Friday, February 20, 2009

Muriels Addendum #3, Also-Rans (Performances- Part 1)

"Poppy’s emotional trajectory in Happy-Go-Lucky seems fairly predictable. Her overly chipper, optimistic manner must inevitably be hiding some deep-seated insecurity or emotional pain; it’s just a matter of time before an accident or terminal illness cracks the façade, revealing the broken woman underneath. But—wait a minute—that never happens. Happy-Go-Lucky is a movie very much about forcing us to question our initial impressions of Poppy, but if Mike Leigh eventually gets too aggressive in this project, Sally Hawkins never does. Yes, Poppy is a force of nature, and Hawkins stays true to that—all beaming smiles and squawking laughs—but she’s also resolutely, recognizably human. That’s thanks to Hawkins—and Leigh, whose greatest strength has always been his skill with actors—who understands that Poppy’s personality comes not from ignorance or obliviousness but that it is a conscious, respectable choice about how to act in the world. And while Leigh gets bogged down jerry-rigging his deterministic universe, Hawkins remains firmly planted in Poppy’s reality.

"Bad things do happen in Happy-Go-Lucky. One of Poppy’s students turns violent and reveals a history of domestic abuse, and her driving instructor is, like, a total dick. But they don’t break Poppy. She responds, sensitively, believably, while still holding true to her principles. What Hawkins lets us see—a masterfully subtle touch within a seemingly showy performance—is the ongoing process of choosing to be, and struggling to remain, a positive force in the world. Like all choices, hers has consequences (and when she does cause emotional harm her driving instructor, her reaction is heartbreaking), but she soldiers on. Because Poppy is not silly or simple or dumb; she’s strong. Hawkins knows that, and so we do, too." ~ Matt Noller


“It's a tricky balance, giving the best performance in an ensemble drama. You have to find a way to stand out, without taking over, to own, without dominating. So many actors would attempt to take over a film, to make their mark with a searing performance that leaves the overall narrative in its wake, to chew scenery, to audition for another film. And while that's the sort of performance that gets people's attention in the trailer and plays well on Oscar Night, it sort of goes against the whole idea of being a supporting actor. A supporting actor is one who makes everyone else in the film better, sometimes at the expense of himself. It's a rare talent that can both support and stand out. Think of Claude Rains in, well, everything.

“Part of what makes the role of Henri in A Christmas Tale so difficult is the number of things he's asked to do. He's the chief culprit in the family schism, yet it may or may not entirely be his fault. He's the savior and the villain, a man that's been blamed by various family members for pretty much everything. For this he's a little mentally unstable (or his mental state is the reason he's been blamed, depending on how you look at it). Amalric plays these contradictions as a man unsure, struggling with himself and this identity he's created. In a lot of ways he's at war with himself, just as he's at war with his sister.

“For me, though, the real value of this performance is how Amalric somehow manages to give Henri his own gravitational pull. His performance affects every other performance in the film. He makes everyone else better, and not just in the scenes he's in, but the scenes that are simply about him. Hell, he even affects the scenes that don't involve him at all. His talent bleeds out of the frame. Whereas Catherine Deneuve is the family's rock, the stabilizing force, Amalric is the shadow that looms over the family, threatening to ruin everything. And then, like most shadows, he's entirely different than you'd expect. He's just a man who's a little mixed up, a man who doesn't know what to do with himself, a man who can fall face-first into the street.” ~ Lucas McNelly


From her sure-to-be iconic first scene to her final declaration, Meryl Streep is a mesmerizing presence as Sister Aloysius in Doubt. Maintaining a borderline draconian rule over the students at a Catholic school, Streep's principal is a ferocious characterization. Basing her power in fear--which she believes makes the school's entire disciplinary system work--and behaving like a crusading prosecutor against Philip Seymour Hoffman's Father Flynn, the character would be in grave danger of being an unsympathetic, one-note figure. Streep, however, works against this. She finds the truly abundant humanity in Sister Aloysius, burrowing into and invigorating it. As with all of her performances, she gently evinces her character's most crucial properties. In this instance, her interpretation intrepidly renders Sister Aloysius' genuine care for the betterment of the children who attend her school as a palpable trait that ensures she is not a mere vessel of villainy or malevolence.

