Saturday, November 27, 2010

Tony Manero

Pablo Larrain, 2008

DP: Sergio Armstrong

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Monday, November 08, 2010

Vintage Trailer of the Week 52

Alain Delon is 75 today. He was probably the first French actor I was aware of. I knew and loved him as a boy from his
appearance as the villain in Red Sun (Terence Young, 1971), which featured a samurai-gunslinger collision which blew my ten year old mind, but also from the rollicking French gangster film Borsalino (Jacques Deray, 1970), in which he stars alongside Jean-Paul Belmondo. What a treat to discover as I grew up that he had enjoyed a fine career, working with directors like Antonioni, Losey and Visconti. And Jean Pierre Melville, of course.
This is the trailer for one of my favourite films, and one of the greatest genre films ever made, Melville's superb Le Samourai (1967), in which Delon is brilliant. The trailer is entirely in French, but Melville's visuals, they're universal (the image above is from another Delon-Melville collaboration, the only slightly less brilliant Le Cercle Rouge (1970).

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Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Where Did It All Go McConaughey?

A George Best story: A Bellboy enters Best's hotel room with breakfast, one morning in the early 70s. He finds George in bed with Mary Stavin, the current Miss World, a bottle of champagne, and piles adding up to thousands of pounds worth of cash Best had won the previous night gambling.
The Bellboy surveys the scene, looks at Best and says, entirely without irony, and with an edge of regret, "Where did it all go wrong, George?"

So, the other night, in one of those occasional mindlessly-channel-hopping-for-an-eternity-if-I-dont-stop-I'll-go-insane moments, I found myself watching Failure to Launch. Its a rom-com starring Matthew McConaughey and Sarah Jessica Parker, with support from the not-quite-as-famous-then Zooey Deschanel and Bradley Cooper.
The premise involves McConaughey's parents hiring Parker to fake a relationship with their slacker son (still living at home in his mid-30s) in order to stimulate some maturity and enable him to move out. Only things get complicated, parker develops feelings for the son, he finds out about the ruse, etc etc, all the way to the inevitable happy ending.

Its not a good film. Setting aside the usual compromises and inane cliches that constitute much of the narrative tissue in any mainstream romantic comedy these days - and this film is stuffed with such moments - for one thing, the tired old plot reversals are interrupted by three instances of funny animal behaviour. Not that its actually amusing, just that it has been inserted into the story for some slapstick quality as opposed to the, in theory, at any rate, more nuanced character comedy of the rest of the film. So McConaughey finds himself attacked by a chipmunk, a dolphin, and a lizard at different points of the film. The lizard scene may just be the film's absolute nadir. McConaughey is rock-climbing with some friends when a lizard, concealed in a crack in a cliff-face, bites his finger, making him fall backwards. Hilarity ensues, but not before we are treated to a close-up of the lizard, either a puppet or CG, sniggering at his own anarchic behavior. Sniggering.

All this made me feel bad for Matthew McConaughey.
Oh, I know, he only has himself to blame.
And it is a waste of what little empathy I have, perhaps, to extend it towards a Millionaire Movie Star, famous for his good looks and relaxed attitude. But I looked at his blandly smiling face and questionable hairstyle, and I remembered how he was when he first emerged.
He was a big deal early on, McConaughey. That may be a part of his problem these days. He was on the cover of Vanity Fair and touted as a sort of saviour, and an old-fashioned American leading man. An actor instead of an Action Hero. Ridiculously handsome, but not a pretty-boy, and always masculine in a very polite, almost courtly, Texan way.
This was based on only a couple of performances, and in retrospect, it feels like McConaughey was promoted too quickly, like he might have benefitted from another few years scrabbling for small roles and adding some age and experience to those golden good looks.

He was first really noticed in Richard Linklater's sublime Dazed & Confused (1993), where his Wooderson is an ageing stoner-lothario, still hanging around highschool kids as he ages :"I get older, they stay the same age", wearing red jeans without quite looking ridiculous, stoned in a zen-like way, sensitive enough to notice a spark in the geeky girl ("I love those red-heads") hanging around with the school intellectuals, nicknamed Woodward & Bernstein. The thing about McConaughey's work then was how natural he seemed. He was entirely at ease and unforced, charismatic and sexy and with a sly wit which made him easy to like. His next notable appearance traded on that old-fashioned quality he possesses.
In John Sayles' Lone Star (1996) he was cast in flashback as a legendary Texan Sherriff named Buddy Deeds, famed for his bravery and having faced down Kris Kristofferson's fearsome, corrupt Lawman, Charlie Wade. McConaughey's good looks and macho poise sell the role early on, and he nicely suggests a hint of cold steel in his golden boy hero which reflects the discoveries and revelations of the modern-day portions of Sayles' film. This was McConaughey as character actor, playing to his strengths but plainly enjoying the work too.

