Sunday, October 22, 2006

Top 10 Best Actress Oscar Winners

Having seen 28/78 Best Actress winners (not a lot I know), I thought I may as well make a Top 10 of my favourites. Obviously in most cases the winner is often not the best of the year, but a list is a list. Feel free to comment:

#10 1934 - Claudette Colbert - It Happened One Night as "Ellie Andrews"
#9 2002 - Nicole Kidman - The Hours as "Virginia Woolf"
#8 1950 - Judy Holliday - Born Yesterday as Emma 'Billie' Dawn

Colbert gives a warm, funny and incredibly infectious performance, her chemistry with Gable a joy to watch. Kidman's transformation into a bleak and flawed author is seamless, and superior in one of the greatest years for this category. Blessed with impeccable comic timing, Holliday handles her role carefully and is hilarious without ever becoming cartoonish in the classic Born Yesterday.

#7 1964 - Julie Andrews - Mary Poppins as "Mary Poppins"
#6 2000 - Julia Roberts - Erin Brockovich as "Erin Brockovich"
#5 1977 - Diane Keaton - Annie Hall as "Annie Hall"

Dame Julie created a gloriously iconic childrens character out of Mary Poppins with her constant mysterious, upper-crust madness, merely hinting at an ounce of humanity. Ageing well, I find myself entranced by Roberts' performance as Erin Brockovich. She grabs the film by the scruff of the neck, driving it with her charisma, and is completely convincing in her journey. Keaton, one of my very favourite actresses is at her peak here, using her gift as one of the most natural actresses to grace the screen, to carve a dreamy counterpart to Allen's constantly battling Alvy Singer.

#4 1993 - Holly Hunter - The Piano as "Ada McGrath"
#3 1972 - Liza Minnelli - Cabaret as "Sally Bowles"
#2 1939 - Vivien Leigh - Gone with the Wind as "Scarlett O'Hara"

The silent Holly Hunter in The Piano is revelatory, conveying an insane amount of emotion through such a passive character. Minnelli captures the essence of Sally in Cabaret, switching tone a lot in her representation of a culture and attitude that however raw and honest, you can't help feel envious of. Wrenching and powerful yet often a fleeting pleasure. Scarlett O'Hara is undoubtedly my favourite character in any film. Leigh crafts a strong, charming, translucent icon, whose arc captures you for nearly four hours. At times you hate her and at times you love her, but you always watch her -- and you seldom don't admire her. Transfixing.

#1 1951 - Vivien Leigh - A Streetcar Named Desire as "Blanche DuBois"

When deciding which Best Actress win was my ultimate favourite, it was only ever between two performances -- both by the same woman. For what Vivien displays as the devious southern belle in Gone With the Wind, she turns on its head in Streetcar, giving us a full characterisation of an unstable woman. For all of Scarlett's insecurity and depth, she always seems assured; but Vivien's Blanche is a different kettle of fish altogether. Interacting superbly with Brando she reaches the realms of dramatic acting with her utterly convincing portrayal of a woman driven into delusion by rejection, and the realisation that her life is going nowhere fast. The greatest performance I have ever seen.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Let Them Eat Words

Marie Antoinette

Directed By Sofia Coppola
Starring: Kirsten Dunst, Jason Schwartzman, Steve Coogan, Asia Argento, Rip Torn
Grade: A-

Ever since the first teaser trailer of Sofia Coppola's third directorial effort, 'Marie Antoinette' was released, my anticipation for this film has built and built. Coppola Jr, who has so far churned out one film I love (The Virgin Suicides) and one film I adore like no other (Lost In Translation) once again writes her own screenplay, on this occasion adapted from the book by Antonia Fraser about the doomed 18th Century Austrian Queen of France.

Choosing to be faithful to Fraser's book Coppola abandons much of the political background up to and including the French Revolution in 1789, in favour of portraying Marie's early ascendence from a girl into a woman, confined within the weird and wonderful world of Versailles. Her anachronistic approach to an historic period is fresh and vibrant, bringing alive a lesser profiled era and imprisoning us in the same lavish bubble as her heroine; divulging us with every delicious treat on offer, whether it be the intricacy of a cake, a shoe or a dress.

