Friday, May 19, 2017

DEAR ACADEMY, GIVE KURT RUSSELL AN HONORARY OSCAR

Original caricature by Jeff York of Kurt Russell in TOMBSTONE (copyright 2017)

Dear Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences,

This is my third in a series of five where I am putting forth the name of someone in the motion picture industry who is way overdue for Academy recognition and should receive your next Governors Award. My first two submissions were revolutionary filmmaker David Lynch and international star Catherine Deneuve. This third nominee is a leading man who’s been acting in films since 1963, starting when he was just 12. His first lead role was in 1969, when he was merely 17. Now 66, he’s been a major box office star for six decades. He has done exemplary work in every kind of film imaginable - comedy, drama, science fiction, horror, action, western, thriller, musical, and family film. The actor I’m talking about is one of Hollywood’s very finest, yet easily it’s most unsung as he has never received any Academy recognition. That actor is Kurt Russell.

Take a long look at Russell’s IMDB page or his Wikipedia bio and you’ll be duly impressed. The first impression that most people had of Russell of course was from his starring roles in Walt Disney comedies when he was still in his teens. THE COMPUTER WHO WORE TENNIS SHOES (1969), THE BAREFOOT EXECUTIVE (1971), and NOW YOU SEE HIM, NOW YOU DON’T (1972) were three big hits that he notched before reaching drinking age. (He was so important to the wonderful world of Disney, reportedly Russell's name were the last words Walt spoke before dying.) Disney recognized Russell’s talent early, and in the 70’s and 80’s, more and more filmmakers would too as they clamored to put Russell at the top of their films.

In 1979, Russell raised his game a significant notch or two with his uncanny portrayal of Elvis Presley in the ABC television movie ELVIS. Directed by John Carpenter, the movie was a huge critical hit and garnered great ratings. Russell ended up being nominated for an Emmy that year as Best Actor in a Movie or Miniseries. He’d work for Carpenter again numerous times in the next decade, but first he was hired by filmmaker Robert Zemekis in 1980. Russell was tapped to play Roy Russo, the sleazy and roguishly charming lead, in the new dark comedy USED CARS that Zemekis was about to direct. Co-written by Zemekis and Bob Gale six years before they’d send Marty McFly back to the future in a souped up DeLorean, USED CARS had Russo send the corpse of his dead boss swerving behind the wheel of an Edsel and crashing into a power transformer. Russell had been funny for Disney, but never dark like this. And Russell aced the part. Suddenly, Hollywood realized what a range this up and comer truly had.  

Carpenter followed ELVIS with back-to-back horror hits with HALLOWEEN and THE FOG and that gave him plenty of clout to do what he wanted with whom he wanted. Again, he turned to Russell, this time to star in his new science fiction adventure entitled ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK. In the dystopian tale, Russell played bad-ass Snake Plissken, an ex-con forced to sneak into New York, now one big penal colony, and save the President after his plane crash lands there. Wearing an eye patch and suppressing his natural charms, Russell doesn’t give the audience one glimpse of his gleaming, all-American smile. Instead, he scowls and hisses his way through a misanthropic performance that someone like Clint Eastwood or Lee Marvin would usually get to play. Both the film and Plissken struck a chord with audiences, and over the years both have achieved cult status. (You can still find a number of fans dressed up as Russell's Plissken at any comic convention in the nation.) So, after acing a challenging bio pic, a mean and nasty dark comedy, and a rollicking sci-fi adventure, what was next for the ever impressive Russell?

The answer was horror. Carpenter again employed Russell, this time to head the cast of his remake of the classic 1951 B-movie THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD. Officially entitled JOHN CARPENTER’S THE THING, the film got a lot of attention when it came out, but not the kind that either Carpenter or Russell wanted. Critics lambasted the movie for its stomach-churning special effects and languishing gore. Audiences stayed away and the film all but tanked. Yet today, the film is regarded as one of the greatest horror movies of all time. By modern standards, the R-rated grotesqueries in THE THING seem almost quaint. What comes through the strongest now is not Rob Bottin's stunning, in-camera effects, but rather, the strong characters in the battle of their lives with the space alien. A lot of that has to do with the stellar cast of accomplished character actors that Carpenter assembled for the film including Richard Dysart, Keith David, Donald Moffat, Richard Masur and Wilford Brimley. And at the top was Russell, dominating them all.

His character of R.J. MacReady was another antihero turn for him, but this one was even darker and scarier than Plissken. MacReady starts off as the hero of the piece, but along the way he turns into a vengeful and calculating executioner, taking out anyone he thinks is inhabited by the monster. MacReady even kills an innocent man in one of the film’s most shocking moments. Russell played MacReady as cold as those subzero temperatures in its Antarctica research station setting, refusing to play for easy audience sympathy. Instead, his MacReady is almost as monstrous as the species they’re fighting. This was a man willing to tether his remaining colleagues together to ascertain which one is the alien, even if it got them all killed by proximity. Perhaps it was Russell’s chilly portrayal that scared away viewers at the time as well, but now 36 years later, his uncompromising performance is regarded as one of the actor's best, and it anchors the genre classic.

