Greatish Performances #36

lilly

#36 — Evangeline Lilly as Hope van Dyne in Ant-Man (Peyton Reed, 2015)

As impressive as the Marvel Studios business model of craftily interlocking films has been (and markedly difficult for others to replicate), the actual cinematic quality of their output has been shakier. The combination of craft and inspiration needed to elevate material past product into art is compromised by the sheer mechanics of the upstart movie moguls’ master plan. Surprisingly, given the fact that the studio’s extraction from source material is based far more on the costumed figures than any particular storylines in which they appeared, one of the most consistently weak areas is in character development.

This key shortcoming is typically disguised by the incredibly astute casting choices the studio has made, at least after a slightly bumpy beginning. (Wave to the people, Terrence Howard and Edward Norton!) The characters cohere less from what’s on the page and more from a strange alchemy of the actor’s charisma and the fundamental possibilities of the respective roles. Robert Downey, Jr.’s turn as Tony Stark is emblematic, drawing on the actor’s impish restlessness and flash fires of bizarrely ingratiating ego to create a vision of the kajillionaire inventor that has no precise antecedent in the panels from which he is mined. Downey is consistently winning in the part, but even now he cuts against the material as often as he aligns with it. The approach is defining, and individual actors who have long hauls with their roles typically do better when they strip away the layers of character and are noticeably, comfortably themselves on screen. Scarlett Johansson scraps the accent and ignores Black Widow’s haunted history. Chris Hemsworth gives up on the burdensome Shakespearean weight imposed on Thor.

If I’ve identified a rule, there’s of course an exception. In Ant-Man, Evangeline Lilly plays Hope van Dyne, the daughter of the scientist (Michael Douglas) who created the size-changing technology that allows the titular hero (Paul Rudd) to shrink down to a minuscule version of himself. Enlisted to help train Rudd’s character, an ex-con whose presumed slippery ethics are a major part of the reason he was asked to suit up for wild adventures, Lilly’s Hope is fierce and strident. She puts her charge through the paces with a perturbed sense of duty, all the while exuding a forthright assurance that prompts the natural question as to why she wasn’t given the chance to play superhero in the first place.

Female roles — even leading female roles — haven’t exactly been a strength of the Marvel movies, which Lilly’s performance seems to comment on, particularly in the satisfying meta moment in the tag-on scene that finds Hope being introduced to a costumed tailored for her and noting, “It’s about damn time.” Other Marvel movie characters are saddled with plenty of backstory, but the details tend to be plot points almost detached from the person. Lilly takes every bit that’s given to her — resentment toward her father, acumen acquired from years in the family business, pangs of regret related to her missing mother — and uses it fully, building Hope layer by layer. There is nuance in her reactions that convey the history she carries. She’s more than an action figure biding time until the next set piece. Watching her process information is more fascinating than any of the movie’s digitally-drawn derring-do.

There are plenty of performances worth cheering across the Marvel movies. In addition to transforming narrative into a weirdly open-ended and overlapping act of ongoing effort, the studio has shifted the tectonic plates of movie stardom. Downey is a more major figure than he’s every been, but that celebrity is so thoroughly bound to Tony Stark that it’s strange to see him do anything else. Lilly transcends the built-in limitation of the model by simply giving more, by not stepping away from the actor’s foundational chore of of finding the inner being of the character and depicting it with honesty and constancy. In this movie universe of mighty feats, nothing is more heroic.

 

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

Playing Catch-Up — From Beyond the Grave; The Family Fang; Black Mass

beyond

From Beyond the Grave (Kevin Connor, 1974). Drawn from the horror short stories of British author Ronald Chetwynd-Hayes, this anthology film from the macabre minds at Hammer Studios offer a quartet of twisty tales of supernaturally-charged comeuppance, all of them stirred into being after individuals engaged in ethically-challenged transactions with an antique store proprietor (Peter Cushing, gleaming menace). As in all but inevitable given the format, some stories work better than others. But each segment has at least one element that works wonderfully, such as David Warner’s mounting exhaustion as he’s compelled to murder by a haunted mirror, or the delightfully loopy performance by Margaret Leighton as a clairvoyant who offers her services in expelling an invisible demon from an otherwise humdrum home. A story entitled “An Act of Kindness” is the strongest, due to especially creepy performances from Donald and Angela Pleasance (father and daughters thespians playing, appropriately, father and daughter) and a twist ending that’s actually surprising. Kevin Connor brings a playful sense of humor to the staging without ever skewing into condescension.

