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Ultimate Guide To Ridley Scott And His Directing Techniques

BOY & BICYCLE (1965)

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This being a film journal about contemporary and classic film directors, I often invoke the term “auteur” to describe a filmmaker who brings a singular identity to bear on any given work.

There are many different kinds of auteurs– there are those, like Sofia Coppola or David Fincher, who are revered for a consistent artistic style, while others like Terrence Malick or Paul Thomas Anderson tend to dwell on a variation of the same set of ideological themes over the course of their work.  Still others, like celebrated British director Sir Ridley Scott, routinely defy such easy compartmentalization.

Scott’s artistic character isn’t necessarily marked by a recurring set of themes or a specific visual style, although his filmography evidences plenty of examples for both.  The projects he takes on suggest more of a journeyman’s attitude to the craft rather than an artistic display of self-expression.

Indeed, Scott is one of the hardest-working filmmakers in the business– 2017 alone will see the release of no less than two of his features, and the man just turned eighty years old.  The latter of these features, the upcoming ALL THE MONEY IN THE WORLD, has been in the news recently because of Scott’s decision to remove Kevin Spacey from the finished film in the wake of the star’s sexual harassment scandal, replacing him with Christopher Plummer with only a scant few weeks to go before the film’s release.

Simply put, Scott is a beast, and his work ethic is unparalleled.  The same can be said of his artistic legacy, which encompasses a deep body of work– some of them among the most influential films of all time. ALIEN (1979), BLADE RUNNER (1982), THELMA & LOUISE (1991), GLADIATOR (2000), BLACK HAWK DOWN (2001)…. the list goes on and on.

The three-time Oscar nominee brings a highly visual approach to fully-formed cinematic worlds, each successive film existing within its own contained universe (or sharing an existing universe in the case of his three films in the ALIEN franchise).  Even as he enters his eighth decade of life, Scott remains a vital force in contemporary mainstream filmmaking, churning out a new film seemingly year after year with no end in sight.

Scott was born on November 30th, 1937 in South Shields, County Durham, in northeastern England.  His father, Colonel Francis Percy Scott, was largely absent throughout much of Ridley’s early childhood due to his being an officer in the Royal Engineers during World War II.

His older brother, Frank, was much older, also unable to serve as a father figure to young Ridley because of his duties to the British Merchant Navy.  This left Ridley and his younger brother, Tony, in the sole care of their mother Elizabeth Williams, and many film scholars trace the director’s flair with strong female characters all the way back to her singular influence.

After the war, the Scotts settled along Greens Beck Road in Hartburn– the smoky industrial vistas of which would famously sear themselves into the mind of the young director as a formative influence for BLADE RUNNER’s dystopian vision of Los Angeles circa 2019.

Scott’s interest in filmmaking came about by way of a passion for design, which he formally studied at the West Hartlepool College of Art.  After graduating in 1958, he moved to London to attend the Royal College of Art, where he was instrumental in establishing the school’s film department.

1961 saw the production of his very first film, an experimental short called BOY & BICYCLE.  The film was initially financed by RCA to the tune of 65 pounds, and shot in the director’s home turf of West Hartlepool as well as Seaton Carew.

An intensely personal work, BOY & BICYCLE features a young Tony Scott in the title role, playing a curious rascal who aimlessly rides his bike through the empty industrial landscapes of the British Steel North Works and pretends he’s the last person on earth.  Shot on black and white 16mm film on RCA’s standard-issue Bolex, BOY & BICYCLE’s narrative structure is a natural product of shooting without sound, but it also highlights Scott’s inherent proclivity for pictorial storytelling.

What little dialogue Scott employs was dubbed after the fact, favoring handheld cinema-verite style images strung together by a rambling voiceover delivered by Tony in a thick accent that, admittedly, renders the whole thing nearly unintelligible.  BOY & BICYCLE moves along at a brisk clip thanks to the propulsive energy availed by Scott’s shooting handheld and out of the back and sides of a moving vehicle.

John Baker’s music complements the fleet-footed tone, a credit he shares with renowned composer John Barry, who was reportedly so impressed by Scott’s cinematic eye that he recorded a new version of his track, “Onward Christian Spacemen”, for exclusive use in the film.

In shooting the film entirely by himself, Scott’s inherent talent for the medium becomes clear.  His later reputation as a visual stylist takes firm root here, boasting compelling compositions and a deft, naturalistic touch with lighting.  It’s also fitting that the fascination with world-building that would shape most of his films starts here with the natural world around him.

BOY & BICYCLE’s sense of place is very clear, with nearly every shot composed to favor the moody, polluted landscape or the quaint structures of an old seaside town.  While shot in 1961, BOY & BICYCLE wouldn’t actually be finished until 1965, after receiving a 250 pound grant by the British Film Institute’s experimental film fund.

BOY & BICYCLE may not quite resemble the artistic voice that has since become iconic in contemporary cinema, but it is nevertheless a milestone work in Scott’s career, serving as a calling card for the burgeoning young director to launch himself out of the minor leagues of amateur student filmmaking.


TELEVISION WORK (1965-1969)

When we think of feature film directors who successfully made the jump from the television realm, the first person to come to mind is usually Steven Spielberg, who famously broke into the industry when his peers were still laboring through their undergraduate thesis projects.

We think of him as a trailblazer in this regard, but few are aware that he was actually following a path paved by others like director Ridley Scott.  Although his stint on the small screen was relatively short, spanning from 1965 to 1969, Scott used this time efficiently and built up a commendable body of TV work that would establish the foundation of his career.

Following his graduation from the Royal College of Art in 1963, Scott found work in the BBC’s Art Department, a gig that indulged and developed the natural inclinations towards design and mise-en-scene that would later form one of the cornerstones of his own directorial aesthetic.  1965 saw the completion of his first film, BOY & BICYCLE, the warm reception to which led to his very first professional credit: directing an episode of the British show, Z CARS, titled “ERROR OF JUDGMENT”.

Scott followed that in 1966 with another show, THIRTY MINUTE THEATRE, shooting an episode called “THE HARD WORD”.

ADAM ADAMANT LIVES! “THE LEAGUE OF UNCHARITABLE LADIES (1966)

Scott’s next third credited gig in the television realm is the only one that’s publicly available, so for our purposes it must serve not just on its own merits, but as a representative sample of his TV directing work as a whole.  In 1966, Scott was brought in by producer Verity Lambert to direct an episode of the popular British TV show ADAM ADAMANT LIVES!, in what would be the first of ultimately three entries.

The show features Gerald Harper as the titular Adam Adamant, a secret agent of sorts and a somewhat-prudish relic of the Edwardian era.  I say “relic” -literally, as in he became frozen in a block of ice in 1902 and subsequently thawed out into a world he could have never imagined: London during the swinging 60’s.

This seems to be the central conceit of the show, suggesting itself as as key influence for the plot to AUSTIN POWERS: INTERNATIONAL MAN OF MYSTERY (1997).

This first episode, titled “THE LEAGUE OF UNCHARITABLE LADIES”, finds Adamant infiltrating a secret cabal of female assassins masquerading as a club of rich socialites, and subsequently trying to extricate his co-star Julie Harper’s Georgina Jones from their clutches.

The episode’s visual presentation evidences the context of its making– black and white film, presented in the 1.33:1 aspect ratio as appropriate to television’s square screens at the time, and somewhat scrappy production values stemming from what is almost certainly a meager budget.

 Scott respects the formalistic conventions of the era, for the most part; this being the 1960’s after all, he’s given ample leeway to bring an expressionistic flair to the proceedings.  TV shows of the time weren’t exactly known for their visual finesse, which makes Scott’s work here all the more noteworthy– his restless camera is always on the move, meshing formalist dolly moves with newer, flashier techniques like rack zooms, lens flares, and experimental compositions.

Throughout the episode, Scott evidences a visceral sense of place, shooting from a moving vehicle like he did on BOY & BICYCLE to capture the fleeting rhythms of London’s street life.  He also lavishes precious screen-time on setups that are fairly nonconsequential from a plot standpoint, but serve to evoke a mood– case in point, a driving sequence that lingers on the glossy hood of a car as it glows with the neon of passing signage.

It’s safe to say that the disparate elements of Scott’s trademark visual aesthetic have yet to blend together into a cohesive entity, but “THE LEAGUE OF UNCHARITABLE LADIES” shows that they are nevertheless there in a primitive fashion, just waiting to be developed further.

At thirty years old, Scott had established himself as a successful director of television.  He’d follow his stint on ADAM ADAMANT LIVES! with two more episodes of the show’s second season, titled “DEATH BEGINS AT SEVENTY” and “THE RESURRECTIONISTS”.

This, naturally, begat more work: an episode for HALF HOUR STORY titled “ROBERT”, and two episodes of THE INFORMER titled “NO FURTHER QUESTIONS” and “YOUR SECRETS ARE SAFE WITH US, MR. LAMBERT”. His final credit in television would go to a 1969 episode of MOGUL titled “IF HE HOLLERS, LET HIM GO”.

While this particular phase of his career was relatively short, it was nonetheless a vital one that established a respectable creative pedigree in the industry– one he’d leverage in 1968 to establish RSA, a commercial production company that remains to this day as one of the most prominent forces in the world of advertising.


HOVIS COMMERCIAL: “BIKE ROUND” (1973)

In 1968, director Ridley Scott co-founded RSA with his younger brother and fellow director, the late Tony Scott. Short for Ridley Scott Associates, the company would grow to become one of the most prominent commercial houses in the advertising industry, claiming some of the most distinguished filmmakers in the world among its roster.

As for Scott himself, he would eventually direct upwards of over 2000 commercials.  Naturally, this makes it a unwieldy, near-impossible task to generate a comprehensive analysis of his entire body of work– there sheer volume of Scott’s commercial output is so staggeringly large I couldn’t find anything in the way of even a comprehensive list.

As such, the best course of action appears to be a focus on only his most influential and enduring commercial works, of which there are still many.    The earliest of these is a classic spot for Hovis bread, titled “BIKE ROUND”.

Shot in 1973, the spot has gone one to become a beloved piece of British pop culture.  The concept is relatively simple, with a nostalgic storyline that finds a young boy having to walk his bike up a long, steep hill every day to buy a loaf of bread, only to have a fun ride back down the hill waiting for him as his reward.

Where the piece stands out is in its stately cinematography, which employs a high-contrast, cinematic touch that favors composition and atmosphere over dialogue.  A sense of place is quite palpable here, with Scott’s framing emphasizing the quaint British town that serves as the spot’s backdrop.

The piece feels authentic and well-lived in, and one gets the impression that this very might well be a memory of Scott’s own from somewhere in his childhood.  Scott’s aesthetic proves ideally-suited for the commercial space, given his ability to quickly convey an atmosphere and storyline in a visual way that’s both economical and full of detail.

Indeed, one would think he’s been doing this for quite some time. Commercials, by their nature, are transient and impermanent– meant for quick consumption of a timely message and then best forgotten. This is even more true of spots from “BIKE ROUND”’s era, which tended to eschew flashy narrative in favor of utilitarian messaging.

That Scott’s work here has endured after forty-plus years and amidst the noise of veritable millions of subsequent advertisements is all the more remarkable, and points to his future innovations within the format as well as his cinematic legacy at large.


THE DUELLISTS (1977)

I’ll never forget the one time I saw director Ridley Scott in person.  Like a frame from one of his movies, it has been seared into my mind.  It was the spring of 2008, and I was interning on the Warner Brothers lot.  I think I might’ve been on a coffee run for my bosses, or perhaps making my way to the commissary for lunch, and I noticed a large movement of people storming down the New York brownstone section of the backlot.

At the head of the pack was Sir Ridley himself, chomping on a huge cigar as he famously does both on set and in interviews, commanding his aides and colleagues with a militaristic precision.  In that moment, he was the very picture of the classical Hollywood director as visionary tyrant– for a young grunt like me, it was akin to seeing General Patton take the battlefield.

I’d be forgiven for thinking that he was simply born this way, having glimpsed him in a moment of his most-realized self in action– it’s very easy to forget that, many decades ago, he too had been the young (ish) man waiting on the sidelines; hungrily searching for his opportunity to prove himself.

Unless you’ve got a famous last name, nobody’s going to simply “give” you the chance to make your film– you have to fight for it at every conceivable juncture, because no one else is going to.  Scott learned this lesson the hard way, having spent many years cultivating an impressive body of commercial work that he hoped would attract the eye of Hollywood.

But here he was, already forty years old and responsible for some of the most beloved commercials in British advertising history without having ever made a feature film.  We tend to stigmatize commercial directors in relation to Hollywood filmmakers, having been conditioned over the years to regard advertising as a lesser form of moving image.

One can only imagine, then, how much more defined that separation must have been in the 1970’s when Scott– a director with hundreds, if not one-thousand plus commercials to his credit– could only make the jump to features by sheer force of will.  After four false starts and unproduced screenplays, Scott finally gained traction with an adaptation of a short story by Joseph Conrad titled “The Duel”.

Not being much of a writer himself, Scott turned to Gerald Vaughan-Jones, a screenwriter whom he had collaborated with twenty years earlier on an unproduced script titled “The Gunpowder Plot”.  Together, they fleshed out Conrad’s short story about the decades-long rivalry between two French officers and the contemptuous bond they forge through a series of duels, delivering the blueprint for what would become Scott’s first feature film: THE DUELLISTS (1977).

Despite its aspirations as an opulent and sweeping period piece, THE DUELLISTS is nevertheless a scrappy independent production– indeed, Scott was compelled to forego his own salary in order to make the most of the production’s relatively meager budget.  Scott and company shot entirely on location, making full use of the picturesque backdrops and natural, diffused sunlight that surrounded them.

Keith Carradine and Harvey Keitel headline the film as the eponymous duellists, d’Hubert and Feraud.  The characters are well-suited towards simmering acrimony: d’Hubert is a rakish aristocrat who seems to effortlessly rise through the ranks by sheer charisma and the grace afforded him by his caste, while Feraud is an intensely stubborn and highly-skilled swordsman from a working class background.

What begins as a minor tiff over d’Hubert’s delivery of bad news from the front grows over the years into a series of encounters driven by Feraud’s obsessive quest to see his humiliated honor satisfied.  No matter how much d’Hubert tries to distance himself from this feud and set himself up for a leisurely life in post-Napoleonic France, he can’t help but repeatedly get drawn back into the fray by Feraud, a die-hard Bonapartist who sees his rival’s Royalist inclinations as the stuff of high treason.

Scott stretches his limited budget by focusing almost entirely on his two leads, exaggerating the scope of their interior drama to compensate for the shortage of visual spectacle.  However, the decades-spanning narrative provides ample opportunity for supporting performances by actors like Albert Finney, a young & undiscovered Pete Postlethwaite, and Gay Hamilton and Alan Webb of BARRY LYNDON (1975) fame.

Indeed, the influence of Stanley Kubrick’s BARRY LYNDON hangs over the proceedings like a shadow or a spectre– a palpable presence that lingers in the corners of every frame.  Similar artistic choices populate both films– lingering zooms, a stately orchestral score, and even an omniscient narrator (played here by American actor Stacy Keach).

This being said, THE DUELLISTS stands on its own merits in regards to its cinematography– a testament more so to Scott’s eye as a visual stylist rather than first-time feature cinematographer Frank Tidy, whose performance Scott reportedly found to be so unsatisfactory that he handled camera operating duties himself for large swaths of the production.

Originating on 35mm film in the 1.85:1, THE DUELLISTS’ cinematography uses BARRY LYNDON’s romantic images as a jumping-off point while infusing a visceral grit that shows the era as the sweaty, bloody, and filthy time that it really was.

Scott’s considered compositions and earthy, tobacco color palette give the picture an identity all its own– one that points to the later hallmarks of Scott’s visual aesthetic with abundant instances of stylish silhouettes, handheld camerawork, blinding lens flares, and soft, romantically-gauzy highlights.

THE DUELLISTS, like BARRY LYNDON, is also notable for its evocative use of natural light, especially in interior sequences that utilize a large key source like a window while foregoing any fill, letting the frame fall beautifully off into absolute darkness.  This, of course, is how interiors would have naturally looked at the time, before the magic of electricity cast its widespread glow.

While THE DUELLISTS’ inherent technical scrappiness is a product of its meager budget, Scott nevertheless turns this into an asset that gives his first film a street-level immediacy entirely different from BARRY LYNDON’s birds-eye view.

As a director prized primarily for his aesthetic flourishes, Scott admittedly possesses a limited set of thematic fascinations– only a few of which make an appearance in THE DUELLISTS.  The film begins his career-long attraction to the armed forces and the spectacle of battle, a conceit that pops up again and again in films like GI JANE (1997), GLADIATOR (2000), BLACK HAWK DOWN (2001), and KINGDOM OF HEAVEN (2005).

His affection for atmospheric, self-contained worldbuilding, owing to his background as an art director and designer, is by far the most dominant signature at play in THE DUELLISTS, with Scott fleshing out this bygone era with every scene while building to an appropriately-cinematic climax amidst the striking ruins of a castle.

Another aspect of Scott’s artistic signature at play here is his approach to filmmaking as a family affair.  He had already been successful in turning his younger brother Tony onto the profession via their joint venture with RSA, and THE DUELLISTS finds Scott installing that same love within his own sons, who were exposed to the craft by virtue of their cameos as d’Hubert’s cherubic children.

Scott’s efforts here very much favor the technical over the thematic, but the result is a remarkably assured debut that would go on to win the award for Best First Film at Cannes in the wake of a glowing critical reception.  With the success of THE DUELLISTS, Scott’s career in feature filmmaking was officially off to the races, placing him at the forefront of directors to watch– a position he would cement with his very next feature effort only two years later.


ALIEN (1979)

“In space, nobody can hear you scream”.  It’s one of the most iconic taglines in cinema history— an exercise in pulpy brilliance that perfectly encapsulates the movie it accompanies.  That movie is, of course, the 1979 science fiction classic ALIEN.  ALIEN needs little more introduction than that, having since become the foundation of a high-profile film franchise that actively pumps out new installments to this day (the latest, ALIEN: COVENANT was released in mid-2017).

Both were directed by Sir Ridley Scott, a development notable for its sheer rarity; very few filmmakers would make a return to the franchise they helped create several decades ago… especially one that had been essentially left for dead like the ALIEN franchise had been, withering on life support after a slew of poorly-received sequels.

Of course, ALIEN: COVENANT had more than its fair share of detractors too, but something about the world of ALIEN still beckoned to Scott, long after the initial film’s success kicked his career into overdrive and turned him into one of the biggest filmmakers in the world.  He’s returned twice, actually, (2012’s PROMETHEUS endeavored to reboot the franchise with a new spin on its mythology), and is even promising/threatening to make more.

All of this is to say that Scott is clearly fascinated by the cinematic possibilities of the ALIEN universe, and those that might be inclined to cynically ask “why” need only look at the 1979 original: a minimalist suspense picture with a sweeping mythology that ably evokes the unspeakable horrors waiting for us out there in the Great Unknown.

Upon first watch of the film, one might be inclined to ask: “what kind of sick, twisted person would ever dream this up?”.  The answer is screenwriter Dan O’Bannon, an eccentric character to say the least.  He had been unhappy with his previous stab at the science fiction genre— his screenplay, DARK STAR, had been made as a comedy by director John Carpenter (four years before his own breakout, HALLOWEEN), and notoriously featured a spray-painted beach ball as an antagonistic alien (1).

He longed to combine science fiction with the horror genre, with an otherworldly monster that would actually terrify audiences rather than induce them to laughter.  Working in collaboration with Ron Shussett, O’Bannon subsequently reworked the plot and tone of DARK STAR into what would become the first draft of the ALIEN screenplay.

Even at this earliest of stages, the moments that would make the finished film so iconic were already in place— the “truckers in space” attitude of the characters, the horrifying reproduction methods of the alien creature, and, of course, the show-stopping chestburster scene.

While producers found O’Bannon’s screenplay to be of poor quality from a craft perspective, they nevertheless couldn’t deny the horrific power of these moments, and subsequently snapped up the rights in good faith that a proper rewrite would patch up the problem areas.

For quite some time, director Walter Hill was attached to helm the project, but after catching Scott’s THE DUELLISTS in the wake of its impressive debut at the 1977 Cannes Film Festival, he and fellow producers Gordon Carroll & David Giler collectively agreed that Scott had the proper directorial chops to elevate ALIEN beyond its schlocky b-movie trappings.

It’s easy to forget that, despite landmark science fiction works like Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY in 1968 and Andrei Tarkovsky’s SOLARIS in 1972, the genre was regarded rather distastefully by studios in those decades.  It wasn’t until the seismic, runaway success of George Lucas’ STAR WARS in 1977 that the tide began to turn.

Anxious to capitalize off audiences’ newfound appreciation for sci-fi, executives at Twentieth Century Fox turned to ALIEN, the only genre-appropriate script they had on their desk at the time.  Indeed, the success of STAR WARS can be seen as directly responsible for Fox’s subsequent greenlighting of ALIEN,  despite the radical differences in story & tone.

Walter, Carroll & Giler’s gut feelings about Scott’s abilities proved fruitful before production even began, when the director’s detailed storyboards (affectionately referred to by his collaborators as “Ridleygrams”) impressed Fox so much that their initial $4 million budget was doubled.

This anecdote illustrates a key aspect of Scott’s artistic identity, one that is directly responsible for his continued relevancy and success within the industry.  The importance of proper prep work before shooting is hammered into the mindsets of all directors, but surprisingly, few actually take the sentiment to heart.

Scott’s productivity and the relatively consistent quality of the product itself is due in no small part to the importance he places on prep and pre-production.  One needs only to look at any one of his countless number of signature Ridleygrams to see that the man views prep work as equal to, if not more important than, the work of shooting itself.

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STAR WARS may have pioneered the idea of a “worn & dirty” future, but even then its story is concerned with governmental bureaucracies and elite class systems—empires, princesses, Jedi “knights”, and so on. ALIEN endeavors to democratize the realm of science fiction with characters that Middle America can relate to, basing the foundation of its characters off the conceit of “truckers in space”.

As such, the story concerns the small, tight-knit crew of the Nostromo, the space age equivalent of a massive commercial freighter truck, who have just been awakened from cryosleep long before they were scheduled to.  The ship’s onboard computer, M.U.T.H.U.R., has detected a distress signal coming from the nearby, unexplored planet of LV-426, and company protocol dictates that any distress signals detected in deep space must be adequately investigated.

Despite their own internal misgivings, the crew, headed up by their even-keel captain, Dallas (played by Tom Skerritt) lands on the windswept, stormy planet and discover the wreckage of a massive alien ship containing a room full of living eggs.  This being a horror film too, we know the score— one of the crew members is going to ignore all common sense and get a little too close to those eggs.

This honor befalls executive officer Kane, played memorably by the late, beloved character actor Sir John Hurt.  When he tries to get a closer look at one of the eggs, a hideous palm-shaped creature leaps up from it and attaches itself to his face.

The crew members bring the comatose Kane back onboard (with the facehugger still attached) and jet back off into space, where the meat of ALIEN’s story truly lies.  Kane eventually wakes up, even feeling perfectly healthy— that is, until a phallus-shaped baby xenomoprh erupts from his chest in a gruesome fountain of blood during an otherwise uneventful dinner.

With the rapidly-growing alien now loose aboard the ship, the crew fights to survive as they’re picked off one by one.  The story structure affords each performer their own moment to shine, whether its Harry Dean Stanton’s weary engineer, Brett, Veronica Cartwright’s meek audience-avatar, Lambert, Yaphet Kotto’s money-obsessed chief engineer, Parker, or Ian Holm’s coldly clinical science officer, Ash.

Of course, ALIEN’s true showcase performance lies in Sigourney Weaver, then a relative unknown whose tough, resilient femininity as the now-iconic character of Ripley made her a star.  The memorable performances provided by Scott’s cast add significant value to what otherwise could have easily been a schlocky B-movie, with a disposable set of cardboard-cutout characters offered up as sacrifice to a hungry, attention-sucking beast.

THE DUELLISTS established Scott as a supremely gifted visualist, but it’s admittedly easy to make the rolling French countryside, castle ruins, and golden sunlight look beautiful on film.  ALIEN possesses a stark, horrific beauty all its own, cementing Scott’s reputation as a visual storyteller even as he endeavors to repulse us with cramped, rundown spaceships and slimy, jet-black extraterrestrials.

Working with cinematographer Derek Vanlint, Scott shoots ALIEN on 35mm film in the 2.35:1 aspect ratio— an expected, conventional choice on its face, but one that becomes rather intriguing when considering that Scott is using a wide aspect ratio typically employed for expansive vistas to frame a claustrophobic labyrinth of corridors and dark corners.

Indeed, the 2.35:1 aspect ratio works counter to its conventional intentions so as to heighten our sense of tension and dread, evoking the Nostromo’s low ceilings by compressing the vertical axis of the frame.  Scott and Vanlint give ALIEN a metallic, industrial color palette accentuated by cold tones and grungy textures, while large, impenetrable shadows and silhouettes add a foreboding depth indicative of ALIEN’s aspirations as a work of horror.

An emphasis on atmospheric lighting is one of the hallmarks of Scott’s aesthetic, established in THE DUELLISTS with his evocative use of natural light to portray a pre-industrial, pre-electrified society. ALIEN builds on this aspect of Scott’s artistry by swinging the pendulum in the opposite direction, employing a wide mix of artificial light sources like overhead fluorescents, strobes, halogen lens flares, and even lasers that simultaneously blend and clash; the effect is a frigid, oscillating color temperature that bolsters ALIEN’s striking sense of isolation and remoteness.

Scott’s camerawork favors a mix of objective and subjective perspectives, employing classical dolly moves and pans at the outset only to give way to the controlled chaos of handheld camerawork as the claustrophobic tension mounts.

Having previously served as Scott’s sound editor on THE DUELLISTS, Terry Rawlings returns here as the head of the entire editorial department, reinforcing Vanlint’s probing cinematography with a patient, calculating pace that knows exactly when to draw out the suspense and when to strike with flashes of otherworldly horror.

Having been trained as an art director himself, Scott naturally places the utmost value on his films’ production design (arguably more so than most of his contemporaries).  And rightly so—  ALIEN’s cinematography and editing, terrifyingly effective as they are, would be nothing without compelling content within the frame itself.

For that reason alone, one can make the argument that Michael Seymour’s Oscar-nominated production design is second only to Scott’s confident direction when taking stock of the film’s legacy.  From an art design standpoint, ALIEN hinges on the interplay of industrial and organic textures to better reinforce the clash between Man and Xenomorph.

The “truckers in space” conceit dominates the design of the Nostromo and the crew’s costumes & equipment, conjuring a grimy, utilitarian future where a given vessel’s ability to sustain human life is an afterthought; a distant second to its commercial value.

One need only look at the design of the Nostromo itself, which Scott showcases lovingly throughout the film in lingering shots cleverly framed to imbue huge scale in what is actually an extremely detailed miniature.  There’s no sleek or aerodynamic design to the ship— rather, it is bulky and squat, with huge exhaust vents for an engine that no doubts needs to work overtime as it tugs a massive, city-sized refinery complex through deep space.

The interiors of the Nostromo echo the exterior design, featuring a vast underbelly of labyrinthine maintenance tunnels that open up into large, cathedral-like rooms for oversized mechanic equipment, while the ship’s living quarters are cramped, spartan, and colorless.

Naturally, all of this stands in stark contrast to the organic elements at play, which subverts this industrial, spacefaring future with an emphasis on designs that speak to our primal, unconscious need to eat and reproduce.  Swiss artist H.R. Giger bears chief responsibility for the overall design of the Xenomorph and its surrounding elements, drawing from his own nightmares to create an iconic alien design that’s simultaneously repulsive yet elegant; even beautiful.

Giger’s work is famous for blending the organic with the industrial, imbuing everything with a weird sexual energy that works on an unconscious level.  Indeed, part of what makes the Xenomorph so terrifying to us is how it evokes deeply-seated sexual fears and fascinations: the alien’s head resembles a phallus, while its starships beckon us inside their dark, damp corridors with vaginal portals.

Its reproduction cycle is designed to evoke the horror of rape, in that a facehugger “impregnates” its host by forcefully penetrating it and planting its seed.  ALIEN’s focus on primal, organic designs with highly sexual connotations speaks to universal, timeless fears that need no translation or existing phobias to be communicated.

Jerry Goldsmith’s score subtly reinforces ALIEN’s core dynamic, delivering a multi-faceted suite of cues that are at once both lush and unexpectedly romantic in an old-school Hollywood way, yet bolstered by eerie ambient textures that drum up tension.  Scott’s subsequent handling of Goldsmith’s score brings validation to some collaborators’ claims that he is difficult to work for— coldly pragmatic at best, tyrannical at worst.

In the wake of the film’s release, Goldsmith criticized the manner in which his work was used, claiming Scott had butchered his score by using several cues from the composer’s prior projects instead of the original tracks he provided.  Regardless of the bad blood between them, ALIEN’s score is rightfully celebrated as one of the key aspects of the film’s lasting appeal.

ALIEN establishes a key theme that pops up again throughout Scott’s filmography, especially within his three entries in the franchise: the philosophical quandaries of artificial intelligence.  The whole of the Nostromo is governed not by human hands, but by a seemingly omniscient computer system named M.U.T.H.U.R.

By relinquishing control of large swaths of the ship to computational autonomy, the crew is able to focus better on the work at hand— the tradeoff, however, is an increased vulnerability in critical scenarios.  The film’s subplot with Ian Holm’s’ Ash character also touches on this topic, with the stunning midpoint revelation that he is actually a sentient android.

Scott cleverly stages the surprise to shock us as much as it does the crew— with Yaphet Kotto bashing Holm’s head clean off, spewing forth a milky substance and mechanical parts instead of blood and viscera. The most experienced member of the cast at the time, Holm sells the deception with a subtle nuance that evidences just how advanced the androids of the ALIEN universe are.

Scott’s overall treatment of the character suggests a wariness, or discerning caution, towards machine sentience; indeed, the whole film serves as something of a cautionary tale about the dangers of unchecked scientific curiosity, and how easily mankind can unleash something so devastating to its very existence without fully understanding the danger it poses.

As his first big Hollywood film, ALIEN provided Scott with the platform to reach a wide audience and make his name as a feature filmmaker— and reach them he did, if firsthand accounts of people running, screaming, passing out, and barfing are to be believed.

Even smaller reactions, like people moving from the front row to the in order to distance themselves from the screen itself, prove that ALIEN’s efforts to probe mankind’s most unconscious fears and desires was almost too effective.

These stories, of course, are the stuff of box office gold, and the film’s performance suggests a macabre crossover appeal that attracted audiences who weren’t particularly predisposed to sci-fi or horror but nonetheless wanted to take part in the pop culture conversation around it.

It would take time for the critical reviews to match up with the numbers— initial notices were indicative of the genre’s poor regard with critics, but critical appreciation grew steadily over the ensuing years as ALIEN’s timeless qualities emerged.  Indeed, the passing of time hasn’t dulled ALIEN’s bite; it’s still as shocking and horrific as it was in 1979.

The Library of Congress inducted the film into its national registry in 2002, deeming ALIEN’s artistic and cultural merits worthy of historical preservation.  The following year, Fox collaborated with Scott on the assembly of an alternate “Director’s Cut” of the film.

It should be noted that Scott has always been happy with the 1979 theatrical cut, but agreed to tinker with the film for marketing purposes — and even managed to shave off a minute from the overall runtime, whereas most director’s cuts tend to run longer.

The two cuts are, for all intents and purposes, the same, with the only notable difference being the inclusion of a previously-deleted scene towards the end where Ripley obliges a dying Dallas’ request to finish him off with her blowtorch.  Today, ALIEN isn’t just remembered as the foundation of a sprawling pop culture franchise, although it most certainly is— it’s widely regarded as a bonafide classic, an unimpeachable touchstone of both the science fiction and horror genres, and the first salvo in Scott’s campaign to conquer the film industry and remake it in his image.


CHANEL NO. 5 COMMERCIAL: “SHARE THE FANTASY” (1979)

Until the 1979 release of ALIEN elevated him to the realm of major feature film directors, director Sir Ridley Scott had made the commercial segment of the entertainment industry his bread and butter.  Of course, now that he had successfully made the leap to Hollywood studio features, his advertising skills were in demand now more than ever.

While he searched for and prepped his follow-up to ALIEN, he used commercial work as opportunities to keep his skills sharp.  Of the untold number of spots he may have helmed in the years immediately following ALIEN, one stands as an exemplar of Scott’s craft and ability to shape pop culture– his 1979 spot for Chanel No. 5 titled “SHARE THE FANTASY”.

The piece occupies a comfortable place amongst his most iconic advertising work, having achieved an impact on pop culture whereby those around to see it live on TV remember it fondly and quite vividly. While the spot may seem fairly archaic to those who can only see it as a fuzzy VHS rip on YouTube, “SHARE THE FANTASY” has managed to endure over the subsequent decades as the marketing industry’s equivalent of a golden classic.

The spot finds a beautiful, statuesque woman expounding upon the everlasting quality of her beauty while she watches some random hunky dude swim in her pool.  Scott imbues the image with saturated blue and green tones, juxtaposing them against the hot orange of the actors’ skin.

A loaded sexual charge courses through the piece, be it in the symmetrical framing of the pool that’s bisected/penetrated by the shadow of a plane flying overhead, or the deliberate way in which the man emerges from the pool in such a way that he appears to come up from between the woman’s legs.

“SHARE THE FANTASY”’’s heightened, assured visual style is perhaps the clearest indicator of Scott’s touch, but his ability to convey a mood and detailed world in thirty seconds or less gives “SHARE THE FANTASY” its lasting appeal.


BLADE RUNNER (1982)

As I sit here writing this essay, it is the year 2018, in the city of Los Angeles, California.  It’s a sunny, slightly chilly morning.  When I look out my window, I see the stubby trees, freshly-watered green lawns, and the stately bungalows of Larchmont— a sleepy residential neighborhood just south of Hollywood.

With a few notable exceptions, the surrounding area probably looks just as it did several decades ago, or as it did in 1982— when an ambitious science fiction film named BLADE RUNNER dared to imagine a very different future for Los Angeles.  One of the most influential films of all time, BLADE RUNNER is famously set in the year 2019.

Imposing monolithic structures dominate a dark landscape awash in surging neon, soaking acid rain, and flying cars.  The tree-lined streets and Craftsman dwellings of my neighborhood have long since been paved over and forgotten about, falling into decay if the structures still even stand at all.  We are now just one year removed from the dystopian cyber-punk future that BLADE RUNNER envisioned, and it has thankfully failed to materialize.

However, one needs only drive through the packed streets of Koreatown at night, or look to downtown’s rapidly growing skyline to see that our steady march to a BLADE RUNNER-styled future is all but inevitable. In some ways, my personal journey with director Ridley’s Scott’s iconic masterpiece mirrors its long, hard-fought journey to attain its said-masterpiece status amongst the cinematic community.

In other words, each successive viewing of BLADE RUNNER functioned almost like an archeological dig— with every new pass, another layer of obscuring dirt and grit was stripped away to increasingly reveal the treasure underneath.  My very first experience with the film was on a well-worn videocassette borrowed from my high school library, and it was underwhelming, to say the least.

I didn’t really know what I was watching, because the tape was so degraded that the picture was a muddy smear of various browns and blacks.  It was enough to put me off the film for several years.  I was only able to first see BLADE RUNNER so clearly in 2007, when it received a lavish DVD release complete with a new cut of the film dubbed “The Final Cut”.

In the years since, I’ve revisited BLADE RUNNER several times as each successive home video format brings an added clarity and resolution, with the recent 4K UHD release being nothing short of a full-blown revelation.  In the lead-up to the writing of this essay, I devoured everything there is to see on BLADE RUNNER— each of the five official cuts, the sprawling making-of-documentary, Scott’s audio commentary, and the exhaustive supply of bonus content made available on the official multi-disc home video release.

Despite all this however, much of BLADE RUNNER manages to remain elusive— there is always something new to see, some little story bit or profound insight that decides to finally make itself known.  This is a large part of BLADE RUNNER’s enduring appeal: for all the mysteries we like to file away as “solved”, there’s untold more just waiting to discovered.

Blade Runner (1982) Director Ridley Scott and Harrison Ford on the set

As the 1970’s gave way to the 80’s, Scott was riding high on on the success of his breakout second feature, ALIEN (1979).  His inspired blend of sci-fi and horror proved to be an instant classic with audiences, and catapulted him to the forefront of the American studio system.

He quickly attached himself to DUNE, another sci-fi property that styled itself as “STAR WARS for adults”.  It was around this time, when Scott was finishing up his sound mix for ALIEN, that a producer named Michael Deeley approached him with the script for BLADE RUNNER, written by Hampton Fancher.

Adapted from the 1968 novel “Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?”, by venerated science fiction author Philip K. Dick, BLADE RUNNER told the story of an ex-cop in the futuristic cityscape of 2019 Los Angeles, tasked with hunting and exterminating illegal, artificially-created humanoids named replicants.

Even Scott had to admit the project sounded interesting, but with DUNE already on his plate, he declined Deeley’s offer.  Sometime thereafter, in 1980, Scott’s older brother, Frank, passed away from skin cancer. The loss of his brother sent Scott into a deep, depressed state that compelled him to drop out of directing DUNE— but it also had the curious side effect of opening him up again to the notion of making BLADE RUNNER.

Fancher‘s moody, somber tone must’ve seemed an appropriate match for Scott’s mental state, and upon agreeing to make the film, Scott subsequently enlisted the services of David Peoples to deepen the hard-edged noir grooves of Fancher’s screenplay.

In this light, Scott’s approach to BLADE RUNNER serves as something of a grieving process for his late brother— an intensely personal work that reflects some of the director’s most intimate thoughts & memories; a technical triumph and cultural touchstone that transcends its pulpy genre trappings to become a heartfelt meditation on creation, death & loss— the beauty of life as defined by its ephemerality.

The world of BLADE RUNNER, despite the appeal of its flying cars and fizzy blooms of neon, is a future that humankind very much would like to avoid— in this version of 2019, the world is a polluted wasteland of super dense, cramped urban infrastructure bathed in a perpetual shower of acid rain.

Animals have long since gone extinct, replaced by replicant versions affordable only to the super rich.  Like so much dystopian futuristic fiction, Los Angeles has become an omnipresent police state, and many have left Earth entirely to live in the off-world colonies— much like Europeans sailing towards The New World to begin again in what they believe is an untouched paradise.

Bioengineered humans called replicants, or “skinjobs” by those less inclined towards politeness, exist only as a disposable slave workforce— cursed with an extremely limited lifespan of four years.  After a violent slave uprising, replicants have been deemed illegal, and specialized bounty hunters called Blade Runners have been commissioned to track them down for early “retirement”.

Amidst this brutal cityscape, the camera finds Rick Deckard: a burned-out ex-cop ripped straight out of the hard boiled-noir tradition (right down to the trench coat).  Harrison Ford’s portrayal of Deckard may not have reached the same kind of cultural penetration that Han Solo or Indiana Jones did, but his performance here is iconic nonetheless.

It’s hard to imagine anyone else in the role— even those who the creative team initially considered, like Robert Mitchum (whom Fancher envisioned during his writing) or Dustin Hoffman (who got far enough in casting talks that the storyboards bear his face).  Deckard’s long, hard-fought career has made him weary, cynical… even a bit damaged.

On top of all this, he’s dogged by a lingering suspicion that he might just be one and the same with the “skinjobs” he’s hired to exterminate.  Like so many retired ex-cops in this genre, Deckard is inevitably pulled back into service by his old boss at the LAPD, tasked with tracking down a dangerous replicant posse headed by Rutger Hauer’s Roy Batty— a combat-model creation looking to break the lock on his expiration date so he can live forever.

Hauer proves an inspired casting choice, with his Aryan looks subtly evoking the eugenic pursuits of the Third Reich, and his channeling of a certain kind of restrained nuttiness (for lack of a better word) resulting in an aura of dangerous unpredictability.  His barbed liveliness stands in stark contrast to Deckard’s somber, muted nature; in several instances, one could be forgiven for thinking that Deckard is the artificial one.

Indeed, Batty’s internal awakening to the nature of his own creation, as well as its limits, arguably makes him the most human character in the entire film— a truly sympathetic antagonist who somehow manages to philosophically enrich Deckard’s life even as he attempts to end it.

For all this talk of engineered creation and artificiality, BLADE RUNNER possesses a real, throbbing heart, evidenced in Deckard’s burgeoning romance with Sean Young’s Rachael.  Emotionally unavailable in true femme fatale fashion, Rachael is an employee of the Tyrell Corporation as well as an unwitting replicant herself.  Hers is a journey of self-discovery; of learning how to become truly alive and fill oneself with passion.

The whole of BLADE RUNNER hinges on Deckard’s relationship to Rachael; together, they are the key to their own emotional salvations.  Joe Turkel, perhaps best remembered today as the ghostly bartender with a Cheshire Cat grin in Stanley Kubrick’s THE SHINING (1980), plays the creator of the replicants and the owner of the eponymous Tyrell Corporation.

A meek, frail man saddled with huge coke-bottle glasses, Tyrell lives atop a towering ziggurat, like some kind of Anglo-Aztec god.  His is a quiet, determined menace wrought from a perverted sense of parental pride and creative authorship that will be his ultimate undoing.

Daryl Hannah and Edward James Olmos round out Scott’s cast of note: Hannah as Pris, a super-agile and unexpectedly dangerous member of Batty’s skinjob posse, and Olmos as the spiffily-dressed Gaff, a fellow Blade Runner who spouts cryptic messages in a vernacular called “gutter talk”— a mishmash of several disparate languages that point to a hyper-globalized, borderless future.

One of the chief critiques lobbed at the film upon its release was the impression that the human element could be warmer, or more intimate.  Indeed, there is a slight degree of remove to the cast’s collective performance— arguably an appropriate choice for a film that explores what it truly means to be human.

BLADE RUNNER’s technical elements, however, are beyond reproach— Scott’s reputation as one of the foremost visual stylists working in cinema today transforms the film into an immersive three-dimensional experience unlike anything audiences had ever seen before.  BLADE RUNNER may be classified as a science fiction film, but the conventions and aesthetic concerns of the noir genre inform the visuals at a fundamental level.

The late Jordan Cronenweth is remembered today as a legendary cinematographer, and BLADE RUNNER is a major component of his legacy.  The film’s unique aesthetic has become a visual shorthand for a particular style of dystopian futurism, and traces of its DNA can be found in everything from other films, to TV, music videos, video games, and even commercials.

Indeed, it’s become so pervasive in contemporary culture that it’s easy to forget how truly groundbreaking BLADE RUNNER’s unique look was when it first appeared on cinema screens in 1982.  The 2.39:1 frame is soaked in the lighting conceits of neo-noir: punchy silhouettes, evocative beams of cold, concentrated light, buzzing blooms of neon color, and a perpetual bath of rain.

Shadows take on a cobalt tinge, further reinforcing the cold future of a nuclear winter, or runaway climate change.  Scott and Cronenweth blend formal compositions and camera movements with inspired, experimental visual cues, like the liquid-like shimmering and refracting of light within the cavernous chambers of Tyrell headquarters, or the infamous reflection of a dim red light in the pupils of the replicants (one of the key clues that support the argument of Deckard being an artificial creation himself).

Indeed, the red eye-light is part of a larger visual motif concerning eyes and vision that conveys their psychological significance as “windows into the soul”.  One of the very first shots is an extreme close-up of the human eye, every blood vessel visible as it reflects a massive explosion in its pupil.

A manufacturer of synthetic eyes for replicants becomes a crucial source of information for bringing Batty and his posse to Tyrell, and when Tyrell finally meets his fate at their hands, the method of death is the gouging of his eyes until they burst.  BLADE RUNNER’s heightened emphasis on the eyes is a particularly salient visual conceit, directly evoking related narrative themes like creation and the existence of a soul, while anticipating psychological concepts that had yet to enter the cultural lexicon like “the uncanny valley”.

Indeed, one of the telltale signs that an otherwise-realistic looking human character is an artificial creation is the lack of an elusively-intangible sense of “life” to the eyes.  BLADE RUNNER would come full circle in this regard, with Denis Villeneuve’s 2017 sequel, BLADE RUNNER 2049, digitally recreating a young Rachael that would’ve passed for the real thing if not for the distinct “deadness” in her eyes.

For all its various technical accomplishments, BLADE RUNNER’s production design has easily proven the most resonant in terms of cultural impact.  While the contributions of the film’s credited production designer, Lawrence G. Paul, should not be discounted or belittled, his work is still very much in service to Scott’s sprawling vision of a richly layered dystopia.

BLADE RUNNER’s urban industrial hellscape is first seen as an endless field of towering refineries belching massive balls of fire from their stacks— an image that calls back to Scott’s own background amidst a similar environment in England.  The Los Angeles of BLADE RUNNER is a hyperdense, over-polluted megalopolis ensconced in a cocoon of perpetual darkness and acid rain.

A distinct Asian character serves as one of the design’s most prescient touches, initially inspired by Scott’s travels in China and his desire to make 2019 LA feel like “Hong Kong on a bad day”.

Indeed, a nighttime drive through LA’s neon-soaked Koreatown neighborhood only reinforces the notion that our contemporary landscape is increasingly resembling BLADE RUNNER’s— a multicultural blend of Mandarin, Japanese, and Korean typographic characters and gigantic video billboards of smiling geishas that have accurately predicted Asia’s rise to world prominence in the wake of globalization.

Scott realizes BLADE RUNNER’s expansive, awe-inspiring vision of Los Angeles through a precise, meticulously-constructed blend of cutting-edge practical effects, miniatures, and models that give the film a visceral tangibility and weight that CGI has yet to completely match.

BLADE RUNNER’s mishmash of incongruous cultural aesthetics extends to the retro futuristic treatment of its interior sets, drawing influence from a sprawling set of ancient Egyptian, Mesopotamian, and Aztec design references and blending it with the fantastical urbanism of Fritz Lang’s silent classic, METROPOLIS (1927).

The elegant antiquity of Tyrell’s pyramid-shaped headquarters or the distinct geometric tiling of Deckard’s cramped apartment evidence Scott’s multi-layered, almost four-dimensional design approach; one gets the distinct impression that the 21st century had sustained a revitalized Art Deco movement akin to the 1920’s that flamed out in a brief burst of passion.

For a film that’s so celebrated for a progressive and radically-conceived design approach, BLADE RUNNER nevertheless can’t help being a product of its time.

Scott rightly predicts a world dominated by corporate signage and logos, but the brands that BLADE RUNNER chooses to enshrine in towering neon nevertheless points to the limitations of a contemporaneous perspective: PanAm, Atari, RCA, TDK…. all giants of their respective industries in the early 1980’s, only to see their profiles significantly reduced as we approach 2019 in the real world — that is, if they still even exist at all.

The original score, created by celebrated composer Vangelis fresh off his Oscar win for CHARIOTS OF FIRE (1981), has since gone on to become one of the major cornerstones of BLADE RUNNER’s legacy.  The synth sound that has come to define 80’s pop music serves as the foundation for Vangelis’ iconic suite of cues, but Vangelis finds every opportunity to exploit the sound in an avant-garde context.

Majestic synth horns and heavy drums create an otherworldly atmosphere that’s at once both contemplative and foreboding, creating an uncertain future rooted in the musical conventions of the noir genre.  One of the score’s most interesting aspects, to my mind, is the inclusion of several pre-existing tracks from Vangelis like “Memories Of Green”.

The romantic, jazzy track uses a live saxophone that stands out by sheer virtue of the analog nature of its recording.  The sound is used in conjunction with a piano-based love theme, and appears only in sequences that concern the romance between Deckard and Rachael.

The effect is a subtle, yet evocative, reflection of the film’s internal struggle between the organic and the artificial, as well as a heightening of the idea that love, not the circumstances of their creation, is ultimately what makes them human.

With his third feature film, Scott’s artistic identity begins to exhibit recurring characteristics and thematic preoccupations.  One such theme is intelligence and self-awareness in artificial life-forms.  The replicants of BLADE RUNNER are not robots, like Ian Holm’s Ash was in ALIEN, but rather bioengineered humans designed with short lifespans for the express purpose of disposable slave labor.

While they are imbued with superhuman abilities like strength or agility, they are viewed by society at large as inferior life forms; less than human.  As such, they are oppressed, abused, and persecuted by their creators.  When they attempt to rise up and assert their humanity, they are deemed “illegal” on Earth and systematically hunted down for extermination.

Fully aware of their shortened lifespans, the replicants feel emotions with more passion and conviction than their conventionally-birthed counterparts.  They are driven by an internal conflict derived from the knowledge that, while their emotions are real, the memories that drive them are not— they are implanted, sourced from a manufactured set of pre-existent memories that delude them with the illusion of a life lived.

They want to break free of this cycle; to live long enough to make their own memories.  This is a very heavy, potent idea to explore— especially in the space of a single feature film.  As such, Scott explores this theme throughout several films, most notably in his three entries in the ALIEN franchise.

The nature of these explorations within ALIEN and BLADE RUNNER share such similar territory that they have somewhat conjoined into a larger shared universe where the androids of the former grew out of the replicants of the latter.

Indeed, an Easter egg found on the DVD for 2012’s PROMETHEUS establishes a concrete connection wherein Tyrell serves as a mentor to Peter Weyland, who’s name forms one half of the Weyland-Yutani corporation that employs the Nostromo crew in ALIEN (189).

While Scott isn’t necessarily a director known for his stylistic affectations outside of the purely visual, there are nonetheless aspects of his craft that he places an exaggerated emphasis on due to their personal resonance with him.  His background as a designer has engineered his directorial eye to favor the architecture of his surrounding environment, be it a pyramid-shaped set on a soundstage or the varying shapes of the real-world urban environment that surrounds him.

BLADE RUNNER uses several real-world locales that were chosen, in large part, because of their architectural and aesthetic value.  The film famously uses the symmetrical brick and iron labyrinth that is the Bradbury Building, but other LA design landmarks like the shimmering 2nd Street Tunnel or the stone-tiled Ennis-Brown House in Los Feliz work their way into BLADE RUNNER’s narrative as a striking covered roadway and the exterior of Deckard’s apartment, respectively.

Going back even further into Scott’s development: as a young boy who was raised almost exclusively by his mother for several years while his father was away fighting World War II, he gained an immense appreciation for strong, capable women that is reflected in his art.  

BLADE RUNNER is chock full of well-developed women characters who can be tough without sacrificing their femininity: Rachael, Pris, and even the female replicant who hides out from the authorities in plain sight as a snake-charming entertainer all actively drive BLADE RUNNER’s story with their decisions.  In a way, these characters are better-realized and developed than even Deckard himself.

Scott’s unflappable, tireless work ethic bears the responsibility for his continued productivity, but it also has earned him a reputation as a hard-ass director with a somewhat tyrannical attitude towards the collaborative aspects of filmmaking.

BLADE RUNNER’s long, famously-grueling shoot established this aspect of Scott’s reputation in earnest, with openly disdainful crew members wearing T-shirts that read “Yes, Guv’nor, My Ass!” and Scott responding in kind with a T-shirt of his own reading “Xenophobia Sucks”.

Indeed, Scott seemed to tangle with nearly every member of his crew and cast— including Ford.  It’s admittedly difficult to see the grand sweep of a filmmaker’s vision when one is laboring through the day-to-day logistics of production, and embattled accounts such as the ones that plagued the production of BLADE RUNNER point to just how pioneering that vision truly was.

In every way, at every stage of its development, BLADE RUNNER — as an idea as well as a film — was ahead of its time.  We now have the film as a visual landmark to reference, but BLADE RUNNER did not have that luxury because nothing like it had ever existed before.

The film’s mere existence is nothing short of a miracle, with nearly every artistic and financial decision right down to its title having undergone a bitter battle to the death (Fancher’s script went through a seemingly endless series of alternate titles like MECHANISMO and DANGEROUS DAYS before finally arriving at BLADE RUNNER).

At several points, the film came so close to never happening at all: one particular episode saw the filmmakers’ initial source of funding for their $28 million budget pulled away before the shoot, necessitating a last-minute hail-Mary deal orchestrated by Deeley between no less than three separate production entities.

For most films, the theatrical release is the end of the story, but in the case of BLADE RUNNER, the story was only just beginning.  One of the most enduring aspects of BLADE RUNNER’s appeal is the aura of mystery that envelopes the film itself, with no less than five officially-released cuts competing for attention.

The initial theatrical cut is dogged by a supremely shitty voiceover by Ford that sounds like he might be drugged— indeed, one account maintains Ford was contractually obligated to deliver the voiceover and actively sabotaged it so it wouldn’t get used (Ford denies this publicly).

This cut also ends with an ill-advised happy ending, which finds Deckard musing about his hopeful future with Rachael as he whisks her away to a rugged, mountainous landscape comprised of unused aerial footage shot for THE SHINING.

The summer of 1982 saw a wave of high-profile films like STAR TREK II, THE THING, and E.T. THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL dominate the box office, leaving very little air for a nihilistic sci-fi noir that critics had dragged for its sluggish pacing and hyper-dense intellectualism.

Despite landing with a whimper, BLADE RUNNER nonetheless found an audience, garnering enough critical regard to land Oscar nominations for Best Art Direction and Best Visual Effects that reinforced its reputation as a visual tour de force.

An International Cut containing added moments of graphic violence was also released in 1982, and for many years thereafter, this cut served as the definitive version of BLADE RUNNER on home video (most notably, the Laserdisc put out by the Criterion Collection).

The emerging home video market was arguably BLADE RUNNER’s saving grace, with the ability to rewatch and analyze the film at one’s own pace leading to a small cult following and several passionate academic essays praising the film’s richly-layered visuals and thematic complexity.

Many critics who originally trashed the film would come around later in life, adding BLADE RUNNER to their “best-of” lists for all-time, or at least the 80’s.  The BLADE RUNNER “renaissance” wouldn’t truly begin until the early 1990’s, when an alternate cut dubbed “The Workprint” emerged at sneak preview screenings around the country.

The Workprint, initially thought to be Scott’s preferred version of the film, was the first version of BLADE RUNNER to dramatically deviate from what came before— several minutes had been trimmed, the contentious “happy ending” was excised entirely, and the opening titles utilized a different design style that included a definition for replicants attributed to a fictional dictionary published in 2016.

Despite these improvements, the Workprint was still by no means an ideal way of viewing BLADE RUNNER: its status as a so-called “work print” meant that the picture quality was sourced from a rougher, low-quality telecine, possessing a totally different color timing that desaturated the vibrant colors (the blues, especially).

This cut also retained a temp track used during the climactic confrontation between Deckard and Batty, with the cue pulled from another film and clashing dramatically with the character of Vangelis’ score. Needless to say, a perfectionist like Scott was not happy with this “work-in-progress” version being circulated on such a mass scale, so he partnered with Warner Brothers to create an official Director’s Cut in 1992.

This fourth version — one that, when all was said and done, he was still not entirely happy with — was the first to delete Ford’s voiceover entirely, and the first to incorporate the appearance of Deckard’s unicorn dream, which exists to reinforce Scott’s conviction that Deckard himself might be a replicant.

The warm response to this cut finally brought BLADE RUNNER into the mainstream, its nihilistic sentiments now firmly in line with a time where grunge music dominated pop culture and the approaching turn of the millennium invited musings about fantastical, apocalyptic futures.

