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Mark Wahlberg: Great actor or greatest actor?

Contraband

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The week before he opens “Contraband” — a film that, based on empirical marketing evidence, is about a man who straps money to his torso so he can fight a goofy voiced crime boss — might not be the best time to extoll the acting chops of one Mark Wahlberg, but that’s exactly what The New York Times‘ Adam Sternbergh has done in a provocative blog post entitled “Is Mark Wahlberg the Greatest Actor of His Generation?” Sternbergh’s evidence:

“I took to Twitter to see if anyone could guess what exactly his Oscar nominations were for, and several of the subsequent guesses — an acting nod for ‘Boogie Nights,’ perhaps? Or for ‘Three Kings?’ Or ‘The Fighter?’ — were incorrect yet totally plausible. Then a pair of astute film critics, Dana Stevens of Slate and Wesley Morris of The Boston Globe, weighed in and suggested Wahlberg’s best work may have been in David O. Russell’s ‘I Heart Huckabees,’ a movie that’s now perhaps best remembered for an incident on set. And the DealBook reporter Peter Lattman, among others, cast an additional vote for Wahlberg’s overlooked work in the 2000 film ‘The Yards.’ This means that, by my count, Mark Wahlberg could legitimately have received up to six Oscar nominations for acting, to go along with that one he did get for producing, for a grand total of seven actual and theoretical nominations.”

Sternbergh then goes on to compare Wahlberg’s resume to four other more respected actors of his generation: Matt Damon, Leonardo DiCaprio, Paul Giamatti, and Phillip Seymour Hoffman. In Sternbergh’s estimation, their actual and theoretical nomination totals (3, 3, 4, and 7) are all less than or equal to Wahlberg’s. Sternbergh could have also observed that Wahlberg has also worked with all four of of these men — in “The Departed,” “The Basketball Diaries,” “Planet of the Apes,” and “Boogie Nights” — another sign of his stature as a performer and as a mark of his good taste level, “Planet of the Apes” reboot notwithstanding.

Wahlberg has, in recent years, become a bit of a pop culture punchline — on a related topic, say hi to your mother for me — but I’ve always liked him as an actor. I was a bit too young, or at least a bit too out of touch with pop music in the early 1990s, to know him as Marky Mark. So my true introduction to Wahlberg came in “Boogie Nights” which bowed right when I was 17, the age when one’s passion for movies is at its most irrationally heated. After that, I needed little additional evidence of Wahlberg’s acting prowess. I don’t debate Sternbergh’s assessment of Wahlberg’s skills or of the nominations he deserves, and even though I’m not the biggest fan of “I Heart Huckabee’s” as a whole, it really might be Wahlberg’s best and funniest performance. At a notch below nominatable, Wahlberg is also very good in “The Other Guys” with Will Ferrell, and he’s even pretty sharp in “Date Night” too. Yes, I’ve seen “Date Night.” I’m married — what was I supposed to do?

It doesn’t seem fair to count Wahlberg’s producing nomination for “The Fighter,” but I probably wouldn’t include Hoffman’s performance in “The Savages” either, which brings the theoretical score back to 6-6. Even as a tie, it’s a striking comparison and an impressive showing for Wahlberg.

My question, though, is are those four guys the only other contenders for the title of Greatest Actor of Their Generation? I wasn’t so sure. I spent a little time on IMDb, looking for actors born within a ten year span of Wahlberg, five years before and five years after. That drummed up a few more names, but believe it or not, they all fell short of Wahlberg, too. Jamie Foxx won an Oscar for “Ray” and he was nominated for “Collateral” but after that and maybe — maybe — “Ali,” there’s a serious quality drop-off (although I think a case can be made for his hilarious supporting turn in last summer’s “Horrible Bosses”). Mark Ruffalo received a nomination two years ago for “The Kids Are All Right” but even with “Zodiac,” “You Can Count on Me,” and “Margaret,” he’s still not close. Ditto Guy Pearce; who’s inexplicably never been nominated for an Academy Award but deserves at least three noms in my book: “L.A. Confidential,” “Memento” and “The Proposition.” Wahlberg’s “The Fighter” co-star Christian Bale gets us closer — he won for “The Fighter” and he was great in “American Psycho,” “The Machinist,” “Rescue Dawn” and especially “The Prestige.” But that’s still five to Wahlberg’s six. Meaning Marky Mark and P-See-Hoff still stand unchallenged at the top of this arbitrary and admittedly meaningless pack.

