Friday, November 13, 2015

Four More Directors to Watch Out For

This is a sequel to a 2013 post I wrote about five of my favorite directors. This time I talk about Michael Mann, Kathryn Bigelow, Harmony Korine, and Noah Baumbach.

Michael Mann
I glancingly mentioned Mann at the end of that earlier post as one of my favorite action directors. It's true. I have reported before that I love film noir and moody urban (or rural) crime films, and in the contemporary era, Mann is one of the undisputed masters of the genre.

I have written elsewhere about my deep love for Manhunter (1986), so let me focus here on a couple other of Mann's best films as a means of explaining his appeal. (Remember, however, that as Nathan Ditum has written, Mann's career is quite varied and rife with "medium-hopping" variety.)

Neil (Robert de Niro) and Eady (Amy Brenneman) in Heat, Michael Mann's dramatic crime thriller masterpiece.

Heat (1995). My God, Heat. Heat is so goddamned good that I hardly know where to begin. This accurate appreciation does a good job of summing up the film's (and Mann's) many strengths, stating that Mann
traffics in established loner-pro genre archetypes, walking a fine line between character psychology and pulp myth. Mann’s underworld thrillers — Thief, Heat, Collateral, Miami Vice, Public Enemies, and the recent, unfairly maligned Blackhat — blend fantasies and realities of crime. His screenplays are notoriously wordy, but play as minimalist on screen, with paragraph blocks of novelistic detail used to inform single gestures. He collects psychologies and reams of off-beat technical information and transmutes them into archetypal stories. 
[In] the two decades since its release, Heat — a film that was very well received, critically and commercially — has only grown in stature, and come to be regarded as a modern classic and a point of reference for genre filmmaking. Newness depreciates in value over time, but craft and expression remain. Most of Mann’s movies — quite a few of them flops — have become more highly regarded over time. Mann’s perennial problem, it seems, is that his plots are too old and that his movies look too new.
I couldn't say this any better. If you like smartly scripted, visually eye-popping urban crime films, then you simply must check out the films of Michael Mann, especially Heat. All 170 minutes of Heat's pleasurably grandiose running time are absorbing and tension-packed; the movie never drags. Its two leads, Al Pacino and Robert De Niro, give career-high performances, backed by a supporting cast par excellence: Val Kilmer, Tom Sizemore, Ashley Judd, Diane Venora, and Ted Levine. Filled with exciting, well-choreographed action set pieces interspersed with deliciously atmospheric L.A. film noir moments, I simply cannot recommend Heat strongly enough.

The post-heist shootout in the streets of L.A., one of the most exciting and expertly constructed scenes in Heat and in Mann's filmography writ large.

The Last of the Mohicans (1992) sits outside Mann's "usual" mode of the tough, urban crime film and yet in many ways it fits right in: it is about tough, manly, resourceful men caught in extremely precarious circumstances. I re-watched this movie a few months back and was blown away by how well-made, exciting, and compelling it is. All this plus Daniel Day-Lewis in the starring role equals, as Ditum calls it, "a period winner."

I also emphatically recommend Mann's Thief (1981), Collateral (2004), The Insider (1999), and the aforementioned serial-killer classic Manhunter. Furthermore, despite its decidedly mixed reviews (some positive, some middling, some negative) I plan to see the recent cyber-thriller Blackhat on the strength of Mann's good name alone.

UPDATE 11/27/2016: See also Darren Franich's detailed appreciation of Mann's Collateral.

Action thriller director Kathryn Bigelow in 2009. 

