Directorial Debuts: Part III (1960’s)

Martin Scorsese, Woody Allen, Bernardo Bertolucci, Sydney Pollack, Francis Ford Coppola, Norman Jewison, Brian De Palma, Werner Herzog…just a small handful of the legendary directors who made their screen debuts in the decade of turbulence — the 1960’s. Talents like this went on to helm some of the finest films of the 70’s, 80’s and even today. But did their first films make a dynamic splash in the cinematic waters? After posting my Top 5 directorial debuts of the 2000’s and the 1970’s, here are my Top 5 Directorial Debuts from the 1960’s. Of course, this is not a list of the best directors to come out of the decade…this list is based on the filmmakers’ very first films and the impact they had on the world of movies. Take a look — and let me know who you would put on the list!

5. Pier Paolo Pasolini (Accattone, 1961)

A feel good film, this ain’t — but it remains a startling debut from one of Italy’s finest directors.  A sort of second-wave of neorealism filmmaking, Pasolini’s focus here (as in almost all his works) is on peasant culture and the people who inhabit that world. As he always did, Pasolini hired non-actors from the area to play the roles, giving the film a genuine look and feel. Accattone (meaning “beggar”) revolves around a pimp who loses his income when his main prostitute is roughed up by rivals. Vittorio (Franco Citti) discovers a new girl and slowly lures her into her seedy new profession. The movie is beautifully shot and filled with such fascinating faces to examine. An ugly and unsettling experience, but poetic and a sure work of art. Controversial from the start, Pasolini would go on to explore the very real and very poor side of Italy’s streets in works such as the powerful Mamma Roma, Medea, and Salo.

4. Mel Brooks (The Producers, 1968)

I’m not really much of a Mel Brooks fan at all, but I do love this movie. Before it became a Broadway mega-hit years later, this wonderfully funny film went on to win Brooks an Oscar for Original Screenplay. Zero Mostel is pitch-perfect as Max Bialystock, the aging producer who woos older rich women for investment money and bullies poor Leo Bloom (Gene Wilder), a feeble accountant, to try and produce the biggest flop the Broadway stage has ever seen. What’s the project? Only a love letter to Hitler, featuring the now infamous song “Springtime for Hitler.” After selling 25,000 percent of the play to investors, hiring the world’s worst stage director, and casting a bunch of misfits, Bialystock’s plan ultimately backfires and the musical is a smash. A delightful comedy classic and an impressive debut, to say the least. I may not appreciate his movies as others do, but Brooks went on to direct some classic comedic films such as  Young Frankenstein, Blazing Saddles, and yes, Spaceballs.

3. George A. Romero (Night of the Living Dead, 1968)

The Godfather of all zombie movies and one of the most influential horror films ever made — Romero’s debut has since spawned five sequels and two remakes…but none would come close to this stunning debut.  Made on a shoestring budget (which adds to the crude and eerie feel on screen), Romero’s classic created prototype for other zombie films to follow, featuring the rural setting, young outsiders in a small group, and the political statements made in the form of allegory. The movie clearly critiques American society at the time, but it also creeps the fuck out of you. With this debut, Romero was able to define an entire genre of film — not the horror film per se, but the subgenre falling beneath it. 40+ years later, it is still gruesome, still terrifying, and still smart movie-making.

2. Dennis Hopper (Easy Rider, 1969)

The quintessential biker flick, Easy Rider became a huge box-office success and quickly became famous for representing the 1960’s counterculture generation. Because of its enormous success, it also sparked a new wave of filmmaking that would lead well into the 1970’s. Hopper’s love letter to hippies was shot with barely any script at all, with most of the dialogue being ad-libbed.  The film follows bikers Wyatt (Peter Fonda) and Billy (Hopper) as they travel America’s South trying to make it to New Orleans in time for Mardi Gras. Characters are met along the way – most who look down on the long-haired bikers. When thrown in jail for parading without a permit, they are helped out by a local attorney (Jack Nicholson), who decides to join in their travels. The film marked the “coming out” for Nicholson who received an Oscar nom. The soundtrack here is filled with staples of some great 1960’s rock and folk artists including The Band and The Jimi Hendrix Experience. Hopper’s statement on America during that time — certainly a bleak and demoralizing one — is made all too clear. He would later direct Colors, which was a very good film and a handful of others — not so good. But this, his first film, goes down in history as helping to define a generation. A brave and sincere work.

1. Roman Polanski (Knife in the Water, 1962)

One of cinema’s most accomplished directors made a most extraordinary debut with this Polish drama consisting of only three actors. A young husband and wife drive to a lake so they can spend the day leisurely sailing together. On the way, they almost hit a young man — who is then invited to hop in and later, is even asked to join them on the boat. Not a great idea.  But really, when is a hitchhiker ever a good thing? Power struggles and sexual tension between the trip ensue and Polanski gets to play with some themes that he will examine in later films in more detail. This is a remarkably intense film and no surprise that the newbie director would go on to make some of the very best films over the course of the next 40+ years, including Repulsion, Macbeth, The Pianist, Chinatown, and Rosemary’s Baby. Looking at the entire decade, this choice was a no-brainer for me — and if you’re a film buff who hasn’t yet seen it, this is a must-see.

