Friday, February 22, 2008

Best Director

Paul Thomas Anderson, There Will Be Blood
Ethan Coen & Joel Coen, No Country for Old Men
Tony Gilroy, Michael Clayton
Jason Reitman, Juno
Julian Schnabel, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

Will win: If the Best Picture race is relatively crowded, the competition for Best Director is far less cluttered. Schnabel’s nomination is further evidence of the Academy’s bizarre, almost obnoxious recent tendency to nominate foreign filmmakers for Best Director while refusing to acknowledge their movie for Best Picture. It’s almost as if the voters are saying, “Well, we all know English-language movies are the only kind deserving of top honors, but those guys who speak funny languages sure try hard enough, so let’s throw them a bone and nominate them for Best Director, since we know they’ll never win”. It’s now happened three times in the past six years, with Fernando Meirelles (for City of God) and Almodóvar (for Talk to Her) the other victims. The weirdest part: None of three films was even nominated for Best Foreign Language Film, much less Best Picture. And you wonder why I accuse the Academy of making no sense.

(Honestly, sometimes I wonder if Michael Scott is in charge of the Best Foreign Language Film nominees. I can absolutely imagine him interviewing Alfonso Cuarón and asking him, “Is there another term you prefer besides ‘Mexican’ – maybe something less offensive?”. And he’d still probably do a better job than the yahoos running things now.)

One other strike against Schnabel, and it’s a doozy: The last time the Academy awarded a Best Director Oscar to someone whose film wasn’t nominated for Best Picture was to Frank Lloyd for The Divine Lady. That, for those who didn’t spend their childhood memorizing the Academy Awards section of the Almanac and therefore might not know, was in 1929. So yeah, the odds of Schnabel winning Best Director for The Diving Bell and the Butterfly are only slightly better than the odds of me supporting legislation restricting violence in videogames.

Michael Clayton is out for the same reason that it can be eliminated from the Best Picture race: Voters will sadly appreciate it only for its actors, not for Tony Gilroy’s sure-handed supervision. It doesn’t help that Gilroy is a relatively unknown commodity. Michael Clayton is his directorial debut, so if voters know him at all, it’s likely as the screenwriter of the Jason Bourne movies. Sam Mendes did take home a statuette for his first feature (American Beauty), but otherwise the Academy tends to favor more established auteurs.

As for Juno, I’m liking it more and more as a sleeper for Best Picture, but that doesn’t translate to good odds for Best Director. In the past, the two honors almost always went to the same film. Now, that’s changed over the past decade or so, starting with Shakespeare in Love’s Villanova-esque upset over Saving Private Ryan in 1998. But interestingly enough, the Academy’s newfound friskiness has found a foothold not in the Best Director category but through Best Picture. Of the last four cases in which the two winners diverged, the Best Director victor was the more classical candidate in three (Spielberg for Private Ryan, Steven Soderbergh for Traffic, Ang Lee for Brokeback Mountain). In each of those years, the Best Picture champion was something of an upstart (the playful Shakespeare in Love, the action-oriented Gladiator, the terrible Crash). The lone exception to this was in 2002, when the musical Chicago won Best Picture but Roman Polanski took home Best Director honors for The Pianist.

(For the record, I still can’t believe that Polanski thing happened. Here’s the Academy, one of the most politically correct, globally conscious bodies in existence, an organization that thrives on advertising and good will … and it gives one of its top awards to a convicted statutory rapist who isn’t allowed to set foot in the United States? To quote Nicholson in The Departed, how the fuck did this happen? I was speechless when Polanski won. Or I would have been, except I didn’t hear the news until the next day because I was at a strip club in Montreal during the 2002 Oscars. Terrible idea. The next year, when the ceremony started, I made sure I was where I belonged: in my bedroom, by myself. And that year, Return of the King rightfully ruled. Much better.)

My point here isn’t to offer a history lesson but to show that, while I consider Juno to be a legitimate Best Picture candidate in spite of its congenial nature, that laid-back style of filmmaking rarely results in Best Director gold. So although Jason Reitman may have made himself a pile of money with Juno, his trophy case will remain empty.

(I’d also like to take a moment to pray that Reitman’s career follow a different path than his father’s. Ivan Reitman made some damn funny movies in the ‘80s – most notably Stripes and Ghostbusters – and after Dave in 1993 he seemed poised to mature into a director of shrewd, intellectually tinged comedies. Since then? Check out the ratings of his movies on IMDb. Junior: 4.4. Father’s Day: 4.7. Six Days, Seven Nights: 5.5. Evolution: 5.8. My Super Ex-Girlfriend: 5.5. I think we can all hope that when Ivan calls his son to offer career advice, Jason lets it go to voicemail.)

