Jan 9, 2009

Entertainment - Great Movie Performances;2008

Richard Corliss

Kate Winslet

The Reader; Revolutionary Road

She can do almost anything, be almost anyone, as long as the code word is danger. A ticket to a Kate Winslet movie pays for a trip into uncharted lands and toxic emotions. She doesn't play weak; she's not in it for the fun. She looks over the edge, leaps in and takes you down with her.

This English actress, 33, has been a force for sizzle and discomfort since she was a teenager, in Peter Jackson's Heavenly Creatures, in which she propelled another girl onto a murderous fantasy ride. In Titanic, her biggest hit and least jangling role, she was the aristocratic love and death of poor boy Leonardo DiCaprio. Jude, Iris, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind: they all cast her as the dominant female force. That suited Winslet, since her intelligence as an actress is essentially critical; it gives an erotic taunt and charge to any encounter. Winslet women usually proceed from an enveloping restlessness, a resentment of the status quo. This life isn't enough; let's stir things up, till death do us part.

Reunited with DiCaprio in Revolutionary Road, she's the wife who wants to flee suburbia to rekindle a bohemian past. She speaks in cheerful midcentury modulations, but you detect the whisper of murder under her breath. Why can't her husband hear her pleas, which are also threats? Because he's wrapped in career anomie. He ignores her at his peril.

In The Reader, Winslet's Hanna Schmitz, survivor and handmaiden of the Third Reich, can't escape or erase the past — not even through the carnal, almost feral intensity of a brief affair she has with a teenage boy, Michael (David Kross), in 1958. If Hanna is the sum of what she's done, then she is satanic. If she is the repository of Michael's and the moviegoer's fascination, then she's saved from eternal infamy. Winslet puts across all of Hanna's misery, moral blind spots and allure in a performance of precise and desperate passion. Come fly with me, her laser stare says — to hell.

Mickey Rourke

The Wrestler

The Oscar for Best Actor of 2008? Up for grabs. Comeback of the Year, the Decade, the Millennium? No contest. Rourke, the cool, smoldering dude of '80s films like Rumble Fish, Year of the Dragon and Angel Heart, the guy who pissed his career away through bad attitude and worse behavior, has returned in triumph as Randy (The Ram) Robinson, a past-his-prime wrestler taking a last shot at redemption. To prove to director Darren Aronofsky that a chancy actor still had greatness in him, Rourke endured months of rigorous conditioning (35 lb. of new muscle) and brutal training (for Randy's patented standing-scissors move). "I wanted Darren to be proud of me, and I wanted the wrestlers to be proud of me," he says. "And after three MRIs, a lot of acupuncture, a lot of chiropractors and a really good doctor, we put the broken pieces together, and we were able to nail it." The rest — the acting, the revelation of a tender, broken, resilient soul — is what Rourke, 52, used to do superbly, and he brought it again. "I gave Darren everything I had, anything I ever learned about how to get there emotionally or physically. This is what acting is all about, and I love doing it again." And we love watching you do it. Welcome back, champ.

Reported by Rebecca Winters Keegan

Ben Kingsley


He acts in so many movies — six that came out last year, including stints as a swami in The Love Guru, a doped-out psychotherapist in The Wackness and a CIA biggie in War, Inc. — that you may wonder when Ben Kingsley has time to be Ben Kingsley. Yet the man who has played Gandhi, Moses, Simon Wiesenthal and Meyer Lansky has a range to match his energy.

One thing Kingsley doesn't get many shots at is a romantic lead. In Elegy, from Philip Roth's novel The Dying Animal, he lends his Mensa machismo and minute emotional calibrations to David, a college professor with a string of sexual conquests and, suddenly, a reason to love somebody: the graduate student Consuela (wan, radiant Penélope Cruz). "David is absolutely terrified of intimacy," Kingsley says. "It takes someone as forceful, tenacious, brave and loving as Consuela to bash through the layers of his defense." In Cruz and director Isabel Coixet, he found "people for whom I had an absolute trust and affection. We were all singing the same song, just in different ranges."

So often a master of disguise, Sir Ben wanted David to be a kind of self-portrait. "I asked [Coixet] if I could please be. It was like stripping down — to my voice, my mannerisms, my speech patterns — so that I felt really vulnerable. Between action and part, I didn't jump into 'disguised me.'" Just so, in Kingsley's exposure, there is acute, all-too-human revelation.