BLADE RUNNER was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry in 1993, but its influence and importance in pop culture was already well underway.  Descendant works like 1999’s THE MATRIX or the 2000 video game PERFECT DARK wore the profound influence of BLADE RUNNER on their sleeves, as do more recent works from this year like Duncan Jones’ MUTE and the Netflix series ALTERED CARBON.

At the same time, BLADE RUNNER also brought the larger body of Philip K. Dick’s literary work to Hollywood’s attention, kickstarting a long series of film adaptations that would make Stephen King slightly green with envy.  Naturally, BLADE RUNNER’s resounding influence would come full circle in 2018 with BLADE RUNNER 2049, a sequel executive produced by Scott and directed by emerging auteur Denis Villeneuve that would subsequently meet the same initial box office fate as its predecessor.

The Final Cut, released in 2007 with the film’s debut on the DVD market, further improves on Scott’s ultimate dissatisfaction of the Director’s Cut with minor nips and tucks as well as an improved picture quality thanks to a 4K scan of the original camera negative.

As is par for the course for BLADE RUNNER, the Final Cut ran into big troubles of its own, with the restoration work stalling out a year after its commission in 2001, only to start back up again in 2005.  This cut was arguably the most well-received version of BLADE RUNNER, aligning itself more closely to Scott’s initial vision than any previous cut had done.

“The Director’s Cut” is a relatively recent phenomenon in Hollywood filmmaking, having arisen either as a gimmicky marketing tool or a filmmaker’s genuine bid to retain some creative control in a post-auteur climate where the suits prioritize profits over art.

Scott’s filmography is littered with such Director’s Cuts for both reasons, BLADE RUNNER being the first to undergo a recut for the sake of its artistic salvation.  This is the beautiful irony of Scott’s legacy: his productivity and no-nonsense work ethic suggest the attitude of a journeyman filmmaker; a gun-for hire.

However, he has been instrumental in establishing the practice of Director’s Cuts as a way for audiences to rediscover “failed” films, and uncover the underlying artistry that they might have missed the first time around.  As the various layers of figurative grime have been wiped away from BLADE RUNNER’s iconic frames over the ensuing decades, the picture has increasingly resolved into focus as a portrait of a fully-formed filmmaker operating at the peak of his powers.

For all his later accomplishments in life, Scott will be remembered and cherished primarily because of BLADE RUNNER: a stunning tour-de-force of craft and imagination with a beautifully profound message at the heart of its story.  Gaff’s final line has echoed in the back of our heads for nearly forty years: “it’s too bad she won’t live… but then again, who does?”.

This, finally, is the beating heart of Scott’s neon-soaked masterpiece.  Our limited time on Earth (replicants doubly so) is what makes life itself so beautiful… and it’s what we do with that time that defines our humanity.


COMMERCIAL & MUSIC VIDEO WORK (1982-1984)

While the 1982 release of director Ridley Scott’s third feature film, BLADE RUNNER, was considered a box office disappointment, it could hardly be called a failure.  His next move would be a return to the commercial world that made his name— a capitalization off his surging cultural capital, rather than a retreat to a safe place where he could lick his wounds.

Indeed, the two works readily available from this period — a music video for Roxy Music’s “Avalon” and Apple’s “1984” Super Bowl ad — evidence the artistic growth of a director operating at the peak of his powers.

ROXY MUSIC: “AVALON” (1982)

Scott’s 1982 music video for “AVALON”, off of Roxy Music’s album of the same name, is made notable by virtue of its existence as the director’s only contribution to the music video medium.  The track is a lush, downbeat ballad that exudes material luxury, so Scott responds in kind with a series of decadent, sumptuously-shot tableaus of rich people caught up in the thrall of vacant boredom.

From a visual standpoint, the piece is immediately identifiable as Scott’s work, boasting expressive lighting, silhouettes, an ornate and highly-detailed backdrop, and confident camerawork that echoes the luxe mise-en-scene.  What’s less identifiable is his intent, as the tone that comes across is downright… creepy.

It’s as if an origin prequel for THE PURGE decided to ape Alain Resnais’ LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD (1961).  There’s a quietly unsettling, leering vibe to the whole thing— whatever the opposite of a voyeuristic experience is — and the more I think about it, the more I grow to like the concept of it.

The somber, bored rich people grow increasingly aware of our presence, looking at us directly with stares that feel exponentially confrontational… or maybe I’m just reading into it a little too much.  There’s also an owl thrown in there for good measure, which seems to serve little purpose other than nodding back to BLADE RUNNER.

Scott’s only music video injects a nuanced complexity into an otherwise simplistic 80’s hit, becoming something of a comment on the song itself rather than a visual echo of its lyrics or style.

APPLE: “1984” (1984)

At the risk of laying down some hot takes, there’s a strong argument to be made that Scott’s commercial career is even more successful than his filmography of theatrical features.  If one were to make such an argument, Exhibit A would undoubtedly be his 1984 spot for Apple, which has since gone on to become one of the most influential, recognizable and iconic commercials of all time.

The spot that introduced the Apple Macintosh computer to the world, “1984” paints a vivid picture of a dystopian future ruled over by a looming dictator seen only on a giant television screen while legions of identical followers obediently watch his fiery, droning speech.

Into this picture storms a virile Olympian who flings a giant sledgehammer into the screen, destroying the dictator’s face and freeing his followers from their hypnotic spell. The expressive lighting and highly-detailed production design point to Scott’s signature, while establishing the template for future commercial directors like David Fincher to follow.

Scott’s affection for strong heroines gives “1984” an added resonance— on a surface level, she stands out by virtue of being a vibrant, muscular and confidant woman in a sea of pale, atrophied, faceless men.  Her presence also points to a further sprawl of complex ideas, like democracy (as embodied by an Amazonian Lady Liberty) laying waste to fascism, or the sophistication of the feminine form reinforcing the evolved design ethos that would make Apple a computing giant.

That Scott is able to convey so much thematic subtext and world building in a mere 60 seconds is a testament to his innate understanding of the medium and his staggering power as a visual storyteller.

It sees strange, or perhaps even disingenuous, to talk of marketing campaigns as cultural touchstones, but truly inspired advertising has the ability to transcend its commercial, capitalistic ambitions and become Art. Scott’s “1984” spot is one of the rare few to resonate at this level, cementing itself as arguably the zenith of the director’s commercial filmography.


LEGEND (1985)

Given director Ridley Scott’s English background and his affection for highly-detailed and richly-developed world building, it was perhaps only a matter of time until he tackled the fantasy genre.  He would achieve such a feat with 1985’s LEGEND, his fourth feature film.

Released three years after the somewhat disappointing reception of BLADE RUNNER (1982), LEGEND’s genre trappings had beckoned to Scott ever since the production of his first feature, THE DUELLISTS (1977), where he conceived of an idea to do a cinematic adaptation of “Tristan & Isolde” (2).

That particular project fell apart after a brief development period, but through the ensuing years, he still nonetheless harbored a desire to make what he described as a “lean” fantasy picture— one that “didn’t get bogged down in too classical a format”.

In other words, he wished to apply the visual grammar of 80’s pop cinema to a genre usually regarded for its regal formalism and swashbuckling adventure. Before he commenced production on BLADE RUNNER, Scott worked for five weeks with screenwriter William Hjortsberg, hammering out over fifteen drafts of a screenplay while referencing Disney’s classic animated films SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS (1937), FANTASIA (1940), & PINOCCHIO (1940), as well as Jean Cocteau’s BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (1946) (3).  Once the arduous shoot for BLADE RUNNER was over, Scott turned his attention to actively producing LEGEND, working with producer Arnon Milchan on a budget of $24.5 million.

The final product would prove divisive, becoming the first real failure of Scott’s feature career for a time before finding critical reappraisal in the wake of a Director’s Cut release decades later. For all the detail and attention he lavishes on its presentation, Scott doesn’t necessarily divulge a lot of information about the world of LEGEND.

We don’t even know the land’s name — we just know that it a lush, forested paradise where magical unicorns run free (an image that retroactively reminds one of a similar appearance in Scott’s Director’s Cut of BLADE RUNNER some years later).  We’re quickly introduced to a beautiful, virginal princess named Lili (played by Mia Sara), whose naive innocence begets a kind of stubborn greediness that kickstarts the story.

When she’s told by her friend, a Peter-Pan-like forest boy/creature named Jack (played by a baby-faced Tom Cruise), that she mustn’t touch the sacred unicorns —that no human has ever dared to make contact with the magical horned horse — she goes ahead and does it anyway.

Jack is the protector of this forest realm, which includes a guardianship over these rare unicorns — indeed, there’s only two left in the entire world, and their horns are regarded by some as a treasure onto themselves. Jack and Lili are unaware that said treasure is being aggressively sought after by none other than Darkness, the incarnation of earthly evil who rules over a massive, foreboding palace shrouded in perpetual shadow.

Tim Curry, nearly unrecognizable under pounds of heavy prosthetic makeup that reportedly took 5 ½ hours to apply every day, delivers one of the genre’s most iconic performances by relishing in his devilish character’s seductive charisma.

During a moment of weakness for Jack, which finds him forsaking his duty to dive for a ring that Lili has dropped into the lake, Darkness’ goblin lackeys strike— hacking off one of the unicorns’ horns and subsequently plunging this idyllic, sunny paradise into a dark, icy winter.

It’s only a matter of time until Lili and the last unicorn are captured, prompting Jack to team up with a band of dwarves led by a Puck-style nymph/boy thing named Gump (David Bennent) and venture forth into Darkness’ lair to quite literally deliver them from Evil incarnate.

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LEGEND retains the expressive cinematography that’s hereto marked Scott’s filmography— a blend of atmospheric lighting, silhouettes, dynamic camerawork, and bright, saturated color.  Having originally wanted to shoot on large format 70mm, Scott and cinematographer Alex Thomson settle for the standard 35mm gauge in the 2.35:1 aspect ratio.

The film’s fantastical theatricality affords Scott to further push the bounds of his aesthetic, evidenced in stylish flourishes like large shafts of concentrated light, impressionistic slow-motion, and even the use of black-light FX on Darkness’ makeup during the Theatrical Cut’s opening sequence.

These elements allow Scott to immediately put his stamp on the fantasy genre, as does the decision to avail himself of the total control of soundstage shooting. Shot on the legendary 007 soundstage at Pinewood Studios, LEGEND finds Scott and production designer Assheton Gorton building the film’s insanely detailed world from scratch.

The controlled conditions allow Scott to fully indulge in his signature worldbuilding, giving lush atmosphere to his artificial forest stages through fog, smoke, snow, and theatrical lighting.  It’s worth noting that only a few shots were captured outdoors, and the absolute seamlessness with which returning editor Terry Rawlings is able to cut these moments in with the soundstage environments stands as a testament to Scott’s unparalleled eye for detail and design.

Scott’s need for absolute control over every little detail speaks to his consummate professionalism and a strategic approach towards filmmaking that wouldn’t be out of place in the military.

When he wants to, the man can move mountains and achieve the seemingly-impossible— in a move that would anticipate his recent high-profile replacement of Kevin Spacey with Christopher Plummer a few short months before the release of 2017’s ALL THE MONEY IN THE WORLD, Scott found himself confronted with an extreme logistical challenge when, only ten days before wrapping, the 007 soundstage hosting LEGEND’s production burned down in a freak accident.

In the end, Scott’s urgent recalibrations and considered rebuilding efforts would avoid catastrophe, ultimately ending up just three days behind (3).   Like many of Scott’s films, LEGEND was not well-received upon its theatrical release, only gaining a reappraisal in the wake of an extended director’s cut some time later.

It rightfully received an Oscar nomination for Best Makeup, and would come to be regarded as a cult classic among fantasy enthusiasts (4). LEGEND is even said to have profoundly influenced Shigeru Miyamoto’s vision for the iconic video game series, LEGEND OF ZELDA.

The film’s mixed reaction speaks to its nature as a triumph of imagination; as a filmic experience, however, LEGEND is still arguably something of a mess, possessing little of the laser-like focus Scott applied to his previous work.  The director seems to have waffled in his vision at a crucial point in post-production, his internal conflict embodied in the last-minute switch of composers from Jerry Goldsmith to Tangerine Dream.

Goldsmith’s conventional orchestral score was removed after the initial series of test screenings, replaced by Tangerine Dream’s synth-heavy take: a cheesy relic of 80’s ambient pop comprised of squealing electric guitars and an artificial pan flute that provides only cheap mysticism.

The band’s cinematic collaborations with other directors like Michael Mann are well-regarded, but their work in LEGEND, at least to my mind, is a rare misfire.  The drastic change in tonal styles can be attributed to Scott’s last-minute change of heart, having lost interest in the story’s thematic and narrative complexities and wishing instead to deliver a brisk slice of gaudy 80’s escapism.

He proceeded to cut twenty minutes or so, creating an 89 minute edit that feels slight, rushed, and insubstantial. The Theatrical Cut’s unfavorable reviews support this impression.

As years passed, rumors persisted of the existence of Scott’s Director’s Cut, but it was thought to be long-since lost.  In 2002, an answer print of the Director’s Cut was discovered, deemed to be in sufficient enough a shape for an official release.

With those lost twenty minutes and Goldsmith’s original score restored, the Director’s Cut of LEGEND indeed feels like an entirely different picture.  The extra screentime gives the narrative’ s developments time to breathe, the orchestral nature of the score gives the proceedings more of a timeless aura, and Jack & Lili’s expanded quest reinforces its adventurous spirit with rich, complex thematic undercurrents about lust, greed, and vanity.

In essence, it feels like a completely different film. This version of LEGEND, which was the one initially screened for test audiences to positive scores, is arguably far superior to the Theatrical Cut— indeed, even Cruise himself disowned the initial release when the Director’s Cut was found.

Why Scott was compelled to disregard a positive test reaction and whittle LEGEND down to a trivial swashbuckler is anyone’s guess, although it can be said that this was a rare instance where the director’s trademark decisiveness, which has otherwise served him so well, completely backfired on him.

Today, LEGEND is still regarded somewhat as the minor Scott film that aspired to be major, its ultimate position only buoyed by the fortunate existence of the Director’s Cut.  At the time, however, the damage had already been done—- the initial, highly-regarded phase of his early feature career was over, having given way to a prolonged period of adequate journeyman works that would last for over a decade.


COMMERCIALS (1985-1986)

Many feature directors get their start in the commercial realm, but flee from it as soon as they achieve a degree of theatrical success.  To these filmmakers, commercials are an artistic ghetto; soulless places devoid of genuine meaning, ruled over by corporate fascists wielding the terrifying power of “final cut”.

Others, however, genuinely thrive in this environment, returning time and time again to dabble in these short-form expressions of commerce. To them, the commercial world is a place to keep their skills sharp; to experiment with new visual styles or techniques; or even as an enjoyable way to put their kids through college.

For director Ridley Scott, the commercial field represents all these things, but it also represents an opportunity to dictate the cultural zeitgeist to a captive audience. After all, moviegoers have to choose to buy a ticket, but television watchers have to watch commercials… even if they change the channel, there’ll only be more commercials waiting for them there too.

By the mid-80’s, Scott’s commercial repertoire was well-established, but two particular pieces from this period stand out — not just as exemplary displays of craft, but also as pop culture-defining works of commercial art.

PEPSI: “CHOICE OF A NEW GENERATION” (1985)

In 1985, Scott shot “CHOICE OF A NEW GENERATION”, Pepsi’s then-latest bid at capturing the youth demographic.  The piece is a museum-grade example of 80’s pop culture, profoundly influenced by Michael Mann’s mega-successful television series, MIAMI VICE, to the extent that Don Johnson himself appears (alongside Glenn Frey).

That said, the piece also anticipates Scott’s own urban neo-noir, BLACK RAIN, by four years… so one can’t help but wonder if it’s not necessarily MIAMI VICE, but also Scott himself, who was driving the decade’s pop aesthetic.  Set to a brooding rock composition, “CHOICE OF A NEW GENERATION” finds Johnson and Frey in a slick sports car, cruising the nocturnal urban landscape.

The piece is dripping with style— a blend of pink, purple and cobalt hues stemming from neon signage, evocative silhouettes and moody shadows.  Scott’s strengths as a world builder are on full display, creating a seductive, high-fashion environment where anything can happen.

Despite the dated cheesiness of it’s style, one can easily see how the spot’s visuals still influence contemporary advertising.  The spot works precisely because it’s not desperately trying to sell something; indeed, money can’t buy the elusive cool factor that the spot projects, but by connoting that vibe with Pepsi cola, this aspirational lifestyle suddenly becomes very tangible and accessible indeed.

WR GRACE: “DEFICIT TRIALS 2017” (1986)

A year later, Scott shot a memorable spot for American chemical conglomerate WR Grace, titled “DEFICIT TRIALS 2017”.  It’s clear from the outset that the marketing firm behind the spot tracked Scott down precisely because of his legendary Apple spot, “1984”, as “DEFICIT TRIALS 2017” creates a somewhat-similar dystopia wherein the old have been put on trial by the young for flagrant debts that they’ve saddled onto future generations.

In this post-Recession economic climate, that doesn’t necessarily seem like too bad of an idea, but network suits caught up in the booming thrall of the Reagan years found themselves so aghast at the notion that they refused to air it.  It would take an extraordinary intervention from a collective of independent television stations for the ad to finally see the light of day.

The influence of Scott’s 1982 classic, BLADE RUNNER, is unmistakable— futuristic touches like thin bands of neon light update the surrounding old-world architecture, creating an earthy black-and-brown color palette peppered with touches of electric blue.  Even the underlying soundtrack is notably similar to Vangelis’ iconic score.

Scott’s formalistic camera smoothly tracks and dollies through this evocative environment, rendered in the theatrical lighting that serves as yet another of his signatures.  Again, the piece benefits from Scott’s production design background, possessing an environment that conveys a rich backstory with a minimum of exposition, immediately dropping the viewer right into the action without having to catch him or her up to speed.

As a result of its diminished profile in the wake of the network ban, “DEFICIT TRIALS 2017” isn’t mentioned in the same breath as other classic Scott commercials like “1984” or Chanel No. 5’s “SHARE THE FANTASY” (1979), but thanks to its relatively newfound accessibility on YouTube, perhaps one day it will be.


SOMEONE TO WATCH OVER ME (1987)

Director Ridley Scott is rightfully celebrated for his ambitious achievements in cinematic worldbuilding. Milestone works like ALIEN (1979), BLADE RUNNER (1982), GLADIATOR (2000) and THE MARTIAN (2015) stand as testaments to his talent in creating immersive cinematic environments.

Indeed, this has become such a dominant component of his artistic profile that when he turns his eye towards stories set in a contemporaneous “real” world, they inevitably come to be regarded as minor curios.

Films like GI JANE (1998), AMERICAN GANGSTER (2007), A GOOD YEAR (2006) and THE COUNSELOR (2013) are very rarely mentioned in the same breath as the others I mentioned above— the absence of an imaginative backdrop arguably lending to impressions of a half-hearted effort on Scott’s part, despite each of these so-called “minor” films serving as a prime example of his elevated approach to genre and technical finesse.

But go back and watch these films again: yes, they might take place in a world that you recognize as your own, but can you truly deny that Scott’s rendering of our world isn’t as atmospheric and immersive as his marquee projects?

The fact of the matter is that Scott’s consummate dedication to his artistic values applies to every one of his projects, no matter the genre or story.  Even his “real-world” narratives pack a fantastical, cinematic punch, and there is arguably no better case study for this notion than Scott’s fifth feature film (and first foray into this arena), 1987’s SOMEONE TO WATCH OVER ME.

Taking its name from the iconic Gershwin track, SOMEONE TO WATCH OVER ME is a moody, seductive crime thriller set in modern-day New York City.  Writer Howard Franklin had been working on the script for quite some time— his first draft was delivered to Scott in 1982, but Scott’s attentions were tied up by the imminent production of both BLADE RUNNER and LEGEND (1985).

After four successive films dominated by high-concept worldbuilding, the 50 year-old filmmaker’s energy was understandably flagging, but not enough so to as to dial down his productivity.  The “lovers from two different worlds” trope is a well-worn convention of pop entertainment, but Tom Berenger’s and Mimi Rogers’ inspired characterizations help SOMEONE TO WATCH OVER ME to stand out from the pack.

Berenger plays Detective Mike Keegan, a tough protagonist molded in the vein of the typical 80’s-era hyper-masculine hero, albeit with a heart of gold.  Firmly entrenched within New York’s middle class, he has no ambitions for greatness— he’s content to do good police work and go home to his cramped house in Queens that he shares with his young son and his unpolished, feisty wife, Ellie (played by Lorraine Boracco of GOODFELLAS (1990) fame in her film debut).

His work is dangerous, but his life is stable— that is, until he’s assigned to guard Claire Gregory, a wealthy socialite who unwittingly witnessed a murder committed by a notorious gangster named Joey Venza.  Mimi Rogers gives the character of Claire a shaded complexity, at turns aloof and compassionate, all while revealing an intellectual depth that distinguishes her from her blue-blooded contemporaries.

The brutish Venza is played by Andreas Katsulas in a committed performance, although his antagonism is admittedly one-dimensional and offers nothing we haven’t necessarily seen before.  As Keegan and Claire spend more time together and reveal secret aspects of themselves to each other, they can’t help but fall in love… which naturally complicates their respective personal lives.

The stakes raise even higher when Venza himself learns of their secret affair, and subsequently sets about orchestrating his scheme to kill them both in order to get away with his crimes scott-free.  SOMEONE TO WATCH OVER ME serves as a major departure for Scott’s artistry on several fronts.

The project finds him working with all-new collaborators, each new department head bearing a fresh face. Harold Schneider, brother to Bert Schneider of BBS fame, serves as the film’s producer alongside Thierry De Ganay, a producer of several of Scott’s commercials making the jump to theatrical features.

Cinematographer Steven Poster works with Scott to build a slick, high-fashion aesthetic that easily incorporates many of the director’s visual hallmarks. This approach is most immediately evident in the film’s expressive lighting, which employs punches of neon, lens flares, shafts of concreted light, and silhouettes that turns contemporaneous New York City into a moody noir-scape.

Scott and Poster favor a cool color palette, rendering their 1.85:1 35mm frame with slate-grey midtones and punchy highlights that play with a blue / orange dichotomy. Scott’s usually-dynamic camera movement assumes more of a subdued kineticism here, combining time-honored, formalistic moves with relatively-newer techniques like handheld camerawork and creeping zooms.

Production designer James D. Bissell’s work hinges on the clash between Old Money Manhattan and blue-collar Queens— the elegance of marble chambers, immaculately appointed, versus the chaos of a cramped outer borough townhouse, cluttered with the cheap, mass-produced junk on offer to the middle class.

One of the more notable design conceits of the film is Bissell and Scott’s use of Art Deco stylings throughout— a natural byproduct of deliberately-chosen locales like the Queen Mary ocean liner in Long Beach, CA serving as a stand-in for several different locations within the story.

Other locations, like the iconic Guggenheim Museum, lend a modern touch, giving SOMEONE TO WATCH OVER ME a timeless aura while drenching every frame in conspicuous style.  The overall effect is that of an extremely-heightened version of the real world; an evocative, immersive urban landscape that’s rendered with the same meticulous attention to detail that marks Scott’s fantastical & fictitious worlds.

Composer Michael Kamen reinforces Scott’s sexy, brooding tone with a subdued, jazzy score that plays well with a collection of needle drops in a similar vein. Scott employs some choice classical and choral cues to signify.

Keegan’s awe at encountering the overwhelming, decadent sophistication of old-money Manhattan, but the film’s heart belongs to the musical conventions of the jazz genre— best evidenced by the opening credits’ use of Sting performing a downbeat, lounge-style cover of Gershwin’s eponymous torch classic, as well as the re-use of Vangelis “Memories of Green” from BLADE RUNNER (albeit stripped of its futuristic electronic orchestration).

Despite a generally-positive reception from critics, SOMEONE TO WATCH OVER ME bombed at the box office, ultimately leading to its current regard as a minor work within Scott’s larger canon.  In giving himself a break from the rigorous demands of elaborate worldbuilding, Scott deprives himself of arguably his greatest strength, and the end result is a flashy picture full of hollow beauty; heavy on style, light on substance.

That being said, Scott’s visual taste is killer, meaning that the beauty on display here is simply stunning. Indeed, watching SOMEONE TO WATCH OVER ME over thirty years after its release, the inescapable cheese of the Reagan’s era’s aesthetic zeitgeist doesn’t feel nearly as dated as its contemporaries.

In fact, it only adds to the film’s eccentric charm, with a palpable, retroactive nostalgia injecting some degree of substance to the picture where there had previously been very little.  The fact that SOMEONE TO WATCH OVER ME remains a key work of a particular subgenre — the elegant and sexy urban noir thrillers of the 80’s and 90’s; movies like BODY HEAT (1981), BASIC INSTINCT (1992), & FATAL ATTRACTION (1987) — suggests that perhaps the time is right for a critical re-evaluation of the film.

At the very least, a restoration or new transfer would bring out the full depth of Scott and Poster’s evocative cinematography for new generations to appreciate.  SOMEONE TO WATCH OVER ME represents a definite turning point in Scott’s career— yes, it departs from the imaginative cinematic worlds that had made his name, but it also establishes a template for the slick, contemporary genre pictures that defined mainstream cinema in the late 80’s and the 90’s.


BLACK RAIN (1989)

When the cinematic community talks about director Sir Ridley Scott in the context of influential filmmaking, they usually mention the hit singles: ALIEN (1979), BLADE RUNNER (1982), THELMA & LOUISE (1991), GLADIATOR (2000), to name a few.

Very rarely do they dive into the deep cuts, but it’s there where one can find some of the celebrated filmmaker’s biggest surprises and flamboyant displays of raw style.  BLACK RAIN, released in 1989, is just such a film— a minor work that exudes fearless style and impeccable craftsmanship.  Like many films within this middling tier, BLACK RAIN is both a product of its time while being ahead of its time.

The cheesy hyper-masculine theatrics of 80’s cop dramas threatens to slip over into satire at any given moment, yet it also anticipates the gritty, sun-flared fireworks of the blockbuster Don Siegel action films of the 90’s.

Having had a lifelong fascination with the aesthetic of Japanese culture (a fascination that clearly manifests in BLADE RUNNER), Scott was naturally attracted to Craig Bolotin and Warren Lewis’ script about an American cop tangling with the Yakuza in modern-day Osaka— a plot that, funnily enough, was supposed to be the original story for BEVERLY HILLS COP 2, which Scott’s brother, Tony, had directed two years prior.

Actor Michael Douglas was already attached, having developed the project as a starring vehicle with fellow producers Stanley R Jaffe and Sherry Lansing, and he greeted the prospect of Scott’s direction with an enthusiastic embrace.  A brooding crime thriller such as BLACK RAIN required the inspired touch of a deft visual stylist, and there was no better man to rise to the task than Sir Ridley Scott.

The action begins in modern-day New York City, where Michael Douglas’ morally ambiguous cop, Nick Conklin, is in the grips of something of a career crisis.  He’s under investigation for corruption and taking money, and despite his dated, hyper-masculine posturing, he knows they’ve got him dead to rights: he can barely keep his head above water with his paltry government salary and the excessive alimony demands from his ex-wife, so maybe he didn’t feel so bad about helping himself to a couple extra bucks along the way.

At least he’s able to blow off some steam partaking in illegal motorcycle races and cracking wise with his partner, a swaggering Italian stallion named Charlie Vincent (Andy Garcia, bringing unexpected comic relief and genuine heart to the film). When they become unexpectant witnesses to a brutal Yakuza murder in a Meatpacking District cafe, they hunt down and arrest the killer— a wild and unpredictable mobster named Sato.

Played to chilling effect by Yusaka Matsuda in his final performance before before succumbing to bladder cancer (indeed he was smiling through crippling pain for the duration of the shoot), Sato is not unlike a mute Joker— a savage, leering psychopath who happily cuts off his own pinkie as a symbolic gesture. Conklin and Vincent accompany their prisoner back to Osaka, Japan, where he’s naturally wanted by the local authorities there too.

Conklin and Vincent soon discover they are strangers in a strange land, easily duped when Sato makes a surprise getaway by having his henchman pose as the Osaka police that our heroes are expecting to hand him off to.

Finding themselves stranded in the land of the rising sun by bureaucratic red tape and an almost-stubborn commitment to justice, Conklin and Vincent set about trying to track down Sato once more— this time, on his own home turf and all while contending with an overbearing local police force that strips them of their firearms and jurisdictional power.

Luckily, Conklin and Vincent gain some allies along the way, most notably their handler, a reserved career cop and Conklin’s antithesis named Masahiro (Ken Takakura), and Kate Capshaw’s Joyce, a world-weary bartender at a local nightclub and a half-baked love interest for Conklin.

BLACK RAIN also boats cameos from the likes of Luis Guzman as a fellow street biker in NYC, and Stephen Root as an investigator busting Conklin’s chops while he roots out evidence of corruption.  All of this is rendered with a heavy layer of cheesy alpha-male theatrics and silly cop-movie cliches, which comes off as hilariously dated now even if it seemed cool and cutting edge back in the day.

That being said, the cheese factor isn’t enough to distract us entirely from the immediacy and flair of Scott’s storytelling, making for a highly enjoyable thriller with an exotic and evocative backdrop.

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Scott is no stranger to troubled productions, but the embattled process of making BLACK RAIN in Japan led the seasoned director to publicly declare he’d never shoot there again.  Indeed, the high logistical costs and stubborn bureaucratic red tape forced the movie to finish a large percentage of its remaining scenes back in Los Angeles.

The project’s first cinematographer, Howard Atherton, found himself so fed up with their host’s debilitating restrictions that he resigned halfway through the shoot.  Jan De Bont, who would later become known for directing in his own right with 1994’s SPEED, would replace Atherton and bring the film to completion.

Thankfully, the change in DP’s is seamless, with BLACK RAIN’s cinematography presenting itself as a unified exercise in style thanks to Scott’s expressive aesthetic.  Shot on Super 35mm film in the 2.35:1 aspect ratio, BLACK RAIN is undeniably a product of its director’s unique worldview.

The noir-styled crime narrative and exotic foreign backdrop allow Scott to do what he does best: create a visceral, immersive cinematic environment.  Towards this end, Scott employs all the tricks of his trade— gritty texture, evocative lighting, silhouettes, heavy layers of smoke, concentrated shafts of illumination, surging neon, and a mix of classical, aerial, and handheld camerawork that confidently strides through space.

The real-life Osaka was exciting enough of a backdrop that Scott and his team had to do very little in the way of location dressing, but production designer Norris Spencer more than pulls his weight in bringing the Far East stateside, ably replicating Osaka’s distinct look whether they were shooting on an enormous nightclub set on a soundstage, under a downtown LA overpass, or even a rustic vineyard in Napa.

This effortless blending of East and West photography extends to Tom Rolf’s editing, which posed the distinct challenge of matching the Los Angeles footage with Osaka’s— oftentimes within the same sequence.

The suspenseful chase sequence leading up to Vincent’s fateful showdown with a gang of Yakuza bikers is a prime example of this: the sequence begins with Conklin and Vincent walking along an isolated mall somewhere in Osaka, but the ensuing chase that occurs when a biker steals Vincent’s coat is comprised of footage shot mainly in downtown LA, in well-chosen locales with similar architecture that required only a small amount of set dressing in the way of Japanese signage.

BLACK RAIN is also notable for Scott’s collaboration with composer Hans Zimmer— the first of what would be several partnerships over the course of their filmographies.  Zimmer resists the temptation to evoke Osaka’s relative exoticism to American audiences with the cheap kind of musical shorthand one often finds in this scenario (a modern-day example would be the groan-inducing “scary Muslim prayer wailing” that pops up in pretty much any American film set in the Middle East— a phenomenon that even Scott himself would fall prey to in later works).

He threads the needle between cliche and originality by using traditional Japanese instruments (winds, Taiko drums, etc) to render decidedly-Western musical themes and ideas. A brooding guitar speaks to Conklin’s macho posturing as well as the film’s context as an entry in 80’s action cinema, while a throbbing synth character becomes something like a musical Pacific Ocean— working to bridge the gap between the eastern and western influences to create something rather striking.

Scott’s previous work, SOMEONE TO WATCH OVER ME (1987), illustrated that the director was just as capable working within contemporaneous real-world environments just as well as the fantastical, immersive worlds he quite literally built from scratch.  BLACK RAIN goes a step further, showing how Scott can leverage his unique visual style and thematic interests to make a real-world environment larger than life.

Careful composition, inspired locales, and immersive sound design work in concert to make BLACK RAIN’s buzzing urban backdrops feel alive and appropriately cinematic, be it the traffic-choked boulevards of New York or the neon-soaked plazas of Osaka.

BLACK RAIN affords Scott ample opportunity to indulge his interest in architecture, with the juxtaposition of East and West providing a wide range of design styles for him to play with.  Perhaps the most potent aspect of Scott’s artistry here is just how close his rendering of contemporaneous Osaka resembles BLADE RUNNER’s futurescape of Los Angeles circa 2019.

In a way, BLACK RAIN illustrates how Scott’s fantastical vision in BLADE RUNNER might look transposed to real life.  In many ways, his vision of the future had come to pass almost exactly like he imagined it— and not by 2019, but before the decade was even out.

Beyond the surface coincidence of both films sharing the same initials, BLACK RAIN contains several frames that could easily be spliced into BLADE RUNNER without skipping a beat.  Even scenes set outside downtown Osaka revel in this referential vibe, be it a set piece staged in a steel mill evoking BLADE RUNNER’s industrial hellscape of flame-belching refineries, or Scott’s re-use of the iconic Ennis house in LA for a Yakuza boss’ mansion (it had previously played the part of Deckard’s apartment seven years earlier).

Scott’s evocation of his earlier masterpiece throughout BLACK RAIN gives it an added resonance, elevating it above the middling genre fare typical of the decade.  In a way, BLADE RUNNER becomes even more compelling in the context of BLACK RAIN’s existence, proving that Scott’s radical vision of our urban future was more prophetic than we could have imagined.

Scott’s first cut of BLACK RAIN ran nearly three hours long, but the final version that was released to theaters was cut down to just over two.  A mixed critical reception couldn’t sway the film’s box office power, with BLACK RAIN’s strong performance propelling it to the #1 spot for two weeks straight (2).

The film even scored a couple Oscar nominations for its achievements in the Best Sound and Best Sound Editing categories.  Despite this relatively warm reception and modest set of accolades,  BLACK RAIN’s distinct character tends to become lost in the noise of Scott’s larger filmography.

That doesn’t mean that it isn’t an important entry in said canon— indeed, the film’s excellence has only become more apparent with age, even as it also becomes a self-contained time capsule to 80’s macho swagger.  BLACK RAIN is a gripping action thriller that somehow manages to find pockets of emotional resonance and profound expressions of thematic ideas like xenophobia and honor, serving as further testament to the penetrative influence and enduring appeal of Scott’s muscular artistry.


NISSAN: “TURBO DREAM” COMMERCIAL (1990)

As a filmmaker who works as prominently in the commercial world as he does in the theatrical narrative forum, director Sir Ridley Scott unsurprisingly boasts several Super Bowl spots to his name.  These supersized, lavishly-budgeted works of advertising represent something of a pinnacle for the form, enduring in the cultural conversation for far longer than the football game they were meant to supplement.

Commercials tend to be generally regarded as a relatively disposable form of entertainment— something to be skipped over, muted, or missed completely while one uses the bathroom. It’s a different story for Super Bowl commercials, and as such, the jobs tend to go to high-profile helmers like Scott.

In 1990, Scott was hired to direct a spot for Nissan called “TURBO DREAM”, meant to advertise the new Nissan 300ZX to a captive Super Bowl audience.  The concept is rather simple, pitting the 300ZX against a motorcyclist, a Formula 1 car, and finally, a fighter jet, only for us to find that the Nissan can outrun them all.

True to form, Scott uses the opportunity to fashion a futuristic, highly-imaginative world from scratch, transforming the race track into a cyberpunk facility from which the Nissan must escape.  Bringing his signature visual aesthetic to bear in a highly exaggerated form, Scott employs a deep, sun-baked contrast that reduces his color palette to searing bands of black, whites, orange and blues.

His characteristic silhouettes and lens flares whip by so fast that they approach abstraction. Music-video style rapid-fire editing further complements the feeling of delirious speed, teetering on the knife’s edge of control.  “TURBO DREAM” no doubt made quite an impression during its Super Bowl debut, giving a glimpse of what the coming decade would have in store for action aficionados.

Indeed, the kinetic style on display here, fashioned and perfected by both Ridley and his brother Tony, would become the dominant aesthetic of blockbuster action cinema throughout the 1990’s, adopted by testosterone-laden acolytes like Michael Bay and Simon West.

Despite its relative inconsequence to Scott’s overall career, “TURBO DREAM” nonetheless offers the 80’s zeitgeist-defining filmmaker an opportunity to revise and update his style for the coming decade and beyond.


THELMA & LOUISE (1991)

A good friend once likened a director’s cultural relevance to a tuning fork— after so many strikes, the fork can begin straying from perfect pitch.  Similarly, a director can deliver a number of films that strike a chord with audiences before finding him or herself eclipsed by their changing tastes.

Once that pitch begins wavering, it can be extremely difficult to recalibrate— indeed, many filmmakers can never attain the same lofty heights after they’ve fallen out of fashion.  Director Francis Ford Coppola is an excellent example: after creating some of the most iconic films ever made during a legendary run in the 1970’s, his subsequent efforts throughout the 80s and 90’s failed to measure up.

Even direct efforts to recapture that magic, like 1990’s THE GODFATHER PART III, proved unsuccessful.  Sir Ridley Scott’s lurching career is an excellent example of another side of this phenomenon— his versatility and artistic sensitivity has allowed him to weather multiple professional depressions, emerging on the other side as an even stronger filmmaker than he was before.

Case in point: 1991’s THELMA & LOUISE, a celebrated classic that saw Scott’s return to cultural prominence after a series of thrillers made in the mid-to-late 80’s that yielded diminishing returns.  The film is a master class in recalibrating one’s artistic sensibilities by venturing far outside established zones of comfort while still retaining the aspects that make one’s artistry unique.

First written in 1980 by first-time screenwriter Callie Khouri as an intended directing vehicle (1), the cutting-edge screenplay for THELMA & LOUISE steadily gained the attraction of powerful benefactors throughout its ten year slog to cinema screens.  The project didn’t gain its critical momentum until producer Mimi Polk Gitlin brought the project to Scott for his producing consideration.

As a filmmaker with a well-established track record for vividly-realized female protagonists, Scott found the project an easy proposition. After shepherding the project through the development and pre-production pipeline, his collaborators began to insist that he should also direct.

While we might argue today that a female director is the appropriate choice to tackle such an unabashedly feminist story, Scott’s artistic caliber undoubtedly injected their efforts with a higher commercial profile while insulating against the inevitable critiques that the story was hateful towards men.

A female-directed THELMA & LOUISE would no doubt have made for a groundbreaking and distinctive experience, but Scott’s take on the matter nonetheless makes for a highly-stylized classic of blockbuster proportions.

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THELMA & LOUISE finds Scott turning his lens to new vistas heretofore unseen in his filmography: the high deserts of America’s heartland and its sprawling highway system.

Beginning in Arkansas, the story quickly introduces us to Susan Sarandon’s Louise, a salty diner waitress, and Geena Davis’ Thelma, a naive housewife living in stifled domesticity with her overcompensating redneck salesman husband, Darryl (played with campy swagger by Christopher McDonald).

The girls hit the road for a short weekend getaway, but their intended fishing trip quickly balloons into something else altogether when Louise shoots a man dead to prevent him from raping Thelma in a roadhouse parking lot. Quickly determining that they’re not cut out for the prison life, the girls hastily decide to extend their little road trip and make a run for Mexico.

Making their way through the American Southwest towards an unexpected terminus at the Grand Canyon, their body count escalates as they encounter ever-more cocksure men deserving of their wrath. Thelma & Louise’s journey is one of liberation, empowerment, and self-realization, layered with nuanced character shading and idiosyncrasies that would earn Oscar nominations in the Best Actress category for both Sarandon and Davis.

The film’s predominantly-male supporting cast happily plays into the narrative’s absurdist skewering of masculinity. Alongside McDonald’s aforementioned performance, the film boasts inspired turns by venerated characters actors like Harvey Keitel, Michael Madsen, and Stephen Tobolowsky— Keitel reuniting with Scott after their collaboration on his 1977 debut THE DUELLISTS and playing a driven, compassionate detective named Hal who wants to serve justice while ensuring the girls’ personal safety, Tobolowsky as Hal’s milquetoast superior, and Madsen as Louise’s cool but volatile rockabilly boyfriend, Jimmy.

Of course, no discussion of THELMA & LOUISE’s cast is complete without mentioning Brad Pitt, who delivers his breakthrough performance here as JD, a boyishly-charming drifter who helps Thelma achieve her sexual reawakening even as his slippery, sociopathic tendencies come into focus.

THELMA & LOUISE marks Scott’s third successive project set in a world that’s not of his own making. Nevertheless, he remakes our contemporaneous reality in his own image, infusing his real-world backdrops with an immersive cinematic scale.

In his first collaboration with Scott, the late cinematographer Adrian Biddle updates and complements Scott’s established aesthetic for a new era, earning an Oscar nomination for his efforts  Framed in the 2.35:1 aspect ratio and captured on 35mm film, THELMA & LOUISE presents a high-contrast visual style that employs atmospheric lighting effects emblematic of Scott’s hand: silhouettes, backlit interiors rendered with a cold, cerulean daylight, smoke, lens flares, and surging neon.

Harsh orange sunlight radiates over dramatic desert vistas populated by Scott’s signature attention to detail and returning production designer Norris Spencer’s set dressings, with busy diners, honkytonk trucker bars, roadside gas stations, sprawling oil fields, and crop-duster flybys creating a vivid picture of the American southwest as seen from the perspective of an English immigrant.

Editor Thom Noble would also score an Oscar nomination of his own, sewing together scenes shot in LA, Barstow, and as far away as Monument Valley and Moab, Utah into a singular, cohesive environment.

Scott’s second consecutive collaboration with composer Hans Zimmer results in a classic score that’s reminiscent of Ry Cooder’s distinct sound— a sonic palette of brooding electric guitar wails and folksy harmonica riffs, complementing a well-chosen mix of needledrops that pull from the deep cuts of roadhouse country and redneck rock.

Thelma and Louise join the ranks of previous Scott heroines like Ripley, Rachael, and Lili in the director’s pantheon of vibrantly-realized female protagonists, but their aggressive brand of armed feminism wasn’t appreciated by all.  The film was besieged by controversy upon its release, with many people (mostly men) feeling as if they were personally under attack.

Others decried what they saw as THELMA & LOUISE’s masculinization of its two heroines, taking issue with the film’s use of violence and sexual liberation as tools of empowerment.  Nonetheless, THELMA & LOUISE managed to strike a chord with audiences, with its cultural resonance ultimately landing Davis and Sarandon on the cover of Time.

Critics praised the film, lauding Scott in particular for his bold direction and his revealing of a comedic dexterity heretofore unknown to audiences.  Six Oscar nominations followed, including those in the aforementioned categories of cinematography & editing in addition to an original screenplay nod for Khouri and Scott’s own nomination for directing — his first.

Time has only bolstered THELMA & LOUISE as a cornerstone of not just Scott’s cinematic legacy, but feminist and 90’s cinema as well, earning a spot on the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry in 2016. After a series of admittedly-middling works in the late 80’s, the production of THELMA & LOUISE would usher in an entirely new phase of Scott’s career— one that would actively shape the cultural character of the 1990’s and beyond.


1492: CONQUEST OF PARADISE (1992)

I can still remember that song— the one we were compelled by our grade school teachers to sing every year on one particular day in October.  “In August 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue”. It’s understandable that the story of Christopher Columbus, the famed Spanish explorer, would be simplified and sanitized for elementary-aged minds as the man who “discovered America”.

After all, how exactly does one communicate to kids that this adventurous-seeming guy’s quest for exotic riches would play an instrumental part in one of the worst genocides in recorded history?

Like many other kids of my generation, a fuller picture of Columbus came into view as I got older— he didn’t even discover “America” per se; he landed on an island in the Bahamas, and even then, it had already been “discovered”, judging by the centuries-old indigenous civilization they encountered upon making landfall.

In recent years, progressive America has increasingly caught on to the problematic nature of Columbus’ lionization, subsequently calling for the replacement of his eponymous holiday with one that better honors the native population decimated under his leadership.

The movement has grown so strong, in fact, that many cities like Los Angeles have written this switch away from Columbus into law.  It was a far different story over twenty-five years ago: the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ landfall in The New World was fast approaching, and many parties were organizing efforts to celebrate the occasion appropriately.

One such person was screenwriter Rose Bosch, who had managed to find a treasure trove of parchments detailing Columbus’ activities in the land he dubbed “San Salvador”. Having long wanted to make a film on Columbus, director Sir Ridley Scott and fellow producer Alain Goldman subsequently became involved with the project that would ultimately become 1492: CONQUEST OF PARADISE (1992) — their involvement securing $47 million in financing to realize a swashbuckling historical epic about the founding of the New World.

Scott’s eighth feature film certainly accomplishes this task, but it also manages to paint a more complex portrait of Columbus beyond a simple hero or villain.  Indeed, 1492: CONQUEST OF PARADISE does not ignore Columbus’ hand in the genesis of bloodshed between conqueror and native.

The film represents another example of Scott’s impeccable technical artistry, consistently and brilliantly executed throughout what is ultimately a very problematic narrative with no easy explanation for its sympathies.

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1492: CONQUEST OF PARADISE spans a fateful decade in world history, beginning in 1490 in Spain — the height of the Inquisition — and ending in 1500 with Columbus a broken man, on the verge of being scrubbed from history entirely in the wake of Amerigo Vespucci’s discovery of the larger mainland continent.

Celebrated French actor Gerard Depardieu portrays Columbus, looking very much like the infamous explorer depicted in paintings from the period. That said, those similarities only extend as far as the surface level. Laboring through his heavy French accent, Depardieu displays a bombastic righteousness that’s calibrated for heroism but instead reads as megalomania.

A gifted navigator who maintains that the earth is round at a time when Flat Earthers controlled the paradigm, Columbus endeavors to prove it by sailing across the ocean in the wrong direction and still connecting with India.

He has few allies in this quest, namely his wife and Frank Langella’s nobleman with deep pockets, but when he’s summoned for an audience with Sigourney Weaver’s Isabel of Castile — the Queen of Spain herself — Columbus is given the opportunity to make good on his claims and secure India’s untold riches for the glory of his country.

In her first reunion with Scott over a decade after her breakthrough performance in 1979’s ALIEN, Weaver projects a suitably regal, albeit emotionless aura as she sends Columbus forth into the great unknown.  After a long journey at sea filled with mutinous threats by his crew, Columbus finally sets his sight on land— memorably rendered by Scott in the image of a pristine beach and the lush jungle foliage beyond emerging from a cloud of dense fog.

He thinks he’s reached an undiscovered land near India, claiming it for Spain as San Salvador— however, he’s actually landed on Guanahani in the Bahamas. As he and his men venture deeper in to the island, they find that it’s not as undiscovered as they had assumed; indeed, it’s inhabited by a thriving indigenous civilization.

1492: CONQUEST OF PARADISEsubsequently chronicles the fraying of their initial alliance, as greed and xenophobia subvert their efforts to build a Spanish outpost on the island.  As the situation devolves into a bloodbath far beyond his control, Columbus must also fend off efforts by rivals like Armand Assante’s Sanchez and Mark Margolis’ Bobadilla to destroy his legacy in the Old World.

The result is a baptism of blood, filling nearly three hours of runtime with sweeping, albeit profoundly flawed, insights into the New World’s complicated origins.  After their successful, Oscar-nominated team-up with THELMA & LOUISE (1991), Scott and cinematographer Adrian Biddle once again join forces to deliver a visual tour de force.

1492: CONQUEST OF PARADISE’s stylistic presentation retains Scott’s trademark aesthetic, with the 2.35:1 35mm film image boasting expressive contrast and atmospheric lighting effects like silhouettes, shafts of concentrated light, smoke, and flickering candlelight.

The color palette is marked by lush earth tones and flaring sunsets, given extra dimension by gradient filters that darken the top third of the frame. While his 1977 debut, THE DUELLISTS, could be counted as an entry in the historical epic genre, 1492: CONQUEST OF PARADISE truly establishes Scott’s particular template for the realm, using classical camerawork to capture sweeping vistas and returning production designer Norris Spencer’s immersive period recreation.

Scott’s approach here would serve him rather well in later epics set in the Middle Ages or ancient antiquity— films like GLADIATOR (2000), KINGDOM OF HEAVEN (2005) and even ROBIN HOOD (2010).  Interestingly, Scott borrows from the Hitchcock/Spielberg playbook several times throughout 1492: CONQUEST OF PARADISE, combining camera movement with zooms to create a surreal, imbalancing effect that collapses the depth of field around his subject.

The film’s use of extreme slow-motion also speaks to the action genre’s adoption of impressionistic flourish in the 90’s, echoing the work of like-minded directors such as Michael Bay, John Woo, and even Scott’s own brother, Tony.

While Scott initially wanted to reprise his collaboration with Hans Zimmer, the composer behind his previous two features, he would ultimately opt for a reunion with his BLADE RUNNER maestro, Vangelis. Despite a decade having passed since their last time working together, Vangelis and Scott easily slide right back into a unified creative rhythm.

1492’s score is appropriately epic, matching the monumental scale of Scott’s visuals with a bombastic orchestra that combines synth elements with the exotic flair of tribal drums and wailing vocalizations.  While Vangelis’ efforts here aren’t as iconic to American audiences as his work on BLADE RUNNER, his theme has nonetheless managed to achieve a particular notoriety abroad as the adopted anthem of Portugal’s Socialist Party.

Despite its status as a minor, somewhat forgotten work in Scott’s filmography, 1492: CONQUEST OF PARADISE nonetheless serves as a prime example of the director’s particular thematic signatures.  There is, of course, his creation of an immersive environment, which he splits here to reflect the clash of cultures between the Old World and the New.

The film gives us an evocative glimpse into a pastoral, pre-industrial Spain as well as the urban atmosphere at its medieval zenith— castle-like city states with teeming crowds, vibrantly-colored flags, and diverse architectural flourishes that visually convey a long, complicated history of alternating Muslim and Christian occupation.

Scott is one of the rare prestige directors whose work is marked more by his technical mastery of craft and slick visual style instead of a unifying ideological thread, but if one had to name a dominant theme that runs through the man’s best work, it would undoubtedly be the theme of xenophobia.

Scott’s filmography is populated with the distrust and hostilities between two vastly different cultures or races—  THE DUELLISTS and SOMEONE TO WATCH OVER ME (1987) charted the bitter rivalry and simmering affair, respectively, between two people from competing economic backgrounds; ALIEN (and to a lesser extent, 1985’s LEGEND) portrayed the human response to a creature as far away from “human” as we could possibly conceive; BLADE RUNNER’s ongoing suppression of a replicant uprising recalled the dehumanization tactics that led to open racism and remorseless genocide; BLACK RAIN (1989) dropped a fiercely American worldview into the rigid social codes of contemporary Japanese society; THELMA & LOUISE brought complicated gender dynamics to bear by deliberately pitting the women against the men in a gun-blazing race to the finish line.

In its depiction of the clash between the Spanish and the indigenous population of the newfound Americas, 1492: CONQUEST OF PARADISE folds effortlessly into Scott’s career-long examination of xenophobia.  Indeed, this is one of the more admirable aspects of a film that endeavors to portray an ethically-complicated historical figure, showing us the ease with which xenophobia could utterly destroy the fragile balance of trust between the two civilizations.

A lesser filmmaker would either lionize or demonize Columbus, leaving little room for the nuanced notion that none of us casts ourselves as the villain in our own narratives. Scott’s deep experience here allows him to dance along that line without losing his balance, painting Columbus as a profoundly flawed (and perhaps extremely narcissistic) man whose well-intentioned leadership nonetheless resulted in genocidal atrocities on a catastrophic scale.

1492: CONQUEST OF PARADISE boasts no less than five editors— a development most likely owing to a rush to meet an ambitious October release date that would coincide with the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ landfall to the day.  Several other producers had the same idea, resulting in Scott’s film debuting against a wave of competing Columbus pictures.

Scott’s effort has proven to be the one with the most staying power in the decades since, but it is still largely ignored in the context of his larger filmography.  Middling reviews and a disappointing box office bow as the 7th highest-grossing picture in theaters that weekend ensured 1492: CONQUEST OF PARADISE’s prompt burial.

Indeed, while 99% of Scott’s feature library has made the leap to Blu Ray and beyond, 1492: CONQUEST OF PARADISE earned itself a high-definition release only very recently.  Two decades removed from its release, Scott’s work here ultimately reveals itself as less than the sum of its parts, with the director’s artistic strengths becoming the film’s weaknesses.

His over-the-top, epic treatment of a controversial figure makes for a cringe-worthy watching experience today, despite the expected top-notch technical execution. There is a palpable degree of directorial excess or indulgence on display here, perhaps a result of Scott’s increased confidence in the wake of THELMA & LOUISE’s success.

However, whereas that film pushed Scott out of his comfort zone, 1492: CONQUEST OF PARADISE allows him to work very much within his wheelhouse, resulting in a finished product that is as visually striking as it is emotionally stale.  In order to avoid another sustained downturn like the one he had weathered in the mid to late 80’s, Scott would need to conquer the most lethal foe to his artistry yet: his own complacency.


MIDLAND BANK: “THE POWER OF LISTENING” COMMERCIAL (1993)

In 1993, director Ridley Scott delivered his latest high-profile entry in his long & celebrated career in the commercial field.  Commissioned by British banking giant Midland Bank, “THE POWER OF LISTENING” details a simple, yet exceedingly elegant concept that ties together the sweeping scope of human history through the most universal language of all: music.

Beginning with early man rhythmically banging on stones & sticks, surrounded by a vast desert, the musical baton is then passed off to a group of Muslim nomads… then Christian crusaders… then Victorian nobility… and then finally a modern orchestra.  As we blast through the centuries in the span of a minute, each successive group adds their piece onto a singular musical composition.

It’s easy to see why Scott was hired to execute the spot— such a high-concept piece requires a director with effortless technical dexterity and a talent for cinematic expressionism.  Filming in the 1.33:1 aspect ratio for the square television sets of the era, Scott imprints his signature visual style with a high-contrast image populated by silhouettes, smoke, lens flares, and an immersive desert backdrop.

A heavy orange color cast and gradient skies point to particular visual conceits that Scott had been experimenting with during the late 80’s and early 90’s. Considered compositions, as well as classical camera moves like pans and dollies, are used to connect the various vignettes and historical epochs through time & space.

While it’s not mentioned in the same breath as iconic spots like Apple’s “1984” or even Hovis’ “BIKE ROUND”“THE POWER OF LISTENING” nonetheless stands as yet another sterling example of Scott’s short-form prowess.

Despite its age, “THE POWER OF LISTENING” represents one of the more recent high-profile spots in Scott’s filmography– he has no doubt remained active in the commercial world, but the mid-90’s onward would find the seasoned director increasingly devoting his full attention to theatrical features.

With literally thousands of commercials under his belt, Scott by this point had done pretty much everything there was to do in advertising; he could leave that world behind, secure in the knowledge that he had been one of its most influential voices.


