2010 Glennies, Part 3: Best Actor

#5: Russell Brand – Aldous Snow, Get Him to the Greek

I was worried when I heard that 2008’s Forgetting Sarah Marshall would be getting a spinoff featuring supporting rockstar Aldous Snow. Brand’s performance was certainly a highlight of one of my favorite films of that year, but it was a very broad, drugged-out lothario of a character. Could the rockstar (and Brand) carry his own film?

Somehow, the answer was yes. Nicholas Stoller’s comedy is a significant departure in both tone and content from Forgetting Sarah Marshall, and Brand’s performance gives some surprising depth to the rockstar Aldous Snow. The film is a broad and scatological comedy with the dark undertone of Snow’s various addictions. It’s also a wild sex romp that relies heavily on Snow’s on-again, off-again one-true-love. The film’s appeal is in its sincerity, and Brand completely commits to this character, warts and all.

#4: Jeff Bridges – Rooster Cogburn, True Grit

I don’t have a lot to say about True Grit, except that it’s a brilliantly written genre exercise. It is a legitimate western as surely as the works of Ford or Leone, and Jeff Bridges’ take on the one-eyed marshal Rooster Cogburn feels right at home. His dialogue is slurred to the point of incomprehensibility, and his appearance is utterly unglamorous. This character is a slobbering, drunken mess, and I mean that as a compliment. I can safely say I’ll never forget this performance, and Bridges deserves every bit of the credit he’s getting for it.

#3: Ryan Reynolds – Paul Conroy, Buried

From my review: “This may be the most electrifying performance yet from Ryan Reynolds. Like Tom Hanks in Cast Away before him, Reynolds has crafted a masterful one-man show, and he never lets up on the stakes. Paul is dying alone, and Reynolds deftly conveys his ratcheting hopelessness and frustration.”

It’s Ryan Reynolds kidnapped and buried in a coffin for 90 minutes. That’s the entire film. But the above description may make Buried sound a good deal more serious than it actually plays for much of its runtime. This film is lurid and hopeless, to be sure, but it is also a pulp masterpiece. Its tone and editing style is reminiscent of Hitchcock, and Reynolds plays just the right blend of realistic terror and anger while preventing the character from becoming overly bleak. One scene, in which Paul solicits help (via cell phone) from one of his wife’s loathsome friends, ends with such a pitch-perfect delivery of its final line that my entire theater erupted in laughter. This is a film whose tone lives and dies by the performance of its lead actor, and Reynolds completely pulls it off.

On a related note…

#2: James Franco – Aron Ralston, 127 Hours

Aron Ralston leads a charmed life. He’s a brilliant stuntman – completely in control, but clearly a little unbalanced. Franco had to take this reckless and cocksure character on a physically and emotionally heart-wrenching journey, without any other actors to share the burden for most of the film’s runtime. 127 Hours has a similar premise to Buried – a man gets trapped under a rock for 90 minutes – but it is a very different film in both tone and characterization. Unlike Reynolds’ character above, Ralston doesn’t have access to a cell phone, so he spends the majority of the film talking aloud to himself, or saying nothing at all. The film utilizes various storytelling devices (including one involving a handheld camera that I wouldn’t dream of spoiling), and Franco’s performance played into all of them nicely.

I’m not sure if it’s even possible to spoil this film, since its title, premise, and the fact that it’s based on a true story should be enough to tell you how it ends. But suffice to say, this film takes a brutal and unflinching look at one of the most difficult physical tests ever imposed on a human being, and somehow comes out of it with a heartwarming message about how much life is worth living. It does all of this while wrapped in an unconventional character study, and never once lets Ralston off the hook for getting himself into the situation in the first place. Insofar as this is an exercise in filming the unfilmable, Franco’s performance seems equally improbable. It carries this film, and I know of no other actor who could have pulled this off.

#1: Jesse Eisenberg – Mark Zuckerberg, The Social Network

I know Mark Zuckerberg. I don’t know the man, but I recognize the character. Each viewer will likely take away a different interpretation of this performance, depending on their feelings on the real-life Zuckerberg, but this performance stands alone in a film that’s virtually impossible to separate from its real-life context. As a reflection of my time and generation, I found Eisenberg’s captivating and enigmatic portrayal to be utterly unmatched this year. For a character who seems almost defined by a lack of chemistry with the people in his life (reminiscent of Dr. House, perhaps), he also plays brilliantly alongside Andrew Garfield in the film’s most crucial relationship.