So as with Best Picture, we’re left with the two frontrunners, the Coen Brothers for No Country for Old Men and Paul Thomas Anderson for There Will Be Blood. And I’ll be honest: I was all excited to pick the upset and take Anderson here. The Academy likes ambitious filmmakers, and Anderson’s uninhibited visual flourishes in his oil fields echo images of the work of past Oscar winners, such as Anthony Minghella’s dazzling deserts in The English Patient or Kevin Costner’s sweeping view of the Old West in Dances with Wolves. Anderson’s theatrics in There Will Be Blood may be ostentatious, but they are also undeniably memorable, and voters like directors with such a signature.

Such grandeur stands in stark contrast to the Coens’ spare arrangements that form the foundation of No Country for Old Men. The brothers are at a disadvantage here – the Academy generally does not favor thrillers. Other than Jonathan Demme’s victory for Silence of the Lambs, no director has ever won an Oscar for something as cold-blooded as the Coens’ latest foray into the darker side of human nature. History, then, is not in the Coens’ corner.

What the brothers do have, however, is more momentum than the ’07 Giants heading into the Super Bowl. Unsympathetic as No Country for Old Men may be, it has nevertheless earned nothing less than worship from the critical community. No fewer than sixteen different associations of critics have handed the Coens their award for Best Director. The most important of these is the Directors Guild of America: In the past 34 years, the DGA’s selectee has taken the prize at the Oscars 30 times. That’s a better percentage than my buddy Kahane shoots at the free-throw line.

So, tempted as I may be to back the relative upset in Anderson, I’m a math major – I can’t argue with such overpowering statistical data. As a character says near the conclusion of No Country for Old Men, you can’t stop what’s coming. The Coen Brothers will win their first Academy Award, and in doing so, become the first pair of siblings to take home the Best Director honor.

(And frankly, it’s been too fucking long. Ever since their 1984 debut with the extraordinary Blood Simple. – a nervy noir thriller dripping in blood and caked with Texan grime – each new Coen Brothers release has heralded the arrival of a film rich in wit, craft, and originality. It is that last quality that is so gratifying. From their offbeat comedies (the eccentric Raising Arizona, the cultish Big Lebowski, the screwball Intolerable Cruelty) to their more focused thrillers (the elegant Miller’s Crossing, the intrepid Barton Fink, and of course Fargo), all of the Coens’ movies feature not only a controlled visual style but also a healthy measure of uniqueness. There is just something about a Coen Brothers film that distinguishes it from everything else. Whether it’s the precisely manufactured images (such as the magnificent, shadowy look of The Man Who Wasn’t There) or the freewheeling, idiosyncratic patter of the dialogue (as in the rapid-fire exchanges of O Brother, Where Art Thou? and The Ladykillers), these movies just feel different. It’s nice to see such innovation finally receiving its due.)

Should win: About five years ago, I remember coming out of a showing of X2: X-Men United in Providence. As I was going down the escalator, I heard someone behind me gush, “And let me tell you, Bryan Singer can direct!”. I’m an antisocial creature, but I suddenly felt a strong desire to turn around and ask him what he meant. To what specifically was he referring? Did he admire the movie’s camerawork? The way in which images were framed on the screen? The encouragement of the actors to give realistic performances in spite of the fantastical nature of the story? The fluid integration of special effects with real-world environments? The editing? When we recognize a filmmaker for an achievement in directing, what exactly do we mean?

I don’t know that there’s a globally accepted definition, but I have my own. When I think of directing, I really think of supervision. The director rarely performs any of the specific acts required in making a movie; he doesn’t act, doesn’t compose the music, doesn’t hold the camera (that’s the cinematographer’s job), doesn’t write the script. The age-old principal of division of labor governs the execution of all of these tasks. The director’s primary duty, as I see it, is to oversee the production of all of these separate aspects of a film’s creation, coax the best possible work from all of his subsidiaries, and then integrate everything into a cohesive whole.

(And yeah, I realize I’m being sexist by using “he” when discussing an anonymous director. I also think vegetarians are stupid, cats are pathetic excuses for animals, and Asian girls are infinitely hotter than all other women. Deal with it.)

That’s a daunting set of responsibilities, which is why I imagine that the best directors – like, say, the best football head coaches – are obsessive and lead fragile home lives. I like to think of them as living their lives by the same mantra De Niro’s character did in Heat: “Don’t let yourself get attached to anything you are not willing to walk out on in 30 seconds flat if you feel the heat around the corner.” (Personally, I have no idea how Peter Jackson managed to make all three Lord of the Rings movies the way he did and not have keeled over and died, much less maintained a marriage.) This is conjecture, of course, but I think that the undertaking of making a great movie is so vast that you can only do it if you’re completely, almost obsessively, committed.

