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

herditary

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

Now Playing — Solo: A Star Wars Story

solo

Back when I first started penning movie reviews — not just as a personal hobby, but to foist upon Central Wisconsin radio listeners — I made an effort to approach each cinematic offering purely as its own entity, doing the best I could to jettison preconceptions as the auditorium lights went down and the trailers started to unspool. It was an era of sequels, though not really franchises. There was still a vague conception that films with a number affixed at the end of the title still needed to convey a cogent story to a eager newcomer. Assessing the film entirely on the basis of what appeared within its procession of frames seemed the right thing to do.

It’s an open question in my mind as to whether the goal is still viable, or indeed laudable, at least when it comes to major studio efforts that are as much about extending a brand as telling a story. If the films themselves are built with the greatest priority given to outcomes largely detached for achieving singular entertainment experiences, maybe it’s fitting to meet them as business ventures more than earnest art. Why would I try to judge the loveliness of one jigsaw piece when it’s the whole puzzle that counts?

Implausible as it may be, there are surely some people who come at Solo: A Star Wars Story with only the vaguest conception of the character who gives the film its title. I’m not one of them. Although I’m far from obsessive about the mythos created by George Lucas and nurtured by countless others since (more and more, I’m pleased to remain apart from that particular subset of fandom as it’s overrun by fragile crybaby bullies with terrible taste), I carry with me volumes of information about the Millennium Falcon’s roguish pilot. I smile with recognition when the Kessel Run is mentioned. I know the correct spelling of Wookiee.

Continuing to stake out my place on the Venn diagram of Solo target audience members, I also felt no particular need to have the vaguer portions of the character’s history sketched in. Circling back to the Lucasfilm business plan, I find the continued clinging to established characters and scenarios to be a significant creative flaw, especially in spinoff features taking place a slightly longer time ago in that galaxy far, far away. I’ve long since hit my quota on Death Star plots, thanks.

And yet I have to admit the nostalgia elements of Solo largely worked for me, though not because of chummy winks to the audience. To the filmmakers’ credit, they largely avoid reliance on the style of revival filmmaker that offers cheap congratulations on mere recognition, like cinema is an ongoing pop quiz. The elements that excavate the acknowledged past of these characters and this universe — the first meetings, the adventures previously name-checked — work because they’re actually dramatized effectively. It never occurred to me that Han Solo’s very name might require an origin story, but the moment worked for me anyway, mostly due to Alden Ehrenreich’s emotional authenticity when it happens.

It is Ehrenreich who is charged and cursed with playing the title character. He’s all but doomed to failure with a broader public disinclined to accept in the role anyone other than Harrison Ford (who, it’s worth noting, is great in Star Wars and almost laughably indifferent in the other three films in which he donned the stylish space vest). Too bad for them. Ehrenreich is pretty great, charming and flinty, playing Solo with the bravado found in the other films, but before he had the experience to back it up. In particular, Ehrenreich taps into the moments of wonder of a young man escaping dire beginnings to take mighty strides across the universe. Of course, Ehrenreich also spends about half the film helplessly watching Donald Glover nimbly steal scenes as a young Lando Calrissian. But no one should be expected to achieve anything more than runner-up status with that level of competition.

The screenplay is co-credited to Lawrence Kasdan (scribe on two films in the original trilogy and then J.J. Abrams’s revival of the series) and his son, Jonathan Kasdan. There’s and old pro sturdiness to the storytelling, with setups and payoffs that are teeter between predictable and satisfying. The movie skews away from the fantasy-film-in-disguise that was Lucas’s inclination and to a Western with six shooters that fire lasers, an understandable pivot given Lawrence Kasdan’s history as the writer and director of Silverado and Wyatt Earp. It’s a nifty idea, but director Ron Howard can’t quite make it snap. The Star Wars universe version of a train heist in the early portion of the film is emblematic of the conceit’s lack of total realization.

