Sunday, February 27, 2011

Stone the crows

This blog hasn't been as busy as I'd like it to be, for however many reasons you'd like me to give, but intermittent silence doesn't mean I haven't been doing anything at all. If you follow me on Twitter (which if you're reading this you probably do), you'll hopefully already know about this, but I was waiting until I'd filled it out to a certain level of value before I made this 'official' post declaring it to all and sundry. Recently, I redesigned my sister blog, which is basically just an archive of every single movie I've ever seen, graded and categorized by year - it looks a lot cleaner and more streamlined now, don't you think?

Glad you approve, Emma!
In the process- inspired, as I often am, by Nick of Nick's Flick Picks, I took advantage of Blogger's new Page feature to add a little spice to that collection of lists: a 'Best Actress' page. Despite the proximity of me rambling on about all this so close to this year's Oscar ceremony - down with The King's Speech!, etc. - this page has nothing to do with the Oscars. What it is, simply, is my own personal picks for the best lead actress performance of each year. What you'll see currently goes back to 1990, with my top pick for each year and other must-see performances in parentheses beneath those. What you'll also see is write-ups of some of those. Today, on the eve of Oscar, and with my 2010 viewings slowly drawing to a close, I sealed the deal on that year and scrawled some thoughts on the marvellous Emma Stone.
Stone has a physicality seemingly designed for comedy - she provokes laughs from her wide-eyed cartoonish expressions to the smallest raise of an eyebrow, the lowest enunciations into Melanie Bostic's ear to a short, regretful reverie about Judy Bloom. The sheer scope of her comic arsenal is exercised throughout Easy A, because she recognises where the scrappy script needs a lift, or where she needs to give her scene partner room to have their moment, or where she can grab at some of the sharp one-liners and make them even funnier than they read.
It's no surprise that Emma didn't get a foot in the door with the Academy - she was lucky to land that seat at the Globes, what with Angelina Jolie hanging around - but her performance, to be slightly cliched here, is its own reward. As are all my chosen performances, recognised or not. So go forth, and read about Laura Linney's effeverscent warmth in You Can Count On Me, Hilary Swank's sympathetic, foolish innocence in Boys Don't Cry, Emma Thompson's perpetually generous work in Howards End, and Kate Winslet's unpredictable vibrancy in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. And if you like what you see, bookmark it, because, as an on-going project, you might find an update at any moment.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Old At Heart

The two youngest Academy Award nominees this year are two of the youngest in the Academy’s history in their respective categories. Fourteen year-old Hailee Steinfeld is incredibly only the ninth youngest nominee in the Best Supporting Actress category – in the past five years alone, Abigail Breslin and Saoirse Ronan best her for youth. Jennifer Lawrence, though, is, at twenty, the second youngest Best Actress nominee in history, following Keisha Castle Hughes’ appearance back in 2004. The occasional tendency for these fresh-faced nominees in the Best Supporting Actress category isn’t explained by cute kiddish innocence, but more often than not a hefty dose of precociousness – to land amongst all these adults, they generally have to act like adults. Tatum O’Neal – like Steinfeld, actually a lead in her film – is the youngest winner in Oscar history, and in Paper Moon, she’s daddy conman Ryan O’Neal’s crafty equal.

Comparison #1: they both wear hats. Carry on reading for more golden observations.
Steinfeld’s Mattie Ross in True Grit is a slightly different case – she acts like an adult, but no one will treat her like one, and ultimately she’s returned to childhood, where it’s been made evident she should belong. But regardless. This article isn’t about the roles, but the performances - a comparison of Steinfeld’s work to Jennifer Lawrence’s seems surprisingly valuable. Both Mattie and Lawrence’s Ree Dolly are teenagers who have grown up before their years, alone in a male-dominated world, and both betraying, at their respective story’s most dramatic points, the scared child within the tough nut they put out to the world. Not to mention the barren landscapes of Southern America we’re hanging around in both films, even if True Grit’s hills are rich and golden and Winter’s Bone’s are frosty, grey and barren. Ree’s fight against her community suggests that the area hasn’t really progressed very far from the treatment of women in Mattie’s old west.

