Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Memories of the Turn of the Century in Film, Part III: 2004/2005

We now reach the midpoint of my series about the the 00's in film, focusing on the years 2004 and 2005. You can read the first two parts here and here. I am aware this is taking awhile, but let's face it. There will not be a whole lot of new movies coming out in the next six months that I actually want to see or talk about. (With the exception of a couple of films, the upcoming summer movie season has provoked nothing but my complete indifference.) So this blog may focus on the past for awhile and become primarily about older movies I have seen the first time or have recently revisited. That said, the final two parts of this series should be coming a little faster and this should conclude next month.

With this series, beyond discussing my favorite films, I am covering the significant changes concerning the various aspects of movies in the '00's. While the first part focused mostly on where the world of film was following a decade of generally superior quality and the emergence of many important directors and the second part focused on the deterioration of good manners from movie theater audiences, this part will focus on the significant changes in technology that has changed the art and craft of filmmaking. This will obviously be a little more tech-heavy, but, seeing how involved I am with the technology on the editing side, I consider this rather important in how it changed movies not only in the last decade, but for the long-term.

Around the midpoint of this decade, the concept that film can only be shot and projected on celluloid was beginning to be abandoned by even some cinephiles. I know. I was one of them, resisting the look of some of the early films being shot on digital video. Admittedly, some of those films did have somewhat of an amateurish stench to them, with poor lighting and pixelated imagery. In rare cases did the screenplays and performances help overcome the ugly aesthetic.

What does not get mentioned often that television has probably dictated the move towards features being shot on video. It could not have been a coincidence that television began to make its move from standard to high definition screens during this time. With more and more features shot digitally and home theaters being the primary way these films are viewed, watching films on television no longer was considered that dramatic a drop in picture quality. It certainly gives a good reason for those irritated with the audience members I described in part two to have their living room become their primary movie theater.

The evolution towards creating all digital features was an inevitability considering the changes in editing during the '90's. For years, films were edited on Moviolas and Steenbecks cutting actual celluloid. This is how I learned to edit film in my first year at NYU, a method of editing that many editors now consider completely tedious and frustrating except that it did discipline you to choose the right frame to cut on the first time, so that you would not have to restitch a frame if your first choice did not work. At the same time, video editing was comprised of synching two tape decks system through an elaborate edit system and cutting linearly, which was nearly as brutal.

It was during my last year at NYU in the mid-90's that I learned how to use an Avid, which would eventually be the primary system that most films and television shows would be cut on. For films, it provided a flexibility in the cutting, allowing you to change and tweak as much as possible, even creating multiple versions of scenes before deciding which to use. More importantly, as CGI became more prevalent in motion pictures, it made sense to establish a workflow to do post-production digitally as any effects shots would wind up needing to be scanned into a computer anyway. For television, digital editing was necessary if there was any chance of filling out the many, many hours of programming on the hundreds of cable channels out there. Of course, the style of editing also changed, as what became known as MTV-style editing was more a fixture in films with directors like Michael Bay refusing to allow a shot last more than 3 seconds.

Once films had established this new workflow in the '90's, you can imagine that this decade would eventually move into making the entire workflow from pre-visualization to production to post-production completely digital. This meant that the next technological advancements required making professional video cameras that would not only match but eventually surpass the resolution of film. We have had cameras from the Thomson VIPER FilmStream to the Sony CineAlta to the Panavision Genesis to the RED camera that have improved over time to the point where they are regularly used in a good percentage of the movies that get released in any given week with little attention paid to the fact that they were shot on video. This is a marked difference from just a few years ago when it was a big deal that Michael Mann would use the VIPER for "Collateral", a big-budget production starring one of Hollywood's biggest stars.

Now you may wonder where these three shots of Leonardo DiCaprio lighting a cigarette are from. They are stills (found on this message board) from a test shoot by David Fincher using the RED camera. The only lighting of this simple but effective shot comes from the match DiCaprio has in front of his face, which is enough for the camera to capture the details of his face and produce rich colors. There is also no noise reduction in any of these shots. One must consider the possibilities provided by a relatively cheap camera that can be used to capture images like this with probably a smaller crew and a lower budget that can compete visually with what is considered professional. The low budget aesthetic is less likely to be judged the fuzziness of its images, as the mumblecore movement was with most of those films shot on standard definition digital video. (Full disclosure: I have yet to see a mumblecore movie. I will get to a few one of these days...maybe.)

One other important aspect to mention is that these cameras have also evolved from being tape-based to strictly file-based with every take being recorded directly to hard drive. So when David Fincher makes his actors do 75 takes of any given scene, he could simply have them erase what he does not expect to use in the edit room. During this past decade, we also saw Apple's Final Cut Pro come to challenge Avid as a legitimate editing system for feature films. Final Cut Pro is a program that almost seems designed strictly to edit with files across the digital spectrum and also happens to be the edit system used by more and more documentarians who are grabbing their footage from a variety of sources. Not only that, both Final Cut and Avid have become packaged with other programs for sound mixing and visual effects that have made the DIY methods of no-to-low budget filmmakers feasible.

