You might know her as The Queen or as Supt. Jane Tennison whoever but I will always remember Helen Mirren in the first movie I’ve seen her in, playing the title role in Teaching Mrs. Tingle. She’s the stereotypical teacher from hell, 90’s bowl cut, angry American accent and all.
Some film geeks might herald 1999 as a banner year but it was also a part of that decade, seeing the release of many teen movies. We have the headlining adult in this film but where do we get the young stars to get my attention? Why television, of course! At the time Katie Holmes, also coming out with Disturbing Behavior, was then one of successful “Dawson’s Creek” alums. There was also “7th Heaven’s” Barry Watson.
But let me present you Marisa Coughlan. While Leigh Ann Watson (Holmes) and Luke Churner (Watson) are ‘going to school or home so they won’t look suspicious,’ they assign Jo Lynn Jordan (Coughlan) to Tingle watch. So ‘aspiring actress’ Jo reenacts famous scenes from classic movies, passing the time. At one point she has to pretend to be Tingle when the married Coach Wenchell (Jeffrey Tambor) comes over, Jo sounding more like Isabella Rosselini instead of Mirren. She has to wear Tingle’s clothes and perfume, coming too vulnerable and close to the dark side.
I find one scene interesting, when Tingle finally makes Jo into believing that Leigh and Luke are having an affair behind her back and Jo readily believing anything she has to say. For argument’s purposes, Jo is being a bad actress in front of Tingle, saying the words ‘You’re lying’ so insipidly but the latter can’t see it. I don’t know how intentional this is on Coughlan’s part, or that writer-director Kevin Williamson can’t transition from one part of the scene to another, but I’ll call this subversion. Points for Miss Coughlan.
- Jarv’s Birthday Series: Christopher Columbus: The Discovery (1992) (moonwolves.wordpress.com)
A remake of an obscure Israeli film, John Madden‘s new film, The Debt, starts in 1965 with Rachel Singer (Jessica Chastain), David (Sam Worthington) and Stefan (Marton Csokas) being congratulated for killing a Dr. Vogel, the Surgeon of Birkenau, a composite of three real Nazi leaders. These perfect-looking Mossad agents carry their celebrity spy status thirty years later. Rachel’s daughter writes a book about them, unfortunately only Rachel (Helen Mirren) and Stefan (Tom Wilkinson) survive, and elder Rachel comfortably makes the people think the story ends there.
What proceeds and dominates the film are both a flashback and a solid balancing act. Rachel’s the new girl in the field, David welcomes her as his wife, the three learn martial arts and live and eat with each other, cabin fever included. Chastain is the heart of her section of the film. Worthington portrays a multi-faceted David, loving fake husband, butt kicker, wounded soul. Csokas is a believable group leader without trying to mug for the camera. We also see great glimpses of Vogel (Jasper Christensen), who conveys empathy despite being an irredeemable monster.
We forward to the older, bitter versions of Rachel and Stefan, and both learn that they must correct their big mistakes in the mission in different ways. The willing suspension of disbelief is slightly lifted since the elder and younger versions of the characters are never perfectly in sync. Comparisons with Boys of Brazil will be inevitable. I gave it a 4/5, but yes, I was being too nice.
Inspired by Nick and Antagony via Nathaniel . Se nervous. It took me like a month of listing and can and can’t to do this. How do I even judge a great performance? Physicality? Double or triple threats? Filling the shoes of a memorable literary character? And I combine leading and supporting performances because I’m cool like that. Anyway, here goes –
Vivien Leigh. “Gone with the Wind,” as Scarlett O’Hara. Directed by David O. Selznick & George Cukor, 1939. Oscar winner.
I’m pretty sure I”m gonna be clobbered if I didn’t include her in the list. I tried not to, but I can’t help it. Watching the film means finding another great line that Leigh delivers, considering that she doesn’t have the best lines in the film (the honour would go to Melanie Wilkes). Of course, there’s watching Leigh in four hours going through different stages of Scarlett’s life, in different eras, and both actress and character fit well. She grows into an adult yet her eyes hint of childlike mischief. She’s a character, on paper, that we should love to hate, and yet we still love her.
Hattie McDaniel. “Gone with the Wind,” as Mamie. Directed by David O. Selznick, 1939. Oscar winner.
