Movie MVPs of 2019: Florence Pugh and Adam Driver (Plus Keanu!)

Posted on December 31, 2019 at 8:00 am

Every year one thing I especially look forward to are the surprises — the actors we have not heard of as the year begins but who will dazzle us with acting skill and cinematic charisma, and to those we think we know but discover all over again as they show us range and ability we had not recognized. This year my acting MVPs are one in each category.

The one who was all but unknown last year but gave us three performances that could not have been more different and each was fully committed, thoughtful, and utterly compelling.

First, she played real-life wrestler Saraya Knight in “Fighting With My Family,” written and directed by Stephen Merchant.

Then, she was Dani in “Midsommer,” one of the year’s most disturbing horror films. She plays a perhaps-demanding but overall normal young women struggling with a devastating loss who joins her sometimes-distant boyfriend (Jack Raynor) at a once-every-90-years summer festival that gets, well, out of hand.

She plays Amy in Greta Gerwig’s gorgeous “Little Women,” giving more depth and heart to the character than in any previous portrayal, including Alcott’s.

All of this makes me very excited about her next film, “Black Widow,” where she plays the sister of Scarlett Johansson’s Avenger.

While we wait, take a look at her earlier performances as Lady Macbeth (not the Shakespeare one, though equally murderous).

And she played Cordelia opposite Sir Anthony Hopkins in “King Lear” (available on Amazon Prime):]

We already knew Adam Driver, of course, from his breakthrough on Lena Dunham’s “Girls” to his appearances as Kylo Ren in two Star Wars movies. But 2019 was another breakthrough for him as he appeared in very different roles in three films.

He was back as Kylo Ren, of course, in “The Rise of Skywalker.”

He played real-life Congressional staffer Daniel Jones, who would not let the record of American abuse of detainees in “The Report” (on Amazon Prime).

And he played a character based on writer-director Noah Baumbach in “Marriage Story” (available on Netflix). The vulnerability he shows in this film is breathtaking. He even sings Sondheim, and it is very moving. His co-star, Scarlett Johansson, has also had a remarkable year with a beautiful performance in this film and what I think is her career best so far in “Jojo Rabbit.”

I was also lucky enough to see him on Broadway in his Tony-nominated performance in “Burn This.” Coming up for him is “The Last Duel,” written by Ben Affleck and Matt Damon, who also co-star, along with “Killing Eve’s” Jodie Comer.

I have to mention Keanu Reeves, as well, who should get some sort of good sport award for playing a gif-worthy heightened version of himself in “Always Be My Maybe,” a different version of himself in “Between Two Firms,” Duke Caboom, an Evel Kenievel-like daredevil doll in “Toy Story 4,” and an unstoppable assassin in “John Wick 3.”

I look forward to more from all of these performers (more Bill and Ted!) but most of all I look forward to the actors we don’t know at all this year but by next December 31 we won’t break able to imagine the movies without them.

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MVP of the Week: Zazie Beetz

Posted on October 3, 2019 at 8:00 am

There are two major nationwide releases this week, “Lucy in the Sky” and “Joker.” Both are stories of people who go nuts after losing their jobs. And both feature the wonderfully-named and wonderfully-talented Zazie Beetz. She is a highlight of both otherwise very uneven films.

I was impressed with her performance as Domino in “Deadpool 2.” Her two appearances this week in small but vital roles show her range and powerful screen charisma. In “Joker,” she plays a single mom who lives in the same building as the title character. In “Lucy in the Sky” she plays the main character’s professional and romantic rival. In both films, the main characters obsess about her character, and we can see why. She will return to the Domino role for “X-Force” and I am especially intrigued by another of her upcoming projects, “Nine Days,” a fantasy about a soul waiting to be born, where she will appear opposite Bill Skarsgård, and Benedict Wong.

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Batman’s Nemesis Joker — Who Played Him Best?

Posted on October 2, 2019 at 8:10 am

As Joaquin Phoenix’s “Joker” comes to the screen this week, we take a look at previous incarnations of Batman’s most popular villain:

Copyright DC Comics 1940

1. The Joker made his debut as a serial killer whose poison left victims with a gruesome rictus “grin” in the very first Batman comic, created by Bob Kane, Bill Finger, and Jerry Robinson. He was originally intended to be killed off, but the editor at DC liked him and he appeared in nine of the first twelve Batman issues.

2. Cesar Romero played Joker in the campy 1960’s television series.

3. My personal favorite — Jack Nicholson played Joker in the Tim Burton “Batman” movie opposite Michael Keaton.

4. Heath Ledger won a posthumous Oscar for his Joker, in the Christopher Nolan Dark Knight movie with Christian Bale.

5. I’m not a fan of Jared Leto’s Joker in “Suicide Squad,” but you have to admire his commitment.

6. The great Mark Hamill provides the creepy laugh and voice of the Joker in the animated series.

7. And now Joaquin Phoenix takes over in the first film to make Joker the lead character (we only glimpse future Batman Bruce Wayne as a young boy).