Kathryn Bigelow
As this sharp writeup of Hurt Locker-era Kathryn Bigelow argues,
She is, simply, a great filmmaker. Because while it is marginally interesting that she calls “action” and “cut” while in the possession of two X chromosomes, gender is the least remarkable thing about her kinetic filmmaking, which gets in your head even as it sends shock waves through your body.
Yeah! I agree. Bigelow's films are consistently good -- I have been thrilled and entertained by every single Bigelow film I've seen, and a few, like Blue Steel (1989), Point Break (1991), and Zero Dark Thirty (2012), are truly great. Probably the best way to approach her work, like that of Nicholas Winding Refn, is to see her films as a series of revisions of and experiments with different genres. MoMA's Jenny He accurately writes that Bigelow
boasts an accomplished oeuvre of engrossing and exhilarating films that are unified in their defiance of genre expectations, their sensual and visceral imagery, and their examination of societal mores and individual psyches.
Indeed. Let me further explain Bigelow's greatness via some specific comments about a few of her key movies:

The Loveless (1982). As the writeup from this 2011 retrospective explains, The Loveless "is a study in Americana that evokes influences as varied as Walker Evans, Kenneth Anger, Edward Hopper, and Douglas Sirk." Willem Dafoe is simply great as the lead, Vance, in this film (when is Dafoe not great?). Yet Vance's oscillating attitude -- between bemused detachment and mildly angry ennui -- is indicative of the overall tone of The Loveless. It is a fascinating genre study and entertaining in a downbeat, existential way, but it is also just a warm-up to the bolder and more innovative genre experiments to come.

Jamie Lee Curtis as Megan in Blue Steel

Blue Steel (1989) is one of my all-time favorite Bigelow films -- it's the one I've seen the most times. It is both an exciting and suitably hyperbolic 1980s crime thriller in its own right and a subtle deconstruction of the gendered assumptions that usually accompany that genre.

Film scholar Christina Lane notes that the "first five sequences of [Blue Steel] represent a series of reversals in which Bigelow toys with gender expectations that are embedded in the genre." My favorite of these reversals is the second one Lane analyzes, about the close-up tracking shot over the gun in the opening credits sequence:
Rather than impart the point of view of the bullets going into the chamber from the outside in, she presents the insertion "from within," perhaps suggesting a point of view that is gendered female. Exaggerating the fetishism of this phallic symbol, a fetishism common to the cop genre, the film defamiliarizes conventional connotations of the gun, asking us to examine the relation between the whole and the parts (i.e., the theory of phallic power and the practice). Also, during this caress of the gun, Bigelow frames the spinning of the chamber as though it were a movie reel, linking the phallic discourses of weapons to those of the cinema.*
In other words, Bigelow points out the masculine, phallic nature of the image of the gun while simultaneously reversing that gendering -- feminizing the gun -- visually. Clever! Lane continues:
In Blue Steel, Bigelow may stay within the terms of the cop/psychothriller genre, in which the gun is fetishized and women present a sexual threat; however, she reverses its terms, exploring what happens when the governing symbolic imagery changes due to a female presence which oscillates between femininity, masculinity, and androgyny (that is, to say that Megan takes up various positions throughout the film). Bigelow refuses to suggest that a mere substitution of a woman in a man's role - and one who is masculinized at that - ultimately reverses male power structures. Rather, she privileges the slippage between gender codes and modes of power, entertaining the possibility of disrupting those structures.**
Very well argued, I completely agree. Blue Steel doesn't just plop a female heroine into a masculine film-world and plot structure, as do Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (2001) and Kill Bill (2003 and 2004), but rather it disrupts and renders ambiguous the gender codes of the typically male-centered action genre.***

Johnny Utah (Keanu Reeves) and Bodhi (Patrick Swayze) in the downbeat final scene of Point Break, Kathryn Bigelow's 1991 action masterpiece. 

I re-watched Point Break (1991) quite recently. Prior to that, I hadn't seen Bigelow's high-octane cops-and-robbers actioner since the late 1990s. In my hazy memories, I remembered it as being too over-the-top for my tastes -- a strange perception, damn hard to account for given that I was still heavily into mid-career Schwartzenegger movies like The Running Man (1987) and Total Recall (1990) at the time Point Break came out.

Point Break constitutes a remarkable achievement in action cinema. Its bank-robbery, sky-diving, and chase sequences are tautly directed, with effective, visceral touches like the use of steadicam in the amazing mid-film foot chase between Johnny Utah (Keanu Reeves) and a Reagan-masked Bohdi (Patrick Swayze). And while the breathtaking, ever-escalating action set pieces are the main reason to take this ride, Point Break's surfing sequences and character development scenes are shot really beautifully, often in depth, with copious slow motion used for dramatic effect. Bigelow is great at directing action yet is unafraid to include some long takes and just soak in the mise-en-scene of things from time to time. The film's attention to detail makes the southern California setting, and the whole milieu in which the story takes place, feel lived-in and real. Much as I dislike the term for its recent overuse in film criticism, "gritty" is the perfect word to use here. Despite its fairly breakneck overall pace, Point Break is far more thematically resonant and visually gritty than I remember it being.

