2009 Glennies, Part 2: Best Supporting Actress

#5: Marcia Gay Harden – Brooke Cavendar, Whip It

Marcia Gay Harden in "Whip It"

Drew Barrymore’s directorial debut, Whip It (review), was an adept entry in the sporting genre (in this case, roller derby), made even more effective by some impressive casting and rich characters. The great Marcia Gay Harden plays Brooke Cavendar, an overbearing mother who puts constant pressure on her daughter, Bliss (Ellen Page), to stay pretty and compete in events that are equal parts beauty pageant and debutante ball. Bliss, meanwhile, would rather throw elbows and knock out teeth on the derby track. Brooke is an apt parallel to overeager football dads, but Harden’s performance is far more layered than such a stock character would normally require. Even as she steadfastly refuses to consider her Bliss’ wish to continue with roller derby, her concern for her daughter’s wellbeing shines through. She is stubborn, imperfect, but utterly well-meaning, and Harden’s strong performance contributes to making this one of the most engaging relationships in the film.

#4: Diane Kruger – Bridget von Hammersmark, Inglourious Basterds

Diane Kruger in "Inglourious Basterds"

As I said in my review, I’m seldom disappointed by actresses playing actresses, and German actress Diane Kruger was no exception. As she knocks back champagne and disarms an entire tavern of soldiers with a single laugh or smile, she harkens back to a time in which celebrity meant something altogether different for an actress from what it means today. And as her true role becomes apparent, she portrays her fictitious vintage film-starlet-cum-saboteur with exactly the right blend of elegance and ruthlessness.

#3: Rinko Kikuchi – Bang Bang, The Brothers Bloom

Rinko Kikuchi in "The Brothers Bloom"

Japanese actress Rinko Kikuchi first came onto my radar with her fantastic performance as a deaf student (and nearly the only interesting character) in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s 2006 film Babel. She returns in Rian Johnson’s The Brothers Bloom as another less-than-verbose character… We are told that the brothers’ sidekick and demolitions expert, Bang Bang, speaks about three words of English, and indeed, this is about all we hear from her during the film. Nonetheless, Kikuchi’s brilliance at physical comedy and remarkable range of facial expressions make her one of the most memorable and hilarious characters in the film. If there’s one thing Javier Bardem showed in No Country for Old Men, it’s that a character with very little dialogue can still be quite compelling. With her performance in this film, Kikuchi has proven this true once again, and further proven that such a character doesn’t have to be a daunting psychopath.

#2: Kristen Stewart – Em Lewin, Adventureland

Kristen Stewart in "Adventureland"

Kristen Stewart is either a brilliant actress or a one-time fluke. Here’s what I had to say about her eight months ago when I first saw Adventureland:

As much as it pains me following my experience with the abominable Twilight film, the moment has finally come when I must admit… Kristen Stewart is a damn fine actress. I can only speak to my reaction, but during every moment of Emily’s screen time, I was on the edge of my seat with anticipation. Stewart, in an incredibly nuanced and visual performance, managed to convey such a compelling sense of desperation and longing in every scene (both with and without [Jesse] Eisenberg) that I spent the entire film simultaneously rooting for and pitying her.

As Dave Chen from /Film points out, there is a “massive gulf between her on-screen charisma, and her off-screen persona”. Since Adventureland, all I’ve really seen from Stewart is a considerable foray into celebrity, and an understandable, if unremarkable return to her principal moneymaker. At this point, I must reserve judgment on whether she’ll prove a strong actress after she has left the Twilight franchise behind… Nonetheless, this is one of the most brilliant performances I’ve seen this year, and I have absolutely no qualms about praising it.

#1: Vera Farmiga – Alex Goran, Up in the Air

Vera Farmiga in "Up in the Air"

“Just think of me as yourself, but with a vagina,” says Alex to Ryan (George Clooney), with whom she has just shared a casual hotel fling. In my original review, I said that it is only with the character of Alex that the film comes dangerously close to contrivance. She is almost a total mystery – we know that she lives a similar life to Ryan, spending much of her time flying around the country, but we don’t really know much else. And yet, Farmiga’s performance and chemistry with Clooney completely make this romance work. While we don’t learn much about her profession, we do learn a great deal about her as a person. This character is somewhat of a mirror, acting as both a female version of Ryan and an older version of his colleague Natalie (Anna Kendrick). But in her interactions with the two, she offers some remarkable insights. One of my favorite scenes in the film involves Alex and Natalie swapping their respective versions of the ideal man. Farmiga’s monologue in this scene is just fantastic. Even as she is saying some pretty provocative things (e.g. “Please, let him earn more money than I do”), her delivery includes all the hesitation and reflection that comes with such a deeply personal question as one’s ideal match. On the surface, this scene simply highlights the difference in perspective between women in their 20s and 30s, but it also provides a mountain of subtext for the film’s central romance between Alex and Ryan that gives the film immeasurable rewatch value.