My point, then, is that the evaluation of directors is a tricky business. They can’t be graded on a simple rubric. We can’t just assign scores to the disparate attributes of a film and then sum them to create a final tally. We need to determine how smoothly those parts together, how effectively the director has shaped them into a functional, engaging feature film. So when the gentleman behind me burbled about Bryan Singer’s directorial skills in X2, I only hope he was referring to Singer’s overall command of the project and not just that awesome scene when Nightcrawler saved Rogue during the helicopter crash. (Although, let’s be honest, that scene was pretty sweet.)

Anyway, on to this year’s nominees. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is the only selection that wasn’t included on my Top 10 list (sorry, but I need to keep calling it that – “Top 13 list” just looks pathetically lame), but that shouldn’t diminish Julian Schnabel’s efforts. When I learned what the movie was about – the true story of a paralyzed man named Jean-Dominique Bauby who can only blink one eye yet somehow manages, with the help of some assistants, to write an entire book – my reaction was typical: “Uh … if you say so”. But somehow Schnabel constructs a visual scheme that grants us direct access into this man’s shattered life. He offers us an intimate, often depressing, but strangely inspiring glimpse of Bauby’s tribulations, as well as a warm view of the various women who struggle with him in their effort to return meaning to his existence.

Consider the movie’s first scene. Bauby is just awakening from his coma, gradually realizing he is unable to move. The camera’s focus is initially blurred, a haze made all the more disconcerting when jarringly contrasted with the crisp, clear voices of Bauby’s doctors discussing his predicament. Ever so slowly characters come into focus, but they slide in and out of the frame, and we realize we are viewing the world as Bauby is – immobilized, frustrated, impotent. Not longer after there is a terrifying scene in which a doctor stitches up Bauby’s eye, the needle darting directly toward the camera; Bauby cannot speak, so he emits no sound, no cry of pain, yet everyone in the audience winced.

The majority of the first act of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is presented in this manner, insisting that we understand the horrid realities of Bauby’s paralysis but never feeling gimmicky. Yet as the movie proceeds and Bauby becomes more accustomed to his condition, the camera begins to roam, and we see Bauby more often from a third-person perspective. It is as if his growing strength has loosened the physical restrictions placed on the camera. The two are inextricably linked, and as Schnabel shows us more of Bauby’s world, we experience similar feelings of acceptance and relaxation. Combined with a screenplay that sternly emphasizes its protagonist’s faults as well as empathizes with his infirmity, Schnabel’s handiwork allows us to identify with Bauby as a man rather than view him from a distance as a victim. This level of immediacy strengthens The Diving Bell and the Butterfly’s impact, shaping it as emotional as well as visceral.

I can’t quite recommend Schnabel for the Oscar – his pacing is slightly too leisurely, and his integration of flashbacks is occasionally clumsy – but his achievements are certainly more evident than Jason Reitman’s in Juno. This is nothing against Reitman’s picture; I’ve already indicated how breezily enjoyable it is. But Juno’s strengths are its screenplay and its acting. The movie is photographed with minimal fuss, and this laidback approach is without doubt one of its charms. Reitman shows proper restraint in his handling of the material – his script and his stars carry the show, and his job as director is to stand back and let them breathe.

But – and this is where I know I’m going to come off as a curmudgeon regarding Juno, no matter how often I reiterate that it’s a really good movie – is that really all that difficult? There’s a relatively newfangled statistic in baseball called VORP, which stands for “value over replacement player”. Basically, it attempts to arithmetically gauge how much additional production a given player supplies compared to the production an average regular would achieve in his place. Last year in baseball, Alex Rodriguez ranked first in VORP, David Ortiz ranked fourth, and Jason Bay ranked three hundred seventh. (No, I’m honestly not making that up – I selected Jason Bay twenty-fourth overall in last year’s fantasy draft, and apparently 306 position players performed better than he did. I hate fantasy sports.)

As far as Juno goes, for its screenplay, Diablo Cody’s VORP is off the charts. If you asked some schmuck just out of film school to write a script that addresses teen pregnancy, deals with the closeness of father-daughter relationships, satirizes suburbia and modern high school life, includes several surprising plot developments, has an unexpected emotional punch, and is also tremendously funny, you’d be categorically fucked – even John Wooden couldn’t provide enough coaching insight to help out.

But as for Jason Reitman’s direction, did he really do that much that a standard director couldn’t do? Couldn’t you stick a relative newcomer in charge, offer a few key points of guidance – don’t try to do too much, make sure things are lively and colorful, let Ellen Page determine the tenor of all of her scenes, sprinkle in some pleasant music – and achieve if not the same then at least passable results? I just don’t think Reitman’s VORP for directing Juno is that high. And that’s why he doesn’t deserve the Oscar for Best Director.

(For the record, VORP is a pretty awesome concept, not just as it relates to baseball but to life in general. Why it hasn’t been used to help analyze the current Blu-ray vs. HD-DVD vs. standard-definition DVD debate is beyond me. However, I do not recommend discussing VORP as it relates to the subject of girlfriends. Not even as a joke.)

