Friday, October 26, 2007

Inter-War Years - Top Ten Performances

10. Charles Laughton - The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933)
Awards: Won Oscar (Actor in a Leading Role)

Charles Laughton was one of the old guard: a charismatic and fearless presence on stage and screen. As Britain's most famous (or should that be infamous?) monarch he tears through his subjects and creates a rather touching portrayal of what is an essentially cruel and dislikeable leader. The film is rather hurriedly put together, and doesn't really ask too much of him, but Laughton eeks every bit of life from what was, even then, a fairly routine character.

09. Anny Ondra - Blackmail (1929)
Awards: None

The Eastern-European actress was dubbed in Hitchcock's first sound-included film, which makes her performance even more of a revelation. I'm not a fan of the film but Ondra's absorption of guilt, horror and subsequent mental collapse is raw and wholly convincing, adding dimensions to the character of Alice; Hitch's first female victim, and perhaps his best.

08. Lionel Barrymore - Grand Hotel (1932)
Awards: None

I can't help but fall in love with Barrymore's performance here as a desperate dying man trying to live out his days in the luxurious Grand Hotel. He's successful in winning you over with his hopeless, resigned, yet curiously warm persona, the vital cog within the film's message of class and community now commonly associated with the serial drama. He is crucially, and adorably, a man of the people.

07. Cary Grant - The Awful Truth (1937)
Awards: None

The wonderful thing about Grant as a comedy actor is that he can play both the unstable hapless victim (Bringing Up Baby, Arsenic and Old Lace) and the sly, scheming charmer, seen in His Girl Friday and most wonderfully Leo McCarey's The Awful Truth. Grant revels in his love/hate relationship with Dunne, and sells every wisecrack with brisk, perfect timing and unrivalled charisma.

06. Claudette Colbert – It Happened One Night (1934)
Awards: Won Oscar (Actress in a Leading Role)

Shrewdly leading while being led, Colbert gives a warm, funny and incredibly infectious performance that is the heart and soul of Capra's It Happened One Night. Thanks largely to her, even at its most heightened points of escalation, everything in the film feels like a natural, swift, and delightful jaunt.

05. Fredric March - Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931)
Awards: Won Venice, Oscar (Actor in a Leading Role)

Aside from the obvious make-up gimmick (he plays both Jekyll and Hyde), March is scrumptiously brilliant as the classic hero/villain, capturing the spiralling madness of a doctor both dismayed and excited by what he has achieved, and the subsequent struggle between his double-persona.

04. Katharine Hepburn - Bringing Up Baby (1938)
Awards: None

Her manic, frustrating inability to listen or acknowledge the concerns of, not only Cary Grant's doctor character, but indeed anyone she encounters, is both hilarious and infuriating. It takes some audacity to carry off a character like this, and expert comic timing. She has both in abundance.

03. Irene Dunne - The Awful Truth (1937)
Awards: Nominated for Oscar (Actress in a Leading Role)

It's an utter joy watching Dunne try to convince both herself and her husband that she's happy enough without him when she clearly isn't. Their one-upmanship throughout the film is enthralling, Dunne staging an act of comic genius towards the end that is the final victory in a mammoth battle of pride.

02. Cary Grant - Bringing Up Baby (1938)
Awards: None

Grant's best comes when he reacts to the ever-increasing mania going on all around him, (i.e. in Arsenic and Old Lace, possibly the finest comedic performance there's ever been). In BUB his behaviour and rationality fades in sync with this ever-maddening environment, his character eventually reduced from skepticism to acceptance in what is a rousing reversal.