Honorable Mentions:

  • Alia Shawkat as Pash in Whip It
  • Kristen Wiig as Maggie Mayhem in Whip It
  • Lorna Raver as Sylvia Ganush in Drag Me to Hell
  • Marion Cotillard as Billie Frechette in Public Enemies

Click here to see the rest of the 2009 Glennies.

Week in Brief: “Whip It”, “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs”

whip-it_poster-690x1024

Drew Barrymore’s directorial debut, Whip It, is the story of Bliss (Ellen Page), a 17-year-old girl who takes a shine to roller derby – the sport in which ladies both lovely and terrifying skate around a banked oval track throwing elbows and attempting to collapse each other’s lungs while passing their opponents’ crumpled bodies to score points. The title refers to a technique whereby one or two skaters act as an anchor to in order to “whip” a teammate past them – a slingshot maneuver designed to greatly increase the teammate’s speed around the track. When I saw this and similar maneuvers put forth in the later matches of the film, I couldn’t help but think of the “Flying V” of The Mighty Ducks. Indeed, Whip It ends up falling somewhere between a Disney sports film and a Texas football tale, and even without the other story trappings, it would be an admirable entry in the sporting genre.

Bliss’ mother Brooke (Marcia Gay Harden) puts constant pressure on her daughter to stay pretty and compete in events that are equal parts beauty pageant and debutante ball, and is naturally appalled to find out what her daughter is doing with her spare time. The parallels to overeager Texas football dads aren’t exactly subtle, but this subplot worked well for me, owing largely to Page and Harden’s performances, as well as that of Daniel Stern as Bliss’ father.

When confessing her secret sporting life to her parents, Bliss proclaims, “I am in love with this!”. This line was in the trailer, and Page delivered it with such earnestness that it was almost solely responsible for my interest in this film. The story of a teenager in love who doesn’t need to wallow in brooding, misunderstood angst was strangely appealing to me, and Page’s performance delivered on every bit of promise from this line.

And yet, Bliss is not an unrealistic or idealized teen. She acts bratty and selfish at times, and is ultimately put in her place a bit for it. She partakes in a romance with a local guitarist, for no clear reason other than because he’s (omg) super-hot. This storyline initially seems pointless, but pays off rather well in the end, and treats us to a bizarre, but entertaining underwater makeout scene.

The supporting cast is solid, with great performances from Alia Shawkat (“Arrested Development”), Zoe Bell (the Kiwi stuntwoman from Death Proof), Andrew Wilson (Idiocracy), and Kristen Wiig (“SNL”) – who proves her acting chops even without her signature comedic deadpan. The great Juliette Lewis is also effective as a rival derby player.

The only real weak link in the acting – with the exception of Jimmy Fallon as an absolutely repellent announcer – is director Drew Barrymore. I was conflicted about her presence as an actress in this film; at times, it seems self-indulgent. Barrymore plays a member of the derby team – basically a non-character, lacking any defining characteristics beyond her nom de guerre (Smashley Simpson). I can’t comment much on her performance, since she doesn’t really do much acting, but she does bring the same convincing physicality to the derby sequences as the ladies above (granted, I have no idea how many of the stunts were actually done by the actresses). There’s seems to be no reason for her to be in this film except to join the fun, but I can’t fault her too much for it.

As a freshman filmmaker, Barrymore’s direction is not mindblowing, but she has done a fine job. Cinematographer Robert Yeoman brings the same sort of semi-grainy look that he’s used in every one of Wes Anderson’s films, but it works fine here. The camera starts off tight and claustrophobic – focusing on a one or two players at a time, intermixed with POV shots (seemingly from a camera on skates), but as the film goes on, the shots get wider, and we see more and more. The direction kept the action coherent, built the matches’ interest as the film went on, and brought an adequate measure of intimacy and earnestness to the character moments.

The empowering message of “Be Your Own Hero” is ever-present, but not overwrought. If there’s one message the film conveys best, it’s that roller derby looks brutal and immensely fun, and it’s wrapped in enough solid character work to make this a memorable film.

FilmWonk rating: 7.5 out of 10
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Poster for "Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs".

