Talking Movies

June 29, 2019

Miscellaneous Movie Musings: Part XV

As the title suggests here are some short thoughts about the movies which aren’t quite substantial enough for each to merit an individual blog posting.

There’s, uh, just not enough Goldblum available to meet the existing demand

That at least is what I’ve taken from the Lighthouse’s third Jeff GoldBLUMSDAY two weeks ago. The internet of the 2010s really has made Goldblum latterly a much bigger deal than he actually was in his pomp. This year the Lighthouse’s three films were Thor: Ragnarok, Jurassic Park, and Jurassic Park: The Lost World; that is to say one leading role, one major supporting role, and one highly amusing but basically glorified cameo – as a spin on his own web-enhanced persona. Last year was The Big Chill, Independence Day, Thor: Ragnarok (again), The Fly, The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension; that is to say (arguably) two lead roles, two major supporting roles, and the same glorified cameo. But what else can you screen? You have to commit to showing the likes of The Tall Guy, Deep Cover, and Into the Night if you want more lead roles, or for major support Silverado, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and Nine Months, or for memorable small turns The Right Stuff, Igby Goes Down, and The Grand Budapest Hotel. Otherwise you will find yourself recycling the same handful of 1980s cult films, 1990s blockbusters, and 2010s ironic nods every year.

Alas, poor Robert Downey Jr, a man of infinite jest

Writing an Icon piece for the University Observer about Keanu Reeves 15 years ago I noted that their 40s was the decade when a star had both the clout and the maturity to make the films they would be remembered for. Robert Downey Jr had an infinitely more financially successful 40s than Keanu Reeves; just compare Iron Man 1-3, The Avengers, Sherlock Holmes 1&2, Due Date, and Tropic Thunder, to The Day The Earth Stood Still, Constantine, The Lake House, 47 Ronin, and John Wick; but artistically speaking I fear he has wasted his peak years. Whereas Keanu was clearly on a downward slope at the box office after The Matrix Reloaded, which compromised his ability to make big projects, RDJ hit the big time with Iron Man, giving him clout when he was at the peak of his powers.  Having got clean and sober RDJ was making really interesting stuff: Good Night, and Good Luck, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, A Scanner Darkly, Zodiac, Charlie Bartlett, and Tropic Thunder. And then after the success of Iron Man he used his muscle to make … Sherlock Holmes and The Soloist. Then there was Due Date, Sherlock Holmes 2, and, following in the footsteps of The Soloist, another painfully belaboured and failed attempt to win an Oscar with The Judge. He remembered who he used to be for Chef, but 2014 was the last time he played any part but Tony Stark. What really galls is that Downey Jr was not allowed any more Iron Man movies because it would have been too lucrative for him rather than Disney, so instead he was inserted into Spider-Man and Captain America movies, and more Avengers sequels. There is only so many times any actor can go to the well before they (a) find nothing there (b) discover that like Eugene O’Neill Senior they have ruined their range and can now only play one part. Robert Downey Jr is now 54 years old, and, finally free of Marvel, he’s, unbelievably, making Sherlock Holmes 3, but first another remake of Doctor Dolittle. To paraphrase Elmore Leonard: What happened to you, man? You used to be beautiful…