Point Break's Bodhi, in Reagan mask, torches a getaway car. I love this image. 

Seeing it again now, I am inclined to place Point Break in the upper echelon of great '80s and 90s L.A. crime films, a group that includes William Friedkin's To Live and Die in L.A. (1985) and Mann's masterpiece Heat (1995). Is some of the dialogue and its delivery (especially by Reeves) a bit cringe-worthy? Yes. Yet does it work as a piece of brilliantly crafted action fare? Yes, absolutely. Highly recommended!

Ralph Fiennes as Lenny Nero in Kathryn Bigelow's terrific neo-noir Strange Days.

Strange Days (1995) is a well-made neo-noir with slight science fictional trappings, that is, a noir set in a dystopic near future much like Bladerunner. Ralph Fiennes gives a terrific central performance as harried low-level street operator Lenny Nero, and the supporting cast, including Angela Bassett, Juliette Lewis, Tom Sizemore, Michael Wincott, and Richard Edson, is remarkable. As usual, Bigelow takes a familiar genre -- in this case the film noir or crime thriller -- and then slightly turns it on its head, especially along gender lines. I do not wish to give away spoilers, but suffice to say that Nero, our ostensible "detective," gets proven wrong on one key matter that gives the lie to his need to protect his ex-girlfriend Faith (Lewis). Plus the "real" badass of the film is not the somewhat effeminate Nero but rather Bassett's Mace, a limo driver with finely honed fighting skills and an unswerving loyalty to Lenny. In sum, Strange Days is a terrific psychosexual thriller that presents near-future L.A. in a very different yet nearly as haunting a way as does its most obvious influence -- Ridley Scott's Bladerunner. Well worth seeing.

K-19 The Widowmaker (2002): First, a caveat: Das Boot is to submarine movies what Jaws is to shark movies. It's the absolute peak of the genre, with no other film even remotely in its league. In the case of shark attack films, even other solidly enjoyable ones like the Jaws sequels, Deep Blue Sea (1999), the Sharknado films, and The Reef and Open Water form a distant second tier behind Jaws, that one superior specimen of the genre. Likewise, all other submarine warfare films fall distantly behind Wolfgang Petersen's incredible masterpiece Das Boot. 

So in order to place Bigelow's clunkily titled K-19: The Widowmaker in its proper context, we must compare it to other second-tier military submarine adventure movies, alongside stuff like Destination Tokyo, The Hunt for Red October, and U-571. And compared to films like these, K-19 is pretty good. The movie takes a lot of rightful heat for Harrison Ford's abysmal "Russian" accent, though if you can look (listen?) past that flaw, his performance on the whole is pretty damn good given how late in his career we are talking about. Also, the supporting cast, including the always-great Liam Neeson and Peter Sarsgaard, is uniformly excellent, though mostly consisting of lesser-known performers.

K-19's greatest strength, however, comes from its relative seriousness of tone and its grounding in a historically true series of events. I know this is a Hollywood film and I am not saying I believe the film is historically accurate, of course not. But the whole tone of the film, especially its tragic, tear-inducing final scene, gains power from the story's link to reality, however tenuous that link my be (I have never extensively researched the real history of Soviet nuclear submarine K-19). Set in 1961, K-19 is an historical period piece and therefore not as contemporary feeling or as "ripped from the headlines" as The Hurt Locker (2008) and Zero Dark Thirty (2012). Nevertheless in many ways K-19 is a warm up to Bigelow's subsequent Iraq war dramas. As a meditation on the personal cost of serving the state and maintaining state secrets, K-19 specifically foreshadows the themes of The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty.

Jessica Chastain gives a harrowing performance as beleaguered CIA operative Maya in Kathryn Bigelow's espionage masterpiece Zero Dark Thirty.

