#283. Ewan McGregor

When does an actor become recognizable? Is it when they are cast in a series of films beloved by their respective fandoms? Is it when they have an award-winning performance? Is it when they have appeared in enough films that they just “become known”? It seems that the convergence of two or more of these factors are what usually thrust an actor across the threshold of being an “unknown” to being a recognizable name in Hollywood. Whatever the specific reason, Ewan McGregor is a recognizable actor today. Maybe it was from his role as Obi-Wan Kenobi in the Star Wars prequel trilogy? Maybe it was from being in an Oscar-nominated film or two? Maybe it was from the long list of acting credits to his name. This week’s two films highlight some of the roles that made Ewan McGregor a recognizable actor.

Moulin Rouge!Moulin Rouge!
Year: 2001
Rating: PG-13
Length: 127 minutes / 2.12 hours

In the world of film, sometimes acting isn’t enough. The most versatile actors can sing and dance, but these skills can likely be taught so that an actor can fill the role they were meant to play. For Ewan McGregor, he clearly has a recognizable voice, as shown by a few animated films that utilized his voice acting talent. Robots (2005) and Valiant (2005) put McGregor in the lead role for their respective films, but this was at least four years after he truly proved his vocal prowess. There have been quite a few films (and even films about these types of films) where an actor or actress has their singing voice dubbed over (West Side Story (1961) being a prime example of this). In Moulin Rouge! (2001), it is clear that the actors are using their own voices to sing. McGregor’s distinctive voice would definitely present a challenge to be dubbed over, that much is certain.

A cross between love at first sight and a case of mistaken identities, Christian (Ewan McGregor) finds himself smitten with Satine (Nicole Kidman), the star of the Moulin Rouge. The confusion came when Christian was at the dance hall to pitch an idea for his theatre friends and Satine thought that he was the mysterious Duke of Monroth (Richard Roxburgh). Unfortunately, once the air was cleared, the damage was already done. Christian and Satine fall in love, but now the financial future of the Moulin Rouge is in jeopardy, seeing as the Duke wants Satine for himself if he is to provide his patronage to the dance hall. On the surface, Satine agrees to this, but only on the condition that Christian’s play is performed. But what Christian and the Duke don’t know is that Satine is dying from tuberculosis, a condition made worse by her singing in the play.

TrainspottingTrainspotting
Year: 1996
Rating: R
Length: 94 minutes / 1.56 hours

Years before Ewan McGregor did his best Alec Guinness impression in Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace(1999), he showed that he had the physical dedication to his roles in Trainspotting (1996). Obviously the type of body training needed for action films like Star Wars and The Island (2005) is different than losing a lot of weight to play a heroin addict, but the commitment is still the same. And while Trainspotting definitely had its trippy moments, much like Big Fish (2003) would later in McGregor’s career; it was still delightfully dark with its comedy. We’ve seen McGregor come back to the dark comedy with I Love You Phillip Morris (2009) and The Men Who Stare at Goats (2009), but I, for one, am curious if this year’s Trainspotting 2 (2017) will continue the unique look at drugs that its predecessor did twenty years ago.

Mark Renton (Ewan McGregor) is just one of a group of heroin addicts who have become friends. Of his own volition, he decides to go off of heroin, but does so via opium in an incident that takes place in “the worst toilet in Scotland”. Once the withdrawal ends, he hooks up with a girl who happened to be underage, thus pushing him back into heroin. In this daze, Renton and his friends end up killing the infant daughter of Allison (Susan Vidler) through sheer neglect. While the rest of the crew gets in trouble for shoplifting, Renton is pardoned with the caveat that he has to get clean. Unfortunately, this causes him to overdose and his family locks him in his childhood room to endure the withdrawal symptoms, including hallucinations. Now that he’s on the road to recovery, the gang wants to get back together for one last drug deal that could net them a lot of money. Renton obliges, but ends up having the last laugh.

