Part 5

Under the Radar

by PopMatters Staff

30 July 2009

Indie darlings on shoestring budgets, foreign art house staples, and sometimes straight to DVD (but always straight from the heart), this list includes men who might be considered prolific stars, by some standards, whose work unfortunately fell by the wayside.

Indie darlings on shoestring budgets, foreign art house staples, and sometimes straight to DVD (but always straight from the heart), this list includes women who might be considered prolific stars, by some standards, whose work unfortunately fell by the wayside.

Mathieu Amalric Kings and Queen (Arnaud Desplechin, 2005)

I find this performance to be as elusive as I do contemporary, a jittery embodiment of a globalized world that frantically, impatiently flits from source to source for constant stimulation. It is the fraught Ismael that breaks the chain in Kings and Queen. He has been over-stimulated and is too sensitive and high-strung to see the benefits of change. He clings to his ideals. He is childish. He is often inappropriately loud-mouthed and foul-tempered. But this is the life of an artist, turbulent mind and all: Amalric’s Ismael is a virtuoso cellist. As such, a certain amount of artistic temperament must be honed by the actor and displayed, to make the character seem as though he is perhaps the diva of his company, and wherever he happens to be at the time (though that is generally his apartment). Working both in English-language and his native French film, Amalric, one of the most exciting working actors in the world, is all jangled nerves and exposed insecurity, an obnoxious, spoiled dilettante who could probably stand to be slapped (his stunning scene with Catherine Denueve might be the most compelling argument for such drastic action).

There is a point, though, at the beginning of Amalric’s performance, where he is just so funny that you can’t help but love him (his break-dancing scene is magnificent). He’s mouthy, stubborn and unpleasant, but there is something very compelling about his nihilism, something hinting at a heart behind all of his cynicism and manic-ness. In the final section of the film, any preconceptions you might have had about Ismael melt away in one of my favorite monologues, perhaps ever given by an actor in a film, as he explains to his ex-wife’s son why he cannot be his adopted father. It is a vivid story he paints for the child, both letting him down easy and breaking his heart - and also doing the same thing for the audience. While it may be sad that he cannot accept this new responsibility, it is actually a triumph for his character: Ismael has, throughout the course of the film, gradually attained the emotional maturity necessary for him to go forth artistically. We know he will survive, that he will be strong, whereas in the film’s initial scenes, it seemed like he could go in a tragic direction not unfamiliar to tormented, brilliant artists and musicians. Amalric’s navigation of this tricky dramatic arc is flawless. Matt Mazur

Gael Garcia Bernal Bad Education (Pedro Almodovar, 2004)

Few would describe Bad Education as one of Pedro Almodóvar’s best films: it’s too diffuse, too messily convoluted and almost entirely lacking the wild humor and generosity of sprit of his most accomplished work. But at the dark heart of this tormented and tormenting movie is a simply stunning performance—or, more accurately, a series of performances—by García Bernal. The actor bravely delivers a chameleonic star turn that transgresses gender and noirish genre “norms”. Whether lip-synching to Sara Montiel in a startling dress, performing oral sex on a drowsy pick-up (a scene which earned the film an undeserved NC-17 rating in the States), or participating in one of the sexiest swimming-pool sequences in movie history, García Bernal expertly juggled variant versions of the same (or is it?) character, all the while keeping in view the role of grasping, ambitious actor Angel, a protagonist willing to lie, betray, murder and screw his way to a desired part.

Not many actors get the chance to play an homme fatale and a femme fatale in the same movie, but García Bernal gamely responded to the challenge, with rumors of on-set clashes between actor and director only adding to the masochistic fun. In a brief but telling scene that cuts to the heart of Almodóvar’s concern to blur the border between reality and fiction, García Bernal’s Juan unexpectedly breaks down on a film-set, having just acted out a version of the scenario of his real-life brother’s death. It’s a rare moment of redemptive emotion in a mainly icily cold movie. Alexander Ramon

Chris Cooper Lone Star (John Sayles, 1996)

“Forget the Alamo” is one of the best lines from Sayles’ masterful ode to Texas, and serves as a metaphor for the entire film. Using an unsolved mystery as its catalyst, this story about racial divide in a rural border town is driven by white Sheriff Sam Deeds (Chris Cooper) and his pursuit of the uncovering the truth about the disappearance of the town’s hated, bigoted sheriff, Charlie Wade, 40 years earlier. The discovery of Wade’s bones re-opens the case, which has become a local legend. “This country’s seen a number of disagreements over the years,” says Deeds. Through Deeds’ eyes we see the mostly Hispanic town’s history-as he travels to the black community’s “Darktown”, or to the local drinking hole that mostly caters to white rednecks. When someone mentions that the family of a possibly gay black woman would be “relieved” even if she married a white man, the retort is that it’s “always heartwarming to see a prejudice defeated by a deeper prejudice.” With evidence pointing to Sam’s late father Buddy, who took over as sheriff when Wade disappeared, Sam uncovers some dark secrets about his father. Cooper’s face is a roadmap of emotions as Sam deals with his resentment toward his father (over a forbidden high school relationship), while trying to be impartial in his own investigation. It’s a well-seasoned, mysterious performance and Cooper brings a well of understated strength to the character, not unlike that of the veteran western film actor Gary Cooper (no relation). Tim Basham

Jeff Daniels The Squid and the Whale (Noah Baumbach, 2005)

If the best minds of some generations chained themselves to subways and were destroyed by madness, then what became of the merely above average ones of the proceeding years?  Those who quietly watched what talent they did have slide away without even being aware that it was leaving them? Who spent so long feeling unrecognized and unappreciated that it became the only way they knew how to see themselves? Besides taking it out on everyone around them, perhaps, having never fully settled into their mortgages, their marriages, and their kids, they end up flat on their back on a Brooklyn street in presumed cardiac arrest, trying to argue their way out of a parking ticket. 

In Baumbach’s The Squid and the Whale, as the controlling, begrudging, father of two who is also an underachieving writer that considers Kafka to be his predecessor and Mailer his contemporary, Daniels makes the difficult character of Bernard completely and sadly understandable. Inscribing a copy of one of his books for his teenage son, he signs it and then, as a perfectly timed afterthought, adds “Dad” in parentheses. He never asks, or even realizes, that he needs to be forgiven, but in the end there’s almost no other way to deal with him.  He’s perhaps the hardest type of father to understand and the kind that somewhere in the back of their minds most men harbor a deep fear of becoming—or at least hate that they can relate to. Bernard never intends to be mean, he never intends to be hurtful or undermining, but he consistently is and it serves to alienate him from virtually everyone. Jon Langmead

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