If Reitman’s directorial skills can be viewed as workmanlike, no adjective can be less apt to describe Paul Thomas Anderson. As a filmmaker, he reminds me a bit of Chris Webber. The first overall pick in the 1993 NBA Draft, Webber was a player of unquestionable talent who might have been able to be a Hall of Famer if he’d sucked it up and muscled around in the low post for the majority of his career. Instead, he soon decided he belonged at the high post, where he spent most of his time shooting 15-footers, throwing behind-the-back passes, and mugging for highlight shows. He definitely had a prolific career, but it’s perhaps telling that in his best regular season in ’00-01 – during which he averaged 27 points, 11 rebounds, four assists, and two blocks on 48% shooting and finished fourth in the MVP voting – his Sacramento Kings were swept in the Western Conference semifinals by the Lakers. That summed Webber up perfectly – always a star, never a winner.

It’s a bit unkind to make Anderson the subject of such a comparison. After all, the director is only 37, and we can only hope that decades of moviemaking still lie ahead for him. Yet I can’t help but think that There Will Be Blood represents Webber’s ’00-01 season at this point in Anderson’s career. The man is so obsessed with showcasing his own talents that his film strains under the weight of them. It’s an extraordinary picture, probably his best yet – tightly focused, yet possessing an epic sense of possibility – but it nevertheless seems to cry out for recognition. Anderson does not seek our approval – he’s too cocky for that – but he does insist that we notice him.

And that’s what continues to hold Anderson back from true greatness. The best directors make movies that excel on their own terms – they don’t call attention to themselves because they don’t need to. Anderson hasn’t learned that lesson yet. He’s going to lose the Best Director Oscar to the Coen Brothers, who have made a movie in No Country for Old Men that is austere, direct, and almost self-effacing; by way of comparison, There Will Be Blood seems bloated. I’m reminded of a great line from The Bad and the Beautiful: “To direct a picture, a man needs humility.” The Bad and the Beautiful is by no means a great movie, but Anderson would be wise to give it a rent.

As for the Coens, they aren’t getting my vote either, but it’s a near thing, and I certainly need to acknowledge the immeasurable skill they employ in the creation of No Country for Old Men. In a strange sense, the brothers’ work here is similar to that of Anderson’s in There Will Be Blood in that both exhibit an extraordinary level of formality and preparation. But whereas Anderson’s epic Western is more leisurely and sprawling, every shot of No Country for Old Men is exact, every location precisely detailed, every line of dialogue carefully prescribed. The movie’s tagline may be “There are no clean getaways”, yet I think “there are no throwaways” serves the movie equally well. Everything about the movie coils with purpose; there is nothing extraneous whatsoever.

Furthermore, while There Will Be Blood functions as an obvious expression of its director’s obsessions, the assiduousness the Coen Brothers utilize in No Country for Old Men appears only in retrospect. Watching the movie, we are focused on the chase, the plot, the money, the killer. The formal nature of the Coens’ filmmaking does not announce itself; rather, it exists almost on a subterranean level. Only after do we appreciate the craft involved in producing such a picture. That quiet efficiency is more present in No Country for Old Men than in any Coen Brothers feature since Blood Simple..

(And if you’re wondering why I put two periods there, trust me, it isn’t a typo – Blood Simple. actually has a period in its title. I know, I don’t get it either. But when you grow up in Mrs. Beck’s household, you take punctuation and proper citation seriously.)

But for all their dexterous skill, the Coens coolly eschew any attempt at sensitivity or emotion. And that’s fine – any attempt at compassion would be rendered powerless in the coldness of No Country for Old Men’s universe. But Tony Gilroy’s mixture of drama and pathos in Michael Clayton is so stirring that I have to declare him my choice for this year’s Best Director. Gilroy’s work is actually highly similar to that of the Coens – for the most part, Michael Clayton is sharp, calculated, and invigorating. The movie has a firm destination in mind, and Gilroy guides us there with a sure hand and steady camera. He may be a first-timer, but he sure knows what he’s doing.

But it’s the successful integration of the quieter moments that make Gilroy’s work in Michael Clayton so noteworthy. Many dramas try to engage viewers on an emotional plane but struggle to connect their more expressive scenes into the patchwork of their overall story. With Michael Clayton, Gilroy interweaves his gentler threads so seamlessly into the movie’s overall fabric that he effortlessly creates a layered mosaic, a film both gripping and touching. There are so many such moments – a lawyer in a bathroom coping with her decisions, a police detective giving Michael bad news, an unspoken understanding between Michael and his brother – that under a different director Michael Clayton might threaten to sag, but Gilroy keeps the proceedings both brisk and harrowing. It’s a fragile combination, and it’s done perfectly. And that’s why he’s deserving of an Oscar.