NEXT UP: ‘DIRECTORIAL DEBUTS PART IV’ will give us the Top 10 best debuts from the 1980’s and 90’s.

Click HERE to read DIRECTORIAL DEBUTS: PART I (2000’s)
Click HERE to read DIRECTORIAL DEBUTS: PART II (1970’s)

New ‘Great Gatsby’ Trailer: Looks Terrible!

Rather than waste my time by writing some fancy build-up to what the premise of this post is, I will just come right out and say it…this trailer sucks. I speak as an enthusiastic devotee of the classic F. Scott Fitzgerald novel and a fan of Jack Clayton’s 1974 screen version starring Robert Redford and Mia Farrow. The novel has always been one of my all-time favorites. Jay Gatsby always struck me as a remarkable tragic hero and perhaps no book epitomizes the decadence of the Roaring 20’s better than The Great Gatsby. The earlier film version (adapted for the screen by Francis Ford Coppola) captured this quite well – the jazz, the costumes (Theoni V. Aldredge won an Oscar for them), the décor…the decaying morals seep through the screen as we look on Nick Carraway and his friends in 1922 New York and the beauty and grandeur of Long Island’s North Shore.

So is it time to re-tool and reinvent this classic story? Perhaps. It was remade in 2000, but that was for television (and not so great). Is it a good idea to bring this magnificent story to a younger audience who are reading the SparkNotes to pass their 11th grade tests? For sure. But is Baz Luhrmann (Romeo + Juliet, Moulin Rouge) the right man to helm this project? Going by the trailer just released by Warner Brothers, I remain extremely skeptical and yes, very worried.

I am sure that the production design – the costumes, art direction, and such will be impeccable. Luhrmann’s films always have a grand and majestic look about them. Vulnerable and wide-eyed, Tobey Maguire looks like the right fit to play our humble narrator and protagonist, Nick Carraway. Joel Edgarton is a terrific acting force and I am sure, as Daisy’s husband Tom Buchanan, he will be dynamic once again. Carey Mulligan, while no beauty (as the character should be), is a tremendous talent, and I am sure will pull off the flighty Daisy just fine. My problem here is the casting of Leonardo DiCaprio in the iconic role of Jay Gatsby. I’m not a DiCaprio hater at all…in fact I think he’s a pretty strong actor. But here? As Gatsby? I’m sorry…but no. Redford owned the screen when he played him. He was perfect for the part — dashing, soft-spoken, with just enough danger thrown in. Leo to me looks too juvenile and not yet ready to step in these shoes. If Gatsby had a son, he’d be great for it. But that isn’t the case here.

My other problems with this hideous trailer? Well, what is with the freaking music? For a novel that is a symbol for 1920’s high-life, are we really playing Kanye West and Jay-Z?! It looks like it will be a movie that will so obviously pander to a younger audience, rather than do justice to Fitzgerald’s monumental work. Guy Ritchie mauled and mangled the brilliant fiction of Sherlock Holmes so as to appeal to a young crowd. Did it work? Well, the films hit box office gold and I suppose when all is said and done, that’s the bottom line in Hollywood. But as a film, I found the first movie to be so insulting and appalling that I never bothered seeing the second. That is what I am afraid of here — Luhrmann making that same mistake.

The “look” of the film seems very impressive indeed. My gut feeling however is that we will be watching a lot of glitz and a lot of style – with very little substance. My expectations are low indeed. Give it a look right here – what do you think about it?

What if David Lynch Directed ‘Dirty Dancing’?

I can’t sit through this movie, but perhaps I actually would have liked Dirty Dancing if it was directed by David Lynch. I came across this video a while back and thought it was pretty funny – it’s a trailer of the 1987 box office hit…if it was helmed by the Master of the Odd, the Eerie, the Intentionally Ambiguous Mr. Lynch. There are a lot of funny film trailers to be found on the web, that is for sure. I think this one did a great job with picking out the various clips to use. The editing and use of music (very Lynchian) is also very effective. Great pull-quotes and some nifty little effects complete this very funny parody — and actually make Dirty Dancing look somewhat watchable. It’s a quick 90 seconds – so give it a watch…and enjoy! (You have to go to YouTube to watch it….it’s worth it.)

Here’s the link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wjvuCOlkO4E&feature=colike

“Frozen Ground”: First Look Into Serial Killer Pic

Here’s one movie I now have on my radar. Scheduled for release in December of this year, Scott Walker makes his debut as writer and director of the serial killer thriller Frozen Ground. The film stars Nicolas Cage, Vanessa Hudgens, Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson (who also serves as co-producer), and — most exciting, John Cusack, playing the serial killer Robert Hansen. I’m not at all a fan of Cage’s numerous action movies — but I don’t think this project will resemble any of those works at all. When Cage wants to, he has the ability to be pretty damn good in some great movies (Matchstick Men, Adaptation, Bringing out the Dead).

Based on real-life events, Frozen Ground follows the 1980’s Alaskan investigation of serial killer Robert Hansen, who stalked or killed between 17 and 21 young women. Cage plays an Alaskan detective who tries to bring down Hansen (Cusack) and finally gets his opportunity after a 17-year old (Hudgens) escapes from the killer and provides key information. Jackson has a supporting role as a pimp. But how wonderful is it that Cusack signed on to play this kind of role?