Reported by Lina Lofaro

Viola Davis


She plays the mother of the only black boy in his class at a Catholic school in the Bronx, N.Y., in 1964, and she's been called in for a chat with the principal (Meryl Streep). "She's hoping it's nothing serious," Davis says of her character, Mrs. Miller. But when she hears accusations involving her child and a priest (Philip Seymour Hoffman), "she has no choice but to fight for the right of her son." Drop by careful drop, she pours out her heart, revealing the grit and desperation of any parent trying to ensure that her child has a better life than she did. It's a thrilling few minutes, thanks to writer-director John Patrick Shanley's pinpoint dramaturgy as well as the actress's restraint. "In 1964," she says, "I don't have the choice to flail my arms or raise my voice." Davis was inspired by her own mother, the rare black woman in a Rhode Island town in the '60s, who, she says, "had to fight for us on a daily basis." The Golden Globe nominee next plays a brasher sort of battler, an ex-prostitute in Madea Goes to Jail, in which she faces another strong female antagonist: Tyler Perry in drag as Madea.

Reported by Rebecca Winters Keegan

Sally Hawkins


Poppy, a primary-school teacher in London, is someone who dares to hug life, in all its human forms, so close to her, she practically chokes it. Hawkins' own unconditional embrace of Poppy has connected with audiences and won her awards galore. She devised this canny optimist with director Mike Leigh (who makes his films in a months-long improv process with his actors) and plays it full-out. "You're trying not to edit yourself," she says. "It makes you self-conscious once you start third-eyeing yourself." That's how Hawkins, 32, who also shone in a 2007 TV version of Jane Austen's Persuasion, managed to create that rare movie character, a secular saint. "It's easy to wallow in the dark, to be cynical. It's a brave choice to be happy. It's taking a stand."

Reported by Rebecca Winters Keegan

Michael Shannon

Revolutionary Road

His part of the film took only five days to shoot, but Shannon's John Givings has an indelible impact. In three short scenes with Frank and April Wheeler (Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet), the psychologically troubled young man acts as shrink, surgeon and exorcist, opening the couple's suburban wounds and exposing the grievances inside. As Shannon notes, "He's trying to say, I see the truth of your circumstance, that we can be totally honest with one another. Wouldn't that be nice." Shannon, 34, also plays up John's ruthless wit: "Because his life is so difficult, he's chosen to turn it into a game — to have fun at any cost." It's a breakout turn for Shannon, who has built a neat résumé of off-kilter characters (Bug, Shotgun Stories) and who, with his subtle, nervy portrait here, dominates the screen whenever he's on it. The actor gives full props to director Sam Mendes ("No matter how much thought you've put into it, he's thought about it more"), but Shannon is the one who brings this discomfiting character to searing, sympathetic life.

Reported by Lina Lofaro

Dakota Fanning

The Secret Life of Bees

She was 6 when she co-starred with Sean Penn in I Am Sam. Since then, her leading men have included Robert De Niro, Denzel Washington and Tom Cruise. So Fanning, now 14, is an up-close appreciator of star quality. "They have a presence about them on the set," she says. "You can see the experience in their eyes. I'm so lucky to have learned from them." But what Fanning has, nobody can teach: a gravity and poise that guide the moviegoer's eye to where she is, seemingly doing nothing. (There are few film pleasures as rewarding as watching Fanning listen.) In Bees, she is Lily Owens, a white kid in the '60s South who finds, in three nurturing black women, the motherhood she's desperately searched for. "In life, I've always had that," Fanning says of her mom Joy, whom she calls her best friend. "So I was able to see why Lily wants it so much." In her next project, the X-Men-ish action film Push, she plays a teen with clairvoyant abilities — no stretch for an actress who sees deeply into her roles. "When I'm the character, I'm not myself anymore. It's always seemed like play to me. What I've dreamed of came to life." However Fanning does it, it's a miraculous transference.

Reported by Lina Lofaro

Jean-Claude Van Damme


"I should have been dead a couple of times," the Belgian martial-arts star says of a Hollywood lifestyle full of hard drugs, fast women and loose money. "But something is holding me here. I've got a good star." Just now, a little starlight is shining on Van Damme, 48, whose career had long languished in the direct-to-DVD bin. In Mabrouk El Mechri's JCVD, the "Muscles from Brussels" plays a worn-out, washed-up celeb named Jean-Claude Van Damme who gets tangled in a bank heist and must confront his own demons as well as the usual flying bullets, fists and feet. Being himself was a cauterizing risk for the macho man, but Van Damme rose to the challenge: the centerpiece is not a high-kicking fight with the bad guys but a six-minute monologue in which Van Damme reduces himself to tears by confessing the sins of his stardom. "I was dying to say something to people with more education than myself but who didn't dream as much as I had, and explain maybe that's why I became JCVD." The performance may not get Van Damme back into the big-studio productions he yearns for — Quentin Tarantino may never call — but it's the work of a daring, questing, real actor. "We cannot judge people by their first apparition," he says. "Like Arnold Schwarzenegger — in the beginning he was only seen as an action hero. Now he is a governor."

Reported by Lina Lofaro

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