Deserving:
Joe Wright, Atonement. What a disgrace. With the exception of a reprehensible omission for Best Actress, the Academy’s failure to nominate Joe Wright for his superlative direction of this landmark film is easily the most appalling oversight of the year. I just don’t get it. It’s not as if the voters gave Atonement short shrift overall; the movie nabbed seven nominations, and even if most were in minor categories, it at least indicates members were aware of its overall excellence. Then how the fuck can you not nominate the movie’s director? This would be akin to pundits declaring the ’07 Patriots the best football team of all-time, then not voting Tom Brady into the Pro Bowl. Despicable.

But I don’t want to excoriate the Academy (culpable though it may be) as much as I want to honor Wright’s extraordinary work. The British filmmaker exhibited obvious promise with his first feature of two years ago, Pride & Prejudice. In that film he showcased not only a proper reverence for story, dialogue, and situation but also a firm grasp of elegant, formal command. Most of the movie’s shots were delicately structured without feeling elaborate, and Wright’s poise was so complete that watching the movie you’d never have imagined it to be the brainchild of a debut filmmaker.

But although Pride & Prejudice includes all the classical elements of a Jane Austen period piece – intelligent dialogue, lavish costumes, gorgeous locations – its straightforward nature is pure child’s play compared to Atonement. I wrote earlier that the movie is surprisingly uncomplicated in terms of its plot, and so it is, but that does not imply that its narrative is simple. Ian McEwan’s novel features an intricate, demanding structure that requires a director with clarity and vision. In adapting it to the screen, Wright utilizes a variety of standard storytelling techniques – most notably and impressively flashbacks and flash-forwards – and he employs them with such confidence that he makes his movie appropriately complex but also readily accessible.

The most crucial asset of Wright’s repertoire on display here is that his movies are supremely polished but never feel the slightest bit forced. Atonement is a film both grand and eloquent, but it carries with it not a hint of pretension. Every moment in the picture, no matter how carefully rehearsed or planned, exists on its own terms. Rarely has such flawless technique doubled as a stunning example of naturalism. Watching the movie, we are not distracted by showmanship; we are instead simply magnetized by its characters, and thus we experience their lives as our own.

This is the key difference between Wright and a director like Paul Thomas Anderson. Wright is a truly great filmmaker; Anderson is a greatly talented filmmaker who also happens to be a bit of a hack. There Will Be Blood is majestic and often masterful, but it consistently broadcasts itself, insisting we acknowledge its director’s merits. Wright, in contrast, does not need to announce his greatness. He lets his movies speak for him, and they speak beautifully.

And oh how Atonement is a film of such beauty! From his very first shot – a closeup of a mansion that the camera slowly reveals to be a child’s miniature – Wright populates his picture with a series of breathtaking images and sequences. There is the fitting conclusion to the film’s first act, when his camera performs an agonizingly sustained push in on Briony’s unblinking, all-seeing eye. Shortly before, we glide out of the movie’s mansion and into the moonlit night, and we see Robbie slowly emerge from the shadowy fog, accompanied by two missing boys, unaware of what awaits him. Then later, in the South of France, a character stumbles into a clearing and stops in horror – the camera slowly pulls back, revealing a tumble of dead schoolgirls, all shot neatly in the head. All are moments of tremendous power.

And then there’s The Dunkirk Shot. Everyone’s talking about it, and with good reason; it is without doubt – and here I do not exaggerate – one of the most extraordinary sequences ever filmed. It takes place on a beach in Dunkirk, during the final stages of the English retreat, and is filmed entirely with a single tracking shot. It begins with Robbie – wounded, exhausted, defeated – and his two compatriots walking onto the beach, inquiring about when the ships are sailing for home. Their superior barks some military jargon about the number of number of soldiers remaining relative to the number of ships and then stalks off. Thus ends the plot of the scene, as well as all of the dialogue.

And then, for the next four minutes, we are held hostage by Wright’s camera, as it wanders up the beach and then down again, unblinkingly revealing the splendid and horrific sights of war. We see an officer executing horses – they whinny after the bullet is fired into their head, and still seem to whine as they thrash to the ground. Injured men sprawl everywhere, some in agony, others merely bored. A Ferris wheel looms ludicrously in the background. We come upon a choir, the men all stoutly singing “The beauty of thy peace” as they stare off into the cold, empty ocean. Characters float in and out of the frame. The camera – accompanied by Dario Marianelli’s tender, beautiful score – finds Robbie now and again, but really it’s just drifting along, as he is, searching for purpose and finding only desolation.

