Vengeful wraiths and starving actors.

Running thoughts on movies and their makings.
Oct. 22 2004 4:09 PM

Vengeful Wraiths and Starving Actors

Plus, the answer to a reader question.

A few years back, I caught a Japanese movie called Ghost Actress on IFC. It didn't have much of a plot, but the key visual motif burned itself into my brain: a film-within-a-film of an actress on a movie set, with something that looked like a woman behind her—the face was out of focus, almost a white streak, a smudge, but the expression clearly wasn't benevolent. The filmmakers-within-the-film kept screening their take in disbelief. Was it two images inadvertently superimposed? Or had the celluloid picked up what the human eye couldn't: the hovering ghost of an unhappily dead leading lady? Something about the blurriness gave me the willies—it gave my willies the willies. The most evocative part of the original Ring (and its American remake) got similar chills out of a hazy, seaweed-haired wraith lurching/crawling/dragging itself out of a TV screen.

Although it's also an Americanization of a foreign hit (one of the most disreputable labels in filmdom), The Grudge (Columbia Pictures) suggests that the Japanese continue to have a healthy influence on the over-literal contemporary American scare genre. The demons are eerily indistinct, and what happens to their victims is glimpsed only fleetingly. (It's not pretty.) The movie is nothing more than your basic Amityville-Horror-style haunted-house picture tricked up with a Tarantino-esque syntax that veers sideways and doubles back to fill in a plot hole. It wouldn't be as unnerving if it was linear, but hey, that's why it's fractured: It's as if time, space, gravity, and even storytelling have been twisted by a dying rage that can't be disspelled. Along the way, you catch odd reflections in windows, shapes passing behind beveled glass, and, in one crawly sequence, a patch of shadow on an office-tower surveillance monitor that blooms, after an electrical pulse that makes the camera go fuzzy, into something resembling a woman—head bowed, black hair obscuring any features. That's a lot more blood-freezing than the occasional percussive (BONG!) pop-up shock.

Producers Sam Raimi and his partner Rob Tapert imported The Grudge, along with its original writer-director (under the title JU-ON), Takashi Shimizu. Imported is the wrong word, come to think of it: Actually, they exported an American cast to Japan, and part of the creepy subtext is the alienation of Americans in this land of vengeful ancient spirits (and bewildering street signs). Of the tremulous Yanks, Clea Duvall is the best: In her final scene, she really looks as if God himself has been drained out of her. Sarah Michelle Gellar, though, is a problem. Her performance is fine, but she doesn't transform: She's basically still Buffy, only a Buffy who, peculiarly, doesn't fight back. The horrors of typecasting …

And then there's the horror of transforming too much. I've never seen an actor mutilate himself the way Christian Bale does for The Machinist (Paramount Classics). His weight loss—he's playing a machine operator with a skeleton in his closet who starves himself to look like one—is scarier than DeNiro's weight gain for Raging Bull, which at least was an amazing movie. Bale has changed the very shape of his head: His cheeks have sunk right to the skull, and his cheekbones look like scalpels. The reward for his sacrifice is that I found him literally impossible to look at. He makes Adrien Brody in The Pianist look like the StayPuft Marshmallow Man.

The talented director, Brad Anderson, is a virtuoso of unpleasantness: This film is even harder to sit through than his last one, the jangly fever-dream Session Nine. Like SessionNine (which some people regard as a masterwork), this is a revenge-of-the-repressed movie about a man who has done something unspeakable and "forgotten" it, only to be reminded by a world that warps (and serves up assorted delusional entities) to reflect his crime. The Machinist has a steel-gray and blue palette with almost all the other colors drained out (except for an occasional splotch of brick red, like dried blood); and an incongruously lush score by Roque Banos that's a melange of Bernard Herrmann's work in Vertigo and Psycho, plus a theremin. I liked the theremin. The only other happy note is struck by Jennifer Jason Leigh as a chattering prostitute: This is her best and least fussy performance in years. She must have been so freaked-out by seeing Christian Bale at death's door that she forgot to overact.

Sideways knocked me sideways, so I babbled something to my editors about it being the second best movie I'd seen this year. That's not the kind of strident, pandering ad-hype I use in reviews, though (come to think of it, neither is "Sideways knocked me sideways"), so the phrase, "The second best movie of the year" on Slate's content page has elicited quite a few e-mails asking, "Dude, what's the best?" Eternal Sunshine of the SpotlessMind, of course—the best movie I've seen in a decade! Oops, there I go again.

