Please allow me to catch up. The following double feature is "old" news by internet standards but since I am valiantly trying to say at least something about everything I see, it won't always be instantaneous. I know that in my role as a well known film blogger of Oscar leanings, I'm supposed to embrace my role as Opinion Maker rather than point out the fluid mutating nature of opinions. But, here's a little secret about me (and I suspect most critics): I don't always have a clearcut opinion. Which is where you come in to today. Here are two blondes I've been staring at intensely lately: Alexander Skarsgård & Brit Marling. They are also busy staring intensely at each other in the eco-terrorism thriller The East.
Help me solidify my vague opinion of them after the jump!
This thriller hitches a ride with an undercover FBI agent (Brit Marling) as she infiltrates an eco-terrorist cult of sorts. The collective is led by (Skarsgård) and (Ellen Page) who both hold secrets. The group preys on CEOs of bio oil and big pharma and gives them a taste of their own medicine in various quite upsetting ways (like the super-creepy opening sequence in which oil begins to seep through the walls of a CEO's house like a residential oil spill. Page explains their righteous crimes in voiceover with creepy missionary zeal.
Though The East isn't always surprising as it plays with expected suspense and political thriller tropes, it is always engrossing which is more than most films can say. I was with it right from its opening scene up until the frankly terrible flash-forward style ending which gets cold feet about the previously hopeless nihilism and fascinating moral thickets.
The ensemble work is quite strong across the board but I admit that I didn't know quite what to make of the blonde charisma (gap?) collision between Skarsgård, who as in True Blood, is both unbearably sexy and weirdly docile considering all the bite in his bark, and Marling. Does the actor coast on his beauty and disarming ability of looking through people or is he just naturally drawn to roles where his beauty is essential? As for his scene partner, I fully admit that I don't know what to make of Brit Marling. At times she strikes me as lost sibling of the Gummers, the one with personality. I haven't seen her in many pictures but I'll admit I thought she was a wash in Arbitrage. There's a certain blank slate emptiness to her face that suggests that anything could be projected on to it (acting bonus points!) which makes her a natural for the subject of cults (a subject her writer/director is clearly drawn to since she also played muse for him in his earlier cult-themed feature The Sound of My Voice). But othertimes the emptiness is just that, and frustratingly opaque. But it's interesting to see her working through the possibilities of this character who doesn't totally resist the allure of the identity-dissolve and hive mind required of cult members.
I'm interested to see more even if I'm not sure what it is that I've already seen. Are you?
Best in Show: In miniature I have to bow down to our beloved Patricia Clarkson for two perfect moments: first the spiky cocktail she mixes in her introduction, sweet co-conspiratorial charm with a splash of condescension; second, and most impactfully, a hair-raising moment when Marling phones her from a Big Pharma dinner party with truly horrific news. I won't spoil the surprise but damn did Patty ever nail that key scene.
Oscar Chances: The East is probably not high enough profile to earn traction for its screenplay. True out of nowhere sleepers, the kind that build momentum all on their own without "pedigree", are so rare nowadays but historically speaking their best shots are usually in something like Screenplay. But this sure is a strong mainstream calling card for its writer/director Zal Batmanglij. (He has "Batman" right there in his name so he's already won, regardless.)
Oh, and also, for a little more Skarsgård let's chat about... WHAT MAISIE KNEW which I actually saw on the same day. In both cases I had forgotten that Skarsgård was in it, mostly because I wasn't paying attention and not from any lack of interest in the Swede's career.
What Maisie Knew is an modern reworking of Henry James' novel about the bright child of two very irresponsible parents Beale and Ida. Maisie (Onata Aprile) is initally caught up in their custody battle but as it wears on they both essentially abandon her, trusting that their significant others will do their parenting for them. Beale (Steve Coogan) still marries the young governess (Joanna Vanderham) who already loves Maisie through her day job of caring for her. But with the modernization Ida is now Susanna (Julianne Moore) a rock star and her new husband Sir Claude has become a paid younger lover Lincoln (Alexander Skarsgård), essentially a kept boy, and a manny (though the doesn't at first grasp this complicated and demeaning role).
This performance of Skarsgård's reminded me a bit of his work in Melancholia. In both he plays a handsome but somewhat dim naturally loving man who can't grasp the depth of neurosis and cruelty of the woman he's tied to. I think he's an underrated actor but I confess I'm not entirely sure... is it how goddamn beautiful he is clouding my vision or is my hesitation that he keeps playing either charismatic mysterious characters (which you can get away with not fully three dimensionalizing) when he's not playing these sensitive and dim but loveable cuckolds who I can't help but feel for. I wonder if he isn't shading them enough (Lincoln is practically a saint) but then I fall for him each time anyway.
But back to the movie. The sensitive beauty and pain of What Maisie Knew is watching the complicated ripples from Beale and Susana's horrid behavior and how it wounds the daughter and traps the younger more naturally caregiving lovers into parenting roles that are free of biological ties, real future, and legal rights. One senses that it can't end well for any of these people, though the movie does sensibly end with a bittersweet reprieve from the pain in its final moments. I was definitely less than dry-eyed at key moments, The emotions came mostly thanks to the content of the story and the well-judged handling of the innate compassion but 'this isn't really my life' confusion of Lincoln and Margo who are in way over their heads and hearts.
Best in Show: Onata Aprile hands down. The best child performance since... well, since Qu'venzhane Wallis (which, true, wasn't long ago but it's still a major compliment). Aprile never feels like she's A-C-T-I-N-G though it's not actually a simple role as she's passed continually from adult to adult and you can feel her always trying to get her bearings in the way a bright easygoing but ultimately lonely child might.
Oscar Chances: Too modest and small for that... though I do wonder what co-directors Scott McGehee & David Siegel would have to do to recapture the arthouse acclaim and Oscar momentum they arguably built with The Deep End (2001) years ago. As for the Oscar darling in the cast I can't say that I ever fully bought my beloved goddess as a rock star (sorry Juli!) and I do so wish someone would let her play a Good Mommy for once. This is Terrible Mommy #10 or something!