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David Gordon Green
Paul Thomas Anderson
Tran Anh Hung
Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu
the Dardenne brothers
Gus Van Sant
Lars Von Trier
Filmmakers I don't like:
M. Night Shyamalan
Francis Ford Coppola
Children of Men (2006)
So, so much more than a Hollywood action movie
Whoa, talk about a mis-marketed movie! Never have I seen a film's trailer do so little justice to what the film actually is. I went and saw this for $1 at my incredibly sleazy neighborhood second-run theater expecting some neat cinematography ('cause I'd already seen some clips on Youtube) and that's about it. Oh how much more this turned out to be. To call this a "Hollywood" film seems grossly inaccurate (save for a few small moments here and there, which I'll get to in a moment), as I can't really think of any Hollywood movie to compare it to stylistically or thematically. It reminds me more of Michael Haneke's "Time of the Wolf" than anything else, but with a camera style which actually recalls Gaspar Noe's "Irreversible" (an almost absurd thought for a big-budget, studio-backed film). It is this insane cinematography which really earns the film such an outstanding score, since I guess I can see how the same screenplay could have resulted in a pretty stupid movie in anyone else's hands. While certainly not cringe-worthy and pandering, the script does struggle with some very clunky exposition (like every time Clive Owen's dead child is brought up, or when the midwife suddenly begins explaining her back story randomly for seemingly no reason), and strains credibility for the sake of plot-momentum at at least one point (namely where Clive Owen conveniently overhears how The Fish killed his ex-wife. The script's reliance on surprise moments also wore a little thin after a while (the scene where we think Jasper is dead but he isn't works, but by the time we get to where we think the prison guard is going to whack Clive Owen but he doesn't it's gotten contrived). I also found the very ending rather disappointing. Having succeeded so thoroughly at creating an uncompromisingly bleak tone, it feels like a slap in the face to the rest of the film when the "Tomorrow" boat appears. If it had ended just a few moments earlier, with Clive Owen and the girl floating alone in their dinky little boat, it would have been amazing. That said, none of these vague flaws do anything in the long run to diminish the sheer impact the rest of the film creates. Through the masterful long takes and unbelievably complexly choreographed mis-en-scene a sense of pure sensory overload and tension is attained unlike anything else I have ever seen. To compare it to the beginning of "Saving Private Ryan" feels cheap and does no justice to the film as a whole, yet it is the only comparison within mainstream cinema that I can think of. But unlike Spielberg's drivel, Children of Men refuses to soften up, or to take sides. The bleakness is overwhelming and deadening, the violence is jarring and frightening, as much the polar opposite of Quentin Tarantino's violence as I can imagine. The few moments of tenderness feel hard-earned and real, and pack just as much emotional punch to me as the film's violence. I find it remarkable now the film refuses to portray either the rebels or the government as admirable. In the context of the violent frenzy, "sides" don't even come into play, it's just pure terror. I loved how the camera would often wander indiscriminately, catching little visual asides and focusing on them for little moments, giving a greater sense of just how much is going on during all these scenes of intense combat, or even just the glimpse of Jaspar and his catatonic wife we get after Clive Owen and the girl leave, something a "normal" Hollywood movie would never do. The entire refugee camp sequence is as masterful a piece of virtuosic visual film-making as I have ever seen. Granted, all of this probably loses quite a bit of impact on a small screen, so I'm glad I saw it in a theater, albeit as shoddy a theater as one can imagine, especially since it's really as much of a last chance to do so as I could possibly get (hell, the movie's already out on DVD).
As a side note, anyone who dismisses the film's cinematography because Emmanuel Lubezki occasionally "cheated" with the long takes by digitally enhancing them is, in my opinion, not only entirely missing the point but also snobbishly denying the possibilities that digital post-production offer, in my eyes not at all different from refusing to listen to music made on a synthesizer or even to refuse to listen to music on compact disc or MP3!
