Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Review: Blind Date: Then and Now

Blind Date (1996)
Directed by Theo Van Gogh
Starring: Peer Mascini, Renée Fokker, Thijs Römer
Grade: C+

Blind Date (2008)
Directed by Stanley Tucci
Starring: Stanley Tucci, Patricia Clarkson
Grade: C -

Written for Subtitled Online:

Those mystified by the attempts of the characters in Lars Von Trier’s “Antichrist” to deal with the grief of their dead child may be equally puzzled by Dutch director Theo Van Gogh’s 1996 film, “Blind Date.” Like the currently-troubled Dogme founder, Van Gogh’s reputation as a cinematic provocateur caused controversy, reaching its peak in his critique of the treatment of female Muslims in 2004 short film, “Submission.” While Von Trier’s recent behaviour at Cannes may lead to him becoming somewhat of a pariah on the festival circuit, Van Gogh faced an eminently more dangerous opposition to his work: less than two months after “Submission” aired on television he was assassinated by a Muslim extremist.

“Blind Date” opens with Renee Fokker’s Katja entering a rather tacky-looking lounge bar, in which she proceeds to first order a drink, and secondly enquire of the whereabouts of Pom (Mascini). As it happens, Pom has answered her advertisement in the personal columns for a “sweet, honest man” considerably older than herself, and as the two have dinner, they engage in the kind of small talk you’d expect from people meeting for the first time. What quickly becomes apparent is that these two are not meeting for the first time, and as their exchange accelerates towards a more volatile tone, we learn that they are actually married, and are heavily resentful of how their lives have turned out. The film is divided into chapters based upon the personal ads, which are often shifting in nature according to what Katja and Pom want to learn from each other. As they constantly redress their desires, they discuss the reasons for their marital estrangement – nameably the death of their daughter in a car crash, and the implications of that event on their sexual relationship. During the course of “Blind Date” they each adopt interrogative and submissive roles; including he as a reporter and blind man, and she as a psychologist and dancer.

Scissors and clamps are, thankfully, deemed unnecessary for this project about a couple trying to surmise what their marriage means anymore, but that doesn’t make these parents any less radical in their method of confronting harsh realities. As a conceptualised view of self-imposed ‘marriage therapy’, “Blind Date” holds weight; how to resolve a marriage where both parties can’t be in the same room together without relinquishing their identities? The nature of this coping technique as a manufactured paradox of escape and confrontation creates intrigue, and the tense interplay between Fokker and Mascini offers a tentatively balanced dynamic to all of their roleplays. The schematics of the film as a confessional, insidiously motivated acting duel inevitably leads to bouts of self-consciousness, but this doesn’t particularly hamper it until the later scenes.

Since most of “Blind Date” is essentially acting as a divulgement of exposition, it commands attention while things feel relatively fresh, but when the film runs out of backstory to reveal (and interesting ways to reveal it) the exercise becomes rather stagnant and roundabout. An intermittent voice-over accompaniment by the couple’s dead daughter adds to the extremely macabre humour intoned in some of the more sensationalist crevices of the script, as she launches into critiques of how they’ve behaved after her demise. It’s a device that feels far too facetious for a film that’s banding around so much emotional baggage, and a weak move to realise the daughter as a proponent of the present rather than the past.

While a far more seasoned veteran of the acting branch, Stanley Tucci has tried his hand at directing no less than four times, the most successful of which is “Big Night,” his 1996 collaboration with Campbell Scott. Tucci’s decision to remake the late Van Gogh’s film in 2007 provoked surprised intrigue, and the following year it had its North American premiere at the Sundance Film Festival. While essentially a faithful remake, “Blind Date” (2008) doesn’t copy the original shot-for-shot, altering the sequence of events slightly to make more sense of the couple’s actions. Tucci also elects to alter the names of the central characters to Don and Janna, casting himself in the former role, and Patricia Clarkson to star opposite.

Those familiar with Tucci and Clarkson’s recent partnership as Emma Stone’s easy-going parents in teen comedy “Easy A,” will likely be a little aghast at how far removed from that wheelhouse “Blind Date” requires them to be. As two actors particularly excellent at instilling characters with natural qualities, this warring couple (no less conceited in nature than in the original) are far too alien and ugly for this acting duo to get to grips with. Playing against-type, the two expose the script’s manipulation of emotion far more than is present in the original, its dialogue falling flat with the familiar, composed actors unconvincing in alluding to the hatred and contempt Mascini and Fokker assumed in its predecessor. The failure of Tucci’s version isn’t exclusively consigned to either acting or casting errors, but reads as more of a misjudged endeavour entirely to take on a project that feels so heavily a product of its then-Director. Van Gogh can coax some tremendous moments from his two stars because he’s so heavily involved in its authorial elements; while Tucci remains a sure admirer of the original (even tinkering with it somewhat) he’s still primarily an onlooker staging a reconstruction.

If 1996’s “Blind Date” was an experiment with mixed degrees of success, its descendant is an ill-conceived stab in the dark. Van Gogh introduced a gimmick capable of luring an audience into a state of studious fascination, but even then that gimmick didn’t have the legs to last eighty minutes. It’s unsurprising then that the mishandled remake feels like even more of a drag – loaded with two of the finest actors of their generation, but who are completely unsuited to the darker, and, frankly, bizarre complexities of this particular story. However seedy it sounds, one wishes there were more columns in the vein of ‘Man Seeks Less Talk and More Action’, since a dearth of impact is the chief common denominator between the two episodes.

