Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Bitesize Best Actress Oscar Profiles: Joan Allen

Joan Allen in "The Contender"
Lost the 2000 Best Actress Oscar to Julia Roberts in "Erin Brockovich"

Grade: ****

As quickly as James Brown can roar, "This is a man's world!", Rod Lurie's The Contender asserts that prospective Democrat Vice President Laine Hanson is going to be up against it. Allen as Hanson is first seen cavorting with her husband -- a prelude of sex before the politics really begins -- and the subsequent interrogation of Hanson's collegial promiscuity suggests that the film is going to have plenty to say about society's expectations of the working woman. So it proves, but rather than affront Laine with a measured air of the formidable, Allen manages to make her really quite warm and open, not traits we often associate with politicians, however great their need to appeal to the collective.

Years later, Tilda Swinton would famously fashion something special in "Michael Clayton", with a corporate scapegoat that many would settle to play as a 101 of frigid career-gals. Allen understands the different facets of Laine's sense of duty; the seminality of appearing strong in the wake of threat, but also the tremulous nature of her approach towards ambition. A scene in which a bravura-filled, Presidential Jeff Bridges entertains the Hansons reveals Allen's knack for bringing humility to her characters. She wants to be a success as more than a politician, and there's such a mark of elated majesty about her demeanour here that recognises that that final feat is upon her.

"The Contender" is so skewed towards celebrating Laine's poker face that if this role were given to a less generous actress one could imagine her becoming too formidable; a stilted, gratuitously-elusive "victim" of circumstance unable to breach the boundaries of the moderate arena. It could be that, in maintaining the fluidity of her character's approach towards the political dynamic surrounding her, Allen becomes the perfect politician herself; self-aware but not permanently assured, coy in the most matter-of-fact sense. As she dashes off well-rehearsed answers to a jaded Gary Oldman it doesn't feel triumphant as much as it does a massive inner-struggle, both to tread a line of uniformity that she isn't comfortable with hugging, and her requirement to address wholly trivial matters.

Politicians have to feel credible but do we really need to know them? It's a startling achievement that Allen is able to sidestep her film's stolid, cutthroat environment, independently crafting a different dimension for her film. While "The Contender" looks to politicise Laine as a woman above all this cocksure banter, she moors her into a blank canvas, undoubtedly superior but always keen to learn. Plenty can take notes here; Allen may not quite have my vote in 2000, but she's a candidate well worth endorsing.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Bitesize Best Actress Oscar Profiles: Bette Midler

Bette Midler in "The Rose"
Lost the 1979 Best Actress Oscar to Sally Field in "Norma Rae"

Grade: *****

I've met so many people that admired Marion Cotillard's dramatic take on Edith Piaf in "La Vie En Rose", but relatively few that liked the film itself. Frantic editing or otherwise, the film and performance feel so knowingly interdependent, that I don't see how one of them can survive without the other. My feelings about "The Rose" and its star Bette Midler are similar; Midler is given so much leway with her character that she basically becomes the film. The things going on around her are relegated to mere distractions, and her performance becomes a showcase for the ages.

Apparently modelled on Janis Joplin, Midler's Mary Rose Foster is a rock star plagued by her dependence on drugs and alcohol. When she meets Houston (dashing co-nominee Frederic Forrest), she appears to have something to live for beyond music and extensive intoxication. The film's strands about Rose's affair with Houston, and her rocky relationship with manager Rudge (Alan Bates), don't really go anywhere, but that doesn't prevent Midler from developing an attachment to these characters, even as she keenly flaunts her own complete estrangement from what or who she is as a person, other than The Rose.

The film romanticises self-destruction in the way that tragic talents are iconised in the media, and Midler is only too happy to play Rose as a bittersweet heroine. She is utterly powerhouse in her stage scenes, affecting in her romantic insecurity, but often frustratingly gung-ho in approaching every element of her life. Midler occasionally blends her goofy persona into Rose's louder moments, for when she meets Houston initially -- and in one particular scene where she berates him for getting them kicked out of a bar -- she feels conscious of herself and too aware of how rash her wild temper is. "The Rose" works well because it portrays Foster as an unsalvagable tearaway, and Midler's energy and magnetism as a presence is essential to the success of this biopic.

