Archive

2000s

The Revisit is a place for me to rewatch films I love but haven’t seen in years or films that didn’t click with me the first time. Through The Revisit, I reevaluate these movies and compare my original thoughts on them to how they feel in this more recent viewing.

Frailty (2000)
Written by Brent Hanley
Directed by Bill Paxton

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It’s a rainy night in Dallas, Texas when FBI Agent Wesley Doyle (Powers Boothe) is called into the office to speak with Fenton Meiks (Matthew McConaughey), a strange man who claims to know secrets behind what authorities have dubbed “The God’s Hand Killer.” Mainly, he tells Doyle that his brother, Adam is the killer. The film becomes a series of flashbacks to Fenton and Adam’s childhood wherein their father (Bill Paxton) claims to have been visited by an angel that tells him which people are truly demons in disguise. He brings the two boys along with him as he hunts down and murders these false humans, but Adam grows increasingly fearful of his father’s actions. Their father begins to see Adam as a threat and takes drastic measures.

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The Straight Story (1999, dir. David Lynch)

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Alvin Straight is an aging man living in Iowa when he suffers a fall that leaves him barely mobile and relying on two canes to stand up. His daughter Rose attempts to care for him but cannot fully due to her intellectual disability. Alvin takes up a seemingly foolish quest after receiving a phone call from his estranged brother, Lyle’s  stroke. He gets it in his mind that he will drive his riding lawn mower across Iowa and into Wisconsin to reunite with Lyle. During this journey, he meets many people who come to represent times in our lives or certain philosophical viewpoints.

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The Revisit is a place for me to rewatch films I love but haven’t seen in years or films that didn’t click with me the first time. Through The Revisit, I reevaluate these movies and compare my original thoughts on them to how they feel in this more recent viewing.

 

Unbreakable (2000, dir. M. Night Shyamalan)

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I can remember exactly when I decided I needed to see Unbreakable. I was in my sophomore year of college, and my friend Sam had seen the film over Thanksgiving Break. He insisted that I needed to see it because of my love of comic books. That struck me as odd because nothing I had seen in the promotion materials had made me think of comic books and superheroes. I had really loved Shyamalan’s previous film, The Sixth Sense, so I was totally up for it. We went to the theater a couple days later.

Rewatching Unbreakable, I was astonished at how many images from that film are burnt into my psyche. I loved the picture after that first viewing, purchased it as soon as it was DVD and watched it dozens of times for the next couple years. I was very likely over-hyped when Signs came out and found myself underwhelmed. Like many filmgoers, the following decade will cause the director to lose most of his cachet with the audience. But Unbreakable serves as a reminder of how amazing a director Shyamalan was/is/could be again.

What struck me the most on this viewing was how measured and quiet the film was. This was a couple years before Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man would shift the movie superhero paradigm and the late 1990s were very unkind to the genre. There is a deliberate sense of grounding the fantastic, but not in a way that disparages their roots. Comic books are lauded through the picture, but the conceit of the film is these four-color tales are exaggerations of a more sedate reality. Yes, David Dunn is incredibly strong but that means he can lift around 400 lbs not and entire jet airliner. The super heroics of Unbreakable are not global or against alien hordes. The evil that is being pointed out is racism, rape culture, sociopathic violence.

I also found myself reconnecting with every character in the film. The aforementioned quiet moments are always character-centered and are intended to build on what we know, either adding to our knowledge or subverting it. We deeply understand the strained relationship between David and Audrey, the admiration of Joseph for David, the tug of curiosity Elijah elicits from David. No character ever makes a move that feels contradictory to what is previously established and so you find yourself floating effortlessly through this organic story. There is the now cliche Shyamalan twist, but it doesn’t play as contrived. It fits with the groundwork lain through the entirety of the film. It also does something I find myself to drawn to more these days: forgoing having a purely black and white conflict.

The villain of Unbreakable isn’t even really the bad guy. He does evil things, but we spend a lot of time getting to know him, not as much as David, but the moments in his life we’re shown establish humanity and a particular, though skewed, perspective. It’s a perfect example of empathy, which is not agreement but understanding a perspective different than your own. You feel sorry for this person despite the horrible things they have done. I cherish that sort of internal conflict as a viewer, not being able to come down hard one way or another on the character.

