From the Archive — Big

big

Since I’ve been on a little bit of a thirty-years-ago kick lately, why not take unearth a movie review of a film released in June 1988. I wish I could report I wrote about Big when it hit theaters, but I wasn’t quite plying that particular trade. This was first posted at my former online space as part of the “Flashback Fridays” series.

As I recall it, Big was the first film I saw when I went away to college. It was a June release, but those had a tendency to slip back into town at the end of the summer in humble little Stevens Point, Wisconsin. Sure enough, during my first few days in my new academic home, sleeping in a converted study room in Hyer Hall because the dorms were overbooked at the start of the year, one of the four screens of the nearby Campus Cinema was playing Penny Marshall’s comedy about a boy who grows up unexpectedly fast. It wasn’t a transformational experience, exactly. It was, however, a nice bit of personal foreshadowing. I would spend countless hours in Stevens Point movie theaters in the years to come.

Putting aside nostalgic pangs, the movie itself is pretty terrific. It had the weird misfortune of coming out when there was a spate of movies about boys magically tossed into adult bodies, but Big was the only one that really worked. This certainly owed a great deal to the performance by Tom Hanks as Josh Baskin, bringing a winning innocence and uncertainty to this kid thrust into an adult world, his previous posturing abut wanting to grow up stripped away from the scary reality of it. Hanks had a career that was flailing at this point, far better known for the films that were resounding failures than anything else. He probably looks back fondly on Volunteers since it’s where he met his wife Rita Wilson, but no one else does. Big was a clear view of how well he could do when the material was better, and he got a Golden Globe and his first Oscar nomination for the performance. The bumpy road wasn’t completely smoothed over at this point. There were still problematic films to come, things that probably seemed like good ideas when he signed on for them, and fascinating disasters. Then there was the freeway pile-up that was The Bonfire of the Vanities, which Hanks was served a hefty portion of the blame for considering most decided his was woefully miscast as “Master of the Universe” Sherman McCoy, although any film that is counting on Melanie Griffith to do dramatic heavy lifting has graver misjudgments contained within its frames. That was actually the film that changed things for Hanks. He retreated and rethought his career, emerging a year-and-a-half later reunited with Penny Marshall to deliver inspired character work in A League of Their Own. From there, back-to-back Oscar wins loomed.

The other major beneficiary of Big was Penny Marshall. Her debut as a film director was thoroughly unengaging, borderline unwatchable Whoopi Goldberg comedy Jumpin’ Jack Flash (now that I think about it, there are a remarkable number of Whoopi Goldberg comedies that can be described in the same unkind manner), but Big demonstrated a deftness and a command of tone that briefly earned Marshall greater opportunities. Probably the most notable was her very next film, Awakenings, which earned her the distinction of being one of several female directors that crafted a Academy Award Best Picture nominee without getting corresponding attention in the directing category. Marshall’s boost was more short-lived. By 1994’s Renaissance Man, her directing was surprisingly indifferent. Only two more films followed after that, neither registering much more than a blip on the cultural consciousness. It’s now been ten years since she directed a film.

I don’t know that anyone would consider Big a classic, but its the sort of film that remains charming and warm and offhandedly delightful, especially when discovered somewhere amidst the legion of channels on a lazy, rainy weekend afternoon. But, again, maybe that’s my nostalgia typing. After all, somewhere in my psyche, the film represents the door cracking open to a completely different level of commitment to the movies. It helped this kid grow up into who he’d become, too.

Now Playing — Incredibles 2

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Incredibles 2 essentially begins at the precise point its exemplary predecessor ends. The Parr family, super-powered individuals who have largely refrained from costumed heroism because of legal prohibitions, spring into action against the villainous Underminer (voiced by John Ratzenberger), who has burrowed up from beneath the street, in a manner reminiscent of the Mole Man. The close of The Incredibles implied that vigilantes were allowed to once again do their thing, but that’s emphatically not the case, and the opening of the sequel suggests why that may be the case. The battle in the heart of Metroville leaves a lot of destruction behind with little to show for it. The bad guy got away, and, as the authorities explain to the sullen superheroes, the bank the Underminer robbed was fully insured. The do-gooders’ intervention compounded the mayhem and exacted no justice.

