Tag archive for "best actress"

Criticism, Oscar Race

Office Politics Gone Wild: Why you must see ‘Two Days, One Night’

No Comments 30 December 2014

Two Days One Night
Naturalistic and probing, in Two Days, One Night, Belgian brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne (The Kid with a Bike) tell an apparently simple, linear story with astonishing depth. Recovering from depression, wife and mother Sandra (Marion Cotillard) returns to work at a solar panel factory after sick leave. Once there, she discovers that her bosses have made her co-workers a Sophie’s Choice: take a thousand Euro bonus and lay-off Sandra, or save Sandra and sacrifice the cash.

It’s not surprising that Sandra’s colleagues choose the bonus over their colleague’s needs. But, when management allows a last-minute recount, Sandra’s husband Manu (Fabrizio Rongione) urges her to visit each and every individual to plead her case. This reluctant quest — a married mother on the verge of a second nervous breakdown travelling door-to-door over two days and one night — opens up a working class world to the audience. We see into the lives of the others from the factory and their impact on the sobbing Sandra.

Oscar-winner Cotillard (Ma Vie en Rose) portrays Sandra in jeans and a tank top, bra straps showing, hair clutched uncombed in a pony-tail; far more unkempt than the actress who plays her, who is the face of Lady Dior handbags. As Sandra, Cotillard’s walk rides low in her hips, she pops Xanax and, defeated, she retreats to her bed where she lies in a fetal position under the duvet. But none of this is overwrought. She melds perfectly in the Dardennes’ matter-of-fact style; the first true star these Belgian brothers have cast as a lead.

[Related: TIFF Critic’s Pick: ‘Two Days, One Night]

Cotillard has become one of my favorite actresses. Whether in high-gloss blockbuster mode in The Dark Knight Rises or period perfect in The Immigrant, she works from a very quiet core. Her characters always have a life beyond the screen, a before and after. These women don’t ask you for permission, they compel you to watch. The biggest emotions register in tiny gestures.

While Sandra’s struggle and transformation is central to Two Days, One Night, the drama is less a star vehicle than an ethical exploration. Do you leave your morals at the door when you clock in? You may treat your family humanely at home, but the actions taken in pursuit of a paycheck also define your character. In reality, what you do at work is as much who you are as your private identity. In this competitive economy of layoffs and job insecurity, that certainly is cause for reflection, whether you’re American or Belgian

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Celebrity, Movies, Oscar Race

Q&A: Cate Blanchett Sniffs ‘Blue Jasmine’ – and Oscar

No Comments 19 February 2014

In honor of the Oscars on March 2, I’m pulling up some of my Awards Season interviews, like this one of Oscar frontrunner Cate Blanchett: Between performing in "The Maids," and dining with her three sons, Cate Blanchett, 44, could be mistaken for another multi-tasking mother, struggling to juggle career and family. But in Blanchett’s case, the load also includes the burdens of being an early Oscar frontrunner – again – this time for playing the title character of Woody Allen’s latest, "Blue Jasmine." In this film, Blanchett plays a New York socialite forced to move in with sister in San Francisco after her shyster husband’s financial empire collapses. Blanchett’s character is a tragicomic cross between Blanche Dubois from "A Streetcar Named Desire," a character she played at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 2009; the wife of Bernie Madoff; and yet another fluttery, neurotic chip off the Allen mold.
How much of Jasmine really is Blanche? I sat there waiting for Bobby Cannavale’s character to rip off this T-Shirt and ravage her. (He never does.) "Streetcar" was a while ago, there was never any discussion with Woody about that at all. Obviously, there are parallels in the set-up. Jasmine is a grand character and she’s deluded. Also, the fact that Jasmine has difficulty navigating the fine line between reality and fantasy, the world is too horrifying and her social shame, that’s something that she and Blanche share. But the way this story unfolds is very contemporary. It has the rhythm and tone of a Woody film. To try to overlay one character over the other would be futile.
Jasmine is so thin-skinned and emotionally porous; did you take the character home with you? My children were in town with me and they weren’t interested in meeting Jasmine at the dinner table. You have to shed one thing and move on. When the character is so well-drawn and her set of experiences is so entirely different form your own, the leap is easier. Still, there is a certain feeling and texture that overhangs. I love San Francisco as a city, but I was psychologically ready to go to New York for happier days.

