Friday, April 28, 2006

Susie Diamond is forever

It may have come to some readers' attention that blogmate Nathaniel Rogers, over at The Film Experience, has a soft spot for Michelle Pfeiffer. He's kind of shy about this, is Nat. I really had to press him into coming out of the Pfeiffer closet this week, and, after an exhausting campaign of arm-twisting, I've managed to coerce him into organising a kind of Pfeiffer-awareness blogathon across the web today, largely as penance for what paltry coverage he's given the poor woman over the years. It's her birthday tomorrow, and she's got three new movies in production this year, and I really thought it was high time he made amends and gave her a bit of a shout out, basically.

Anyway, I jest. Nat is a Pfeiffer fan in the way that people are fans of eating, sleeping, breathing. And I like her too, very much. But there's one performance for me that towers over the Pfilmography and which I want to try and capture, just briefly. I can't imagine her ever topping her wonderful Susie Diamond in Steve Kloves's The Fabulous Baker Boys, and I don't know why she would ever need to, if the truth be told. The performance has just about everything: grace, ease, charm, wit, comic timing, magnificent allure, smoky singing, slinky moves on the piano and a totally assertive, screw-you independence. She should have won an Oscar for it. (Sorry, Jessica Tandy.)

Her breathy audition number, "More Than You Know", may be my favourite scene of an actor just standing there and singing in any film, but the architecture of that whole sequence is a perfect and incredibly generous showcase for her talents: the way she comes in, chewing gum and kind of cringing at the décor, after the Bridges brothers have just had that run of ear-splitting wannabe divas trying to belt out the showtunes. Pfeiffer's voice just melts out of her and holds you rapt. I love the close-up on Beau steepling his fingers and almost in tears. And then it's over, and she sort of steps out of the moment with a little, "Yeah, well...", and you settle in for the rest of a gloriously enjoyable and sexy movie. Others might single out "Makin' Whoopee", or the montage of the trio clambering up the hierarchy of Seattle nightspots, or the great cat-and-mouse seduction games with Jeff in the hotel suite, but it's that audition piece which pins me to my seat, every time. Can we request an encore, is what I want to know. Where's Susie Diamond now, after all?

Is she happy?

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Sunday, April 23, 2006

New Guest Oeuvre: Stanley Kubrick (see sidebar)

Nothing below a B—, two A+s. Nearly as good as it gets, I think.

Friday, April 21, 2006

The Gospel According to St Matthew

My word. Forgive the blaspheming, but it really is a f**king masterpiece. Magnolia had better prepare to drop off the old top 100...

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

New Guest Oeuvre: George A. Romero (see sidebar)

Really quite into this. Keep on commentin' on...

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Key Personnel: Sigourney Weaver

Veneration of all things Sigourney Weaver, probably my favourite American actress of the 1980s and 1990s, began on a first VHS viewing of Alien, was cemented by a follow-up experience of Aliens and then another and another, remained undiminished for every second of the criminally underrated Ghostbusters II (OK, I was 12), and had me looking forward to Alien³ as if Renée Maria Falconetti were returning to the role of Joan of Arc and intended to kick some serious ecclesiastical ass this time. Throughout that curious dirge of a sequel I found Weaver as riveting a presence as ever, so much more fearsome running down those prison corridors, somehow, than the alien itself, and so much more determined to claim the franchise as her own, to kill it off, even to resurrect it, six years later, on her own indomitable and fiery terms.

Alien³ is much more a Sigourney Weaver movie than it is a David Fincher movie or even an Alien movie, in a odd way, and for all its gaping flaws — wilfully ignored amid the inconceivable excitement of getting to see it, underage, with my dad at an industry preview screening about which my younger brothers were not at all happy — the film still strikes me as an important statement in its genre, a statement that was Weaver's to make and that she made with a self-sacrificial pride every bit as ballsy as the character deserved. If this series was going down, she was going down with it, basically. She's lacked hits ever since, unless we count the delightful Galaxy Quest (1999), in which she spoofed exactly the sort of role she'd refused to let Ellen Ripley ever become; I think she's extraordinary in Alien: Resurrection (1997), meanwhile, even when the movie's gloopily assaulting her with all manner of unwelcome bolted-on conceits and geeky Joss Whedon-ness. But her reign as the dominant feminist icon in late 20th-century blockbuster cinema appeared to be over, and I for one am still in mourning.