I think Cusack — who made his screen debut almost 30 years ago — is one of our most underrated actors working today. We usually associate him with being “the nice guy,” the romantic, the likable hero. But his resume suggests that he is much more than that and has played a wide variety of roles and character types. I admire the change of pace and like seeing him take on “the dark” — so it goes without saying that I personally cannot wait to see what he does playing a serial killer. Here, his character kidnaps women only to take them out in the vast Alaskan wilderness to set them free — and hunt them! Are there no deer in Alaska?! Just take a look at the production photo…he looks so creepy!

The photos seen here are first-look photos released by Voltage Pictures, the company that released Killer Joe, The Hurt Locker, and last year’s The Whistleblower. No trailer just yet, but I can’t wait to check it out. I hope it turns out to be an edgy and smart thriller for Walker and crew — and not simply a cliche-ridden story of the rogue detective who makes a singular case of his turn very personal. For now, I remain excited.

Tim Burton’s “Dark Shadows”: A Movie Review

Last week, Tim Burton’s newest film Dark Shadows was released and opened to a modest $30 million domestic at the box office. But it is Burton after all, and the perfect opportunity to welcome another guest post by William Buhagiar, a connoisseur on all things Burton. Of course, William went to see it the first chance he got. Here’s his very favorable review:

When I first reached the age in which I was capable of reading the opening credits of the films I loved, I noticed a recurring component in a significant handful of the movies I watched obsessively: each one, prior to the revealing of the film’s title, featured the words: “A Film by Tim Burton.” My six (or maybe seven?) year-old curiosity inspired me to wonder who this guy was and why his name seemed to pop up in the majority of the movies I would play, rewind and play again. I’ve always been a passionate film buff, and as long as I have been, I’ve been a wildly outspoken, consummate Tim Burton fan: obsessively, repeatedly, studiously seeing his films, defending his work to infuriatingly-cynical skeptics, spending all but my limbs on ludicrous amounts of Burton-related merchandise and movie tickets – but also, much to everyone’s great shock, admitting that occasionally, Tim Burton doesn’t always make a great film. Despite the fact that he is undoubtedly my favorite filmmaker, I’m not delusional – he is not perfect, nor is he the best.

Mars Attacks! (1996) and Planet of the Apes (2001) are prime examples of Burton features that woefully missed the mark. His 2010 adaptation/re-imagining of Alice in Wonderland was also a brutal, sobering deflation of my arguably unreachable expectations; a breathtaking movie to look at, but ultimately a flavorless, generic Disney casualty that felt less like a movie and more like a product.  To prevent myself from experiencing the same bitter disappointment Alice in Wonderland slapped me across the face with, I put as much effort as possible into limiting my expectations for Dark Shadows, an adaptation of the 1960’s-70’s gothic afternoon soap opera chock full of vampires, witches, werewolves and poltergeists – a show that Tim Burton and Johnny Depp were devoted fans of during its original 5-year run on ABC. Admittedly, I was rather anxious about Dark Shadows, (Burton and Depp’s now 8th collaboration) and much of my apprehension came from concern that the supernatural vampire genre has been exhausted in pop culture recently, and the source material was, to put it as kindly as possible, a tad ridiculous. I was terrified of another disappointment.

Alas, I can say with a blessed elation, when the end credits began to roll after Dark Shadows, I breathed an enormous sigh of relief. Any and all previous cynicism vanished, and I found the movie to be enormously entertaining, and an instant classic, featuring everything I seek in Burton/Depp collaborations. Many non-believers mistake their excessive collaborations for overblown repetition, an argument that frankly, I’ll never understand. Sure, I’ll admit that their films are often bizarre, dark in tone, and feature a lonely, isolated and eccentric protagonist. However, if you properly examine each of the individual characters and stories they’ve created for two decades now, they’re all wildly original and unique.

Dark Shadows opens with a wonderful prologue narrated by Barnabas Collins, whose parents brought him from Liverpool to America in 1760 and established a fishing business in Maine and built their home, Collinwood Manor. (The production design is superb and all of the set pieces are magnificent.) When Barnabas breaks the heart of the Collins family servant, the witch Angelique, she places a curse upon the family and turns Barnabas into a vampire and with the help of an angry, god-fearing mob, buries him alive.

Two-hundred years later, in 1972, Barnabas is freed from his tomb by a construction crew and violently drains each of them, courteously taking a moment to apologize to one of them: “I am terribly sorry, but you cannot imagine how thirsty I am…” The following sequence is hilarious – Barnabas wanders about the town of Collinsport, Maine in a state of intense confusion, trying to make sense of gas stations, pay-phones, cars and paved roads, among many other puzzling fixtures of the 70’s. When Barnabas returns to Collinwood, he finds his beloved mansion in a state of disrepair and the family business run into the ground. The mansion is now home to his distant descendants: Elizabeth Collins-Stoddard, (The stunning Michelle Pfeiffer, reuniting with Burton for the first time since their genius creation of the greatest Catwoman portrayal ever), Elizabeth’s daughter, Carolyn (Chloe-Grace Moretz), her brother, Roger, (Johnny Lee Miller) and his son, David (Gulliver McGrath).  It wouldn’t be a complete Burton movie without the always-glorious presence of the goddess that is Helena Bonham Carter, playing Dr. Julia Hoffman, the Collins’ live-in psychiatrist, a pill-popping alcoholic.

