Sunday, 31 May 2015

Alternate Best Actor 2007: Brad Pitt in The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford

Brad Pitt did not receive an Oscar nomination for portraying Jesse James in The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford.

I have to admit the first time I watched this film I was unsure about Brad Pitt in the role of the marked with death by title. I could not help but feel Viggo Mortensen was clearly the right choice for the part just look at the real photographs of the man to see why. Pitt's casting though does offer something that Viggo Mortensen does not have, for whatever reason, which is star power. Star power seems like an odd thing to factor in a film like this, or in a character driven performance like this. It does matter here in a most intriguing fashion. Brad Pitt plays the legendary Jesse James and the myth of the man is an essential facet of the film. Well in a way Pitt's a certified movie star sort in the way where it might difficult to precisely define what exactly creates the star quality which is also the case for the character of Jesse James. After all most of the public would not even see James, but some reason he's this larger than life figure that captivates the public's imagination despite being a criminal. Pitt's persona gives him quite the advantage here since James already is a star before we really even see him, since he's played by Brad Pitt.

Of course one should not act like it is too much of an intangible thing though since Pitt's work here goes beyond simply some intelligent casting. Pitt's performance also goes to make the legend himself. There are scenes that imagine the myth of Jesse particularly the opening scene where the narration describes Jesse as a figure of such magnitude. Pitt matches this in his manner that seems truly otherworldly as he looks into the sky as though he is above all of it. That scene is not seemingly within reality though but that is not the limit to Jesse as the figures of the dime novels, and the strange admiration of so many who hear about his exploits. The single robbery scene also seems to create this image as Jesse prepares to board the train, Pitt's movements are singular in the way every step again feels as though he is floating in the moment. It is an effortless quality that Pitt brings to Jesse when he does appear to be this figure. There are other moments throughout his performance where you see Pitt as this man. It is not overarching, he is not some demi-god or anything close to it, but Pitt allows that story to be told.

Jesse isn't quite that though as seen by one of the earliest scenes where Robert Ford (Casey Affleck) first comes to join the James gang in order to rob a train. Pitt's good in the scene because he does not make Jesse any sort of legend when he's shooting the breeze with his men, he's just a pretty normal fellow as he talks about nonsense with his men. There's even some warmth in this way as Pitt shows Jesse being someone who treats with his men, and there's a certain camaraderie. The camaraderie is not too strong though. There are also the mostly silent scenes where the film shows Jesse living with his family or interacting in the public with people other than members of his gang. Pitt is good in these scenes as he shows Jesse just as a fairly standard husband and father. Pitt plays it as though cares for his kids and his wife to be sure, but there is nothing notable about it, as though it is not enough to be content. This side of the man does not quite seem to break the image, rather just showing that there is more to him than that image, but that is not all there is to Jesse as seen through the train robbery. The robbery might begin in the fantasy of myth but it ends in reality.

Although the way he might board the train is that of the romantic hero, once he gets down to business Jesse is anything but. Even though he is mostly masked and we only see his eyes the real nature of Jesse is revealed by Pitt as he confronts the money man on the train. There is nothing pretty about what Pitt shows in this moment as he simply portrays a blunt brutality as Jesse beats down the men almost to death and is about to shoot him. There seems to be a bit of enjoyment in his eyes as he almost kills the man, and there's not a hint of remorse in his actions. It is perhaps Jesse at his most honest because Pitt puts such unnerving comfort into Jesse as he performs this violent act. With this Pitt shatters any idea that Jesse is far removed from the earth, rather he is much closer to a psychopathic thug. Any moment in which this side appears is quite chilling due to Pitt suggesting the ease Jesse has in this behavior as though it is truly him. Pitt is incredibly menacing in the role because he ensures that we keep this side of the man in mind. This acts especially effective in the scenes where Jesse interrogates some of his men. Pitt almost seems to encourage calm as he portrays Jesse almost looking through the man, but the fear is real as his propensity for violence never leaves his eyes.

Pitt creates a particularly interesting chemistry with Affleck. Ford, even though he will be the one to kill James, Ford is obsessed with James. Pitt's excellent in his way with Affleck, as he's not the modest celebrity trying to avoid the fame, nor does he the type who has contempt for his fan. Pitt rather expresses something quite fascinating in his performance, and takes no option as a celebrity might treat a fan, because Jesse knows his own celebrity is in a way false, with the man so entranced by him though Jesse must directly face the idea of his own image. Pitt plays it as though Jesse is almost entranced by back whenever Ford elaborates on his views of Jesse. It is not that he is entranced by Ford, but rather Pitt shows Jesse as a normal being able to see himself as something he is not. Of course neither can be entranced for long because reality must set in, and when Ford treats Jesse as man, Jesse does the same for Ford, as Pitt brings an open disdain towards him whenever it is clear Ford sees Jesse for what he is. This leaves Jesse to only see Ford for what he is just another man who might lead to his eventual downfall, which seems to be the only thing that awaits Jesse.

A mostly unstated idea in the film is where Jesse is in this point in his life. These are not the days of his rough riding around the county as the train robbery is the last robbery for his more level headed brother Frank, who knows that their way of life cannot continue. Although it is not stated openly Pitt exudes a certain discontent in Jesse as though he is simply unable to live without being an outlaw. Again it is not something focused upon but Pitt conveys this intensity in James, a quiet paranoia in him, as though nothing is safe to Jesse. Even though we are not given much of the efforts of the authorities to finally take him down, Pitt actually is able to show this simply through his performance as Jesse becomes more withdrawn as though the world is closing in around him. Pitt presents Jesse as staring into the void as death is all that seems to await him, and Pitt is haunting as he portrays Jesse as a man who knows sentence has already has been passed he's just waiting for the executioner. There rarely a moment of comfort as Pitt only continues to grow this despair that Jesse wears within him, and only moments where this seems to break are the sporadic violent outbursts. Pitt brings a desperation even in these though as though his psychopathic tendencies, his ability to instill fear in others, is one of the few things that keeps him alive. The assassination itself is made surprisingly heartbreaking by Pitt because he does not have Jesse going out like a hero, really even like a villain, or even with an ounce of surprise, rather he sadly has Jesse accept his death as the only way for him to be put out of his life of misery. I do have to say I suppose that there are a few lines where Pitt has slightly off delivery which is often the case with his performances. That does not diminish the power of this performance as the impact of it has grown every time I've re-watched the film. It's tremendous work that deserves mention right alongside Affleck's masterful performance.