 

family fang

The Family Fang (Jason Bateman, 2015). It was probably the darkly comedic elements of this story that made Jason Bateman seem like a viable choice for director, as if it could be an extension on the tone he employed in his reasonably promising feature debut as a helmer, Bad Words. But there are far more layers to this examination of the lingering repercussions of growing up in a colorfully troubled clan, and Bateman delivers a muddled mess almost entirely devoid of emotional authenticity. Annie (Nicole Kidman) and Baxter (Bateman, who also isn’t up to the acting task he’s undertaken) are smarting from their wild childhoods as pawns in the social stunt performance art of their parents (played in their younger years by Jason Butler Hamer and Kathryn Hahn, and in pending dotage by Christopher Walken and Maryann Plunkett). There’s nothing psychologically astute about the film. It’s so inert that it practically disproves Leo Tolstoy’s famed quote about the individualized uniqueness of unhappy families.

 

black mass

Black Mass (Scott Cooper, 2015). This biographical fiction about infamous Boston organized crime figure James “Whitey” Bulger (Johnny Depp) desperately wants to be a the second coming of Goodfellas, with a bit of The Departed cross-stitched in for good measure. Instead, Black Mass offers convincing proof that Scorsese’s mobster masterwork would have been incredibly dull had each entry in the famed procession of retribution killings set to “Layla” been instead fully dramatized, complete with predictable fake-outs of mercy before each trigger pull. Perhaps the only element of Black Mass that’s surprising is the remarkable array of affected Boston accents, no two alike and yet all equally atrocious. It’s like a Whitman sampler of drawn-out vowel sounds. Scott Cooper assembles a cast stacked with names and then leaves most of them stranded, gaping at proceedings with a level of stern seriousness so heightened that it reads as befuddled worry. Depp, in the dire downswing of a once promising career, is terrible in the main role, but he has plenty of company in acting ignominy, including Dakota Johnson, who delivers one of the least convincing line readings of the word “motherfucker” ever committed to film.

Playing Catch-Up — The Final Girls; Baby Face; Lightning Strikes Twice

final girls

The Final Girls (Todd Strauss-Schulson, 2015). This send-up of horror films — with special satiric sanctimony leveled at the slasher films of the nineteen-eighties — can’t help but draw comparisons to similar efforts in recent years. And already muddled film looks positively witless when gauged against titles that took the impulse for impish deconstruction to greater heights. Max (Taissa Farmiga) is still smarting from the recent death of her actress mother (Malin Åkerman) when she — for perplexing reasons — attends a midnight screening of the beloved, departed parent’s most famous film, Camp Bloodbath. Max and a few of her friends mystically show up inside the movie, using their knowledge of the plot proceedings to keep themselves safe from masked killer Billy Murphy (Daniel Norris). The film’s spiked taffy tone recalls, of all things, the dismal Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle Last Action Hero. Director Todd Strauss-Schulson veers between amused affection for and snide derision of the genre trappings of horror flicks. The highly distracted point of view combines with the surface-level spoofery to result in a film that plays like a clanging mess.

 

baby face

Baby Face (Alfred E. Green, 1933). This early showcase for Barbara Stanwyck is arguably best known for a plainspoken salaciousness that ran it afoul of the censors as the Hays Code was ramping up. Stanwyck plays Lily Powers, a young woman who follows the advice of a cobbler (Alphone Ethier) who frequents the raucous speakeasy run by her louse of a father (Robert Barrat). Lily jaunts out into the world with a scheme to achieve upward mobility by treating lustful, susceptible men as ladder rungs. Unsurprisingly, Stanwyck is fantastic, especially when the script feeds her sardonic lines to fling at the various dolts and dupes who swarm around her (including, briefly, John Wayne, six years before Stagecoach made him a star). Alfred E. Green directs with a flat-footed efficiency that’s a marker of the era when Hollywood was a grinding company town. The film is remarkable in its proud amorality, at least until an obligatory romantic ending that doesn’t jibe with all that’s come before it.