Mean Girls – 22nd August Lighthouse cinema

The Lighthouse remembers the Wonder Years

The Lighthouse is following up Keanurama with a rambling two month season entitled Wonder Years – Films to grow up with. The entire 8 movie Harry Potter series is the cornerstone of the films screening from 6th July to 13th September.  I’ve never really understood the critical love affair with coming-of-age narratives. It was entirely predictable that Mark Kermode in his semi-disastrous Secrets of Cinema series chose coming-of-age as one of the four cardinal genres. If you would ask me what Almost Famous is about I’d say music, journalism, first love, family, and disillusionment, but I’d never say ‘coming of age’. Wordsworth declared that poetry took its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity. One might say that coming of age films are the nostalgic or acerbic recollections of thirtysomethings about their early teenage years. An even greater distancing than that between twentysomething musicians making music for fans a decade younger. The great paradox of coming of age films is that they cannot be watched by the people they are about. Even when they could, half the time they wouldn’t; my class at national school would have committed hara-kiri rather than watch My Girl. The audience is adults, and immediately there is a sort of instant nostalgia, even if none is intended, simply by locating the story in a past recognisable by cultural totems. Christopher Nolan rightly said people discover films thru Spielberg not Godard. I think lived reality is the putting away of childish things and the struggle to embrace adult things that are beyond you; moving straight from comic-books to PG Wodehouse; not wallowing for seven years in a cocoon of teenage material produced for teenagers by thirtysomethings – that which in secondary school my class rebelled against reading because we didn’t want to be patronised, we chose Nineteen Eighty-Four and rejected Buddy. And none of us grew up watching supernatural Japanese anime, just as outside the bubble of film criticism/film studies/film-making I have never heard anyone even mention the endlessly valorised Cinema Paradiso. But then as Charles noted in Brideshead Revisited everyone tinkers with the markers on their youth to give them the sophistication they wished they’d had.

MY GIRL

(From 6th July 2019)

HARRY POTTER 1

(From 7th July 2019)

CINEMA PARADISO

(From 10th July 2019)

MY NEIGHBOUR TOTORO [DUBBED]

(From 13th July 2019)

MY NEIGHBOUR TOTORO (SUBTITLED)

(From 13th July 2019)

 

HARRY POTTER 2

(From 14th July 2019)

REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE

(From 17th July 2019)

SPIRITED AWAY (DUBBED)

(From 20th July 2019)

SPIRITED AWAY (SUBTITLED)

(From 20th July 2019)

BOYZ N THE HOOD

(From 20th July 2019)

 

HARRY POTTER 3

(From 21st July 2019)

TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD

(From 24th July 2019)

HARRY POTTER 4

(From 28th July 2019)

STAND BY ME

(From 1st August 2019)

KES

(From 8th August 2019)

 

MOONLIGHT

(From 10th August 2019)

Y TU MAMA TAMBIEN

(From 10th August 2019)

DEAD POETS SOCIETY

(From 11th August 2019)

HARRY POTTER 5

(From 11th August 2019)

MARIE ANTOINETTE

(From 14th August 2019)

 

RAW

(From 17th August 2019)

MOONRISE KINGDOM

(From 17th August 2019)

HARRY POTTER 6

(From 18th August 2019)

MEAN GIRLS

(From 22nd August 2019)

INSIDE OUT

(From 24th August 2019)

 

HARRY POTTER 7

(From 25th August 2019)

HARRY POTTER 8

(From 27th August 2019)

SING STREET

(From 28th August 2019)

LADY BIRD

(From 29th August 2019)

BOYHOOD

(From 31st August 2019)

 

IT

(From 5th September 2019)

It: Chapter Two arrives in cinemas on September 6th.

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June 8, 2013

Behind the Candelabra

Steven Soderbergh’s final ‘final’ film as a movie director is a fitting send-off for one of the most interesting talents of the past quarter century.

Behind-the-candelabra

Young Hollywood animal-handler Scott Thorson (Matt Damon) picks up Bob Black (Scott Bakula) in a gay bar in 1977 to the strains of Donna Summer, but soon finds himself in another world entirely – a Las Vegas Liberace concert, where he’s invited backstage to meet Bob’s former lover; whose friends call him ‘Lee’ (Michael Douglas). His concern for Liberace’s ailing poodle leads to a job offer, and soon Scott’s dreams of becoming a vet have been replaced by the reality of living privately as Lee’s boyfriend and publicly as his PA. But as power-tripping plastic surgery and mountains of cocaine warp their relationship in the 1980s Scott is in danger of being replaced by a younger model, just as an increasingly libidinous Liberace needs his guidance more than ever if he’s not to commit career suicide falling out of the closet.