Every once in a while, a film comes along that challenges Pixar’s well-earned dominance of the animation market. A film with a solid story, compelling characters, and gorgeous animation. Last year, it was about a panda that wants to learn kung fu. This year, it’s about a scientist who builds a machine that turns rain…into food.

Flint Lockwood (Bill Hader) is a crackpot inventor who has built a myriad of bizarre inventions since childhood, from spray-on shoes to a monkey thought translator. His latest invention is a machine that can “mutate the genetic formula of water to turn it into food”. And that’s about as detailed as the science gets in this film. Lockwood’s lab is designed very much in the Calvin and Hobbes aesthetic, complete with a set of blast doors painted onto a curtain. And just like Calvin, all of the science he develops is immensely fun and borderline magical.

Lockwood lives on a drab island town in the North Atlantic called Swallow Falls, which had previously survived solely on its sardine industry. This industry collapsed when it was discovered – and announced in newspapers the world over – that “Sardines Are Super Gross”. While the town makes an ill-conceived attempt to revitalize through “sardine tourism”, Lockwood’s invention accidentally blasts into the sky (as crackpot inventions are wont to do), and he discovers that it can be programmed remotely to make the skies rain down any food the townspeople want like manna from heaven.

Also in the mix is the power (and food) hungry mayor (Bruce Campbell), a beautiful weather intern (Anna Faris), Lockwood’s disapproving father (James Caan), an aging former sardine mascot (Andy Samberg), and an alarmingly speedy cop (Mr. T). The casting is one of the film’s greatest strengths. Sony appears to have learned a lesson from Dreamworks’ failures. You can’t just pack a film with movie stars and expect them to do well as voice actors. These actors (even Mr. T) feel very much at home in their parts.

As for the character design, it seems quite deliberately cartoonish. Flint Lockwood looks more or less like Jon Arbuckle, with a nose easily half the size of his head. His father’s eyes aren’t even visible under a huge bushy brow and above an equally monstrous mustache, and Mr. T’s cop sports an inverted mohawk (a line shaved down the center). This is in stark contrast to the rest of the animation, which looks gorgeous and practically photorealistic. The film takes place in a sort of heightened reality, and yet the island of Swallow Falls feels every bit like a real place, from its initial shroud of gloomy gray mist to its eventual golden glow amid a shower of falling cheeseburgers. The weather and atmospheric effects are incredible, and the food looks delicious.

Still from "Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs".

The film could have stopped there, but it goes on to showcase some remarkable visual wonders and absurdities. There are depictions of food and food-related wonder and peril that I never could’ve imagined before this film. What does a sunrise look like through the shimmering golden walls of a palace made of jello? How do the children play in a town covered in giant scoops of ice cream? What does it look like when huge animate gummy bears hop onto the wing of a plane and start ripping out wires like a pack of gremlins? I could go on. By the end of this film, you will know all of this, and more.

The film is written for the screen and directed by Phil Lord and Chris Miller, two of the writers of CBS’ brilliantly funny sitcom, “How I Met Your Mother”, and this film has many similarities to that show. In addition to the rapid-fire jokes delivered throughout the film, it also showcases several well-conceived running gags, each of which has a hilarious payoff by the end. It also balances the humor, which is unrelenting and hilarious, with some solid character work. There’s Sam Sparks, the weather girl, afraid to show how smart she really is, and ‘Baby’ Brent, the former sardine mascot, unsure of what to do with his life in adulthood…

There is also a very well-conceived relationship between Flint Lockwood and his father. Tim Lockwood is a simple fisherman, afraid of new technology, who can only communicate meaningfully with his son in the form of fish-related metaphors. As Flint unveils his fantastical machine to the townspeople, this relationship becomes imbued with subtle shades of the creative destruction wrought by new technology on old industry. The relationship keeps these shades while confronting one of the most basic questions between father and son: Is Tim proud or appalled by what Flint has accomplished?

It is largely through this relationship that the film tackles the implications and consequences of a society steeped in overconsumption, but it keeps this to a very basic level. This treatment of the film’s message seemed well-suited for such a lighthearted romp of a film, but it may feel to some like a missed opportunity. To such individuals, I would simply say this: not every film needs to be WALL-E. This film deftly acknowledges the implications of its grand premise, and then leaves its audience to ponder them further if they desire. This, along with the myriad of smart running gags, will ensure that this film rewards repeat viewings. This is a gorgeous, intelligent, and family-friendly piece of animation, sure to be enjoyed by adults and children alike. It respects its audience and will leave them begging for more.

FilmWonk rating: 8.5 out of 10

Special thanks to Devindra Hardawar from the /Filmcast for recommending this film, which I would probably have overlooked otherwise.