In between, I consoled myself by getting to grips with the other Weavers: bowled over by her sinewy dramatic work in Gorillas in the Mist, I forgave the movie every sin — it commits many — for allowing her to push Dian Fossey to the outer limits of audience sympathy and still make us feel the full, gutting force of tragedy at the end. Was this her, too, this smashingly strident comedienne Oscar-nominated in the same year for Working Girl? And then the fierce, bony empathy of Death and the Maiden, on which more below. Weaver's range as an actress has always impressed me enormously, and I think it's at least the equal of her Map of the World co-star Julianne Moore's; Weaver couldn't pull off the tiny emotional calibrations of a Safe, perhaps, but nor could I imagine Moore summoning the sheer fortitude, the regal poise, or the haughty, acidic outrage to do Weaver-like justice to any of the underlisted.

Five of the best:

1. Death and the Maiden (1994)

More tightly-wound and combustible than ever, Weaver stomps all over Polanski's somewhat dour film of Ariel Dorfman's play, which got a minuscule theatrical release in Britain and is still maddeningly hard to track down. Her Paulina is the whole point: damaged, dangerous, and so ferociously right that we bow our heads for doubting her sanity in the early going; that she can be this right and still this sadistic makes the second half all the queasier, and it's a performance that never for a second sentimentalises the unsightly psychological scars of victimhood or the savage, self-lacerating joy of revenge. Honestly, how an actress could have pulled out of the wreckage of Alien³ with more galvanic force and determination to prove her "serious" mettle, I couldn't say, or how one of the weakest Best Actress fields in Oscar history failed to clear space for work this sensational.

2. Aliens (1986)

Space was cleared here, on the other hand, in a "shock" genre nomination that was no shock to anyone who actually saw Aliens, which Weaver owns like a single mother owns a loudly squalling child: far more primally, that's to say, than any of her co-nominees owned their own dainty little femme-pics. Try wresting this movie away from her, just try. Ellen Ripley was suddenly not just worth rooting for but worth dying for — a magnificent bitch, a ball-breaker, an LGBTA icon to arm up with flamethrowers and go to the grave with. That "A"s for alien, by the way, as the slimy buggers seemed hardly any less smitten — an entire species dying to procreate with this one woman. They can get in line, right?

3. Gorillas in the Mist (1988)

Speaking of inter-species procreation, it gets worryingly intense in the forest glades of central Africa here, as Weaver's Fossey goes about forging a much more intimate bond with the apes than any of the token humans in her orbit, or Bryan Brown. It's the rare performance in a weak-ish biopic which is good enough on its own to make the movie worth going back to, again because of its obsessive, alienated quality, and because there's something unnervingly (poly)sexual in Fossey's very aloofness: check out the almost Darwinian contempt with which she dispatches her horny young assistants.

4. Alien: Resurrection (1997)

She's the saving grace here, of course, but way more than that: even as the movie's dissolving into gooey silliness, she gets big chances to take Ripley into fascinating new territory and plays them for all they're worth. Acid may be coursing through her veins, but I guess we always knew that; "I died", on the other hand, is a very Whedon punchline, but she delivers it with the kind of throwaway comic timing Sarah Michelle Gellar can only dream of. It's the scene in the cloning room (not the naff writhings of the finale) that really pushes the mythology forward a final notch, and golly if she doesn't make it genuinely potent and upsetting. All these half-formed Ripleys: what's left of her, even in this one? Weaver seemed to be asking the question.

5. The Ice Storm (1997)

All that overworked ice imagery and Joan Allen chipping away at the cube tray; but it's Weaver who wouldn't thaw under the Saharan sun here, and her Janey Carver is the movie's most resolutely hard and uncompromised creation, not to mention its best casting. She seems to steer miraculously clear of all the worst, most programmatic tendencies of James Schamus's screenplay; when I think of The Ice Storm, which is not that often, to be honest, I think of Weaver twirling car keys, and then the rest of a vague, complacent, underachieved movie being whipped into shape by her every appearance.

And one of the worst:

Imaginary Heroes (2004)

Here, she's sucked, unavoidably, into utter smugness. Dan Harris's movie is such a stale, self-congratulatory slice of Ordinary People-Lite picket-fence therapy drama that not even Weaver can burst through its grim lacquer. We'll move swiftly on from her truly embarrassing pot-smoking escapade in this, and hope for bigger and much better things around the corner. All hail Sigourney!