As with all moments in Atonement, The Dunkirk Shot functions on a personal level as well as an artistic one. Robbie’s aimless wandering signifies his helplessness, the lack of meaning in his life when he is apart from Cecilia, and the camera’s constant, unwavering motion is symbolic of his resolute determination to return to his beloved. But Wright and his camera also speak to us more directly, unflinchingly presenting before us both the atrocities and absurdities of war. The unyielding method of this display ensures such images will not soon leave our memory.

Some directors utilize long, unbroken takes to wow us, to flaunt their technical skill, and that results in further emphasizing the distance between us and the screen. Others’ long takes flow naturally out of the film’s fabric and absorb us, arrest us. This is the latter. This is bold, invigorating filmmaking, resplendent in art but absent of artifice. It is the mark of a master. After just two films, a master is what Joe Wright has become.

David Cronenberg, Eastern Promises. Restraint isn’t typically what you’d expect from a David Cronenberg picture. The man has made some legitimately great movies (A History of Violence, the unappreciated and playful eXistenZ), as well as some legitimately terrible ones (Naked Lunch, Spider, the other Crash), but all – with the notable exception of A History of Violence – have reveled in the glories and grotesqueries of excess. Now with Eastern Promises, the 64-year-old filmmaker continues his sudden maturation that began two years ago. His camera lurks in the darkness and gloom, never revealing too much, and he builds pauses and beats into his characters’ speech patterns. Both literally and figuratively, he shuns illumination in favor of implication; it is what his camera does not show and what his actors do not say that suggests the shadowy presence of evil. It’s a newfangled, judicious approach, and Cronenberg’s restraint in letting Eastern Promises linger and breathe helps his picture sustain a palpable air of menace.

But he’s still David Cronenberg. And he still knows how to deliver the goods. The opening scene of Eastern Promises – in which a young man slices open an older man’s throat with a razor – is ugly and bloody, but it is also momentous in its unyielding specificity. The murder is quick, but it is by no means easy – the killer has to slide the razor back and forth several times over, like a windshield washer cutting into human skin. (Viewers can contrast this precise anatomical detail with Johnny Depp’s frequent razor-sponsored eviscerations in Sweeney Todd, which seem clean and almost casual by comparison.) So Eastern Promises begins with a jolt of horrific realism, as Cronenberg announces to all that he will in no way dilute his depiction of physical, visceral animalism.

(Well, when I first saw the movie, Cronenberg announced this to everyone except to my friend Raashi, who inexcusably missed the first scene because she foolishly underestimated how difficult it is to park in Boston. Fortunately, she superbly redeemed herself after learning that the showing was sold out, astutely buying a ticket to a different movie and then sneaking into the auditorium showing Eastern Promises. Morals have no place on a Friday night at the Common.)

But that is a mere prelude to the sauna scene. A hypnotic two-on-one combat sequence in which a nude Viggo Mortensen battles two knife-wielding assailants, it has already gained a healthy degree of notoriety, most notably because of its unclothed hero. The nakedness in the scene is certainly unique, but it is the violence itself that is so inimitable. Cronenberg has delivered an impeccably choreographed, exquisitely monstrous ballet of primordial instinct and aggression. His combatants don’t fight as normal movie action heroes; every thump and thwack carries with it credible, tangible pain. The sequence’s ultimate death knell – in which a blade is thrust horribly and directly into a man’s eye, accompanied by a hideous squelch – is guaranteed to elicit gasps from even the most hardy viewers.

And let me just make this clear: The scene is totally fucking awesome. I’m not sure what this says about me as a person, but I honestly don’t adore violence on principle. There are certain movies where the application of violence can be excessive and inappropriate, particularly when it is unbefitting of a film’s characters. But one of Eastern Promises’ main themes is to examine the innate nature of violent men and whether or not their base instincts can be suppressed and ultimately extinguished. (It’s a theme that was explored more fully in A History of Violence but is still touched upon here.) The violence Cronenberg showcases in Eastern Promises isn’t just fitting – it’s essential to the telling of his story. He resolves to show us violence in its most pure, ugly form; only that way can we appreciate the inner battles of his characters to escape from this cycle of destruction. And if I’m simply depraved, well, so be it.

(Perhaps such depravity runs in the family: When I watched Eastern Promises on DVD with my Dad, he found the sauna scene absolutely riveting – I haven’t seen him this energized since Larry Bird was dueling Chuck Person.)

Sidney Lumet, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead. It’s the pace that impresses me most. There’s a good deal of setup in Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, but Lumet employs a nonlinear structure that keeps us on our toes, and even in lengthy scenes of exposition, the movie has a highly propulsive feel, as though it is endlessly driving forward. Lumet is a venerated director, and he can’t resist throwing in a few irritating flourishes – each flashback is preceded by an annoying barrage of rapid jump-cuts – but otherwise his film is refreshingly free of pretense.

