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March 2nd 2013
Some time ago some friends and I were discussing our favourite actors and actresses, and since I'm not the kind of guy to keep such things to himself for too long, I thought I'd share them with you. To show how devoted I am to the cause of equality, albeit combined with a fair dose of segregation, I've chosen five actors and five actresses, and in every case I've bought at least one film based on the fact that they were in it. Some people watch films based on who directed them; some based on the scriptwriter; some, perhaps, based on who did the sound editing. For me, the cast comes first.
Before we get started, you should know that I'm going to do something akin to interviewing myself, which has been done recently and well by my brother at Vulpes Libris. Mine's not going to be that good, but hopefully it will be at least as strong as Paul McCartney interviewing himself when he released his first solo album. Of course, he announced the break-up of the Beatles in that spiel, whereas I'm going to do nothing more groundbreaking than tell you how I feel about Kirsten Dunst. Different strokes for different folks. Here they are in semi-alphabetical order.

Neve Campbell in Churchill: The Hollywood Years

Neve Campbell
How many of her films do you have on DVD?
What should I watch her in?
Three to Tango remains one of my all-time favourite films, a great romantic comedy where she's paired with Matthew Perry (more on him later). She's also delightful as Queen Elizabeth II in the not entirely successful satire Churchill: The Hollywood Years. But her greatest contribution to the zeitgeist was as Julia Salinger in Party of Five, a drama series about a family of orphans, which was a staple of American teenage life in the 1990s and also launched the careers of Jennifer Love Hewitt and Matthew Fox.
What should I avoid?
If, like me, you're not a fan of horror movies then you should steer clear of her most famous screen role, in the Scream films. There's probably also not much point checking out her performance in the straight-to-video sequel The Lion King 2: Simba's Pride.
What's so great about her?
Mainly the smile. Good Lord, that smile.
Is that all you've got?
She's Canadian, too. Canadians are the best.
And her acting ability?
Oh yeah, sure. That too. I mean, she's great.
But it's mainly the smile?
And the eyes.

Tom Cruise in Jerry Maguire

Tom Cruise
How many of his films do you have on DVD?
I'm sorry, how many?
N-n-n-n-nineteen. The guy's made a lot of films, you know.
What should I watch him in?
There's no way you should miss A Few Good Men, Jerry Maguire or Rain Man, and he's also great in The Firm, The Color of Money, Born on the Fourth of July and the last couple of Mission: Impossible films (seriously - no one does that kind of role better). He is brilliant in a very unexpected way in Tropic Thunder, but for me his best role to date comes in Collateral, where he plays against type as a cold-hearted assassin.
What should I avoid?
You don't make as many films as Cruise has without some clunkers, and the worst one I've seen is probably War of the Worlds, though I reckon that says more about Spielberg than Cruise. I also find Top Gun far too cheesy.
What about Magnolia?
I'm glad you asked. Even people who don't much like Cruise can be counted on to rave about his performance in Magnolia, but I have to admit that I switched it off about halfway through when I tried watching it some years ago. I'm tempted to give it another try to see what all the fuss is about, even though the director is the same guy who made my least favourite film of 2012; The Master.
And Rock of Ages?
Tom Cruise as a faded rock star? In a musical packed with hair metal tracks? Supporting cast including Glee knock-offs and Russell Brand with a bad brummie accent? Heck, it's bundles of good fun and a classic singalong.
If you say so. Anyway, what's so great about Cruise?
He falls back upon grinning intensity a bit too much in some of his films (Cocktail; Days of Thunder), but when he shifts out of auto-pilot, he's a damn fine actor. There are few leading men so personable, which explains why he remains one of the biggest stars in Hollywood after over 30 years in the game.