As in our world, though, superheroes have fans. One of them is wealthy industrialist Winston Deavor (Bob Odenkirk), who believes a strong PR campaign can bring superheroes back into the good graces of the law. He enlists Helen Parr, a.k.a. Elastigirl (Holly Hunter), to suit up again, equipped with a body camera created by his sister, electronics whiz Evelyn Deavor (Catherine Keener), believing that Elastigirl’s heroics will be better appreciated by the citizenry if they can see the adventures literally from her point of view. That leaves Bob Parr, a.k.a. Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson), at home with the offspring, Violet (Sara Vowell), Dash (Huckleberry Milner), and baby Jack-Jack (Eli Fucile), whose cornucopia of unpredictable powers are just starting to manifest. Helen gets the spotlight, and Bob faces his own challenges as Mr. Mom, from Violet’s boyfriend woes to Dash’s new math homework to Jack-Jack’s tussles with wildlife.

Writer-director Brad Bird returns for Incredibles 2, his first animated effort since Ratatouille, released in 2007. Although Pixar has gotten into the franchise biz and had incentive to revisit the Incredibles characters no matter what, rendering this computer world without Bird’s involvement is inconceivable. It is such a clear, boisterously vivid expression of Bird’s fascinations, including society’s chronic undervaluing of excellence and the unique brand of nostalgic futurism that swirled like gnats around his 2015 bomb, Tomorrowland. Presumably anyone could have dropped these figures into a suitably imaginative tale and had a shot at creating an entertaining diversion (and, in truth, Bird’s primary plot is a little uninspired, especially in a revelation of villainy so predictable, I suspect even a good chunk of youthful target audience will see it coming). But Bird brings to Incredibles 2 its soul, resounding with charm and sincerity.

Just as importantly, Bird demonstrates an enviable command of the pure mechanics of cinema. His well-established deftness with action sequences in solidly in place, but he elevates it further with a stunning visual sense. The infinite pliability of computer animation leads to Bird washing the screen in lush, rich colors, as if the entirety of the film takes place during a perfect sunset. In collaboration with cinematographer Mahyar Abousaeedi (a Pixar veteran), Bird gives Incredibles 2 a look unseen outside of Roger Deakins’s dreams. The music by Michael Giacchino is a constant reward, and the voice cast is exceptional, especially Hunter and Nelson. Sequel or not, animation or not, Bird is not coasting, and his team is equally committed.

The film is funny, thrilling, smart, and warm. It lacks the snap of invention that made the first outing with the Parr clan a clear Pixar peak, but that’s to be expected. The excitable readings of its embedded politics impose more weight on Incredibles 2 than is actually there. In way that mirrors the Marvel movies that exploded betwixt its two installments, Bird’s new film has little agenda beyond entertaining. In fulfilling that mission, it is indeed super.

The Art of the Sell — “The Player” 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. 

Player ,The

In the early nineteen-nineties, movie poster design was increasingly dominated by incredibly dull images. As movie star salaries spiked, there was a clear reticence to sell a blockbuster hopeful in any manner other than the celebrities at the top of the cast list. If a studio paid a lot of money for Mel Gibson and Goldie Hawn, they damn well wanted to sell Mel Gibson and Goldie Hawn on the poster. If the poster conveyed practically nothing else about the movie as a result, it didn’t seem to stir any worry with the Hollywood muckety-mucks.

For smaller, independent films, the cast was usually a touch to the side of the point, at least in cajoling moviegoers into buying a ticket. Those films also were a little more complicated, making them difficult to distill down to a single image that could reasonably convey what potential moviegoers would find if they were willing to purchase a ticket. That often led to great ingenuity, and few posters from the era exemplify that quite as well as the one-sheet for Robert Altman’s The Player. The film’s bleakly comic view of Hollywood is perfectly communicated by the the inspired visual of a noose fashioned out of celluloid. Even the pastel sunset hints at a glamorous world in decline.

