Maps to the Stars
David Cronenberg's film of Bruce Wagner's Hollywood satire-nightmare turns ludicrous situations into operatic tragedy.
* This filmography is not intended to be a comprehensive list of this artist’s work. Instead it reflects the films this person has been involved with that have been reviewed on this site.
A look at the character-defining aspect of the chase in Michael Mann's "Heat," "Manhunter," and "Public Enemies," on the eve of the release of "Blackhat."
An interview with Ava DuVernay and David Oyelowo, director and star of "Selma."
A bi-weekly feature on the best new streaming and Blu-ray releases, including "Comet," "L'Avventura," "Les Blank: Always For Pleasure," "Starry Eyes," and more.
An interview with Jessica Chastain, star of "Miss Julie," opening tonight at the Chicago International Film Festival.
An excerpt from "Tom Cruise: Anatomy of An Actor."
RogerEbert.com contributor Godfrey Cheshire's landmark two-part series "Death of Film/Decay of Cinema" anticipated many of the changes that would later shake the medium to its core.
An appreciation of Michael Mann's "The Insider" on its 15th anniversary that connects Michael Mann's film with the westerns of Howard Hawks.
A career view on Bill Murray; Personally connecting to Her; An editor from The New Yorker waxes poetic on aging, intimacy and death; Long takes on television; and a Hollywood desert land.
Simon Abrams on two sequels: "The Trip to Italy", the sequel to the hilarious "The Trip", and "The Raid 2".
Recent books by Alan Sepinwall and Brett Martin talk about the new “TV revolution,” but looking at the medium’s past is a reminder that revolutions are always cyclical.
Tommaso Tocci reports on "Gravity," the opening night film of the 70th Venice Film Festival.
Woody Allen speaks; confessions of a white Southern Christian racist; YouTube cofounders launch new video service; Pixar discovers animal rights; David Gordon Green a go-go; druglord Rafael Caro Quntero released from prison; trailer for Spike Jonze's new movie.
Remembering Dennis Farina; why Nate Silver doesn't do the Oscars well; eulogizing Detroit; deeper into Troma.
"A man can be an artist ... in anything, food, whatever. It depends on how good he is at it. Creasey's art is death. He's about to paint his masterpiece." -- Rayburn (Christopher Walken), "Man on Fire" (2004)
While I've never been a fan of the late Tony Scott or Christopher Nolan, a few thoughtful articles in recent days have helped me see them in new lights, and got me to thinking about their resemblances as well as their dissimilarities. Several appreciations of Scott (especially those by Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, Bilge Ebiri, David Edelstein and Manohla Dargis), along with David Bordwell's incisive essay on Christopher Nolan ("Nolan vs. Nolan") got me to thinking about the common assumptions about these popular filmmakers, both of whom are known for quick, impressionistic imagery, intercut scenes, slam-bang action and a CGI-averse insistence on photographing the real world.¹ Regardless of what you ultimately make of their work, there's no question they've done it their way.
This is an attempt to look at both filmmakers through the prism of others' points of view, refracted in critical appraisals like the above.
Of course, Scott and Nolan have passionate admirers and detractors. Until Scott's shocking suicide last week (from a bridge, a landmark that figures hauntingly in the climaxes of several of his movies), I wasn't aware of many critics who championed his movies, but with a few exceptions the obits seem to have been more admiring than the reviews over the years -- understandably, under the sad circumstances.
Those who applaud Scott and Nolan's films see them as genre boundary-pushers (thrillers, action pictures, science-fiction, superhero movies); those who denigrate them see them as symptomatic of the debasement of resonant imagery in modern Hollywood movies. Both have been subjected to that worst of all critical insults, comparisons to Michael Bay:
"'Inception' may have been directed by Christopher Nolan, but Nolan's dreams are apparently directed by Michael Bay." -- Andrew O'Hehir, "Inception: A clunky, overblown disappointment"
"If it sounds like I'm describing Michael Bay, that's because I sort of am. What we like to think of today as the Bay/Jerry Bruckheimer aesthetic was, in fact, originally the Tony Scott aesthetic (often deployed in films made for Bruckheimer and his late partner Don Simpson). Only back then there was a lot more art to it." -- Bilge Ebiri, "To Control Something That's Out of Control: On Tony Scott"
One of Scott's notable defenders has been The New York Times' Manohla Dargis. She identifies him as a "maximalist" who used "a lot of everything in his movies: smoke, cuts, camera moves, color. This kind of stylistic, self-conscious excess could be glorious, as in his underappreciated film 'Domino' (2005)," which Roger Ebert also somewhat grudgingly admired, quoting a character to describe the movie itself as having "the attention span of a ferret on crystal meth." Dargis writes:
Is Bryan Singer's "The Usual Suspects" (1995) one of the greatest films ever made? I admit there was a time, right after I saw it, that it seemed special. For most of my first viewing, I thought I was watching a standard crime thriller when suddenly it caught me off-guard and left me stunned. Once the DVD came out, I rushed to buy it but then, as the years went by, I noticed it had been left on its shelf abandoned as I had little interest in watching it again. I couldn't remember much about the characters or the plot, in fact, there was only one thing that stuck in my mind about it. Readers who've previously watched it will instantly know what I'm taking about.
