90’s Showdown: The Contenders 3
Kristin Scott Thomas in Richard III (1995): is a supporting character in Richard III in a way that she appears here and there but has that really big scene in which she confronts Ian McKellen’s titular antihero. Having a part within a gender and age so maligned in Shakespeare’s work, she chose to play on Queen Anne’s hard and new loneliness to show us why she’s so angry with Richard yet convinces us why she would choose to marry him anyway. And even her happiness, albeit momentary, is clear. It’s an emotion she barely shows in its fullness in her later work.
Pam Grier in Jackie Brown (1997) is probably one of the most important actresses of her time just as legitimately as Meryl Streep is (they were born in the same year). But that hasn’t been put to light because of the movies she worked in. Thankfully, Quentin Tarantino makes use of Grier’s Stanislavski training and experience in exploitation films to flesh out such a character like Jackie Brown, a woman using her looks yet is toughened by time. From the quotable quotes like “Sit the fuck down!” to romancing Robert Forster’s character to a slightly baffling final close-up, this performance is as skilful as her collaborative director’s compassion.
Angela Bassett in Malcolm X (1992): Because of Angela Bassett’s sinewy physique and alto voice, she will never be seen as feminine in the ‘weak’ sense, so she’s the perfect actress to play Betty Shabazz, going tête-à-tête with Denzel Washington’s protagonist in Spike Lee’s Malcolm X. And head to head it is, with this loving couple enter their big argument, their clashing yet complementary voices captured in probably one of the best acted and directed scenes ever on film.
Irene Jacob in The Double Life of Veronique (1991): She convinces us of Kieslowski’s conceits, the opposites of woman innocence and erotic discovery while having an intuition that invalidates logic. Plus she acts in two languages, and sings in one! It’s the performance that goes beyond a character arc and makes it known to her audience that this person will live on forever.
Kate Beckinsale in The Last Days of Disco (1998): Who invented the wheel of minimalist acting? Did Stacey Dash in Amy Heckerling’s Clueless start it? It’s the kind of human behaviour captured in both Girls and in Lauren Conrad’s reality TV shows. I want to give Whit Stilman some credit, perfectly capturing the semi-comatose bourgeoisie in one of its many transient phases. His movie The Last Days of Disco also has two leads – Chloe Sevigny and Beckinsale, both conveying the characters’ aloofness. But why give Beckinsale more credit? Because she has more teeth, especially in that scene where she slaps Sevigny also expressing camp in the sense that there’s heightened drama between characters who deep down probably don’t give a shit. And she’s on my list because fuck you, I’m high, that’s why.
Laura Dern in Wild at Heart (1990): David Lynch is the kind of auteur to sadistically capture his actresses trip and wail yet also make them look like they cleared whatever impossible hurdle he has set up for her. And what kind of self-respecting woman would even say the lines that he wrote for Dern in Wild at Heart? Yes, the same woman who eventually says the two most female-empowering quotes of all time (In Jurassic Park: Dinosaur eats man, Woman rules the earth. In Citizen Ruth: What’s the matter? Are you fuckin’ people deaf? I said I want an abortion!). Yet she does it. I will repeat what I say in my review of this movie that too shortly conveys its qualities as an interesting failure. Yet during her line readings she is sexy, ridiculous, childlike and scared, often mixing two or all these feelings at the same time. It’s within an extreme worldview of clashing Lynchian emotions that we realize that we don’t ever, ever need to take psychedelic drugs to ever feel the way she does, because she does it for us.
The Golden Age: Gosford Park
The first time I saw this film I thought it was lighter and less stiff upper lip than its reputation. I even tolerated that it used the oldest joke in the book – ‘…deaf in one ear.’ ‘Sorry?’ I also thought that this would end up being one of those movies where ‘nothing ever happens,’ even if it does.
Pardon the socialist reading of the film, but Robert Altman‘s GOSFORD PARK shows the class stratification between the dying British noble class and their servants. The latter is both gossipy best friend and lap dog to the former, this dual role making the relationship more complex, nuanced and multifaceted than any worse ‘camp’ possibilities it might have already had.
This latent function of the servants make them the eyes or the audience stand-ins for the movie, especially Mary MacEchran (Kelly MacDonald), the ‘Miss Trentham’ to Countess Constance Trentham (Maggie Smith), Mary being new to the country world as we are. She’s the one finding out things like bringing a small box to store jewels that would be used on the first night. The secrets of the house falls under her lap, and she spends a significant time in the film running around the servants’ level to ask her coworkers why they’ve done certain things she wouldn’t.
What I love about this film are the scenes like Constance throwing a scarf at Mary to pack while leaving the house. It’s simple moments like this that can create a feeling of outrage within an audience, specifically because of how fast they can happen. Constance also does this childlike, as if she’s doing nothing wrong.