 

lightning strikes twice

Lightning Strikes Twice (King Vidor, 1951). This crime drama is like a freewheeling hybrid of film noir, Gothic horror, and Western. Shelley Carnes (Ruth Roman) is an actress bound for a dude ranch to recover from the strain of being strangled eight performances per week in a touring company of Othello. She’s diverted into the sphere of Richard Trevelyan (Richard Todd), a convicted murdered who was sprung from death row when a retrial resulted in a hung jury. The screenplay (by Lenore J. Coffee, adapting Margaret Echard’s 1940 novel, A Man Without Friends) merely skims its finger gingerly across the florid lunacy it introduces, but King Vidor fully invests in the twisty darkness, playing with encroaching shadows and reflections as a visual motif. He also infuses and sense of constant menace into the film, heightening the unpredictability as Shelley falls for Richard, even as paranoia about his lurking motivations overtakes her. The performances are mostly unremarkable, but Mercedes McCambridge, just a couple years after her Oscar-winning turn in All the King’s Men, brings a zesty oddness to her turn as a dude ranch proprietor wrapped up in Richard’s sordid past.

 

Playing Catch-Up — Columbus, The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected), Miles Ahead

columbus

Columbus (Kogonada, 2017). The feature debut from filmmaker Kogonada, who has been justly lauded for video essays on other directors’ work, is an object of understated beauty. Empathetic and honest, Columbus is set in the Indiana city of the same name that is an unlikely touchtone for fans of modernist architecture. Jin (John Cho) comes to town because his architect-scholar father has been hospitalized. Aggravated about his familial requirement to dote upon an ill parent who wasn’t especially loving to him, Jin is somewhat aimless in the community, at least until he encounters Casey (Haley Lu Richardson), a young woman who is stuck in neutral shortly after high school, although she clearly has the intellect to prosper if she moved on to higher education. The two have gentle, talky encounters that recall the cerebral cerebral meanderings of Richard Linklater’s film series that began with Before Sunrise, just with a little less grad school posturing. The film is warm and endearing. It’s also the clear product of a film fan who’s spent a lot of time thinking about how some of the masters of the form framed their images. Even as Kogonada immediately establishes himself as filmmaker of great insight and care, the true standout of Columbus is Richardson. Operating with an emotional delicacy and fascinating naturalism, Richardson gives a great, deep performance, subtly displaying a myriad of layers to her character.

 

meyerowitz

The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) (Noah Baumbach, 2017). Noah Baumbach is in familiar territory with The Meyerowitz Stories (News and Selected), depicting a New York City family of thwarted artists and painted intellectuals, scuffling with their own insecurities and giving each other deep emotional bruises along the way. In proper reflection of the title, the film moves with the ache of a rueful, bleakly funny collection of interconnected short stories, a little John Salinger, a little John Cheever, and a little Woody Allen in his wordsmith mode. The actors all make a lush pastrami meal out of Baumach’s caustically funny dialogue, even Adam Sandler, who delivers what is arguably his first good performance on film (and, no, I’m not forgetting about Punch-Drunk Love). As the family’s patriarch, Dustin Hoffman has his best role in years and makes the most of it.

 

miles

Miles Ahead (Don Cheadle, 2015). In one way or another, the notion of Don Cheadle playing Miles Davis on film had kicked around for about fifteen years before the skilled actor finally took matters into his own hands. Besides playing the jazz legend — one of the rare figures in the history of music who can legitimately be called a genius — Cheadle contributed to the screenplay and directed Miles Ahead, his feature debut in that role. Cheadle is predictably strong as Davis, but the film is misguided, layering in fictional escalated action that might allow for easy access to the flaring flaws of the man, but also play as deeply phony. And the film is burdened by leaning into the cliches within Davis’s personal history, such as the haunting presence of a one-time love (Emayatzy Corinealdi) and the penchant for self-destruction. There are moments of quiet insight — such as Davis rediscovering his artistic soul in a brief collaborative jam with a younger musician (Lakeith Stanfield) — but they are brief and too quickly disregarded in favor of dull narrative tricks.

Playing Catch-Up — Wind River; Ship of Fools; Demolition

wind river

Wind River (Taylor Sheridan, 2017). With just a handful of credits for major creative roles behind the camera, Taylor Sheridan is already establishing a pretty compelling philosophical thesis about the way the world works. In Wind River, those who exist outside the power structure are so removed from real safety and justice that the only recourse is personally bloodied hands. While hunting predators in the remote chill of Wyoming’s Wind River Indian Reservation, a U.S Fish and Wildlife agent (Jeremy Renner) finds the dead body of a young Native American woman (Natalie Chow). Since crime-fighting resources are scarce on the reservation — and because of a relevant past marked by tragedy — the agent winds up immersed in the investigation, especially after a neophyte FBI agent (Elizabeth Olsen) is assigned to the case. Sheridan makes powerful points about discarded populations in his writing, but his pedestrian directing makes a compelling case for the valuable contributions David Mackenzie made in shepherding Sheridan’s Hell and High Water screenplay to the screen. Visual panache and an acutely developed sense of timing go a long way towards elevating a film.