Just as I once did my best to forget about preceding films, I always tried to set aside my background knowledge about production turmoil. The entertainment press was more limited before the internet cracked open a cavernous space forever needing new, excited content, but I took in as much of it as I could. As I sat in a theater, I often had a notion as to whether a set was blissful or fraught, if the studio felt they had an Oscar contender or a dreaded dud. The scuttlebutt was fair game in the eventual review, especially if it offered potential explanation for how a film went wrong or captured some elusive spark of ingenuity. In the viewing experience, though, I wanted to be guided by the art in front of me rather than the gossip about its creation.

Since the high drama of Star Wars film production is reported on with a breathless urgency exceeding that afforded breaking news on rampant government corruption, I know more than I care to about the troubled trek of Solo. In that context, Howard’s pedestrian assurance plays as a small miracle of filmmaking craft. Maybe the work of the preceding directing team Phil Lord and Chris Miller wasn’t as bad as the executives believed, but by at least one account Howard’s shooting efforts account for nearly three-quarters of the finished product. That’s no small matter, and it takes only a quick perusal of last year’s The Snowman to see how badly a salvage job can be botched. If that’s faint praise, it’s still praise.

There’s no way for me to see Solo while voiding out my experience and knowledge, and I’m sure that’s something I should want to do. What was my bygone attempt at moviegoing purity achieving, really? In ways small and large, all art builds on the art that came before. Just because a Star Wars movie is purely popular entertainment doesn’t automatically negate the validity of its drawing from the past and finding some extra charm in the familiar, if it accomplishes these tasks with a touch of inspiration and wit. Solo is no masterpiece, but I’d say it beat the odds.

Playing Catch-Up — A Quiet Place; All Fall Down; New Wave: Dare to Be Different

quiet

A Quiet Place (John Krasinski, 2018). Writer-director John Krasinski’s horror film about sonically-attuned, carnivorous creatures is a splendid analogy for the anxieties of child-rearing. It’s also wildly implausible within the confines of its own fictional world, largely because the threats are made so fearsome that survival is basically impossible for even the most cautious being. One errant sneeze, sniffle, cough, stumble, or hiccup and the family is monster chow. The script — co-credited to Krasinski, Scott Beck, and Bryan Woods — smartly keeps the plot lean, and Krasinski shows a real facility for shaping mood and building tension. He’s less commanding playing the patriarch of the story’s besieged family, but he’s got a couple ringers in Emily Blunt and young Millicent Simmonds to give A Quiet Place the emotional heft it needs.

 

All-Fall-Down

All Fall Down (John Frankenheimer, 1962). Based on a novel by James Leo Herlihy, All Fall Down is the first of three films directed by John Frankenheimer that saw release in 1962 (the others are Birdman of Alcatraz and The Manchurian Candidate). A family melodrama in its bones, Frankenheimer brings a nineteen-sixties edge to the film that enlivens the whole project. The film contains a very early performance by Warren Beatty, as ne’er-do-well son Berry-Berry Willart, but he’s notably ill at ease with the James Dean explosive anguish he needs to play. The other performances are far stronger, including deeply felt turns by Eva Marie Saint, Karl Malden, and Angela Lansbury (playing Beatty’s mother despite a mere twelve years difference in their ages, an infraction against reasonable biological chronology that Frankenheimer infamously compounded in The Manchurian Candidate). There also a nice turn from Brandon deWilde, playing the introverted, slightly odd younger son of the family. He brings a intriguing depth of feeling to a role defined by a placid naïveté.

 

wlir

New Wave: Dare to Be Different (Ellen Goldfarb, 2017). The ostensible focus of this documentary is the relatively short-lived but influential tenure of Long Island radio station WLIR as a rare commercial broadcast purveyor of challenging new music. From the time of a format change in 1982 until the loss of their FCC license in 1987, the station championed emerging artists while in a perpetual underdog station in a highly competitive media market. (Former staffers recount racing to the bank with their paychecks, sure whoever was last in line last would get a shake of the head and a report of insufficient funds). The film also gives ample screen time to the transformational music of the era, too often to the diminishment of the radio station’s story. I’m hardly the person to argue against eager excavations of songs and stories from college rock’s most fertile period, but director Ellen Goldfarb sidetracks to her interviews with nineteen-eighties artist with such frequency that the character of the station and its collective personnel gets lost. The movie becomes a scrapbook: delightful for those who experienced the time and place firsthand, short on meaning for everyone else.