Kirsten Dunst in Elizabethtown

Kirsten Dunst
How many of her films do you have on DVD?
Fewer than Cruise; more than anyone knew she'd made. What should I watch her in?
The first two Spider-Man films are easily amongst the best of the many, many superhero films of the last decade or two, and a large part of that is thanks to the skills of Dunst as the love interest. Her best performance, though, comes in Crazy/Beautiful, your classic story of star-crossed lovers in which she plays a somewhat derailed teenager who falls in love with an over-achieving fellow student. It's not quite Salma Hayek in Frida, but Dunst has rarely looked less glamorous, and perhaps that contributes to her performance.
What should I avoid?
Melancholia is one of the worst films I've ever seen, a manically pretentious offering from Lars von Trier. Marie Antoinette was also a disappointment, and I disliked Dick enough to give it away after one viewing.
What about when she was a kid?
Good point. Dunst was a child star in films like Jumanji, Little Women and Small Soldiers, and did well to progress to adult roles (not adult roles, you understand) via the likes of Bring It On, everyone's favourite cheerleader film. Well, the many, many sequels might be better, but it's hard to say because no one has ever seen them.
Not even you?
Not even me. Dunst isn't in them, you know.
I see. What's so great about her, anyway?
A lot of actresses have done the superhero love interest role, but none have come close to doing it as well as she did in Spider-Man, at least until Emma Stone (more on her later) in The Amazing Spider-Man. She brings class to films that otherwise wouldn't really be worth watching, like Wimbledon or Get Over It.
Easy on the eye, too, isn't she?
This might be a theme with the actresses. Hey, it's Hollywood.
Anything to add?
It's pronounced keer-stun. Get it right.

Michael J. Fox in Bright Lights Big City

Michael J. Fox
How many of his films do you have on DVD?
13. Fun fact: one of them also features Kirsten Dunst albeit as a kid and without any lines.
What should I watch him in?
Fox is probably best known for the Back to the Future trilogy, and rightly so: the first is probably my favourite ever film, and while the other two aren't quite as good they are still excellent films. Fox actually came in as a late replacement for Eric Stoltz, re-shooting the scenes that he had already filmed, and thank goodness he did. I've got nothing against Stoltz, but I'm sure that no other actor could have played Marty McFly anywhere near as well as Fox did. Outside the realms of time travel, his best films are Doc Hollywood, The American President and (for the kids) Homeward Bound, in which he voices a dog.
What should I avoid?
Fox brings a certain charm to every role he plays, but even he couldn't make decent films out of The Frighteners, Bright Lights Big City or Light of Day. There was also a period in the 1990s when he was making light comedies that, while watchable enough, would never set the world alight: Life With Mikey and The Concierge are probably the most ignorable of them.
What about TV?
While it was never massive over here, Family Ties is possibly what Fox is best known for in the US. It was a TV comedy series, and his big break, playing a teenage yuppie called Alex P. Keaton. His return to the small screen in Spin City, playing the deputy mayor of New York, was a much feted event across the pond, although it too was not really as big over here. It's not at all bad, as sitcoms go, but it could never be accused of revolutionising the format. Since semi-retiring from acting due to Parkinson's disease, Fox has played small parts in the likes of Scrubs, The Good Wife and Curb Your Enthusiasm.
What's so great about him?
Well, take Back to the Future: he brings something almost indefinable to the role that elevates it above how any other actor would play it. That uniquely likeable screen presence is something of a calling card for him, but is perhaps at its best when he twists it a bit: naively battling against his fellow soldiers (including a fine Sean Penn) in Casualties of War, or charmingly lying his way through court in The Good Wife.
Anything else?
His autobiography, Lucky Man, is the best I've ever read. Oh, and he's Canadian. Canadians are the best.
Yes, I think you mentioned that.
I don't make the rules.

Jennifer Lawrence in The Hunger Games

Jennifer Lawrence
How many of her films do you have on DVD?
4. But she's only made, like, ten or so, so as a percentage that's not bad.
What should I watch her in?
If you were paying attention on Oscars night, you'll have noticed that she got the Best Actress award for Silver Linings Playbook, but I actually don't think that was even her best performance of 2012. Yeah, she's great in it, but I think she was even better in The Hunger Games, shouldering the leading role with grace and confidence, eminently watchable even when she's doing something as simple as sitting on a tree branch. She's also great in Winter's Bone - her other Oscar nomination - and got to flex her blockbuster muscles in my favourite film of 2011, X-Men: First Class.
What should I avoid?
As I say, she's not done that much yet, but judging by the trailer and the fact that it was advertised on a phone box (my first rule of films is that only terrible films, or films in some way connected directly with phone boxes, are ever advertised on phone boxes) you'd do well to give House at the End of the Street a miss. I know I have.
What's so great about her?
She's only 22, but she's already one of the most respected actresses currently working in Hollywood. Much is made of her indie background, and the combined budgets of Winter's Bone and Like Crazy wouldn't buy you Tom Cruise's sunglasses, but she is equally comfortable in the tent-pole movies mentioned above. If only she were Canadian, eh?
Stop it.

