Lost in the Movies (formerly The Dancing Image): Filmmakers of the Fall

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Filmmakers of the Fall


A preview of coming attractions for the fall, with the focus on the directors behind the camera…
(Update: links lead to the eventual reviews of these films)

Though the season does not officially begin until September 22, one doesn’t need the equinox to know autumn’s in the air. Every year, like clockwork around Labor Day, a breeze picks up, the air grows cooler, and one begins to detect a slight browning or yellowing on the edges of the still lushly green leaves. As the station wagon is packed one last time, the children cast melancholy glances at the twilit beach, to be abandoned for schoolbooks in a matter of hours. Yet with the shuffling off of lazy summer days, a new sense of purpose wafts in the air as well.




School may be dreaded, but aren't some of the kids eager to see what their classmates are up to now, perhaps to trade in half-ripped T shirts and worn-down tennis shoes for something sharper, maybe even to sneak fresh glances at the cute girl who sits in front of them in homeroom? Fall brings with it a new sense of purpose, and along with renewed social acquaintances, fresh outfits, and a brisker atmosphere, the season arrives with the promise of good movies. The taste of summer popcorn has grown stale, and the eyes and ears hunger for something a bit more substantial.

If my emphasis has been on fall through the eyes of the youngest generation, that's because I have to slip into this mindset in order to fully believe in the promises of the season...at least in terms of film. It is not just summer blockbusters which have disappointed in recent years, but many of the "grown-up" Oscar-baiters of the latter months - and the knowledge that Fall Quality is just as much a marketing device as Summer Thrills tends to inculcate cynicism in most of us after a certain point. Yet the buzz and hype do have the power of a self-fulfilling prophecy, with studios and filmmakers waiting until the end of the year to unveil their more ambitious projects.

Besides, talking about fall films has its nostalgic value as well. To return to those childish memories: I well recall flipping through Entertainment Weekly's Fall Movie Preview on the cusp of every September. Over the years, I developed a more sophisticated sense, an ability to read through the hype and buzz and determine what was and wasn't worth seeing. Several fall issues in, any observant reader will begin to note that the most promising films are not necessarily the ones which get the two-page spread in the Entertainment Weekly issues. Nor are they the ones with the big stars, who get the big glossy photos but tend to be dependent on the quality of the material they've chosen to pay their bills this particular month.

And heck, I'm a sucker for a good hook but be honest: how often have imaginative premises descended into unimaginative cliches? Most movies need a high concept to get off the ground in the first place; if that's all it took, Hollywood would be gushing out masterpieces. No, in the end, the best question to ask is not "What's it about" nor "Who's in it?" (nor, believe it or not, "How big is the font EW used for the title?"), but, as Peter Bogdanovich put it, "Who the devil made it?"

Please note: all this means is that movies by certain directors are almost always bound to be interesting and provocative. Most directors have their shares of disappointments, even stinkers. Perhaps the films listed below will join that ignoble canon. Perhaps not. But the films will be worth seeing, because they are the product of minds with a vision; whether or not you'll be fully satisfied coming out of the theater, you'll have something to mull over. Anyhow, lest snow fall and Christmas carols hit the airwaves before I wrap up this intro, I'd better move on. So then, sans further fanfare, a dozen celebrated filmmakers and their offerings for the autumn harvest:

Pedro Almodovar: Broken Embraces on November 20

This has been a good decade for the Spanish writer-director, whose All About My Mother and Talk to Her both received Oscars, and whose recent Volver, with Penelope Cruz, received raves. Almodovar's flamboyant and romantically absurd cinema will now close its most rewarding decade with this film. Cruz is back (which never hurts, let's be honest) and Almodovar will be following the footsteps of past giants like Fellini and Truffaut by making his film...about a filmmaker. Yet this time the filmmaker is blind, his career is over, and the movie looks back to the moment when it all slipped out of his fingers.

Wes Anderson: The Fantastic Mr. Fox on November 25

This was also not a bad decade for Wes, though his achievement was rather top-heavy. His greatest artistic success of the zeroes was The Royal Tenenbaums in 2001; since then, the talented auteur's importance has largely been in terms of influence. His aesthetic has been to the 21st century what Tarantino's was to the 1990s: for better or worse his quirky, melancholy vibe and highly developed visual sense has been aped in every indie, wannabe indie, edgy TV show, cutting-edge TV commercial (some of which he directed), and has now saturated the media to the point where crayon-style graphics are ubiquitous. Unfortunately, Anderson's own work suffered something of a decline: Life Aquatic and Darjeeling Limited were enjoyable, but there was something forced in the proceedings: the magical lift of Tenenbaums and Rushmore was missing (perhaps he needs to reconnect with Owen Wilson, co-writer of those projects). The Fantastic Mr. Fox is, stylistically at least, a change of pace: its charmingly retrograde stop-motion animation develops Anderson's nostalgia in a new direction, while its classic story may force him to eschew the debilitating effects of random whimsy. At any rate, any Anderson movie is worth seeing - few directors are as assured or unique as he is, whatever his flaws.