The real stand-out performance here is Eva Green as Angelique Bouchard, the witch who cursed Barnabas and is now running her own seafood business in Collinsport, consequently responsible for the collapse of the Collins family business. She is an extremely compelling villain and her performance is explosive and her motivation intriguing – she chillingly purrs to Barnabas, “If I can’t have you, I’ll destroy you.” There is real menace and fury in her eyes, and we, the audience, believe every furious word.

Burton recruited Bruno Delbonnel as cinematographer, whose previous work includes Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, a stunningly-photographed film for which he deservedly received an Oscar nomination. In Dark Shadows, Burton and Delbonnel aimed to shoot the film in a style reminiscent of 1970’s films (horror films, specifically) for the sake of authenticity and atmosphere. Delbonnel’s work here is equally as stunning as in “Harry Potter,” and the cinematography will most likely earn him another Oscar nomination. I’m never surprised whenever a Tim Burton movie is visually pleasing (they always are), but the achievement in photography here is particularly impressive – especially when taking into consideration the accomplishment of the 70’s feeling.

Dark Shadows has moments of wild, over-the-top camp and many of the dialogue-driven scenes are over-acted to perfection. If the film wasn’t tongue-in-cheek, self-aware or took itself seriously, the camp and the soap opera tone would ultimately render the movie a failure. The film isn’t meant to do anything but provide entertainment, and it truly is a piece of good old blockbuster escapism; and I was delighted during the film to perceive it as precisely what I seek in Tim Burton’s films: you will never see another movie like this anywhere else. His greatest movies are always the most unique – Frankenstein-like men with scissors for hands, a barber singing beautiful melodies while viciously slitting open his customer’s throats, an eccentric, cross-dressing filmmaker, and now, an out-of-place 18th century vampire struggling to re-adjust to his new surroundings. Burton and Depp’s critics can say whatever they like, because regardless of their excessive cynicism, after twenty-two years of collaborating, Tim Burton and Johnny Depp continue to inspire.    – William Buhagiar

William’s Rating:

Weekend Humor: Sir Ian McKellen on Acting

I saw this video a couple of years back — it made me laugh then, and it surely makes me laugh now. Here, Sir Ian McKellen is interviewing Ricky Gervais for a stage play. But McKellen wants to make it perfectly clear to Gervais  just what acting in this play entails. Gervais, of course, gets it — and no surprise, makes for a great straight man in this short skit. McKellen is nothing short of hysterical here, laying bare the “secrets” of the trade — and how he was able to pull off playing Gandolf the wizard in Lord of the Rings when, shockingly enough, he is not even a wizard in real life. This is great stuff…

Directorial Debuts: Part II (1970’s)

The 1970’s is my favorite decade of cinema by far. Most of my most admired directors had their heyday during this ten-year period, and the majority of films I consider my all-time favorites came out here as well. In Part I of this series, I concentrated on the dearth of great film debuts since 2000 and I suppose there are a few reasons for this. And though the 1970’s brought us the debuts from the likes of Steven Spielberg, Oliver Stone, Ridley Scott, Wim Wenders, Ron Howard, Adrian Lyne, Catherine Breillat, and a host of other notable talents, I wouldn’t necessarily classify their first efforts as being overly impressive. Here are my Top 5 Directorial Debuts from the 1970’s. Again, this is surely not a list of who I believe the best directors are to come out of the decade…I’m just judging first films here and the impact it had on cinema and the rest of their careers. As always, I’d love to see who you might include.

5. Tobe Hooper (Texas Chainsaw Massacre, 1974)

One of the most influential horror films in cinema history, without question. And a film that will always freak me the fuck out. I’m not sure if it’s because Hooper’s film is so low budget (less than $300,000), but the quality of it gives the feeling of a snuff film that only adds to the fright factor. The aesthetic quality of the film is impressive and he does manage to get solid performances from a cast of complete unknowns. The irony with this horror flick is that it got an R-rating (though Hooper was fighting for a PG) and even Roger Ebert cited the movie “as violent and gruesome and blood-soaked as the title promises,” when in fact, there is very little blood or gore at all. A testament to the power of the mind and Hooper’s strong work here. Leatherface, inspired by real-life serial killer Ed Gein, is without a doubt, one of the most terrifying and haunting figures in movies, as he waits for his prey in his dilapidated home in the middle of nowhere. Hooper would go on to direct the ill-fated sequel and a host of other horror flicks, but has never managed to outdo this first grand effort.

4. David Lynch (Eraserhead, 1977)

Um…yeah. Not really sure what to say here. Perhaps Entertainment Weekly said it best when they wrote, “Eraserhead is about that which can’t be described.” I could not have put it better myself. Since its initial release, the film has become one of the all-time great cult classics and is the epitome of “the midnight movie.”  Those familiar with the extraordinarily remarkable resume of Lynch, will surely be able to see a number of his favorite themes being introduced here for the first time. Lynch started work on the film when he was given a small grant by the AFI Conservatory, but the money of course ran out and it took him over 5 years to shoot — in spurts. Eraserhead is certainly not for everyone…in fact, it’s not for most. However, you can surely see the singular artistic vision that is David Lynch’s — his style, pacing, use of music, visuals, are all on display, and if not for this work, Mel Brooks would have had nothing to be so impressed by to hire him to helm The Elephant Man.  One significant sidenote – the US Library of Congress selected the film for preservation in the National Film Registry in 2004. So there’s that…