I find this period of Shyamalan to be comparable to Nolan in the first part of his career. Both directors have an unyielding sense of aesthetics and the sort of stories they want to tell. They both enjoy building up expectations and then subverting them to varying degrees of success. Where they differ is in Shyamalan’s ability to connect the audience with the characters on an emotional level. He is much less interested in the gritty details and technicalities of the world and more in how these fantastic elements emotionally affect our characters. Nolan is very talented with building intelligent plot machines that unfold in exciting and interesting ways, but ultimately fail to make me feel anything about the characters. The closest I could say Nolan ever got to that was with The Prestige. I don’t think there is any argument that Shyamalan has not ended up with the level of critical acclaim Nolan has garnered, but these early films feel emotionally stronger than Nolan’s work.

If you haven’t watched Unbreakable recently, I highly recommend it. It has definitely held up, better than a lot of films from the early 2000s. It still has relevant things to say about the superhero genre and stands an example that the Marvel formula, as fun as it is, is not the sole method to tell these stories. With the buzz that Shyamalan is working on a direct follow up to Unbreakable, I really hope he understands that the tone and focus on characters is what made us fall in love with the picture in the first place. It would be an incredible shame if he ignores those facts and tries to deliver a more action-oriented film.



Redacted (2007)

So we have caught up with Brian De Palma’s body of work. Redacted goes back to a lot of the same territory as 1989’s Casualties of War. We have American troops in a foreign land and the sexual violation of a native girl is the crux of the conflict. There’s one soldier who above all the rest is still virtuous. This was one was written by De Palma as well and really shows off his weakness as a writer. However, there are some interesting technical elements to the picture, and it really easy very experimental for De Palma, both in its making and the distribution.

Told through soldiers’ personal video diaries, CCTVs, news footage, and user submitted online videos, this is based on a true story where a squad of American soldiers were responsible for the rape of 15 year old girl and the subsequent murder and burning of both she and her family. The film did not do well upon its release, and in no way is this a great movie. However, many of the criticisms were jingoistic blather about De Palma wanted to imply that all soldiers are evil monsters. The fact that one of the squad members goes to the authorities with what happens must have gone over their heads. Its part of this thoughtless creed of “support the troops” which many interpret as do not question or think critically about the actions of the military. I don’t believe every soldier over there is some sort of sociopath, but I believe the culture that surrounds the military breeds that in people who leaned that way in the first place. That said, De Palma doesn’t present either the villains or the hero of the film in an interesting way at all.

The two vile soldiers who perpetrate the rape and murder are drawn cartoonishly broad. There are even scenes where they cackle like the hyenas in The Lion King. The hero is also without flaws and there’s nothing remotely interesting about him. The type of evil that is most interesting is the kind that comes out of mundane and ordinary people. When you have two characters who appear to be walking cliches they don’t come off as truly intimidating at all. A good filmmaker would make us like these guys, show us sympathy for them, and then reveal their darker nature. It makes us question ourselves. Even Sean Penn in Casualties of War, of which De Palma is really ripping himself off on, was a character I understood. Even though his action were abhorrent I could see what he saw in the world. What I did like was De Palma trying to do more with his camera. His typical POV shots were incorporated as part of the soldier’s diaries and there’s some interesting work done with website video.

Looking back on the films of Brian De Palma I have to defend him as a cinematographer. He may not always be a great all-around storyteller but he is one of the best cameramen I’ve ever seen. The level of tension he can generate in a film is amazing, and its all done through some of the tightest editing around. The moment in the prom scene of Carrie, as Amy Irving is figuring out what the bullies are about to do is such a perfect example of that. So much information is told without words, simply looks and cuts. The museum scene in Body Double should be shown to every wannabe filmmaker of how to tell a voluminous story in a only a few minutes and without a single piece of dialogue. Even watching the worst films of De Palma’s, I always knew he would amaze me with the camera. Sadly, his career has been marred by too many failures in a row. According to IMDB, De Palma appears to be working on a remake of his great rock opera Phantom of the Paradise (seen before I started this marathon), a prequel to The Untouchables sub-titled Capone Rising, and The Boston Stranglers, based on a true crime book about the theory that multiple men were placed under the umbrella of one serial killer. My hope is that De Palma can still find a way to produce good films again, I know he has it in him and I think there’s a strong possibility that he can rally a comeback in the same way that Francis Ford Coppola has been doing.



The Black Dahlia (2006)
Starring Josh Harnett, Aaron Eckhart, Scarlett Johansson, Hilary Swank, Mia Kirshner, Mike Starr, Fiona Shaw, Rachel Miner

Coming off of the Euro Noir Femme Fatale, De Palma steps right into classic L.A. Noir, where the entire bleak genre really began. The film is based on the James Ellroy novel, which is in turn based on the real life murder of a young wanna be actress named Elizabeth Short, nicknamed “The Black Dahlia” by the newspapers. For the picture, we find De Palma restrained much more than in Femme Fatale. I didn’t notice too many visual flourishes, instead a lot of post-production gauziness added to the film in an attempt to make the film resemble its counterparts in the 1940s. He manages to directly reference old movies, a trademark of De Palma’s love of cinema. It’s a long picture, over two hours and there are many sub plots and third act twists. So how does it all come together?