Both films are now available to buy on DVD (Region 2) as part of a 2-disc set.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Review: Voyage to the End of the World

Voyage to the End of the World (1976)
Directed by Philippe Cousteau
Starring: Jacques Cousteau
Grade: B

Written for Subtitled Online:

‘We are witnesses to the vanishing of an eternity,’ Philippe Cousteau proclaims in the final breaths of his documentary, “Voyage to the End of the World,” as his father Jacques reaches the end of his journey to the outer-reaches of the South Pole. Of all the faraway cultural landscapes and alien habitats open to exploration, Antarctica appears to be the en-vogue topic of the moment; Luc Jacquet’s “March of the Penguins” chronicled the life cycle of its bird-dwellers, while more recently Werner Herzog’s “Encounters at the End of the World” sees the renowned director ape the Cousteau family’s 1975 cross-continental trip. As mentioned in the film, this journey marks a two-hundred-year anniversary of explorer Captain James Cook’s crossing of the Antarctic Circle during his circumnavigation of the globe in the 18th century.

Despite Cousteau’s established attachment to the underwater world as an oceanographer, evident in his work for National Geographic, and Oscar-winning feature “Le Monde du Silence,” this marked the man’s most daring endeavour to date. In 1973 Captain Cousteau set sail for Antarctica in his boat Calypso, accompanied by a crew that included his son Philippe, a previous collaborator and partner on TV series, “The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau.” The film follows the Cousteau and the Calypso from the time that it arrives at the South Pole, to the end of the exploration of its waters. While a prolific filmmaking duo during their time together, Philippe would work with his father just one more time after “Voyage” – in their search for the lost continent of Atlantis – before a boat crash caused his untimely death in 1979, at the age of thirty-nine.

While primarily an ode to the South Seas and their unorthodox array of creatures, “Voyage to the End of the World” is just that – a voyage – and it manages to convey the sense of journeyman in Cousteau et crew particularly well given that there isn’t a diary-structure as such. One of its most appealing attributes is that P. Cousteau doesn’t get too overdetermined with creating a compelling narrative outside of marine life and glacial terrain. But for a brief segment where he mourns the tragic accidental loss of Michel Laval, the ship’s second-in-command, the emphasis is always placed upon gaining insight into a world we know relatively little about – especially considering that this occurred nearly forty years ago. When P. Cousteau does attempt to inject drama it’s usually through presenting the landscape as a hurdle for the expedition; the group must first navigate an active volcano and later navigate a pool of icebergs in order to progress safely.

What’s achieved is largely through exercising a patient approach, understated up to its euphoric final moments, even as P. Cousteau pertains to include swooping aerial shots and a graceful musical score. Father and son also alternate between providing voice-over commentary, resisting literary intonation in favour of a more practical impression of the place. The aesthetic qualities of “Voyage to the End of the World” lie in its faithfulness to the sea – perhaps not surprising as both father and son are proven pioneers in the field of documentarianism. Their welcome desire to leave this distant climate unimposed allows the forays into penguin behaviour and deepwater organisms to provoke their own inherent allure and magic; the Cousteaus project romantic ideas onto Antarctica but don’t purport to be above their station as fledgling voyagers. They remain incredibly respectful of it as a haven for sailors, naturalists, enthusiasts in its untouched state.

Above all, Cousteau creates the impression of Antarctica as a tranquil odyssey, aided heavily by Editor Hedwige Bienvenu’s fluid, assured style. While “Voyage to the End of the World” wanes a little in interest in the middle section, that’s more a result of pedantic explanation of processes than it is of the film’s diminishment as a visual showpiece. It’s pieced together with loving delicacy and thoughtful flair; a stripped-bare, simplistic presentation of life in the South, and a reservedly charming engagement with the natural world. As the film builds towards an underwater climax, Cousteau and crew’s passion for this unknown corner of the world is felt – without the need for heavy personalisation or dramatic camerawork.

Serenely mastered, “Voyage to the End of the World” is Cousteau’s love letter to nature; in particular the mystery and metaphysics beneath Antarctica’s oceanic expanse. It’s a modestly-played documentary designed more towards developing intrigue through a meditative comb of the location rather than an exciting adventure story, and surely succeeds in opening our eyes to the mystical beauty of a wilderness and the settlers who inhabit it. More concerned with the power of imagery than a need to educate and inform, the film finds a median between postcard admiration and spiritual fascination in detailing – what many believed to be – the point at which civilisation ceased to exist.

Voyage to the End of the World has recently been released on DVD and Blu-ray.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Review: Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides
Directed by Rob Marshall
Starring: Johnny Depp, Penelope Cruz, Geoffrey Rush, Ian McShane, Kevin McNally, Sam Claflin, Richard Griffiths
Grade: C

The Pirates of the Caribbean series - rather like Piers Morgan, or a sugar-rushed younger sibling - is a commodity that annoyingly won't go away. While it has retained a level of watchability throughout, only 2003's opener, "The Curse of the Black Pearl," falls anywhere close to a coherent action-adventure film. The previous two instalments were particularly zealous in piling on characters and story strands to generate suspense within the narrative, and rashly so: Verbinski's 'more is more' approach left perilled characters marooned in thanklessly overblown action sequences and token romances. Enter "Chicago" director Rob Marshall to rescue the tired franchise -- a man who needs a little rejuvenation of his own, given that his work ever since that 2002 musical has fallen on seemingly deaf ears.

