Skip to main content

I'm not sure we should emphasise the rebel in you, Jimmy.

Life
(2015)

(SPOILERS) Generally speaking, the biopic tends to be on firmer ground when it opts for a sliver of a life, rather than attempting to cram in the full selection of signposts in scrupulously episodic fashion. So it is with Anton Corbijn’s latest, which, being about a photographer’s relationship with a movie star, is right up his street (with no name). Following Dennis Stock (Robert Pattinson) and his attempts to secure a Life magazine photoshoot with next-big-thing James Dean (Dane DeHaan), Corbijn is confidently low key facing the legacy of one of the screen’s most iconic presences, and fashions a picture at least as interesting as his debut, Control.


I’ve only been lukewarm on A Most Wanted Man, the previous of his four features, which didn’t quite come together based on less-than-stellar Le Carré source material. Corbijn had wanted his star of that film, Philip Seymour Hoffman, for the role of Stock’s agency editor John G Morris, but Joel Edgerton’s supremely confident performance, slipping into the mantle of business veteran, is a reminder of just how good he can be when avoiding terrible period epics (Ridley Scott will do that to you).


Pattinson is also very good, to be commended for the latest in a string of roles attempting to banish the spectre of Edward Cullen. Stock’s a self-absorbed, highly-strung, unsympathetic fellow, such a bad dad he manages to puke on his son on that one occasion he spends any time with him. But his desperate awkwardness is nevertheless palpable, seeing something in Dean he has to capture, such that he elicits empathy in spite of himself. As Dean observes “He’s one of those guys who can’t seem to get out of his own way”.


DeHaan’s the real reason to see Life, though. I’ve never been remotely fascinated with Dean and, if I’m quite honest, don’t much care for the trio of pictures he completed before his untimely death. This may even help the viewing experience, though, as I didn’t watch expecting a note-perfect rendition of the actor. And because DeHaan makes Dean interesting; he doesn’t have the same pretty boy looks, so you can’t quite see the swoon-factor Dean exuded (in the same way, Pattinson retreats into his own face and pulls out a kind of pug, thick-lidded grimness), but he captures the voice and, most importantly, the flirtatious, effortlessly manipulative caprice of the star. This is someone who will lead the head of a major studio up the garden path (Ben Kingsley, doing what comes easy and being aggressive), so it’s no wonder he takes advantage of his curmudgeonly hanger-on.


The contrast between the two is at its most effective when Stock, after many attempts to secure Dean’s time (he finally gets the famous Time Square shot) while the latter plays hard to get, heads off to Ohio with him, where the photographer is even more of a fish-out-of-water than on his home turf. Dean is ever-quick to take the rise out of him, and at every turn (almost, he’s hesitant speaking at a school dance) displays an air of effortlessly hip, relaxed confidence that bewilders Stock. “How do you make this so easy?” the snapper asks, after blowing up at him. “What do you think is so easy, exactly?” Dean replies, cryptic to the last, but effectively capturing the gulf in perception between the two of them.


While Corbijn is wholly successful in capturing a vision of the ‘50s that isn’t remotely nostalgic, with freezing cold, bad drugs, crap movies (Dean’s amusement when asked if he likes The Boy from Oklahoma is infectious) and tyrannical Tinseltown chores to fulfil, he’s less sure how to imbue the picture with portents of its star’s imminent demise. We see the side of Dean that fills with uncomprehending emotion over the unknown to come, but it’s a little too neat, as if Corbijn feels compelled to find a send-off point he it isn’t wholly convinced by. When the picture sticks to Dean’s wilfully wayward, poetic nature, contrasted with Stock’s rigid permanence (when Dean cries, Stock can only stonily continue clicking away), it tells us enough right there about one person living every moment of life and another resistant to its embrace.


The reaction to Life seems to have been generally less than enthusiastic, and it’s certainly unlikely to reward anyone expecting an eventful or showy rummage through Dean’s personal life (although we do see his dalliance with Pier Angeli, a rather wonderful Allessandra Mastronardi), but Corbyn’s meditation on the actor’s last days is commendably un-awestruck, even to the extent that those iconic photos aren’t made out to be the result of some kind of magic or alchemy, and rewards perseverance.


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

I added sixty on, and now you’re a genius.

The Avengers 4.3: The Master Minds
The Master Minds hitches its wagon to the not uncommon Avengers trope of dark deeds done under the veil of night. We previously encountered it in The Town of No Return, but Robert Banks Stewart (best known for Bergerac, but best known genre-wise for his two Tom Baker Doctor Who stories; likewise, he also penned only two teleplays for The Avengers) makes this episode more distinctive, with its mind control and spycraft, while Peter Graham Scott, in his third contribution to the show on the trot, pulls out all the stops, particularly with a highly creative climactic fight sequence that avoids the usual issue of overly-evident stunt doubles.

Exit bear, pursued by an actor.

Paddington 2 (2017)
(SPOILERS) Paddington 2 is every bit as upbeat and well-meaning as its predecessor. It also has more money thrown at it, a much better villain (an infinitely better villain) and, in terms of plotting, is more developed, offering greater variety and a more satisfying structure. Additionally, crucially, it succeeds in offering continued emotional heft and heart to the Peruvian bear’s further adventures. It isn’t, however, quite as funny.

Even suggesting such a thing sounds curmudgeonly, given the universal applause greeting the movie, but I say that having revisited the original a couple of days prior and found myself enjoying it even more than on first viewing. Writer-director Paul King and co-writer Simon Farnaby introduce a highly impressive array of set-ups with huge potential to milk their absurdity to comic ends, but don’t so much squander as frequently leave them undertapped.