While I like The Hurt Locker and am very happy in general that Kathryn Bigelow won Best Director at the 2009 Oscars for it, I nevertheless maintain that Zero Dark Thirty is a superior film and may even mark the highest point in Bigelow's directorial career so far. I won't spend time elucidating its many strengths -- taut action and suspense, full-tilt performances from all players but especially Jessica Chastain, pitch-perfect cinematography -- but simply urge you to see it and take in all its espionage-movie excitement, investigative breadth, and grim beauty.

The main issue that comes up for most people around Zero Dark Thirty is its relationship to its real-life subject matter. We know all biopics and historical pics and films "based on a true story" are filled with inaccuracies and fabrications, but some films seem to draw more heat for exemplifying this ubiquitous truth than others do. Zero Dark has taken a lot of criticism from viewers who think its depiction of "enhanced interrogation techniques" (i.e., torture) by U.S. military intelligence personnel is inaccurate and inappropriate. For myself, I fully agree with Roger Cohen:
Watching torture is profoundly unsettling. But Bigelow and Boal have done an important service in setting before a wide U.S. and global audience images of a traumatized America’s dark side. This happened: the waterboarding, the sleep deprivation, the sexual humiliation, the cruelty. Not exactly as depicted, but yes it did.
By graphically depicting actual U.S. torture methods, Zero Dark exposes a truth many Americans would not like to face: that the U.S. does not occupy moral high ground in the global conflicts in which it is embroiled. The reality that the U.S. tortures captives in violation of the Geneva Convention is, in the context of this film, more important than the specifics of real-life torture's efficacy or inefficacy. That torture is ineffective in reality does not erase the truth that it happens.

Thus Zero Dark Thirty is justified in integrating graphic torture scenes into its narrative, in part because it is a work of fiction and a work of art. As Cohen further explains, "while reality is the raw material journalism attempts to render with accuracy and fairness, it is the raw material that art must transform." This resonates with film director Werner Herzog's notion of cinema's "ecstatic truth":
Cinema, like poetry, is inherently able to present a number of dimensions much deeper than the level of so-called truth that we find in cinema verite and even reality itself, and it is these dimensions that are the most fertile areas for filmmakers. I know that by making a clear distinction between 'fact' and 'truth' in my films, I am able to penetrate into a deeper stratum of truth most films do not even notice. The deep inner truth inherent in cinema can be discovered only by not being bureaucratically, politically and mathematically correct.†
Starting with its opening audio of the real 9/11 attacks over a black screen, Zero Dark Thirty means serious business in terms of conveying the full emotional impact and consequences of the events it depicts. It artistically deploys the facts in the service of reaching a deeper, ecstatic truth. Cohen rightly concludes that "the charge of inaccuracy is a poor thing measured against the potency of truth. Zero Dark Thirty is a truthful artistic creation, one reason it has provoked debate." Very well said.††

The sublime last shot of Zero Dark Thirty, which conveys the personal cost of serving the state and implicitly questions whether or not the hunt for bin Laden was worth it.

Harmony Korine
Harmony Korine, like his German idol Werner Herzog and his Danish counterpart Lars von Trier, is an enfant terrible, a talented provocateur who crafts his films and public appearances in such a way as to tease, provoke, and mystify his audiences. Take, for instance, this bizarre 1997 Letterman interview segment:

Is Korine really this crazy? Or is this whole appearance some kind of performance-art type of stunt? We'll never know, and part of the fun with Korine is that the line between who he might be as a person and what he wants to accomplish with his art is pretty heavily blurred.

As Korine himself says in this interview, responding to a question about the capacity for some of the images found in his films to shock viewers:
It's nice to know that people haven't become so completely desensitised to things that there's still a way to get some type of extreme reaction. But that's why you make films; to provoke some kind of discourse.
I think that quotation is key to understanding Korine's over-arching project, and it says a lot about him that when asked directly in the same interview about that controversial appearance on David Letterman, he replies:
Well, you know, it's interesting, because this has become such a thing now, when it's something that happened 15 years ago! I know what happened. But… I don't want to really say, because I like the way it exists in the way it does now.
That is, Korine would rather preserve the mystery, leaving things open to interpretation, than to spoil it by explaining himself. In this way he reminds me very much of David Lynch, who also steadfastly refuses to explain or interpret his films or creative motivations to interviewers. Frustrating though this may be for some of us, this refusal tells me that Korine, like Lynch, trusts and respects his audience. He wants us to decide for ourselves.