But then there are her quieter moments; her feigned ambivalence when a fed-up Rudge puts an end to their time together, a proud glimmer of self-recognition when a drag artist imitates her at a bar, and an incredibly sad late scene in a phone box. By far the most resounding memory of "The Rose", however, lies in Midler's rendition of Joplin's own "Stay With Me". She gives the song such a wrenching emotional force, not even as a love song but as a plea for us, for life, to stay with her and remember her. It's one of those moments in cinema where time just seems to stand still, and it's also the perfect way to end this film.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Bitesize Best Actress Oscar Profiles: Jennifer Jones

Jennifer Jones in "Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing"
Lost the 1955 Best Actress Oscar to Anna Magnani in "The Rose Tattoo"

Grade: **

I'll concede to having more than a smidgeon of sympathy for actresses who suffer from inept direction, and Oscar favourite Jennifer Jones certainly falls into that category in this, the final of her five nominations. "Love is a Many-Splendored Thing" is a lifeless exercise in faux-sentimentality, and yet another Henry King film in which his leading figures become martyrs in the name of love and faith. Those two figures are William Holden as American correspondent Mark, and Jennifer Jones as mixed race Doctor Suyin, and it's an understatement to say that their meeting and subsequent relationship don't exactly set the world alight. Still, I'm sure that it'll be some comfort to fans of Arthur Hiller's Love Story that it wasn't the first film to pack limply-constructed courtship and disingenuous melodrama into 95 minutes.

Suyin is portrayed as a gracious and decent doctor, but more despite of her Eurasian descent than because of it, or because of any of her own will to succeed. Indeed, the attempts to address issues of race encompass flimsy bouts of prejudice within Suyin's professional environment. It ain't much of a shock then, to find that Jones is fundamentally unable to channel her character's position within the medical world, or a great passion for it, recalling some of Rosalind Russell's placid acceptance of duty in Sister Kenny, but otherwise a mannequin upon which the film burdens with angst and frail issues.

A scene in which Jones is required to omit the ecstasy at her husband's devotion to her by proclaiming, "He called me to tell me that he's STOPPED biting his fingernails!", handily summarises the ineffectuality of the moments where she is afforded a real Best Actress close-up. I can't imagine any actress transforming this unthinkably silly line into something meaningful, and to her credit Jones softens the end of it to accomodate a bashful hush. The successes of her performance largely emerge through senseless, child-like affectations, generating some belief that her marriage with Mark may be an appealing escape from Eastern roots. And she seems to be a much better judge of character development than Screenwriter John Patrick, or Director King are at building a story.

A JJ fan I am not, but if we're striving for superlatives, she's probably the best thing about the film (I'm not even going to discuss the title track!) But striving we'd be, and she can neither make me believe that love is splendour, or fashion the film's lamb-dressing into even a semblant of a worthy investment.

The Female of the Species

I find that part of being an Oscar completist is a growing indecision towards which categories and performers to focus on. I made a conscious decision a few months ago to curb viewings of Best Actress nominees, for fear of trawling through it too quickly, and instead focused on the other three acting categories. Having been addicted to Nick Davis' wonderful profiles on his final fifty Best Actress viewings some months back, it made me want to plan out which women to leave until last, and which to get out of the way.

The main priorities:-

1) Leave at least one performance from Actresses with multiple nominations that I have not yet seen all of (i.e. Olivia De Havilland, Marsha Mason, Meryl Streep, Jane Fonda, Liv Ullmann), until the final fifty.

2) Ensure that no given Best Actress year has more than two nominees left to see once the final fifty are revealed.

3) Try and keep the divisive performances to later on in the viewings.

It isn't by chance that I have seen twelve women nominated for that Golden Guy in the past month or so, and that there are eight more coming in the next couple of weeks. With 133 women remaining, I intend to write profiles until there are at least 100 to go.

The first of them lands shortly. Stay tuned!

Monday, October 18, 2010

A Review of Flesh of the Orchid (Chereau, 1975)

Flesh of the Orchid
Directed by Patrice Chereau
Starring: Charlotte Rampling, Bruno Cremer, Simone Signoret, Edwige Feuillère
Grade: C+

Written for Subtitled Online:

The misty opening of Patrice Chereau’s "Flesh of the Orchid" extends to a rather shady first act, in which we meet characters that test the patience as much as they spark curiosity. As a gardener marches up to a formidably stately residence, cutting a wallflower off at its stem, one wonders whether this is a bout of symbolism, and when he proceeds to march up to the bed of a horrified Charlotte Rampling and strip off, the notion gathers a tad more steam. Rampling’s Claire is often referred to as a second coming of the “orchid”, a moniker that isn’t pinpointed until later in the film, but nonetheless bears sexual connotations that never temper with the events that follow.

