Greatish Performances #33

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#33 — Ashley Judd as Charlene Shiherlis in Heat (Michael Mann, 1995)

When Michael Mann’s Heat was released, in 1995, most of the chatter was about the plentiful elements that could be fairly described as highly masculine. The centerpiece was the first onscreen acting face-off between Robert De Niro and Al Pacino, a scene so immediately iconic that it remains, over twenty years later, fodder for eager talk show peacocking. Even beyond that, the film was breathlessly praised in many quarters for its lengthy metropolitan shootout scene, and the performance that churned the most awards season discussion was Val Kilmer’s brutishly appealing turn as a criminal beset by a fleet of personal failings.

And yet, more than with any other film in Mann’s feverishly intense filmography, the best acting in Heat consistently belongs to the women. Diane Venore, Amy Brenneman, and a fresh-faced newcomer named Natalie Portman (in only her second film and a mere fourteen years old at the time of the film’s release) are all fantastic, finding nuance as most of the male actors get by on gruff posturing. Best of all, there’s Ashley Judd, playing Charlene Shiherlis, the wife of Kilmer’s character, Chris.

Examining the basics of the character, Charlene threatens to be a thankless role. She’s largely there to stir conflict, berating Chris for his gambling and associated sloppiness as he gets involved with the illegal activities that make up the core of the plot, or indulging in her own clandestine activities to give De Niro’s chief crook a chance to be protective of his most misbegotten charge. It’s to Judd’s credit that she plays these scenes with a fierce sense of purpose. The exchanges become about Charlene’s strength, but embedded in her and a growing sense of moral authority that she’s testing out. Charlene is edging toward a better, freer life, and Judd makes the slow, steady progress firmly real.

The performance’s pinnacle moment — and the film’s best scene — arrives near the end, after Charlene is cajoled into leading Chris into the hands of the police. As the authorities wait inside, Charlene steps out to a balcony and quietly signals Chris down in the street that he can’t come up to see her. There will be no goodbye, no last moment together. He needs to leave, which he does. With little dialogue, Judd lets the a wave of emotions play out across her face, showing the generosity that drives the decision, the regret in the distant farewell, and the sliver of fear that the attempt to deceive the law enforcement agents will fall apart. As she returns from the balcony to sit on the couch, the cacophony of inner turmoil grows incrementally stronger, but, back in the cops’ presence, she also needs to hold it in, or else risk betraying the scheme of orchestrated escape she’s just completed. It’s a troubled relationship and a weary lifetime, conveyed with fleeting economy. Judd’s work in the scene is nothing short of a marvel.

Like a lot of Mann’s films, Heat is a feat in all the ways that can force acting intricacies to the side. It is kinetic and technically astounding (that it was entirely left out of the Academy Award nominations, in favor of, say, Batman Forever in Best Cinematography and Babe in Best Editing, was one of the most perplexing occurrences in an especially odd year for the event). It is headlong and often dizzyingly dense. Stellar acting is required to stand out amidst such din. Happily, stellar acting is exactly what Judd had in her.

 

Previously….

About Greatish Performances
#1 — Mason Gamble in Rushmore
#2 — Judy Davis in The Ref
#3 — Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca
#4 — Kirsten Dunst in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
#5 — Parker Posey in Waiting for Guffman
#6 — Patricia Clarkson in Shutter Island
#7 — Brad Pitt in Thelma & Louise
#8 — Gene Wilder in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory
#9 — Jennifer Jason Leigh in The Hudsucker Proxy
#10 — Marisa Tomei in My Cousin Vinny
#11 — Nick Nolte in the “Life Lessons” segment of New York Stories
#12 — Thandie Newton in The Truth About Charlie
#13 — Danny Glover in Grand Canyon
#14 — Rachel McAdams in Red Eye
#15 — Malcolm McDowell in Time After Time
#16 — John Cameron Mitchell in Hedwig and the Angry Inch
#17 — Michelle Pfeiffer in White Oleander
#18 — Kurt Russell in The Thing
#19 — Eric Bogosian in Talk Radio
#20 — Linda Cardellini in Return
#21 — Jeff Bridges in The Fisher King
#22 — Oliver Platt in Bulworth
#23 — Michael B. Jordan in Creed
#24 — Thora Birch in Ghost World
#25 — Kate Beckinsale in The Last Days of Disco
#26 — Michael Douglas in Wonder Boys
#27 — Wilford Brimley in The Natural
#28 — Kevin Kline in Dave
#29 — Bill Murray in Scrooged
#30 — Bill Paxton in One False Move
#31 — Jennifer Lopez in Out of Sight
#32 — Essie Davis in The Babadook