This is where the technology has, without a doubt, significantly changed filmmaking in a way that will be felt for decades to come. It has made filmmaking accessible to those with little money, who need to shoot with cheaper cameras and do their entire post-production in their apartment. Of course, the first argument that comes to mind is that the accessibility will allow more people with no obvious talent and even less to say the ability to make their movies. That is true, to a certain extent, but what is also true is that the percentage of crap to quality will generally be the same, regardless. The gatekeepers of Hollywood have allowed the hackiest of hack directors to sustain their careers, while the gatekeepers of festivals like Sundance have not hesitated pushing mediocrities that play it safe over films that actually take chances. Most films are not very good at either the high or low budget level and we will all be wading through it all to find the good stuff anyway.

What is important is that lower-budget films will, in essence, be allowed to play at the same level of Hollywood films visually, a big difference from how things were ten years ago. Of course, they will not have the elaborate lighting setups that films with bigger budgets will have, but the newer cameras allow for some quite beautiful images using only available light. Low-budget films no longer have to be characterized by the graininess or pixelation of their images, particularly when directors like Michael Mann seem to go out of their way to use video to make their images increasingly unpleasant and video-like with every subsequent film. Even larger budgeted films with riskier subject matter have been possible due to the capabilities of the newer cameras. Directors such as Mann, Fincher, Francis Coppola and Steven Soderbergh have decided to abandon film together. Even an old pro like Sidney Lumet has spoken out that he wished shooting on HD video would have come earlier in his career, considering how well-suited it is for the types of films he makes. It was not surprising Robert Altman embraced HD for his last couple of films as well. None of these directors make obviously commercial films, but shooting HD gave them a certain amount of freedom.

What changes will this mean for the visual aesthetic of films? I do not believe that it will be as significant as digital editing. Of course, we will have images that will seem more processed and clean or made grittier in post like "District 9". There will also be directors who feel that shooting on video means they do not have to compose interesting shots for the sake of capturing a false reality via handheld shakiness. The cameras are smaller and weigh less, so it is easy to throw over the shoulder and shoot or, as I called it, "keeping it real". There is also the issue that many directors out there were raised on watching television rather than learning their craft from feature films. Oddly enough, when one looks at some of the more acclaimed television shows today, you can observe they are shot in a more classical style and often even employ more striking compositions and a more measured pace than some of the more frantic cutting and camera work of Hollywood films. For example, look at any episode of "The Sopranos", "Breaking Bad" or especially "Deadwood" which have such a distinctive visual style with a camera that only moves when it has to and where every cut is justified dramatically.

As films and television are using the same tools, you can certainly argue that the line between them will be blurred. I do believe that the differences between them have become less significant over the last twenty years. This is not a change that has happened overnight. The responsibility of where this will lead us aesthetically lies with the filmmakers. It is important to acknowledge how the changes in technology over the past decade has begun to democratize the making of feature films. For this to be something viable, I would argue that it will be important for the independent filmmakers of this new decade to be artists and craftsmen if there's any chance for more original and daring movies to find their audience. Distinguishing between what will be perceived as professional to something that is perceived as amateur will be considerably more difficult visually. Artistically is another matter. Hopefully, all that will matter is the quality of the film and how less costly it will be to produce all types of films, particularly those with less commercial subject matter. Perhaps, technology will give filmmakers and more discerning audiences a choice. I know many will still lament the death of film, which I can understand. But, now, the definition of what film is has expanded to open up new possibilities.

So it happens a couple of the films mentioned in the movies I want to highlight for 2004 and 2005 were shot on video, one of which I already mentioned. I would also add that this was not the strongest pair of years in the '00's, as the film industry fell into a bit of a rut. During this stretch of time, we were treated to a trio of films that unfortunately reflected how filmmakers aimed for profundity, but wound up with simpleminded nonsense: "The Passion of the Christ", "Fahrenheit 9/11" and "Crash". But these years were also significant for my having discovered the beautiful insanity of South Korean cinema, as several films from some of the decade's most interesting directors finally made their way over to the United States.

(In Order of Release Date in US, if applicable)

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (dir. Michel Gondry, scr. Charlie Kaufman) (released March 19, 2004)

Much like "In the Mood for Love", this is another love story that I prefer to reserve for certain times and that I would rather watch alone. Unlike Wong Kar-Wai's film, this film deals with a relationship that has already settled into a certain level of complacency. For all the intellectual acrobatics of Kaufman's screenplay about whether it is worth retaining the bad memories along with the good ones, it was the scenes between Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet that were not afraid to show how bored two people can be in a relationship, even while still considering the possibility that they were still destined to be with one another.