2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 excellent Ewan McGregor performances

Bacon #: 2 (Valiant / John Cleese -> The Big Picture / Kevin Bacon)

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#210. The Underdog

Perhaps the most-used cliché in Hollywood, the Underdog never ceases to attract audiences. Why is this? I think the reason behind the popularity of an Underdog story is due to its relatability. Most underdogs are unequipped to challenge the more skilled favorites of a competition. The Underdog always has some sort of “too” associated with them that prevents them from coming up against a fair fight: too young, too old, too weak, too poor. Despite these disadvantages, they still manage to stand up and take their challengers head on. All too often, we are reminded of our shortcomings. We are reminded of the strengths of others. We all want the Underdog to win because we are the Underdog. We are inspired to overcome our circumstances as long as we see that it can be done. This week’s two films focus on Underdogs.

RockyRocky
Year: 1976
Rating: PG
Length: 119 minutes / 1.98 hours

A surprising amount of sports films focus on the Underdog. In fact, I’d almost wager that they all do. Usually the team with the greatest odds to win is the team with the most money, the most skill, the most talent, and the most black uniforms. And yet, even with all these factors in their favor, this team will not win at the end of the film. Sure, they’ll beat the Underdog the first time they cross paths, but this just gives the Underdog’s victory that much more of an impact. Many boxing films have featured Underdogs, including Million Dollar Baby (2004) with a woman who was too old, Cinderella Man (2005) with a man who was too poor, and Battling Butler (1926) with a man who was too weak. While the latter of this list is the most comedic of the set (and thus, the odd man out), the best-known Underdog boxer is that of Rocky Balboa from the 1976 Best Picture, Rocky. This classic Underdog story is a staple of the American Film Institute’s top 100 list, being currently placed at #57.

Heavyweight champion Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) is looking forward to the World Heavyweight Championship bout set to take place during New Year’s Day on America’s Bicentennial. Unfortunately, the contender has to bow out due to an injured hand, giving Creed a conundrum: nobody else has enough time to train for the match. As a result, he has an idea: let an unknown boxer, an Underdog, fight him instead. Enter Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone): a nobody who is nicknamed “The Italian Stallion”. Rocky doesn’t think he can beat Creed, but still wants to give it his all. He wants to “go the distance” with Creed because nobody else has. When the fight starts, nobody could expect Balboa to last to the last round, but he does, refusing to be knocked out. Even though he technically lost, the simple act of just hanging on made Rocky the winner of the film.

Real SteelReal Steel
Year: 2011
Rating: PG-13
Length: 127 minutes / 2.12 hours

The sports genre hasn’t completely cornered the market on Underdogs. Fantasy and science fiction often feature the Underdog, which perhaps explains a little bit about their fan-base. Frodo from The Lord of the Rings (2001-2003) was not the best candidate to destroy the ring of power. Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games (2012-2015) was from the weakest and poorest District. The Rebels from Star Wars (1977-1983) were too insignificant to defeat the Empire. And yet, all of these characters, amongst many others, all overcame their perceived weaknesses and managed to accomplish their goals, even against the overwhelming forces that were pitted against them. Of course, sometimes genres can cross boundaries. Science fiction is rife with robots and Underdogs. Sports films have boxers and Underdogs. By combining these two genres at their common points, we arrive at Real Steel.

This 2011 science fiction sports film has been jokingly referred to as Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots: the Movie as well as Rocky with Robots. Having been pushed out of his boxing career by robots, Charlie Kenton (Hugh Jackman) has now hit rock bottom: losing a bet that his robot could beat a live bull. To top things off, he now finds himself another $100,000 in debt because he wants full custody of his son, Max (Dakota Goyo), whose mother has just died. Through a series of robots fights (and destroyed robots), Max and Charlie eventually bond over a sparring robot found in a junkyard. “Atom” is not expected to win, but because it has a special ability to mimic its owner’s movements, Charlie teaches Atom how to fight, eventually pitting the Underdog against the global champion, “Zeus”. In much the same fashion as Rocky, Atom lasts the whole fight, but doesn’t technically win, despite being the “People’s Champion”.

