Talking Movies

April 16, 2012

The World Will Be Watching

I feel that I’ve been quite mean to Sam Worthington of late, so I’d like here to put forward a theory of his acting which applies equally to Kristen Stewart.

I was watching Conan a few weeks ago and Sam Worthington was on, promoting Man on a Ledge. I was amazed to see a relaxed, funny, and charming Worthington. I scratched my head wondering how such an affable screen presence could fail to carry over into his movie persona. The answer is I think related to what might be dubbed a cinematic version of stage fright. I came across Worthington in a pre-fame Australian crime comedy late one night and he was quite watchable. Yet reviewing Act of Valour I dubbed Worthington the baseline of competency in film acting, and reviewing Man on a Ledge I noted that he was an adequate leading man, and not much more; with his ever wavering American accent a constant distraction. Where did this divide between affable actual Worthington and stiff screen Worthington start? I think it was Avatar, where I noted that he wasn’t a particularly charismatic presence. I think the constant duel to the death he’s engaged in with his American accent is a major factor; he’s concentrating so hard on not slipping into Aussie vocal strains that he has barely any mental capital left to spend on emoting in a given scene; but I think Avatar is also the first time that he had to think seriously about the prospect of far too many people seeing his work – and so arrived the cinematic version of stage fright. Stage fright on an epic scale, though, because rather than freezing at the thought of stepping out in front of 300 people it’s cinematic stage fright at the prospect of being judged by over 100 million punters (a very rough approximation of 1 billion in ticket sales at 10 dollars a ticket) that one could expect a Cameron movie to pull into movie theatres.

I think this idea of freezing in front of a camera when fame hits applies equally to Kristen Stewart, and has been commented on far more in her unfortunate case. I don’t think Stewart has relaxed in front of camera in any of the Twilight sequels, simply because she is now painfully aware of how many people will be watching her, and picking hyper-critically over every detail of her performance; down to making sarcastic YouTube videos of how many times she bites her lip. Her original turn as Bella Swann was a sterling performance that masked the flaws in the original writing of Stephenie Meyers’ bafflingly anaemic heroine (the super-massive black hole at the heart of the Twilight phenomenon, whose passivity, immaturity and self-pitying and self-destructive nature would drive Sarah Connor, Ellen Ripley, Scarlett O’Hara and Veronica Mars around the bend) by virtue of pure charisma and charm… Pre-fame Stewart was quite a competent performer, from Panic Room to Into the Wild and on to her superb performance in Adventureland, but now she’s incredibly wooden at her worst moments; sadly frequent these days. I think a performance like Adventureland is now impossible, purely because, like Worthington, she knows that whatever she does will be scrutinised by millions of people. Her performance in The Runaways wrung substantial emotion from the weak material but it’s dispiriting to think that a talented actress is going to be reduced to ferreting out roles in un-commercial movies purely to get away from excessive destructive scrutiny.


Excessive destructive scrutiny naturally leads us to Keira Knightley. I think Knightley suffered this cinematic stage fright at a later stage in her career than Worthington or Stewart, and also is afraid not so much of ordinary cinemagoers as vindictive critics. I’m thinking here in particular of the ridiculously personalised savaging that greeted her West End turn in The Misanthrope. Knightley’s early roles were characterised by a delightfully disdainful cockiness (The Hole, Dr Zhivago, Bend It Like Beckham, Pirates) but by the time she’d renounced blockbusters after Pirates 3 I’d started to look out for what in reviewing The Duchess I dubbed brittle acting. Joe Wright seems to be the only director who can now be guaranteed to coax a truly confident performance from Knightley and her performance in The Duchess suffered from comparison with Fiennes and Atwell as in some scenes you could almost visibly see a lack of self-belief flutter across her face. Knightley seems to have taken the Stewart escape route of small movies like London Boulevard, and in Never Let Me Go chose the smallest role of the triptych as the villain and excelled as she regained her dash. Hopefully Knightley’s Anna Karenina will also swagger.