The poster is an ideal representation of an utterly fantastic film. As much as love Altman’s caustic satire, I have to admit when The Player comes to mind, I think of the poster first.

 

From the Archive — WALL-E

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Although I’m optimistic about Incredibles 2, I long for the days that Pixar evinced nothing but the barest interest in sequels. With rare exceptions, the studio consistently strove for vivid inventiveness with each new effort, as if the especially lengthy and intensive process required to deliver feature-length computer animated films mandated each one have a true sense of purpose. When WALL-E was released, ten years ago, the philosophical shift could be spied on the horizon. Only one of the eight Pixar films that preceded it was a sequel. Three of the next five films revisited previous characters. I remain more lukewarm on WALL-E than most, but I have great nostalgia for it as part of a bygone time for a studio that once admirable approached auteur status.

Those Waste Allocator Load Lifter – Earth-Class units are certainly durable devices.

The new film WALL-E, director Andrew Stanton’s follow-up to Finding Nemo, is concerned with the lonely longings of one of those robots some 700 hundred years in the future. Earth is vacant of human life, the population having long since fled when the towering skyscrapers of refuse made the planet inhospitable. WALL-E, it seems, is the last of his kind, a little boxy robot with at least some level of sentience, going about the daily toil of crunching piles of garbage into tidy cubes. The first chunk of the film follows WALL-E as he works his job with dedication and, like so many blue-collar ‘bots, wiles away the evening hours watching old musicals with his cockroach cohort. His routine is pleasantly disrupted by the arrival of a hovering robot called EVE. She scans the ravaged cityscapes for an indeterminate prize, and quickly captures our hero’s circuitboard heart.

This portion of the film is presented with minimal dialogue, Stanton making every effort to let the visuals handle the duties of the storytelling. Great care has gone into all of these scenes leading to a clarity entirely unharmed by the bold choice. I thoroughly admire Stanton’s approach even if I have to concede that I wasn’t completely caught up in it.

Similarly, when the action shifts to the distant spacecraft holding the human race — now grown bloated and slow-witted by centuries of pampered lassitude — I appreciate Stanton’s decision to inject some satirical social commentary even if I still feel distant from the product. He’s engaged in the same sort of frustrated futurecasting that Mike Judge offered in Idiocracy, examining American society’s current indulgence in unhealthy lifestyle choices and taking it the the logical, if extreme, conclusion. Throughout the cold war, the bleakest future we could imagine involved a scorched landscape populated by mutated marauders fortified with nuclear nourishment. Now our worst nightmare seems to be more of ourselves, our faultiest societal tendencies enhanced to the most unattractive degree. Today’s morning show segment laced with clucking condemnation will be our undoing tomorrow. Our new post-apocalyptic landscape has Twinkies in it.

I do like WALL-E, but I find my opinion far enough removed from the critical consensus ready to anoint this a new pinnacle for Pixar that I wind up dwelling on why it doesn’t quite work. Why, despite its evident artistry, did it leave me entertained but unmoved? Honestly, I can’t quite put my finger on it. (My partner-in-all-things made a strong case about how the science of groundwater completely undercuts the ending.) The clearest, most concise point I can make is that WALL-E himself doesn’t really come together as a character. He’s perhaps too central to the film to be largely defined by the things he wants. We know WALL-E by what he’s not, what he doesn’t have, which makes his aspirations more dull than sweet. The surrounding, supporting robots may be more narrowly conceived in some ways, but they’re also more compelling. I was far more interested in EVE and her programmed protectiveness and lightning-quick temper (manifested as laser blasts) or even little M-O and his compulsive adherence to his one purpose in electrical life.

Again, these reservations are finally more slight than they probably seem here. It remains a Pixar offering and comes bearing all of the characteristic strengths. The directing is sleek and inviting, the plotting is tight and smart, and the countless hours spent on those humming banks of computers have yielded a lustrous look that remains light-years ahead of what’s programmed together by the other studios cranking out computer animated features. Even if the digitized dreams aren’t quite as moving as I’d like, I’m still grateful I got to share in them.

