Talking Movies

June 10, 2018

They’re young, they’re in love, and they kill people

The IFI presents a Killer Couples season for the month of June. Extremely notable by its absence is Bonnie & Clyde, which one would have thought essential. In its place there is a grab-bag of noirs, B-movies, black comedies, latter-day B-movies, and art-house drama, ranging from the 1940s to the 1990s, and Hollywood to New Zealand via the Nouvelle Vague.

Double Indemnity

Wednesday 6th June 18:20

Neil Brand claims for Miklos Rozsa’s opening chords the origin of the classic uneasy dissonance of high film noir music. One might note that the writing credits are equally seminal: the knowing dialogue of Raymond Chandler, the cynical plotting of James M Cain, and the chilly irony of director Billy Wilder. Nice guy Fred MacMurray is cast wonderfully against type as an insurance salesman who begins an affair with the wife of a client, Barbara Stanwyck’s definitive femme fatale.

Compulsion

Sunday 10th June 15:45

Orson Welles cameos as a thinly disguised Clarence Darrow pleading, at some length, for mercy for the upstanding rich young psychopaths he’s defending (Braford Dillman and Dean Stockwell). Based on the same infamous Leopold & Loeb murder case of 1924 that inspired Hitchcock’s Rope, director Richard Fleischer, in less fantastical territory than usual for him, chillingly depicts the students outwitting their elders with Nietzschean aphorisms before their abrogation of morality comes a cropper over a (providentially?) misplaced pair of glasses.

The Getaway

Wednesday 13th June 18:20

Cool character Steve McQueen is a hardened criminal in hard-man director Sam Peckinpah’s tough-minded version of hard-boiled novelist Jim Thompson’s brutal pulp novel, adapted by the thinking man’s hard man auteur Walter Hill. Yeah, there was a lot of competing machismo on the development and production of this 1972 movie. Poor Love Story star Ali McGraw got dog’s abuse for her poor acting from a perpetually drunk Peckinpah even as smitten co-star McQueen began a scandalous affair with her.

 

Ascenseur pour l’echafaud

Sunday 17th June 15:30

Louis Malle somehow convinced jazz great Miles Davis to simply improvise a score while watching footage of his 1957 directorial debut. Not technically a Nouvelle Vague film but it seems churlish to deny Malle’s kinship with them on account of two years’ chronology. Jeanne Moreau enigmatically wanders the streets of Paris at night waiting for her lover (Maurice Ronet), after their perfect murder of her husband goes predictably sideways, while a sub-plot sees two younger lovers cause chaos.

 

Pretty Poison

Wednesday 20th June 18:30

Psycho star Anthony Perkins is released from a mental institution under strict conditions but immediately runs into the murderous arms of manipulative teenager Tuesday Weld in this bizarre black comedy. A haze of insane conspiracies, mayhem, and bloodshed ensue, with an RD Laing zeitgeist-surfing vibe that the sane people are the ones in the asylum – the truly crazy people are the ones running around outside in the dramatically disintegrating America of 1968. Who wouldn’t prefer being safely locked up?

 

The Honeymoon Killers

Saturday 23rd June 15:30

French Connection and Jesus of Nazareth actor Tony Lo Bianco stars in Leonard Kastle’s blackly comic thriller as a con man who offers love and marriage to lonely women via lonely hearts newspaper classifieds but has something very different in mind, aided and abetted by his partner Shirley Stoler. A few scenes directed by Martin Scorsese still remain in the picture; astonishingly the exuberant motor-mouth was fired after 4 days because he was working too … slowly. Yep.

 

Natural Born Killers

Sunday 24th June 15:30

I think the IFI rather enjoys showing Oliver Stone’s 1994 throw-every-film-format-and-editing-style-there-is-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks media satire/fiasco just to remind everyone how they were prevented from doing so by the boo-hiss censor back in 1994. Now showing in 35mm, this may be your last chance to enjoy this as an original piece of madness before Orson Welles’ The Other Side of the Wind is finally released (soon, allegedly) and we can see the footage that Stone was shown privately pre-JFK and NBK

Gun Crazy

Thursday 28th June 18:30

Rope star John Dall is a naive young man who meets and marries (unhinged) carnival sharpshooter Annie Laurie Starr (Irish actress Peggy Cummins) only to fall into a world of trouble due to her criminal proclivities. Dalton Trumbo co-wrote this while blacklisted, and there is some showy single-take and fixed-position direction by Joseph Lewis. Recent contributor hereabouts Friedrich Bagel somehow fell asleep during a screen 2 showing of this B-movie classic in the IFI some years ago, for shame!

Heavenly Creatures

Saturday 30th June 18:20

Before the unexpected transition to epic fantasy with The Lord of the Rings and after Meet the Freebles was Peter Jackson’s equally unexpected gothic drama based on a real life cause celebre in 1950s New Zealand. Kate Winslet and Melanie Lynskey both made their impressive screen debuts as the teenagers whose obsessive bond and shared fantasy world led to a very savage murder in the here and now. Legendary Weta was formed by Jackson to create that fantasy world.

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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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