From there, Russell appeared in an even wider range of films. He shrewdly took strong supporting roles in dramas like SILKWOOD (1983) for Mike Nichols and SWING SHIFT (1984) for Jonathan Demme. He turned popcorn entertainments, like the farcical OVERBOARD (1987) made with his longtime girlfriend Goldie Hawn, or the actioner TANGO & CASH (1987) costarring Sylvester Stallone, into substantial hits as well. And he was the heart and soul of Ron Howard’s BACKDRAFT (1991), which was so successful a movie that Universal Studios created a ride based on it firefighting themes at their Hollywood theme park. 

In 1993, Russell took on one of his best roles when he chose to play Wyatt Earp in the western TOMBSTONE. Coincidentally, that same year saw another big screen effort about the legendary lawman, a film entitled WYATT EARP starring Kevin Costner. Despite Costner being the one with two Oscars to his name, it was Russell's Earp that received the critical accolades as well as the audience dollars. TOMBSTONE succeeded by telling its saga with a sense of energy and adventure, rollicking back and forth between character study and action film, but mostly it succeeded because Russell brought so much heart to his performance as Earp. Costner’s approach was mopey and dour, while Russell’s gunslinger was pure earnestness and passionate. 

In fact, the way Russell played Earp is key to his stellar acting style. He’s always accessible, preferring to play parts in a straight-forward manner. Russell's characters almost always are exceedingly self-aware. Their character arcs come in how they overcome whatever obstacles are placed in front of them. Russell's characters may be flawed at times, or even anti-heroic, but they generally are men who are self-assured and self-aware, knowing what they want. The fun of watching Russell onscreen is seeing how these strong, confident men will handle all the kinds of shit thrown at them. 

To do so, Russell is reactive, which most acting coaches will tell you is the greatest and most difficult kind of screen acting. He reacts mostly to others, even if he's the protagonist. In doing so, Russell's open face and expressive blue eyes draw the audience in to him, making us identify with what he's going through onscreen. His experience becomes ours and he essentially has played the audience in almost every film he does. His character is our conduit, the one who most everyone in the audience can relate to. 

And there's a sincerity in Russell's acting, a genuine enjoyment in what he's doing. It’s why we go along with his Earp even when he turns vengeful, unleashing his wrath on the murderous ‘Cochise County Cowboys’, spitting out the threat “You tell ‘em I’m comin’, and hell’s comin’ with me!” We root for Russell’s Earp because he’s such a straight shooter…in more ways than one. And how many actors have been able to make all-American masculinity like that so appealingly whole-hearted, without appearing hokey or trite? William Holden, James Stewart, and Spencer Tracy could, but very few others have been able to make it work without looking corny. Kurt Russell is easily the best at it today.

In 1996, Russell did a complete 180 from his western he-man Earp when he played the uncertain, everyman scientist Dr. David Grant in the thriller EXECUTIVE DECISION. The movie is a cagey and clever story about special forces sneaking onto a plane midair to combat hijackers who have taken over the jet. The movie's trailer sold it as a buddy actioner with Russell’s bespectacled nerd working alongside Steven Seagal's macho army captain. But in the actual film, Seagal's character is killed 30 minutes in. That leaves Russell’s egghead to take over the film.

And it is in this performance that Russell shows the most range. He plays awkward, afraid, goofy, daring, headstrong, and decisive. Grant manages to win over the special forces men through quick thinking, emboldened heroics, and a willingness to let them tell him what needs to be done. Over the course of two hours, Grant grows into a confident leader. And when he confronts the terrorists face to face in the climax, his peaceful scientist returns and tries to talk them out of killing more people. Of course, they don’t listen, preferring to take out the pilot and co-pilot to doom the plane. That forces Grant to take the controls and land it safely. It’s a way over-the-top ending for sure, but damn if Russell doesn’t make every second of it believable. 

If you look at the rest of Russell’s long body of work, you will find other stand-out film acting. He may have made a few dogs in his day (CAPTAIN RON, anyone?) but Russell always manages to be good no matter what he's in. In the otherwise dreadful POSEIDON,  Russell’s character sacrifices himself to save the other luxury liner passengers and ends up drowning for his heroics. The scene called for Russell to act as if he's helplessly gulping water, losing air, and then expire onscreen. He made it so heartbreakingly believable that I still shudder to think of it.

And the actor shows no signs of slowing down as he stars in one big film after another for huge talents. He's been a favorite of Quentin Tarantino's for a few years now, starring as a bad-asses in two of his most recent efforts - DEATH PROOF (2007) and THE HATEFUL EIGHT (2015). The characters, as written by Tarantino, are vicious types, but Russell still manages to make them fun and even joyful to watch. He does so by not over-emphasizing their evil. The actions of the characters are mean enough, so Russell chose to play them as jovial, sociable men. It makes for a very effective counter to the horrific actions that each character does onscreen.