RELATED: ‘Blue Jasmine’ Premiere

There’s already Oscar buzz for your performance: do you take that in stride? Oscar? That’s nice but there are a lot of movies coming out. My focus has been the production of "The Maids" in Australia. Not long after I talk to you I’m going to get in my pajamas and see my children.
You have three sons with your husband, the playwright and director Andrew Upton. Do you try to shelter your children from your career, or immerse them in your world? We don’t quarantine them from what we do. Andrew and I run a theater company. They’re backstage. It’s a fun place, full of play and adventure. They also see the hard work that goes into the production department and see the commitment. They watch the set being bumped in. They see the hard work behind the outward glitz of it all. They don’t see just the product, they see the process. I think that’s interesting and they enjoy it.

RELATED: First Person: How the Diceman threw Drama for the Woodman

Did that carry over to the set of "Blue Jasmine?"

You look at all of Woody’s films: there’s a chemistry about the ensemble. The kids see it’s never just one person. Everybody has to be on, including the cinematographer and the focus puller. It’s a communal focus.

Even though it’s an ensemble, this is a movie, like "Annie Hall," with a woman’s name in the title. It revolves around your character and her complexities. Jasmine’s like so many women who’ve fallen from grace. Hopefully I’ve presented her warts and all. Hopefully, in the end, her naiveté and how deluded she is humanizes her. There’s no malice, there’s just an incredible amount of pain, damage and delusion. Still, it’s not all heavy. Just look at the sister’s names: Ginger and Jasmine sound like a Thai restaurant.

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Criticism, Movies, Oscar Race

“Gravity” Lost in Hollywood Space

234 Comments 15 September 2013

Bullock: Ground Control Where the Hell is Major Tom?

Bullock: Ground Control Where the Hell is Major Tom?

Hope for the best, don’t expect the worst. It’s my movie criticism mantra, but as the lights darkened at the Princess of Wales Theater for “Gravity’s” Canadian gala, already hailed as a masterpiece following a Venice Film Festival Premiere, it wasn’t just the fact that I was way up in the rafters wearing 3-D glasses over my already thick specs that was making me queasy. Early on, watching the oh, wow, visuals and the echoey emptiness of what it must be like to be doing routine maintenance in space (I so wanted “Pink Floyd”), I became bothered by narrative claustrophobia. Can one smell bullshit in space?

Despite all the gravity of Alfonso Cuaron’s 3-D space chamber opera, the story, co-written with his son, Jonas, reveals holes as gaping as those on any space station station ripped by the debris of an accidental explosion beyond the earth’s atmosphere.

In brief: Sandra Bullock plays Dr. Ryan Stone, a testy medical engineer pursuing research in space. George Clooney is Matt Kowalksy, the cheery professional astronaut on, yes, his last run. When space junk from a Russian mishap destroys their mission, their Harvard-educated brown-skinned colleague, their satellite, their station, and that of the Russians and, possibly, the Chinese, the pair struggle for survival, often tethered by a white umbilical cord.

The problem begins, but doesn’t entirely end, with Bullock’s character. She is nervous and brittle: but who isn’t? Okay, Clooney’s Galahad in a spacesuit isn’t. He wisecracks and story-tells and Cloonies to give “Gravity” its much-needed warmth and comic relief.

Dr. Stone (sinking like a ….) is just not a woman (or even a man) that could have passed the rigorous training process that NASA inflicts on its candidates. I don’t know the statistics, but even among the thousands or tens of thousands that want to become an astronaut (include me not!), less than one hundred achieve that vaunted status. Life is hard, becoming an astronaut nearly impossible.

When we first encounter Stone and Kowalsky while she repairs some failure like a nearly hired tech from the Geek Squad and he marks time, their dialog speaks of people who hardly know each other, not members of a small elite team that have trained, lived, flown and, likely, vomited together. They could be on a bus, polite strangers, two people at a wedding, one on the bride’s side, one on the groom’s.

Disaster, inevitably, strikes. Dr. Stone freaks out, spinning, spinning, spinning, hyperventilating and banging against satellite and space station and colleague corpse. Like a tumbled stone, she gradually reveals the tragic nugget of her neurosis. All anybody who knows NASA can say is “next candidate, please!” She would never have made the cut. So her arc from a professional woman emotionally untethered from her own life, that ultimately fights to survive and get her feet back on the ground, is baloney. Or space baloney, on sale at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in shiny packages.

The set-up resembles “Open Water” in space. The nifty little seventy-nine-minute 2004 thriller written and directed by Chris Kentis about a cute scuba-diving couple accidentally left behind by the tour boat in shark-infested waters. Adrift, the pair go from hoping for rescue, to fending off sharks, hypothermia and exhaustion, all the while treading spiritual and emotional water.