Emerging from a burning truck a mere fifteen minutes into the film, Claire radiates all of the fortified glory of an untouchable femme fatale. She marches into the car of an onlooking pair of male acquaintances with nary a moment’s consideration, quickly taking a shine to Louis (Cremer), the more masculine of the two. Their subsequent visit to a hotel instigates problems when Louis witnesses his friend murdered by two hired mob members, drawing them both into a desperate chase to evade the chasing silencers.

It takes all of this to first occur before we get a sense of Claire’s former existence, the pouting bursts of disapproval from a fur-clad Madame Bastier-Wagener (Feuillère) calling for her staff to scour the land for her niece, and placing a sizeable reward for her capture. The remaining information is relayed to us throughout the film, a glorified cameo by the Oscar-winning Simone Signoret as a circus Madame revealing the true, fiscally-motivated reasons for Claire’s Aunt wanting her kept behind closed doors.

Her immediate escape from the motor accident’s threat of fatality reads like an endorsement from the big bad world; this woman has survived for reasons beyond her confined, bubble-wrap setting. It’s an observation that’s only reinforced in her following skirmishes with the law, underground cartel, and the wrath of a ruthless Aunt. As Claire is forced to confront a world outside of what she is accustomed to, she does so with an amalgam of bemusement, acceptance, and exhilaration. The reality, of course, is that Charlotte Rampling’s Claire is just looking for affirmation of her own sexuality, control of her life in whatever form. Her relationship with Louis begins with a decidedly unhealthy desperation surrounding it; since Claire is looking to grasp her newfound freedom and use anyone she can to preserve it.

The film, however, swiftly changes course from being a psychosexual examination of a woman whose sexuality has clearly defined her existence as an incarcerated mental patient, to a seedy caper about vengeful gangsters and greedy aristocrats. It’s a bold move, but one that makes "Flesh" disarmingly aloof, to the point where it feels constricted and mechanical about its characters’ actions, leaving us wanting to know more about them, more about Claire’s back-story, and the source of the gangland gripes. There’s a propensity towards demonstrating consequences and generating an element of karma that makes the film much more plot-based than had previously been promised. Chereau ceases to coax us into Claire’s scheme of things once the chase begins, proceeding to rally at her behest in some form of authorial self-righteousness.

 It would be somewhat of a stretch to label Flesh as a revenge movie, but it does convect a vaguely feminist stance on Claire’s plight as a socially-starved wildflower. Every other major character in the film is punished to some degree, either as a result of sketchy morals or a failure to understand female sexuality well enough. Most of this is not achieved through Claire’s own actions, which is why vengeance doesn’t feel like the most defining feature on offer, but there is something sinister about the way that Claire is placed on a pedestal without us really being required to identify with her. Chereau’s focus becomes unclear when his attention is diverted to a bigger, ensemble-style modus operandi, and his cutthroat dramatic devices feel particularly out of place within a wry, inevitable tone.

The maddening distance felt during "Flesh" is at war with an admittedly interesting premise, and it’s true that it sustains a firm level of appeal as a loose cannon of sorts. Yet, one can’t help but feel that the real promise and bite of the film remain rooted in its first few unnerving, aggressive, expository scenes, and that it pertains to display its heroine through iconography rather than addressing her concerns within the narrative. As an orchid Claire escapes the clutches of materialist manipulation, but whether she escapes her director’s prism of objectification is another matter.

"Flesh of the Orchid" is available on DVD from November 1st.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

A Review of D'Artagnan's Daughter (Tavernier, 1994)

D'Artagnan's Daughter
Directed by Bertrand Tavernier
Starring: Sophie Marceau, Philippe Noiret, Nils Tavernier, Claude Rich, Sami Frey, Charlotte Kady
Grade: C

Written for Subtitled Online:

Nearly a full decade before Johnny Depp’s Jack Sparrow sailed the seven seas, spurning authority and balking at the prospect of meeting a gruesome end, Philippe Noiret’s D’Artagnan was doing much of the same in rural France. Alexandre Dumas’s original three musketeers became four with the introduction of surly D’Artagnan, and even though this new installment of a much-coveted franchise sees the musketeers weary ageing men eager to recapture former glories, the result is just as farcical and pulsating a swashbuckler as its plucky, rum-fuelled descendant.