"On Stranger Tides" begins having excised the ivory inefficacy of Orlando Bloom and the porcelain smirk of his bourgeois wench Keira Knightley. Produced four years after "At Worlds End" (the other three films were completed in that same space of time) there has clearly been a move towards resurrecting the basic approach of "Black Pearl," with its modestly-layered formation of black magic, romance, and personal gain. The addition to the "Tides" arsenal comes in the form of Ian McShane as Blackbeard and, particularly, Penelope Cruz as his estranged daughter Anjelica, a steamy ex-lover of perennial favourite Captain Jack Sparrow. This time out the pesky historical artefact of desire is the Fountain Of Youth, of which the age-reversing powers are sought after by several characters, including the monarchs of England and Spain.

As much as is regained by banishing Bloom, Knightley, Hollander, Davenport, Crook etc. is cancelled out by the tendency to fall back into similar habits and rhythms. The reined-in cast list and cleaner script allow for us to at least surmise where each character roughly is at any given time, and there's a decent plain of scope upon which to observe the ruckus and swagger. And still, as is with many 21st century period depictions, "On Stranger Tides" has a pretty dull and sketchy view of London in this time period, emulating the recent travesty of Guy Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes in turning a bustling wonderland of a city into an ugly, characterless platform for its stunts and chases. It's astonishing that twenty years after Steven Spielberg created such a vibrant haven of fantasy and magic in Hook (regardless of the film's other faults) current action adventures find it so difficult to provide dimensionality to their locations. A trip to Nightcap Bay (where mermaids love to massacre) is a recovery in this regard, but it still feels as if the visual techniques of the Pirates mould are erring recklessly towards grainy and saturated mise-en-scene.

So too unimproved is its flippant alteration of protocol to suit the needs of the plot, as "On Stranger Tides" asserts on more than one occasion that size really doesn't matter. An effigy of Jack Sparrow demonstrably causes direct pain to the Rum-swilling gent when held under a naked flame, but doesn't kill him when it sinks to the bottom of a rocky river never to be seen again; Ships are resurrected from the depths of the sea and confined to miniature glass bottles for later use. Even as a fantasy/adventure story (this is no Master and Commander) there's an alarming amount of screenwriting licence used to drive the narrative towards its close. Partly through giving them individually more to do,"On Stranger Tides" is aided by the gracious dynamism of its actors in gunning towards the conclusion, neither hampered by lack of screentime or bad jokes (at least mostly). Rush's Barbossa has rarely been more fun than in this episode's winning chemistry with Depp (in a reprise of a reprise of a reprise), both in their infiltration of a Spanish military camp, and in a silly-but-relatively-tame scene in which he and Sparrow attempt to balance a precariously stranded ship.

As can often be said about projects that round up more money than one can shake a stick at, the "Pirates" crew have had their day - even with a fourth film that bests the two that preceded it. It's more structured and inclined towards making its story coherent; less frantic, or eager to charm, but it still isn't particularly successful at doing any of these things, and doesn't show enough imagination or overhaul in tackling a Georgian world that feels as ticklishly familiar and predictable as it ever has. If Depp's Sparrow once wanted to know where the rum had gone, he now needs to ask where the magic has gone; "On Stranger Tides" mixes it up, but it's still a lukewarm chowder of flimsy quests, saccharin love stories, and a man with a fondness for eyeliner. 

Thursday, May 19, 2011

A Review of Last Night (Tadjedin, 2010)

Last Night
Directed by Massy Tadjedin
Starring: Keira Knightley, Sam Worthington, Eva Mendes, Guillaume Canet
Grade: C

Written for In Review Online:

While Mike Nichols’ “Closer” asserted that the heart was ‘a fist wrapped in blood’ first-time director Massy Tadjedin’s “Last Night” offers up a more tender impression of cosmopolitan infidelity. The values of the high-class city dwellers in this New York-set relationship drama aren’t quite as brazenly hypocritical as their London counterparts, but the themes remain the same. Things aren’t all Sauvignon and smiles in the Big Apple: when the world is right at your doorstep it’s easy to wonder if there are tastier morsels to devour, or if the right one somehow got away.

Keira Knightley as Joanna entertains that very idea when her businessman husband Michael (Worthington) has his head turned by a confident colleague. Once Michael makes off on a nightcap-laden business trip with the object of his wife’s scorn, both marriages are tested. Joanna bumps into dashing old flame Alex (Canet), whose French charms come out to play when he invites her to a friend’s party, thus instigating flashes of flirtation, pangs of regret, and reminiscence about what might have been had their fling not fizzled to a fickle close.

You’d be forgiven for assuming that the film is going to be a more tempestuous affair when minutes-in there’s a jealous row between the pretty pair. Knightley, drunk and acid-tongued in her sarcastic version of envy, flaunts the attempts of her character to rile the placid immovability of her other half, and his insistence upon viewing workmate Laura (Mendes) as just that: another suited member of the office. Where Nichols might have probed Joanna’s frustration with cries of “You want to fuck her – don’t you?” Tadjedin opts for the other extreme and fills the room with chilly, dead air. The couple stare at the empty space between them as, presumably, a method of telegraphing their devolved lack of communication, but what’s exposed instead is the hollowness of their on-screen relationship.

