You might not know their names, but you know their faces: the so-called ‘character actors’ who routinely make a film a little bit better. Throughout the 1930s, for example, dozens of Warner Brothers’ second features were improved by the presence of regulars like Allen Jenkins, Ruth Donnelly and Frank McHugh. From Fox to Paramount — and, of course, MGM — every major studio maintained their own stable of reliable supporting actors.
Though the Hollywood studio system is long dead, a solid supporting cast remains a winning cinematic formula. Consider Nine Days (opening at Rialto Cinemas Elmwood on Friday, Aug. 6): Though headliner Winston Duke doesn’t embarrass himself — far from it! — it’s the performance of Lancastrian Benedict Wong, the second best thing to ever come from Eccles, that lifts the film above the run-of-the-mill.
Duke brings Shakespearian gravitas to his performance as Will, a supernatural “selecter” who grants or denies life to the homeless souls who traipse into his office every day. Wong, meanwhile, plays Kyo, a Falstaffian foil who leavens the film’s poker-faced stodginess with bawdy humor while Will holds forth with weighty soliloquies.
Writer-director Edson Oda’s screenplay introduces the audience to a group of competing souls — most significantly Emma (Joker‘s Zazie Beetz, an eminent character actor herself), who refuses to answer Will’s signature question, a disturbing hypothetical about child murder. That sets her apart, but the big question is whether or not her refusal to play by the rules will help her cause or condemn her to return to the cosmic emptiness whence she came.
An actors’ showcase that works best when you don’t think too hard about its wispy story, Nine Days left me with too many unanswered questions: ethical ones about the fate of Will’s rejects, substantive ones about his reliance on 40-year old video tech, and — most importantly — questions about his dreadful fashion sense. Come for the stellar performances, and try to ignore the sweater-vest.
If you’re getting excited about this year’s fast-approaching fire season, save two hours for Bring Your Own Brigade, opening on Aug. 6 at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas. Filmmaker Lucy Walker’s documentary takes a close look at two of California’s worst 2018 conflagrations, the Camp and Woolsey fires, and won’t exactly put you at ease.
The title inspired by Kim Kardashian’s penchant for hiring private firefighters, Bring Your Own Brigade burns hot for its first 15 minutes before settling into a simmering broadside documenting the proximate causes and tragic aftermaths of our recent climate change-enhanced fires. If you’ve never heard of Red Emmerson and a company named Sierra Pacific Industries, prepare to be both enlightened and incensed — and have your go bag at the ready.
Finally, No Ordinary Man (currently screening at the Shattuck) recounts the incredible story of Billy Tipton, a jazz musician who lived as a man — even releasing a couple of LPs — only to be revealed at death to have been a woman. It’s a fascinating look at how attitudes towards trans people have changed over the years, with some horrific talk show excerpts featuring Billy’s widow and son underscoring how bad things were in the 1980s.