Anyone who doubts the truism that film functions as both art and commerce need only look at the decade-long (actually thirteen years) absence of the one-time ‘enfant terrible’ of French cinema, Leos Carax, from filmmaking. Carax’s last film, Pola…
Author Mel Valentin
Before embarking on a new film project, filmmakers should ask themselves a simple, if often overlooked, question, “Why?” Why make this particular film and why now? Is there something inherent in the subject matter that demands the filmmaker make this film with all deliberate speed? Studio executives, of course, generally limit themselves to purely financial considerations, but any filmmaker who considers film more just a commercial product should ask themselves what aesthetic purpose, what artistic purpose does their film serve? If Sacha Gervasi (Anvil) had asked himself that question before deciding to direct Hitchcock, a dull, lifeless misfire only the most diehard of diehard Hitchcock aficionados should seek out, he would have moved on to another project with greater potential for artistic and commercial success.
Spanish filmmaker Juan Antonio Bayona’s feature-length debut, The Orphanage, an impeccably crafted, impressively polished supernatural horror film produced by Guillermo del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth, The Devil’s Backbone, Cronos), did little to prepare moviegoers (or critics for that matter) for his follow-up, The Impossible, a harrowingly gripping, emotionally engaging disaster film. That The Impossible was based on a Spanish family that remarkably, improbably survived the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami that left more than 230,000 dead and countless others injured or homeless in fourteen different countries, makes The Impossible all the more compelling and all the harder to dismiss as spectacle in search of substance.
The oughts (or noughts if you prefer) were something of a lost decade for filmmaker David O. Russell. After Three Kings, a trenchant satire of the First Iraq War (with decided relevance for the second), thirteen years ago, Russell turned his attention to a personal project, I Heart Huckabees, an existential comedy-drama that took five years to bring to the big screen, but disappointed moviegoers and critics alike. Six years followed without a Russell film before Mark Wahlberg tapped Russell to direct The Fighter, a true-life boxing drama that garnered Christian Bale a well-deserved Academy Award. Thankfully, moviegoers didn’t have to wait another six years for another film directed by Russell. His latest, Silver Linings Playbook, an unconventional romantic comedy-drama adapted from Matthew Quick’s 2008 novel, confirms Russell’s return to the top of his profession.
Most filmmakers approach the adaptation of a Great Work, an acknowledged masterpiece, with a desire, above all else, to remain faithful to said Great Work, to convey, to transmit, and otherwise communicate the Great Work’s themes, ideas, story, and character arcs with as much fidelity, as much faithfulness, as a particular running time (e.g., feature-length, mini-series), allows, content to add a few visual flourishes (if that), colorful, period-specific, costumes, simple, unobtrusive cinematography, and the actor or actors du jour to add the necessary level of novelty before sending the adaptation out into the world of semi-discriminating moviegoers and TV watchers. Thankfully, that description doesn’t apply to Joe Wright’s (Hanna, The Soloist, Atonement, Pride & Prejudice) adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s masterpiece of aristocratic decadence, societal decline, and romantic tragedy, Anna Karenina.
Walt Disney Studios made a smart, possibly, if not probably, the only logical choice when senior executives elevated John Lasseter, the chief creative force (and officer) behind Pixar’s decade-and-a-half run of critical and commercial hits, to a similar position above Walt Disney’s Animation Studios. Lasseter had an obvious hand in Disney’s latest computer-animated effort, Wreck-It Ralph, an action-adventure set inside the virtual world(s) of video arcade games that bears more than a passing resemblance to Pixar’s first hit, Toy Story. Not quite as coherent or focused, but just as inventive and imaginative as Toy Story, Wreck-It Ralph is the near-perfect film for nostalgic video arcade enthusiasts (and everyone else for that matter). It’s also beautiful to behold and unsurprisingly given Lasseter’s involvement, emotionally moving too.
For almost two decades, it seemed Robert Zemeckis could do no wrong, at least where mainstream moviegoers and, to a lesser, but still relevant, extent, the Academy Awards. Zemeckis had the golden touch, directing box-office hit after box-office hit, beginning with Romancing the Stone before moving on to the Back to the Future trilogy. Zemeckis hit something of a high-water mark with Forest Gump in the mid-1990s, winning the Academy Award for Best Director. While Zemeckis closed out the decade with two more back-to-back successes, What Lies Beneath, an underrated Hitchcockian thriller, and Castaway, a calculated attempt to repeat Forest Gump’s stratospheric success with Tom Hanks, he spent the last decade in the motion-capture wilderness (e.g. The Polar Express, Beowulf, A Christmas Carol).
The post-Matrix career of Andy and Lana Wachowski has been, to be blunt, less than successful either critically or, more importantly for mainstream filmmakers, commercially. Two misguided, rushed Matrix sequels and a live-action adaptation of a vaguely remembered 1960s animated series, Speed Racer, a failure critically and commercially, may have dented the Wachowskis’ collective reputation, but several failures have done little, if anything, to blunt their ambitions as filmmakers. The Wachowskis made Cloud Atlas, an adaptation of David Mitchell’s 2004 Man Booker Prize-nominated novel—a novel many considered unadaptable in feature-length form—their next film. While the Wachowskis and writer-director Tom Tykwer (The Princess and the Warrior, Run Lola Run) worked on the screenplay and pre-production together, they split directing duties roughly in half. Cloud Atlas is a sprawling, old school epic, an intellectual thought-puzzle, an emotionally satisfying metaphysical melodrama, and, simply put, the Wachowskis’ best film.
Almost thirty years ago, Disney famously (or rather infamously) gave a then little known animator, Tim Burton, his walking papers. Disney executives, unhappy with the time, effort, and more importantly, money spent on Burton’s live-action short, Frankenweenie, saw no future in continuing any kind of relationship with a filmmaker executives perceived as non-commercial. They were wrong, of course. Audiences responded to Burton’s brand of Gothic-inspired, horror-inflected, off-kilter filmmaking for the better part of three decades (the occasional misfire notwithstanding). Never to leave an early, not-quite realized project alone, Burton resurrected Frankenweenie as a feature-length, black-and-white, stop-motion animated film, unsurprisingly strong visually, but just as unsurprisingly weak narratively.
At the Cannes Film Festival this past May, a minor controversy (so minor only the most dedicated of movie critics, bloggers, and cineastes) broke out over Lee Daniels’ (Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire, Shadowboxer) adaptation of crime author Pete Dexter’s 1995 crime-melodrama, The Paperboy. Out of context, the idea of Nicole Kidman—an Academy Award-winning actress—urinating on one-time teen heartthrob Zac Efron raised eyebrows and, as expected, interest in Daniels’ film. In context, there’s little of a prurient nature in the scene involving Kidman’s aging, sexually manipulative bottle blonde, Charlotte Bless, and Efron’s naïve college dropout, Jack Jansen. She urinates on Jack ostensibly to save his life from jellyfish stings acquired on an ill-fated swim. It’s as much, however, about territoriality than it is about sexuality and its nearly infinite permutations.