Why some film makers ‘lose it’ – Hubris or Exhaustion?

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This weekend I read a couple of articles related to M. Night Shyamalan and Cameron Crowe, two of my favourite film makers from the late 1990s/ early 2000s. Shyamalan has finally found some mild success with his new TV show Wayward Pines after several years in the Hollywood wilderness with a string of critical and commercial flops. Cameron Crowe I think is still in the wilderness with his latest film Aloha opening this weekend to scathing reviews and tepid box office numbers.

Shyamalan released The Sixth Sense when he was 29 and was nominated for Best Director and Best Original Screenplay Oscar. He had also written the screenplay for much beloved Stuart Little the same year. He then released the widely praised superhero origin movie Unbreakable before hitting even bigger box office heights with the alien invasion thriller Signs. Around this time, Newsweek ran a cover story referred to him as ‘the next Spielberg’. Indeed, like Spielberg and a few other celebrity directors, studios could market a film on his name alone, as they did with subsequent releases like The Village and Lady in the Water. Things went steadily downhill and for his last film After Earth in 2013, the studio famously left Shyamalan’s name off the marketing material.

At the tender age of 22, Cameron Crowe made his mark in Hollywood when his book Fast Times at Ridgemont High was adapted into a sleeper hit film that kick-started the careers of actors like Nic Cage, Sean Penn and Forest Whitaker. Ten years later, he directed his first film, the rom-com Say Anything followed by another rom com Singles, set during the Seattle grunge scene. Both were very well received and were relatively profitable given their low budgets. Crowe then hit the big time with two back-to-back studio films, Jerry Maguire and Almost Famous. The latter was based on his own experiences as a writer for Rolling Stone magazine in the 70s…can you imagine in today’s world a 16-year-old being officially commissioned by a respected industry magazine to go on the road with a mega rock band like Allman Brothers, surrounded by road crew, groupies and who knows what else? He was nominated for Best Screenplay for both these films and won for Almost Famous. Then what? Vanilla Sky, an adaptation of the Spanish thriller Abre los Ojos came across as nothing more than an emotion-less vehicle for Tom Cruise, probably known more for its elaborate shot featuring Cruise running through a deserted Times Square. Subsequent films Elizabethtown, We Bought a Zoo and now Aloha have brought in steadily diminishing returns.

Both these film makers are great writers and storytellers, established their credentials with original material (something that critics are constantly crying out for in Hollywood) and yet, just when they seemed to be reaching their peak, something happens and now they can do nothing right. Is it hubris? Quite likely that was the case with Shyamalan when he thought he could do no wrong after the Newsweek article and the global success of Signs. Is it creative exhaustion? Could be the case with Crowe; by the time he finished making Vanilla Sky, he had been writing, traveling and making films for 30 years and with an Oscar under his belt, he may have just run out of juice.

There are two similar cases from an earlier era – William Friedkin and George Lucas. Like Shyamalan, Friedkin was the director who could do no wrong, winning the Best Director Oscar for the French Connection and being nominated again or The Exorcist 2 years later. He then let it all go to his head and made the movie that ruined him – Sorcerer, an adaptation of the classic French thriller The Wages of Fear. His obsessiveness sent the film over budget and lost a lot of money for the studios. He became box office poison after that and was ‘reduced’ to becoming a director-for-hire, mainly for TV material. Ironically, the box office failure of Sorcerer was attributed to the unexpected success of another film released a few weeks earlier – Star Wars. We all know how George Lucas emerged as a hero of the 1970’s indie film scene, a true American auteur with two films THX 1138 and American Graffiti before changing the commercial landscape of Hollywood with Star Wars. He was double-nominated for Best Screenplay and Best Director Oscars for both American Graffiti and Star Wars. His creative streak continued with the rest of the Star Wars trilogy and the birth of Indiana Jones, but when he came back in his mid-50s to direct the new trilogy, it was clear that the creative force was spent. Who could blame him, considering the creative empire he had built in the past 30+ years.

