Six years ago, Jeff Nichols first, feature-length film, Shotgun Stories, an Arkansas-based tale centered on feuding half-brothers, marked him as one of the most promising talents behind the camera of his generation. Shotgun Stories starred a then lightly used Michael Shannon in the lead role. An obvious rapport and affinity between writer-director and star led to their second film together, Take Shelter, a compelling character study wrapped around a modern-day retelling of Noah and the Biblical Flood, four years later. Critical acclaim and accolades justifiably followed for Nichols’ writing and direction and Shannon’s finely wrought turn in the lead role. Something of a muse for Nichols, Shannon’s back for Nichol’s third film, Mud, a Mark Twain-inspired, Southern pulp-thriller, but only in a supporting role this time. Nichols turned to Matthew McConaughey to take the title role, an enigmatic fugitive wanted for the murder of another man.
Author Mel Valentin
After sitting through Oblivion, Joseph Kosinski’s ambitious follow-up to 2010’s Tron: Legacy, it’s easy to imagine a preteen (and post-teen) Kosinski obsessively revisiting the same science fiction films, some classics, some less than classic, until he absorbed them at subconscious level. From such obsessive viewing cinephiles are born and in Kosinski’s case, not only did he dream of becoming a director, he made that dream real. Never forgetting his younger self, Kosinski sought to recreate the same wonder and awe, the same intellectual and emotional engagement of the films that made him a science-fiction leaning cinephile. Tron: Legacy allowed Kosinski to revisit a fondly remembered (probably too fondly remembered) film from his (and our) youth, Tron, but he was hampered by the dictates and constraints set by risk-adverse studio executives primarily interested in re-launching Tron as a trans-media franchise.
Few directors can claim to have won an Academy Award for Best Director with their first feature-length effort, but actor-director-activist Robert Redford can. His first film Ordinary People won an Oscar for him, and a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for Timothy Hutton. It also received nominations in several other categories. For Redford, one of the ‘70s biggest box-office stars, Ordinary People marked a transition from popular mainstream roles to more personal roles acting and/or directing. In hindsight, however, Ordinary People can be seen as a high-water mark for Redford’s directing career. Nothing he’s done in the last three decades has matched that film’s critical acclaim or awards cachet. His latest, The Company You Keep, an adaptation of Neil Gordon’s well-regarded 2003 novel scripted by Lem Dobbs (Haywire, The Score, The Limey, Dark City, Kafka), will do little to change that unfortunate trend.
Moviegoers can be forgiven if they thought Derek Cianfrance’s last film, Blue Valentine, was his first. It wasn’t, but it was his first film in 12 years. A harrowing, raw, authentic examination of a disintegrating marriage, Blue Valentine was rightly hailed as the work of an extremely talented, skillful filmmaker, an actor-focused filmmaker adept at obtaining near career best performances from Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams as a mismatched couple irrevocably headed toward painful separation and divorce. Although more than worthy of Oscar consideration, Blue Valentine received only one nomination for Williams’ performance (she lost). After a relatively short hiatus, Cianfrance has returned with another ambitious, if ultimately flawed, film, a generation-spanning crime-drama set in and around Schenectady, New York.
Present in body, but not in mind has become the new normal of the Second Age of Information, especially after smartphones became ubiquitous. Disconnection is the exception and connection the rule. We live most of our lives virtually in cyberspace; connecting to people we’ve never met personally, developing relationships, and otherwise leaving the physical world (a.k.a. “meatspace”) behind. Living virtually has its costs, of course, some general like alienation and isolation from friends and family in the real world and some specific, like identity theft, cyber-bullying, and cyber-exploitation. Henry-Alex Rubin’s (Murderball) first narrative film, Disconnect, explores some of the pitfalls of the Second Information Age through three Babel–inspired, interwoven stories, with predictably inconsistent results.