He also refuses to sentimentalize anything. Lumet observes his characters and their ghastly decisions and amoral judgments without providing any opinions of his own. He lets his characters speak for themselves, and they speak loudly. In this manner, he is able to comment on the frailties and maliciousness of human nature without ever making an overt statement. The result is a gripping, kinetic tour de force.

(And oh by the way, do you realize the dude is eighty-three years old? I’m 25 and I’m exhausted after shoveling snow for 15 minutes; how the fuck is this guy still doing something as wearying as making a movie, much less one as enthralling as this? For Christ’s sake, 12 Angry Men was fifty years ago. The Pax Romana has nothing on Sidney Lumet – he is the essence of longevity.)

David Fincher, Zodiac. David Fincher may have peaked in the ‘90s with his ferocious duo of Se7en and Fight Club, but it’s nice to see he hasn’t gotten lazy. A literate, informed chronicle of the anonymous serial killer who terrorized San Francisco in the late ‘60s, Zodiac is a product of such verisimilitude it could only have been made by an obsessive artist. Fincher is definitely that, and he seems to have found a kindred spirit in Robert Graysmith, who is portrayed here by Jake Gyllenhaal as a man who essentially sacrifices his entire life in his hunt for the truth. Fincher could have – and perhaps should have – underscored the obvious rift that resulted in Graysmith’s personal life as a result of his crazed quest, but then again, perhaps doing so would be condemning his own livelihood. Fincher isn’t interested in people here (which explains why an actress as lovely as Chloë Sevigny is so pitifully wasted as Graysmith’s wife) but in the meticulous reconstruction of actual events, and he’s sure done his homework. Every frame of Zodiac throbs with a painstakingly researched authenticity.

The movie also functions as an intriguing subversion of the typical police procedural. Fincher may not be David Cronenberg, but he has an appetite for violence all the same, and the murders displayed in Zodiac – most notably one that takes place in broad daylight in a park – are both vivid and terrifying. But most of the killing in the movie occurs early on; the rest is all about the search. Rather than simply react to the next murder, we watch the police and media as they anxiously sift through the information, searching for that next clue that may never come. In this way, Fincher offers us a unique window into the workings of an open police case – the endless postulating, the jittery anticipation, the bitter disappointment with all of the red tape. In conversations that take place in smoky barrooms and drab offices without windows, we come to understand the frustrations of these men, and this gives greater context to their unceasing desire to bring the killer to justice.

Zodiac is too dispassionate to be a great movie – it is observant and perceptive but never enthralling. But it is nevertheless the work of a great artist. The movie made only $33 million at the box office, barely half its budget, but Fincher doesn’t seem to care. His job – his purpose – is to make movies, and he does it as passionately as anyone.

Tim Burton, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. I’ll be honest: I think Tim Burton’s a little overrated. All of his movies are inventive and weirdly fascinating, and I appreciate a filmmaker of such originality and ambition. But I’ve always left his movies more impressed than inspired, and Sweeney Todd is no exception. As with most Burton films, it was largely shunned by the Academy but has developed a devoted fan following (it currently has an 8.1 user rating on IMDb). That’s too high for a film that focuses on style at the expense of substance – with few exceptions, there is no context in Sweeney Todd, nothing to give the movie’s terrifying events any dramatic heft. It generates admiration but not passion.

That said, it’s in many ways a striking achievement, and its director deserves some recognition. For a maker of numerous child-oriented films such as Corpse Bride and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Burton can also be mature and even uncompromisingly violent (as in Sleepy Hollow), and Sweeney Todd is unapologetic in its savagery. It is consistently dark, often unpleasant, and exceptionally bloody. This is not at all the same director as the man who made Beetle Juice.

Burton may not be as accomplished a filmmaker as he thinks he is, but his swollen sense of self-importance actually works in his favor in Sweeney Todd. A movie as fantastical as this needs a director who can work on an epic scale, and Burton can deliver that level of grandeur. He envisions London as a grungy hellhole of darkness and malevolence, giving true meaning to the lyrics of “No Place Like London” (“There’s a whole in the world like a great black pit / and the vermin of the world inhabit it”). The city’s streets are glutted with filth and decay, as if all human decency has vacated the world, replaced by greed, ugliness, and corruption. And the movie’s final image – in which blood drips from a murdered man’s open throat onto the face of his dead wife – is downright haunting. Sweeney Todd may not be overpowering in its story, but Burton nevertheless knows how to make an impression with his camera.

Ben Affleck, Gone Baby Gone. I’ve already commended Affleck for his excellent handiwork when discussing Gone Baby Gone for Best Picture (you know, like, 25 pages ago), so I won’t bother repeating myself here. What I will say is that I feel an odd mixture of gratification and relief at Affleck’s stunning return to relevance. He had been inconsequential for so long that I’d nearly given up hope of him salvaging his once promising career, but salvage it he has.

