Saturday, July 11, 2009

Films of the 00s: The Beach

As if sitting at my laptop writing, reading, and taking notes weren't social enough—on really exciting days, I swivel in the same chair to face the TV and DVD player—I decided to bring another voice into some of these retrospective reviews of Films of the 00s. And who better to invite than my favorite print critic, Tim Robey of Mainly Movies and the Daily Telegraph. Reading Tim's reviews or, better, chatting with him after a movie always clarifies my thinking about it. Since this series purposefully orbits around movies that I'm internally split about, either because I'm just now seeing them or because I have lingering uncertainties dating back to their initial release, I'm especially eager to talk some of them out and so, so excited that he's volunteered to dish.

Given his day job, which he conveniently started right at the top of the decade, Tim sees many more movies than even I do. Thus, finding movies that neither of us has already seen has proved a challenge, especially with the added hurdle of looking for offbeat titles that are easily available on both sides of the Big Pond. But speaking of pond-hopping, Tim was eager for a second trip back to The Beach, a post-Titanic, post-"P***y Posse" vanity/comeback vehicle for Leonardo DiCaprio, and probably Danny Boyle's most aggressive bid for a studio-funded mainstream Hollywood hit. Despite the marquee presence of Tilda Swinton, I had somehow never seen it. Here are some excerpts of our review:

ND: "Maybe since Boyle had so recently been so adept at making the drug-trips in Trainspotting so truly frightening and off-putting but simultaneously kicky and engaging, I was hoping he'd find a way to hyperrealize the sensual pull, the literal dangers, and the ethical quandaries of this scenario a little more. At the very least, don't you think it's a mistake of the script to partition the survey of life among the commune so fully away from the dangerous, glancing engagements with the gun-toting, pot-planting Thai mercenaries? For Richard and the Frenchies to commit so fully to beachy 'happiness' while knowing it involves regular, entrenched exposure to violence and brute corruption would be more interesting than compartmentalizing those looming threats only toward the beginning and end of the movie. Though the risk of racist iconography would have shot pretty high, this approach to structure might have furnished an effective decoy by which the corruption inside the compound would have emerged more surreptitiously, and as a more interesting test of the audience..."

TR: "By the time Richard is running around in the jungle like Martin Sheen meets Rambo, Boyle has inelegantly retreated into his default final-act mode of Trippy Psycho Overkill—cf. Eccleston in Shallow Grave, Renton vs. Begbie in Trainspotting, Murphy's bloody woodland spree in 28 Days Later, the Sun-God killer/whatever in Sunshine. It's not enough. I like the hints of Richard's moral alienation right at the start, particularly the way he closes the door behind him while regarding Daffy's corpse (though that's another good scene half-ruined by "this-was-some-crazy-shit!" voiceover). But this idea isn't followed through properly in the paradise sequences, and Leo, who is very uneven, can't do much to make Richard's bandanna psychosis actually work as a dramatic device. Still, I do appreciate the way his lie about copying the map comes back to haunt him—the way reducing it to a half-lie ("I only showed it to them!") actually makes the situation worse, the way Tilda turns on him, the dumb obliviousness of the new visitors, which sends a chill...."

Lots more where that came from. And how about you: do you remember the film? Did you read the book? Do you have Leo's back a bit more than we do? If this were 1998, I'd be a dead man by now. Can you settle this whole did-they-or-didn't-they dispute? Chime in with a comment.

Earlier in this series: Wonder Boys, American Psycho, La Captive, and Dôlè

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Blogger Catherine said...

LOVE this tag team effort but I'm holding out for a more decisive film choice next time. I want to see punches thrown, bloody noses, the lot. As for the film itself, I was too young to see it when it came out and nothing I've seen or read since has enticed me to give it a whirl.

4:17 AM, July 11, 2009  
Blogger Catherine said...

Rereading that message, I discover that what I just wrote could possibly come across as, oh, how shall I say this, a gigantic bitch! Not my intention at all, apologies.

4:30 AM, July 11, 2009  
Blogger NATHANIEL R said...

i love you both but you don't disagree that often do you? very similar tastes. not that that's bad because you're both brill, obviously. but i'm not reading for disagreements because i don't expect a lot of them ;)

but anyway... i think you're too hard on Leo. (here's a disagreement) While I agree that he's probably overappreciated on account of a few very impressive early performances... i think it's a little disingenous to suggest that his best work is all credit to the director and screenplay. To me if really strong work happens more than once it has to partially be coming from the actor.

I agree that he doesn't push himself as much as he should but I think he's excellent in The Aviator and This Boy's Life and to your "most interesting when he's afraid" compliment I would push that to most interesting when he's at any vulnerable/high pitched state of feeling... with the exception of the shouty manly high pitched stuff. In short I think he's uneven most of the time. Great when: he has to cry (tibalts death in Romeo), breakdown or be humiliated (various but rev rd on occassion), or lose it in some miscellaneous way (the door scene in basketball? alas i don't remember it well); Bad when: he's macho and in control (Blood Diamond) or taking charge (Gangs of New York).

I remember he was terrible in Total Eclipse but i don't know whether to trust that memory or why i thought so.