Saturday, 30 May 2015

Alternate Best Actor 2007: Philip Seymour Hoffman in Before the Devil Knows You're Dead

Philip Seymour Hoffman did not receive an Oscar nomination for portraying Andy Hanson in Before the Devil Knows You're Dead.

Before the Devil Knows You're Dead is a worthy swan song for director Sidney Lumet, which tells the story of two brothers who decide to rob their own parents' jewelry store to solve their financial problems.

The younger brother is Hank (Ethan Hawke) whose problems are quite obvious to see right the surface with his icy relationship with his ex-wife as well as the way she constantly bothers him about child support payments, which he clearly cannot afford. In the early scenes it appears as though Hank is the screw up brother and Andy is the successful one with his apparently high paying job and trophy wife. Hoffman supports this with his performance in his early scenes with Hawke as he seems so stable and confidant compared to Hawke's Hank who wears his troubles on his sleeve. This even continues though when Andy first tells Hank about the idea to solve all of Hank's fiduciary troubles. Hoffman carries himself with a cool confidence, or at least it seems that way compared to Hank. Hoffman even builds up Andy a bit as seemingly a bit of a mastermind as he tells Hank about the jewelery robbery as though he's this career criminal who knows exactly what he's doing. Well it certainly seems this way and Hoffman makes it wholly believable that he would get Hank to go along with his odd plan.

There is more to Hank and Andy in these scenes then just the contrast in terms of their current mental states. Hoffman and Hawke are absolutely terrific in the chemistry they strike up in these scenes, even though the two technically are focused on the plan. What the two do so well is create the unsaid relationship with the brothers. They are not excessively warm together, nor is there a constant tension or anything like that either. There's nothing that simple about their relationship and that is what makes it so special. There is a bit of that old brother supportive quality that Hoffman brings even if it is not genuine per se, Hoffman just has that certain look he gives Hawke that an older brother gives to his kid brother, that's developed over their childhood. On top of that though I just like the casual quality in the way they speak to each other. Their ease, even when discussing serious matters, feels honest to brothers. I particularly love when Andy forces Hank to agree to the plan with his hands in the air to ensure he's not crossing his fingers, and in the way Hoffman asks it feels as though his scheme is just a childhood prank.

Of course it's not a prank although it seems so easy according to Andy who does seem so sure, except perhaps a brief moment where he says it needs to be soon. Hoffman does not let it out too much, as Andy would not want to do in front of Hank, but his own palatable insecurity is felt in the moment. There is far more to that though as we are given Andy's perspective leading up to the robbery. We have his home life with his wife (Marisa Tomei) where Hoffman keeps Andy's style as the successful businessman, but there's a hollowness in his interactions with her. Hoffman shows that he acts as he should, but it just never feels real. When he is alone there is something real though as Hoffman brings such terrible unease to Andy as he is in work, and hears about a company audit. This will uncover his embezzlement that he's been using for heroine, an element in this film that is even sadder in hindsight. Hoffman is harrowing in these scenes as he portrays Andy at his most honest. There is such a remarkable vulnerability as he reveals how sensitive the man truly is, but can only reveal himself to his uncaring drug dealer, since the dealer already knows him.

Well as shown in the very first scene of the film the robbery goes as wrong for the brothers as the robbery possibly could go since it results in neither of them getting the money as well as their mother being killed by the thug used by Hank to handle the robbery. Hoffman is heartbreaking as he shows just how torn Andy is over the guilt in causing his own mother's death, but again Hoffman only reveals this when Andy is alone. The death also forces Andy to face his relationship with his father (Albert Finney). Hoffman is very interesting as he brings a slightly different manner as Andy interacts with his father. He's brow beaten and meek as he speaks to him, with an official tone effectively alluding to the distant relationship. When his father apologizes for his treatment in the past this leads to Andy's only emotional breakdown in front of his wife. It's a fantastic scene for Hoffman as he only let's out so much yet so intensely as he suggest that his relationship with his father is one thing that he can't hide. Hoffman portrays the leak of emotion as especially powerful since Andy's always been trying to hold it in.

The botched robbery not only fails to fix Andy's problems but only creates more of them leaving Andy slowly growing worse. There is one great moment where Andy's wife reveals she's been having an affair, and Hoffman is downright brilliant. He does not breakdown, even after she tells him that it's Hank. This might seem an odd reaction in Hoffman's performance but it's not. Instead he plays it as letting one more problem seep underneath Andy's skin, as he still tries to maintain his position as the respectable man he has to be. It's all too much though and Hoffman is outstanding in the way he has Andy being ripped apart from within. In his eyes one can see every wear from his life, as Hoffman shows that Andy's calm facade is about to break. When it does finally break, in a final sequence where Andy takes insane measure to try to fix every problem, Hoffman is amazing. It's disconcerting as Hoffman portrays how Andy's over the edge now as he's completely overwhelmed to the point of madness. Hoffman earns this in how well he built to this but as well in the moment as Hoffman presents Andy as a mess. Hoffman is chilling though by creating such a danger in the violent emotions as Andy's plan involves several murders. Everything in Hoffman's performance reflects Andy's state as he stumbles around in a rage, and even the way he shoots the people carries such desperation. Hoffman is heartbreaking as he realizes a man falling apart. His rampage is finally put to a stop leaving in the hospital and one last scene with his father. Hoffman is surprisingly moving as he finally has Andy genuinely opening himself up to someone in his family, revealing the vulnerability that was always there, and the sad little man he had always been.