WHITE SQUALL (1996)

As he rapidly approached his sixtieth birthday, director Ridley Scott found himself the subject of attention usually reserved for the occasion of one’s imminent retirement.  For instance, 1995 would see Scott and his brother, Tony, receive the equivalent of a lifetime achievement award in the form of a BAFTA for their Outstanding British Contribution to Cinema.

However, judging by Scott’s professional moves during this period, it becomes clear that retirement was the absolute last thing on the seasoned director’s agenda. That same year, he not only served as the head of a consortium that purchased Shepperton Studios, he also reorganized the production company he shared with Tony to better facilitate their shared vision for the future.

Originally founded in 1970 as Scott Free Enterprises, the name later changed to Percy Main in 1980, in honor of the English village where their father grew up. 1995 would see the company reach its current incarnation: Scott Free Productions. This version of the company would oversee some of Scott’s biggest hits, ultimately growing to become a powerhouse in the industry (and on a personal note, the site of a job interview I had in 2011 to be the assistant to a high-ranking executive).

The first project under this reinvigorated banner was understandably very important— it needed to set the tone for all the subsequent projects that followed.

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As fate would have it, that first project would take on the form of WHITE SQUALL (1996)— an adventure film based off Charles Gieg Jr. and Felix Sutton’s 1962 novel, “The “Last Voyage Of The Albatross”.  As adapted by screenwriter Todd Robinson, WHITE SQUALL imbues the time-honored coming-of-age story with life-or-death stakes, finding a group of teenage boys sailing the Atlantic seaboard on the Albatross, a 1920 schooner that sank on May 2nd, 1961 during an intense storm that its captain claimed was a mythic “white squall”.

The story is told from the point of view of Chuck Gieg, played by actor Scott Wolf as a real straight arrow. Gieg is a young man from Mystic, CT, who signs up to join the Albatross as part of its college preparatory program— a kind of “semester at sea” where he’ll learn the in’s and out’s of sailing while studying for his entrance exams.

Throughout his subsequent adventures, he forms a tight-knit bond with the other boys on the crew and comes into his own as a man, culminating in a violent storm and an awful tragedy that will change his life forever. Wolf’s performance is something of a blank template— the story is not so much his to tell as it is the collective crew’s, so he often cedes the spotlight in order to let his shipmates shine.

Jeff Bridges anchors WHITE SQUALL as Sheldon, the captain of the Albatross, projecting a stern warmth that makes it easy to see why the boys would come to lionize and revere him.  Caroline Goodall plays the ship surgeon and Sheldon’s wife, Dr. Alice Sheldon, the sole woman on the ship. When it comes to the antics of teenage boyhood, she’s seen it all, and has subsequently honed a seasoned, maternal skillset without compromising her authority.

The film deftly balances these characters with the others onboard the Albatross, with some getting more of a chance to shine than others— John Savage’s eccentric English teacher, or Ryan Philippe’s timid, baby-faced student, for instance.

WHITE SQUALL also boasts the talents of the late character actor James Rebhorn, who makes a brief appearance here as a Coast Guard officer during the climactic trial sequence, as well as Balthazar Getty, who is notable not so much for his performance here as he is for his lineage as the son of John Paul Getty III— the subject of Scott’s 2017 film, ALL THE MONEY IN THE WORLD.

Scott spends a great deal of screen time developing the relationships at the core of the story, allowing us to witness key episodes in the boys’ passage into manhood, all while building towards the inevitable storm foretold in the film’s very title.

WHITE SQUALL is executed with the characteristic technical pedigree that we’ve come to expect from a Scott film, leaning into his confident, expressive style to deliver a memorable picture on all fronts.  With the exception of returning producer Mimi Polk Gatlin, Scott works with fresh department heads all around, resulting in a reinvigorated, polished aesthetic that feels contemporary and cutting-edge despite its 1960’s period setting.

Having been shot in various places around the Caribbean as well as a horizon tank in Malta (1), the film as a whole projects an exotic, swashbuckling aura not unlike his previous sailing adventure, 1492: CONQUEST OF PARADISE (1992).  Cinematographer Hugh Johnson ably imprints the golden veneer of nostalgia onto the 2.35:1 35mm frame, complementing Scott’s trademark blend of atmospheric, high-contrast lighting effects, silhouettes, smoke, gradient skies and impressionistic slow-motion flourishes.

The use of billowing curtains and the slat-lighting of Venetian blinds is another trademark of Scott’s aesthetic (as well as brother Tony’s), and his incorporation of said compositional devices imbue WHITE SQUALL with a majestic flair— the Venetian blinds adding stateliness to the court sequence, and the billowing curtains swapped out for flapping sails that catch the wind on open water.

Scott’s classical camerawork complements this epic-sized approach, using canted angles to exaggerate the unsteady sensation of being on a rocking ship as it threads gigantic waves.  The production design team of Peter J. Hampton and Leslie Tompkins create an authentic, subdued period look while facilitating Scott’s signature talent for conveying an immersive environment.

Indeed, WHITE SQUALL is at its most vibrant when the crew of the Albatross decamps to busy island ports filled with the local culture— one can practically taste the complex flavors of a given regional palette.  Scott initially intended for celebrated French composer Maurice Jarre to score WHITE SQUALL, before turning to previous collaborator Hans Zimmer for another round.

When Zimmer ran into scheduling difficulties, he brought Scott’s attention to his protege, Jeff Rona.  Rona would ultimately receive WHITE SQUALL’s music credit, combining orchestral elements like strings and woodwinds with some synth instrumentation to create an ethereal, romantic mood that complements Scott’s nostalgia-steeped mix of doo-wop jukebox needledrops from the period.

As the first production from the modern-day incarnation of Scott Free, WHITE SQUALL is an important film in Scott’s canon.  Mixed reviews no doubt contributed to the film’s lackluster box office performance, further contributing to the decline of Scott’s commercial profile within the industry since the high of THELMA & LOUISE five years earlier.

That said, WHITE SQUALL has aged beautifully in the twenty-plus years since, taking on a timeless glow even as some of its aesthetic choices point to the time of its making.  A modest wave of appreciation has buoyed WHITE SQUALL since its release, elevating it as a minor classic in Scott’s filmography.

Its influence hasn’t spread much further than the concentrated circle of Scott die-hards, but those who have discovered it are able to see WHITE SQUALL for what it is: a sweeping coming-of-age epic that stands as one of the most solidly-constructed entries in its genre, as well as a display of an inspired filmmaker on the upswing towards ever-higher peaks in his career.


G.I. JANE (1997)

The 1990’s were a golden age for brawny, high-octane action films made by directors with a distinct visual style.  Before the dull sheen of computer-generated effects brought their cartoonish rag-doll physics to the fore, these films relied on massive pyrotechnics and even bigger biceps to pump up the audience’s heart rate.

The bombastic patriotism of the Reagan years fused with the detached nihilism of the grunge era to create a wave of stylish and witty action that yielded some of the genre’s high water marks— films like SPEED (1994), THE ROCK (1996), TRUE LIES (1994) or THE MATRIX (1999).

Ridley Scott’s G.I. JANE, however, is not one of these films.  Released in 1997, the film promised the impeccable pedigree of a seasoned director working in peak form and a zeitgeist-y storyline by screenwriters David Twohy and Danielle Alexander that injected the unbridled machismo of the armed services with a healthy dose of Girl Power.

An archetypical “battle of the sexes” narrative played out on a big-budget scale, G.I. JANE had been shepherded along through development by actress Demi Moore as a starring vehicle when Scott got involved.  While one could argue that the story would have been better served by a female director, Scott’s celebrated track record of fierce heroines, from ALIEN’s Ripley to THELMA & LOUISE’s titular duo, suggested that his participation would mean more than just “the next best thing”.

Despite his best efforts, G.I. JANE ultimately struggles to break out as a major work in Scott’s career, instead nestling itself quite comfortably within his middle-tier of serviceable entertainments.

G.I. JANE tells the fictional story of the first woman to be selected for the US Navy Special Warfare Group, an elite unit comprised of the best and brightest from the military’s various branches.  We’re quickly introduced to Anne Bancroft’s Lillian DeHaven, an aggressively feminist US Senator pushing for gender parity within the armed forces.

She identifies and selects Moore’s Jordan O’ Neill for this elite combat program, effectively using her as a tool for her own PR campaign.  Already an accomplished computer analyst in the Navy, O’Neill finds herself back at the bottom of the ladder, forced to compete in a testosterone-laden environment where she’s constantly outmatched in size and strength.

As if that wasn’t enough, she also has to contend with the misogynistic antagonism and rampant sexism of her male colleagues (perhaps best signified in the fragile, hairtrigger masculinity of Jim Caviezel’s character). Through a series of harrowing obstacles and ordeals, O’Neill eventually proves her fierceness and ambition, earning their begrudging respect as well as that of her commanding officer, Master Chief Urgayle.

Played by Viggo Mortensen just prior to his breakout in Peter Jackson’s THE LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy, Urgayle’s alpha male theatrics come across as distractingly cheesy in a modern viewing context, strutting around in a goofy mustache and short shorts while he barks orders through a megaphone.

The main thrust of the story emerges when O’Neill inevitably proves all of her doubters wrong— her ascendancy causes problems for Senator DeHaven’s agenda, which reveals itself to advance feminist interests only as far as it helps her own commercial pursuits.  When the action moves from the training grounds in Florida to the live-ammunition climax off the Libyan coast, O’Neill faces the ultimate test of mettle in order to prove that there is no such thing as gender when it comes to warfare.

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G.I. JANE serves as a prime example of Scott’s aesthetic, especially in its 90’s iteration.  Reteaming with his WHITE SQUALL cinematographer, Hugh Johnson, Scott frames his 35mm film image in the 2.35:1 aspect ratio to create an appropriately epic and cinematic tone.

A high-contrast, subdued color palette deals in primarily blue and yellow tones, making for a picture that lacks the warm vibrancy of previous works like WHITE SQUALL or 1492: CONQUEST OF PARADISE (1992) but rather evokes the cold steeliness of the military-industrial complex.

Signature Scott touches are peppered throughout, populating the film with evocative flourishes like silhouettes, the use of venetian blinds to create noir-style shadows, and even punches of colored smoke during the climax.  This sequence also finds Scott deviating from his otherwise-ironclad use of classical camerawork, evoking the chaos of battle by going handheld and experimenting with an interesting technique that rapidly rocks the zoom back and forth.

While it grows admittedly wearisome the more it’s used, the technique nevertheless emulates the stress of taking fire— especially when combined with Pieter Scalia’s staccato editing. Aerial footage captured from a helicopter finds several opportunities to add a bird’s-eye view to the action, becoming something of a bridge between Scott’s aesthetic and brother Tony’s more bombastic pop sensibilities.

Composer Trevor Jones completes the “90’s-ness” of G.I. JANE’s presentation, delivering an original score that ultimately comes across as “budget Zimmer” in its use of militaristic percussion and a blandly-heroic orchestral arrangement of strings and horns. The film’s musical character better is better served through Scott’s various needledrops, with Three Dog Night’s “Mama Told Me Not To Come” headlining a suite of blues and classic rock tracks.

Scott’s artistic strength with well-developed, strong female protagonists suffuses G.I. JANE with a vitality that may otherwise have been lost in the hands of a lesser filmmaker.  He neither leans into O’Niell’s objectification as a sexual object nor does he reduce her sexuality so she can “hang with the guys”.

Like all of us, she is a complex biological being, and her strength lies in her refusal to abandon her humanity in the face of a training regimen designed to do exactly that.  Like much of Scott’s theatrical output throughout the late 80’s and the whole of the 1990’s, G.I. JANE does not take place in a fantasy world that Scott can build from scratch— it takes place contemporaneously in an admittedly-exaggerated version of a world we can recognize as our own.

In lieu of imagination, Scott and his production designer Arthur Max (in the first of several subsequent collaborations) channel their efforts towards meticulous research and attention to detail.  The protocols, training facilities, and tactical equipment of military life are vividly realized— especially during the climactic battle sequence that takes place in the deserts off the Libyan coast, retroactively becoming something like a rough draft for Scott’s similarly-themed combat picture, BLACK HAWK DOWN (2001).

Indeed, Scott’s artistic interest in the Middle East region has given subsequent works like KINGDOM OF HEAVEN (2005), BODY OF LIES (2008) and EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS (2014) an exotic backdrop seldom utilized by contemporary filmmakers in the American studio system, priming them with a timely relevance in their explorations of xenophobia in a post-9/11 context.  While G.I. JANE doesn’t quite aspire to such lofty thematic heights, it does play a part in establishing a visual grammar in which Scott can later convey these ideas.

In the years since, G.I. JANE has struggled to maintain the high profile it enjoyed upon release as the #1 movie at the box office (despite mixed reviews).  Even Scott’s poorly-received films tend to find some degree of re-appreciation in later years, usually after the release of a superior director’s cut.  No such fate seems to be in the cards for G.I. JANE, and at the risk of editorializing too much, this isn’t necessarily a great tragedy.

In the context of Scott’s filmography alone, the film has already been eclipsed by superior works about armed combat like BLACK HAWK DOWN.  While it’s clear that the filmmakers’ intentions were good, one can’t help but wonder if G.I. JANE’s premise might have been too absurd for its time— Moore’s Razzie win for Worst Actress arguably reflects less on the quality of her performance than it does on the notion that audiences of the day weren’t particularly inclined towards the idea of a woman in combat.

In the real world, women couldn’t even become Navy SEALS until 2016– almost twenty years after G.I. JANE’s release.  The film’s heart may have been ahead of its time, but its skeleton reveals itself to be a fossil of 90’s-era pop entertainment.  Nonetheless, all fossils have archeological value, and G.I. JANE’s worth lies in the small  insights it yields into the evolving craft of a director on the cusp of his own artistic renaissance.


GLADIATOR (2000)

The late 90’s and early 2000’s were watershed years for American cinema, ushering in a new age of gigantic studio spectacles following the imagination-shattering release of Steven Spielberg’s JURASSIC PARK in 1993.  Cinema had been nicknamed “The Dream Factory” for a reason, allowing audiences to escape from reality for two hours at a time and share in the collective rapture of witnessing images in motion— some of which could never be encountered in waking life.

The notion that “anything was possible” when it came to the movies was something taken for granted, but JURASSIC PARK was proof positive of its validity.  Here were realistic, flesh-and-blood dinosaurs — extinct for millions of years, yet walking around up on screen… roaring, stomping, chomping.  Suddenly, there was no limit to what filmmakers could do, and they seized that opportunity with reckless abandon.

The phrase “capturing our imagination” might be apt here, but in actuality the opposite was true: our imaginations had been unleashed.

In our rush to realize untold worlds with boundless possibilities, there inevitably resulted in some regrettable ideas and ill-advised cash-in attempts.  There were also some certified classics— films that employed this new technology in service to a sound story rather than leaning on it as the main hook. Almost twenty years on, these new classics are easily distinguishable, not just by their enduring place in cinephiles’ hearts, but also by computer effects that actually hold up.

Director Sir Ridley Scott’s GLADIATOR (2000), is such a film; in recreating the awe-inspiring majesty of Ancient Rome, Scott’s vision attains an elegant, almost monumental pedigree that modern cinema rarely achieves.  Built like an old-school studio epic with modern sensibilities, GLADIATOR has been held in high regard ever since its release, assuming command as a flagship catalog title that ensures consistent re-releases with each new home video format.

In other words, the film hasn’t strayed too far from the forefront of our collective cinematic memory in the decades since, installing itself in the pop culture pantheon as arguably the first classic studio film of the 21st century.  For Scott himself, GLADIATOR has become a transformative project, marking his emergence as a mature, world-class filmmaker fully attuned to his creative inspirations and operating at the peak of his powers (although age-wise he was on the cusp of eligibility for retirement).

It seems somewhat silly to say, as hugely influential classics like ALIEN (1979), BLADE RUNNER (1982) and THELMA & LOUISE (1991) pepper his back catalog, but yet they are also largely defined by their respective visual aesthetics.  They are, by and large, products of their time. GLADIATOR, however, is an altogether different beast, channeling the spirit of Hollywood Golden Age spectacles like Stanley Kubrick‘s SPARTACUS (1960) or William Wyler‘s BEN-HUR (1959) to create a timeless adventure that restores majesty and a sense of Shakespearean dramaturgy to the modern theatrical experience.

Like many films of this kind, GLADIATOR’s road to production was a long one forged by a passionate individual.  This person was screenwriter David Franzoni, who had been spinning his interest in ancient Roman culture and the gladiatorial games into a single narrative thread since the 1970’s.

Following his writing involvement with Steven Spielberg’s AMISTAD (1997), Franzoni was invited to pitch his long-gestating passion project to Spielberg and other executives at Dreamworks, who immediately responded to the exciting possibilities inherent in recreating ancient Rome in this emerging digital age. Franzoni subsequently joined fellow producers Douglas Wick and Brando Lustig in searching for a director who could capably navigate the production’s complicated logistics and inevitable challenges.

Their search led them to Scott, whose gifts for worldbuilding and innate knack for big-budget spectacle positioned him as the obvious top candidate.  Scott did agree to direct the film, but not because he particularly responded to Franzoni’s script (indeed, I’ve read his early draft myself and can confirm its excellent structure comes at the expense of… well, everything else).

Instead, Scott’s personal attraction to the project stemmed from an evocative painting shown to him by Wick during his pitch.  That painting was “Pollice Verso” (“Thumbs Down”) by Jean-Leon Gerome— a rather famous work depicting a Roman gladiator standing over his vanquished opponent, waiting on the Emperor to render one of two verdicts: mercy or death.

Upon seeing the painting, Scott knew his involvement was inevitable, and his first order of business was hiring John Logan to heavily rewrite Franzoni’s dialogue, which he deemed too un-artful and unsubtle for his tastes.  Logan also retooled the first act, using the murder of the protagonist’s wife and child as his primary motivation.

Having your work rewritten by another screenwriter can be a painful, bitter process, so Franzoni must have felt especially aggrieved when Scott brought on a third screenwriter, William Nicholson, after what was reportedly a less-than-promising table read by the cast. Nicholson’s contributions focused on the addition of the spiritual “Elysium” angle and making the protagonist more well-rounded, and Scott felt these revisions were so necessary that he invited Nicholson to stay on through the shoot and provide additional rewrites as needed.

Indeed, Nicholson’s services would be very much required— the combative rewriting process ultimately resulted in Scott and company commencing on a $100 million shoot with only a quarter of a finished script, with the remainder being written and rewritten on the fly against the cast’s aggressive questioning and criticisms of its contents.

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That GLADIATOR’s final narrative is so cohesive and powerful is something of a miracle, but that’s not said to diminish Scott seasoned storytelling skills or the contributions from his stellar cast, all of whom turn in career-best performances.  Set 180 years after the birth of Christ, the film details an epic story about, to paraphrase the now-famous marketing campaign, a Roman general-turned-gladiator who defies an empire in his quest for personal revenge.

We begin in wooded Germania, where Russell Crowe begins his first of several performances throughout Scott’s filmography as Maximus, a general of the Roman army in service to Emperor Marcus Aurelius.  A gifted and charismatic leader, Maximus has been tasked with delivering Germania from the barbarian hordes and placing it under Roman control.

Crowe excels in a role that original choice Mel Gibson reportedly turned down because he felt he was too old, bringing a fierce, yet compassionate authority that helps us to believe this stone-cold killer is truly a family man at heart. After his victory in Germania, his ailing Emperor Marcus Aurelius (a sublime Sir Richard Harris) assigns Maximus a formidable new task: succeed him as Emperor and reinstate the Republic, subsequently returning democracy to Roman society.

Naturally, Aurelius’ son and assumed heir, Commodus, doesn’t take this news lightly. Joaquin Phoenix strikes a perfectly sniveling and petulant tone as GLADIATOR’s classical villain— aggrieved and emasculated by his father’s unexpected decision, he proceeds to mask his murder of Marcus Aurelius as a natural death and condemn Maximus and his family to execution when he won’t pledge loyalty to his new “Emperor”.

A better killer than his own executioners, Maximus narrowly escapes death and rides for his native Spain to prevent the murders of his beloved son and wife (seen in visions in the form of actress Giannina Fabio, who would later become Scott’s wife in 2015).

Upon arriving home, Maximus tragically discovers that he is too late— the sight of his family’s burned and crucified bodies robs him of his will to live, sending him into a kind of comatose state that results in his abduction by passing slave traders.  Pressed into a brutal life of forced gladiatorial combat in the arid Roman province of Zucchabar, his natural fighting talents turn him into a local star while also giving him something to strive for: his freedom.

After a series of wins in regional gladiatorial arenas, his owner, Proximo, decides to take Maximus to his gladiator academy in Rome and groom him for battle at the Coliseum.  Celebrated actor Oliver Reed proves a brilliant choice as the grumpy former gladiator-turned-slave owner and mentor to Maximus, lending GLADIATOR a worldly gravitas akin to the sword-and-sandal epics of yesteryear.

GLADIATOR also marks Reed’s final on-screen performance, having suffered an unexpected heart attack that would cause him to pass away three weeks before production wrapped.  Rather than recast the role and undergo reshoots, Scott put his considerable logistical skills and profound understanding of visual film grammar to the test in an effort to keep Reed’s performance intact.

This was achieved via some light CGI compositing, but the majority of Scott’s workaround consisted of good old-fashioned cinematic trickery— a mix of body doubles and cleverly-chosen outtakes from other scenes.  The death of a major cast member during production is one of filmmaking’s most debilitating scenarios, but Scott’s quick thinking and resourcefulness enabled production to continue on with barely a hiccup.

Maximus’ series of hard-fought wins in the Coliseum cause his fame to spread throughout Rome, elevating him to a level of celebrity on par with Commodus himself and forcing him to reveal his true identity to his scheming nemesis.

With his crusade against Commodus now out in the open, Maximus devises a slave uprising that will free his fellow gladiators, conspiring with the likes of Proximo, select Roman senators, his loyal friend and fellow slave, Juba (Djimon Hounsou in a breakout performance), and even Commodus’ own beloved sister, Lucille, played by Connie Nielsen with a regal elegance that recalls the string-pulling manipulativeness of Lady Macbeth while subverting the expectations of the “romantic interest” archetype.

Far more than just a damsel in distress, Nelson’s performance as Lucille takes its place alongside Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley, Sean Young’s Rachel, and Susan Sarandon & Geena Davis’ Thelma & Louise in Scott’s lengthy display of strong, resilient heroines. With her love of Maximus, as well as the crowd’s, preventing Commodus from outright killing him, the stage is set for a final, Shakespearean encounter between these two bitter rivals on the blood-stained Coliseum floor.

The influence of aforementioned epics like SPARTACUS and BEN-HUR loom large throughout GLADIATOR’s visual presentation, infusing Scott’s trademark pop aesthetic with the prestige of world-class production value.  Working with Scott for the first time, cinematographer John Mathieson would earn an Oscar nomination for his efforts here, imprinting a series of enduring images onto the 2.39:1 35mm film frame, a prime example of which is Maximus’ hand caressing golden wheat stalks as he walks through a field (a surprisingly influential visual that’s been endlessly copied and parodied in the years since).

Scott employs his tried-and-true color palette of blues and oranges to better differentiate the film’s various locales: a cold blue cast communicates both the wooded chill of Germania and the marble chambers of Rome’s Forum, while strong orange hues convey the arid vistas of Zucchabar as well as the warm Mediterranean climate that hangs over the Coliseum.

Maximus’ visions of a peaceful afterlife take on a strong blue/green tint, firmly establishing its otherworldly nature without pushing in too fantastical a direction.

Scott’s approach to camerawork has always been based on a mix between the classical formalism of crane and dolly shots and new-school techniques handheld photography, and GLADIATOR further reinforces this blend by drawing inspiration from both sweeping Golden Age epics and more-recent works like Steven Spielberg’s SAVING PRIVATE RYAN (1998)— a picture whose innovations with 45-degree shutter angles create a hyperreal staccato in action sequences that GLADIATOR ably replicates for its own visceral battles.

This evocative mix can also be glimpsed in some of the film’s stylish time lapse shots, or in a standout sequence that finds Commodus returning to Rome as its new Emperor, rendered in a fascist visual syntax that immediately calls to mind the Nazi propaganda of Leni Riefenstahl’s TRIUMPH OF THE WILL (1935) (although, as Scott notes in his commentary, the Nazis actually followed the Roman Empire’s lead in the design of their own iconography).

Scott’s atmospheric signatures are ever present throughout GLADIATOR: smoke, shafts of concentrated light, plumes of dust, billowing snow, and intimate candlelight work in concert to bring theatricality and immediacy to the antiquity of imperial Rome.

Returning production designer Arthur Max would earn an Oscar nomination for his own efforts towards this end, the highlight being the building of a portion of the Coliseum in Malta at a cost of $1 million and several months’ construction time.  Thanks to the oblong oval shape of the structure, clever compositions and strategic viewing angles could create a comprehensive impression of depth and scale without the need to build the whole damn thing.

Likewise, only the first couple tiers of audience seating needed to be built, with the remainder being digitally recreated.  Indeed, a considerable quantity of computer-generated imagery was required to recreate Ancient Rome in the wide, but Scott’s tasteful implementation uses real elements as the base of each effect shot, allowing GLADIATOR to age far more gracefully than most of the other CGI-heavy films from the period like THE PHANTOM MENACE (1999), George Lucas’ first installment in the Star Wars prequel trilogy.

GLADIATOR’s post-production process benefits from the familiarity afforded by Scott’s hiring of two returning collaborators, both of whom would also score Oscar nominations of their own for their work here. Editor Pietro Scalia’s seasoned hand brings a propulsive rhythm and an intuitive spatial cohesion to GLADIATOR’s several battle sequences, while composer Hans Zimmer’s heroic and appropriately-bombastic score infuses the action with rousing drama.

One of the best selling soundtracks of all time (1), GLADIATOR’s score is an easy contender for Zimmer’s finest work— an honor he shares with renowned vocalist Lisa Gerrard, whose haunting, mournful wails perfectly complement Zimmer’s use of harps and mandolins, adding an exotic antiquity to the otherwise-standard orchestral blend of strings, horns, and percussion.

GLADIATOR’s producers were wise to seek out Scott’s directing services— whether they possessed the intuition or not, their project’s specific narrative needs play directly into Scott’s strengths as a storyteller.  With the exception of 1991’s THELMA & LOUISE, the 90’s had been something of a stagnant creative period for Scott, finding him treading water with projects that appealed to his artistic interests without necessarily challenging him.

Indeed, challenge appears to be the “special sauce” in his touchstone works; he thrives on it, drawing the necessary oxygen from it to deliver a meaningful and resonant exhortation. GLADIATOR would pose a formidable challenge from every logistical angle, beginning with the hard truth that the swashbuckling sword-and-sandals genre was all but dead at the turn of the 21st century.

The prospect of recreating Ancient Rome as an immersive environment, however, was too powerful a draw for Scott to resist. Under Scott’s seasoned eye, the environment becomes the selling point for audiences, offering them a chance to experience the antiquity and the majesty of imperial Rome in all its grimy, sweaty, bloody glory.

In many ways, GLADIATOR resembles Scott’s 1977 debut, THE DUELLISTS, in its vibrant historical recreation of an era long gone— a tribute to Scott’s longtime flair for building fantastical, cohesive worlds on-screen. This is especially true of GLADIATOR’s locales outside of Rome, which aren’t as reliant on heavy computer manipulation: the woods outside Farnham, England stand in for the rugged wilderness of Germania while a Moroccan desert town that Scott had previously scouted for G.I. JANE (1998) transforms itself into the bustling province of Zucchabar while further indulging his on-screen interest in Middle Eastern locales.

In undertaking GLADIATOR, Scott establishes a new template for his career, continually returning to the genre he helped to invigorate with subsequent works like KINGDOM OF HEAVEN (2005), ROBIN HOOD (2010) and EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS (2014).

None of those works, however, would ultimately achieve the level of prestige and universal praise accorded to GLADIATOR.  Almost-uniformly rave reviews (although the late Roger Ebert was not a fan (3)) drove box office receipts towards half a billion dollars worldwide, making GLADIATOR the second highest grossing film of 2000.

Its old-school approach to spectacle and unrivaled production value positioned the film as a major awards contender, especially at the Oscars, where it took home gold statues in technical categories like Best Sound, Best Costume Design and Best Visual Effects as well as two of the big marquee categories: Best Actor and Best Picture.

Other nominations beyond the aforementioned included Best Screenplay and a Best Supporting Actor nod for Phoenix’s performance, with Scott himself earning his first nomination from the Academy for his direction. Scott’s eye for tastemaking design had always been beloved by pop culture, but his recognition by the admittedly-stuffy members of the Academy marks a profound ascent in the eyes of the industry, emerging from the realm of slick, yet workman-like commerce into the prestigious plane of high art.

Whereas critics had previously derided him for favoring style over substance, they now recognized that his style had become the substance, not unlike a painter whose work is celebrated more for its visible brush strokes than the image that said strokes comprise.  The film’s influence is still felt today, with recent sword-and-sandal epics like 2016’s remake of BEN-HUR or the Starz television series SPARTACUS resonating like the aftershocks of GLADIATOR’s earth-shattering success.

Indeed, GLADIATOR has done an admirable job in staying in the public eye for almost two decades, with a 2005 home video re-release providing audiences with a new extended cut of the film that adds fifteen minutes to the runtime (Scott, however still maintains the theatrical cut is his definitive director’s cut).  A sequel was even considered, to the extent that producers commissioned a full screenplay by renowned rock star and film composer Nick Cave.

While the project was ultimately abandoned for straying too far from the spirit of the original, Cave’s 2006 draft nonetheless explored some interesting ideas in its detailing of Maximus’ quest through the afterlife, becoming an immortal soldier fighting through the major wars of history (up to and including World War 2).

None of these revisionist developments have dulled the sharpness of GLADIATOR’s blade, serving only to further reinforce its legacy as a modern classic.  Its eventual selection for the National Film Registry all but assured, GLADIATOR has claimed victory as a cornerstone of Scott’s cinematic legacy.  As one of mainstream American cinema’s most prominent voices during its first hundred years of existence, Scott was now primed to do the same as the medium entered its second century.


HANNIBAL (2001)

In the annals of silver screen monsters, few loom as terrifyingly large as one Dr. Hannibal Lecter, the infamous cannibal, murderer, and psychopathic genius.  First introduced to film audiences by way of Brian Cox in Michael Mann’s MANHUNTER (1986), the character didn’t really take our collective fear hostage until Sir Anthony Hopkins stepped into the role for Jonathan Demme’s THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS (1991).

Arriving on the tail end of a century of cinematic spooks like Dracula, Frankenstein and The Wolf Man, Hopkins’ Dr. Lecter quickly joined their high-profile ranks as one of the ultimate boogeymen, turning THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS into an outright sensation that dominated both the box office and awards season.

The prospect of a sequel, then, naturally possessed an undeniable appeal for those who stood to benefit, and no person was perhaps more eager to capitalize on the opportunity than legendary producer Dino De Laurentiis.  Having served as an executive producer on MANHUNTER, he still held the screen rights to the character, but his dissatisfaction with Mann’s final product compelled him to sit out any involvement in Demme’s subsequent re-working of the property.

When he heard that Hannibal’s literary creator, Thomas Harris, was embarking on a sequel in 1999, De Laurentiis quite understandably jumped at the opportunity to rectify his earlier blunder, and secured the novel’s screen rights for a record $10 million.

To say that a sequel to THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS — in both literary and cinematic form —would be highly anticipated is certainly an understatement.  Readers and audiences alike were keen to witness the carnage wrought by an unleashed Dr. Lecter, and it was arguably this eagerness that compelled Harris to take an indulgent tack in his approach.

After all, a good horror sequel should up the ante wherever possible, reveling in higher body counts and ever-more horrific behavior from its monster. However, the finished novel, titled simply “Hannibal”, didn’t quite achieve the desired effect with its intended production team— Demme echoed the sentiments of LAMBS screenwriter Ted Tally and star Jodie Foster in declaring his distaste for the new novel’s gleeful approach to bloodletting.

Nevertheless, they gave the project the benefit of the doubt for the time being, battling original screenwriter David Mamet and then Steven Zaillian throughout no less than fifteen drafts before their persistent misgivings caused them to finally drop out of the project altogether.  De Laurentiis felt that as long as he still had Hopkins (and he did), then he still had a movie, so he pushed on undeterred.

This is when director Sir Ridley Scott entered the fray, having been approached by De Laurentiis on the set of GLADIATOR.  The two were old friends, having established a warm relationship when De Laurentiis pursued Scott to make DUNE after his success with 1979’s ALIEN.  Funnily enough, Scott initially turned down De Laurentiis’ offer, under the mistaken assumption that the celebrated producer wanted him to make a film about the historical figure of Hannibal, the conqueror from Carthage who took on the Roman Empire.

When he realized that De Laurentiis was actually proposing an $87 million sequel to one of the most successful horror films of all time, Scott was suddenly much more receptive to the prospect. While HANNIBAL met with a fairly divisive reception when it hit theaters in 2001, it nevertheless proved that, after a quarter century of making feature films, there were still cinematic avenues that Scott’s celebrated career had yet to stroll down: the gothic horror film, and the sequel.

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HANNIBAL picks up ten years after THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, with Dr. Lecter living perhaps the cushiest life that an international fugitive has ever lived.  Volunteering under an assumed name as an assistant museum curator in picturesque Florence, Italy, Dr. Lecter seems to have found the fullest, most-sophisticated realization of his true self— his taste for murder and human flesh now seems more like a quirk than a defining trait.  In all this time, his toxic affection for FBI agent Clarice Starling has not diminished; the specter of unconsummated love haunting him at his core.

Since their chilling encounter in THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, Starling has gone on to an established career in the FBI, but she too is haunted by the deep psychological impression Lecter was able to make on her. Taking over Foster’s iconic role is no easy feat, but Julianne Moore (cast here off of Hopkins’ recommendation) ably slips into Starling’s shoes. Indeed, she makes it her own, conveying the same icy determination that marked the character in THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, albeit bolstered by the confidence of age and experience.

Laid low after a drug raid gone horribly awry, Starling unexpectedly receives a letter of condolence from Lecter, from which she can detect a unique fragrance that an expert (Darren Aronofsky regular Mark Margolis in a brief cameo) pinpoints as only available from a boutique shop in Florence.  Unable to investigate herself, she makes contact with a local detective, Inspector Pazzi.

Played with subdued intensity by Giancarlo Giannini, Pazzi is a driven cop who happens to share Lecter’s taste for the finer things in life. The desire for self-gain grows to overwhelm his duty to the law when Pazzi learns of a $3 million reward for Lecter’s capture, offered by his only living victim— a wealthy invalid named Mason Verger.

Inhabited by an unrecognizable Gary Oldman in a truly sickening performance that required him to spend six hours in the makeup chair every day (5), Verger’s obscene wealth is no match for his hideous countenance, which might go down as some of the most revolting prosthetic effects in cinematic history. With his face left a desperate mess of skin grafts and scar tissue after Lecter convinced him to disfigure himself, Verger is less a man than he is a sentient fetus, living only for the satisfaction of exacting his revenge on Lecter.

Suffice to say, Lecter is almost immediately captured by Verger’s men upon his return to America, and Starling finds herself in the strange position of having to rescue this diabolical psychopath against the orders of her superior, agent Paul Krendler (Ray Liotta). The result is an exhilarating rescue sequence set in Verger’s gothic mansion in rural North Carolina, followed shortly thereafter by a macabre dinner party at Krendler’s lake house that will give Lecter the intimate reunion with Starling he’s been dreaming of for a decade.

While HANNIBAL’s plot may lack the discipline and tight structure of THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, it nonetheless projects a very uncomfortable atmosphere by humanizing the monster at its core— indeed, we come to feel something like sympathy for Lecter, thanks to Hopkins’ intimate familiarity with — and absolute refusal to judge — a character that has come to define his career.

Fresh off their successful collaboration with GLADIATOR, Scott and cinematographer John Mathieson roll right into HANNIBAL without skipping a beat.  The pair conjures a very different atmosphere than GLADIATOR, leaning into the story’s genre trappings with a suitably dark and frightening aesthetic.

Shooting on 35mm film in the 1.85:1 aspect ratio, Mathieson and Scott employ a desaturated, high-contrast color palette that explores the interplay between blue and orange tones (a longtime trademark of the director’s visual style).  A heavy blue cast dominates nearly every frame, reinforcing a cold, depressive mood that reflects Lecter’s elegant inhumanity.

So too does Scott’s formal camerawork, which favors butter-smooth dollies, cranes, and Kubrickian slow-zooms amidst the occasional handheld setup.  Shadows are a defining trait of HANNIBAL’s visual approach, informing Scott’s employment of signature atmospheric conceits like silhouettes, smoke, and shafts of concentrated light.

Echoing the indulgent nature of Harris’ novel, Scott repeatedly embraces the opportunity to experiment with his aesthetic, towards end both effective (like consistently obscuring Lecter’s full visage through careful placement of shadow and reflections) as well as derivative (the rendering of a fish market shootout in extreme slow-motion that immediately reminds one of THE MATRIX (1999)).

A curious expansion of Scott’s visual artistry finds him using slow shutter speeds in select “flashback” sequences, which creates a disconnected, staccato energy while evoking the “snapshot” nature of a memory recalled.  For all its visual indulgences, HANNIBAL’s stylistic cohesion is ensured through the return of established post-production collaborators like editor Pietro Scalia and composer Hans Zimmer.

Complementing a suite of classical cues (some of which made an appearance in THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS), Zimmer’s subdued, spooky score employs conventional orchestral instruments albeit played at tonal extremes, in a bid to reflect the similarly-extreme nature of Lecter’s sophisticated inhumanity.

Driven by propulsive chimes and bellowing cellos, Zimmer’s work here is curiously under-mixed; it plays at a noticeably lower volume than expected. Whether this was a technical oversight or an intentional artistic choice, it’s objectively a shame— HANNIBAL’s score is one of Zimmer’s best; a dark, beautiful beast that beckons us with elegant mystery and baroque foreboding.

Unless they also directed the originating installment, most directors of Scott’s caliber avoid sequels like the plague.  Though they often tend to be more successful from a financial standpoint, sequels find filmmakers starting from a place of artistic disadvantage— they have to service and subvert audience expectations at the same time, recycling the elements that made the original work so well while also delivering something new.

Scott must have intuitively known that imitating Demme’s work on THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS was the road to surefire failure; he had to make it his own.  While HANNIBAL may not quite succeed as a worthy sequel, it certainly excels as an individual piece contained within the context of Scott’s filmography.  Key aspects of the narrative seem tailor-made to Scott’s unique sensibilities, beginning with a story driven by a strong heroine.

The character of Clarice Starling may not be Scott’s creation, but her manifestation in HANNIBAL evidences the influence of the Scott heroines who came before her.  In Moore’s characterization, one can glimpse the tactical courage of ALIEN’s Ripley, the calculating observation of BLADE RUNNER’s Rachel, or the principled defiance against male power dynamics exhibited by the namesakes of THELMA & LOUISE.

Also like these women, Starling never has to sacrifice her own femininity in order to project strength or courage, or emulate masculine behavior to prove her resolve.  Whereas Foster’s take on Starling portrayed her femininity as a liability, inviting objectifying leers and crass sexism from her cohorts in the FBI, Moore’s performance embraces it as a source of personal strength, giving her the edge that eludes complacent colleagues like Liotta’s incompetent and misogynist superior.

HANNIBAL’s exotic Florence backdrop no doubt held enormous appeal for Scott, promising new and challenging opportunities to create yet another highly-immersive environment.  Working once more with his BLACK RAIN (1989) and THELMA & LOUISE production designer Norris Spencer as well as Diego Loreggian, Scott achieves just that, foregoing the fantastical worldbuilding afforded by a fictional setting in favor of a “you-are-there” vibrancy.

A standout sequence in this regard finds Pazzi’s assistant stalking Hannibal through a bustling Florence bazaar, with Scott strategically employing smoke, shadows, a crowd of high-energy extras, and evocative lighting to drop the audience right in the middle of the action.

This heightened sense of “presence”, a rare quality that still manages to elude many world-class directors, can also be felt in the fish market shootout that opens the film, or even sequences set in Verger’s gothic mansion, which provide an appropriately spooky “monster movie” backdrop in which Lecter’s Dracula figure can roam.

That said, if HANNIBAL flirts with the manifestation of Lecter in the syntax of vampirism, he doesn’t necessarily draw from expected sources like Tod Browning’s DRACULA (1931).  Rather, HANNIBAL’s inspiration comes from a much more intimate source— 1983’s THE HUNGER, the debut film of Scott’s younger brother, Tony.

The aesthetic similarities are undeniable, with both films sharing the same blue color cast, evoking the coldness of the undead.  While Lecter isn’t necessarily a “vampire” per se, he nonetheless assumes the elegant, worldly nihilism of THE HUNGER’s vampiric protagonists: beings who’ve lived for hundreds of years and have grown disenchanted by seeing repetitive sociological cycles play out time and time again to the same effect.

He also shares their taste for classical music, and for drawing blood with small concealed blades. While Scott’s homage to his brother’s breakout work will undoubtedly go unnoticed by most, its intensely-personal nature nonetheless causes HANNIBAL to resonate at a different emotional register than THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, making for an altogether-different beast that makes an honest attempt to justify its existence as a sequel to a story that didn’t necessarily need one.

Despite his best intentions, Scott’s efforts may not have been enough to surmount the outsized expectations set by the original.  The prospect of once again experiencing Lecter’s darkly-magnetic charisma may have lured audiences in to the tune of a $58 million opening weekend (which in 2001, was the third-biggest debut ever), but even Hopkins’ reprisal of his famous role couldn’t fully ensnare their attentions as he had done the first time around.

Reviews tended to be all over the place; there were those who really liked it, and those who really didn’t, but HANNIBAL’s true kiss of critical death lay in the critics who were simply ambivalent about it. GLADIATOR may have marked Scott’s graduation to a world-class director of prestige films, but HANNIBAL was decidedly a middling, journeyman work.

It’s a testament to Scott’s work ethic that even his most forgettable films exhibit top-notch craftsmanship, but HANNIBAL ultimately fails because his vision doesn’t amount to more than the sum of its parts. Following a career-defining work like GLADIATOR was never going to be an easy task, so one would be justified in cutting Scott a little slack if HANNIBAL falls short— after all, the consistent pivoting from wins to losses was the natural rhythm of Scott’s filmography.

HANNIBAL may have been a disappointment, but Scott thankfully had his next win up his sleeve, and his tireless work ethic meant that it was already due for release later that same year.


BLACK HAWK DOWN (2001)

Still riding high off the success of GLADIATOR (2000), director Ridley Scott found his filmmaking services more in demand than ever, jumping from one production to the next with barely a beat between them to catch his breath.  His name had become synonymous with both awards prestige and financial success, so naturally every producer in town wanted to work with him.

One such producer was Jerry Bruckheimer, the industry titan whose big-budget displays of massive pyrotechnics had informed some of the cultural character of both the 80’s and 90’s.  Bruckheimer was already something of a family friend, having produced TOP GUN (1986) and BEVERLY HILLS COP 2 (1987) for Scott’s brother, Tony.

During the production of HANNIBAL, Bruckheimer had approached Scott with a project he had previously been developing as a directing vehicle for action director Simon West (1)— an adaption of Mark Bowden’s non-fiction book “Black Hawk Down”.

Originally published in 1999, the book recounts the events that have come to be known as The Battle of Mogadishu: an operation undertaken by the US Military against the Somali warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid, in which the loss of eighteen US lives and and the deaths of countless Somali citizens marked one of the most consequential firefights since Vietnam.

West had initiated the project, bringing it to Bruckheimer’s attention with the request that he purchase the film rights. After the option was secured, screenwriter Ken Nolan was brought on board to adapt the book into a script, which then went through several uncredited rewrites from the likes of Stephen Gaghan, Steven Zaillian, Edna Sands, and even Bowden himself.

Nolan ultimately had the last laugh, receiving sole credit as well as the opportunity to rewrite the rewrites on set. Certainly no stranger to large budgets, Scott would effortlessly navigate the $92 million production of BLACK HAWK DOWN, coasting off his resurgent creative momentum to deliver another run at Oscar glory with an unrivaled portrait of modern urban warfare.

It was supposed to be a quick mission: apprehend and extract two advisers to Somali warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid, who in 1993 was waging war against UN peacekeeping forces inside Mogadishu following a bloody civil war and the dissolution of the local government.  Having declared himself the new leader of Somalia, Aidid was commanding a large, heavily-armed civilian militia who routinely seized Red Cross food shipments as a way to exert his power over the populace.

Starvation was no way to lead a nation, so the U.S. Army had deployed several special ops units into Mogadishu with the aim of taking Aidid out.  For all their training and might, the troops had failed to heed the central lesson of Vietnam: that a well-funded military and superior weaponry were no match for passionate locals with nothing left to lose.

The mission is quickly compromised, leaving the troops marooned in the middle of pure urban anarchy when they lose their superiority over the air— the consequential event that gives the film its title.  The remainder of BLACK HAWK DOWN follows the ensemble as they fight to escape Mogadishu in one piece, blending fact with the fiction of various character composites to create a riveting exercise in sustained suspense and adrenaline.

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Despite production occurring far before the calamitous events of September 11, 2001, the spectre of that fateful day nevertheless colors the experience of BLACK HAWK DOWN, becoming a rallying cry for those desperate to conquer the sense of profound helplessness felt in the face of terrorism’s inherent anarchy.

It was a reflection of our new normal, where our enemies didn’t come at us wearing the uniform or colors of any recognizable nation or creed; where the only certainty was the uncertainty of our collective security. Scott’s vision would strike a strange tone, being both anti-war and pro-military simultaneously.

Indeed, the film strings along several such contradictions— attempts to portray the ugliness of combat and the visceral horror of a human body exploding into a crimson mist are subverted by the propagandistic jingoism of the soldiers’ enthusiasm; a prologue spotlighting the horrific suffering of starving Somalis gives way to their dehumanization as enemy combatants.

Indeed, with very few exceptions (a rich Somali arms dealer and one of Aidid’s lieutenants), BLACK HAWK DOWN roots itself almost exclusively within the American perspective.  In this light, Scott’s large cast of Hollywood stars and unknowns alike finds itself tasked not with projecting character development in the conventional sense, but rather with quickly establishing multiple viewpoints for the audience to track as the operation goes from bad to worse.

Having spent a week in hardcore military training as part of their prep, the cast proudly sacrifices their vanity and any concerted efforts at individualization so as to better gel together into a single organism. Even when they splinter into smaller groups, they move through the city as one, aided by the omniscience of the one helicopter flying out of RPG range above.

Playing a soldier named Eversmann, Josh Hartnett might as well as named “Everyman”, anchoring the film (and its marketing materials) as something of a cypher through which the audience can implant themselves into the action. Ewan McGregor plays Grimes, the coffee boy/desk jockey itching to get in on the fight.

Eric Bana and William Fichtner are the cool, composed members of an elite sub-unit of soldiers called Delta Force.  Orlando Bloom is Blackburn, the boyish new guy. Tom Sizemore’s character is named McKnight, but he is essentially the same “unstoppable son-of-a-bitch with a heart of gold” stock character he played in Steven Spielberg’s SAVING PRIVATE RYAN (1998) and seemingly every other war movie made since.

Jason Isaacs and Tom Hardy are almost unrecognizable in their roles as Steele and Twombly respectively— Isaacs’ shaved head gives his facial features a harder, mean-looking edge, while Hardy (in his very first feature film role) is still so boyish and scrawny here that one might miss his presence entirely.  Jeremy Piven pops up as well, embodying his usual cocksure, smart-mouth shtick in the guise of a helicopter pilot.

The late Sam Shepard lords over all as the no-nonsense commander, Garrison, swaggering around in dark aviators and chomping cigars like the living embodiment of the Bush Doctrine. The lengthy roster of names listed above are only a fraction of the thirty or so characters featured in the film— themselves a fraction of the hundred characters that Bowden’s original book tracks as the conflict spirals out of control.

BLACK HAWK DOWN immediately distinguishes itself amidst Scott’s lengthy filmography with its searing, hyper-kinetic aesthetic; understandably, this is quite the feat, considering the highly visual nature of Scott’s work.  Working for the first time with cinematographer Slawomir Idziak, Scott takes a page out of brother Tony’s filmmaking playbook, whereby the style becomes the substance.

Every Super35mm film frame of Idziak’s Oscar-nominated work here is geared to project pure adrenaline, prioritizing chaotic handheld photography that drops the audience in the middle of the action.

Shot spherically but presented in the 2.39:1 aspect ratio, BLACK HAWK DOWN’s unique look is all the more notable due to its creation in a time before digital intermediates and powerful coloring tools were in widespread use— meaning the exceedingly high contrast, crushed blacks, exaggerated grain structure, and greenish-yellow highlights that imbue an arid, sun-scorched color palette with a poisonous or acidic edge were all achieved via painstaking photochemical processes in the film lab.

In an oblique way, BLACK HAWK DOWN’s approach to color is very similar to the stylized neon hues found in BLADE RUNNER (1982)— they both aim to convey a bustling alien landscape meant to overwhelm the viewer’s senses.  BLACK HAWK DOWN further achieves this strange atmosphere through the aforementioned prologue, which Scott renders in a dominating cobalt cast, or nocturnal battle sequences that embrace a sickly green tone in the highlights, motivated by a desire for theatrical effect rather than to signal the presence of a conventional light source.

Scott and Idziak complement the radical visual aesthetic with an equally frenetic approach to camerawork, mostly foregoing Scott’s longtime use of classical studio filmmaking techniques in favor of a documentary realism that, again, tosses the audience directly into the crossfire— swooping aerials, chaotic handheld setups, lens flares, 45-degree shutters, rack zooms, and even freeze-frames all go a long way towards conveying the visceral, overwhelming nature of the mission.

While Scott may be working with a new cinematographer, he nevertheless falls back on his latter-day dream team of department heads like production designer Arthur Max, editor Pietro Scalia (who won the Oscar for his work here) and composer Hans Zimmer.  A former production designer himself, Scott has always possessed an unparalleled eye towards art design in his films— that is, until his recent collaborations with Max.

More than just an equal in this regard, Scott and Max seem to thrive off each other’s tastes, cultivating a symbiotic relationship that has pushed both men towards ever-loftier heights.  Far beyond the familiarity of signature atmospheric effects like silhouettes, smoke, and gradient skies, Scott and Max populate the frame by essentially building out a teeming city from scratch.

To recreate Mogadishu as it was in the early 90’s, production took over the Moroccan cities of Rabat and Salé, repurposing their various buildings and public spaces as Scott and Max saw fit.  Resembling a small occupation force themselves, the crew populated these cities with era-appropriate equipment on loan from the US military and commandeered their citizens as background extras.

The logistical intricacies of such an endeavor are simply mind-boggling, with the result standing as a testament to Scott’s cigar-chomping, David Lean-style confidence in grand-scale filmmaking.  The phrase “the art of war” comes to mind, suggesting that even a military general can be an artist; he creates a kind of beauty, expression, and meaning through tactical maneuvering and logistical precision. This is the root of Scott’s artistry as a filmmaker— the art of quick decisions, of marshaling his collaborators towards a common goal.

The sentiment likening filmmaking to war-making has become a trite trivialization of either endeavor, expressed more often by amateurs than seasoned veterans, but it is demonstrably true in Scott’s case.  He knows that a general is only as good as his officers, so he surrounds himself with the best of the best.

Like his collaborations with Max, Scott’s longstanding relationship with composer Hans Zimmer frequently brings out the best in either man.  In the case of BLACK HAWK DOWN, Zimmer seeks to find an oblique harmony in the clash between western and eastern musical traditions.

Representing the American side, a bed of militaristic brass and percussion drives electronic orchestration inspired by techno and heavy metal rock, creating a sound that wouldn’t necessarily be out of place in a contemporary recruitment ad.  The Somali side of Zimmer’s score adopts more of an organic approach, using regional instruments and East African rhythms to create an exotic sound punctuated by the recurring use of haunting vocalizations that evoke the danger of an unknown landscape.

Regrettably, this sound — one could call it the “scary Muslim wail” — has, like a cancer, managed to seep into nearly every post-9/11 film set in the Middle East. To Zimmer’s credit as an influential composer, he may have started this trend with BLACK HAWK DOWN, but it has nonetheless aged about as well as President Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” rally.

Ironically, Scott’s use of dated popular music helps BLACK HAWK DOWN achieve a degree of timelessness— the film boasts an eclectic mix of sourced cues ranging from Elvis Presley to House of Pain, reflecting the wide variety of backgrounds that the troops are coming from.

Scott’s use of Stevie Ray Vaughan covering Jimi Hendrix’s “Voodoo Child” is a particularly pointed inclusion, linking The Battle of Mogadishu — a tactical loss — to the quagmire of Vietnam via a shared association with rock-and-roll music.

It’s easy to see why the prospect of directing BLACK HAWK DOWN held such appeal for Scott— its various aesthetic and thematic opportunities touch on the very cornerstones of his artistry.  From a technical standpoint, the ability to transform an entire small city into his personal backlot was irresistible to a renowned cinematic worldbuilder like him.

As such, BLACK HAWK DOWN conveys a harrowing immersiveness, rendering the chaotic war zone of Mogadishu and the teeming tactical activity of the American base camp so fully that it might as well be virtual reality.  The project’s worldbuilding opportunities were doubly appealing in that they also represented a return to Morocco, a favorite shooting locale of Scott’s.

A shoot in modern-day Mogadishu was out of the question — it was still far too dangerous for the American military, let alone a civilian film crew, to step foot inside.  Scott’s familiarity with the Moroccan film community, having shot scenes for both GLADIATOR and G.I. JANE (1998) in the country, allowed the production to take full advantage of the local resources and pull off what could very well have been a logistical impossibility in other, more-developed countries.

In light of BLACK HAWK DOWN’s making, G.I. JANE actually becomes more significant in the context of Scott’s filmography; it now stands as a trial run for the former, allowing Scott to develop his skills in the depiction of military precision and tactical maneuvers.  This would be particularly important in the case of BLACK HAWK DOWN, as a key narrative and thematic tenet of the film is the marked contrast in combat styles on display: the disciplined precision and technological superiority of American forces against the wildly unpredictable anarchy of the Somali militia.

Finally, BLACK HAWK DOWN affords Scott the opportunity to further explore his career-long fascination with the theme of xenophobia, although the opportunity is somewhat squandered by his overriding sympathies for the American experience.  The film was met with a fair degree of controversy upon release for its dehumanizing depiction of the Somalis, and understandably so— a significant bulk of the story adopts the American imperialist perspective only to relegate the Somalis into the background as distant figures; ferocious “savages” with little more to their humanity than rage and bloodlust.

We’re only afforded fleeting glimpses of the Somalis’ humanity (a brief interlude of Somali children taking shelter inside a bullet-riddled school comes to mind). Far from a knee-jerk, reactionary development, BLACK HAWK DOWN’s controversy is rightly justified in questioning whether Scott’s earnest embrace of a pro-military stance came at the expense of an anti-war sentiment that would’ve been better conveyed through a more-balanced depiction of the Somalis.

BLACK HAWK DOWN’s success, while obviously bolstered by positive critical reviews, was largely propelled by a pro-military sentiment that swelled in the months directly following 9/11– in these new, uncertain, terrifying times, the American people needed a “win”; a reminder that their government and their military still had the ability to keep them secure.  

