Vote for me on the Lamb Character Actor Draft!

I recently appeared on another episode of the Lambcast, this time discussing character actors along with Dan Heaton of Public Transportation Snob, Nick Powell of The Cinematic Katzenjammer and Dylan Fields of Man I Love Films. We each picked a dream roster of North American character actors to populate a mythical film, selecting from various age groups, and with an In Memoriam round, and you can go vote on who selected the best lineup here:

VOTE FOR ME!

Obviously the choice is easy, as my list is comprised of such greats as Ernest Borgnine, Gene Hackman, Sam Elliott, James Woods, Yaphet Kotto, Stanley Tucci, John Hawkes, Christopher McDonald and Giovanni Ribisi. There isn’t a weak link amongst them, and if you look at the films these guys have made between them you get some terrific performances. Here’s a quick five from each actor, to really showcase the power of this cast: Continue reading

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Saving Private Ryan

There is a drinking game, the most disrespectful and coma-inducing that I’ve ever come across, where when watching Saving Private Ryan the players all drink a shot every time someone on screen dies. If one were to play this game, which I cannot advise for medical, moral and cinematic reasons, then I would recommend having 50-100 shots per player lined up ready and waiting for the opening 25 minutes of the film, as the much celebrated D-Day landing is a veritable cornucopia of fatalities, with soldiers coming a cropper as soon as the rear doors of the landing ships open, drowning in the water struggling with heavy packs, being carried to safety and every other way available.

This opening scene is a landmark in war movie history, recreating the sense of utter confusion and imminent death present at that time. With a shaking camera, dialogue lost to explosions and gunfire, men wandering around after lost limbs and a bloody tide lapping at fallen soldiers and shot fish alike, it’s almost a relief once the landing has finished and they can get on with the plot, as Tom Hank’s captain is ordered to find Private James Francis Ryan, last survivor of four brothers and location unknown after parachuting somewhere in France. With a cast positively brimming with stars and up-and-comers – Giovanni Ribisi, Matt Damon, Nathan Fillion, Jeremy Davies, Tom Sizemore, Edward Burns, Adam Goldberg, Paul Giamatti, Vin Diesel, Barry Pepper, Ted Danson, Bryan Cranston, Dennis Farina – no character is left without some characterisation, or providing an insight into a soldiers life, be it collecting dirt from every country they fight in, writing a novel about their experiences or making sure every German soldier they come across knows they have been bested by a Jew.
There are those that claim this is a long, boring film about walking, bookended by two of the greatest battle scenes in cinematic history, yet without the middle, where we truly understand the brotherly bond felt by soldiers fighting and dying together, would the closing battle – a much more personal, strategic affair than the opener, have such an impact? For my money this is Spielberg’s most cinematic film, showcasing his ability to show ordinary people in extraordinary situations, yet without losing the human touch.
Choose film 9/10

Public Enemies

Michael Mann likes the central plot of Heat – expert cop and master thief and their teams on a destructive path towards one another with disregard for their personal lives – that this is the third time he’s made it, after the TV-movie L.A. Takedown, the DeNiro/Pacino classic and now this depression-era take, pitting Johnny Depp’s public enemy number one John Dillinger against Christian Bale’s FBI man Melvin Purvis (whose name is almost an anagram of Mr Evil Penis, but is one for vermin pelvis). (For all I know this is also the plot of Miami Vice and the Last of the Mohicans, I haven’t got round to watching them yet but it seems unlikely.)
The parallels with Heat run deep – the first criminal act, an opening prison break, is almost botched by a trigger happy accomplice soon removed from the group – but the key difference is the pivotal central scene where our two leads meet. In Heat, DeNiro’s thief McCauley and Pacino’s cop Hanna share a mutual respect, that they are dealing here with the other side of their own coin, a talented man with opposite morals. Here, Dillinger and Pervis despise one another, disgusted that they are within the other’s presence or mentioned in the same breath. This complex central relationship was key to the layered texture of Heat, and its absence is felt.
Depp has always been better at characters (Scissorhands, Sparrow) than he has emotions, and Dillinger is bland and lifeless in his hands, yet still more likeable than Bale’s cold, business-like Pervis. DiCaprio would probably have been a better fit for Dillinger, but as FBI director J. Edgar Hoover appears here as Billy Crudup this would have made DiCaprio and Clint Eastwood’s current biopic of the man problematic.
All this in account, this is still an entertaining action/crime movie, with plenty of period gun porn for those that way inclined. Mann’s attention to detail is perfect, and there is some of the best comedy ever seen in a 1930s set cop movie – see Dillinger wondering around the offices of the FBI department out to catch him, casually asking the score of a sports game. Smarter and more thought provoking than most gun-happy movies, this is definitely worth a watch.
Choose film 7/10

