Movie Matters (the 3rd)
What is the best Gwyneth Paltrow movie of all time and what do you think is her best performance?
This is a good question, and not one that provides an obvious inarguable answer, like it would, for say, Cary Elwes or Harrison Ford.1 Taking a look at Paltrow's IMDB Page, I see that (not counting what amount to glorified cameos or bit parts) she has been in the following decent-to-good films: MALICE, FLESH AND BONE, JEFFERSON IN PARIS, THE PALLBEARER, EMMA, SLIDING DOORS, GREAT EXPECTATIONS, A PERFECT MURDER, SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE, THE TALENTED MR. RIPLEY, DUETS, BOUNCE, THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS, SHALLOW HAL, and SKY CAPTAIN AND THE WORLD OF TOMORROW.
Note that I am not counting SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE as a "great" movie or performance, even though both won Oscars, because both awards were frauds2. I have left three films out of that list, and when you break it down, they really are the only choices (although: special credit to GREAT EXPECTATIONS FOR HER SPECTACULAR NUDITY3):
PROOF – Perhaps Gwyneth's best performance. This should have been an Oscar nomination
SE7EN – Gwyneth gives a small but extremely powerful performance in a deeply unsettling movie.
This leaves my personal choice for best movie and best performance:
POSSESSION – One of the top five romantic movies of the last 20 years. I could watch POSSESSION a hundred times. Paltrow's Maude Bailey manages to be both post-modern and old fashioned, and capture that total Englishness of a woman stuck between wanting to be on her own and wanting to be swept off her feet. Just a wonderful film. I will have to review it as soon as I get back from break.
I recently saw UNBREAKABLE and was really impressed. It may not have been quite as good as THE SIXTH SENSE, but I thought it was an excellent movie. Why doesn't this movie get mentioned in the same breath as M. Night Shyamalan's first film? And why does everyone hate on him?
The treatment in the Media (and to a lesser extent, the Public) of one M. Night Shyamalan has been both perplexing, and sadly understandable. For those of you not familiar, M. Night Shyamalan's first film (actually, his third, but first any of you actually saw) was THE SIXTH SENSE. The film was successful for a number of reasons:
1) Amazingly good Ad campaign. How many times have you read me ranting about trailers that give away the movie? Well, THE SIXTH SENSE trailer gave NOTHING away. You knew it was scary and it seemed like there were demons or ghosts or something, but you didn't know what.
2) Word of Mouth – Most of you who saw the film in the theatre did so because a friend told you how amazing it was. For me, that person was Bear. He came to my house, said I had to cancel my plans and go watch the movie with him, or he would never speak to me again. It was the right thing to do. (For the record, since he then "owed" me one, I pulled the same trick on him two years later. The film? MOULIN ROUGE.)
3) The internet was not yet a juggernaut force. In today's age, the "secrets" of movies like THE SIXTH SENSE are hard to keep, with hundreds of sites dedicated to "spoiling" movies for you. What made THE SIXTH SENSE work for so many people is that they went into it NOT knowing what was going to happen.4
4) Most importantly, it was just a great film. Look: you watch it a second time, and the clues are so jarringly obvious that you wonder how in holy heck you missed them. I contend that's proof of a fantastically well-crafted movie.
When UNBREAKABLE came out, expectations were high that we were to get another SIXTH SENSE sophisticated scary film. When instead we got an upside-down super hero movie, many of the critics lambasted the film, and while UNBREAKABLE made 95 million dollars domestically (and 250 worldwide), this was nowhere near the level of SENSE, and thus the film was considered a bomb.
It is too bad, because UNBREAKABLE is a truly fantastic film. In some ways the forerunner to The X-Men movies and even the TV show Heroes, UNBREAKABLE looked at superheroes from a real-life perspective. You will not likely see a better portrayal of what super powers really "represent" in the genre. Even bigger, one could argue that UNBREAKABLE is the first ever comic book film. Yes, we had Batman and Superman, etc., but those took comic book (and TV) characters and put them into a movie. UNBREAKABLE is actually a comic book. When you watch the movie again (and seriously: take the time to do so), notice how the framing of the characters is exactly like a comic-book shot, especially early on in the establishing shots. I just cannot say enough good things about this movie.
