Monday, August 24, 2009

The 100 most memorable characters of the decade - part 3

Okay, we're one-fifth of the way through the list. It's been tough to narrow things down, and as usual, there weren't really any rules, and I tried to balance the characters as much as I could. Here's the next batch for you:

80 - Officer John Ryan (Matt Dillon) Crash - To be honest I didn't really love Crash, but John Ryan was the one character who stood out from all the others. On one hand Ryan is loathsome and awful - he's a racist and he molests a woman, Christine (Thandie Newton), right in front of her husband. He's an easy character to hate. In a film with no real villain, he's the closest thing to one initially. As the film unfolds we watch Ryan care for his ailing father and save Christine from a burning car. He's detestable and admirable all at once.

Actor Matt Dillon spoke about the two sides of Officer Ryan in 2005:

"Well, I wanted to be very truthful to play this character. I recognized things that I felt to be true, totally, in this script, about human nature and I wanted to be honest about it. I mean, I wouldn't have gone into this project with any other agenda. I've never been one that's been that concerned with my character looking good… What I liked about the film was that it went deeper, explored the more personal nature of this cop, this racist cop, so we got to see the other side, the loving son who's frustrated with his life [and] the fact that his father's sick, terminally ill. And it doesn't make his actions acceptable, but it puts a human face on the character, which as an actor we always look for characters that are balanced in that way."
Roger Ebert explains why Dillon is one of Crash's strengths:

For me, the strongest performance is by Matt Dillon, as the racist cop in anguish over his father. He makes an unnecessary traffic stop when he thinks he sees the black TV director and his light-skinned wife doing something they really shouldn't be doing at the same time they're driving. True enough, but he wouldn't have stopped a black couple or a white couple. He humiliates the woman with an invasive body search, while her husband is forced to stand by powerless, because the cops have the guns...

I always felt that Crash was a manipulative film with contrived characters, and I think Officer Ryan was written that way on the page. But the Officer Ryan that Matt Dillon brings to the screen isn't contrived. He feels real, like any of the characters we encounter in our own lives.

79 - Leopold Mountbatten (Hugh Jackman) Kate & Leopold - Like Christian before him, Leopold is one of the decade's few purely romantic leading male characters. He is a courteous English gentleman who time travels from 1876 New York to the present day, and it isn't at all surprising when Kate McKay (Meg Ryan) falls in love with the gallant third Duke of Albany. Leopold is in many ways the perfect man: he's uncommonly handsome, well-bred, brilliant (he is the inventor of the elevator), and he can ride a horse.

A less capable actor would probably have made the near-perfect Leopold irritating and insufferable, but Hugh Jackman gives Leopold a lot of passion. Where he could come off as lecturing, Jackman makes him honorable. Where he could seem tactless, Jackman makes him honest. He isn't being pretentious in this film - Leopold really believes what he says, and in an era where most of the romantic comedy heroes are either hiding something or downright lying, Leopold Mountbatten is pretty damn interesting.

78 - John & Jane Smith (Brad Pitt & Angelina Jolie) Mr. & Mrs. Smith - While Mr. & Mrs. Smith isn't a particularly memorable film, it's the characters that I remember the most. There's a lot of chemistry between the two characters, and upon seeing the film it was very difficult for me to tell if I was watching Pitt and Jolie or Smith and Smith. I'm still not sure if that's a good or bad thing. Whatever it is, it's certainly a memorable thing. Both characters are cunning, and there's an amusing coolness to their cavalier way of dealing with potentially assassinating each other. The brilliance is in their paradoxes - are we dealing with characters in an old-school romantic comedy or a 21st century action movie? It's obviously both, and even though the film itself doesn't quite pull it off, Pitt and Jolie do it flawlessly: it's almost impossible to take your eyes off the pair of them.

77 - Arwen (Liv Tyler) The Lord of the Rings trilogy - While Arwen is a very minor character in the original book series, she is given far more importance in the film trilogy.

She, like her grandmother Galadriel, is wise and strong. She is a great warrior who saves Frodo's life ("If you want him, come and claim him!"), and at the same time chooses to live as a mortal because of her love for Aragorn. Instead of leaving Middle-earth and sailing to the Grey Havens like her father Elrond wants, she stays in Middle-earth, refusing to leave the man she loves, even if he may not return. These are extraordinary sacrifices. Arwen is also the reason Aragorn chooses to fight on and not despair - during hard times he thinks of her.