Does any of this make sense or am I typing too quickly?

10:53 AM, July 13, 2009  
Blogger Bill C said...

Sorry Nathaniel, I'm going to have to agree with you. I was surprised to see THIS BOY'S LIFE left off Nick's list of Leo's accomplishments (all two of them), and I actually wanted him to win that year he was nommed for THE AVIATOR. I don't remember BASKETBALL or TOTAL ECLIPSE well enough, either (my recollection is that he was suffering through an awkward transitional stage in both), but THIS BOY'S LIFE's Toby is as indelible to me as GILBERT GRAPE's Arnie. It also features, imho, the last great De Niro performance.

My personal perception of Leo's nadir would be MAN IN THE IRON MASK. He and the movie symbiotically sap each other of energy until there's just a dead fish up there on screen.

11:50 AM, July 13, 2009  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

@Nathaniel and @Bill: I'm not trying to deny that DiCaprio is talented, and most of his performances have flashes of that energy and talent. I actually think he has as many good moments in Blood Diamond as he does in Aviator, and he's memorable at a few key moments in Titanic, Basketball, Marvin's Room, Quick and the Dead... though not necessarily more good moments than a lot of other actors would have had in those roles. He certainly brings a certain spontaneity to the table and a willingness to go for broke emotionally, which I appreciate. I don't mean to sound like it's ALL direction and writing when he's good.

BUT, he coasts a lot, and bespeaks little in the way of controlled technique, which is why I think he needs firm directing and writing to really work. When I say he's lazy, I don't see a lot of evidence that he's done much to flex that callow, all-California voice, or to control his body in eloquent ways, or to stop recycling the same tantrumy mannerisms or uncontrolled, self-regarding impulses that are all over most of his performances. When I think about him in The Aviator, I go right to that terrible moment when he yells about TWA "not owning the sky!" - sounding as insincere and drama-club and out-of-period as, say, Kevin Costner does narrating Dances with Wolves. Some good scenes, yes, but a plenty of bland ones and lots of recycling from other perfs. Drop him, re-cast Billy Crudup or someone, and you've already got a better movie. And there are too many DiCaprio perfs like those in Total Eclipse and Rev Road and Gangs (and, from what Tim says, Body of Lies) where I can't even figure out what you'd want to save.

Admittedly, I have not seen This Boy's Life, which I always hear he and De Niro are spectacular in, so that's a big miss on my part. And it's hardly as though he's a "bad" actor, but compared to the easy time he has getting cast in things and the reputation for being a "great" actor that so casually follows him around, I really, really beg to differ.

12:28 PM, July 13, 2009  
Blogger tim r said...

Bill, I'll completely give you This Boy's Life, I'd clean forgotten that, and I agree that it's on Grape level, or very nearly. I do like him in The Aviator, here and there in Blood Diamond, and very much in The Departed. So that's a solid body of work -- more solid than most actors of his age, absolutely. But when he's lazy, which is my main beef in everything from Titanic through Gangs of New York, where he's truly dismaying, and Rev Road, where he delivers far too many lines over Winslet's shoulder as if keeping a lookout for the neighbours, boy is he lazy. And repetitious. Compare a Matt Damon -- as often neglected as Leo is too highly praised, an old-school tryer who you sometimes catch trying too hard (The Good Shepherd -- Leo's role originally, right?) but who never gives anything less than his all, more often finding his slippery way under a character and fully differentiating them (Bourne, Ripley, Departed, and second-tier work like Syriana) where Leo can't or, for whatever reason, won't. Like I say, I'm not quite as down on Leo as Nick -- he has a handful of good, go-for-broke scenes even in The Beach -- but I do know where he's coming from on the laziness thing. And yeah, I know Damon is quite widely appreciated around here, but not in all quarters, and certainly not by AMPAS, Good Will Hunting aside. Let's just say only one of the two is in any danger of being under-rated, to my mind.

And Nat, and Catherine, you're quite right about the over-agreement thing. It's embarrassing. I think there's a danger we sway each other, or at least I often feel swayed. Maybe we should get stuck into something like Mysterious Skin or Missing, where we're on totally different pages from the start. Anyway, there's surely hope for Happy Accidents, which neither of us has even seen yet! It should probably be an objective of this series (if it becomes one) that we work on the friction thing a bit harder...

PS. How's this: Call me crazy but I kind of like the Costner narration in Dances with Wolves. Not the performance as a whole, not really. But the journal readings. That flat, under-rehearsed, bad-actor-ish quality they have. I feel like he's not selling us on this guy as some great diarist or guide to the era, but as someone who's just recording his thoughts because there's sod all else to do, and hasn't had much practice reading his own words aloud. Maybe this is precisely what Nick objects to, but I think it's one of the better things about the film.

PPS. Nick really likes The Good Shepherd, from what I remember, so I've planted that as bait too.

1:48 PM, July 13, 2009  
Blogger NATHANIEL R said...

again... i didn't mean to imply that i WANT disagreement. I think that's overappreciated as conversational duets go. as long as there's interesting discussion, I'm in! :)

9:59 PM, July 15, 2009  

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