Laughing Matters — Robin Williams, “Come Inside My Mind”

Sometimes comedy illuminates hard truths with a pointed urgency that other means can’t quite achieve. Sometimes comedy is just funny. This series of posts is mostly about the former instances, but the latter is valuable, too.

robin reality

Lately I’ve been reading Robin, the new book from Dave Itzkoff. A biography of Robin Williams, it is an odd experience for me, swerving between details that are true discoveries for me and material that I know as well as (or better than, really) my own personal history. I was seven years old when the character Mork made his network television debut, on an episode of Happy Days, and it imprinted on me deeply. I responded to his cartoonish manic energy, I suppose. That’s the age I was at. But I like to think I somehow recognized something more intricate and unique there, too, that some instinctual part of my being saw wild genius.

It was Itzkoff’s recapping of the first comedy album by Williams, Reality…What a Concept, that reminded me of a routine that had long ago escaped my memory, but which also illuminates a major part of why his approach was so unique. Williams was first and foremost an actor. Before he launched to fame as a stand-up comedian who had a sitcom tailored to his talents, he’s studied at Juilliard and had appeared in multiple stage productions, including several Shakespeare plays. The bit, titled “Come Inside My Mind” on record, is a minor masterwork of character study, with Williams playing out the competing impulses of a performer.

It’s no wonder it provided the title for a new documentary about Williams. In addition to being a perfect title for a biographical effort, the routine itself hints at the complex totality of Williams. Better yet, it reveals his gift for tapping into those complexities to convey emotion, precisely the quality that made him an Oscar-worthy actor. He was funny, and in boom years of rock star comedy that was the nineteen-seventies, his manic energy made him stand out. There was so much more to him than frenetic japery, though. “Come Inside My Mind” proved it.

 

Previous entries in this series can be found by clicking on the “Laughing Matters” tag.

Now Playing — Hereditary

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There are plenty of gruesome elements to go around in Hereditary, the feature film debut of writer-director Ari Aster. As the title implies, though, the most unsettling portions of the film center on the way family can weigh on a person. That’s true of long histories — the sort of heavy ancestry that gets passed down through the generations — but it’s even more present in the small (or not so small) slights and interpersonal infractions that accumulate over time, constructing a wall of wounded emotions that is all but impenetrable.

Toni Collette plays Annie Graham, an artist who specializes in miniatures. She’s busily preparing for an upcoming exhibition when her mother dies, seemingly ending one chapter of family history that included deep resentments, mental illness, and other resonant tragedies. A glumness permeates the house, and Aster does a skillful job of depicting how the foreboding and the mundane often run together. The Graham family lives in a sprawling house in the woods, but the shadows across their psyches are far deeper than those in the corner of rooms encased in dark wood.

Unsurprisingly, Collette is marvelous in the leading role, ferociously commanding a character whose inner troubles manifest in a hard-edged nervousness. As supernatural manipulations began to infiltrate her existence, it’s wholly understandable that she’d grow a little jumpy. In a beautiful morsel of insight, Collette’s Annie is also jittery and unnerved by a chance encounter with an acquaintance in an art store parking lot or even interactions with her immediate family members. Aster’s film adheres politely to many horror film conventions, but it builds uncertainty in detailed characterizations that leave motivations and other undercurrents more difficult to discern. Hereditary feels like it can zing off in any direction at any moment, even as its storytelling is tightly controlled.

Playing Annie’s teenaged son, Peter, Alex Wolff takes roughly the opposite tack as Collette, often withdrawing into tense stillness, making the few explosive moments all the more effective. The film’s most powerful scene belongs to him, due to Aster staging the immediate aftermath of a pivotal, horrific incident with daring restraint. The fierce understatement inherent to that scene carries over to much of the film, and it’s easily the greatest strength of Hereditary. It’s minor missteps come more often when it pushes into the floridly broad, seeking a fevered quality that isn’t needed. (There are exceptions, such as the very ending, which earns its sternly measured bacchanal quality.) The smaller Aster keeps the film, the better it is. Bombast makes an impression, but the more insidious erosion of safe reality can haunt the soul.

