Performances I learned about
What I actually found in common with the ‘best’ performances I’ve seen in movies since my earlier, iffier list in July is that these actors who play their characters as either scary or scared. I thought that was gonna make my list repetitive but it’s a pretty general conflict within a character anyway. Also, as much I loved a few performances released this year, this list mainly focus on my self-education (Although I didn’t major nor specialize, I took film classes in college, I’m not one of those) about films from the beginning of ever (but really 1947) up to the past year, for which I make a space to include an FYC or two for performances this year. again, I also wanna be a contrarian and ‘instructive’ – the more obscure and diverse a performance is, the better.
Stellan Skarsgard, Breaking the Waves (Lars von Trier, 1996)
The film complements Emily Watson’s well-praised debut performance as Bess McNeil with Skarsgard, who makes the pest performance of a ‘crippld’ man since Jimmy Stewart. He finds the balance of sincerity and good intention despite the manipulative nature of what he says, and this the centre of the misogyny that other bloggers have accused von Trier about in this film. Thing is, he airs his requests to Bess with neither overt meanness nor longing. His disability is also reflected before and after it literally sets him in the film’s plot. Let me explain. Skarsgard’s performance makes his character, Jan Nyman, very jaded and justly so. He treats the Bess’ Calvinist enclave with disgust but as an outsider, is aware that he cannot change it, letting everyone else do the moralizing. He tries to give Bess the redemption he deserves and doesn’t oversell it, showing us his awareness of the reality of his loss.
Liv Ullman, Autumn Sonata (Ingmar Bergman, 1978)
It’s a hard task stealing the show from Ingrid Bergman, and we almost think it wouldn’t happen with the woman’s piano skills. Eventually this film becomes Ullman’s, playing Bergman’s daughter. I thought she was in her twenties when she took on this role, and her braids and glasses might have had something to do with that. But Ullmann in her forties captures the youthful vulnerability of someone well, half her age. A character who hasn’t learned how to be an adult because of her mother’s tampering and image of superiority. What follows is an unforgettable primal scream, revealing that anything a mother can do to love her child might be engendering the opposite message. The film ends with her trying to get her mother back, but in just as repetitive as she’s learned. Never had a peace-offering been so poisonous, as Ullmann carefully hides a rage that we can still see.
Ryan Reynolds, Buried (Rodrigo Cortes, 2010)
The success of this film has been partly attributed to Reynolds’ comic timing, which yes, adds a flexibility to the role in a horror/thriller film. Other critics have also talked about how he conveys Paul Conroy’s lack of intelligence, but lack of sunlight and mobility, I can assume, with take away 1 or 61 of anyone’s IQ points. However, he also exhibits a physicality, a difficult attribute to convey in a claustrophobic film.We follow his every little move, like trying to get a signal from a Blackberry set in Arabic or working flashlights. He also bring is the emotional heft the film needs, outstandingly connecting with the offscreen characters. And yes, I admit, a reason Reynolds is on this list is because he renders the best reading of the sentence ‘You stupid fucking cunt!’ in the history of cinema.
Any Ryan, Gone Baby Gone (Ben Affleck, 2007)
Supporting actress schmupporting actress – Amy Ryan takes the reins in this movie. Ryan’s character is faced by many hurdles, the missing daughter who probably hasn’t been fed by her captors (really the latter is fine), the good cops and the bad cops who are convinced she’s involved in the crime despite her unbreakable shell. She’s also intelligent enough to add levels of moral judgment about her character, saying things that she believes is right but making the words clear enough to question her. She gets the ending she wants and becomes a scary form of human being impervious to change even in times of almost complete disaster. I try my best not to be one of those bloggers who have grievances when it comes to the choices the Academy makes, and who am I to judge Tilda Swinton’s performance that I’ve yet to see. Nonetheless, Team Amy.
Catherine Deneuve, Repulsion (Roman Polanski, 1965)
Blankness hasn’t been this scary in a woman or in any character until this film arrived. We might also wanna thank Polanski in this aspect of her performance, but she looks capably fashionable even as she’s as we say mentally breaking through the seams. That and the raving beauty is humble enough to look plain in comparison the her sister (Yvonne Furneaux). Not only do we see the rabbit head inside her purse and the unkept conditions of her and her sister’s apartment after the latter’s vacation do the vacuous stares make sense. Her bravery’s also commendable as she takes on the dream rape scenes, as she approaches them not with tears but with defenselessness and startled reactions, conveying how her character struggles against her body. She portrays a young woman with grievances against societal pressures about her sister’s boyfriend and her own oblivious boyfriend, but sadly didn’t learn how to scream out.