For me, these stories highlight the two enemies of creativity – arrogance and exhaustion – and how it is so difficult to escape from both when working in the Hollywood studio system. I think about two other young film makers of today who appear to be in danger of falling into one or the other of these pits – Neill Blomkamp and Josh Trank. Blomkamp released the highly acclaimed short film Alive in Joburg at 27, which he then made into full length feature District 9 three years later for which he received an Oscar nom for Best Screenplay. His two subsequent films Elysium and Chappie have disappointed and we now wait with bated breath for his new take on the Alien franchise to see if he’s still got it. Josh Trank burst onto the scene at the age of 28 with the found footage superhero film Chronicle, but there are already disturbing rumours swirling around his upcoming 2nd film Fantastic Four and he’s been thrown out of the director’s chair of an upcoming Star Wars Anthology film. Hollywood will forgive you for making movies that no one wants to see or movies that are bad (there’s a difference between the two) but not for being a difficult person to work with; I think that’s pretty much the case in any industry, right?

It’s when reflecting on cases like these that one develops such overwhelming respect for the long-lived success stories, the ones who are able to maintain the steady level of commercially successful, critically acclaimed output year after year AND are considered desirable to work with by the movie making community. I’m talking about the likes of Steven Spielberg (first hit Jaws – 1975, latest hit Lincoln – 2012), Ron Howard (first hit Splash – 1984, latest hit Angels & Demons – 2009), Robert Zemeckis (first hit Romancing the Stone – 1984, latest hit Flight – 2012), Peter Jackson (first hit Heavenly Creatures – 1994, latest hit The Hobbit: BOTFA – 2014), Bryan Singer (first hit The Usual Suspects – 1995, latest hit X-Men: DOFP – 2014) and of course, my man James Cameron (first hit The Terminator – 1984, latest hit Avatar – 2009). All of them have survived ups and downs and continue to work on great new projects into their 3rd, 4th or even 5th decade in the business.


Miller delivers a visual knockout with Mad Max: Fury Road

In the rarified world of visually-oriented septuagenarian directors, George Miller (he just turned 70 in March) has delivered a KO punch against Ridley Scott!

Scott of course is far more prolific and well known, with 22 feature films since 1977; his seminal scifi films Blade Runner and Alien, historical epic Gladiator and gritty war film Black Hawk Down have each set the high water mark for visual style in their respective genres. For physician turned film maker Miller, Mad Max: Fury Road is only his 9th film since 1979; four of those have been Mad Max movies, but he’s also made the wonderfully wicked Witches of Eastwick, the 2 Happy Feet animation films (he won an Oscar for the first one) and the tearjerker Lorenzo’s Oil about a family’s battle to find a cure for their son’s rare brain disorder.

While Scott’s style remains just as epic in his later years, none of his recent films have broken any new stylistic ground; whether it is Robin Hood, Prometheus or Exodus: Gods and Kings, there’s been a sense of “been there, seen that” to the look of his films; it’s difficult after all, to raise the bar when the proliferation of CGI has made it possible for a film maker to bring to screen almost anything that he can visualize in his imagination. The barrier therefore is no longer technology, but imagination itself.

And that’s where Miller has scored his knockout. With Mad Max: Fury Road he has just delivered perhaps the most gloriously flamboyant road chase ever seen on screen; no doubt providing a lot of food for thought for every self-respecting action film maker, from Michael Bay to Luc Besson to the Fast and the Furious production team! Much like LP records have made a comeback with music aficionados, non-CGI action films like Fury Road along with Furious 7 earlier this summer and the upcoming Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation are finding enormous appeal among action movie fans.

There are enough inventive bits in this film – cars and weapons, costumes and makeup, music and lighting – to keep fanboys and future directors busy analyzing it frame by frame for weeks and months to come. The hyperkinetic chase early on through the warrens of the Citadel, the ludicrous ‘human-powered’ fuel injection system that Nux comes up with during a car chase, the Polecat attack sequence, the live musicians in the War Boys’ convoy and the briefly glimpsed ‘marsh stiltmen’ are just a few of my favourite moments. You will find similar lists populating almost every review of the movie.

