Playing Catch-Up — La Pointe Courte; Boy Erased; Stan & Ollie

la pointe

La Pointe Courte (Agnès Varda, 1955). Three years before Claude Chabrol’s Le Beau Serge, the film usually cited as the beginning of the French New Wave, Agnès Varda delivered this film that certainly flaunts a lot of the hallmarks of the influential cinematic movement. In a small waterfront town, Lui (Philippe Noiret) meets his wife, Elle (Silvia Monfort), who’s journeyed from Paris. The two stroll through town discussing their relationship in the most way possible. The residents of the town go about their modest business, mostly centered around pulling seafood out of the water, sometimes in defiance of regulations. Varda made her debut film with only the barest sense of how narrative cinema was supposed to work. By all accounts, she wasn’t even an especially avid film fan at the time. And yet La Pointe Courte is brightly alive with inspired reconstructions and elegant visuals. There’s a hardscrabble realness to the scenes of the townspeople that contrasts marvelously with the more refined, restrained portions of the film intently focused on the couple. It’s a grandly great film.

 

boy erased

Boy Erased (Joel Edgerton, 2018). Adapted from Garrard Conley’s memoir, Boy Erased delves into the harrowing, cruel culture of gay conversion therapy. Jared Eamons (Lucas Hedges) is from a deeply conservative and religious Southern family, and he willingly enters the perversely named Love in Action program after going away to college unearths portions of himself he’d been denying. Written and directed by Joel Edgerton, who also plays the leader of the gay conversion program, the film tracks through the ugly faux therapy with painstaking attention to the brutality of it all. If anything, Edgerton is overly reliant on the program’s particulars, unfolding the therapy sessions with mounting misery that feels false, adhering to the dramatic need to escalate stakes rather than a believable progression. The approach has the unfortunate effect of deadening the piece’s emotions. The film’s strongest scene centers on a conversation between Jared and his father (Russell Crowe), mainly because its one of the few instances of the storytelling stretching away from the expected norm, allowing that familial conflicts and pain often don’t wrap up with a tidiness that audiences desire.

 

stan and ollie

Stan & Ollie (Jon S. Baird, 2018). This biographical drama about the beloved comedy team Stan Laurel (Steve Coogan) and and Oliver Hardy (John C. Reilly) is kind, well-meaning, and dreadfully dull. Mostly set during a tour of the U.K. the duo mounted late in their career, Stan & Ollie is about little squabbles and minor struggles, the latter escalating somewhat as Oliver’s health worsens under the rigors of performing. There’s not enough there to give the movie any momentum or real sense of purpose, a problem director Jon S. Baird compounds with his plain visuals and sluggish pacing. What the film does have are very nice performances. Coogan and Reilly are both very fine as familiar figures, but the scene-stealer is Nina Arianda as Stan’s brusque, headstrong wife. She seems airdropped in from a different, far livelier movie.

The Unwatchables — Welcome to Marwen

marwen

I assume the creative team behind Welcome to Marwen operated with the best intentions. The 2018 film is adapted from Jeff Malmberg’s well-respected 2010 documentary, Marwencol, which centered on Mark Hogancamp and the therapeutic value he derived from developing a miniature world. In 2000, Hogancamp was brutally assaulted by a group of men in a hate crime driven by his admission that he sometimes wore women’s clothing. The physical effects were devastating, and Hogancamp didn’t have the money necessary to get proper treatment for the post-traumatic stress that further hindered his recovery. So he developed his own form of art therapy, staging scenes with the dolls in his tiny town and shooting striking photographs that offer visual echoes of the most devastating wartime pictures. Only the most hateful, bigoted individuals could see Hogancamp’s real story as anything other than moving and inspiring.

For the fiction film rendering, director Robert Zemeckis spins the hard reality of Hogancamp’s story into a fresh excuse to deploy special effects gimmickry. Once a filmmaker of cheerful cleverness, Zemeckis became hopelessly besotted with technological boundary-pushing decades ago. At least as far back as Who Framed Roger Rabbit, released in 1988, Zemeckis has seemingly made the possibility of a new advancement in visual storytelling an overly important criterion in his professional selections. On increasingly rare occasions, the innovation was in place to serve the story. Too often, the freshly invented movie magic appeared to be the only element that ensnared Zemeckis’s restless interest.