Writing this, I realized that Mamie’s often brings bad news. Most of the time, she’s the one to tell other characters whether a member in the family has died or is suffering. She’s also there to tell Scarlett if she’s making a mistake. She’s family whether Scarlett thinks otherwise., arguably Scarlett’s surrogate mother, feeding her and clothing her. In “Gone with the Wind, McDaniel puts some subtlety into crucial scenes not permitted to any actress of her race in any other movie at the time. McDaniel took on Mamie character with tragedy and comedy and ambiguity.
Bette Davis. “The Little Foxes,” as Regina Giddens. Directed by William Wyler, 1941. Oscar nominee.
Despite of the performance’s reputation, Davis doesn’t make her character that much of a monster. There’s honesty in Regina’s wish to give her only child Alexandra a better life she couldn’t have in her youth. Yet she’s an anti-Scarlett, or a more ruthless version of the Southern woman. She has the ability to attack after being vulnerable and cheated, has to do certain unspeakable things for her ambition and survival, crushes her family like enemies and in minutes she treat them like friends. All of that done with great finesse.
Moira Shearer. ‘The Red Shoes,” as Victoria Page. Directed by Michael Powell, 1948.
I apologize for the forthcoming use of adjectives and nouns, but who else can show youth and exuberance and pathos. She has this childlike quality, and her ambition for a dance career has thrust her into this adult world where people, sepcifically her boss (Anton Walbrook) and husband, would be pulling and tugging for her. I make it sound like a coming of age story, but Shearer’s performance shows the difference sides youth and the decay of that youth. She goes from rosy to fragile. That and being the quintessential pre-mod British girl holding our attention for at least fifteen minutes in that dance sequence.
Isuzu Yamada. “Throne of Blood,” as Lady Asaji Washizu. Directed by Akira Kurosawa, 1957.
This is Noh and Kabuki at its best. It’s also one of the most interesting interpretations of Lady Macbeth, as well as any royal consort who has to act through her man instead of being free to do so in her own right. The audience sees her sitting down, like in meditation, symbolic of someone so ingrained her own rhetoric and dragging down her devoted husband with her. She is calm as a person who helped her husband kill a man. Yet in public she is a gracious host and tries to behave as if she’s advising her husband and not suffocating him. She shows her as guiltless because those with guilt actually live through the end – she won’t. She spends the final act being tortured on earth. More conventional interpretations of the character shows her as hollowed out, yet Asaji is fully fleshed yet possessed. She’s a monster and not a queen.
Helen Mirren. “Age of Consent,” as Cora Ryan. Directed by Michael Powell, 1969.
Helen Mirren’s trademark is to show off her body, but she uses it in this movie to its fullest potential. When she’s skipping and posing on the beach or in the dirtiest places, trying to hide money from her tyrannic grandmother, she’s that kind of actress that you can tell her what to do or say and she’s game. Her Shakespearean training helps convey this class and strength, surprising for this feral child in the middle of nowhere, yet still make us believe that she’s innocent. No wonder James Mason’s character Bradley was attracted to her and wanted her as a muse. Like and unlike a Galatea-like character she professes her love for her man and she’s so certain of it that Bradley nor the audience can doubt it. Her accent work’s good too. Mirren’s later performances will be that on an ice queen, and we’ll probably never get something as invigorating as this performance from her again.
Faye Dunaway. “Network,” as Diana Christensen. Directed by Sidney Lumet, 1976. Oscar winner.
She knows how to walk into a room. To talk Max Schumacher’s (Billy Holden) ear off and let him just stand there and take it. Being a seductress yet frigid is a hard thing to pull off, and Dunaway does it. Her performance, especially the ending, makes its audience wonder whether she’s a victim or survivor. Max condemns her, that she’s probably gonna jump off from her corner office in a year or two. Yet she placidly and without hesitation plans for an assassination without Max’s words clouding her brain. Also, here and in any other movie, Dunaway is a master of modern American elocution. She doesn’t veer off in a fake British accent like most of her predecessors not does she talk like an accordion like most American actresses. She commands the other person so quickly yet doesn’t get them and the audience lost.
Helena Bonham Carter. “A Room with a View, ” as Lucy Honeychurch. Directed by James Ivory, 1985.