 

ship of fools

Ship of Fools (Stanley Kramer, 1965). Adapted from a novel by Katherine Anne Porter, which had been published just a couple years earlier, Ship of Fools benefits from the readily available storytelling possibilities that come with throwing a big batch of characters together in the confines of a ship on a transatlantic journey. All screenwriter Abby Mann needs to do in order to stir a scene to life is sit a couple people together at dinner or on the deck. Director Stanley Kramer was famously committed to exploring social justice issues in his cinematic efforts, and the timing of the film — a few years before the cataclysmic start of World War II — allows him to make his points in barbed, cunning ways, even if the sensibility on display is ultimately far too modern. Kramer juggles the cross-crossing plots admirably, and is wise enough to approach his skilled actors with obvious generosity. Everyone in the stacked cast performs admirably, but Vivien Leigh and Simone Signoret are standouts.

 

demolition

Demolition (Jean-Marc Vallée, 2015). This drama is so disastrously bad, it boggles the mind that it was Jean-Marc Vallée’s follow-up to the inventive, sublime Wild (not to mention its status as the director’s last big-screen effort before moving on to conquer television). Jake Gyllenhaal plays Davis Mitchell, a man working in finance who is reeling after his wife (Heather Lind) is killed in an auto accident, right in front of his eyes. Davis isn’t saddled with grief, though. He’s more troubled by the indifference he feels, and the guilt (or anguish, or something) that stems from that causes his to act increasingly odd, primarily manifesting in a propensity to disassemble machinery, furnishings, and entire structures. He also befriends a women (Naomi Watts) and her troubled son (Judah Lewis). The entire thing plays as if it were constructed by space aliens taking a stab at depicting human emotions after observations conducted over a single weekend, while they were half-drunk. Gyllenhaal tries real hard, but the film is so bereft of anything genuine that his eager portrayal of a man tilting towards madness comes across as tedious showboating.

Playing Catch-Up: Good Morning; The Big Sky; The Witness

good morning

Good Morning (Yasujirō Ozu, 1959). I’ll admit to being underexposed to the work of the revered Japanese director Yasujirō Ozu. (It’s not a good excuse, by any means, but I’ve devoted most of my relevant geographically-based cinema self-schooling to films of Ozu’s countryman Akira Kurosawa.) And since my primary connection to Ozu’s oeuvre is through the masterful Tokyo Story, I think of the filmmaker as a crafter of delicate, relatively sedate art. As that preamble suggests, Good Morning proves how wrong I was in my reductive assumption. A loose remake of a film Ozu made over twenty-five years earlier, Good Morning largely concerns a couple of young brothers operating with escalating bratty behavior in an attempt to bully their parents into purchasing a television set. Around that, Ozu expertly stages a subplot that shows how animosity and suspicion moves with stealthy passive aggressiveness throughout tight-knit community. Ozu’s film is bright, cunning, and delightfully rambunctious. It’s also beautifully structured in every way, including unfussy perfection in the staging of shots and depth of psychological understanding of all the characters that evidences warmth and wry judgment all at once.

 

big sky

The Big Sky (Howard Hawks, 1952). This Western centers on a group of ramshackle fellows who race against a menacing trading company to form an agreement with the Blackfoot tribe in the commerce of the day. Along the way, Jim Deakins (Kirk Douglas) and Boone Caudill (Dewey Martin) find themselves in a bit of a love triangle with a Native American woman named Teal Eye (Elizabeth Threatt). The story isn’t always compelling, but Howard Hawks, as usual, builds the film with personality spilling out of its sprocket holes. It’s especially entertaining to see him bring a bleak humor to the depiction of the physical horrors that routinely befell those who took it upon themselves to tame the frontier. Arthur Hunnicutt received an Academy Award nomination for his role as the cynical hand who provides a moral compass, albeit one with a slightly bent pointer. It was a deserving nod; Hunnicutt’s performance is the highlight of the film.

