It has been a frustrating few months for me when it comes to the movies. Repeatedly, I went to a movie that seemed sure to impress and walked away underwhelmed. I thought maybe it was me, that I had become hard to please, but the box office reports and critical consensus confirm that it has not been a great year for movies. Now that the really good films are coming out ahead of awards season, they’re all in limited release. That frustrates me even more. So, I turned to iTunes to see if any good independent films were in simultaneous release, as they sometimes are. For less than the cost of a movie ticket, I rented Life, currently in theaters, just not anywhere close-by.
Life follows the developing relationship between Indiana native and Hollywood legend James Dean (Dane DeHaan) and photographer Dennis Stock (Robert Pattinson), who convinces an editor (Joel Edgerton) at Life Magazine to let him do a photo editorial on Dean before the star’s career had taken off. While Dean’s rebellious attitude and disdain for the Hollywood machine do him no favors off screen, Dennis is convinced that he has the opportunity to catch the beginning of something special on film, building his own portfolio and enabling him to go back to New York to do “more important” work and be with his son.
Rather than doing a biopic of Dean, the film captures a particular portion of his life when he was in Hollywood, but not yet successful. As he struggles to find good, meaningful roles and carries on a romance with Pier Angeli (Alessandra Mastronardi), the film presents a less idealized portrait of the actor than usual. Meanwhile, Dennis’ struggle to use Hollywood to springboard into a more meaningful career for himself mirrors Dean’s own longing for better roles. In this way, the film presents a compelling portrait of two men struggling with the nebulous distinction between art and entertainment. The film, by the way, is based on a true story and you can see Dennis Stock’s iconic photos online.
Although the film moves slowly, and may lose some audiences because of that, for me what makes the plot work is how Pattinson plays Dennis’ thinly-veiled desperation to get Dean to participate in his story. He wants it so badly, but is trying not to come off too-too strong. The tension for him is palpable and it drives the first act of the film. DeHaan does not especially look like James Dean, but he plays him in a way that really conveys his youth, struggle, and the way his rebelliousness could be grating. The portrayal is nuanced and compelling.
The screenplay sometimes takes shortcuts, such as when, after taking three pictures in Times Square, Dennis promptly decides to go to Indiana with Dean, a trip he’d been declining all week. In other scenes, however, the writing is expansive and beautiful. For example, on the trip to Indiana, Dean recounts taking a train from California to Indiana with his mother’s coffin. The details of the monologue are captivating and the delivery gives the scene beautiful, poetic weight.
Life drags at times, but the cinematography, score, and screenplay make it a beautiful snapshot of the brief relationship between two artists. For its craft and performances, I rate it 4/5 stars. Life runs 111 minutes and is rated R for some sexuality and language. It was written by Luke Davies and directed by Anton Corbijn.
Also of interest this time of year, is a selection from iTunes’ .99 cent documentary rentals: I Am Santa Claus. Released last November, the film follows pro-wrestler Mick Folley as he sees if he has what it takes to be Santa, and explores the real lives of men who play Santa Claus in malls each Christmas. It’s fascinating and a strange combination of harrowing and heartwarming. Don’t watch it with your kids.
As this is my last review for the year, I want to take the last lines to wish you all a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. I hope this season finds you spending time with those you love and enjoying good Christmas movies and new releases.