Consequently, the film may seem unevenly decidated to aesthetic swagger over a more substantative narrative. This complaint is partially warranted, as the film sometimes does tend to become abrupt and self-involved. Coppola's liberal, relaxed filmmaking occasionally allowing the film to feel vacant and awkward.

But this is a minor flaw, for the magic of Coppola as an auteur speaks of experience beyond her tender years. She allows us to view and identify with Marie as the teenager she was, much like Coppola's previous heroines such as Lux in The Virgin Suicides and Charlotte in Lost In Translation. The construction of Marie largely as a victim of her own undoings allows us to feel her pressure to conform and submit, bringing out common qualities that unite her with the social struggles of girls today.

Dunst, having been given the job of portraying an iconic character in her natural state, achieves something great, if not special. Her genuineness as an actress allows her to grasp Marie's fading naivety with both hands, eeking out the charisma of a girl born before her time. A truly enchanting performance.

The most successful element in Marie Antoinette, however, is undoubtedly its stunning soundtrack. In no other historical drama will you see a monarch celebrate their 18th birthday to the distant brilliance of New Order's gorgeous 'Age Of Consent'. A theme throughout the film, Coppola uses a largely 80's punk/post-punk soundtrack to demonstrate the experimental meanderings of youth, allowing the film to flourish into an anarchistic fantasy, almost representative of a phase in your own life. Marie feels like the runaway vision of youth's foolish indulgence, a post-modern symbol of rebellion. Life's own symphony.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Snakes On A Plane

Snakes On a Plane
Directed by David R. Ellis
Starring: Samuel L. Jackson, Nathan Phillips, Julianna Margulies
Grade: D+

This cult movie, which Samuel L. Jackson signed up to star in based on its four-word title and premise, gathered an allegiance of fans fairly rapidly before its August release. Admittedly, when you hear the words 'snakes on a plane' they're not easily forgotten, and this somewhat eccentric idea has catapulted the film into what can only be described as, 'Tarantino territory'. QT, whose unapologetic desire to please a largely masculine mass audience has gained him major credibility, no doubt had a major influence on Ellis' approach to Snakes On a Plane, a film that plays to the deepest realms of masculine fantasy.

In short, Sean Jones (Nathan Phillips) finds himself the target of a crazed gangland boss when he agrees to testify against him in court. But while in protective custody on a flight to L.A, 450 deadly snakes are released onto the plane causing havoc amongst its vast array of passengers.

John Heffernan and Sebastian Gutierrez, the writers of Snakes, were no doubt chuckling to themselves as they wrote this. The cinematic equivalent of a guy's wet dream, Snakes on a Plane covers most of the jokes associated with contemporary teenage comedy, mostly comprising of, well, death. Some of the fatalaties are very comical, but you can see most of this in any action-style video game, and that's essentially what Snakes is. Some may call it a kick-ass action flick, and to a degree they would be right, but it's debatable whether the originality in Snakes on a Plane stretches past these four words.

What confused me most about Snakes is how raggedly composed it is. Ellis, whose last effort Cellular felt uneven and rushed at times, makes similar mistakes here. His direction often feels artificial and pretentious, almost like he's seen one too many action movies. He doesn't seem to always be able to grasp the tone of his film firmly enough, and as a result, it all feels a little sloppy.

Samuel L. Jackson really only turns up to sell this film, and to say one or two lines that the producers of this movie hope he will iconise. He doesn't manage this. Nor does he manage to draw much interest in the film's main rescue plot, which seems to succumb all too easily to the random, sometimes humorous picking off of the plane's passengers. Everybody that has been and will go to see Snakes On A Plane knows that they won't see cinematic brilliance, but to credit it with any artistic merit would already be going too far. Where Snakes should embrace and explore its generic conventions more thoroughly it flounders, constantly feeling constrained and isolated inside its gratuitous bubble. It could and should have been a much slicker picture.