Through lack of scriptural substance and chemistry, “Last Night” doesn’t generate a strong enough sense of how Joanna and Michael fit together, and therefore builds a weak platform for its ideas about romantic disconnection. The deluge of personal one-to-one exchanges make the project feel born of the stage, but as an exercise in acting much of it feels superficially and consciously constructed. This is especially true of the scenes between Worthington and Mendes, which oscillate between genial banter and limp displays of longing, as he in particular suffers under the weight of having to add layers to an attraction that doesn’t have many. By contrast, Knightley’s and Canet’s scenes together gather more flickers of emotion and backstory, and their undeniable candour at least partly atones for the turgid foreplay of the other pairing. Knightley, much more effective in this environment, is the only one of the foursome who really finds a footing within the script. Her playful nature has always been her prize asset, and she utilises it here to colour Joanna’s attachment to Alex as neither exclusive in its genuine re-kindling of feeling, nor as an impulsively selfish revenge tactic. Her awareness and expansion of the character is the single finest element “Last Night” has to offer.

Throughout the muted drama Tadjedin mediates the level of infidelity to deter us from taking a particular side, but in the process limits the level of involvement we can have with either half. The director’s desire to eventually lead us to a tentative but neat conclusion is exposed too early, and the mirroring story strands feel awfully subdued, to the extent that it's nearly impossible to become immersed in what little drama there is. In its glacially-presented platitudes of what constitutes losing touch with a partner, “Last Night” asserts that sex is a restless necessity, and charts moral descension as a uniformly dull and inevitable reality. Even if sex is bound to happen, one thing it shouldn’t be is boring. As the cinematic equivalent of a cocktease, “Last Night” is the least potent attempt to stoke the embers since Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck got steamy in “Gigli.”

The use of familiar techniques to illicit and address temptation leaves “Last Night” open to interrogation; what – if anything – new is it telling us about how we deal with trust and guilt in relationships, and what value we put on monogamy? It’s uncertain whether the film’s course of events is intended as an affirming wake-up call for its participants, or a grim overview of how one can settle for a lifestyle because it feels like the correct option. If an answer lies in the final shot of Knightley, mouth agape in searching for a response to her other half’s mundane enquiry, it’s as ambiguous an ending as one could’ve hoped for. The deliberate lack of finality feels somehow fitting of a film that has as paltry a level of conviction as “Last Night” does, and even less of an idea of how to ruminate about love and sex without shying away from the nitty-gritty.

Like many domestic dramas there’s a strong sense of “Singletons, beware!” in “Last Night,” and its quabbling quartet – as well as the wallowing solitude of spouses entrenched in the routine of married life. While Tadjedin’s film goes with the grain in detailing coupledom, it mainly depicts it as a dull melange of “I love you”/”I love you not” insinuations, which bear little context as it can’t flesh out its romantic proponents nearly enough. This is a riff on relationship crises, but the meagre, minimal dialogue and cautious bouts of disruption make “Last Night” a tedious affair, not without an improvisational sense of quality but ultimately a wan, anaemic commentary based on an eminently proverbial topic.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Bitesize Best Actress Oscar Profiles: Debbie Reynolds

Debbie Reynolds in "The Unsinkable Molly Brown"
Lost the Best Actress Oscar in 1964 to Julie Andrews in "Mary Poppins"

Grade: *

Somewhere in the annals of Oscar history lies Debbie Reynolds, neither completely shunned by AMPAS nor fully embraced; ignored for arguably her best performance (in "Singin' in the Rain") but rewarded for playing Denver's illustrious millionairess, the "Unsinkable" Molly Brown. Having earned that moniker for surviving the Titanic's fateful journey across the Atlantic, Brown is a role that most (including I) likely associate with Kathy Bates, who took it on for James Cameron's record-breaking 1997 blockbuster. In actuality, it stretches way back to 1964, a good thirty-two years after Molly herself passed away.

At the risk of disappointing those hoping for a slice of genuine action from Charles Walters' film, the sinking of the Titanic takes up less than five minutes of this already-bloated two hour biopic. The rest is dedicated to charting Molly's journey from Brash Missouri Upstart to Cultured Society Dame, beginning in the vein of Calamity Jane, with its brutishly technicolour approach to musical showpieces and reinforcement of rural community. Reynolds handles the goofiness of these early scenes by emphasising the raw, barely-civilised farm girl in Molly with all the subtlety of a newly-hatched pterodactyl, and doesn't much deviate from this technique for the first hour of "Unsinkable." To criticise Reynolds is to criticise Walters; slapping this much tedious, blue-collar theatrics onto the film feels like a vastly unnecessary way to colloquialise Molly, and one that Reynolds understandably struggles to involve herself with. Of the two opportunities she's afforded in this period, she doesn't manage to deepen Molly during either, first extending her wide-eyed shtick to accommodate faint joy in acquiring a dream house with fiancée Johnny. The second - and by far the most embarrassing scene in the film - sees her search tirelessly for a place to hide the couple's $300,000 worth of bonds, only to settle on laying them to rest at the bottom of the gas stove. Inevitably this does not end well, and the farcical nature of the situation leads Reynolds to regress into her munchkin version of vaudeville as she and her husband play a domestic version of Tag.