Speaking Parts (1989)
One of the best films of the 1980s
Small aspects of this film seem a bit dated, but Egoyan makes up for it by being so astonishingly innovative with everything else. It's strange to think that lost among the sea of crap that is most 80s cinema, is this deeply idiosyncratic ode to alienation that predates so much that has been come to be taken for granted in international art cinema. David Lynch is the only other filmmaker in North America I can think of who was even close to doing films this interesting in the 80s. Steven Soderbergh pretty much owes "Sex, Lies, and Videotape", and thus his entire career, to having the balls to steal what Egoyan was doing, relatively unseen, at the time, and passing off his own watered-down version.
Flawed, but still the strongest fictional cinematic portrayal of Charles Bukowski thus far
There's no getting around the fact that Matt Dillon cannot possibly make himself ugly enough to look anything like Bukowski actually did, but he does his best to capture the writer's posture and way of carrying himself. If the end result does not resemble Bukowski as much as it does Humphrey Bogart, it is only because Matt Dillon is a good-looking actor. I suppose he could have tried to match Buk's voice more though. In all fairness, the film does try to capture some of Bukowski's harsher edges (his violence against women for example), in an effort to counteract the sense of sterilization brought about by the generally good-looking performers (sure, Lili Taylor may not be the best-looking actress around, but she's still in much better shape than a wino like she depicts would be). The use of very formal, long camera takes is an unexpected but interesting choice (and shows the film's Scandinavian roots), although the distance it brings adds a further sense of cleanliness into what is essentially very gritty subject matter. Of course, the film is supposed to be a comedy, and this camera technique does help to give the film a deadpan Jarmusch/Kaurismaki edge to it (although it still isn't ecstatically funny). Oddly, the screenplay somehow feels over-reverent of Bukowski in some aspects (full Bukowski poems are heard, read by Dillon in a notably un-Bukowski like voice, on the soundtrack), and at the same time too broadly drawn. With it's rambling, episodic structure and predominant focus on Bukowski's relationships with women, the film at times begins to resemble not so much a specific biography but rather any number of other stories about aimless twenty-something aspiring artist types and their relationship troubles (think "Jesus Son"). Luckily in my case, I have a naturally high affinity for these types of stories anyway, so it didn't bother me as it might someone more tired of these "angst and anomie among the young and bohemian" tales. Still, as far as on-screen Bukowski goes, your best bets are documentaries. The recent "Bukowski: Born Into This" is the most expansive, detailed, and definitive, but Barbet Schroeder's four-hour "Bukowski Tapes" is also worth seeing for it's intimate, in-depth nature, although it is exhausting and presented in a way that becomes repetitive. The "Bukowski At Bellevue" live performance video is interesting but unessential if you know the poems. But if fictional Buk is what you're after, I'd say that "Factotum" is definitely the way to go, relative to the limited choices that exist. As far as I'm concerned, "Barfly" is blandly crafted and over-acted, essentially reducing Bukowski to a drunken buffoon. "Tales of Ordinary Madness" is generally considered atrocious, though I have only seen a few minutes of it myself. "Crazy Love" is not really about Bukowski at all, and is a terrible film to boot. "Factotum" perhaps merely trades one cliché vision of Bukowski for another (in "Factotum"'s case, Bukowski as a sort of suave, troubled yet romantic working-class genius), but at least "Factotum"'s I can not only tolerate, but find enjoyable watching.