For all of these great performances, Russell has gotten little awards attention. It's almost like he's too good, always on point, and the critics and his peers take him for granted. That's such a shame because he's given award-worthy turns in straight dramatic films that they should've heeded. His corrupt detective in Ron Shelton’s DARK BLUE (2002) was one, as was his turn as Olympic hockey coach Herb Brooks in MIRACLE (2004). Yet, Russell's finest screen work may very well have been his performance in the taut little thriller BREAKDOWN from 1997. Rarely are award-type accolades given to a pulpy genre film like it, despite Jonathan Mostow's tight direction and Russell's intense performance. Still, it is easily one of the most effective nail-biters of the last 20 years. 

In BREAKDOWN, Russell plays an average Joe named Jeff Taylor who is traveling through the western United States with his wife Amy (Kathleen Quinlan). When their car breaks down in the desert, a kindly truck driver named Red (J.T. Walsh) stops and offers to give them a ride into town to hook up a tow. Amy gets in Red's cab, but never comes back. From there Jeff realizes he's been duped and that his wife's fate is sure to end in all kinds of horrors, so he must race to find her. Along the way, through pluck and some shrewd detective work, he discovers that his wife's abductor is actually a roving serial killer.

Russell is onscreen for virtually every second of the film, and he not only holds our attention the entire time but he puts us on the edge of our seats for the entirety of the movie. Russell again is an open book here, clueing the audience in to every nuance of his fear, anxiety, and hopes along the way in his desperate search. And even when he finally turns the tables on the killer at the end, his hero is no pithy Eastwood, Schwarzenegger or Stallone quipping wise. Instead, Russell's Jeff is still shook. He’s a regular guy, forced into extraordinary actions by a terribly dramatic situation, and is simply grateful to have wife back safe and sound. Russell understands that when the story is larger than life, there’s no reason for him to play it as big.  

Such talent and perception makes Kurt Russell one of our greatest movie stars in the history of film. His range, his resume, his ability to be equal parts Jimmy Stewart and John Wayne – all that makes him an actor the audience can always connect with and willingly follow, no matter the genre. It is high time that Russell, currently starring in and getting great reviews for GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 2, got his due. He plays a god in that mammoth hit, and he should be recognized in kind as one of cinema’s truest divine beings. Academy members, please give your 2017 Governors Award to Mr. Kurt Russell.

Sincerely,
Jeff York

Film critic for The Establishing Shot
Critic and host of the Page 2 Screen podcast for the International Screenwriters Association

Member of the Chicago Independent Film Critics Circle

Saturday, May 13, 2017

MARRIAGE, BETRAYAL, AND THE TIES THAT BIND


Two new movies that just opened are extraordinarily compelling films examining dysfunctional couples and the damage they do to each other, as well as to others. THE LOVERS is a domestic dramedy about a longtime married couple who both are having extramarital affairs, lying about it, and selfishly dragging their college-aged son into the center of it. HOUNDS OF LOVE concerns an Australian duo whose warped marriage involves the sadistic ritual and killing of teenage girls. Happy Mother's Day, everybody?

Additionally, these two films that just opened Friday are both sharply conceived entertainments that are adult must-see's. And each daringly show that often the most hurtful things said and done to any person are perpetrated by those married to them. It's a challenging and complex night at the Cineplex if you're up for it. And in the case of HOUNDS OF LOVE, it can make for a harrowing time in your own home as it's also available on VOD. 

THE LOVERS, written and directed by sly filmmaker Azazel Jacobs, stars Tracy Letts and Debra Winger as Michael and Mary. From the moment we meet them, they are inflicting damage upon everything they touch. In the opening moments of the film, Michael watches helplessly as his mistress Lucy (Melora Walters) breaks down in tears, frozen in frustration on the floor of her bedroom. He's promised her he will leave his wife for her, but he doesn't have the guts to make it happen as soon as she wants. Meanwhile, the first scene with Mary shows her meeting up with her frustrated lover Robert (Aiden Gillen) who is smoking a cigarette to pass the time as he waits and waits for her. Between her demanding job and the need to keep up appearances at home, Mary has her hands full, and poor Robert comes third. Adultery is an ugly hobby and all involved are worse for it.

Still, despite the cold, ugly truth of the subject at hand, THE LOVERS is often very funny. It's a dark of comedy of manners really, and part of the fun in it is watching Michael and Mary twist their lives in all sorts of knots to keep up appearances. The plot concerns their attempts to bring some sort of resolution to their untenable situation as their son Joel (Tyler Ross) is about to arrive  soon for a weekend visit. 

Joel has a new girlfriend named Erin (Jessica Sula) that he's in love with and his parents have invited them home to meet her.  Unbeknownst to the other, both Michael and Mary plan to announce that their marriage is kaput, and clue Joel in as well with one fell swoop. Joel has seen this coming for months and suspects that this will be their last time together as a family. He bemoans his situation and their history to Erin as they venture home on the train.  He’s seen his folks carp bitterly at each other for years, and suspects that his dad is having an affair. Unfortunately, all that angst has turned Joel bitter too. He wears his resentment on his sleeve almost as well as his parents do.

Only Jacobs' audience is aware of all that is going on between the three main parties and their significant others, and it has the unusual effect of rendering us complicit in their shenanigans. We both sympathize with all parties because we see all that's happening, but it's somewhat akin to watching a car wreck. It's ugly and awful, but we cannot look away 

Both Michael and Mary are craving love and attention, that which they haven't gotten from each other for years. And their insecurities are coloring every part of their lives from their patience-tested lovers to their jobs to their personal appearances. Each is telling so many lies to everyone that neither can just speak without having to analyze if it's a fact or a fib. They're both constantly late for work as neither can get their collective shit together in the morning. And both have let their looks slip.

Michael is lumbering, rumpled and shabbily dressed. At times, you can see the traces of the strong and secure man he once was, but now he's been reduced to hiding and faking phone conversations with those closest to him to keep them off his back. The world is taking a toll on him and his wardrobe. And Mary walks around with frazzled hair, loose hanging clothes, and moving in a state of constant hesitation. Sometimes it seems as if she's walking on hot coals. Her body confidence is down to nil and she clumsily brushes up against plants in her office on a daily basis.

Watching this all play out is rather amusing, but also, extremely cringe-worthy. If you've ever known people in affairs, their terrible actions and behavior will be all too recognizable and it's more pitiable than anything. Still, Jacobs wants it to be funny and has commissioned a musical score by Mandy Hoffman that is almost too on-the-nose for its own good. Giving the film the sound of something more suitable for farce doesn't work with actors who display gravitas the way Letts and Winger can. 

At least Letts gets to cut loose some here and display his character's nincompoopery as he tries to keep up his facile cover stories to get out of going home or seeing his mistress when he's too tired to even show up. Letts is an actor who more often than not plays stalwart bureaucrats in works such as Showtime’s HOMELAND and last year’s INDIGNATION. (He's so good at acing stoic authoritarianism that I'll bet Donald Trump is envious.) Here though, Letts finds the humor in his character's pain, dialing up Michael's shambling about, doughy, pale and unshaven. 

Winger looks a decade younger than she is at 61, and is such a welcome sight on the big screen. (She's been mostly working in television these days, if working at all.) But watching her play Mary is trying as her character is so on edge, no longer trusting of anyone or anything. This worn-out wife can't even take a genuine  compliment anymore because she's learned not to believe or trust in things like love and marriage. Mary doesn't even seem to believe much of what Robert promises her. She’s exhausted, beaten down by the disappointments of life, and it's heartbreaking to watch.

Jacobs’ script doesn’t dimensional Lucy or Robert particularly well, and maybe that’s intentional as he wants to keep his audience from liking them too much. Robert comes off especially shabbily as he is a complete boor most of the time, despite the fact that Gillen is a handsome man who is often exceedingly charming onscreen. (He manages to make his supercilious villain character of Littlefinger on HBO’s GAME OF THRONES into a roguish delight.) Interestingly, Jacobs refuses to show us too many happy moments in the world of Michael and Mary, even in the presence of their lovers, suggesting that adultery taints even the outlets. 

And when you think that Jacobs’ story is going to come to a head, with Michael and Mary forced to be honest with each other long before Joel arrives, the plot twists. They end up making love one morning and suddenly, they're back to being a couple. The sex is great, and love and respect returns, but now they’re adding insult to injury by cheating on those they were cheating with. It makes the film funnier, and yet in its way, all the more tragic too. 

You have to hand it to Jacobs for handing a terrific part to actors over 50, and telling his story so straight-forward, without relying on flashbacks and fantasy sequences to cushion the blow of these angst-ridden players. Mostly, he should be commended for creating a shrewd work that shows just how abusive cheating and lying can be. And at the end, he resolves his story with the expected confrontations, but not a great deal being truly resolved. In the end, a certain amount of lying and deceiving has been baked into who Michael and Mary have become. Maybe it’s part of the human condition, but it all seems very inhumane. You walk out of the theater worrying for them because they're still a bit too blind to see the forest for the trees. 


The married couple at the center of HOUNDS OF LOVE damages all they touch too. John and Evelyn White (Stephen Curry and Emma Booth) profess great love and passion for each other, but their particular peccadilloes are horrifying. In their late 30's, they're lower middle class Australians, newly married and having trouble making ends meet. They steal letters from local mail boxes looking for extra cash to help them get by, and their home is a run down shambles. The worst of it is their hobby of picking up local teenage girls to rape, torture and murder. The couple that slays together, stays together? 

We find out that it's actually John who has the taste for teens. Evelyn is going along with his crimes to hold onto her man. She's insecure about her looks, her age, and fighting to regain custody of the two young children from a previous marriage she lost in a custody battle. She needs John for all sorts of reasons and he knows it. He's often as abusive of her as he is of the teen girls they troll and pick up. Their love affair is at the heart of this horror movie and its limits will be tested by the latest girl they snatch. 

She is Vicki Maloney (Ashleigh Cummings), a defiant looker who's snuck out on her separated mom (Susie Porter) one night to attend a party. While walking down the dark street, she finds herself lost and in need of a cab. Then along comes the car of the Whites and they offer her a chance to use the phone at their home to call a taxi. They also entice her with the promise of cheap weed and alcohol to start her night. 

Quicker than you can say "Paul Bernardo and Karla Homolka", the Whites have drugged Vicki and chained her to a bed and gagged her screaming mouth. She's now John's sex slave, until he's had enough of her and will strangle her to death like the others, and it doesn't quite sit well with Evelyn. She's jealous of the teen's taut, unblemished flesh, and doesn't like the idea that John gets off on rape. As this becomes apparent to Vicki, she starts to work a wedge between her captors, to gain Evelyn's confidence and save them both.