More on Arwen:

Of Arwen, Tolkien said she was the Evenstar (the Evening Star) of her people, the embodiment of the mystery and brilliance of the night with a star spangled sky above. Arwen is dark...and seems younger, although she equals Galadriel in wisdom. She is also half human, with the ability to be mortal or immortal, as she chooses.

As Tolkien writes, `the braids of her dark hair were touched by no frost, her white arms and clear face were flawless and smooth, and the light of stars was in her bright eyes, yet queenly she looked, and thought and knowledge were in her glance, as one who has known many things that the years bring.'

A luminous being, then, who combined innocence and wisdom, who shone like the stars in the sky. Liv Tyler embodied all this, and also brought some vitality and athleticism to the role, when Jackson chose to give Arwen a more active part to play in the quest.

But it was not the dazzling physical beauty that was the most arresting thing...although they were of course beautiful in Tolkien's description. These elf women were older in elf years than the brotherhood of the ring - Arwen, indeed, far older than Aragorn, her beloved. But they did not age physically. The beauty that shines from them is the beauty of accumulated wisdom and compassion, something it is hard to render for a modern audience.

76 - Nemo (Alexander Gould) Finding Nemo - Even though Nemo is just a fish, he is, in many ways surprisingly very human: he has huge expressive fish eyes that are all too human, and he has a bad fin which his father calls his "lucky fin". Nemo, like many children would be, is self-conscious about his fin.

Despite the close relationship between Nemo and his father Marlin, in an instance of childhood defiance directed at his overprotective father, Nemo is taken far away from his home on the Great Barrier Reef.

Andrew Stanton on Nemo:

Nemo's short fin — a deformity that does not slow him down one bit — became, says Stanton, "a metaphor for anything you worry is insufficient or hasn't formed yet in your child. Parents think their child's handicap is a reflection of the parent. They become obsessive and anxious over that, whether it is the child's ability to read or the way they walk. This movie says there is no perfect kid; there is no perfect father."

75 - Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) Star Wars Episode: I, II, & III - Very few things about the Star Wars prequels lived up to the original trilogy. The little I did like included Qui-Gon Jin, Queen Padmé Amidala in The Phantom Menace, and above all, Obi-Wan Kenobi. As Owen Gleiberman says: "The one figure in Revenge of the Sith who taps the true spirit of Star Wars is Ewan McGregor: With his beautiful light K, clipped delivery, he plays Alec Guinness' playfulness, making Obi-Wan a marvel of benevolent moxie."

For me, Obi-Wan is interesting because of his character's growth. Sure, other characters have an arc as well, but Obi-Wan is the only character where you can see genuine maturing. While Anakin Skywalker is a perpetual child, and Amidala is loyal until the end, Obi-Wan is the only one among them who feels like a real human being.

In The Phantom Menance Obi-Wan starts off as a Padawan who is fiercely loyal to his Master. But there is self-confidence in Obi-Wan that he will grow into later. He disagrees with his Master, Qui-Gon, who is convinced that Anakin can bring balance to the force and defeat the Sith. Obi-Wan is confident enough to voice his disagreement, but respectful enough to realize that his Master ought to have the final say. Despite Obi-Wan's doubts about Anakin he takes on the responsibility of training him.

By Revenge of the Sith, Obi-Wan's doubts about Anakin are proven correct. While characters around him like Padmé refuse to see Anakin for what he truly is until is too late, Obi-Wan has the wisdom to see his true nature from the beginning. The difference between a young Obi-Wan and older Obi-Wan is that the older man has the courage to attempt the unspeakable - kill his closest friend.

74 - Charlie's Angels (Drew Barrymore, Cameron Diaz, Lucy Liu) Charlie's Angels and Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle- When I was 14 years old, Dylan Sanders, Natalie Cook, and Alex Munday were the coolest chicks the girls my age had ever seen. Sure, a character like Trinity from The Matrix was kick ass, but she's was too cold, distant, and self-serious for girls in their early teens. Sanders, Cook, and Munday were different from many previous tough girls. They had cute non-threatening boyfriends, drove fast cars, wore trendy outfits, and of course, could kick the crap out of people. They were campy and fun, and for once there was a movie with young women who could really be friends without hating each other.

By the time the inevitable Charlie's Angels sequel came around, I was nearly an adult and had moved on to other things. But now, nine years on from the first film, I will occasionally stop to watch the three Angels whenever I catch them.

On Barrymore:

The actress [Drew Barrymore] is meltingly cute, has crack comic timing, and can execute those Jackie Chan moves (she does some stunts herself) with startling fluency. But she also has a slight speech impediment and a trace of nerdy self-consciousness, and when she leaps into a battle you can see in her eyes that she's amazed—and thrilled!—to be playing a kung-fu superhero.