It is a film about taking whatever you can from the people you achieve some level of intimacy. Love, regardless of how great it can make you feel, can also be the most painful experience of your life. Though, without a doubt, Kaufman is one of the most innovative screenwriters of our time, I felt "Eternal Sunshine" was the one screenplay of his where the mechanics of the plot were not just clever inventions. You really feel that Kaufman laid himself quite bare in this screenplay than in either of the films that Spike Jonze directed.

Michel Gondry's directorial style feels suited to the film's constant state of dissipating memories, employing a great deal of in-camera effects as well as properly-employed CGI to depict visually what Carrey's Joel is losing when the doctors he hires essentially fry his brain. The movie seems as if it were in a constant haze, shifting from one memory to another in what was quite an elaborately structured film. The final shot, repeated over and over again, leaves you with a sense of hope and futility that may be what love is all about.

Baadasssss! (dir. Mario van Peebles, scr. van Peebles & Dennis Haggerty) (May 28, 2004)

This barely-released film I actually consider to be one of the best films about filmmaking. In fact, it is so good that I have actually purposely avoided watching "Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song" because I don't think that film would be nearly as interesting a tale as how it was made. What's great about this film is that it portrays the entire process of making a film quite believably from creation to barely getting it released onto screens. Melvin van Peebles is depicted conceiving the movie during a drunken stay at a hotel that lasts for days. It shows him hustling for money at every opportunity, while gathering together a crew that actually believes in his crazy vision, even when they cannot stand being around him half the time.

"Baadasssss!" is also fascinating for how Mario van Peebles uses this film as therapy to work out what were clearly some long-running issues he had with his father, who he now gets the opportunity to play. In case you did not know the history, the elder van Peebles used his then 13 year old son to play himself in "Sweetback's" prologue which also happened to be an explicit nude scene when the character loses his virginity to a hooker. This film celebrates the spirit and historical significance of what Melvin van Peebles did with this movie, but it is not exactly the most flattering portrait. It is quite an incisive examination of the kind of personality that filmmakers have that can push away even the most loyal of friends and family members.

Collateral (dir. Michael Mann, scr. Stuart Beattie) (released August 6, 2004)

Strangely, as Michael Mann has subsequently made films that I have found to be increasingly reliant on empty visual flourishes and macho posturing, "Collateral" has been dismissed a bit as being a Mann film that was more conventional. As for myself, I actually consider this to be the only Mann film that ever came alive for me the last decade. I believe that working from a much tighter script than his other films actually freed him to experiment more visually. This was actually the film that completely convinced me that shooting high definition video brought a new and exciting aesthetic to filmmaking. One only has to see the opening montage showing Jamie Foxx's workday as a Los Angeles cabbie, the suspenseful club scene, the haunting night time landscapes to be convinced of that.

What is not given enough credit for this movie is that, unlike Mann's subsequent films, there seems to be some sort of emotional involvement with not only Foxx's Max but Tom Cruise's precise hit man Vincent. This was probably the last time Cruise gave an actual performance that did not seem to double as some sort of public relations gimmick for his stardom. This film is about sparking that moment within all of us where we are forced to take action. I always thought the key moment was when Max revealed his dreams to own his car service and that the hack job was just temporary only to reveal that he has held this job for over ten years.

The mood of "Collateral" overwhelms me every time I have watched it. The opening cab ride where Foxx and Jada Pinkett Smith flirt and get to know one another achieves the romanticism that Mann has been struggling for since. It is also one of the few thrillers to truly create a sense of growing dread. It also works as one of the strangest buddy movies, as two characters help each other work out their long-term personal issues to one's benefit and the other's demise. I find the movie strangely inspiring for that reason, a self-help session with a contract killer.

Hero (dir. Yimou Zhang, scrs. Yimou, Feng Li and Bin Wang) (released August 27, 2004)

This film was quite the visual feast, shot by the great Christopher Doyle with heavily saturated colors used to represent different versions of the same events. While the kung-fu scenes are staged beautifully and Jet Li does a good job with his section of the movie, it is the love story that I believe has gotten short shrift. Once again, we have Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung showing the same chemistry in a love story, but told from a much different angle than "In the Mood for Love". This time, they play two highly skilled assassins who find their love tested by their differing political convictions. One of them wants the tyrannical king dead while the other believes the reason the king's actions have been for a greater good: to unite China by ruling over all the warlords that control the different territories.

There has been great debate about the politics of the film. Personally, I came to a different conclusion than the movie does about whether the king should have been killed or not. That said, I had no problem understanding why each of the characters came to their conclusions. The ending of the movie does not let anyone off the hook. Your empathy goes towards all the characters who all wind up sacrificing something dear to them. And that final piercing scream that Maggie Cheung lets out (you will know it when you see and hear it) shakes me to the core whenever I watch this film.

