Meryl Streep in The Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009)

There were better supporting actress turns this year, namely the females in Inglourious Basterds followed by the females in Up in the Air. Hell, there were even better Meryl Streep performances this year. However, we are honoring actressing at the margins today and while voice acting doesn’t fit the traditional definition of acting, it still requires creating a character. Animated characters can be given a new depth based solely on the intonation of the voice actor behind it.

Mrs. Fox is no exception. Meryl’s gentle soothing voice was the perfect complement to Clooney’s wily Mr. Fox. Mrs. Fox is a very typical female role — the supporting wife (this time, it just happens to be animated). You can tell from Meryl’s performance that Mrs. Fox has had to use a lot of patience over the years, but in spite of the repeated follies from her husband, there is still something magical in their marriage. Mrs. Fox is also fiercely maternal, a characteristic she puts to good use when she needs to protect her family. Throughout the truly fantastic cascade of events propagated by her husband, Mrs. Fox keeps a calm and Meryl controls her character from histrionics. Mrs. Fox keeps cool to stay in control while Mr. Fox tries to be cool and loses control. What is really remarkable is that the voice actors not only have to portray a character without body language, but they have to portray a Wes Anderson character without body language. The quirkiness of the stop-motion definitely helped, but it is a testament to Meryl and George (Clooney) that you can almost picture them in a live-action version of this movie.

*This post is a part of the Class of 2010 Supporting Actress Blogathon*

Top Ten of 2009

10. The Hurt Locker

This taut Iraqi war thriller uses very few special effects. Perhaps it is because it more a character drama than an action flick. Bigelow elevates what could have been a very standard film about defusing bombs by focusing on the motivations of the leader of the bomb defusing crew and the two supporting men with nuances of their own. What really propels this film beyond mediocrity, though, is the last two scenes with James in the supermarket and the monologue he delivers to his son. Simply haunting.

9. Fanboys

Coming of age, friendship, road trip, kitsch, blah blah blah. But really? Kristen bell in a Princess Leia bikini!

8. Avatar

The story is older than time to the point of trite. It is a Bush-era alien Pocahontas. Yet when the first floating pink flower starts swirling mid-air and flies out into the audience, none of that seems to matter. The fact that half the lines are clunky can be ignored when you are staring at a ten-foot tall blue creature speaking in a completely invented language with perfect human emotional nuances.

7. Up in the Air

I love airports, airplanes, flying, frequent flyer miles, etc. Ryan Bingham’s life is the life I want. Thus, I found the first 2/3 of this movie extremely fun and witty. The acting really gave it the extra zing of sitting in the front row of the theater an enjoyable experience. Although, I did not find the ending at all satisfying, I also recognize that I am supposed to be left disturbed. I am supposed to realize what Bingham realizes: life cannot be lived without making human connections. It is a hard lesson to learn at any age, but even harder at Bingham’s. Oh, also, the economy sucks.

6. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

This was my favorite book of the series. I have already come to accept that with the exception of Prisoner of Azkaban, the movies will never be as good as the books. However, HBP came very close. It was visually stunning; Yates captured the frolicking frivolity of adolescence and the ensuing “snogging”; the Dumbledore/Harry bond was well formed. But as is common in Harry Potter movies, the ending was botched. Instead of adding an unnecessary attack on the Weasley house, Yates should have kept the Battle at Hogwarts between the Death Eaters and the Order of the Phoenix. Without the battle, there was really no reason for Draco Malfoy to be working on the transporting chamber. Also, Harry should have been petrified during the last scene instead of watching dumbly as Dumbledore is attacked. Still, this was a great 2.5 hours at the movies in a series very close to my heart.

5. The Fantastic Mr. Fox

This was really the first Wes Anderson film I actually liked. And yes, you can absolutely tell that this is a Wes Anderson film. It’s got the whimsy, the snark and even the Jason Schwartzmann! The combination really works for animation.

