Monday, July 12, 2021

Random Notes on Recent Performances

Nina Hoss in The Audition (2019)

The focus of the German actress Nina Hoss is so precise and intense it’s almost freaky: when she levels her gaze at someone she’s a little like Sissy Spacek as Carrie choosing a victim for her revenge. That isn’t to say that Hoss brings a sinister quality to her performances, just that her concentration is so unencumbered that it can be unsettling. She burns holes in the screen. Hoss has mostly been associated with the director Christian Petzold, who directed her in Barbara (where she plays an East German doctor in the days before the Berlin Wall fell, sent to a remote rural village as punishment for her attempts to escape to the West) and Phoenix (where she’s a Jewish nightclub singer, a Holocaust survivor still in love with the non-Jewish husband who probably turned her in). North American viewers would recognize her from Homeland. In the recent German picture The Audition she’s a violin teacher at a conservatory whose determination to see a student she fought to get admitted shine in his probationary audition triggers all the troubled corners of her life – her own paralyzing perfectionism as a performer, her inability to make simple decisions, her relationships with her husband and her teenage son (who’s also a student at the conservatory). The movie, directed by Ina Weisse, is very good, despite an ending that seems to shift it into some other movie altogether. But Hoss is its undeniable raison d’être. She is a master of ambivalence: one of those laser looks can uncover two or three layers of meaning. Her scenes with Simon Abkarian as her husband, an instrument maker who either suspects or has worked out that she’s sleeping with a colleague (who’s also one of his customers), carry contradictions of meaning and intention like invisible splinters.

Sacha Baron Cohen as Abbie Hoffman in The Trial of the Chicago 7 (2020).

The English actor Sacha Baron Cohen’s Oscar nomination for his portrait of Abbie Hoffman in The Trial of the Chicago 7 struck me as condescending, one of those cases where the Hollywood establishment appeared to be saying, “Hey, can you believe it? This guy can actually do something besides his usual shtick.” But there’s nothing tricked-up about his performance; it’s not a stunt. Many people make the mistake of seeing his Borat as a kind of fraternity-party spoof that’s intriguing because he had the nerve to take it as far as he did, but as a feat of acting it’s astonishing. You can’t compare it to even the most inspired caricatures on Saturday Night Live because even when those comics are geniuses, like Kristen Wiig, you can always see the performer inside. Of course you’re supposed to; that’s part of the fun. But Cohen is the actor as spook: he’s so deeply submerged in the characters he plays that you never get the smallest glimpse of a personality apart from them. Cohen was brilliant as the blackmailing snake-oil salesman Pirelli in Sweeney Todd and as the Station Inspector in Hugo. In the second he reacts every time his wooden leg, the result of a war injury, trips him up with the impassiveness of Buster Keaton meeting a betrayal of fortune but with the merest whisper of fury underneath. In the gripping French (English-language) TV miniseries The Spy he has what must be the ultimate Sacha Baron Cohen part. He plays Eli Cohen, the real-life Israeli spy who adapts himself so completely to the role of a wealthy Syrian patriot that he starts to forget who he really is. This is the first time this actor has had the opportunity to be glamorous – he looks dazzling in expensively tailored suits and his height (he’s six three), which is part of the fish-out-of-water running gag in the Borat comedies, helps to give him the gleam of prosperity and an almost outré handsomeness. Eli Cohen’s persona, Kamel Thaabet, is a generous, enthusiastic host whose warmth washes over everyone he encounters, but that warmth is entirely manufactured. Eli Cohen gives a towering performance. Sacha Baron Cohen’s own performance is uncanny: it’s like watching a mirror image that suddenly conveys hints of entrapment.

Riz Ahmed in Sound of Metal (2019).

Riz Ahmed’s superb work in last year’s Sound of Metal as a heavy metal drummer and recovering heroin addict who’s going deaf is merely the latest marvel from this staggeringly accomplished Anglo-Pakistani actor. It’s actually the most conventional major role he’s had – the hero of a triumph-of-the-spirit movie who struggles against an enveloping handicap – though no one would ever accuse Ahmed of approaching it conventionally. He has an inchoate grandeur that makes you think of a heroic figure not yet fully liberated from the sculptor’s stone, yet his eyes flicker with pain and bruised gallantry. You can see the legacy of sensitive, crippled tough guys like the young Brando and the young Paul Newman, but Ahmed holds himself differently.

