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14 actors I really dig

There’s a bit of a meme going on in Swedish film blogging circles. The idea is simple: list your seven favorite male and female actors. I’m participating too, although loosely. I’m not saying these are my very favorites, as that tends to change from day to day and I might have forgotten someone. These are, however, seven men and seven women whose work I really enjoy, either because they constantly deliver great performances, or because they possess some hard-to-define quality that makes my brain happily go “ding!” whenever I spot their names on a cast list.

First, some honorable mentions…

Kevin Spacey: Had I written this post 10 years ago, he’d be a shoo-in for sure. Alas, he hasn’t had many truly great roles lately.
Kirsten Dunst: She has been underrated ever since she lit up the screen in Interview with the Vampire in 1994, and only recently has she started getting the critical acclaim she deserves.
Al Pacino: Another one whose heyday is behind him, Pacino has tons of maniacally energetic performances on his CV.
Rosario Dawson: Effortlessly charming, possibly the hottest woman on this planet, and probably with her best work still ahead of her.
Jason Statham: The bona fide action star of the millennium.
Ellen Page: At 25 years of age, she has already amassed a number of impressive lead and supporting roles. What does the future hold for her?

On to the list proper. This is in randomly generated order.

MV5BMTMzODkzOTU4OV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwMzU0ODE5NA@@._V1._SX640_SY920_Catherine Keener

When I watch Keener play one of her evil characters, I can not imagine here ever being good. When I watch her play one of her good characters, I can not imagine her ever being evil. Her impressive range is perhaps her strongest quality and she has proven to only get better with age. When she got her first Oscar nomination for playing manipulative seductress Maxine in Being John Malkovich, she was already 40 years old. Since then – and before – she has kept putting in affecting performances no matter how small or large a part she plays.

3 great performances
Living in Oblivion – pulling off the difficult task of acting like you’re acting, both badly and well.
Being John Malkovich – toying with John Cusack with equal measures of bitchy and funny.
An American Crime – playing one of the most despicable abusive mothers in recent history.

Anthony_Hopkins_0001Anthony Hopkins

While there is a lot to be said for physical transformations and chameleon actors who are nigh-unrecognizable from one film to the next, perhaps even more impressive is someone like Hopkins. He always looks more or less the same, and yet he disappears into roles like few others. A master of mannerisms, body language, and voice, Hopkins portrays clearly defined characters utterly convincingly. Never one to turn down a paycheck, he appears in many films that might not make full use of his talents, but you will never see him slumming it or sleep-walking through a role. Hopkins always delivers.

3 great performances
The Silence of the Lambs – somehow making a mere 16 minutes of screen time into the one thing people associate the film with.
The Remains of the Day – redefining “emotionally restrained”.
The World’s Fastest Indian – completely inhabiting a man jovially dead-set on accomplishing his dream.

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Posted by on 18 January, 2013 in Misc.

 

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Rewatch Review – Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead

This was a film that I absolutely owed a rewatch. The first time I saw Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead was a few years ago, and the circumstances were less than ideal. I was with two friends who didn’t like it at all and found it boring, and they wouldn’t shut up about it. Eventually, I just gave up on trying to focus on the film and we just started babbling about other things. I gave the film a low mark as a result, justifying it with “it failed to hold my attention”. While this is true, this is obviously not something that should be placed on the movie’s shoulders. When I thought about it a while ago, I realized I didn’t remember anything about the film itself other than the circumstances around seeing it. People seem to have a lot of love for it though, so it went onto my rental list. I’m glad I gave it another shot.

Told in a non-chronological order, the film uses a botched robbery as its real kick-off point. A masked guy threatens the elderly shopkeeper (Rosemary Harris) with a gun, but the end result is both of them shooting each other. At this point in the film, we are not aware of who these people are. It’s soon revealed that the robbery was the brainchild of a corporate accountant named Andy (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who soon enlisted his weak-willed brother Hank (Ethan Hawke) to help him do the deed. Both are in urgent need of money: Andy to cover up his embezzling at work, Hank just to pay the rent and provide good living for his daughter. It was meant to be nice and simple: no guns, no bloodshed, no victims (the diamonds were all insured). As we now know, this is not how things turned out.

This is a wise crime film in that it deals with ordinary people who are forced to deal with the fallout of a heist gone awry. They’re plagued by guilt over the people who died, they have to look after their distressed father (Albert Finney) who had ties to the store, and all the problems the robbery was supposed to take care of still remain. Andy was planning a vacation to Rio de Janeiro to liven up his strained marriage to Gina (Marisa Tomei), but now that’s out the window and the auditors at work are fast closing in on him. He also has a heroin addiction that needs feeding. Meanwhile, Hank is struggling to just get through the day financially, something not alleviated by him now being blackmailed by a man (Michael Shannon) who seems to know about his involvement in the robbery.

Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead is made by Sidney Lumet, highly acclaimed director of films such as 12 Angry Men, Network and Dog Day Afternoon. It was to be the last film he directed before he died in April this year. It’s a strong note to end a career on, even if not everything in the movie fully works. Perhaps my chief complaint is how little is done with the non-chronological structure. The opening robbery where we’re not sure what’s going on is effective, but apart from that, the constant back-and-forth jumping in time adds little to the film. This is a story that could have been told more straight-forwardly and still accomplish everything it needs to. The shifts in time and perspective are accompanied by flashing cuts and noise that distracts from the characters’ lives. Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead is many things, but seamless is not one of them. But it’s a fun story to behold no matter how it’s presented. It’s clear to see how one event leads to another and how the situation slowly but surely spirals out of control. This is a character-driven film free from contrived plot developments, and debuting screenwriter Kelly Masterson deserves a lot of praise for his work here.

Philip Seymour Hoffman is one of my favorite actors working today, and he doesn’t disappoint here. His character Andy feels the most fleshed out of the main players, swaying from jovial smooth-talker to stressed-out volcano with ease. As he inches closer to the deep end, we’re with him every step of the way. Ethan Hawke also does a fine job as the easily manipulated Hank, more overtly nervous than his brother. It’s a role that doesn’t necessarily play to his strengths (to me Hawke shines in roles that put him in more ordinary situations like Before Sunset/Sunrise, Reality Bites and Fast Food Nation), but he pulls off a solid performance here. Albert Finney brings a weighty presence to the role as the father, really bursting with energy in a couple of choice scenes. And then there’s Marisa Tomei, constantly getting better with each passing year, here doing the most of what limited screentime she has and nailing every second of it.

So yeah, I liked this movie. More than on my first watch, understandably, almost to the point where I wonder how any of us could have been bored with it. While there’s little extraordinary about the film, it’s a tight story where we’re clearly aware of the characters’ motives and reasonings throughout even when they’re not spelled out explicitly. I do wish the film could have provided a stronger sense of urgency at times. It feels a bit too methodical and distant at times, and some more tension would have been welcome. Regardless, it’s a well-acted film with a compelling story. Others have liked it more than me, so if it sounds appealing to you, don’t hesitate to check it out.

Score: 3/5

 
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Posted by on 6 October, 2011 in Reviews, Rewatch Reviews

 

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Rewatch Review – The Wrestler (2008)

As I mentioned yesterday in my review of Up in the Air, awards season is weird in the ways it can influence how you view movies. I went back and glanced through a bunch of reviews for Darren Aronofsky‘s The Wrestler just now, and all anyone could talk about at the time was leading actor Mickey Rourke. Rourke is brilliant, Rourke’s career mirrors that of his character, Rourke makes a triumphant comeback, Rourke will win the Oscar, Rourke this, Rourke that. When it was time for me to sit down and watch the film, it became impossible to separate Rourke’s performance from the movie. And Rourke was brilliant, so the movie was brilliant too. I called it my favorite film of 2008 at the time.

While my adoration for the film is dampened a little bit as I watch it for a second time, my appreciation for Rourke’s performance is anything but. He plays Randy “The Ram” Robinson, a professional wrestler who was a big star in the 80s, selling out Madison Square Garden. That was a long time ago, though. Now he’s old and washed up, his body’s broken down and he’s wrestling in small gyms in front of crowds barely scratching triple digits. The money from his heydays is long gone. He lives alone in a trailer, takes odd jobs where he can find them and spends his free time at the local strip club. He seems to enjoy doing what he does and takes things in stride, but when a health issue suddenly pops up and doctors tell him it’s time to retire lest he risks permanent injury or death, he’s forced to reevaluate his life. If he can’t fill his life with wrestling, he doesn’t want to be alone anymore. One particular stripper named Cassidy (Marisa Tomei) seems a possibility for a romantic relationship, and there’s also his daughter Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood) who he tries to get back in touch with after having neglected her during most of her life.

There are certainly similarities between the careers of Mickey Rourke and Randy The Ram, but focusing on that too much is to do a disservice to what a transformative performance this is. This is one of those turns where the actor fully becomes the character. We’re not seeing Mickey Rourke in this film. We’re seeing The Ram from the word go, as he sits quietly in a dressing room preparing for a match, as he marches to the ring basking in the crowd’s approval, as he puts his body through immense physical punishment because it’s all he knows and all he wants to do. The only time when Rourke shines through and I become aware that he’s acting is during an emotional talk with his daughter, but that is one brief scene and the illusion is soon restored. This is the actor’s finest performance to date that I’ve seen.

When you look past said performance, you find a fairly straight-forward and familiar story. The estranged daughter is a character and subplot we’ve seen many times before, and stripper Cassidy isn’t far removed from your standard hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold (Tomei still puts in a great performance, I should point out). Their presence here makes sense, as many old pro wrestling stars can attest too (for more on the subject, check out Barry W. Blaustein‘s fascinating documentary Beyond the Mat), but we still know who these characters are and what role they’ll play in Randy’s story from when we first see them. While The Wrestler is more of a character study than a plot-driven drama, I would still have liked something a bit more fresh underneath the no doubt unique facade of a serious wrestling film.

