Seven months into 2007 and five, count them, five major filmmakers have passed away. I still remember when Kubrick passed, and Alan J. Pakula, but this has been a devastating year for film lovers. Granted, most of these men were in their eighties, but still, the deaths of Altman, Sembene, Yang (who was only 59!), and now Bergman and Antonioni in two days time, leaves an indelible and lasting mark. I remember back to watching Blow Up during my freshman year in film school at UCSB, and how frustrated, intrigued, taken aback, and finally how much I fell in love with the film, opening my eyes to the possibilities just beyond the shadows. The same with Bergman, and his masterpieces Wild Strawberries and Winter Light, two films which resonate deep seeded obsession with memories and regrets. And Altman, The Long Goodbye and McCabe and Mrs Miller standing tall amongst an epic scope of great work. Sembene I’ve recently only began to experience, but Black Girl seems to me the quintessential film of Third World Cinema in the 1960′s. And finally, and maybe most saddening, Edward Yang, whose Yi Yi is the only film of his I’ve seen, yet it might be the most beautiful cinematic experience for me of the last ten years. It’s tough enough putting words to the screen when commenting on difficult, fascinating artists at work, but it’s even harder when faced with the fact you’ll never see a new film by them again. Goodbye all, and thanks for all you’ve done.
To be completely honest, this is in my Top 10 of all time. Miller’s Crossing represents everything I long for in a film – fascinating characters, perfectly placed camera movement, haunting music, brutal and decisive action, all working together to create a rhythmic, seamless cinematic entity specific to a time and space. It’s a gangster film, a story of friendship, and of deception, but it’s also disturbed and obsessed with personal failure in each of these realms of existence. The theme of failure haunts every Coen Brothers films, from Blood Simple, to Fargo, to The Man Who Wasn’t There, and the constant presence of such a feeling infects them down to their very core. Miller’s Crossing seems to be somewhat of an oddity though, in that it doesn’t rely on buffoonery, or slapstick, or irony to convey these devastating moments of decision. The Coen Brothers give us faces, hats, guns, offscreen violence, and love, all based within human sacrifice and the subversion of honor in the name of friendship. In a world this dirty, it turns out friendship cannot be bought, sold, or bartered with, just advanced and destroyed. Any middle ground results in death. The Coen’s have never made a better film, nor are they likely to transcend their patented brand of irony and create another mature masterwork like it ever again. We can only hope.
Ice cold, almost too much so, yet Blood Simple holds incredible moments of dark comedy that foreshadow the Coen Brothers’ trademarks to come. The final sequence, which pits a desperate and vindictive Frances McDormand against a devastating and ironic M. Emmet Walsh, could be used in any film class on narrative pacing to distinguish the physical horrors which can be inferred rather than shown out right. I don’t think Blood Simple is the masterpiece many critics have hailed it to be, but the film reveals a fresh outlook on cinematic storytelling, a mesh of comedy, lunacy, fate, and Noir which still entertains me to this day. Also, any beginning filmmaker could take some cues from the Coen’s use of space, minimal dialogue, and inventive graphic matching, all which become apart of the story rather than outside of it.
The Howling was widely praised (and deservedly so) for it’s groundbreaking special effects, but I found Dante’s subversive commentary on social groups far more fascinating. On the one hand, you have the “knowing” news reporters who end up being completely ignorant of the Werewolf infestation, and on the other the Lycons themselves, who are attempting to fit into society but with ultimately little success. Sometimes silly to a fault, The Howling beautifully operates on many different levels of mood – shifting almost seamlessly between hardcore violence, slapstick, and biting allegory.
In Rescue Dawn, the fascinating new film from director Werner Herzog, Christian Bale plays Dieter Dengler, a German born U.S. fighter pilot who’s shot down over Laos during his first mission to bomb the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The year is 1965, and the American’s on board Dengler’s aircraft carrier, including himself, regard the conflict as minor, and from a distance afforded by their occupation. Herzog paints these initial moments with a calm, anti-climactic build which sets both the characters and viewer up for the more shocking, heroic, material to come. Almost immediately after being downed, Dengler is captured by a group of Laotian/North Vietnamese soldiers. Herzog’s staggering montage of Dengler’s trek to a far off P.O.W. camp introduces both the ferocity of his captors and the epic scope of the surrounding jungle environment. Once Dengler reaches the camp, he’s surprised to see other American and coalition forces being held, and at the length they’ve been held. See, the American involvement in Vietnam covered far before the mid 1960′s, and Dengler’s ignorance to this fact represents the military’s as a whole, bookened by the harsh C.I.A. presence at the end of the film. Rescue Dawn is essentially a series of discoveries for Dengler, and his fellow prisoners, which include Steve Zahn’s haunted Dwayne and Jeremy Davies’ pacifist/psycho Gene. As they realize their guards are starving as well and wish to kill the prisoners in order to return to their villages, the need for an escape becomes mortally pressing. During these tense moments, Herzog uses a series of long camera takes, creating some brilliant blocking to compliment this style, all encapsulating the compressed, almost real time evolution of the camp social dynamic. Which inevitably leads to the open, vast sequences of escape, equally haunting Dengler’s almost innate, instinctual need to survive. Bale’s stunning performance, which ranges from sublime to heart-wrenching, twitches with the intensity of a man driven by his purposeful blocking of the future. Peace talks, helicopters, gunfire, none of it matters to Dieter, and his cunning, singular motivation and improvisation is the only reason he ends up surviving (don’t worry the title gives that away already). As with all Herzog, the end result doesn’t stand a chance against the process, which Rescue Dawn, like many of his other great works, revels in the torture, survival, and triumph of a lost soul. Christian Bale is well on his way to being his generation’s Robert DeNiro, a shape shifting force of nature whose trauma’s end up defining his character, consistently producing a fascinating specimen of rage and goodness moviegoers can contemplate for years to come.
Having just read Nick Hornby’s great source material, it’s clear how and where Frears encountered problems with this adaptation, specifically Rob’s long history with heartache and breakup, which gets simple, fluffy exposure in the film, and devastating clarity in the novel. All in all, these issues have very little to do with the success of the film and the end result is a great transformation from the written word to silver screen, aided exponentially by the perfect casting of John and Joan Cusack, Todd Louiso, and of course Jack Black. In the film’s arousing final scene, Sonic Death Monkey (which might be my favorite name for a band ever) led by Black’s rotund Barry, delivers a sly mixture of arrogance, charm, and genuine sweetness with beautiful ease, a great example of the film’s outlook on pop culture, relationships, and love. Too bad Frears couldn’t have found a way to bring out Rob’s inherent bastard with more effect, which is so key to Hornby’s written trials and tribulations.
I hate to say it, but this film doesn’t hold up. It might sound like sacrilege to some, but Leon feels flat, safe, and altogether Hollywood (not that this is bad, just not what I remembered) upon further review. Also, besides Portman’s great performance and Reno’s silent but deadly character arc, the rest of Besson’s world saunters through illogical plot devices too inane for my taste. Still, the shootouts that bookend the picture are impressive, and Portman’s Mathilda walking down the hallway past her murdered father still packs quite a wallop, even if she’s a fascinating presence in a story constantly trying to explain her importance.