In the case of Welcome to Marwen, the infatuation with surface is especially callous. The struggles of Mark Hogancamp (played in the film by Steve Carell) are handled with soulless efficiency so Zemeckis can get to visual tomfoolery of depicting the imagined drama in the model world as if it’s Toy Story with ostensibly more serious underpinnings. Carell and a small band of talented actresses (including Diane Kruger, Merritt Weaver, and Janelle Monáe) portray the living dolls through motion-capture performances. Most of the actresses also play the real-life counterparts who theoretically inspire the characters Mark develops, a conceit that smacks of cursory construction, a wink at the audience rather than someone that deepens the understanding of Mark and the support group that’s developed around him.

Every element of the film is grotesquely glib, from the depiction of Mark’s anxiety attacks as explosions of violence straight out of a Samuel Fuller movie to the intrusive score by Alan Silvestri, which echoes the jabbering whimsy of Danny Elfman’s mimeographed music for various Tim Burton efforts. If Zemeckis contained the hackneyed dialogue and veneer of phoniness to the scenes of animated model figures while grounding the other scenes in tough reality, an argument in favor of the film’s arch falsehoods could be made. Instead, the entirety of the narrative is molded in plastic.

I only made it thirty-five minutes into Welcome to Marwen

Previously in The Unwatchables

— Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, directed by Michael Bay
— Alice in Wonderland, directed by Tim Burton
— Due Date, directed by Todd Phillips
— Sucker Punch, directed by Zack Snyder
— Cowboys & Aliens, directed by Jon Favreau
— After Earth, directed by M. Night Shyamalan
— The Beaver, directed by Jodie Foster
— Now You See Me 2, directed by Jon M. Chu
— The Mummy, directed by Alex Kurtzman
— The Counselor, directed by Ridley Scott
— Vice, directed by Adam McKay
Savages, directed by Oliver Stone

The Art of the Sell — Alien movie poster

These posts celebrate the movie trailers, movie posters, commercials, print ads, and other promotional material that stand as their own works of art. 

alien movie poster

When it came time to create a poster for its strange new horror film in space, 20th Century Fox turned to one of the best in the business. The studio hired Bill Gold, who’d made his name on no less than the poster art for Casablanca and had only bolstered his reputation in the decades since with striking, unforgettable designs to help promote Dirty Harry, The Wild Bunch, The Sting, and countless others. Gold had a knack for creating iconic campaigns that almost outshone the movies themselves, even when they were classics. And Gold delivered an image that was truly amazing for Alien, a one-sheet design that featured a close-up on a face bathed in red light, the mouth wide in a scream, the eyes seemingly ripped away to reveal the vastness of space instead. In direct opposition to the satisfied assurances of many obituaries printed in solemn response to Gold’s recent passing, his design didn’t prevail, however.

Instead, Fox rejected Gold’s pass at the campaign and turned to another design firm, where Steve Frankfurt and Philip Gips tried to figure out how to get some attention for this grim film with a tricky premise and no major stars. They locked in on the idea of the menacing, murderous aliens incubating, and placed a modified version of the egg that appears in the film against a black background. The egg is cracking open, and a creepy green light sprays forth. As memorable as the image is, the effectiveness of the poster is made by the tagline, which was lit upon by Barbara Gips, Philip Gips’s wife, as she washed dishes. “In space no one can hear you scream” arguably stands as one of the movie poster taglines that defines its film as much or more than element that actually resides with the frames.

As I’ve acknowledged previously, the print ads for Alien, built around the poster design, frightened the skeleton right out of me when I was a kid. Well before I’d ever seen Alien, the movie terrified me. Now that’s a helluva ad campaign.

Playing Catch-Up — Man Hunt; All I Desire; The Umbrellas of Cherbourg

man hunt

Man Hunt (Fritz Lang, 1941). Man Hunt was released six months before the U.S. officially entered World War II, making its animating incident fairly remarkable. A British adventurer (Walter Pidgeon) is traveling across the German countryside with his firearms and briefly has Adolf Hitler lined up in the telescopic sight of his long-distance rifle when he’s tackled and captured by a German soldier. A half year ahead of the nation, Hollywood declared a foreign head of state as a significant enough enemy that assassination could be depicted as a heroic act in the service of a fairly basic action-thriller. Most of the film portrays the protagonist’s attempts to flee German pursuers, bringing him in contact with multiple individuals, including a bold young woman named Jerry (Joan Bennett, appealingly snappy). It’s the sort of story Alfred Hitchcock would have told with clockwork efficiency. Directed Fritz Lang instead favors mood, building the film with a rich, moody visual palette that emphasizes the dark cloud of history engulfing the globe. It’s amusing to watch Pidgeon play a very American Brit up against George Sanders as a very British Nazi, but the film’s best performance might belong to Roddy McDowall, twelve years old at the time of the film’s release, as a crackerjack cabin boy who aids in the escape.