01. Renee Falconetti - La passion de Jeanne d’arc (1928)
Awards: None

However hard I try I can't see past Renee Falconetti's figure of victimisation and sacrifice. As the saintly Joan of Arc she's poked, prodded, interrogated, ridiculed and eventually put to death in what is essentially a slaughter. Her plight in this way encourages us to sympathise and remember Falconetti as the martyr she's portrayed, but, likening the performance to another cinematic victim, Bjork's Selma in Dancer In the Dark (a performance I cherish), it achieves so much, without anywhere near the same quality of tools at hand, or level of characterisation. Falconetti is as exposed as any actor has ever been asked to. She is everything; the essence of injustice, the mark of faith, the truest protagonist.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

98. Ten Things I Hate About You (1999)

Directed by Gil Junger
Starring: Julia Stiles, Heath Ledger, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Larisa Oleynik

This might seem an odd one to include in an all-time Top 100 but whenever I'm dismayed at the barrage of crappy teen movies being produced at the moment, or even just when I'm feeling a little goofy, I pop this wonderful example of a romantic comedy into the DVD player.

Based on William Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew it embraces teen culture and its shallow, black-and-white demeanor, while never losing its Shakespearian foundations. The script is consistently witty and dynamic, with excellent characterisation and executed finely by a wonderful young ensemble, led by an energetic and tireless turn from the revelatory Julia Stiles as the shrew, Katarina Stratford.

If you haven't seen it, please do.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Mini-Reviews (Batch 1)

Death Proof
Directed by Quentin Tarantino
Starring: Kurt Russell, Vanessa Ferlito, Rosario Dawson, Rose MacGowan
Grade: C+

Originally coupled with Robert Rodriguez' Planet Terror, as part of Grindhouse, a double-bill homage to B-movie's, Death Proof is the latest directorial feat of the infrequent Quentin Tarantino. It follows two groups of four women as they encounter the mysterious and dangerous Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell) in two separate incidents, both of which end up in a bloody mess.

Both groups of women exchange long periods of conversation that admittedly reveal little about them, but do provide some funny, snappy, and at times electric dialogue that give us enough to care about and/or relate to them. It's clear from the character of the 'Bride' in the Kill Bill movies that Tarantino has decided to exercise a more feminist approach to the role of women in action films, and thus we are treated to what is essentially a tribute to them. There is a definite subversion of gender roles evident with the traditional qualities of women in the genre (physical beauty and relative kick-ass ability) remaining but used to ultimately convey their superiority over men in what acts as a conceptual rebirth.

But to dig much deeper into the film would be contradicting the style in which it's made. Many will be dismayed at Death Proof's abandonment of any real attempt to adhere to any narrative structure, nor to detail the motivations of its characters beyond thrill-seeking. There's few who can get away with it but Tarantino has always been one to put the pleasure of his audience above cinematic protocol, and his passion in this respect amazingly atones somewhat for the film's often senseless disregard for clarity or cohesion. Death Proof may be a cinematic rebel of the most unfastidious variety, but there are few films this year I would rather be subjected to two more hours of.

Directed by D.J. Caruso
Starring: Shia LaBoeuf, Sarah Roemer, Aaron Yoo, David Morse, Carrie-Ann Moss, Jose Pablo Cantillo
Grade: B

Shia LaBeouf stars as troubled teenager Kale Brecht, who, after his Dad is killed in a car accident, struggles to cope with his grief, culminating in his assault of a teacher. The result is that he's put under house arrest for three months, but as Kale's boredom sets in he begins to develop a deep fascination with one of his neighbours' sinister activities. Couple that with a hot young blonde moving in next door and his punishment becomes a little more difficult to tolerate.

Undoubtedly the film bears significant resemblances to Hitchcock's 1954 masterpiece Rear Window, substituting James Stewart's broken leg for Shia LaBeouf's tracking device, and so forth. Indeed it's pre-decessor is often mimicked in the film, most notably by its villain Robert Turner (David Morse), a near-double of Rear's chilling antagonist Lars Thorwald. But what of this mimicry? Disturbia is most definitely an attempt to bring a classic story to a younger audience, re-vamping it through romance, gadgetry and the presence of youth. It's fresh, compelling, and has a script that's close to the tightness of the '54 classic, exercising a volatility that works well with the more impulsive younger generation Disturbia represents. Where it does fall short is with regard to voyeuristic obsession and combative showdown, of which it teeters, more than once, on the brink of teen-slasher territory.

