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Sep 21, 2017

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Screen Sirens
by Angelina Malhotra-Singh
Magazine Issue: U.S. Vol. 4.2

There's a simile that likens a pretty woman to a song. Don't care for it much. It's pretty cliched. And I'm sure it was an easy-listening tune they had in mind. Personally, I've always preferred to draw parallels between pretty women and wine. Pretty men are also candidates. I remember one sulky moment with my mate during which he moodily sipped a dark, unfiltered cabernet, his somber face and big-shouldered frame effortlessly matching the big, serious wine. Even through my diva-worthy anger, they both looked pretty damned attractive. (And yes, I took them both on.)

Actors and actresses are harder to peg, wine-wise, because most really great performers are chameleons. They may come on cold and steely in one performance (sending you racing for a Carneros chardonnay) and fruity and plump in another (popping the cork on one of your Alexander Valley chards). Think Jennifer Jason-Leigh: Dolores Claiborne versus Fast Times at Ridgemont High. See? But I watch enough of a few screen sirens -- even suffering through their less stellar performances -- for them to evoke a mood and the desire for a particular type of wine. True, I favor edgy, brooding performers and thus end up drinking more red than white. But it proves useful when they co-star.

Christina Ricci cannot possibly be human. She's far too compelling, too wise-beyond-her-years, too heart-wrenchingly brilliant -- and she works way too damn much (for which I give thanks). Mind you, I don't think she's the Antichrist (that, of course, would be Tom Hanks), but I'm just not sure that when she gets cut, she spouts plasma. Whatever she bleeds it's genetically superior, and I'd bet 10 bucks it burns holes in fabric.

Ricci's body of work lies sprawled across this decade, beginning with 1990's Mermaids (her age-nine debut) and ending with The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. Though the early years brought a slew of mediocre Addams Family films (her lovely, deadpan Wednesday stole both movies) and maudlin children's fare (Casper, That Darn Cat), the amazing Christina broke out in 1996 with the gutsy Bastard out of Carolina, and she's since been a house afire.

Having given props to The Ice Storm and The Opposite of Sex in previous columns, I'd strongly recommend you add Pecker and Buffalo 66 to your collection. Pecker is best described as John Waters Lite -- it's a far cry from the days of Divine, but it's a great vehicle for the new kind of Waters girl (Ricci), and it's far from G fare. Bonus: Male and female strippers, rats having sex, a "talking" statue of La Madre and an actress named Mink Stole.

Buffalo 66 is such a tour de force that even those who (imagine) hate Vincent Gallo will be, at the very least, mesmerized. Ricci plays Layla, a nubile young danseuse kidnapped by Gallo and forced to... have dinner with his parents. (See, Hell has levels. Read Dante.) The father (Ben Gazzara) has nothing but disdain for his loser son, and the mother (Anjelica Huston) is obsessed with the Buffalo Bills. Both fall in love with Layla, who is in turn sexy, comical and heartbreaking. I fell in love too. The ravishing Ricci gets my BORG AWARD FOR FAN ASSIMILATION, in a special lucite edition with no sharp edges. (Runner-up: Nastassia Kinski.)

Dark eyes + dark hair + dark nature = pinot noir. There's something about Ricci that's always brought pinot to mind for me, perhaps because I can use the same adjectives or phrases to describe them both: Tawny, spicy, peppery, rare, what the hell?! I'd suggest a bottle of 1997 Shooting Star pinot noir, which opens up so slowly and seductively it's like Ricci at dinnertime. Or a bottle of Babcock Santa Barbara County pinot, so in-your-face and earthy it's part Chrissy and part Foxy Brown.

Remember the litigation-laden Boxing Helena? I'm generally against the practice of chopping off people's limbs and thus enslaving them, but I adore Mr. Cusack to the degree that he ought not let me interview him in a room with sharp objects about. He's edgy and smart and gritty and a gifted actor, and he's managed to avoid falling into the trap that snared the similarly edgy/smart/gritty/gifted Nicolas Cage -- becoming a caricature of himself. Cusack on screen is Cusack playing a character, not Cusack playing Cusack playing a character (if you saw Con Air, a bad movie with both actors, you'll know what I mean.) Being John Malkovich might not be on video for a bit -- but there's nothing to stop you from lurking around the shop and waiting.

I "discovered" the actor (as did many others) in the surprisingly mature teen romance Say Anything, a pretty film co-starring the saucer-eyed Ione Skye and a hysterical Lili Taylor. If you're looking for early Cusack films, my recommendation would be The Grifters, a dazzling, provocative movie based on Jim Thompson's novel. Anjelica Huston and Annette Bening play con artist Cusack's con artist mother and con artist girlfriend (respectively). Everyone's battling for a piece of everyone's pie and a slice of their soul. Bonuses: Bening's killer legs, Huston's viper tongue and Cusack's bedroom eyes.

Many of Cusack's recent films -- among them The Thin Red Line, Bullets over Broadway, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil -- have had huge, starry casts and big-name directors. Though Cusack holds his own, it's easy to get lost in the vast canvas of a film such as Line. My recommendations for a Cusack Film Festival includes three new releases and one older film, Grosse Pointe Blank. Though I detest Minnie Driver, this darkly comic film (Cusack plays a professional hit man who attends his high school reunion) is anchored by Cusack's dead-center performance. Let's face it: Even an assassin doesn't want to deal with the chick he dissed on prom night.