In her extended scene with Viola Davis--which has been met with deserved praise for Davis--Streep etches a powerful tableau of amazement and bewilderment that both complements and counters Davis's loving assuredness and determination. There is a particular, singular submission to the process of Streep's performances; and that transcends the remarkable diversity of accents and mannerisms she has acquired throughout her career. Streep's Sister Aloysius is one of her best efforts because she, herself, finds the wounds that mark the character, while keeping them appropriately veiled from the audience. When she admits to having sinned, her equal parts vulnerability and receptivity--even to the man of whom she thinks the worst--is startling. And though the closing scene of Doubt plays too much like a playwright's final tenuous conceit, Streep's force of will makes the reservoir of emotion just a little scalding. ~ Alexander Coleman


“She calls herself Cassidy, but her real name is Pam.

“Turning in two great performances for the price of one, Marisa Tomei comes on strong, sultry --and it must be mentioned-- quite gloriously naked in The Wrestler. During her night-life as a stripper, ‘Cassidy’ is in complete control of every situation. She’s skanked out in tattoos, nipple-rings and fetish-wear, gazing upward adoringly at her “clients” while semi-facetiously drawing out every syllable into the sort of sexy purr and inane small-talk the crowd of drunk dirtbags paid hard-earned money for.

“So banal is this workplace conversation, she can’t quite process things properly when Mickey Rourke’s smitten ‘Randy The Ram’ steers a chat into personal territory. Barely lit, sitting impatiently in the front-seat of his ramshackle van, Tomei sputters and stalls – she likes him. But does he dig *her*, or is he just into the illusion she works so hard to present onstage every night at the club?

The Wrestler is a movie all about the war between public and private personas, so the ultimate glory and tragedy of it all comes with Rourke’s realization that he’d rather go out as ‘Randy The Ram’ instead of ‘Robin The Grocery Store Schmuck.’ This internal psychodrama (a rather piercingly relevant one in our brave new world of Facebook friends and incongruous online personalities) is constantly refracted and played out in miniature during his every interaction with Cassidy/Pam.

“Our introduction to the real Pam is downright shocking. In daylight she’s willowy, buttoned up in an oversized down-coat, giggling girlishly. Outside the hermetic confines of that sleazy strip club, Tomei is achingly vulnerable – the actress seems far more naked when her clothes are on. The push-pull, tug-of-war in Randy and Pam’s relationship manifests itself within subtle shifts behind Tomei’s eyes. Whenever threatened – especially after a sloppy barroom kiss -- she shuts down, goes blank, and starts talking like ‘Cassidy’ again.

“Tomei toggles back and forth between Pam and 'Cassidy' throughout The Wrestler, donning the nudity like a suit of armor, before finally breaking hearts all over multiplexes when she scraps the defense mechanism, fully committing to her own better self -- and at long last admitting: ‘I’m really here.’

“If only he was, too...” ~ Sean Burns


There are ensemble pieces, and then there are those movies where every character only exists in reaction to the others. Where the interactions are exactly what the movie is about. Rachel Getting Married was a great ensemble piece, but there could have been a movie made about a number of its characters independent from the others. The movie is a small window into their larger lives. Burn After Reading, though, feels to me like the kind of movie that exists as a perfect storm of moments that bring the company together. Take one character away from the narrative and they would probably only last as a mildly amusing five minutes on YouTube as they dissolve into caricature.

“Frances McDormand and Brad Pitt stand out. The tweedle-dee and tweedle-dumb of the story, driven by vanity and (mostly self) adoration. Her intensity and his ridiculous smiling bobblehead, even up until his last moment when he flashes a mouthful of straight white choppers as he's discovered in that closet.

“They're on each other like a pair of siblings working through their fantasies of wealth and success. They seek to suck everyone else into their madness.

“The two characters who are completely disengaged -- Malkovich and Clooney -- are disengaged in completely different ways. Malkovich pulls deeper into himself, a product of his professional paranoia. And Clooney who acts out his disengagement through sexual conquest and obsessive jogging, but who really shows his true self through his basement tinkering.

“But it's the McDormand and Pitt who I remember the most, and I remember them laughing and cheering as they realize they just might have gotten their big break in the world.” ~ Martin McClellan

As a sometime actor, I find myself not just enjoying but learning from each new Kate Winslet performance. April Wheeler, the actress-turned-housewife who fights to break free from an airless existence on Revolutionary Road, is the latest in a series of Winslet characters attempting to find their own truth regardless of the consequences. Similarly, Winslet's performances often feel as though the actress is defying expectation; intelligent and fearless, she finds layers of meaning to characters (such as Titanic's Rose) that posess little depth on the page and makes the task of bringing a highwire act like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’s Clementine to life look positively easy. Perhaps this is what draws her to characters, like April, who are raging against complacency; few actors of Winslet's generation are as consistently, unpredictably and beautifully alive.