Epic yet intimate - the film that best defines our planet at the beginning of the 21st century
How the hell Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu is going to top this one is beyond me. He's really delivered a transcendent masterpiece here. As much as 21 Grams was a progression from Amores perros, Babel is at least twice as much a progression from 21 Grams. Inarritu is really moving toward a very pure, poetic form of visual cinema. That he managed to do it within the context of a $25 million dollar Hollywood film is truly an unbelievable feat, a genuine act of beating the system (every bit as much as The New World was, but without Malick's legendary status within the industry to explain it's existence). It's really genius subversion. He obviously used Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett in order to get the film made, but uses them in at most 25% of the film. 90% of the rest of it is not even in English! On top of all that, it has a completely un-Hollywood sensibility. Mood and visuals take considerable precedence over plot (far more than in Inarritu's previous work), and the results bare more far similarity to Olivier Assayas's recent work than anything that usually comes out of Hollywood. With this film, I think Inarritu has placed himself at the very forefront of youngish auteurs working within non-commercial cinema, anywhere. Certainly he's the best working (vaguely) within the American system, with this film surpassing even Paul Thomas Anderson or David Gordon Green. Actually, come to think of it, Babel is in many ways the film Magnolia tried but failed to be: An incredibly ambitious epic of intimate proportions, capturing with pitch-perfect accuracy the state of humankind at this moment, in this case not just in America but the world. I would go as far as to say it is THE film of our time, in any larger socio-political sense. Not that the filmmakers are ever didactic enough to reduce their film's scope into any particular "issues" (this is far from Crash II). Guillermo Arriaga's script perhaps shows sign of strain at times (particularly in finding a credible connection between the story lines), but I feel that it's possible under-development (at least relative to the first two installments of their trilogy) actually works in the film's favor. It suffers from little schematicness where it could have, instead letting the individual plot lines exist pretty much naturally on their own. My personal favorite of the story lines has to be the Japanese segment, which showcases the most of Inarritu's visually-dominated narrative approach (particularly the incredible nightclub sequence).
All the Vermeers in New York (1990)
Excellent combination of rigorous formalism and spontaneous improvisation
Jon Jost impressed me quite a bit with this. I'll definitely need to check out more of his stuff. The way he combines very formal camera-work with naturalistic, improvisational performances struck me as really great. Best of both worlds, as it were, yet the styles didn't clash at all. I found it had all the life and spontaneity of, say, a Cassavetes film, but without the kind of off-the-cuff hand-held cinematography I've come to expect from that sort of film. It reminded me more than a little of Antonioni, actually. It also managed to be very funny in a great, observational kind of way. It actually really amazes me how it captures that little spark of life, that nuance, while at the same time being visually so thought-out and impressive to look at (with lots of nice breaking of the 180-degree rule too). Unfortunately the DVD transfer I saw was not the best, so i felt like i wasn't quite getting the full experience. Also, a few slightly indulgent moments (though nothing intolerable or even much different from the more trying moments of Angelopoulos or Carlos Reygadas) left the film less than perfect, along with an ending that I felt didn't quite come off the way it should have.
Fast Food Fast Women (2000)
Should have been called "Bad Mood, Bad Acting"
OK, OK... that pun is pretty lame I admit, but no worse than some of the attempts at humor in this film. Which is actually not to say that this film is completely terrible. It isn't, not by a long shot. But it just isn't that good either. I actually enjoyed Amos Kollek's earlier film "Fiona" quite a bit (and I would still be very interesting in seeing his film "Sue"), but this was really nothing like that gritty, slice-of-life, documentary-style film. This was more of a quirky, almost sitcom-ish comedy. To Kollek's credit, this predates the whole quirky indie trend by a few years, so it doesn't quite have the same pre-meditated feel as, say, "Me and You and Everyone We Know", however it has a lot of the same problems as that film did. None of the characters seem at all real, and everything they do or say feels completely scripted to be "witty" or "quirky" (and is only sporadically funny, although at least it is, a little). The whole film gives off a decidedly no-budget feel, with very primitive camera work and often amateurish acting (despite the presence of Louise Lasser), which in and of itself isn't bad, since at least it doesn't have the studio gloss of most recent similarly-minded pseudo-indie films. If anything, i give the film a little more credit than it probably deserves, just for having such a run-and-gun, no-budget feel. I did like the choppy, rough editing, for purely aesthetic reasons. Also it deserves some credit for not having too much of a plot (except towards the end), and a good unhurried pace.
Half Nelson (2006)
The great shining hope of US indie film? I think yes.