2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 ubiquitous underdogs

#201. Max von Sydow

Not all actors come from North America. Hollywood has an irresistible pull that brings in many actors from all parts of the globe, thus Americanizing them and bringing them to American audiences. While some actors will spend some time working on their craft in their home countries, if they are successful in doing so, it is likely that they won’t stay there long. Everyone desires to be famous, so when Hollywood comes knocking, most will answer that call as fast as they can. However, there are a select few who resist the pull of Hollywood and instead make a mark on their native film landscape. This sort of national pride is somewhat rare, but one of the actors who has epitomized this trait is Max von Sydow. While he did eventually come to America, he made sure to leave a lasting impression on his native land. This week’s two films look at Sydow’s work in the U.S. and Sweden.

                                      Extremely Loud and Incredibly CloseExtremely Loud and Incredibly Close
Year: 2011
Rating: PG-13
Length: 129 minutes / 2.15 hours

1965 marked the arrival of Max von Sydow in American films with The Greatest Story Ever Told, wherein he portrayed Jesus Christ. Because he didn’t have quite the partnership with directors like he did in Sweden, his work has been quite diverse. From the protagonist of The Exorcist (1973), to a Bond villain in Never Say Never Again (1983), to Liet-Kynes in Dune (1984), to PreCrime’s Director in Minority Report (2002), Sydow has managed to age gracefully through his numerous roles. His latest role in this winter’s Star Wars: Episode VII (2015) will expose him to a fandom who idolizes many of its key actors. Of course, his acting skill has been nominated for an Oscar twice: first for his performance in Pelle the Conqueror (1987), and second, 24 years later, for Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.

A year after losing his father in the September 11th attacks on the World Trade Center, Oskar Schell (Thomas Horn) finds that an old man (Max von Sydow) has moved in with his grandmother (Zoe Caldwell). The man does not speak, but instead has the words “Yes” and “No” tattooed on his palms (a la The Night of the Hunter). Oskar starts bringing the old man along on the scavenger hunt his late father gave him, conquering several fears along the way. When he realizes the old man is probably his grandfather, Oskar plays the answering machine messages of his dead father, which causes the man to become emotional. This incident causes the old man to move out and tell Oskar to quit the scavenger hunt. Once it is revealed that the search was set up by Oskar’s mother, Linda Schell (Sandra Bullock), the grandfather eventually returns to live with Oskar’s grandmother.

The Seventh SealThe Seventh Seal
Year: 1957
Rating: Not Rated
Length: 96 minutes / 1.6 hours

Sydow’s early career started in 1949, but it wasn’t until 1957 that his acting really flourished. This was due to his partnership with director Ingmar Bergman. In total, Bergman directed eleven films with Max in the cast. Films like Wild Strawberries (1957), The Brink of Life (1958), The Virgin Spring (1960), and Through a Glass Darkly (1961) gave Sydow the chance to show Scandinavian audiences his acting skills. It’s no doubt that Hollywood took notice, but he managed to resist its pull, taking full advantage of the partnership with Bergman. Of course, most of these films pale in comparison to the first collaboration these two masterminds created: The Seventh Seal. The scenes of Death playing chess are some of the most recognized scenes in all of European cinema, if not in the entire world.

Antonius Block (Max von Sydow) is a knight who just returned to Sweden following his service in the Crusades. Finding that his home country is now plague-ridden, Block encounters Death (Bengt Ekerot) and challenges him to a chess match in order to delay his inevitable demise. As the knight heads back to his castle, he and his squire, Jöns (Gunnar Björnstrand), run across some actors. Heading into a church, Block gives his confession that he wants to perform “one meaningful deed” to a priest who turns out to be Death. After enjoying a picnic lunch with the actors he met earlier, Block invites them to his castle. Along the way, Block encounters Death in a few more forms, eventually finishing their chess game. In a last-ditch effort, Block swipes the pieces off the board, which gives the actors just enough time to escape Death’s grasp, the final checkmate sealing the knight’s fate.