Yes, it’s a trick, a movie incredibly intense because we are in the water with this man and woman as they struggle to survive, and every strength and weakness of their romantic bond, and personal character, reveals itself as they swim in the ocean’s fatal flush. They should be back at the harbor drinking Mojitos. They’re not. They never will be.

At the Princess of Wales screening, Canadian Astronaut Chris Hadfield attended and tweeted the next day: “Good morning! Gravity was fun last night. Fantastic visuals, relentless, Sandra Bullock was great. I’d fly with her.” Well, who wouldn’t fly with Bullock? She’s such a good sport. But, really, never in a million missions would Commander Hadfield place his life, or that of his crew, in her incapable hands.

I respect Hadfield’s gallantry, and “fantastic visuals” rings true. The visuals are fantastic. It’s also a safe reaction to another Hollywood fairy tale that fails to understand the incredible craft and skill of having “The Right Stuff.” However finely wrought, however mind-blowing the seventeen-minute takes, the revolution in 3-D technology, the movie misunderstands the incredible craft, physical stamina and mental acuity of those who go into space.

That’s not to say astronaut’s can’t and don’t crack. But when they do, they break in a control-freak, OCD way. Take the astronaut-turned-stalker Naval Captain Lisa Nowak. She flew on the Space Shuttle Discovery in 2006. The following year, she was arrested in Orlando for attempted kidnapping after pursuing a romantic rival from Texas to Florida, allegedly wearing disposable diapers so that she would not have to stop during the 900-mile car trip. Maybe you’ve seen the “Rocket Man” episode of TV’s “Law & Order: Criminal Intent.”

Nowak might have been a crazy stalker, but she had wanted to become an astronaut since she was six. And she massively trained for her opportunity to leave earth’s gravity in a souped-up tin can, logging 1,500-plus hours on thirty different aircraft, and multiple spacewalks during her 13 days on the shuttle. But the brittle but buff Dr. Ryan, with her panicky refrain that she repeatedly crashed her simulated escape pod during training, would never have made it out of the parking lot and onto the flight deck.

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Essay, Movies

Adams on Reel Women: Oscar winner Streep asks, ‘Why don’t they want the money?’

No Comments 29 June 2012

Where the girls are: Rudolph, Wiig, Streep, Stone

Earlier this month, Meryl Streep talked numbers at the Women in Film Lucy & Crystal Awards. To paraphrase her point, there were five movies over five years — “The Help” (2011) “Bridesmaids” (2011), “The Iron Lady” (2011), “Mamma Mia!” (2008), and “The Devil Wears Prada” (2008) — that earned a collective $1.6 billion for Hollywood. True, she starred in three of them, but if they had been cop movies, zombie thrillers, or Westerns, there would be a stream of films trying to cash in on the women’s market. So Streep’s question — “Why don’t studios want the money?” – hangs heavy in the air.

TV Writer Nell Scovell (“Warehouse 13,” “Monk”) had the most straightforward answer: “They want the money but don’t want to give women the power. It’s a conundrum.”

Animator Signe Baumane responded: “I think Hollywood is stuck in the notion that only 21-year-old men go to movies. The New Yorker article on Ben Stiller says that much too. Big studios are like big animals, they can’t adapt to small changes quickly, but small changes accumulate into BIG ones before soon.”

We hope so. In the meantime, where do we stand?

[Related: Adams on Reel Women: Director Lynn Shelton talks Emily Blunt and ‘Mad Men’]

Those five movies are just the tip of the iceberg

If you add in the year’s top grosser, “The Hunger Games,” and the movies from “The Twilight Saga,” that earnings number grows exponentially. Then there’s a surprise hit like “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel,” which grossed approximately $38 million domestically and $121 million internationally on the backs of Judi Dench and Maggie Smith (anybody who’s watched TV’s “Downton Abbey,” starring Smith as the dowager matriarch who speaks her very sharp mind, wouldn’t be surprised). Add in the gushy Nicholas Sparks drama “The Vow” with Rachel McAdams and Channing Tatum, and there’s another 2012 film that hosed up $194 million globally, following on other films in the successful Sparks franchise (“The Notebook,” “Dear John”), which have frugal production budgets and easily earn out theatrically. Toss in the female-dominated action franchises like Kate Beckinsale’s “Underworld” ($459 million worldwide) and Milla Jovovich’s “Resident Evil” ($675 million worldwide) and the money grows. You, readers, can probably add more to this list.

One answer: The demographics within Hollywood

When it comes to green-lighting films in Hollywood, women don’t have their hands on the switch — and those who do tend to be part of a male scrum. They made it to the top by assimilating into the male studio culture, not by rebelling against it. On the production side, a San Diego State University study last year found that among writers, directors, editors, cinematographers, producers, and executive producers, the division of labor was 82 percent men and 18 percent women. The disconnect is that the audiences do not reflect that same split. The gap between 18 percent and 51 percent is a red flag. Serving that market has a huge profit potential. Healthy industries should be constantly seeking growth, and this is an underserved market.