None of this impishly maddening public behavior would matter if Korine's films weren't some of the best crafted and most ideologically insightful works being made in the early 21st century.

To start with, Gummo (1997). Gummo is my personal favorite Harmony Korine film -- I assume it will always loom large on my list of all-time favorite movies. Gummo tells a loose "day in the life" type story, albeit in a multi-strand, non-linear way. The film features a true ensemble cast, with no single protagonist unless it is Tummler (Nick Sutton), the younger of two boys who kill neighborhood cats, selling the meat to a Chinese restaurant to earn money. The movie episodically follows several neighborhood characters, gradually creating a penetrating if carnivalesque portrait of mid-1990s white American poverty.

Is Gummo thinly fictionalized "poverty porn?" It's a legitimate question. Korine surely immerses himself in the low-income worlds he depicts in Kids (1995), Gummo, and julien donkey-boy (1999). And his films do both critique and exploit the genres in which he works.

Like Herzog, Korine likes to look unflinchingly at bizarre, unusual, even grotesque things, somehow making the viewer see their abject beauty. Alternately painterly and grunge-documentarian, Gummo's visual style is something very unique and special, consisting of beautiful images of unbeautiful subjects.

Gummo is an absolute must-see if you are interested in American independent cinema, or even if you just want to see one Korine film only -- make it this or Spring Breakers (2012).

Then there's julien donkey-boy (1999), Korine's Dogme '95 film. This is for serious Korine enthusiasts and may not be an ideal first Korine film if you are new to his work. More narratively coherent than Gummo -- it has a clear protagonist, Julien (Ewen Bremner), and features fewer central characters, focusing only on Julien's immediate family -- julien donkey-boy is nevertheless more thematically extreme than its predecessor. Both Julien and his father (played by Werner Herzog) seem to be mentally ill, and the film's plot centers on the anticipated birth of Julien's sister Pearl's (Chloe Sevigny's) baby, whose father's identity I cannot spoilerishly reveal. There's some intense shit in this movie. It's very good and I recommend it highly if you like Korine's stuff but you've been warned.

I already discussed Spring Breakers at length when I named it my favorite film of 2013, and I have not yet seen Trash Humpers (2009). Beyond that, Korine's feature filmography consists of Mister Lonely (2007) and the film he wrote but did not direct, Kids (1995). Mister Lonely is a gentler, more upbeat film than any other in Korine's filmography (even though one major character does commit suicide by the end). Depicting the exploits of several celebrity impersonators, including Michael Jackson (Diego Luna) and Marilyn Monroe (Samantha Morton), this slice-of life piece aesthetically foreshadows Spring Breakers, being much glossier and a bit less arty and abstract than his earlier works. I enjoy Mister Lonely but it is the Korine film I have returned to least. I recommend neophyte Korine viewers skip it in favor of seeing the more visually accomplished and thematically incisive Spring Breakers.

Harmony Korine's cameo appearance alongside star Chloe Sevigny in Kids.

Kids is must-see viewing, for multiple reasons. First, it is an early harbinger of Korine's style and themes, focusing on the lives of several (mostly delinquent) youths over the course of a single day and night. It is shot low-budget style with street photographer Larry Clark directing.

Second, Kids is a key work of the 1990s American independent cinema boom. As this retrospective interview and this oral history make clear, Kids is the kind of film that could be made during the mid-1990s indie film heyday, but simply could not be made today, now that the indie sphere has been more or less completely taken over by the multinationals that run the major film studios.

Lastly, Kids, sensationalized though it may be, deals frankly and truthfully with underage sexuality and drug use, shining a light on the interconnected dangers of AIDS and urban poverty. In this sense I see it as another precursor to Spring Breakers, which also investigates white youth culture's obsessions with drug use, crime, and imagined blackness.