Tavernier’s film, however, is less about the musketeers themselves than it is about the titular character Eloïse (Marceau), daughter of the Fourth musketeer, and every bit as keen to aid the French resistance. Her discovery of a curiously-worded note sparks speculation about whether there is a plot against the French monarchy, a conclusion hastened by the increasingly volatile behaviour of the Duke of Crassac, and his merciless muse Elgantine de Rochefort. Eloïse turns to her estranged father for advice on the matter, the result of which is that the musketeers are reunited for one last (?) quest, accompanied by Eloïse herself, and romantic poet Misère, who is courting her affection.

More than any other element of “D’Artagnan’s Daughter”, Philippe Noiret’s turn as D’Artagnan is responsible for setting the comedic tone of the piece, as his interaction with Marceau -- a striking doppelganger of Isabelle Adjani, if more fickle an Actress – provides an interesting aside to the goofing around. Noiret is the core of the ensemble, managing to come across as a different outlet for everybody’s frustrations; an intimidating but effortlessly cool father-in-law, and to his colleagues a helplessly noble sucker for a “cause”.

One of the amiable successes of “D’Artagnan’s Daughter” is its ability to unite a set of characters so loosely bound, with wildly different approaches to adversity, to its common cause of libertarianism. Eloise is carrying out a moral crusade, while her father seems to enter the battle out of duty; Misere is a dreamer who wants to make an impact, while the other musketeers are as resigned to accept the situation as workers asked to cover a shift at short notice. Despite this, there are few moments where you wonder just what this troop of folks are doing together, which is admirable given that the “mission” itself, however uncertain and sporadic, has a distinct air of the novelty about it.

The group impetuously push on with their venture, unsure of who exactly is threatening them and in what capacity, drunk on activism and motivated by a general distaste for the current political situation. As an early scene involving the murder of a Mother Superior is depicted with all of the pulp of a sherry trifle, it becomes clear that this is a project much more devoted to the sillier, camp elements of 17th century France, keen to excise historical hang-ups from the musketeer mantra. As a consequence, “D’Artagnan’s Daughter” feels more token, reliant upon wit and pace, carrying with it all of the irony of watching people fight for fighting’s sake, rattling off quips about each other’s incompetence, putting their own appetite above each other’s safety.

There’s a tiresome, roundabout slog to the film’s constant desire to win over an audience through non-committal bitchiness and predictably-sarcastic pockets of humour. At over two hours it’s little surprise that the film cannot sustain its energy through this technique, dissipating as a frothy comedy and delivering lite on the promise of concrete historical satire. One is reminded, more often than not, of those pesky Pirate films, and their distracting approach to a laboured, idea-shy narrative.

It’s somewhat of a credit, but largely a misguided deferral, to suggest that the most chiefly apt description of “D’Artagnan’s Daughter” is “fun”. As well as it captures the period with marauders in tunics and brazen women in suggestive attire, D’Artagnan is just that bit too stagy and familiar to sidestep the self-consciousness of a script so skewed towards generating laughter from general indifference and incompetence. It draws attention to its own motivations far more than one would like.

As a bit of a maverick venture, “D’Artagnan’s Daughter” fairly obviously coasts on the notable eccentricities of Dumas’s work, and feels exactly that; a well-meaning fixture, rather than a genuine extension of the franchise. It introduces a different angle to a well-known story, but is too content to hide behind flippant remarks, its lack of ambition curbing any legitimate shots at glory. This may be more than mildly entertaining fare, but it isn’t one for all.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Second Hand Unwinds: Oscar Predictions For 2010

Excuse the near three-week absence from posting, but I've just started a new job and am thus busy adjusting to a sensibly alien sleeping pattern. I've decided to plug the gap between reviews (and there will be reviews; of starlets playing up to new surroundings, and conspiracies within the heart of Europe) by venturing back towards the familiar path of Oscar prognostication. It's still all harmless fun at this point, but Awards season is upon us, so this seems like as opportune a moment as any.