BLACK HAWK DOWN was in a position to provide this small comfort, with the fact that the real-life event was actually a tactical failure ironically salving the psychological wounds of the audience.  It’s strange to think of right-wing entertainment as being “good”; Hollywood’s broad liberal slant leaves very little air for conservative voices to produce quality content.

As such, the loudest and most reactionary efforts usually get the most air-time: the idea of “right-wing filmmaking” conjures up sickly visions of Dinesh D’Souza’s paranoid conspiracy “documentaries” or treacly faith-based and congregation-funded melodramas that unspool with all the subtlety of a brick thrown through a window.

BLACK HAWK DOWN is none of these, but yet it is the very definition of right-wing entertainment— that it stands as one of President George W. Bush’s favorite films (1) says a lot about its legacy as a cultural touchstone for conservative viewpoints.  How one feels about that fact is up to one’s own personal politics, but the pedigree of Scott’s craft here is nonetheless undeniable.

Scott is nothing if not a prolific filmmaker, but even he had not managed to break the “two films in one year” barrier that younger cohorts like Steven Spielberg or Steven Soderbergh had done— until now.

BLACK HAWK DOWN followed HANNIBAL’s 2001 release by only several months, coming in just under the wire for Oscar eligibility with a limited theatrical release before the year was out; a sound strategy, considering the aforementioned nominations (including Scott’s third nod for Best Director) and the sound mixing team’s win at the 2002 Academy Awards.

A wider release would follow in mid-January 2002, where it proved a financial success with a worldwide total of $172 million in box office receipts (3). For all its controversy, and despite his artistic stumble with HANNIBAL, Scott’s efforts on BLACK HAWK DOWN would serve as a doubling-down on claims that he was in the grips of a newfound artistic prime.

Indeed, his voice was actively shaping the cultural zeitgeist of a tumultuous decade. It would be quite some time until he experienced these lofty heights once more, but he could rest assured that BLACK HAWK DOWN had laid yet another cornsterone to an-already monumental legacy.


MATCHSTICK MEN (2003)

Shortly after the conclusion of his ambitious anti-war/pro-military action drama, BLACK HAWK DOWN (2001), director Sir Ridley Scott began development on another ambitious effort titled TRIPOLI. Written by William Monaghan of THE DEPARTED (2006) fame, TRIPOLI was to be a sweeping period epic in the vein of GLADIATOR (2000), whereby Russell Crowe and Ben Kingsley would play US diplomats who took up arms with Christian and Muslim soldiers against the leader of Tripoli at the turn of the nineteenth century.

 Naturally, the project would take quite some time to develop before it could go before cameras, so Scott — ever the unflagging workhorse — immediately began looking for a film he could quickly shoot while waiting on TRIPOLI’s green light.  He would find it in MATCHSTICK MEN (2003), a contemporary caper penned by brothers Nicholas and Ted Griffin and based off Eric Garcia’s book of the same name.

Representing Scott’s return to the Warner Brothers fold for the first time since 1982’s BLADE RUNNERMATCHSTICK MEN would ultimately prove a minor effort amidst the director’s intimidating filmography — despite being a fleet-footed, highly enjoyable picture on its own merits.

Its setting within modern-day Los Angeles already positions MATCHSTICK MEN as a curio within Scott’s work, finding Nicolas Cage as a small-time conman named Roy Waller, emphasis on “small”.  For all his supposed skill, all the middle-aged grifter has to show for it is a small house in the Valley and a rundown office he shares with his business “partner”, Frank Mercer (Sam Rockwell).

An actor not exactly known for his subtlety, Cage finds a prime vehicle for his eccentric energy in the character of Roy, whose chronic anxiety and crippling agoraphobia constantly threaten to undermine the collected cool that his profession requires of him.

Rockwell revels in Frank’s oily swagger, strutting around like a capitalist cowboy who sees the entire San Fernando Valley as his for the taking; its denizens, a bottomless pool of unwitting marks, the latest being Bruce McGill’s Chuck Frechette, a small-potatoes businessman and country-club gangster who nevertheless represents the opportunity for a huge payday.

Roy and Frank have honed their con skills to an exact science, easily separating fools from their money with a superhuman tactical dexterity. The equation is suddenly thrown off balance by the unexpected appearance of a daughter Roy never knew he had, coming to him in the form of a spunky teenager named Angela.

A product of a semi-serious relationship long since consigned to ancient history, Angela’s endearing unpredictability and infectious energy (courtesy of actress Alison Lohman in her breakout role) prove to be just the thing Roy needs to free his mental health from its long, slow decline.  Once Angela discovers the true nature of Roy’s profession, it isn’t long before she talks her way into the action herself.

The ensuing heist is as heartwarming as it is idiosyncratic; a “Take Your Daughter To Work Day” for career criminals. Of course, there is no honor among thieves, and the bright glow of Roy’s newfound fatherhood might just be blinding him to a reckoning that he should’ve seen coming.

MATCHSTICK MEN’s narrative certainly marks a major departure from Scott’s usual oeuvre, but the punchy aesthetic on display here continually assures us we are in familiar hands.  After sitting out BLACK HAWK DOWN, cinematographer John Mathieson returns for his third collaboration with Scott, tasked with avoid the bright and colorful conventions of the studio comedy genre.

Shot with anamorphic lenses on beautiful 35mm celluloid, MATCHSTICK MEN opts for a moody, restrained color palette that punctuates heavy cobalt hues with pops of pink. Be it from Roy’s prescription pills or Frank’s convenience-store wraparounds, pink proves itself to be a very important color throughout, screaming out to clue the audience in whenever an element of the plot against Frank is present within the frame.

Scott’s artistic preference for silhouettes and low-key lighting earns a narrative justification here, helping to distinguish the debilitating difference Roy encounters between interior and exterior settings. Interiors are a dark, comforting cocoon of carpet and slat blinds, while exteriors might as well be the surface of the sun.

A frequent image finds Roy standing at his window and looking out at his glistening backyard pool, but its framing suggests something more akin to an astronaut warily surveying a hostile environment that may vaporize him the moment he leaves the spaceship.  In addition to clever framing, Scott and Mathieson utilize a variety of in-camera techniques like ramping shutter speeds or low frame rates to convey Roy’s agoraphobia as the very-real, debilitating experience that it is for him.

Cheeky transitions and freeze-frames lean into MATCHSTICK MEN’s postmodern comedic sensibilities, as do the contributions of production designer Tom Foden and returning composer Hans Zimmer.  Foden and Zimmer both work to create a distinct mid-century flavor, as if MATCHSTICK MEN was simply OCEAN’S ELEVEN with middle-aged Valley burnouts instead of suave, Rat Pack con-men.

Foden achieves this vibe through carefully chosen locations and inspired set dressing, while Zimmer draws inspiration from the aforementioned Rat Pack’s sonic palette.  Better regarded for his bombastically avant-garde scores for superhero movies and historical epics, Zimmer finds in MATCHSTICK MEN the rare opportunity to be playful and light-hearted.

An accordion features prominently throughout Zimmer’s jazzy, jaunty orchestral score, prompting nostalgic visions of bowling alleys and wet bars.  The ever-present croon of Frank Sinatra dominates an eclectic suite of vintage big-band needledrops, as if Scott had simply swiped The Grove’s playlist for his own use.  That said, the film also deploys a variety of tunes from other, more-recent decades as ambient background music for specific locations, alluding to the incongruous, yet strangely harmonious, diversity of LA’s musical landscape.

After its premiere at the Venice Film Festival, MATCHSTICK MEN was released to mostly-positive reviews that stood in stark contrast to a lackluster box office take.  Intended as a minor comedic diversion in the vein of THELMA & LOUISE (1991), MATCHSTICK MEN was never destined to stand shoulder to shoulder with that prior classic— or any other classics in Scott’s canon, for that matter.

While the film further builds on his talent for strongly-realized female characters and intensively immersive environments, Scott doesn’t betray any sort of overt aspiration towards the gravitas his name usually bestows on a project— and that’s kind of what’s great about it.

MATCHSTICK MEN’s ever-growing appeal lies in its low-key, yet unflappable, confidence, as well as its heartwarming twist on the conventional father/daughter relationship.  This is the work of a seasoned artist who knows he has nothing to prove, exhibiting only the personal joy he derives from the filmmaking process. If MATCHSTICK MEN comes to be remembered as an artistic success for Scott, then it will be because he didn’t need to resort to cheap tricks in order to share that joy with his audience.


KINGDOM OF HEAVEN (2005)

The cinematic landscape is littered with the ruins of would-be classics, embarked upon by well-intentioned filmmakers who nevertheless couldn’t rise to the task.  As much as we like to attribute a technical or industrial quality to the act of filmmaking, we tend to forget its volatile and unpredictable nature as an artistic medium.

Indeed, each film is a strange alchemy of vision, taste, and ego that’s nearly impossible to quantify, let alone rely upon — the same creative ingredients that won an Oscar yesterday may yield today’s box office bomb.  For all his unassailable talents as a director, even the most cursory glances at Sir Ridley Scott’s canon demonstrates that he is no stranger to failure.

What sets him apart is his ability to re-write the fate of his films; having popularized the idea of the “Director’s Cut” with BLADE RUNNER (1982), Scott has learned to wield this tool like a weapon against the studio overlords who unwittingly conspire against his legacy.  It remains one of the most fascinating quirks of Scott’s career that this pragmatic journeyman of the studio tradition would also routinely shame fussy executives with the full potency of his unmanipulated vision.

Nowhere is this trait more evident than in Scott’s medieval epic, KINGDOM OF HEAVEN (2005) — a lavishly-mounted effort that overcame a catastrophic theatrical release with a director’s cut that re-positioned this apparent failure as one of the finest films in the venerated director’s oeuvre.

Interestingly enough, the opportunity to make KINGDOM OF HEAVEN rose from the ashes of another failed project: TRIPOLI.  Similarly-styled as a sweeping historical epic, TRIPOLI had already endured a troubled development history that saw Twentieth Century Fox pull the plug no less than twice prior.

The third iteration of TRIPOLI got as far as pre-production, with Scott and company scouting locations in far flung locales while commissioning the construction of elaborate sets.  Despite the considerable costs already imposed, executives at Fox ultimately deemed it better to simply cut their losses by killing Scott’s long-gestating passion project for a third and final time.

TRIPOLI was finally, ultimately, officially, dead—  but all was not lost. Around this same time, TRIPOLI’s screenwriter, William Monahan, finished another script about The Siege of Jerusalem during the Crusades of the late 12th century.  Scott — who himself had been knighted in 2003 for his contributions to English film history — had always wanted to make a movie set in The Crusades but had not yet found the right story.

He had even developed a project some years ago titled, simply, KNIGHT, but hadn’t progressed beyond the commissioning of some conceptual art for it.  Here, now, was a story that Scott could really sink his teeth into, and he subsequently marshaled the momentum of his TRIPOLI team’s efforts into the production of KINGDOM OF HEAVEN.

Just as fellow director Stanley Kubrick threw all the research and passion for his failed NAPOLEON project into 1975’s BARRY LYNDON, so too would Scott create KINGDOM OF HEAVEN as his own consolation prize for TRIPOLI’s collapse.  He would be aided in this quest by Executive Producers Lisa Ellzey, Terry Needham, and GLADIATOR’s Branko Lustig, prompting speculation around the industry that Scott was about to deliver the second coming of his Oscar-winning 2000 epic.

To those inside Scott’s creative circle, however, it became quickly apparent that KINGDOM OF HEAVEN was destined to leave a much more complicated legacy.

kingdomofheaven

Billed alternatively as both an action-adventure and a historical epic, KINGDOM OF HEAVEN assumes the time-honored Hero’s Quest plot structure, serving as something of a road movie that tracks protagonist Balian de Iberia’s journey from obscure French blacksmith to commander of the Christian armies in Jerusalem.

The story begins in 1184, where, after his wife’s tragic suicide, the young widower has resigned himself to a meager subsistence forging swords for distant battles. Having previously worked with Scott in a minor role in 2001’s BLACK HAWK DOWN, Orlando Bloom seizes the opportunity of his first major leading role by assuming the guise of a soulful and sensitive man who nevertheless possesses a fierce determination and courage.

The source of said courage is a mystery to him, as Scott’s Director’s Cut reveals his only relatives in the village to be a conniving uncle and Michael Sheen’s duplicitous half-brother who masquerades as a pious man of God.  Imagine Balian’s surprise when he discovers his true lineage as the son of a revered knight named Godfrey de Ibelin, who informs Balian of this fact when he rides through town on the way to The Holy Land.

As Godfrey, Liam Neeson’s paternal wisdom and worldliness projects the perfect aura to inspire Balian to leave his home and claim his true destiny.  Impaled by an arrow during a scuffle with the authorities outside town, Godfrey lasts just long enough to escort Balian to the coastal town of Messina and train him in the ways of the sword; his final act being the bestowal of knighthood on his young heir.

The reluctant hero soon departs for Jerusalem, where he quickly becomes entangled in the affairs of King Baldwin and his sister, Princess Sibylla.  Played by Ed Norton in an uncredited performance, King Baldwin is a young ruler whose leprosy forces his face to be perpetually veiled behind an enigmatic chrome mask— one of the film’s most striking and memorable conceits.

His is a fair and just rule, always grappling with the philosophical implications of his power, and he becomes one of the first to recognize both Balian’s keen intellect and his potential as an engineer and military tactician.  His sister, Sybilla, on the other hand, recognizes both his charisma and his potential as a lover— one that can better fulfill her needs than her current husband, the egomaniacal and boastful Guy de Lusignan (Martin Csokas).

Eva Green fulfills her role as the Princess of Jerusalem with a regal, statuesque elegance, benefitting (particularly in Scott’s Director’s Cut) from her director’s unique sensitivity to richly-developed heroines. Sybilla possesses agency and vision; no small feat during a time when all women were relegated to the margins of society, only able to perform the most domestic of societal functions.

Even her motherhood is a source of strength, evidenced in the Director’s Cut with a subplot that sees her deal with one of the most awful caregiving choices imaginable.

Befitting its epic aspirations, KINGDOM OF HEAVEN also boasts committed performances by a world-class supporting cast that includes David Thewlis as an enigmatic mentor/Crusader known only as Hospitaler, Jeremy Irons as a gruff authority figure who grows more and more disillusioned with the horrific butchery committed in God’s name, Brendan Gleeson as Guy’s bloodthirsty and Dionysian lieutenant, Alexander Siddig as a humane enemy combatant, and Ghasson Massoud as the elegant and just Saladin, commander to a massive Muslim army that seeks to retake Jerusalem from the Christians.

These compelling characters all feed back into Balian, who quickly rises through the ranks in a time of great crisis to take command of the Christian Army, tasked with defending the Holy City and its inhabitants from a seemingly-unstoppable enemy with nothing to lose.

As is to be expected from an epic of this caliber, KINGDOM OF HEAVEN boasts impeccable production value, particularly when it comes to the contribution of his GLADIATOR collaborators, cinematographer John Mathieson and production designer Arthur Max.  Both have gone on to become key recurring contributors to Scott’s subsequent filmography, helping him to shape and redefine his visual aesthetic during this reinvigorated career period.

The lavish Technicolor epics of the mid-twentieth century — David Lean’s 1962 classic, LAWRENCE OF ARABIA, in particular — cast a long shadow over KINGDOM OF HEAVEN’s approach, which begins with a lush 35mm film image framed in the appropriate 2.35:1 aspect ratio.

Mathieson‘s high-contrast cinematography makes full use of cutting-edge digital imaging technology to push the film’s predominantly-blue & orange color palette to extremes.  Indeed, scenes set in cold, wintery France are almost monochromatic in their use of a heavy cobalt color cast, drowning out most other colors save for deliberate little details like the gleaming crimson ruby lodged in the hilt of Godfrey’s sword.

Once the film moves to Messina, the overall color temperature takes on a neutral balance, allowing for a natural transition to the dusky oranges that define sun-dappled Jerusalem and its surrounding deserts. Scott’s atmospheric signatures are ever-present, populating his mise-en-scene with evocative visual flourishes like smoke, lens flares, billowing snow, intimate candlelight, and dramatic gradient skies.  The camerawork follows suit, blending old-school classical sweeps with relatively new techniques like varying shutter speeds, stylized slow motion and elegant Steadicam moves.

As KINGDOM OF HEAVEN’s production designer, Arthur Max holds arguably the most un-enviable position on set.  If it wasn’t enough to be tasked with recreating the 12th Century from scratch, he also has to contend with a director whose own background in production design results in an unflagging eye for demanding detail.

Thankfully, Max and Scott have formed something of a symbiotic working relationship, feeding off each other’s creative energies to construct some of the most immersive environments in all of modern cinema. KINGDOM OF HEAVEN benefits from Scott and Max’s practical, inventive approach as well as their familiarity with the film’s far-flung shooting locales in Spain and Morocco.

The latter country in particular has come to be a key resource in Scott’s recent filmography, with his prior shoots for GLADIATOR and BLACK HAWK DOWN allowing for the fostering of a productive friendship with King Mohamed VI.  The monarch was reportedly all too happy to provide his military’s assistance in filling out the warrior ranks during KINGDOM OF HEAVEN’s grueling shoot, as well as furnishing any necessary equipment.

One compelling example would find Max working with local artisans to construct the Muslim army’s siege towers, which were hand-built using only the authentic, pre-industrial methods available to them in the 12th century.  The film’s staggering recreation of medieval Jerusalem is the result of cutting-edge computer imagery blending with the kind of practical set approach that stems from seasoned experience at this scale.

Only a section of Jerusalem’s defensive wall was built, allowing the production team to seamlessly plant a highly-detailed digital environment behind it.  Scott & Max stretched crucial production dollars by recycling certain sets no less than four times, an approach bolstered by Scott’s familiarity with both his Moroccan and Spanish locations— some of which he’d used previously as far back as 1942: CONQUEST OF PARADISE (1992).

Far from simply conveying the appropriate period look, these locations were well-chosen for existing architecture that combines western medieval styles and those of eastern antiquity to further reinforce the clash between the Christian and Muslim creeds.

KINGDOM OF HEAVEN’s first-rate technical caliber extends into post-production, with returning editor Dody Dorn convincing Scott to embrace the flexibility of a digital intermediate for the very first time in his career.  The freedom of DI tools to change one’s mind and experiment while still able to store and track prior variants would prove crucial to the film’s editing process, especially as the inclusion or exclusion of certain key subplots were debated amongst Scott and company nearly all the way up to release.

Indeed, when the decision to assemble a Director’s Cut ultimately came down, Dorn already had a head start on a complete pass that enabled Scott to release this new, far superior cut in the same calendar year as his theatrical version. Harry Gregson-Williams provides a romantic, swashbuckling score to complement KINGDOM OF HEAVEN’s epic visuals, reinforcing the narrative’s religious convictions and medieval setting with a sweeping chorus and exotic orchestration.

Scott’s regular composer, Hans Zimmer, was ultimately unable to participate in KINGDOM OF HEAVEN (despite initially being attached), but his influence can still be heard via Scott’s re-use of “Vide Cor Meum”, an elegant aria co-produced by Zimmer and composed by Patrick Cassidy that was previously used in HANNIBAL (2001).

Whereas the cue was used in that film for a haunting outdoor opera sequence, KINGDOM OF HEAVEN employs it as a beautiful farewell track for King Baldwin’s funeral, his death representing the looming close of Christianity’s hold over the Holy City.

Scott’s best films are consistently the ones where he has wide latitude to create an immersive world from scratch, pulling mountains of inspiration and references from any and all disciplines to build something insanely detailed and seamlessly self-contained.  His historical epics in particular feel as visceral and immediate as our present world due to the palpable presence of dirt, grime, sweat, and blood.

Whereas other directors’ period pieces can resemble staid costume pageants or overly-reverential monuments, Scott’s attention to detail — evidenced as early as THE DUELLISTS (1977) and carrying on through today in one unbroken strain — captures nothing less than the unsanitized chaos of a civilization’s conflicts playing out in the present tense.

His most successful efforts in this regard are the ones like KINGDOM OF HEAVEN— films that reinforce the idea that the same human dramas have been playing out for centuries, and continue to shape events on the world stage today.  There’s a reason that Scott’s career found reinvorigation in the years following 9/11; his stated artistic interest in the theme of xenophobia suddenly coincided with a tumultuous zeitgeist that saw racial tensions inflamed between the Middle East and the Western world.

KINGDOM OF HEAVEN is nothing if not Scott’s attempt to bridge the ideological divide between Christian and Muslim cultures, making pointed arguments that we don’t have to keep fighting the battles of our fathers and grandfathers— in Saladin’s words: “I am not those men”.  Understanding, communication, and compassion are key towards resolving these conflicts— qualities that fighters during the Crusades obviously lacked.

Balian and Saladin stand out by virtue of their possession of these traits, allowing Balian an honorable defeat in which he ultimately cedes Jerusalem to Saladin’s control in exchange for the safe passage of his people out of the city.  Towards this end, Scott goes to great lengths to depict Saladin and his men as civilized, intelligent, and just, which makes the Christian Crusaders look downright corrupt, boar-ish and greedy by comparison.

He makes the effort to cast actual Muslims or Kurds for Saladin’s army, achieving a degree of cultural authenticity that he would admittedly undermine some years later in casting white actors to play ancient Egyptians in EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS (2014).

Since no good deed goes unpunished, Scott’s attempts at cultural sensitivity in KINGDOM OF HEAVEN nevertheless met with knee jerk reactions from certain critics who claimed the film “pandered to Osama Bin Laden” (it was later revealed that these critics hadn’t even seen the film or read the screenplay).

To be fair, Scott’s two hour and twenty-four minute Theatrical Cut does little to counteract these arguments. So structured to highlight the film’s myriad fight sequences, this cut bills itself not as a historical epic per se, but as a swashbuckling action/adventure film.

The cuts were demanded by Twentieth Century Fox, who balked at the long running time of Scott’s preferred cut as well as its preference for intellectual sophistication over rousing battles (1).  As a result, the Theatrical Cut thirstily rushes through major story beats in-between recurrent rounds of bloody swordplay, resulting in an uneven pace and an overall sense of “incompleteness”.

We get the sense that there is a deeper characterization at play, but we are largely denied the complex social and political dynamics of the time so that Balian’s journey can be better distilled to the rote “Hero’s Quest” narrative archetype.

Even worse, all the effort Scott put into developing the character of Sybilla into a richly-layered and three-dimensional person goes out the window, relegating her screentime to moments defined by their relation to Balian’s story— in other words, she’s either putting the moves on him or she’s staring longingly at him in the distance from behind a curtain or window.

The Theatrical Cut would receive a mixed reception from critics, many of whom simply wrote KINGDOM OF HEAVEN off as a colossal misfire at worst, or “Diet GLADIATOR” at best.  A poor domestic box office take reinforced the stale aura around Scott’s Theatrical Cut, earning only $47.4 million against its $130 million production (it fared far better in Europe and elsewhere internationally, becoming a major hit, interestingly enough, in Arabic-speaking countries).

Understandably, this was not the fate that either Scott or Twentieth Century Fox envisioned for KINGDOM OF HEAVEN, and while blame can be laid squarely at the studio’s feet for the film’s initial failure, they do deserve a little credit for recognizing almost immediately that this wrong needed to be rectified.

Whereas many “director’s cuts” see a long-awaited release many years after their respective films’ debuts, Scott’s original vision for KINGDOM OF HEAVEN would be commissioned and released within the same year as the Theatrical Cut.  Clocking in at three hours and nine minutes, the Director’s Cut of KINGDOM OF HEAVEN reverts to its true self as a sweeping historical epic with a sophisticated message.

The extra runtime allows new themes and dense characterization to emerge. We learn more about Balian’s life in France: how he was due to be a father before his wife committed suicide, how Sheen’s Priest character is actually his half-brother, and how Neeson’s Godfrey is both his real father and his uncle.

Sybilla’s character arc is thankfully restored, illuminating a subplot about the discovery of her son’s leprosy and the terrible choice she faces. This makes for a much richer film in the macro, even if it doesn’t necessarily add much to the spine of Balian’s story. Still other sequences, like an evocative “burning bush” scene, imbue KINGDOM OF HEAVEN with a grounded spiritual aura that reinforces its key themes.

There was an immediate impression amongst all involved that Scott’s Director’s Cut was far, far superior to the botched hatchet job that went out to theaters— so much so that Scott would go on to disown the Theatrical Cut entirel.  Even Fox realized this, giving the Director’s Cut the privilege of a theatrical release; albeit an extremely limited one that saw it play in one Los Angeles theater for two weeks, without any advertising to promote it.

In the end, this small gesture proved powerful enough to cement KINGDOM OF HEAVEN’s new fate as a misunderstood near-masterpiece.  Critics claimed Scott had created the “most substantial director’s cut of all time”— no small feat, considering how hugely influential Scott’s numerous redos on BLADE RUNNER had previously been.

Subsequent home video releases would see a variant on the Director’s Cut dubbed the Roadshow Version, which simply adds a musical Overture and Intermission in a bid to emulate the Technicolor studio epics of yesteryear.  Having come so perilously close to the oblivion of an archived hard drive in his basement, Scott’s Director’s Cut instead repositions KINGDOM OF HEAVEN as one of the master filmmaker’s crowning achievements, often mentioned in the same breath as GLADIATOR (if not ALIEN and BLADE RUNNER).

Scott may have embarked on this massive cinematic odyssey with nothing to prove, but it nevertheless would cement his reputation as the premiere builder of immersive cinematic worlds and breathtaking historical epics.  Ultimately, KINGDOM OF HEAVEN’s complicated legacy points to the nature of Scott’s own crusade as a filmmaker— the ever-insurmountable struggle to be a true artisan in the face of the increasingly-mechanized juggernaut that is big-budget Hollywood spectacle.


A GOOD YEAR (2006)

At sixty-nine years of age, and with fourteen feature films under his belt, director Ridley Scott had seemingly done everything there was to do.  He had directed lavish historical epics, groundbreaking science fiction adventures, pulpy action thrillers, and even the occasional fleet-footed caper or two.

There was perhaps one blind spot left— one that nobody would ever expect a director of Scott’s sensibilities to tackle: the romantic comedy. One could be forgiven for thinking that Scott — cinema’s favorite cigar-chomping workaholic — might not have a sentimental bone in his body, but one also need look no further than his all-consuming affection for Jack Russell terriers to see the old softie’s big heart.

Fresh off the production of his 2005 short “JONATHAN”, commissioned for the socially-conscious omnibus film ALL THE INVISIBLE CHILDREN, Scott turned his development attentions towards the creature comforts of home.  He being an internationally celebrated filmmaker and the head of his own production empire, Scott’s version of “home” wasn’t necessarily a McMansion in Beverly Hills, but rather a modest vineyard in the Provence region of southern France.

Having lived there for the previous fifteen years, Scott understandably desired to express his love for the area by making it the backdrop of a film— he just needed the right story to go along with it. To accomplish this considerable task, he approached Peter Mayle, an old colleague from his commercial directing heyday in the 70’s and now his neighbor in Provence.

Mayle was primarily a novelist; an otherwise irrelevant fact had it not been for Mayle’s insistence on writing their joint venture as a book and not a screenplay. Screenwriter Marc Klein was subsequently brought in to adapt Mayle’s novel, which entangled a breezy romance with the fate of an inherited vineyard.

The rest fell into place fairly quickly, with Scott Free head Lisa Ellzey and frequent executive producer Branko Lustig stepping in to oversee Scott’s management of a $35 million budget— a significant drawdown in resources considering the lavish production value of his previous film, KINGDOM OF HEAVEN (2005), but an appropriate figure nonetheless for a film of this scale. The end result — 2006’s A GOOD YEAR — would debut as Scott’s very first romantic comedy, and likely his last.

Set in the present day, A GOOD YEAR finds Russell Crowe returning to Scott’s fold for the first time since 2000’s GLADIATOR, subsequently initiating a string of no less than three consecutive collaborations.  Just as Scott is working far outside the boundaries of his comfort zone here, so too is Crowe, who subverts his on-screen image as a gruff stoic to portray a smarmy and conceited London banker named Max Skinner.

Impeccably dressed and meticulously groomed, Max is a ruthless, filthy rich capitalist perpetually chasing down the Almighty Dollar. This lifestyle has left him emotionally bankrupt and isolated— he has no family or significant other of his own, let alone close friends.  One day, he receives word that his beloved Uncle Henry has died, leaving Max with a modest vineyard in Provence.

Seen in flashbacks in the form of Albert Finney (a familiar face in Scott’s canon, having appeared in 1977’s THE DUELLISTS), Uncle Henry is revealed to the father figure that Max never had.  A refined bachelor with a taste for fine wine and finer women, Uncle Henry would welcome Max into his house every summer, teaching him everything he knows about the art of winemaking.

While Max drifted apart from Uncle Henry upon reaching adulthood, he nevertheless has hollowed out a cavernous space for the old playboy in his heart— a fact he’s quite viscerally reminded of as he returns to survey the beautiful grounds as part of a plan to sell the vineyard off for a tidy profit, and with it, the last vestiges of his idyllic childhood.

As the film unfolds, however, he comes to realize that this crumbling house in the country is the closest thing he has to a home; the eccentric groundskeepers the closest thing he has to a family.  A GOOD YEAR satisfies its romantic angle by providing Max with a love interest in the form of Marion Cotillard’s Fanny Cheryl, a feisty and stubborn local who owns her own restaurant in town.

She’s everything he’s not — sensitive, soulful, insightful — and their conflict-laden courtship provides Max with a real opportunity for personal growth. There’s also a subplot involving Abbie Cornish as Christie Roberts, a young American who unexpectedly shows up on the vineyard’s doorstep claiming to be Henry’s long-lost daughter.

 A self-professed wine brat herself, Christie helps Max see the emotional value of the vineyard, in the process positioning herself as the appropriate heir to Henry’s legacy. The film’s larger supporting cast peppers A GOOD YEAR with flavor, whether it’s Tom Hollander as Max’s dry-humored colleague, Freddie Highmore’s portrayal of a bespectacled younger Max in flashbacks, or even Scott’s wife, Giannina Facio, making a brief cameo as a hostess as a swanky London restaurant.

With the exception of editor Dody Dorn, A GOOD YEAR mostly dispenses with Scott’s established roster of technical collaborators in favor of all-new ones.  Cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd gives the 2.35:1 35mm film frame a sun-kissed vibrancy, constantly employing the warm, romantic glow of late afternoon.

Working within Scott’s established blue/orange palette, Le Sourd uses color to differentiate the pastoral Provence sequences from those set back in London, which are rendered in a heavy, almost monochromatic cerulean hue.  An earthy, autumnal palette defines the bulk of the film, painting Henry’s vineyard and the surrounding Provence region with swatches of red, orange, green and yellow.

Scott’s aesthetic primarily employs a mix of formalistic and contemporary camerawork, but A GOOD YEAR finds the seasoned director opting for a looser approach— arguably the closest thing to a vacation this particular workaholic has taken in years.  A nimble, restless camera constantly weaves through the film’s scenery, letting itself find organic compositions rather than labor between predetermined marks.

This style isn’t to be confused with the inquisitive wandering of someone like director Terrence Malick; indeed, Scott’s camera still moves with purpose and direction, endeavoring to provide answers rather than ask questions.  Newcomer Sonja Krause proves adept at providing highly-detailed and immersive production designs that allow Scott ample latitude to inject signature atmospherics like curtains, silhouettes, smoke, and dark interiors primarily exposed by window-light.

A GOOD YEAR was shot primarily (if not entirely) on location, in venues that Scott claims were all no more than an eight minute drive from his home (1).  Krause’s set dressings imbue an already-authentic suite of locales with a rich personal history for the film’s characters, allowing the audience to experience Max’s memories as their own.

A GOOD YEAR’s easygoing vibe extends to the score, composed by Marc Streitenfeld.  Now a well-regarded composer in his own right with several contributions to Scott’s canon, Streitenfeld had initially been a protege of Scott’s frequent collaborator, Hans Zimmer, before he was invited to work on A GOOD YEAR.

Streitenfeld embraces breezy whistles and a languid accordion to imbue the score with a degree of eccentricity beyond the usual orchestration, further complementing Scott’s eclectic mix of vintage French tunes, cheeky contemporary pop, and sleazy Euro techno (played for comedic effect, of course).

Despite its evocative backdrop, there’s no getting around the fact that A GOOD YEAR isn’t exactly the most groundbreaking of plots.  It’s one we’ve seen many times before, in countless iterations.  Scott’s unique qualities as an artist give A GOOD YEAR its sole distinctiveness.  His effortless ability to conjure immersive cinematic worlds makes the film feel much more vibrant than it probably is, allowing us to bask in the rustic ambience of the French countryside, or experience the harried chaos of a British stock exchange.

Cotillard and Cornish’s rich performances further point to Scott’s strengths with female characterization, with the stubborn and defiant Cotillard taking playful satisfaction in her flirtatious emasculation of Crowe during a centerpiece sequence that sees him trapped at the bottom of an empty pool, while Cornish preoccupies herself with solving the mystery of her origins.

The presence of a Jack Russell terrier (Scott’s favorite dog breed) and the throwaway inclusion of a line from David Lean’s LAWRENCE OF ARABIA (1962) (a formative film for Scott that he’s pulled from several times throughout his career) evidence Scott taking the opportunity to playfully indulge his own personal quirks throughout.

Just as the film espouses the virtues of a simpler life, so too does Scott take the message to heart, letting his hair down with a casual, unpretentious approach. So much of Scott’s filmography is preoccupied with the appearance of “work” — intimidating logistics, complicated set-ups, the wrangling of massive crowds — that it’s nice to finally see the seasoned director at play.

It’s likely a good thing that Scott and company approached A GOOD YEAR with little expectations, as the finished result has met with arguably the harshest reception of his career.  Critics panned the film across the board, turned off by Scott and Crowe’s attempts to branch out into new artistic territory (3).  To them, this was a neighborhood that neither man who had no business being in.

The film’s financial success was exceedingly modest, turning a profit of several million dollars above its production budget.  However, films made at the studio level need to profit much more than “a few million” to be deemed a financially viable endeavor, so Twentieth Century Fox’s quick dismissal of A GOOD YEAR as a flop comes as no surprise.

Easily one of the least-regarded of Scott’s films, A GOOD YEAR’s lackluster legacy is evident even in its treatment by the home video sector— despite seeing a theatrical release during the initial rollout of the format, the film has yet to see a high definition Blu Ray come to market.  Over ten years removed from its release, the overriding sentiment surrounding A GOOD YEAR is that it’s undone by a saccharine earnestness that rings hollow coming from Scott.

He needs the bracing edge of his bread-and-butter films: the grimy historical epics, the ambitious science-fiction thrillers, the dangerous adventures in exotic faraway lands.  A GOOD YEAR is easily overwhelmed by the weight of Scott’s larger legacy, so it must be regarded by its own singular merits if it stands any chance of being regarded at all.

It’s an indulgent film, yes, but it is nonetheless a window into an insular world with its own customs and culture. It’s a visual confection about the sweet, simple pleasures of European country living — fine wine, beautiful surroundings, large families — so perhaps a little indulgence is called for.  If anyone’s earned the right, it’s Scott.


AMERICAN GANGSTER (2007)

The gangster picture is a time-honored staple of American cinema, equivalent to to the western in terms of cultural influence and popularity.  The long, rich history of the genre stretches from early pulp like Howard Hawks’ SCARFACE (1932) to modern classics like Martin Scorsese’s GOODFELLAS (1990).

Whereas the western’s straightforward ethical values typically boil down to who wears the white hat and who wears the black hat, gangster films are filled to the brim with murderous thugs who often possess an intense charisma, drawing out the audience’s sympathy and affections time and time again.  Figures like Michael Corleone, Tony Soprano, and Henry Hill loom large in our collective imaginations as folk heroes.

Even the real-world criminals take on this mythic aura, the brutality of their crimes often glossed over in favor of the romanticization of their renegade entrepreneurialism. We find ourselves admiring them, even as we condemn them.  In a way, they are inverse reflections of the American Dream narrative that fuels our own ambitions. They want the same things we want— family, friends, a nice home, a better community — but they’re willing to take shortcuts to get there; to cheat an unfair system that is already rigged against them.

Over the course of its nearly century-long history, the genre has extensively detailed Caucasian criminality, mostly from the perspective of Italian immigrants.  While there has been some notable variety (the Irish gangsters of THE DEPARTED (2006), the Russian thugs of David Cronenberg’s EASTERN PROMISES (2007) or even the Jewish hoods in Sergio Leone’s ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA (1984), the overall experience has been one of overwhelming whiteness.

The organized criminal enterprises of the African-American population, however, have typically been funneled into the “blaxploitation” subgenre— a cheeky, colorful movement that favors pulp over prestige. Until 2007, it was difficult to recall a film about African-American gangsters that endeavored to attain the mythic heights accorded to “conventional” (white) works like Francis Ford Coppola’s THE GODFATHER (1972).

AMERICAN GANGSTER, directed by Sir Ridley Scott and starring Denzel Washington as the real-life heroin kingpin of Harlem, Frank Lucas, attempts to correct this imbalance by presenting itself as a direct descendant of those prestigious gangland epics about the American Dream run amok.

Despite boasting lavish production value, razor-sharp direction, and electrifying performances, AMERICAN GANGSTER seems to lack the all-important “x” factor— that elusive, inscrutable quality that grants cinematic immortality.

It’s a great film, to be sure; Scott himself refers to the project as one of the most massive undertakings of his career.  Like its magnetic antihero, however, AMERICAN GANGSTER’s tendency to bite off more than it can chew leads to a legacy that falls just short of its grandiose ambitions.

The road to AMERICAN GANGSTER’s production was long and hard-fought, with a series of false starts and a revolving door of talent attaching and un-attaching themselves.  Scott only officially signed on towards the very end, but he was nonetheless involved in a minor capacity from the project’s inception. In 2000, Universal and Imagine Entertainment purchased the rights to Mark Jacobson’s article ‘The Return Of Superfly”, which had run in a recent issue of New York Magazine.

Producer Brian Grazer (aka The Hair) teamed up with executive producer Nicholas Pileggi of GOODFELLAS and CASINO (1995) fame to develop the film, ultimately commissioning a screenplay from Steven Zaillian.  At the time, Zaillian was also working on the script for Scott’s HANNIBAL (2001), and showed the director his 170-page draft.

Scott was quite interested, wanting to break Zaillian’s massive tome into two films to create something of a multi part epic — that is, until his availability was precluded by the imminent production of MATCHSTICK MEN (2003) as well as his failed project, TRIPOLI.  While Scott was off prepping what ultimately became 2005’s KINGDOM OF HEAVEN, Grazer soldiered on.

He next attached celebrated New Hollywood auteur Brian De Palma to direct the film, then called TRU BLU.  After De Palma’s eventual exit in 2004, director Antoine Fuqua subsequently boarded the project, with Denzel Washington and Benicio Del Toro slated to star under pay-or-play agreements.

Four weeks before principal photography could begin, production was shut down over Fuqua’s inability to reduce a budget that was rapidly nearing the $100 million mark. He was summarily dismissed over “creative differences”, and thanks to those aforementioned “pay or play” agreements, both Washington and Del Toro received their full multi-million dollar salaries without shooting a foot of film.

The following year, screenwriter Terry George was brought on to craft a screenplay that could be produced for half the current cost, but found he too couldn’t hack it— even with superstar Will Smith now attached to replace Washington. Finally, Scott re-entered the picture in 2006, bringing actor Russell Crowe with him after having discussed the project extensively during their recent collaboration on A GOOD YEAR.

Ironically enough, the version Scott was able to finally push into production was the one that so much blood and sweat had already been spilled over— Zaillian was brought back onboard to rewrite his earlier draft, as was Washington to fulfill his earlier commitments to the Lucas role, and the production budget had ballooned back up to the $100 million mark.

Whether or not the finished product is all the better for its tumultuous development history is debatable, but the meticulous craftsmanship of Scott and his collaborators certainly makes a powerhouse case in the film’s favor.

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AMERICAN GANGSTER spans the years 1968 through 1973, chronicling the epic rise and fall of one Frank Lucas— an ambitious man whose cunning business sensibilities enable him to command a vast heroin empire while serving as a prominent and beneficial community figure to the Harlem populace.  The Vietnam War may raging abroad, but extreme poverty has hit home, fueling a widespread crack epidemic that presents a lucrative business opportunity for the man hungry enough to exploit it.

Washington — who at the time was a frequent leading man for younger Scott brother, Tony — delivers an expectedly gripping performance as just such a man.  His ruthless ambition and dense gravitas commands our attention in every frame, compelling us to follow as he sets about importing pure heroin directly from the jungles of Thailand— a scheme that allows him to double his product’s potency while cutting the price in half.

Like a true capitalist, Frank bestows a brand name on his stuff— “blue magic” — and subsequently takes over Harlem’s illicit drug industry in very short order.

What sets Frank apart from streetwise competitors like Idris Elba’s Tango is the importance he places on family, evidenced by his flying his brothers and mother in from North Carolina to help him build his business. Despite Frank’s best efforts otherwise, the slow creep of greed and corruption soon frays his family’s ironclad bonds, their flaws subsequently becoming his own.

Brothers like Common’s cheery Turner and Chiwitel Ejiofor’s excess-prone Huey, become liabilities instead of assets, while his increasingly heartbroken mother (Ruby Dee, in an Oscar-nominated performance) chips away at his steely resolve.

The yin to Lucas’ yang is Richie Roberts, played by Crowe as a somewhat-slovenly plainclothes New Jersey Cop with equally-ambitious aspirations to become a defense lawyer.  Unlike Lucas, Richie’s personal life is a mess— he’s tempestuous, prone to fits of anger, and his shameless womanizing has already cost him his wife (a litigious Carla Gugino) and threatens to cost him his child.

The one good thing he has going is that he’s unfailingly honest, almost to a fault— after he turns in a huge seizure of illicit cash without taking any off the top for himself, he earns only the suspicion of his peers. Richie’s arc illustrates the rampant corruption in New York’s police force during the early 70’s, painting him as the one man brave enough to take on the system and actually enact institutional change.

Nowhere is this corruption more embodied than in the form of Josh Brolin’s Detective Trupo, a mustachioed extortionist shamelessly playing both sides for his own gain.  As he seeks to topple Lucas’ heroin empire, Roberts and his team of special operatives (headlined by a wiry John Hawkes and a dynamic RZA, of Wu-Tang Clan fame) manage to uncover the foundation-shaking criminal complicity of the NYPD: a sweeping scandal that ensnares a mind-boggling number of cops, bureaucrats, and city officials.

Befitting a film of this scope, AMERICAN GANGSTER backs up Washington and Crowe’s headlining performances with a sprawling ensemble cast that includes the likes of John Ortiz as Richie’s partner-turned-junkie, Lymari Nadal as Frank’s increasingly-disenchanted beauty-queen wife, Cuba Gooding Jr as a flamboyant playboy who rips Frank off by cutting the potency of his product in half, TI as Frank’s similarly-ambitious yet misguided nephew, Coen Brothers regular Jon Polito as an Italian bookie and confidante to Frank, and an uncredited Clarence Williams III as Frank’s mentor and father figure, “Bumpy” Johnson.

Indeed, the cast is almost too numerous to name individually, with each member turning in memorable performances that serve to bolster those of Washington and Crowe’s nuanced and muscular turns (themselves given an added humanity by virtue of an immersive prep that saw them spend significant amounts of time with their real-life counterparts).

AMERICAN GANGSTER marks Scott’s first and only collaboration with the late, celebrated cinematographer Harris Savides, their joint efforts resulting in an iteration of the director’s signature look that’s more softly-lit than its predecessors.  On its face, Scott’s theatrical, stylized approach suggests that it may not play well with Savides’ naturalistic tendencies, but AMERICAN GANGSTER nonetheless presents a unified front that routinely delivers some of the finest images in the director’s filmography.

The most immediate departure to be observed is Scott’s use of the 1.85:1 canvas in lieu of his preferred 2.35:1 aspect ratio, which enhances the film’s naturalistic tone by foregoing the suggestions of “theatricality” that the CinemaScope format implies.  Savides’ nuanced lighting techniques give the 35mm film image a somewhat-neutral color palette that deals primarily in desaturated stone and metal tones, while highlights trade in Scott’s signature blue-and-orange dichotomy.

Stylistic elements like snow, smoke, silhouettes, and dark interiors capture the grit and grime of 1970’s Harlem while evoking a visual continuity with Scott’s preceding canon.  After the loose restlessness of his camera in A GOOD YEARAMERICAN GANGSTER finds Scott returning to his tried-and-true mix of formalistic, classical camerawork and technical experimentalism (which manifest here in a variety of speed ramps, zooms, and 45 degree shutter effects).

Savides’ excellent work finds its complement in the contributions from returning Team Scott personnel like returning production designer Arthur Max, editor Pietro Scalia (reporting for duty for the first time since 2001’s BLACK HAWK DOWN), and composer Marc Streitenfeld.  A story set in 70’s Harlem naturally lends itself to a dynamic musical palette, and AMERICAN GANGSTER capably delivers in this regard.

Streitenfeld crafts a brooding, propulsive orchestral score that draws its pulpy edge from the traditions of the blues and soul genres, while Scott complements the cue sheet with a mix of pre-recorded tracks from the period.

Lively songs like Bobby Womack’s “Across 110th Street” brilliantly illustrate the flavor of the era without resorting to disco kitsch, while Public Enemy’s “Can’t Truss It” proves an inspired selection for Lucas’ emergence from prison into the New York of the 1990’s— a foreboding world he barely recognizes; on the cusp of dramatic technological change, where the principles and virtues that propelled his rise no longer hold sway.

Indeed, AMERICAN GANGSTER’s soundtrack may just be the highest-profile aspect of the film’s legacy, with Anthony Hamilton’s “Can You Feel Me?” continuing to drift through the airwaves after being commissioned to emulate a vintage 70’s R&B sound.  The film had a particularly powerful effect on hip-hop artist Jay-Z, who was so inspired by Scott’s vision that he immediately created a companion album of the same name.

AMERICAN GANGSTER theoretically could have been made by other directors (indeed, it almost was), but its effortless swagger and fluid style is exclusively Scott’s doing.  Beyond the performances, the film’s greatest strength lies in the meticulous recreation of 1970’s New York.

Scott’s dogged pursuit of authenticity would eschew controlled soundstages for the chaotic vibrancy of real-world locations, ultimately setting the record for the highest number of locations in a motion picture. This, combined with Scott’s signature ability to conjure up immersive cinematic environments from scratch, makes for a picture that captures the grit, grime and filth of the era.

Few directors are able to render the distinct color of urban life better that Scott, who fills his streets with diverse crowds and buzzing activity that speaks to the multi-directional flow of humanity in cities as well as the constant clashing of cultures.

The story’s constant pivoting between Lucas’ Harlem and Roberts’ white working-class environs provides a conduit for Scott to further his career-long exploration of xenophobia, allowing us to see firsthand how the police force’s institutional corruption and systemic racism worked overtime to keep the African-American population down during the 70’s (and beyond, if we’re being honest).

Towards this end, narcotics became a powerful tool for the police, allowing them to control the outflow of heroin to the streets in a strategic bid to perpetuate poverty and crime.  This is why Lucas represented such a large threat— here was an intelligent and eloquent man of color who defied all of their deeply-entrenched prejudices; a cunning businessman who had used his wealth to enrich his community, and who could very well beat the corrupt cops at their own game.

In response, they overreached, allowing Roberts and other virtuous lawmen to see their widespread ethical decay in the bright light of day. In the end, justice was only possible when the two worlds came together as one— signified by Lucas and Roberts joining forces to expose the law’s staggering malpractice.

AMERICAN GANGSTER’s theatrical release in 2007 would meet with a degree of controversy, in that some of its real-world subjects accused Scott and company of glamming up, if not outright fabricating, the events depicted in the film.  Any film that’s not a documentary must employ dramatic license— it’s an inherent part of the form.

What truly matters in this context is whether or not the story achieves an emotional truth; whether it successfully stitches the story at hand into the greater tapestry of the human experience.  Thanks to its meticulous period recreation and commanding performances, AMERICAN GANGSTER largely excels towards this end.

For the most part, audiences and critics alike agreed on the film’s pedigree, awarding it with a decent box office return ($130M domestic, $266M worldwide) and mostly-positive reviews (the late Roger Ebert bestowed a rare perfect four-star rating on the picture).  Positioned as an awards contender, AMERICAN GANGSTER ultimately secured just two Oscar nominations— one for Arthur Max’s production design, and the other for Ruby Dee’s supporting performance.

Indeed, Dee’s recognition (and to a lesser extent, Gugino’s memorable performance) over a cadre of muscular male performances — in what could very well be described as an overwhelmingly-masculine film — speaks volumes about Scott’s directorial strength with richly-developed female characters.  Also speaking to Scott’s artistic hallmarks: the release of an Extended Cut with AMERICAN GANGSTER’s debut on home video.

This version, which is most decidedly not a Director’s Cut, brings the film’s running time to just under three hours, containing new sequences that expand on the father/son dynamic that Lucas had with his mentor, “Bumpy” Johnson, as well as an alternate ending that sets up Lucas’ and Roberts’ friendship after the former’s release from prison.

This added information doesn’t necessarily improve AMERICAN GANGSTER’s ultimate standing within Scott’s filmography— indeed, the Theatrical Cut is still the superior version of the film by far.  Now that a decade has passed, it’s evident that true cinematic greatness lies just beyond AMERICAN GANGSTER’s grasp; one wonders if Scott’s initial idea to split the film into two parts might have been the wise move after all.

It’s easier to devour a feast when there’s more people to attack it. Nevertheless, time may yet be kinder still to AMERICAN GANGSTER, blessed with passionate contributions by figures like Scott and Washington working in top form.  More than anything, AMERICAN GANGSTER maintains Scott’s position at the forefront of 21st century studio filmmaking, while suggesting that the best days of his career may still yet be ahead of him.


BODY OF LIES (2008)

The 2000’s were a period of peak productivity for director Sir Ridley Scott, with the venerated filmmaker cranking out no less than nine feature films before the decade would come to a close.  It’s exceedingly rare for any artist, let alone one capable of commanding massive, logistically-complicated productions, to experience a sustained burst of creative energy while pushing seventy years of age.

Yet, here was Scott, busier than ever— a couple gray hairs at his temples being the only physical indicators of his slowly-fading vitality. The timing of this prolonged burst of creativity (I’m reluctant to call it a renaissance) was no accident, however.  It was a direct response to the sociopolitical zeitgeist, when the War on Terror was raging blindly and bluntly throughout the Middle East.

The conflict was of particular interest to Scott, due to his artistic fascination with the phenomenon of xenophobia and his personal affection for the Middle Eastern region.  His strongest work from this period — GLADIATOR (2000), BLACK HAWK DOWN (2001), KINGDOM OF HEAVEN (2005) — dealt (wholly or in part) with this convergence of setting and theme.

When Warner Brothers optioned the rights to author David Ignatius’ counterterrorism/espionage thriller “Body Of Lies” (originally published under the title “Penetration”), Scott likely saw another opportunity to capitalize on his ascendant momentum with a timely foray into the murky ethics of America’s current shadow war.

Body of Lies

It could be argued that the resulting effort, 2008’s BODY OF LIES, is a spiritual sequel to KINGDOM OF HEAVEN.  Despite nearly a millennia of temporal separation between them, the bitter conflict between Western and Eastern ideologies is still very much the same.  Scott would lean into this sentiment by hiring his KINGDOM OF HEAVEN scribe, William Monahan, to adapt Ignatius’ book for the screen.

Much like the real-life conflicts it aspires to portray, BODY OF LIES’ narrative is admittedly muddy and overly-complicated in its telling of a CIA operative’s attempts to draw the head of a dangerous terror cell out from hiding by staging what is essentially a false flag terror attack of his own.  Leonardo DiCaprio plays field agent Roger Ferris, who embarks on a globetrotting quest across far flung locales like Iraq, Dubai, Turkey, and Syria in order to expose the terrorist organization’s reclusive leader, Al-Saleem.

Try as he might to hide behind a veneer of unkempt scruffiness, DiCaprio is simply too famous a face to disappear completely into the role, although the film’s culture of chaos does make great use of his talents for playing desperate and confused characters.  He’s laser focused, yet barely managing to keep his head above water.

Every step he takes is monitored by his boss, Ed Hoffman, who dispatches commands and advice from cushy environs back in Virginia. Played with great relish by Russell Crowe in his third consecutive collaboration with Scott (and fourth overall), Hoffman is a blustering neocon hawk like so many real-world bureaucrats during the W. Bush years.

Crowe is significantly more successful at disappearing into his role than DiCaprio, having gained nearly fifty pounds (!) and dyed his hair a sleek gray while affecting a syrupy southern drawl.  As the chief of the CIA’s Near East Division, Hoffman’s job is to essentially subvert Ferris’, continually running side ops over the head of his man in the field — many of which come into direct conflict with Ferris’ mission objectives.

After a bungled operation that dangled the promise of asylum in America if their informant within the terrorist organization could expose his colleagues, Ferris (and Hoffman, physically absent but ever-present in DiCaprio’s ear) attempts to negotiate a collaboration with Mark Strong’s Hani, the urbane Jordanian Intelligence Chief.

Together, the three concoct a plan to implicate an innocent Jordanian architect in a staged terror attack, betting on the witless man’s very life that he will be contacted by Al-Saleem.  A high-stakes game of cat and mouse ensues, with a series of double-crosses and deceptions that further coil an already-labyrinthine plot that endeavors to compare and contrast the effectiveness of technology against more-primitive, human-based efforts in counterterrorism operations.

If this focus wasn’t ambitious enough, BODY OF LIES also throws in a romantic subplot that finds Ferris angling for the affections of a stern Iranian nurse named Aisha (Golshifteh Farahani).  While it’s debatable whether this romantic subplot actually adds anything to the primary narrative, it goes a long way towards illustrating the vast cultural divide between Western and Middle Eastern cultures, emphasizing the strict expectations of women in the Muslim world.

Indeed, Farahani‘s involvement in the film represents a considerable personal risk on her part, with her performance attracting the ire of the Iranian government for appearing on screen without her hijab (40). She’s joined by a sprawling ensemble cast that includes the likes of Oscar Isaac and Michael Stuhlbarg just prior to their mainstream breakouts— Isaac as Ferris’ partner in Iraq and Stuhlbarg in a brief cameo as Ferris’ attorney back in America, tasked with negotiating the terms of his client’s imminent divorce.

In what is undoubtedly a playful nod to his past canon, Scott drafts his partner Giannina Facio to reprise her GLADIATOR duties as Crowe’s wife.

Produced by Scott and fellow producer Donald De Line on a $70 million budget, BODY OF LIES counters its obfuscation of narrative with a clarity of aesthetic that only he could bring to the fore.  Having previously worked for Scott as a second unit cinematographer in a series of collaborations stretching all the way back to 1989’s BLACK RAINBODY OF LIES presents the opportunity for Alexander Witt to finally obtain his first credit as the main Director Of Photography.

While Witt proves every bit as capable as the cinematographers before him in replicating Scott’s high-contrast aesthetic, his work on BODY OF LIES differs from that of his predecessors by his use of natural light whenever possible.  This results in a far grittier look than the glossier theatricality of Scott’s soundstage work.  The Super 35mm film image deals primarily in the director’s characteristic blue and orange tones, using this warm/cool dichotomy to quickly differentiate the various American and Middle Eastern locales.