3. Clint Eastwood (Play Misty for Me, 1971)

The Oscar-winning director behind such mighty works as Mystic River, Million Dollar BabyUnforgiven, and A Perfect World began his filmmaking career with this gripping psychological thriller. here, Eastwood plays a late-night disc jockey who has a brief fling with Evelyn Draper (a frightening Jessica Walter), an obsessed fan of his. It doesn’t take long for Draper to become more than a little obsessed with the DJ and eventually becomes quite the deranged stalker. The film was released before many stalker films of its kind began to come out, and, rarely seen, showcased a psychotic female villain. Fatal Attraction, anyone? After years and years of working in front of the camera, it is clear that Eastwood picked up a lot from working with great (and not-so-great) directors and puts that knowledge to most impressive use here. A sign of wondrous things to come from this mighty artist.

2. Erroll Morris (Gates of Heaven, 1978)

The movie that launched the career of one of America’s premier documentarians. Of course, the main focus of the film is about the pet cemetery business, but the way Morris frames the work, it becomes about so much more than that. Themes of the afterlife, the inevitability of one’s own mortality, what pets mean in our everyday lives seep through and stay with you long after the film ends. There is no narration at all — unlike some of today’s “documentary” filmmakers, Morris refuses to editorialize for us and tell us what to think. It’s a fascinating film that many — most notably Werner Herzog — thought would never see the light of day. Herzog famously wagered that he would eat his own shoe if the movie was ever completed. True to his word, the great director consumed his own footwear, and became the subject of the delightful short 20-minute film Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe. The score…Morris 1, Herzog 0.

1. Terrence Malick (Badlands, 1973)

Not simply a magnificent directorial debut, but one of the best movies to come out of the 1970’s, period.  Made for around $300,000, Malick began working on Badlands after his 2nd year at AFI. The film revolves around the cross-country killing spree of sociopathic Kit (Martin Sheen) and young Holly (Sissy Spacek), after he charms her away from her dead-end South Dakota town.   The film managed to steal the limelight from Scorsese’s Mean Streets when it played at the New York Film Festival and critics were unanimous in their praise for the new filmmaker who depicted the violence in a very cold and remorseless way rather than with brutality and gore. Using America’s Midwest as the backdrop, Badlands plays a bit like Bonnie and Clyde (and perhaps a forerunner to Stone’s NBK), but the characters seem more real and the acts, more haunting than Penn’s piece. This film will surely be on any “Best Debut” list, but there is surely a reason for that. Malick, one of cinema’s most visionary directors with a painstaking eye for detail, cemented his reputation at the onset here, prompting his star Spacek to say (after working with him), “The artist rules. Nothing else matters.” Amen.

NEXT UP: ‘DIRECTORIAL DEBUTS PART III’ will give us the best from the 1960’s. 

Top 5 Directorial Debuts: Part I (the 2000’s)

So this weekend, I was revisiting Sex, Lies, and VideotapeSteven Soderbergh’s explosive debut feature film from 1989 – and a few thoughts came to mind. First, was how fast time flies. I vividly recall seeing this intelligent and intimate little film in theaters with good friends and raving about it long after – 23 years ago! Second was how well the film holds up – a whole generation later, it is just as affecting and impressive as it was when it (and by proxy, Soderbergh) was the talk of Hollywood. Finally, and what inspired me to write this post was the question – where have all of the splashy film directorial debuts gone? You look at the 1960’s, 70’s, 80’s and 90’s and the names of filmmakers who came on the scene in striking fashion are pretty outstanding. The decade 2000 – 2009…well, not so much.

Take the 1980’s. And look at the awe-inspiring names who came out of it…not just directors who started in the 80’s, but those who made waves in their very first film. Soderbergh is just one – and with “Sex, Lies…” (and his Oscar nomination for it) you knew he was the real deal. Cameron Crowe (1989’s Say Anything), Barry Levinson (Diner), Sam Raimi (The Evil Dead), and Lawrence Kasdan (Body Heat) are just a small handful of filmmakers who burst on the scene in the 1980’s. Perhaps most notably would be the Coen Brothers, whose debut film Blood Simple came out in 1984. Most critics felt something special with the talents of Joel and Ethan. Vincent Canby of The New York Times sure did, declaring Blood Simple to be the most impressive debut feature since Orson Welles made Citizen Kane. Talk about lofty praise and grand expectations. Now, nearly 20 years later, the Coen Brothers have managed to surpass those expectations and remain at the forefront of American film directors, creating extraordinary work on a consistent basis.

The 1990’s? More impressive names and the talent, just as significant. Quentin Tarantino brought us Reservoir Dogs in 1991, Paul Thomas Anderson hit the screens with Hard Eight (1996), and Danny Boyle’s Shallow Grave was released in 1994. Other exceptional debuts? Larry Clark (Kids), Sean Penn (The Indian Runner), Christopher Nolan (Following), John Singleton (Boyz n the Hood), and Todd Haynes (Poison).