Thursday, 28 May 2015

Alternate Best Actor 2007: Cillian Murphy in Sunshine

Cillian Murphy did not receive an Oscar nomination for portraying Robert Capa in Sunshine.

Sunshine is a decent enough space thriller about a group of astronauts' attempts to restart the sun and save humanity, although have to say Danny Boyle really goes overboard in the last act with his directorial flourishes seemingly almost to make up for the first two thirds of the film which thankfully lack his usual kinetic approach.

Cillian Murphy plays the mission's physicist there to operate the giant bomb which will revive the sun. Sunshine takes a similar approach to Alien, although does not do it nearly as well, in that it attempts to portray the crew of this spacecraft of science fiction in a down to earth way. This means that Cillian Murphy's Robert is only just about the lead since he does have to most personal focus in the film, but the early scenes in particular gives a fair amount of time to the the characters besides Capa. There is an interesting dynamic found with Murphy as Robert since he almost seems to have someone else vying for the lead role with Chris Evans's Mace, who is kinda the Charlton Heston there almost there to be someone who we know exactly where he stands since he makes it abundantly clear himself. The former and future superhero though is not the lead, even if he might be in most films, here instead we get Murphy as the lead who perhaps is best known for playing the Scarecrow in Batman Begins.

This is not Murphy going against his assumed type as the villain thanks to his angular and often gaunt looking appearance, although Capa is not a villain here. Murphy though does seem out of place in a heroic crew, and this works as just a visual way to show his distance from the rest of the crew since he is not an astronaut by profession. He simply does not fit in and Murphy amplifies this all the more with his distance he creates in his interactions with the other crew. Murphy does not play this as though Robert is trying to purposefully be cold or unfriendly with them, rather he exudes a natural discomfort fitting for a man who has simply lived a different life than his current comrades. This helps establish Robert's position on the ship where he's not the captain, and in no way is looked upon as a superior by the other, but he is given final say on the most important matters due to his expertise. Murphy creates this interesting dynamic in quite an effective though understated way as he makes Robert a separate sort from the rest.

The early scenes due somewhat reduce Murphy role because of this though since he does not interact all that much, that is until it decided that they should take a drastic action to potentially ensure the success of the mission. The decision is given to Robert and he rather bluntly makes the decision, along with a few other decisions of similar gravity throughout the film. It's again an interesting take, certainly unusual for a lead character, as Murphy does bring the same sort of bluntness with his performance as he does not portray Robert really dwelling on them for more than a moment. It's a precision that Murphy suggests, but it does not feel as brutal as it feels though. Murphy does not play it as though Robert is some uncaring or evil man by any means. What Murphy does instead is play into the intelligence of his character, as he makes the decision Murphy always alludes to Robert's complete understanding of the mission that propels him to make his decision in such a fashion. It's unique because Murphy manages to avoid seeming cruel by successfully showing why Robert acts this way.

I suppose Murphy also eases this all the more through the scenes where we get Robert's personal view. Murphy is especially good in suggesting the internalized unease in Robert as they come closer to the mission. When things start to go awry Murphy gradually reveals these more outwardly, although he does well to show that Robert only reveals this when he's either alone, or the situation is intense enough that he can't hide it. Murphy's performance works in amplifying the various actions scenes through his honest portrayal of Robert's fear throughout these scenes. These work particularly well for Murphy as he shows that eve though Robert is a man who makes calculated decisions, he's still a normal man when it comes to the life or death situations in the story. Murphy is very moving by slowly losing that reserve and conveying what every loss does to Robert's emotionally. He keeps building this up until the final minutes of the film where Boyle's choice of excessive editing undercuts Murphy's performance. Even as it is obvious that Murphy is trying to do something emotional with the rather explosive finale, he simply can't because every one of his image gets spliced away every split second. The impact of his performance is severely diminished. Even with that underwhelming ending, which has nothing to do with Murphy's own work, this is still a fine performance.

Wednesday, 27 May 2015

Alternate Best Actor 2007: Casey Affleck in Gone Baby Gone

Casey Affleck did not receive an Oscar nomination for portraying Patrick Kenzie in Gone Baby Gone.

Gone Baby Gone is fairly strong directorial debut by Ben Affleck about a private investigator along with the police investigating a little girl's disappearance.

Affleck's brother Casey takes the leading role of Patrick Kenzie who works as an investigator for missing persons along with his girlfriend/partner Angie Gennaro (Michelle Monaghan). Patrick acts as our guide through the case of the missing little girl as he is hired on by the girl's aunt in order to explore all options in their attempt to find her. Patrick seems to be one of the least shady character considering the oddly volatile nature of the police he must work with as well as the girl's mother (Amy Ryan) who is more than a bit of a low life. Patrick is called upon though actually because he is able to try to derive information from the sort of criminal elements in Boston that the cops cannot even hope to approach. Affleck plays the early scenes of his performance well by just showing Patrick as a casual observer of the events. He sees what's going on TV, even makes fun of the cop's efforts, and Affleck is very good at showing that sort of concern you get from hearing a story like this on TV. He's moved by it to be sure as any normal person would be, but he carries that distance since he doesn't know those people.

Affleck uses this as a great starting point for his character as he takes on the case, and at first keeps himself as just doing something that seems routine. Affleck portrays Patrick's demeanor at first as a detective just processing the case for himself in an intelligent fashion. Even when Angie is clearly becoming quickly emotional at the prospect of what could happen to that girl, Affleck keeps as rather calm and collected. After the preliminaries are finished though Patrick takes his unique approach to finding the truth which means visiting more than dank pits. Although Patrick is allowed in these places and even allowed to speak for more than a moment there is always a tense atmosphere as the people he speaks to have much to hide. Affleck has a bit of a challenge in these scenes since he has to be the investigator who gets to the information from these people, even though he's not exactly a Popeye Doyle kinda figure. Although Affleck is obviously not physically imposing, he kinda works with here. In the speaking Affleck keeps Patrick's manner as about cordial as he can be while keeping an underlying intensity as though he might snap and that he's not a man to be pushed around.