Then I realized that Constance, just like the upper classes in most movies set in the first half of the twentieth century, is a child. She needs an allowance that is threatened by Lady Sylvia McCordle’s (Kristin Scott Thomas) husband, businessman William (Michael Gambon), who for some reason has control of the finances that would be passed down from centuries long lines of nobles. It also reminds me of Vera’s condescension towards her own mother in “Mildred Pierce,” a warped and archaic mind-set that income is a birthright.
By earning his, William is threatening the nobility’s old world order, although that doesn’t stop them from depending on him. He is the one to ask for allowances and investment money, having created many businesses that continually exploit the poor in many ways. And they get disgruntled when he ruthlessly takes away.
The movie also shows the characters’ diverse reactions what is happening around them. Constance anticipates the shame in the inevitable event that would lead all of them to confess their grievances about William. Mary grows, although the sills she attains as a novice servant may eventually be useless. Sylvia’s callous, thinking about selling the house as if that is only a minor change.
However, there are characters like Elsie (Emily Watson, who usually plays innocent roles), the first head maid, the woman who teaches Mary about the big and little things about serving in a country house. She’s like the older sister, smoking a cigarette and telling a younger Mary on her lovers and the realities of romance and sex in the upper and middle classes. She wards off Henry Denton’s (Ryan Philippe) come-ons. She gets sacked for speaking to Sylvia out of turn but she bravely says that this even ‘might be the making of me,’ riding off in Hollywood producer Mr. Morris Weissman’s (Bob Balaban) car, a beginning in itself.
Normally in films the audience has to wait five minutes to suck us in, but instead Nowhere Boy ‘wows’ us in the beginning with its cinematography, and we have director Sam Taylor-Wood and cinematographer Seamus McGravey to thank for that. This is the fifties, after all. I also kept imagining the film in black and white because of the photographic quality of the shots. Yet colour fits better in capturing the bright, breezy energy of a much younger John Lennon (Aaron Johnson). The film depicts beauty without making its contemplation necessary, since the audience follows a rebellious schoolboy around his hometown at the same time.
Then comes characters with emotional resonance and dimension. John is funny, selfish and gives and gets love unconventionally. The darkness within his cheery mother Julia (Anne-Marie Duff) appears within her first real encounter of her son in years, as Duff’s impresses with her characterization of Julia as a broken vessel of repression. John’s aunt and guardian Mimi (Kristin Scott Thomas) is stern while trying to please a teenager who sometimes takes her for granted. All three powerfully contend with changing allegiances, portraying human irrationality brought on by love without making their characters seem inconsistent.
I also like how they can sometimes miss other characters’ cues. When John’s new friend and band mate Paul McCartney (Thomas Brodie-Sangster) talks about how the latter’s mother ‘would have loved’ his music, he doesn’t at first understand what he’s hinting at. Or when Paul plays the banjo in a solemn gathering at Julia’s house. The script perfectly captures the fragmented relationships. The young (and young at heart like Julia) who have strong feeling and angry impulses, innocent, sometimes ignorant about others which, thankfully, doesn’t stop them from trying to connect with each other.
Lastly, this movie is secretly about the 80’s, or what might have influenced English-speaking culture decades later from the film’s setting, although I don’t really have enough space here to explain that. Of course, it was interesting to watch John dressing up like Elvis or Buddy Holly. The British borrow from American rock ‘n’ roll icons, and as we watch this film we remember that it shows the first stop to John and Paul’s evolution, their sound and look changing within and after their seminal band’s run.
Did you know that Kristin Scott Thomas is in this movie? You’d almost forget because they kill her off at the first twenty-five minutes. Killing off Emilio Estevez is fine, but killing off KST is unforgivable. As Nathaniel R wrote, she has to put up with so much shit. With all due respect, she can serve this movie better than Emmanuelle Beart can.
Director Brian de Palma long takes, putting us inside Ethan’s (Tom Cruise) POV during a mission. He also likes canted angles. He uses it when Ethan when his team dies in Prague and contacts someone higher up at the IMF (not the real IMF). This guy here is accusing Ethan of supplying money from the IMF to add to the bank account that his father’s illness would have bankrupted. Ethan knows nothing about this money. He’s also accusing him of betraying the agency for a certain Max. Who the h is this Max?
You know what, Cruise is a pretty good-looking guy. I don’t know why I never got it, except for the fact that he oversells half of all the scenes that he’s in. And when stuff explodes, his arms flail. If I ever saw flailing arms on an actor, I would never consider casting him in any action film. Which is probably why I’m not a casting director.
This is obviously the best installment on the Mission Impossible series, having the class, panache, clean finish, glamour and sex while the others are too focused on the action-y, physical aspect of the action film. But yes, I am still looking forward to the new sequel because of Jeremy Renner, who’ll at least bring the sex part into the equation.