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Posts Tagged ‘Patricia Arquette’

Sometimes, the desire to do or possess something can become so overpowering you almost forget the reason why you wanted to do or own that thing in the first place, or even exactly when and where it first gripped you. So it has been with me and Matthew Bright’s Tiptoes, which I must have heard of back in the mid 2000s – I honestly have no idea. The sheer staggering misconceivedness of a central element of this movie, and the weirdness of the rest of it, seized my imagination in a vice-like grip; this same elements, ironically, mean it has virtually been obliterated from history. Long-suffering readers may recall my oft-expressed hope that my DVD rental service would, sooner or later, send me a copy of Tiptoes (they never did; I’m not even sure it’s available on disc in this country); since that company folded I may have still occasionally expressed a vague desire to see the film, but never with any great expectation of it coming to pass. Tiptoes became a kind of chimerical beast or cultural legend: I would hear vague rumours of it, and there was enough hard evidence to convince me that it really did exist, but there was no more chance of actually watching it than there was of encountering Bigfoot or a sea serpent.

Nevertheless: post-pandemic, major life changes loom, with the outcome still uncertain in many ways. And so I decided I would be damned if I did not make a proper effort to finally see Tiptoes before all of this came to pass. Is it on any of the streaming sites? It is not. Is it available to rent through the Main Big River service? Only if you live in the States, apparently. All seemed lost until a search of a prominent video-sharing site turned up the entire movie, which had been there for nearly six months. It was dubbed into Polish or Russian, in the crushingly artless way that former-Soviet Bloc countries normally do their dubbing (a gravelly male voice intones all the dialogue in a monotone), but it was better than nothing; and I have always felt that with a proper movie you don’t really need the dialogue to follow the story. So off we went, Tiptoes and I, together at last (albeit in Polish or Russian).

There’s a sense in which Tiptoes is a fairly straightforward comedy-drama with elements of romance to it. As it opens, the couple at the centre of the action are Steve and Carol. Steve trains firefighters for a living, while Carol is an independent, free-spirited artist. All is well, except for Carol’s nagging concerns that despite their plans to marry, he has yet to introduce her to anyone in his family.

The reason for this becomes clear as we see Steve entering a convention centre which is full of – and here we must be careful to get our terminology right – short people. Yes, there is a gathering of short folk underway, their number including virtually Steve’s entire family: he is the only person of normal stature in the clan. Even his twin brother Rolfe is short.

When Rolfe turns up at Carol’s studio looking for Steve, she is naturally surprised, but both of them are perturbed about Steve’s decision to keep quiet about his family’s shortcomings. Is he ashamed of being the scion of such a diminutive clan? The issue becomes a pressing one when Carol discovers she is pregnant, and there is a strong possibility the child will also be short. Can Steve overcome his issues and fully commit to both the relationship and parenthood, or will Carol be forced to fall back on the help of Rolfe and the rest of the family?

Yeah, well, that sounds weird, doesn’t it? I mean, I should say that the movie itself is a bit more tonally distinctive than it sounds – it’s not like this is some earnest issue-of-the-week telemovie: the B-plot appears to concern a French Marxist biker short person played by Peter Dinklage, who engages in a wild affair with a free-spirited and open-minded woman played by Patricia Arquette (the scene in which the two of them consummate their relationship, to a reggae soundtrack, is not one which quickly or easily fades from the memory). It does have some star power attached to it, too. Carol is played by Kate Beckinsale. Steve is played by Matthew McConaughey. And Rolfe is played by Gary Oldman.

(A brief pause to let that sink in is probably appropriate at this point.)

Yes: Rolfe the short person is played by Gary Oldman, who is five-foot-nine (174cm, for metricalists) and thus not the most obvious choice for the part. Oldman himself has said he thought it was a dream of a role, but admits that playing a short person was ‘a stretch’ (a perhaps infelicitous choice of words). He spends the majority of the film shuffling around on his knees, or kneeling down behind things, or with his lower body concealed inside furniture and tiny prop legs arranged in front of him. The prosthetics and so on are all acceptably well-done, but it’s still obviously Gary Oldman on his knees attempting a role for which he is arguably not qualified. I mean, it’s Oldman so he gives a great performance, as usual, but it’s like watching a man attempting complex and subtle card-tricks while the building around him burns down: your attention is always being dragged elsewhere.

Gary Oldman is on the left, in case you were wondering.

I’m not normally one to get too exercised about the whole issue of ‘appropriate casting’, but in this case it’s a difficult thing to get past – this one creative decision sends the whole film into a spin, making it uproarious and risible even when it’s trying to be serious. The presence of Dinklage really strips away the producers’ possible defence that a capable short-person actor was not available (though to be fair, Dinklage has defended the casting of Oldman).

I suspect that at this point in his career, Matthew McConaughey was doing whichever script landed at the top of the pile on his doormat, but the presence of Kate Beckinsale is at least a little curious: apparently she agreed to do the film at a greatly reduced rate, provided she was allowed to wear her lucky hat on-camera. This sounds like a bluff to me, but the director agreed (a row about the hat between the director and the producers ensued). Exactly what Kate Beckinsale’s lucky hat looks like I’m not sure, as she explores several curious avenues of the milliner’s art in the course of the movie; she is playing the type of character who tends to express their individuality by putting weird things on their head.