Although the film keeps a tight focus on progressing the plot through investigation Affleck does well to realize Patrick as a character, and you understand him even though the film never stops simply to explore something about him. Affleck through seemingly minor moments of the investigation alludes to perhaps a bit of a darker past in Patrick as well through the side found in his his particular method of interrogation both in the way he gets rough, but as well is so comfortable in speaking with known criminals. Affleck shows where Patrick comes from as he wears his way with the town as an essential part of him. In addition to finding the character with the investigation it is Affleck who often brings the most dramatic weight to it. Affleck does begin with that distance in much of the early investigation, but as the trail becomes murkier this gradually changes. Affleck is particularly good in his scenes with Ryan as she reveals the mother to be a terrible mother but one who still cares about her daughter. Affleck is very effective in the way he delicately grows Patrick's empathy for in turn becoming more emotionally attached to the case.

Affleck makes every progression of the story hit harder through his honest reflection of what it does to Patrick's reserve especially at one point where it appears the case has been lost. Affleck's handles the changes in Patrick particularly well as he shows him as a man becoming hardened by the developments. This leads to one scene where he goes along with the cops to raid the home of known drug addicts and a pedophile. Affleck is terrific in the scene as Patrick takes an extreme action. The action could have seemed too much for Patrick to suddenly to something of this gravity, but Affleck is absolutely convincing in the scene. This is partially in that underlying intensity that Affleck gradually built up in the proceeding scenes, but also he brings out the severity of the scene through his gut wrenching reaction within the moment. Affleck though does not suddenly just make Patrick this hard man though, as that would be against the nature of the character he has created up until this point. Affleck is very good in having that moment where Patrick seems to look back on what he has done, and shows how that this action will haunt him for probably the rest of his life.

The last act of the film reveals a twist, that technically is established as well as it probably could be, but on re-watch it is a bit hard to swallow. Nevertheless it's not a complete failure through moral dilemma that it creates in doing the right thing as normal or at least legal morality dictates, or doing the thing that appears would be best for the person in the center of the question. The decision falls upon Patrick and in turn Affleck's performance is once again essential in bringing out the power of the story. Affleck brings the needed passion as Patrick makes his decision. He gives a complete understanding on his side by showing that Patrick's empathy for the victim, and determination to do what is right is unshakable at this point. Affleck does not keep it simple of just being right, the difficult of it is in his voice and his eyes, but so is the conviction of his beliefs. Of course we see the result of the decision and gives Affleck one final scene in seeing a non too favorable outcome for this decision which changed many lives permanently. Affleck's final reaction is flawless as he presents Patrick as almost in a bit of a daze unable to know for sure that he made the wrong decision, but also unable to be sure he made the right one.

Sunday, 24 May 2015

Alternate Best Actor 2007: Joaquin Phoenix in We Own the Night

Joaquin Phoenix did not receive an Oscar nomination for portraying Robert 'Bobby' Green in We Own the Night.

We Own the Night tells the story of a night club manager who finds himself in the center of a conflict between the police, including his brother and father, and the mob.

We Own the Night is one of those films that is not particularly bad, but it just fails to become anything special for the most part. The part of the film that seems trying to hardest to break out of this mediocrity is Joaquin Phoenix as Bobby Green the "bad" brother in a police family. Of course Bobby is not really a bad man he just happens to not be a star Captain in the police force like his brother Joe (Mark Wahlberg) or a deputy police chief like his father (Robert Duvall). Bobby's not a criminal himself, but in his position as a night club manager he does associate himself with many shady figures. Bobby also does not seem to spend his time in the most "noble" of pursuits as lives his life of pleasure with his girlfriend Amada (Eva Mendes) in and around the night club. Phoenix is good here simply by playing the part in a straight forward fashion. Bobby does not really hate his family or love crime or anything like that really through Phoenix's performance. Phoenix instead presents Bobby as just enjoying his life in seemingly a harmless enough way, even if the people he must interact with can be a bit questionable.

Phoenix is very good in his early scenes with Duvall and Wahlberg, because he does not play them as though Bobby does not have any real animosity towards them even though they make it well known that they are very disapproving of his life style. Phoenix shows Bobby as almost kind of just shrugging off this disapproval with laughter, although Phoenix does well to quietly allude to Bobby being actually hurt by this within his uncaring facade. The relationship does take a greater strain when Joe raids Bobby's club, and the police even harass and arrest him along with some Russian mobsters. Phoenix again is very good in portraying Bobby's anger very bluntly over his mistreatment by both the police and his brother. He's particularly good in the scene where he directly confronts Joe about it because although Phoenix maintains an honest indignation there is just touch of juvenile disdain. This might seem odd, but what Phoenix does in the scene is show the history between the two in the fight, as there is something informal about the hatred in the moment fitting for feuding brothers who still had a close childhood together.

Bobby is soon forced to make a choice after those Russian mobsters almost succeed in killing Joe and soon afterwards remark that they intend to kill Bobby's father next. Phoenix is very moving in the scene where he reacts to hearing about Joe being shot, as he succeeds in naturally revealing that even with the feuding Bobby never stopped being part of the family for a moment. This change could have seemed sudden but Phoenix in those earlier scenes so artfully planted the connection even when he was setting up the distance between them. Bobby chooses to help his family any way possible, even if it means putting his own life on the line to bring them down. Again this could have easily seemed to sudden but Phoenix just established Bobby's relationship with them so well, even though the writing was even fairly sparse, that it works. I especially love the scene where the brothers' father recognizes that he's done Bobby wrong, and they finally make amends. Phoenix and Duvall are terrific together as they find this earned warmth between the two as you feel the hardship that brought them to this point, along with the happiness of the two reconnecting.