Another answer: The power of critics as gatekeepers

The critics function as gatekeepers — telling readers what to see and what to skip. Guess what? Men dominate that arena, too. That’s why we’ve seen Michael Cera lose his virginity so many times in coming-of-age comedies and there were so many inexplicably positive reviews for “The Three Stooges.” A San Diego State study based on 100 newspapers, in 2007, concluded that men dominate movie criticism in a way that echoes male dominance behind the screen. In a study conducted by Martha M. Lauzen at the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film, 77 percent of film critics are male. As a female member of the New York Film Critics Circle, which includes newspaper, magazine, and online critics, I’ve always been a fortunate minority. According to our website (www.nyfcc.com), there are 31 members, including the late Andrew Sarris. Of that number, seven (or 23 percent) are female — and that’s considerable growth since I joined the organization in 1995.

One solution: Women, vote with your box-office dollars:

Go see “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” or Streep’s upcoming middle-age marriage comedy, “Hope Springs,” or the cluster of microbudgeted and intensely satisfying movies like Lynn Shelton’s “Your Sister’s Sister”; Sarah Polley’s “Take This Waltz” (opening Friday); or Nancy Savoca’s “Union Square” (opening July 13). If we build the audience, the product will come — and it will come from a variety of sources, small and large.

Another solution: Women, make movies

Meryl Streep joined with director Phyllida Lloyd to make “Mamma Mia!” and “The Iron Lady.” She voted with her box-office clout. This is what Mira Sorvino is doing with “Union Square,” Emily Blunt with “Your Sister’s Sister,” and Drew Barrymore with her underrated movie “Whip It!”

And another solution: Opening-weekend grosses are not king, er, queen

Let’s ignore Hollywood’s obsession with opening-weekend numbers and echo models like that of “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” building the female audiences one movie and one weekend at a time. Carla Stockton, editor in chief of Dapt’d, explained: “Women, especially women in the next-up age brackets, are more likely to weigh critics’ reviews, friends’ word of mouth, etc., and they will wait to see the film till it’s been out awhile. Too much focus, it seems, gets placed on opening weekend. So, while the industry is aware that we want films with strong women’s POV, it is intimidated by the pressure of first weekend from delving too deeply into that fountain. I also think we writers must persevere in creating more, better, stronger, more compelling women for stage and screen.”

[Related: ‘To Rome With Love’ star Greta Gerwig is wild about Woody Allen — just read her high school yearbook]

I’m definitely with Carla: We’re listening, and we’re going to be writing, producing, and directing the movies we want to see — and supporting them in print. And when one person speaks out, like Streep did, we’ll rally around her, until our voices are heard.

And there’s some reason for optimism. According to USA Today’s Susan Wloszczyna: “I think much like Snow White, they are slowly waking up to the fact that if you please them, women will show up in hordes, and even for more than one viewing. I was astonished and gratified that ‘Snow White and the Huntsman,’ which is essentially an action film with two female leads, did so well. How often does that happen? And even Pixar finally woke up and smelled the estrogen with “Brave.” There is movement afoot. The female screenwriting ranks have been growing, and now there just needs to be more female directors doing big studio films.”

See the trailer for ‘Brave':

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Celebrity, Essay, Movies, Oscar Race

Yahoo! Exclusive: Conspiracy Theories and Meryl Streep’s Best Actress Upset

No Comments 03 March 2012

Meryl Streep, Viola Davis, Oscars, Academy Awards, Best Actress, Snubs, Surprises

Streep as Thatcher: She's iron not Teflon

 It was a surprise that Meryl Streep trumped Viola Davis for the best-actress Oscar – but it was no shock. The “Doubt” co-stars were neck-and-neck the entire season. Rooney Mara winning: That would have been freaky.

On Sunday night, the major races had been called, the supporting categories had gone as predicted, and at the 11th hour Streep beat Davis. On Feb. 28, latimes.com’s Steven Zeitchik used the upset to spin conspiracy theories about the race under the headline “What Was Behind Meryl Streep’s Upset Win?”

Zeitchik actually quoted snippets overheard in an elevator on Oscar night — because no studio executive ever lies to the face of a movie star in a moving box. According to latimes.com, Disney/ABC Television President Anne Sweeney shared the lift with newly minted Oscar winner Octavia Spencer. Sweeney confessed that she was “upset. I feel bad for Viola.” When Spencer asked how it could have happened, Sweeney reportedly said, “I have my theories.” But Sweeney did not share them. And, besides, it sounds more ominous without elaboration.