Gregory Peck in The Gunfighter

Gregory Peck
How many of his films do you have on DVD?
What should I watch him in?
His best performance - one of the great performances - is as Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird. It's a great book, and it's hard to imagine a better screen adaptation: if you haven't seen it, then go and do so straight away. He also shines alongside Audrey Hepburn in what I think could be her best screen role (yes, better than Breakfast at Tiffany's) in Roman Holiday, and makes a great gunslinger in The Gunfighter. Like many of the actors in the golden age of Hollywood, he tended not to veer too far away from type, which in his case was deeply honourable, ruggedly charming and perhaps slightly prickly. See also The Million Pound Note and Guns of Navarone.
You've just mentioned five of his films, there. You only own six.
Good spot. The other one is Gentleman's Agreement, about a man who pretends to be Jewish in order to expose anti-Semitism in America. It's not a bad film at all, but the repeated description of non-Jews as being 'born Christian' is offensive to pretty much everyone.
What should I avoid, then? Gentleman's Agreement?
Well, no, it's still worth watching. I've actually not seen that many of his films, but I will certainly be avoiding Cape Fear and The Omen because they're horror films. I understand they're classics of the genre, though, so that might not help you if you like a good scare. Probably his least worthwhile films are the forgettable Westerns he made in the 60s and 70s.
What's so great about him?
If you watched To Kill a Mockingbird, you wouldn't be asking me that.
Er... OK.
Just watch it.
Right. Is that all you're going to say about him?
Shouldn't you be watching To Kill a Mockingbird right now?

Rachel McAdams in The Time Traveler's Wife

Rachel McAdams
How many of her films do you have on DVD?
What should I watch her in?
Before we get into that, I should just quickly mention that she's Canadian.
Good grief. Noted. So, what should I watch her in?
She caught people's attention in Mean Girls, which I've never actually seen all the way through, and was by miles the best thing in Wedding Crashers. She was superb as the title role in The Time Traveler's Wife, and was one of the key reasons that Guy Ritchie's verison of Sherlock Holmes was so good, playing Irene Adler opposite Robert Downey Jr's Holmes.
What should I avoid?
She's not averse to the odd schmaltzy role, and The Vow is probably her worst offence (I must admit that I've not seen it, but the trailer tells its own story). I once watched the first ten minutes or so of The Hot Chick, a body-swap comedy with Rob Schneider, and wasn't tempted to watch any more.
What's so great about her? And don't just say the Canada thing.
Well, if you're going to start making this difficult... she captures the audience's interest and empathy no matter how light her role is, and some of her roles have been pretty darn light. As I say, she was brilliant in The Time Traveler's Wife, but has struggled to find strong leading roles since then - her Morning Glory character had about as much depth as a Transformers film - so will hopefully make some better choices in the next few years. Her supporting roles in Sherlock Holmes and State of Play have been better.
What does the future hold for her?
Unforunately, not a lot of sign of those better choices. She's soon to be in what appears to be some kind of lesbian mystery thriller called Passion, and recently appeared in a film by Terence Malick, possibly the most ponderous director of all time. Interestingly, this year sees her in 'About Time', a film about men who can travel in time... reliving former glories, perhaps?