Now Playing — The Post

post

Even without director Steven Spielberg offering fairly unequivocal explanations of his motivation behind signing on for The Post — and working overtime to deliver a finished product as quickly as possible — it’s not difficult to ascertain the film’s sharp relevance to this current moment. For at least the past year, journalists and lawyers have been the power pieces on the misbegotten game board of U.S. politics, providing vital information and defense as a runner-up presidency does everything it can to surreptitiously demolish the very fundamentals of American government and society. And the power has seethed at those who dare to report the actions and ineptitude, tallying up an enemies list, tweeting it out with exhausting regularity. The Post is a timely reminder that the leaders can — and must — be held to account.

With a screenplay credited to Liz Hannah and Josh Singer, The Post concerns itself with the journalistic mining of a hefty tome of classified documents known as the Pentagon Papers, which took place in 1971. Collecting research requested by the Pentagon, the lengthy document revealed the cascading disastrous decisions of the U.S. government throughout the military involvement in Vietnam, and the corresponding efforts to cover up the mistakes by flagrantly lying to the public. It was scandalous, and the executive branch — headed by Richard Nixon — did everything it could to suppress the reporting, dragging newspapers into court in a major judicial test of the First Amendment.

Spielberg’s film essentially embeds with The Washington Post, as they first find themselves lagging behind The New York Times in reporting on the papers, and then taking over the leading role once the Gray Lady is hit with a court injunction. The prime debate about whether or not to defy an already aggrieved White House with new stories is waged between editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) and publisher Kay Graham (Meryl Streep). The former is driven by an enduring sense of mission — that this sort of reporting is exactly what newspapers must do — and the latter is concerned because the media company she inherited is in precarious financial times, reliant on a public stock offering to stay afloat. A war with the U.S. government threatens to undo everything.

There’s not much doubt where Spielberg’s sympathies ultimately lie, but he is a shrewd enough storyteller to realize that the conflict must be even. Graham’s reticence needs to be grounded in good sense, otherwise the film merely bides time. Streep is an invaluable collaborator in this respect, quietly signaling the agonizing journey Graham must go through, weighing the cold business decision against the legacy of the newspaper. On the other side of the history, the decision is easy. Spielberg and Streep work together to offer the useful reminder that it was damned difficult in the moment, especially since Graham was being continually underestimated because she was the rare woman commanding a sizable media organization.

Streep may be the standout, but Spielberg has the clout to assemble a Murderer’s Row of great actors to fill out the cast. In addition to Hanks’s typically strong work as Bradlee, the film includes a great supporting performance by Bob Odenkirk as Ben Bagdikian, a Post assistant editor who is instrumental in landing the story. In general, there’s admirable commitment from everyone involved — including Matthew Rhys, Tracy Letts, Carrie Coon, Jesse Plemons, and Bradley Whitford — investing life into their characters, no matter how brief the screen time. While other directors might have settled for useful cogs in the machine to help keep the complex plot chugging along, Spielberg makes certain these are full-fledged people moving in and out of the scenes. Largely because of this insistence on developing a world with in the film, the stakes stay high.

Of course, I mean the stakes stay high dramatically. Then, as now, the dangers to the republic couldn’t be starker. If Spielberg sometimes underlines that point a touch too forcefully, he can hardly be blamed for such a minor infraction against cinematic restraint. When ringing alarm bells, it’s not advisable to muffle the sound.