However, you’d be hard-pressed to find many stellar debuts since the millennium. Of course new directors emerge each year, but it seems that it takes them a few putts to actually sink one in. Very few come on the scene with guns blazing and a blitzkrieg of amazing press. So I did some research and looked up all of the directorial debuts since 2000. There weren’t very many to pick from, but here are my Top 5 Directorial debuts since 2000. I’d love to hear from you and see who you might put on this list.

5.  Scott Frank (The Lookout, 2007)

Frank’s resume as a screenwriter is super-impressive (Minority Report, Out of Sight, Get Shorty, just to name a few). What’s even more impressive? His debut as director with this smart, savvy and hugely entertaining crime thriller starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt. I was so impressed by it that I actually put it at the top of my favorite films of that year. Levitt’s character is a young athlete with a promising career. A tragic accident derails all of his hopes and dreams and years later, as he tries to sustain some state of normalcy, he is coerced into robbing a bank. A great achievement and a film that I would recommend to just about anyone. I am left wondering why it is taking so long for his follow-up…

4. Judd Apatow (The 40-Year Old Virgin, 2005)

He’s not just on this list because he’s a fellow Long Islander, but because he is responsible for bringing a new wave of comedy to a completely new generation of film-goers. I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to call him the modern day Mel Brooks or even (dare I say) Woody Allen. Known mainly as a writer, Apatow debuted with this delightful, smart, and hysterical film starring Steve Carell and Catherine Keener. In most of his works, Apatow has a tremendous knack for giving us perverse and (at times) disgusting comedy, but combining it with remarkable heart — as he does here with poor Carell and his little…problem. Apatow has also managed to highlight the comedic talents of a fresh new batch of actors who have appeared in a number of his projects. An impressive debut, a major player, and one of the funniest films to come out in recent years.

3. Jason Reitman (Thank You for Smoking, 2006)

Perhaps it’s in the genes. After a number of short films, Reitman came out with this dark comedy and was, in my opinion, one of the year’s very best. This biting satire stars Aaron Eckhart as a company spokesman for big tobacco. While trying to put a positive spin on a substance that kills millions, he tries to maintain some relationship with his young and impressionable son who looks up to him like a rock star. Great script, terrific performances, and deft direction. A memorable debut from a talent that has since come out with strong works such as Up in the Air and Young Adult — seeming to get the most from his gifted actors — and has clearly developed a style and voice all his own.

2. Neill Blomkamp (District 9, 2009)

A fantastic directorial debut and a movie that I put at the #1 spot of that year. Based on his short film a few years prior, District 9 offers a superb analogy of the horrific events that took place in District Six of Cape Town during the apartheid era and deals with themes of xenophobia and segregation. I’m not even a sci-fi fan at all, but I couldn’t help but be moved and amazed by Blomkamp’s masterful work. Love the style that it is shot in and Sharlto Copley delivers an outstanding performance as Wikus van de Merwe, a mild-mannered manager at the Department of Alien Affairs, whose entire life is changed when he becomes infected. And to think this was Copley’s first time acting in a feature film. This film is an extraordinary cinematic achievement — and it will be very interesting to see what the future holds for this very talented artist.

1. Todd Field (In the Bedroom, 2001)

Little Children was a remarkably powerful film and a tremendous achievement. But In the Bedroom marked Field’s debut as a filmmaker, after years of being in front of the camera. This film, starring Tom Wilkinson, Marisa Tomei, and Sissy Spacek was, in my estimation, one of the very best to come out the entire decade. Field not only adapts Andre Dubus’ short story with expert precision, but gets A+ performances from his entire ensemble and creates a mood and New England-y feel that is unmistakable. Field makes the kind of film I would so want to make — as we watch a grieving couple try to cope with the tragic death of their son — and see the father (a magnificent Wilkinson), begin to take matters into his own hands. I can’t tell you how many times I have sat through this movie – and it never ceases to move and affect me. To me, In the Bedroom is the debut of the 2000’s — and I will be in line very early to see his next film Creed of Violence later this year.

Other very impressive debuts by filmmakers I’d love to see more from: Sarah Polley (the very moving Away From Her), Steve McQueen (Hunger), Sean Durkin (Martha Marcy May Marlene), and I really hope that the brilliant writer and director Martin McDonagh (In Bruges) gets back behind the camera soon!

NEXT UP: ‘DIRECTORIAL DEBUTS PART II’ will cover the 1970’s, the best decade of cinema ever!!!

Weekend Humor: Titanic the Sequel

As you know (and perhaps you even went to see it), they released James Cameron’s overrated and overlong Oscar-winner Titanic last month in 3D. So if you wanted to see Rose let her man drown without putting up any fight whatsoever on a plank that was large enough for more than two people, you could have done so — in 3D no less! How romantic is that? Anyway, I came across this video on YouTube and thought it was pretty funny. It is a fake sequel to the box office giant where Jack is thawed out and brought back to life decades and decades later. The creator of this video also cleverly edits a number of other Hollywood blockbusters in this humorous 4:30 minute trailer. It’s kind of fun to see how many you can recognize. Give it a watch if you haven’t seen it yet — it is almost as funny as some of the sappy and maudlin dialogue in the original.

Top 5: Robert Downey, Jr.