In one of Revolutionary Road's most emotionally wrenching scenes, April confesses to her drunk, infatuated neighbor her belief that she and her husband Frank were destined for great things, and the realization that they're hardly special at all. Winslet, whose emotional directness is a perfect match for the blunt, unsparing style of Richard Yates' novel, allows us to feel, with razor-sharp precision, April's grief for the loss of the life she'd imagined. While both Yates and director Sam Mendes make it clear that the Wheelers are, indeed, not as exceptional as they'd like to think, April is hardwired with the burden of (to paraphrase Vonnegut) a life not worth living and an iron will to live. When April calmly warms Frank, mid-argument, that if she touches him again she'll scream and then does exactly that, it's clear that such an act of emotional violence is the only form of outburst she has left. If this is the point where Winslet steals the movie from DiCaprio (underrated as Frank), it's only because Frank is supposed to be an ineffectual dweeb, while April is the film's soul. It's her determination to take control of her own fate that brings Revolutionary Road to its almost unbearably downbeat climax, and thanks to Winslet's capacity for empathy for her characters in their most unsympathetic, even inexplicable moments, Revolutionary Road succeeds in bringing Yates' heartbreaking horror story for marrieds to life. ~ Andrew Bemis


Kate Winslet seems to be becoming the go-to actress for roles that feature women suffocating in a mental prison of their own design. She actively resists the common actor's need to be likeable, instead embracing her characters flaws and inhabiting their space, be they rotten or delightful. Her performances often have a Rorschach quality to them; is her affair brave or cowardly in Little Children? Is her housewife in Revolutionary Road the wronged party or ungrateful for what she has?

It’s in The Reader that Winslet takes on the most morally challenging role of her career. Her Hanna Schmitz is an illiterate war criminal, a statutory rapist who never demonstrates remorse or guilt onscreen. Even Hanna’s final attempt at atonement is regarded as pathetic and inconsequential by one of her war-time victims. Yet it’s through Michael (David Kross as a youth and Ralph Fiennes as an adult) we comprehend her callousness, her capacity for using others for her own ends and discarding them.

Winslet’s portrayal of Hanna is one of a woman rendered complex more from events than persona. Hanna’s seduction of young Michael is bluntly sensual yet aware of the youthful joy and anxieties that come along with sexual discovery, and Winslet conveys her character’s desperation and loneliness with a cool precision that keeps her at a distance from both her lover and the viewer. Later, when at trial for her crimes during the war, we see that desperation surface as it hasn’t before, a panic overtakes Hannah that demonstrates a shame so intense that it results in a perversion of justice that incidentally further scars Michael. Her final scene as an elderly woman withholds absolution, instead allowing her wounds and regret to linger untended.

The film offers precious few answers about her; was her unusual treatment of prisoners an awkward attempt or kindness or a particularly selfish cruelty? Is she an evil woman or her own kind of victim? Why does she find confessing to her illiteracy so much more shameful than taking credit for mass murder? Winslet’s candor as an actress affords us the option of drawing our own conclusions about her character. Hanna is damned and easily dislikeable, and it's part of the skill of Winslet's intricate performance that we can find her sympathetic, despicable, or both. ~ James Frazier

“Lucy is not movie-star gorgeous. Sure, she's unquestionably beautiful, but she is an actress, not a glamorized Best in Show-breed matinee idol. Her off-screen companion and on-screen collaborator, writer-director Kelly Reichardt (Old Joy), who cast her in Wendy and Lucy, makes low-key, low-budget films -- the last two in collaboration with fiction writer Jonathan Raymond and set in and around Portland, OR. They're not slick, romanticized, commercial pictures. And Lucy, an un-affected nonprofessional in the tradition of Neorealist heroines, is not a "movie dog." She is not called upon to perform cute tricks, to make faces that can be anthropomorphized in the cutting room. She is an authentic presence, a dog playing a dog.

“To be sure, her performance (watch her submissive stance when Wendy scolds her for barking outside the fateful market) depends on the interaction with her expert co-star, Michelle Williams, whose character name makes up the other half of the title. Theirs is an off-hand, give-and-take exchange -- one performance unthinkable without the other, like Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell in In Bruges. Like the best actors, Lucy knows how to listen. It's a testament to both performers that Lucy is a captivating creature when she's on screen, and a compelling absence when she's not. Being separated from her is as heartbreaking for us as it is for Wendy.” ~ Jim Emerson

2 comments:

lucas mcnelly said...

geez my thing was poorly written

sexy said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.