From the Archive — Happy-Go-Lucky

sally happy

As this slightly worrisome Oscar season continues to shower precursor awards on the problematic film about mass advertising on the outskirts of a small community, spare a thought for the fleeting front-runners from earlier in the cycle. Barring a major surprise in my continuing catch-up on 2017 releases, I remain firmly on Team Saoirse for any and all Best Actress in a Leading Role trophies. Even so, I have tremendous affection for the work Sally Hawkins delivers in The Shape of Water. Of course, I also thought she should have been a contender about a decade ago.

In his best films, Mike Leigh’s unique approach to crafting characters and a story is surprisingly invisible. Leigh famously builds his art by bringing actors together, giving them softly defined roles and working through improvisations until he finds his way to what he wants. He embraces the collective to reach the personal. This isn’t apparent in the meticulous poignancy of Secrets and Lies or the tightly plotting of Vera Drake. In lesser hands, these films would be as freewheeling as a half-baked Judd Apatow comedy. Leigh makes them focused and pointed.

His new film Happy-Go-Lucky, on the other hand, seems like a product of an extended exercise in playfulness. It’s loose and shambling, prone to anecdotal meanderings and just scattered enough that it sometimes feels more like the first episode of a loopy television series, introducing the characters that will each get their turn in coming weeks. It plainly doesn’t hold together, and that absence of cohesion makes it slight. As it turns out, that’s a pretty good thing, too.

Happy-Go-Lucky follows Poppy, a British schoolteacher whose relentless cheerfulness is perfect for guiding young children in constructing bird masks out of paper bags, and equally effective for ribald nightclubbing, contentious driving lessons and the general murky travails of life. There are friendships to value, potential romances to cultivate and the cheery busywork of afternoon dance classes or trampoline exercise sessions to beam through. Challenges arise to be met, but not necessarily resolved. Leigh’s narrative is relaxed in its open-ended quality, as if Leigh is asking his audience to adopt Poppy’s conviction that everything will turn out all right. The proof of that doesn’t exist in tidy culminating scenes, but in our own optimism.

This film may also contain one of the purer manifestations of Leigh’s methodology in a performance. Sally Hawkins’ zippily wondrous turn as Poppy could easily be one sharp note, a comic conceit with no soul. Instead, Poppy is fully developed with layers that belie simplistic impressions of how this character should operate. Poppy’s character is built from the inside out with reserves of compassion, insight and intelligence that can get obscured by her regular bursts of cheeky laughter. Hawkins could have easily coasted on a spirited twinkle to play her. Instead, she has thought through every bit of her and the thoroughness makes everything richer.

I’ve seen the seams in Leigh’s work before, in the charmless maneuvering of Career Girls or the buckshot quirk of the acclaimed Life is Sweet. This time, it’s not a problem. Indeed, the metaphor needs revamping. Instead of seams, it’s the framework that Leigh has willingly put on display. This is one of the instances in which seeing the framework is just a reminder that the structure is sturdy.

One for Friday — Amy Rigby, “I Don’t Wanna Talk About Love No More”

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Amy Rigby was one of those performers whose name I regularly heard and read attached to eager praise of her songwriting, yet for ages, I never heard a not of her music. As the varied streaming options make mere memories of the time when the instant gratification of hearing new — or any — music wasn’t readily available to all, I have almost a fondness for the lost sense of mystery. With limited dollars, so many records to buy, and little other recourse for exploration, I missed out on Ribgy for a long, long time.

Once I had ready access to a radio station library again — beginning in 2001 — I still couldn’t be my hands on much of her music. In fact, I have no clear recollection of any of Rigby’s albums until the 2005 release Little Fugitive hit the station rotation. It was exactly what I’d hoped: crafty, witty, emotionally piercing, and performed with firm confidence. It was the sort of songwriting that could immediately send me into a swoon, wondering where it had been all my life. “I Don’t Wanna Talk About Love No More,” to use the most potent example, is the sort of track I would have circled back to over and over again back when mix tapes were my primary form of intimate communication with others.

Some music, blessedly, is worth the wait.