This Zuckerberg is hard to read, but conveys a great deal through his glowering stare, or the slightest twitch of a smile. This Zuckerberg is insightful, determined, perhaps even ingenious. And on some level, he knows the effect his actions have had. This Zuckerberg may or may not bear any resemblance to the real one, but Eisenberg’s performance and Sorkin’s script make him the most fascinating and well-realized characters of this year.

Honorable Mentions:

  • Ben Stiller as Roger Greenberg in Greenberg
  • Mark Wahlberg as Micky Ward in The Fighter
  • Michael Cera as Nick Twisp/François Dillinger in Youth in Revolt (Honorable, honorable mention: as Scott Pilgrim in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World)
  • Leonardo DiCaprio as Teddy Daniels in Shutter Island
  • Michael Nyqvist as Mikael Blomqvist in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Click here to see the rest of the 2010 Glennies.

FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #7: David O. Russell’s “The Fighter”

Poster for "The Fighter"

This week, Glenn and Daniel dive in face-first with flailing fists to review David O. Russell’s boxing biopic-cum-family drama, The Fighter, starring Mark Wahlberg, Christian Bale, Amy Adams, and Melissa Leo.(19:12)

[may contain some NSFW language]

FilmWonk rating: 8.5 out of 10

    Show notes:
  • Music for this episode is The Heavy’s “How You Like Me Now?”, from the film’s soundtrack.
  • With apologies to Tom Hooper, David Seidler, Colin Firth, and Geoffrey Rush, stick around at the end for a blooper!
  • As penance for our shameful blooper, check out the next episode, in which we review Tom Hooper’s The King’s Speech.

Listen above, or download: The Fighter (right-click, save as).

Peter Jackson’s “The Lovely Bones” – There’s really no upside to child murder

“In this man’s fantasy, she reacts to his sexual advances the way a consenting adult woman would, rather than the reality, which is a terrified little girl who wants no part of him. She’s crying, in pain, wants to go home. Quickly, he’s lost control of the situation…”

-John Douglas, FBI (ret.), Journey Into Darkness

David Slade’s 2005 film Hard Candy told the story of a 14-year-old girl (played by Ellen Page) turning the tables on her would-be sexual predator – drugging, restraining, and psychologically torturing him for the next 90 minutes. The film was a fascinating and disturbing cat-and-mouse thriller, but stopped far short of suspending disbelief. As I watched this adolescent girl exhibit all the sensibilities and ruthlessness of a jaded adult, a single line of thought kept ringing.

This has never happened. This could never happen.

Peter Jackson’s The Lovely Bones takes a different tack. When Susie Salmon (Saoirse Ronan), a lively and innocent 14-year-old girl, is lured into the dungeon of middle-aged serial killer George Harvey (Stanley Tucci), it ends exactly as it would in real life. The film doesn’t bury the lead er…delay…revealing this point, as it happens in the first twenty minutes of the film. After hours of waiting for their daughter to come home, Susie’s parents call the police – her mother Abigail (Rachel Weisz) waits at home as her father Jack (Mark Wahlberg) runs around town showing a picture to anyone who’ll look at it. Days later, they both listen in horror as a police detective informs them that they’ve found a piece of their daughter’s clothing.

“We also found blood. A substantial amount of blood.”

I’m belaboring this point a bit, but the sequence plays like every parent’s worst nightmare. I can’t overstate how horrifically the film depicts the preying upon and murder of a child, as well as its utterly destructive effect on the girl’s family. We don’t see the actual killing, but we see every moment leading up to it. When the crime occurs, Tucci and Ronan play the scene with startling realism, but I would stop short of calling their performances “good”. “Unsettling” is more like it. The scene is difficult to watch, and I’m still unsure whether it was prudent to include it. From that point on, the story follows two separate threads, depicting Susie finding her way through the In-Between (an arbitrary blend of Heaven and Purgatory) and her family’s struggle with grief following her death.

But while Susie’s story (in life) may end realistically, I was still reminded of Hard Candy – because like that film, the rest of The Lovely Bones plays very much like a fantasy. But this is not a fantasy of revenge, but rather of consolation for a grieving family – a literal rendition of “she went on to a better place.”