On Diaz:

And Diaz, clearly the most vivacious performer of the trio, continues that goosing around with some energetic booty wiggling that'll have the audience hooting or cheering – depending on the, uh, viewer sophistication levels involved.

On Liu:

Lui...she has an icy glamour-girl veneer-- but she does throw off a measure of sadistic good cheer disguised as a leather-clad efficiency expert who threatens a group of nerdy software engineers with a collective spanking

73 - Melquiades Estrada (Julio Cedillo) The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada - Melquiades is one of those characters who will stay with me for the rest of my life. And though he is dead for much of the film it is his loyalty and his loneliness that hovers over everything.

One of the best descriptions of Melquiades Estrada:

The friendship happens between West Texas rancher Pete Perkins (Tommy Lee Jones) and the Mexican ranch hand named Melquiades Estrada (Julio Cesar Cedillo) who just shows up one day looking for work. The two men don’t ask many questions of each other — they’re not really the question-asking kind — yet over time they come to see that they are but two cowboys riding the remnants of a dissipating range, mirror images reflected across the unforgiving border that divides their two countries. “If I die over here,” Melquiades tells Pete in a moment of uncanny prescience, “I don’t want to be buried on this side, with all the fucking billboards.”

72 - Edward R. Murrow (David Strathairn) Good Night, and Good Luck. - The beauty of the film was that instead of it mimicking the traditional biopics Hollywood often cranks out, the audience simply gets a snapshot of Murrow's career and a piece of American history. What makes Edward R. Murrow so fascinating in the film is his professionalism and his commitment to the truth, even if it may destroy him and CBS, the network he's work so hard for. David Straithairn, though he has little resemblance to Murrow, moves exactly like him. It's very eerie, watching him sit in stone silence, cigarette in hand, as he gives an interview.

Men like him don't exist anymore in modern American journalism, so watching Strathairn's performance is really watching an era that will probably never exist again.

Actor David Strathairn explains why Edward R. Murrow is relevant today:
(Good Night, and Good Luck) could have been made in 1941. It could have been in the 1800’s, or 1941 with the Japanese-American internment camps … the fear of Indians, so we'd better take away their civil liberties and put them on a reservation. It could be Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, any place that is where fear has been used … and confusion and the oppression of news has been used. The light has shined on it by this film. I don't think it's any coincidence that it's coming out now. I think that it's just a wonderful confluence of timing, that George (Clooney) got it together to make this film. I imagine if (George W.) Bush hadn't gotten a second term, it wouldn't be quite as potent an illumination, but there's always going to be something going on apropos of this, on this issue. Especially today, where we are fearful, but I think we are more confused; we're more paralyzed by our confusion as to who's telling us what, and what do we believe, and where's the truth?

I mean, it's sort of relative now. One news network is really only speaking to those people who need to be re-affirmed of their particular ideology and another one is (supporting another) – so these tribal factions in our society are feeding off these wildly opposing founts of information. Murrow was not about that. Murrow was about information for all, for the good of all. It's not a film to polarize or proselytize or indict, it's just to examine and to maybe build a platform for debate about these issues, and the responsibility of the journalist to find what's most important. Sure, we need to find out what's going on as a result of (recent hurricanes), but to what extent? To the extent that it puts a smokescreen over the (Alito) confirmation hearing or Gonzalez vs. Oregon, a physicians right’s (case)? There are so many issues out there that Murrow would have targeted, because they were so important to our daily lives.

71 - Ernesto Guevara de la Serna (Gael García Bernal) The Motorcycle Diaries - Guevara isn't presented as the revolutionary in this film. In The Motorcycle Diaries Guevara is an easy going middle class kid in med school who decides to journey across South America. Over the course of the film as Guevara encounters poverty there is a glimpse of what he will someday become.

On Bernal's performance:
...Mr. Bernal, with his smoldering eyes and equine features, is the movie's heartthrob. Though the film does, by the end, view Ernesto as a quasi-holy figure, turning away from the corruptions of the world toward a higher purpose, he is also portrayed as a mischievous, eager boy. Early in the film, the travelers stop in the seaside town of Miramar to visit Ernesto's girlfriend, Chichina (Mía Maestro), whose wealthy parents clearly disapprove of him.... The scenes between Ernesto and Chichina have the delicious ache of late-adolescent longing, a feeling that suffuses the film even as it turns its attention to graver matters.

There are more characters on the list, so if you haven't seen your favorite characters yet, there's still a chance they might make it.

Be sure to check out the other parts if you missed them: Part 1, Part 2

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