(In French, On TV, January 2019) I’m often intrigued by the choices that well-known actors make when they become directors. Often, their chance to direct a film is also a chance to express something we may not have guessed from their screen persona. So it is that when Ed Harris chose a project to direct, he went for the life of American painter Jackson Pollock. Given that he also plays Pollock (including the painting sequences) in addition to directing and that the project was ten years in the making after Harris read Pollock’s biography, this is unquestionably his movie. The result is quite interesting, although it does exist in the lineage of the “complicated white man” tradition, where creative genius sometimes excuses a host of personal failings such as alcoholism and anger. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the film is its look at the creative process, something that a director without an acting background may not have handled the same way. Harris may direct in a straightforward style (something later seen in his Appaloosa follow-up) but the painting scenes alone are quite good, belying the old crack about watching paint dry. Harris is quite good in the title role, but Marcia Gay Hayden is even better as his long-suffering wife. The slide-of-life look at the American 1940s–1950s art world is intriguing. Ultimately, the film does not shy away from Pollock’s tragic arc, and does make a certain statement about the artist. While Pollock could have benefited from a more explicit look inside the painter’s mind, the result is satisfying enough for Harris, both as a performer and a director. Better yet, it’s not the movie you may have expected from seeing Harris-the-Actor.
(On TV, August 2017) I think that Miller’s Crossing is the last film in the Coen Brothers’ filmography that I hadn’t yet seen, and it’s quite a treat. A self-conscious take on Prohibition-era noir movies, it plays gleefully with the elements of the genre in a dense and complex feat of plotting. A young Gabriel Byrne stars as a criminal advisor who ends up trying to manipulate multiple factions when a mob war shakes the city and his own relationships. The characters rarely stop talking, and much of the rapid-fire dialogue is highly entertaining (although you may need subtitles given the pacing and accents—the closed captioning had trouble keeping up!) Albert Finney is also remarkable as a crime boss, but perhaps the most striking performance comes from Marcia Gay Hayden, whose sexy femme fatale character here is completely at odds with her contemporary persona as a matronly shrew (e.g.; The Mist). Otherwise, it’s tommy guns, crooked cops, beatdowns, faked deaths and double-crossing fun galore in a warm bath of genre elements. I suspect that Miller’s Crossing is more fun the more you know and like noir films, but even casual fans of the genre will find a lot to like here. I have, over the past few months, had an unfortunate tendency to multitask while watching (some) movies, but Miller’s Crossing hooked me back in the moment I tried to take my attention elsewhere. Now that’s viewing pleasure.