The film sort of goes on a bit of an autopilot action revenge sort of thriller at this point, and does not do that all that well. Phoenix is forced into the position of running through these scenes at a very brisk pace without too much time to reflect on what it is that he's gone through. Luckily Phoenix does not lose his step within the film, and manages to convey Bobby's personal arc even within the mechanisms of the plot. Phoenix alludes to the old life a bit in the moments with Mendes, as Amada does not care for Bobby's new life which is basically hiding out from potential mob hits. Phoenix is great in these little scenes because he realizes the powerful longing in Bobby, not for his old party lifestyle, just a longing to be able to live a normal life with woman he loves. Phoenix is also surprisingly good in growing the relationship between Bobby and his family. Even with Mark Wahlberg being pretty underwhelming on his side of things, Phoenix manages to make something out the brothers finally coming together. With Duvall, who's considerably better than Wahlberg, Phoenix reveals such a genuine love between father and son.

The last act involves a great loss and the attempt to avenge that loss. Again not handled in a way that's anything remarkable, but Phoenix once again does so well to amplify whatever is to be found within the scenes. He makes the loss heartbreaking through what he established in the proceedings scenes, and quite simply through his gut wrenching reaction in the moment. On the seeing justice done side of things, I actually like how Phoenix plays it close to the chest here, and does not make Bobby suddenly a Punisher type figure. Phoenix keeps it honest to his character portraying an intense but subdued drive fitting for a normal man being pushed into a life that he never intended for himself. Phoenix is very effective though in still bringing out the palatable emotions of hatred but also sadness as he exacts justice for what has been done to his family. This is a very good performance by Phoenix as he manages to take the sometimes lacking material and keep it compelling. As Joaquin Phoenix characters go this is technically speaking a fairly straightforward one, but he never takes that as an excuse to be underwhelming here. He does not get lost in the plot as he always keeps the human element alive in the film by keeping the emotional core of the story alive through his remarkable portrayal.

Friday, 22 May 2015

Alternate Best Actor 2007: Christian Bale in Rescue Dawn

Christian Bale did not receive an Oscar nomination for portraying Dieter Dengler in Rescue Dawn.

Rescue Dawn is an effective film depicting the attempt to escape from pow camp during the Vietnam war.

I might as well get the negative out of the way first. Bale plays Dieter Dengler as German born American citizen who has joined the air force. Bale plays the role with an American accent, which he does well, but the real Dengler still had a German accent. Now I try not to be overly punitive towards accents, as they shouldn't make or break a performance all on their own. Here it just happens to be a bit more noticeable since his German background is frequently mentioned and they even go so far as to call him the Kraut in the prison camp. It's somewhat distracting that he does not at all seem German given how it is mentioned, and an good German accent would helped to further distinguish Dieter from the other prisoners. With that out of the way, let's take a look at the real meat of his performance. The film opens with Dieter being briefed for his secretive combat mission in Laos along with his comrades. Although I do like the film a great deal there is something odd about these early scenes, and the final scenes, in that director Werner Herzog handles them in such a vastly different tone than the main section of the film.

These scenes seem from a different film, a very different kind of war movie, which is kinda lighthearted. It is hard to tell if Herzog is just uncomfortable out of the discomfort of the jungle, or this was purposefully done to show just how different the world can be depending on your situation. Either way Bale's performance is also fairly light here. Bale is not an actor with a natural charm, but in these scenes he makes Dieter just a likable enough guy as he jokes around and prepares for his mission along with his friends. The fun does not last very long though as Dieter is shot down during the mission and left to try to find his way back in the wilderness. This is where Bale excels as he portrays Dieter's trying to survive while attempting to avoid being captured by roaming patrols. Bale is terrific here in realizing the moment in his performance in terms of reflecting the way the crash shatters the certain confidence he had in the lighthearted scenes as he becomes a man bent on survival above else. Bale does very well to make every moment as he recovers from the crash, and attempts to find something feel genuine. He gives the needed truth to environment through his reactions to what is around him.

Dieter is quickly captured though leaving him at the hands of some cruel men, who almost use him as a prop for awhile. Bale's very good here as he brings a certain manic intensity to Dieter, and shows the fear of the man being unable to know what his captors are saying while being unable to communicate with them himself. There is one especially powerful moment where the guards casually take a pot shot at him, and Bale delivers the extreme terror that grips Dieter as he screams at them never to do that again. Eventually Dieter is asked to sign a propaganda statement against the United States. It's a relatively short scene, but one that Bale uses to further Dieter's character. As Dieter explains he was in no way looking for war Bale delivers this statement with certain exasperation. Not towards the present condition, but rather towards his past acknowledging the war torn country he was born in at the time. When he is pressed to sign though Dieter refuses and its a great moment for Bale. Bale does not make it an overly passionate statement against his captor, but rather quietly states his reasons and turns him down. Bale though in this matter of fact delivery though does reflect an earnest pride that Dieter has for his adopted country.

Eventually Dengler is brought to a camp with other prisoners, and Bale is rather affecting in just a short moment where he portrays such excitement at finally seeing a friendly face in another prisoner. After being in solitary briefly he is allowed to interact with the others, and I suppose I should not complain too much about the accent to distinguish Dieter from the others, since Bale does that so well with the rest of his performance. While the other men are all at one level or another of suffering, and some developing a bit of madness, Bale stands out by showing how Dieter is different. Dieter firstly is not nearly as beat up, although Bale does gradually develop his own wear as well. Bale though keeps an enthusiasm in Dieter as he plays it as Dieter never becomes oppressed by the camp, rather taking the condition of the other men as a motivation for his escape. Interestingly though Bale though kinda brings his own madness, but that of a different kind. His madness is that of the dreamer, as Bale shows Dieter's head still seems in the skies a bit, where he most wants to be out of anywhere, which seems to help inspire him to always be working towards his plan.  