Sound of Metal isn’t much of a movie, but making his first fiction film, the director Darius Marder does the most important thing right: the acting is uniformly excellent. You care so much about the people in the movie that the clumsiness of the storytelling is hardly a problem. The whole picture is built around Ahmed’s fantastic performance. In the other movies I’ve admired him in, Nightcrawler (written and directed by Dan Gilroy) and The Sisters Brothers (directed by Jacques Audiard), the strength of his acting was in the way he balanced his fellow actors. In Nightcrawler, Jake Gyllenhaal plays an L.A. street photographer who unscrupulousness amounts to psychopathology and Ahmed is the naïve assistant who is doomed as soon as he tries to emulate his boss’s bravado and ambition. In The Sisters Brothers, Ahmed is a heady inventor whose device for locating gold in streams during the California gold rush attracts the attention of a powerful gangster. The inventor’s purity of purpose wins over both the man sent to track him down (Gyllenhaal) and the killers (Joaquin Phoenix and John C. Reilly) sent to extract his secret. Ahmed had the great luck to land key roles in two of the most extraordinary American movies of the last decade. And in the TV miniseries The Night Of he played a young man thrown in jail for a murder he didn’t commit. The Night Of is based on a British series called Criminal Justice where Ben Whishaw was cast as the poor bastard who winds up in the wrong place at the wrong time. But once the protagonist is incarcerated Whishaw, gifted as he is, stopped being convincing, because a capacity for suggesting subtle shades of moral darkness doesn’t happen to be among the bows in his quiver. It’s in Ahmed’s; he gives an unnerving performance.

Orion Lee and John Magaro in First Cow (2019).

In Kelly Reichardt’s poetic western First Cow, the acting of John Magaro as an itinerant cook and Orion Lee as a Chinese immigrant entrepreneur who become business partners in the Oregon Territory is so unstressed and understated that it takes a long time, perhaps most of the movie, to catch just how the undercurrents of feeling between them make the movie so affecting. I didn’t care for Reichardt’s movies until Night Moves, where Jesse Eisenberg and Dakota Fanning play eco-terrorists, and I had mixed feelings about her last, the multi-plotted Certain Women. (The best thing about it is the scenes between Kristen Stewart as a young lawyer who gets stuck teaching an adult class in a remote Montana town and Lily Gladstone as the rancher who becomes entranced by her.) First Cow is a beauty, and one of its virtues is Reichardt’s tact – her refusal to put us through the violence that the frame story prepares us for. Its chief virtue, though, is the way it swirls around the friendship of Cookie and King-Lu, two characters who remain somewhat mysterious to us while they draw us in. Magaro caught my attention in a supporting role in The Big Short; I didn’t recognize Lee, a British stage actor who played Mosca opposite Henry Goodman in Trevor Nunn’s production of Volpone for the Royal Shakespeare Company in 2015. Man, I wish I’d seen that.

Tom Holland in Cherry (2021).

Tom Holland manages to get through all two hours and twenty-five minutes of Anthony and Joe Russo’s Cherry without fakery or posturing. It’s a solid, authentic performance in the kind of showpiece role that always attracts young actors but generally doesn’t do them much good. He plays a young man who is deployed to Iraq and comes home with PTSD that puts a monkey on his back. Holland has been charming as the overeager (youngest) Spider-Man; no doubt he saw Cherry as a ticket to serious adult parts, and it’s clear that he deserves them. But the movie wears you down. The Russo Brothers are talented but they don’t know when to stop. (That was pretty obvious in the last two Avengers pictures.) The melodrama in Cherry goes wildly out of control; by the time the hero and his wife (Ciara Bravo) have both become full-time junkies and he’s pulling bank robberies to bankroll their habit, you’re desperate for someone to blow the whistle. (It seems odd that he never appears to be in danger of getting caught until he gives himself up when he’s had enough.)

Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan in Ammonite (2020).

What on earth has happened to Kate Winslet? She used to be one of the most interesting actresses in movies, but I haven’t cared for anything she’s done in the last ten years. These days she almost always seems miscast. I gave up on her recent miniseries Mare of Easttown after one episode because I didn’t buy her for a moment as a tough, repressed cop, and I had the same difficulty accepting her as an obstinate, repressed lesbian fossil hunter in Ammonite, set in mid-nineteenth-century Lyme. There’s a more essential problem, too: in acting-class lingo she has stopped playing actions, which provide the clear forward movement of any performance, and now plays only obstacles. You can’t play repression; it’s like playing drunk. The idea is that you play against it. In Ammonite she’s cast opposite Saoirse  Ronan, who has the combination of delicacy, elegance and lyrical clarity that makes one think of the young Lillian Gish. The movie is dreadful. The style of the director, Francis Lee, might be described as high drab. This is his second gay-themed movie; the first, God’s Own Country, about a pair of young dudes on a Yorkshire farm, was just about as bad. Ammonite contains the worst directed sex scene I’ve ever sat through; it made me cringe for both actresses. Yet somehow Ronan transcends the material. She’s unassailable.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.


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