Australian filmmaker Ben Young creates a horrifying portrayal of abduction here, writing it as tautly and terrifying as it can be, but wisely using his job as director to downplay how much we need to see. There is no gratuitous nudity and the violence, when it happens, mostly occurs off screen. (One murder in the story is one that will enrage any animal lover like yours truly, but arguably, it’s necessary for the film's narrative and mercifully, Young doesn't show us too much.) The way Young approaches horror, he knows that the scariest ones work best when we care about the characters at the center of the story. 

He does something rather remarkable with Vicki. Despite her torment, she never stops thinking. As horrible as her situation is, she's always working an angle on how to escape. At one point, John attempts to rape her and she loses control of her bowels, sullying his junk and the bed sheets. Her enraged attacker strips the bed and dumps the filthy bed linens in the washer, while Evelyn enters to see what happened. Vicki lets her know what has occurred, aware that she's playing on Evelyn's insecurity, and it starts to turn her female captor against her male one. Vicki is shrewdly able to connect John's demeaning of his wife to like treatment of his teen victims. Soon, Evelyn is questioning why she's enabling her spouse to abuse either.   

From there, the movie really becomes a suspenseful game of cat and mouse...or cat and mouse and mouse, if you will. The camera work, the editing, the sound design - it is all masterfully ratcheted up for maximum tension helping to make HOUNDS OF LOVE stand as another of 2017's superb horror entries. 

As the summer movie season kicks in, and expensive tentpoles and numerous superhero sequels await, it's great to see two small budgeted pictures make such a big impact. They may not present the best portraits of loving marriages, but they do create hope for more quality, adult-themed cinema. And oh mama, am I happy about that this Mothers Day weekend.

Monday, May 8, 2017

DEAR ACADEMY, GIVE CATHERINE DENEUVE AN HONORARY OSCAR

Original caricature by Jeff York of Catherine Deneuve (copyright 2017)
Dear Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences,

This is my second open letter to the AMPAS submitting the name of someone I believe deserves their Governors Award this year. My first letter nominated David Lynch, a filmmaker who has not only created classic movies like THE ELEPHANT MAN, BLUE VELVET and MULHOLLAND DRIVE, but more importantly, he established a stylistic approach to storytelling that has influenced two generations now and changed the way the industry looks at thrillers and even television with his groundbreaking 1990 series TWIN PEAKS. (He, more than anyone, is the person responsible for television becoming more cinematic in its narrative and style the past 30 years.)

Now, I am putting forth the name of an actress who has equally been as important and unique in pushing what cinema can do. She has not only been a ginormous international star for six decades, but truly is iconic, even a living legend. She also happens to be one of the best actresses on the planet, changing the way screen acting is applied with a subtlety and mystery that makes her one of the industry’s most compelling thespians. And, to top it all off, this stunner has been one of the most gorgeous women on the planet for all the years that she’s been in the public eye. Of course, I’m talking about the one and only Catherine Deneuve.

Resume-wise, Deneuve has made major theatrical releases for six decades now and at 73, remains one of the most important actresses working today. Any time she stars in a film it is an event, be it in her home country of France, or anywhere in the world. And a look at her body of work reveals an actress who’s done an amazing range of film types, from musicals to horror to character studies to political thrillers. She may not be as well known to moviegoers such as Meryl Streep or Bette Davis, but she should be, and one of the jobs of the Governors Awards is to recognize those talents that should never be forgotten even if Oscar has somehow managed to overlook them over the years.

Deneuve’s single Oscar nomination was as a Best Actress nominee for the film INDOCHINE back in 1992. (The character study did manage to win the award for Best Foreign Language Film.) Still,  Deneuve did at least win the Cesar Award for that role. She’s also been nominated for the “French Oscar” 12 times and has won it twice. The actress has won numerous awards across the globe, including several lifetime achievement honors, not to mention two special jury prizes from the Cannes Film Festival (In 2005 and 2008). More importantly, Deneuve’s work has stood the test of time with a dozen of her films considered either classics, cult classics, or at the very least, critically revered works the world over. 

Starting with her ingĂ©nue turn in the Cannes Palm d’Or winning THE UMBRELLAS OF CHERBOURG in 1964, she became a worldwide sensation. From there, Deneuve went on to make a host of significant French films including THE YOUNG GIRLS OF ROCHEFORT (1967), BELLE DU JOUR (1967), MISSISSIPPI MERMAID (1969), LE SAUVAGE (1975), THE LAST METRO (1980), HOTEL AMERICA (1981), THIEVES (1996), PLACE VENDOME (1998), and EIGHT WOMEN (2002). Along the way, Deneuve made classic films in the English language too, including REPULSION for Roman Polanski (1965), THE HUNGER for Tony Scott (1983), DANCER IN THE DARK for Lars von Trier (2000), and the animated PERSEPOLIS for Vincent Paronnaud and Marjane Satrapi (2007).