Bale sets Dieter aside from the others, finding well kinda the excitement of the escape as he figures one new idea to help initiate the plan. Bale though does not keep Dengler at a distance though and does naturally create a camaraderie with the other men particularly Duane (Steve Zahn). There's a warmth Bale realizes with him, and even a little with almost all of the other men, even one guard, in low key but poignant manner. The escape is a success, in terms of getting out of the camp, but it in many ways goes wrong as only Dieter and Duane go off together in the jungle. Bale is outstanding in these scenes as he also begins to lose heart and Bale plays it as though it starts to become harder for him to try to encourage Duane to go on. Bale is especially good whenever Dieter fails to flag down American helicopters as he shows just how devastated Dieter is every time they ignore him, and in one case even try to kill him. Both men are brought to the point that they take the risk and try to find help from villagers which costs Duane his life. In the final scenes until his rescue Bale is outstanding as he shows Dieter at his end. Although, as usual for Bale, he depicts Dieter physically at his end about as realistically as one probably can, more pivotal is his depiction of Dieter final mental state. Bale's stare is that of a man almost lost in his mind now as he goes through the motions of survival, having lost the enthusiasm of the escape, and is heartbreaking by realizing how the loss of Duane has left him. When he is rescued the film returns to that other tone, but I would not say Bale does. Bale does his best to sell the almost excessively inspirational ending. He certainly presents the overpowering relief and happiness fitting for a man who has gone through Dieter's ordeal, but the real power comes from Bale having brought Dieter through all of it from his crash, through every horror of the camp and the jungle, to his final deliverance.

Wednesday, 20 May 2015

Alternate Best Actor 2007: Chris Cooper in Breach

Chris Cooper did not receive an Oscar nomination for portraying Robert Hanssen in Breach.

Breach is a film bolstered by the interesting nature of the true story it is based on, although it perhaps relies on a bit too many cliches in its dramatization, as well as suffers from an inadequate lead performance by Ryan Phillippe as Eric O'Neill. The man trying to find the evidence needed to convict an F.B.I. agent who has been spying for Russia.

Chris Cooper plays the man Robert Hanssen who were are first introduced to after Eric has been assigned to monitor him while initially only being told that Hanssen is a sexual deviant. Hanssen first makes his entrance as essentially the ultimate ball buster, he even literally threatens Eric with such an act when Eric fails to covertly exit Hanssen's office. Cooper makes everything you'd want Hanssen in this regard as in the office scenes he carries a constant intensity, as though he hates everything about the job, and seems to hate most everything. Cooper is particularly successful in realizes the unabashed nature of Hanssen's attitude towards people. There is not a hint of respect in Cooper's eyes dresses down Eric on their first meeting, and it seems as though he might be ready to start beating the man at any moment. Although Hanssen never does physically accost Eric during the film, that initial threat is made authentic through Cooper's performance.

What Cooper does is carry a realistic menace through the man, because he so effectively gets across the style of a man who is best described as a hard ass. It should be noted that Cooper makes much of the film simply through his performance. Cooper is indeed quite entertaining here in portraying just how crude and cruel Hanssen personal manner can be. Cooper though enjoyable does not overplay his hand in this regard to the point of making Hanssen a caricature of this sort of man. That's not the case as Cooper always manages to attach this behavior with something deeper within Hanssen. In his most overt behavior Cooper does seem to allude a certain effort in Hanssen's behavior. This is not that it is false, the rage towards certain things in life and at work are all too real, but it is more than would be natural for a man. Cooper portrays it partially an specific act of Hanssen attempting to hold some sort of dominance as he sees himself in a lower position, but just as much a instinctual behavior brought upon by the same sort of treatment from his father.

Cooper's performance simply as the ultimate hard ass is quite fascinating as even in this he creates a certain duplicity as he shows the man's behavior as both authentic and artificial. Cooper splices in a third facet into Hanssen's anger which is oddly enough fear. Cooper brings an undercurrent of vulnerability even within his very commanding presence. Cooper alludes with this a subtle paranoia into Hanssen's personality suggesting that he is partially aware of the forces closing in around him, but not fully to the point that he can be sure of it. Cooper builds upon this especially well through the progress of the film as the investigation closes closer in on Hanssen, and his falls seems almost inevitible. Although I'd say the film overplays this a tad in giving a little too explosive of a scene, where Hanssen interrogates Eric at gunpoint about his suspicions. Even if the scene is perhaps slightly excessive Cooper is on mark in portraying Hanssen near the end of his breaking point, as he presents that the paranoia finally overwhelms the rest of his personality.

That is not all there is to Cooper's performance though and one of the most remarkable elements of his work here is that he manages to make Hanssen likable to a certain extent. There is a charisma Cooper realizes through the personality of this man who seems to have such strong convictions. When Hanssen speaks of his religion there is a genuine enthusiasm Cooper brings to the subject, even if there is a certain pompousness at times towards it as well, Cooper manages to make Hanssen a virtuous man, even though he is not in reality one. Cooper even exudes just a bit of warmth in the moments where Hanssen attempts to encourage Eric's own faith, earning it to the point that he does portray Hanssen's faith real though horribly hypocritical. His less appealing beliefs are not sugar coated after all, and Hanssen's double life is all too real. Cooper manages to make Eric's initial respect for him completely believable thought by creating the appeal of this man who appears to do things his own way without exception, the problem being that this is too true.