Ah, but there is one actor who, in my opinion, gets to the six hypothetical nomination threshold. A man who is certainly less of a leading man than Wahlberg, but definitely a better villain. A man who’s such a crazy good — or maybe just plain crazy — actor he turned his own life into a performance.

That man, of course, is Joaquin Phoenix.

Phoenix has received two Oscar nominations, for “Walk the Line” and “Gladiator.” He was also great in a trio of films by director James Gray: “The Yards,” “We Own the Night” (both with Wahlberg, interestingly) and “Two Lovers.” And Phoenix was remarkable — and borderline certifiable — in “I’m Still Here,” the “documentary” about the lost year of his life when he got fat, drunk, and high, all for the sake of a tiny movie directed by his brother-in-law that almost no one saw. It was reckless, it was dumb, it unquestionably sabotaged the release of “Two Lovers” (which was a much better movie), but it was also about as good a performance as any actor has ever given. After all, it’s one thing to sell a role in a film. Phoenix sold a role in real life. That takes some serious skill.

The Gray films, “I’m Still Here” and his two actual Oscar nominations give Phoenix a theoretical total of six and put him in a tie with Wahlberg. Wahlberg has the additional nomination for producing “The Fighter,” and as the producer of “Entourage” and “Boardwalk Empire,” he’s obviously a much savvier (not to mention saner) Hollywood player and mogul than Phoenix. But as an actor? It might be too close to call.

What do YOU think? Is Mark Wahlberg the best actor of his generation? And if he isn’t, who is? Tell us in comments below or on Facebook and Twitter.

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Face Melting Cameos

The 10 Most Metal Pop Culture Cameos

Glenn Danzig drops by Portlandia tonight at 10P on IFC.

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Glenn Danzig rocks harder than granite. In his 60 years, he’s mastered punk with The Misfits, slayed metal with the eponymous Danzig, and generally melted faces with the force of his voice. And thanks to Fred and Carrie, he’s now stopping by tonight’s brand new Portlandia so we can finally get to see what “Evil Elvis” is like when he hits the beach. To celebrate his appearance, we put together our favorite metal moments from pop culture, from the sublime to the absurd.

10. Cannibal Corpse meets Ace Ventura

Back in the ’90s,  Cannibal Corpse was just a small time band from Upstate New York, plying their death metal wares wherever they could find a crowd, when a call from Jim Carry transformed their lives. Turns out the actor was a fan, and wanted them for a cameo in his new movie, Ace Ventura: Pet Detective. The band had a European tour coming up, and were wary of being made fun of, so they turned it down. Thankfully, the rubber-faced In Living Color vet wouldn’t take no for an answer, proving that you don’t need to have a lot of fans, just the right ones.


9. AC/DC in Private Parts

Howard Stern’s autobiographical film, based on his book of the same name, followed his rise in the world of radio and pop culture. For a man surrounded by naked ladies and adoring fans, it’s hard to track the exact moment he made it. But rocking out with AC/DC in the middle of Central Park, as throngs of fans clamor to get a piece of you, seems like it comes pretty close. You can actually see Stern go from hit host to radio god in this clip, as “You Shook Me All Night Long” blasts in the background.


8. Judas Priest meets The Simpsons

When you want to blast a bunch of peace-loving hippies out on their asses, you’re going to need some death metal. At least, that’s what the folks at The Simpsons thought when they set up this cameo from the metal gods. Unfortunately, thanks to a hearty online backlash, the writers of the classic series were soon informed that Judas Priest, while many things, are not in fact “death metal.” This led to the most Simpson-esque apology ever. Rock on, Bartman. Rock on.