Which brings us to the great Jennifer Lawrence, who, like Ellen Page, doesn’t freeze in front of a camera when fame hits. Lawrence dominated Winter’s Bone, which she could safely have expected no one to see. She skilfully portrayed an arc from contempt to compassion in The Beaver, which she could safely have expected not that many people to see. She was affecting as Mystique in X-Men: First Class, personalising the clash in philosophy between Xavier and Magneto and evincing real terror, in a film she could safely have expected everyone to see. And now she’s equally assured as she’s been in all those movies in carrying The Hunger Games, a film which she could safely expect at least 80 million people to pay in to. Lawrence has the self-confidence that Worthington, Stewart and Knightley lack. It doesn’t matter to her that the whole world will be watching: Bring it…

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June 15, 2011

The Beaver

Mel Gibson belatedly re-unites with Maverick co-star Jodie Foster for a deeply moving and quietly topical drama.

Gibson plays Walter Black, a hopelessly depressed businessman, who is slowly driving his family over the edge. As the opening narration tells us of his physical and emotional slump, “It’s as if he’s died, but just forgot to take his body with him. So now mostly he just sleeps”. His wife Meredith (Foster) finally throws Walter out, but, just as he is about to commit suicide, he is saved by the intervention of a hand puppet. Walter takes to communicating only thru this ‘prescription puppet’ so that people must literally talk to the hand. His younger son loves this new persona, while Meredith accepts it because Walter is rejuvenated by this odd psychiatric treatment. His company’s fortunes revive too as Walter’s idea for a children’s carpentry set, Mr Beaver’s Woodchopper Kit, becomes an unexpected success. But then requests for interviews come in and Walter appears on TV, or rather The Beaver does, espousing his peculiar brand of philosophy while dismissing Walter as a mere shell of a man…

I’d have thought if anyone would attempt resuscitating Gibson’s career it’d be Robert Downey Jr repaying past favours, instead it’s almost the last person you’d expect – Jodie Foster, directing only her third film. She draws from Gibson a bravura performance that is also oddly humble. He has barely any dialogue as Walter, and after a while you hardly look at his face when he talks but instead find your gaze drawn to the perfectly synchronised gurning of his cockney hand-puppet. Gibson’s vocal performance as The Beaver is spectacular, as not only can he leap from chirpy to inspirational to menacing within a few lines, but he is also obviously replicating the accent of his recent co-star Ray Winstone to produce a well ’ard no-nonsense persona you instantly buy as capable of bullying Walter off a hotel balcony ledge and back into control of his life. The Beaver though is not a comedy; indeed it features the nastiest piece of off-screen self-harm since The Prestige.

The film becomes steadily more sinister in order to depict the toll that depression, bereavement, and the salacious publicising of such private torments, take on people. Walter’s teenage son Porter (Anton Yelchin) is obsessively fearful of becoming like his father, and so has compiled a list of 49 ways in which he is like him, each one of which he aims to eliminate thru concerted effort. Porter easily writes classmate’s assignments for money, as he has no personality to get in the way of mimicking their styles, because he has emptied himself out from fear of what he may be genetically destined to become. Yelchin is fantastic in capturing the mixture of dread and anger that powers this character’s fear and hatred of his father’s traits which will become his traits. Foster’s quietly devastating performance includes a moment where the fear in her eyes is tangible when she stands with her young blonde son, looking at her dark-haired son lying depressed on a sofa, just like her dark-haired husband…

Observing all this chaos is Porter’s superficially well-adjusted classmate Norah (Jennifer Lawrence). “Everyone loves a train wreck, just so long as it’s not us”, says The Beaver, and Lawrence skilfully portrays the shift in Norah’s attitude from contempt at the self-loathing Porter and his crazy father to a compassionate sympathy. Porter’s drafting of her valedictorian speech becomes a futile exercise because his anguish unleashes her suppressed despair over her brother’s death – “Pain is in our DNA, tragedy is our inheritance. Things will not be okay, but you won’t be alone.” Oddly enough that subdued epiphany does double service. The circus that engulfs Walter eerily parallels the blanket media coverage given to Charlie Sheen’s implosion, but you know when things turn tragic the media will melt away and estranged family will be left to pick up the pieces. Perhaps it’s time our popular culture switched from cruelty to compassion, and exploiting mental illness to understanding it.

It took the comedic maguffin of The Beaver to get a film about depression onto our screens, but ignore the misdirection; this is worth watching.

3/5

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