Studying Deneuve’s work, one sees an actress who truly helped revolutionize screen acting and her style is used by actors the world over today. In almost all of her screen work, Deneuve is subtle, mysterious, holding secrets that beg you to pay attention, think more, and wonder about her characters' motivations. She has always been an actress who pulls you towards her, rather than projecting emotions and theatricality outwards. And that was very different up until her time.

In the 30’s through the 50’s, acting was very noticeable, overt, and even easy to read. The likes of Bette Davis and Marlon Brando, as outstanding as they were, made their performances quite obvious. We knew what they were thinking onscreen. And their actions were a natural extension of such thought processes. Yes, they added nuance and depth to their characterizations, often making bold or  unexpected choices, but such stars rarely left us wondering what their characters were up to. Quite the contrary, as Davis could size up a leading man with one glance of her contemptuous eyes. Brando would physically invade another actor’s space to show his domination. All in all, such acting is strong, but it also works on the stage. Deneuve has not done stage acting, and what she does onscreen can only work in such a close-in art form.  

With Deneuve, the intent of her characters remains mysterious. As an actress, she holds back, never giving away too much. Her screen persona is understated. There is always something enigmatic about her, akin to only the great Greta Garbo who was as always cool and contemplative onscreen. But when Deneuve acts in such reserve, her performances register in a more realistic fashion. It's a more naturalistic way of acting. And it perfectly befitted the times she was acting in.  

Generations were shifting, politics was becoming messier, and the societal norms expected of men and women were changing constantly. If an actress like Marilyn Monroe wore every emotion on her sleeve in the 1950's, by the 60’s and 70’s, Deneuve left very little on her sleeve. You could read some of what was going on in her characters by looking into Deneuve's eyes, but not all of it. The more demanding times and stories demanded equally complex and nuanced approaches in acting onscreen.

Part of the reason that Deneuve could hold our attention too was due to her stunning beauty. She’s always been a knockout with a strong chin and cheekbones, a pert little nose, and a mane of blonde hair that frames her face perfectly. Deneuve's body has always been fit and firm, yet not too curvy or buxom to the point where her body overwhelms the rest of her. Even so, it's always been those eyes of hers that have kept her so alluring. Sometimes they're windows to her soul, but often they are riddles, refusing to give in to all of our queries. Large, dark, and unblinking, Deneuve’s eyes are the greatest weapon in her actor's arsenal.

For starters, when Deneuve fixes her gaze on a costar, they don’t always tell us just one thing. Her eyes may start uncertain, but then we see the brain start to work behind them. By the end of a close-up, those eyes may have gone from inquisitive to knowing to perhaps even judging. Deneuve was always keenly aware of what a performance required in close-up, let alone between the line readings or the stage actions written on the page. She knows that staring, pausing, hesitating in movement, these are the things that distinguish great screen acting. 

Frankly, it’s one of the reasons CGI cannot replace an actor, no matter how good it can render Peter Cushing in ROGUE ONE or a younger Kurt Russell in GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY, VOLUME 2. Eyes have too many nuances, and Deneuve’s seem to have more than most. Her visage would be impossible to recreate, by another actor or computer programmer. Deneuve may play characters at times that are sweet, sour, angry, vulnerable, and even villainous, but there is always a part of them that remains untouchable. She steadfastly remains just out of reach. Our need to know Deneuve onscreen is only trumped by her refusal to give too much away. 

Such a unique skill adds layers upon layers of intrigue to any film she graces. Why does her character of Genevieve marry a man she’s not in love with in THE UMBRELLAS OF CHERBOURG? Is it because her pregnancy, while the child’s father is away at war, leads her to hedge her bets on who will provide for her and her baby? Yes, of course. Genevieve also wants to be taken care of since she comes from a broken home and a smothering single mother who doesn't make her feel secure. Deneuve suggests both possibilities in the way she plays her, but she also adds a sense of regret to each scene, a hesitation in almost every action which suggests that Genevieve doesn't know how to be instinctual. She has never been able to connect with pure emotion. That’s quite an accomplishment in a musical, one where every move and line must be choreographed to music and timing, yet Deneuve manages to fill in between the lines even with all of Jacques Demy's specific direction.

In REPULSION, another film with a strong directorial hand, this time by Roman Polanski, Deneuve manages to imbue her character of Carol with more complexity than is written or directed as well. Carol is a beautiful but shy salon manicurist who is driven to homicidal impulses by the constant assault of the ugly world around her, particularly entitled men. Polanski directed Deneuve to look downward in her performance, giving her character an unwillingness to make eye contact with those badgering her. Yet even with that specific direction, Deneuve managed to use her limited eye contact to speak volumes. 

She uses her fleeting glances at those around her to suggest that Carol was not only repulsed by them but bored as well. Deneuve's choices suggested that Carol’s violent outbursts broke up the monotony, giving her the power to add something unexpected to her static life. It’s amazing that Deneuve could play a character like Genevieve in Cherbourg who so ardently pursued such a staid existence, and then turn around a year later and portray Carol, a woman driven mad by such.