While shooting with anamorphic lenses would have given Scott and Witt an organic 2.35:1 aspect ratio, their choice to shoot with spherical lenses instead (and crop the frame in post) points to a desire for a technical precision within the overall picture— or to put it another way, a desire to avoid the anamorphic format’s natural warping and distortion of the image at frame’s edge.

An omniscient “surveillance” aesthetic guides Scott and Witt’s setups, conveying Hoffman’s distant-yet-watchful eye through the use of aerials, zooms, and drone POV setups that complement the close-up handheld chaos on the ground.

Scott populates his frames with his signature atmospherics, constantly layering elements like smoke, dust, billowing flags, silhouettes and lens flares that inject three-dimensional volume into a two-dimensional image.  BODY OF LIES’ visual presentation may not seem particularly impressive on its face, especially considering the flaring dynamicism of his previous works— its admirable complexity lies in the process of its making rather than the final result.

Scott’s absolute command of large-scale production logistics, combined with a clarity of vision that’s without peer, enables him to shoot with no less than three cameras running at any given time. To hear his collaborators tell it, the act of watching Scott direct his multi-cam setups from video village (while editing in his mind) is akin to watching a great conductor confidently leading a grand symphony.

Scott hedges the risk of working with a new cinematographer by enlisting the help of trusted collaborators in other departments, namely: production designer Arthur Max, editor Pietro Scalia, and composer Marc Streitenfeld.

Max continues to make his case as Scott’s most-valued creative partner, helping the director to conjure up immersive environments on a regular basis— to the point that his credits since 2005’s KINGDOM OF HEAVEN have been exclusively for Scott shoots.  BODY OF LIES marks the pair’s fourth adventure to the country of Morocco, where Scott has come to be well-regarded by the government and the locals alike thanks to his critical role in conveying the country’s beauty to the world.

After the film’s political nature derailed initial efforts to shoot in Dubai (3), Scott and company would quickly turn to the familiarity and friendliness of Morocco, which had an existing infrastructure and network they knew they could rely on— because they were the ones who built it.  Beyond his personal fondness for the country (and arid climates in general), it’s not difficult to see why Scott turns to Morocco again and again.

His unparalleled access to local resources essentially turns the entire country into one giant backlot, allowing him to fully indulge in his passion for cinematic worldbuilding.  Much like a studio backlot, he can have an ancient gladiatorial arena, an urban war zone, or a medieval fortress— all within a relatively small area.

It’s a testament to Scott and Max’s logistical resourcefulness that they were able to render BODY OF LIES’ globetrotting narrative using only the US and Morocco, which stands in for several Middle Eastern countries like Iraq, Syria, and Jordan.  Indeed, Morocco offers Scott and Max the same freedom and flexibility as a soundstage, allowing them ample latitude to create an immersive, three-dimensional world full of exotic urban textures, sights, and even smells.

Scalia’s seasoned editing expertise allows the stitching of these disparate sets and locations together with a spatial and narrative continuity, while Streitenfeld’s orchestral, percussive score imbues said continuity with high drama and international intrigue.

One could be forgiven for thinking BODY OF LIES would rank higher in Scott’s filmography— after all, it marries two of the core components of Scott’s artistic profile (a Middle Eastern setting and the theme of xenophobia).  Synergy like that often results in a home run. For all its relevant (and urgent) insights into the War on Terror and the cultural tyranny of seemingly-arbitrary country lines, BODY OF LIES’ inherent complexity is its ultimate undoing.

Scott’s slick aesthetic here often comes at the expense of clarity, justifying the many critical claims that the venerated filmmaker valued style over substance on this particular outing.

There was also the filmmakers’ willing ignorance of the previous failures of post-9/11 films about the Middle East and counterterrorism; the sinking of similarly-themed films at the box office offered repeated proof that there simply was no audience for these kind of works in America— at best, the wounds of September 11th were still too raw, and at worst, the deeply-ingrained culture of Islamophobia repulsed audiences from an otherwise eye-opening night at the megaplex.

BODY OF LIES’ dismal $39M take during its domestic theatrical run (36) reinforced this hard lesson, further illustrating the cultural gulf between America and the rest of the world in light of an international haul that nearly tripled that number.

The strength of its direction and performances — as well as its aesthetic and thematic kinship to BLACK HAWK DOWN and KINGDOM OF HEAVEN — nevertheless make BODY OF LIES a worthy addition to Scott’s canon, even if its ambitious foray into the moral ambiguity of modern spycraft comes up short.


THUNDER PERFECT MIND (2005)

Of director Sir Ridley Scott’s many artistic strengths, his sensitivity to the feminine experience sets him apart from other male filmmakers of his generation.  A childhood governed solely by his mother while his father was fighting World War 2 abroad cemented the idea in Scott’s young mind that women are inherently “strong”, and can display said strength in many ways without resorting to conventionally-“masculine” traits.

Despite his long and celebrated history in commercial directing, this conservative, cigar-chomping male in his late 60’s nevertheless must have seemed like an odd choice to helm branded content for Prada perfume. Indeed, Scott’s inescapably masculine perspective prevents him from fully understanding the complex experiences of womanhood.

Enter: his daughter, Jordan Scott, who shares directing credit on 2005’s THUNDER PERFECT MIND, a five minute tone poem about the many identities and disguises worn by the modern cosmopolitan woman.

THUNDER PERFECT MIND details a series of vignettes that find model Daria Werbowy moving about the sleek 21st-century cityscape of Berlin with a breezy mobility enabled by taxicabs, underground trains, and a propulsive underlying jazz score.

For all its preoccupations with modernity, the lyrical sentiments expressed by Werbowy’s voiceover are actually quite ancient— her words are a verbatim reading of “The Thunder, Perfect Mind”, a Gnostic text written in the 1st or 2nd century AD and thought lost until its rediscovery in 1945 in Nag Hammadi, Egypt.

The idea of the poem’s usage was Jordan’s, and the case should be made that she is the primary creative driver behind THUNDER PERFECT MIND.  The elder Scott’s role in the proceedings is less clear, but his hand is nonetheless evident throughout.

Cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd, who would go on to serve as Scott’s DP for A GOOD YEAR (2006), imbues the 35mm film image with a sleek urbanity that takes full advantage of the clean lines and cavernous contours of its architecturally-striking locales.  A neutral palette employs limited use of striking color against slate and metal tones, giving the piece an overall green/gray/blue hue punctuated by pops of brilliant yellow (a radiant dress) or warm orange (incandescent practicals).

The strongest evidence of the elder Scott’s participation arguably lies in a striking nightclub sequence, which deploys moody atmospherics like smoke, light shafts and lens flares to give depth to an otherwise dark interior.

THUNDER PERFECT MIND’s cinematic pedigree afforded a premiere at Berlinale— an honor not usually accorded to branded content.  Its arrival also heralded Scott’s increasing inclusion of his family into his artistic process. He was already slipping his partner, Giannina Facio, into any cameo he could since 2000’s GLADIATOR, but what’s rather remarkable is that all three of his children — Jordan, Luke, and Jake — chose to follow in his directorial footsteps.

Like their father, they would thrive in the commercial world, building upon the foundations he had established with RSA. In recent years, they have become more involved in his theatrical work as well, crafting side shorts and other content to support recent works like PROMETHEUS (2012), ALIEN: COVENANT (2017) and BLADE RUNNER 2049 (2017).

As of this writing, Jordan is the only Scott child to share full directing credit with the elder Ridley, and he seems to largely cede the ego of his craft into the background in a bid to let his daughter’s burst forth— a testament to the venerated filmmaker’s admiration and profound respect for the power of womanhood.


ROBIN HOOD (2010)

If mainstream American cinema in the 21st century has been marked by any one dominant trend, it is this: intellectual property.  As studio budgets soar ever higher, necessitating inflated ticket prices at the box office, producers have found they need to hedge their creative bets in order to draw increasingly choosy audiences.

The best way to guarantee an audience, it turns out, is to have an audience already built in. Enter: intellectual property, a broad and rather vague term that describes an avalanche of pre-existing content that can be licensed, borrowed, or purchased, with a pre-existing audience that can be harnessed to produce blockbuster returns.

As a result, studios have sacked original ideas in favor of an endless parade of sequels, prequels, reboots, remakes, YA novel adaptations, and “shared universes”. Another avenue, which has resulted in some of the more morbidly curious (if not outright awful) “units of content” this decade, is the “reimagining” of a public domain property.

Arguably the most cynical of major studio strategies, these stories are free to use by all, so executives can skip the optioning cost as they commission the latest writer-du-jour to rework or “update” these inherently-old ideas for modern tastes.

One need look no further than this weekend’s theatrical offerings to see this strategy in sad, unimaginative motion: Otto Bathurst’s ROBIN HOOD (2018) endeavors to update the swashbuckling vigilante for the Snapchat generation with a pandering H&M street-art aesthetic, only for its efforts to be rewarded with one of the most abysmal critical and financial performances of the year.

It’s ironic to be writing this article as the film self-immolates in an inferno of laughter and humiliation, if only because Universal already failed eight years ago with its own “dark-and-gritty” approach to the character. That film, also titled ROBIN HOOD (2010), shares its successor’s sad distinction of flaming out in a spectacular display of capitalistic hubris.

The meddling of its director turned what was originally one of the more promising takes on the property into a bland, occasionally-entertaining film that’s forgotten almost as quickly as it’s taken in.  The project originated with a script by Ethan Reiff and Cyrus Voris called NOTTINGHAM, which sparked a seven-figure bidding war simply by flipping the moral polarity of Robin Hood and his arch nemesis, the Sheriff of Nottingham.

Structured as a crime procedural, NOTTINGHAM could have played like a medieval HEAT (1995), accomplishing the rare feat of actually adding value and insight into the adaptation of centuries-old material.  Producer Brian Grazer, of Imagine Entertainment, would ultimately win said bidding war, subsequently attaching Russell Crowe in a peculiar scheme that would have seen the actor play both roles.

As painful as it is to say, things began to go off the rails when director Sir Ridley Scott became involved. After previously attempting to secure NOTTINGHAM’s rights for himself and Twentieth Century Fox, he leveraged his relationship with Grazer from AMERICAN GANGSTER (2007) so that he could make the film anyway.

The seasoned director seemed the perfect fit on paper: he had a fruitful working relationship with both Grazer and Crowe, he had an unimpeachable track record for navigating large-scale production logistics, he had a profound interest in medieval history and culture, and he felt there was much more to say with the character in the cinematic medium— indeed, he cited 1993’s ROBIN HOOD: MEN IN TIGHTS as the only version of the story he found worth a damn.

For all of NOTTINGHAM’s buzz, Scott’s ultimate dissatisfaction with the script compelled him to ditch such an extremely revisionist take in favor of a mildly-revisionist one that could subsequently launch a successful franchise.  Screenwriter Brian Helgeland was brought aboard to dramatically rewrite the film, shifting the focus back towards Robin Hood’s favor, and ultimately dropping everything that made NOTTINGHAM so distinctive.

Instead, Scott’s take on the Robin Hood legend would ditch any high-concept pretenses whatsoever in order to craft a straightforward adventure that’s bogged down by a slavish devotion to realism and attention to historical detail.  The end result is an autopilot epic, driven forward only by the demands of narrative rather than any genuine inspiration.

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Much like BATMAN BEGINS (2005) and other gritty reboots of the day, Scott’s ROBIN HOOD orients itself as something of an origin story, giving audiences a glimpse of the man behind the legend.  It is the turn of the 12th century, and the future Prince of Thieves is a common archer in King Richard The Lionheart’s army.

Last seen in Scott’s own KINGDOM OF HEAVEN (2005) as he set off on a crusade to retake Jerusalem, King Richard (played here by a bearded, wild-eyed Danny Huston) is now returning to England with his vast army— of which Crowe’s Robin Longstride is a lowly member of the rank-and-file. He’s a natural leader of men, but his quiet virtues haven’t been given much of a chance to present themselves until now.

Donning a similar haircut to Crowe’s character in GLADIATOR (2000), Robin is introduced as a man who could very much be a Maximus in his own right, and perhaps that’s why the actor’s portrayal is so lackluster. He’s already played this character before, and yet he doesn’t seize the opportunity of ROBIN HOOD to add anything new to the archetype.

Arguably the most fascinating aspect of Crowe’s performance lies on the other side of the camera lens— after four smooth and successful collaborations, Crowe and Scott’s chemistry was reportedly beginning to fray.  At the risk of speculation, the key factor at play here could very well have been Crowe’s promotion to a co-producer role, where he had previously only been the talent.

The director-actor relationship had likely kept these two considerably large egos in check, but one can see how Crowe’s direct challenges or contributions to Scott’s decisions might have caused the relationship to go south, to the point that they haven’t worked together since.

The story begins in earnest during King Richard’s unsuccessful attempt to invade Chalus Castle in France— an act that results in the King’s untimely death.  Already unhappy with the King’s leadership, Robin takes the opportunity to desert, taking a handful of cohorts with him who will eventually become his fabled Merry Men.

They come across the bloody aftermath of an ambush on the English royal guard in the woods, their mission to deliver Richard’s crown to his successor cut violently short by Sir Godfrey, a treasonous English knight secretly in league with the King of France.

Fresh off his first collaboration with Scott on BODY OF LIES (2008), a bald Mark Strong breathes deceptive, calculating life into the unfamiliar character of Godfrey, becoming the de facto antagonist of Robin’s origin story as he carries out a plot against his own country.  Discovering Richard’s crown still tucked away in the saddle of his trusty horse, Robin and company disguise themselves as the massacred royal guard members and make their way back to England.

Upon their arrival, Robin and his men deliver the crown to Richard’s brother and successor, Prince John. Like Strong, actor Oscar Isaac delivers his second consecutive performance for Scott after appearing in BODY OF LIES, receiving a much meatier role this time around as England’s cruel and vindictive new ruler, who immediately embarks on a bloody campaign to recoup taxes owed to the crown.

After the coronation, Robin fulfills a promise he made to Robert Loxley, one of the dying royal guard members back in France: return his sword to his father, Sir Walter Loxley, a property owner of modest wealth who reside in Nottingham, outside Sherwood Forest.  Played by prestigious character actor Max Von Sydow, the blind Loxley proves a compassionate, father-like figure to Robin, his agrarian spread a welcome place to put up his feet a while.

He also, unexpectedly, finds love— in having to continue assuming the guise of the late Robert Loxley in order to evade suspicions of his desertion, Robin develops a relationship with the dead man’s widow, Marion.  Played by Cate Blanchett, this version of Marion is certainly no Maid; she’s every bit the fighter Robin is.

Fierce, independent-minded, and defiant to unjust authority, Blanchett’s characterization of Marion is a testament to her unique strengths as an actress, as well as Scott’s rich history of well-developed heroines. Her affections are not awarded so easily, taking nothing less than Robin’s recovery of the village’s unjustly-tithed grain to win her over.

The major players of the legend now established, Scott and Helgeland concoct an action-packed plot in which Robin can emerge as the age-old hero we know and love.  Robin’s reputation of “stealing from the rich to give to the poor” grows as he fights back against King John and Godfrey’s campaign to hoard the country’s riches for themselves.

This being a $200 million epic, however, this scenario alone doesn’t satisfy the “high-stakes” requirement of a major studio tent pole, so naturally Robin, Marion, and his Merry Men inevitably find themselves swept up in the grand scope of history, propelled along towards the white cliffs of Dover to meet the King of France’s invasion forces head on in a bloody battle for England’s future.

This imperiled future concerns several other notable characters, played by a variety of established and emerging performers that imbue ROBIN HOOD with a prestigious pedigree.  There’s William Hurt, playing a noble counselor to King John, as well as Lea Seydoux, playing a conflicted French princess who graduates from John’s mistress to his new Queen.

Robin’s band of Merry Men benefits from their close-knit friendship, made palpable onscreen by virtue of their real friendship off-camera. Mark Addy (Friar Tuck), Kevin Durand (Little John), Scott Grimes (Will Scarlet) and Alan Doyle (Allan A’Dayle) were cast by Crowe himself, who leveraged his co-producer credit to ensure he and his Merry Men would have a strong, pre-established chemistry.

An assumingly-essential character, however, is lost in the sweep of ROBIN HOOD’s scale: the Sheriff of Nottingham, played by Matthew Macfadyen.  His limited screen time is all the more perplexing when reminded that the original incarnation of the project positioned him as the protagonist.  Macfadyen plays the Sheriff as a corrupt, yet ineffectual bureaucrat; more of a laughing-stock than a feared man of power.

It’s only towards the end that his role in the proceedings takes on any clarity, setting up an arch-rival relationship to Robin that could be explored in theoretical sequels.

If ROBIN HOOD ultimately fails as a rewarding film, it’s certainly not due to a lack of top-notch effort on the part of Scott’s technical collaborators.  ROBIN HOOD reunites most of the core GLADIATOR team, including cinematographer John Mathieson, production designer Arthur Max and editor Pietro Scalia.

Adopting the template established by Scott’s 2000 masterpiece and further built upon in KINGDOM OF HEAVENROBIN HOOD aspires to be a monumental historical epic in the director’s signature style.

Scott’s execution plays like a strange hybrid of Stanley Kubrick’s BARRY LYNDON (1975) and Steven Spielberg’s SAVING PRIVATE RYAN (1998), mixing classical camerawork with chaotic and visceral handheld movement during action sequences like the climactic beachside battle (which plays very much like the medieval version of D-Day, complete with soldiers jumping off protective landing boats to storm the coast amidst a hail of lethal projectiles).

At this stage in his creative partnership with Scott, Mathieson can replicate his director’s distinct aesthetic in his sleep, resulting in a visual experience that seemingly retreats two steps back towards safety for every step it takes towards artistic evolution. Like most of Scott’s previous work, ROBIN HOOD was shot on 35mm film in the appropriately-epic 2.35:1 aspect ratio, rendering his signature atmospherics like smoke, candles, silhouettes, and beams of concentrated light with a moody blue/orange color dichotomy.

The film does, however, attempt to expand upon Scott’s tried-and-true aesthetic by employing the conspicuous use of helicopter aerials and recurring, sometimes-jarring slow zooms that immediately call to mind BARRY LYNDON’s distinct visual style.

Scott further hammers home the BARRY LYNDON reference with the use of “Women Of Ireland”, a composition that marks the opening passages of Kubrick’s stately masterpiece; in ROBIN HOOD, it appears during a dance between Robin and Marion during a party in the village.  Its tender, romantic flavor complements Streitenfeld’s adventurous score, which leans in to its medieval backdrop with the deployment of bagpipes and choral elements against traditional orchestration.

Indeed, ROBIN HOOD comes across as much-more overtly romantic compared to similar historical epics like GLADIATOR or KINGDOM OF HEAVEN.  In a way, it wasn’t so much those films that adequately prepared Scott to construct this balance of adventure and romance, but rather works like LEGEND (1985) or even A GOOD YEAR (2006).

Scott’s balance doesn’t seem quite as level as he intended, however— he’s clearly more interested in the medieval warfare and his Iron Age mise-en-scene than the sappy stuff.  Thankfully, he excels at making his interests our interests, employing his longtime collaboration with Max towards evocative and immersive effect.

The production design is arguably ROBIN HOOD’s strongest suit, perfectly capturing the grit and grime that pervaded pastoral towns and stone fortresses alike.  Nottingham comes alive like no other adaptation has done before, benefiting from Scott and Max’s exacting attention to detail in both the micro (rats picking over the leftovers of a feast) and the macro (the distinctive colors worn by opposing armies as they charge towards one another).

One could argue that it’s all a little too much, to the point that Scott’s biggest strength tips over into ROBIN HOOD’s biggest liability.  The legend of Robin Hood is one of swashbuckling adventure— a tone that’s buried underneath the densely-layered and historically-accurate worldbuilding, or the gravely-imperial machinations of medieval politics.

Indeed, it seems that the only fun Scott allows himself to have lies in the closing credits, which render key images from the film in blustering brushstrokes not at all dissimilar to the treatment of the Scott Free logo that precedes his recent features.

Scott has always been an exceedingly ambitious filmmaker, but his particular ambitions with the top-heavy ROBIN HOOD threaten to topple his reputation as a deft navigator of intimidating production logistics.  The inability to nail down an exact story until relatively late in the game (famed British playwright Tom Stoppard was reportedly on hand throughout the shoot to deliver last-minute rewrites (1)) caused ROBIN HOOD’s budget to balloon to $200 million, ushering in the need for a huge box office take in order to make the whole endeavor worthwhile, let alone justify a sequel.

The prospect of a franchise was quickly ruled out by a disappointing bow of $320 million worldwide: a profit, technically-speaking, but low enough to qualify as a belly flop here in the States (1).  The film’s opening of the Cannes Film Festival remains the highlight of its release, with critics thereafter delivering mostly-negative reviews. Relevant Magazine’s David Roak would express the general sentiment best when he wrote: “Scott had turned a myth… into a history which emerges as dry, insensible clutter” (3).

Any hopes that Scott had a BLADE RUNNER or KINGDOM OF HEAVEN-style hidden gem stashed away in the form of an extended cut were quickly dashed upon ROBIN HOOD’s arrival on the home video market.  The included “Director’s Cut” would add an additional fifteen minutes to the overall runtime, but little else.  More of a marketing hook than an actualized expression of some compromised vision, Scott’s “Director’s Cut” fails to yield any substantial — let alone transformative — insights.

If anything, its existence only reinforces the notion that ROBIN HOOD’s flaws were not the product of studio meddling, but that of Scott’s general approach to the property.  First-rate production value aside, ROBIN HOOD embodies a top-form, world-class filmmaker simply treading water.  There are far worse ways one could spend two hours, but Scott’s shot at the Prince of Thieves is so loaded down with the baggage of medieval politics that it can’t help but miss its mark.


PROMETHEUS (2012)

My first brush with Sir Ridley Scott in the physical world was in 2008, when I glimpsed him leading a march of collaborators across the sterile boulevard of Warner Brother’s New York backlot.  Little did I know then that it wouldn’t be the last time I would come so close to his orbit.

Three years later, I would find myself at the Scott Free offices in West Hollywood, interviewing for a position assisting Scott’s then-left-hand man, producer Michael Ellenberg.  This second brush would be far less direct, culminating in a brief meeting with Ellenberg’s assistant on an upper-level patio. I remember wanting this particular job very badly, despite the high level of stress and workload it would inevitably entail.

To interface with Scott himself in such a close manner would have been nothing short of a dream, especially when considering that, at the time, he was working on his long-awaited return to the ALIEN franchise— 2012’s PROMETHEUS.

The job undoubtedly would have provided a glimpse into the making of the film from the inside, but thankfully, Scott’s zeal for supplementing the home video releases of his work with extensive behind-the-scenes presentations has offered an exceedingly-detailed insight into PROMETHEUS’ making— and all without having to fetch anybody coffee.

Scott had been a key player in the revitalization of science fiction cinema in the 1970’s, with his breakout ALIEN (1979) quickly following on the heels of STAR WARS’ earth-shattering success.  Naturally, the prospect of his return to the genre for the first time since 1982’s BLADE RUNNER left fanboys and critics alike foaming at the mouth, so the story had to be reflective of three decades’ worth of pent-up anticipation.

Scott already knew the entry point for this new outing: since the 1979 original, he had been fascinated by the mystery of what he called “The Space Jockey”, an interstellar traveler whose calcified husk Ripley and her crew come across during their exploration of a ruined spaceship that crashed onto the surface of planet LV-426.  He had long wondered who exactly that Space Jockey was, and why it was left to rot amongst a field of xenomorph eggs.

The project that would ultimately become PROMETHEUS rose from the ashes of another failed ALIEN sequel, which would have seen Scott unite with ALIENS director James Cameron had it not been for Twentieth Century Fox’s insistence on also developing the crossover ALIEN VS. PREDATOR in the early 2000’s.

While Cameron bailed outright, Scott continued to sniff around the idea of another ALIEN; still mystified by the Space Jockey’s enigma.  Around this same time, emerging screenwriter Jon Spaihts was making quite a name for himself off the strength of his spec script, PASSENGERS— a high-concept science fiction adventure that would ultimately manifest in 2016 as a bloated box-office catastrophe starring Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence.

Scott took a meeting with Spaihts, who subsequently pitched his idea for an ALIEN prequel on the spot. Scott was so enamored with his take — positing that the Space Jockey was a member of an ancient interstellar race that seeded the Earth with life — that he immediately commenced Spaihts on a full draft.

First titled ALIEN: GENESIS, Spaiht’s script detailed two origin stories: that of the iconic xenomorphs, as well as our own as the genetic descendants of godlike alien beings called Engineers.  For all its unique ambitions, Spaiht’s script still reportedly hewed too close to ALIEN franchise conventions for Scott’s liking.  He subsequently commissioned a dramatic rewrite from Damon Lindelof, a writer currently experiencing his Big Moment in the pop zeitgeist thanks to the success of the television series LOST.  This, arguably, is where things began to go wrong.

Sidebar: I try hard not to editorialize too much with these essays, as I believe THE DIRECTORS SERIES should not critique, but rather analyze and reflect.  That said, I personally cannot stand Lindelof. I understand his appeal, and his value within the Hollywood machine, but I have always found his skill as a writer to be severely lacking, derivative, and emotionally bankrupt.

Of course, I’m no Paddy Chayefsky myself, but something about the dude’s whole vibe just doesn’t sit right with me. I’ll give the man credit in having the instinct to move the story away from the ALIEN mythology, towards a tangentially-related, yet wholly-unique one.  Admittedly, this was exactly what the stale ALIEN franchise needed: a shot in the arm, a radical up-ending of established formula and theme.

I say this is where things went wrong in the sense that, as compelling as Lindelof’s ambitious approach promised to be, it’s my opinion that his reach far exceeded his grasp.  Ambition begat unwieldy storytelling, resulting in a muddled plot that prompts more questions than answers.

The finished film’s reception bears this out — Scott’s impeccable direction and the committed performances of its ensemble were frequently hailed as visionary, whereas the harshest words were reserved for a muddled screenplay that fumbled its most salient ideas with hamstrung character dynamics and some profoundly-stupid actions.

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Over the course of forty-plus years and nineteen feature films, Scott had covered nearly every genre but had yet to make a sequel to his own work.  2001’s HANNIBAL was a sequel, yes, but to Jonathan Demme’s SILENCE OF THE LAMBS (1991).  Whether he had a personal aversion, or the opportunity had just never presented itself, this was one of the last blind spots left in Scott’s extensive filmography.

This might explain when Scott initially hired commercial director Carl Erik Rinsch to helm PROMETHEUS— a choice ostensibly made to mitigate his risk of “sequel stench”, that is until Fox threatened to shut development down entirely if Scott himself didn’t direct (3).  He apparently decided the ideas expressed in the film were too pressing or evocative to be left unsaid, and thus reunited with ALIEN producers David Giler and Walter Hill for the first time in thirty years.

Taking its title from the eponymous Greek myth about a Titan who stole fire from Zeus and gifted it to mankind, only to suffer an agonizing punishment for all of eternity, PROMETHEUS sets forth into  the deepest reaches of the universe in search of forbidden, God-destroying revelations about humanity’s origins.

After a brief prologue that finds a marble-white Engineer seeding a primordial Earth with life in a manner resembling ritual sacrifice, the story picks up again in 2089 AD, in the wilds of Scotland.  A small archeology team led by Dr. Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Dr. Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) venture into a dark cave in search of an ancient painting that matches similar ones they’d previously found all over the world.

These paintings point to what they hypothesize to be a distant star system— home to these enigmatic creators of humanity. Four years later, they are onboard the starship Prometheus en route to said star system, specifically: LV-223, a small moon orbiting a massive ringed gas planet.  The crew’s mission upon arrival: find any traces of our ancient celestial ancestors and, if possible, make contact.

Like the title suggests, this ragtag crew of scientists and technicians are bound to learn far more than they bargained for— not only are the Engineers are our creators, but our destroyers as well, having developed horrific biological weapons of mass destruction.

Despite billing itself as an entity altogether separate from the ALIEN franchise, PROMETHEUS nevertheless evidences its cinematic lineage by adhering to a similar template.  While our first glimpse of anything resembling our beloved xenomorph doesn’t occur until the very end, these terrifying creatures operate in nearly the same way: once they’ve infected their host (often through violent means), their offspring rapidly gestates inside the host’s body until it’s ready to burst forth from within.

The character dynamics of the Prometheus crew also take a page from the ALIEN ensemble playbook, featuring an eclectic mix of personalities that convey just how democratized and accessible interstellar space travel has become in Scott’s vision of the late 21st century.  Rapace’s Dr. Shaw fulfills the obligatory Ripley archetype, her presence serving as a nod to the importance that the franchise (and Scott) places on strong heroines.

That said, Dr. Shaw is very much not Ripley.  Her occupation as a scientist and her deeply-held beliefs as a Christian strike an odd, yet intriguing juxtaposition, throwing the film’s thematic exploration of science vs. religion into stark relief.  Like Ripley, she’s unbelievably strong and determined, but she is not what one might call a “badass” — her naive curiosity simply gives way to tactical determination as things go from bad to unimaginably worse, prompting a nightmarish test of faith.

Marshall-Green, a Tom Hardy-lookalike best known at this point for his brief stint on THE O.C., plays Shaw’s partner— in life as well as work.  His Dr. Holloway is a very bad scientist; he’s not incompetent, but he has trouble restraining a brash impulsiveness that often gets him into trouble.  The discipline required by the scientific method is too much to ask of Dr. Holloway, who Marshall-Green has described as an “X-Games” archaeologist.

While the pair of Shaw and Holloway present themselves as the verifiable protagonists, Scott’s true narrative interest lies instead with Michael Fassbender’s David, an earlier iteration of android like Ian Holms’ Ash or Lance Henriksen’s Bishop.  Indeed, David is easily the film’s most interesting and promising element— an organic robot able to mimic his human creators to near-perfection, and is, in many ways, humanity’s superior.

Cold, calculating, and impossibly elegant, Fassbender’s mesmerizing performance is endlessly watchable as he works behind the scenes to drive the film’s dizzying sequence of events.  Unlike the androids seen in previous ALIEN films, David feels no need to blend in with his human counterparts; the knowledge that he’s a superior being allows his smug detachment from their trivial human dramas.

Like Shaw, he is scientifically curious too, but his is a much more malevolent curiosity, conducting experiments on his crewmates like someone testing chemicals on animals.  With so many other impeccable performances to his credit, Fassbender’s work as David counts as a career-best, yielding no shortage of surprises in the film’s exploration of beings interacting with their creators.

Scott rounds out the rest of his PROMETHEUS ensemble with a sterling collection of character actors, all of whom are granted their own moment to expound upon the film’s ambitious thematics.  Idris Elba channels the “truckers in space” flair of ALIEN’s Nostromo crew in his performance as Janek, the laidback and aloof captain of the spaceship Prometheus.

Having appeared previously in a bit part in Scott’s AMERICAN GANGSTER (2007), Elba gets a sustained chance to display his undeniable charisma here, giving PROMETHEUS several moments of much-needed comic relief without disrupting the careful balance of tone.  Charlize Theron plays Meredith Vickers— the sleek, chilly face of the Weyland Corporation.

Having bankrolled this trillion-dollar mission, her employer has tasked her with making sure the money is spent wisely, and that the fruits of their discovery can be properly exploited for maximum profit.  Originally cast as Shaw before scheduling conflicts forced her to drop out (1), Theron was able to later rejoin the production as Vickers, who proves that just because she’s one of the corporate fat-cats doesn’t mean she’s a physical weakling.

In matching Shaw’s courage and strength, Vickers becomes her inverted mirror image— the icy brain to Shaw’s fiery heart.  Guy Pearce buries himself under pounds of old-age makeup and prosthetics to play her employer, Peter Weyland. The insanely-wealthy, decrepit namesake of the Weyland Corporation, he could have been a Gilded Age industrialist had he been born a few centuries earlier.

Filled with grandiose visions of immortality and cosmic domination, Weyland has spent his life building a corporate empire that operates more akin to a city-state than a business, and the Prometheus mission represents an opportunity for him to attain the immortal godliness that has so far eluded him.  Pearce’s casting in the role is somewhat curious— it made sense when he played a younger version of the character delivering a futuristic TED Talk for a promotional short, but one wonders why an older actor wasn’t considered for PROMETHEUS proper.

Certainly, a situation that saw long hours in the makeup chair in exchange for an ultimately-unconvincing effect could have been avoided had Scott gone with someone like, say, Max Von Sydow.  Funnily enough, Scott initially had Sydow in mind for the role, but a planned sequence depicting a younger Weyland interacting with David via a hypersleep dream interface necessitated a continuity of actor— hence, a younger man trying his best to play an age in the triple-digits.

That said, since the scene in question was never filmed, the audience has no way of reconciling this casting quirk unless they were to take the deep dive into PROMETHEUS’ making-of documentaries.  Still other actors emerge for brief stints in the spotlight, be it Sean Harris’ punk geologist, Rafe Spall’s monumentally-dumb biologist, Benedict Wong’s stoic co-pilot, or Patrick Wilson in a brief cameo as Shaw’s father, seen by David as he watches her dreams during hypersleep.

PROMETHEUS heralds a major inflection point in the development of Scott’s technical aesthetic, being his first major effort captured with digital cameras.  The film rides the wave of 3D releases directly following Cameron’s AVATAR (2009), but avoids the fate of a hasty post-conversion by shooting with three dimensions in mind from the start.

The transition from the old-school celluloid world to the digital 3D one can be daunting for any filmmaker, let alone one of Scott’s pedigree (and age, honestly), so hiring the right cinematographer would be crucial. Despite a fruitful working relationship with longtime cinematographer John Mathieson, Scott needed a cameraman who not only understood the advantages and quirks of digital capture, but who also knew how to navigate the complicated rigging of 3D acquisition.

Towards this end, Scott would look to Dariusz Wolski, who previously had worked with brother Tony on films like CRIMSON TIDE (1995) and THE FAN (1996).  Considering that Wolski has gone on to shoot all of Scott’s subsequent theatrical work to date, it’s safe to say their initial collaboration on PROMETHEUS was a successful one.

Scott was already well-versed in shooting with multiple cameras simultaneously, conducting the action between a cluster of monitors in video village like it was a grand symphony.  The arrival of 3D allows Scott to crank his “command center” into overdrive, rigging up a fleet of Red Epics with stereoscopic wiring and flashy high-definition monitors that allow him to tweak a frame’s depth effect with the simple twist of a knob.

His signature visual aesthetic quite easily makes the leap into the digital realm, its inherent malleability enabling Scott unparalleled control over his characteristic high-contrast lighting and cold color tones — rendered in PROMETHEUS via a steely palette of grays, greens and blues punctuated by the occasional pop of orange piping on a spacesuit, the shock red of a mapping drone’s lasers, or the glaring chartreuse of onboard helmet lights.

The lightness and mobility of digital cameras enables Scott to easily set up majestic aerials and swooping cranes that capture the primordial alien vistas of Iceland with a staggering sense of scale. Their nimble, compact nature also allows him to get up-close and personal with a series of “helmet-cam” POV shots that place the audience directly onto the barren surface of LV-223.

As expected, Scott populates his sleek 2.39:1 frame with atmospheric layers that make returning production designer Arthur Max’s sets come alive with sparks, ash, silhouettes, lens flares, and the humid mists of a post-historic world.

One of the key aspects of Scott’s interest in returning to the ALIEN franchise is the opportunity to reinvent and expand the franchise’s mythology.  The science fiction genre, far more so than any other, allows Scott to indulge his love of worldbuilding by creating a whole universe from scratch.

An ambitious vision demands an equally ambitious execution, and every set — nay, every frame — of PROMETHEUS boasts the rich detail we’ve come to expect from Scott and Max’s harmonious partnership. Anything and everything within a given shot is the product of an extreme attention to detail and impeccable craftsmanship.

Realizing Scott’s vision for PROMETHEUS was always going to require a great deal of CGI (indeed, the film is his most VFX-heavy to date), but he and Max resist the temptation wherever possible by prioritizing whatever can be captured in-camera.

Where many filmmakers would simply resign themselves to creating LV-223 entirely inside a computer, Scott and Max construct PROMETHEUS’ starkly-beautiful and foreboding planet via a combination of Iceland’s slate-gray tundras and expansive sets that evoke H.R. Giger’s organic-machine aesthetic from the original ALIEN (indeed, Scott even went so far as to bring Giger himself back for early design consultations).

Max built these cavernous sets on the sound stages at Pinewood Studios in England, and it has to say something about the scope of Scott’s vision that Max had to actually construct add-ons to the iconic 007 Stage (one of the largest in the world) because it was still too small (2).  Longtime editor Pietro Scalia and composer Marc Streitenfeld also lend their considerable talents to PROMETHEUS’ core team, with the latter‘s evocative and ominous score reprising key components of Jerry Goldsmith’s theme for ALIEN.

A key innovation finds Streitenfeld recording his suite of mournful horns, tense strings, and low-throated choral elements backwards, which he then reversed with digital tools so as to achieve an extremely subtle, yet profoundly unnerving musical effect.

The idea is not at all dissimilar to a visual technique employed by Francis Ford Coppola in BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA (1992), wherein he shot one of Dracula’s brides ascending a staircase backwards, and then reversed the motion in playback to add an intangible “creepy factor” to her slow descent.

Frederic Chopin’s “Raindrop Prelude” adds an elegant, classical flair to Scott’s introduction of the David character, serving as a musical echo of the android’s cybernetic sophistication while nodding towards the profound influence that Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968) undoubtedly holds over PROMETHEUS (as well as any science fiction film of this magnitude).

Scott’s use of a classical track during David’s introduction is far from a case of a director simply referencing one of his favorite films (although that can be seen in David’s watching and quoting of LAWRENCE OF ARABIA (1962) — a cornerstone influence of Scott’s visual aesthetic, references to which pop up several times throughout his filmography).

The thematic equivalency Scott makes between the timeless compositions of the nineteenth-century Romantic era and David’s near-perfect emulation of humanity underscores a core concern fueling the director’s work in the science fiction genre: the perils of artificial intelligence.

BLADE RUNNER — and to a lesser extent, ALIEN — may traffick in the idea of subservient creations gone rogue, but PROMETHEUS provides a jumping-off point for a deep dive into the various ethical quandaries engendered by Mankind becoming God via the creation of artificial life.

The film’s very title implies this road leads only to apocalyptic ruin; the closer mankind comes to godliness through technological progressions like artificial intelligence and interstellar space travel, the more we risk self-annihilation by the physical and psychological monsters we unwittingly unleash.  After all, we immediately weaponized our newfound ability to recreate the energy of a star by putting those innovations to use in the atom bomb.

Funnily enough, Scott’s interest in this arena results in a franchise crossover far more organic than the woefully-misguided ALIEN VS. PREDATOR— fans of both ALIEN and BLADE RUNNER had long suspected the two properties might share a singular universe, but PROMETHEUS’ Blu Ray supplements cemented the notion into canon by revealing Weyland had been a protege of BLADE RUNNER’s Eldon Tyrell, whose Tyrell Corporation had been responsible for the invention and development of androids known as Replicants.

The Weyland-Yutani corporation was born when Peter Weyland spurned his mentor’s ideas about the Replicant program in favor of what he considered to be a more sophisticated approach to androids, eventually culminating in PROMETHEUS’ David.

In presenting three “generations” of self-aware beings (Engineers, humans, and androids), PROMETHEUS puts a distinct twist on Scott’s career-long exploration of xenophobia, whereby each racial generation becomes so consumed by their minor differences that they fail to recognize their greater similarities.

Mankind finds itself caught in the middle, spurned by godlike ancestor and robotic successor alike as an inferior life form better suited to extinction instead of proliferation. The sweeping timescale of PROMETHEUS, beginning at the dawn of life on earth and ending sometime in the distant 21st century, allows Scott to pack in compelling philosophical ideas about our origins while framing the central conflict as a battle between science and religion— indeed, Holloway and other members onboard the Prometheus make a lot of noise about how their making contact with the Engineers will immediately render all religion obsolete.

And yet, after Man has finally met its maker in the most gruesome of meet-cutes, Dr. Shaw’s Christian faith holds stronger than ever. Contrast this with Weyland, a man with a severe God complex who expires in a state of profound despair when he encounters nothing but a black, empty void at the gates of death.

This struggle between faith and logic — and moreover, the suggestion that both can co-exist — gives PROMETHEUS an added resonance, especially when one takes into account that (spoilers) Shaw is the only human crew member to escape LV-223 alive.  The reductive, kneejerk interpretation would be that humanity discovers the science behind our origins at our own peril, and we should simply retreat to the blissful ignorance of religion instead.  Such an interpretation misses the mark by a light-mile.

PROMETHEUS instead suggests that mankind’s ability to hold fast to our faith is the very quality that makes our species special amongst all others.  Yes, it may very well keep our eyes down to the earth beneath our feet, impeding us from realizing our full evolutionary potential. But in a time of crisis, it also allows us to imagine a different fate for ourselves.  Science may give us reason, but faith gives us hope— and in the end, that can be the crucial difference between extinction or survival.

As arguably one of the most anticipated movies of all time, there’s no way PROMETHEUS could have met everyone’s expectations… but damned if it didn’t try.  Scott’s ambitious vision of the future is packed with so many great ideas, like its attempt to weavethe Engineers’ earthly manipulations in throughout ancient antiquity, or a harrowing emergency cesarean setpiece that could confidently stand toe-to-toe with the original ALIEN’s chestbursting scene.

The drawback of Scott’s approach, however, is that there just might be too many ideas; so many that a central, unifying idea gets lost in the muddle of ideological tangents and structural genre demands.  The film’s lineage as an ALIEN offshoot drove $400 million in worldwide box office receipts, cementing its legacy as a global financial success even though the domestic takeaway was considered something of a disappointment.

This mixed performance was replicated on the critical side, wherein a bulk of the negative reviews were no doubt fueled by thwarted expectations for a return to the franchise’s narrative conventions.  The general air of disappointment upon release was so thick that it’s easy to overlook that PROMETHEUS was actually reviewed positively by the majority of critics— their praise centering mostly on Fassbender’s compelling performance and the staggering grandeur of Scott’s visuals.

It was even nominated for an Oscar come awards season, in the form of a Best Visual Effects nod.

For all its flaws — perceived or real — PROMETHEUS is the movie that Scott set out to make.  He won’t hesitate to release a Director’s Cut if he feels his vision has been tampered with in any way, so it really says something that he turned Fox down when they later asked him to create a new version for home video.

Make no mistake, the Theatrical cut of PROMETHEUS is Scott’s definitive cut.  There are those who felt so burned with disappointment that they will never revisit the film or give it a second chance, and that’s fine. PROMETHEUS isn’t for them.

PROMETHEUS is for the perpetually curious; those who are prone to wander, to wonder about our place in the universe, or about what monsters might be hiding out there in the dark.  Masterpiece or no, Scott’s return to the ALIEN mythology nevertheless marks a career that has come full circle, bringing a subsequent lifetime’s worth of insight and experience along with it.

His re-engagement with the properties that built his career might suggest an old man looking backwards to his heyday, but the progressive and ambitious vision laid out in PROMETHEUS, its 2017 sequel ALIEN: COVENANT, and even BLADE RUNNER 2049 (2017) tell a different story: that of a man far too busy to focus on something as trivial as “legacy” when there are still countless new worlds to build and explore.


THE COUNSELOR (2013)

The runaway success of NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN (2007), Joel and Ethan Coen’s Oscar-winning adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s pitch-black western-noir novel, kicked off a frenzy to bring the rest of the author’s library to the screen.  Known throughout the literary community for his gripping, terse writing style, McCarthy was the author of several books ripe for translation to cinema screens.

The subject of one such effort was his 1985 novel, BLOOD MERIDIAN, which many filmmakers have tried to tackle over the ensuing years to little effect.  Director Sir Ridley Scott had spearheaded one such effort for a time, and while he too was unable to get the movie made, he did manage to establish a personal friendship with McCarthy.

This gave him an inside track as to McCarthy’s burgeoning interest in the screenplay format, which eventually took the form of a spec titled THE COUNSELOR.  When said script was purchased in early 2012 by Nick Wechsler and Steve & Paula Mae Schwartz, the producing team behind John Hillcoat’s adaptation of McCarthy’s THE ROAD (2009), Scott quickly angled his way into the proceedings even as he was putting the finishing touches on his ambitious ALIEN prequel, PROMETHEUS.

While most filmmakers would long for a well-earned vacation following such an exhausting and intense shoot, Scott’s idea of “unwinding” was to embark on a down-and-dirty $25 million thriller about the viciousness and inhumanity of Mexican drug cartels.  The final product bears out Scott’s appropriateness for the job, allowing THE COUNSELOR to flaunt its vividly eccentric style as it takes a long walk on the wild side.

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Despite a globe-hopping narrative that charts unfolding action in locales like Amsterdam, Chicago, and London, THE COUNSELOR’s story chiefly concerns the tenuous border between El Paso, Texas, and Ciudad Juarez, Mexico.  Michael Fassbender, fresh off his first collaboration with Scott as a buttoned-up android in PROMETHEUS, gets a chance to let his hair down somewhat as the eponymous Counselor, a well-compensated lawyer for the cartels who has decided it’s time to get in some of the action for himself.

As a protagonist, Counselor is not particularly interesting or distinctive, but Fassbender’s easy charisma nevertheless makes the character eminently watchable. A closet of sleek designer suits and a velvety Texan accent convey an image of untroubled sophistication, but Fassbender’s clean-cut facade can’t hide the roiling inner conflict within.

For all his confidence, expertise, and material success, Counselor is by no means equipped for the physical and emotional fallout of his choices. Neither is his fiancé, Laura, played by Penelope Cruz with a sweet innocence that THE COUNSELOR’s other characters would find entirely foreign.  A relatively uncomplicated woman driven by love and faith, she is the proverbial (and literal) lamb drawn to the slaughter; the collateral damage wrought by Counselor’s ambition and avarice.

Javier Bardem, no stranger to McCarthy’s idiosyncratic characterization thanks to his role in NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN, draws inspiration from Imagine Entertainment producer Brian Grazer (electrified hair-do and all) as Reiner, a louch club owner with a flamboyant sense of style.  Constantly babbling about his preoccupations while he drapes himself in loud colors, he is perhaps the ultimate peacock— intent on stealing 100% of the room’s undivided attention.

Naturally, he could never conceive of the idea that Cameron’s Diaz’s Malkina is the real scene-stealer. Ostensibly, she is Reiner’s girlfriend, but her actions throughout THE COUNSELOR prove that she’s nobody’s girl but her own.  Diaz clearly relishes the opportunity to depart significantly from the warm and flirty roles she usually plays; indeed, she thrives under the direction of Scott and his artistic sympathies for the opposite sex.

Her Malkina is cool, aloof, and even a bit of a nihilistic nymphomaniac (as evidenced in a scene where Reiner watches slackjawed while she has sex with the windshield of his Ferrari). If her cheetah tattoos weren’t enough to telegraph her elegant deadliness, then surely a pair of actual pet cheetahs who accompany her everywhere would do the trick.

These stoic, perfectly-trained feline sentinels reinforce Malkina’s fierce characterization— patient, calculating, and always in total command of the situation while letting others merely think they’re pulling the strings.

An eclectic ensemble cast finds themselves caught up in THE COUNSELOR’s nebulous criminal vortex, comprised of unexpected faces like Edgar Ramirez as a flustered priest taking Malkina’s psychopathic confession, Rosie Perez as an inmate and one of Counselor’s clients, John Leguizamo as a mechanic who moonlights as a drug-runner, and Natalie Dormer as a honey trap that Malkina lays for Brad Pitt’s Westray.

Returning to Scott’s fold for the first time since his breakout performance in THELMA & LOUISE (1991), Pitt revels in his role as a sleazy con cowboy, complete with stringy long hair and a rakish smirk.  He may present himself as a peripheral character, but he’s actually staked himself out a spot at the center of the proceedings— a position he’ll swiftly come to regret when he finds himself on the business end of one of the more gruesomely sadistic killing devices ever imagined.

THE COUNSELOR continues Scott’s newfound romance with digital cinematography, having been acquired on a fleet of no less than six Red Epic cameras shooting simultaneously.  PROMETHEUS’ Dariusz Wolski returns as cinematographer, veering away from the cold sterility of that film’s aesthetic in favor of a high-contrast, sunbaked patina.

The 2.40:1 frame is rendered with seared colors— blazing orange exteriors complement interiors that alternate between a cold blue cast and a sickly green/yellow acid wash.  The glossy, grain-free sheen of digital gives THE COUNSELOR a mechanical sleekness to its image, almost as if it were a car commercial masquerading as a theatrical film.

Aerials, zooms, and handheld camerawork punctuate these slick contours with a muscular aggression, further echoing the film’s tonal balance between its characters’ cultural sophistication and their inner beasts.  Scott’s signature atmospherics give the relative flatness of digital some much-needed dimension, boosting THE COUNSELOR’s punchy theatricality with silhouettes, smoke, sparks, and even billowing bedsheets.

Longtime production designer Arthur Max pulls double duty here, making a fleeting cameo in front of the camera while infusing the film’s various locales with a distinct Euro-sleaze— likely a byproduct of the film’s shooting entirely in Europe.

Indeed, many people (myself included) would be surprised to find that principal photography for THE COUNSELOR never even set foot in the United States; England stands in Amsterdam, London, Chicago, and various interiors, while the dramatic Southwestern vistas were instead lensed in Spain; much like Sergio Leone did with his iconic spaghetti westerns in the 1960’s.

Freed from the baggage of high-profile American locations, Scott and Max empower themselves to build THE COUNSELOR’s razor-edged world from scratch.  This blank geographic canvas affords them total control, almost like a giant studio backlot, resulting in a gritty backdrop that reads as both familiar and yet, entirely foreign.

This extends to Scott’s curated selection of architecturally-striking locations and urban environments. Reiner’s ultra-modern mansion comes to mind, as does a seedy back alley in Ciudad Juarez, where Scott’s staging of a protest by townspeople against murderous cartels (while armed police silently look on) paints a broader picture of this world with nuanced detail.

McCarthy’s prose no doubt fuels what is a murky, complex, and ultimately nihilistic blend of western and noir conventions, but THE COUNSELOR’s bleak outlook can also be attributed to Scott’s state of mind after the sudden loss of his beloved brother, Tony.  The film was in the middle of production in August 2012 when he learned that Tony had committed suicide by jumping off the Vincent Thomas Bridge in San Pedro.

He immediately shut down the shoot so he could be with family in LA (1), but ever true to form, he was back in London the following week to finish what he started.  For whatever reason, THE COUNSELOR would spend an inordinate amount of time in post— enough time that Scott was able to go off and shoot a television pilot for Showtime called THE VATICAN.

The project — which starred Kyle Chandler as a cardinal exploring the corruption that snaked throughout the eponymous headquarters of the Catholic Church — would have marked Scott’s very first foray into episodic television, had it not been unceremoniously canceled before it could even air.

Scott’s streak of bad news spilled over into THE COUNSELOR’s theatrical release in October 2013, where a modest $71 million take could not counteract a barrage of poor critical reviews that dunked on nearly everything save for Scott’s technical execution and the performances of his cast.

That said, a handful of high-profile and well-respected critics like Richard Roeper and Manohla Dargis turned in rave reviews, which would suggest that THE COUNSELOR was not objectively bad as much as it was merely misunderstood.

The release of an Extended Unrated Cut on home video did nothing to clarify the film’s obtuse storytelling, managing to add 20-30 minutes of runtime but nothing in the way of substance (beyond a gorier death scene for Pitt’s character).  Indeed, either cut of THE COUNSELOR doesn’t exactly make for the most pleasant viewing experience, but each revisit to its dusty, blackhearted world yields new insights.

It’s the cinematic equivalent of an onion — densely layered; bitter-tasting; likely to make some of us cry when we cut into it. But throw it in a pan with some other ingredients and turn up the heat, and it assumes a rich, savory complexity that transforms the entire dish.  Salivating metaphors aside, THE COUNSELOR carves out a razor-sharp figure for itself in Scott’s larger filmography.

It’s a brazenly-confident work that refuses to apologize for its flaws, possessing an animal magnetism that will continue to draw (and reward) the morbidly curious for years to come.


EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS (2014)

Throughout the 2000’s and beyond, the historical epic genre had become something of director Sir Ridley Scott’s bread and butter.  Perhaps it was only a matter of time before the bread went stale and the butter congealed. He had been lucky in that 2005’s KINGDOM OF HEAVEN only narrowly escaped artistic ruin by dint of an excellent Director’s Cut.

2010’s ROBIN HOOD was too down-the-middle to register as anything more than a passable night at the movies.  2014’s EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS proved the peril of going back to the well one too many times, inviting a critical and financial shellacking that dared to finally raise the question of retirement for the venerated — yet septuagenarian — filmmaker.

Of course, it was impossible for Scott and company to know this at the outset.  Indeed, the film’s development positioned itself as a rather exciting and bold prospect.  Arriving in the same year as NOAH, Darren Aronofsky’s take on the eponymous biblical figure and his Ark, EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS was riding a small wave of radically-revisionist retellings of stories from the Old Testament.

Scott had become involved in 2012, after reading an initial script that revealed how little the avowed atheist actually knew about Moses as a historical figure.  Furthermore, he was drawn to the idea of depicting iconic supernatural moments like the Plagues or the parting of the Red Sea as byproducts of natural causes.

One could certainly argue about the artistic merits (or wisdom) of removing God from any biblical story, but Scott’s atheistic take provides a compelling counter-argument: by conflating these “Acts Of God” with naturally-occurring developments like tsunamis or ecological chain reactions, one reinforces God’s presence within them.

As an artistic and ideological entry point, this conceit positions EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS as a film worth making.  However, its making is its ultimate undoing — any opportunity for nuanced insights or artistic ingenuity is quickly smothered by the commercial demands of a gargantuan $140 million budget, servicing no less than five active producers as they endeavor to realize a bloated and muddled screenplay by four different writers (one of whom being frequent Scott scribe, Steve Zaillian).

To hear Scott tell it, the film’s enormous budget is also the source of its biggest point of contention: its alleged “whitewashing” of history.  The film is ostensibly about the conflict between the ancient Egyptian ruling class and Hebrew slaves, taking place in a section of North Africa that borders modern-day Israel.

And yet, core members of the cast — Christian Bale, Joel Edgerton, Sigourney Weaver, and Ben Mendelsohn — are undeniably, inescapably Anglo-Saxon. This tactic may have sufficed in the heyday of midcentury Technicolor epics like THE TEN COMMANDMENTSBEN-HUR or LAWRENCE OF ARABIA (films that Scott is clearly trying to emulate), but it does not pass muster today.

Neither did Scott’s reasoning, when pressed by socially-conscious critics about a cast that seemed totally at odds with the diverse approach he’d applied to previous pictures.  His excuse was that it would have been impossible to finance a film of this scale with ethnically-appropriate actors, but such a disappointingly-disingenuous response only prompted more scorn by critics — many of whom can now point to several recent examples of diverse blockbusters whose huge success would instantly disprove Scott’s thesis.

Edgerton and Weaver’s casting as Egyptian royalty seems particularly egregious, projecting a foundation of Hollywood pageantry as phony as the layers of computer-generated backgrounds behind them.

What makes it even more unforgivable is that Edgerton’s role had been previously offered to previous Scott collaborators like Oscar Isaac and Javier Bardem — actors who, while not exactly North African in background, were much more ethnically-suited to the role of an Egyptian pharaoh than Edgerton.  The whole thing just feels like a missed opportunity, and Scott’s refusal to own up to his failures here tarnishes his legacy at a critical moment.