4. I Love You, Man

People get too caught up with appreciating the serious movies. Sometimes, you need to just recognize a good bromantic comedy when you see one. Has Paul Rudd ever made a bad movie? And after Forgetting Sarah Marshall last year and continued success with How I Met Your Mother, Jason Segel is on a roll.

3. (500) Days of Summer

I loved that this movie took the romantic comedy genre and turned it upside down. It is a far more realistic representation of relationships as they happen and how they are interpreted by each sex. I have talked to both males and females about this movie and the reactions to who was responsible for the dissolution of the relationship and the following animosity differs drastically. Written by a male, this movie does skew slightly to the boy’s side, but is overall surprisingly balanced and enjoyable by both sexes. The chemistry between Gordon-Levitt and Deschanel is palpable.

2. Inglourious Basterds

Just like all his other films, if this screenplay were directed by anyone other than Tarantino, this movie would not have worked. Divided into chapters as usual, Tarantino tells the story of Nazi hunters and Jew hunters in occupied France. The largely European ensemble is fantastically delicious with Cristoph Waltz and Melanie Laurent leading as cat and mouse respectively. Waltz, especially, masters four languages throughout the film and steals every scene he is in. The restaurant scene between Hans Landa (Waltz) and Shoshanna Dreyfus (Laurent) is so tense that the audience collectively catches its breath along with Laurent when it is over.

My only gripe about this movie is the ridiculous ending. Although it makes no pretense of trying to be serious, there are elements that are unnecessarily sloppy and I am not even talking about the part where QT rewrites history. For example, was it necessary for Operation Kino to be a suicide mission? And should the Italian directors be surprised at how fortuitous this situation is that all the Germans are LOCKED in the BURNING cinema, both elements they had not anticipated? In fact, after killing the principles of the war, they could have just left the cinema and saved their own lives and let the fire consume all the extras. Finally, Landa’s last-minute switching of sides needed a bit more explanation. All in all, though, the film had all the elements that make me love Tarantino: revenge, dialogue, style and an ode to cinema history.

1. Up

How can animated characters be more emotional than human portrayals? You could ask Zoe Saldana further down on this list or you could just ask Pete Docter who made the best Pixar film so far, Up. Pixar has established itself as the company that can make animated kid’s movie where there is no central romance involved. Of all the Pixar movies this decade, more were about friends and family (Finding Nemo, Monster’s Inc, The Incredibles, etc.) than about the romances that permeated classic Disney 2D animation (from Sleeping Beauty to Pocahontas). Even more, Pixar has embraced the non-traditional family. In this case, it is the story of an Asian-American boy with an absent father and an old bitter man living alone and the family these two people unexpectedly create. I saw this movie twice and I sobbed like a baby both times, even when I knew what was coming. The relationships presented here are so genuine and so touching, that it is hard not to let yourself go. This movie is my #1 for redefining love, animation and most of all, adventure.

Up In The Air (2009)

Ryan Bingham is a “transition specialist,” a fancy corporate chess piece brought in to companies to fire employees when the boss cannot muster the decency to do it himself. He lives a life always on the move from airport to airport, surrounded by people, but unable to form a relationship with any of them. Bingham has lived the majority of his life with this lifestyle and has been content with it until two women come along and shake up his routine. One is the female version of himself and the other is his nightmare, a young woman essentially trying to eliminate his job. The first, Alex, gives Bingham a taste of what it means to see the same person more than once. The second, Natalie, exposes how callous he has become and perhaps there are things to be gained from softening up. Both open up the proverbial Pandora’s box.