It’s hard to imagine Tiptoes having been made with a different cast – the extant version does burn itself into the memory once seen – but even so, I think the audience would still have been in for a rocky ride with this movie. It’s not just the casting that makes Tiptoes feel quite so off-kilter and peculiar, it’s the script. Towards the end all the weirdness with French Marxist bikers and the sex lives of short people drops away and it turns into a rather contrived and sentimental melodrama, as Steve falls short of meeting his responsibilities and romance blooms between Carol and Rolfe. If, as some would have you believe, this is a rom-com, it’s a rom-com where the main character abandons his wife and child and she then settles down with his short-person brother instead. Richard Curtis this is not.

No wonder the film has essentially vanished into obscurity. Is it worth watching? Well – if you’re a particular admirer of Gary Oldman and his undoubted talents, then perhaps,  but for everyone else this is the kind of film you only watch in order to confirm for yourself it actually exists. It does: it is every bit as magnetically weird and appalling as I had suspected (and hoped). I don’t have much of a bucket list, and the one I do have is now appreciably shorter.

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There is, as we are always being told, no such thing as bad publicity. This especially applies when you are trying to launch a movie into a crowded marketplace, with the result that hapless PR agencies have the habit of latching onto the slightest irregularity or quirk in a film’s production and making it a central plank of their promotional campaign. There are some films which are marketed not on the strength of their stories or creators, but simply on the novelty of the fact that they were made for an especially large or small amount of money, or by an especially small or large group of people – or, indeed, over a particularly long or short period of time.

Falling resoundingly into this lattermost camp is Boyhood, written and directed by Richard Linklater (whom I must confess is one of those much-respected directors none of whose films I can recall seeing). Boyhood is, as it sounds, a coming-of-age drama about a fairly ordinary, perhaps slightly gifted young man living in Texas. What makes it noteworthy and lifts it into the major achievement category is the fact that, as you probably know, Linklater began the project in 2002 and proceeded to film a few minutes every year, retaining the same actors throughout.

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Ellar Coltrane plays Mason, the central character, Patricia Arquette his mother, Ethan Hawke his frequently-absent father, Lorelei Linklater his older sister. The story is that… well, when we meet him, he is six years old, and when the film concludes, twelve years later, he is (spoiler alert) eighteen. In between he changes schools and moves house several times, makes and loses friends, discovers his vocation, suffers some unflattering haircuts, has a couple of romances, struggles to cope with his mother’s poor taste in partners…

In short, nothing particularly memorable happens, beyond the stuff that makes up the most memorable moments of most people’s lives. You might therefore argue that all the attention Boyhood has attracted is a result of its extraordinary filming process rather than any actual significance or quality in the movie itself. On the other hand, it’s very difficult to distinguish between the medium and the message in this case – the whole point of making a film this way is to capture the small realities of life, and I suspect the project required a massive degree of flexibility from both the script and the actors (I understand many scenes were semi-improvised, with Coltrane gradually taking on a much greater role as a contributor as he grew older).

Watching it is certainly a unique experience – much as I enjoy a sprawling biographical epic, there’s never been anything like watching Coltrane almost imperceptibly age across the course of the film’s rather significant running time, just as all the other characters grow older at the same time. Linklater avoids all the usual signposts of the passage of time: there are no Christmases or New Years, only the odd birthday, and he eschews the use of captions to indicate how quickly time is elapsing. The results are somewhat eerie and I did find myself relying on other clues sprinkled across the film to keep track of time.

Boyhood obviously also operates as something of a potted social history of the last decade or so – as Sheryl Crow is eventually replaced by Lady Gaga on the soundtrack, you are reminded of how much things have changed, and there’s a weird sort of instant nostalgia in seeing a young Mason queueing for the latest Harry Potter novel on release. There’s even a little bit of irony, partly when Obama’s first election campaign hits the action (Mason’s dad is a true believer), but especially a scene from about 2008 where father and son firmly conclude that making any more Star Wars movies would obviously be a really stupid idea.

The film may be about Mason, but he isn’t in every scene, and you could make a strong argument that the film is about his parents just as much as it is him. All the characters inevitably go through some kind of transformation in the course of the film, and the performances of Arquette and Hawke are both superb. One inevitably finds oneself wondering just how they approached their roles – how did they maintain a characterisation so intermittently, over such a long period? But this just opens the door to a dozen such questions – what on earth were the logistics of making this film like? How much did they plan ahead? How much was actually scripted?

Then again, I’m not sure I really want to know, as exploring the reality of Boyhood as a film is surely contrary to the intentions of the film as a piece of art. Most films are studiously artificial in their treatment of time, space, and character, but Boyhood seems to me to be an attempt to reduce the margin between film and reality as much as possible, within a fictional narrative at least. Watching it is an extraordinary and quite moving experience: you really do feel invested in these characters, almost like part of the family, long before the end – which, inevitably, comes at what feels like the least likely and appropriate moment. But that’s the point – life goes on, unlike a film. Boyhood is closer to life than virtually any other film I can recall seeing – it may look like it’s about nothing, but in reality it contains everything. Very nearly unmissable if you are interested in serious cinema, but I wouldn’t necessarily rush to see it. It will probably be a while before the sequel comes out.

 

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