7. Anthrax on Married…With Children

What do you get when Married…with Children spoofs My Dinner With Andre, substituting the erudite playwrights for a band so metal they piss rust? Well, for starters, a lot of headbanging, property destruction and blown eardrums. And much like everything else in life, Al seems to have missed the fun.


6. Motorhead rocks out on The Young Ones

The Young Ones didn’t just premiere on BBC2 in 1982 — it kicked the doors down to a new way of doing comedy. A full-on assault on the staid state of sitcoms, the show brought a punk rock vibe to the tired format, and in the process helped jumpstart a comedy revolution. For instance, where an old sitcom would just cut from one scene to the next, The Young Ones choose to have Lemmy and his crew deliver a raw version of “Ace of Spades.” The general attitude seemed to be, you don’t like this? Well, then F— you!


5. Red and Kitty Meet Kiss on That ’70s Show

Carsey-Werner Productions

Carsey-Werner Productions

Long before they were banished to playing arena football games, Kiss was the hottest ticket in rock. The gang from That ’70s Show got to live out every ’70s teen’s dream when they were set loose backstage at a Kiss concert, taking full advantage of groupies, ganja and hard rock.


4. Ronnie James Dio in Tenacious D in The Pick of Destiny (NSFW, people!)

What does a young boy do when he was born to rock, and the world won’t let him? What tight compadre does he pray to for guidance and some sweet licks? If you’re a young Jables, half of “the world’s most awesome band,” you bow your head to Ronnie James Dio, aka the guy who freaking taught the world how to do the “Metal Horns.” Never before has a rock god been so literal than in this clip that turns it up to eleven.


3. Ozzy Osbourne in Trick or Treat

It’s hard to tell if Ozzy was trying his hardest here, or just didn’t give a flying f–k. What is clear is that, either way, it doesn’t really matter. Ozzy’s approach to acting seems to lean more heavily on Jack Daniels than sense memory, and yet seeing the slurry English rocker play a sex-obsessed televangelist is so ridiculous, he gets a free pass. Taking part in the cult horror Trick or Treat, Ozzy proves that he makes things better just by showing up. Because that’s exactly what he did here. Showed up. And it rocks.


2. Glenn Danzig on Portlandia

Danzig seems to be coming out of a self imposed exile these days. He just signed with a record company, and his appearance on Portlandia is reminding everyone how kick ass he truly is. Who else but “The Other Man in Black” could help Portland’s resident goths figure out what to wear to the beach? Carrie Brownstein called Danzig “amazing,” and he called Fred “a genius,” so this was a rare love fest for the progenitor of horror punk.


1. Alice Cooper in Wayne’s World

It’s surprising, sure, but for a scene that contains no music whatsoever, it’s probably the most famous metal moment in the history of film. When Alice Cooper informed Wayne and Garth that Milwaukee is actually pronounced “Milly-way-kay” back in 1992, he created one of the most famous scenes in comedy history. What’s more metal than that? Much like Wayne and Garth, we truly are not worthy.

Separating fact and fiction with “A Separation” director Asghar Farhadi

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As I was packing up my briefcase after our interview, director Asghar Farhadi made one request through his interpreter, Sheida Dayani: quote his words precisely. He’d been misquoted before, he told me, and he didn’t want it to happen again.

This struck me as an interesting request, since Farhadi’s superb film, the Spirit Award and Golden Globe nominated “A Separation,” is all about misinterpretation. It begins with an Iranian couple, Nader (Peyman Maadi) and Simin (Leila Hatami), as they try to get a divorce, then follows their family as they deal with that decision’s fallout. Without his wife at home, Nader is forced to hire a caretaker to look after his bedridden father; later, the caretaker leaves the father unattended, and there is an accident. The case ultimately goes to court, where it becomes a matter of he-said, she-said. Both sides present wildly different interpretations of the events. It’s up to a judge to determine who is right and wrong; from the perspective of the audience, it’s already clear the answer isn’t so black and white.