UPDATE 11/14/2015: A friend recommends that those interested in hearing a Harmony Korine interview with less "performance art" weirdness should check out this podcast with Marc Maron.

Noah Baumbach 
I have been a fan of Noah Baumbach's work ever since I saw The Squid and the Whale (2005) on home video circa 2008. That is a remarkable film, still my favorite of the director's. It is an intense coming of age drama centering on the travails of Walt (Jesse Eisenberg) as he deals with the divorce of his parents.

The Squid and the Whale is one of Baumbach's most psychologically incisive films, though Margot at the Wedding (2007) is also pretty intense and I've heard Greenberg (2010) is totally warts-and-all too. In any case, Whale displays all the key hallmarks of Baumbach's style. It is well-shot, well-paced, and its focus is on the nuances of its hard-to-love characters and their interactions. Whale and Margot are the two most emotionally harrowing Baumbach films I've seen, bleak tales of interpersonal fragmentation and raw family relationships. The lightness and comedy that infuse Baumbach's later works is present only sparingly in these two superbly crafted dramas.

Walt (Jesse Eisenberg) in the final moments of The Squid and the Whale.

Baumbach is an excellent director of actors and he always brings forth real, lived-in performances from his cast members. Take, for example, Jack Black in Margot at the Wedding or Ben Stiller in While We're Young. These two guys both have clearly identifiable schticks -- JB's is rooted in his theatrically hyperreal Tenacious D persona, Stiller's is that of a tightly wound, geeky underachiever -- yet Baumbach brings roundness of character out of these two, mellowing, deepening, and therefore defamiliarizing their usual personas.†††

Ben Stiller as frustrated Generation-X filmmaker Josh in While We're Young.

One of the most accurate general assessments of Baumbach's work is this one, provided by AV Club's Mike D'Angelo:
Baumbach isn’t a great stylist, but he does think visually, especially considering how talky his films tend to be.
Very well said. Baumbach is no show-off, not even in his fairly clever dialogue. No, he places the characters (and by extension the actors) first. I think this is a fine principle by which to direct films. It seems to drive Nicole Holofcener's work, too. And surely Robert Altman's. This is good company to keep.

Amanda Seyfried, Noah Baumbach, Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts at the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival premiere of While We're Young

Baumbach's strength as a director of actors is on display in Frances Ha, his upbeat female buddy comedy I discuss briefly here. While Frances Ha isn't my personal favorite Baumbach film -- I prefer his darker, edgier stuff -- I highly recommend that delightful gem if you haven't seen it already.

To conclude, I urge my readers to check out this delightful interview with Baumbach conducted by Jonathan Lethem around the time of Squid and the Whale. In it, Lethem says something of that movie that applies to Baumbach's film work as a whole:
it had that homely humanity to it. There was breath and impulse and life.
Yes indeed.

Nicole Kidman as the emotionally turbulent title character in Margot at the Wedding.

* Christina Lane, "From The Loveless to Point Break: Kathryn Bigelow's Trajectory in Action." Cinema Journal 37.4 (Summer 1998) pp. 70-1.
** Lane p. 73.
*** According to Kevin L. Ferguson, Blue Steel also reworks the "yuppie villain" trope in its bizarre depiction of obsessed serial killer Eugene (Ron Silver). Ferguson argues that the film "simultaneously sustains and critiques the new trope of the yuppie devil" in his fascinating analysis in Jump Cut.
† Paul Cronin (ed.), Herzog on Herzog (Faber and Faber, 2002) pp. 239-40.
†† Those interested in both sides of the debate over Zero Dark Thirty should check out Cieply and Barnes for the pro and Steve Coll and Peter Maass for the con. You may also want to read this Time Magazine interview with Bigelow, in which she addresses the Zero Dark controversy.
††† I think Black's part in Margo at the Wedding constitutes his second-best "offbeat" career performance after his starring role in Bernie, which is his career-best performance bar none. I like him in Orange County but I consider that to be one of his "core persona" performances. All that said, I basically like Jack Black's core persona, especially in School of Rock and the HBO Tenacious D shows.

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