Monday, April 25, 2011

Movie Web Monday: Donnie Wahlberg

Movie Web Monday: Each week, I'll look at a specific actor's roles across three good movies. The third movie will in turn tie into the first movie of the next week's actor, whose third movie will continue the pattern. I will go through actors and movies at this rate, with the following limitations in mind: every movie(or television show) invoked will be one I either own, or wish to own; no movie or actor will be invoked twice. So sit back and enjoy as you fall into the nerdery's movie web. (Oh, and I'll try to keep spoilers to a minimum, telling you just enough to know if you'll enjoy the movie)

Donnie Wahlberg: All too brief, not what you expect

Movie: The Sixth Sense (Own it)

Although he's only in the opening scene of the movie, Donnie Wahlberg, as troubled medium Vincent Grey, adds a key pathetic element to The Sixth Sense. This is critical because sympathy, apathy, and empathy are really symbolic keys to analyzing the film. There are no proper villains, no single antagonist opposing the protagonists at each plot point. Rather, the film revolves around internalized demons--the tendency to dismiss 'freaks' in our midst, and the ease with which we ignore suffering--and to that end, Vincent shows the menacing potential of those demons. Wahlberg's portrayal of Vincent is acutely memorable, as his appearance in the scene is immediately threatening and also depressingly vulnerable. He's broken, shuddering, and naked, but the audience knows that he's dangerous, as he is both weak and liable to strike out at any moment. In a movie with very little concrete action, this first scene establishes that the cerebral plot has appreciable, deadly stakes. And Donnie Wahlberg achieves this in only a few moments of screen-time, embodying the conceit so well that he's hardly recognizable.

Granted, throwing a scrawny, sobbing dude in his tighty-whiteys into the exposition of a film is a sure-fire way to barb its way into the audience's memory. Either that, or to force the scarred viewers to blot the image from their minds. I think my wife falls into the latter category. Regardless, Wahlberg gives a striking, jarring performance that cuts out the main theme of the movie with scalpel-like precision.

Movie: Dreamcatcher (Own it) LIGHT SPOILERS AHEAD

Cast yet again in a brief but powerful role, Donnie Wahlberg plays Douglas Cavell--Duditz--in the Stephen King-based horror film Dreamcatcher. Even more than his impact in The Sixth Sense, Duditz looms over the film, his shadow preceding his inevitable appearance as a Godot sort of character. Only, since Stephen King is in the business of giving his audience what they want, we get to see the Godot figure in Dreamcatcher, and we're both under-whelmed and impressed by his brief presence. In The Sixth Sense, Wahlberg is introduced as a frantic, naked man. In Dreamcatcher, he stumbles into the film, hair falling out from chemotherapy, crying all over himself as he childishly hugs Henry--a friend he hasn't seen in twenty years. It's awkwardly endearing, and Thomas Jane as Henry plays opposite Wahlberg well, feeling the subdued shame of having grown up while Duditz has maintained the same innocent mind despite his deteriorating health. This is a fun contradiction, as Duditz is brought into the movie's plot to help save the protagonists, despite the fact that he has the mind of a child and the physique of an invalid. But, when Duditz encounters the hideous antagonist at the film's climax, he invokes his favorite show as he psyches himself up for a wicked moment of extra-terrestrial mind-frakking:

I love it. You wouldn't expect a mentally-handicapped clairvoyant to have much of a "You're going down, b----!" moment, but when it comes, I always find myself thrilling to the line and Wahlberg's slurred delivery of it. That--and the associated butt-kicking he delivers--is a fun way to pull a victory out of a typically dark Stephen King climax. I need to start introducing it into regular conversation.

In fact, I wish I'd thought to utter it in the delivery room when my wife started to go into transition labor. There she is, sweating, propped up, and grunting through searing contractions as I lovingly hold her hand and slur in the Duditz voice: "Ooby-Ooby Doo, we got some work to do now." I'm sure it would've been magic. Although on second thought, I doubt she would've appreciated me invoking the movie with the famous 'bathroom scene' in the middle of such a grueling and gruesome life experience.

Silly women.

Mini-series: Band of Brothers (Own it) LIGHT SPOILERS AHEAD

While Donnie Wahlberg plays fleeting but key roles in The Sixth Sense and Dreamcatcher, he gets to feature in every episode of the essentially-perfect World War Two mini-series Band of Brothers. As C. Carwood Lipton, Wahlberg's character is one of dozens of grounded, relatable characters that fill the roster of the early episodes of the series. But there's too much distraction of plot and being masterfully deceived as to who the audience should fixate upon to really appreciate his character early on. This isn't a fault of Wahlberg's acting or the directing of the series--rather, it's a mighty asset of the direction of the series, giving it the chaotic, rich texture of a documentary with the gratifying personal touch of the very best war movies yet made.

When Lipton becomes one of the principal protagonists about halfway through the series, we're gratified to recognize him as a solid, reliable soldier and leader from the past year of narrative, and concurrently the audience is assured of his fitness for promotion when it finally does come. Wahlberg's performance is also one of the most subdued personalities of the company of characters--alongside Damian Lewis as Winters, he is the master of dead-pan, he can appreciate his decisions as being deliberately wise, but far from ingenious, and you feel that he has a generally good relationship with everyone in the company without being a raucous carouser or specifically invested with a key group of friends. This ensures that when he steps to the narrative foreground of the series, Lipton is a personality that is not only trusted by the characters as a soldier, but also trusted by the audience as a narrator and consistent filter for evaluating the world around Easy Company.

This is critical, as Lipton sells us on the value and trust-worthiness of Spears. An officer who is ambiguously portrayed early on in the series as having killed a group of Nazi prisoners, Spears is the emblem of military rumor-milling and a sort-of Machiavellian approach to small-scale military leadership. When he takes over Easy Company, though, he gets Lipton's immediate approval--which is more than qualified enough for the audience at that point.

Over the course of a ten-part series, some might say that Band of Brothers is too long, or just long enough. I've always felt that it could have easily been twice as long, thanks in large part to the wonderfully real performances delivered by all of the actors involved.

Of course, I've sat down to watch all three extended editions of The Lord of the Rings in one sitting. Several times. And I've done the same with Band of Brothers. So your mileage may vary. But if you don't love it, you might be stupid. Or a ruga.

Or both.

Movie Web Monday will continue next week with a new actor, picking up with some other prolific player from the last movie listed above.

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