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If there’s one thing EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS is particularly good about, it’s the conveyance of how old the ancient pyramids of Egypt really are.  The film takes place in 1300 BCE, but the Great Pyramid was already one thousand years old at this point— as old as the Crusades depicted in KINGDOM OF HEAVEN seem to us today.

One truly gets a sense of the Egyptian empire at its zenith, akin to the immersive feeling we had watching Scott recreate Ancient Rome in GLADIATOR (2000).  The story borrows a similar narrative template, wherein a celebrated general is regarded as a son by his Emperor, favored for succession even over the rightful heir (with whom the general shares a brotherly bond).

Christian Bale’s Moses is not the white-haired, bushy-bearded mountain man often depicted in pop culture, but rather a brilliant tactician in command of the Pharaoh’s army. While he openly acknowledges that Moses could never actually succeed him, King Seti  — played here by John Turturro with the same fatherly eminence as GLADIATOR’s Marcus Aurelius — nevertheless concedes his preference for the bright general.

Naturally, this creates a massive inferiority complex in Seti’s biological son, Prince Ramesses II (Edgerton). When Seti unexpectedly dies and an elder from the Hebrew slave population (Ben Kingsley) reveals to Moses that he is actually one of them, the disgraced commander decides to seek the safety of exile.

He proceeds to live in the desert for many years, becoming a lowly shepherd and the head of a modest family. However, just as he’s consigned himself to a quiet life, he’s hit in the head by a rock during a landslide.

He’s thrown into a brief coma, where he experiences his iconic vision of The Burning Bush, accompanied by a divine messenger in the form of an ethereal little boy commanding him to free his people from bondage and lead them to a bountiful Promised Land.

Having grown up as a firm cynic in all things religious or spiritual, Moses initially grapples with this daunting task, but his burgeoning faith eventually gives him the courage to return to his homeland for a confrontation with his old friend and new king.  Thus initiates a titanic struggle for the freedom of the Hebrew people that will see nothing less than the parting of the Red Sea before it is finished.

This struggle naturally ensnares a variety of background characters, many of whom fall prey to the aforementioned whitewashing controversy.  Aaron Paul plays a Hebrew slave named Joshua, a man whose inability to feel pain strengthens his role as Moses’ de facto lieutenant.

Ben Mendelsohn brings added dimension to his role as the slave overseer, Viceroy Hegep, lining his performance as an urbane, extravagant bureaucrat with the purple velvet of ambiguous sexuality.  Indeed, he comes across as neither heterosexual or homosexual as much as he does pansexual— his taste for the finer things in antiquity having given him an open-mindedness towards anyone and anything.

Weaver, who hasn’t worked with Scott since 1492: CONQUEST OF PARADISE (1992), finds her talents utterly wasted here.  Her performance as Tuya, the Queen Mother, possesses a vindictive, Lady Macbeth-ian quality that initially promises new depths from Weaver as an actress.

Unfortunately, many of those moments are excised from the finished product, rendering her presence inconsequential and ultimately unnecessary. Scott’s experience in working with seasoned Middle Eastern actors does yield a few appearances from talents like BODY OF LIES’ Golshifteh Farahan and KINGDOM OF HEAVEN’s Ghassan Massoud, albeit in very minor, peripheral roles: Farahan as Ramesses’ wife, Nefeteriat, and Massoud as the Grand Vizier, a sagely advisor to King Seti.

That these fantastic, ethnically-appropriate actors are wasted on smaller bit parts only further reinforces the film’s tone-deaf casting approach.  Scott’s always-impeccable craftsmanship labors valiantly to lessen the wincing sting of its Anglo-heavy cast, in the process cementing his comfort with the burgeoning tools and techniques of the digital revolution.

Reteaminging with cinematographer Dariusz Wolski for their third consecutive collaboration, Scott’s vision for EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS shares the sweeping epic tone that marked the Technicolor CinemaScope spectacles of yesteryear.

The Red Epic camera gives Scott and Wolski an unparalleled latitude for image manipulation in post, allowing them to dial in a desaturated, stone-hued color palette beset by punches of regal red and golds. Many scenes — especially nocturnal sequences that employ exotic torch light as practicals — hinge on Scott’s signature blue/orange dichotomy, adding yet another link to an unbroken stylistic chain that spans the celebrated director’s filmography.

Ultra-wide 2.35:1 compositions position characters as small figures against a colossal landscape, working in tandem with classical camerawork to establish the film’s old-school epic ambitions. Granted, Scott doesn’t necessarily emulate the style of David Lean so much as he builds upon it, giving EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS a modern flair through majestic aerial shots, chaotic handheld battle sequences, and evocative atmospheric effects like flares, smoke, and silhouettes to give his otherwise-flat frame some much needed dimensionality.

EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS finds Scott and returning production designer Arthur Max taking advantage of their familiarity with the arid Spanish vistas they’d used in THE COUNSELOR to recreate the ancient Egyptian empire in all its golden glory.

Their efforts benefit from an innate understanding of urbanity — the various ways in which people interact with and move through the built environment — subsequently imbuing the film’s ancient favelas, encampments, and homesteads with a palpable grit and grime that most pictures of this scale lack.

By now, it’s become well-established that Scott is at his artistic best when he’s able to create giant worlds and use xenophobia as a thematic vehicle in which to move through them.  The narrative conflict between the Egyptian elite and their Hebrew slaves, or the deeper conflict between monotheistic and polytheistic beliefs, quite clearly positions Scott for success in this regard— it doesn’t get any clearer (or more on-the-nose) than Ramesses’ dehumanizing dismissal of the Hebrews as “animals”.

And yet, EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS would incite the very sort of xenophobia he set out to soothe.  His ill-advised casting choices certainly didn’t help matters, but it seems his revisionist, agnostic take on a revered biblical story is what ruffled the most feathers abroad.

More than the surface racial objections, countries with hardline religious beliefs were taken aback by Scott’s suggestion that the Old Testament God’s wrath and mercy could have an earthly explanations.  As such, the film was banned in several North African and Middle Eastern countries, including Egypt and even Scott’s beloved Morocco (albeit temporary).

Not that being accessible in more countries would have saved the film from its fate as a financial and critical bomb of biblical proportions; a swath of negative reviews likely dampened the audience’s enthusiasm for a film that already looked like an inferior version of something Scott had done before.

Its paltry $65 million domestic take couldn’t even justify the home video release of a reworked “director’s cut” a la BLADE RUNNER or KINGDOM OF HEAVEN, despite Scott stating in interviews that his preferred cut ran four hours (1).  Simply put, the film is most definitely not one of the pillars of Scott’s cinematic legacy; its bombastic filler, the parts far more valuable than the whole.

Still, EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS must hold some sort of artistic or sentimental value for Scott, judging by its dedication to his late brother and business partner, Tony.  His exploration of the brotherly, yet complicated and competitive, dynamic between Moses and Ramesses stands as the film’s chief source of emotional resonance.

There had been great mystery and speculation regarding the motive of Tony’s unexpected suicide in 2012, and it’s very understandable that Scott wanted to work out his own feelings through the work he loved to do.  A core part of his identity for nearly seven decades was now gone; consigned to the warm oblivion of memory.

How does one move forward from something like that, or begin the process of building a new identity? In its own veiled way, EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS attempts to lay bare Scott’s processing of grief in all its mess and convolution.  Time has shown it to be an ugly process, but a necessary one; its outcome yielding a much needed respite from his late career’s inescapable wane.


THE MARTIAN (2015)

As long as we’ve known of its existence, Mars has captivated our imaginations.  For centuries, we’ve looked up to that reddish orb in the night sky and wondered what revelations await us there.  Subsequent explorations have brought its mysteries into clearer focus, inflating our desire to set foot there even while shutting down our most fantastical theories of little green men roving its surface.

The most disappointing revelation — that it was a dry, dead planet with no life to speak of — did little to dispel interest in our cosmic neighbor. Even before the discovery of briny water on the planet’s surface in 2015, Mars had been widely regarded as mankind’s foothold into wider space; a waystation towards our ultimate destiny as interstellar beings.

While we have yet to set foot on Mars’ surface ourselves, our cinema has already made the voyage several times.  Most of these films naturally fall within the realm of science fiction, conjuring up outlandish scenarios that see the Red Planet as host to extraterrestrial monsters, or ruins from ancient civilizations.

Very few cast a sober gaze upon the rusty landscape with an eye toward scientific accuracy. 2015’s THE MARTIAN, directed by Sir Ridley Scott, proves without a shadow of a doubt that Mars is already plenty dramatic without the addition of aliens or cosmic mysticism.  Indeed, the story pulls its thrills from a very simple premise: what if a lone astronaut were left behind on Mars and forced to engineer his own survival?

The tantalizing narrative possibilities are what initially drove author Andy Weir to hammer out the source novel in serial form some years earlier; they’re also what compelled Twentieth Century Fox to leap on the film rights in 2013 and attach megastar Matt Damon, high-profile producer Simon Kinberg and buzzy writer/director Drew Goddard (fresh off his breakout with CABIN IN THE WOODS).

Scott became involved only four hours after Fox sent him Goddard’s script, calling it a no-brainer of a project (2).  Almost everything about THE MARTIAN was (and is) a slam-dunk, from its conception on through to its casting, direction and release.  Furthermore, it would arrive at a critical time in Scott’s career, delivering a much-needed hit after a long string of diminishing returns and flagging cultural relevance.

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THE MARTIAN doesn’t specify an exact time setting, but it gives subtle hints throughout that we’re not too far into the future; likely somewhere around the 2030’s, when the real-life NASA wants to achieve a human footprint on Mars.  The crew of the Ares III is eighteen days into their mission on the Martian surface when a devastating storm hits, forcing them to prematurely return home.

They leave with their ranks diminished by one— botanist Mark Watney (Damon), presumed dead after being blown away by an airborne chunk of equipment.  Watney wakes up a short while later, astonished to find he’s still alive. Realizing he’s been left all alone on Mars — with very little chance of survival — the plucky botanist sets about transforming the Ares mission’s surface habitat into a permanent residence.

This new mission poses no shortage of complications and challenges, ultimately resulting in Watney’s reverse-engineering of every available technological resource to produce liquid water, heat, and even a small farm of Martian-grown potatoes.

These intimidating logistical problems, which would very easily doom a layperson, extend to making contact with NASA to inform them that he’s still alive; he achieves this by discovering and reworking the long-defunct Pathfinder rover. Having given himself a fighting chance at survival, Watney now must ready himself for his compatriots’ return and the execution of an extremely risky rescue.

THE MARTIAN runs the risk of dragging thanks to an admittedly dry plot that structures itself around life-or-death puzzles Watney must solve using math and science.  Thankfully, the film’s ensemble cast brings liveliness and vitality to the proceedings, infusing the plot with creative wit and tons of comedic banter while making a supremely appealing case for a STEM education.

Watney’s rakish sense of humor sets the tone, which Damon delivers with an unparalleled degree of likeability. His encyclopedic knowledge of engineering imbues him with a blunt, clinical determination, which is offset by an inherent playfulness.  Despite the immediate stakes of his predicament, Watney always takes a moment to revel in the “magic” of science; his joy of discovery is palpable— and infectious.

Even when he inadvertently blows himself up, or his habitat is destroyed by an unexpected breach, Watney never loses his good spirits; Damon’s Oscar-nominated performance illustrates why that just might have made the difference between life or death.  His effortless, toothy grin goes a long way towards making us believe in the camaraderie he shares with his Ares crew mates, led by Jessica Chastain as the mission commander, Melissa Lewis.

Funnily enough, both Damon and Chastain had only a year prior appeared in INTERSTELLAR, another large-scale space adventure directed by Scott acolyte Christopher Nolan.  Unlike that film, however, THE MARTIAN actually allows Damon and Chastain to share the screen.  Chastain is easily one of the most gifted actresses working today, and her graceful, almost ethereal, physicality brings nuanced dimension to the tactical, yet compassionate, intelligence demanded by her character’s position.

In the process, she manages to join the hallowed pantheon of richly-developed female heroines that populate Scott’s filmography. The remainder of the crew is comprised of notable character actors, all of whom manage to carve out some distinct flair despite sharing the collective trait of an intimidating intelligence.  There’s Michael Pena as pilot Rick Martinez, who possesses a jokey charm to rival Watney’s own.

There’s also Kate Mara’s Beth Johansson and Sebastian Stan’s Chris Beck, who share a sweet chemistry as clandestine lovers while never losing sight of their mission duties as the systems analyst and flight surgeon, respectively.

THE MARTIAN breaks up the tedium of Watney’s isolation by simultaneously tracking NASA’s response back on Earth, where the remainder of Scott’s eclectic cast finds plenty of opportunity to shine.  Jeff Daniels heads up this group as NASA chief Teddy Sanders, a stuffy bureaucrat with a droll wit and an even rarer quality amongst people in his position: an unwavering faith in his team that gives him the confidence to take calculated risks.

He shares a somewhat-acerbic relationship with his Ares mission director, Vincent Kapoor, embodied in a passionate performance by AMERICAN GANGSTER’s Chiwitel Ejiofor.  These two face a considerable challenge on two fronts: not only do they have to find a way to bring Watney home alive, but they also have to deal with the firestorm of an eager media that’s hungry to turn the whole endeavor into a ratings spectacle.

Towards this end, NASA media relations director, Annie Montrose, becomes an important player; Kristin Wiig brings her signature comedic touch to the role, dexterously puncturing the sober seriousness of her male compatriots at every opportunity.

She’s joined by the respective eccentricities of co-stars Mackenzie Davis and Donald Glover, both of whom signal a diverse new generation of NASA leaders coming into its own; Davis as Mindy Park, the mission control analyst who discovers Watney’s survival when she notices equipment on the Martian surface moving around on its own, and Glover as astrodynamicist Rich Purnell, a disheveled rocket scientist who frequently sleeps in his office and proves instrumental to Watney’s retrieval with his proposal of a radical rescue maneuver.

Sean Bean and Scott Free regular Benedict Wong also put in memorable appearances as members of THE MARTIAN’s earthbound cast, the former as the embattled director of the Hermes ship program and the latter as a plucky Jet Propulsion Lab director.  Wong’s performance in particular holds a lot of thematic value to the film’s story, as his successful coordination with the Chinese space program points both to America’s waning space dominance as well as the necessity for joint international ventures going into the 21st century and beyond.

A film of this scale (budgeted at $108 million dollars) promises no shortage of insanely-complicated production logistics— especially one in which the story is concerned with everything going wrong.  The fact that Scott and his team were able to pull off the brisk 70 day shoot with virtually zero disruptions or complications points to the seasoned director’s unparalleled ability to maneuver titanic productions.

A large portion of the shoot’s success can be attributed to the efforts of his fellow producers Mark Huffam, Michael Schaefer, Aditya Sood, and Kinberg. Scott’s core team of technical collaborators also bears a major degree of responsibility for THE MARTIAN’s success, beginning with returning cinematographer Dariusz Wolski and his intuitive handling of digital filmmaking tools.

Indeed, THE MARTIAN solidifies Scott’s conversion to the digital realm, marking his fourth consecutive picture shot on the format and his third shot in 3D.  A fleet of top-of-the-line Red Epic cameras imbue the 2.35:1 image with a razor-sharp clarity and a pristine glossiness that subtly reinforces the film’s near-future setting.

Scott and Wolski forge a variation on their signature blue/orange color dichotomy, using these two dominant hues to immediately distinguish between the Earth and Mars. The Red Planet naturally adopts a dusky palette of reds, oranges, and browns, while Earth takes on a cold blue cast.  Transitory settings like the Hermes spacecraft and the Martian habitat structure deal in appropriately-neutral shades.

While his signature red beard may have faded to white, Scott’s signature visual flair hasn’t lost an iota of vitality and power over the decades; THE MARTIAN holds strong with signature atmospherics like otherworldly sandstorms, silhouettes, lens flares, and beams of concentrated light.

The camerawork retains Scott’s characteristic blend of classical and handheld photography, while further building upon PROMETHEUS’ usage of “helmet cam” POV shots— a relatively new addition to Scott’s stylistic toolbox, enabled by the advent of compact GoPro cameras that are physically mounted to the actors via a rod attached to the back of their spacesuits.

Scott’s incorporation of these in-world cameras points to the utilitarian designs of 2030’s-era spaceflight, which only seem fantastical in that they showcase exciting technologies that lie just beyond our current reach.  Working once again with regular production designer Arthur Max, Scott paints a tempered portrait of a near future that we can recognize as a natural extension of our present.

The filmmakers secured the crucial support of NASA itself, who consulted on the designing of the spacecraft and habitats one might see on a future Mars mission.  As such, the gear on display throughout THE MARTIAN may prove uncannily close to what we actually bring along to the Red Planet with us in real life.

The intricately-detailed habitat and spacecraft sets demonstrate just how much Scott and Max thought through every possible aspect of long-haul space travel, right down to how food is stored and how human waste is disposed of.  Nothing — not even the 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY-style artificial gravity wheel — feels too far-fetched, all design ideas having been based on sound scientific principles conservatively extrapolated fifteen or twenty years into the future.

The fact that Scott and company refuse to think of the film as “science fiction” speaks volumes about their commitment to realism; that Mars has never felt more immediate and tactile is a testament to his effortless ability to conjure immersive worlds within his work.

With the exception of a few exterior locales built on a soundstage in Budapest, the Wadi Rum region of Jordan doubles for the bulk of the Martian landscape, needing very little in the way of on-screen augmentation save for a few computer-generated elements and stylized color grading.  Scott’s longtime editor Pietro Scalia deftly stitches the locations and sets together to weave a convincing temporal continuity, closing the vast swath of empty space between the Earth and Mars in a single cut.

Composer Harry Gregson-Williams also returns to Scott’s fold, his last major effort for the director having been 2005’s KINGDOM OF HEAVEN.  Gregson-Williams builds on his trademark orchestral palette with pulsing electronic elements and otherworldly accents that appropriately evoke the alien landscapes on display.

Arguably the most distinctive of THE MARTIAN’s audio elements, a surprising amount of 70’s music works its way into the film— justified by Commander Lewis’ unabashed love for disco, soul, and classic rock.  The film derives a great deal of playful humor from this aspect, imbuing Watney’s intimidating struggle for survival with a constant levity.

Most of these tracks — David Bowie’s “Star Man” or Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive”, for instance — are used with tongue firmly in cheek, the filmmakers knowing full well that we’re having too much fun with it to care how on-the-nose they actually are.

After a prolonged series of misfires and outright disappointments, THE MARTIAN instantly reminded audiences why Scott is one of the best filmmakers in the business.  Its winning mixture of cosmic suspense and earthy humor earned a wide audience to the tune of $630 million in box office revenue, making for Scott’s highest-grossing effort to date.

A tidal wave of positive reviews swept the production team through a breathless award season, which they maneuvered with a clever — yet controversial — strategy. Seeking to optimize their chances, the filmmakers submitted THE MARTIAN to the Golden Globes for consideration in all the usual categories. However, this being one of the only major awards shows that separates major categories by drama and musical/comedy, there was an arguable opportunity in aiming for the latter.

This scheme paid off, with THE MARTIAN ultimately running away with the Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture (Musical or Comedy)— however, the win was not met without controversy by audiences and the Hollywood Foreign Press, who ended up changing the qualifications so that dramas with comic overtones (aka THE MARTIAN) had to be entered in the Drama category.

The film’s awards campaign would culminate with a slew of Oscar nominations, recognizing THE MARTIAN’s considerable achievements with nods for Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Sound Mixing, Best Sound Editing. Best Production Design, Best Visual FX, and Best Director— Scott’s first nomination in the fourteen years that had passed since BLACK HAWK DOWN.

While the filmmakers may have gone home empty-handed on Oscar night, they had already won the real prize— they had fashioned something of an instant classic; one of the best of its decade.  As a paean to the Obama-era social climate of hopefulness (and its embrace of science and reason), THE MARTIAN has taken on new resonance in the years since his successor took office.

The film’s ideological virtues — optimism, diversity, fortitude, and resourcefulness — may seem quaint or even naive in light of today’s tumultuous atmosphere of cynicism, hate, and petulance, but they now shine more brilliantly and urgently than ever.

It’s somewhat ironic that a deeply conservative filmmaker has rendered such a progressive vision of the 21st century, but then again, Scott has never really bothered himself with the frothing Fox News echo chambers. He’s simply been too busy working, steadily constructing a compassionate (if idiosyncratic) mosaic of humanity’s past, present, and future.

That is where his artistic allegiances lie, and THE MARTIAN’s upbeat portrait of the near future suggests Scott’s belief that mankind’s best days are still ahead.  The film’s technical and artistic excellence also suggests that, just maybe, the same could be said of Scott himself.


ALIEN: COVENANT – PROLOGUE: THE CROSSING (2017)

Since completing 2012’s PROMETHEUS, the pseudo-prequel to 1979’s ALIEN, director Sir Ridley Scott had found himself increasingly enamored with the revitalized mythology he had brought to the once-massively influential science fiction franchise.  The stars aligned once more in 2016, when the THE MARTIAN’s runaway success — combined with the coalescing of long-gestating concepts for a PROMETHEUS sequel — gave Twentieth Century Fox the confidence to greenlight another foray into this beautiful, deadly universe.

That project would ultimately take the shape of 2017’s ALIEN: COVENANT, but the narrative structure that resulted just so happened to preclude the involvement of PROMETHEUS’ heroine, Dr. Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace).  As production got underway, Scott realized he needed a satisfying bridge to close the immense story gap between the two films; he also realized this need provided a natural marketing opportunity, as a short prologue could serve as yet another avenue to advertise his forthcoming ALIEN sequel.

Thus, “PROLOGUE: THE CROSSING” was born, conceived and executed by Scott as a brief vignette that sheds a little light on the circumstances that lead to Shaw’s fate (ultimately revealed in the larger feature). Taking place entirely within the cold, dark chambers of the Engineer spaceship from PROMETHEUS“PROLOGUE: THE CROSSING” finds Noomi Rapace and Michael Fassbender reprising their respective roles as Shaw and the mutilated android, David.

While Shaw puts David’s body back together, they muse about the untold discoveries that await them at their destination— the Engineers’ home world.  What Shaw cannot know, however, is that David has an entirely different plan to execute upon their arrival: one that involves a mass genocide in the name of scientific “discovery”.

Scott’s technical execution retains the particular style he fashioned for both PROMETHEUS and ALIEN: COVENANT, committing his cold, blue-hued images to a digital 2.39:1 frame.  He uses smoke and other signature atmospheric effects to imbue his bare-bones set with dimension and scale.

Running just three minutes, “PROLOGUE: THE CROSSING” just barely has enough time for Scott to play around with the material; as such, the execution is mostly perfunctory, possessing little of the directorial flair he brings to his feature work.  That said, the reappearance of Rapace’s Shaw — as well as the haunting reprisal of the majestic theme from Marc Streitenfeld’s PROMETHEUS score — makes for a welcome and effective bit of organic marketing.  By doggedly refusing to answer the evocative questions it prompts, the piece suffers from the same core problem that dog both PROMETHEUS and ALIEN: COVENANT— but then again, when said answers involve horrific, ungodly creatures, maybe it’s better if we stayed in the dark after all.


ALIEN: COVENANT (2017)

“In space, no one can hear you scream”.  

That simple, brilliantly effective tagline, devised for a little genre picture called ALIEN (1979), would become the de facto Big Bang of a massively-successful science fiction franchise.  With each subsequent installment, the brand steadily accumulated wear-and-tear, moving further afield from the visceral horror wrought by its iconic extraterrestrial monsters.

At the franchise’s lowest point, we weren’t screaming so much as we were cheering, encouraging these jet-black xenomorphs to prevail in gladiatorial battle over interstellar hunters from an entirely different franchise.  Simply, put, the ALIEN universe needed us to scream again.

The idea of original ALIEN director, Sir Ridley Scott, returning to the series he helped create seemed like a prime opportunity to rebuild and restore.  The end result, 2012’s deeply-divisive PROMETHEUS, didn’t so much return the series to its roots as it spun the mythology off in an entirely different direction.

PROMETHEUS established a majestic, sprawling universe in which the xenomorphs played only a tangential part, proposing an entirely new franchise in the process.  A staggeringly beautiful, profoundly evocative film in its own right, PROMETHEUS nonetheless left many audiences wanting— both because of its teased (yet mostly undelivered) ALIENconnections, as well as the many salient questions it left unanswered.

Scott’s intent had always been to build upon PROMETHEUS with a number of sequels that would eventually back into the ALIEN franchise proper, but the 2012 film’s somewhat-disappointing reception compelled him to collapse his ambitious plans into a more-succinct bridge.

Sincere talks of this sequel/prequel hybrid began that same year, when the trades announced that stars Michael Fassbender and Noomi Rapace were set to reprise their roles in a project tentatively titled ALIEN: PARADISE LOST.  In the five-year gap that transpired between the initial trade announcement and the 2017 release of the finished product — ultimately titled ALIEN: COVENANT — Scott and his team would oversee a steady stream of conceptual development.

When PROMETHEUS scribes Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof declined to return, the producers commissioned screenwriter Jack Paglen, fresh off his stint on the buzzy Johnny Depp vehicle, TRANSCENDENCE (which ultimately imploded with audiences and critics).  They then hired Michael Green to rewrite Paglen‘s initial 2013 draft, only to subsequently commission Dante Harper to revise Green’s work.

The project’s long gestation period finally coalesced into real momentum when British playwright John Logan was hired to inject the screenplay with the same sense of genre sophistication and elegant taste he’d previously brought to the two most recent James Bond films, SKYFALL (2012) and SPECTRE (2015).  While Logan’s rewrite was extensive, he evidently used enough of Harper’s material to earn the latter a co-writing credit in the finished product (Paglen and Green’s contributions, it seems, were no longer sufficient enough to qualify).

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With finished script in hand, Scott knew he had to strike immediately if the project had any chance of sustaining its momentum.  The timing meant that he had to choose between his new ALIEN picture, or the long-awaited BLADE RUNNER sequel he’d been simultaneously been developing.

He would ultimately choose the former, handing BLADE RUNNER’s directing duties off to the French Canadian auteur Denis Villeneuve so that he could properly embark on ALIEN: COVENANT— his first true sequel to the 1979 original.  As such, the tone of the film returns to the series’ horror roots, creating a claustrophobic atmosphere of mounting dread.

Set in the year 2104 — ten years after the events of PROMETHEUS and twenty before ALIEN — the story chronicles the plight of the crew of the UCSS Covenant, a massive generation ship transporting hundreds of would-be colonists and thousands of embryos to the distant Earthlike planet, Origae 6.  There, they will establish a new settlement and ensure mankind’s survival amidst the stars.

Fittingly enough, the ship is crewed by several couples — a veritable Noah’s Ark stuffed with Adam & Eves — each of whom looks forward to a new beginning on a virgin planet.  The dream is suddenly cut short when a rogue neutrino burst cripples Covenant in the middle of deep space, mercilessly killing several people while they slumber in hypersleep— including the ship’s captain, played by James Franco in flashbacks, video recordings, still photos, and a few deleted scenes.

His widow, Daniels (Katherine Waterston), barely has time to grieve before the ship intercepts a strange, ghostly signal from a nearby planet they had somehow missed during their initial scan of the area. Upon closer inspection, they discover the planet is an even better fit for them than Origae 6, with the Covenant’s new captain, Oram (Billy Crudup) making the fateful decision to scrap years of planning and journey over towards this promising mystery world.

If the “intercepted transmission” premise sounds a little too close to the beginning of the original ALIEN, then that’s by design;  Scott is signaling a return to the franchise’s core narrative elements while promising to upend our expectations in visceral, terrifying ways.  What the crew of the Covenant doesn’t know is that this mystery world was once home to PROMETHEUS’ Engineers, mankind’s cosmic forebears.

An initial excursion into the lush, mountainous landscape reveals not just a prime environment for settlement, but evidence the land has already been settled: stalks of wheat, clear signs of man-made deforestation (or maybe a crash landing impact).  They also find a nightmare beyond imagination when two of the crew come down with an inexplicable sickness (the result of their exposure to a sentient, floating virus cluster), which culminates in vicious, terrifying creatures bursting forth from inside their bodies.

They’re saved by the sudden appearance of a hooded man, who steals them away to safety amongst the ruins of an ancient Engineer city and reveals himself to be the android, David, (Michael Fassbender), last seen leaving LV-223 with Dr. Elizabeth Shaw in PROMETHEUS.

As they attempt to re-establish conflict with the UCSS Covenant orbiting above the planet, Daniels and the rest of the crew come to discover that David is the real monster— responsible for a mass genocide that killed the Engineers as well as a series of horrific experiments carried out in his isolation that have resulted in the creation of the iconic xenomorph creature as the perfect killing machine.

The cast of any ALIEN film primarily exists as fodder for the xenomorphs to consume, but the series also has a penchant for crafting compelling, idiosyncratic characters that are anything but dispensable.  ALIEN: COVENANT carries on the tradition with an eclectic & diverse mix of performers, anchored by Waterston as Daniels.  Her arc evokes the Ripley template, wherein she finds courage and strength under pressure.

While her character may not find the same kind of iconic status that Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley enjoys, Waterston nevertheless thrives under Scott’s nuanced direction, which gives her ample leeway to become a fully-realized heroine in her own right, and not just a pale imitation of Ripley.

As the Covenant’s chief of terraforming, Daniels ranks third in the line of succession, but her husband’s death elevates her position to the second-in-command under Billy Crudup’s Oram. Crudup delivers an inspired performance, giving entirely new dimensions to the stock “captain” archetype by assuming a debilitating inferiority complex. He’s not a born leader, so he struggles to assert his newfound authority over a crew that isn’t quite ready to accept it.

Oram‘s Christian faith also plays an important part in Crudup’s performance, continuing a strain of thematic inquiry begun in PROMETHEUS that seeks to find the harmony in the inherent contradictions of a religious scientist.

The remainder of the Covenant’s crew serve more of a functional purpose than Daniels and Oram’s comparatively complex trajectories, yet they too manage to bring a great deal of character beyond their occupational duties.  Better known for his performances as obtuse egomaniacs in various blue-collar comedies, Danny McBride is given the chance to show off his (somewhat) serious side as the chief pilot, Tennessee.

A good-natured, down-home country boy complete with his signature hat, Tennessee also evidences a sober and measured resolve when the going gets tough.  The same can’t be said, however, of his wife, Faris (Amy Seimetz)— a lander pilot who can weather any storm when she’s airborne, but proves quickly overwhelmed when confronted with an earthbound crisis.

Callie Hernandez, Carmen Ejogo, and Demian Bichir also provide standout performances: Hernandez as a salty communications officer, Ejogo as the ship’s resident biologist and Oram’s wife, and Bichir as the head of security.  Then there’s Guy Pearce, last seen in PROMETHEUS disguised under pounds of makeup as the decrepit centenarian trillionaire, Peter Weyland.

He appears here, albeit very briefly, during the film’s opening prologue as a middle-aged version of the same character.  Though his screen time is very scant, his presence nevertheless looms like an imposing shadow over ALIEN: COVENANT’s core themes, reinforced by the creator/creation dynamic he shares with Fassbender’s newly-awakened android, David.

As Scott builds upon the revitalized mythology he established in PROMETHEUS, Fassbender has quite easily asserted himself as the most compelling element of this prequel series.  His performance as David, the nefariously-curious android with a growing God complex, plays like HAL-9000 made flesh… or Dr. Hannibal Lecter made synthetic.

An entirely original, unnerving screen villain who frequently upstages the xenomorphs themselves, David grows increasingly indistinguishable from his human counterparts as his artificial intellect evolves.  In the years since PROMETHEUS, David has become something like a feral Dr. Frankenstein in his isolation, carrying out macabre genetic experiments on the planet’s various life forms as well as the desecrated corpse of Elizabeth Shaw.

His attempts to develop the “perfect organism” lead to one of ALIEN: COVENANT’s more-unexpected surprises: the revelation that Shaw is the xenomorphs’ genetic “mother”.  David’s chilling near-humanity also provides a stark contrast to Fassbender’s other performance within the film as Walter, the android assigned to the Covenant and an identical “descendant” of David’s model line.

Fassbender’s mastery of his craft allows for subtle physical distinctions to create vast gulfs in characterization, allowing the audience to easily discern between the two when they share the screen. Walter’s American-accented, utilitarian manner is a deliberate downgrade; an operating system tweak by the Weyland Corporation in response to the “uncanny valley” effect of David’s relative sophistication.

In an inspired twist, David takes to Walter with a leering affectation that culminates in a kiss; that he’s effectively kissing himself subverts the homoerotic nature of their relationship to reflect one of the key themes of Scott’s prequel series: the perils of ego as it pertains to scientific discovery. In this moment, the film sends a clear message that playing God is inherently a masturbatory act, servicing only one’s own ego.

David’s failing to heed this message completes his evolution — or perhaps, descent — towards humanity. If another sequel is made, this aspect of his character will undoubtedly be his downfall, but until then, David’s ability to unshackle himself from his programming gives him a tyrannical, omniscient power far superior to his human counterparts.

Whereas PROMETHEUS sought to blaze its own aesthetic trails, ALIEN: COVENANT seeks to bring its visual style more in-line with the original ALIEN by fostering a stark, claustrophobic atmosphere replete with shadows and confined spaces.  Scott collaborates once again with cinematographer Dariusz Wolski, the man who has facilitated the director’s transition into the digital space with an effortless ease.

ALIEN: COVENANT departs from the pairs’ usage of Red equipment in favor of a fleet of Arri Alexa cameras, which give the 2.39:1 image more of an organic, film-like veneer.  Initial plans to shoot in 3D were scrapped— likely a response to audiences’ waning interest in a format whose technological innovations and narrative possibilities were quickly overtaken by unimaginative deployment and craven gimmickry.

Indeed, ALIEN: COVENANT proves without a shadow of a doubt that Scott doesn’t need — has never needed — the artificial “storybook” dimensionality of 3D.  His sleek, atmospheric aesthetic already accomplishes this need, evidenced by ALIEN: COVENANT’s copious stacking of visual elements like smoke, fire, silhouettes, beams of concentrated light, lens flares, and rain.

Scott’s camerawork also works to immerse his audience within the primordial, mist-shrouded forests of this mysterious planet, combining elegant classical movements that convey a majestic scale with more-intimate techniques like handheld camerawork or “helmet-cam” POV shots (captured by GoPros mounted to the actors’ backpacks).  ALIEN: COVENANT also affords audiences an opportunity to see the world from the xenomorph’s point of view, rendering this unearthly first-person perspective through a thick coat of translucent biomechanical muck.

For whatever reason, ALIEN: COVENANT finds Chris Seagers replacing Scott’s regular production designer, Arthur Max.  Max has been such an integral creative partner throughout the bulk of Scott’s late-career work that one might worry a change in collaborators would cause a significant disruption in the director’s visual continuity.

Thankfully, we hardly notice the change, as Seagers faithfully replicates the unique, organic-inspired design conceits established by Max for PROMETHEUS.  Filming took place in a remote mountainous region of Australia, requiring very little from Seagers and Scott in the way of location dressing (save for a few digital enhancements in post-production).

This would leave them free to concentrate their efforts on the interiors, which run the gamut of architectural styles. Peter Weyland’s sleek, minimalist suite opens the film with a sterile, museum-like quality that evokes Scott’s interest in art history while giving the audience just enough visual stimulation to remain interested while Weyland and David soberly introduce the film’s weighty philosophical themes.

The Covenant’s cramped, industrial utilitarianism recalls the “truckers in space” conceit of ALIEN’s Nostromo.  H.R. Giger’s biomechanical designs continue to influence the franchise’s design, both in deadly new life forms like the flesh-colored Neomorph as well as the extravagant ruins of the Engineer city (which David aptly deems “The Necropolis”).

The end result is an oppressively immersive world that can stand up to the best of any of Scott’s collaborations with Max, its distinct architectural grammar effortlessly transporting us back to the familiar iconography of the ALIEN franchise even as it asserts its own unique character.

The music of ALIEN: COVENANT further reinforces the film’s ties to its franchise lineage, designed as a bridge between Jerry Goldsmith’s beckoning theme for ALIEN and Marc Streitenfeld’s majestic compositions for PROMETHEUS.  Rising composer Jed Kurzel takes over the baton from Harry Gregson-Williams, who had been all set for another collaboration with Scott after their fruitful pairing on THE MARTIAN (2015) before he had to drop out.

The resulting score assumes a pulsing, brooding character with electronic accents that hint at the film’s various mysteries.  The inclusion of celestial bells is an inspired touch, pairing rather beautifully with balletic images of The Covenant drifting through space.  Kurzel walks a fine line between his own work and the necessary inclusion of themes written by his franchise forebears, ultimately pinpointing the optimal moments in which to echo the musical moments from films past.

Scott also organically integrates a few notable needledrops into the narrative, the primary cue being an excerpt from Richard Wagner’s Das Rheingold— specifically: “Entrance of The Gods Into Valhalla”. David becomes fascinated by this bombastic cue, the contained narrative of which echoes the film’s preoccupations with false gods and the fallacies of hubris.

We first hear the cue during the prologue as David performs a bare-bones rendition on the piano, but then Scott gives us the bravado of a full orchestra during the film’s close as David assumes sole command of the Covenant.

In effect, the cue “grows” alongside David’s realization of his own autonomy, mimicking the trajectory of his character arc from a docile, subservient creation of mankind to an egomaniacal tyrant intent on becoming his own God.  Additionally, John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads” makes a ghostly appearance, sung by a hopeful Dr. Shaw in a decaying transmission that lures the Covenant down to the surface of Planet 4, thus setting the events of the film into motion.

Beyond its comprehensive meditations on signature artistic elements like immersive worlds and fierce heroines, ALIEN: COVENANT also shades out Scott’s fascination with various sub-themes like urbanity and artificial intelligence.  Scott is unmatched in his ability to render the weight and texture of dense urban environments at any point throughout history (or the future, for that matter).

Be it BLADE RUNNER’s neon-seared projection of a dystopian Los Angeles, the crumbling chaos of bullet-riddled Mogadishu in BLACK HAWK DOWN (2001), or even the squalid labyrinth of Hebrew slave tent cities in EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS (2014), the one constant thread between them is that one gets the sense that an entire city — institutions, cultural districts, social structures, landmarks — sprawls out from beyond the confines of the frame.

ALIEN: COVENANTserves as something of a twist on the formula, in that the Engineer city — the Necropolis — is a magnificently preserved ruin, devoid of a single living soul.  The only hint that anyone ever lived there is a horrific display of humanoid sculptures frozen in various states of agony. We learn that these are the Engineers themselves, their bodies preserved in stone in the wake of David’s mass genocide by black goo.

Scott uses his intimate familiarity with world history to give these images an unnerving resonance, the violently-contorted shapes evoking real-world mass-casualty events like the explosion of Mount Vesuvius at Pompeii, or the dropping of the atom bomb on Hiroshima.

As such, Scott must rely solely on the city’s elegant stone architecture to convey the values and ideals of the Engineers, leaving us to wonder or speculate much like an archeologist would when beholding an artifact or ruin from some lost settlement.

As the lone being keeping watch over this wasteland, David fills some of that role for us, giving us just enough information about the Engineers to build on their introduction in PROMETHEUS while still leaving plenty of room for mystery.

His growth as a character — from a dutiful operating system made flesh to a feral mad scientist taken to barbaric “experiments” in isolation — further expounds upon the series’ interest in the pitfalls of artificial intelligence, a thematic conceit from the original ALIEN informed by Scott’s own interest in the subject.

Whereas the various non-Scott ALIEN franchise entries cast their respective android characters as either nefarious renegades or benign colleagues, Scott has taken the opportunity of a revitalized mythology to link the evolution of artificial intelligence to salient ideas about spirituality and creation.  David becomes much more of a compelling character than his robotic predecessors because his arc injects the ALIEN series with evocative biblical and literary allusions.

His psychological menace matches the lethal brutality of the xenomorphs’ carnal destruction; his very existence is a testament to the idea that Man is a false God, inherently unable to separate His ego from the act of creation.  Indeed, David’s nihilistic omniscience raises the chilling possibility that maybe there was never a God to begin with— maybe life as we know it is just an unintended side effect of cosmic creation; one continuous strain of biological aberrations masquerading under a delusion of “perfection”.

While ALIEN: COVENANT arguably takes the series in a much more nihilistic direction than PROMETHEUS’ regal hopefulness, one can clearly see that there is enough heady mythology here to justify a return trip.  Scott himself evidently agreed, having cooked up ideas for a third film tentatively titled ALIEN: AWAKENING.

As of this writing, however, it remains unclear whether this particular story will continue— a disappointing $240 million box office return and Disney’s purchase of Twentieth Century Fox in 2018 has seemingly put the franchise on indefinite hold for now.

Despite its perceived failure, ALIEN: COVENANT actually scored fairly well with critics, who generally felt that it was a satisfying-enough entry, even if it didn’t really do anything new with the formula.  It also likely helped that there are far worse installments in the ALIEN franchise, forcing critics to grade ALIEN: COVENANT on a weighted curve.

For his part, Scott refuses to leave the series on this dour, dark note where the heroes don’t win; he’s gone on record saying he’s got enough energy to make as many as six more ALIEN films (5).  Given his age, it’s dubious that he’s even got that many films left to make in general, let alone in this particular series.  Rather, his enthusiasm arguably speaks to how the evocative mythology of these films has captured his artistic imagination.  He sees an entire universe of narrative possibility, just waiting to be explored.

At 81 years of age, Scott is not going to be around for the vast bulk of the 21st century (then again, the guy has so much energy that he just might). Like the immortality-obsessed Peter Weyland, the themes on display throughout PROMETHEUS and ALIEN: COVENANT nevertheless allow Scott a seat at the table anyway.

They avail him of the opportunity to determine the bounds of discourse as we engineer a better future for ourselves, and to remind us that we must temper our hubris as we gain more dominion over creation— lest we unleash unimaginable demons of our own making.


ALL THE MONEY IN THE WORLD (2017)

Living in Los Angeles, one can’t throw a rock without hitting a… well, a screenwriter or YouTube vlogger, yes… but also some form of cultural or artistic institution.  For a city often derided by those outside it as a vapid Babylon of material excess, entirely devoid of culture, LA boasts a staggering amount of art galleries and museums— the latter of which are almost always packed, even on a weekday.

Perched atop a hill overlooking the 405 freeway and the low concrete sprawl of the Westside, the elegant Getty Museum looms large over LA’s cultural legacy. Some of the world’s finest artworks and historical artifacts are housed there, inside an architecturally-dazzling ivory compound.  Approximately 5000 people pass through these grounds on a daily basis, but very few of them might know the personal history of its namesake, J. Paul Getty.

Known during his time as the wealthiest man in the world, Getty’s fortune has now been handily eclipsed by multi-billionaires like Jeff Bezos or Bill Gates; his business achievements overshadowed by his legacy as one of the fine art world’s biggest benefactors and preservationists.

This reputation, as the 2017 film ALL THE MONEY IN THE WORLD shows, is something of a whitewash, scrubbing over the muck of his considerable personal flaws.  Indeed, under the careful guidance of director Sir Ridley Scott, the film uses a key event in Getty’s life to reveal much more of his driving impulses than we’d might like to know.

Adapted by screenwriter David Scarpa from the 1995 John Pearson novel “Painfully Rich”, ALL THE MONEY IN THE WORLD details Getty’s response to the kidnapping of his grandson, John Paul Getty III, by Italian criminals in 1973– namely, his cold-hearted refusal to cough up a single penny for the boy’s release.

Scott himself had a tangential connection to the Getty family, having directed JPG III’s son, Balthazar Getty, in his 1996 film WHITE SQUALL; considering the source novel came out around the same time as WHITE SQUALL’s production, that is likely the point where Scott first became interested in the story.

The resulting film, made on a low (for Scott) $50 million budget, moves with a nimble dexterity fueled by his characteristically slick aesthetic and a pair of compelling performances.  This same dexterity — a product of Scott’s unparalleled filmmaking experience — arguably saves ALL THE MONEY IN THE WORLD from a late-in-the-game setback that not even Scott himself could have planned for.

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The story begins right away with the 1973 kidnapping, introducing Charlie Plummer as the lanky John Paul Getty III, the college-aged heir to the vast Getty fortune, sauntering nonchalantly — and alone— around the seedy streets of Rome after dark. The naïveté of his age and his elite station makes him an easy mark, and soon enough he’s whisked away in a van by a pair of abductors who hope to leverage him for a handsome sum.

They send the ransom note to his grandfather, J Paul Getty (Christopher Plummer, no relation to Charlie), who flat-out refuses to give in to their demands. This response illustrates how the uber-wealthy industrialist managed to accumulate all that wealth in the first place— he hoarded it all like a modern-day Scrooge McDuck.

His reasoning for refusing the ransom is as patently ridiculous as it is heartlessly logical: he has several grandchildren, and if he paid the ransom for one, he’d inevitably go broke doing the same for all of them. With the boy’s father sidelined by a crippling drug addiction, it’s up to his mother, Gail Harris (Michelle Williams) to lead the charge.

Deprived of the considerable resources that the Getty family name affords, Gail finds she must draw from an intense inner strength if she’s to bring her son back home safely. Thankfully, Williams the actress is more than up to the task, delivering a fierce and determined performance that rails against the calculating constrictions of her upper-crust world.

She also benefits from the unexpected assistance of Mark Wahlberg’s Fletcher Chance, a thrice-divorced corporate flack for Getty whose increasing disillusionment with his employer compels him to deploy his skills as an ex-CIA operative in her favor.

ALL THE MONEY IN THE WORLD is less interested in the lurid particulars of the kidnapping than it is in the titanic struggle of wills between Gail and Plummer’s Getty.  Plummer is pitch-perfect as the ruthless capitalist, so untouchable wealthy that he eagerly indulges himself in delusions of grandeur (in one of the film’s many flashback sequences, he matter-of-factly informs his young grandson that he’s a Roman emperor reincarnated).

Arguably the last living embodiment of the Old Money robber barons, Getty can only bring himself to spend his fortune on fine art, prizing oil on canvas over his own flesh and blood. Plummer’s performance would be nominated for the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor— a feat made all the more remarkable considering he shot his scenes in only two weeks after principal photography had wrapped (and a mere month or two before its release).

Plummer had been Scott’s first choice for the role, but was initially unavailable. Kevin Spacey was subsequently cast and performed the role under pounds of makeup, only to find himself embroiled in a sexual abuse scandal brought about by the rise of the #MeToo movement. Like so many powerful, once-untouchable men, Spacey was swiftly banished from Hollywood.

For ALL THE MONEY IN THE WORLD, this timing was understandably uncomfortable— due to arrive in theaters only a few short weeks after the news hit, the film risked utter catastrophe if it were to forge ahead with its disgraced star.  Indeed, it was so late in the game that Spacey was still being prominently featured as Getty in the initial marketing campaign.

Thus, Scott made a bold decision that only someone of his logistical brilliance and considerable experience could make: he would call his cast back to set at a cost of $10 million, reshooting all of Spacey’s scenes with the now-available Plummer, and deliver the finished film in time to meet its original release date.

Most other filmmakers would simply seek a delayed release, but Scott has never been one to walk away from an intimidating logistical challenge. Judging by Plummer’s several awards-season nods, Scott’s high-stakes gambit ultimately paid off, thus cementing his legacy as a master filmmaker capable of marshaling staggering, impossible forces to realize his vision.

ALL THE MONEY IN THE WORLD quickly distinguishes itself as one of the more visually-styled efforts in Scott’s filmography— which, understandably, is no easy feat.  Shooting on a fleet of digital Arri Alexa cameras in the 2.39:1 aspect ratio, Scott and returning cinematographer Dariusz Wolski infuse the high-contrast visuals with a striking orange & green color palette.

Complementary blue hues lend a sickly, cold pallor to scenes set in America (most prominently in and around Getty’s sprawling estate), while still other scenes — like the opening kidnapping sequence — bloom into color from a monochromatic starting point.  Indeed, the overall image is so conspicuously graded that one could imagine the filmmakers just slapped an Instagram filter over the damn thing and called it a day.

The camerawork retains Scott’s characteristic blend of classical and handheld photography, complementing the dimension provided by signature atmospherics like lens flares, dust, snow, and silhouettes.

Beyond Wolski, Scott’s usual group of core collaborators are absent.  The exception is production designer Arthur Max, who returns after sitting out ALIEN: COVENANT (2017) and subsequently provides ALL THE MONEY IN THE WORLD’s immersive realization of period & place.

The evocative environments on display throughout—  be it bustling 70’s-era Rome, the buzzing Italian countryside, or even the Getty corporation headquarters in San Francisco — resonate as the film’s strongest aspect.  Scott leverages his unique talent for rendering the texture and color of urban life to throw his audience headlong into these settings.

The sprawling story also affords him the opportunity to indulge in other personal and artistic fascinations, like his affection for the Middle East and its distinct culture.  These are not detailed explorations so much as they are fleeting references. For instance, Scott lifts an establishing aerial shot from BLACK HAWK DOWN (2001) to set up a scene occurring (but not shot) in Morocco (1).

A brief flashback depicting Getty disembarking a train in the desert and meeting a caravan of Saudi oil businessmen strongly recalls the imagery of David Lean’s LAWRENCE OF ARABIA— a cornerstone influence of Scott’s artistry that’s been repeatedly referenced throughout his filmography.

As of this writing, ALL THE MONEY IN THE WORLD constitutes Scott’s most recently-released work. Generally-positive reviews didn’t quite translate to a box office windfall, with a paltry $7 million domestic profit dashing the filmmakers’ hopes that the film’s title would prove prophetic for its own reception.

Not even the headline-grabbing developments of Spacey’s sacking or Scott’s last-minute reshoot push was enough to pull a substantial audience in. The reshoots themselves generated some controversy, with trade journals exposing a massive pay disparity between Wahlberg and Williams’ fees.

This served to further dampen the audience’s already-lethargic enthusiasm for the picture— especially considering its release at the heights of the #TimesUp movement. Wahlberg would ultimately donate his outsized payday to the movement’s organizing body in a bid to make things right, but ALL THE MONEY IN THE WORLD performed underwhelmingly nonetheless.

Naturally, Scott is not one to dwell on his failures or disappointments; if that were the case, he’d have been done decades ago.  Indeed, his slate of upcoming projects is larger than ever. He’s currently in production on a new television series titled RAISED BY WOLVES, the first two episodes of which he’s also directing.

He’s also attached to direct no less than three features— QUEEN & COUNTRY, BATTLE OF BRITAIN, and the long-gestating sequel to GLADIATOR.  He’s also likely tinkering away with the next installment in his ALIEN/PROMETHEUS prequels.  Assuming he actually follows through on this ambitious slate, the man has enough work to keep him occupied until his mid-to-late 80’s— and even then, he shows no signs of stopping or even slowing down.

His artistic reputation as a consummate craftsman and an impeccable visual stylist of the highest order propels a continuing desire to work; to create. At the risk of sounding morbid, it’s a fairly safe bet that, whatever his final feature will be, his collaborators and partners will have to finish it for him.

To me, this is somewhat of a beautiful thing: when (or if) the unstoppable filmmaking machine that is Sir Ridley Scott finally gives out, he will be surrounded by friends and family, doing the thing he loves to do more than anything (and likely chomping on a fat cigar to boot).

One can see Scott greeting his inevitable end not with awe or fear, but with an exasperated sigh of annoyance; the man keeps himself so busy that there’s simply no time to die.  Not when there’s still so many worlds left to explore.


COMMERCIALS (2019)

Despite making his name in the 1970’s in advertising, director Sir Ridley Scott hasn’t made a commercial for the past fifteen years.  His continued success in the theatrical feature realm has all but precluded a return to the medium that built his career, so it stands to reason that he would need a very, very big incentive to do so.

2019 would present no less than two such opportunities, each one generating a high-profile pop impact that reminds us why Scott is still regarded as a titan in the world of modern advertising.

TURKISH AIRLINES “THE JOURNEY”

When Turkish Airlines approached Scott to craft an ambitious short film to mark the opening of the new Istanbul international airport — one that would also screen as a commercial-length cutdown for the Super Bowl, no less — Scott found his inevitable return to the commercial world hastened.  Titled “THE JOURNEY”, the spot concerns the cat-and-mouse chase between a glamorous jetsetting socialite and the frazzled, breathless spy (BLADE RUNNER 2049’s Sylvia Hoeks) following close on her tail.

The loosely-constructed plot serves rather as a narrative justification for Scott and company to show off Turkey’s varied tourist hotspots, from luxe beachside hotels to the famed mosques that dot the city.  Scott uses this convergence of cultures — Old World vs. New, East vs. West — to construct an immersive environment removed from time entirely.

Indeed, the characters’ surroundings rapidly oscillate between the sleek continental flair of modern Europe to the weathered stonework and candlelit chambers of antiquity.  Scott brings his signature high-contrast, steely color palette to bear, pairing it with majestic aerials and gritty handheld setups to match the pulpy narrative. The spot’s immersive sense of place differentiates itself as one of the rarest Scott-built environments of all: one that we can actually visit.

RIDLEY SCOTT:  HENNESSEY “SEVEN WORLDS”

Following swiftly on the heels of the attention-grabbing release of “THE JOURNEY”, Scott also dropped a four minute piece for Hennessey titled “SEVEN WORLDS”— each unique world presenting itself as a visual metaphor for one aspect of the popular liquor brand’s unique flavor profile.

Freed from the constraints of conventional narrative, Scott is able to fully immerse himself in his signature world-building, giving each of the seven environments a distinct look and texture.  A high-contrast color palette unifies these worlds, rendered in large swaths of earth and metal tones and given detailed depth via signature atmospherics like mist, dust, and even floating rocks.

Indeed, “SEVEN WORLDS” plays almost like a celebration of Scott’s storied filmography, with standout moments like colossal humanoid figures resembling the Engineers of PROMETHEUS (2012), or the construction of an android suggesting the creation of BLADE RUNNER’s replicants.

Scott mostly abstains from making concrete connections between his enigmatic images and the Hennessey flavor profiles they are supposed to represent– an admittedly interesting choice for a format whose short running times leave little room for subtlety.  However, Scott’s epic expressionism reinforces the core message of the piece — “each drop is an odyssey” — and through his efforts. we can’t help but be reminded of the many unforgettable odysseys he’s taken us on throughout his celebrated career.


Author Cameron Beyl is the creator of The Directors Series and an award-winning filmmaker of narrative features, shorts, and music videos.  His work has screened at numerous film festivals and museums, in addition to being featured on tastemaking online media platforms like Vice Creators Project, Slate, Popular Mechanics and Indiewire. To see more of Cameron’s work – go to directorsseries.net.

THE DIRECTORS SERIES is an educational collection of video and text essays by filmmaker Cameron Beyl exploring the works of contemporary and classic film directors. ——>Watch the Directors Series Here <———

Ultimate Guide To David O. Russell And His Directing Techniques

SPANKING THE MONKEY (1994)

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Of all the living American directors with a constant presence on the awards circuit, few have had as controversial and twisting a career as director David O. Russell.  Over the course of a filmography spanning over two decades, his profile has risen to dizzying heights only to fall precipitously because of his tendency for self-destructive indulgence– and that’s just the first ten years.