Deborah Kerr, Black Narcissus (Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, 1947)
I considered it a personal achievement to have finished watching the film the past year, since Deborah Kerr as Sister Clodagh puts heart in what could be a cold, detached and stern female protagonist in Black Narcissus. Powell and Pressburger are known for their magical Technicolor visuals in their films, but the most delightful image it has is watching Kerr light up when she reminisces, romanticizing the decaying past that she was happy and content with. There’s also a bit of pain in her eyes as the film transforms her from context a to b, with the knowledge that her life in the British Isles won’t be the same. She’s not, however, necessarily a helpless young female, as she considers herself a mother and leader to the other nuns in the Indian mission, specifically looking out for Sister Ruth, sincerely caring about hers and everyone else’s health. And she’s got a little sense of humour as well, brought on by Mr. Dean.
Tatsuya Nakadai, Kagemusha (Akira Kurosawa, 1980)
Hey look, another double role! But really the titular Kagemusha gets invaded by his alter ego, Shingen Takeda, the medieval Japanese war lord whose life is surprisingly more precarious than the lower class man who’s supposed to impersonate him. Nakadai evinces the haunted feeling of being followed by the ghost – only appearing once in a dream – of a supposedly great man, who’s also chagrined by the warlord’s son. He somehow convinces us of a closer connection between the two disparate characters, of the integrity that has to be preserved in the old ways that oppress Kagemusha. When the thief becomes the warlord, he doesn’t put a dumb show. He even shows warmth while bonding with the warlord’s grandson. The actor perfectly captures the composed, arrogant ways of a noble man and the dishevelled thief who he was in the film’s beginning and end.
Joan Allen, The Ice Storm (Ang Lee, 1997)
Ang Lee’s more subtle than other directors who have made films about the suburbs. It is then a gift to have Joan Allen’s as Elena in his film to keep the trajectory from quietness to histrionics more interesting, like the different movements of mood within a real person within two days’ time. To a pastor, she talks about her daughter Wendy’s (Christina Ricci) freedom with such adult control. Her performance has many great moments, like the what-the-eff moment when she smells a different ‘aftershave’ from Elena’s husband Ben (Kevin Kline) as she tries hard to calm herself and the absolute fury as she throws her husband’s car keys to Allison Janney, vindictively including themselves to a ‘key party’ – look it up, kids. This movie reintroduced and made me love someone revered as ‘the greatest American actress after Meryl.’
Johnny Depp, Before Night Falls (Julian Schnabel, 2000)
When you start talking about a film, writing ‘Remember when Johnny Depp was still good?’ It’s totally ok to do that. Anyway, Depp, obviously a superstar by the early 90’s, in this film is given not one but two supporting roles as Bon Bon and Lieutenant Victor, and arguably Victor is two roles in itself, the compassionate stud of Reinaldo Arenas’ (Javier Bardem) fantasy and the homophobic oppressor in the film’s reality. The two bit parts are symbolic of the opinion of homosexuality in Cuba – either as a counter-revolutionary sore or an underground movement to be preserved. Depp uses subservience and camp, and embracing his characters as mirror images of the conflict within Arenas himself as well as the latter’s conflicts against authority. I also couldn’t recognize who Bon Bon was until I took a good look at her for 13 seconds, a feat in itself for an actor who’s in costume for more than half his career.
Christian Bale , Laurel Canyon (Lisa Cholodenko, 2002)
I’m probably the only monstrous human beings who see flaws within Christian Bale’s acting, the way he gets angry and yells like a hound and all. He does that here in this movie too, mind you. It’s refreshing nonetheless, that he spends 99% of the film being his most ordinary. That, however, doesn’t mean he’s not interesting as we watch him effortlessly confess his desires to make love to his coworker/extramarital love interest with sadness and other emotions and nuances I can’t put into words. He approaches lust and therefore sin with such gentleness and no violence, creating a character contemplating the sorrow of limitations. One of the film’s plots cover his character temporarily staying with his music producer of a mother (Frances McDormand) and her rocker boyfriend-of-the-year (Alessandro Nivola), giving us the impression that he’s always had to be the adult in whatever household he’s in, and it consistently shows.