Everything about this work is refreshing and inspiring. A perfect alternative to the glut of trendy, "quirky" pseudo-indie comedies that are smothering the market. Ryan Gosling's performance is easily the best I've seen this year, absolutely pitch-perfect, and his young co-star is brilliantly anti-cute. What could potentially be a tepid "inspirational" story a la Finding Forrester instead hits a note indescribably more profound and elusive. Although i initially felt like the use of the "interrupting cow" joke was ripping off David Gordon Green's film "Undertow", it ultimately allows for one of the best ending scenes I think I've ever seen. Visually the film was also surprisingly fresh, demonstrating how hand-held camera work can be done right, and achieving an unusually high level of poetic beauty for an American film (in the way the film at times lets some scenes drift into more abstract, purely visual moments). Knowing that Broken Social Scene did the soundtrack was enough to get me to watch this, and the film did not disappoint on that front either. I do find it interesting that now two films have used the Leslie Feist-sang version of "Lover's Spit" for moody love scenes (the other being "Lie with Me", but used much more effectively here).
Motel Seoninjang (1997)
When you've exhausted your collection of Wong Kar-Wai films but are hungry for more...
here's a nice alternative. Christopher Doyle's incredible cinematography lends this film a certain inherent value as a Wong Kar-Wai supplement, but in all fairness the aesthetics can only take it so far. Although it is my no means less than a very good film, it's very concept (four short segments taking place in the same motel room) carries with it certain limitations. Whereas Wong Kar-Wai is always able to get very deep down into his characters, this film doesn't have time to allow it's characters much room to develop, so there is a certain surface-level detachment to the entire proceedings. We see these couples (and they are photographed exquisitely), but we don't really get to know them.
Heat and Sunlight (1987)
An important, overlooked piece of truly independent American film-making
Symbolically this film represents the last hurrah of truly underground American film-making before it crossed over into the "indie" cottage industry we know today, as it won the grand prize at the Sundance Film Festival (then still known as the US Film Festival) a year before the levee broke, so to speak, with "Sex, Lies and Videotape". Artistically, it presents a kind of forgotten missing link between Cassavetes and Harmony Korine. The director and star Rob Nilsson (who's performance and double duty here both strike me as a bit of a precursor to Vincent Gallo as well), heavily inspired by Cassavetes, created his own filmic method he calls "direct action cinema" which basically just means complete spontaneous improvisation from the mostly non-professional actors, mostly hand-held camera and minimal lights etc. Nothing too revolutionary by today's standards, but considering this was 1987 not many people were doing this, let alone in America. He also injects a very innovative editing style strikingly reminiscent of what Harmony Korine would do some ten years later, particularly similar to "Julien Donkey-Boy" with it's ultra-grainy visual quality (Black and white 16mm? Analogue video?) and extensive use of still-frame snapshot images. Despite all this remarkable innovation, the film is not without it's flaws and is in some ways actually very dated. A few unfortunate sequences have a glaringly cheesy "80s"ness to them (leg warmers?), and also the overall production quality, while admirable in it's embodiment of true independent spirit, is also a bit rough to say the least. Still, the actual storyline itself is really very good and the acting, for the most part, is engaging (although I may have considered someone else for the lead role besides Nilsson himself, a choice which strikes of a certain egoism). As a kind of forgotten building block in the independent filmic language it is well worth seeing (and I'm pretty sure Harmony Korine must have seen this since it contains the idea of "jokes without punchlines" in a very amusing sequence).
Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself (2002)
Another fairly bland effort from Lone Scherfig, albeit with some potential
Lone Scherfig has to be the most blandly mediocre filmmaker working today that i can think of. Her Dogme film "Italian for Beginners" was easily the least-inspired entry in that pseudo-series (what else would I call it?) that I've seen, and this sadly fairs only slightly better, and really only because the premise has some inherent potential. The first half hour or so is actually not bad, and has some funny parts, but then it quickly loses focus and just kind of plods around for another looong hour+. Instead of fulfilling the promise of it's chosen subject matter, the film oddly chooses to practically abandon it's initial theme and instead wastes a lot of time with incredibly generic soap-opera plot contrivances. As a whole the film just seems rudderless and oddly uninspired. No sense of tone or craft. Did anyone working on the film really think the horrible sentimental music was appropriate? There are too many unnecessary minor characters each with a too-tidy arch, and a lot of pointless scenes that seem like they were added just to pad out the running time even though the movie already seems too drawn-out. Overall this movie is more just strangely flat than outright bad in almost any sense, full of an overwhelming feeling of dull underachievement.