His reputation as a filmmaker of impeccably-crafted prestige pictures has really only solidified within the past six years, and even then– if the lackluster reception of 2015’s JOY is any indication– there’s signals that it’s already unraveling.

With works like THE FIGHTER (2010) or AMERICAN HUSTLE (2013), Russell has emerged as the heir apparent to Martin Scorsese’s rock-infused portraits of America, and despite a hit-or-miss back catalog, each new work is greeted with the buzz of anticipation by cinephiles around the world.

To study Russell’s body of work is to chronicle the fast-paced career of a flawed, yet undeniably brilliant filmmaker who is still very much in the process of shaping his legacy.  A product of Russian Jewish and Italian American heritage, David O. Russell was born August 20th, 1958, in Manhattan.

 His parents worked in publishing at Simon & Schuster– father Bernard as a VP of Sales and mother Maria as a secretary – and his upbringing in an academic and cultured middle-class household full of books and novels would fundamentally inform the unique character of his later film work.

The Russells eventually moved to Larchmont, NY, but the mild-mannered suburb could not stifle or contain young David’s mischievous nature (which earned him the honor of Class Rebel at Mamaroneck High School.  His love affair with cinema began in his early teens, when he discovered the work of Scorsese and Roman Polanski.

It wasn’t long until he started making movies of his own, using a class assignment as an opportunity to shoot a short documentary on Super8mm about people in New York City.  Despite his early love for filmmaking, Russell had decided to follow in the steps of his parents and pursue a career in writing, leading him to start his own high school newspaper in addition to the creation of several short stories.

His passion for writing coincided with an emerging fascination with political science, both of which he studied at Amherst College in Massachusetts.  After receiving his AB degree in 1981, he adopted something of a nomadic lifestyle.

Beyond the usual aimless twentysomething occupations of bartending and manual labor, he taught Sandinista literacy in Nicaguara and served as a community organizer in Maine.  All the while, he continued cultivating his interest in writing and cinema.

His innate sense of political activism led him to shoot short documentaries about poor housing conditions in Lewiston, Maine and Panamanian immigrants living in Boston.  The latter project would net him his first official job in the film business, as a PA on the PBS series “Smithsonian World”.

In the late 80’s, Russell branched out into fictional storytelling, a development that would finally generate some momentum for the restless young man as he neared his thirtieth birthday.  In 1987, he wrote, produced and directed a short film about an obsessive bingo-playing mother called BINGO INFERNO:  A PARODY ON AMERICAN OBSESSIONS, the quality of which earned him a screening slot at Sundance.

He returned to Park City two years later with another short starring Bette Davis and William Hickey called HAIRWAY TO THE STARS. With the clout of the biggest film festival in America behind him, Russell was finally ready to make the jump into features.

Russell’s first feature– 1994’s SPANKING THE MONKEY— comes from audacious origins.  He had initially written a film about a writer of fortune cookies, and managed to obtain grants from the New York State Council On The Arts and the National Endowment For The Arts to make it.

Somewhere along the way, Russell had a change of heart, and decided to write a dark coming-of-age comedy about a young man’s incestuous relationship with his mother.  Working with producer Dean Silvers, Russell used the grant money and donations from friends and family to cobble together the necessary $200k.

He also got a valuable assist from Janet Grillo, an executive and producer over at New Line Cinema who he’d married in 1992.  SPANKING THE MONKEY shot in Russell’s native upstate New York for twenty five days, and despite having to return the grant money for not delivering on the project he initially pitched, the film’s potentially off-putting subject matter was ultimately eclipsed by an innate warmth and humanity.

SPANKING THE MONKEY plays like a fucked-up, Oedipal version of THE GRADUATE (1967) set in suburban Connecticut.  Jeremy Davies plays Ray Aibelli, a sexually-frustrated pre-med student who is forced to give up a promising internship in Washington DC to tend to his invalid mother while his father is away on a business trip.

Alberta Watson gives a courageous performance as Ray’s mom, Susan, spending a great deal of the film posted up in her bed with a broken leg.  It’s by no means a savory role– she’s required to be depressed and unhappy throughout, all while projecting a vulnerable sensuality that ensnares her own son.

Watson is due major credit for her role in the movie’s success– she gives herself over entirely to Russell’s direction despite his inexperience, and in the process manages to capture the humanity her character requires in order for the story to work.

Benjamin Hendrickson assumes the antagonist role as Ray’s father, Tom, loading his young son down with an overbearing set of rules and laws while he’s on the road hawking self-help videotapes and fooling around with hookers.  The only bright spot in Ray’s life is Toni Peck, the sweet and sexually-naive girl next door played by Carla Gallo.

Despite its sensationalist subject matter, SPANKING THE MONKEY asserts itself as a heartfelt coming-of-age story wherein a young man must claim his right to independence and autonomy in one of the most unthinkable and disgusting ways possible.

While his later works would distinguish themselves with stylized cinematography, Russell approaches the shooting of SPANKING THE MONKEY with an understated, naturalistic aesthetic.  Cinematographer Michael Mayers captures the warm, heavy light of a humid East Coast summer onto the 1.85:1 35mm film frame.

Locked-off, functional compositions appropriately convey the oppressive banality of suburbia, but as the story becomes more unhinged, Russell and Mayers turn to unbalanced handheld photography to compensate.  David Carbonara provides a spare, unobtrusive score via quiet guitar plucks, while Russell adds a few sourced tracks from rock band Morphine in the first instance of his recurring use of rock music as a stylized storytelling device.

While it’s highly doubtful that Russell ever felt feelings like this towards his own mother, an intimate and personal energy courses through SPANKING THE MONKEY.  His upbringing in an academic household is reflected via Ray’s obsession with internships and his studies, to which his mother also becomes a source of wisdom and advice.

The importance of family is a core conceit of Russell’s artistic character, albeit reflected within SPANKING THE MONKEY in an oblique way that builds to Ray’s ultimate desertion of his family at film’s end.  On its face, that may seem to refute Russell’s interest in the idea of family as a fundamental sculptor of character, but it’s also hard to argue that his warped relationship to his family isn’t the primary catalyst for his faking of his own death to create a new identity for himself.

For all the trouble Russell had in convincing investors to finance his “incest comedy”, he had no problem convincing audiences that SPANKING THE MONKEY was a boldly enjoyable work of indie cinema.  The film was honored with an Audience Award following its debut at Sundance, and further went on to claim an Independent Spirit Award for Best First Screenplay.

Even the theatrical box office take proved surprising, grossing $1.3 million dollars against its paltry $200k budget.  In following the tried-and-true template of fashioning his first feature as a personal story about the world he knew, Russell engineered an auspicious debut for himself that would kick start one of the most celebrated careers in contemporary American cinema.


FLIRTING WITH DISASTER (1996)

The modest success of his 1994 feature debut, SPANKING THE MONKEY, placed director David O. Russell on the radar of Hollywood production companies as a talent to watch.  One such company was Miramax, who at the time was run by a sibling pair of awards-bait moguls, Bob and Harvey Weinstein.

They saw Russell’s potential right away, and quickly brought him and his producing partner Dean Silvers into their fold as Russell began writing his follow-up– a road trip comedy called FLIRTING WITH DISASTER.  Released in 1996, FLIRTING WITH DISASTER finds Russell working with established Hollywood stars for the first time in his career, while solidifying his own profile as an emerging filmmaker with a twisted take on family and identity.

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FLIRTING WITH DISASTER stars Ben Stiller as Mel Coplin, a New York entomologist and a new father who is having trouble naming his newborn son because, as an adopted child himself, he has no grasp on his true lineage.

Charged up with a feverish neuroticism and an ample supply of sexual hang-ups, Mel goes over his wife Nancy’s head (the flirtatious and frustrated Patricia Arquette) to enlist the help of Tea Leoni’s Tina Kalb, a clinical and buttoned-up adoption agent who’s a little frayed around the edges.

She’s found his birth parents (or so she claims), and volunteers to join Mel and Nancy on a dizzying road trip that will take them from Manhattan, to San Diego, then Michigan, and finally to New Mexico as they desperately follow what little strands of information they have left when Tina’s records prove entirely unreliable.

Along the way, the trio is comically besieged by temptation, doubt, and distraction in the form of their ever-growing entourage.  Towards this end, Russell fills his supporting cast with an inspired mix of established talent and on-the-rise upcomers who have since established themselves in their own right.

George Segal and Mary Tyler Moore play Mel’s uptight and fiery adopted parents, a pair of stuffy upper crust types.  Mel’s real parents, however, couldn’t be more different– Allan Alda and Lily Tomlin play the characters of Richard and Mary Schlichting as warm and inviting art hippies with an almost-debilitating passion for acid.

There’s also a fresh-faced Josh Brolin and Richard Jenkins (who looked exactly the same in 1996 as he does now), playing a literal odd couple who are partners in both work and life.  Jenkins’ ATF agent Paul Harmon is an irritable grouch, contrasting starkly with his husband Tory Kent, characterized by Brolin as a laid back and charismatic presence that just so happens to have an intimate history with Mel’s wife that drives Mel wild with seething envy.

FLIRTING WITH DISASTER’s cinematography, executed by Director of Photography Eric Alan Edwards, marks a technical step up from Russell’s rough-edged indie debut.  Again shooting on 35mm film in the 1.85:1 aspect ratio, Russell imbues FLIRTING WITH DISASTER with a polished naturalism, leaning into the visual grammar and stylistic techniques of the road picture and romantic comedy genres even as he seeks to subvert them.

In this respect, the film’s visual style resembles the aesthetic of Billy Wilder, utilizing classical camera movement and covering dialogue with a preference for two-shots over closeups.  Just as frequently, however, Russell injects a Martin Scorsese-style rock-and-roll energy with handheld camerawork or the aggressive breaking of the 4th wall during the film’s impressionistic opening sequence.

Composer Stephen Endelman provides a spare, rock-influenced score that Russell complements with a variety of jazz, punk, and country cues that further reflect the various locales in which the winding story finds itself.  SPANKING THE MONKEY introduced several of the core thematic conceits that shape Russell’s artistic character, and FLIRTING WITH DISASTER expands upon those in interesting fashion.

The repressed, Oedipal nature of sex that he so boldly explored in his previous film continues to fuel the comic engine here, subjecting Stiller’s character to an onslaught of sexually humiliating scenarios– not the least of which finds his wife trying to blow him in front of his infant son (and while his adoption agent awkwardly waits in the other room).

He hates his sex life being discussed with others; indeed, he seems profoundly intimidated by the entire enterprise.  Russell ties his hang-ups about sex into his hang-ups with family, charging Mel’s story with a peculiar family dynamic: alienation.

He’s alienated from his adopted parents because he is inherently not of their blood, he’s alienated from his birth parents because he has no basis of connection to them other than blood, he’s alienated from his wife because she can’t relate to his plight, and he’s alienated from his son because he doesn’t even know what to name him.

A major subplot revolves around Mel being physically unable to name his newborn, simply because he himself does not know where he comes from or who he really is.  FLIRTING WITH DISASTER hammers home the idea of how identity is fundamentally shaped by family– before Mel can become an anchor for his son and wife, he needs to find his own rock.

Los Angeles Premiere of Flirting With Disaster

FLIRTING WITH DISASTER also evidences the emergence of another, less-enviable directorial signature- a propensity for quarreling with his collaborators.  His blow-ups with George Clooney in THREE KINGS (1999) and Tomlin on I HEART HUCKABEES (2004) are the stuff of Hollywood legend, but even as early as his second feature film, there were reports of Russell continously clashing with Stiller over a variety of creative matters.

Despite its rocky shoot, FLIRTING WITH DISASTER premiered to an even warmer reception than Russell’s debut.  The film screened out of competition at Cannes, and critics were quick to include it in their yearly “best-of” lists.  Twenty years later, FLIRTING WITH DISASTER is remembered as a classic 90’s comedy that boosted its ambitious director’s rising profile.

In taking the guise of a road comedy, FLIRTING DISASTER complements SPANKING THE MONKEY as the second in a pair of coming-of-age pictures about family and identity.  These two films could only have been made by Russell at the beginning of his film career; indeed, his filmography from here on out would bear a very different resemblance.

At nearly 40 years old, Russell was breaking out at a relatively older age than the bulk of his counterparts, a product of arrested development not unlike Stiller’s protagonist.  He still had some growing up to do, and he still had so much more road to travel.


THREE KINGS (1999)

Some directors show a steady progression in confidence and craft as their careers unfold, while others lurch forward by leaps and bounds– surprising us with a burst of creativity we weren’t expecting.  In 19999, director David O. Russell proved himself to be an artist of the latter persuasion with the release of his ambitious and stylistically-radical action comedy, THREE KINGS.

There was very little, if anything at all, within Russell’s previous two films that signaled the sheer size of the artistic beast he contained within himself, and it all exploded out with such force that not even he could control its bloodlust.

The stress of mounting his first mainstream studio film at such a high level (a $42 million operating budget) proved a trial by fire for the young director, whose artistic brilliance was tempered by an outsized ego and combative hotheadedness that established his reputation throughout the industry as a “difficult” filmmaker.

This lethal combination had sunk other directors with far greater delusions of grandeur (see: Michael Cimino and the production debacle of HEAVEN’S GATE (1980)), but THREE KINGS somehow managed to be both an artistic and commercial success that dramatically boosted Russell’s rising profile.

THREE KINGS began as a script by John Ridley called SPOILS OF WAR, written in part as a challenge to himself to see how fast he could write and sell a screenplay.  Needless to say, challenge accomplished: Ridley churned out the script in a week and sold it to Warner Brothers only 18 days later.

After the success of 1996’s FLIRTING WITH DISASTER, producer Charles Roven brought Russell a collection of script loglines to consider for his next project.  The logline for SPOILS OF WAR leapt out to Russell, and he used it as a jumping off point for his own screenplay instead of actually reading (let alone using) any part of Ridley’s script.

The story, of which the begrudging Ridley would eventually get a credit for on the finished film, takes place immediately after the end of Operation Desert Storm in Kuwait.  Very much unlike the quagmire of Vietnam, victory was swift– on the order of days, almost hours.

Many soldiers found themselves in the desert unsure what to do with themselves– after all, could they really call themselves heroes if they never even fired their weapons?  Among these anxious soldiers is Troy Barlow, a rambunctious hothead who has just become a father.

Played by Mark Wahlberg in the first of what would be several collaborations with Russell, Troy is eager to get home, but is also desperate to find some sort of purpose in the conflict.  He finally finds it when he discovers what appears to be a treasure map stashed away between a prisoner’s ass cheeks.

He takes it to his superior, Chief Elgin (played to great effect by rapper-turned-actor Ice Cube), who realizes that it points to the location of a stash of gold bullion that Saddam Hussein hid away deep in the desert.

They decide to fake a “special” mission to go out and retrieve the gold under the auspices that they’re returning stolen property to the Kuwaiti people, but in order to sneak off the base they’ll need the help of the soon-to-be-retiring officer Archie Gates, played by George Clooney during the height of his “E.R.” heyday in a bid to establish himself as a true-blue movie star.

Clooney successfully parlays his smooth, unruffled physicality into that of a tired & disillusioned burn-out, a dynamic that no doubt was helped along by the fact that he was simultaneously shooting E.R. half the week during the shoot.

The so-called “Three Kings” set off into the desert to retrieve the gold, accompanied by Spike Jonze’s dim-witted redneck, Conrad Vig, as comic relief.  Jonze’s casting is notable in that he was (and still isn’t) an actor, per se; he was a director in his own right, and had recently come off the making of his own classic, BEING JOHN MALKOVICH (1999).

Jonze was a good friend of Russell’s out in New York, who wrote the role of Conrad specifically for him.  The four manage to find Saddam’s gold, but their attempts to extricate it are complicated by the refugees they’ve accidentally liberated from Iraqi rule in the process– a tricky situation considering that conflict operations are officially over.

Burdened by their consciences, the soldiers agree to transport their new charges (some played by actual Desert Storm refugees) across the border to safety.  Thus, the stage is set for a rousing action-adventure that combines chaotic comedy with timely relevance (especially in the context of George W. Bush’s re-entry into the region in 2003).

Aside from its trio of famous leads, THREE KINGS also features several prominent character actors from a variety of backgrounds.  Cliff Curtis gives a human face to the Kuwaiti refugees as their leader and a recent-widower, while a young Alia Shawkat of ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT fame plays his daughter.

Judy Greer– another future ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT cast member– plays the rival reporter to Nora Dunn’s all-business field reporter with a chip on her shoulder.  Comedian Jamie Kennedy grows out a wispy mustache for his role as a foolish soldier assigned to distract Dunn’s character from following Archie and his companions into the desert.

Finally, Holt McCallany plays a vindictive fellow soldier who pursues the “Kings” with a tactical, by-the-book zeal.   Of all the stylistic departures Russell makes from the naturalistic, low-key aesthetic of his first two features, the cinematography of THREE KINGS represents the most radical.

Working with cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel, Russell boldly experiments with the outer limits of the 35mm film format to paint a depiction of war not as hell necessarily, but as hardcore rock and roll.

The searing high-contrast color scheme seen here is fairly commonplace today thanks to the advent of digital color-timing technology, but what makes THREE KINGS’ groundbreaking aesthetic so impressive is how it was achieved entirely through photochemical methods.

 Large portions of the film were shot on Ektachrome transparency reversal stock, and then subsequently cross-processed in the lab onto negative stock– a process so volatile and highly-unreliable that many labs refused to insure their work.

The picture is further boosted by the use of the bleach-bypass process, which leaves the silver halides that would otherwise have been washed off the emulsion to produce an extra-grainy picture with cold, dense shadows and blown-out highlights.

Russell and Sigel render the 2.35:1 frame in sweeping swaths of desert and metal tones that oscillate from washed-out to hyper-vibrant on a shot-to-shot basis, infusing the film with a crackling visual energy that’s matched by a kinetic, Scorsese-style potpourri of camera techniques like whip-pans, zooms, freeze frames, slow-motion, slow shutter speeds, and handheld and steadicam shots that blend together into an expressionistic brew of hyper-real violence.

It should be noted that Russell’s depiction of violence in the film isn’t exactly gleeful– he takes great care to establish real consequences, tamping down the conventional sonic embellishment of movie gunfire while amping up the awareness of internal carnage (seen most potently when Russell’s camera dives inside the human body to explicitly demonstrate how much wreckage a single bullet can do to its guts).

THREE KINGS’ radical approach extends to other key elements of its execution, especially within the fields of production design and music.  The film was famously shot in the American Southwest, far from the war-ravaged sands of Kuwait.

Production designer Catherine Hardwicke (who, like Jonze, would later assert herself as a successful director in her own right) flawlessly recreates the distinct look of the Gulf, erecting ramshackle desert structures and adorning them with anti-Saddam graffiti.

Like the original scores that Russell commissioned for SPANKING THE MONKEY and FLIRTING WITH DISASTER, THREE KINGS employs a spare suite of percussive cues written by the Coen Brothers’ regular composer, Carter Burwell.

The score does unfortunately succumb to the cliched use of a sitar to convey a Middle Eastern setting, but what it lacks in originality it more than makes up for in the eclecticism of its bed of sourced tracks–a range of 70’s rock, 90’s hip-hop, U2, The Beach Boys, and classical music that reinforces the film’s bizarre juxtaposition of Western capitalist culture and Eastern antiquity.

Despite its stark tonal difference to Russell’s previous work, THREE KINGS deals in several of his established thematic conceits.  He continues to show a great ear for dialogue and character interaction, finding nuggets of brilliant comedy in even the darkest of scenarios.

This film is his third anchored by a male protagonist, but the females remain as dominant and strongly-realized as ever– one need look no further than Nora Dunn’s tough-as-nails, take-no-bullshit reporter, who senses what Archie and his band of brothers are up to and doggedly pursues them across the intimidating landscape.

THREE KINGS also asserts itself as the film to establish one of Russell’s less-favorable directorial conceits– his reputation as a temperamental and combative collaborator.  The extreme pressure of mounting a production magnitudes more expensive and complicated than his previous work seems to have brought out his worst tendencies, to the point that he got into a physical fistfight with Clooney over a disagreement about how to coax the right performance out of an extra.

His crew quickly grew tired of the outbursts and arguments that reportedly occurred on a regular basis, as well as the overlong shooting days that piled up as a result of Russell foregoing the efficiency of storyboards in favor of an improvisational style of shooting.  It’s the kind of behavior that no one likes to hear coming out of a shoot, especially for an art form that depends so heavily on collaboration.

Russell’s behavior may have been outlandish and uncalled for, but his stress is certainly understandable given that the studio was drastically slashing his budget and shooting schedule as a means to mitigate the risk of his hiring in the first place.

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For all its near-legendary production woes, THREE KINGS ultimately triumphs as not just a rousing bit of big-budget entertainment, but also as an intriguing examination into the existential psyche of American soldiers during an unconventional conflict and a quantum leap forward for Russell’s own artistic development.

Having grossed over twice its budget, it was the first of Russell’s features to become a substantial hit at the box office, and critics were quick to welcome his mainstream breakout into the wider cultural conversation– even President Bill Clinton reportedly liked the film so much, he screened it for friends and staff at the White House.

Naturally, the film had its detractors too– the film was understandably banned in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. SPANKING THE MONKEY and FLIRTING WITH DISASTER may have established Russell as a gifted director with a unique insight into unconventional family dynamics and inspired dramaturgy, but THREE KINGS proved him to also be an ambitious stylist who was ready to become a prominent voice in the cinematic zeitgeist.


I HEART HUCKABEES (2004)

The making of 1999’s THREE KINGS exhibited a supernova of artistic growth for its embattled director, David O. Russell.  However, just as an exploding star will eventually entropy into an inward-surging black hole, so too did the 46 year-old filmmaker find himself gazing inward; caught in the grips of a personal and artistic midlife crisis that would compel him to return to his roots– indie comedies preoccupied with the topic of identity and the search to attain it.

Indeed, THREE KINGS was such a beast apart from his earlier work that Russell seemed to have lost his bearings on the direction of his artistic character.  Instead of agonizing over which path to take, he decided that his next project would be about the path itself.

Drawing much of his inspiration from the teachings of his mentor Robert Thurman — a metaphysical philosopher at Columbia and father to Hollywood actress Uma Thurman– Russell crafted his fourth feature film as a biting satire on corporate “benevolence” initiatives and a face-melting comic journey into the philosophical tenets of existentialism.

Released in 2004, I HEART HUCKABEES perfected the formula Russell had been tinkering in the decade since SPANKING THE MONKEY (1994), while neatly harmonizing with the symphony of other experimental arthouse mind-trips of the era like Spike Jonze’s BEING JOHN MALKOVICH (1999), Michel Gondry’s ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND (2004) and Paul Thomas Anderson’s PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE (2002).

Produced by Russell, Gregory Goodman, and Scott Rudin– that powerhouse mogul of prestigious auteur fare– I HEART HUCKABEES drops its anxiety-riddled pin right into the middle of a generic, contemporary cityscape (played, naturally, by Los Angeles).

First conveyed through his curse-laden interior monologue and then through the increasingly absurd exterior plot machinations he finds himself in, the story of I HEART HUCKABEES orbits around protagonist Albert Markovski, a long-haired and well-dressed green spaces advocate fighting off the self-serving designs for a new park by the Huckabees Corporation, a retail department store giant and his commercial partner on the initiative.

Played to idiosyncratic perfection by Jason Schwartzman, Albert is something of a cypher for Russell himself– both share external characteristics like a similar manner of dress and a passion for anti-corporate activism, as well as interior traits like a crippling identity crisis.

To help regain his faith in himself, he enlists the services of the Jaffes– a pair of self-styled “existential detectives” who will observe his every waking moment in an effort to find the root of his problems.  Dustin Hoffman plays Bernard Jaffe, the hang-loose yin to the buttoned-up yang of his wife, Vivian (sleekly embodied by Lily Tomlin in her second performance for Russell after 1996’s FLIRTING WITH DISASTER).

Both patient and prognosticator are foiled by their inverse reflections– Markovski by a coldly ambitious and smarmy Huckabees sales executive named Brand Strand (Jude Law, using his effortless good looks to beautifully ironic effect), and the Jaffes by Isabelle Huppert’s Catherine Vauban, a French author and fellow philosopher who claims the dark power of nihilism as her home turf.

The philosophical tug-of-war between these five characters also sparks a chain reaction of existential trauma for THREE KINGS headliner Mark Wahlberg’s emotionally fragile firefighter, Tommy Corn, and Naomi Watts’ Dawn Campbell, who, after years of objectification in front of the camera as the Huckabees spokesmodel, has become self-aware and demands to be recognized for the flawed and intelligent person she is (the moment where she venomously disses her longtime employer as “Fuckabees” is one of the film’s best laughs).

In a bid to stuff the story with absurdity at every turn, I HEART HUCKABEES also features appearances by Hitchcock Blonde Teppi Hedren as a combative member of Markovski’s coalition, Isla Fischer as Dawn’s air headed replacement, a running joke about Shania Twain culminating in a surprise cameo from the singer herself, FLIRTING WITH DISASTER’s Richard Jenkins as a bearded avatar of the hypocritical middle-class values that rest at the convergence of Anglo-Saxan Christianity and suburbia, and even the film debut of Jonah Hill as Jenkins’ porky brat of a son.

The cinematography of I HEART HUCKABEES marks a return to the understated and straightforward patina of Russell’s first two features.  Shot in the anamorphic aspect ratio on 35mm film by cinematographer Peter Deming, the visual style adopts an approach not unlike that of Paul Thomas Anderson’s from the same period.

Indeed, the influence of PTA– specifically PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE— is embedded into the DNA of Russell’s formalistic camerawork and the offsetting of a muted, neutral palette with splashes of bright primary color.

Russell further echoes the conceits of Anderson’s anxious romance with his hiring of composer Jon Brion, who brings his signature eclecticism to bear in the writing of a whimsical score played in the minor key and marked by the use of unconventional instruments like the Chamberlin- an electronic keyboard from the 1960’s that emulates other instruments via recorded tape.

This isn’t to say that Russell’s aesthetic here outright steals from Anderson; rather, he uses these conceits as building blocks for the foundation of his own take.  Towards that end, he infuses the film with a sense of magical realism, echoing Bernard’s establishing explanation of “the blanket truth of everything” by employing pixelated tiles floating away from their fixed position in the frame and other visual “glitches” that hint at the hidden reality that lies beyond what we can physically see.

All of Russell’s films up to this point have been about identity in some capacity, with the plots boiling down to a simple question with a maddeningly, elusively complex answer.  SPANKING THE MONKEY asked: “who am I?”, while FLIRTING WITH DISASTER wondered: “where do I come from?”.

THREE KINGS stared at the wreckage of war smoldering around it and mused: “what do I do now?”.  I HEART HUCKABEES poses, perhaps, the ultimate question: “what does this all mean?”.  The characters find themselves adrift in the current between two opposing philosophies: “everything is connected”, and “nothing means anything”.

Russell mines these heady, unwieldy ideas for every ounce of comic potential, charging the film’s volatile familial relationships and wittily profane interactions with a crackling thematic energy.   Perhaps the idea that I HEART HUCKABEES explores with the most resonance is that of “false narrative”– the fake realities we wield as armor against our deepest insecurities.

Our false narratives can become so real to us that we shut out anything that might challenge it– even if it’s in our best interests.  There’s a pivotal scene in which Albert is ejected from his own coalition, his idealism crushed by the ignorance of those unwilling to listen.  As an idealist, he stands by his principles, in stark contrast to the Huckabees Corporation’s nihilistic abandonment of them in pursuit of the Almighty Dollar.

He learns the hard lessons that Capitalism will always trump Altruism, because it has no regard for values or principles beyond inflating its bottom line.  In light of the 2016 US Election, I HEART HUCKABEES takes on a renewed resonance, its teachings having gone sorely unheeded.

We need look no further than former Arkansas governor and failed GOP presidential candidate Mike Huckabee to see this willful ignorance at play in our own reality– when asked for his reaction to the film in 2004, he is quoted as saying: “It was as if somebody forgot to give the actors a script and said, ‘For the next two hours, just go out there and do something.”

Ignoring the numerous things that are inherently wrong in that statement, Huckabee’s reaction illustrates a profound unwillingness or inability to engage an idea in debate or conversation, exhibiting instead an insecure tendency to regain power by discrediting the integrity of the person expressing the idea.

This mentality affects both sides of the aisle, poisoning our values and identities with the slime of hypocrisy and derailing any semblance of rational discourse with a false narrative.  The film also shows how these false narratives can trickle down from the corner offices to Main Street, staging a heated argument between Schwartzman, Wahlberg and Jenkins’ characters during dinner.

In elaborating on what he does for a living and his own existential crisis, Albert inevitably pokes holes in Jenkins’ own false narrative, revealing his inherent hypocrisies.  Jenkins wraps himself up in the armor of patriotism and Christian righteousness as an example of True American Morality, but Albert highlights how incompatible those values are with the capitalistic convictions he also carries.

Jenkins can’t accept this truth, shutting his guests out of the conversation and out of his house; denying himself an opportunity for growth and enlightenment.

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The usage of Schwartzman’s character as a cypher for Russell himself means the story, in manners both oblique and direct, can be read as an autobiographical expression of his own artistic unmooring following the tumultuous, hard-earned success of THREE KINGS.

In making that film, the former activist and scholar had become a part of the Hollywood machine; toiling away in the belly of a beast that had little regard for his own artistic agenda.  Russell’s personal experience at the intersection of capitalism and the arts colors I HEART HUCKABEE’s philosophical conflict, showing how the two forces both repel and attract each other.

Russell places great emphasis on how corporations co-opt artists, illustrated in Brand’s pursuit of pop star Shania Twain for their greenspace initiative as a means to distract consumers with beauty and flash while he advances the commercial interests of his employer.

It’s not a stretch to venture that Russell arguably felt this way himself, having been an in-demand indie director enlisted to helm a big-budget studio picture, only to discover they were only interested in the cultural street cred that came with his name.

Now, that may be a bit unfair to the studio, considering Russell developed the story himself and they ultimately stood behind his vision, but that didn’t mean egos weren’t bruised and passions went un-stoked in the process.  Indeed, Russell’s passion as a filmmaker is evident in every frame– and beyond too, judging by the set videos that surfaced a few years after the film’s release showing Russell and Tomlin screaming nasty epithets and hurling middle fingers at each other like nuclear bombs.

These tapes cemented Russell’s reputation as a temperamental and difficult director, but it’s worth noting that Tomlin–  much like Clooney on THREE KINGS— still held him in high regard afterwards despite bearing the brunt of his ire, perhaps a (begrudging) professional respect built on the bedrock of his artistic integrity.

I HEART HUCKABEES was a modest success at the box office, opening with the standard indie strategy of an initial limited release before a wider rollout.  Reviews were decidedly mixed, leaning toward the positive.  Despite its rather unremarkable reception, the film has gone on to accumulate a great deal of respect as one of the better films of its decade– if not in the top twenty maybe, certainly the top forty.

Russell himself regards I HEART HUCKABEES as his least favorite film, which is understandable given that it finds him actively working out his personal mid-life crisis in full view of an audience of millions.  As Russell’s career has played out in the years since, it’s become more apparent that his so-called “midlife crisis movie” is really a trilogy, of which I HEART HUCKABEES is only the middle chapter.

This phase– marked by decreasing returns and the public airing of Russell’s production grief– had unwittingly started with THREE KINGS, and would continue on towards its nadir: the disastrous shoot of a romantic comedy called NAILED in 2008, which would only see release in 2015 under the title of ACCIDENTAL LOVE and without Russell’s directorial stamp of approval.

His fumbling through the fog of existential confusion had unwittingly led him into the wilderness, and it would be quite some time yet until he emerged as an artist reborn.


SOLDIERS PAY (2004)

The invasion of Iraq by the Bush administration in 2003 became something of a flashpoint for American filmmakers, especially among the politically-minded.  Like the relationship of 70’s cinema to the Vietnam War, much of Hollywood’s cinematic output during the mid-aughts could arguably be interpreted as some kind of reflection of our divided feelings towards the conflict.

This mood wasn’t new to director David O. Russell; he had been grappling with our complicated relationship with the region since for quite some time– at the very least since 1999’s THREE KINGS.

That film– an absurdist comedy disguised in action fatigues that concerns three soldiers in Operation Desert Storm going AWOL to hunt for Saddam Hussein’s secret stash of gold bullion– gained newfound relevance in the wake of President George W. Bush’s shock-and-awe campaign to unseat the Iraqi dictator and install a permanent democracy.

Ever the astute capitalists, Warner Brothers drew up plans to re-release THREE KINGS back into theaters with some kind of additional component linking it to the current conflict.  Russell also saw an opportunity here, but making changes to the movie was simply out of the question.

Instead, he proposed SOLDIERS PAY— a short documentary that would explore the complex sentiments about the Iraq War as told by the servicemen and women who actually lived it.

Taking its name from the William Faulkner novel of the almost-same name (in subtly omitting the apostrophe from “Soldier’s Pay”, Russell changes the intent of the phrase entirely), SOLDIERS PAY unfolds in a series of unadorned talking head testimonials from soldiers running the spectrum of opinion.

Whereas most documentaries of this nature aim to convince the viewer of an underlying conviction, SOLDIERS PAY is simply content to conversate with its subjects.  Russell and his co-director Tricia Regan capture the piece on consumer-grade, standard-definition digital video, employing footage from the front lines only sparsely in a bid to emphasize the soldiers’ testimonials.

The cumulative effect is a sprawling, yet compact, oral history of a controversial campaign that abstains from arriving at a complete ideological conclusion.  Indeed, Russell’s own sentiments are best expressed in a quote he made around the time of the film’s release:

“Every Iraqi I know is glad that Saddam is gone… is Iraq better off without Saddam?  Yes.  Is the world better off with this war?  Not sure, don’t think so”.  SOLDIERS PAY is very much an appropriate companion piece to THREE KINGS, to the extent that Russell even finds a real-life anecdote similar to the treasure hunt plot of his fictional feature.

The film also provides Russell an opportunity to invoke his background in political activism– he had hoped to release the film before the 2004 Presidential Election, desiring to make something of a difference in a decision that was largely seen as a referendum on America’s foray into Iraq.

Unfortunately, Warner Brothers got cold feet from the controversy surrounding the piece and dumped it at the last moment. Russell eventually got his wish when IFC picked up the rights and aired it on the eve of the election, but whatever immediate difference he hoped to make was negated by Bush’s decisive re-election.

He may have lost the battle, but he had gained crucial ground in the war for America’s hearts and minds– and he did it by documenting several new narratives to counter the government-pushed false one that led us to war in the first place.


ACCIDENTAL LOVE (2008/2015)

For the most part, watching a given director’s films in chronological order and analyzing them for the purposes of THE DIRECTORS SERIES is an immersive and revealing way to study his or her artistic growth.  Sometimes, however, it can pose a puzzling dilemma– especially in cases where the film was released several years or more after it was actually filmed.

Even more so in the scenario that’s every director’s dreaded nightmare: a film that turns out so horrible that the best course of action is to remove one’s name from the credits entirely.  Do you even include it in the curriculum?  If so, how?  Over the course of several years and the study of several different directors, the best course of action has always seemed to be to taking on each cinematic anomaly on a case by case basis.

In the case of director David O. Russell, it’s absolutely imperative to examine how the growth of his artistic aesthetic and the trajectory of his career narrative is affected by his intended follow-up to 2003’s I HEART HUCKABEES— the god-awful ACCIDENTAL LOVE (2015).

There’s no mincing words on this one; ACCIDENTAL LOVE is an atrocious train wreck where every artistic decision, from Russell’s down the line, is arguably the wrong one.  It’s a bumbling, ill-advised wannabe satire about the state of American healthcare circa 2008, but by the time it was finally released nearly eight years later, its central storyline had been made so profoundly irrelevant with the passage of the Affordable Care Act that the distributor could only bill the film as a romantic comedy.

Even in the hypothetical scenario of Obamacare’s failure to become law, ACCIDENTAL LOVE would still fail as a political satire thanks to is disgusting oversimplification of very complicated issues and policy.  It even fails as a romantic comedy– it’s not very romantic, and it’s definitely not funny.

It’s the unequivocal low point in Russell’s career, a film so bad that his name won’t be found anywhere within the credits.  Nonetheless, ACCIDENTAL LOVE is an important experience, if not a film, as Russell’s abject failure here sets the stage for a roaring comeback that would install him as a permanent fixture on the awards circuit throughout the 2010’s.

ACCIDENTAL LOVE’s troubled production history is well documented, taken down as a cautionary testament for anyone attempting to mount a film at any stage in their career.  The film started its life as an adaptation by Kristin Gore (daughter to Big Al) of her own novel, “Sammy’s Hill”.

Douglas Wick and Lucy Fisher of Red Wagon Productions oversaw Gore and co-writer’s Matthew Silverstein & Dave Jeser’s work on the screenplay, now titled NAILED.  As an independent comedy wearing its political activist heart on its sleeve, the project no doubt seemed like an ideal fit for Russell, who was able to assemble together an impressive cast of A-list stars thanks to his respectable resume and a healthy budget of $26 million from upstart production company Capitol Films and its emerging figurehead, David Bergstein (2).

As production commenced in the spring of 2008, It became increasingly apparent to cast and crew that their financier’s pockets weren’t as deep as they promised, and a continued series of non-payments prompted walkouts from headliners Jessica Biel and Jake Gyllenhaal.

The situation deteriorated so much that the unions eventually had to get involved, leading to production shutting down no less than fourteen (FOURTEEN!!) times.  Russell and his producing team didn’t buy Capitol’s flimsy excuse that the 2008 financial crisis was to blame for their money woes, and thus insulated themselves from Bergstein releasing an unfinished product against their will by scheduling the pivotal inciting sequence at the end of the shoot – without it, there is no sensible story to speak of.  Ergo, no movie.

This plan worked in Russell’s favor, as he ultimately never shot it.  By the time reshoots resumed after the unions pulled their support and initiated another shutdown, he had already disentangled himself from the project permanently.

Even had production gone swimmingly, it’s still surprising that executives found the story of ACCIDENTAL LOVE interesting enough to even take it that far.  The first of many cliches places the action in a small Indiana town, where a pretty but somewhat clueless waitress named Alice Eckle is quite literally skating through life.

Played sufficiently by the underrated Jessica Biel, she’s a small-town girl who loves her family, her job, and her boyfriend– a mustachioed cop named Scott (James Marsden, an inspired choice) who is well aware of the fact that he’s the most handsome bachelor in town.

One fateful night, he takes her to the fanciest restaurant in town with the intent of proposing, but a renovation project near their table sidelines his proposal when a worker with a nail gun accidentally tumbles from his ladder and fires a huge nail directly into Biel’s cranium.

Seemingly fine despite the fact she has a giant spike in her brain, she rushes to the hospital to get it out. There’s just one small problem– she doesn’t have health insurance, and the cost for the operation is so absurdly high that she or her family can’t pay the bill and her intimidated new fiancée breaks off the engagement.

It doesn’t help that the operation wouldn’t be covered if she got a new policy, since it would be technically considered a “pre-existing” condition.  All seems lost until she sees an interview on television with Jake Gyllenhaal’s Howard Birdwell, a plucky young congressman from her district who is passionate about healthcare reform and in need of a strong case to push before Congress.

The newly-inspired Alice makes the trek to DC, accompanied by a strange entourage that includes Tracy Morgan, who is essentially playing himself.  She tracks down Howard and makes her plea, energizing him with not just her words but her newfound nymphomania (an unexpected side effect of the accident).

Their frenzied love affair constitutes the “romantic comedy” aspect of the marketing, with the “political satire component realized in their battle with Catherine Keener’s villainously conservative Majority Whip, Representative Pam Hendrickson.

Also along for the ride is an eclectic cast comprised of the likes of Paul Reubens as Hendrickson’s conniving assistant, Bill Hader as Alice’s pompous surgeon, Kirstie Alley as Alice’s veterinarian aunt, and James Brolin as the Reagan-esque House Speaker whose unexpected death is exploited by Alice and Birdwell in their fight for healthcare reform.

Russell and his cinematographer Max Malkin gift ACCIDENTAL LOVE with a strong visual style, albeit a clunky one that feels a little out of place; chafing against the tone struck by the final edit done in his absence– like a stylistic Frankenstein that doesn’t know what it wants or is meant to be.

The 1.85:1 35mm film frame deals in a strange, discordant mix of strong color, a pleasing grain structure, elegant camerawork, and evocative lighting that’s immediately compromised by sophomoric slapstick comedy, over-exaggerated performances, clunky cuts, and ill-advised canted angles that almost float like a deflating balloon.

Production Designer Judy Becker provides one of ACCIDENTAL LOVE’s few unified aspects in its retro midcentury Americana aesthetic.  It’s safe to say that Russell’s collaborations with the department heads stopped with those present for the shoot, leaving those in the post-production process sorely lacking his directorial input.

This includes credited composer John Swihart, who apes the idiosyncratic tenor of Jon Brion’s score for I HEART HUCKABEES with an undermixed suite of colorless muzak.  The finished cut also includes several on-the-nose rap and R&B needledrops whose very inclusion is curious, considering what no doubt must have been the substantial licensing cost imposed on the crash-strapped production.

Despite disowning the picture and removing his name from it entirely, a few traces of Russell’s artistic character remain in ACCIDENTAL LOVE’s DNA.  For instance, the family interactions between Alice and her parents possesses the same kind of breathless, Scorsese-inspired kinetic energy as similar moments from I HEART HUCKABEES or FLIRTING WITH DISASTER (1996).

The health insurance reform plot provides ample fodder for Russell to channel his inner activist, and he clearly relishes making numerous pointed references to the government’s hyping of a flashy moon base over a sorely-needed service like quality health care.

In 2010, Bergstein and another financier, Ron Tutor, were eventually able to buy back NAILED from foreclosure action and assemble an incomplete cut from the footage they had (3).  Tutor asked Russell to return and finish the picture, but they ultimately couldn’t come to terms on a new deal– he balked at Tutor’s request to impose pay cuts that would have seen his Red Wagon production team’s fees cut in half.

Russell and his producers walked off forever, but the cast wasn’t so fortunate, as their contracts obliged them to return for reshoots under the supervision of an unnamed director who was most definitely not Russell.  Expectedly, Capitol went bankrupt a year later, and it looked like NAILED would never see the light of day.

Things changed yet again in 2014, when indie distributor Millennium Entertainment bought the film and recut it under the supervision of ex-Capitol executive Kia Jam.  This new cut, the one finally released in theaters in 2015, bore the final astonishingly dense title, ACCIDENTAL LOVE.

When he learned the news, Russell worked to prevent this deeply-embarrassing episode from further tainting his career, lobbying the DGA to remove his credit and replace it with the fictional pseudonym, Stephen Greene.

ACCIDENTAL LOVE is a film that died many deaths before its completion, and it suffered one last humiliating death at the box office, opening in limited release to the tune of $4500 after its initial VOD offering.  Critical reception was understandably, overwhelmingly negative– the film has ossified at a 6% on Rotten Tomatoes, having been dumped onto the home video market only a month after its theatrical release.

The career downturn that had, ironically enough, started with the relatively successful THREE KINGS (1999) and continued on towards I HEART HUCKABEES hit rock bottom with ACCIDENTAL LOVE.  Russell’s production woes had only increased with each successive work, and it’s harder to think of a more agonizing production experience with so little to show for it than ACCIDENTAL LOVE.

The only direction left for Russell to go was up– and up he would, valiantly reforming himself into the kind of esteemed director he no doubt envisioned himself to be.  The lessons learned on ACCIDENTAL LOVE are crucial to the understanding of Russell’s artistic growth, as it was the film to save to his career from its dizzying tailspin and allow him to mount one of the better comeback stories in recent cinematic history.


THE FIGHTER (2010)

Whereas most people are lucky enough to weather their mid-life crisis In the safety of their own home, director David O. Russell had the distinct misfortune of having his play out onscreen in front of a large, discerning, and increasingly-disapproving audience.

THREE KINGS (1999) was a critical and financial success, but the process of making it was a tremendously difficult and demoralizing ordeal.  I HEART HUCKABEES (2004) gave Russell a platform to exorcise his existential demons, but found only a handful of supporters to empathize with his struggle.

Then there’s the case of NAILED, the production of which was such an unmitigated catastrophe that Russell disowned it entirely when it was finally released in 2015 under the title ACCIDENTAL LOVE.  On top of it all, his own celebrity as a tempestuous, combative, and even verbally abusive filmmaker had arguably overshadowed the cultural profile of any one of his films.

It was a sustained, nearly decade-long run that would all too easily sink any filmmaker regardless of talent, yet Russell came through the fire as something of a new man.  His artistic convictions reinforced, his entry into his 50’s would find him finally hitting his stride, delivering a string of critical and commercial hits that would rejuvenate his career.

This new era began in earnest with Russell’s sixth official feature, a gritty boxing drama called THE FIGHTER (2010).  The story of the film’s making is almost as long and arduous a struggle as its protagonist’s comeback narrative.

Taking its foundational inspiration from the 1995 HBO documentary HIGH ON CRACK STREET: LOST LIVES IN LOWELL, the screenplay (credited to Scott Silver, Paul Tamasy, and Eric Johnson) serves as a dramatic recreation of welterweight boxer Micky Ward’s quest for the title and his complicated relationship to his crack-addicted older brother and trainer, Dicky Eklund.

Mark Wahlberg– a personal friend of Micky’s because of their shared working-class upbringing in Greater Boston– became passionately involved with the project early on, shepherding it through the grueling interminability of its development period.  The lengthy list of credited screenwriters and producers (which includes Wahlberg, Tamasy,

Todd Lieberman, Ryan Kavanaugh, Dorothy Aufiero & David Hoberman) is a clear sign of THE FIGHTER’s long residency in development limbo, which initially saw director Darren Aronofsky attached for some time before he left to go make 2008’s THE WRESTLER.

The idea of hiring Russell reportedly came from cast member Christian Bale, who had wanted to work with the director and utilized Wahlberg’s personal connection from his work on THREE KINGS and I HEART HUCKABEES.

Understandably, Russell was in dire need of a great story to get back on track– his career essentially in tatters, THE FIGHTER’s against-all-odds comeback plot afforded him a redemption narrative of his own. Any good comeback story requires for the protagonist at some point in the story to go home, and for Russell, this would necessitate his re-embrace with his scrappy, independent roots.

The year is 1993; the place, the gritty working-class Boston suburb of Lowell, MA.  Micky Ward (Wahlberg) is a middling welterweight boxer who has messily entangled his personal life with his professional career by making his chainsmoking 80’s-queen mother, Alice (Melissa Leo), his manager, and his crackhead has-been half-brother, Dicky Eklund (Bale), his trainer.

Tired of being a stepping stone for other, better fighters who would use him as an easy win to ascend the bracket, Micky has decided that he wants that title for himself.  Micky’s story is a boxing narrative as old as the sport itself, but THE FIGHTER makes the yarn compelling by surrounding him with a conniving, deluded and self-advantageous entourage that can’t help but foil him at every turn.

This role is the type that Wahlberg was born to play, and his enthusiasm for the material is evident at every turn.  In addition to getting his hands dirty with producing, he also waived his upfront salary and maintained a rigorous training regimen throughout the project’s endless gestation period– even as he was off working on other films.

With the exception of Paul Thomas Anderson’s BOOGIE NIGHTS (1997), it’s hard to think of any other film in which he’s been better.  His performance is anchored by an amazing cast delivering career-best performances– indeed, THE FIGHTER marks the beginning of Russell’s reputation for consistently directing his cast to award-worthy performances.

Bale took home the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his portrayal of Dicky Eklund, through which he utterly transforms himself into an alarmingly-scrawny crack addict who tragically believes his own boxing comeback is around the corner.

The title of THE FIGHTER could arguably apply just as much to Dicky, who battles tooth and nail to deliver his kid brother to glory despite the crippling liability he engenders with his rampant narcotics abuse.  The sheer magnetism of Bale’s performance is undeniable, but Leo proves just as formidable a force in her role as Micky’s mom-ager, Alice Ward.

She gives a gloriously capitalistic, peacocking performance that’s underscored by a mother’s heartbreaking compassion for her children, rightfully earning an Oscar win all her own in the Best Supporting Actress category (despite the controversy surrounding her active campaigning for the honor– an unconventional move at best that saw her take out her own vanity ads in the trades).

Russell’s cast as a whole oozes as much authenticity as its real-life Lowell locales and blue-collar denizens, effortlessly mixing with key participants in Micky Ward’s real-life drama like trainer Mickey O’Keefe and boxing icon Sugar Ray Leonard.

THE FIGHTER announces the arrival of Russell’s retooled visual aesthetic, which injects the film with a dynamic, cinema verite energy that’s similar to THREE KINGS, albeit without the radical color processing. Cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema, in his first American film, collaborates with Russell to bring a fluid, loose, and organic approach to the camerawork.

Despite shooting with spherical lenses, the filmmakers impose the 2.35:1 aspect ratio upon the 35mm film frame to infuse Micky’s story with the feeling of an epic.  Russell’s handheld camera effortlessly captures Hoytema’s natural lighting schemes and production designer Judy Becker’s muted color palette, giving the picture a documentary realism that echoes the production of the HBO documentary so pivotal to Dickey’s character arc.

Russell also employs an inspired technique that differentiates THE FIGHTER’s boxing sequences from all the others of its ilk while simultaneously solving a major production problem.  Faced with the challenge of needing to shoot all these fights in only 3 days — when a conventional studio picture would normally need about 20 — Russell turned to the actual video camera used by HBO to shoot boxing matches back in the 90’s.

Nearly every aspect of these sequences, including close-up dialogue exchanges, is rendered in this flat, low-resolution format that’s riddled with interlacing artifacts; and yet, it works.  Reading like a blend of dramatic recreation and eyewitness archival footage, this approach hammers home THE FIGHTER’s sense of realism in a language that the audience, having probably watched boxing matches on television, can intuitively understand.

THE FIGHTER’s rollicking kinetic energy finds a complementary companion in its soundtrack, with an ethereal original score by Michael Brook composed of ambient tones, and a sprawling suite of needledrops that span the gamut of “classic rock”.

The influence of Martin Scorsese is extremely palpable throughout THE FIGHTER, perhaps no more so during a training montage that Russell syncs to the confident strut of The Rolling Stones’ “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking?”.

The chosen tracks are appropriate to the story’s period, save for one anachronistic inclusion: 2009’s “How You Like Me Now?” by The Heavy, which Russell uses as a recurring, triumphant theme celebrating Micky’s rise to glory.

Indeed, THE FIGHTER (as well as Russell’s subsequent output from this period) owes a great debt to Scorsese– an ironic development considering that Wahlberg unsuccessfully lobbied his THE DEPARTED (2006) director to take on the film so many years prior (1).

A foundational influence that’s evident as far back as his 1994 debut, SPANKING THE MONKEY, Russell channels Uncle Marty’s spirit more directly here than ever before.  And yet, he manages to avoid wholesale rip-off by employing his thematic fascinations to make the material his own– not that he had to try too hard, given that the story is fundamentally deals in the core themes of his filmography: familial conflict and identity crisis.

Micky’s narrative best encapsulates the former theme with his struggle to keep his family/business team from sabotaging his shot at the title, while Dicky embodies the latter in his growing realization that his addiction to crack has caught him in a death grip and his days as a champion fighter are far behind him.

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Finally released in 2010 after an eternity in development hell, THE FIGHTER’s embattled rise to  glory parallels its rising-phoenix narrative.  The film was such a commercial and critical success, in fact, that Wahlberg is currently development on a sequel that would further chronicle Micky’s stormy boxing career.

For Russell personally, THE FIGHTER sees him finally shake off his mid-career slump and deliver on the promise of his early films.  His work here would result in seven Oscar nominations, including his first one for directing.

With its twin wins for Bale and Leo in the Supporting Actor/Actress qualities, THE FIGHTER also marks the transformation of Russell’s reputation from combative hothead to an awards-circuit mainstay who consistently delivers nominations and accolades for his dedicated cast.

Going from ACCIDENTAL LOVE’s abject fiasco of a shoot to the harrowing resonance of THE FIGHTER is no easy feat– indeed, the title of the film could ostensibly apply to Russell just as much as it does its narrative protagonists.  The celebration of the film come Oscar night was an occasion that many directors would count as the unmitigated high point of their career– but in Russell’s case, he was only just getting started.


SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK (2012)

The long, languishing period between 2004’s I HEART HUCKABEES and 2010’s THE FIGHTER yielded little in the way of creative output from director David O. Russell– NAILED’s failed shoot in 2008 notwithstanding.

As such, he had ample time to develop a variety of projects, and the sudden success of THE FIGHTER would enable the making of these other projects in quick succession– one of which was an adaptation of Matthew Quick’s novel, “The Silver Linings Playbook”.

He had become involved with the project via Sydney Pollack after the Weinstein Company procured the galleys, its heartfelt exploration of mental health connecting with Russell thanks to his own son’s struggle with OCD and bipolar disorder.  Initially conceiving of the film as a vehicle for Vince Vaughn and Zooey Deschanel, he found the intended balance of drama, comedy, and romance elusive, generating over twenty-five drafts in five years.

At another point, Russell’s frequent collaborator Mark Wahlberg became attached to the project, only to drop out before the film gathered enough momentum to finally come together.  Shot at breakneck pace over a period of just thirty-three days, SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK continues Russell’s re-embrace of scrappy indie filmmaking methods as a way to better facilitate his creative inspiration.

Set in a blue-collar suburb outside of Philadelphia, the story concerns a burnt-out ex-teacher named Pat (Bradley Cooper), who has just emerged from an eight-month stint in a psychiatric hospital after the discovery of his wife’s infidelity caused him to suffer a mental breakdown.

Cooper delivers a breakout performance here, bringing subtle nuance to what could otherwise be a broad caricature of an anxious man suffering from bipolar disorder and a crippling inability to get over his unfaithful ex-wife.

Russell’s casting of Cooper is inspired, unearthing the simmering anger behind his previous bit roles in other comedies and harnessing it to empower Cooper with the necessary conviction to assert himself as a viable lead and secure his first Oscar nomination.

Pat’s ill-advised attempts to win his wife back brings a fresh, invigorating force into his life– a widow and amateur dancer named Tiffany.  Played by Jennifer Lawrence in an Oscar-winning performance, Tiffany is quite the unconventional romantic love interest: a cynical and bracingly honest young woman with poor social skills who is frequently clad in black as an externalization of her grief.

Despite her personal infatuation with Pat, she agrees to help him re-establish contact with his ex-wife, but only on one condition: he must be her partner for a big upcoming dance contest– the practicing for which Pat will eventually come to realize that it is Tiffany,  not his ex-wife, who holds the key to his existential salvation.

SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK marks the beginning of Lawrence and Russell’s intimate creative partnership, with the actress going on to star in his two subsequent films and proclaiming at the 2016 Golden Globes that she wished to be buried alongside her beloved director (a statement that his real partner, Holly Davis, was surely thrilled to hear).

Lawrence is undoubtedly the life force of the film, and her Oscar recognition is well-deserved (as it was for her other co-nominees), but a small point of contention remains about her casting; only 21 years old during the time of filming, Lawrence is conceivably too young to play a character supposedly in her mid-30’s.

However, her inherent physicality as a person projects a wisdom well beyond her years, which Russell uses to his advantage here.  While it works in this particular case, it would establish a tendency to stretch the bounds of credulity by casting her in roles far above her age bracket– a strategy which most recently showed its inherent flaws with her headlining performance in 2015’s JOY (3).