Yeah, you saw "The Artist" so you know it was a big deal when sound technology took over the movies. (Except that really you don't, because "The Artist" is only interested in the arrival of talkies as an obstacle to its love story. You'll learn more about the ramifications of the transition from film to video in pornography from P.T. Anderson's "Boogie Nights" than you will about the technological and aesthetic consequences of the shift from silents to sound in "The Artist.") David Bordwell concludes his awe-inspiring, in-depth series on "Pandora's digital box: From films to files" with some observations about the myths, realities and possibilities of digital projection (something the vast majority of moviegoers have yet to notice, I'd bet, although it's having a huge effect on distribution and exhibition) and finds a fantastic quote from "hacker historian" George Dyson:
"A Pixar movie is just a very large number, sitting idle on a disc."
That's not to diss Pixar, it's just a vivid statement of digital reality.
The ongoing switch from analog to digital movie projection is indeed a big deal, but I was struck by this observation from DB:
It's a sunny, unseasonable 80 degrees as the 2012 Santa Barbara International Film Festival kicks in, but all I want is to be indoors. When you peer at a schedule listing nearly 200 films jammed into 10 days, and you just can't wait, you know you're an addict. This is my third SBIFF so I recognize the signs.
Suddenly each January, there's an extra bustle in this appealing, laid-back town. Downtown on lower State Street, trucks appear bearing vivid banners, soon to be festooned overhead. Special lights and rigging go up at 2 central venues - the precisely restored, historic Lobero and Arlington Theatres. Locals watch to see whether Festival Director Roger Durling changes his hair: one year it was spikey, another year purple. This time it's rather like Heathcliff - longer, romantic.
The Driver is the best at what he does. "You put this kid behind the wheel, there's nothing he can't do." He doesn't rely on luck and spontaneous driving; he knows what he's doing. He studies his environment, analyzes human behavior and acts accordingly.
As he drives you can tell that every move was planned ahead of time, every turn calculated with absolute precision. His plan is unpredictable; that's why watching it unfold in real time is so damn electrifying. He comes out of nowhere surprising his foes and disappears in plain sight just as easily. The driver is always in total control of the situation.
All this is projected in one of the most intense opening scenes in recent memory. The driver is a stuntman who moonlights as a getaway driver. "Drive" begins at night minutes before a getaway. Most chase scenes lack this kind of intensity, for the driver doesn't rely on sheer speed to grab our attention.
A few years ago, I set up an internet alert to inform me whenever Muhammad Ali was mentioned in the news. At the time, he wasn't doing anything newsworthy. It was years after the Michael Mann movie. A decade since his appearance in the Opening Ceremony of the 1996 Olympic Games. Nearly three decades since his last fight. But, for whatever reason, he was on my mind. The strange thing I discovered is that he was in the news, somewhere in the world, every single day. Every single day. That's his astonishing mystique. For whatever reason, he was and is on everyone's mind. The most popular of all basketball players, Michael Jordan, is in the news for shoe sales. The most popular of soccer players, Pele, is in the news for soccer. The most popular of all cricket players, Imran Khan, is in the news for politics. Muhammad Ali, however, is in the news for being Muhammad Ali. Rather, he is in the news for who Muhammad Ali was and is to us. And, in Pete McCormack's wonderful "Facing Ali," we learn who he is and was for the fighters he faced.