2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 spectacular Sydow performances

Bacon #: 2 (Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close / Tom Hanks -> Apollo 13 / Kevin Bacon)

#137. Identical Twins

While it may be a bit of a trope, one plot twist you don’t often see is that of identical twins. Sure, there have been movies in which twins play a part of the plot (like the Schwarzenegger / DeVito film Twins (1988)), but the real plot twists come when it’s revealed that the twins are identical. Mistaken identity is a common theme for the suspense/thriller genre, but what if the mistaken identity is deliberate? What if two people want to switch lives? What if someone wants to be in the two places at the same time? There are many advantages to having an identical twin, but one of the most unique advantages is being able to trick others about your identity. Of course, then you have to ask yourself: which one of the twins is evil? After all, at least one identical twin must be evil. This week’s two films examine the schemes of identical twins.

The Parent TrapThe Parent Trap
Year: 1998
Rating: PG
Length: 127 minutes / 2.12 hours

A remake of the 1961 version of this film (which had 3 sequels, if you can believe it), this timeless story is one of twins separated at birth. While this has been done to varying degrees through such films as the Star Wars franchise or the aforementioned Twins, both of these situations are of fraternal twins and not identical ones. Mark Twain’s story The Prince and the Pauper is a tale of two people who look alike, but were not born twins. Nevertheless, they use this to their advantage to see how the other person lives. Such is the case with The Parent Trap: one sister wants to know what it’s like to have a mom, while the other craves the knowledge of growing up with a dad. In either case, it’s easy to swap parents, but the real difficulty comes when you try to bring said parents back together and get them re-married.

As is usually the case with whirlwind weddings, when Nick Parker (Dennis Quaid) and Elizabeth James (Natasha Richardson) get married on the same cruise where they met, they end up divorcing shortly afterwards. However, since they now have twin girls, they decide to each take a child home with them to California and England, respectively. And yet, when the twins, Annie and Hallie (Lindsay Lohan), meet at a summer camp a decade later, they find that they are long-lost sisters and decide to get their parents back together. This involves each of them switching places and going home with the other parent. Elizabeth is the first to find that she has the wrong daughter, while Hallie finds that her long-lost father is now engaged to Meredith Blake (Elaine Hendrix), who is only there for the money. Now it’s up to the girls to get the engagement broken off while at the same time getting their parents back together.

The PrestigeThe Prestige
Year: 2006
Rating: PG-13
Length: 130 minutes / 2.17 hours

One of the most difficult tricks in magic is the disappearing and reappearing act. Not only do you have to remove yourself from the stage, but you have to relocate to the new location quick enough to make the audience believe that it couldn’t be done by any other means than magic. While some magicians have different ways of accomplishing this, be it through secret passages or literal smoke and mirrors, others will resort to look-alikes. The problem with doppelgangers is that they might look similar, but often aren’t exact replicas of the one performing the trick. This is why many magicians hire identical twins for their lovely assistants: they look the same and (most of the time) they act the same. Oftentimes, it is difficult to discern which twin is which, and therein lies the magic of being identical.

Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) and Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) are two rival magicians who worked under the same mentor. While Angier has taken the high road with the stage name “The Great Danton”, Borden decides to show his magic on the streets under the name “The Professor”. When Borden reveals a trick where he seems to magically appear on the other side of the stage instantaneously, Angier’s stage engineer, John Cutter (Michael Caine) suggests that it’s a double, but Angier refuses that’s the case. Of course, he replicates the trick with a doppelganger, which causes Borden to up the ante by re-staging the act with the help of Angier’s estranged assistant, Olivia Wenscombe (Scarlett Johansson). Angier has one last trick up his sleeve: Nikola Tesla (David Bowie). With Tesla’s machine, he masters the illusion, but at what price?

2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 identical twin identity tricks