When Molly and Johnny move to Denver's lavish neighbourhood the central issue of its heroine is eventually revealed, as she willingly attempts to educate herself in social etiquette to fit in with the snobby society folks actively snubbing the Browns. At last a chance for Reynolds to document something less definite about Molly! As the couple venture through Europe in the hope of gaining valuable cultural knowledge, Reynolds gains figurative weight, excising the impulsiveness of Molly and revealing her heightened sense of self-awareness. A scene in which European friends celebrate her birthday is Reynolds' highlight, as she swigs a glass of champagne with visible glee, and sways it like a sceptre as she addresses them at the head of the table, inherently more careful about the grace of her actions than she ever has been before. She still has that inkling of the tearaway about her, but is using it to her advantage rather than exposing it as a stamp of who she is. Reynolds fares better in this period because she's able to hold the character in a more suspended state, but doesn't really carry this level of incisiveness over to the film's final act.

Reynolds' nomination feels particularly strange considering the striking parallels between the arc of Molly Brown and My Fair Lady's Eliza Dolittle, and the mild success of that film in coaxing a performance out of Audrey Hepburn that can detail the transcendence of social boundaries with patience and some finesse. Perhaps the crux of it was that Reynolds did her own singing? Either way, the diaphanous politics of Molly's quest for graces doesn't quite coax Reynolds out of becoming a passive figure for this greedily sprawling musical biography. The Titanic may not have been able to sink her, but I have no reservations about dropping this particular anchor at the one-star mark.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Oscar's Best Actress Category: And Then There Were 100

After my latest viewing of "The Unsinkable Molly Brown" I now have just 100 of Oscar's Best Actress nominees to see. I'm pretty sure which women I'm going to save 'til last, but for now, here are the ones left on the shelf:-

1. *Janet Gaynor, “Seventh Heaven” (1927-28)
2. *Janet Gaynor, “Street Angel” (1927-28)
3. Louise Dresser, “A Ship Comes In” (1927-28)
4. *Mary Pickford, “Coquette” (1928-29)
5. Ruth Chatterton, “Madame X” (1928-29)
6. Betty Compson, “The Barker” (1928-29)
7. Corinne Griffith, “The Divine Lady” (1928-29)
8. Bessie Love, “The Broadway Melody” (1928-29)
9. Greta Garbo, “Anna Christie” (1929-30)
10. Greta Garbo, Romance” (1929-30)
11. Norma Shearer, “Their Own Desire” (1929-30)
12. Gloria Swanson, “The Trespasser” (1929-30)
13. *Helen Hayes, “The Sin of Madelon Claudet” (1931-32)
14. Marie Dressler, “Emma” (1931-32)
15. Lynn Fontanne, “The Guardsman” (1931-32)
16. *Katharine Hepburn, “Morning Glory” (1932-33)
17. Diana Wynyard, “Cavalcade” (1932-33)
18. Elisabeth Bergner, “Escape Me Never” (1935)
19. Irene Dunne, “Theodora Goes Wild” (1936)
20. Norma Shearer, “Romeo and Juliet” (1936)
21. *Luise Rainer, “The Good Earth” (1937)
22. Barbara Stanwyck, “Stella Dallas” (1937)
23. Fay Bainter, “White Banners” (1938)
24. Margaret Sullavan, “Three Comrades” (1938)
25. Irene Dunne, “Love Affair” (1939)

26. Martha Scott, “Our Town” (1940)
27. Olivia De Havilland, “Hold Back the Dawn” (1941)
28. Katharine Hepburn, “Woman of the Year” (1942)
29. Rosalind Russell, “My Sister Eileen” (1942)
30. Joan Fontaine, “The Constant Nymph” (1943)
31. Greer Garson, “Madame Curie” (1943)
32. Ingrid Bergman, “The Bells of St. Mary’s” (1945)
33. Greer Garson, “The Valley of Decision” (1945)
34. *Olivia De Havilland, “To Each His Own” (1946)
35. Jane Wyman, “The Yearling” (1946)
36. *Loretta Young, “The Farmer’s Daughter” (1947)
37. Rosalind Russell, “Mourning Becomes Electra” (1947)
38. *Jane Wyman, “Johnny Belinda” (1948)
39. Ingrid Bergman, “Joan of Arc” (1948)
40. Irene Dunne, “I Remember Mama” (1948)
41. Jeanne Crain, “Pinky” (1949)
42. Susan Hayward, “My Foolish Heart” (1949)
43. Deborah Kerr, “Edward, My Son” (1949)
44. Jane Wyman, “The Blue Veil” (1951)
45. Julie Harris, “The Member of the Wedding” (1952)
46. Leslie Caron, “Lili” (1953)
47. Jane Wyman, “Magnificent Obsession” (1954)
48. *Anna Magnani, “The Rose Tattoo” (1955)
49. Eleanor Parker, “Interrupted Melody” (1955)
50. Carroll Baker, “Baby Doll” (1956)

51. Nancy Kelly, “The Bad Seed” (1956)
52. Anna Magnani, “Wild is the Wind” (1957)
53. Elizabeth Taylor, “Raintree County” (1957)
54. Lana Turner, “Peyton Place” (1957)
55. Melina Mercouri, “Never on Sunday” (1960)
56. *Sophia Loren, “Two Women” (1961)
57. Rachel Roberts, “This Sporting Life” (1963)
58. Sophia Loren, “Marriage, Italian Style” (1964)
59. Elizabeth Hartman, “A Patch of Blue” (1965)
60. Simone Signoret, “Ship of Fools” (1965)
61. Anouk Aimee, “A Man and a Woman” (1966)
62. Ida Kaminska, “The Shop on Main Street” (1966)
63. Vanessa Redgrave, “Morgan: A Suitable Case for Treatment” (1966)
64. Patricia Neal, “The Subject Was Roses” (1968)
65. Vanessa Redgrave, “Isadora” (1968)
66. Genevieve Bujold, “Anne of the Thousand Days” (1969)
67. Jane Alexander, “The Great White Hope” (1970)
68. Diana Ross, “Lady Sings the Blues” (1972)
69. Liv Ullmann, “The Emigrants” (1972)
70. *Glenda Jackson, “A Touch of Class” (1973)
71. Marsha Mason, “Cinderella Liberty” (1973)
72. Ann-Margret, “Tommy” (1975)
73. Glenda Jackson, “Hedda” (1975)
74. Carol Kane, “Hester Street” (1975)
75. Marie-Christine Barrault, “Cousin Cousine” (1976)