So The Avengers — one of the most highly anticipated movies in recent years — comes out today. Judging only by the trailers and promos, it does not look very good at all and I remain indifferent to even seeing Joss Whedon’s Marvel Comics early summer blockbuster, even if it does co-star the stunning Scarlett Johansson. The film also marks the return of the character of Tony Stark (a.k.a. Iron Man) played by none other than 47 year-old Robert Downey, Jr., one of America’s most talented, if not complex actors of his generation.

His resume is a long and impressive one, appearing in films for pretty much his entire life – since age 5 actually, when he had a role in his father’s film Pound. If you blinked, you missed his stint on TV’s Saturday Night Live in 1985. He is usually associated with the 80’s “Brat Pack” gang for appearing in movies like Pretty in Pink, Tuff Turf, and The Pick-Up Artist – though I never really put him in that group. Of course he has had his troubles with the law and his drug addictions have been well-documented and publicized. But he has still managed to come out in the most spectacular of fashions – with 2008 bringing him to rock star/blockbuster status. Things were going so well for Downey that he even made it on The Time 100, Time magazine’s list of the most influential people in the world. Makes the word ‘comeback’ sound like a ridiculous understatement. In fact, his popularity seems to be growing the last few years. Anyway, with the release of The Avengers, I thought it would be a fitting time to list what I find to be Robert Downey, Jr.’s Top 5 performances thus far. As always, these are not a list of the best films he has been in – I am strictly looking at performance:

5. Zodiac (2007)

I have no problems with saying I did not enjoy this film, despite my admiration for director David Fincher and its appearance on a multitude of Top 10 lists of that year. I had problems with the script and its dreary pacing. Plus, as I’ve said before, it’s always a bit sad and painful to watch poor Jake try his heart out to less than adequate results. Having said that, I cannot deny Downey’s impressive performance here in which he plays newspaper crime reporter Paul Avery who begins to share information with a political cartoonist, as the two try to decode letters that have been sent to the paper by who they believe to be the Zodiac Killer. Downey almost always plays characters with tremendous egos with little humility and there is no exception here. But it is his performance that kept me (at least somewhat) interested. His sarcastic sense of humor helps this otherwise bleak film and he manages to wear the style and mannerisms of a beat reporter in effortless fashion.

4. Tropic Thunder (2008)

You may laugh at and mock me, but I don’t care. If I had a vote, it would have gone to Downey over the late Heath Ledger (I know – blasphemy!) for playing five-time Oscar-winning Australian Kirk Lazarus in this intelligent and amazingly funny Ben Stiller comedy. I know his casting here raised some eyebrows initially, but Downey does comedy extremely well, partly because he plays it completely straight. His Lazarus gets a pigmentation alteration surgery to play a black sergeant in a Vietnam film. What makes it even funnier is that, because he is such a dedicated Method actor, he refuses to break character while filming and only speaks in “Black English.” As Stiller’s acting rival, Downey is nothing short of hysterical. A brave role for him to take on and he was rewarded with his 2nd Oscar nomination for doing so (which, as we all know, he should have won). You see? Going full retard, can pay off Robert!

3. Less Than Zero (1987)

A very 1980’s look at the culture of the spoiled and the young in Los Angeles based on the novel by Bret Easton Ellis. The film surely has its many flaws and looks pretty dated by today’s standards, but one shining light in it is Downey’s performance as Julian, a young drug addict disintegrating before our very eyes. The movie’s portrait of drug use does seem genuine and at times, downright scary. The same can be said of what Downey does here….his commendable knack for making you laugh one moment and feel incredible sadness the next is clearly on display in this film that really cemented him as a true player in Hollywood. He played some great supporting roles before this (Back to School, Weird Science) and made the most of his screen time. But this truly made him legit and opened everyone’s eyes. Today, when people think of this movie, they first think of Downey’s harrowing and intense work. It should also be noted that it is so easy to fall into the hole of going over-the-top when playing such a character (as many often do)…but I see a lot of subtlety in his work here.

2. Iron Man (2008)

When I first learned that Downey would be starring as a superhero in Jon Favreau’s mega-blockbuster, I thought it a very peculiar casting choice to say the very least. I just didn’t see it — and I am sure many others felt the very same way. But after years of being very successful in film and TV, this is where Mr. Downey hit gold. Now it’s next-to impossible to think of Tony Stark and not picture the the brash Thespian. Tony Stark is an ego-maniac, and we love him anyway. He is eccentric, brilliant, self-promoting, cocky, sarcastic, and courageous. Downey is a master at playing these quirky and gregarious characters – but what makes him so special is that he is also able to show us the vulnerable and the frightened. Whoever thought of casting him at the center of the Hollywood heavyweight surely has more foresight than me. The first Iron Man flick worked in so many ways (unlike the obligatory sequel which was weighed down by an unfocused script), and Downey was indeed a huge part of that. He said of landing the role: “I prepared for the screen test so feverishly that I literally made it impossible for anybody to do a better job.” Whatever he did worked — and he has brought life to one of the more fascinating superheroes to come to the silver screen.

