Sunday, September 30, 2007

#22 Female Performance: So-ri Moon

So-ri Moon
Gong-ju Han
Oasis (2002)

We all know how Hollywood has a soft-spot for actors who portray mentally or physically disabled characters and their sympathy usually translates into countless praise and even awards come Oscar time. There isn’t any doubt in my mind that if Chang-Dong Lee’s Oasis had a wider American distribution around the time of its release, the lead actress So-ri Moon would have been nominated for an Oscar. She did go on to win several awards at various film festivals for her performance so at least somebody out their thought it was praiseworthy.

Moon plays a young woman with cerebral palsy and loses herself completely in the role you’d think she actually suffered from this crippling disease. She must have spent plenty of time researching the part in order to prepare for such a demanding task. Her behavioral patterns are spot on including all of those disjointed muscle spasms where the legs and arms become stiff and awkwardly contracted. To quote Woody Allen from his film Annie Hall: “I feel that life is divided into the horrible and the miserable. That's the two categories. The horrible are like, I don't know, terminal cases, you know, and blind people, crippled. I don't know how they get through life. It's amazing to me. And the miserable is everyone else. So you should be thankful that you're miserable, because that's very lucky, to be miserable.” That pretty much sums up my feelings towards her character.

It’s a shame that the actual film doesn’t do Moon’s performance justice. It’s overlong with questionable intentions on the part of the director and a last act that completely falls apart in its absurdity. Personally, I felt Lee went overboard by treating his protagonist in the most cruel ways possible as a means of drawing sympathy from the audience when she really didn’t require it because anyone with a little bit of heart is going to feel empathy towards her, regardless. Criticisms aside, Moon’s performance along with her tender relationship with the central male protagonist prevents Lee’s film from being a total catastrophe and totally makes it worthwhile.

Friday, September 28, 2007

#23 Female Performance: Imelda Staunton

Imelda Staunton
Vera Drake
Vera Drake (2004)

If it weren’t for her role in the newest installment of the Harry Potter franchise as high inquisitor Dolores Umbridge, most people would be asking “who the hell is she?” Watching Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix and then Vera Drake back-to-back made me reconsider Imelda Staunton in a whole new light. It’s amusing how she plays polar-opposites; the latter being a cruel, and pompous authority figure in the same vein as Margaret Thatcher dressed in fluffy pink outfits. The former role being that of warmth and kindheartedness whose sense in fashion reminds me of clothes my grandmother would wear. Imelda Staunton is one of Britain’s finest actresses working today with an extensive career in television and has appeared in several low-budget British films. Her versatility remains her greatest strength, a gifted character actor able to tackle any role with ease. Staunton is a scene stealer in every sense of the word, capable of causing those around her to seem vastly inferior.

Her role as the title character in Mike Leigh’s Vera Drake garnered her first Oscar nomination and rightfully so. If it were up to me, she would beaten Hilary Swank that year and taken that Best Actress Oscar home to place on her mantle piece. I don’t mean to discredit Swank’s work in Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby because she held her own and redeemed her otherwise lackluster career. Staunton on the other hand is simply incredible; pushing the boundaries of dramatic acting to a whole new level without going over-the-top. Anyone can cry on screen but to make it feel genuinely honest is another story altogether.

Taking place in early 1950’s Britain, Vera Drake is a benign philanthropist with a heart of gold. She’s a loving mother and wife, takes care of the disabled and her elderly mother without nary a peep. She also makes an honest living working hard at her day job as a maid cleaning rich people’s houses. Vera is the type of mother we all wish to have; a gentle spirit providing food on our plates and endless nurturing love. Of course, there has to be a catch – no one is that perfect. She has a separate life that her family knows nothing about. In her spare time Vera performs illegal abortions, except not for profit. Surely someone of such compassion for the welfare of others wouldn’t dare commit these crimes? And therein lays Leigh’s dilemma that he poses towards the viewer. Are we to feel sympathy for a woman who breaks the law because she feels that what she is doing is benefiting these young girls and also happens to be a sweet old lady who wouldn’t hurt a fly? Or does she deserve to be punished regardless of her intentions? There is a tragic scene where Vera confesses to her husband about carrying out these abortions and her emotional break-down is devastating. The fate of Vera Drake I dare not reveal here although it does make for interesting discussion on the morality of her actions.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

# __ Female Performance: Isabelle Huppert

Isabelle Huppert
Erika Kohut
La Pianiste (2001)

If there was ever a female performance from this decade that deserves to be more recognized, it’s Isabelle Huppert from Michael Haneke’s sexually charged psychological drama La Pianiste. The plot unfolds in an atypical manner, keeping the audience in the dark while at the same time methodically peeling away layer after layer of subtext. The final shocking revelation at the end of the film opens the door for a wide variety of interpretations and adamantly insists on a complete reassessment of everything prior to this moment. Haneke is constantly challenging the viewer on an intellectual level and those unwilling to invest a little bit of brain-power will find this film to be an unpleasant experience to sit through. There is pandering to a certain degree on Haneke’s part but it is done in such a captivating and thought-provoking way so as to not be a major distraction.

Furthermore, it is Isabelle Huppert who has this unspeakable transfixing power that makes it difficult to keep one’s gaze off of her. She plays Erika Kohut, a highly respected piano teacher who champions a strict attitude towards her students. Her profession is more of a false projection of her true self because outside of the classroom she is one creepy lady. Just to give you a taste of her perverse disposition – she goes to a drive-in movie theatre and masturbates to a young couple having sex in the backseat of a car. Or how about when she goes into an adult-movie store full of male customers, enters one of the private booths and watches porn stoically while sniffing the tissue paper of discard ejaculation. This is only the tip of the ice-berg concerning Haneke’s sadistic agenda as he has his heroine sexually pursue one of her male students resulting in a vicious and uncompromising depiction of male/female gender roles and masochism.

I honestly can’t think of a more disturbing female character than Erika Kohut and it is because of Hubbert’s skillful ability to present such a repressed individual that Haneke’s message is given a heightened intensity. Huppert’s character doesn’t actually say much but the way Haneke analyzes her with his camera angles and shot compositions suggest that she is constantly at war with her inner demons. Rarely has an actor managed to disguise aggressive sexual tendencies as chillingly as Huppert in this film. She is an emotionally disturbed woman who represses a shady past along with sado-masochistic desires. Her actions take on a moral complexity and it is fascinating to try and understand what possibly could have triggered such erratic behavior. I can only image what conclusions a psychiatrist would arrive at if she were a patient.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

#25 Female Peformance: Miranda July

Miranda July
Christine Jesperson
Me and You and Everyone We Know (2005)

As this list progresses, Miranda July’s performance in her debut film Me and You and Everyone We Know will seem like an anomaly. That isn’t to say that she doesn’t deserve recognition for her work here, far from it. In retrospect, her position feels justified despite being overshadowed by the female powerhouses preceding her but what makes July so special is the way she brings an inimitable personality to the role. With experience in performance arts, her filmmaking style embraces this unique art-form allowing for immeasurable creativity. The narrative is breezy and unprecedented full of colorful characters that speak, behave and react to various situations in ways that we do not anticipate. To label the film an exercise in quirkiness (a cringe-worthy term) would be to turn a blind-eye to the infusion of charming poeticism and deep-rooted sincerity that permeates every frame. July has crafted what I believe to be one of the best films of the decade; an entertainingly insightful film on 21st century living that also happens to be profoundly moving.

That’s enough gushing about the film for now. Let’s get to brass-tacks and focus on July’s actual performance which is essentially what this thread is all about in the first place. She plays Christine, a coy, beautiful young woman who is a struggling artist who has a part-time job as taxi-cab driver for seniors. The plot focuses on several different characters as well who interweave throughout each other’s lives often in unpredictable ways but ultimately, it is Christine who remains the focal point with whom everyone else is connected. Her eccentricities eventually lead her to Richard, a shoe-store employee whom she quickly develops a strange relationship with. The emotional highs and lows of unrequited love are portrayed by July with such jubilant earnestness and soft heartache. In a film packed with memorable moments, she and Richard share a tentative stroll down a street that is so inventive and charming that it words cannot do it justice. Pay attention to July’s expression as she awkwardly confesses her true feelings towards him as they make their way to the end of the street. It confirms an actress with the ability to naturally convey true sensationalism without coming off as phony.

July also has knack for comedy although not in the traditional sense. Christine is a peculiar character who seems to be in her own little world and it is through her strange antics that July’s sense of humor shines. It’s not so much a physical type of comedy as it is observational humor. There’s this naivety and childlike playfulness to July that she utilizes to her benefit and this makes her genuinely funny. She brings a fresh sense of absurdity and seriousness to her role in one of the most stunning debuts in recent years.

The Top 25 Female Performances of the Decade (2000-2006)

To spice up this blog which seems to have been taking a nosedive in quality recently, I've decided to take on this challenge. A buddy of mine from Rotten Tomatoes is taking care of of the top 25 male performances and you can check out our thread here. As a rule, only one role per actress is allowed. The compilation of this list was of a complex nature involving various criteria including screen prescence, emotional range, charcteriztion, my level of obsession with said actress and other enigmatic imperatives. It's a subjective list of actresses who have left a considerable impression on me. I don't expect many of you to agree with my selections so try not and get upset if one of your favorites has been left out. Comments are always welcome. Enjoy!