These successes were noticed by Hollywood and he got his big break in Joel Schumacher's abysmal A Time to Kill (1996), perhaps the worst adaptation of any John Grisham novel. He plays Jake Tyler Brigance, the crusading lawyer (is there any other kind in Grisham's world?) working to free a father on trial for murdering the two racists who have raped his 10 year old daughter. McConaughey does as well as can be expected with a character formed entirely of cliches, and even makes his final summation and its insulting climactic race-reversal gambit ("Now imagine shes white!") work. He holds his own with a heavyweight cast (Samuel L Jackson, Sandra Bullock, Kevin Spacey etc) and teh film made lots and lots of money, and suddenly, McConaughey seemed to be a movie star.

Only he wasn't. Nobody went to that film because he was in it. Colin Farrell suffered from a similar over-promotion a few years later. Suddenly thrust into the stratosphere and expected to carry films on their backs, both Farrell and McConaughey were blamed when the films failed. McConaughy started off well, working with Major Directors and taking roles that weren't quite leads. In Robert Zemeckis' Contact (1997) he deferred to the star power of Jodie Foster, and in Spielberg's Amistad (1997) he hid his good looks and again played a lawyer in what was basically a fussy character role. Contact was a hit of sorts, but Amistad disappeared and McConaughey needed a success. He worked with Linklater again on The Newton Boys (1998), a flawed if interesting heist film, and with Ron Howard in EdTV (1999), which was swallowed whole by the thematically similar and entirely superior Truman Show. In retrospect that film marked the first real appearance of the McConaughey rom-com persona; the handsome slacker, the playboy on cruise control.

He tried again. He hadn't really done action yet, and when he did, it seemed an intelligent, unusual action film, Jonathan Mostow's WW2 submarine picture U-571 (2000). But nothing about that film made much of an impression, McConaughey included. By ironing out his own persona in order to play a generic hero type, he sabotaged his own appeal, it seemed. And he knew this, thats evident enough in his see-sawing choices over the next decade as he sought to stretch himself in occasional roles before retreating to more reliable vehicles.

The Wedding Planner (Adam Shankman, 2000) provided the blueprint for those vehicles. Jennifer Lopez was the lead, largely carrying the film, with McConaughey playing the eye candy, bland and handsome, "nice", sexy in a sexless way. As if in penance for that film's success, he played two interesting, meaty parts next, in Frailty (Bill Paxton, 2001) and tattooed and shaven-headed, manically chewing scenery in Reign of Fire (Rob Bowman, 2002).
This was a problem, however. McConaughey's choices were interesting in a way, but they were also uncommercial. He had to make How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days (Donald Petrie, 2003) to retain any commercial clout. He went off-reservation again, pleasing himself, I assume, in Matthew Bright's bizarre Tiptoes (2003) before his big chance seemed to come along.

Sahara (Brent Eisner, 2005) was all set up to become McConaughey's very own franchise. Based on one of Clive Cussler's Dirk Pitt series of novels, it was a mega-budget comedy adventure, full of spectacle and stunts and bad jokes and special effects. And it flopped. Mainly because its a tired and mediocre piece of work, released about a decade too late. McConaughey plays a slight variation on his usual persona, tweaked by the presence of Steve Zahn's comic relief, and its evident that he really isn't right for this sort of role. Whatever it is that makes him interesting, this sort of material just blasts right through it, and all thats left are good looks and empty charm.
So he tried acting next, in Two For the Money (DJ Caruso, 2005), a slick gambling drama, in which he played alongside Al Pacino. He does fine, but again, the film is a middling, overly familiar affair, and his next project was the aforementioned Failure to Launch, a big hit.

Since then he has made another earnest drama - We Are Marshall (McG, 2006) - which flopped, obviously, and seemingly drove him to wholeheartedly embrace comedy. Or perhaps all of those poor choices have just persuaded him to stay away from straight roles entirely? Fools Gold ( Andy Tennant, 2008), Tropic Thunder (Ben Stiller, 2008), Surfer, Dude (SR Bindler, 2008) and Ghosts of Girlfriends Past (Mark Waters, 2009) suggest so. There are a few quirky projects on the horizon, but McConaughey needs the sort of career rejuvenation only a true artist could provide. A John Travolta in Pulp Fiction moment, really. Its all very well patterning your career after Burt Reynolds in the 80s, but at least Reynolds had attained Megastardom before he began appearing in bad romcoms and repetitive action films.
McConaughey could play any role Brad Pitt can - he could easily have played the Pitt role in Inglourious Basterds (Quentin Tarantino, 2009), but his profile and choices make it unlikely he'll ever nab such parts, unless he does something radical.

I've gone this far without mentioning the often hilarious stories that emerge from McConaughey's private life - who else could possibly be arrested for playing the bongos naked? - or his string of famous girlfriends (Sandra Bullock, Penelope Cruz etc), because none of that really interests me. But I see something in him as an actor, or at least as a movie star, and I wish his career was in better shape than it is. I wish he saw in himself what I see in him. And I wish I'd never seen any of him in Failure to Launch.

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