Paddington’s succession of odd jobs don’t quite escalate as uproariously as they migh…

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

Where is the voice that said altered carbon would free us from the cells of our flesh?

Altered Carbon Season One
(SPOILERS) Well, it looks good, even if the visuals are absurdly indebted to Blade Runner. Ultimately, though, Altered Carbon is a disappointment. The adaption of Richard Morgan’s novel comes armed with a string of well-packaged concepts and futuristic vernacular (sleeves, stacks, cross-sleeves, slagged stacks, Neo-Cs), but there’s a void at its core. It singularly fails use the dependable detective story framework to explore the philosophical ramifications of its universe – except in lip service – a future where death is impermanent, and even botches the essential goal of creating interesting lead characters (the peripheral ones, however, are at least more fortunate).

He mobilised the English language and sent it into battle.

Darkest Hour (2017)
(SPOILERS) Watching Joe Wright’s return to the rarefied plane of prestige – and heritage to boot – filmmaking following the execrable folly of the panned Pan, I was struck by the difference an engaged director, one who cares about his characters, makes to material. Only last week, Ridley Scott’s serviceable All the Money in the World made for a pointed illustration of strong material in the hands of someone with no such investment, unless they’re androids. Wright’s dedication to a relatable Winston Churchill ensures that, for the first hour-plus, Darkest Hour is a first-rate affair, a piece of myth-making that barely puts a foot wrong. It has that much in common with Wright’s earlier Word War II tale, Atonement. But then, like Atonement, it comes unstuck.

He's a wild creature. We can't ask him to be anything else.

The Shape of Water (2017)
(SPOILERS) The faithful would have you believe it never went away, but it’s been a good decade since Guillermo del Toro’s mojo was in full effect, and his output since (or lack thereof: see the torturous wilderness years of At the Mountains of Madness and The Hobbit), reflected through the prism of his peak work Pan’s Labyrinth, bears the hallmarks of a serious qualitative tumble. He put his name to stinker TV show The Strain, returned to movies with the soulless Pacific Rim and fashioned flashy but empty gothic romance Crimson Peak (together his weakest pictures, and I’m not forgetting Mimic). The Shape of Water only seems to underline what everyone has been saying for years, albeit previously confined to his Spanish language pictures: that the smaller and more personal they are, the better. If his latest is at times a little too wilfully idiosyncratic, it’s also a movie where you can nevertheless witness it’s creator’s creativity flowing untrammelled once mo…

The aliens are not coming, just so you know.

The X-Files 11.1: My Struggle III
(SPOILERS) Good grief. Have things become so terminal for Chris Carter that he has to retcon his own crap from the previous season, rather than the (what he perceived as) crap written by others? Carter, of course, infamously pretended the apocalyptic ending of Millennium Season Two never happened, upset by the path Glen Morgan and James Wong, left to their own devices, took with his baby. Their episode was one of the greats of that often-ho-hum series, so the comedown was all the unkinder as a result. In My Struggle III, at least, Carter’s rewriting something that wasn’t very good in the first place. Only, he replaces it with something that is even worse in the second.

I'm going to open an X-file on this bran muffin.

The X-Files 11.2: This
(SPOILERS) Glen Morgan returns with a really good idea, certainly one with much more potential than his homelessness tract Home Again in Season 10, but seems to give up on its eerier implications, and worse has to bash it round the head to fit the season’s “arc”. Nevertheless, he’s on very comfortable ground with the Mulder-Scully dynamic in This, who get to spend almost the entire episode in each other’s company and might be on the best form here since the show came back, give or take a Darin.

Rejoice! The broken are the more evolved. Rejoice.

Split (2016)
(SPOILERS) M Night Shyamalan went from the toast of twist-based filmmaking to a one-trick pony to the object of abject ridicule in the space of only a couple of pictures: quite a feat. Along the way, I’ve managed to miss several of his pictures, including his last, The Visit, regarded as something of a re-locating of his footing in the low budget horror arena. Split continues that genre readjustment, another Blumhouse production, one that also manages to bridge the gap with the fare that made him famous. But it’s a thematically uneasy film, marrying shlock and serious subject matter in ways that don’t always quite gel.

Shyamalan has seized on a horror staple – nubile teenage girls in peril, prey to a psychotic antagonist – and, no doubt with the best intentions, attempted to warp it. But, in so doing, he has dragged in themes and threads from other, more meritable fare, with the consequence that, in the end, the conflicting positions rather subvert his attempts at subversion…

You’re never the same man twice.

The Man Who Haunted Himself (1970)
(SPOILERS) Roger Moore playing dual roles? It sounds like an unintentionally amusing prospect for audiences accustomed to the actor’s “Raise an eyebrow” method of acting. Consequently, this post-Saint pre-Bond role (in which he does offer some notable eyebrow acting) is more of a curiosity for the quality of Sir Rog’s performance than the out-there premise that can’t quite sustain the picture’s running time. It is telling that the same story was adapted for an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents 15 years earlier, since the uncanny idea at its core feels like a much better fit for a trim 50 minute anthology series.

Basil Dearden directs, and co-adapted the screenplay from Anthony Armstrong’s novel The Strange Case of Mr Pelham. Dearden started out with Ealing, helming several Will Hay pictures and a segment of Dead of Night (one might imagine a shortened version of this tale ending up there, or in any of the portmanteau horrors that arrived in the year…