In retrospect, the complete and disproportionate success of Good Will Hunting was almost unfair to Affleck. It burdened a still-maturing actor with unrealistic expectations, and once Matt Damon left his boyhood friend in the dust with shrewd choices such as Rounders and The Talented Mr. Ripley, the poor reception for some of Affleck’s weaker films (Forces of Nature, Pearl Harbor) was only exacerbated. Throw in his disgustingly public relationship with Jennifer Lopez (to be fair, Gigli didn’t do him any favors), and Affleck quickly became a punch line, the Ryan Leaf to Damon’s Peyton Manning.

That was a shame, because even while he was the subject of ever-increasing ridicule and scorn, Affleck was also providing some very convincing turns in some very good movies. His best work remains 1997’s Chasing Amy, where he plays a smooth-talking hotshot who falls helplessly in love with an apparent lesbian. Five years later, however, he essayed two leading roles with sure conviction. His incarnation of Jack Ryan in The Sum of All Fears imbued Tom Clancy’s hero with a quiet intensity, and he brought a curiously controlled rage to Changing Lanes, in which he plays a suave, polished lawyer who gradually drives off the rails. He also made the most of supporting roles in movies like Dogma (in which he’s consistently hilarious), Boiler Room (in which he’s terrifically smarmy), and Hollywoodland (in which he’s just plain good).

That last film, in which he plays George Reeves, the actor who portrayed Superman on the ‘50s TV serials, supplies an interesting parallel to Affleck’s career. Hollywoodland chronicles Reeves’ mounting desperation at being typecast as a superhero, and Hollywood itself never seemed to release Affleck from the promise he displayed in Good Will Hunting. We wanted him to be great, and when he responded only by being good, we labeled him a failure and turned our backs on him.

Which is why his decision to switch to the director’s chair for Gone Baby Gone was such a savvy move in a career filled with questionable choices (seriously, Surviving Christmas?). Faced with mutterings about how his kid brother was actually the superior talent (for good reason – he is), he determined to embrace such speculation rather than contest it. The movie should finally make Casey Affleck a star, and when it does, he’ll have his big brother to thank.

Of course, it remains unclear if Ben Affleck can sustain success working behind the camera rather than in front of it. What is clear is that his directorial talents are well up to snuff. Gone Baby Gone is gritty, grim, and gripping, and Affleck’s obdurate exploration of the deeper recesses of his hero’s conscience is rewarding and also atypical. I eagerly await his next film. (As long as it isn’t a sequel to Pearl Harbor, in which case, I’m out.)

David Yates, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. As with Affleck, I’ve already chronicled Yates’ exploits and the exemplary dexterity he brought to the fifth film of this magnificent franchise. (In case you forget, I basically used a lot of words to say he did a smashing job.) But I wish to reiterate the magnitude of the challenge with which he was faced. Making a successful Harry Potter movie is not an easy task. The temptation might be to think that with Warner Bros. turning the faucet on automatic (the budget for Order of the Phoenix was in the vicinity of $150 million), it’s a simple matter of appropriately allocating your resources. But money can’t buy imagination or fortitude, and for Yates to adapt Rowling’s heaviest novel – easily the most difficult book in the septet to translate to the screen, not only because of its length but its content – he needed ample quantities of both.

If you need an example of a Harry Potter adaptation gone wrong (or, rather, not quite right), look no further than the first two films of the series. Both of Chris Columbus’ movies were adequately entertaining (seriously, you’ll never hear me complain about a movie that features Emma Watson commenting, “Are you sure that’s a real spell? Well, it’s not very good, is it?”). But something was missing. In terms of their overall tone, Columbus’ adaptations were coherent, logical, and frightfully lifeless. Everything about them felt scripted, almost transliterated. The movies were good fun, certainly, but they didn’t breathe – they just existed. Thankfully, Alfonso Cuarón imported some much-needed zest into the franchise with his dark, lively, stylish adaptation of Prisoner of Azkaban, and Mike Newell’s follow-up in Goblet of Fire was even more exhilarating.

Now for Order of the Phoenix, Yates has nimbly combined Newell’s vigorous dynamism with Cuarón’s introspective darkness. The result is the first Harry Potter movie that focuses on character as much as plot, and Yates’ subtle conveyance of Harry’s frustrations is forceful but never clunky. His utilization of dim lighting and disturbing images communicates Harry’s pain far more effectively than simply lifting dialogue from Rowling’s novel would have done (an approach Columbus likely would have employed). Such mature technique elevates Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix from entertaining to spectacular. All moviegoers should feel emboldened that Yates is staying on for the franchise’s sixth film.
(Personally, I’m very pleased, though not nearly as ecstatic as I was when I first learned that Emma Watson was finishing the series – that was up there with the first time I beat my father in ping-pong or the Madden season when I had Donovan McNabb pass for 7,000 yards. But still, jolly good.)

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