76. Liv Ullmann, “Face to Face” (1976)
77. Jane Fonda, “Julia” (1977)
78. Jill Clayburgh, “An Unmarried Woman” (1978)
79. Geraldine Page, “Interiors” (1978)
80. Marsha Mason, “Chapter Two” (1979)
81. Ellen Burstyn, “Resurrection” (1980)
82. Jessica Lange, “Sweet Dreams” (1985)
83. Meryl Streep, “Out of Africa” (1985)
84. Jane Fonda, “The Morning After” (1986)
85. Sally Kirkland, “Anna” (1987)
86. Meryl Streep, “Ironweed” (1987)
87. Isabelle Adjani, “Camille Claudel” (1989)
88. Anjelica Huston, “The Grifters” (1990)
89. Joanne Woodward, “Mr. and Mrs. Bridge” (1990)
90. Bette Midler, “For the Boys” (1991)
91. *Emma Thompson, “Howard’s End” (1992)
92. Catherine Deneuve, “Indochine” (1992)
93. Mary McDonnell, “Passion Fish” (1992)
94. Miranda Richardson, “Tom and Viv” (1994)
95. Winona Ryder, “Little Women” (1994)
96. Diane Keaton, “Marvin’s Room” (1996)
97. Emily Watson, “Breaking the Waves” (1996)
98. Julie Christie, “Afterglow” (1997)
99. Cate Blanchett, “Elizabeth” (1998)
100. Meryl Streep, “Music of the Heart” (1999)

I have access to all but two of them - Gloria Swanson and Betty Compson. If anybody knows where/if these are available in the UK, and where they might be screening, hit me up. 

Monday, May 16, 2011

Some Like It Hot Cold: Margaret vs. Marilyn

I have a confession (albeit perhaps an unsurprising one): I dislike biopics. They tend to focus too intensely on historical events of impact and perceived pivotal moments to chart a person's character, instead of actively trying to dissect who that person was, and what they represented. Two biopics slated for release later this year have me a little worried, but the women at the head of them are enough to ensure that both are required viewing.

When Meryl Streep signed on to play Margaret Thatcher in a biopic of her period as Prime Minister of the U.K, I was more than a little sceptical. It can often be difficult to separate feelings towards an actor and the real-life role they are portraying - especially if said role is somebody you heavily resent. Streep's generosity and warmth as a personality and Actress so heavily contravene the icy, dutiful stubbornness of the aptly-titled "Iron Lady," and so imagining her in the part instils a degree of trepidation. In Streep's few misjudged and overly-mannered performances (most recently in "Lions For Lambs" and "Doubt") she seems to be too sure of her character's misgivings, and their inability to restrain them. As Sister Aloysius Beauvier this is a particular problem, as she telegraphs the motivations of the nun as a tyrannical catalyst of drama more than she alludes to her genuine concerns for colleagues, dependants, and the church itself.

Without painting too harsh an impression of Mrs. Thatcher, one does have to concede that she was a formidable, disconcerting presence, and was legitimately hated by a large portion of the people she governed. If Streep can generate empathy while maintaining the lady's harsh exterior and cut-throat approach to politics, and do it with more fluidity than Helen Mirren brought to Queen Elizabeth II, then it could be a genuine triumph. In terms of Awards probability, the film would have to be a complete disaster to prevent Streep grabbing a record 17th nomination at next year's Oscars, and even with "Mamma Mia!" director Phyllida Lloyd at the helm, I highly doubt that the reviews will be negative enough to deter voters. Think Cate Blanchett in 2007 (or don't, if you're still squeamish about that Jolie snub.)

In the second of the big 2011 biopics, Michelle Williams might have a more difficult time getting people to accept her efforts, as she has the burdening task of embodying screen siren and Hollywood icon Marilyn Monroe. Simon Curtis' "My Week With Marilyn," will focus particularly on the time Monroe spent filming "The Prince and the Showgirl" with Lawrence Olivier, and the arc of their relationship together.

Oft-portrayed on screen, Monroe probably possessed more sexuality as an Actress than any other, which was as inclined to rub people up the wrong way as much as it loosened them to her undoubted comedic charm. As an actress, I don't think Williams has shown enough attitude and panache in the Scarlet side of her character to suggest that this is, on the face of it, a wise casting choice, but her record in recent years speaks for itself. She has shown herself to be the Queen of picking projects, even capable of elevating the worst of them (Martin Scorsese's shoddy "Shutter Island") with a small, but introspectively devastating turn.

In addition to "My Week With Marilyn", and having already featured in Kelly Reichardt's "Meek's Cutoff" (the April release that, for me, remains the film to beat in 2011), she also features in Sarah Polley's forthcoming romantic comedy, "Take This Waltz." The biggest obstacle to Williams' chances might be that she actively seems to avoid films that the media can get excited by, and which can gather steam at the box-office. Personally, I think that's a great way to approach acting, but I'm fairly convinced she wouldn't get the populist support that Portman did last year for "Black Swan," unless the film somehow turned out to be a huge hit. She's in her early Thirties, but she isn't in the "star" bracket quite yet (whether she should be is an entirely different argument) and so I wonder how people will take to her tackling this enormously familiar persona.

While it remains ridiculously early to call either of these a lock for major nominations, too often it comes down to the role as much as the performance. I'd give the edge to Streep, since it has been nearly thirty years since she last won a golden guy, but Williams has been steadily becoming a brilliant actress, and I can't wait to see what she does with one of cinema's greatest comediennes.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

George Clooney in 2011: The Ides of March vs. The Descendants

As has become somewhat customary in the past five or six years, George Clooney is likely to find himself in the Awards mix once again in 2011. The newly-celebrated quinquagenarian has two healthy-looking projects set for release in the later months: Alexander Payne's "The Descendants," and his own fourth directorial venture, "The Ides of March."

"The Descendants" is the story of an estranged father, who attempts to re-connect with his two daughters when their mother is fatally injured in an accident - which is likely to resurrect themes Payne explored in 2002's "About Schmidt" (namely, grief and personal crisis). Nevertheless, this film's cast is considerably younger, which might suggest that "The Descendants" represents a fresher take on familial struggle that doesn't focus too much on mortality. I wasn't much of a fan of "Schmidt," or indeed Jack Nicholson as its leading man, but many were enthused with what Payne did with the film, and it gained some major awards attention.

First clip from "The Descendants":

Clooney's own filmmaking efforts see him return to a political arena, which is hardly surprising after the critical and box office failure of "Leatherheads." I wasn't as keen on his first two directorial feats as most, but they both rank favourably compared to that 2008 screwball comedy. Latest film, "The Ides of March," will pit Ryan Gosling as an impassioned but fledgling politics enthusiast, who has his eyes opened to the dirty dealings of the political world while part of a Presidential campaign trail. Clooney also stars in the movie, which is based on a novel adapted by Grant Heslov, who he worked closely with on "Goodnight, and Good Luck."

Ryan Gosling and George Clooney on the set of "The Ides of March"

"Ides" is slated for October, while "The Descendants" is scheduled for a release in December, meaning that either/or is likely to make it to Venice or Toronto to build awards buzz. It could be that Clooney finds himself nominated for Director, Actor, and Supporting Actor (which would be one-up from 2005's achievements), but as with all Oscar prognostication at this early stage, it's far too easy to say. "Ides" feels more likely to succeed given that it's political and probably more mainstream than Alexander Payne's soul-bearing projects tend to be. One thing that is for sure: both are definitely encouraging for their respective leading actors.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

"Dead End," and William Wyler's Way with Actors

This past weekend I sat down to watch William Wyler's "Dead End" knowing little more than it was one of Oscar's 1937 Best Picture nominees, and therefore required viewing. The film, which takes place over the course of one night, concerns the struggle between the upper and lower classes encased within an inner-city neighbourhood. Gangsters, prostitutes, and teenage delinquents prop up bureaucrats in healthily-detached luxurious apartments, as the two social factions clash, instigating the intervention of local police.

The charms of "Dead End" largely counter its wan misadventures: the rabble of streetwise teenagers and their guardian-of-sorts (a delectable Sylvia Sidney) furrowing a way-of-life for themselves amidst a society that's clearly neglecting them; the way Humphrey Bogart's gangster-character roams around the tenements staking his claim for the place, knowing that he's bigger, better, and worthy of bigger enemies than he entertains. These people are a small-scale impression of how civilisation works, and an undoubted part of the social commentary Wyler et. al are aiming to voice.

I'm not convinced that the film really commits enough to dramatising the social impact (an open-ended resolution for one of the characters emerges as neither here nor there), and it doesn't seem particularly concerned with delving into the motivations of the upper classes in this period either. From many of the films in the Thirties (including "Dead End") you can sense a tangible contempt of high society, but when you stack this project up against more comedic enterprises like "My Man Godfrey" and "Holiday" it doesn't quite cut it. Satire most likely gleaned better results because of the production code: it's harder to get around taboo issues when you're working harder to make a point?

Regardless of the merits and faults of the film I was surprised to learn that, as well as a Best Picture nomination, Claire Trevor managed to get a mention in the Best Supporting Actress category. It was the first of three for Trevor: she followed it up with a winning performance as an alcoholic in "Key Largo" (which also starred Humphrey Bogart), and a final nod in 1954 for William Wellman's "The High and the Mighty." The reward in "Dead End" came for playing a hooker and former love interest of Bogie's, who manages to coax some money from him in her extremely short amount of screen time. Suffice to say, I'm not really on board with this Academy pick, but her flailing dramatics in "Key Largo" - as well as the film itself - are definitely worth a look.

All of this talk of nominations led me to an informative article about William Wyler's penchant for getting Actors nominated for Oscars. Between 1936 and 1968 this happened 36 times, which is the most accumulated by any director by a comfortable margin (Elia Kazan takes runner-up with 25). He has also directed the most acting winners with 13. 