Soderbergh combines here the intimacy of his early work, with the tinted stylishness of his middle period, and the long takes of his latter days. This is in service to the best script that Richard LaGravanese has penned in decades, which drips caustic putdowns; including a spectacular phone insult by Liberace’s domineering manager Seymour Heller (Dan Aykroyd). Michael Douglas had some great scenes in Wall Street 2, but this is best sustained performance he’s given in 13 years. Damon is inescapably too old for the role and so distorts the historical reality of the relationship’s beginning, but he is remarkably without vanity in donning his fake nose from Ocean’s 13 again as Scott is literally moulded by Lee. Damon’s character arc though loses momentum as it descends into cliché and a padded finale that sacrifices momentum to a completist instinct.

Soderbergh is commendably nasty in showing the ‘vanity gone mad to unconvincing effect’ horrors of plastic surgery in practice on both of the lead characters. And that’s before we get to Rob Lowe’s hysterically funny plastic surgeon Dr Starz whose eyes don’t seem to quite fully open anymore after a facelift, and who seems barely conscious at times as he pushes the pills of his ‘California diet’ to his equally blissed-out patients. The make-up effects for Lee, Scott and Starz are jaw-droppingly good, especially a stunning reveal at the close, and complement the dazzling costumes and interior bling of Liberace’s Vegas decadence. But at times Soderbergh’s film resembles such superficial glitter without any explicated substance, especially in Lee’s apparently devoted relationship to his Polish mother Frances (Debbie Reynolds) who passed on her devout Catholicism to him; which he somehow retains.

Did Liberace’s showmanship obscure and eventually destroy his musicianship, like Eugene O’Neill Senior sacrificing his talent for money, so that Soderbergh’s swansong is an allegorical warning for contemporary Hollywood?

4/5

December 6, 2010

Dramatis Personae: Annie & Zooey

This meditation on personae and typecasting began as a proposed comment on Paul Fennessy’s piece on She & Him’s Volume II, but soon developed a life of its own…

While reading his blog I thought of the episode of Elvis Costello’s music show in which both She & Him and Jenny Lewis performed new material. She & Him’s music seemed inconsequential beside Jenny Lewis, perhaps because she had the achievements of Rilo Kiley behind her, but perhaps also because Zooey’s presence visually indicated this was merely quirky fluff and not to be taken seriously. But listen to it on the radio without any visuals and it stands up beside Jenny Lewis’ solo output. Which begs the question has Zooey become almost as much a victim of her screen persona as the Annie of my title, Angelina Jolie?

When I first sat thru the trailer for Salt and saw a blonde Jolie wearing smart work-clothes, who goes on the run by dyeing her hair black and dressing in leather, I asked out loud in disbelief – “Wait, so her disguise is to turn into Angelina Jolie?!” The persona that Jolie has created is something I’ve discussed in reviews of A Mighty Heart and Wanted which remains fascinating. Many stars have eschewed acting in favour of creating a persona which they impose on every role. The Duke took years to create the persona that he was able to live off for four decades. He was able to play against it in The Searchers, and toy with its comedic potential in The Quiet Man, but mostly he just imposed it on every script. Hence John Ford’s apocryphal outburst on seeing Red River, “I never knew the son of a bitch could act!” Jolie though is burdened not with a cinematic persona created thru a decade of hard-graft in B-movies, but with a purely public persona created thru a decade of tabloid headlines. This cannot be captured on celluloid, except parodically. Her sole smash hits in the last decade were Mr & Mrs Smith and Wanted. Mr & Mrs Smith centred on her tempestuous relationship with Brad Pitt’s character, and at times it played merely as a cinematic objective-correlative of the preposterous comic-book which is her life, as depicted by the tabloids. Wanted seemed to say that her persona of voluptuous sexuality, sly humour and dark allure couldn’t be taken seriously, but could be perfect casting for an assassin of few words called…Fox.