I find myself one of the few with a thoroughly negative opinion of True Grit, and a large part of the blame has to fall onto Steinfeld – not because she is outrageously terrible, but the film’s narrative is so firmly glued to and channelled through her that subpar work isn’t going to hold the film up. Steinfeld has proved herself a charmer on the red carpet, and she’s certainly not a charmless screen presence either – I concede that with a colder teenage actress in the role, the film might have been actively unwatchable. But she’s simply not accomplished enough to overcome the huge stumbling block of the mannered dialogue – where seasoned pro Jeff Bridges runs with it, makes it unintelligible and thrusts his character’s existence into his physicality, Steinfeld can only recite it, and clearly has to think it through before she says it. There’s an already famous scene early in the film, where Mattie barters with a horse salesman – it’s funny, yes, but it feels entirely too rehearsed, an impossible premeditation that Steinfeld’s lack of vocal fluidity pokes holes in. It’s a performance of a performance. That’s altogether too many layers to deal with. It might make sense on the page, but in a world next to Bridges’ Rooster Cogburn, Mattie’s precocity needed to extend to her body, and it sticks in her throat – or, really, further back, in Steinfeld’s mind.

If only she actually rode the horse this
would be another thing to point out.
Compare this to Jennifer Lawrence. An older actress, yes, with a bit more experience, but we are talking about acting awards here; Steinfeld is a pleasing presence who will hopefully hone her craft and return with some great work. Lawrence’s Ree Dolly is an impressively full performance. Lawrence lets tiny little flashes of emotion glint through her downbeat, practical attitude, which work in tandem with the narrative to slowly but surely deepen Ree, simultaneously embedding her in the landscape and estranging her from the people around her. Winter’s Bone is a muscular, harshly cold film, and this tangibility extends to Lawrence, who thrusts meaning into her small movements, by turns purposeful and tentative, where the reticence of speech leaves an empty space. At key moments, Ree’s emotions turn in a direction that you wouldn’t expect from most people – notably, her lack of distress at learning her father is probably dead; instead, a fierce loyalty to recover his body flares up. These don’t read as incongruous or forced, perhaps because Lawrence contains Ree so carefully, precisely modulating the natural moments where events scrape the shields Ree has to draw around herself. The script does overstate this at one point, though Lawrence’s playing in the scene where Ree pleads with her spaced-out mother is still deeply felt. Here, Ree lets everything fall away, not so much becoming a child again but wanting to be one again, and as she looks down there’s a hint of shame in her eyes. She is performing being an adult to an extent, but what we see in Ree’s more private moments is the weight of realisation that adulthood is becoming more real, more entrenched, and more inescapable.

Helpfully, they once stood next to each other...
True, Ree is much closer to being a physical adult than Mattie Ross, but it’s clear from the script that Ree was thrust into this role several years ago. And here we see the key difference not only in the performances of Lawrence and Steinfeld, or even their characters, but the films themselves. There’s a reality to Ree Dolly beyond the one we see onscreen – her growth into the girl we see now, her possibilities for her future, relationships (with her parents, for one) that are now ghostly and membranous – that owes a great deal to Lawrence’s subtle, restrained playing. But in the heightened farcicality of True Grit, do we ever feel like we’d recognise Mattie’s family if they suddenly wandered into the narrative? Do we understand why Mattie acts in the way she does? Can we make a plausible guess at what happened to Mattie between the final two sequences of the film? These failures aren’t entirely Steinfeld’s fault, but a good performance would at least make sketchy attempts at them – see, for instance, Natalie Portman’s attempts to sketch beyond the lines of insanity in Black Swan. Mattie Ross ultimately comes to little more than a plaited haircut and an oversized hat, and those don’t belong in the Kodak theatre, unless they've invited Lady GaGa this year.

If you're after more similarities between Winter's Bone and True Grit, check out this MTV Movies article.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Who's Stunting Johnny Depp?

