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

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…

Espionage isn’t a game, it’s a war.

The Avengers 3.3: The Nutshell
Philip Chambers first teleplay (of two) for the series, and Raymond Menmuir’s second (also of two) as director, The Nutshell is an effective little whodunit in which Steed (again) poses as a bad guy, and Cathy (again) appears to be at loggerheads with him. The difference here is how sustained the pretence is, though; we aren’t actually in on the details until the end, and the whole scenario is played decidedly straight.

Set mostly in a bunker (the Nutshell of the title), quarter of a mile underground and providing protection for the “all the best people” (civil servants bunk on level 43; Steed usually gets off at the 18th) in the event of a thermo-nuclear onslaught, the setting is something of a misdirection, since it is also a convenient place to store national security archives, known as Big Ben (Bilateral Infiltration Great Britain, Europe and North America). Big Ben has been stolen. Or rather, the microfilm with details of all known double agents on bot…

This is no time for puns! Even good ones.

Mr. Peabody and Sherman (2014)
Perhaps I've done DreamWorks Animation (SKG, Inc., etc.) a slight injustice. The studio has been content to run an assembly line of pop culture raiding, broad-brush properties and so-so sequels almost since its inception, but the cracks in their method have begun to show more overtly in recent years. They’ve been looking tired, and too many of their movies haven’t done the business they would have liked. Yet both their 2014 deliveries, How to Train Your Dragon 2 and Mr. Peabody & Sherman, take their standard approach but manage to add something more. Dragon 2 has a lot of heart, which one couldn’t really say about Peabody (it’s more sincere elements feel grafted on, and largely unnecessary). Peabody, however, is witty, inventive and pacey, abounding with sight gags and clever asides while offering a time travel plotline that doesn’t talk down to its family audience.

I haven’t seen the The Rocky & Bullwinkle Show, from which Mr. Peabody & Sh…

I know what I'm gonna do tomorrow, and the next day, and the next year, and the year after that.

It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
It’s a Wonderful Life is an unassailable classic, held up as an embodiment of true spirit of Christmas and a testament to all that is good and decent and indomitable in humanity. It deserves its status, even awash with unabashed sentimentality that, for once, actually seems fitting. But, with the reams of plaudits aimed at Frank Capra’s most enduring film, it is also worth playing devil’s advocate for a moment or two. One can construe a number of not nearly so life-affirming undercurrents lurking within it, both intentional and unintentional on the part of its director. And what better time to Grinch-up such a picture than when bathed in the warmth of a yuletide glow?

The film was famously not a financial success on initial release, as is the case with a number of now hallowed movies, its reputation burgeoning during television screenings throughout the 1970s. Nevertheless, It’s a Wonderful Life garnered a brace of Oscar nominations including Best Picture and…

Dude, you're embarrassing me in front of the wizards.

Avengers: Infinity War (2018)
(SPOILERS) The cliffhanger sequel, as a phenomenon, is a relatively recent thing. Sure, we kind of saw it with The Empire Strikes Back – one of those "old" movies Peter Parker is so fond of – a consequence of George Lucas deliberately borrowing from the Republic serials of old, but he had no guarantee of being able to complete his trilogy; it was really Back to the Future that began the trend, and promptly drew a line under it for another decade. In more recent years, really starting with The MatrixThe Lord of the Rings stands apart as, post-Weinstein's involvement, fashioned that way from the ground up – shooting the second and third instalments back-to-back has become a thing, both more cost effective and ensuring audiences don’t have to endure an interminable wait for their anticipation to be sated. The flipside of not taking this path is an Allegiant, where greed gets the better of a studio (split a novel into two movie parts assuming a…

He’d been clawed to death, as though by some bird. Some huge, obscene bird.

The Avengers 5.6: The Winged Avenger
Maybe I’m just easily amused, such that a little Patrick Macnee uttering “Ee-urp!” goes a long way, but I’m a huge fan of The Winged Avenger. It’s both a very silly episode and about as meta as the show gets, and one in which writer Richard Harris (1.3: Square Root of Evil, 1.10: Hunt the Man Down) succeeds in casting a wide net of suspects but effectively keeps the responsible party’s identity a secret until late in the game.

Dirty is exactly why you're here.

Sicario 2: Soldado aka Sicario: Day of the Soldado (2018)
(SPOILERS) I wasn't among the multitude greeting the first Sicario with rapturous applause. It felt like a classic case of average material significantly lifted by the diligence of its director (and cinematographer and composer), but ultimately not all that. Any illusions that this gritty, violent, tale of cynicism and corruption – all generally signifiers of "realism" – in waging the War on Drugs had a degree of credibility well and truly went out the window when we learned that Benicio del Toro's character Alejandro Gillick wasn't just an unstoppable kickass ninja hitman; he was a grieving ex-lawyer turned unstoppable kickass ninja hitman. Sicario 2: Soldadograzes on further difficult-to-digest conceits, so in that respect is consistent, and – ironically – in some respects fares better than its predecessor through being more thoroughly genre-soaked and so avoiding the false doctrine of "revealing" …

Ah yes, the legendary 007 wit, or at least half of it.

The World is Not Enough (1999)
(SPOILERS) The last Bond film of the 20th century unfortunately continues the downward trend of the Brosnan era, which had looked so promising after the reinvigorated approach to Goldeneye. The World is Not Enough’s screenplay posseses a number of strong elements (from the now ever present Robert Wade and Neal Purvis, and a sophomore Bruce Feirstein), some of which have been recycled in the Craig era, but they’ve been mashed together with ill-fitting standard Bond tropes that puncture any would-be substance (Bond’s last line before the new millennium is one Roger Moore would have relished). And while a structure that stop-starts doesn’t help the overall momentum any, nor does the listlessness of drama director Michael Apted, such that when the sporadic bursts of action do arrive there’s no disguising the joins between first and second unit, any prospect of thrills evidently unsalvageable in the edit.

Taking its cues from the curtailed media satire of Tomorr…

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.

Never compare me to the mayor in Jaws! Never!

Ghostbusters (2016)
(SPOILERS) Paul Feig is a better director than Ivan Reitman, or at very least he’s savvy enough to gather technicians around him who make his films look good, but that hasn’t helped make his Ghostbusters remake (or reboot) a better movie than the original, and that’s even with the original not even being that great a movie in the first place.

Along which lines, I’d lay no claims to the 1984 movie being some kind of auteurist gem, but it does make some capital from the polarising forces of Aykroyd’s ultra-geekiness on the subject of spooks and Murray’s “I’m just here for the asides” irreverence. In contrast, Feig’s picture is all about treating the subject as he does any other genre, be it cop, or spy, or romcom. There’s no great affection, merely a reliably professional approach, one minded to ensure that a generous quota of gags (on-topic not required) can be pumped out via abundant improv sessions.

So there’s nothing terribly wrong with Ghostbusters, but aside from …