Sideways (dir. Alexander Payne, scrs. Payne & Jim Taylor) (released October 31, 2004)

I remember when this film came out that there were many accusations that critics gave the film a pass because the schlubby snob Miles played by the fantastic Paul Giamatti was simply a doppelganger for them. Well, some of us appreciated that the film would actually center around a person like this in the first place. You would think that a movie that actually depicts adults, who each display a certain weathered look, would be more appreciated during a decade when characters in the movies were increasingly young, pretty and boring.

Many have forgotten how funny this movie is. Just because Miles is a snob does not mean that the director or his film are snobbish. Much of the film depends on the chemistry between Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church. Although these two have very little in common, you can see how each of them embody the better characteristics that the other one lacks. The dialogue that Payne and Taylor write manages to feel both believable, while displaying a certain amount of literateness that is often lacking in modern-day comedies where the dumber and easier jokes are often the norm.

Having watched this again recently, I can still say the scene when Virginia Madsen's Maya knowingly describes Miles' personality through the metaphor of wine still works like gangbusters. As I have asked before, what has happened that has prevented Alexander Payne from making a feature film while his lesser imitator Jason Reitman has cranked out three mediocrities since "Sideways" was released?

The Incredibles (dir. & scr. Brad Bird) (released November 5, 2004)

This is the first Pixar film mentioned in this series. It was also the first one that began to break what was coming close to being a tired formula in their previous films. Brad Bird, who previously directed the cult favorite "The Iron Giant", concocted a superhero movie with a joyous spirit that may have only worked before in the original "Superman", as most films in that genre tend to work better for me when they are moodier and weighted with moral issues. However, Bird seems to have more on his mind that merely creating a new superhero brand, as this film continues the running themes throughout his work, where he seems to be obsessed with celebrating the artistic and talented.

Now, admittedly, there have been accusations leveled at the film that is elitist, which I believe, to a certain extent, is true. Perhaps, the film speaks to me a bit more, not because I consider myself unique, but mostly I believe we truly do live in a world that values the mediocre over the gifted. Remember how in the last election when some people wanted to paint Barack Obama's "elitism" as a negative aspect about him, while celebrating that the vice-presidential candidate on the other ticket was a complete imbecile? (This also happened to be the first film I saw after George W. Bush was re-elected.) This is what I think Bird is getting at with "The Incredibles", where his family of superheroes are shamed into living a life of conformity simply for being gifted.

I must add that, starting with this movie, it really did seem that each of the ideas Pixar presented seemed to spark some level of backlash which I think disqualifies the notion that these are formulaic popular entertainments being cranked out impersonally. Once Bird made this movie, you began to see the directorial visions behind Pixar's films become more distinctive, which I will delve into further later in this series.

Closer (dir. Mike Nichols, scr. Patrick Marber) (released December 3, 2004)

I have an interesting relationship with Mike Nichols movies. Outside of his HBO movies, "Wit" and "Angels in America", and particularly his movies about bitter relationships between men and women "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?", "Carnal Knowledge" and this one, "Closer", I do not really care much about the rest of his filmography. Even "The Graduate" I feel is more than a bit dated by now. When Nichols devotes himself to portraying some of the most brutal and acidic relationships ever put to film, I believe him to actually be a pretty brilliant filmmaker. I am aware that a good number of people were turned off by the stylistic dialogue in "Closer", but, like most Mamet, I was able to disregard its lack of realism when there is a certain level of poetry to the words that I cannot help but admire.

The film does not try to open up the play. Outside of its four main characters played by Clive Owen, Natalie Portman, Jude Law and Julia Roberts (in the only performance I ever bought her in), everyone else you see on screen does not have a single line of dialogue. But these are some great, searing scenes that are quite painful to watch at moments, as the characters alternately lie to each other, lay their souls bare and then finally rip each other apart. Owen's Larry is the character that comes off the most brutish, even responding to someone's question about why he acts the way he does by yelling out, "Because I'm a fucking caveman!". Yet, he is revealed to be the most honest of the group, while the others seem to get off toying around with each other's feelings.

As other movies that look at the most painful aspects of relationships, it may have hit a little too close to home for people to take. For some reason, this subject matter seems to bring out the best in Nichols. The rest of his otherwise lightweight filmography makes me wonder why that is the case.

OldBoy (dir. Park Chan-Wook, scrs. Park, Jo-yun Hwang, Chun-hyeong Lim & Joon-hyung Lim)(released March 25, 2005)

Although this is not the first part of Park Chan-Wook's Vengeance Trilogy, it was the first one to be released in the United States. Watching "OldBoy" was one of the most revelatory experiences I had in the cinema during the '00's. It made me reconsider what films were capable of doing and introduced me to South Korean cinema, which made a lot of what was coming out of America seem tired and old hat. There was a energy and inventiveness to the direction by Park Chan-Wook, who I consider to be one of the few true visual stylists working today. There was also a willingness to take the story to places that many would be afraid to go.

