Sunday, August 27, 2006

Please do some research next time around.

I was watching the NBC pre-show to the Emmys award ceremony (of which I will almost certainly not compose a post-mortem of tomorrow), and one of the hosts - Maria Menounos from "Access Hollywood" - did something so incredibly lame and idiotic that I didn't know whether to repeatedly beat my head on the wall to make myself pass out or, or... write a strongly-worded letter. Maria was interviewing both Warren Beatty and Annette Bening on the Red Carpet, and was making the usual fashion/show chitchat. And then - AND THEN - Maria said the following (or something very similar) to Annette: "So Annette, you've got an Oscar at home, are you looking forward to putting an Emmy next to it tonight?". Annette looked taken aback, took a few seconds to compose herself, and then responded gamely, "Well, he's got his Oscar at home." Maria seemed to realize that something was amiss, and then resorted to the "How much do you love her" shtick with Beatty. Annette did not look pleased (who would?), but she really was a good sport about it all (and saved the girl's ass.) Maria had better hope Running with Scissors nets Ms. Bening the Golden Guy this year, or she's never going to get back in the starlet's good graces.

Monday, August 21, 2006

#11 & 12 (Male Performances in Review 2000-2004)

"The world doesn't give a shit about what I have to say... I'm so insignificant, I can't even kill myself." - Miles Raymond. In Sideways, this line does not appear until more than halfway through the film, but Paul Giamatti is so good at relaying the degree of his character's misery and self-hatred that the audience has already guessed as much. To put it lightly, Miles is a "sad" man, in every sense of the word. Wasting away his life teaching literature to clueless eighth-graders, he has few pleasures or hobbies to keep himself busy: wine-tasting and writing his mammoth semi-confessional novel. And yet, Miles still cannot look towards the future because he is always looking over his shoulder at what should have been. In a wordless scene, Giamatti stands in his mother's room (just having stole cash from her drawer) and looks longingly at pictures of himself as a teenager and of his ex-wife. His shoulders slump forward and his head droops, his eyes dark pools of regret and loneliness - it's an acting moment that encapsulates the entire performance perfectly. And when the past is too painful to confront, Miles turns to wine for a high, which almost constantly gets him into trouble. Watch carefully how Giamatti instinctively reaches for the bottle the moment things start to spiral out of control. The biggest blunder he commits is calling his ex-wife while on a double-date (!) and offers his regards on her recent re-marriage. This destructive behavior is most baffling to his best friend Jack (played with impeccable comic timing by Thomas Haden Church), who cannot understand why Miles is so intent on ruining so many good opportunities with his ever-foul mood and bad-sport mentality (see Giamatti's best line reading: "No, if anyone orders Merlot, I'm leaving. I am not drinking any fucking Merlot!".)

However, when Miles chooses to open himself up to others, there is a shred of hope for him and the direction his life will take. This comes in the form of Maya (the dazzling Virginia Madsen), who is able to see Miles for the sensitive, deeply wounded soul that he is. In the most-talked about moment of the entire film, the two oenophiles share their experiences of wine: their intimate secrets and thoughts about the beauty of its production and the quality of its flavor. Giamatti is a pleasure to watch here, as his eyes glow in awe of this articulate, sexy woman, his cynicism melting away like a lone ice cube in the warm sunlight. Watch how he intially rejects her advances, berates himself later in the washroom... and then returns to softly embrace and kiss her in the kitchen. What tender, gorgeously-written (and acted) foreplay this is! The viewer is seduced along in the wordplay, by both these wonderfully human characters who have faults and shortcomings like everyone else. What a relief it is, then, to find in the end that despite a falling-out, these two will have a chance at making it together. Because imagining Miles sinking deeper into his depression (read: resorting to sneaking wine into a fast-food joint) and growing old alone would have been just too horrible to consider.

This is my last featured actor to have won an Academy Award for his performance, and what a marvelous victory it was that year (for all of us really.) The legendary smooch, the overwhelmed response, the stubborn refusal to stay within speech time constraints... I remember how I choked back on my pizza, jumped up and started shouting at my mother in the next room (Her response: "Mmhmm; Adrien who?".) I rejoiced not only for him, but the fact that a solemn, introverted turn like this beat out showy and grand work that voters usually like so much (read: the also magnificent Daniel Day-Lewis in Gangs of New York, who was largely expected to take home the trophy.) But this is a difficult performance to watch or even revisit (let alone the film itself). When The Pianist begins, Brody introduces the audience to Wladyslaw Szpilman as a young, foreign-educated pianist who foresees so much opportunity in store for himself (his occupation: an acclaimed performer on the radio.) But once Poland is invaded by Germany, he sees his dreams rapidly disintegrate; not long after, he finds himself entertaining "parasite" patrons of a ghetto restaurant (much to the disdain of his embittered brother Henryk.) But the true nightmare lies ahead as Szpilman is separated from his family, left to to wander the wasteland of an exorcised, forgotten community. As Szpilman becomes further isolated from the world as a fugitive of the Third Reich, he recedes more and more into himself.