 

witness

The Witness (James Solomon, 2015). Increasingly, I find it likely that Ezra Edelman’s terrific O.J.: Made in America points to the future of documentary filmmaking, if only because so many features seem to be straining for the same exhaustive examination of interconnected concerns. Director James Solomon covers an immense amount of sociological and deeply personal sub-topics in The Witness, but must largely for doing so in a glancing fashion, finishing with a film that is both impressive ambitious and mildly dissatisfying. First and foremost, the film is about the murder of Kitty Genovese, infamous more for the documented indifference of her New York City neighbors to her cries for help than the street-side crime itself. As Solomon painstakingly shows, the circumstances of Genovese’s death have become emblematic of social apathy, help as a metaphorical tool to make points about everything from day-to-day small town lawbreaking to the devastation delivered against the city of Aleppo. But Genovese was more than a social studies lesson. She was a person, and she left behind a heartbroken family. One of those family members, her brother William Genovese, is the heart of the documentary as he obsessively seeks understanding and closure. (The latter goal contributes to the film’s one flat-out terrible stretch, a sequence in which William hires an actress to recreate Kitty’s screams on the street where she was killed, an inexplicable gesture that Solomon treats as so logical it requires no further exploration.) Solomon has an immense amount to say with him film — some of it powerful, some of it challenging, much of it deeply insightful. In the end, more than anything else, I wish he’d had more time to say it.

Playing Catch-Up — The Best Years of Our Lives; The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography; Truth

best years

The Best Years of Our Lives (William Wyler, 1946). My overwhelming reaction to this drama of post-war turmoil in the lives of U.S. fighting men and their families is a dumbstruck marveling that it was released just one year after the end of World War II. While I tend to think of the Hollywood cinema of the time as assiduously adhering to the notion of noble soldiers and stolid supporters on the home front, William Wyler’s film is far more complicated and ambiguous in its assessment of the aftermath. The returning war heroes struggle to adapt, dealing with troubled memories, an inability to relate to loved ones, the self-medication of alcohol addiction, and employers who aren’t as welcoming as was once promised. It’s painful in its truth and astonishing in its thoroughness. Wyler adepts shifts between multiple storylines (Robert E. Sherwood is the credited screenwriter, adapting the 1945 novella Glory for Me, by MacKinlay Kantor), offering empathy without pandering or exploitation. The film is resolutely daring in its beautifully melded directness and subtlety.

 

b side

The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography (Errol Morris, 2017). This documentary focuses on precisely the sort of iconoclastic creator that director Errol Morris clearly adores. Elsa Dorfman is a longtime portrait photographer whose work was often undervalued. She opted for Polaroid cameras, though not typically the variety sold warmly to amateur shutterbugs. Instead, Dorfman’s expertise was with bulky behemoths that more resemble the revolutionary devices trundled out to Civil War battlefields once upon a time. Morris catches Dorfman as she’s drifting into retirement, in part because there’s simply going to be no more Polaroid film available for her to ply her trade. There’s an abundance of ideas for Morris to explore — capitalism’s callous indifference to art, the ruthless march of technological progress, the value of an outsider eye when people armed with smartphones are creating self portraits at an unprecedented rate, the beauty of imperfection when measured against control — but Morris gets at these topics only glancingly. At the same time, he wastes time with uninteresting digressions, such as an almost fetishistic attention to Dorfman’s friendship with Allen Ginsberg. As if commenting on the missed opportunity of The B-Side, the screening I saw opened with Morris’s short documentary The Umbrella Man, which is inventive, witty, and revelatory.

 

truth

Truth (James Vanderbilt, 2015). Deep into Truth, writer-director James Vanderbilt delivers a scene that should carry a mighty resonance right now. CBS News producer Mary Mapes (Cate Blanchett) defends her reporting on a story involving George W. Bush’s National Guard service during the Vietnam War. She rebels against the notion that her personal politics are to blame in doggedly pursuing the story, which turned out to be partially reliant on a document of questionable origin. In identifying the destructive pattern of viewers and readers dismissing information that doesn’t conform to their personal worldview, all the monologue is missing is the detestable term “fake news.” That the sequence — structured as a moment of bravura defense of the very tenets of journalism — carries no political or emotional weight, even as its grown more pertinent since the film’s release, speaks to the inert quality of Vanderbilt’s filmmaking. Truth dutifully tracks through the details of the pursuit of the controversial news story that essentially caused Dan Rather to step away from his anchor post after decades at CBS, showing some of the procedural rigor Vanderbilt brought to his screenplay for David Fincher’s masterful Zodiac. In this instance, the approach proves dutiful and boring, reducing the characters to empty figures clicking by. Even the mighty Blanchett is felled by the film’s mechanics, apparently compensating for the lack of depth to her character by overplaying the sputtering intensity that led to Mary’s blind spot assurance in shaping the news story for air.