SPOILERS:

Bingham was ignorantly bliss before these women came along and given the events of the third act, can you really say Bingham is a better person after meeting these two? Films do not always need a happy ending, but a dismal ending should be justified whether it is portraying harsh reality (as in Precious) or delivering a message (as in Atonement). Up In The Air is firmly a message piece since Bingham’s occupation is rather esoteric and not an accurate portrayal of reality. Indeed, the film is full of “messages,” but whether they are true or need to be told remains up for debate. Bingham does open himself up to pursue a relationship with Alex, but suffers quite severely from it. By the end, his life has come full circle: he continues to live airport to airport and remains single. The only difference is that at the end, he is unhappy with this situation. Surely, the pursuit of love requires vulnerability and the chance to get burned, but even then, the rejected comes out the other side with some amount of personal growth. In Bingham’s case, it is not clear that he has grown or learned something about life. In fact, the last scene shows a man that has grown weary of the game and has had the life force sucked out of him. He is not stronger and we have no idea if he will attempt to find another partner or if he will go back to a life of isolation. The tagline on the movie poster, claims that he is ready to make a connection, but it is unclear if he feels the same way by the end of the movie. On a larger scale, the audience is left to wonder if the suave, charming, fast-talking Bingham (played by an equally suave and charming George Clooney) cannot find love, then are the rest of us mortals doomed?

The other half of the plot in this film – the art of firing people – was more than just a plot device. Unlike the main plotline, the interludes of celebrity firings actually strengthened the film’s thesis that even under the most desperate circumstances, human interaction is craved. Whereas Bingham never required human connection for happiness, the people he fires do. They have families to support and children for whom to be role models and in a moment of personal tragedy, they need a real person to deliver the news rather than an email, a text or a virtual person 1,000 miles away. In his moment of personal tragedy, Bingham could have also used a human connection, but ironically, he could have avoided this tragedy if he had not put himself out at the mercy of another human.

Despite my dislike of the plot message, every other facet of this film was crafted with fine detail. The performances by Clooney, Vera Farmiga and Anna Kendrick were stellar. The dialogue was sharp and unforced. The directorial style was not flashy, just solid. I can see how some people are eager to throw end-of-the-year accolades at this film, but 2009 has produced stronger films with more creativity (Inglourious Basterds), more emotion (Up), and more hope (District 9).

An Education (2009)

poster_an_educationAn Education (2009)

Nick Hornby’s story would have worked far better as a short story than as a feature length movie. The screenplay was full of sharp dialogue and witty one-liners. However, much of the action in this story was internal within Jenny which could benefit from expository writing. The role of Jenny put a lot of pressure on Carey Mulligan to deliver a performance that could resonate the naive, wide-eyed precociousness and eventually the disillusionment Jenny felt. Mulligan achieves the former by being as cute as a button and giving an impassioned speech to the headmistress of her school, brilliantly played by Emma Thompson. As we sit, watching Jenny gloat about the excitement in her life, we cringe because we know how wrong she is (given that we are above a certain age) and yet we also wish she was right. By the end of the movie, the disillusioned Jenny says “I feel older, but not wiser.” Indeed, growing up, causes you to, for one reason or another, abandon your pipe dreams and exit the world of fancy. Likewise, being thrust out of the world of fancy ages you immediately. This may not make you wiser, because it only exposes all that you didn’t know before. However, part of education is acknowledging how little you know. Ironically, as one gets wiser, one feels less wise.

The final outcome cannot be blamed entirely on the petulance of youth, of course. It is the responsibility of parents to foster growth, maturity and aging without completely quashing one’s spirits. Jenny’s father, hilariously portrayed by Alfred Molina, had failed her in this regard, partly as a product of the times and partly because he was projecting his own desires and fancies onto Jenny.

The theme of fancy and impracticality run deep through the movie and are embodied by the merry group of friends consisting of Peter Sarsgaard, Dominic Cooper and Rosamund Pike. Nick Hornby, the screenwriter, is careful not to place all the blame on this lifestyle and even glamorizes it through to the end. The object of this film is not to judge the wild, fancy, free attitude but rather to point out its role in coming-of-age and reaching a certain level of education.