James Cameron: Avatar on December 18

Twelve years is a long time to wait, especially following the top-grossing film of all time (then again, George Lucas waited twenty years after his #1...albeit with questionable results). Yet Cameron is finally ready to follow up Titanic, with a battle between humans and some sort of blue feline alien creature. Skeptics allege that the 3-D IMAX is gimmicky, that the extraterrestrials look absurd (though strangely enough, that makes me want to see it more), and that it is essentially a remake of Aliens. Whatever the result, one can't deny that Cameron crafted some of the best action films of all time (for my money, his masterpiece is still the low-budget but relentless Terminator) and it will be interesting to see if he's still got it.

Jane Campion: Bright Star on September 18

Campion's work has been celebrated since the Eighties, with the New Zealand filmmaker earning especially lavish praise for An Angel at My Table and The Piano. A confession, then: I have seen neither; nor am I acquainted with any of her features. As way of absolution, I have seen a rather fascinating short film of hers, about troubled adolescent girls at the time of the Beatles' arrival in Australia. It was visually arresting, conceptually bold, and imbued with a rather distinctive aura of melancholy romanticism. Appropriate, then, that Campion chooses a bona fide Romantic for her latest subject: poet John Keats, and his love affair with Fanny Brawne before his premature death in the early 19th century. Artistes-in-love stories have become a bit of a cliche in Oscarland, but Campion's sensitive touch has the potential to elevate the material.

The Coen Brothers: A Serious Man

Awed by the formally masterful No Country for Old Men in 2007, I resolved that the Coen Brothers' visual panache and formal discipline was so great, they could adapt the Yellow Pages and make it outstanding. 2008's Burn After Reading put that theory to the test. Now we shall see if the brothers' famed myopia is overcome by their inarguable cinematic skills. They just make everything look fantastic: their cutting is sharp, their photography is beautifully precise, their iconography memorable. A Serious Man, with its not especially thrilling premise of an academic suffering a midlife crisis in 1967, will once again test the theory that it is not what a film is about that matters, but how the filmmakers tackle their material.

Clint Eastwood: Invictus on December 11

Proof positive that this list is not simply a rundown of favorite directors. You've got to respect a man who's nearly eighty, and churns out a couple films every year or so, but I tend to find most of his recent work - stretching back to the over-praised and cynically concluded Mystic River - overwrought and sloppy. Yet Eastwood has been not only one of the most prolific, but most talked-about directors of the zeroes, which is certainly nothing to sniff at - and like Anderson and Almodovar, he's had a banner decade. So here's his closing statement for the zeroes, and like many of his choices, it's a bit of a head-scratcher - a film about Nelson Mandela, sure, but focused on his championing of the 1995 South African rugby team? Still, there's something to be said for idiosyncrasy, and Eastwood's got it in spades (sometimes it's downright charming, as in the so-goofy-you-have-to-grin Space Cowboys, an opinion probably not shared by many). He is who he is, and that's one of the criteria for a worthwhile director. If nothing else, Invictus will probably be as interesting and unique as Eastwood's other work.

Peter Jackson: The Lovely Bones

No, I take it back: this is proof positive that I'm not playing favorites with my selection. The second and third Lord of the Rings films were vastly overrated, and King Kong was absolutely dreadful, but Jackson definitely has his following, and the freedom that comes with it, so his films tend to express a certain unfettered sensibility. The story for The Lovely Bones is highly intriguing: a young girl is waylaid on her way home from school, by a creep who claims he has an underground fort he wants to show her. The summary is mum on whether said fort exists, but its metaphorical power (dragging her down to the depths) is clear, and our heroine spends the rest of the film as a powerless spirit in the afterlife, watching her family on earth fall apart, even as her wish fulfillment continues unfettered in the clouds of her own private heaven. So laid out, The Lovely Bones certainly has the potential to be moving, thought-provoking, and imaginative. It could also be grotesquely sentimental, glib and cartoony (the character's name, Susie Salmon, certainly gives one pause), and in embarrassingly poor taste (one shudders to think how that fatal encounter with the pervert will be conveyed). Whether Jackson manages to surmount his own penchant for self-indulgence and emotional overkill in the pursuit of his enthusiastic imagination and world-creating talent remains to be seen. But this will certainly be one of the more fascinating releases of the fall.

