Robert Pattinson roundup

2 05 2017

I recently penned a piece over at Film School Rejects entitled “Robert Pattinson: From Behead to Bushy Beard,” where I ran through the actor’s career and found some pretty surprising things. I began coming around on Pattinson with “The Rover” back in 2014, but I discovered that his acting chops didn’t just magically grow once he excited the “Twilight” world. He refined them over time, though the raw talent was there.

I watched (almost) all of his filmography to write the essay, and rather than write individual reviews of them all, I’ve decided to do a little round-up here for those. It’s a little more manageable than trying to pen three separate posts.

“Little Ashes”

Robert Pattinson’s Salvador Dalí in “Little Ashes” undergoes a similar arc as Daniel Radcliffe’s Allen Ginsberg in “Kill Your Darlings.” These films find ways to intertwine the coming-of-age story with the artist biopic. Both are future groundbreaking artists in the making, but when we meet them, they are young men curious to explore their intellectual and sexual boundaries in a collegiate atmosphere.

The differentiator between the two (admittedly an unfair comparison since “Kill Your Darlings” came out five years later) is that in “Little Ashes,” Pattinson has much more of a public persona into which he must play. We know Dalí as a quirky eccentric, and that’s where Pattinson goes off the rails in the film. He’s better as an actor of small gestures and concealed emotions, not painting in a craze with a shaved head or tucking his genitals in front of a mirror. Dalí’s political awakening by way of his peer Federico García Lorca (Javier Beltrán) at a puppet show is a far better showcase for Pattinson’s gifts. We can observe the slow radicalization of his ideas through the gradual lighting up of his face.

And as a story of could-be lovers and artistic rivals, “Little Ashes” hardly fairs better. Director Paul Morrison never really determines the film’s identity, and the whole work suffers for it. C+

“Remember Me”

If you have some conception of Robert Pattinson as a disinterested, dispassionate slacker with chronic bedhead, chances are it comes a lot from “Remember Me.” It’s the film that best bottles up the essence of his late ’00s/early ’10s stardom, one that fits itself around his persona.

Pattinson plays Tyler Hawkins, an NYU student in fall 2001 dealing with daddy issues while romantically pursuing the daughter of the cop who recently gave him grief. (But don’t worry, he’s still a genuine sweetheart to his grade-school aged younger sister.) There’s constant tension in the film about how little both Pattinson and Tyler seem to care about what’s going on around them and the deep pain in his heart stemming from the suicide of his older brother Michael.

Allen Coulter’s film is what it is – a sappy, emotions-on-its-sleeves young adult romance – and I give it some credit for not aiming for much more. I’m still a little on the fence about the film’s ending, which milks tragedy in an arguably exploitative way. But as a by-the-books melodrama, it’s serviceable. C+

“The Childhood of a Leader”

Admittedly, including Brady Corbet’s “The Childhood of a Leader” in a roundup of Robert Pattinson movies feels a little wrong. The actor only makes a brief appearance at the tail ends of the film. At the outset, he’s a French professorial chap giving pre-Hannah Arendt musings on the banality of evil in the immediate wake of World War I’s devastation. In the ending, he’s … someone different. (Sorry, spoilers.)

The main focus of the film is Tom Sweet’s Prescott, a young child who forms his understanding of the world against the backdrop of the fragile peace. The film runs nearly two hours, a time in which little happens but Corbet establishes heavy atmosphere and deep foreboding. He only releases the built-up tension in the aforementioned finale.

As a film, “The Childhood of a Leader” is a bit of a strut, more style than substance. But as a debut film, it’s a little something different. This feels like an aesthetic calling card for Brady Corbet, a declaration of intent for many great things to come. He hasn’t made his great movie yet, but I left this one with full confidence that it will arrive one day. “The Childhood of a Leader” is like a feature-length proof of concept for it. B-

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F.I.L.M. of the Week (April 13, 2017)

13 04 2017

At some point while working on a profile of Robert Pattinson, I realized I couldn’t write honestly or insightfully about the actor if I only considered his post-“Twilight” work, which I generally considered to. I’m not sure at what point I decided I needed to watch everything in his filmography, but one film I did not particularly anticipate sitting through was “Bel Ami.” Costume dramas, especially ones set in 19th-century Europe, tend to function as something akin to the bane of my existence.

But to my very pleasant surprise, “Bel Ami” stands out as a delicious experience in a primarily dreary and stuffy genre. To be fair, I’m not sure how much I would have enjoyed the film had I watched it upon release in 2012. Pattinson was still, reluctantly, in the thrall of “Twilight” mania. The specious read of the film is to see his character, Georges Duroy, as an emotionless man who somehow manages to function as an effortless womanizer. (There is admittedly some jealousy in play, I’ll be up front.)

Indeed, there are some similarities to Edward Cullen at the surface level of “Bel Ami.” Yet with some distance, the film looks more like a reaction against his famous role. Georges makes plenty of sexual conquests in the film, but he achieves them not out of confidence or swagger. He’s deeply insecure about his station in the Parisian social strata, nervously approaching formality. In his first high society appearance, Georges musses with his appearance several times in the mirror before entering the room.

