Life (2015)

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Release: Friday, December 4, 2015 (limited)

[Netflix]

Written by: Luke Davies

Directed by: Anton Corbijn

The spotlight shines once more upon Hollywood icon and heartthrob James Dean in the creatively titled 2015 biopic Life. Okay, so there actually is some nuance to the label. You can take it at face value but the film is more concerned with the relationship the actor had with a photographer working to produce a photo essay for Life Magazine.

It isn’t hard to see how this picture has fallen into obscurity. This is far from a flashy biopic. It’s not even purely about James Dean. Life enjoyed an extremely limited theatrical run concurrently with a straight-to-VOD release last December. Now it sits in the recesses of Netflix’s ever-deepening Lost-and-Found bin, gathering cyber dust. My finding was quite arbitrary and perhaps that is why I still feel a little underwhelmed by what it was that I had found. It almost makes me feel like I have a duty to caution those who are willfully seeking it out. Good chance this isn’t the movie you’re thinking, perhaps hoping, it’s going to be.

Anton Corbijn (The American; A Most Wanted Man) has crafted a deliberately understated account of how a genuine bond was formed between two very different individuals — one a farm boy from Indiana and the other a city slicker. Dane DeHaan, a young actor on the rise, portrays the icon while Robert Pattinson becomes Dennis Stock, a photographer for the New York-based Magnum agency who would go on to provide Life Magazine with some of the publication’s most iconic images. The year is 1955. Dean has just portrayed Cal Trask in Elia Kazan’s East of Eden and is set to take on arguably his most noteworthy role as the rebel himself, Jim Stark, later that year. The events of the film are slotted in between these two seminal productions, following the two as they travel together from Los Angeles to New York and finally to Dean’s sleepy hometown of Fairmount, Indiana.

Corbijn’s treatment manifests as a moody, introspective examination of careers in transition, and appropriately it features a pair of performances that are more charmingly awkward than awards-baiting. DeHaan in particular enjoys mumbling his lines, an approach that won’t sit well with those who viewed Dean as a more assertive Bad Boy. Nonetheless, he is good at drawing out the pain that lived inside the young star as he grappled with the irrevocable nature of fame. DeHaan treads a fine line between being someone with an ego perhaps too inflated, suggested by his stand-offish relationship with studio execs like Jack Warner (a gleefully nasty Ben Kingsley), and someone suffering a crisis of conscience. (Interestingly, Corbijn opts not to make any sort of comment on Dean’s supposed “sexual experimentation,” likely in an effort to avoid politicizing his film.)

For much of the film Dean doesn’t come across as a rebel so much as he does a diva, but there’s a brilliant scene set at the Fairmount High School prom where we realize Dean’s discomfort in the spotlight is genuine; even in this unthreatening environment he seems totally different than his on-screen persona. Perhaps because he is directly confronted with that which he misses most: a life of simplicity and innocence. In the good old days he had no Jack Warners to worry about breathing down his neck, watching his every move. He had nothing to really worry about other than tending to the cattle, banging his bongos in solitude and absorbing the work of Hoosier poet James Whitcomb Riley. Now he must contend with shutterbugs like Stock who can never put down the camera (and thank goodness he didn’t), Red Carpet obligations and gossip columns debating which celebrity he’s bedding on which night.

Life may not dig as deep as it could have and I can almost — almost — empathize with purists who are put off by the casting but there’s no denying that the film’s heart is in the right place. This is a tribute to a Hollywood enigma who died far too young (24 at the time of the car accident). Corbijn’s exploration of an unlikely friendship is both earnest and respectful. Intimate. An air of melancholy pervades without Corbijn ever having to resort to an E! True Hollywood Story kind of ending.

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Recommendation: Meditative film captures the iconic James Dean in his off-screen state. Life can feel a bit underwhelming in spots and there are some moments where the acting doesn’t fully convince but the film is very watchable. Another good one to turn to if you are a fan of either actor. Perhaps if you are a James Dean fan you might look elsewhere for a more definitive account. (What’s really interesting to me is how DeHaan turned the role down five times, feeling intimidated by the prospect. His wife eventually convinced him to take the part.) 