What blew me away with "OldBoy" is that it sets up such an absurd premise and then it takes it an even more insane conclusion, but there is an emotional logic to every action these characters take. The movie is about a man imprisoned by someone else for 15 years for reasons he does not even know. Unlike most American films about vengeance, this film shows the futility of the violence that comes about from it. Both our protagonist and antagonist are left destroyed by the end of the film, as well as any other characters they involve in their rage. You feel equally empathetic and repulsed by all of their actions.

Not enough can be said about Park's direction, which often fluidly moves from one scene to another and employs CGI in ways that is often expressive. You can pull stills from any scene in the film and marvel at the compositions. And, yes, the choice to film the infamous hallway brawl scene where our protagonist Dae-su Oh takes on an army of thugs with nothing but a hammer in one long unbroken take is pretty brilliant. I think it is the sign of a great director that he can deliver such brutal films about the ugliness of humanity and can still make them so compulsively watchable and beautiful.

Kings & Queen (dir. Arnaud Desplechin, scrs. Desplechin & Roger Bohbot) (released May 13, 2005)

I actually caught up to this only a couple of years ago because it was one of those movies that received the most perfunctory of releases in the United States. I have often said recently that Desplechin is one of a few directors that seem to be making the movies that Woody Allen would be making, if he gave a shit anymore. I loved the loose narrative of this film, as it splits in half to tell the stories of Nora and Ismael (played by Emmanuelle Devos and Mathieu Almaric in two fantastic performances) a good deal of time after they have been divorced. Both characters are dealing with crises in their lives. Nora is trying to care for her dying father, while Ismael has been wrongfully (or maybe not) been committed to a mental institution he is desperately trying to escape from.

There is not a lot of plot in "Kings & Queen" throughout its 2 1/2 hour running time, which is welcome. The film is mostly comprised of scenes observing these two characters having great difficulty dealing with their current predicaments. It moves so gracefully from drama to comedy and back again and Desplechin shows such a great love for his troubled characters. More importantly, he resists the urge to solve their problems with a cathartic climax that usually finds its way into movies like this. Desplechin embraces the notion that the characters are more aware of their issues and may connect with others in a more meaningful way. But, yet, they will continue to fuck up more in the future because they are who they are.

Batman Begins (dir. Christopher Nolan, scrs. Nolan & David S. Goyer) (released June 15, 2005)

A few years ago, I can tell you that the last thing I wanted to see was yet another Batman movie. The Tim Burton films, as usual for him, were art directed exquisitely, but still left a lot to be desired emotionally beyond Burton's usual attempts to impose a faux gothic sensibility on Batman. The less said about the non-Burton sequels, the better. Perhaps, due to Christopher Nolan deciding to unleash Batman on a living and breathing Gotham City as well as dealing with the repercussions of using vigilantism to combat terrorism (subject matter that seemed to only be acknowledged when critics discussed its sequel), there was actually something for me to grasp onto in a superhero movie.

Though calling it a superhero movie is considerably a stretch, as I never considered the Batman of Nolan's films to be all that upstanding. In "Batman Begins", there are many allusions that perhaps Bruce Wayne is not the most psychologically balanced individual and that he may not be dealing with his parents' death in the most healthy way. Though he may be doing this to fight for the good people of Gotham City, his questionable tactics often backfire on him, which becomes more prevalent in the sequel.

"Batman Begins" is also the rare franchise movie that actually makes the origin story dramatically worthwhile. Hollywood has had this disease with franchise movies to go back to every character's origin and fill the backstory with useless minutiae that serve as little more than winks at the audience, hinting at what to come. Look at the "Star Wars" prequels and J.J. Abrams' "Star Trek" for the nadir of this trend. Nolan does more than that. He uses most of the first hour establishing the ideologies that Wayne will wrestle with throughout this film and the next. It was the first time in any Batman film I began to understand what made Bruce Wayne tick. It seems that "The Dark Knight" overshadowed this film with the money it made and the insanity it provoked, although I do not think there is that big a difference in quality from one to the other.

Memories of Murder (dir. Bong Joon-Ho, scrs. Bong, Kwang-rim Kim & Sung Bo Shim) (released July 15, 2005)

Based on a true story about a series of killings in South Korea that were never solved, Bong Joon-Ho's film examines how the local police may have helped botch the case, along with the handicap these occurred during a different time when forensic police work was rather limited. Bong daringly decides to mix wildly different tones often balancing grim and violent scenes along with bizarrely comedic and satiric scenes. Much like the cops in its American cousin, David Fincher's "Zodiac", the film becomes about the overwhelming negative effect trying to solve the case has on those doing the investigation.