25. Miranda July in Me and You and Everyone We Know (2005)
24. Renee Zellweger in Bridget Jones's Diary (2001)
23. Scarlett Johannson in Lost and Translation (2003)
22. So-ri Moon in Oasis (2002)
21. Amy Adams in Junebug (2005)
20. Imelda Staunton in Vera Drake (2004)
19. Isabelle Huppert in La Pianiste (2001)

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

High Fidelity: An Old Review

This is from 2004. Feel free to poke fun at its wretchedness.

Here we are again with another delectable romantic comedy starring none other than John Cusack who has established himself as one of todays leading actors for this genre. Adapted from the popular novel from British author Nick Hornby, Cusack plays Rob, a cynical thirty-something year old bloke who is a complete music geek and owns his own record shop. When the story begins he has just broken up with his long time girl-friend Laura (Iben Hjejle) and handles the situation by recounting his Top 5 most memorable break-ups. He is fond of making lists, not only for displaying his musical interests but also as a way to organize his life. Personally, Rob is one of the most identifiable characters that I have come across in the movies. We seem to have a lot in common and the striking contrasts are uncanny. We have both gone through some rocky relationships, making lists of everything has become a sort of ritual and if you replace his obsession over music with movies, that is pretty much me in nutshell.

Being a huge fan of the book, I was surprised in how well they kept faithful to the source material even though the setting of London was changed to Chicago which is not a big deal at all. John Cusack even collaborated on the screenplay which is very well written, sharp, clever, humorous, and flows consistently. The use of voice-over-narration is well done and having Cusack look straight into the camera and talk to the audience (adopted from Woody Allen's character Alvy Singer Annie Hall) is also helpful in engaging the viewer with him on a more personal level. The use of flash-backs as Robs narrates his earlier relationships with other women is insightful and quite funny at times as well.

His two best friends Dick (Todd Louiso) and Barry (Jack Black) work for him in the store and they are also music snobs. Lousio plays the perfect loser while Jack Black is hysterical and steals every scene he finds himself in. Black is playing his same eccentric self but this time around he doesnt come off as annoying. Instead, because of the great script, he is able to spit out lines that are so funny and his wacky behaviour is a complete riot. Black also gets the oppportunity to display his singing voice by and the man definately has some talent in the vocal department.His rendtion of Marvin Gaye's famous love song "Let's Get it On" is one of the many highlights of this movie.

There is one scene in particular that really stands out in its comedic hilarity (it always manages to put me in stitches) but also captures an all too real situation that everyone can relate to in one way or another. Laura's new boyfriend Ian (Tim Robbins with a ponytail) visits Rob at his record shop and tells him to stop stalking them. He responds with a simple ok and Ian leaves. It then cuts to three different scenarios of the same awkward situation that are imagined by Rob in what he should have said or done to Ian at that particular moment. Not only is it very funny but also quite identifiable. How many times have we all been in some sort of situation where we acted a certain way and reflecting on it later, realizing that the outcome could have been completely different if only we conducted ourselves in another way? Personally, I have been in this situation so many times before and witnessing Rob going through the same feelings of regret is comforting.

Affable and full of wit, High Fidelity manages to balance comedy with drama so elegantly. Rob's story is so absorbing that carries a sense of pathos as the audience is pulled directly into his life. He is a confused, jaded and frustrated man who just wants to make up with his girlfriend but in the process, embarks on a journey of self-discovery. The break-up with Laura sends him searching for meaning in his life that just seemed to resonate with me. The problems he has to face and his experiences in dealing with life carry a strong sense of honesty and are completely understandable. The replay value is through the roof and seems to improve with increased viewings. If you love music and romantic comedies, High Fidelity should not be missed.


Friday, September 14, 2007

Spider (Cronenberg, 2002)

The human mind is a fragile nervous system of complex interconnected neurons firmly constructed similar to that of a “spider-web” that even with the slightest disruption can cause the structure to collapse. David Cronenberg’s Spider showcases one of the most successful deconstructions of mental illness that I have seen in my short time as a cinephile.

In a tour-de-force performance, Ralph Fiennes plays Dennis “Spider” Cleg, a disturbed man suffering from schizophrenia in the search of answers concerning his shady past as a young lad growing up in a small town in England. Sent to a safe-house for the mentally unstable, he spends most of his time in isolation; cooped up in a small, barren room intensely pouring over a small diary full of random symbols continuously mumbling incoherent thoughts. The story is told from Cleg’s distorted perspective which consequently brings into question whether or not his account is true or just a fabrication of his mind playing tricks on itself. This dichotomy allows for a fascinating subversive examination of psychosis.