And as Deneuve logged her fifth and sixth decade onscreen, she infused her characters with even more wariness. In THE LAST METRO, her eyes mourn throughout, for the lot of being married to a Jewish man she must hide during the Nazi occupation of France, but also for the burden of being a woman who is always having to take care of so much. In this case, her character must not only risk her life daily to protect her spouse, but she must also run the theater and all of the many tasks that come with it. 

Even in a lush, artsy frightener like THE HUNGER, the eyes of Deneuve’s vampire suggest fatigue has set in. She too has spent too much time logging responsibility. Having to be so beautiful and so powerful as a creature of the night for all those centuries takes a toll. It's such complexity in her approach to even a villain character that draws us closer to Deneuve, to empathize, to try and understand who she's playing more thoroughly.  

For six decades, Deneuve has exhibited extraordinary film work. She has maintained an international star status when few men or women have lasted as long or done nearly as much. Most importantly, Deneuve helped change screen acting with a style that gave the medium more by holding back. She kept audiences  enthralled by refusing to coddle them. I cannot think of a better way to honor such an amazing cinematic feat than by awarding the Academy’s 2017 Governors Award to Catherine Deneuve.  


Sincerely,
Jeff York

Film critic for The Establishing Shot
Critic and host of the Page 2 Screen podcast for the International Screenwriters Association
Member of the Chicago Independent Film Critics Circle

Friday, May 5, 2017

GUARDIANS OF THE BORSCHT BELT


The films in the Marvel superhero family have always mined laughs. There are great guffaws to be found in even the more serious ones, like THOR. Some of the laughs in the Marvel canon are as funny as anything found in straight out-and-out comedies found at the Cineplex today. And some of the gags in Marvel superhero adaptations have been so hilarious, they're genuine knee-slappers that would have made the great comedy director Blake Edwards (THE PINK PANTHER, 10) positively blush. Remember how Hulk thrashed Loki around like a rag doll in the first AVENGERS film? Or how that rickety toy train fell off the tracks during the climactic battle in ANT-MAN when it looked liked a charging locomotive from the hero's perspective? Why, the whole movie of DEADPOOL was one ginormous laugh fest, starting with its sublimely snarky opening credits.

Of course, the first Marvel superhero adaptation that played truly as a comedy was the first GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY from 2014. There was a ton of humor to be found there - a combination of modern snark and old school shtick. Some of it, quite frankly, could've been written by classic Borscht Belt comedians from the 20th Century. Writer/director James Gunn has proved to be a true expert at comedy, exhibiting a skill with milking laughs old and new throughout his franchise which has quickly become one of the most beloved in the Marvel universe.

Why, Gunn's repetition in having Groot constant say his one line, “I am Groot” was such an effective and simple running gag in the first movie that it became an instant classic screen quote. And in true, comedy school teaching, the damn thing became funnier each time Groot said it. And watching Peter “Star-Lord” Quill (Chris Pratt) carry around that robotic leg during a tense jailbreak was hysterical, playing like a luggage gag from Jerry Lewis’ THE BELLBOY. Even the droll Drax (David Bastista) mined huge laughs as when he blasted Nebula (Karen Gillan) with his bazooka when she was in the middle of a serious rant. That "interruption" bit has been done a thousand times in comedy and was done especially well by the likes of Harpo Marx back in the early 1930's as he'd take the air out of a windbag droning on by cutting off a piece of his tie or setting some of his property on fire.

Now, along comes the eagerly anticipated sequel GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOLUME 2, opening today, and again, writer/director Gunn has pulled out all the stops when it comes to mining classic shtick for his modern movieplex heroes. It's so much so that at times the film could be called ‘Guardians of the Borscht Belt.” Gunn gives it all plenty of the sarcastic Marvel flavor for sure, but he also gives the whole shebang such a generous dose of classic comedy tropes that up in the heavens the likes of Shecky Green, Henny Youngman and Abbott & Costello have to be howling appreciatively. 

In fact, five of the best gags in this sure-to-be-a-massive-hit trade on classic bits from yesteryear that show just how clever Gunn is in rejiggering them to make everything old seem new again:


     1.) During the opening scene, while the credits play, the blithesome little Baby Groot dances around to the ELO song “Mr. Blue Sky” while the rest of the guardians battle a ginormous blob of an alien. As they all fly about, getting jostled around by the nasty creature, Baby Groot keeps grooving down below on the roof, barely avoiding being pulverized by flying debris and even the alien at least a dozen times. This kind of 'hero almost getting hit' is a classic comedy bit that’s been in everything from the opening credits of those 1950's MR. MAGOO cartoons to the famous pie fight scene in THE GREAT RACE from 1965. Only here, rather than an oblivious Tony Curtis, you have this adorable CGI creature unaware of all the chaos breaking bad around him. It's hilarious and adorable.


·     2.) Another gag that utilizes the adorable Baby Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel, though it sounds like just about anyone's voice through a synthesizer) has to do with the attempt by Rocket Raccoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper, growling in a genuine character performance) to explain to the sapling just which red button does what on a bomb console. There are two buttons and of course, they look exactly the same. The difference between them is that one will give he who presses it a five-minute window to put some distance between himself and the bomb while the other one will detonate the bomb immediately. After carefully explaining which button is which, Rocket asks Baby Groot which one he will press once he gets close enough to destroy the gigantic brain of the villain Ego which is stored in a remote structure. Rocket assumes that Baby Groot understood what he was trying to teach him, but nope, he doesn't. The cute little tree almost presses the wrong button and it drives Rocket into fits of frustration. Thus, Rocket explains it all again. And Baby Groot almost presses the wrong button once again. It is milked a number of times more, and like the line "I am Groot", it becomes funnier the more it's repeated.