Listen or download –> Amy Rigby, “I Don’t Wanna Talk About Love No More”

(Disclaimer: I believe — though I’m not certain — that Little Fugitive is an album that can no longer be acquired from your favorite local, independently-owned record store in a manner that compensates both the proprietor of said store and the original artist. It can, however, be purchased from Rigby’s bandcamp page, and I encourage all reading to do just that. I shared this song in this space not as a replacement for commerce, but as an sample encouraging music fans to engage in it. I consider this fair use, but I do know the rules. I will gladly and promptly remove this file from my little corner of the digital world if asked to do so by any individual or entity with due authority to make such a request.)

Great Moments in Literature

“Hints of robustness survived in him, more than a hint of primitive good looks, and Margaret, noting the spine that might have been straight, and the chest that might have broadened, wondered whether it paid to give up the glory of the animal for a tail coat and a couple of ideas. Culture had worked in her own case, but during the last few weeks she had doubted whether it humanized the majority, so wide and so widening is the gulf that stretches between the natural and the philosophic man, so many the good chaps who are wrecked in trying to cross it. She knew this type very well—the vague aspirations, the mental dishonesty, the familiarity with the outsides of books. She knew the very tones in which he would address her.”

—E.M Forster, Howards End, 1910

 

“YOU MISJUDGE ME, MY DEAR. THIS IS A QUESTION NOT OF MURDER, BUT OF BUSINESS EFFICIENCY …AND ADVANCEMENT.”

—Roger Stern, THE INCREDIBLE HULK, Vol. 1, No. 236, “Kill or Be Killed!,” 1979

Playing Catch-Up — The Final Girls; Baby Face; Lightning Strikes Twice

final girls

The Final Girls (Todd Strauss-Schulson, 2015). This send-up of horror films — with special satiric sanctimony leveled at the slasher films of the nineteen-eighties — can’t help but draw comparisons to similar efforts in recent years. And already muddled film looks positively witless when gauged against titles that took the impulse for impish deconstruction to greater heights. Max (Taissa Farmiga) is still smarting from the recent death of her actress mother (Malin Åkerman) when she — for perplexing reasons — attends a midnight screening of the beloved, departed parent’s most famous film, Camp Bloodbath. Max and a few of her friends mystically show up inside the movie, using their knowledge of the plot proceedings to keep themselves safe from masked killer Billy Murphy (Daniel Norris). The film’s spiked taffy tone recalls, of all things, the dismal Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle Last Action Hero. Director Todd Strauss-Schulson veers between amused affection for and snide derision of the genre trappings of horror flicks. The highly distracted point of view combines with the surface-level spoofery to result in a film that plays like a clanging mess.

 

baby face

Baby Face (Alfred E. Green, 1933). This early showcase for Barbara Stanwyck is arguably best known for a plainspoken salaciousness that ran it afoul of the censors as the Hays Code was ramping up. Stanwyck plays Lily Powers, a young woman who follows the advice of a cobbler (Alphone Ethier) who frequents the raucous speakeasy run by her louse of a father (Robert Barrat). Lily jaunts out into the world with a scheme to achieve upward mobility by treating lustful, susceptible men as ladder rungs. Unsurprisingly, Stanwyck is fantastic, especially when the script feeds her sardonic lines to fling at the various dolts and dupes who swarm around her (including, briefly, John Wayne, six years before Stagecoach made him a star). Alfred E. Green directs with a flat-footed efficiency that’s a marker of the era when Hollywood was a grinding company town. The film is remarkable in its proud amorality, at least until an obligatory romantic ending that doesn’t jibe with all that’s come before it.