Those are:

Walter Brennan (for "Come and Get It" (1936) (co-directed with Howard Hawks)
Bette Davis (for "Jezebel" (1938))
Faye Bainter (for "Jezebel" (1938))
Walter Brennan (for "The Westerner" (1940))
Greer Garson (for "Mrs. Miniver" (1942))
Teresa Wright (for "Mrs. Miniver" (1942))
Fredric March (for "The Best Years of Our Lives" (1946))
Harold Russell (for The Best Years of Our Lives (1946))
Olivia de Havilland (for "The Heiress" (1949))
Audrey Hepburn (for "Roman Holiday" (1953))
Burl Ives (for "The Big Country" (1958))
Charlton Heston (for "Ben-Hur" (1959))
Hugh Griffith (for "Ben-Hur" (1959))
Barbra Streisand (for "Funny Girl" (1968))

    I've seen all but 5 of the 36 (Brennan x2, Ives, Granville, Perkins). Save for Davis, Garson, and Streisand I'm not particularly impressed with many of these, but if you look at the 36 overall, it's a pretty good bunch. Egregious omissions would have to include Ruth Chatterton in "Dodsworth" (who I wrote about a while back) and Terrence Stamp in "The Collector". Both can feel aggrieved considering their co-stars were also nominated. 

    How many have you seen, and which are the best?

    Saturday, May 07, 2011

    A Review of Source Code (Jones, 2011)

    Source Code
    Directed by Duncan Jones
    Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Michelle Monaghan, Vera Farmiga, Jeffrey Wright, Michael Arden
    Grade: C

    Written for In Review Online:

    If debut feature "Moon" heavily suggested that director Duncan Jones was under the spell of Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, his follow-up would appear to solidify that theory. Less overtly sci-fi based, in that it actually takes place on Earth, "Source Code" remains fundamentally about the battle between technology and human nature. Jones sets up a terrorist-thwarting plotline initiative and shrouds it in ethical dilemma: should science rule over humanity, or vice versa? It's hardly a novel struggle to address, but he takes a fresh approach to helping us invest in his ergonomic marvel, and creating a military setup which, unsurprisingly, considerably stretches traditional relations between time and space.

    American soldier Colter Stevens (Gyllenhaal) forms the basis of this dilemma, as he wakes up in an unknown facility with only a monitor in front of him for comfort, and is informed that he is the subject of a technological program. The experimental system in question allows him to tap into the final eight minutes of the life of Sean Fentress, a passenger killed by a bomb planted on board a Chicago commuter train that morning. As he is able to assume Sean's position on the train in the period prior to the explosion, Colter's mission is to gather information about the terrorist plot, so as to prevent a larger-scale attack in the city later that day. In the meantime, he must veer between the two women in his life: Sean's colleague Christina (Monaghan), who is on board the train with him throughout every eight-minute segment, and Goodwin (Farmiga), the military employee commanding him in intervals throughout the process.

    "Source Code" possesses a similar gimmick to 2007's Vantage Point in that it essentially replays the same eight minutes of time for most of the film, alternating between different eventualities and degrees of success. The level of suspense in the first half of the film, where it’s leaking exposition and constructing its situation, is fairly high. Gyllenhaal’s terrific energy elevates the entire project, as the characters on the train, and the dynamic between them, appears to develop naturally. He even coaxes Monaghan (an Actress who I’d previously found a little distant from previous on-screen love interests) into some gamely chemistry, as their relationship gathers steam.

    It would be unfair to suggest that the film apes other projects (Tony Scott's Deja Vu (2006) for instance) in its allusive use of time-travel to fight crime, but there are definite parallels between their liberal attitudes towards logic. Either way, there isn't much wrong with how either film presents its technological capabilities: If Nicholas Cage and John Travolta can swap faces then anything's possible, right? The issue with "Source Code" is not that it's far-fetched, but that it loses sense of what it’s supposed to be. Its representation of terrorism for example – while not as 2-D as other cinematic depictions of villainy – centres around a damaged college student's personal insecurity. Michael Arden, as said student, recalls another Michael (Pitt, in "Funny Games"), and it feels as if he's stepped straight off of that set without deviating from its particular brand of idiosyncratic sadism a jot.

    Since the essential action is compacted into a physically-limited vehicular setting, we aren’t really privy to an overall sense of the bigger picture in this particular day of terror for the nation. An opening-credits aerial sweep of Chicago is bracing enough at the time but retrospectively disingenuous, and the implied scope of the mission intoned in Colter’s hurried exchanges with Goodwin don’t really give us much of an idea either. For a high-concept thriller, “Source Code” frequently possesses such an inflated sense of grandeur: this isn’t a big, blazing sci-fi adventure, but rather an oft-personalised meditation on survival, and the tougher political consequences behind protocol. The multi-scenario format bounds on, as more of a conceit than a story, with a narrative that – in terms of dramatic impetus – flat-lines more often than it should. The stop-start structure soon becomes tiresome, and in the few moments where it reaches an unexpected plot-point, the film's dramatic devices read as a little desperate. In the way that "Moon" felt like it could have had more to offer, "Source Code" is overdone as a virtual-reality exercise, running out of steam far too quickly for a 90-minute feature.

    Would it that the film’s finale held up to the rulebook it had outlined in the first place, “Source Code” just might have felt like a worthwhile addition to Jones’ filmography. As it happens, he too spurns his own protocol for a satisfying Hollywood finish. Jones may not be done with sci-fi yet, but one feels that he must collate his ideas more thoughtfully next time around. It may be somewhat original, but contrary to everything “Source Code” implies in a roundabout, flimsy final act, it somehow feels like the world has succumbed to its dangers after all: not with a bang, but a whimper.