Greatish Performances #37

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#37 — Kelly Marie Tran as Rose Tico in Star Wars: The Last Jedi (Rian Johnson, 2017)

It’s tough being a newcomer to a lengthy tale eight parts deep in the telling, with each prior installment adding convolutions to the established mythos. Never mind the daunting expectations that might be held by an existing fan base, the real challenge is beginning the race from behind in building a character. In a film series, many of the other actors will have the benefit of drawing on earlier information with the ease of recalling deeply ingrained memories. For those who’ve been around for ages, shaping and shifting the character is second nature. They essentially share the history with the role being played.

The Last Jedi, officially Episode VIII of the Star Wars saga (now distant enough from its introduction into the culture that the “long time ago” perpetually used in the opening title card carries apt meaning apart from the fictional chronology it sets in place), brings a few new characters to the fold, none more effectively than Rose Tico, played by Kelly Marie Tran. Within the story of good rebels and evil, despotic leaders, Rose is on the correct side, working as a maintenance technician with the motley collective acting as the resistance against tyrannical fiends who insist on imposing their churlish, self-aggrandizing will across the galaxy. In an ongoing narrative that favors hotshot pilots and quasi-mystic figures with godlike abilities, Rose is a modest worker, the sort who might be seen briefly in early films, scuttling between spaceships and gizmos right before the heroes rush off to save the day.

Part of the strength of Tran’s performance — of her inspired character-building — is that she emphasizes the practicality that naturally stems from Rose’s place in the hierarchy of the rebellion. When she encounters Finn (John Boyega) near the escape pods of a star cruiser, her initial excitement at meeting a famed hero of the rebellion quickly pivots when she susses out that he’s planning to sneakily disembark, an act she views — and she’s essentially correct in this — as desertion. There’s no hand-wringing or flood of anguish for Rose in this moment of admiration undone by betrayal. Instead, Tran smartly plays Rose as observant and decisive, traits that suit her role in this upstart interstellar army. She lays Finn out with a taser, because that’s what she must do when discovering a soldier going AWOL. There’s a tremor of regret perhaps, but mostly determination. This is what she signed up for.

Although Rose is new to the series, that doesn’t mean she’s bereft of backstory. As The Last Jedi depicts, Rose’s sister, Paige (Ngô Thanh Vân), sacrificed herself to make sure a bombing mission was completed successfully. Her sibling’s death weighing on her, Rose brings something surprisingly unique to a film series that has the word “wars” prominently in its title. She understands the stakes inherent to engaging in violent battles in the name of securing freedom. There are plenty of other deaths across the Star Wars movies, but most of them are incidental carnage in the background or offered as the turning key that moves the narrative from one act to the next. It certainly doesn’t help that mortality is a loose concept among the Jedi, with beloved mentors shimmering back into sight after they’ve died, the Valhalla of this corner of universe equipped with escalators that go both ways.

Tran exudes the both the deep loss Rose feels and the steely conviction to endure, fulfilling the broader mission that she and her sister embarked upon. Like anyone who’s been sent tumbling into the depths of grief, she understands the gravity of profound loss in a different way. The worthiness of a cause doesn’t alleviate the pain of those who’ve watched a loved be forever torn away in the fighting for it. Sacrifices in war are noble, but perhaps strategic survival has greater value. Rose isn’t in retreat. Far from it, in fact. She committed to seeing the revolution through, but her fervor is joined by wisdom. Tran plays every bit of this as Rose tenaciously steps up her involvement in the galactic roundelay.

In playing Rose, Tran is commanding and charismatic, truthful and cunning. Mostly, Tran brings an abundance of a quality that in shockingly short supply in this widely adored extended exercise in morality-based storytelling. To the Star Wars universe, Tran brings humanity.

 

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