Monday, April 17, 2006

Guest Oeuvres

A new feature I'm going to stick in the sidebar: complete (or nearly complete) rated oeuvres of major filmmakers. I'll rotate them every week or so, and I'm starting with the Coen Bros. This is to prompt discussion, mainly, so do stick agreements/disagreements/your own lists/whatever in the comments sections...

Friday, April 14, 2006

It's the funny funny feeling down... in your heart

This is a junebug. And this is how much I like Junebug.

Bask in this, guys

I love my fellow blogthren. This is perhaps an uncharacteristic show of feeling — and I'll try not to mention a single movie while I'm at it — but there wouldn't be much point to this whole business if the people checking out this blog weren't such a thoroughly remarkable and, frankly, adorable bunch. I'd like, firstly, to thank the three pints of Kronenberg I just had down the street. I'd like to thank Nick, without whom this thing would simply not exist, and who is, as well as an unimprovable human being in just about every respect, my favourite thinker and writer, on films, books, and the whole thing, in the English language. Literally. I'd like to thank Webloge, who knows who she is (which is more than I do) and puts up with all manner of flatmate shit that would send most people screaming out into the London night. I'd like to thank Nat R for being so thoroughly generous with his time and wit, linking over to me from his genuinely stellar site, and all sorts of things. I'd like to thank David S for keeping at it and never being too shy to stick up for his opinions, which literally worry me coming from someone of his modest age: how've you seen all this stuff? Damion for having a terrific blog I fail to check out nearly as often as I should do, par 3182 for being the most brilliant ironist in the smallest space, Dr S for being so obviously marvellous (and 30 today! or is it yesterday already?), ginger for taking such articulate and thoughtful interest in everything I blog about, and all you relative newcomers like ali and goran and javierag and (hey!) mylo. And anyone else I've forgotten in my half-pissed state. Sorry! You all rock. I've no idea where this came from, but you still rock.

See Junebug, by the way.


Friday, April 07, 2006

Tristan + Isolde = King Arthur — (romance + excitement)

King Arthur — (romance + excitement) = — (romance + excitement)

You do ye olde math.

Monday, April 03, 2006

Be afraid... be very afraid

I haven't yet blogged about my favourite performance on the West End stage in the past year or so, and, as I walked past the poster for the umpteenth time on my way home tonight, I realised that it's about time. Anthony Page's revival of Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was nominated for a sheaf of Tonys on Broadway, but its single win was absolutely in the right place: Bill Irwin's George is breathtaking. He seems to seep onto the stage, this thin, grey man who you hardly reckon is going to stand a chance against Kathleen Turner's blowzy hurricane of a Martha, but there's something instantly deadly beneath his self-effacing urbanity, and an instinct for self-preservation — through the slow setting of traps, the maliciously delayed rolling out of the same old score-settling strategies — that you realise is, in a horrid kind of way, his life's work. There's such dry wit and intelligence to this performance, and yet such a vivid sense of a tragically shrivelled worldview: Irwin gives us a man who has somehow pinned himself inside his own smirking vocabulary. I loved the way he lets drop his punchlines — "That's just blood under the bridge" — with the faint but unmissable smugness of aperçus he's rehearsed to himself a million times over. I loved his gangly command of the stage, his slightly ghoulish rictus when there's a big point to be scored and he knows it. Irwin's face on the billboards never fails to elicit a smile from me, a shake of the head, and, a few paces further down the street, a shudder.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Shooting Dogs

Completing this week’s Michael Caton-Jones double-header, the BBC-funded Shooting Dogs couldn’t quite be called a feel-good Rwanda movie, but it’s a feel-better one, not so much bringing home the impact of genocide as framing it and sticking it tastefully on the wall. Where Hotel Rwanda and Sometimes in April had the dramatic heft to elicit, in their different degrees, the apposite feelings of helplessness and outrage, Shooting Dogs limits itself to displaying them; our white, Western audience identification figures aren’t sensibly off to the side here but up close, frontal and quivering. Imagine Cry Freedom with both lead roles played by Kevin Kline, or ponder again the ideological evasions of The Constant Gardener and The Interpreter, all part of this same worthy but unexacting genre of African apology cinema. Questioning our own desire to make a difference is all very well, except when it ends up dignifying the viewer with a capacity for heroic empathy more than it properly confronts us with the cost of our inattention; sober and sermonical, Shooting Dogs spends 90 minutes setting John Hurt’s weary priest up as a convenient martyr in white robes, lets Hugh Dancy’s idealistic teacher off the hook for at least trying, and culminates, egregiously, with forgiveness and something close to gratitude. C