Even Stephenie Meyer’s worst detractors – of which they are legion – would have to begrudgingly admit that the Twilight series struck a chord, however wrong-headed, however, regressive, initially with her YA (young adult) audience and later with women of all ages. At its core, the Twilight series functioned as escapist, romantic fantasy, albeit with a supernatural twist (vampires and werewolves) and a thinly disguised pro-abstinence, reactionary-conservative viewpoint that Meyer’s readers seemed to find either unobjectionable or simply willfully ignored. The Twilight series’ big-screen incarnation, however, ended last November. Luckily for Meyer’s fans (and unluckily for everyone else), Open Road Films snagged the film rights three-and-a-half years ago to Meyer’s first non- Twilight novel, The Host, a sci-fi action-romance that’s almost as insipid, unimaginative, and uninspired as anything in the Twilight series.
Production delays are nothing unusual in Hollywood. They’re more the norm than the exception. Studios typically push back the start of production, often delaying a project into irrelevancy (and development hell), but it’s exceedingly rare when a studio pushes back the release date of a major release like Paramount did last year with G.I. Joe: Retaliation, the less-than-anticipated sequel to the 2009’s G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, the titular characters’ first big-screen appearance. Owned by Hasbro, the company behind the Transformers series, G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra was meant to duplicate the Transformers’ box-office success, in part relying on the easily exploitable nostalgia of mostly male adults for the toys, the ‘80s animated series, and the Larry Hama-penned comic books.
Gerard Butler’s post-300 career has left a lot to be desired, both for audiences who responded favorably to Butler’s bearded visage and hyper-toned abs and, of course, Butler himself. Butler and, presumably, his handlers, decided he needed to move out of a potentially restrictive, constricting action-hero persona, riskily accepting a series of derivative, humor-free romantic comedies or underwritten, generic dramas. Hollywood, however, wasn’t ready to turn its back on Butler, at least not yet, giving him one more, possibly last, chance to prove he can open a film like movie stars can or, at minimum, improve his box-office cred with Olympus Has Fallen, an excessively gratuitous, ultra-violent, morally repellent Air Force One–Die Hard mash-up (the first of two identically premised action-thrillers; the latter, Roland Emmerich’s White House Down, opens in June).
Spring Breakers, Harmony Korine’s (Trash Humpers, Mister Lonely, Julien Donkey-Boy, Gummo, Kids) latest film, opens with images of pulsating, gyrating male and female twenty-something bodies under an ultra-bright Florida sun to the throbbing, sensory-pummeling sounds of dubstep pioneer Skrillex’s “Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites.” The bodies belong to America’s best and brightest on spring break, a euphemism for the annual ritual and bacchanal (i.e., getting their libido-driven freak on). Seemingly exploitative, the images repeat themselves, video or art installation style. Korine uses the repetition of images and sounds, of scenes and dialogue not just to create a sense of events turning back on and encircling the characters in their respective fates, or even a pervasive sense of amorality, but just as importantly, a critique of the mass culture the character and, by extension, we inhabit, and how we, as moviegoers, take the cinema’s visual and auditory pleasures for granted without reflection or reservation.
Three years ago, the Disney-produced, Tim Burton-directed adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s perennially popular fantasy novel, Alice in Wonderland, earned one billion (U.S.) internationally, an astonishing number then (and now. One billion dollars was more than enough to convince Disney to give the go ahead to Sam Raimi’s (Spider-Man trilogy, Evil Dead trilogy) Oz the Great and Powerful, a prequel to the much-beloved children’s classic, The Wizard of Oz. With Frank L Baum’s Oz-centered novels in the public domain, the decision was all the easier for Disney. As long as Disney’s interpretation didn’t stray too close to the 1939 film, it was only a matter of making the prequel, releasing it in thousands of theaters simultaneously, and waiting for the box-office receipts to come in. In the rush to get Oz the Great and Powerful, Disney forgot about a few, key elements like storytelling, characters, and subtext.