 

all i desire sirk

All I Desire (Douglas Sirk, 1953). Douglas Sirk reportedly made several unhappy compromises in directing this adaptation of the Carol Ryrie Brink’s novel Stopover, but most of them arguably improve the film. He wanted to film in color, but the lovely black-and-white cinematography of Carl E. Guthrie enhances the stark emotions of the story and inspires some especially lovely shot construction by Sirk. And Sirk’s favored darker ending is arguably less daring than the Hays Code–defying final shot that allows a spot of forgiveness for a woman whose done wrong. All I Desire follows Naomi Murdoch (Barbara Stanwyck) as she returns to her small, Wisconsin hometown ten years after abandoning her husband (Richard Carlson) and three children (Marcia Henderson, Lori Nelson, and Billy Gray) to pursue a career on the stage. It turns out Naomi was also fleeing a creeping shadow of unsavory — and basically accurate — town gossip, so her unexpected reemergence revives that complicated culture of chatter. As always, Stanwyck is a force of nature, demonstrating she’s almost alone among her contemporaries in making matchstick flare shifts between brashness and vulnerability while somehow playing the extremes with both grand emotiveness and intricate authenticity. Sirk’s positions his camera like an voyeur, regularly peeping through windows of looking down on action from a distance above, enhancing the film’s theme of consuming secrets.

 

umbrellas

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (Jacques Demy, 1964). Geneviève (Catherine Deneuve) and Guy (Nino Castelnuovo) are a young couple aswirl in their romance, which must have been an easy state to fall into while living in nineteen-fifties France. To convey their lovestruck existence, Jacques Demy figures only singing will do. Every word of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is delivered by actors who are simultaneously carrying a tune. Rather than actual songs, though, the musical is structure entirely around completely mundane conversations, which is remarkably delightful (results would likely be very different if the film were in any language other than French). Beyond the inventive conceit, Demy structures the film beautifully, with long, lovely shots and a visual panache in the overall style that stood almost unrivaled until Pedro Almodóvar reached full bloom.

Greatish Performances #47

lindo greatish

#47 — Delroy Lindo as Rodney Little in Clockers (Spike Lee, 1995)

Through the nineteen-nineties, there was no shortage of gangstas and drug dealers in U.S. cinema. It was partially a reflection of the fretful concerns of the time, when the crack epidemic was a regular facet of alarmist television news reports. The prevalence of such characters could also be attributed to the box office success of handful of films near the beginning of the decade — led by New Jack City and Boyz n the Hood — which spurred studios big and small to decide these asphalt-hard stories of urban life were suddenly worth telling. Whatever positive opportunities arose from diversifying the viewpoint were quickly threatened by the ways in which the new subgenre quickly fell into tropes of predatory villainy and ravaged innocence. Nuance was too rarely part of the narrative.

As might be expected, one of the welcome exceptions to the degradation into cliche came when Spike Lee turned his camera in the proper direction. In directing an adaption of Richard Price’s weighty novel Clockers, a project inherited from Martin Scorsese, Lee took what he needed from the increasingly familiar milieu of street-level hustlers and added careful complexity. In a film well-stocked with fine performers doing first-rate work, no actor reflected and exemplified Lee’s approach better that Delroy Lindo, playing the drug kingpin Rodney Little.

In the standard execution of the story, Rodney is a villain, and similar roles at the time were played like Thanos with a do-rag and a pistol. Lindo has a different take, centered on the relationship with the film’s anguished protagonist, a corner dealer known as Strike (Mekhi Phifer). In his interactions with Strike, Rodney is poised somewhere between father figure and benevolent manager. Without ever layering in warmth that would automatically play as disingenuous, Lindo is constantly expressing concern, as Rodney tries to get Strike to understand the parameters of their business, to personally abstain from their addictive product, or even to get his young charge to see a doctor to address intensifying stomach issues. All of these moments are played with a charismatic calm, Lindo projecting self-assurance through betraying no need to overtly command any given moment. He is a man obviously accustomed to having all around to him bend to his will, and no posturing is needed to maintain his preferred balance of power.

Even in the scene in which Rodney’s anger rises to the point of engaging in violence and threatening far worse, Lindo barely raises his voice. He lashes out with a a firmly maintained control, issuing brutal commands in roughly the same register as his more benign instructions. The lack of escalation — in Lindo’s choice to eschew a moment of florid forcefulness — makes the scene far more menacing and effective. It’s easy to roar and rage through such a moment. An entirely different level of confidence is required to underplay it. Lindo’s performance is so skillful that the brave choices begin to seem like the only feasible way to play the character.

Previously….