Matthew Perry in Numb

Matthew Perry
How many of his films do you have on DVD?
What should I watch him in?
Well, Friends, obviously. In the first four or so seasons it was one of the best sitcoms ever made, with Perry's Chandler Bing being central to that success, and although it declined fairly rapidly in the later years, that shouldn't tarnish its early brilliance. His next TV series was Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, which was written by Aaron Sorkin (the man behind The West Wing, The Social Network and A Few Good Men) and was one of the best things on television. It was incomprehensibly cut after one season. On the big screen, Perry's best films are Three to Tango, Fools Rush In and The Whole Nine Yards.
Doesn't he just play Chandler in everything?
No! I've never really understood that complaint, partly because loads of actors tend to stick to a type, but mainly because Chandler in season 10 of Friends is barely recognisable as being the same person as Chandler in season 1. How can he be playing Chandler in everything if he was barely playing Chandler throughout much of Friends? Huh? Answer me that!
Calm down, mate.
Sorry. He's half-Canadian, by the way.
Of course he is. What should I avoid?
Many of his films have not been successful: Numb and Birds of America quite rightly didn't get cinematic release over here, and I must be one of the few people to have watched both Serving Sara and The Whole Ten Yards more than once. I do it so you don't have to. His first sitcom after Friends was called Mr. Sunshine, and was very comprehensibly cut after one season, what with not being any good and all.
What's he doing now, then?
He's got another sitcom out called Go On, and while its writers don't seem to have noticed that comedy has moved on in the last decade, it's fairly amusing and looks like it might make it to a second season. It looks likely that his career will continue on the small screen rather than the big - apart from the odd supporting role in the likes of 17 Again - and that's where he's generally at his best, as appearances in Scrubs, The West Wing and The Good Wife testify.
So, what's so great about him?
The guy pretty much reinvented sitcom humour as Chandler, and that will definitely be the role he's remembered for when the obituary gets knocked together, but he's also strong in more serious roles - The West Wing and Studio 60, say - so long as he can still do it with a bit of a comic edge. He struggled with drug addiction in the past, which cut a sizeable chunk out of his career, but I'm glad to say that that seems to be behind him now.
Still. He's never going to win an Oscar, though, is he?
Never say never.
OK, yeah.

Emma Stone in Easy A

Emma Stone
How many of her films do you have on DVD?
5. Again, she's not made many, so that's a fairly hefty percentage.
What should I watch her in?
To be honest, I don't think she's yet been given the role that can truly showcase her talents, but the closest so far is either the part she played in the ensemble comedy Crazy Stupid Love, or her leading role in Easy A, a high school comedy very loosely based on The Scarlet Letter. She was also very good in Zombieland (the second best zom-rom-com of all time), and outside of comedy her best performances have come as the lead in Oscar-winning anti-racism flick The Help and as Gwen Stacy in The Amazing Spider-Man.
What should I avoid?
I honestly gave Superbad a try, but it is horrendous. Really, really poor.
What's so great about her?
As well as being one of the great redheads, despite being a natural blonde, she's probably the funniest actress working in Hollywood today. In fact, she's often every bit as funny in interviews as she is on the big screen, even if she never really devised a good way of deflecting questions about her relationship with Andrew Garfield while the pair of them were doing promotional work for The Amazing Spider-Man. She is a very generous actress, and clearly relishes working off other actors; witness her rapport with Stanley Tucci in Easy A.
And then there's Ryan Gosling.
Of course, dreamy Ryan Gosling. He's the toast of the town these days, and his on-screen chemistry with Stone in Crazy Stupid Love and Gangster Squad is the best I've seen in a repeated couple since Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan exchanged emails in You've Got Mail. I guess they're unlikely to pair up again any time soon, for fear of being typecast together or something, which is a shame because they bring out the best in each other. Ah well, according to IMDb we'll just have to make do with her & Bradley Cooper in "Untitled Cameron Crowe Project (????)".
Isn't she on Twitter?
Yes. But she's never tweeted.

James Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

James Stewart
How many of his films do you have on DVD?
What should I watch him in?
Stewart has been in a range of solid gold classics, such as It's a Wonderful Life, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Harvey and a host of Alfred Hitchcock's best-regarded films such as Rear Window, Vertigo and The Man Who Knew Too Much. In fact, his career can be roughly divided into the early, heartwarming roles as naively optimistic gentlemen; then authority figures in army or war films; then, finally, darker characters under Hitchcock's tutelage. My personal favourites tend to be the heartwarming roles, where no one has yet bettered Stewart's talented performances (although Tom Hanks has been known to get close).
What should I avoid?
Jimmy Stewart is an actor who brought quality to everything he did, and I've only actually seen one of his films that I didn't like, a weak supernatural tale called Bell, Book and Candle. I have avoided most of his Westerns, though, and I imagine they have probably not dated quite as well as some of his other work.
What's so great about him?
As well as being flipping charming - It's a Wonderful Life is just a perfect Christmas film, and Harvey is one of my all-time favourites - his work with Hitchcock revealed a greater range than many might have suspected he had based on his early films. It's a crime that he only ever won one Oscar, for Best Supporting Actor in The Philadelphia Story - actually one of his films that I'm less enamoured of. He was also a decorated war hero.
You can't say that about Kirsten Dunst.
Not yet.
Did you know that You've Got Mail was based on the Jimmy Stewart film The Shop Around the Corner?
Who's asking the questions, here?
Well, me, mainly.
Good point. Yes, I did know that. Actually, The Shop Around the Corner is based on a play called Parfumerie, as was You've Got Mail.
We've talked about You've Got Mail quite a lot, considering that neither Tom Hanks nor Meg Ryan is on this list.
I suppose we have. Sorry. I watched it yesterday.
Me too.