Three of the actor's 1999 releases -- The Jack Bull, Pushing Tin and This is My Father -- compose a virtual tribute to his seemingly bottomless talents. (He dates Neve Campbell, too.) Father is a slow but endearing drama about class differences in rural Ireland in the thirties and forties. Cusack makes a strong showing despite being surrounded by showstoppers such as Stephen Rea. Pushing Tin is the opposite: Fast and furious, intense and sexy (Angelina Jolie and Cate Blanchett, egads) -- a perfect example of Cusack in the kind of role that five, six years ago might've gone to Cage. Finally, The Jack Bull -- which Cusack's father adapted into a Western (from a 19th century German novel by Heinrich Von Kleist) -- sees a gentle Cusack turn vigilante. It's a sort of best-of-both-worlds performance, nuanced and bright with intelligence. Cusack gets my MARRY ME AWARD, with bright ribbons adorning the chain and little sparkles on the ball. (Runner-up: The Arquettes. Yes, all of them.)

A very attractive, very wine-experty type once told me that love affairs blossom over zinfandel. He didn't say why, and I didn't ask, but it did come true, and even now I harbor hope that love affairs still "blossom." When I cuddle up with some small-screen Cusack, I can't help but turn to zin and thoughts of it. The 1997 Peachy Canyon Dusi Ranch zin runs $26, but its explosive berry berry flavors remind me of the zing of Pop Rocks. And I'm still a-drinkin' Bonny Doon's Cardinal Zin even though I'm over the S&M black cork-of-the-future.

The French actress Emmanuelle Beart has done precisely seven films. Her last, Mission: Impossible, hit the screens more than three years ago. I don't mind much, because I'd be perfectly content watching a few of her completed works repeatedly: She's incandescently beautiful, a fine actress, glowing on screen and intelligent in her off-screen press. In addition, she rescued the name "Emmanuelle" from the depths of soft core. (France should issue a stamp in her honor, or at least give her the medal they bestowed on Jerry Lewis.)

You should start with Nelly et Monsieur Arnaud, a May/December film without the trite ending typical of the genre. Then move on to Un Coeur en Hiver, a film in which Beart plays a career-minded violinist who goes about methodically rupturing the heart of the master violin repairman. Alas! Open up a fresh bottle for the lengthy (four hours) 1990 drama La Belle Noiseuse, a gorgeous film about art and life based on a novella by Honore de Balzac. Beart's worthy of her status as muse. Finally, join the ranks of groupie and rent Manon of the Spring, the 1987 sequel to Jean de Florette. In Manon, the adult daughter of the dead hunchback (Jean) plots and takes revenge upon those who done her father wrong. Such heroism! Such audacity! Such cheekbones! Mlle. Beart wins my RUPTURED HEART AWARD, since she leaves a trail of them in every movie (and cinema hall, no doubt). (Runner-up: Gong Li.

She's French. Garcon, champagne! Perhaps the Domaine Carneros Napa Valley Brut? Yes, I'm sure Beart must smell like this: All apples and sparkle and stars and creamy vanilla.

You can have da Vinci. Takeshi Kitano is my kind of Renaissance man: An actor, director, film editor, small-screen personality, stand-up comic, painter, poet, essayist, journalist and author. He's lithe, laconic and really well dressed, with the sex appeal of a black widow spider (you know you'll end up dead, but somehow you can't resist) and a great nickname. In Japan, "Beat" Kitano is a cult figure -- his ruthless criticism of the government and painfully accurate slams at the degenerate state-of-the-nation inspire both fear and awe. In the United States he's best known for appearances in the messy Johnny Mnemonic (note: this brings to zero the number of VV columns that've not mentioned a Keanu Reeves starrer -- our apologies) and in the terrific psychological drama Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence.

But there are four films in Kitano's domestic oeuvre that're currently available on video -- four films so compelling that you should consider phoning in sick, watching them all and then returning to work a bitter, disillusioned person. (You can then recommend them to your coworkers, such as the receptionist with the smiley pin and the beanie baby collection.) Violent Cop, Kitano's first film, is a masterful commentary on the corrupt nature of society, from the POV of a cop (Kitano) who is himself less than a paragon of virtue. Be awed as Kitano kicks the crap out of an adolescent punk, drinks, smokes, gambles and then handles his mentally disturbed sister as delicately as a shard of glass. Boiling Point, which was released soon afterwards, is a bit harder to follow -- it's really three films in one -- but it's got a comic vein that VC lacks and that cool Kitano edge. The 1996 Sonatine also requires concentration, but it's a superb film, brilliantly written and directed. Who knew violence could be so very understated, yet so very terrifying? (Okay, you and me and Beat.)

His most recent film, Hana-Bi (Fireworks), is an eclectic mix of drama, comedy and violence, with just a pinch of sentimentality. In it, Kitano plays a tough detective with a leukemia-victim wife and a paralyzed partner. Kitano quits the force and gets with the vigilante program. Suffering in store for the yakuza! Beat gets my BEST ________ AWARD. He can fill in the blank, I wouldn't dare. (Runner-up: Takeshi Kitano.)

Kitano isn't trendy. Kitano isn't above drinking plonk in order to get his mind off the dysfunction that surrounds him. And Kitano isn't about to plunk down a truckload of yen for a bottle of wine when he's got all those gambling debts to pay off. But he is a Renaissance man, and he's always demanded something a little different from me -- something Italian and layered and offbeat. A sangiovese or a nebbiolo (no, I didn't discover that varietal on my own, and what a great name) does the trick for me. A value-priced bottle of 1997 Michele Chiarlo Barbera d'Asti works nicely, and I re-watched Sonatine with a higher-end ($40) bottle of 1994 Altesino Brunello di Montalcino I charmed off an admirer I despise. I'm so very treacherous, so very corrupt. Please discipline me, Mr. Kitano.

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