Thankfully, Cronenberg is able to work with one of the most versatile actors in the industry and it is through Ralph Fiennes’ uncanny ability to portray a severely conflicted individual with perfect nuance and pathos that allows the poignant story to unfold in a deeply thought provoking manner. He spends the majority of the film mumbling his speech, staring wide-eyed as if on the verge of discovering something profound and yet, seems completely on the edge of sanity. It is a quiet, subdued performance where Fiennes relies more on his body language to convey his emotions. His behavioral patterns are spot-on, convincingly depicting a mentally unstable man struggling to overcome his affliction to make sense of the past. Rarely has an actor managed to step this deep into the murkiness of insanity as compellingly as Fiennes in this film.

Monday, September 3, 2007

September Viewing Log

03/09: The Prestige (Nolan, 2006) - [** 1/2]

It was okay. The twisting plot is compelling but strays almost into self-parody as Nolan tries to outsmart the audience with double-crosses and various acts of deception. The whole film unfolding like that of a magic trick is a nice touch but the story then becomes way too calculated. As clever and cunning as Nolan's film is, it seems to outsmart itself in the final act revealing a twist that is downright silly and completely undermines the rivalry between the two magicans. Other than Scarlett Johannsen, the cast is perfect (even David Bowie makes a memorable appearance) and the production values are top notch. I only wished by the end when all the cards and layed on the table, that I actually cared about what had transpired.

03/09: Brick (Johnson, 2006) - [****]
04/09: Saved! (Dannelly, 2004) - [***]

Saved! is one of the smarter high-school satirical offerings of recent memory and succeeds laregely on the fact that it manages to walk a tight rope in dealing with Christianity without being offensive. In lesser hands, it could have easily exploited the Christian faith to generate laughs but the filmmakers decide to take a more informal approach with sprinkles of light humor and well-drawn characters. It wasn't pro-Christian either as it clearly questions God's existence. If anything, the film is more about 'faith' and what it means to be a good person. Or at least, that's what I took from the film.It can also be appreciated as a great high-school comedy with the whole social cliques and observant teenage behaviour. Mandy Moore really surprised me with her sinister performance as the 'Queen Bee', similar to the Rachael McAdam's character in Mean Girls. Overall, the film was a charmingly witty take on Christian virtues via a high school setting that took a major risk that paid off in spades.

04/09: Little Children (Field, 2006) - [**]
05/09: Dead Man's Shoes (Meadows, 2004) - [***1/2]
05/09: The Hudsucker Proxy (Coen, 1994) - [**** (M)]
08/09: Black Snake Moan (Brewer, 2007) - [**]
11/09: Spider (Cronenberg, 2002) - [*** 1/2]
11/09: I Heart Huckabees (Russell, 2004) - [*]
12/09: In American (Sheridan, 2002) - [****]
12/09: The Station Agent (McCarthy, 2003) - [***1/2]
12/09: The Passion of the Christ (Gibson, 2004) - [*]
13/09: Knocked Up (Aptow, 2007) - [***1/2]
13/09: Bloody Sunday (Greengrass, 2002) - [***1/2]
13/09: Little Manhattan (Levin, 2005) - [***]
14/09: The Squid and the Whale (Baumbach, 2005) - [***1/2]
15/09: Far From Heaven (Haynes, 2002) - [****]
15/09: The Black Book (Verhoeven, 2006) - [***1/2]
16/09: The Piano Teacher (Haneke, 2001) - [**]
17/09: Red Road (Arnold, 2006) - [*1/2]
18/09: Dancer in the Dark (Trier, 2001) - [****]
18/09: Junebug (Morrison, 2005) - [***1/2]
18/09: The New World (Malick, 2005) - [****]
18/09: Marie Antoinette (Coppola, 2006) - [***1/2]
18/09: Maria Full of Grace (Marston, 2004) - [***1/2]
19/09: Morvern Callar (Ramsay, 2002) - [1/2]
19/09: Away From Her (Polly, 2007) - [***1/2]
19/09: Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (Yates, 2007) - [***1/2]
23/09: Kings and Queen (Desplechin, 2004) - [**]
25/09: Vera Drake (Leigh, 2004) - [***1/2]
25/09: Oasis (Lee, 2002) - [**1/2]
26/09: Once (Carney, 2006) - [***1/2]
27/09: The House of Mirth (Davies, 2002) - [***]
27/09: Sympathy for Lady Vengeance (Park, 2005) - [**]
29/09: Lilja 4-ever (Moodysson, 2002) - [****]
29/09: The Departed (Scorsese, 2006) - [****]

Saturday, September 1, 2007

Yes, I'm still alive.

My brief hiatus from blogging was caused primarily by work, the show Dexter, procrastination and a little vacation that I took to get away from my dank dungeon that I like to call my basement. I will be returning to my rigoruous movie-watching within the next few days (most likely Monday and Tuesday since those are my two days off) with some brand new spankin' reviews. I still need to reach 80 movies for my challenge so if you want to recommend more films, that would be greatly appreciated. Hope you all had a great summer! The fall movie season is about to begin...