About Greatish Performances
#1 — Mason Gamble in Rushmore
#2 — Judy Davis in The Ref
#3 — Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca
#4 — Kirsten Dunst in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
#5 — Parker Posey in Waiting for Guffman
#6 — Patricia Clarkson in Shutter Island
#7 — Brad Pitt in Thelma & Louise
#8 — Gene Wilder in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory
#9 — Jennifer Jason Leigh in The Hudsucker Proxy
#10 — Marisa Tomei in My Cousin Vinny
#11 — Nick Nolte in the “Life Lessons” segment of New York Stories
#12 — Thandie Newton in The Truth About Charlie
#13 — Danny Glover in Grand Canyon
#14 — Rachel McAdams in Red Eye
#15 — Malcolm McDowell in Time After Time
#16 — John Cameron Mitchell in Hedwig and the Angry Inch
#17 — Michelle Pfeiffer in White Oleander
#18 — Kurt Russell in The Thing
#19 — Eric Bogosian in Talk Radio
#20 — Linda Cardellini in Return
#21 — Jeff Bridges in The Fisher King
#22 — Oliver Platt in Bulworth
#23 — Michael B. Jordan in Creed
#24 — Thora Birch in Ghost World
#25 — Kate Beckinsale in The Last Days of Disco
#26 — Michael Douglas in Wonder Boys
#27 — Wilford Brimley in The Natural
#28 — Kevin Kline in Dave
#29 — Bill Murray in Scrooged
#30 — Bill Paxton in One False Move
#31 — Jennifer Lopez in Out of Sight
#32 — Essie Davis in The Babadook
#33 — Ashley Judd in Heat
#34 — Mira Sorvino in Mimic
#35 — James Gandolfini in The Mexican
#36 — Evangeline Lilly in Ant-Man
#37 — Kelly Marie Tran in Star Wars: The Last Jedi
#38 — Bob Hoskins in Who Framed Roger Rabbit
#39 — Kristin Scott Thomas in The English Patient
#40 — Katie Holmes in Pieces of April
#41 — Brie Larson in Short Term 12
#42 — Gene Hackman in The Royal Tenenbaums
#43 — Jean Arthur in Only Angels Have Wings
#44 — Matthew Macfadyen in Pride & Prejudice
#45 — Peter Fonda in Ulee’s Gold
#46 — Raul Julia in The Addams Family

Playing Catch-Up — Panic in Year Zero; Searching; Stronger

panic zero

Panic in Year Zero (Ray Milland, 1962). This Cold War drama, one of a handful of films directed by Ray Milland, takes a fascinating approach to its tale of U.S. society in the immediate aftermath of nuclear weapons leveling a few major cities. Milland plays the patriarch of a family that’s off to a fishing weekend when the bombs fall, and he sternly leads them through a survivalist withdrawal from the increasingly tense social breakdown across the land. Milland’s visual sense is fairly stiff and clumsy, but the screenplay — co-credited to John Morton and Jay Simms — is psychologically astute in its depiction of rapid erosion of morals and national camaraderie as self-preservation takes preeminence. Far from alarmist or sensationalistic, the film is quietly insightful and thoroughly convincing.

searching

Searching (Aneesh Chaganty, 2018). Usually a similar technique to the horror film Unfriended, director Aneesh Chaganty’s feature debut confines its perspective to material that appears on a computer screen. In Searching, John Cho plays David Kim, whose daughter, Margot (playing primarily by Michelle La), goes missing, sending him on a desperate scramble through her online history to determine what malfeasance might have been perpetrated against her. There are clever elements, including spot-on depictions of the sometimes destructive ways information travels across web-based platforms. Cho is very good in the lead role, but the performances are shakier across the supporting roles, especially when they’re relying on just voicework, as if Chaganty neglects to value the importance of emotional veracity when the dialogue is delivered in a recording booth rather than before a camera.

 

stronger

Stronger (David Gordon Green, 2017). This adaptation of the memoir of Jeff Bauman (Jake Gyllenhaal), a survivor of the bomb attack at the 2013 Boston Marathon, wavers between daring authenticity and numbingly familiar biopic beats. Director David Gordon Green is leans toward the unsparing in depicting the physical and emotional trials enduring by Jeff after his proximity to the explosion results in the amputation of both of his legs below the knees. And Gyllenhaal is more than game to writhe in rage and agony, honking his lines in a thick Boston accent. The script and the performance both lack the depth needed to lend authenticity to Jeff’s eventual, inevitable healing and conversion into a better person. The result is a work that is well-meaning, professionally rendered, and hollow at its core. Tatiana Maslany does nicely understated work as Erin, Jeff’s long-suffering girlfriend.