Moving from building to building in the abandoned Warsaw Ghetto, Brody begins to resemble an empty shell of a human being. He experiences minimal human contact, and his life transforms into a quest to survive and live just one more day without being discovered. And yet what Brody imparts so beautifully is how the love of music quite literally saves Szpilman's life. It is in front of a piano, as his fingers dart back and forth across the keys, that he is at his happiest. The experience is wholly spiritual. His face lifts, his eyes close - he is himself again. A human being of value and love. Conversely, when he is denied creating his art (simply because the sound of the music will give him away), he gradually moves towards death. One of Brody's best moments in this entire film is the climax, where he weakly insists "Don't shoot! I'm Polish. I beg of you..." despite being constantly fired at by Soviet soldiers (who mistake him for a German.) He is so haggard, exhausted, that he can barely identify himself; the scene really shows how far Brody went (emotionally as well as physically) to access this character's plight. It's a frightening thing to consider.

Notes for Fun:
Speaking of the golden guy so often in this entry, I thought I'd offer some random trivia about my upcoming top ten of actors and how they fared with Oscar and other guilds overall (Am I giving away too many clues?):

- Only two actors on my list were nominated for Academy Awards for their performances; neither won.
- Only one of the actors was nominated for a Golden Globe (and did not win either.) Interestingly, this person was not acknowledged by Oscar, while the two aforementioned actors were not recognized by the HFPA. Weird, huh?
- Two actors portray real-life individuals (although not necessarily within biopics.)
- Two SAG nominations (one individual and ensemble.)
- Zero National Board of Review citations.
- I have performances from 2000, 2001, 2002, and 2004, but for some reason none from 2003 (at least going by imdb release dates.)
- Only two or three (depending on your view) of these can be considered "supporting" roles; the other actors are clearly the leads of their films.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

#13 (Male Performances in Review 2000-2004)

Flashback: December 2001. I was attending an evening show of Richard Eyre's Iris and marvelling at the delightfully tender and fragile John Bayley character Jim Broadbent was composing on-screen. Despite Kate Winslet and Judi Dench giving searing portrayals of the writer Iris Murdoch, it was Broadbent's endearing work as her husband that touched me the most as I reflected on the film afterward. What my seventeen-year-old brain failed to register, however, was that this was the same character actor who played father (and father-figure) to both Bridget Jones and Satine earlier that year. The recognition came only later while reading various Oscar articles that this British performer had played opposite three Best Leading Actress nominees. I was dumb-founded; what a transformation from role to role! Whether leeringly crooning "Like a Virgin" as the manic Harold Zidler or quietly suffering his wife's infidelity as sad-sack Mr. Jones, Broadbent was clearly the Best Supporting Actor of 2001. But while cases could be made for either of those performances for this list, I think (shockingly) the Academy got it right when they rewarded him with the Oscar for Iris. Perhaps it isn't a "better" performance than the one he gave in Moulin Rouge!, but John Bayley is arguably the role that demanded more of him as an actor. I find it staggering to compare the actor to the character on-screen; he looks almost twenty years older, and carries the weight of those years in his body, in his eyes. Throughout the film, as Iris's mental state deteriorates, his love for and dedication to this brilliant woman never wavers. True, he becomes frustrated with her regression into almost-childlike dependancy, and past grudges are slowly unearthed. She is no longer the strong-willed, powerful woman he first fell in love with. Yet Broadbent is able to demonstrate how, despite these newly-formed complex feelings, Bayley remains forever connected to this woman he revered so much in life (indeed, he wrote the memoir this film is based on, Elegy for Iris). This is made so devastatingly potent in one of the film's final scenes, in which Broadbent's Bayley looks lovingly over his dying wife, his face beaming at her with such pride and sadness. The scene is not only heavy-hearted because a great mind has passed on, but because we are left to consider how this man will live on without her. The way Broadbent so respectfully shows us Bayley's idolization and regard for Iris is one of this film's many pleasures. It gets me every time.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Javier's Top Ten