Bonham Carter’s work in this movie can arguably be that on an ingenue’s, but you know the Chinese proverb of an apprentice’s limitless possibilities. As Lucy, she goes on vacation in Italy to learn about art and culture and watch Italians fight, but her stature while absorbing this information that makes her less passive than any other character in that film. She speaks a certain way depending on her situation. She could be ghostly and trapped, childlike in her complaints, or assert to others that her conventional life makes her happy. There’s also that moment when she answers a crucial question and breaks down and becomes free, and is so matter of fact about that answer. Bonham Carter’s recent reputation as Tim Burton’s wife and muse also makes this early performance a discovery of how soft and subtle she could be.
Cate Blanchett. “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” as Meredith Logue. Directed by Anthony Minghella, 1999.
She’s a star even in her many supporting roles like this one. Watch Blanchett’s performance create a back story in a few seconds by a look, by simply flipping her hair and being swept by her surroundings. Meredith is one of the Americans in Venice, yet refreshingly not as jaded as her peers. She doesn’t just use her appearance to shape her role. That insufferable inflection as she calls Tom Ripley ‘Dickie’ is one of the most memorable parts of the film. Fact: Gwyneth Paltrow arguable stole Blanchett’s Oscar, and in return this movie gets Blanchett to steal Paltrow’s boyfriend.
Viola Davis. “Doubt,” as Mrs. Miller. Directed by John Patrick Shanley, 2008.
This wonderfully paced supporting work reveals so much about the shocking words coming from Mrs. Miller. Another way of talking about this scene stealing performance is that of a pressure cooker, a women dogged by Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep) until she explodes and tells the truth. She uses the words ‘caught’ and ‘nature’ not like innuendos but a natural part of an oppressive vocabulary. She makes herself understood. Remember that in the film version, their conversation happens in public and Davis doesn’t hush up nor careless go into histrionics. She doesn’t apologize for her presence and makes herself an equal by sharply telling Aloysius that she has to go back to her life, and to defending and loving her son without making the latter nor the audience think that she didn’t ask for him, as many fictional mothers like her do.
Powell made “Age of Consent” in his later years and it seems like he’s trying to make his aesthetic more “groovy.” Instead of the manicured beauty of “The Red Shoes,” “Age of Consent” has a documentarian’s approach, finding beauty in accidents. I found the shot of animals frolicking in vegetated areas having the same spirit as the cherry blossom shots in “Black Narcissus,” that latter of which I only have a vague recollection of. Imagine “Age of Consent” as a movie directed by Sister Ruth, with a primal, natural approach. Yet I wonder what I would be thinking if I didn’t know who the director was.
In a way Age of Consent goes within the same thread as the “Narcissus” or “The Red Shoes” where a person of power goes into another land and has a complex relationship with the ones he’s technically subjugating.
James Mason and Helen Mirren are thus entwined within this creepy rendition of Pygmalion and Galatea, just like any good Pygmalion narrative. If they were the stars of “My Fair Lady,” that would have been a better film. A bland Australian painter (Mason) finds his muse, Cora (Mirren) when he goes back home to an unpopulated beach. Mason has his most mentally balanced roles in this film, while Mirren, at the top of her game is at her most beautiful while straddling the boundary of classy and trashy. Mirren will again tap into both around a decade later in “Caligula,” and after that, almost never again.
Despite of what I said about Mirren, better writing could have helped her character. In one moment she’s the perfect muse, even giving artistic suggestions to Mason, in another she’s a catatonic child who wants romance from a guy she met just weeks ago. There also should have been more direct protestation against their relationship. Having Cora’s alcoholic, abusive grandmother as the only one pointing out how sketchy this relationship is just feels a little inconsistent.
During the first half of “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus”, I asked myself “Where was this going,” “When is it gonna end.” Terry Gilliam films promise you a lot of fantasy but the first half shows in the aughties’ version of grunge – alcohol, London traffic, tattered costumes, all three revolving around the travelling circus, especially the immortal Parnassus (Christopher Plummer), the film’s troubled storyteller. He has lost control of his show, the world has lost interest in his stories. Add Tony (Heath Ledger) to the mix and his presence and suggestions add conflict to the other members of the cast-in-wagon (Andrew Garfield, for instance).