1. Chaplin (1992)

This selection is a no-brainer for me, even with Downey’s many great performances. You can count the number of geniuses who have worked in film on one, perhaps two hands — and Charles Chaplin is indeed one of them. Talk about enormous shoes to fill. Richard Attenborough’s movie left a lot to be desired, but you can’t say that about Downey and his efforts…he gives a tour de force performance and unlike anything he had ever done to that point. Of the project, Downey stated it was, “The biggest humiliation I’ve ever experienced. It was like winning the lottery, then going to prison. I realized that nothing that had worked for me before was going to work here.”  Downey does a brilliant job at not only nailing the monumental moments, but also, at capturing the tiniest of Chaplin’s nuances. He received his first Oscar nomination for his work here and solidified his stature as a leading man. Watch the video below — it is the magical (albeit fictional) moment when Chaplin experiences a life-changing epiphany and creates one of film’s most iconic characters – The Little Tramp. It is a wonder to watch and it gives you just a small glimmer of the masterful work Downey does here. Watch his eyes, his body language, the brows…it’s remarkable work. His best to date, in my opinion. But with the roll he is on, there is no telling what he’ll come up with next.

A quick P.S. — I loved Mr. Downey’s work in Short Cuts, Natural Born Killers, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, and especially Wonder Boys…but as always, 5 slots goes by way too quickly.

A Dreadful Lot of 2012 Films — So Far

It is May already…can you believe it? Four months of 2012 have passed us by and I ask you – what has Hollywood given us in the way of quality entertainment in that time? I look at the Top 20 grossing films of the year so far (always using the Box Office Mojo website for reference — thank you Box Office Mojo!!!), and I see one…yes only one movie that I wanted to actually go out of my way and see in the theater – the #1 grossing film so far, The Hunger Games. Everything else? Either a definite wait-for-DVD (Safe House, Chronicle) or nothing that gets me in the least bit excited. Of course, I have seen a small handful of independent films and documentaries, but those are few and far between and don’t even sniff the Top 20 top-grossing films of the year.

Underworld Awakening, Think Like A Man, Journey 2: The Mysterious Island, The Vow? These are my options?! The very few times I have actually gone to the movies this year came early on when I was still catching up on films from the previous year. I look at the films released so far in 2012 and it’s no wonder I have seen so little – The Three Stooges, Joyful Noise, another friggin’ Ghost Rider flick? And I’m not a big summer blockbuster movie fan to begin with, so the immediate future doesn’t look so bright for me either. The Avengers? Meh, I’ll go see it – but I am not expecting much at all and I am not quivering in my boots with heightened expectations.

I understand that the early months of each year bring us the leftovers and duds, as the awards season is in full swing. But this year strikes me as unusually pitiful and insipid. My big choices this month? Battleship, MIB3, What to Expect When You’re Expecting??? Looks like I’ll be spending more and more of my time watching the NHL playoffs and baseball – and getting some new books to read. Got some recommendations?

Defending “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close”

There is a moment one hour and forty-three minutes into Stephen Daldry’s film Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close that I think turned many people off – critics and the public alike — to this well-intentioned, thoughtful, and engaging film. Young Oskar Schell (Thomas Horn) is playing the six voicemail messages his loving father (Tom Hanks) left for his family while trapped inside the World Trade Center on the tragic morning of September 11, 2001. Oskar has kept these messages for himself and hides them in his bedroom closet. It is all that he has left from what he calls “The worst day.” He plays Message #6. We hear the muffled and inhibited voice of Mr. Hanks repeat the question, “Are you there?” “Are you there?” The message then, abruptly cuts off. The camera, tight on Oskar, then immediately pans to a television showing the North Tower implode and fall to the ground. It is a heart-wrenching moment – and an image that has stuck with me since seeing the “Best Picture” nominee. And I’m sure exactly what Mr. Daldry’s intentions were for this carefully choreographed scene.

I know many resented and were outraged by the fact that “Extremely Loud” was even nominated for the top Oscar prize. I’m not exactly sure why. I personally did not place the film in my own Top 10 of the year, but I did it give a strong 3-star rating. Did people feel that the movie manipulated our feelings? My answer to that is, “Well, doesn’t every film do just that?” I have heard from others that they felt that the novel by the very talented author Jonathan Safran Foer (which is the source material that the movie is based on) took a very tragic event and simply “cashed in” on the misery of others. I could not disagree more. I read the book. I enjoyed it very much. To me, it was just one small (and at times, magical) story to stem from one horrific event that affected thousands…millions of people in many ways. I don’t think Foer was trying to capitalize on anything and, in reading the novel, I never felt that the author was being disrespectful in any way.

My question is — Are people so touchy about 9/11 that any piece of art that is inspired by it (songs, books, photography, film, poetry, etc.) is frowned upon with utter contempt? I know numerous television specials and documentaries that have been aired about that fateful morning. I walk through Barnes and Noble and see dozens upon dozens of books on the subject. Are all of these authors just greedy and trying to exploit the feelings and lives of others who have suffered? I choose not to think that. In the same manner, I choose not to think that the U.K.-born Daldry – and everyone involved with the making of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close were taking advantage of America’s misfortunes. It’s a simple father-and-son story…gentle and unique and poignant. Everyone gets so outraged so easily and we’re all so politically correct…honestly, it’s quite nauseating. Perhaps Foer wrote this as his own homage to those affected by 9/11 and his intentions here were nothing but genuine. I choose to think that. I also choose to believe that Mr. Daldry sought to create a film that would move everyone who saw it in a positive and inspiring way. For those who are offended by the movie, I would simply say that there are so many other things in this world to be offended by….this movie is should be the least of your worries.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 321 other followers

%d bloggers like this: