Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Elijah Wood

Hailed as Hollywood's most gifted child actor of the 1990s, this handsome, dark-haired performer with large protuberant eyes began as a model and moved on to commercials and TV-movies before starting a successful career in features. Elijah Wood entered film with small parts in "Back to the Future II" (1989) and "Internal Affairs" (1990). His talent only began to manifest with a charming turn as the young grandson of immigrants (and alter ego of writer-director Barry Levinson) growing up in Baltimore in the autobiographical family saga "Avalon" (1990). Wood further demonstrated his dramatic chops with a starring role in "Radio Flyer" (1992), a harrowing fantasy-tinged tale of child abuse. He again occupied center stage in Disney's adaptation of the Mark Twain classic "The Adventures of Huck Finn" (1993). Wood also worked in TV, notably in "Witness" (1993), a "Showtime 30-Minute Movie", wherein he played a Jewish boy who haunts a Nazi soldier (Gary Sinise) who takes Jews to the gas chamber.

Wood more than held his own against the once burgeoning boy icon Macauley Culkin in the clever and chilling "The Good Son" (1993). Playing a troubled son who recently lost his mother to illness, Wood gave an impressively nuanced performance encompassing loss, anger, and growing anxiety about the sadistic machinations of his twisted yet outwardly angelic cousin. He shifted gears to outlandish comedy as the star of Rob Reiner's "North" (1994) playing an apparently perfect child who, feeling underappreciated by his distracted parents (Jason Alexander and Julia Louis-Dreyfuss), becomes a free agent. Young North encountered an all-star supporting cast as he wandered the globe in search of more appropriate parents in this critically lambasted and commercially orphaned feature. The same year, Wood co-starred as Kevin Costner's son in the coming-of-age tale "The War". After a two year absence, he returned to the big screen in "Flipper" (1996), as a troubled youth, sent to live with his bohemian uncle, who encounters a boisterous dolphin. Wood followed with a fine portrayal of a troubled teen coming of age in the 70s in Ang Lee's superior "The Ice Storm" (1997).

Now of an age to play older teen roles, but possessing far more talent and experience than most of his contemporaries, Wood shied away from the high school-set romantic comedies and self-referential horror flicks that were inundating theaters in the late 1990s. When he did appear on the big screen in more exploitative projects, he managed to choose the best of the genres, taking featured roles in Mimi Leder's above-average Armageddon actioner "Deep Impact" and the Robert Rodriguez-directed, Kevin Williamson-scripted sharp and scary sci-fi thriller "The Faculty" (both 1998). A large part in the James Toback misfire "Black and White" (2000) didn't derail Wood, who instead emerged better for the effort, seeming more adult and more versatile after his work in the mostly-improvised, gritty drama. In 2001, he was featured in the Encore-aired independent "Life Without Dick" and followed with Edward Burns' "Ash Wednesday" (lensed 2001), playing the younger brother of the director-actor in this look at the Irish vs. Italian gang wars of the 1980s.

Cast in the long-awaited three-part feature adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Lord of the Rings", Wood started a new chapter in his career. Having landed the sought-after part of Frodo Baggins, the actor was now a main player in a trilogy that was swarming with pre-release buzz. With "The Fellowship of the Ring" (2001), "The Two Towers" (2002) and "The Return of the King" (2003), Wood would become Frodo for three consecutive years in three blockbuster films. Thanks to his established versatility and remarkable talent, the actor was likely to meet a future career free from typecasting despite this primary role in the legendary fantasy franchise, while reaping the rewards of a starring role in a high-profile film.

Hot on the heels of the trilogy, Wood quickly appeared in his first non-Frodo role in the off-kilter but highly effective "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" (2004), playing an ethically challenged lab technician who helps erase heartbreaking memories but then uses his knowledge of an unknowing former patient's (Kate Winslett) past relationship to woo her. He then had a chillingly silent turn as the cannibalistic, bespectacled serial killer Kevin Roarke in director Robert Rodriguez and writer-artist Frank Miller's visually arresting adaptation of Miller's crime noir comic book series "Sin City" (2005), appearing opposite Mickey Rourke in the segment "The Hard Goodbye."

Wood rounded out 2005 with “Everything is Illuminated,” playing a young man on a funny and rather bizarre journey to the Ukraine in search of what happened to the woman who saved his grandfather’s life when the Nazis destroyed the city where he was born during World War II. For the animated “Happy Feet” (2006), Wood provided the voice for Mumble, a vocally-challenged penguin who discovers his only chance at wooing a mate is through his slick dance moves. Then in “Bobby” (2006), first time director Emilio Estevez’s engaging look at the 16 hours prior to Senator Robert F. Kennedy’s assassination at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles as seen through the eyes of several guests and employees. Wood played a young man about to be sent to fight in Vietnam who plans to marry a young woman (Lindsay Lohan) he barely knows.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Will Smith

A charismatic African-American rap star and actor of film and TV, Will Smith began as half of the Grammy-winning duo D.J. Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince and later rose to fame making his acting debut starring as "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air" (NBC, 1991-96), a nice, jug-eared, streetwise kid from the Philadelphia 'hood adjusting to culture shock in moneyed Bel Air. The role allowed him to offer a squeaky clean image of hip-hop culture which proved non-threatening to primetime values. With his enhanced image as a role model, Smith became a regular face on TV in youth-oriented specials and public affairs programs and, in the show's final (1995-96) season, became its executive producer. He then parlayed his status as a TV star into a feature acting career, debuting in a drama about teenage runaways entitled "Where the Day Takes You" (1992) and following up with a supporting role in "Made in America" (1993) with Whoopi Goldberg and Ted Danson.

Smith's first lead in features was a dramatic stretch for the young performer. In the film version of John Guare's "Six Degrees of Separation" (1993), he played a young gay hustler and con man who ingratiates himself with an affluent white couple (Stockard Channing and Donald Sutherland) by posing as the son of Sidney Poitier and a friend of their children who are away at college. The demanding role required Smith to work with an acting coach and a dialect coach three times a week for three months prior to rehearsals. The part also called for a homosexual kiss that, even after being paid, he refused to film. Despite some critical carping, Smith garnered largely impressive notices for his portrayal amidst a cast of seasoned acting pros.

After this acclaim, Smith joined fellow sitcom star Martin Lawrence in "Bad Boys" (1995), turning their lot over to the hands of veteran action-comedy producers Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer. In the film, Smith was Mike Lowery, a wild bachelor cop, and Lawrence was his partner, a family man. The comedy of the piece arose from the fact the duo have to switch places to nab a heroin ring. Made for a modest budget, "Bad Boys" grossed $65 million domestically and twice that with foreign distribution included. Smith's quote for work in feature films skyrocketed past $5 million. Although by the time he was 20 he had made and spent more than $1 million and was deeply in debt to the IRS, he had settled down by age 27 and was focused on career goals. After "Bad Boys", his feature film dance card became full. He made a cameo appearance in Lawrence's "A Thin Line Between Love and Hate" and proved modestly revelatory as a military pilot trying to save the USA from an alien invasion in the sci-fi blockbuster "Independence Day" (1996). Smith again tangled with space aliens to box-office success teamed with Tommy Lee Jones as the "Men in Black" (1997), roles they eventually repeated in the inevitable sequel "Men in Black II" (2002).

Based on his back-to-back hits, Smith moved firmly to the A-list and began to be offered a variety of roles. In the 1998 thriller "Enemy of the State", he offered a likable performance as a labor lawyer targeted by the National Security Agency after he accidentally acquires evidence pivotal to a politically-motivated killing. Cast as Civil War-era government agent James West in "Wild Wild West" (1999), loosely based on the popular 1960s TV series, Smith's laid-back charm and charisma were overshadowed by overblown special effects. Similarly, Smith seemed at sea as a mysterious caddy who dispenses inspirational support to a washed-up golf pro (Matt Damon) in the fable "The Legend of Bagger Vance" (2000). Most reviewers agreed, though, that Smith managed to keep the character from devolving completely into cliche -- although the script and direction moved him close to it.