FYI: some people are confused how the film seems to just end abruptly. This is because it was supposed to originally be a trilogy. There was some talk about putting all three stories in one movie, but Shyamalan wanted to concentrate on the "birth" origins of the super hero in the first movie, and deal with the rest in subsequent films. Then when the movie disappointed financially those plans were scrapped.
After UNBREAKABLE, Shyamalan came out with SIGNS (loved by some, hated by others), and then THE VILLAGE and finally LADY IN THE WATER. Each film has received a harsher and harsher reception (as well as smaller and smaller box office receipts), and the general criticism of Shyamalan has taken him from Hollywood whiz kid to laughingstock.
Some of the criticism is probably warranted. Fair or not, we do not live in the '40s and '50s, and Shyamalan cannot make the same kinds of films that Hitchcock did. He is accused of being a "one-trick pony," which refers to how his films all have a seeming "twist" at the end. I personally do not find it to be a gimmick. I think he is a master storyteller, and likes to keep his cards close to the vest. As jaded and "knowing" as modern audiences are, the fact remains that most great stories throughout the ages have had some sort of reversal at the end. That said, we live in a different time now, and rightly or wrongly Shyamalan is going to be judged as trite if his films always have the "gotcha!" ending. I suppose it is also a legitimate criticism that the films only have interior logic that break down once any outside scrutiny is used.
That doesn't bother me, though, and I find the criticism that his scripts are weak laughable. Not every story has to be jam-packed with car chases. Indeed: Shyamalan is much like Hitchcock in that he tells stories slowly, through the characters, and allows them to develop their own sense of mood. The man really is a genius in that regard.
I've even heard him criticized for appearing briefly in his own films, as if he's vain. It is an homage to Hitchcock in my view, and it's not like he's hurting the film. Sometimes people are just haters. To be completely honest, I think the knives came out because quite a few people (read: movie critics) did not like how much they were fooled in THE SIXTH SENSE, and have had an axe to grind since then.5
Oh, and in case you were wondering, it's pronounced Shaw-ma-lawn.
In THE AMERICAN PRESIDENT, Sydney comes back after a meeting with the Motown Three, and tells President Shepherd (and the Chief of Staff played by Martin Sheen, who would later be the president on The West Wing) that the only thing the Motown Three were more scared of than the Crime Bill was the Environmental Bill, which President Shepherd then uses to get his Crime Bill deal and subsequently loses Sydney. I get why Michigan Congressmen would be against the Environment Bill (because of the auto companies), but why would they be against the Crime Bill? Michigan is not known for being a pro-gun state like Texas or one of the Southern states? What's the deal?
I always wonder this myself. I think the answer is probably fairly simple: by implication, the Motown Three are Republicans, and are thus against both saving the Environment and stopping crime (by getting rid of handguns). The movie clearly has a Liberal point of view, so that interpretation makes the most sense. What's amazing is not that the writers are biased, but that the bias doesn't really get in the way of enjoying the movie. My mother loves this movie like she loves crappy Sandra Bullock movies (which is to say: a lot), and she is as Conservative as can be. Any movie that can thread THAT needle has to be well written.
If you have a question, send them to Movie Matters and we'll try to answer it in an upcoming column. Hope you enjoyed today's installment, and remember: if you're up to no good in the theatre, make sure you sit in the back.
1 I'm just kidding about Harrison Ford. There are ten movies you could legitimately claim were the best. And as for Elwes, obviously I mean ROBIN HOOD: MEN IN TIGHTS
2 Cate Blanchett should have won Best Actress and SAVING PRIVATE RYAN should have won Best Picture
3 Her nudity is so natural and sexy and adds to the performance that I'm surprised she doesn't do it more often. Maybe if we wrote her a letter……
4 I strongly feel like anyone who ruins THE SIXTH SENSE or any movie with surprises before you see it is a total asshole and that tells you what you need to know. Just dating this person if they do it. They are scum.
5 Shyamalan has wanted to do a Harry Potter film all along. If he did #7 I would be willing to pay double. The only better choice they could possibly have would be Spielberg