Only two days before, Los Angeles Times theater critic Charles McNulty came clean about his “Streep Problem” in a pre-Oscar pile-on. McNulty got his knickers in a twist about how none of his friends wanted to see “The Iron Lady” with him. They would rather see “Shame” (which is interesting because they share a writer: Abi Morgan) first, or “Pina.”

Apparently the friend-o-meter went out with the buddy system. And as a way for a professional critic to root his own distaste for a performer (he strips Streep’s talent bare), or a film, it’s critique by peer pressure and should be left on the playground. Certainly, Streep has never followed the crowd — and that may be the root of her problem this year when she wasn’t playing beloved eccentric Julia Child. Instead, she was playing the controversial first female prime minister of the Western world.

After a very long Oscar race, I have come to believe that many Americans of the critical classes are just uncomfortable with a movie that takes a political figure who’s supposed to be “evil” and doesn’t treat her like Kim Jong-Il — either as the butt of jokes or Satan’s second coming. We have sadly become that polarized.

I have said elsewhere that someday American audiences will be able to look at Oliver Stone’s “W” with clarity, and recognize Josh Brolin’s brilliance as George W. Bush. But it didn’t happen at the 2008-09 Oscars. This was not a problem when Forest Whitaker won an Oscar for playing Idi Amin in “The Last King of Scotland.” He had his charming moments, but he was clearly bad to the bone. Bravo! And brave, too.

“It will never be known what acts of cowardice have been committed for fear of not looking sufficiently progressive,” the famous French intellectual socialist Charles Peguy said in 1905. It’s still true in 2012.

The Los Angeles Times theater critic snarked about Streep as Thatcher: “Such a star turn may earn her more bric-a-brac, but it certainly won’t enrich her talent.” I must have seen a different movie. While I juggled Davis and Streep as Oscar front-runners while covering the race, I never doubted the talent or merit of either actress.

Many things stand out about “The Iron Lady,” a cameo-sized biopic that echoes “The Queen” (for which Helen Mirren won an Oscar) or “The Deal.” The opening sequence sets the tone for those who are open to it: a wandering elderly Thatcher leaves her gilded cage of an empty London apartment to go to the market. The granny that once governed a good chunk of the world now suffers in silence and befuddlement as she’s buffeted by disrespectful young men and can’t quite register how milk has gotten so expensive. It’s a petal-thin moment of individual grace beautifully, quietly captured by Streep under an unflattering headscarf. Unlike Leo DiCaprio in “J. Edgar,” the actress disappears beneath the makeup — the makeup doesn’t wear her. We believe her to be Thatcher, if we leave our preconceptions at the door like well-behaved houseguests.

Thatcher’s moment on the phone with her far-flung grown son is equally heartbreaking — he’s in South Africa with his own family and no more likely to rush home than she was when she was remaking the world and he was a schoolboy. The power relationship has shifted. It hurts, but it’s not conveyed with a Medea wail. That wasn’t her way, nor is it Streep’s in this carefully calibrated performance. Streep’s Thatcher is a woman who has made decisions in her life, and now all the decisions have come home to roost.

This Maggie — and she is a fictional construct within factual parameters — is not a self-questioner, she’s a doer. That element of her character that pushed her to the pinnacle of power is also her Achilles’ heel. When Streep and director Phyllida Lloyd discuss their Thatcher in terms of King Lear, that’s what they are referencing. “One of the themes was how our significance diminishes,” Lloyd told Indiewire. “We thought of this as a ‘King Lear’ for girls.”

“The Iron Lady” is not about conservative ideology; it’s about universal humanity — and the human costs for choices that took place on the public stage. And, yes, this does not deny that Thatcher’s decisions as prime minister impacted many other humans and changed the face of England forever.

And what, ultimately, I cherish in this movie may be precisely what drew Streep and Lloyd and Morgan to the project. This is a portrait of an intelligent woman created in their own image, a professional who refused to wash up the tea things for the men around her. Their Thatcher is feminism in action, if not in identification. She doesn’t work hard to be liked. And some of the resistance to the movie, to Streep, is that totally uncool, friends-won’t-like-it element: that this is a portrait of a woman who, unlike “The Queen,” refused to play well with others when it comes to being a woman in power. To the victor should go the spoils — why should women be any different? And, certainly, Streep, at another peak of a peak-filled career, understands that the resistance to women succeeding still exists and, apparently, it’s not considered entirely polite to point this out.



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