Okay, with Javier's approval, I am now going to take a crack at guessing what the top ten to his deliciously addictive countdown of the Best Female Performances (2000-2004) will look like. So far, the list has featured several unexpected surprises (The Hours' Toni Collette, Kill Bill's Daryl Hannah) and the sturdy staples that would be found in any respectable critic's book (Adaptation's Meryl Streep, Before Sunset's Julie Delpy). Although I think I have a fairly good idea of Javi's favorite performances are, I still sense I'll be lucky if I predict even 6 out of the 10 spots. Why? Well, in his own words: "I think there might be some surprising inclusions (and omissions?), but others not so much." Thus, it is up to me to do some detective work and uncover what those not-so-surprising inclusions will be... This has proven to be more difficult than I thought because a) I've only known Javier since November, and haven't had time to discuss actresses with him that often; b) I have no way of knowing of he feels about movies/performances that we haven't spoken about; and c) Most of our conversations have revolved around the 2005 film year (obviously irrelevant for the purposes of this list).

Aside from that problem, the real puzzle that has me stumped is who will take the #1 spot, and I have it narrowed down between Nicole Kidman and her real-life BFF Naomi Watts. It's no secret that Javi loves himself some Mulholland Dr., and has already stated that the performance will place. And although there is no question that Watts will place high (top three at least), I'm asking myself how high... I know that Kidman's work in Birth has a lot of us bloggers in rapturous awe; as Nathaniel pointed out some time ago, it was like Bergman himself had extracted that icy, ethereal persona (heh) from within her. I feel like there is an upset in the air, but I don't think I'm brave enough to see it through - I'm thinking Watts just barely nudges her out. Then again, that says nothing for other work I am sure Javier adores, like Ellen Burstyn in Requiem for a Dream, Uma Thurman for Kill Bill Vol. 1 and Vol. 2, and Julianne Moore in Far From Heaven. What to say? I feel like I'm predicting the National Board of Review's end-of-year choices, because there is no reasoning on my part that sounds rational.

The Predicted 10:
1. Naomi Watts, Mulholland Drive
2. Nicole Kidman, Birth
3. Ellen Burstyn, Requiem for a Dream
4. Björk, Dancer in the Dark
5. Isabelle Huppert, The Piano Teacher
6. Kate Winslet, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
7. Julianne Moore, Far From Heaven
8. Uma Thurman, Kill Bill Vol. 2
9. Patricia Clarkson, Dogville
10. Samantha Morton, Morvern Callar

The next ten that I can't let go of... (Snubees or Potential Surprises?)
Laura Linney, You Can Count on Me
Diane Lane, Unfaithful
Scarlett Johansson, Lost in Translation
Evan Rachel Wood, thirteen
Liv Ullman, Saraband
Charlize Theron, Monster (Doubt this though...)
Diane Keaton, Something's Gotta Give
Miranda Richardson, Spider
Gwyneth Paltrow, The Royal Tenenbaums
Michelle Pfeiffer, White Oleander

... and Hilary Swank, Million Dollar Baby (I know he loooves this performance. Am I right, Javier? ;)

#14 (Male Performances in Review 2000-2004)

*Spoiler Warning*
There is one scene in Baz Luhrmann's Moulin Rouge! that is so overwhelmingly sorrowful that it has me looking away every time I watch it (it is simply too painful to absorb fully). This is, of course, towards the end of the film when Ewan McGregor's Christian embraces the body of his just-deceased lover Satine (Nicole Kidman), looks up towards heaven, and emits a guttural, grief-stricken sob. The sound gives me shivers down my spine every time, and I almost feel as though my presence in the scene is intrusive. It is almost as if such a moment of horrific tragedy is not intended for my eyes; it is too personal, too private. And yet, I thank the cinema gods when I am lucky enough to encounter scenes that affect me so tremendously. It is impossible to think of this film without McGregor in the lead role, who is so committed and passionate writing his love story (both in in his life and on paper) that you cannot help but fall hopelesly in love with him. The moment he meets Satine, the most popular performer at the Moulin Rouge, he pursues her unapologetically despite the fact he is a penniless writer with nothing material to offer her. His hook? Love. It is enough, he argues, to keep them content and together ("I will love you until my dying day.") Credit must be given to McGregor, who sells not only Satine on this, but us as well; it is impossible not to believe him when such earnesty and devotion sparkle and dance in his eyes. When he insists "All you need is love!" to a flustered Kidman, it suddenly makes perfect and total sense (if only real life were that simple). To watch McGregor here is to experience pure joy; I find that I have a big goofy smile plastered on my face every time he breaks into song or tries to make Satine laugh. This is a fearless, sexy and emotionally naked performance, one of those rarities that we must acknowledge and cherish because they only come along once in a (singing?) blue moon.