Best Picture

"127 Hours"
"Another Year"
"For Colored Girls..."
"The Kids Are All Right
"The King's Speech"
"Made in Dagenham"
"The Social Network"
"The Way Back"

Alternates: "The Fighter", "Toy Story 3", "Rabbit Hole"

"Inception" and "Toy Story 3" are popular, and got the fiscal ball rolling in 2010, but they still go against the grain of Oscar's general middle-brow gaze. I think that Nolan's film will probably have enough support to gain entry to the year's "top ten", but I'm not yet convinced that animated features will necessarily broach Best Picture regularly in an extended field. Why not "For Colored Girls..." then? A film about a repressed minority, with an all-star cast, and following on the coattails of last year's "Precious".

Best Director

Danny Boyle, "127 Hours"
David Fincher, "The Social Network"
Tom Hooper, "The King's Speech"
Mike Leigh, "Another Year"
Peter Weir, "The Way Back"

Alternates: Christopher Nolan, "Inception", Lisa Cholodenko, "The Kids Are All Right", The Coen Bros, "True Grit"

It appears foolhardy to forecast another snub for Nolan, but if he can get subbed for Stephen Daldry and Ron Howard in 2008, then it's at all possible he could miss out for just as dense a film this year, when the competition is stiffer.

Best Actress in a Leading Role

Annette Bening, "The Kids Are All Right"
Anne Hathaway, "Love and Other Drugs"
Diane Lane, "Secretariat"
Lesley Manville, "Another Year"
Julianne Moore, "The Kids Are All Right"

Alternates: Natalie Portman, "Black Swan", Hilary Swank, "Conviction", Jennifer Lawrence, "Winter's Bone"

A mixture of the prolific, reputable, burgeoning, and one-time-only nominees that often occurs in this category. Natalie Portman is brilliant in "Black Swan", but it's dark and her character has serious issues with sexuality that are bound to put off certainly the stauncher Academy members. I'd be very sad to see Sally Hawkins ousted from the lineup for another Hathaway/downtrodden rural American double-team, but she's only likely to get in if the film is BIG. Even if Julianne Moore is campaigned as Supporting in Kids, I think a lead nomination is a very legitimate outcome, given that maybe a vote for one automatically pertains to include the other?

Best Actor in a Leading Role

Javier Bardem, "Biutiful"
Colin Firth, "The King's Speech"
James Franco, "127 Hours"
Ryan Gosling, "Blue Valentine"
Mark Wahlberg, "The Fighter"

Alternates: Robert Duvall, "Get Low", Jeff Bridges, "True Grit", Paul Giamatti, "Barney's Version"

I'm betting that at least 40-80% of these have death scenes, which always appears to be a plus in the Best Actor category. Ryan Gosling has the luxury (?) of another December release, while the others all have personal obstacles to overcome. If this is the five, and nobody really trumps the critics, then does Mark Wahlberg have a shot at glory?

Best Actress in a Supporting Role

Helena Bonham Carter, "The King's Speech"
Kimberly Elise, "For Colored Girls..."
Miranda Richardson, "Made in Dagenham"
Saoirse Ronan, "The Way Back"
Jacki Weaver, "Animal Kingdom"

Alternates: Dianne Wiest, "Rabbit Hole", Whoopi Goldberg, "For Colored Girls...", Lesley Manville, "Another Year"

Having just seen Richardson's turn in Daggers, I'm not on board with a nomination. It's showboating of the most flagrant order, which is why Oscar might bite. Ronan already has one nomination and was dangerously poised last year to take over from faltering hopefuls. I'm thinking that "For Colored Girls..." will surely land a Supp Actress nominee, but who?

Best Actor in a Supporting Role

Christian Bale, "The Fighter"
Ed Harris, "The Way Back"
Mark Ruffalo, "The Kids Are All Right"
Geoffrey Rush, "The King's Speech"
John Hawkes, "Winter's Bone"

Alternate: Andrew Garfield, "The Social Network", Sam Rockwell, "Conviction", Colin Farrell, "The Way Back"

Hawkes seems like a long shot, but if we're wading for contenders the likelihood of him landing up on critics lineups etc. is not that slim. Harris and Rush are strong supporting players who AMPAS already likes; Ruffalo stronger if you ask me, but so far shunned.

Best Original Screenplay

"Another Year"
"The Kids Are All Right"
"The King's Speech"
"Made In Dagenham"

Alternate: "The Fighter"

Best Adapted Screenplay

"127 Hours"
"For Colored Girls..."
"The Social Network"
"Thw Way Back"
"Winter's Bone"

Alternate: "Love and Other Drugs"