You couldn’t find a more idiosyncratic director in classic Hollywood than Robert Wise. Sweaty potboilers, abstracted populist science fiction, howling horror, atomic age message pictures, and gilded, gloriously melodramatic maxi-packed musicals. All bubbled under his domain. Plus, he contributed the insurmountably essential, firecracker editing for no less a picture than Citizen Kane back when he was still in his pre-directing days. He was something of the ultimate Hollywood jack of all trades, and it is true that he wasn’t the greatest master of any single genre. But he was more than a shadow passing through genres as a director-for-hire. He put his personal stamp on every film he ever touched, and he never gave a picture less than 100% of his charisma. 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
Because I reviewed the sequel…
Robert Rodriguez, try as he might, will probably never be a great director, but he is at least a director capable of great passion and investment in messy products when he gets around to it. His greatest films (and admittedly, his worst, but that is what happens when we are in the company of a very personal director) are generally those which see him in full control, although Sin City is something of an exception. It is perhaps his best film, but saying that Sin City is one of Robert Rodriguez’s best films doesn’t exactly address the extent to which it is a Robert Rodriguez film. Certainly, it is probably the furthest from his traditional wheelhouse of any film he has yet made, largely because it is a trade-off of his own alternately candy-coated and drained-out latin-tinged aesthetic for the hard-edged noir of Frank Miller’s sort. Beyond this, while Miller’s garish chiaroscuro could only come from the heyday of the amoral 1940s or the dark and dreary 1980s (bleeding over into the early ’90s, when the Sin City graphic novels began in earnest), Rodriguez knows only the exploitation films of the 1970s and pop-and-fizzle children’s movies of the atomic ’50s and bubblegum ’60s. Add in the fact that Rodriguez, whether hyper-saturating them to the point of bursting in Spy Kids or muting to a tactile sweat in Desperado, is a director of color, and Sin City is defined primarily by the absence of color, and what you’ve got is a genuine experiment. But how close this film in particular apes Miller’s style – we’re talking lengthy recreations of shot-by-shot panels and direct copies from the books – begs the question of whether it really is Rodrigeuz’s in the first place.
Joe Eszterhas, at the height of his power and world-damaging, rampaging misogyny in 1992, gifts Basic Instinct with an absolutely torrid, huffing, wheezing, terrible screenplay. This much cannot be denied. Everything about the screenplay insists and states that which it could have implied, adds in unnecessary and morally offensive complication whenever it can, and generally lives by the motto “why say something better when we can say it more?” It is a bottom-feeding early ’90s erotic thriller screenplay if ever there was one, indulging in the stupidest amounts of shoddy characterization and faux-drama it possibly can. It is as if he lost a bet and had to write it and market it against his will. Except, of course, Joe Eszterhas doesn’t seem to have a kind view of women, let alone lesbian women, and, from his other screenplays, we can assume he loved damn near every word of his oppressive money-maker.
If we are being honest, Ridley Scott is not a director worthy of his reputation. His 1970s were certainly pretty sterling; he entered the world with a very good, if inessential, period-piece parable in the under-seen The Duellists, and then down-tuned sci-fi to elemental levels of fear with the masterful Alien, one of the greatest genre films ever made. Not wanting to be type-cast at the turn of the ’80s, he upped himself through transposing his native science fiction into another genre, not quite as openly horrific, but with no less to say about humanity’s fears: the noir. The resulting film, Blade Runner, is his masterpiece. The ensuing three decades and more have seen him shoot sloppily back and forth between chasing former glories unsuccessfully and entering the bold, exciting new territory of … stripping the cinematic magic whole cloth from the period piece and turning the genre into a drab excuse for materialist rationalism. Again. And again. And again.
Yet 1995 was not simply a year of corporate indulgence; it was also a period where the rampant nihilist streak inherent to much of the cinema of the late ’90s and the 2000s and still running wild today came to fruition in the eyes of one music video director…
You don’t get too far these days without a David Fincher film tying up the woodworks of fall with a Gothic gloom a mile wide that it hides nothing but (briefly) its own self-boredom. Fincher’s aesthetic is so wound-up and ready for battle that it’s hard to remember a time when his way was a new arbiter for the sort of caustic, nihilist, curdled noir not seen since the Atomic Age. Once upon a time, he was one of many young upstarts responsible form the gloomy, grim ’90s – back when gloomy and grim were actually artistic statements rather than cynical cash-grabs. Moving from the music video world to the gaping hole that was the solemn sigh of Alien 3 without much distinction, Seven was a whole other beast, capturing the baroque loss of his previous film and using it rather than abusing it. And what use! Seven is among the finest American films of its decade, bruised and hurting but always nervous and fighting back, thriving on a tension between lively pugnaciousness and mournful wistfulness that never ceases to sting.
Long-time coming for the ever-hungry child-in-a-toy-store director that is Robert Zemeckis, Who Framed Roger Rabbit was his repayment for bringing the monstrous box office success of Back to the Future to the screen with pop and pizzaz aplenty. If Back to the Future was a delicious cotton-candy confection with a hidden rambunctiousness filtered into deconstructing space and time, Who Framed Roger Rabbit was Zemeckis’ ultimate tribute to cinema as a visual art form. It’s also the film he’d been building toward, Back to the Future having couched his clear dreamer’s eye technicality in a more subdued package. For, nowadays, when one thinks of Robert Zemeckis, one thinks of technology and advancement, in that order. He’s always been more interested in cinema as a plaything than anything else. It was a means to an end for him. If in recent years this has seen his reach exceed his grasp as he pursued avenues less filmically formed, he never achieved an “end” more loving and lovely than Who Framed Roger Rabbit, his 1988 dissection of genre and reality all curled up in just about the snuggest, most effervescent package you can find.
What a gleefully macabre noir masquerading as neo-realist drama this is. From Bong Joon-ho, the director of The Host and the astoundingly underrated Memories of Murder, comes a film that manages to both swaggeringly eviscerate expectations by shifting gears every thirty minutes while also remaining so confident and thoroughly quiet about its gusto that it flows like butter. This film is dark and dreary, with a wonderfully droll sense of humor, and it brings new life to detective conventions by casting a middle-aged mother (Hye-Ja played by Kim Hye-Ja) as a detective with a personal stake in the crime. It’s a true pitch-black pleasure. Continue reading
Or: a couple of short reviews I had penned and linked together in one of my patented “just made up on the spot” combinations, namely that they are both products of 2005, they are both depressingly cynical and nihilistic modern reflections of the long history of their respective genres, and they, respectively, fit into the genres I’ve covered in the past couple months: the western and film noir. Again, don’t think too much about why I posted these films together. Just enjoy the ride.
The significant resurgence of the Western genre since about 2005 (for reasons I’m not entirely sure of) is one of the few truly surprisingly revelations from the cinematic world to be found this past decade. It’s all the more notable particularly because the Westerns themselves have taken so many different forms, from pure, effervescent myth-making, to black-hearted heaving gasps of grimy moral decay, to slowly gliding, almost Impressionist location tapestries where characters serve merely as extensions of the environment, to plain ol’ rootin-tootin shoot em’ up character studies.
One of the first, and among the absolute best, in this trend was John Hillcoat’s rusty nail mauling of the gaping, open wound flesh wound of Australian history, The Proposition. It wouldn’t emerge the best Western over the past ten years (my vote would probably go to the sensuous The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford), but it’s within earshot of the title. Considering the film’s swaggering aimlessness and rough-around-the-edges decay, it may even graze that ear. Continue reading