In 2001, Smith realized a long-held dream to portray renowned boxer Muhammad Ali in a biopic. Director Michael Mann decided to concentrate on the tumultuous period in the fighter's life, from his surprise win over Sonny Liston through his difficulties with the draft to his regaining the crown of heavyweight champion defeating George Foreman in the now famous Rumble in the Jungle in "Ali" (2001). Smith bulked up gaining over thirty pounds and followed the same training regimen as Ali as part of his pre-shooting preparation. The onscreen results impressed many critics while others felt that Smith came close but didn't quite capture the boxing champion. The Academy, however, acknowledged Smith's efforts and included him as one of the 2001 nominees for Best Actor.

In 2002, Smith followed up his acclaimed performance with a couple of would-be blockbuster sequels generating solid ticket sales but offering little creative innovation, with the actor reuniting with Tommy Lee Jones in "Men in Black II" (2002) and reteaming with Martin Lawrence and director Michael Bay for the sequel "Bad Boys 2" (2003). His next role, as a futuristic police detective in the big screen adaptation of Isaac Asimov's sci-fi classic "I, Robot" (2004), cast him in a familiar blockbuster hero vein which was crowd-pleasing if not horizon-expanding, and he lent his distinctive persona to DreamWorks' CGI-animated underwater underworld "Shark Tale" (2004) as Oscar, the mouthy young fish who ends up in hot water after the death of a shark mob boss. Then the actor tried a more straighforward comedy with "Hitch" (2005), playing a smooth professional date doctor whose technique goes awry when he meets his own potential lady love (Eva Mendes)--the film offered a refreshing, non-action role for Smith that fully capitalized on his considerable charisma and romantic appeal.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Mel Gibson

Though introduced to American audiences as Australian, the strikingly handsome, blue-eyed Mel Gibson actually hailed from Peekskill, New York. (He and his family had emigrated Down Under in 1968 at the height of the Vietnam War.) After a season onstage with Sydney's South Australian Theatre Company where he portrayed both Oedipus and Henry IV, he made his name as the leather-clad, post-apocalyptic action hero of George Miller's "Mad Max" and in the radically different "Tim" (both 1979), for which he picked up his first of two Australian Film Institute Awards as Best Actor, playing a retarded handyman in love with Piper Laurie. Peter Weir's World War I drama "Gallipoli" and "Mad Max 2" (both 1981), Miller's transcendent follow-up to "Mad Max" (released in the USA as "The Road Warrior" since American audiences knew nothing of the barely-released earlier movie), established Gibson as an international star. "The Year of Living Dangerously" (1982), Weir's film about the political upheavals of 1960s Indonesia, gave him his first romantic lead opposite Sigourney Weaver and launched him as a sex symbol.

After a turn as a reluctantly mutinous Fletcher Christian opposite Anthony Hopkins' Captain Bligh in "The Bounty", Gibson made an inauspicious American debut in "The River" (both 1984), playing a character so coldly stubborn that few could empathize. The well-made but gloomy "Mrs. Soffel" (also 1984) followed quickly before he returned to Australia to wrap up the "Mad Max" series with "Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome" (1985), a cumbersome satire with less action, a bigger budget, Tina Turner and Max, mostly on foot, looking like a wandering prophet. Gibson then took two years off to concentrate on his family, returning to the screen in "Lethal Weapon" (1987), for which he created perhaps his most popular character, Martin Riggs, an explosive homicide cop paired with the long-suffering Danny Glover. The film propelled Gibson to superstardom, spawned three sequels (to date) and allowed him to incorporate his innate playfulness as part of an unusually rich characterization for a modern action hero. Called at various times "practical joker", "eternal adolescent" and "fun-loving fourth Stooge", Gibson has remained a "regular guy" who doesn't take himself or his work too seriously and consistently comes across as relaxed and natural.

Gibson sandwiched the meandering "Tequila Sunrise" (1988) and even more disappointing "Bird on a Wire" (1990) around a blockbuster "Lethal Weapon 2" (1989), and his patented swagger could not save the alleged action-comedy "Air America" (1990) from the inadequacy of its script. Next, in a surprising career move, he opted to take his shot at Shakespeare's Melancholy Dane in Franco Zeffirelli's "Hamlet" (1990). While the film was problematic, Gibson turned in a finely rendered portrait of the famed prince in the first project produced by his Icon Productions. He continued in a more sentimental vein with the sudsy "Forever Young" (1992), scored another huge hit with "Lethal Weapon 3" (1993), then made his directorial debut with "The Man Without a Face" (1993), a drama in which he hid his good looks behind the heavy makeup of a burn victim. After this mildly popular effort, Gibson returned to rowdy commercial fare with "Maverick" (1994), teaming for a fourth time with "Lethal Weapon" director Richard Donner for a 90s adaptation of the 60s TV Western-comedy series, which shrewdly parlayed his dashing rogue qualities into more box-office bliss.

Gibson returned to the director's chair for "Braveheart" (1995), a project far bigger than any with which he had been previously involved in any capacity. Clad in a kilt, sporting blue war paint and wielding a big sword, Gibson starred as Sir William Wallace, a 13th-century Scottish nobleman persecuted for his efforts to free Scotland from English rule. Wags dubbed the film "Mad Mac", but the Academy deemed it worthy, voting it five awards including Best Picture and honoring Gibson as Best Director. Later that same year, in addition to providing the speaking voice for John Smith in Disney's "Pocahontas", Gibson made his screen singing debut. His collaboration with Ron Howard, "Ransom" (1996), another box-office hit that earned $35 million its first week, preceded "Conspiracy Theory" (1997), his fifth film with Donner and a surprising commercial dud compared to their previous work, especially with Julia Roberts starring opposite Gibson. The actor-director pair rebounded with "Lethal Weapon 4" (1998), its healthy box office reaffirming Riggs-Murtaugh (in reportedly their last outing) as a bankable team.

Gibson next starred as a murderous thief bent on getting his "Payback" (1999), a loose reworking of the same Donald Westlake novel that had inspired John Boorman's 1967 classic thriller "Point Blank". Playing to Gibson's strengths, the urban Western veered problematically from dark and sinister to comic and whimsical but still managed a respectable box office. His star power could not make Wim Wenders' "The Million Dollar Hotel" (2000) a mainstream success, and though the director's visual skills were on display, the underdeveloped, not very interesting story made it a tough sell at the art-houses. Gibson then joined "popcorn" specialists Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich for Emmerich's Revolutionary War drama "The Patriot" (also 2000), scripted by Robert Rodat. Essentially a Western, "The Patriot" cast him as a retired "gunslinger", still spooked by his memories of the French and Indian War, who clings fast to his pacifism until his son falls into enemy hands, triggering his course of revenge. After voicing Rocky the Rooster in the animated "Chicken Run", a sort of feathered "Great Escape", he rounded out the busy year as star of Nancy Meyers' romantic comedy "What Women Want" (both 2000).

Aside from making Gibson vehicles, his Icon Productions has produced projects like the Beethoven biopic "Immortal Beloved" (1994, directed by Bernard Rose), the remake of "Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina" (1997, also helmed by Rose), the black comedy "Ordinary Decent Criminals" (a fictionalized version of the life of Irish thief Martin Cahill) and the above average ABC biopic "The Three Stooges" (both 2000).

In 2002, Gibson appeared in the war film "We Were Soldiers," directed by Gibson's "Braveheart" scribe Randall Wallace and in "Signs," the much anticipated M. Night Shyamalan movie about crop circles. The actor was almost unrecognizable behind wig of thinning hair and bulbous prosthetics in the 2003 film adaptation of Dennis Potter's acclaimed "The Singing Detective," and while the film did not burn up the box office reports Gibson, who also produced, earned personal kudos for employing his old "Air America" co-star Robert Downey, Jr., to play the lead, despite Downey's prior difficulties with drug arrests. Gibson next ignited a wildfire of controversy with his third directoral effort "The Passion of the Christ" (2004), a hard-hitting, highly bloody depiction of the Gospels in which Gibson, a devout Catholic who was inspired to make the film after struggling with his own personal demons, wanted to illustrate the severe suffering and selfless sacrifice of Jesus Christ. Long before the film was released, it came under intense scrutiny from religious groups and was criticized early on for intimations of anti-Semitism in the way Jews were shown to contribute to Jesus' persecution--an element that was not aided by some injudicious, intolerant-sounding comments made by Gibson's father, Hutton. Critics were polarized by the film, many citing the violence and gore as excessive, while others praised Gibson's unflinching portrayal--With interest in the controversial film at a fever pitch when in opened, "The Passion of the Christ" debuted to box office blockbuster-sized grosses.