That’s exactly how Farhadi wants it. “You can make a film in a way that when the audience leaves the theater they leave with certain answers in their head,” he told me. “But when you leave them with answers you interrupt the process of thinking. If instead you raise questions about the themes and the story, this means that the audience is on its way to start thinking. I like that better.”

Hopefully this interview, about Farhadi’s process, his love of writing, and even his initial dissatisfaction with his film’s English language title, will give you plenty to think about as well. Hopefully I’ve transcribed his words correctly, too.

When you’re writing, what comes to you first: the characters or the story?

The two are really inseparable. They move together, both story and character. For me, character comes from a specific condition or situation. I cannot really define a character outside that situation.

How has the reception of the film in Iran compared to its reception abroad?

The responses have been very similar inside and outside Iran. I don’t mean that everyone has the same reaction; but the diversity of questions that are raised outside Iran and the diversity of questions that are raised inside Iran are very similar.

Your daughter plays Nader and Simin’s daughter in the film. Was that your idea or her idea?

[laughs] She wanted to act, and I also wanted to make a film that she could act in. So it was both.

Did you like directing her?

I liked it a lot but there were also times that were difficult. Because she was my daughter, I allowed myself to be tougher on her. Sometimes there were people who said that I was really being tough on her. But with all the complications, we’re both satisfied with the collaboration.

Does she want to be an actress when she grows up? And would you encourage her to pursue acting as a career? I guess you’ve already been pretty encouraging.

I think she would like to continue acting but she’d also like to try writing as well. She played her first film when she was three years old. This is her fourth film.

Many of the early scenes in the film — casual conversations or small bits of information — seem unimportant, but they come up again in later scenes, and we’re left trying to remember them. How did you approach these key moments? They need to be simultaneously memorable and unmemorable.

We have the wrong impression of life. We think the very big incidents of our lives are consequences of huge dilemmas or major decisions. If we paid attention, we’d realize that the determining incidents in our lives are ordinary things. When I write or I shoot these details, I do so in a way that makes them seem very simple, like ordinary details of everyday life. I don’t want the audience to think they’re watching an “important” scene and to try to remember it as a result. This whole game of making the audience go back and remember these simple little details makes them more engaged in the film.

How difficult was it to place all of these “ordinary details” into the screenplay — and to balance things so that all of the characters are equally conflicted and compromised?

It’s a very difficult thing. What I needed to be aware of was the timing; this kind of film cannot work at a fast pace. These details are like part of a crossword puzzle — every corner is related to the other corner.

At this point in your career, what’s the most challenging part about shooting a film in Iran?

This is very difficult for me to answer because I was born there, I grew up there, and I became part of the system, so when I’m working, I’m not consciously thinking about what is more or less difficult. Perhaps if a filmmaker came from the United States and started making films in Iran, they would be more aware of the obstacles. But for me, someone who’s part of the system, it’s not very clear.

I’m sure when you travel with the film, people want to talk to you about the ending. When they ask about it, how do you answer?

I have never given a clear answer to the question; I always try to be evasive about it. I try to let it pass with some humor, or to give some non-specific answers. That’s true not just about the ending, but about all questions raised in interviews. I try not to be very specific about anything in the film. It’s wrong for a director to reveal all the things he was trying to hide in the film. That’s why I’ve always said that giving interviews about the film is usually more difficult than making the film.

[laughs] I’m sorry about that.

No, no. That’s our job.

You’ve received several awards and nominations already. What do you make of the whole Oscar race?

It makes me very happy that regular people are getting to see the film. But I’m also aware that success can bring danger. The success of one film may convince the filmmaker to try repeat his successes and get into a competition with himself. One cannot dwell on periodic successes. You have to look at it as a temporary, passing thing.

Do you have your next film already planned? Based on what you’re saying, it sounds like you’re going to make something very different from “A Separation.”