Bleichert (Hartnett) and Blanchard (Eckhart) are L.A. beat cops who meet during the 1947 Zoot Suit Riots (sailors versus hep cats). The two men are promoted to being bond agents and fate finds them a block away from the discover of Elizabeth Short’s body. Blanchard becomes obsessed, while Bleichert becomes enamored with Blanchard’s girl (Johansson). Feeling the pressure to keep his partner from going over the edge due to the case, Bleichert does some footwork and meets a young woman, Madeline Linscott who traveled in the same lesbian circles as Short. Through a series of “what a coinky-dink” sub plots, all of these characters become entangled, ending just like all good noir should end, most every dies. The only part that really diverges is the very final scene which felt very tacked on by the studio in an attempt to not let the film end on a “sad” note. Pshaw.

This is a real mess of a film. If we were judging it on style and production design it gets an A+. That’s one thing you can never fault De Palma, the man knows how to make a film ooze style. The cinematography is pitch perfect, thinking in particular of a crane shot where as part of the background we witness the discovery of Short’s body by a mother out pushing her baby carriage. It’s done as this little thing in passing, that you could easily miss if you weren’t paying attention. That sort of clever detail is hard to not love. The entire set and costume design is solid, no one looks out of place. As always, there are some interesting set pieces that had to involve thousands of shots and takes. So from a technical stand point, its an excellent film.

Plot wise this film is trying to do way to much and tie to many things together that don’t make much sense. Characters who have no connection through the majority of the film are suddenly revealed through clunky exposition to have been sleeping with each other the entire time or connected to the murder of Short. By the time you get to the end its all so ludicrous and over the top it becomes absurd. While coincidence is a big part of noir, it at least as to make some sort of sense with the story told so far. I did however enjoy an incredibly macabre and creepy old Hollywood family that plays a crucial role in the film. While we only get a glimpse of their utter insanity, I found myself wanting to see more about them. There’s also some references to The Man Who Laughs, a Lon Chaney, Sr horror picture that served as the inspiration for The Joker. All in all, a rather middle of the road with too much plot to cram into two hours.

Next: we wrap things up with a shockingly different film, revisting Casualties of War territory, this time in Iraq, Redacted



Right At Your Door (2005, dir. Chris Gorak)
Starring Mary McKormack, Rory Cochrane

The concept of Right At Your Door has the makings of an amazing movie. The story is relegated to single home with a small number of cast (2 lead, 2 supporting) and brings up topics and themes very relevant to modern America. With all of these elements present, you would expect the film to be good. Sadly, it never really becomes about anything. It touches on a lot of ideas briefly, then abandons them, then collapses as film that never really goes anywhere. Its definitely working hard to be important but the substance isn’t there. It’s truly disappointing though, because it could have been one of the best films about post-9/11 America.

It’s a normal weekday morning in Los Angeles, Brad makes sure Lexi wakes up on time so she can head downtown for work. A few hours after she leaves, news reports come on talking about a series of coordinated explosions that have gone off in the most densely crammed traffic areas of the city. Authorities believe these were dirty bombs and that people need to stay in their homes, sealing their doors and windows off. Brad tries to head down but police have things blocked, so he gives up and waits in his home, terrified that Lexi is dead. However, Lexi turns up at the house, after Brad has sealed it off and now the heavy weight of confronting mortality is before them.

I see this as an awesome stage play. Two actors on stage, divided by a prop door. Very minimalist and very open to exploring lots of ideas about relationships, love, death, and the effects of terrorism and fear on contemporary America. Instead, the film has a great set up, I was completely onboard and ready to take this journey. And when Lexi first shows up after the explosion things are interesting, Brad is very torn. However, the film becomes repetitive in a way that is a technique of stalling. The picture is an hour and a half long and the screenplay doesn’t seem to know how to stretch that one day out in an interesting way. So all sorts of ludicrous things are thrown in. A friend of the couple shows up, a neighborhood child is wandering the street, there’s gestapo like military wandering the city. But it never adds up to a point, never reaches the profound pinnacle that it feels like it should. Instead we get a third act twist that is technically plausible, feels forced as a way to end the film on  quasi interesting note.