Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Snow Angels

Kate Beckinsale is a tremendous actress. This isn't something that I've thought for very long though, it actually just came to me recently while watching Snow Angels. In it Beckinsale plays Annie, a waitress and newly single mother struggling to cope with life in her small wintry town. She recently seperated from her husband Glen (Sam Rockwell) and they're coping with raising their young daughter apart. We also meet a teenager named Arthur (Michael Angarano) who is dealing with his own parents recent seperation, in addition to experiencing his first love with a girl at school. The relationships complicate themselves from there, but the tone never reaches that of a soap opera, thanks to the painfully realistic acting and the sureness with which everything is handled by director David Gordon Green.

Green is a sort of golden boy at the moment, and with good reason. He's begun to get a reputation of getting damn near any actor to have the best work of their career under his direction. Josh Lucas, mostly known for being the love interest in the Reese Witherspoon vehicle Sweet Home Alabama, was frightening as the violent uncle in Green's Southern Gothic thriller Undertow. Zooey Deschanel, probably best known for being the love interest in Elf, as well as the go to actress for the best friend role in many movies, has yet to better her work in Green's heartbreaking romance All the Real Girls. And most recently, James Franco got the best notices of his career playing Saul the drug dealer in Green's buddy comedy Pineapple Express. In Snow Angels, Green draws out incredible performances from his entire cast, which is the best of his young career.

Sam Rockwell, I'm convinced, cannot give a bad performance, and his tragic role here is his best yet. Glen is a suicidal born-again Christian and lapsed alcoholic just trying to get his life together. When he proudly tells his wife that he got a job, attempting to convince her to come back to him, and she doesn't share his excitement, Rockwell says "It's not much Annie, but I'm trying" and you can see the desperation and pain and disappointment in eyes and hear it in his voice and it will break your heart. Michael Angarano as Arthur is so natural on screen that I'm afraid many people will overlook how good he is here. Angarano has a nice body of work for a 21-year-old, including playing the 11-year-old William in Almost Famous (one of my favorite movies), plus multiple episodes of Will & Grace and 24, among others. In Snow Angels, he never hits a wrong note, whether it's his anger at his father for seperating from his mother, his awkward flirting with Annie, or his sweet romance with his girlfriend Lila (wonderfully played by Olivia Thirlby, the best friend in Juno). Angarano's definitely an actor I'll be on the lookout for in the future, because I think he has the chops to be a very good actor in the upcoming years. Also of note, comedienne Amy Sedaris was surprisingly good in the supporting role of Annie's best friend Barb.

The star here though, is Beckinsale as Annie. Although I've seen her in many movies, she'd never made an impression on me as anything much more than a pretty face. Her Annie is a tribute to the unknown depths that actors possess that they may not get to play very often. 2008 has not been the greatest year for female performances (it's been kind of the opposite of 2007 when there were a ton of great ones), but if there has been a better performance by an actress this year, I haven't seen it. Although she's British, Beckinsale's accent is spot on, and the emotional shades that she continues to add to Annie as the movie progresses is truly astounding. There are few things I love more in the world than being surprised by an actor like this, I hope her performance will open up doors for her to become a respected actress so that maybe she can wow us again.

I would be remiss if I didn't acknowledge the work of cinematographer Tim Orr for putting his elegant photography into the movie. Whether we're in the snowy forest or just Arthur's bedroom, Orr's camera finds the beauty in it. He's an integral part of David Gordon Green's crew, having been cinematographer on every one of Green's movies, building a reputation for finding all of those gorgeous shots, no matter where the action is taking place.

It's definitely not going to be for everyone, Green sees these lives playing out with an unfliching eye. It's the kind of cathartic emotional drama usually saved for the stage, or perhaps the page (Green adapted the story from the book of the same name by Stewart O'Nan). Snow Angels also isn't a perfect movie, I don't think the final third works as well as the first two-thirds, but there's always something to admire on screen. There's the exquisite photography, the superb acting, and Green's assured control over the proceedings. If nothing else, I recommend seeing it for the eye-opening performances from Beckinsale, Angarano, and Rockwell.

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