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Sheila O’Malley on “Bacting” — Acting from the Back

Posted on August 24, 2019 at 8:00 am

Actors often refer to their “instrument,” as though their faces, voices, and bodies are for them what a clarinet or piano or violin is for a musician. The movies invented a new kind of acting, and in its earliest days performers who were expert at projecting to the back row of the theater had to adapt to silent films and close-ups, where the slightest flicker of a facial expression had more of an impact than an entire play’s declaiming.

Photo by Paramount/Kobal/Shutterstock (5886139z)
Kim Novak
Vertigo – 1958
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Paramount
USA
Scene Still
Sueurs froides

Today we hear their voices, but often in a whisper, and the close-up of a face is still more eloquent than the most compelling line of dialogue. But what if we do not show their face at all? Actress-turned critic/screenwriter/director Sheila O’Malley writes in a fascinating essay for Film Comment about “back-ting,” which she calls what we see, feel, and learn when an actor turns his or her back to the camera.

Movies from the classic Hollywood period are filled with great back-ting, perhaps because so many of the actors came from theater, where the body has to do much of the heavy lifting. If your character is grieving, the people in the cheap seats have to feel it. Watch Joan Crawford walk across a room. She is the container for the film, not the other way around. Crawford, whose closeups remain high watermarks of the art form, understood how her body was responsible for moving the story forward. Maybe the most famous back-ting moment is John Wayne’s in the final shot of The Searchers. Seen through the dark doorway, he turns and walks into the desert. At one point, his left knee buckles underneath him. It’s a subtle stumble. In his lonely back, we can see his terrible awareness of the brutal life he has lived and what it has cost him.

The gold standard of back-ting is Bette Davis. She has yet to be topped. You want to know how a character has transformed? Watch Davis walk across a room. You want to understand a character’s objective? Look at Davis’ posture, or how she lights a cigarette, or where she places her hands. Davis wrote in her first memoir about studying with Martha Graham as a young woman, and how influential dance training was on her approach to performance: “ body via the dance could send a message… would with a single thrust of her weight convey anguish. Then in an anchored lift that made her ten feet tall, she became all joy. One after the other. Hatred, ecstasy, age, compassion! There was no end, once the body was disciplined.” Davis continued: “Every time I climbed a flight of stairs in films—and I spent half my life on them—it was Graham step by step.”

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Tribute: Peter Fonda

Posted on August 23, 2019 at 6:18 am

Copyright 1969 Pando Company

We mourn the loss of Peter Fonda, a fine actor whose work was overshadowed by his Oscar-winning father, Henry Fonda, and sister, Jane Fonda. He will be best remembered for “Easy Rider,” a film that turned Hollywood upside down in the late 60’s with its fiercely independent spirit on and off-screen.

For rogerebert.com, Matt Zoller Seitz writes:

From the start of his stardom, the actor, director, filmmaker, producer, activist, and father of actress Bridget Fonda (“Jackie Brown,” “Point of No Return”) had a complicated vision of his time and country. It endured as he aged and started playing roles that commented on his youthful stardom. His signature works are “The Wild Angels,” “Easy Rider,”, “Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry,” “The Hired Hand,” “Ulee’s Gold,” “The Limey,” “Escape from L.A.,” and “Ghost Rider.” All were animated by words and phrases that might pop into the heads of Peter Fonda fans when they thought about his career: motorcycles, counterculture, hippies, drugs, alienation, chaos, romanticism, regret, philosophical reflection, world-weariness, hope, and fathers and sons.

It was just six years earlier that he played bland Sandra Dee’s bland love interest in the ultra-bland “Tammy and the Doctor.”

Copyright Universal Studios 1963

But then, the same year that the film of the Woodstock festival came to theaters, he co-wrote, produced, and starred in the film that was so transformative it led the title of one of the best books ever written about Hollywood history. As Variety wrote, the film “shook up Hollywood and revolutionized the country’s sense of itself….He was the youth-culture version of an icon, rebel son of the archetypal patriarch, and it meant something seismic to see a figure like this — the descendant of American royalty, who could have gone the Ivy League route, or else enlisted in Vietnam — reject his father’s relatively conservative values.” The film cost just $400,000 but made $60 million. Hollywood might not have understood the counterculture, but it understood box office economics.

Copyright 1997 Orion Pictures
In 1997, he played the title role in “Ulee’s Gold.” Director Victor Nunez remembered, “When we started shooting, he was an inspiration on the set. He did a lot of scenes with real, swarming bees. But Peter never got stung. Which says something about him as an actor — he could even charm the bees.”

May his memory be a blessing.

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