Rated: R

Running Time: 111 mins.

Quoted: “Wait a minute, wait a minute! You think you’re giving me something that’s not already comin’ my way? I lose myself in my roles! I don’t wanna lose myself in all this other stuff. And you are this other stuff.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.robertpattinsonau.com 

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

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Release: Christmas Day 2013

[Theater]

By the seem of things, Mr. Stiller has been secretly getting all the little memos we, the patient viewers, have continued to slip underneath his door over the years, beseeching, imploring the actor to put his dormant dramatic sensibilities to good use for once — actually act in a movie instead of being the butt of everyone’s jokes. His directorial return with The Secret Life of Walter Mitty confirms that he’s been taking heed of the advice, because not only is this movie one of the more unique experiences of the year, Ben Stiller is simply wonderful as the titular lead character.

An odd little man, Walter is by all accounts Stiller at his best. His hunched demeanor packs all of his signature quirks into a nervous frame, a character that immediately screams ‘introvert,’ but in a fascinating, charming way. As a performer, Stiller hasn’t been this affable in years.

As a director, he might not have been better, either; although his Tropic Thunder was a stroke of genius in itself. Walter’s a difficult man to gauge because he’s perpetually lost in thought, and what’s more, his modest real-world status as a photo-negative developer at Life Magazine, operating out of the building’s dingy basement, is comically off-set by this tendency of his to daydream on a large, epic scale.

It’s quite clear he couldn’t resist exploiting this particularly inventive aspect to his retelling of the 1939 James Thurber short story.

Within the opening half hour we go on a number of mini-adventures that yank us out of the otherwise pretty poorly-written ‘present day’ narrative and into a world only a man like Walter Mitty could dream up. In these moments he can survive falling out of skyscrapers, jump as if he were on the moon, and take on any foe with confidence; he’s also a bona fide Romeo, dramatically courting his real-world crush Cheryl Melhoff (Kristen Wiig) and can speak different languages. These moments are so immersive as to almost cause panic early on, begging the question of whether Stiller has enough material as a director to sustain this film’s fantastical elements for nearly two hours.

Though the second act snaps out of this crazy daydreaming phase, and ‘panic’ suddenly becomes a pretty glaring exaggeration. Stiller fortunately wrings out just enough entertaining interaction with supporting characters in some gorgeous locations to tip the scales in favor of Walter Mitty‘s decidedly more conventional, but equally endearing latter half.

When Mitty’s daydreaming is one day matched by his real-world experiences as he goes on a worldwide hunt for one of Life’s staff photographers, Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn), the true joy of this film begins. It is his negative that he must develop for the last printed edition of Life magazine and his jerk of a boss has threatened him multiple times about it.

Adam Scott provides the film’s greatest flaw in the over-acted and overly aggressive Ted Hendricks, the self-proclaimed “director of the transition” — a man whose only interest is publishing all content online now. He couldn’t care less about the current staff, and much less the awkward Mitty, who is supposed to be providing the cover photo of this last physical edition. In the process of trying to recover this photo (and thus an attempt to keep himself employed), Mitty embarks on a trip to the isolated regions of Greenland and later, Iceland by way of dumb luck but moreover a newfound determination to do something with his life.

The pace at which his life suddenly changes is inspiring and uplifting, and the second act and into the third provides a wonderful montage of beautiful landscapes and free-flowing travel sequences that instantly seduce viewers into believing they’re on this journey with Mitty. The events may happen rather conveniently, haphazardly. Sometimes the plot develops to a degree that can possibly strain credulity.

But just as Walter Mitty is spurred to move on from spot to spot, so must anyone trying to allow themselves to enjoy the spectacle. Sure this story is bound together rather flimsily and certain characters are better written than others — Stiller and Wiig turn out to be a surprisingly romantic pairing, as an example — but nitpicking the details to this wonderful adventure film is like spitting in a child’s face. You just don’t do it.

