Hanna (Joe Wright, 2011). Well, I’ll say this for director Joe Wright: He’s not going to be pinned down. He made his feature debut with a Jane Austen adaptation and followed that with a prestige picture based on a Ian McEwan novel. Then came a fairly drab issues picture largely about the homeless community in Los Angeles. The bank shot away from that reunites him with Atonement Oscar nominee Saoirse Ronan for a bizarre action film about a teenage girl who was raised in isolation to be an unstoppable assassin. The film is balanced awkwardly between stylish action and moody artiness, rarely finding its true footing. It lacks enough insight and cleverness to be wholly satisfying and attempts to add characters shaped by satiric instincts around the fringes of the story only serve to make it more of a muddle. Cate Blanchett plays a government agent that becomes the target of the title character’s surge for revenge. It’s a shockingly bad, overplayed performance from an actress who once seemed capable of accomplishing absolutely anything onscreen.
Spider (David Cronenberg, 2002). Novelist Patrick McGrath adapts his early nineties work for the screen, and David Cronenberg directs it with a gloomy restraint. There’s certainly plenty of psychological meatiness for Cronenberg to sink his sharp teeth into, but there’s a general lack of zest to the work. It’s solid, but it also feels a little like the director marking time, waiting for real inspiration to strike. Ralph Fiennes plays a man released from a mental asylum and taking up residence in a grim halfway house. He’s haunted by the pains of his childhood, which he manages to fully step into and observe. Fiennes is the master of internalized emotion, but he takes that skill perhaps too far. His character becomes a shambling cipher. Miranda Richardson, however, is blazingly sensational in a performance that essentially encompasses multiple roles. Over the years, her uniquely forcefully approach has tended to overwhelm the roles she takes on, but she finds the perfect match for her talents in Spider. I almost wanted her to take a bow after the closing credits and leave the stage for good. It’s almost inconceivable that she finds another opportunity that suits her better.
A Single Man (Tom Ford, 2009). This heartfelt adaptation of Christopher Isherwood’s 1964 novel suffers somewhat for a pronounced case of First Time Director’s Disease. Fashion designer turned filmmaker Tom Ford seems determined to build so much style and technique into the crafting of the film that he often loses sight of the important task of telling his story in a meaningful, penetrating way. That improves as the film progresses as Ford starts showing up less and simply ceding the heavy lifting to Colin Firth, playing a nineteen-sixties closeted gay college professor in mourning for his partner. Further constrained by a society still unwilling to acknowledge the value of his love–even his best friend, played by Julianne Moore with the flamboyant authority of a flung boa, can’t help but see his long-term relationship as something of a phase he should be able to easily shake off–Firth conveys the restrained, roiling agony of his character with devastating empathy. There are many who feel that Firth’s Best Actor Oscar should have this title etched into the based instead of The King’s Speech. He’s excellent in the film he won for, but the advocates for the greater worthiness of his work in A Single Man surely have a point.
Jules and Jim (François Truffaut, 1962). One of the films that defines French New Wave, François Truffaut’s film about two friends and the young woman they both love–at different times, in different ways–is another sterling example of the French director’s almost unmatched feel for the intricacies of human emotion. The film is also packed with Truffaut’s playful approach to the mechanics of filmmaking. He tinkers with the image, the frame, the soundtrack, the lighting in ways that open up all the possibilities of film, which in turn expand the potential of the narrative itself. Rules aren’t made to be broken with Truffaut; they’re made to be adored and repurposed, rambunctiously applied in inventive new ways. As is the case with all of Truffaut’s finest work, he seems to be reinventing the language of cinema not by discarding it, but by embracing it. The schism of that is a joy to watch.
Dark Star (John Carpenter, 1974). For his directorial debut, John Carpenter collaborated with his friend Dan O’Bannon on a story about a spaceship deep in outer space that is the locale for a series of especially vexing problems, including a hostile alien shaped like a giant undulating beach ball and an explosive device that malfunctions, deciding that it needs to explode just below the hull of the craft, a decision in announces in a creepy, calm voice that marks it as a cousin of the HAL 9000. Shot on the cheap and in the spare time of the collected cast and crew, the film is jubilantly amateurish as it simultaneously spoofs and pays loving homage to the science fiction genre. It’s not exactly something that can be called good, but it’s surely enthusiastic, coming across as a scrappy precursor to any number of YouTube mini-epics made by people who love movies so much that they too want to point a camera and yell “Action!”