The directorial debut of Alex Garland – he who wrote 28 Days Later and Sunshine, two of the finest genre films of the 2000s – is a fascinating beast for two reasons. First, it is not a particularly sterling work of writing at all, opting too often to tell when showing would be a better service, and uneasily dancing around some particularly flat-footed dialogue from time to time that causes the film to stumble over itself more often than is acceptable. Second, and this may prove the more important fact in the long haul, it is a shockingly forward-thinking, challenging work of direction from a man who has never formally directed before (although one can be sure he has osmosis-ed his fair share of tips and tricks from working with Danny Boyle, one of the finest stylists of the modern era). Part of the visual craft has to do with what I hope will be the big coming up party of cinematographer Rob Hardy, who consistently hints at the Kubricks and the Tarkovskys of the world without ever outright quoting them. But too much of what makes Ex Machina work is too tied into the framing and the mise-en-scene beyond the cinematographer that credit must be given where credit is due. Flaws aside, Garland has learned how to create a cinematic vision that is always, sometimes even in spite of itself, refreshingly cinematic. Continue reading
Yankee Doodle Dandy really doesn’t make it easy for itself. Consider the strikes against it. It is a Grand Old Biopic madly in love with its own subject matter. It is filmed by a director, who, for all his multitudinous strengths, was never all that invested in subverting or transforming his screenplays, a filmmaker who drew his vigor and interest precisely from the subject matter and the screenplay he was tackling. It is also a quintessential work of matching a great actor to an important historical figure, just about the biggest talent-suck set-up any film could possibly dread. With a performance and a subject to fill the box office and wow the middlebrows, a director has carte blanche to indulge in all the soporific tendencies of a screenplay, to blindly and blandly fill the screen with blasé Important Moments rather than to actually prop up the storytelling with invigorating artistic gestures. It is, in other words, a work that was dead in the water – artistically speaking at least – even before its release. Continue reading
>Rene Clair didn’t have it easy. Soundly trounced by the French New Wave and never really forgiven in the public consciousness, Clair was a hot button go-to guy in the early days of sound cinema, a born-and-bred scientist with tools in sound and space who saw cinema – like all the great early masters – as an expressive, flexible plaything more than a get-the-job-done tool. Play he did, although his somewhat overly-formed style admittedly hit a limit when it traded in the dangerous waters of experimentation for something a touch more gentle and composed. Clair enjoyed a good composition as much as the next director, but there was his compositions always ran the risk of boxing him in to a settled path, rather than letting him loose to ravenously tear down the walls and traverse new, unsettled regions of cinema. He had his limits, in other words, but the 2010s hardly even acknowledge him. Clair was a class act, and whatever his American films did to keep him away from true adventure and challenge, he never gave a film less than his full attention. The no man’s land that is his reputation today seldom takes into account his very real, if somewhat overly-rigid, talents as a filmmaker. Continue reading
When Ana Lily Amirpour recently released her lushly sensualist horror film A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, her cinematic passion was matched in its cathartic potency only by its free-wheeling desire to devour all influences. Obviously, Jim Jarmusch was the cipher through which her film’s identity was largely cracked, but in her sun-deprived cinematic wasteland, another female filmmaker was a key stepping stone: Kathryn Bigelow, a women who has since made a pit-stop in can’t-be-this-good action cinema before taking a well-deserved break to produce two of the finest naturalist war thrillers ever made. She went on to make more composed films, in other words, and probably better ones too, but her underdog outlaw passion in the world of film never burned as brightly as it did in her first big break: the 1987 film Near Dark, nothing less than a full-on vampire-western-romance-horror (a mouthful, but it should sound familiar to fans of Amirpour’s debut). It takes a lot for a film to invent a genre. That it comes within an inch of perfecting it on its first try is not only testament to Bigelow’s fully-formed craft, but of her restless, travelling spirit. Continue reading
Anyone familiar with Jacques Tourneur doesn’t need to read a review for evidence to the claim that Out of the Past is one of the best film noirs ever made. But that doesn’t mean establishing and specifying what is so undeniably great about it isn’t a worthwhile pleasure all the same. Cutting his teeth on Val Lewton’s near poverty-row horror unit for RKO, a team that single-handedly saved American horror in the 1940s by injecting a dose of the European, and a team which counted Tourneur as its most valuable member, Tourneur is one of the unheralded masters of the medium of cinema and one of the most poetic genre directors ever to grace the silver screen. Pairing him to noir like a fine wine to a slab of deliberately indelicate beef is too obvious to be a stroke of genius, but the results are no less marvelous for the “why didn’t they think of this earlier” nature of the film.
Pairing Robert Mitchum – ever the heavy – to a noir, however, was a stroke of genius, precisely because he made indelicate slabs out to be fine wine, making him the perfect bridge for the flavors milling around in Tourneur’s stew. Mitchum was a known face by 1947, but not even close to a star, and seeing his ambiguity flourish in Out of the Past is a tormented, deceptive beauty so perfectly matched to the material it almost approaches non-performance. Mitchum went on to fame as the cinema’s ultimate heel, concocting deliberately vague piles of blunt force that slithered and skulked across the land and directly into the dark hearts of humankind. The Night of the Hunter and Cape Fear find him too close and comfortable with pure evil for words. Nothing about him felt like acting, like trying; he conveyed an evil that simply existed, an unexplainable devil that could only be approached by running away. The problem with running away from Mitchum… he constructed figures so impenetrable and unknowable they couldn’t but chill the blood into stagnancy. Continue reading
And now for something completely different, although not that different when you really think about it.
Angels with Dirty Faces sees studio-man extraordinaire Michael Curtiz changing course away from the lush theatrical silliness of two of the finest pre-war matinee fluff pieces ever made, and moving toward the darker regions that would occupy the American fascination upon its descent into World War II and the harsher regions of human activity. The US spent a good deal of the 1930s hiding itself from the horrors of both the world and of itself, and Curtiz was a whiz at the sort of aww-shucks adventurous quality used to whisk America off to a dream world where problems didn’t so much trouble as exist to provide delectable, delightful solutions. 1939’s Angels with Dirty Faces does not, at first glance, appear to be the work of the same filmmaker. Tonally, it is the polar opposite of Curtiz’s two great prior works, descending into the muck of seedy, lonesome, grotesques and brutish grime that would become the “film noir” a few years later. Yet, a closer look yields a slightly different take, finding Curtiz using the same style he perfected in his previous films to wildly different ends. Continue reading
At some level, we must concede that Michael Curtiz was more of a filmmaker of efficient craftmaking than superlative artistic ambition; this sense of getting-the-job-done pervades even his masterpiece, Casablanca, but gosh darn it, well-oiled-machine filmmaking has never been more delectable than Michael Curtiz filmmaking. The perpetually underrated master of the craft was no auteur, nor did he want to be, but his films sparkle with single-minded clarity and blunt craft like nothing else from the Hollywood machine in its early days. Again, he was a studio guy for Warner Bros and he always operated with a sort of humility to his stories that saw him not so much take control of them and do with them as he would; rather, he focused on a propulsive forward movement to his tales, a sort of inescapable quality that made the stories feel like they were telling themselves first and foremost. Yet Curtiz was always there, making functional filmmaking the food of the gods and cutting through the fat to produce films that, if not entirely perfect or challenging in the most overt of ways, were at east the most perfect versions of themselves. Continue reading