  This woman is going to be huge.
In addition to its acting, Take Shelter boasts an honest script (by Nichols), a damn near faultless feel, purposeful sound (in effects and score), and an ungodly beautiful look (by cinematographer Adam Stone, who also shot Shotgun Stories and David Gordon Green’s films, when David Gordon Green used to make good films).

Be warned: Take Shelter is a moody film. It’s quiet and slow, except when it’s not. A peaceful afternoon can be just that, until you look up in the sky and see the world coming down on you.  Rarely has madness looked as determined as it does here.  A-