 

Greatish Performances #46

raul greatish

#46 — Raul Julia as Gomez Addams in The Addams Family (Barry Sonnenfeld, 1991)

Movie screens weren’t big enough for Raul Julia. He started working in film in the early nineteen-seventies and picked up a few additional credits throughout the decade, but it is the stage work resume he built concurrently that better indicates the level of his talent. He delivered well-regarded performances in Shakespeare plays and earned four Tony nominations for his work as a lead actor in musicals, including two performances — in The Threepenny Opera and Nine — that almost immediately ascended to the level of iconic. The projection equipment in movie houses could make him larger than life, by literal definition. In truth, the camera diminished Julia. He needed a full auditorium that he could level his gaze upon, a mass of people to regale with his fervent energy, a whole world to play against.

In its basics, including the bare motivations that got it made, The Addams Family shouldn’t really be the project that gave Julia his finest showcase on film. Officially based on the odd, macabre cartoons by Charles Addams, The Addams Family more plainly cribs from the nineteen-sixties sitcom that drew from the same source material. The film was released at the mouth of of the river of constantly repurposed entertainment brands that carved the modern mindset of Hollywood studios. Playing Gomez Addams, the title family’s sartorially resplendent patriarch, wasn’t exactly a formidable test of the more intricate elements of Julia’s craft.  It was, however, a marvelous platform for Julia to unleash every iota of his jubilant creativity.

I can’t think of another film performance of the era — and very few when the search parameters are expanded to any era — that resounds with such evident delight. My perception of Julia’s personal feelings could be mistaken. Maybe playing Gomez was misery for him, or maybe it was purely a paycheck role, rousing no motivation in him to excel in his scenes of boisterous comedy. But Julia’s pure, unbridled gusto in every physical flourish and punchline launched like a verbal bottle rocket suggest otherwise. He is devastating charismatic and exuberantly devilish. Julia careens across The Addams Family like the screen’s last swashbuckler.

The Addams Family was a sizable hit, spawning a sequel. Julia wasn’t able to truly capitalize on his suddenly elevated status. Less than three years after the release The Addams Family, Julia died after a series of escalating health problems. He was only fifty-four years old. Coming so soon after The Addams Family, the news was a particular shock because one of the best ways to describe Julia’s performance in the film is as vibrantly, dazzlingly alive.

Previously….

About Greatish Performances
#1 — Mason Gamble in Rushmore
#2 — Judy Davis in The Ref
#3 — Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca
#4 — Kirsten Dunst in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
#5 — Parker Posey in Waiting for Guffman
#6 — Patricia Clarkson in Shutter Island
#7 — Brad Pitt in Thelma & Louise
#8 — Gene Wilder in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory
#9 — Jennifer Jason Leigh in The Hudsucker Proxy
#10 — Marisa Tomei in My Cousin Vinny
#11 — Nick Nolte in the “Life Lessons” segment of New York Stories
#12 — Thandie Newton in The Truth About Charlie
#13 — Danny Glover in Grand Canyon
#14 — Rachel McAdams in Red Eye
#15 — Malcolm McDowell in Time After Time
#16 — John Cameron Mitchell in Hedwig and the Angry Inch
#17 — Michelle Pfeiffer in White Oleander
#18 — Kurt Russell in The Thing
#19 — Eric Bogosian in Talk Radio
#20 — Linda Cardellini in Return
#21 — Jeff Bridges in The Fisher King
#22 — Oliver Platt in Bulworth
#23 — Michael B. Jordan in Creed
#24 — Thora Birch in Ghost World
#25 — Kate Beckinsale in The Last Days of Disco
#26 — Michael Douglas in Wonder Boys
#27 — Wilford Brimley in The Natural
#28 — Kevin Kline in Dave
#29 — Bill Murray in Scrooged
#30 — Bill Paxton in One False Move
#31 — Jennifer Lopez in Out of Sight
#32 — Essie Davis in The Babadook
#33 — Ashley Judd in Heat
#34 — Mira Sorvino in Mimic
#35 — James Gandolfini in The Mexican
#36 — Evangeline Lilly in Ant-Man
#37 — Kelly Marie Tran in Star Wars: The Last Jedi
#38 — Bob Hoskins in Who Framed Roger Rabbit
#39 — Kristin Scott Thomas in The English Patient
#40 — Katie Holmes in Pieces of April
#41 — Brie Larson in Short Term 12
#42 — Gene Hackman in The Royal Tenenbaums
#43 — Jean Arthur in Only Angels Have Wings
#44 — Matthew Macfadyen in Pride & Prejudice
#45 — Peter Fonda in Ulee’s Gold