Hanssen is of course the spy as well as even the sexual deviant who makes his own sex tapes without his wife's knowledge. The film never quite gives us the worst side of Hanssen because it rarely leaves Eric's perspective, and the most we get is a flashback montage of Hanssen's illicit activities. Cooper does not seem limited by this, as his performance allows one to see the evil within the man's public personality. There is always a certain darkness that Cooper suggests is in the man, so whenever something is revealed it does not seem odd at all. What Cooper does so well is suggest Hanssen to basically be a mess of a man who happens to carry himself in a precise way. Much of his life is illogical, but that's merely because it's his way always his way, which is what Cooper always suggests is Hanssen's greatest passion. Even in capture Cooper effectively keeps Hanssen as the same sort of man. He portrays his surrender as a quiet resignation, but still carries a certain pride in himself as he attempts to try to boast about having it his way. Cooper though is particularly moving in his final short moment where he shows a despondent Hanssen who has finally suffered from the weight of reality. It's a strong performance that manages to elevate the material and Cooper always remains compelling even when the film falters.

Tuesday, 19 May 2015

Alternate Best Actor 2007: James McAvoy in Atonement

James McAvoy did not receive an Oscar nomination, despite being nominated for a Golden Globe and a Bafta, for portraying Robbie Turner in Atonement.

Atonement is about a pair of star crossed lovers separated by a lie told by one of their sisters just before and then during World War II.

James McAvoy plays the character quite fitting for a romance novel of apparently almost any quality. That of course being the poor son of a housekeeper who works for the rich family the Tallises at whose estate the first act of the film takes place in. McAvoy kinda goes about playing this up in his interactions with the youngest Tallis, Briony (Saoirse Ronan). McAvoy attempts to project the charm of the easy going lad who does not hold perhaps the pretensions of the wealthier people. I can't say McAvoy wholly succeeds in this regard having a skeevy quality in Robbie, that perhaps could have been intentional, but I don't think quite works with the films intentions. If it only came across this way in the scenes from Briony's perspective I think that could have perhaps worked quite well in terms of creating her delusion, but the problem is McAvoy plays the part in the same exact way when we are given the "true" perspective during his interactions with Briony's older sister Cecilia (Keira Knightley).

McAvoy plays the role the same way as he does not strike up a particularly sizzling chemistry with Knightley in their scenes together, even though that's very much the point in the scenes set in the mansion. The actions take place to show that they have this repressed desire for one another, but it is not effectively shown by either actor. It more of occurs and that's all there is to it. It's suppose to be even more than lust as well, even though the lust is already missing. There is something unusually distant about them in their scenes together and they never bring the power the romance needs to sustain the film frankly. Now it could be the point that remains very proper and very British, but I won't allow that point as the affections can be known even in a reserved way for example the affair in Brief Encounter, which I believe was the sort of film Atonement was attempting to be like. I will be fair I don't think they are terrible together, or anything close to that, but they fail to realize the crux of the film which is quite problematic.

The film eventually moves away from the mansion as Robbie must go into the military due to having been imprisoned for a crime he did not commit. The film proceeds to show Robbie's time in occupied France as he witnesses a few horrors while making his way to Dunkirk for evacuation. The film keeps the dialogue very to the point focusing mainly on McAvoy's reactions to the various things that he encounters before it seems he's going to be rescued and reunited with Cecilia. Well I can't say that there is anything that notable about what McAvoy does in these scenes. He's there, he's not bad, but he does not make any scene come to life by making that human connection within it. He's mainly just there in the scene, and really much of the time he could just as likely be an extra in the scenes since he does not create any emotional journey for Robbie even if it seems there should be one. Like the film McAvoy's work never seems obviously wrong, but fails to make the story truly vivid.

Much of the film Robbie is perhaps used to much as the sort of image of character in a British prestige picture, but not a real character. The most emotionally volatile moments we get from the character are when he directly must speak about his wrongful imprisonment. In these scenes McAvoy breaks down as one would expect Robbie should and portrays his intense anger and despair of his predicament, but it feels like the Macbethian sound and fury which signifies nothing. There is an oddly lifeless quality to the emotions as again there is an odd distance and disconnect in McAvoy's performance left Robbie's story something I did not care about in the least, which I doubt was the film's intention. When his fate is revealed it should be a devastating moment, but instead feels just like a matter of fact revelation. I don't hate this performance but as a romantic lead there's a distinct lack of charm or warmth you'd imagine from this sort, and as a portrait of a man's suffering it stays oddly cold.

Saturday, 16 May 2015

Alternate Best Actor 2007

And the Nominees Were Not:

Brad Pitt in The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford

Joaquin Phoenix in We Own the Night

Chris Cooper in Breach

Cillian Murphy in Sunshine

Lau Ching Wan in Mad Detective

Predict Those Five or These Five:

Casey Affleck in Gone Baby Gone

Philip Seymour Hoffman in Before the Devil Knows You're Dead

Christian Bale in Rescue Dawn

James McAvoy in Atonement

John C. Reilly in Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story

Or both. 

Friday, 15 May 2015

Alternate Best Supporting Actor 1936: Results

5. Frank Morgan in The Great Ziegfeld - Morgan strikes up an entertaining and eventually moving dynamic with William Powell as a similarly sarcastic showman.

Best Scene: The final scene. 
4. James Stewart in After the Thin Man - Stewart is charming in his usual way, which makes it all the more effective when he subverts that in the film's final revelation.

Best Scene: All the suspects meet.
3. Louis Jouvet in The Lower Depths - Jouvet gives an endearing portrayal of a rich man's transition into becoming one of the poor.

Best Scene: The baron meets the thief.
2. Humphrey Bogart in The Petrified Forest - Bogart gives a strong performance that creates the menace needed for his big time bank robber, but also carries a palatable anguish reflecting the man's view of life.

Best Scene: His entrance into the diner.
1. Peter Lorre in Secret Agent - Lorre easily gives the most memorable supporting performance of this year giving a fittingly absurd portrayal of an absurd assassin. Bringing to life the flamboyant nature of the part in an entertaining way, while still realizing the chilling nature of the character in a most effective fashion.