This is a haunting film about lost opportunities. From the first murder, you can see the mistakes piling up, as the possibility that the murders can be solved slowly slips away. As with all of Bong Joon-Ho's films, the filmmaking is precise and the pace is measured. You would not believe from the assured direction that this was only his second feature. I wrote more about this film recently here.

Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (Dir. Park Chan-Wook, scrs. Park, Jae-sun Lee, Jong-yong Lee & Mu-yeong Lee) (released August 19, 2005)

Although this was the first part of Park Chan-Wook's trilogy, this was actually given a barely-existent release here in the States months after "OldBoy". The film is about the kidnapping of a corporate executive's daughter for ransom by a deaf mute man and his anarchist girlfriend. That description does not quite do the movie justice, as we watch one action after another lead to something more terrible happening. Park Chan-Wook creates quite a Swiss watch of doom that would make the Coen Brothers proud.

The filmmaking is nearly oppressive in its use of silence. There is actually no score to the film, so acts of violence and turns of plot unfold quite horrifically with natural sound. While the running theme of the Vengeance trilogy is how revenge destroys both the justified and unjustified is present, the approach here is more clinical than the other two films, as each character's figurative and literal demise is documented as if it were a scientific study of human fallibility. It seems fitting that the film cuts to its end credits while the last dying breaths of one character are heard on the soundtrack. This was a chilling work from beginning to end.

A History of Violence (dir. David Cronenberg, scr. Josh Olson) (released September 23, 2005)

The funny thing about this film is that it seems to have been alternately elevated and dismissed based on the whether one thinks the has anything original or worthwhile to say. I am not going to claim that this is the most artistic film Cronenberg has ever made, though I do not believe artistic intentions alone make a great movie, a concept that should have been brought up more in the past decade in film discussion. While Cronenberg's other films in the decade, "Eastern Promises" and the woefully-underseen "Spider" were worthy in their own right, I still felt this was the most satisfying. I found Cronenberg taking a less clinical approach to his subject matter loosened him up as a filmmaker.

This film makes some insightful points about violence in men and particularly how women react to them. I was always considered the two sex scenes in "History" to be the key to what Cronenberg was getting at. The first scene shows awkward but playful sex between a man and his wife, while the second scene, after he is revealed to have been a hit man in a past life, consists of hard, rough fucking that both of them have probably wanted to do for some time. How often are we outwardly appalled by violence but are secretly attracted to it, as we cannot help but admire when someone, usually a man, can wield power? I bestow much praise to Viggo Mortensen and Maria Bello for making these ideas as well as their characters' behaviors believable.

I always considered the climactic sequence with William Hurt as Richie, the brother to Mortensen's Tom Stall, to be one of the few proper deconstructions of the gangster genre. Despite making a great deal of money, Richie just cannot leave things alone and still pledges to follow some ridiculous code to kill his own brother which then leads to a nearly farcical standoff in which we realize how pathetic these men who live by their code of violence really are. Since seeing "A History of Violence", "How do you fuck that up?" is a line that I often say to myself when incompetent henchmen in movies miss their mark.

The President's Last Bang (dir. & scr. Im Sang-Soo) (released October 14, 2005)

This South Korean film is a prime example of making a comedy in which no single character on screen realizes that they are in one. "Last Bang", based on true events, believe it or not, takes place during a 24 hour period in October 1979, when the long-time disgruntled Secretary of Intelligence Kim Jae Kyu decides almost out of the blue to plot and carry out an assassination of the dictatorial South Korean president Park Chung Hee. Considering how improvised the plot is conceived, it is not a surprise to see that it is carried out with varying levels of success and failure. Im Sang-Soo stages this from an objective viewpoint, fascinated by how each choice contributes to how the assassination plot resolves itself.

You genuinely feel the outrage of Kim Jae Kyu, but also question how wrong-headed he may be. At first, it seems like he is doing this because he wants to bring in a more democratic government, but, most of the time, he is revealed to simply be angry and depressed that he has to work for such a despicable human being. The movie reveals that political change may have come about from someone's mid-life crisis. There are also some great shots in the film, most of the memorable ones often surveying the madness from a roving overhead point of view, as the camera moves from room to room to keep track of all the characters. Yet, the tone of the movie is so reserved, playing out like a straight-faced farce with political maneuvering and gushing blood.

The Power of Nightmares (dir. & scr. Adam Curtis) (released December 9, 2005)

This three hour documentary originally aired on the BBC, but was given a very brief theatrical release. I actually saw it before its release by downloading it legally off the internet, although now it is available on DVD. There were obvious reasons why the film was not widely shown in the United States. Although perhaps perceived as something along the lines of those ridiculous September 11th conspiracy movies like "Loose Change", it is actually nothing of the sort. Instead, Curtis methodically goes back in history to trace the roots of both the neoconservative and radical Islam movements and how they seem to have a lot in common.