A part of ‘Parnassus” also feels like a perfume ad, Valentina (Lily Cole) floating in the air, her dress swirling, her arms reaching towards the oversized flowers and high-heeled shoes while Imaginarium Tony (Johnny Depp) dances with an elderly woman. That doesn’t mean I have a prejudice against this former model, it’s the other way around. Nonetheless, the occasionally frustrating glimpses in the imaginarium are a bit distant and CGI for me to look at it with wonder.
The Imaginarium Tonys (also Jude Law and Colin Farrell), despite being a part of the fantasy world, actually grounds the film. The most emotionally gripping parts of the film are when Tonys personal troubles follow him in the imaginarium. It would have been nice to see Heath in these parts because they’re the meatier part of the role, but the incorporation of four actors in one role is well done.
The film ends with Plummer being another beggar, the fantasy world gone. His old friend Percy (Verne Toryer, not a cameo) wonders if the beggar is the Great Doctor Parnassus. Is greatness compromised when life drags on?
I also caught “The Last Station” this past Wednesday, which was a little more even. The peaks and valleys of each character are charted in placed where you will know to find them. If I did not end up watching the film, it would be immortalised in my mind as the one where Countess Sofya Tolstaya (Helen Mirren) breaks plates and shoots a gun as shown in the trailers. It’s more than that, but there’s still some genre conventions within it. Got a problem with melodrama?
I wanna talk about the nuances in James MacAvoy as Valentin Bulgakov, the way MacAvoy is the best male crier in the industry, this time keeping himself still yet making the moment raw. How the film does not take his away from a shot when he goes from one emotion to another. How the other characters does not allow him to evolve from a spineless intellectual. How a beard does not make a man.
Helen Mirren also makes me doubt my choice as putting Gabourey Sidibe as my Oscar choice, although Sidibe is still number one. Sofya makes the characters around her listen to every word without making it look wink-wink nudge-nudge. You sympathize with her as extremist Tolstoyans like Vladimir Chertkov (Paul Giamatti) try to take away her influence from her husband. Yet her last request to her husband to come home with her still sounds duplicitous.
We see the film in Bulgakov’s eyes. However, as much as all these characters tugging at each other is sometimes fun to watch, but I still wonder who is the centre in all this intrigue.
Nathaniel R from The Film Experience listed his take on his best Oscar grade performances of the decade. I’ll be a bad student and not fully understand the assignment, but my list:
2000: Maggie Chung – In The Mood For Love. Snubbed
2001: Naomi Watts – Mulholland Drive. Snubbed
2002: Meryl Streep – The Hours. In wrong category. She’s here by default because I haven’t seen far From Heaven or Adaptation in entirety.
2003: Nicole Kidman – Dogville. Snubbed.
2004: Uma Thurman – Kill Bill 2. Snubbed.
2005: Maria Bello – A History of Violence. Snubbed.
2006: Kate Winslet – Little Children. Nominated.
2007. Marion Cotilliard – La Mome.
2008. Anne Hathaway – Rachel Getting Married. Nominated.
2009. Abbie Cornish – Bright Star. Snubbed.
I can’t decide between Winslet and Watts right now. Winslet’s first scene in Little Children just breaks your heart and she keeps you in the ups and downs of that movie, but Watts’ performance is a classic that I end up missing her when the credits roll. My favourite actress who actually won, well there’s only one.
And while we’re at it, an incomplete list of Best Supporting Actresses if I had 3000 votes at my disposal.
2001. Helen Mirren – Gosford Park. Nominated.
2004. Natalie Portman – Closer. Nominated.
2007. Kelly Macdonald – No Country for Old Men. Snubbed.
2008. Viola Davis – Doubt. Nominated.
2009. Mo’Nique – Precious: Based on the…. Won.
My Winner: Natalie Portman by a millimeter. Visceral, sexy, cool, she can hold her own with her co-stars.
Shortlist for the guys:
2000: Javier Bardem – Before Night Falls. Nominated.
2004: Gael Garcia Bernal – Bad Education. Snubbed.
2004: Joseph Gordon Levitt – Mysterious Skin. Snubbed.
2005: Viggo Mortensen- A History of Violence. Snubbed.
2007: Brad Pitt – The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Snubbed
2008: Mickey Rourke – The Wrestler. Nominated.
2009: Colin Firth – A Single Man. Nominated.
My winner for the who: Bernal did a lot with the range of things he had to do. I guess Daniel Day Lewis winning in 2007 is great but Brad Pitt’s performance wins a place for me.