March 20th 2013
I don't drink, drive, smoke, have kids, own a home, employ anyone or sell pasties for a living, so the annual budget tends not to affect me much. My income tax amount might shift a bit, and the fact that the entire nation is going to hell in a handcart is something of a worry, but I gaze upon the budget more or less as an impartial observer. And I am disappointed. Not so much in the budget itself (and I've got this far without persuading myself whether I should write 'budget' or 'Budget') but in other people's responses to it. For once, I'm not talking about the anti-Tory brigade who will leap upon any feeble excuse to whip up some manufactured anger against George Osborne - do you remember that 'pasty tax' nonsense from last year? - but about the people who object to the fact that they're not getting any extra money.
I believe that it is fundamental for a country to look after those who are worst off in society, and that's why the welfare state is great, and the NHS - when they're not completely useless, which is admittedly quite a lot of the time - is fantastic (by the by, I also believe that a country's attitude to those who are best off is important, and the UK's general jealous bitterness towards the rich means that we are lagging behind the likes of the USA on that one, but I digress). The government has a duty to help out the people who need helping out, and I've benefited from that in the past. I was not born into privilege - well, I had the privilege of a loving family, a Christian upbringing and enviable beard-growing genes, so I guess I really mean that I was not born into wealth - and I have therefore been helped out in the past through free doctor's prescriptions, reduced tuition fees and, of course, child benefit when I was a child. Through a combination of my upbringing, hard work, a sensible attitude to money and several dollops of of good fortune, I currently find myself comfortable in a well-paying job, and I don't need the government to help me out. That's fine; I'm happy for my taxes to be spent on people who need it, and one day I imagine I'll be once again the person who's being helped out. I am not complaining.
Sadly, some folk are. One of the most recent government schemes is to give assistance for childcare to families where both parents are working, and I have read several places where stay-at-home mothers/fathers have been outraged that they are being punished for staying at home with the kids. This entirely misses the point: the government is helping out with childcare costs for people who need help with childcare costs; if you're staying at home with your children, one would hope that you're caring for them yourself. I'm not getting any help with childcare costs, you know, because I too don't need any help with childcare costs.
I was rather more annoyed, though, by the people who complained about child benefit costs being taken away at the start of the year. For those of you not paying attention, the government has reduced child benefit for anyone earning 50k+, on a sliding scale so that anyone earning 60k+ will get nothing at all. What has got some people up in arms is the fact that the criterion is based on individual income, so that a couple earning 48k each will still receive full child benefit whereas another couple where one earns 62k and the other earns nothing will not receive any benefit at all. Personally, I would like to shake some sense into any of the complainers. If you are earning 50k+ then you are very well off, and you do not need the government to help you out. That's not what it's there for. So what if someone else is getting a better deal than you? It is the cry of the playground: "It's not fair! He got more than me!" Please grow up, and, while you're at it, count your blessings.
In other news, I went to see Wolves vs Bristol City last weekend and was much relieved to see us prevail 2-1 despite going a goal down in the first half. It was a comical own goal in which Carl Ikeme, the Wolves keeper, let a pass-back from David Davis go straight through his legs. Ikeme didn't emerge for the second half, and word went out that he'd hurt his hand. Most of us assumed that this was a lie spread to spare his blushes, and that in actual fact he'd been subbed off for being useless, but the full story has emerged and apparently he broke his hand after punching a tactics board in rage at half time. As one Wolves fan put it: the most surprising element of the story is that we have a tactics board.

what was I listening to?
Recurring Dream - Crowded House
what was I reading?
A Memory of Light - Robert Jordan & Brandon Sanderson
what was I watching?
Iron Man
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