Saturday, February 21, 2009

Muriels Addendum #4- Also-rans (Performances- Part 2)

Not much more can be said about Sean Penn. “One of the greatest actors of this generation…” “Brilliant performance follows brilliant performance…” “An Academy darling with one Oscar under his belt and more sure to follow…” Rather than play that game and risk sounding redundant, I’d like to pinpoint a single moment in Milk that encapsulates Penn’s performance: Dan White, angry and psychotic, sneaks a gun into San Francisco City Hall, pulls Harvey Milk into an office, and shoots him, point blank. Milk drops to his knees in front of the window, and then he dies.

The scene teeters on a knife’s edge, easy to overplay (a temptation Penn has succumbed to in the past) but equally easy to underplay. Penn manages, with one simple word repeated over and over – “No, no, no…” – to find the perfect balance. It isn’t just that Milk doesn’t want to die, although that is certainly the case. That one word, brimming with ache and longing, is also a mournful requiem for the rights and liberties of the disenfranchised; Milk knows that more than just his body will perish when those bullets tear through him. Penn captures all of that within the span of seconds, a single word and a few startled jerks the only tools he chooses to pull out of his actor’s bag. It is one of the most heartbreaking moments of any film in 2008.

Sean Penn is brilliant in Milk, and it is one of the greatest – if not the greatest – performance of his career. Hyperbole? Perhaps. But can you still call it hyperbole if it’s all true? ~ Evan Derrick

“As an actress, Penelope Cruz could probably coast on her accent and exotic good looks, but in Vicky Cristina Barcelona she digs into her role and transforms a potential stereotype into something fuller and more nuanced. Introduced half way into the film, her Maria Elena at first appears to be the familiar hot-blooded Mediterranean, but for Cruz this is just a springboard.

“Over the next 45 minutes, she fleshes out the character. One minute she's vulnerable and the next she's dangerous. Tough and tender, crazy and enlightened; Cruz is all these things and she shifts seamlessly between them just as she bounces effortlessly from Spanish to English. In the process she reveals her character to be multi-layered, mutable and more than a little bit unhinged. In humanizing Maria Elena, Cruz makes her more sympathetic and she elevates her from simple plot complication to equal player. Maria Elena is volatile, but her emotions are grounded in reality and believable.

“A film as light on its feet as Vicky Cristina Barcelona requires a subtle gift for comedy and here Cruz excels. She moves smoothly from high drama to offhand humor and she has a knack for delivering funny lines as though her character doesn't know they're amusing. It's a touch that keeps the film purring along easily. It never appears to strain too hard and neither does the actress.

“Her performance is all the more interesting when compared to her purer, more innocent and restrained character in Elegy, also from 2008. In that film, she brought a fantasy ideal of womanhood to life but Marina Elena is almost the opposite. She's a dark reflection, embodying the dangers of unrestrained passion and Cruz pulls them both off with ease and skill.

“In a film that leans heavily on the charms of its actors, each member of the cast serves a purpose and they're all terrific, but it falls to Penelope to provide the spark of energy that ultimately brings Woody Allen's charming confection to life. Though many of her finest performances have gone unseen by large segments of the English speaking audience, here finally she gets to show a wider audience what she's capable of.

“If that's not enough for you, well, she's also smoking hot.” ~ Craig Kennedy

Michelle Williams has been terrific for the last few years; almost to the point where I have started to take her for granted in movies. This year at Cannes two movies premiered that showed that Williams still had a lot of surprises to offer as a both beautiful, neurotic actress in Synecdoche, New York and as a woman on the verge of a financial breakdown in Wendy and Lucy, which I think is her best work to date. Williams seems to have perfectly sized up the tonal qualities of both films with her performances, finding the difficult key that both directors are trying to achieve. In Wendy and Lucy this means finding a balance between neo-realism and melodrama without standing out from the naturalism that Reichardt is opting for by casting mostly unfamiliar actors in the supporting roles and filming on location. Williams feels like she belongs among these actors and this grungy location; with an appropriately unwashed appearance and an unflattering haircut that looks like she could have given herself while standing at a mirror in a rest stop bathroom. It is a performance that comes across very truthful and authentic and it helps ground a film that could otherwise seem overtly manipulative. It is also a work that builds into a crescendo with her muted nonchalance turning into devastating agony by the end. ~ Jason Overbeck

“Most of Doubt takes place on a rickety stage where some talented, not especially well-cast actors play a theatrically orchestrated game of "Did he or didn't he?" which the writer-director John Patrick Shanley seems to think will pass for dramatic ambiguity. In her one scene as Mrs. Miller, Viola Davis bursts in on this orderly house of cards like a typhoon that blows the shutters off the doors. Meryl Streep's Sister Witchy-Poo thinks that Mrs. Miller needs to be told that something awful may be going on with her son, and Mrs. Miller shuts her up, and lights up the movie, by doing her quiet best to make it plain that there's nothing she could learn about her son that would surprise her, and that she's learned to live with whatever that might be--just please, please, don't make things any harder by trying to fix them. Once she's gone, the movie can get back to twiddling its thumbs, but for a while there it had someone in its midst who knows that there's something outside the pasteboard Catholic school, something thats called life, and it's a hot mess.