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Wednesday, Oct. 20, 2004

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It's so good to see her
It's so good to see her

After my mini-review (below) of Being Julia, I got a couple of e-mails complaining that Warren Beatty had robbed us of one of our greatest actresses by taking Annette Bening off the market for a decade. I'm not sure it's fair to blame Beatty: Bening chose to have four kids with him in quick succession, and starting a family is as good a reason as any to put aside a career for a while. Better to blame Beatty for what he did to her in Love Affairbefore she dropped out. But, yeah, I'm sorry she didn't make more movies in the last dozen years (although she made more than Beatty!). And it hasn't been a completely dry spell. I loved her discombobulated hard-luck AA attendee in What Planet Are You From?—especially the way she clutched a positive pregnancy test while singing "High Hopes" in an exuberant quaver. She had a couple of sublime moments of hysteria in American Beauty. She's still a gutsy and beautiful actress. (Anyone in L.A. want to fill me in on her Hedda?) I can't wait for what she'll do next (unless it's the rumored remake of The Women).

One of my favorite moments in any movie is in Bugsy, when her character gets the news that Bugsy Siegel has been killed. The director, Barry Levinson, just holds on her face for a long, long moment. Look at that shot. Study it. What makes it different from other getting-the-tragic-news scenes is that it's not a "generalized" grief reaction. You could actually break her reaction down millisecond by millisecond and see that it's made up of a rapid-fire succession of very specific thoughts and feelings—shock, guilt over having betrayed him, love, longing, fury, maybe even relief, combined with something like, "How can I put a face on what I'm feeling?" She can't manage a single conclusive response. Finally, her features relax, and she says nothing. The most indelible nothing I've ever seen. ... 4:15 p.m.

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Tuesday, Oct. 19, 2004

The Unnatural:Annette Bening is a more unnatural naturalistic actress than Americans are accustomed to watching. By that I mean: She's not of the dithering, self-fondling, ostentatiously "in the moment" Method school of being real. Her characters are always struggling to translate their thoughts and feelings into performance—that is, they're always acting. Although Bening's performances are often stylized, she's as "real" as any actor I know. Maybe more real: An actor who shows you how hard it is to create a persona and keep the mask in place under a variety of trying circumstances could hardly be more "in the moment." She's a great actor's actor.

In Being Julia, a relatively faithful adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham's novel Theatre, Bening is on almost the whole time—in both senses. She plays Julia Lambert, an aging '30s London stage diva in the midst of an existential crisis. That's not what she calls it, but Julia is artistically stagnant and having visions of her dead overbearing acting mentor (Michael Gambon), who finds her work—however popular—uninspired. He recalls the time he told her to get emotionally broken-in—i.e., laid: a standard acting-guru ploy that seems to have currency with talk-show hosts, too. In that case, though, it meant throwing herself into an affair with a company member, Michael Gosselyn (Jeremy Irons), now her comfortable-as-an-old-slipper husband and producer. There are no sexual sparks left to fan with her husband; fortunately, there's a smarmy young American (Shaun Evans) putting the moves on her, and Julia's surrender to him—even if he's destined to break her heart—is both real and utilitarian.

As most good acting teachers will tell you, it's not necessary to feel something for real to play it on stage—in fact, doing so can be hazardous to your performance and emotional health. Well, you can feel it, but you have to be able to control it, to turn it off and on. The story of Being Julia is of an actress too much in control, then out of control, then putting herself back together with a new series of masks: girlish lover, devoted mum, theatrical celebrity, and even self-effacing colleague. (The last is quite an act). It's a joy to watch Bening play Julia playing "Julia"—dropping her voice to a husky purr, then letting it fly up in a fit of coquettish giggles, then affecting plainness, then reverting back into a regal scene-stealer to vanquish a pretty young newcomer (Lucy Punch), a rival onstage and off. The downside for Julia is that her teenage son (Thomas Sturridge) doubts whether any part of her is real, describing everything she says as "second hand." Something to contemplate as she savors her latest theatrical triumph…

The director, Istvan Szabo, made his reputation with another actor-in-existential-crisis movie, Mephisto (the one that ended with Klaus Maria Brandauer in a spotlight that washed out his features, the mask having supplanted the face). Being Julia, written by Ronald Harwood, is less pretentious but also less vital: There's a shopworn quality to Szabo's staging that made me think, not always happily, of adjectives like "old-fashioned" and "grown-up." That said, Lucy Punch has a delicious combination of guile and tremulousness, and Thomas Sturridge (who has a distinguished actors' pedigree) is a fascinating moody, self-conscious juvenile. For lovers of acting, the movie has only one painful element: Juliet Stevenson in a hackneyed part as Julia's sharp-tongued Cockney dresser. That this actress—who, in Truly, Madly, Deeply, gave one of the most fully lived-in portraits of romantic yearning I've ever seen—should now be clucking over her mistress' follies like innumerable second-rate actors in innumerable second-rate films seems a senseless (and heartless) waste of histrionic resources.  ... 3:35 p.m.

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