July 12, 2008

Five Anjelica Huston Movies You Should See

(This installment is dedicated to Homie Bear - who wants more - and his impending cub.)

4: The Witches

The Witches is an adaptation of the brilliant Roald Dahl book of the same name. Roald Dahl has been terrifying and enchanting children and adults alike for a long time and The Witches lives up to his general oeuvre by being both a terror and a genuine charmer simultaneously. It is the story of a small boy being raised by his grandmother and a general meeting of all the witches in England whose fates intertwine when said boy is turned into a mouse by the Grand High Witch as a demonstration of her plans for the rest of England's children. It's one of those 'children must persevere against insurmountable odds and dastardly evil for the good of child-kind' sort of tales but is made extra delightful by Roald Dahl's singular wit and way with imagery. The movie adaptation, while bound to be lesser than the book by sheer virtue of bearing the burden of translating the freedom of words into visual realism, manages to maintain the sense of wonder, horror, and hilarity that makes the book such a classic. Stacked up against today's technology-savvy children's fare where CGI steps in for imagination the film seems a bit dated and the effects low-budget but therein, for me, lies the beauty. Given that The Jim Henson Company is partly responsible for the film, it should come as no surprise that the mouse sequences are shot alternating between real mice and animatronic ones that unfortunately look a little less than totally real. But the stunning makeup effects in place for the Grand High Witch more than make up for the mice and when you factor in performances from Rowan Atkinson and a young Brenda Blethyn in supporting roles the film contains a definite Dahl-esque charm. The best thing about The Witches is that it doesn't pander down to it's young audience. In fact the opening sequence is just a matter-of-fact storytelling from grandmother to grandson about what witches will do to children and how to spot them. It's just laid out plain as day that witches are real, they aim to hurt children, and children are best to protect themselves with knowledge. I love that straight-forward 'we're not going to lie to you or smooth it all over with sunshine' tact and it sets the tone for the witches to be as real as the narrative requires them to be and for the grandmother to ably communicate with her grandson as both a child and a mouse in plain adult language. It's a brilliant choice and it makes The Witches less a children's movie than a fantasy romp that everyone can enjoy in equal measure.

For the second time in as many posts, however, I will unequivocally state that the true and lasting beauty of The Witches hinges on Anjelica Huston's performance as the Grand High Witch. In a story riddled with grandmothers, children turned into mice, and hapless hotel managers, a strong and able villain is an absolute must for the narrative to hold any weight at all. As Miss Eva Ernst, the Grand High Witch's human disguise, Anjelica is an absolute marvel of glamor, militant command, and piercing glares. She enters the film to a musical underscore that lets us know she's threatening but its a wasted cue because with her imposing stature, deliberate gestures, quirked eyebrows, and forceful intonation how could she be anything else? She absolutely owns the character, infusing her with a demanding haughtiness and bursts of a kind of mania that are as mesmerizing as they are chilling. She openly gags over pronouncing the word 'child', moves with darting predatory precision, and speaks in an amusing Romania-meets-Germany-meets-fairy tale accent that is at times shrill and at times guttural. It's an inspired performance, one that could be labeled over the top except that it so perfectly and shrewdly encapsulates the whole of Dahl's intention with the Grand High Witch and one that lends the film a true air of menace. She is the ideal villain; archly camp, completely dedicated to the wicked cause, and as dangerous as she is captivating. When she sheds the Eva Ernst disguise and reveals the Grand High Witch's true self I defy you to not sit slack-jawed in disbelieving awe. Not only is the makeup utterly convincing and actually quite repulsive but Anjelica manages to act through the layers of latex shrouding all vestiges of her true self to remind us, repeatedly, that this is the same woman who swept glamorously into the hotel and keeps us focussed on her plotting instead of on the heinous witchy nose she sports. It takes an actor of supreme ability to not only act convincingly through heavy makeup but hold our attention more through the power of the performance than the applied effects. Anjelica gives a tour de force performance here and it's only because The Witches is overall a lower-budget children's movie that her Grand High Witch wasn't lauded with every honor Hollywood has to offer. She has created many an unforgettable character in her time but never has one been so deftly ingrained in the subconscious through the power of her talent and despite the hefty limitations placed on her by the makeup department.