You don’t need me to tell you that Johnny Depp’s career has gone downhill. Oh, sure, he might’ve just been nominated for not one Best Actor in a Comedy or Musical award at the Golden Globes, but TWO – but no one, surely not even the HFPA, is pretending those performances are any good. Sure, in my review of Alice in Wonderland that’s not as deeply hidden in my archives as it should be, I said that the strange damaged persona that Tim Burton thrust onto the Mad Hatter was actually carried off fairly well by Depp, but when the last memory of that turn was that dance, any crumbs of respect are being brushed out into the street. And I didn’t even see The Tourist. (Don’t make me.)

But you know all this. You know the despair that’s slowly spreading through more and more people about how Johnny has descended into a rut where all he plays is gothic weirdos for Tim Burton or increasingly embarrassing repetitions of a screen persona that was so giddily enjoyable that first time out. Oh yeah, Captain Jack’s back this summer, but excuse me if I checked out of that cruise four years ago. I’m not here to moan. I’m here to mourn. I know Depp’s only 47 – a spring-chicken for an actor really – but given the corner he’s boxed himself into I find it hard to see if people are ever going to let him play different (or should I say normal) again. Perhaps if he takes an extended break, he can come back refreshed, rejuvenated, and free. Because at the moment, even when he gets roles outside of the box, they’re either well-played, but still oddball (The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus), haunted by Jack or the Mad Hatter or Willy fucking Wonka, or they’re devoid of life, like the only way Depp knows how to play a character is through a bundle of tics and whoops and gurns and when he can’t do that he shuts down (step forward, Public Enemies).

Sad Hatter
I am moaning. Forgive me. Why am I even chatting this stuff, when you’ve heard it dozens of times, or even thought it yourself? Answer: the other night saw my first encounter with What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, a distant memory from almost twenty years ago. Watch some films from that era and it’s like a gallery of faded stars, actors who’ve slipped out of memory; this, though, is a veritable feast of people who’ve remained firmly in the public eye. It can only really function as an intriguing comparison point for Depp, though; Leonardo DiCaprio’s developmentally disabled Arnie is likely to be a singular character in any career, and the necessary playing of the interior life on the exterior existence is a far-cry from DiCaprio’s emotionally-stunted leading men of late. Juliette Lewis, meanwhile, has practically abandoned acting altogether, save for pay-day supporting roles and the odd Whip It; watching her generous, vivacious Becky here, it’s hard not to start mourning her too.

I digress. Gilbert Grape isn’t one of Depp’s crowning achievements, but what I want to celebrate is less the performance than what the choice of role allows for Depp’s performance. There’s an emotional perspicacity to Gilbert’s often trite ‘coming of age’ narrative, looseness to the character interactions that, somewhat ironically, means less movement – no tics or freewheeling exhibitionism, but a subtlety. Depp’s success here lies in the eyes, be it a momentary sexual spark with Mary Steenburgen’s Betty Carver or a mixture of rebellion and shame in his confrontations with the police. His vulnerability feels keen and real – the lack of confidence he has, which his enormous mother blasts into comparison when she hobbles into the police station to retrieve Arnie, resonates strongly as the sort of real outsiderness that Depp has lost the sense of in the past decade (which peaked, most beautifully, in Edward Scissorhands).

But there’s one thing in particular that I wanted to point out. What really typifies Tim Burton’s recent work (not to mention the mechanical Pirates trilogy) is how cold it feels – there is, if any, the barest connection to a recognisable human feeling. Depp’s Gilbert Grape is never effusively warm, but this reticence only makes the fraternal bond with Arnie, or the refreshed love for his mother, feel more honest, and more powerful, when they're foregrounded. Depp has lost himself in caricatures of emotions, and seems to have lost consciousness of the idea that a fantastical character doesn’t have to have to play emotions through unrecognisable expressions. I guess as long as the public repay him for these diminishing returns, we’re destined to lose sight of even more of Depp’s humanity, but Gilbert Grape reminds me that it existed, and I still see hints of it now and then. But what we need is them back in force.