Obviously, there are going to plenty of people out there who do not buy into that theory. Nor are they going to buy into the idea Curtis presents that there really was no large network of terrorists called al Qaeda and that perhaps there may be many smaller groups of terrorists who happen to have the common dislike of America. They would probably also not believe the concept that perhaps the hysteria and xenophobia of both neoconservatives and radical Islamists may be feeding off one another, empowering each group to the point where a powder keg like September 11th happens.

But these are serious ideas, presented thoroughly. Curtis is a more effective and factually accurate propagandist than Michael Moore. "Nightmares" presented legitimate ideas that it seems most people are still too afraid to discuss.

Munich (dir. Steven Spielberg, scrs. Tony Kushner & Eric Roth) (released December 23, 2005)

Who would have thought that Steven Spielberg would make one of the best films that examined what happens when a country decides to use a terrorist attack as a reason to go after any of its enemies regardless of whether they had anything to do with the attack or not? I consider to "Munich" to be one of Spielberg's most unheralded masterpieces. A morality tale, as well as an effective 70's-style spy thriller, this film is about a group of assassins, led by a Mossad agent named Avner played by Eric Bana, assembled by Israel to take out eleven people supposedly behind the massacre of Israeli athletes and coaches at the 1972 Olympics in Munich. What also works against these assassins is that, due to their lack of experience, every one of their missions are often marred by mistakes and often result in blowback for them and their country.

Each of the assassination sequences are shot and constructed as Hitchcockian set pieces, which is a testament to Spielberg's ability as a director, as this film was made and edited in less than 6 months. This is one of the most brutal films Spielberg has ever made, portraying vengeance through acts of violence that even sicken those who perpetrate them. The sequence where they kill the nude Dutch assassin using bicycle pumps is particularly rough to watch.

You empathize with these assassins, as they begin to doubt the righteousness of their missions to the point that the guilt overwhelms them. It is quite sad that the movie was greeted with derision from some factions, who feel that critiquing the actions of the government means that you condemn the country as a whole. As the bombmaker says in his final scene, "We are supposed to be righteous. That's a beautiful thing. And we're losing it. If I lose that, that's everything. That's my soul." That is why I can understand the choice that Avner makes at the end of "Munich". He chooses to protect and be loyal to his family rather than his country. As he finds out in the last scene, his country was never as willing to reciprocate his loyalty.

In the next part of this series, I will take a look at what I considered to be the peak years of the last decade, 2006 & 2007, before everything, both the movie world and the real world collapsed. Now, having chosen the subject matters that I was going to write about for each part of this series at the beginning of this year, I hesitate to tell you that the next aspect of the last decade I will tackle will be the actual discussion of films themselves. I think that by now you might be seeing the big picture of what I am doing with this series. Little did I know that the monthly "Death of Film Criticism" articles of recent years would turn into a nearly daily subject for film blogs and websites in 2010. I will press on, as I am confident I have something unique to offer on this subject. Plus, I actually plan to officially kill film criticism on this very blog and then perform an elaborate voodoo ceremony to make it rise from the dead, as something completely different. Yes, there will be blood.


Jake said...

You know, the more time goes by the more I'm increasingly convinced that Steven Spielberg was THE cartographer of post-9/11 America in film. Catch Me If You Can certainly had no overt connection to the tragedy, but the way that Spielberg took his base theme of alienated kids and distant fathers to its zenith somewhat hinted that he felt it was finally time to grow up. The Terminal was a commentary on the harshness, and even insanity, of the bureaucratic rules that fuel airport paranoia. Munich, well, that's just obvious, and War of the Worlds tapped into feelings of confusion and fear of sudden attack and hid some smart character growth in there. As much as I love a number of his movies, I think he really, finally hit his stride in this decade.

Craig said...


Of course, the first argument that comes to mind is that the accessibility will allow more people with no obvious talent and even less to say the ability to make their movies. That is true, to a certain extent, but what is also true is that the percentage of crap to quality will generally be the same, regardless.

Absolutely right. I've been reading Mark Harris's Pictures at a Revolution and was struck by a critic's complaint that all the movies being made anymore (in paraphrase) "are sequels, remakes and theme-park movies." The year was 1961. I think Hollywood always goes through these cycles of drudge followed by bursts of creativity. It will be interesting to see, with the technical innovations you mention, when and where the next burst will be.

Oddly enough, when one looks at some of the more acclaimed television shows today, you can observe they are shot in a more classical style and often even employ more striking compositions and a more measured pace than some of the more frantic cutting and camera work of Hollywood films.

Great observation too, and I would single out The Wire as a prime example, particularly with all the shaky-jittery stuff the TV cop genre typically gives us.


You know, the more time goes by the more I'm increasingly convinced that Steven Spielberg was THE cartographer of post-9/11 America in film.