Indecent Proposal (1993)

Adrian Lyne is no stranger to exploring the morals of sex. He preceded Indecent Proposal with Nine ½ Weeks and Fatal Attraction and most recently made Unfaithful. In this film, Lyne introduces the premise that everything, including everyone, can be bought for the right price. The first hour of the film, leading up to the proposal, was very well directed. It moved at a clipping pace as all the pieces fell into place and the characters became developed. We learn of the immature foundation on which Diana and David Murphy got married, their hopes and dreams, and the volatility and intensity of their love.

Certainly, the plot swirled into foolishness several times in the first hour, but we the audience allow this because we know that otherwise we cannot reach the crux of the film – the proposal. We watch unbelievingly as Diana comes at David with a knife for leaving his clothes on the floor and his shoes on the table (who puts their shoes on the table?), but two seconds later they are on the floor undressed while David’s underpants are literally on fire on the stove. This impulsive juxtaposition of violence and sex seems to happen only in the movies, but we let it slide because it is “character development.” We watch more of the naïveté of youth unfold as the Murphys buy a plot of land to build their dream house completely on loans and then get hit by the recession. We watch in disbelief as they go to Vegas to make some quick cash and actually succeed. We watch with wide-open eyes as the two of them literally make love to the money they won on a cheap off-Strip motel waterbed. We shake our heads in further disbelief as they make $25,000, half of the amount they need to settle their mortgage and then decide to continue playing and squander everything. What is most confusing is that they won all their money on craps the first day, but then lost it all playing roulette the second day. Craps has the best odds at a casino if one knows how to play, which the Murphys obviously did since they won a boatload the first day, so why would they switch to roulette which was invented only to make money off people that did not know how to play the other games?

Enter John Gage, billionaire “poonhound.” He has his eyes on Diana in a very “Pretty Woman” way. He buys her a dress and asks to borrow her from David for good luck. Finally, the film reaches its climax as he offers David a cool $1 million in exchange with one night with his wife. The couple initially rebuffs the offer, but then accepts it. The aftermath is where the story falls apart and the audience develops vehemently different opinions on the characters.

Most people love to blame Diana for the decision and its aftermath, calling her a whore. If Diana is a whore for accepting money for sex, though, David is a pimp for selling his wife. When Gage first makes the offer to the couple, there is silence in the room and it is Diana who first tells Gage to go to Hell; David corroborates. Later in bed that night, neither one can sleep and Diana urges them to talk about the proposal. Others use that as evidence that Diana wanted to sleep with Gage more than David wanted her to. However, I do believe that Diana was not lying when she said she doesn’t want to sleep with Gage, but she would for their future. She is cold to Gage the night of the deal, avoids him judiciously after the deal and even lets him see her temper when she finds out that Gage bought the property on which David and she were building their dream home. In fact, Diana stayed true to the deal and treated the one night as sex and nothing more. The two men were responsible for breaking the rules. David demanded to know what happened that night, even after they specifically agreed not to talk about it. He egged Diana on until he got what he wanted to hear. The only way the proposal could work was if both parties really were able to keep emotion out of it, jealousy on David’s part and romance on Diana’s. It is up for debate whether Diana was truly able to keep her romantic emotions separate from the business transaction, but she tried to rebuff John Gage to the best of her ability.

When John Gage first made the proposal, he said that the price would be one million dollars for one night. He never mentioned that he would buy the property that was David and Diana’s dream house. He never mentioned that he would try to buy a house, specifically going to Diana’s real estate agency. He never mentioned that he would intrude upon the citizenship class she was teaching. From the beginning, Gage was dishonest and manipulative, making what he proposed to the couple to be a very different thing from what he was planning in his head. Furthermore, on the fateful night, Gage says to Diana, “If you were mine, I wouldn’t share you with anyone.” This statement is highly unfair as it compares David to Gage while they are certainly not on the same playing field.

One issue the movie does leave unclear is why exactly Diana ends up falling for Gage. After awkwardly making her show him houses for sale (even though he had no intention of buying anything) and then conning her into looking at his own house, he tells her this terrible, sappy story about not saying “Hi” to a girl on the train when he was a teenager. Apparently this mundane story is enough to win over Diana, a fact which many people use to support the claim that Diana was attracted to him from the beginning and simply needed the opportunity to go to him.