Spike Jonze: Where the Wild Things Are on October 16

Another adaptation limned with troubling signs. The production was plagued by reshoots and rewrites; getting off the ground back in 2005, it was originally intended for release a year and a half ago. Whenever children's books make it to the screen these days, they tend to lose, lose, lose...it's taken for granted that kids have the short attention spans and incapacity for emotional depth suffered by some of their elders, and hence the ephemeral is most often sacrificed to make way for the obvious. Jonze's run-ins with the studio are promising in this regard, as is Jonze's magical facility with camera and editing shears, displayed in his collaborations with Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation) and perhaps most notably in his remarkable music videos. It would be nice to see him pull out ahead after losing four years of his life and God knows how many nerve endings in his dedication - at any rate, the film looks wonderful with its lumbering creatures and mist-shrouded sets. Let's hope Maurice Sendak's spirit is carried to the screen intact by Jonze's nimble wonder.

Richard Kelly: The Box on November 6

Kelly's Donnie Darko, the tale of a troubled teenage boy who is visited by a giant creepy rabbit circa 1988, was one of the most absorbing, offbeat films of its time, achieving both a formidable cult popularity and a just-as-formidable backlash. His Southland Tales somehow made it onto an elite list of the most critically-acclaimed films of the decade, this despite the fact that its detractors are legion and vociferous: in no uncertain terms, it has been called one of the most horrendous movies of all time. Love or loathe Kelly, he is ambitious, and ambition's something American film could use a bit more of these days. Like his other films, Kelly's The Box - about a couple who, with the push of a metaphysical button, can enrich themselves while killing a stranger - plans to drape grand philosophical inquiries in the moody trappings of science fiction. The premise sounds simple, and one wonders how Kelly will sustain it for two hours, but we're talking about a director who has little trouble - indeed, perhaps not enough - filling stories with subplots, asides, and loving details (remember Sparkle Motion?). A better question might be if Kelly has learned to balance his dreamy mood evocations and startling images with a discipline and control which allows subtlety to co-exist with his creativity. Pandora be damned, I kind of want to find out.

Michael Moore: Capitalism: A Love Story on September 23

Kelly's detractors have nothing on Moore's, but Big Mike seemed to mellow in his last feature, 2007's Sicko. Rather than charge at individuals on Quixotic quests of humiliation, he began prodding an entire system, looking for possibilities of change, all while softening his own approach and persona. Moore widens his focus here from the health-care industry to the vast global economic infrastructure, and no doubt his ever-inflammatory agitdoc approach will incite controversy. But, in the new can't-we-all-get-along spirit of the Obama age (however short-lived that may turn out to be), will he continue down the new, "kinder, gentler" path he initiated with Sicko? Or will he return to the convenient, if powerful, scapegoating of Fahrenheit 9/11 and Roger & Me (both, incidentally, better - or at least more distinctive and absorbing - works than Sicko). Either way, this "love story" certainly won't be sticky-sweet; it will be passionate, though perhaps not in the sense of your run-of-the-mill romance.

Jim Sheridan: Brothers on December 4

Like many directors on this list, Sheridan has his bombastic side. It seems to come with the territory - if one is going to proclaim oneself amongst the horde of anonymous hacks, one must risk going over the top. The Irish filmmaker pulled no punches with his 1993 Northern Ireland drama In the Name of the Father (how can you when you're working with an actor as dynamic and hungry as Daniel Day-Lewis?). It will be interesting to see what he does with this particular film's hot potato, the war in Afghanistan. As with Sheridan's films from My Left Foot to In America (not to mention, rather obviously, Father), the focus is on family: Jake Gyllenhall and Tobey Maguire play the titular siblings (one of whom is a Marine captured by the Taliban), with Natalie Portman as the woman caught between them. There are shades of The Deer Hunter at play in the screenplay, and though our focus is on directors, one should mention that David Benioff - the writer - was the author of Spike Lee's underrated 25th Hour, one of the few 00s films to effectively grapple with 9/11, albeit in a roundabout way.

Steven Soderbergh: The Informant! on September 18

Finally, we have the ubiquitous Soderbergh. He's about as prolific as Eastwood, though harder to pin down in terms of style or theme. This slipperiness means that it's generally difficult to peg him as a truly great auteur - though many would point to sex, lies, and videotape, Traffic, and the recent opus Che as evidence of greatness. At any rate, Soderbergh's facility is remarkable, and not only because he shifts constantly between genres and styles (moving from the ultra-slick Oceans Eleven to esoteric video fare like Bubble). He also wears multiple hats on each film:  producer, writer, and director, sure, but also photographer (and not just D.P., but actual camera operator!), an exceedingly rare feat, albeit one which has become a bit more common in recent years. The Informant! follows in the footsteps of many high-level thrillers like The Insider and Syriana, tracing corruption and abuse of power in the highest echelons, through the eyes of a corporate whistleblower played by Matt Damon. Damon's character, based on a real whistleblower, is a complex protagonist: while morally justified in his betrayal, he also suffers from bipolar disorder and his erratic behavior makes the case against his employers (a huge agribusiness) far more complicated.



Please share your own thoughts on the upcoming releases below - along with any other titles or directors I missed, whose work also deserves to be anticipated as the calendar nears its end and the fallen leaves start crunching underfoot.

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