The main reason for the film's success however, probably resides with Shia LaBoeuf, who demonstrates a charm, cuteness and likeability that you just cannot help but root for. His troubled, misunderstood badboy demeanor forming the basis for Disturbia's continual sense of injustice, Shia's Kale is a 'have-a-go' hero of the most convincing stature, driving our interest through his. LaBoeuf is more the dark wannabe than Stewart's bored busybody, and in this way epitomises Disturbia. But there's nothing wrong with being the dark wannabe. Such is youth.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

The Brave One

The Brave One
Directed by Neil Jordan
Starring: Jodie Foster, Terrence Howard, Naveen Andrews
Grade: C -

Perhaps the most aptly titled film of this year, Neil Jordan's The Brave One sees radio presenter Erica Bane (Jodie Foster) undergo an extreme transformation when she and her fiancee (Naveen Andrews) are brutally attacked by a gang of youths. Her lover does not survive the ordeal, and so Erica is left to deal with life alone, prompting her to develop a different, severely hostile attitude to the world around her; illegally purchasing a gun that inevitably features increasingly as the film advances.

It initially reads as a fascinating character study, our glimpse of Erica's cute, happy-go-lucky, loved-up character being moulded into something dark and ugly. As Erica transforms, Foster carries with her a bitter and desperate thirst for vengeance that sidesteps the self-righteous nobility that could so easily have been manifested with a character as tragic and wronged as this. The self-evaluative nature of Erica is forgivably analysed through voice-overs throughout, which do mix well with the feel of the film, despite contributing little emotion or insight.

As Erica begins to get into a few scrapes, she attracts the attention of both the police, led by Detective Mercer (Terrence Howard), and the media, who deem her "the vigilante". But as The Brave One bounds on it becomes less of a battle between grief and morality than it does a confused smattering of ideas. It seems to be battling most with itself, as the plot progresses in an all too convenient, and resultantly contrived manner. Erica confesses mid-way through the film that her newfound persona, the 'stranger' inside of her, is one that looks for trouble. But it's an all too lame excuse to justify the ease at which she finds this trouble, especially given the somewhat random nature that two of the events in question occur.

Erica conducts a radio phone-in on the public opinion of the 'vigilante', only to receive a mixed response; some treating her in the ilk of a super heroine, others condemning her for taking the law into her own hands. It comes at a particularly ruminative point in the film, and is perhaps intended to reflect the differing political, moral and ethical values of its audience, but does transfer as unncessary, and in truth a bit obtrusive. It's at this point in the film where Erica begins to develop an unlikely relationship with the Detective attempting to track her down, his curiosity with her ordeal and subsequent public questioning of New York City crime drawing them together. Foster and Howard have a definite chemistry, their careful interplay surprisingly convincing, given the film's other contrivances. Their relationship, however, moves at a fairly unnatural pace, and does lead to a couple of needless plot devices that signal the film's intentions way too easily.

Credit Jordan for his assiduous approach to the film's prevalent theme of bravery. He makes us think about what exactly it takes to be brave, and whether bravery is as admirable a quality as its reputation would imply. What is bravery? Is it acceptance? The Brave One questions both Erica and Mercer, whether she is brave for confronting the world that took her husband away and whether he is brave for risking his career to cut her a break.

But the finale of The Brave One seems to reject the attitude and values of both it's characters' towards the vigilante. Foster's Erica -- a woman without regret, but who recognises that her actions are morally reprehensible, or Howard's detective, who begins to grapple with his own conscience, as he puts the pieces of his vigilante case together. Jordan wants us to think about who 'The Brave One' actually is, but as the hunt for Erica's fiancee's killers is ever more overshadowed by her relationship with Mercer, it becomes irrelevant and glaringly overblown. The Brave One is always watchable, occasionally admirable, and maybe even a little brave itself ; but its failure is best summarised in reaction to Erica's moral questioning, "How many wrongs to make it right?". The answer: one too many.