Stiller’s latest film is kind-hearted and well-intentioned, even if imperfect. It’s a journey that should be given further credit for remaining within the family-friendly PG-rating, which — especially from a comedic standpoint — can technically be viewed as a further restriction on particular content Stiller could have used. It’s safely inside, though there are one or two moments where there’s some obvious holding back.

All the same, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is successful since it balances a great amount of fanciful drama with Stiller’s welcomed quirky and more rugged appeal so the moments that don’t quite work are instantly overshadowed by some wonderful moments — arguably some of 2013’s finest. This is a life that most people are going to want to know the secret to making for themselves.

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3-5Recommendation: A very nice (re?)turn for Stiller in a decidedly more mature and likable role that is enhanced by his own directorial oversight. Performances all around are strong, and Wiig offers a charming performance that helps to reflect Stiller’s conscientious awkwardness. Combine the two leads’ steadily more compelling repartee with the fascinating backdrops and you’ve got one of the most interesting and genuine films of the holiday season.

Rated: PG

Running Time: 125 mins.

Quoted: “Beautiful things don’t ask for attention.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Dark Side of the Lens

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Release: Summer 2010

[Vimeo]

Let’s take a different approach and review a short film. This week I got forwarded a link to this masterfully filmed surfing docudrama off the coast of Ireland. TO SEE FULL FILM, CLICK THE LINK IN THE ‘RECOMMENDATION’ SECTION!!

“I never want to take this for granted. So I try to keep my motivations simple, real, positive. If I only scrape out a living, at least it’s a living worth scraping. If there’s no future in it, at least it’s a present worth remembering.”

This six-minute film is more motivating than I can even describe. With lines like that, it’s pretty clear I guess. But beyond its praise and affirmation amongst the many critics and ratings boards, popular opinion has to be that Dark Side of the Lens is a stunning masterpiece that will lift your spirit higher and — as one of my friends said, and with which I would most definitely agree — get you as motivated to wash dishes as this guy is to surf heavy, cold waves.

And yes, my kitchen is now spotless. Not really, but that’s a good game plan for tomorrow. That, and a few more viewings of this short film. Considering its brevity, this monologue takes you miles away from your couch, your desk or wherever you may be perched, attached to each word of the film and sweeps you into waters colder than ice.

We are swimming in northern waters, after all.

When you take the serenity of the Irish coast — what, with the violence of foaming crests battling it out with razor-sharp rock beaches and cliff lines cut with arches that look like doorways to Heaven — and balance it with that of the maturely written script, you’re in the process of polishing off a rather rare gem.

Directed and written by Mickey Smith, Dark Side of the Lens is afforded a way around the trap that unfortunately many a short film fall into (due mostly to dismissive,  outrageous claims critical or otherwise): being dubbed apotheosis; overly showy and glorifying the subject to some unnecessary degree. In some ways, like poetry is often cast aside with some level of indignation because the majority of readers can’t interpret metaphor, the short-film format invites its own stigmas, as it is technically a contrivance of full-length features. Here’s one, though, that works well with its time restriction. Extremely well.

Let Dark Side be as provocative or ambiguous as you want it to be for you; take the journey as you see it. Smith lives on the edge, for sure. But its not what he’s doing that really matters, but how he’s doing it and how he got to do it in the beginning.

“I wanna see wave-riding documented the way I see it in my head, and the way I feel it in the sea. It’s a strange set of skills to begin to acquire. It’s only achievable through time spent riding waves.”

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4-5Recommendation: Please see it. Even if you do not surf, or don’t even like it. You’ll lose yourself in this…..  Dark Side of the Lens on Vimeo.

Running Time: 6 mins. 15 secs.

Top Awards: 

Best Cinematography (Rhode Island Int’l Film Festival ’11);
Best Short Film (Waimea Ocean Film Festival);
Best International Short (Canadian Surf Film Festival);
Digital Short of the Year (Surfer Poll);
Grand Prize (Chamonix Film Festival ’11)

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited. 

Photo credits: http://www.thisisnotaplace.wordpress.com