Ehhhhhhh. I think he wanted us to think that, and tried too hard for my taste. I strongly dislike two of the films you mention, War of the Worlds (needlessly brutal) and The Terminal (just needless), and enjoy Catch Me If You Can as a breezy trifle until it outstays its welcome like a visiting relative who doesn't know when to leave. I agree Munich fits the bill, though.

Jason Bellamy said...

I love this series. Take all the time you need.

A few thoughts ...

* On the classical style of acclaimed TV shows: I think the reason so many film fans go ga-ga for, say, Mad Men isn't because it looks so much like the 60s but because it reminds us of 60s movies. In these days of sloppy digital (which is NOT to imply that all of it is) and sloppy CGI (ditto), we hunger for that luscious celluloid look.

* I loved your "one to watch alone" observation about In the Mood for Love and you're just as correct with Eternal Sunshine. I remember seeing that movie on a cold day in Green Bay, Wisconsin, and it broke me in two. I love it. It's one of those films I'm hesitant to watch too much. I never want to become numb to it.

* Sideways and Munich are two films that I haven't seen since they were released that I liked in stretches but found only fleetingly memorable. I keep wondering whether/when to give them another look. So it's interesting to see them here. Tempted.

* I was happy to see Closer here because, for whatever reason, it's the kind of act-y, stage-y film that mainstream critics rave about around Oscar season that then gets forgotten. But, strangely enough, I thought about this movie two weeks ago out of the blue. I saw it upon its release and then immediately when it was out on DVD. When I thought of it, I couldn't remember a thing I disliked about it. Now I want to see it again.

* I probably need to see A History of Violence again, but you touched on one of the reasons I hated this movie: Sorry, but the second sex scene is a rape. Period. The guy is a fucking hitman and a liar. The wife finds out. And he attacks her. She resists and he attacks her. I rarely get all feminist-y and shit, but only in a male-dominated film world and critical industry could people watch a women get raped and then decide halfway though, "Oh, look, she likes it! Of course she does!" Makes me want to vomit just thinking about it, quite honestly. And the William Hurt thing was too absurd the first time I saw it (and not in a good way) and is only made worse for me in memory since I read some quote where Hurt bragged about kind of daring Cronenberg to let him "turn it up" in that scene, or something like that. That makes me want to barf, too, because the implication is that Hurt is some kind of subtle actor these days who made a departure by camping it up. Hardly. (And don't get me started on fucking Ed Harris.) Maybe I need to watch this film again. Maybe I missed something. But, man, fuck, I hated that movie. OK, rant over.

Steven Santos said...

Thanks for the comments, everyone.

Jake, while I can't exactly agree that Spielberg was the cartographer of post 9-11 America (I have problems with the same two films as Craig does.) I do consider "Munich" to have really diagnosed how our reaction to September 11th blew up in our face better than any of the Iraq war movies that have come out. I would also say the four Spielberg movies I wrote about in this series represent a rare great late career run for a director of his generation.

Jason, I am glad to see someone else appreciate "Closer". It may be perceived as some prestige picture designed to get Oscars, but, from the performances to the writing, there was little that I can say that didn't work.

I can't say I agree with your take on "A History of Violence", but I can see how you perceive it that way. As I said, I do think the sex scenes are meant to be seen in relation to each other. I think there is an intentional use of role playing on the part of those characters, but to different ends in each of these scenes. Bello's reaction to Mortensen the following morning when she walks out of her bathroom nude and then closes her robe shows that she wasn't proud of herself for taking part in that.

It skirted the line for me between the director's intention and how you saw it. I still think Cronenberg's idea came across and I believe it to be a legitimate idea. It's funny though. This particular group of movies from 2004 and 2005 contain moments that are controversial, but that one wasn't the first one I would think anyone would state objection to, particularly when the revelations at the end of "OldBoy" or the murder of the female assassin in "Munich" probably made me feel queasier.

Jason Bellamy said...

Thanks for the further thoughts on Violence. I need to see that movie again to see how it hits me. Again, going off one viewing a long time ago, my problem is that if the audience buys into the idea that Viggo's character is surprisingly revealed to be a bad mutha (surprising to his family, at least, as there's really no mystery for the audience), then that should suggest that his wife would see him differently and genuinely fear him and/or be disgusted by him and the lie. The man she role plays with at the start of the film is her husband. The man who fucks her on the stairs is an imposter (not to mention a killer).

Again, this is all on memory of one viewing long ago, so maybe I'd see it differently, but that robe scene you mentioned was almost the clincher for me in terms of the offensiveness, because that gesture turned what I took to be a real, brutal violation of someone into some basic husband-and-wife spat. ("I'm so upset with you for raping me on the stairs last night. You're sleeping on the couch this week.")

All this said, I fucking loved the ending. As he walks in the door, I remember thinking: "Oh, this'll never work. There's no dialogue that can be slightly plausible in this moment." So, credit to Cronenberg, because there isn't any dialogue. It's brilliant!