Best Scene: The General finds out he killed the wrong man. 
Overall Rank:
  1. Peter Lorre in Secret Agent
  2. Humphrey Bogart in The Petrified Forest
  3. Louis Jouvet in The Lower Depths
  4. James Stewart in After the Thin Man
  5. Frank Morgan in The Great Ziegfeld
  6. Walter Brennan in Come and Get It
  7. Eugene Pallette in My Man Godfrey 
  8. John Carradine in The Prisoner of Shark Island
  9. Robert Young in Secret Agent
  10. Claude Rains in Anthony Adverse
  11. Roger Livesey in Rembrandt
  12. William Frawley in The General Died At Dawn
  13. Nigel Bruce in The Charge of the Light Brigade
  14. Robert Le Vigan in The Lower Depths
  15. Henry Stephenson Little Lord Fauntleroy
  16. Joel McCrea in Come and Get It
  17. Donald Crisp in The Charge of the Light Brigade
  18. Vladimir Sokoloff in The Lower Depths
  19. George Zucco in After the Thin Man
  20. Bela Lugosi in The Invisible Ray
  21. Sam Levene in After the Thin Man
  22. Spencer Tracy in San Francisco
  23. Elisha Cook Jr. in Pigskin Parade
  24. Harry Carey in The Prisoner of Shark Island
  25. Basil Rathbone in Romeo and Juliet
  26. Joseph Calleia in After The Thin Man
  27. David Niven in The Charge of the Light Brigade
  28. Paul Lukas in After The Thin Man
  29. James Burke in Great Guy
  30. Henry Daniell in Camille
  31. David Niven in Dodsworth
  32. J. Carrol Naish in The Charge of the Light Brigade
  33. Ralph Richardson in The Man Who Could Work Miracles
  34. Guy Kibbee in Little Ford Fauntleroy
  35. Rex O'Malley in Camille
  36. Nigel Bruce in The Trail of the Lonesome Pine
  37. Randolph Scott in Follow the Fleet
  38. Charles Carson in Secret Agent
  39. Ernest Thesiger in The Man Who Could Work Miracles
  40. George Bancroft in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town
  41. Victor Moore in Swing Time
  42. Mickey Rooney in Little Lord Fauntleroy
  43. Desmond Tester in Sabotage
  44. Percy Marmont in Secret Agent
  45. Walter Brennan in Fury
  46. Lionel Barrymore in Camille
  47. Lionel Stander in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town
  48. Walter Abel in Fury
  49. Akim Tamiroff in The General Died At Dawn
  50. Edward Ellis in Fury
  51. Fred Stone in The Trail of the Lonesome Pine
  52. Akim Tamiroff in Anthony Adverse 
  53. Herbert Lomas in Rembrandt
  54. John Barrymore in Romeo and Juliet 
  55. Dick Foran in The Petrified Forest
  56. Stuart Erwin in Pigskin Parade
  57. Mischa Auer in My Man Godfrey
  58. Frank Albertson in Fury 
  59. Frank Lawton in The Invisible Ray
  60. Patric Knowles in The Charge of Light Brigade
  61. Andy Divine in Romeo and Juliet 
  62. George Walcott in Fury
  63. Robert Barrat in The Trail of the Lonesome Pine
  64. Dudley Digges in The General Died At Dawn
  65. Dave O'Brien in Reefer Madness
  66. Josef Forte in Reefer Madness
Next Year: 2007 Lead

Alternate Best Supporting Actor 1936: Frank Morgan in The Great Ziegfeld

Frank Morgan did not receive an Oscar nomination for portraying Jack Billings in The Great Ziegfeld.

The Great Ziegfeld is an overblown biographical film about Florenz Ziegfeld (William Powell) the producer of various stage shows.

The first third of The Great Ziegfeld works considerably better than much of the film as it tightens its focus on the actual character of Florenz Ziegfield, mostly through rivalry with Jack Billings played by Morgan. The film opens with the two of them hosting rival shows at the World's Fair, and acting directly against each other as they each try to hype their shows to the public, with Billings being the more successful initially. Morgan works well as an opponent for Powell here. Firstly he, like Powell, is certainly good at being the showman trying to get his crowd to watch his show over the other. He works with Powell well because they have a similar style in terms of their screen presence. Both often carry this certain jovial quality about themselves yet with a certain acerbic twinge, although Powell's is perhaps a bit stronger in that regard. Morgan though stands his own with Powell and the two are rather enjoyable together in creating the rivalry between the two. Their similar manner actually works particularly well in creating the friendly rivalry as they both project a certain charm whenever they interact though at the same time they do carry a certain deviousness.

As the film progresses it is often Ziegfeld getting the better of Billings one way or another, and eventually he kinda defeats Billings so to speak when Billings has to settle for a lower position than the Great Ziegfeld. Morgan though still makes his appearances as for whatever reason Ziegfeld is always running by a new idea with Billings in the room. Morgan continues to be entertaining in portraying basically the exasperation of Billings with every defeat, but does well to eventually transform it to more of a bemusement as he just knows what Ziegfeld is up to even when it does not even concern him personally. Now the film's problems come in the form of its endless musical numbers which loses too often the story of Ziegfeld himself. A good comparison is Yankee Doodle Dandy, which is isn't a perfect itself, but it did not stretch the numbers out to three hours, and more importantly the central character was actually part of it. Here Ziegfeld is lost in his own movie oddly, forgetting his rivalry with Billings almost entirely and does not really regain his footing until he's about to die. The film reverts back to Billings and Ziegfeld in the final scene of the film. Morgan and Powell are both rather moving in the last scene as they look upon the rivalry with nostalgia. Morgan is especially heartwarming as he tries to cheer Ziegfeld up by saying they should do one more show. It works because Morgan manages to create the friendship with Powell, even if the film did its best to diminish it by losing the personal touch. Morgan gives a good performance which frankly helps to illustrate what was wrong with the movie.