I was going to say, up front, that I had some mixed feelings about Nicolas Winding Refn's "Drive," but I'm not sure that "feelings" is the appropriate word. This 1980s pastiche (isn't that the "Risky Business" typeface lit up in neon pink?) is emotionally and narratively stripped down to resemble the sleek, polished surfaces of... well, muscle cars, but also movies by the likes of Walter Hill ("The Driver"), Michael Mann ("Thief"), William Friedkin ("To Live and Die in L.A."), Paul Schrader ("American Gigolo") and others. It even sports an aggressively ersatz-Tangerine Dream synth score of the kind so popular in the early 1980s, though this one also features some Euro-vocals with unfortunate English day-glo-highlighter lyrics ("a real human being and a real hero..."). Emotion, character, story -- they're not so much what "Drive" is interested in. The movie makes fetishistic use of signifiers for those things, but its most tangible concerns have (paradoxically?) to do with dreamy abstractions of color and shape and movement.
I like the red a lot. Not just the blood (which is the heart of the film, and I'll get to that in a minute), but there's so much blue (teal?) and orange and pink that when the red starts gushing in, it pumps some real excitement into what has, by that point, settled into a fairly static picture. (In some respects, I think "Drive" perversely hints at an art-house action movie -- and an erotic movie -- it never quite delivers, after a pretty [and] terrific archetypal getaway chase at the beginning, in which the Driver shows off his skills at using Los Angeles infrastructure to play hide-and-seek with cop cars and helicopters. Thank goodness, though, that it never turns into the racetrack movie it briefly threatens to become.)
So, the red: It excites the eyeballs (and signals imminent danger) in the red-and-white checkered windows at Nino's Pizza. But as I recall, it really gets going at Denny's. The nameless Driver (Ryan Gosling), a movie stuntman who also works as a mechanic and moonlights as a getaway car wheelman-for-hire, sits down with his generic romantic-interest neighbor Irene (Carey Mulligan), who wears a red uniform vest as a Denny's waitress, in a booth with red light fixtures above it and a BIG plastic bottle of ketchup on the table. I don't remember what the conversation is about -- it doesn't matter, but it's probably something about her husband Standard (Oscar Isaac), who's just got out of jail and owes money to some brutal sleazebags who are threatening to physically harm him and Irene and their son Benicio (Kaden Leos), to whom Driver has also taken a shine. What I remember is the red. The film becomes pregnant with red.
"The Insider" is one of Michael Mann's best films and it represents a departure from the usual themes. One constant in his other movies is the imposing, menacing but sympathetic villain figure. They may all be capable of great violence but the tragic side of their stories helps the audience identify. In contrast, "The Insider" gives us something completely different: a faceless and unsympathetic enemy that bends the will of those who get in its way without the need of doing anything particularly spectacular or even executing it on-screen: a villain aware that the fear of losing something like health insurance may be enough to shut its victims up. Its power comes from the income provided by the countless smokers unable to quit its product and its most important goal is to make sure that they never do.
Whenever research confirms something we feel we already knew intuitively, or from our own experience, there are always people who'll scoff and say, "Well, I could have told you that!" And maybe they could have, but that's not the point. Science is a discipline involving systematic observation and empirical evidence, not unverified hunches. Movies, of course, are optical illusions -- photographic, electronic and/or mechanical phenomena that exploit the peculiarities of our eyes and brains... and elicit all manner of feelings. They are science and they are sometimes art, and the methods of studying one or the other can be complementary.
Take one of my favorite David Bordwell posts ("Hands (and faces) across the table"), which has recently been revived (resurrected! It's alive!) through the eyes of science, thanks to DB's guest-blogger, Tim Smith ("Watching you watch 'There Will Be Blood'"), of Continuity Boy, the Department of Psychological Sciences at Birkbeck College, University of London, and The DIEM (Dynamic Images and Eye Movements) Project.
In 2008, DB wrote about the map scene in Paul Thomas Anderson's "There Will Be Blood," in which the camera remained fixed during a long take while the looks and gestures of the actors "directed" the viewer's gaze. He wrote:
A few film directors end up becoming masters of specific subjects. Scorsese grew up in an environment that allowed him to understand organized crime from the inside. Tarantino has a grasp on the language that some street people, their drugs of choice and their methods of use, and so on. Michael Mann is the Hollywood Epic Techno-Crime expert. Did he grow up with it? Did he research it? A few years ago, I came across an old 70s Starsky & Hutch episode which happened to be written by him; in it, a serial killer claimed to receive his murdering orders from outer space and wore a tin-foil pointy-shaped hat for just that purpose. This means I'm basically leaning towards research, but your guess is as good as mine.
Michael Mann's "Heat" ranks right up there with the best of the crime genre from "Rififi" to "The Godfather". In fact, it is in my opinion the single greatest Los Angeles crime epic of all time, for it encompasses themes and visuals rarely achieved by productions. "Heat" is very ambitious and the end result is nothing short of a larger-than-life epic grandeur of a film.