As if to give the audience respite from the sun-blasted landscape, Miller sets the middle portion of the chase in the night. The switch from ochres, umbers and siennas to the gun metal blue of the moonlit night is matched by a change in the pace and scale of the chase.

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Half way through the movie, I found my eyes smarting; I realized I was hardly blinking for fear that I would miss even a millisecond of the visual buffet brought to screen by legendary Australian cinematographer John Seale. At the age of 72, he will surely earn his 5th Oscar nomination and perhaps even a win to go with his earlier one for The English Patient.

But for all this talk of visual genius, the critical acclaim for Fury Road owes as much to Miller’s investment in the people as in the cars and production design. The central character in the film isn’t Max; the story is in fact built around a female road warrior named Imperator Furiosa (I could almost hear Hermione say: “it’s Furi-oh-sa, not Furio-saaah”) who is a modern-day Ripley, driven by the same fierce protective instinct that Sigourney Weaver brought to the screen so memorably in Aliens back in 1986. Likewise, Max’s nemesis Immortan Joe – a post-apocalyptic Darth Vader, clad in an acrylic body shield and sporting a fearsome breathing mask – is sure to rank among the top 10 movie villains for years to come; not just for what he does on-screen, but also for the tyranny and unspeakable cruelty he represents.

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Miller believes he has enough material to make another Mad Max film (or three, he says!) and it’s difficult to believe that Warner Bros. will waste even a minute after the opening weekend numbers are out on Sunday night before signing a deal for the next one. Other than the upcoming Jurassic World, I believe it is unlikely there will be another film this summer to top Fury Road. Meanwhile, all is not lost for 77 year old Ridley Scott. In November, he will have a surefire hit on his hands with the release of scifi thriller The Martian. The source material – the best-selling page-turner by Andy Weir – is ‘flop-proof’, but it will be interesting to see how Scott brings it to life on screen. What new visual kick can Scott bring to the real-life space thriller that we have not already seen in Apollo 13 or Mission to Mars?

Seawards Journey: A little gem of a road movie

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The ‘road movie’ genre encompasses a wide range of films; there are the biker movies like Easy Rider, Motorcycle Diaries and err…Wild Hogs; there are car movies like Thelma & Louise, Bonnie and Clyde, Sugarland Express and Badlands (most invariably have a crime-based plot); there are dysfunctional family films like Little Miss Sunshine; even acclaimed Finnish director Aki Kaurismaki has made one, the cult film Leningrad Cowboy’s Go America about a fictional Russian rock band that goes to the US to become famous (the only time I have seen matching shoes and hairdos!)

The 2003 Spanish-language film Seawards Journey (El viaje hacia el mar) by Uruguayan director Guillermo Casanova is a worthy addition to the genre. A group of 5 friends, ranging in age from 40’s to 70’s, who have lived their entire lives in the same village, decide to drive to the sea. The men come from humble backgrounds – a garbage collector, a cemetery ‘manager’, an old man and his dog, a truck driver and his friend. It’s the truck driver Rodriguez who comes up with the idea and plans the trip; the friends join in with varying levels of enthusiasm. A stranger who has just arrived in town and bumps into them at the bar, impulsively decides to tag along.

Most of the film takes place in the truck as they drive to the coast, the bright red truck cab standing out against the verdant Uruguayan countryside. There is no plot, just a series of conversations and events – philosophical, insightful, wistful, ironic, or funny.

The man who works at the cemetery points out that the graves of the children (“the little angels”, as he calls them) always have the most flowers, the graves of the men also have flowers, but the graves of the women are usually bare, because the women care for the others, but no one cares for the women.

In the cab, the driver and his passenger are listening to ‘radiograms’, a message service provided by the local radio station. Messages range from the somber “Mother bad. Bring black tie” to the amusing “Warn brother-in-law, sister on the way and watch out, she knows everything”.