     Of course, as Baby Groot shows his failure to comprehend multiple times, Rocket’s response to it all is to become more and more frustrated and that's funnier each time too. Such a gag about misunderstanding is truly one of the oldest and most classic of comedy bits, harkening back to everything from old Abbott & Costello movies to Bugs Bunny cartoons to GILLIGAN’S ISLAND. It 'killed' in all of those comedies, repeatedly, and the same thing happens here.  



·    3.) And as Rocket grows so frustrated with Baby Groot’s inability to grasp which button is which, the rascally raccoon thinks marking one button with a piece of tape will help his friend remember which button not to press. He asks Peter for help in securing some tape as he is fresh out. (You can never find a good roll of masking tape in a gun battle, even an intergalactic one!) “Star Lord” should tell Rocket to f--k off, but he's too nice a guy, so while he's taking out various attacking drones, Peter asks each of them if they have tape before he obliterates them. All this happens off-camera essentially, as we in the audience hear Peter's queries without seeing how each is resolved. It's a brilliant, extended 'theater of the mind' bit and it too becomes funnier with repetition. Look to the likes of Fibber McGee’s closet or W. C. Fields throwing things into traffic causing car crashes to find the impetus of such laughs. This Gunn guy has a Masters degree in shtick!


·    4.) When Peter starts to bond with his long-lost father Ego (a nimbly humorous Kurt Russell) they realize that they have a lot of the same take on things, including an affection for pop ditties from the late 70’s and early 80’s. (Ahem, so does Gunn!) Peter mentions a beloved song from his mom’s mix tape – the classic Looking Glass song “Brandy.” A few lines of it are uttered and we in the audience chuckle at the recognition of its rather inane lyrics - Brandy, you're a fine girl, what a good wife you would be.  Then Ego, who is supposed to be more serious god than easygoing music man, continues to quote the song and speaks more silly lines from it with a genuine seriousness and we howl more. This kind of thing is one of the oldest tropes in comedy, so old and overused in fact that Final Draft argues that no screenwriter should use it, but hot damn if it doesn’t work like gangbusters here. Kudos to Gunn again, and to the game Russell, for making it one of the verbal highlights of this sequel.


·    5.) Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki) is the golden High Priestess and the leader of the Sovereign people and she's very, very serious. And when Rocket steals valuable batteries from her, the plot of this movie is kicked into dramatic gear. She and her people are insulted, and not only does the queen want the batteries back but she wants retribution against Rocket for being so gauche. So she starts an all-out war with our heroes because of the raccoon's theft.

     After that, the movie contains a number of Sovereign skirmishes with the Guardians, and during each battle, Ayesha remains stoic and steadfast, emanating a seriousness that would make a nun proud. However, at the very end, when it looks like Ayesha's forces are finally going to crush the Guardians and she will be able to exalt in exacting her revenge, things are thwarted once again. Only this time, her reaction is different. Instead of coldly simmering, her face drops uncharacteristically into a comical "WTF?" expression that is worthy of Margaret Dumont or Louis Calhern at the expense of the brothers Marx in DUCK SOUP. Such a broad, comedic reaction is a sure-fire laugh here and yep, it gets a big one. Now arguably, it's way out of character for her. Still, it's done all the time in these sorts of things. You may recall that Christopher Plummer did it when he played General Chang, the Klingon nemesis of the Starship Enterprise, in STAR TREK: THE UNDISCOVERED COUNTRY (1991). Right before he and his ship are blown to smithereens, the previously formidable Chang's face drops in a similar fashion and it's a hoot! Seeing the great Shakespearean actor slice such a thick serving of ham made for a huge belly laugh in that film, and Debicki and Gunn steal from the best, about 70 years worth of such classic devastation "takes." I loved it!

Needless to say, I hooted so often during the critics screening of this film this past Monday that my esteemed colleague and friend Pamela Powell sitting next to me probably wondered if a 10-year-old nerd had taken the place of her fellow critic. But it's hard not to laugh like a kid when the comedy pays such homage to yesteryear. 


As for the rest of the film, some may find fault with GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 2 for its lengthy battle scenes, lack of anything truly funny or even sexy for Zoe Saldana to do in her lead role as the gamine Gamora, and a never-ending, over-the-top battle scene at the end that probably spends half the movie's budget. These are small quibbles really. The whole of this movie is simply a joy, entertaining as hell, and even serves as a master class in the build-up, rhythms and delivery of comedy onscreen. And you have to adore a movie that gives Stan Lee not one, but two, of his biggest laughs amongst all the cameos he makes in these Marvel superhero pictures. Truly, GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 2 is an absolute hoot and a howl. I expect my knee will be just as sore from all the slapping when the third one arrives sometime in 2020.