“People who've stumbled out of Doubt wondering where this actress has been all their lives have been fobbed off with the explanation that Davis, who won a Tony in 2001 for her work in August Wilson's King Hedley II, is "primarily a stage actress," but that's no reason to let Hollywood and the movie press off the hook for the fact that Davis, forty-three, is just beginning to build a film career for herself. By all rights she should have been off and running since the fall of 2002, when she gave standout performances in very different supporting roles in three different big movies: Todd Haynes's Far from Heaven, Denzel Washington's Antwone Fisher, and Steven Soderbergh's Solaris. (Soderbergh, a man who knows a good thing when he sees it, first used her in Out of Sight and then brought her back for Traffic as well as Solaris; she also had an uncredited role in the Soderbergh-produced Syriana.) In Solaris, she had the kind of part that makes instant character stars: she was the level-headed, plainspoken member of a cast that otherwise consisted of a lovesick depressive hero, the figment of his romantic imagination, and Jermey Davies. But Solaris bombed at the box office and was critically underappreciated, and the studio flak's decided they had better things to do come awards season than take to the streets banging pots and pans to get Davis the consideration she'd earned. She got it this year, though the best news about her Oscar nomination is that it may translate into some attention coming her way when her next movie, State of Play, opens in April. If she can keep up the momentum, Viola Davis's talent may just end up not being wasted by the movies. ~ Phil Nugent

“It's weird that someone as talented and distinctive-looking as Samantha Morton has been, simultaneously, so invisible to me. Her most notable roles tend to be people just left of center: the mute girl of Sweet & Lowdown, the druggie wife of Jesus' Son, the precognitive woman-child of Minority Report, the opaque protagonist named Morvern Callar. Yet, each time I see her, while I'm wowed by her performance, once the film ends I completely forget who she is, as if mind-wiped by a Man in Black. Perusing her resumé, it seems like playing a "normal" is even worse -- she was Ian Curtis' wife in Control? Really? She was the most famous person in that film, and I don't remember seeing "Samantha Morton" at all.

“Those days have finally ended. In Synecdoche, New York, she plays Hazel, the box office ticket taker who, memorably, lives in a house that's perpetually on fire. It's a strange, confounding image, but apt -- fire is commonly a symbol for energy and life, and Hazel is the closest thing to a lifeforce in the movie, her healthy fleshiness in direct contrast to Caden Cotard's disease-ridden (or is it?) body and his wife's angularity. On paper, the character probably looks a bit flat. Our first impression of her -- a sexy girl-next-door who wants to seduce her employer away from his wife out of genuine kindness and desire -- reads like a nebbishy writer's fantasy, while the solipsistic focus on Caden's universe reduces all other characters to comets that pass by every decade or so. Hazel is no exception, arriving in Caden's orbit when she's most available to him. But Morton adds the necessary dimension -- there's a heap of desperation and loneliness behind the flirty, sex kitten exterior, and Morton's performance always feels lived in, even with all the time-jumping and less-than-stellar old age makeup. Morton guides us through Hazel's life in the brief moments we get to see of it, showing us the path of a woman who starts a little naive and little hopeful and ends up worn and wiser, acclimated to life's disappointments, but finding (I think) the meaning in fulfilling Caden's lifework that seems to elude him. It's a terrific performance, the realest thing in a movie that pisses on the idea of reality, and one that I won't soon forget.” ~ Kent M. Beeson

Much was made of Taiwanese director Hou's outsider take on a famous French children's tale, but Flight of the Red Balloon completely hangs on the spirited performance of Juliette Binoche, much of which flies in the face of the director's notoriously deliberate technique. She plays Suzanne, a performer in a puppet troupe, who juggles the chaos of her imperfect family life with her creative passion, mixing the compassion of motherhood with booming theatricality. Consider the fact that Binoche supposedly concocted all of her own dialogue -- I blame the overarching influence of one Judd Apatow -- and one can't help but be amazed by how her naturally mannered she appears. While Flight of the Red Balloon would certainly be accurately described as a slow-moving foreign film, it's also continually amazing how this textured performance has thus far been overlooked by film awards, as it's one of Binoche's best in a solid career. ~ Patrick Williamson

“Since I am an African-American (or “Obama-American,” as I like to call myself these days), I’m going to overlook that Paul Clark called on me specifically to write a few paragraphs about Robert Downey, Jr.’s performance in Tropic Thunder. After all, he’s my top Muriel pick for Best Supporting Performance, Male. Perhaps Paul thought it would finally make those fearful, timid folk, still too afraid to admit they liked the performance in public, finally come out in the open when they see that, yes, a black dude liked it too!

“While there are colleagues of mine who prefer Tom Cruise’s foul-mouthed, bald-headed studio head Les Grossman as the movie’s most enjoyably over-the-top performance, Downey remains Thunder’s most valuable, outrageous asset. He may be playing the intensely Method, bad-boy Aussie actor Kirk Lazurus, but he spends most of the movie in blackface, sounding like an old blues singer, as Sergeant Lincoln Osiris. It’s a role that’s as brazenly ridiculous as it is potentially offensive. Both Downey and Lazurus constantly walk that fine line between making a fool out of himself and making a fool out of us. (Thankfully, co-star/director Ben Stiller throws in Brandon T. Jackson, as closeted rap star-turned-thespian Alpa Chino, to remind him — and the audience — of his jackassery whenever he starts inching towards the latter.)

“What’s most shocking is that Downey landed an Oscar nomination for this role, since the thing he’s truly mocking is the same thing that gets actors Oscar nods year after year. Really, Downey’s performance slams the obsessive-compulsive egotism that takes over when actors forget that what they’re doing is simply playing dress-up. When they begin to view acting not as an art, a craft or even a job, but an obsession, getting a role just right to the point where they’re willing to forget who they are in the process. (Hell, if you need more proof of how an actor can literally lose his mind while trying to nail a performance, I got two words for you: Christian Bale.)
“In the end, Downey goes to bold, buffoonish extremes to expose how easily, and willingly, actors can lose themselves in order to vainly achieve that A-list, award-snatching acclaim. And while it appears that most of my people weren’t offended by the blackface, I’m pretty sure most of Hollywood’s acting elite wants to put their feet all up in his ass.” ~ Craig D. Lindsey

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