When the truck briefly breaks down in front of a highway billboard with a sun-bleached poster of a glamourous model, the men stare and wonder what it would be like to be in the company of such a woman.

As they approach the seaside, they drive through a resort town and are goggle-eyed at the modern city-dwellers in their skimpy clothes, fancy cars and trendy music. They experience the simple joys of eating ice cream on a sweltering day and enjoying a barbeque on the beach.

Finally at the seashore, Rodriguez asks his friends how they feel and is disappointed with their unimaginative responses; he realizes that none of them can feel the magic as he does. He walks into the water for a swim while the rest experience the moment, each in his own way.

At just 78 minutes, this is a little gem of a film which was nominated at various Latin American festivals and won the award for Best Uruguayan film from the Uruguayan Film Critics Association in 2003.

Furious 7 – The family that flies together stays together!

This seems to be the movie season for mad, unstoppable villains. One week after watching the Avengers battle Ultron, I felt a sense of déjà vu watching our favorite family of auto-powered outlaws duking it out with another seemingly indestructible foe, ex-special forces assassin Deckard Shaw in Furious 7.

In a story that continues from the events of Fast and Furious 6, we swap one Asian-born born director (Taiwanese-born Justin Lin, who directed the last 4 movies) for another (Malaysian-born James Wan). But the man connecting the dots behind the scenes continues to be writer Chris Morgan, who has written the screenplay for entries #3-7.

The subtext of Morgan’s 140 minute story is that family is all-important; and of course, audiences know this is the last film for one beloved family member – Paul Walker having been tragically killed (in a car crash) midway through the production. It’s not just the good guys who draw their strength from family; the bad guy Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham) is also motivated entirely by blood ties – he is determined to wipe out the team that left his brother Owen comatose at the end of the last film. The family theme also shows up in the life of a key supporting character, agent Luke Hobbs (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson), who is shown with a young daughter and an evolving relationship with fellow agent Elena Neves (played by Spanish actress Elsa Pataky, who I just discovered is the wife of Thor actor Chris Hemsworth). Non-family relationships are equally strong and there are brief scenes featuring Lucas Black’s and Sung Kang’s characters who we first met in The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift (2006). Everyone has got everyone’s back in this closely knit world.

The movie starts with a hard-hitting introduction to Deckard Shaw and in five minutes we know that our fast friends are in for a rough ride. We then have to sit through a fairly long build-up during which my anticipation nearly turned to impatience. But once the action gets going, it’s a non-stop thrill ride right till the end. We all know from the trailers that the highlight of the movie is an air-drop of cars from plane onto a lonely winding highway in the middle of a forest. The stunt is every bit as audacious as the trailer indicates and I found myself shaking my head in disbelief and wonder as the scene unfolded. The extended action sequence introduces us to 2 new characters. One is British super-hacker Ramsey (played by Nathalie Emmanuel from Game of Thrones) who seems to have joined the ‘family’ by the end of the movie; the other is terrorist henchman Kiet, played by Thai martial arts phenomenon Tony Jaa, making his Hollywood debut.

The one thing that becomes clear midway through the film is that cars can indeed fly, at least for a short while! As if the air-drop scene wasn’t enough, we soon find ourselves in Abu Dhabi where we see another breathtaking stunt featuring a Lykan Hypersport (the first supercar to be made in the Middle East; only 7 have been built, each priced at $3.4 million) making a leap of faith between 2 buildings in the Etihad Towers complex.

The camaraderie, humour and strong bonds within Dominic Toretto’s (Vin Diesel) ‘family’ humanize this hi-tech film where the primary drawing power is still the cars and the stunts – 340 cars were used in the making of the film, out of which 230 were trashed! But the human characters all survive unscathed (on-screen) and the sequence at the end is a fitting tribute to this long-lasting (and surprisingly emotional) journey which started in June 2001. It’s not ended yet; Diesel recently announced Furious 8 for April 2017.