This movie posits if one can buy people and the answer is yes, if you look like Robert Redford. It was impossible to isolate the money from the rest of John Gage. If you have money, you can certainly buy opportunities, but it takes other qualities to make someone change their opinion about you. When Indecent Proposal came out, it was (unfairly) lambasted by critics and bestowed three Razzies, but the movie got the box office public talking and the money flowing. That money may not be able to buy real emotion or a change in critical reception, but it sure does help in establishing a spot in pop culture history.

The Lindsay Lohan Filmography: #1

Mean Girls (2004)

Although Lohan is not particularly known for her commitment to the set or her stringent dogma of method acting, she has been preparing her entire life for the role of Cady Heron. A previously cute young girl get a little fame and notoriety, rises to great heights by playing her cards right and then falls hard. Trade Cady’s calculus acumen for Lindsay’s acting chops, and you have yourself a perfect parable for Lohan’s life. Unfortunately, Lohan is stuck in the part of the movie where she and everyone around her are still running around like “homeschooled jungle freaks” and lying about who’s pushing drugs on whom. Lohan has been bit by a snake and she hasn’t yet figured out how to “suck the poison out.” If only real life could have a moment as cathartic as when Cady discovered that “the limit does not exist!”

Besides the questionability of how much Lohan actually acted in this movie, it was wildly entertaining mostly due to Tina Fey’s script and the deadpan line delivery of the SNL alumni. Still, this movie did catapult Lohan out of the virginal Disney quagmire and into her first adult film. She handled the comic timing perfectly and played both the good girl and the bad girl with ease.

I guess the reason why I love Mean Girls so much is that it is so damn quotable. It is this generation’s Heathers, but instead of “What’s your damage?” we get “That’s so fetch.” The Heathers undo each other while Veronica enjoys her partial outsider status and gains the upper hand. Same goes for the Plastics and Cady. Even in real life, Winona Ryder was slated to be the next big thing, worked with a few prolific directors like Scorcese, had a high profile scandal, fell from grace and then reappeared as Spock’s mother in Star Trek this year. Lohan, also destined for great things, worked with Robert Altman, went to rehab countless number of times, but refuses to go away so she cannot resurface as anything. At this point, Lohan looks so haggard that she could have gotten the role of Spock’s grandmother.

Apart from Lohan, Mean Girls was an accurate yet scathing review of life in American high schools. Fey managed to capture the cliquey nature of high school. The one thing she has exaggerated though, is the ubiquity of the Plastics. In normal high school, if you don’t live in girl world, you are not even aware that the Plastics exist. All the cliques overlap and they all share the same basic structure. People often make their own group of friends that they share something in common with and this gets miscategorized as a clique. Every clique has its own queen bee and it is quite possible for there to be no top clique. Too much emphasis was placed on making the Plastics special, but as the movie ended, it became evident that every group had their own mean girls and their own niche of drama.

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This concludes my survey of Lindsay Lohan’s filmography. There was her childhood cheesy phase, her young adult phase of interesting choices and her current phase of just plain disaster. Since the time this project started, Labor Pains came out and it was the nonsensical train wreck we were all hoping for. A review will be coming shortly, but until then I hope Lohan can lay low and whip herself back into form.

The Lindsay Lohan Filmography, Part III

7. I Know Who Killed Me (2007) SPOILERS FOLLOW (but if you have not seen it by now, I doubt you will seek it out)

Why isn’t this the lowest ranked movie on the list, you ask? It is the epitome of high camp without even trying to be and that folks, is quite impressive. This movie has it all: twins separated at birth, stigmata, color symbolism that hits you over the head with the force of a piano dropped from forty stories, creepy psychopaths, missing digits, good v. evil, rich v. poor, roses EVERYWHERE, and Lohan as a “dancer.” The screenwriter must have just gotten out of third period AP Literature and decided that he would try his hand at the art of symbolism, but then realized that people may not get it, so he would have to tone down the subtlety a little bit. The product is what one would get if one were to mix together The Bible + Law and Order: SVU + wealthy Renaissance artists’ love of indigo + a tiny dollop of Jerry Springer.