And is the In-Between a better place? It’s yet another elaborate CG world from Weta Digital, but I think a collection of pristinely rendered desktop backgrounds just isn’t enough to impress me anymore. We have the technology, and we’ve had it for a while now. This is certainly not the best we’ve seen from Weta, and while an oversaturated green valley or an endless icy plane with giant crystal bells may look pretty, none of it is going to blow me away at this point unless it also works thematically. And from a storytelling standpoint, the In-Between is almost a total failure.

When Susie arrives, she is greeted by another young girl named Holly (Nikki SooHoo), who seems to exist solely as the Exposition Fairy. She has all the personality and staying power of a Walmart greeter, and as she matter-of-factly lays out the rules of the In-Between – basically, a place to let go of your earthly life so you can move on to Heaven – it’s not entirely clear how her continued presence doesn’t violate these rules. Regardless, Susie spends most of her time playing around in the In-Between with Holly, and it occasionally takes a dark turn. Her experience there seems to depend on two things – how well she’s coping with being dead, and how well the people behind are getting along without her. Ronan gives a solid performance, but for most of the film, she is written as just another rendition of the “ghost with unfinished business“. Nonetheless, these worlds do occasionally collide in some interesting way.

In an early scene, Jack Salmon (Wahlberg) shows Susie how to make a ship in a bottle, placing it on a shelf in a room full of them. The dozens of ships suffer exactly the fate you’d expect, as Jack shows up shortly after his daughter’s death and proceeds to smash every single one of them. Back in the In-Between, as Susie walks along a rocky ocean beach, the waves pick up, and she looks on in horror as huge, lifesize versions of these ships sail in from the choppy ocean and shatter on the rocks. While the real-world scene is just a predictable bit of melodrama, its visual rendition in the In-Between is at least somewhat memorable.

The real-world story is about as close as the film comes to a passable narrative. It spans a couple of years, as Jack, Abigail, and the rest of the Salmon family deal with their daughter’s death, each in their own way. Lynn, Susie’s grandmother, comes and stays with the family, and is played quite ably by Susan Sarandon. Jack begins a half-cocked investigation, bombarding a well-meaning police detective (Michael Imperioli) with accusations against anyone and everyone around town for the most slight and arbitrary of reasons. This subplot could well have succeeded as a Columbo-style “howcatchem” detective story, but Jack is no detective, and his investigation is really just a series of random, baseless accusations. The tragic irony is that when he meets George Harvey, his daughter’s actual murderer, he accuses him of the crime based on evidence just as flimsy as with any of the others, and nearly gets himself arrested in the process.

Stanley Tucci is almost unrecognizable as Harvey (I’ll admit – I didn’t even realize it was him until I began this review), but for how cartoonishly the character is written, he might as well have been wearing a rubber mask. Tucci is a great actor who does the best he can, but he is utterly wasted here. And while the character’s fate is rather unexpected (and certainly only possible in an age before modern forensics), it’s tonally bizarre. What message can we extract from his final scene? What goes around…kinda comes around? There’s nothing sadder than a pedophile past his prime?

As I spoke with others about this film (reminding them that the protagonist is a raped and murdered 14-year-old girl), the most frequent question I received was this: “Do they catch the killer in the end?”

I must admit, this question never occurred to me. For my part, catching the killer may be satisfying and cathartic when the victim is an adult, but there’s really no upside to the death of a child. And whether or not this fictitious killer is caught doesn’t matter nearly as much to me as what message the film is promoting about the world at large. The most provocative thing about George Harvey is that he seems perfectly normal when he’s not murdering children. I sometimes wonder how many more films we’ll have to see that depict “seeming normal” as a sinister warning sign. While most people aren’t secret pedophiles or murderers, it’s remarkable how many parents will make the opposite assumption if they see a 40-year-old man with the audacity to speak to a child.

Regardless of its message, The Lovely Bones plays more like an ill-conceived therapeutic exercise than a film. The family’s story is tonally all over the place, but this erratic emotional curve mostly rang true for a family dealing with the death of a child (owing heavily to the performances of Wahlberg, Weisz, and Sarandon). But while I may have found their struggle realistic, I certainly took no pleasure in watching it.

FilmWonk rating: 3 out of 10