Nicole Kidman, Rabbit Hole (John Cameron Micthell, 2010)
I’ve already talked about how Nicole Kidman as Becca Corbett does everything in this film except dance and stab. I also remember about her performance is that she could have brought down her character’s meanness, and in a way she does. What she offers is a defence mechanism and even a wry intelligence to the conventional ways of sorrow, and instead her Becca is looking for an alternative, learning how to suffer and cope on her own, allowing herself to feel other emotions to heal. Like when she goes back to Manhattan and try to get her job back at Sotheby’s, even if we just see her we sense how big she feels with the city and with the happiness she’s had and missed. Or allowing herself to be close to Jason Willette (Miles Teller), treating him so close like a son or nephew, letting us feel the waters she’s treading.
TCM, as part of their Akira Kurosawa’s 100th birth month anniversary last April I think, was showing Kagemusha at 2 in the morning. It’s the story of an aging warlord who hires a beggar to impersonate him, or something like that. I remember the scene when a messenger runs through soldiers sleeping on the grounds outside the palace, their flags rising as they’re woken up. It’s like Riefenstahl but with a little sense of irony.Then I dozed off after ten minutes. TCM really needs to stop showing good movies so late at night.
Kagemusha‘s gonna be screening at the Cinematheque today. I gotta go to a baptism in the border of East York and Scarborough at 2, then mission downtown by 4, which is when the movie’s showing. The film’s MUBI profile hints on some intense studio lighting. Squee!
Ran – a movie about an aging Japanese warlord Lord Hidetora “Tora” Ichimonji (Tatsuya Nakadai), patterned after the Shakespearean tragedy King Lear – stayed on the grassy hilltops for twenty minutes. I would like to think that I can bear with long scenes with just dialogue but maybe this movie might prove that I just can’t. Is it Kurosawa’s meditative pace again, or the language barrier?
The film’s galvanizing point is when Tora’s ex-right hand man Tango tells him that the latter’s eldest son Taro barred the villages from serving him rice just after he ordered to burn said villages for being presumptuous in their ‘charity.’ He also hears Tango’s interpretation of the third son Saburo’s actions after the latter’s estrangement. His actions alienates the villagers just as it does to his sons. The movie becomes a great one with that scene and every other scene that follows that.
I was also utterly disappointed with the replacement of daughters with sons. The only Kurosawa film I know that has the most/best female characters is his adaptation of Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot. I’m not an expert of Japanese culture so I wouldn’t know what would have happened to Tora’s daughters, or he married off those daughters, or if he had to made his wife and concubines suffer to produce three sons. I concede that I like the characterization of the sons. Taro is ambitious,disrespectful and affected. Jiro is weak. Saburo is coarse yet loyal. I vaguely remember Shakespeare’s characterization of Regan and Goneril, except for evil and more evil. From what I remember, Regan asks “What need one [attendant for Lear],” which can either be interpreted as cruel or cowering. She shares one or two more bitter arguments with Lear than Goneril did. And Cordelia’s, you know, silent. Back to the film, this was a wasted opportunity for Kurosawa to explore female characters.
But fine, Lady Kaede (Mieko Harada) is an audience favourite. Having read a lot about her explosive, gutsy performance from Sarah Boslaugh, Harada impresses when she reveals her hatred against Tora. I kept wondering where she was through the stretches of bloodshed that the men have committed. Then she lunges at Jiro. She closes the doors to the Lord’s room while she laughs, not caring if anyone in the palace might hear her. She blackmails Jiro, tears her own kimono with a knife, then kisses Jiro and the wounds she gave him. It’s an extraordinary scene and it feels like watching something demonic for the very first time.
Kaede, then, is Goneril and Regan lumped into one, having to marry to satisfy the lord of the household and therefore appease a patriarchal society, conniving herself from husband, finally owning her family’s castle for at least a short while. She’s also one of the characters that remind the audience of the Shakespearean tragedy’s worldview. Nothing that the hero or anti-hero owns is rightfully theirs, that any property has a lengthy history of thefts, and that just as many wars have conquered nations and killed kings, vengeance after vengeance will come. She’s also a Lady MacBeth in a sense that she’s chosen to become this evil and ruthless to survive the society that would otherwise spit her out. Lady MacBeth because Ran has a Lady MacDuff in the form of Lady Sue, the latter being pure, forgiving and altruistic even if she goes through the same thing as Kaede. The film has one great female character and her foil, but there could have been more.