The Witches is very charming and worth seeing on it's own merits but it is lifted beyond the level of good children's entertainment to an absolute must-see due to Anjelica's performance.

July 10, 2008

Five Anjelica Huston Movies You Should See

Celebrating the fabulousness that is Anjelica Huston isn't just about drooling over her too-cool-for-words modeling photos (though it certainly includes that) but is about being arrested by her breathtaking onscreen talent. The third generation of a formidable Hollywood family, Anjelica seized the opportunity to make the world notice her outside of her father John and grandfather Walter (not to mention then-boyfriend Jack Nicholson)'s shadows when she won an Oscar for Prizzi's Honor. She is a force to be reckoned with. She is honest onscreen, she doesn't let ego dictate her performance but instead sinks into the role and allows herself to be as villainous, flawed, haughty, fragile, bullish, or elegant as the role demands. She is wonderful, mesmerizing. And if you only know her as 'that actress that gabrielle keeps blathering about' or possibly as Morticia Addams then you're missing a lot. Allow me to spend a few days enlightening you.

5: Agnes Browne

Agnes Browne marks Anjelica Huston's second turn at directing (the first was the critically acclaimed and raw Bastard Out Of Carolina) and this time she directed herself in the lead role. Agnes Browne is often overlooked in the pantheon of great film performances that dot Anjelica's career because the film itself didn't perform spectacularly well and critics were quick to dismiss it as largely uneven and overly sentimental. "Unfortunately, Agnes Browne often comes across as clich├ęd and overwrought, and features an ending that is a text book example of deus ex machina" proclaims one such review. It's the tale of an Irish widow in the sixties struggling to provide for her seven children through one crisis after another while discovering herself through the strength of her bond with her best friend. The story plays as more of an improbable fairy tale than a drama mired in gritty realism but though I like horrific, wrenching, or just plain ambiguous endings in films more often than not, sometimes I just want to leave feeling good about the world in general and therein lies the beauty of Agnes Browne. The film is about the power of friendship more than any other single theme and no matter how many times I see it I never fail to be moved by the strength of devotion between Agnes and her best friend Marion. Every time it makes me want to call all my close friends and tearfully tell them how much they mean to me. It is at times hopelessly cheesy, admittedly, but it's got some gorgeous moments in it and the best are between Agnes and Marion. At the end I feel sort of giggly and full of inexplicable hope which is exactly how a fairy tale should leave you feeling.

But the true power of Agnes Browne lies in Anjelica's performance and no matter what you think about the story overall (unbearable schmaltz-fest or touching ode to the bonds of friendship), one thing that can't be denied is how effortlessly Anjelica becomes Agnes. She does an authentic Irish accent as flawlessly as if she'd grown up on the streets of Dublin. (She did spend her early school days in Ireland so the accent is truly faultless.) She is absolutely genuine; in her hands Agnes exudes a frequently foul-mouthed but charming determination and a radiating warmth, and best of all she glides through the role as though actually living in Agnes' shoes. She never visibly acts. She is a endless fount of raw emotion and utter honesty and for her performance, if for no other reason, you should see Agnes Browne. She will make you believe in Agnes whether you want to or not.

July 7, 2008

Happy Birthday Anjelica Huston!

Anjelica in May of this year.

Fabulous. Just... fabulous.

Vintage Anjelica on the cover of Vogue 1974.

It doesn't get better than this, my pretty mortals. She's the cream of the crop.
Your Weekly Catherine

Week Twenty-Six

Doesn't Catherine sort of remind you of Nancy Drew here?

Catherine Willows and the Clue in the Crossword Cipher:

It's like Nancy grew up, kicked Ned to the curb, and got a real job.