Yeah. One way to get away from all this hype is to start concentrating on my next film right away. My mind is more involved with my next project than what’s happening with this film.

Do you have a favorite part of the filmmaking process? Obviously not the interviews — we’ve established that.

Writing. For me nothing is more enjoyable thank thinking about a creating a story. Writing is like being in a world where everything belongs to you. You have full power over the characters to create whatever you want.

Does the actual shooting of the film ever get frustrating when it doesn’t quite live up to your imagination for some reason?

Sometimes it happens. When you’re writing, you have full control over everything. But when you try to bring that to action, you run into certain constraints. Not everything comes out the way you imagined.

The original title of the film was “Jodaeiye Nader az Simin.” Nader and Simin are the characters — what does the word “jodaeiye” mean? Is that “separation?”

It’s not just “separation.” It kind of gets lost in translation. You can look at it as “divorce” or as “detachment” or “chasm.”

So how do you like the English language title, then?

At first, I didn’t really like it. It seemed to me that the original title had been distorted somehow, and I wasn’t happy about that. But experience has proven that it’s a good title.

“A Separation” is now playing in New York and Los Angeles. For a full list of playdates, go to SonyClassics.com.

Ten lessons for film critics from J. Hoberman

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After more than twenty years as the paper’s senior film critic, J. Hoberman was laid off by The Village Voice yesterday. Hoberman told New York‘s Daily Intel that he was “shocked, but not surprised” by the news and that it would be “disingenuous to say [he] hadn’t considered the possibility that this would happen eventually.”

The news may not have been surprising, but that doesn’t make it any less disappointing. Hoberman had been a fixture at The Voice for decades, but he never coasted on his reputation; in this fan’s opinion, his recent work is as good or better than anything he’s ever written. There are lots of good film writers associated with the paper. But the place will never be the same. For film lovers, J. Hoberman was the voice of The Voice.

Of course, I’m not exactly an impartial observer of these events; as a former student of Hoberman’s at New York University, I owe the man a lot. After his class — a seminar in film criticism — Hoberman helped me get an internship at The Voice, which led to writing for The Voice, which led to, y’know, my whole professional career. So many established writers look down on younger film critics, insulting their knowledge and their taste. Not Jim Hoberman, whose former students include The New York Times‘ Manohla Dargis and L.A. Weekly‘s Karina Longworth.

Even before Hoberman helped jump-start my post-graduate life, his class was one of the best and most important I ever took at any level of my education. His insights into the craft of film criticism and his pointed but encouraging assessments of our work were invaluable. As Hoberman fans might expect, his homework assignments were often unusual. One week he ordered us to see a movie that looked terrible and find one thing we liked about it. Another time we had to write the lede of a review after watching just the first ten minutes of a film.

I still have my notebook from Hoberman’s seminar. I refer back to it often. After hearing last night’s bad news, I took it out again and flipped through it. There was good advice on every page. I’ve decided to share ten of his lessons here (I’m keeping the rest for myself).

Hopefully, I’ve followed most of them. God knows I’ve tried. But not all of us are J. Hoberman. There’s a reason he’s the best at what he does.

On the fundamentals:
“Ask yourself the question, ‘What do people want to know about a movie that they’ve never seen?'”

On plot:
“Plot synopses automatically ruin a review.”

On brevity:
“Watch for excess words. If there’s a shorter word, use it.”

On editors:
“Work with them for the good of the piece. Don’t have ego. Don’t compete.”

On interviewing filmmakers:
“If you’re thinking about it, ask them about it.”

On digressions:
“The longer the em dash, the weaker its impact.”

On taste:
“Always ask yourself why you like what you like.”

On bad movies:
“Vent your spleen. In criticism, it’s better to be angry than depressed.”

On the competition:
“Never read other critics’ reviews. They cloud your judgment.”

On deadlines:
Never miss a deadline.”

Who’s your favorite film critic? Tell us in the comments below or write to us on Facebook and Twitter.

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