 

lightning strikes twice

Lightning Strikes Twice (King Vidor, 1951). This crime drama is like a freewheeling hybrid of film noir, Gothic horror, and Western. Shelley Carnes (Ruth Roman) is an actress bound for a dude ranch to recover from the strain of being strangled eight performances per week in a touring company of Othello. She’s diverted into the sphere of Richard Trevelyan (Richard Todd), a convicted murdered who was sprung from death row when a retrial resulted in a hung jury. The screenplay (by Lenore J. Coffee, adapting Margaret Echard’s 1940 novel, A Man Without Friends) merely skims its finger gingerly across the florid lunacy it introduces, but King Vidor fully invests in the twisty darkness, playing with encroaching shadows and reflections as a visual motif. He also infuses and sense of constant menace into the film, heightening the unpredictability as Shelley falls for Richard, even as paranoia about his lurking motivations overtakes her. The performances are mostly unremarkable, but Mercedes McCambridge, just a couple years after her Oscar-winning turn in All the King’s Men, brings a zesty oddness to her turn as a dude ranch proprietor wrapped up in Richard’s sordid past.

 

College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — An Introduction

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Over seven years ago, I shared the first College Countdown post, taking advantage of an online find — an old CMJ Top Cuts chart, which are devilishly difficult to track down in the otherwise information-packed superhighway — to offer a revival of sorts, staging my own humble version of the radio program that aired on my alma mater student-run radio station on Sunday nights. Back then, the radio show provided me a weekly study session on the songs dominating the left end of the dial as I lavished in a daring music scene that was largely new to me. In this online iteration, it has mostly been an opportunity for me to write on songs, albums, and artists from decades past, a handy entryway to retrospective music criticism.

Given the resources I have — and, being completely honest, the eras which stir the most interest in me — the years I examine are fading more and more into the rearview as time passes. We are upon the thirtieth anniversary of albums that were brand spankin’ new when I landed at my college radio station. Writing about New Order and the Jesus and Mary Chain now is the equivalent of tapping out words in tribute to Chuck Berry and the Everly Brothers back then. It’s undeniable that I’m devoting this weekly chunk of the digital landscape to oldies. Plain and simple, it seems about time to let this feature follow its predominant subjects into relic status.

But surely we can fit in one more countdown, a final countdown, if you will. And if there’s only one more exercise in counting backwards, it should be — to use some appropriately old-timey language — a real humdinger.

Not so long ago, I wrapped up a countdown of the Top 250 songs from the first ten years of CMJ, the now-bygone trade publication which served college radio. Compiled in mid-1989, the songs provided a nifty encapsulation of what was arguably college radio’s most magical era, when the likes of R.E.M., U2, the Cure, the Smiths, Hüsker Dü, Erasure, and the Replacement emerged and became dominant in a cool little subsection of pop culture — and occasionally crossed over to be unlikely hitmakers on the portions of the airwaves peppered with commercials.

The Top 250 songs chart was published in a handsome paperback sent out to all reporting stations on the occasion of the anniversary. And that wasn’t the only chart contained therein.

On a poster folded into the middle of the book, there was tallying of popularity across the decade even more ludicrously robust than the listing of tracks favored by college radio. Simply dubbed “CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989,” the chart stretched into quadruple digits to capture the albums that had captivated college programmers the most. It is vast and wide-ranging, thrilling and daunting. Taken together, it is unquestionably the sound of college radio in the nineteen-eighties.

And every last bit of it will make up the next — and last — College Countdown. This, my friends, will take years.

It formally gets underway next week, and will continue every Sunday from there, until we reach the very top. Brew some coffee, warm up the transmitter, and make sure there are a couple spare needles for the turntable. This is going to be quite a ride.

For those looking to review where we’ve gone thus far, these are all the other countdowns that brought us to this point:

 

The 90FM-WWSP charts

90FM’s Top 90 of 1989

90FM’s Top 90 of 1995

90FM’s Top 90 of 1996

The CMJ charts

The First CMJ Album Chart (from 1978)

CMJ Top 40 Cuts, March 16, 1990

CMJ Radio Top Cuts chart from Winter 1991

CMJ Top 50 Albums of 2001

CMJ Top 250 Songs of 1979-1989

 

The other charts

The Trouser Press Top 10 of 1981

KROQ-FM’s Top 40 Songs of 1987

First Billboard Modern Rock Tracks chart from Fall 1988

Rockpool‘s Top 20 College Radio Albums from November 1988

The Gavin Report Top 20 Alternative Chart from October 1992