Friday, August 11, 2006

#15 (Male Performances in Review 2000-2004)

To me, one of the more puzzling trends of awards season 2004 was how Ethan Hawke never managed to get any heat for his Before Sunset campaign while co-star Julie Delpy was always listed as a potential dark-horse for various prizes. In fact, I recall a huffy rant I typed up two years ago on my RT Blog, appalled by a Warner Brothers Independent FYC ad that pushed the film, Delpy and the screenplay for awardage and yet had no mention of Hawke. True, some of those talents behind the film had better chances than he, but ultimately the Before Sunrise/Sunset saga is about the chemistry and banter between a duo. And as much as I adore Julie Delpy (see Javier's comments here) in this film, Ethan Hawke is just as integral to the film's greatness as she is. Immersing oneself in this masterpiece sequel provides a multitude of pleasures, one of which is studying how each other these characters have changed since we last saw them nine years ago. Most apparent seems to be the surprising reversal of life outlooks: once a cocky pessimistic young man, Jesse now attempts to focus on the few things that are positive about the world and his life (while Celine has become embittered and disenchanted by the many blows experienced over the course of her twenties). Despite the fact that he feels obligated to remain within a passionless marriage, he puts on a strong exterior. One of my favorite moments in the film is when he first glimpses Celine in the bookshop, but attempts to hide his elation and continue on with his group interview. You can see a hint of gleeful joy trying to escape his body while catching up with Celine in the quaint little coffee shop. Just as evident is the horny, sex-starved teenager taking control while thinking back to the intimate encounter in Venice, and considering the possibility of such a miracle happening again. It's a treasure of a performance, seemingly effortless, yet hauntingly deep and breathtaking in its complexity. Physically and mentally, he is worn out from the pressures of his home life, yet it is clear that reconnecting with Celine has renewed him. This is not an easy arc to complete (and all the while, keep the pain completely hidden and yet palpable), yet Hawke pulls it off so impressively. This is performance is a work of art, so winningly delivered and yet not a smidgeon rehearsed. Jesse's soul is so giving, and yet so desperately hungry for attention and acceptance. Hawke is so adept at giving us hints of this romantically deprived character that by the end, we are practically screaming for these two to jump each other already.

Friday, August 04, 2006


#16 (Male Performances in Review 2000-2004)

Truth be told, I was tempted to give this spot to the entire cast (including Carly Schroeder, even though it would be cheating) of Jacob Aaron Estes's Mean Creek, each actor having shown range and depth beyond their few years (in fact, beyond most other adult performers currently basking in the limelight). Indeed, the acting featured in this film is, simply put, an embarrassment of riches - from Rory Culkin's soft, tender adolescent to Josh Peck's unexpectedly complex bully, any choice would have been befitting. But since I already barred myself from group citations early on in my rules, Scotty Mechlowicz it is (the film's stand-out). This performance was my pick for the Best Supporting Actor of 2004 (and I would have handed a Best Ensemble prize to the entire cast), and it still holds up even now. His compelling characterization of Marty may initially seem like nothing more than the standard teenage troublemaker, but Mechlowicz is always aware of how the history of violence and abuse inflicted against his character fuel his manipulation and degradation of others. In fact, Marty has grown to normalize this behaviour, erupting with fury when plans to humiliate Peck's George are called off ("I'm a man who likes to follow through with his plans."). There is a sense that this is all he knows how to do ("[I'm] bored as fuck."), and that he is unable to attain power any other way. At the same time, he is hungrily desperate for validation, trying to impress these young adolescents by boasting of his defiant accomplishments and demonstrating that rumours about his large penis are not without basis. However, once conditions during a boating trip quickly spiral out of control, the façade of leadership begins to disintegrate - Marty is unable to fix the dilemma with his usual shortcuts. Indeed, the film concludes providing little hope for Marty's salvation; he continues to believe that a life of intimidation and crime provides the only future for him. Mechlowicz's devastating breakdown while holding up a convenience store is a stunning moment of acting. Without the need for words, the actor perfectly exposes the traumatized child behind the posing exterior. In that moment, it is clear that Marty is just as much the inexperienced, painfully vulnerable youth as Schroeder's Millie or Kelley's Clyde. It's an image of openness and truth that stays with me even now, despite the fact I have only seen the film once.