He’s at a distinct advantage in the elite ecosystem since he does not come from money and only gets a seat at the table when a former comrade from war lifts him up. To hold this tenuous position, Georges needs an ace in the hole, and he finds it through gaming undersexed and undervalued wives. Wooing them works to his benefit for a while, but eventually he learns that appealing to them goes only so far in a male-dominated world. This narrative acts as something of a meta commentary on Pattinson’s participation in the “Twilight” franchise, and his desperation and frustration is the secret sauce that raises “Bel Ami” out of standard period piece drudgery and into the “F.I.L.M. of the Week” territory.





REVIEW: Queen of the Desert

5 04 2017

“You will not scare men with your intelligence,” warns an elder to the young Gertrude Bell at the outset of Werner Herzog’s “Queen of the Desert.” It’s the kind of “nevertheless, she persisted” moment that would spur on a great feminist tale. Instead, the line represents the tease for a story that never materializes.

This story of an accomplished archaeologist who provided valuable research on tribes in the Ottoman Empire as their empire collapses is all too eager to define her life in relation to the men whose path she crosses. There’s T.E. Lawrence (Robert Pattinson) of “Lawrence of Arabia” fame, a more professional acquaintance, but she sets off on her quest primarily in grief-stricken anguish at the loss of Henry Cadogan (James Franco). While in the Middle East, she spends as much time on screen rebuffing offers from Charles Doughty-Wylie (Damian Lewis) as she interacts with the native tribes.

This becomes an issue later on when Herzog tries to land the film with an anti-imperialist message as Winston Churchill arrives from the British Empire to help break up the Ottoman Empire. Gradually, Bell does grow into a bit of an anti-imperialist as she increases her understanding of the region’s tribes. But in her embittered farewell, knowing that her advice will likely be discarded, Bell expresses a kind of fondness for the people she loves that also reeks of a white savior complex.

The only thing to recommend in the film is Pattinson’s turn as Lawrence; he does the self-effacing British elite routine with aplomb. Otherwise, “Queen of the Desert” sits on a hollow throne. C





REVIEW: The Lost City of Z

17 10 2016

New York Film Festival

In 2014, while still in the thralls of my passionate obsession with James Gray’s “The Immigrant,” I attended the Telluride Film Festival where, lo and behold, Gray himself was attending to present a screening of Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now.” (I won’t go into too much detail about how I choked on approach to chat with him outside a screening.) He also penned an essay for the festival’s program lavishing praise on Coppola’s masterpiece, writing, “The film poses questions without any attempt to provide definitive answers, and its profound ambiguities are integral to its enduring magic.”

Of course, this only popped into my mind about an hour of the way through Gray’s latest work, “The Lost City of Z.” The film’s jungle trek in search of a mythic destination, of course, bears many surface similarities to “Apocalypse Now.” Going deeper, however, little else in the Amazonian journey of Charlie Hunnam’s Percy Fawcett corresponds to the descent into madness of Martin Sheen’s Captain Willard. Fawcett’s quest is one for pride, not shame. In his attempts to discover a lost civilization among the South Americans derided as “savages” by the Brits, he hopes to provide both a cultural corrective and a reputation restoration to his tarnished family name.

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There’s an earnestness to Fawcett’s trips (yes, plural, because it takes a trio of them) that feels entirely from before the moral malaise of “Apocalypse Now,” due in large part to Gray’s unabashed classicism. He’s even got his own match cut to pay winking homage to David Lean’s “Lawrence of Arabia.” Yet “The Lost City of Z” feels caught between two periods, the old-fashioned spectacle of the Hollywood cinematic epic and the more self-conscious, interrogative New Hollywood style. To return briefly to Gray’s own terminology, the film lacks some magic because its ambiguity exists within a structure that prefers resolution and triumph.

Gray always has a firm command of what’s happening on screen, and director of photography Darius Khondji captures it in luscious hues and sweeping movement. What exactly is meant by Fawcett’s multiple journeys, each of which test his commitment to his fellow explorers, country and family, is not always clear. Removed from the personal authenticity of Gray’s early work and the radical sincerity of “The Immigrant,” narrative resonance is somewhat lacking.

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Even so, “The Lost City of Z” is still a sumptuous delight of visual splendor. Thirty minutes could probably be trimmed to help sustain more momentum, though such cuts might sacrifice some of the delicate character arcs. As the film progresses, Fawcett’s right-hand man Henry Costin (Robert Pattinson, playing his supporting role with the humility of a great character actor) gradually grows uncertain that their mission to locate their missing city can bear any fruit. At the same time, however, Fawcett’s son Jack (Tom Holland, recalling his superb turn in “The Impossible“) moves from disenchantment with his father to full allegiance and companionship. Witnessing one rise as the other falls makes for a more unexpected journey within the film – and one of its few facets that’s not entirely straightforward. B2halfstars





REVIEW: Life

1 06 2016

LifeLife” gets its title from the now-shuttered magazine which featured iconic pictures of actor James Dean shot by photographer Dennis Stock. It’s clever wordplay, sure, but not necessarily indicative of the film’s actual content. The better moniker for Luke Davies’ screenplay might have been “Fame,” or “Success.”