As if you needed more convincing about the brilliance of this film, allow me to point out that this is actually TWO Lohan performances in one. She gets the juicy roles of playing both Aubrey and Dakota. With those names, it is surprising they both didn’t end up as strippers. I am glad Aubrey got to grow up in privileged suburbia, so that we could witness the full range of Lohan’s skills as she goes from prim, intelligent schoolgirl Aubrey with her white blouse and black-framed glasses to trashy Dakota in her cherry red two-piece and heavy makeup. Perhaps this transformation is best exemplified when Dakota assumes Aubrey’s role and very loudly fornicates with Aubrey’s extremely chaste boyfriend. The uncomfortable face of Aubrey’s mother (played by Julia Ormond) listening from the kitchen below is fantastic. Most importantly, though, the film finally gave Lohan the opportunity to show her dedication to the craft by taking those pole-dancing lessons. Somehow, that does make the world a better place.

6. Bobby (2006)

This movie could have been brilliant; what went wrong? The main problem is that there were too many characters. The point of the film was to take a snapshot of the American political scene and more broadly the American pulse as shaped by Bobby Kennedy. That effect could have been accomplished with about half the characters that ended up being included.

Lohan’s character was actually one of the more interesting ones and Lohan showed great restraint and a real promise for being a dramatic actor. There was a glimmer of hope that Lohan could make it onto the A-list, especially after her co-stars raved about her. At this time, Lohan was a party girl, but when on set, she did her job with the utmost professionalism. She did the international award circuit and showed up looking like royalty at the Venice Film Festival. It was not until later that she hit her downward spiral. In any case, her role was one that actually should have been fleshed out as it left me sympathetic, but curious as to where life would take her next. It is certainly safe to say that Lohan is currently not a bankable lead actress, but she could still be quite good in supporting roles.

The other major problem with this film in general was the overt idealism it was trying to peddle. Bobby Kennedy, even though physically not in 99% of the scenes, was in every scene and he was a one-dimensional character. People watch movies for the conflicts, to see the resolution, to reconcile different viewpoints. Kennedy was painted in such a way that there was nothing to discuss after watching the movie. There was no point of contention. All the characters, despite coming from widely different backgrounds, felt exactly the same way. The film was well acted, but does it matter if no one bothers to remember it?

5. A Prairie Home Companion (2006)

I’d say this movie marks the height of Lohan’s fame. She had just come off of Mean Girls and a fantastic appearance on SNL when she began filming for PHC. Playing Meryl Streep’s daughter, she had to dye her hair blonde and with that came the drugs, the eating disorders and the beginning of her downfall. It has been four years, but Lohan finally dyed her hair back to her natural red, so hopefully this is the sign of an upswing.

In any case, Lohan plays the daughter of Streep and niece of Lily Tomlin. A lot of talent in that family if I may say so! This film was directed by Robert Altman, whose main forte is getting the actors to talk to each other rather than getting them to talk to the camera. I was curious to see what an acclaimed director could do with Lohan. More importantly, I was interested in how Lohan would compare to the rest of the venerable cast. Admittedly, she did not have the nuance or the off-the-cuff spontaneity needed for an Altman picture, but she held her own for the most part. Additionally, she was able to showcase her singing voice as part of the radio variety show. The most promising feature of PHC was proof that Lohan can take serious dramatic roles and handle them. Furthermore, she proved both on-screen and on the publicity tour that she is capable of taking advice from those that are far more experienced than her. PHC has often been compared to a homemade rhubarb pie and Lohan knows she’s not the center, but a contributory slice – a scrumptious slice at that!