Avatar

So, you’ve created a new way to make films; filling a large indoor space (dubbed The Volume) with cameras, covering your actors’ bodies with hundreds of motion capturing dots, films a scene then changing the actors to aliens and the warehouse to a jungle afterward on a computer, but you can’t think of a decent story to set it round. So what do you do? If you’re James Cameron, director of such cinematic milestones as Terminator 1 & 2, Aliens and Titanic, then you steal. From everything. There isn’t an original moment in Avatar, with Platoon, Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Halo, Cameron’s own Aliens and, most notably, Dances with Wolves all receiving enough ‘loving homage’ to keep copyright lawyers in business for years to come. In the hands of a lesser director, or without the shiny new technology and 3D CGI gimmickry available this film would have been lost amid the also-ran film flotilla of 2009, but effects overcame plotting to elevate the film above its rightful place.
Sam Worthington plays Jake Sully, a US marine (with Worthington’s trademark unshakeable Australian accent) paralysed from the waist down, who volunteers to take the place of his recently deceased scientist brother in a mission to infiltrate the alien race of the Na’vi, 9ft tall lanky blue cat people with 4ft long rope-like tails and long black ponytails with USBs on the end. Jake is able to control a scientifically grown ‘avatar’ that responds to his body when wired up in a big plastic pod.
The maguffin of the plot is that the Na’vi live in a giant tree, under which is a vast source of a precious fuel known as unobtainium. You get the feeling they were supposed to rename that at some point but forgot, or Cameron came up with it and no-one had the guts to tell him it sounded stupid. Stephen Lang’s scarred Colonel Quaritch and Giovanni Ribisi’s corporate suit Parker want Jake to get the aliens to move, whilst Sigourney Weaver’s scientist and fellow avatar occupier Dr. Grace Augustine wants to learn more about the Na’vi way of life. When Jake is accepted into the alien tribe, he is torn between these two warring factions, as well as his own developing feelings for tribe member Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), and a simpler way of life that greatly appeals to him.
Breaking us into the sci-fi world gently, first showing us men, soldiers, scientists, then the avatars floating in their booths, 3D holograms and a few active avatars, we are then transplanted to the fully realised, completely created yet seamless and immersive fantasy world of Na’vi home planet Pandora, with vibrant, unusually active foliage and a wide variety of lifeforms perhaps a little too familiar to be believable as entirely alien. With 6-limbed bat-lemurs, giant hammerhead rhinos, vicious panther/dilophosaurus, wild oil-black dogs, helicopter lizards and of course giant freaking dragons, it’s not just the Earth film back catalogue from which Cameron has borrowed.
There was uproar when Saldana’s Neytiri wasn’t considered for an Oscar due to it being hidden behind a computer generated mask (yet Al Pacino was nominated for his latex-obscured turn in Dick Tracy, and John Hurt won for his in the Elephant Man), but there is no doubt she should have been considered for her fiery, animalistic turn as the fierce warrioress, her initial aggression towards Jake’s ‘dreamwalker’ gradually melting to pride, friendship and affection, ultimately leading to some freaky blue alien sex that was traumatising and completely unnecessary. As ever Worthington puts in a blank canvas of a role, although this is arguably what is required of his jarhead moron, leaving him ready to be imprinted upon by Quaritch, Augustine of Neytiri.
For those concerned with a new spin on Titanic’s across the tracks romance dominating the film fear not, as there is more than just romance breaking through language barriers and a less-than-subtle environmental message. The final half hour battle between the soldiers and the Na’vi, including aerial assaults and a reversal of Aliens’ giant mech battle, rivals any war film, and is worth the entry fee alone. Be sure to stop watching before Leona Lewis’ ear-gougingly awful credits song though.
Choose film 6/10