This glorious playing up to her ridiculous persona followed her failure to win an Oscar for A Mighty Heart. It certainly wasn’t for want of trying. The curled hair, darkened pigmentation, French accent, and despairing shouting did everything short of run ‘For Your Consideration’ subtitles across the bottom of cinema screens. Yet the baggage of her all too public life sank what would have been a great role for a lower profile actress. All her best moments were in quiet unshowy scenes when she stopped giving ‘a performance’, but that’s increasingly hard to do, as Changeling also saw her fail to convincingly morph into an everywoman character. Jolie seems painfully aware that this outlandish persona is destroying her, hence her uber-grim directorial debut and those attempts with A Mighty Heart and Changeling to return to serious drama. Salt’s more serious return to Mr & Mrs Smith action-land seems to reflect distinct unease with comedically approaching the persona and perpetuating it as Membektov did with such visual panache in Wanted. Salt suggests a plan to alternate money-making dutiful nods to her persona (The Tourist) with focused attempts to overcome it.

Deschanel’s persona is a horse of a different colour. The apocryphal anecdote of Emily returning from auditioning to fume to her kid sister that they were looking for ‘a Zooey Deschanel type’ emphasises how quickly her deadpan quirkiness, showcased to perfection as the cool older sister in Almost Famous, became a persona. The point of a persona of course is that it’s a heightened construct. Jolie has trouble finding a cinematic home for her tabloid-created persona whereas Zooey’s persona, being in the classic Wayne mould, is infinitely more useful. She’s been able to use it both in supporting roles as the idiosyncratic best friend in Failure to Launch, The Good Girl, and Showtime’s Weeds, and as the dead-pan romantic heroine in Elf, Yes Man and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Hitchhiker’s in particular saw her breathe some badly needed life and depth into the character of Trillian. The adorable Zooey from Almost Famous and Elf was reinforced with some emotional weight to become the definitive Trillian. In doing so much with a historically underwritten role she proved that she had considerable dramatic ability behind the persona. Indeed the delightful absurdist black comedy Eulogy boasts an enviable ensemble but it’s hard to think that its whimsical madness could be held together by anyone else but her.

Conversely with The Happening it is hard not to think any other actress would have been better, as M Night Shymalan in his current state of disrepair obviously had no earthly notion how to use either her persona or her deeper skills. That is obviously the low-light of her career but by simultaneously branching into a music career, retiring her old L.A. based cabaret duo in order to form the far higher-profile country-pop duo She & Him, the perception that she had become trapped by her persona was bound to gain currency. Perhaps this was the motive behind her turn in (500) Days of Summer. This was extremely courageous as a career move because it deconstructed her persona as the uncommunicative but adorably quirky girl by showing just how capricious and cruel that free-spirit shtick could become in real life. She was luminous when she needed to be but Deschanel also didn’t hold back on cruelty, and, while the combination of charm and emotional realism divided people hilariously when it came to judging Summer, this made her performance a career highlight. Sadly Gigantic and her guest appearance in Bones seem to indicate she’s being offered, indeed being custom-written, only roles that require her to dial in her persona. She & Him seem to be slowly gaining some level of popularity, but whether their particular brand of pop reinforces her quirky persona is debatable. In any case her ‘escape’ from her persona handsomely beats Jolie’s.

Personae can be problematic because of the fine line between typecasting and playing to your strengths. Being offered similar roles is a vote of confidence that you will do a good job with this material, but after a while it also trades on the perception audiences will have of you from previous performances, the persona you may have created. Type-casting has its own reward, being able to play against type; Fred MacMurray in The Apartment, Robin Williams in Insomnia. But its danger is that, like Eugene O’Neill Senior as The Count of Monte Cristo, not only can audiences only accept you in one type of role, but your range contracts so that you can only actually play one role. Zooey Deschanel’s persona is her own creation, not that of the tabloids. Her quirky persona may cause difficulties of reception on live music shows, but it is her screen profile and not their meagre sales that gets She & Him onto those shows in the first place. Indeed, as their elegant summery pop reflects in her song-writing the creative energies that created her persona originally, in a way, the persona will remain an ever-present even if She & Him get the popular success they deserve to the extent that Deschanel gives up acting.

Paul recommends She & Him. Seconded.

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