This was Aronofsky’s fourth feature film. His first three (Pi, Requiem for a Dream and The Fountain) were heavily stylized and harrowing mindscrews. The Wrestler is thus a radical departure from his signature style, as he instead wisely opts for a realistic tone more suited for the material. There’s more of a hands-off approach at work here, just shooting to see how a scene goes with no storyboarding to map things out. The result is a markedly different film from Aronofsky’s usual fare. His next film Black Swan would see a return to his normal style, but The Wrestler stands as testament to his versatility as a director. He can make great movies in different ways. If you didn’t know it was him, you’d have a hard time guessing that this film is the work of the man who made the vibrant thread-twisting The Fountain.

But just because the film is somewhat austere in its tone and visuals doesn’t mean the emotions are. As familiar as the plot may be, it’s still a very gripping tale being told. Mickey Rourke is indeed the film. His haggard face tells the whole story, both when he struggles to form bonds with the people around him and when he’s going through physical anguish in the ring. Had he not done such a teriffic job, the whole movie could have ended up a slight footnote in Aronofsky’s filmography. But Rourke is game here, and it’s only a shame that he hasn’t shown the same fire since.

Score: 4/5

 
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Posted by on 10 September, 2011 in Reviews, Rewatch Reviews

 

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15 great movies from the 2000’s you probably haven’t seen

If you’re anything like me, you’re always on the lookout for more films to add to your already-too-large list of movies to watch. However, if you’re anything like me, you’re also very active in your pursuit. You read forum threads, blogs, critics lists of great films and so on. You’re already aware of most of the big blockbusters, most of the year’s critical darlings and everything inbetween. Finding new stuff gets harder and harder. Everybody knows of The Dark Knight. All but the most casual moviewatchers know of Memento. And while the average Joe might not be the slightest bit aware of foreign films like Oldboy or American indies like Winter’s Bone, a movie nut like you already saw them a long time ago. Twice. They’re hardly obscure among film fanatics.

But then there are the films that nobody ever talks about. The casual movie watcher never heard of them. The movie nuts skimmed them over. The critics reviewed them and forgot about them a month later. They rarely if ever pop up in online discussions, or blog posts, or anywhere.

And yet they’re movies I found myself really enjoying for various reasons. So if you’re looking for more movies to add to your watch list, you could do a hell of a lot worse than these 15 films from the past decade.

CASHBACK (Sean Ellis, 2006)

After a bad break-up, art student Ben (Sean Biggerstaff) suffers from insomnia. Not knowing what to do with all his extra free-time, he takes a nightshift job at a supermarket where he discovers he can freeze time at will.

Cashback is a delightfully funny British comedy. Ben’s new co-workers is a colorful bunch that all get their shots at providing laughs, whether it’s his overbearing boss, the kung fu expert or the juvenile slackers. The time-stopping thing mentioned above is not a gimmick the movie uses to base all its jokes and plot around. Rather, it provides time for Ben to reflect on how he views the world, his situation and the women around him. There’s plenty of monologues and flashbacks to flesh out his character, which makes for a nice counterpoint to the movie’s more humorous side. Also featured is a fairly touching romance developing between him and co-worker Sharon (Emilia Fox), as well as plenty of gratuitous nudity. So there’s something for everyone!

THE RULES OF ATTRACTION (Roger Avary, 2002)

Here’s another comedy, but one very different from the humor Cashback provides. The Rules of Attraction follows a couple of college students as they embark on various short-lived romances. Bisexual Paul (Ian Somerhalder) is attracted to bad boy Sean (James Van Der Beek), who’s pursuing the virgin Lauren (Shannyn Sossamon), who’s saving herself for Victor (Kip Pardue), who’s on a crazy vacation to Europe, and so on. But while there’s plenty of sex and partying going on, this is not your typical college sex comedy. This is comedy of the black kind, where every joke is punctuated with the despair and lack of direction that’s plaguing its protagonists’ generation. The characters are not likeable, but then they were never meant to be. It’s the second part of that sentence that differs The Rules of Attraction from most post-American Pie films in its genre.

The film is based on a novel of the same name, penned by American Psycho author Bret Easton Ellis. The book (featuring a very rambling and at times incohorent tone and multiple narrators, none of them reliable)  is one that you’d never think could work as a movie when you read it. Director Roger Avary (co-writer of Pulp Fiction) magically pulls it off, though. Highlighting the comedy yet never losing sight of the darkness, he comes up with plenty of clever and unusual solutions on how to present the haphazardly compiled events of the plot. It’s a captivating and isolated world we get to visit, one that will probably make you laugh as much as it makes you feel filthy.

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Posted by on 7 August, 2011 in Lists

 

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