Those are the two biggest burdens weighing on the two subjects of the film. Dane DeHaan’s James Dean prepares to go supernova with the impending release of “East of Eden” and his forthcoming casting in “Rebel Without A Cause.” He wants recognition and validation but gets spooked by the fame that will likely dovetail receiving such plaudits.

Robert Pattinson’s Dennis Stock, meanwhile, frequently attempts to remain calm amidst his nervousness and insecurities. He has talent but is unsure if the gatekeepers will accept and allow it to blossom into art, so he settles on James Dean as a subject – someone on the cusp of stardom but not yet fully blossomed. This drive has wide ranging echoes in Pattinson’s own career as he seeks to shed the skin of the “Twilight” series.

“Life” also feels like a meta commentary for its director, Anton Corbijn. About midway through the film, Dean comes to realize that photography says as much about the person behind the camera as it does the subject in front, even when supposedly capturing non-fictional moments. Corbijn, who was himself a photographer before entering the word of fictional feature filmmaking, seems to exert a strong biographical pull on the relationship between the two men.

It’s a shame that the film feels more about events and charted course than exploring thematic threads and character interiors. There was likely a version of “Life” as revealing and honest as “The End of the Tour,” another 2015 release about the push and pull between journalists and artists. But as it stands, the film feels like an interesting but unfulfilled biography of a telling period in Dean’s life. It sinks or swims based on DeHaan’s portrayal of the actor. While he does nail the mannerisms and general aura of Dean, the vocal cadences always serve as a reminder that this is a performative interpretation. B-2stars





REVIEW: Maps to the Stars

28 02 2015

MapsI have spent extended periods of time in Hollywood, and I really wish I had David Cronenberg’s “Maps to the Stars” by my side then to confirm all my suspicions and misgivings.  Director David Cronenberg and writer Bruce Wagner do not merely depict the shallowness and the narcissism dominant in the local culture so much as they diagnose it.  The film pinpoints a number of endemic ills in a town built on deception with the accuracy of a pathologist.

This saga of shameless self-promoters caught in a tangled web of ego bashing may not quite cohere in its explosive third act, yet it hardly detracts from the pleasure of simply watching them exist for an hour or so.  Cronenberg gets his cast to deliver performances tuned to the perfect channel: exaggeratedly hilarious without ever veering sharply into parodic or burlesquing territory.

Nowhere does this approach find better expression than in Julianne Moore’s brilliantly demented Havana Segrand, which – all due respect to “Still Alice” –  is the kind of work that should have netted the actress her first Oscar.  Nonetheless, she has the statue now, and we have this performance to relish forever.

Havana is Moore’s Norma Desmond, the fading and aging screen icon vividly realized by Gloria Swanson in “Sunset Boulevard.”  In an obvious attempt to jumpstart her career again, Havana tries desperately to land a coveted part in a remake of a movie that originally starred her late mother.  To settle her neuroses and ease her pain in the meantime, she hires a new “chore whore” at the suggestion of Carrie Fisher (playing herself, in a brilliantly ironic insertion by Wagner) – the mysterious burn victim Agatha (Mia Wasikowska) who recently arrived in town.

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REVIEW: Water for Elephants

6 01 2015

I read Sara Gruen’s acclaimed best-selling novel “Water for Elephants” at the zenith of its popularity and found myself rather underwhelmed.  (What self-respecting novel gives only the most cursory explanation of its title?)  Francis Lawrence’s cinematic adaptation did little to change my opinion.  His “Water for Elephants” is pleasant and watchable, which is about all it has to offer.

In the film, Robert Pattinson stars as Jacob Jankowski, a veterinary student whose life takes a screeching detour when his parents both die during his last exam.  Saddled not only with his own grief but also with their debts, he opts for a somewhat cliched escape route by joining the circus.  He stows away and quickly moves up from shoveling horse droppings to taking care of the show’s star animals.

He quickly discovers that his humane veterinary practices have little use in the profit-hungry Banzini Brothers circus, run by the shrewd but cruel August (Christoph Waltz).  As if that is not enough to make him worry about both occupational and personal security, Jacob finds himself smitten for the boss’s wife, star performer Marlena (Reese Witherspoon).   Romantic rivalry quickly runs cold as Jacob’s arrival quickly accelerates the dismembering of Marlena and August’s already fragile relationship.

Lawrence prefers to leave the tensions at a standstill rather than letting them progress towards their boiling point.  As a result, “Water for Elephants” often feels flat and unexciting.  At the very least, when the sparks fail to fly at the clashing of the three leads, the environment is always believable and interesting.  The film does a nice job romanticizing the elegant, balletic movement of the circus performance as well as the extravagant moveable architecture of the spectacle.

In a sense, it adds to the story a visual element that has to remain imaginary when experienced on the page.  Too bad Witherspoon, Waltz, and Pattinson could not add more flavor with their characters.  C+2stars