Unlike Lear and the Fool, Tora and Kyoami have a strained relationship. Tora hits him. Kyoami’s the only person who calls Hidetora ‘Tora.’ At first, Kyoami is able to joke about Tora’s madness, but frustration sets in. Tango and Saburo are loyal to Tora, but it’s like Kyoami’s the only person who actually loves Tora. He wants to leave but can’t. Tora’s death devastates Kyoami while Tango’s stoic. Kyoami’s adrogyny – and Tora’s ghostly concubines – lets him emote unlike the other male characters in the film and puts a bit of subtext to the relationship, if you’re looking for one.
Almost every shot in this movie is a painting.
This was pretty badass.
I guess beginning the film in grassy hilltops makes sense. We drink in the scenery. In the end all we have are red crags, where Lady Sue’s blinded brother is stranded. He gets his land back but it feels more like limbo instead of a vindicated end. He’s a footnote in this land’s bloody history.
Female Performances List
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.
Kurosawa: The Idiot
Maybe early Kurosawa and me aren’t just meant to be, with the exception of “The Seven Samurai.” There’s something about “The Idiot” that I can’t fully immerse myself into. The film is about one idealistic man who finds himself involved in the lives of a few families in a Japanese city. Is it because the film doesn’t allow any of its characters a chance of full happiness? Does it try to cover and juggle too many plots and characters? Or maybe it’s because we’re seeing the work of a man who’s just starting out?
I’m part of the immature ilk whose reductive assessment of the film would be “zOMG, Japanese people in Western clothing! Loves it!” The film is a balance of post-war Japan and Dostoyevsky as the story’s source material. New, Western customs add to old customs, the caste system still exists, some people get ostracized, everyone is miserable. The audience can even over-read the three-footer snow as metaphorical of the heavy burden that society places on its characters.
If anything, this is the also the hardest Kurosawa’s actors have worked so far – I’ll find out if I’m wrong by the time I see “Ran” in three weeks. Toshiro Mifune, before his stardom, actually relaxes his face in some of the scenes. The female characters are still bitchy, but they freely flow from acidic to damaged to vulnerable. And we like bitchy, right guys?
I also borrowed my first Dostoyevsky from the library, a daunting task with all 643 pages of small print. Maybe this big, heavy key will unlock a few things and offer me more insight towards the film.
Throne of Blood
In this samurai period piece, director Akira Kurosawa features some shots of the forest. Seeing Washizu (Toshiro Mifune) and Miki’s horses gallop at such a height behind trees and branches reminded me of Japanese scrolls because of their boldness. It also reminds me of a bit of the Chinese (yes, I said Chinese) artist Fan Kuan in the distance in which the two generals place themselves within the mise-en-scene. It’s not all forests, however. He treats interior spaces with such geometry and depicts expansive arid landscapes in full screen. Yes, full screen. It’s like he rightfully proves that Hollywood didn’t need to invent the Panavision camera.
I really thought I was gonna be bitchy about this movie as an adaptation of “Macbeth.” Why aren’t they saying the right words? And they cut the MacDuffs and Edward the Confessor, characters I really like from the play. I guess if this movie was in English they wouldn’t be able to get away with that, but Kurosawa movie gets a pass. I re-read parts of “Macbeth” just to show the comparison again, and there’s a lot of sexual language in my reading of it. What Kurosawa’s film does to the story is take away the seduction and instead put rhetoric as the reason for killing, the latter being a major topic in Shakespeare’s other works. Washizu will go far as misreading the omens around him to convince himself that he’s in the right. I still have some problems with that inversion but I can appreciate it.
I’m not the biggest expert on Noh and Kabuki, but I’ve seen it done better. Here in “Throne,” Isuzu Yamada as Washizu’s wife, Asaji, does a lot of great work as the ghostly Noh character. The Old Ghost Woman was terrifying in her stoicism and portrayed her character asexually. It’s Mifune’s character and acting that killed me, being evil only because he looked the part. Yes, he’s inundated with violence, anarchy and deposed shoguns. But the arc from him dreading the predictions towards delusional leader wasn’t portrayed well enough for me. And I’m not sure if this is part of the style of acting, but I can’t stand yelling in movies.