Sunday, January 31, 2010

Impersonating versus Being

On film or on the stage, actors have always attempted to embody real people, many of them still living. The biggest challenge they face is being seen as only an impersonator as opposed to getting to the heart of the character. Jamie Foxx's dead-on take of Ray Charles earned him an Oscar, but he rarely rose above the tics, the raucous laughter of the beloved genius of soul. Some actors have pulled back a bit and infused their own personalities into famous personalities. The Australian actor Judy Davis has tackled three of the most famous personalities of the 20th century: Judy Garland, Nancy Reagan, and George Sand. With both Sand, Chopin's lover for 10 years, and Nancy Reagan, Davis doesn't attempt to look like them; instead she infuses her own strong personality into these women, therefore making them even larger than they may have been in real life. The most difficult attempt is to both look like the person as well as inhabit that person. As the adult Judy Garland in the television series based on her life, Davis has all of the star's mannerisms, both endearing and annoying, on display. But she digs deeper into the Garland mystique and her indomitable need to entertain, to please. Whether fighting her addictions or attempting another comeback, Davis' Garland is a creation of anguish but admirable spirit. Fortunately, Garland's recordings are used and synched perfectly with Davis' superb performance.

But perhaps the finest performance of a real person on film came with Marion Cotillard's creation of the legendary Edith Piaf. Again the original recordings are used. LA VIE EN ROSE is a traditional biographical filmed in France with English subtitles. What's amazing about this film is the total immersion of actress Cotillard into the difficult, unpredictable woman who remains France's most popular entertainer. She seems to have shrunk herself into "the little sparrow" at different times in her life. Piaf came from the streets and during her meteoric rise she suffered tragic romantic losses and became addicted to drugs. Cotillard embodies Piaf's sufferings with incredible sensitivity and shocking realism. One scene shows Piaf in rehab on the California coast. She looks almost deathly ill, her body shrunk to that of a waif, her hair falling out, her voice breaking. Like Garland, Piaf attempted to continue entertaining, as if her singing was her life's blood. When I saw Marion Cotillard on the Oscars, I was stunned. She is a radiant beauty, but, unlike some actors, she did not use a prosthetic nose (Nicole Kidman in THE HOURS) or radical make-up (Charlize Theron in MONSTER). She acted.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Finally...An Iraq Movie that connects

THE HURT LOCKER'S Director Kathryn Bigelow's harrowing account of the days and nights of bomb defusors in Iraq is one of the leading contenders for Oscar trophies for film, director, and screenplay, yet hardly anyone has seen it. Now that the DVD is out, you owe it to yourself to forget those blue creatures and George Clooney and watch a really great movie. Unlike earlier Iraq-based movies, THE HURT LOCKER doesn't take sides, doesn't push an agenda, doesn't bash Bush and his agenda; it simply and graphically takes us through the physical and emotional challenges of the men who defuse bombs under grave circumstances.

Jeremy Remmer, a James Cagney look-a-like and type, plays the best ofthese brave people, but he is also a man who puts his fellow soldiers' lives in greater danger, takes ridiculous risks, drinks and smokes to excess, and cannot face himself or his family at home. Remmer brings a perfect balance of swagger and insecurity to his role, and he is supported by strong actors like Ralph Fiennes and Guy Pearce in small roles. The film itself is episodic as we count down the days to the end of the group's mission. One bomb crisis after another, including one in the open desert, builds the film's tension as well as the body count. There are moving small moments as well, such as Remmer's friendship with an Iraqi boy. You know almost instinctively where this will end. In another mistaken good deed, an army psychiatrist loses his life because he wanted to find out what it was like "out there."

Using lots of hand-held camera shots, Bigelow lets us get close to the danger. Her best device is the subjective shot from Remmer's point of view. The viewer is inside the bomb defusor's protective outfit and can hear his breathing as he gets closer to his possible extinction. This is a film that is hard to watch but also difficult to forget.

Friday, January 15, 2010


One of the topics that most people don't want to talk about or face is death, their own or that of loved ones, but director Yojiro Takito has boldly made a sensitive yet entertaining film call appropriately DEPARTURES. The story involves a cellist who loses his gig in Tokyo and returns with his wife to his home in a small city. He takes a job as an assistant encoffiner and at first is repelled by his duties and the grief and sometimes ugly aspects of his job. But the more he watches his mentor, an aging encoffiner, and the gentle, respectful care he gives the families of the disceased, the more devoted he becomes to his new career. The Japanese ritual of encoffining before cremation is a highly stylized and beautiful one and it is repeated numerous times throughout the film, each time making a stronger impression on the young man, eventually his wife, and the audience. There are also themes concerning the young man's father and his desertion and the young couple's love threatened by his career choice.

DEPARTURES deservedly won the Oscar as Best Foreign Film of 2008. Its musical score is personal yet often sonorous and depends heavily on the cello, which happens to be the young man's instrument. The acting, writing, and directing are all of the highest
calibre. This is a film that entertains and moves the viewer, and in this age of nonsensical films like GI JOE and TRANSFORMERS II, it is one that deserves our attention.