Russell surrounds his two leads with an eclectic and diverse supporting cast, all of whom effortlessly slip into a blue-collar Philly brogue while reinforcing his reputation as a director who delivers major awards heat for his performers.

Jacki Weaver and Robert DeNiro play Pat’s supportive but hovering parents, with DeNiro in particular being a crucial foil to Cooper and Lawrence’s burgeoning romance.  An old-fashioned “tough love” kind of guy, Pat Sr. is an Eagles super fan with undiagnosed OCD tendencies.

Both he and Weaver would also be honored with Supporting Actor/Actress Oscar nominations, making SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK the first film since 1981’s REDS to be honored in all four acting categories.  The nomination would be especially meaningful for DeNiro, reminding us why he’s such a silver screen legend after a long string of forgettable payday performances in lousy films.

Russell’s casting of Martin Scorsese’s former muse brings him ever closer to the aesthetic character of his key influence, making for a fruitful collaboration that, like Lawrence, would also be reprised across his subsequent two features.

Chris Tucker makes one of his extremely rare film appearances as Danny, Pat’s motormouth buddy and fellow patient from the psychiatric hospital.  Shea Whigham continues to deliver his string of consistently excellent and understated performances with his role as Pat’s preppy and put-together older brother, Jake.

Finally, there’s the interesting coupling of Jon Ortiz and Julia Stiles as Ronnie and Veronica, respectively– Ronnie being Pat’s buddy who can’t help but be upbeat even while the suffering weight of domesticity is causing him to fray at the edges, and Veronica being Tiffany’s older sister and a veritable ice queen with little else but thinly-veiled contempt for her husband’s best friend.

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SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK reprises the handheld immediacy of THE FIGHTER’s visual aesthetic, this time utilizing the talents of DP Masanobu Takayanagi to create something of a master-class in subdued, but impeccable, cinematography.

Takayanagi and Russell render the grainy 2.35:1 35mm film frame with muted autumnal colors and naturalistic light.  The camera mainly alternates between the organic chaos of handheld photography and the fluid observationalism of the Steadicam, always keeping its eyeline on the same level as the actors in order to create a visceral and immersive experience for the audience.

Russell’s frequent production designer Judy Becker effortlessly conveys the authentic flavor of blue-collar Philadelphia, from the sleepy residential communities to the rowdy tailgate parties just outside Lincoln Financial Field.

In a rare departure from his residency in director Tim Burton’s post-production pipeline, composer Danny Elfman delivers an understated but complementary score that captures the film’s melancholic, bittersweet character.

His cues pepper the wider musical landscape of licensed needle-drops from a wide range of acts like The White Stripes, Johnny Cash, and Dave Brubeck– the most prominent of which is Stevie Wonder, who’s feel-good love ballad “My Cherie Amour” is employed to glorious effect as a trigger for Cooper’s emotional meltdowns.

Russell’s sense of humor is unique amongst other filmmakers in that he tends to ferret out nuggets of unlikely comedy from unexpected situations.  Just as SPANKING THE MONKEY (1994) or FLIRTING WITH DISASTER (1996) found absurdity within the perils of incest and adoption, respectively, so too does SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK explore the topic of mental health through humor without coming across as tone-deaf or insensitive to those who suffer from it.

It’s an extremely fine line to walk, one in which Russell walks with the effortless empathy of someone with a personal connection to the material.  It also helps that the story is well within his wheelhouse, allowing him to exercise his well-developed intellectual muscles via signature themes like identity crisis, familial conflict and the peculiar social dynamics of working-class Americans along the Eastern seaboard.

He even gets the chance to incorporate his roots in literary academia, turning a scene of Pat reading (and violently reacting to) an Ernest Hemingway novel into a hilarious character bit.

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If THE FIGHTER announced Russell as a force to be reckoned with on the awards circuit, then the similarly-warm reception to SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK two years later cemented it.  After its premiere at the Toronto Film Festival, the film went on to strong box office returns and widespread critical acclaim.

For the second time in a row, Russell secured a nomination for himself in the Best Directing category at the Academy Awards– one of eight total nominations including Best Picture, Adapted Screenplay and Editing.  Lawrence may have been the only member of the company to take home gold that night, but the others could take solace in the fact they had made something of a modern classic.

The undisputed success of SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK made it clear for all to see:  Russell’s comeback was officially in full swing, and he was here to stay.


AMERICAN HUSTLE (2013)

A few years ago, I was working as an assistant to a talent and literary manager at a powerhouse firm on the Sunset Strip.  On any given day, I might have a brush with one of the world’s most famous faces, or listen in on a phone pitch for a project that would eventually come to dominate the cultural conversation.

The experience was like being directly plugged into the erratic industry rhythms that fuel those breathless Deadline Hollywood headlines, but my omniscience extended only as far as my particular wing of the office. Just down the hall, there existed an impenetrable veil of secrets in the form of the production company that shared office space with us– Atlas Entertainment.

Led by veteran producer Charles Roven, this small outfit of hungry and ambitious development executives was busy putting together some of the biggest and most high-profile projects in town– when I worked there, for instance, they were actively prepping and shooting the epic capper to Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy, THE DARK KNIGHT RISES (2012).

Despite the script being on a file on a physical computer only a few yards away from me, the exchange of information was so totally blocked at that corporate border that the script might as well have been stored away in a vault at Fort Knox.

I mention this little bit of personal history because during this time, they were also prepping another film that would dominate the cinematic landscape of its time: director David O. Russell’s AMERICAN HUSTLE (2013).  Roven and Russell had collaborated once before, on 1999’s THREE KINGS, and their paths were crossing again now that Russell had ascended to the plane of sustained awards circuit prestige.

His strengths with dynamic characterization no doubt seemed an ideal fit with Eric Warren Singer’s screenplay, which had scored highly during its time on the prestigious Black List under the title “American Bullshit”.

Singer structured the story as a relatively straightforward procedural about the FBI’s ABSCAM operation in the late 1970’s and early 80’s, a sprawling sting that targeted corrupt politicians and businessmen by posing as a fake Arabian financial company willing to exchange cash for political favor.

To say Russell “fictionalized” his credited rewrite upon coming aboard is, to put it mildly, a bit of an understatement– he fully applied his creative license to reinvent real-life figures into exaggerated cinematic versions that unabashedly flirt with caricature.

 It’s an indulgent move, to be sure, but if there was ever a more appropriate film to indulge, it’s AMERICAN HUSTLE: the 24-carat gold-encrusted capstone to Russell’s loose-hewn prestige trilogy about, in his words, “ordinary people living passionately”.

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It would take no less than four producers– Roven, Richard Suckle, Jonathan Gordon, and Annapurna’s Megan Ellison– to help Russell realize his vision: a sprawling, campy crime chronicle in the spirit of Martin Scorsese’s GOODFELLAS (1990) or CASINO (1995).

Indeed, one could be forgiven for thinking AMERICAN HUSTLE belongs to Scorsese’s own canon– Russell takes the venerated auteur’s influence that has run like a simmering undercurrent beneath his films and embraces it full-bore here.

The overall effect, as FilmDrunk writer Vince Mancini put it most aptly in his review, is “punk rock Scorsese”. While it does illustrate Russell’s favor of character over story, the GOODFELLAS-style multi-character voiceover technique does little to bring crystal clarity to Russell’s convoluted plot about two cons roped into an over-complicated FBI sting targeting corrupt politicians in the late 70’s.

Thankfully, it’s easy enough to simply lose oneself in the decadent performances of his cast, which combines key performers from THE FIGHTER (Christian Bale & Amy Adams) and SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK (Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, & Robert DeNiro) to formalize the roster of Russell’s repertory ensemble.

In his second collaboration with Russell, Christian Bale reinforces his reputation as an actor willing to utterly transform himself by doing a complete 180 from his dramatic weight loss on THE FIGHTER.  To embody the role of Irving Rosenfeld, a sleazy conman masquerading as a legitimate  businessman, Bale atrophies into a proto-Trump with an impressive beer gut and a gnarly combover atop his bald dome.

AMERICAN HUSTLE is ostensibly told through his point of view, detailing his meeting and subsequent romance and scam-empire building with Amy Adams’ Sydney Prosser, a fiery redhead with a killer fake British accent and a ferocious confidence externalized by her wardrobe of blouses with tumbling cleavage.

She’s the polar opposite of Irving’s unstable lush of a wife, Rosalyn, played with such gusto and reckless abandon by Jennifer Lawrence that we can overlook the gut feeling that she’s probably a touch too young for what the character demands. Bradley Cooper threatens to the steal the whole show as the tempestuously unhinged FBI agent with a glorious perm, Richie DiMaso.

A bubbling cauldron of cocksure swagger, impotent rage, and raw vulnerability, DiMaso is the catalyzing force that ropes Irving and Sydney into the sting operation that ultimately busts Jeremy Renner’s impeccably-coiffed Mayor Polito– a family-centric “man of the people” whose inherent naïveté gets him unwittingly embroiled in corruption charges that rock his beloved community of Camden, New Jersey.

The strength of Russell’s core cast is matched by the eclecticism of his supporting ensemble, which boasts the likes of legendary silver screen performers and popular character actors alike.  Known primarily for his standup comedy and his eponymous television show on FX, Louis CK doesn’t stray terribly far from his idiosyncratic shtick as Stoddard Thorsen, a disgruntled FBI desk jockey and a bureaucratic foil to DiMaso’s struggle to assert control of his operation.

The ever-reliable Shea Whigham plays Carl Elway, the sleazy aide to Mayor Polito and a key enabler of his unwitting spiral into corruption.  BOARDWALK EMPIRE star Jack Huston ably inhabits a character who, through his burgeoning affair with Mrs. Rosenfeld, not only becomes an agent of Irving’s downfall but a catalyst for Rosalyn’s own self-realization and empowerment.

In one of AMERICAN HUSTLE’s more comical twists, Michael Pena plays an undercover agent of Mexican descent who, thanks to the racial ignorance of his white superiors, is forced to pass as a member of Saudi royalty.  Finally, SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK’s Robert DeNiro surprises the audience with an uncredited, near-unrecognizable cameo as a Floridian mob enforcer.

AMERICAN HUSTLE continues the grounded, visceral aesthetic that marked both THE FIGHTER and SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK, employing a dynamic steadicam-based approach to camerawork that makes for Russell’s most visually-ambitious film since THREE KINGS (1999).

Russell and cinematographer Linus Sandgren infuse the 2.35:1 35mm film image with a tempered color palette of golds, burgundies and royal blues that perfectly captures returning production designer Judy Becker’s indulgent and playfully-campy recreation of the 1970’s.

Indeed, Russell’s vision eschews the gritty, realistic approach that marked THE FIGHTER’s depiction of the early 1990’s in favor of something resembling a carnival of flamboyant costumes, as if the story was unfolding under a pair of invisible quotation marks; a degree of separation from the assumption of reality.

It’s clear that everyone is having the time of their lives making this film, with electric performances and restless camerawork working in harmony with a dynamite soundtrack of 70’s rock, big band, jazz, and disco cues to give the audience a Scorsese-style contact high.

Danny Elfman returns as AMERICAN HUSTLE’s credited composer, but his score is quickly and completely drowned out by overpowering needledrops from artists like Crosby Still Nash & Young, Duke Ellington, Todd Rundgren, Elton John, Santana, and Paul McCartney.

AMERICAN HUSTLE marks the culmination of several key aspects of Russell’s filmography, like a distinctly East-Coast mentality and the exploration of combative family dynamics.  The evolution of his visceral style reaches its zenith here, making for an exhilarating (if not exactly coherent) viewing experience that cements his bid as Scorsese’s heir apparent.

Never has Russell been more palpably confident in his abilities than AMERICAN HUSTLE, emboldened by the twin successes of THE FIGHTER and SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK to push himself even further.  It’s easily the most “alive” of his films, never losing sight of character even if his plot gets tangled in the weeds of his vibrant, sprawling scope.

That clarity of vision and full-throated embrace of narrative chaos enabled AMERICAN HUSTLE to push through its very legitimate criticisms to become a critical and box office success when it was released in 2013 at  the height of awards season.

Its recognition at the Oscars reflected the impressively overwhelming nature of Russell’s vision, netting no less than 10 nods in major categories including Best Picture, Original Screenplay, Actor, Actress, Supporting Actor, Supporting Actress, and Russell’s own third consecutive nomination for Best Director.

However, its ultimate haul — zero — reflects the profound (and intentional) emptiness beneath AMERICAN HUSTLE’s glitzy veneer, giving it a distinction it shares with the Coen Brothers’ TRUE GRIT (2010) and Scorsese’s GANGS OF NEW YORK (2002) of being the second-most nominated film without a single win.

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For all intents and purposes, it seems Russell had applied the lessons learned throughout his rocky, erratic career to ascend to the top of his field, in the process becoming one of our most prominent contemporary directors.  Indeed, AMERICAN HUSTLE finds Russell at the undisputable apex of his filmography so far, his well-documented tendency for self-destruction seemingly having gone into remission.

However, the key word in that sentence is “seemingly”– just as his consecutive successes since 2010 emboldened him as an artist towards ever-loftier heights, so too did it encourage a sense of complacency. The spectre of the tyrant director that nearly derailed THREE KINGS and I HEART HUCKABEES (2004) reportedly materialized once again on AMERICAN HUSTLE, if stories from the set describing Russell driving Adams to tears on a daily basis are to be believed.

Even if such stories are untrue, all signs point to the notion that Russell’s hot streak was over.  The tangible flaws in Russell’s otherwise-brilliant direction of AMERICAN HUSTLE signaled the growing rot of complacency and false confidence deep within the machine– an acidic corrosion that, if left untreated, threatened to bring his reign to an abrupt end.


JOY (2015)

In 2015, director David O. Russell was 57 years old and in the prime of his career. He had made a succession of three increasingly well-received features, and there seemed to be no end in sight to his hot streak.

The process of making THE FIGHTER (2010), SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK (2012), and AMERICAN HUSTLE (2013) enabled him to find and hone his artistic identity while working with a consistent set of collaborators who helped to unlock his full potential.

His collaborations with actress Jennifer Lawrence seemed particularly potent, with the Oscar-winner’s salty effervescence flourishing to new heights under his direction.  Similarly, Russell’s creative energies were electrified by the discovery of his muse– but just as a muse can bring out the very best in a director, so too can he develop an overreliance that blinds him to the practical necessities of the project at hand.

This would seem to be the case with Russell’s fourth feature after his mid-career renaissance– 2015’s JOY, a project that saw his greatest assets become severe liabilities.  All the ingredients of Russell’s creative alchemy– a talented roster of familiar performers, a working-class East Coast setting, his massive reworking of an existing script (in this case, a draft by Annie Mumulo) to better fit his tastes– were present for JOY, but for whatever infuriatingly unknown reason, his magic spell had been broken.

Despite its modest success at the box office, JOY came to be critically regarded as a bucket of ice thrown on Russell’s hot streak– a creative failure unable to live up to the expectations set by his previous three films.

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The third of Russell’s films during this period to shoot in the greater Boston area without actually being set there, JOY exercises a staggering degree of creative license in its telling of the rags-to-riches story of inventor and entrepreneur Joy Mangano.

Indeed, he takes the basic framework of Joy’s narrative — from her invention of a redesigned mop in a sleepy Long Island town to her ultimate command of a global business empire — and reworks every element to create a 100% fictional tale that plays to his directorial strengths.

Jennifer Lawrence earned her third consecutive Oscar nomination under Russell’s direction and won the Golden Globe for her performance as the titular Joy, a determined and enterprising single mom who has grown frustrated and exhausted after a promising childhood of imagination and genius was derailed by a demanding and confining adulthood.

Her natural talents have turned against her, enabling the debilitating dependency of her immediate family– they drag her down when they should hold her up.  She’s now in her mid-thirties, and labors all day as a booking clerk for a small airline only to come home to a frenzied home situation with her young daughter, her needy live-in parents and grandmother, and even her ex-husband, who has taken up residence in her basement following their divorce.

One night, a vision of her childhood self comes to her in a dream, confronting her about the imagination and wonder she’s since lost.  Joy wakes up re-inspired, channeling her newfound energy into the invention of a radically redesigned mop that holds the potential to fundamentally transform her life for the better– but in order to set herself free, she will first have to put everything on the line.

Lawrence delivers a dependably brilliant performance, albeit one that’s hampered by a fatal flaw– she’s simply too young to portray a woman in her late 30’s and early 40’s with 100% believability.  In what has to be an entertainment industry first, her youth actually works against her, preventing the audience from fully suspending their disbelief.

The fault lies not with Lawrence, but with Russell, who is so enamored with the talents and physicality of his muse that he’s willing to trade the practical necessities of his story for them.  As a study of a woman’s development over several decades, there is an intangible component of Lawrence’s casting that works in an expressionistic sense, but most audiences will not see it that way– instead they will only see a casting choice that flagrantly trespasses the bounds of credulity.

Thankfully, Lawrence’s performance is given the weight it requires thanks to the unwavering commitment of her supporting cast.  Robert DeNiro and Bradley Cooper both benefit from their familiarity with Russell in their third collaboration together.

DeNiro plays Joy’s father, Rudy: a crotchety auto body shop owner and a combative, self-centered dad whose emotional growth lies in his active support of Joy’s business endeavor.  Cooper channels a quiet intensity as Neil Walker, the QVC executive who is instrumental in getting Joy’s mop into the hands of consumers.

He’s a kind and decent man, but he’s not with without a tempered swagger, envisioning himself as a new-wave studio mogul.  Edgar Ramirez, Diane Ladd, Virginia Madsen, and Isabella Rossellini constitute the new recruits of Russell’s loyal repertory ensemble, each delivering a dynamic and memorable performance that effortlessly gels with Russell’s artistic character.

Ramirez portrays Joy’s ex-husband Tony, a nightclub singer whose specialty is salsa covers of pop songs. Initially presented as a rakish playboy, he proves himself a devoted father and loyal partner to Joy in business (if not matrimony).

Ladd plays Joy’s grandmother Mimi, a glamorous and ethereal lady who is a fundamental force in her granddaughter’s life, even though she’s been recently shunted to the periphery.  There’s an air of magical realism to her character, evidenced most directly in the fact that her voiceover narration throughout the film is revealed to be coming from a different plane of existence beyond the grave.

The extremely underrated Madsen plays Joy’s mother, Terry: a soap opera fanatic suffering from a bout of depression that has left her voluntarily bedridden and dependent on her daughter in a way that reverses the mother-daughter dichotomy.

Rossellini’s eccentric physicality proves the perfect fit for the role of Trudy, a rich Italian widow and Rudy’s new girlfriend.  She eventually funnels a large portion of her late husband’s fortune into Joy’s endeavor, entangling her in such a manner that she becomes a unique and inspired foil to Joy’s ambitions when things go south.

Russell and his AMERICAN HUSTLE cinematographer Linus Sandgren reimplement the particular visual style that has marked his work as of late, albeit with a few changes.  Shooting on super 35mm film, Russell and Sandgren deviate from Scope to embrace the 1.85:1 aspect ratio, which proves appropriate for a tighter compositional approach comprised mostly of closeups.

One might think that a story about the reinvention of a mop doesn’t necessarily lend itself to dynamic cinematography, but Russell and company do exactly that, employing a restless camera that constantly roves around his scenes in search of fluid compositions.

It takes no less than four editors — Alan Baumgarten, Jay Cassidy, Tom Cross, and Christopher Tellefson — to blend Russell’s dizzying mix of cranes, dolly moves and steadicam shots into a kinetic, just-barely-contained brew.

Russell augments this approach with cascading waves of overlapping dialogue and music, scattering our bearings just as we’ve got them in a bid to reflect the chaos of Joy’s inner life as the sole provider of a family who threatens to drown her with their neediness.

A wintry palette of cold hues further echoes Joy’s quiet despair, which Russell counters with the whimsical warmth of Christmas trimmings and a series of fantasy sequences that resemble old-fashioned Hollywood musicals in their theatricality.

He also uses the visual language of cheesy, overlit soap operas in recurring interludes that allow Joy to directly confront and challenge the social expectations of “the wife & mother”, albeit in the fantastical realm of an unconscious dreamscape, further distinguishing herself apart from it via her ambitions and worldview.

Just as he did with AMERICAN HUSTLE, Russell implements a sprawling, Scorsese-style approach to music– JOY’s selection of needledrops span a wide range of genres, from the iconic rock of Elvis Presley and The Rolling Stones to the colorful flavor of salsa and the vibrant, brassy energy of big band swing.

The original score — composed by David Campbell and West Dylan Thordsen — takes a back seat to JOY’s pre-existing music bed, supplying a very slight layer of ethereal piano and strings to support its title character’s emotional journey like a fragile spiderweb.

As the fourth film in Russell’s self-described series about “ordinary people living passionately”, JOY is part and parcel with the major themes that preoccupy him at this stage of his career.  The east coast working class setting allows Russell to better penetrate the psyches of his characters via a backdrop that he’s quite familiar with.

The rambling spirit that marked AMERICAN HUSTLE’s prioritization of character over story bleeds over into JOY, leaving Russell’s storytelling feeling frequently unfocused or distracted– but at least the characters themselves are compelling and eminently watchable.

Normally, this would be the part where I argue a well-balanced and focused story is integral to the emotional effectiveness of a film, but when faced with a story that, on its face, is about the reinvention of household cleaning supplies, Russell’s heavy skewing towards character is understandable.

Russell’s films also often feature the protagonist working to discover or assert his or her identity, a quest that prompts friction or outright hostility from immediate family members with opposing values.  Familial conflict is the major hinge on which the stakes of his stories pivot, eschewing flashier cinematic stakes like “life or death” or “the end of the world”.

JOY further carves out Russell’s space in this niche to find that awkward dramatic place between support and hostility, pitting Joy against her own parents as she attempts to mount and subsequently salvage her risky business endeavor.

Finally, one of Russell’s more unsavory artistic traits — a verbally abusive streak and a hair-trigger temper — threatens to flare back up after he had seemingly beaten it back during his artistic reformation. Whispers of Russell’s clashes with Amy Adams on the set of AMERICAN HUSTLE bubbled up along the fringes of that film’s release chatter, and JOY would find him once again dogged by rumors about his conduct, this time towards Lawrence– to the extent that Lawrence took it upon herself to release a public statement denying the rumors.

One might think it unthinkable that Russell’s temper and ego would get the better of him when his prior collaborations with Lawrence had been so fruitful and full of mutual admiration, but it also goes to show that creativity has a dark side that can be equally as passionate.

In any case, any ruffled feathers seem to have since been smoothed over, judging by Lawrence’s Golden Globes acceptance speech wherein she proclaimed that she’d “like to be buried alongside” Russell.

Twentieth Century Fox released JOY on Christmas Day 2015 to modest box office receipts and mixed reviews, with Lawrence’s performance receiving the bulk of critics’ praise.  The perennial awards favorite would have to settle this time for only a single Academy Award nomination for Lawrence, but it nonetheless reinforced his reputation as a dependable deliveryman of accolades for his cast.

Her nomination was not without objection, however– many saw her casting as emblematic of a larger ineffectual indulgence on Russell’s part, having become so reliant on his muse and stylistic quirks that he failed to heed what the project truly demanded of him.

Indeed, a feeling that Russell had overreached, or had bought into his own hype to his detriment, pervaded JOY’s reception.  An argument could be made that he had reworked Annie Mumolo’s original script so thoroughly to best fit his strengths, that he simply failed to challenge himself.

Thus, it might not be particular details like Lawrence’s casting or an unfocused narrative, but a general blanket of complacency that ultimately resulted in JOY’s underwhelming effect.  It remains to be seen if JOY is indeed the end of Russell’s recent hot streak, or merely a momentary aberration.

Perhaps it was only a natural part of the artistic cycle; after all, not even the best of directors– including Russell’s stylistic forebear, Scorsese — can sustain a prolonged run of excellence.  The overwhelming praise lavished upon his previous three films condemns JOY to dwell by association in their shadow, making it difficult to judge the film on its own merits.

Remove the golden veneer of what came before, however, and one might uncover a passionately-crafted character piece that is far more exciting and compelling than a story about the reinvention of the mop has any right to be.

Its watchability is a major testament to the performances and Russell’s brilliance as a director, who despite his flagging critical returns is still operating on a level of originality and energy that’s simply unmatched by most directors of his generation.

If JOY’s press materials reveal anything about him, it’s that he knows exactly who he is as an artist– he’s extremely cognizant about the themes and ideas that interest him and that fuel his creativity.  In a profession where most of its practitioners tend to “feel it out” and go with gut instincts, it can’t be overstated how useful a fully-realized knowledge of self can be to an artist.

Many filmmakers never reach that level of total self-awareness, but those who do empower themselves to command their craft with the utmost precision.  It’s clear in hindsight that Russell reached this rarefied artistic plane sometime around THE FIGHTER, and it’s only a matter of time until he leverages his abilities and reinstalls himself within the awards circuit shortlists.


Author Cameron Beyl is the creator of The Directors Series and an award-winning filmmaker of narrative features, shorts, and music videos.  His work has screened at numerous film festivals and museums, in addition to being featured on tastemaking online media platforms like Vice Creators Project, Slate, Popular Mechanics and Indiewire. To see more of Cameron’s work – go to directorsseries.net.

THE DIRECTORS SERIES is an educational collection of video and text essays by filmmaker Cameron Beyl exploring the works of contemporary and classic film directors. ——>Watch the Directors Series Here <———

Ultimate Guide To Kelly Reichardt And Her Directing Techniques

RIVER OF GRASS (1994)

As a filmmaker born and raised in Portland, Oregon, I naturally feel a kinship to its homegrown film scene— one that’s been infused from the start by a freewheeling DIY spirit.  The first ten years of my active filmmaking life were spent on reckless, ragged guerrilla shoots with close friends and like-minded artists, inspired by the dogged independence of such local cinema luminaries as Gus Van Sant or Todd Haynes as well as the rugged eccentricity of Portland itself.

Far from the watchful eyes of “The Industry”, we were truly free to make our shoestring epics and weirdo passion pieces. In the years since moving to LA, however, I’ve had to watch from afar as that eccentric hipster independence — the sort that fueled the bumper sticker mantra “Keep Portland Weird” — was co-opted, commodified, and trivialized by local-adjacents, if not outright outsiders.

Shows like “PORTLANDIA” and now “SHRILL” would use Portland as a backdrop to satirize the broader hipster culture that pervaded other, larger communities like Austin or Brooklyn, but in the process, would also conflate  the Rose City itself with a patronizing, cartoonish you reductive character that utterly negates the vibrant spectrum of humanity that actually inhabits the Willamette Valley.

This cultural identity crisis isn’t unique to Portland, of course— it’s been happening in nearly every mid-tier American city for the past decade or more as a side effect of many other intertwining factors like the sharing economy, the exploding tech sector, gentrification, and rising income inequality.  There are many other stories to tell about Stumptown beyond those of its white millennial creative class.

Thankfully, there are still a few filmmakers who wish to tell them— the irony of ironies being that one of the most authentically “Portland” voices is something of an outsider herself. Her filmography has since moved beyond the region’s confines, but director Kelly Reichardt has managed to carve out a formidable body of work that draws its primary inspiration from both Portland and the Pacific Northwest.

Her vision of Oregon cuts through the asinine clatter of fixey bikes, mustaches and mason jars to uncover a rich valley of human tragedy and drama, populated by stunted middle-aged friends, hardscrabble loners, wary pioneers, and conflicted eco-terrorists. She remains steadfastly independent, primarily supporting herself not through the influence and resources of Hollywood, but through her career as a teacher and artist-in-residence at Bard College in New York.

While only one of her to-date seven features has been able to crack the $1 million mark at the box office (2016’s CERTAIN WOMEN), Reichardt has nevertheless emerged as a major figure in American independent cinema– the figurehead of a resurgent minimalist movement that critic AO Scott has dubbed “Neo-Neo Realism”.

Beyond our shared cinematic affinity for the Pacific Northwest, Reichardt is also a director whose social orbit is closest to my own– one of my best and oldest friends counts her as a personal family friend, having worked with her on the shoot for MEEK’s CUTOFF (2010).

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If I had an editor, I’d undoubtedly be told to cut the preceding two paragraphs because, admittedly, this is all a lot of indulgent grandstanding about Portland for an article that is actually about Florida.  Oregon may be Reichardt’s adopted home, but her cinematic portraits of what Indiewire critic Eric Kohn has described as “characters trapped between the mythology of working-class American greatness and the personal limitations that govern their drab realities” , first reflected in her debut feature RIVER OF GRASS (1994), are informed by her upbringing in the Miami-Dade region.

Born in 1964, Reichardt fell in love with filmmaking via an interest in photography, which she cultivated first as a young girl on through to an MFA from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.

In tackling her first feature, Reichardt drew inspiration from the geography of a childhood spent on the dividing line between Dade and Broward Counties: the exurban highways, ramshackle houses, rundown motels, and seedy bodegas that dot the Florida Everglades– dubbed by Marjory Stoneman Douglas as a “River of Grass” (and thus giving the film its title).

Working with producer Jesse Hartman, Reichardt subsequently devised a Gen X riff on Terrence Malick’s BADLANDS (1976); an anti-genre story in which a pair of would-be criminals attempt to go on the lam only to find they’re already trapped in a prison of economic circumstance.

Cozy (Lisa Donaldson) is a disaffected, lonely housewife in her 30’s with absolutely nothing going on in her life beyond her absent husband and young children. Fed up with her loss of personal freedom, she simply walks out of her house one night and winds up at a local dive bar across town, where she meets an aimless townie named Lee Ray Harold (played by associate producer and editor, Larry Fessenden).

Their booze-soaked flirtation, driven out of boredom rather than a genuine connection, leads to an impromptu midnight swim at his “friend’s” house, where he shows her the revolver his buddy found on the side of the road (not realizing the gun actually belongs to her father Jimmy Ryder, played by Dick Russell as an incompetent detective more interested in his yellow suits and drum sets than actual police work).

When they’re startled by the pool’s owner coming out to investigate the strange activity in his backyard in the middle of the night, they instinctively fire the gun and take off into the night before they can examine whatever damage they’ve done. Assuming they are now bonafide murderers, Cozy and Lee decide they have to flee Florida and forget their old lives. There’s just one problem– they’re short on cash.

RIVER OF GRASS subsequently follows their increasing disillusionment with their newfound fugitive status, as Lee’s inability to generate enough cash to even pay the daily rent for their motel room prevents them from leaving the immediate neighborhood of the supposed crime scene.  Meanwhile, Jimmy Ryder commences the search for his missing daughter– an investigation that quickly reveals that Cozy and Lee are hardly the cold-blooded killers they think themselves to be.

Reichardt and cinematographer Jim Denault shoot RIVER OF GRASS with an unadorned, scrappy look befitting both its subject matter and its truly-independent production.  While Reichardt’s later work employs a minimalistic, 16mm celluloid approach for aesthetic reasons, RIVER OF GRASS does so out of sheer necessity.

Strapped for cash like her onscreen protagonists, Reichardt opts for functional, observational setups designed for the square 1.33:1 frame.  Her camera rarely deviates from a locked-off point of view, save for the occasional handheld shot or traveling landscape captured from a moving car.  The hard brightness of the Floridian sun washes out most of the image’s color palette, save for the azure pop of the Atlantic ocean, the cloudless skies, or Fessenden’s t-shirt.

In her commentary for RIVER OF GRASS’ recent Oscilloscope home video release, Reichardt claims (or jokes) that she shot the film on a 1:1 shooting ratio– that is, nearly everything that was shot made it into the finished product.  Low shooting ratios were once common among budget-conscious independent directors to looking to stretch paltry film stock budgets, but a 1:1 ratio for a commercially-distributed feature is virtually unheard of.

Regardless of the veracity of Reichardt’s claim, Fessenden nevertheless was able to quickly and easily assemble the film when it came time to don his editing hat. He and Reichardt borrow liberally from Malick’s aforementioned BADLANDS to shape RIVER OF GRASS’ narrative structure, right down to the usage of a disaffected and somewhat-rambling voiceover as a framing device and lingering close-ups on wildlife.

That said, the film steers clear of overt carbon copy, using its similarities to instead highlight the differences between the two films– the searing tar of exurban Florida is a world removed from the organic beauty of BADLANDS’ pastoral surroundings, and while the characters of Lee and Kit are both aimless losers, Lee’s on another level entirely: pushing 30, insufferably lazy, and living rent-free out of a spare room in his grandmother’s house.

RIVER OF GRASS’ distinctive approach to music also stands in stark contrast to the childlike wonder embodied in BADLANDS, driven by percussive snare drums diegetically performed by Dick Russell in-character as well as cheap rock and jazz muzak one might expect to find in a royalty-free music library from the era.

These bland, lifeless needle drops may seem a weird choice on their face, but in retrospect manage to reinforce the colloquial reputation of the narrative’s swampy Floridian surroundings as “God’s Waiting Room”– a flat landscape populated by people far past their prime, utterly bereft of genuine culture, passion or inspiration.

In such a male-dominated profession, it’s all too easy to make the mistake of confining a female filmmaker to her femininity; to assume she is incapable of telling stories outside of her inherently-feminine worldview. Reichardt’s artistry proves why such assumptions are so misguided and unfounded.

While she certainly doesn’t shy away from womanhood as a major theme in her work — indeed, RIVER OF GRASS pivots on the idea of a woman undergoing an identity crisis, abruptly rebelling against expectations of her as both a wife and mother — Reichardt resists reductive attempts to box her in as a strictly “feminist filmmaker”.

Rather, she’s more interested in glimpses of what she describes as “people passing through” (6): drifters, loners, and outcasts relegated to the margins of society, trapped in a restless search for a better life. As such, Reichardt is able to illuminate distinct aspects of the American experience that studio movies rarely portray.

Despite its casual slacker vibe, RIVER OF GRASS manages to paint a vivid portrait of working-class Americana that’s further shaded by the cultural nuances of the Gulf region.  We see Cozy fill up her baby’s bottle— not with milk, but with Coca-Cola.

The seedy motel, which in most lovers-on-the-lam pictures serves as a temporary hideout, becomes a kind of prison for Cozy and Lee; their daily need to scrounge up enough cash to pay for the room entraps them in the very same neighborhood as the scene of the “crime”.

When they do manage to hit the open road, bound for New York City, they quickly find that they don’t even have enough cash to pay the freeway toll— and what’s more, they make the demoralizing discovery that they lack the criminal conviction to blow past it. The realization leads not to an explosive finale like we’ve come to expect from films of this type, but the rapid fizzling out of their criminal partnership.

This speaks to another trait that’s emerged through Reichardt’s subsequent work, wherein her narratives avoid conventional, tidy endings. The Guardian’s Xan Brooks perhaps puts it best when he writes that Reichardt’s films tend to “dissolve rather than resolve” (6). Her open-ended conclusions reinforce the narrow time window in which we are allowed to watch these protagonists, while alluding to the larger life they live beyond the confines of the screen.

RIVER OF GRASS had the extremely good fortune of being made during a boom time for homegrown independent cinema.  Whereas the film might have struggled to get seen had it been made today, the higher barrier to entry in a pre-digital cinematic landscape allowed for the film to receive greater exposure at prestigious festivals like Berlin and Sundance, where it was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize.

Reichardt and company’s success on the festival circuit was followed by three Independent Spirit Award nominations, fueled by a limited theatrical release just large enough for RIVER OF GRASS to cement itself as an idiosyncratic cult film in the minds of adventurous cinephiles.

Reichardt had also managed to assert herself as the rare female voice in a male-dominated industry; a counterweight to the swinging machismo of 90’s indie cinema, embodied in films like RESERVOIR DOGS (1992) and SWINGERS (1996).

Despite her ascendant artistic profile, it would be quite some time before Reichardt could parlay that into another project— a regrettable development that’s since been rectified several times over, and yet prompts speculation as to whether the film’s modest success might’ve gained more traction had Reichardt been a man.

Indeed, for the bulk of its aftermarket lifespan, RIVER OF GRASS has stood as something of a lost artifact of 90’s indie cinema, relegated to a poor DVD transfer from an obscure boutique label.  Thankfully, Reichardt’s continued success in recent years would provide an opportunity to revisit her debut.

Oscilloscope Films, the home video distributor for later Reichardt works like WENDY AND LUCY and MEEK’S CUTOFF, would procure the rights to RIVER OF GRASS and harness the director’s small but passionate fan base to crowdfund a brand-new 2K restoration in 2015.

While the result isn’t quite exactly pristine or sparkling— nor could it could ever be, considering its shoestring budget 16mm origins — we now have a clear, vivid, and lovingly-preserved iteration of the idiosyncratic debut that launched one of the most important voices in contemporary independent cinema.


ODE (1999)

Director Kelly Reichardt released her debut feature, RIVER OF GRASS, in 1994, but her sophomore effort, OLD JOY, wouldn’t arrive until 2006.  At the risk of stating the obvious, that’s a gap of twelve years — an unnaturally long period by any standard of measure.

While such developments are rare among most commercially-successful filmmakers, they are frustratingly common amongst a certain subset of directors regardless of success: women.  A recent example can be found in Debra Granik, who won top honors at Sundance with WINTER’S BONE in 2010, but is only just now releasing her follow-up (LEAVE NO TRACE).

One could also look to Patty Jenkins, who has only recently re-emerged to prominence with 2017’s WONDER WOMAN after debuting in 2003 with MONSTER.  Five years into this undoubtedly frustrating period, Reichardt decided to take matters into her own hands.

The plan to combat her career stall would begin with the making of three short films.  The first of these, 1999’s ODE, would be more ambitious than the rest in its scope, clocking in at a runtime of 50 minutes.  By most industry metrics, a 50-minute runtime technically constitutes the dividing line between the short and feature formats— as such, there are conflicting reports as to whether OLD JOY or ODE stands as Reichardt’s true second feature.

It all depends on one’s personal standing. We count it as such, if only because its artistic ambitions reaches so clearly above her other shorter works from this period.  Produced under her RIVER OF GRASS collaborator Larry Fessenden’s Glass Eye Pix banner, in partnership with Susan A. Stover (who also recorded sound on-set), ODE finds Reichardt adapting Herman Raucher’s 1976 novel “Ode To Billie Joe”.

Reichardt’s screenplay updates the setting from 1976 to present-day, which only highlights the insularity and conservative regressiveness of the story’s wooded Mississippi town. Bobbie Lee (Heather Gottlieb) is an innocent, devout Baptist girl whose burgeoning womanhood is causing her to chafe against the strict expectations of her community.

The simmering interior tension comes to a head when she meets Billy Joe (Kevin Poole), a brooding young townie who wears a mask of casual nonconformity to hide his confusion about his own sexuality. The two begin meeting underneath a local bridge, slowly building a relationship beyond the watchful eyes of the town.

Their fumbling attempt to consummate their love comes comes crashing down when Billy Joe reveals that he’s unable to perform, having become wracked with guilt over a recent romantic encounter with another boy.  What results is a tragic meditation on the pressures of conforming to one’s environment, and the roiling anguish that can ensue when a sense of self-identity is thrown into sudden flux.

Befitting its shoestring budget status, Reichardt executes ODE with a crew of two— co-producer Stover running sound, as mentioned before, and herself working as the cinematographer.  It’s notable that ODE is shot on Super 8mm film, especially when considering that Reichardt could quite easily have shot with prosumer digital cameras.

By 1999, such cameras were widely available, even if the ability to capture crisp footage at 24 frames a second was not. The choice to shoot on Super 8, then, implies itself as one made purely for aesthetics. Indeed, Reichardt has yet to shoot a project with digital cameras, pointing to a personal preference for celluloid that sets her apart from her peers in the independent realm.

More than anything, ODE asserts itself as a transitional work in Reichardt’s artistic development, bearing traces of RIVER OF GRASS’ slight stylization while laying the groundwork for the rugged, lived-in realism that would mark all of her subsequent features.

Her unadorned, observational camerawork uses natural light to imprint a sunny, autumnal aura onto the frame, its colors already smeared into slight abstraction by virtue of the smaller, amateur/enthusiast film gauge.  Camera movement is limited to maneuvers that a crew of one can feasibly pull off— handheld setups, rack zooms, and the usage of a car as an impromptu dolly.

Editor Philip Harrison helps Reichardt retain some of the BADLANDS influence that was so deeply felt throughout RIVER OF GRASS, notably through the spotty, inconsistent deployment of ruminative voiceovers from both Bobbie Lee as well as an omniscient third-person narrator, in addition to frequent close-up cutaways to surrounding wildlife.

Folk musician Will Oldham arguably stands as ODE’s most notable collaborator, providing an original score comprised of a wistful, lilting guitar tune that reinforces the film’s Appalachian backdrop while establishing the foundation for a creative partnership that would later translate to a starring role for Oldham in Reichardt’s next feature, OLD JOY.

Despite its obscurity and estrangement within Reichardt’s official canon, ODE nevertheless complements her core artistic and thematic priorities.  Its low-key meditation on the challenge of reconciling the spectrum of romantic orientation within a hardline community dovetails neatly with Reichardt’s ongoing examination of people who live on the rural fringes of society, trapped within a cultural narrative they’ve no longer come to fit.

It doesn’t necessarily add to Reichardt’s filmography as a whole, but it still holds interest for those looking for a more-complete picture of her creative worldview. Perhaps more crucially, ODE’s true import arguably lies in its kickstarting of Reichardt’s momentum after a sustained fallow period — a development that undoubtedly compelled the burgeoning director to double down on her independent inclinations, thus setting a firm trajectory for the subsequent course of her career.

Those wishing to see the curio that is ODE either have to wait for the rare repertory theater screening, or contend with the embedded rip from a VHS tape above (with German subtitles, interestingly enough).  With any luck, a faithful restoration of the original Super 8mm film elements could help the film community recognize ODE’s transformational place in Reichardt’s broader career.


OLD JOY (2006)

The Portland I knew growing up is gone now.  Its soggy, homegrown eccentricity has long since been replaced by a cosmopolitan renaissance.  A ruggedly provincial, semi-blue-collar character has given way to a creative class comprised of outsiders and economic refugees fleeing the runaway cost of living in larger cities like LA or San Francisco.

This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it does raise important questions about what it means to undergo such a rapid character shift at a citywide level— and what we stand to lose. Films like Gus Van Santa’s MY OWN PRIVATE IDAHO (1991) or books like Chuck Palahniuk’s “Fugitives and Refugees” capture the Portland of old: a grunge paradise of misfits, dropouts, and yuppies with the hook-up to the Nike employee store.

Now that character is conveyed to the outside world through reductive parodies like PORTLANDIA or fundamentally-misperceived portraits like SHRILL.  One could imagine there’s an abundance of DIY homegrown films by Portland filmmakers that accurately capture its character as it stands today, but therein lies the inherent irony: to authentically capture Portland’s genuine character is to embrace underground obscurity.

There is, at the very least, one film that manages to both boast a national profile in addition to genuinely capturing Portland’s slacker spirit: Kelly Reichardt’s 2006 feature, OLD JOY.  The picture that began Reichardt’s long cinematic love affair with Portland and the greater Oregon region, OLD JOY also marks the beginning of her ascent as a figurehead of contemporary independent filmmaking.

One of the quieter films in recent memory, Reichardt’s third (some would say second) feature eschews the theatrics of active plotting in favor of passive observation.  To describe it on it a surface level, it is essentially a story about two friends who take to the woods in search of a hot bath, where the emotional conflict is buried so deep into subtle nuances of characterization that a friendly massage becomes the de facto narrative climax.

Such descriptions, however, do a massive disservice to the aching beauty and contemplative serenity of OLD JOY, which Reichardt co-adapted from a short story by Portland-based author Jonathan Raymond. Having first been exposed to Raymond’s work by reading his novel “The Half Life” on a road trip, Reichardt discovered that they shared many of the same narrative and thematic interests (1).

She subsequently approached him to see if he had any short stories she could adapt to screen— specifically any that took place mostly outdoors (1). This ask would seem to follow the template she established with 1999’s ODE, which also was adapted from pre-existing literature and took place in outdoor locations that could be secured on the cheap.

Reichardt and Raymond’s subsequent writing collaboration, however, would prove more fruitful than either could have expected, establishing a symbiotic creative partnership that would run through no less than three consecutive projects.

Reichardt had embarked on projects since ODE (the little-seen, enigmatic short THEN A YEAR (2001)), but the production of OLD JOY represents a substantial leap forward in the development of her artistic voice.

The film boasts some serious producing cred, with Portland-based indie mogul Neil Kopp working in partnership with Anish Savjani, Jay Van Hoy, and executive producer Todd Haynes (who, along with Gus Van Sant, stands as both one of the figureheads of queer cinema and a founding father of Portland’s filmmaking scene).

That said, OLD JOY avoids the type of polished “produced” vibe that such talents might engender, opting for a lived-in earthiness that speaks to the city’s rugged DIY spirit.  Reichardt manages to flesh out the barest sketch of a story — carefree nomad / functioning hobo Kurt (Will Oldham) invites old friend Mark (Daniel London) to accompany him on a trek to the Bagby Hot Springs in Estacada to reconnect with nature and rekindle their stagnating friendship — transforming what is essentially a minimalist character study into a timeless, melancholy story about the inexorable passage of time and its effects on friendship.

The meaning of the film’s title is revealed through the course of the climactic hot springs sequence, as Kurt details a dream in which he received a profound emotional truth from a wise stranger: “sorrow is nothing but worn out joy”.

An oblique truth, but a truth nonetheless— this “old joy” might be alternatively described as nostalgia, whereby happy memories become infused with the melancholy knowledge that they can’t be easily recaptured. Mark and Kurt are very much caught up in this state of mind, their long-time friendship on the verge of a major paradigm shift as Mark’s impending fatherhood and Kurt’s refusal to be tied down lead to a fundamental incompatibility.

This sense of the inevitable — the way that time transforms the nature of our various relationships, and the sobering realization that some friends don’t make the leap into new phases of life with you — permeates OLD JOY, creating a mournful aura that begs to be quietly observed in a ritualistic manner.

Rather than hold a wake for their friendship, Mark and Kurt opt to suspend it within an almost banal moment of time; a simple, non-assuming “see you soon” implying that the very opposite stands as to the likeliest of scenarios.

The production of ODE proved that Reichardt could shoot a film with only herself, a sound person, and actors.  OLD JOY builds on this minimalist conceit by adding only one additional crew member, despite enjoying access to far more resources than her previous projects.

In fact, Reichardt designs the production so that the entire company could feasibly fit within Mark’s station wagon— London and Oldham in the front, Reichardt, sound man Gabriel Fleming and cinematographer Peter Sillen in the back, and her dog Lucy in the trunk (1).

It may not be the most comfortable way to make a film, but this extremely intimate approach boasts immediate benefits in her actors’ quietly soulful performances as well as the film’s earthy, naturalistic aesthetic. While this scenario is now fairly common amongst digital films made by the microbudget faction of the indie world, one has to consider the additional challenge of doing so with bulky film equipment.

Reichardt is unique among the celluloid-friendly filmmakers of her generation in that she prefers the organic grit of Super 16mm to the industry-standard 35mm gauge. OLD JOY builds upon this filmic foundation established by RIVER OF GRASS, adopting a 1.66:1 aspect ratio with which to frame observational set-ups captured via a locked-off tripod, subtle handheld setups, and even from the backseat of a moving car.

This fleet-rootedness further empowers Sillen and Reichardt’s use of available light to render Oregon’s signature color palette: the clay brown of its forested floor, the blue-green canopy of Douglas fir trees, and the soggy grey skies that hang low overhead.  Reichardt once again serves as her own editor, populating her ruminative footage with evocative cutaways to surrounding wildlife, much like she had done in her previous work.

And yet, the lack of a voiceover conceit moves OLD JOY firmly away from the BADLANDS influence felt throughout RIVER OF GRASS or ODE, and towards the silent, unblinking gaze that would come to define her own aesthetic.

Yo La Tengo’s spare, contemplative score cements this transition; having previously had one of their own songs licensed for ODE, the celebrated indie rock band now gets to actively shape OLD JOY’s musical landscape with new compositions comprised of noodling guitar plucks and wistful piano chords.

The result is a folksy, ruminative music bed that matches both the interior theatrics of the story as well as Reichardt’s emergence as a mature filmmaker who exhibits her confidence through restraint and quiet nuance.

OLD JOY’s role in the definition of Reichardt’s artistic character is more of a technical or aesthetic one than it is thematic.  The feminine character perspective that shapes the majority of her work is mostly absent here, save for the brief moment we get to spend alone with Mark’s frustrated and very pregnant wife at the beginning of the film.

Said moment, however, stands as a sly commentary on Reichardt’s part about the exclusionary nature of the film’s narrative archetype. Stories about venturing into the wilderness to find oneself tend to almost exclusively favor the masculine perspective— the womenfolk must stay home and tend to the babies, after all.

The opening scene goes to great lengths to establish that Mark’s wife feels very strongly that he doesn’t need her permission to go out and do things, as if the very act of his asking implies she is a “naggy” wife who wishes to keep him entrapped within the pillow-lined cage of domesticity.

Nevertheless, Reichardt leaves her character alone in the kitchen as Mark hits the road, forced by her pregnancy to conform to gender roles and suppress her own personal ambitions.  To their credit, Mark and Kurt do fit somewhat within Reichardt’s artistic interest in characters that live on the fringes of mainstream society— both lack the exterior strength or virility one would expect in a masculine protagonist taking to the woods.

Indeed, they would very easily be supporting characters in someone else’s story. This in and of itself makes OLD JOY worth making: the story becomes an oblique entrypoint into a cinematic study of male friendships that we don’t often see on screen, colored by all the complexity that aging and growing emotional distance entails.

OLD JOY also makes an interesting — albeit characteristically-subtle — comment on the very idea of being “one with nature”.  There is a pervasive sense in our culture that the natural world holds the secret to our truest selves… we just have to venture out and find it.

Some opt for the path of least resistance and let “nature” come to them: they meditate in overly-curated miniature gardens like Mark is seen doing at the beginning, or, like Mark’s wife does, they make a vitamin-rich smoothie out of bitter greens as if it were the elixir to perpetual health and vitality.

OLD JOY suggests that these commercialized forms of “holistic” living are ultimately hollow; true self-discovery isn’t about manufacturing a scenario in which it can happen.  Rather, it is about simply listening to the world around you, letting its beauty and wisdom wash over you— like a long soak in a hot spring.

Despite a very limited theatrical engagement, OLD JOY managed to make quite an impression with critics, who appreciated its serene melancholy enough to reserve a spot for the film in their year-end Top 10 lists.

Doubtless, there were many negative reviews from many who simply neither understood or refused to open themselves up to its wistful wisdom, but time has effectively rendered their opinions moot— OLD JOY is almost universally regarded today as a beacon of homegrown filmmaking.  More importantly, it would re-establish Reichardt’s creative voice after twelve years of relative silence, ushering in a prolific new period that would launch her towards the forefront of American independent cinema.


TRAVIS (2004)

Like many other artists of the time, the highly-controversial outbreak of the Iraq War weighed heavily on director Kelly Reichardt’s mind.  Easily the most divisive conflict since Vietnam, the Iraq War was waged by the George W. Bush administration as a drastic pre-emptive measure based on faulty, misleading, and downright false intelligence.

As the years dragged on, and the quagmire claimed an ever-higher number of American soldiers, the artistic call to action grew more and more undeniable. When Reichardt heard hers, she was in the midst of a professional struggle; after making a splash at Sundance with her 1994 debut RIVER OF GRASS, she was now thrashing underwater, laboring to come up for air with a worthy follow-up.

Said follow up would ultimately arrive in 2006 in the form of OLD JOY, but in the interim she used this period of obscurity to experiment with form and technique.

After completing her 8mm featurette, ODE, in 1999, and the short project THEN A YEAR in 2001, Reichardt created TRAVIS (2004), an experimental meditation on grief as informed by war.  The piece is less of a short narrative than it is a video installation one might encounter at a museum.  Also shot on Super 8mm film, TRAVIS is set to droning, ambient music as a blurry sea of color lulls us into a serene, contemplative mood.

A short audio snippet of a woman talking enigmatically plays on a loop, giving us fragments of a vague story about some kind of personal tragedy.  As the loop continues to repeat, Reichardt populates the soundtrack with more snippets of audio— as if filling in the missing pieces of this woman’s story.

All the while, the picture never strays from its soupy color show, although a fleeting glimpse of a boy’s arm poking out of a red t-shirt tells us we’ve been looking at something that’s been blown up to the point of abstraction.  Without ever saying as much explicitly, the woman’s audio eventually reveals itself as a lament over the loss of her son, a soldier in the Iraq War.

TRAVIS is more consequential within the context of Reichardt’s filmography than it lets on, setting the stage for her career-long juxtaposition of hard, everyday reality against the romantic myths of working class Americana.  This sect of the population produces the most soldiers by a wide mile, mostly because armed service immediately asserts itself as a viable alternative to a successful life when college is uncertain.

As such, we accord a kind of stoic dignity to soldiers and their families, commensurate with the grave sacrifice they’re asked to take on our behalf.  We pay lip service to their courage in public forums, glossing over their unimaginable pain of loss with cheap platitudes and lionizing invocations of heroism. TRAVIS lays that raw pain bare, with the mother questioning the need for his sacrifice in the context of a controversial war with a flimsy justification.

This period of relatively obscure short-form works — comprised of ODE, THEN A YEAR and TRAVIS — nevertheless marks an important milestone in Reichardt’s artistic development: namely, the infusion of political subtext into her storytelling.  Whereas other directors such as Oliver Stone or Michael Moore wear their politics on their sleeve, imposing it upon their subjects, Reichardt cedes her convictions to her characters, choosing stories that are colored by a specific political ambience but can still exist outside of them.

ODE and TRAVIS are more overt in this regard, what with the former’s meditation on homosexuality in an oppressively religious community and TRAVIS’ lamenting over Iraq.  These, and other tenets of the conservative doctrine of the George W. Bush years, would go on to become core themes of Reichardt’s work, allowing her films to stand as both a firm (albeit quiet) rebuke to said policies as well as humanizing portraits of the people affected by them.


WENDY AND LUCY (2008)

When the Great Recession arrived in mid-2008, very few people outside of the financial sector saw it coming.  Naturally, it was the middle and lower-class factions that bore the brunt of the damage, their jobs and life savings having evaporated away overnight while wealthy corporations received generous government bailouts.

Jobs, homes, and dreams were lost as the runaway economic progress of the Bush years revealed itself to be fundamentally hollow, propped up by a mountain of financial speculation made in bad faith. Despite losing my first job out of college before I could build up any savings, I was able to still weather the storm thanks to parents who were in a position to support me until I was back on my feet.

Most were not so lucky, faced with the sobering prospect of being the first American generation to be worse off than the one that came before it. Many learned a hard truth that the lower middle-class already knew quite well: poverty isn’t just an economic status, it’s a precarious state of being where a series of small inconveniences can trigger a full-stop catastrophe.

It’s often said that art reflects life— a sentiment that handily applies to director Kelly Reichardt’s WENDY AND LUCY, which dropped right into this uncertain economic atmosphere with its chilling reflection of our quiet calamities.

Based on Jonathan Raymond’s short story “Train Choir”, WENDY AND LUCY carries a surprising amount of dramatic weight on its delicate narrative frame, transforming a sketch about a drifter’s search for her lost dog into a resonant meditation on street-level capitalism and the social compacts that guide our lives.

Reichardt follows a similar template to the production of OLD JOY, shooting in Portland with executive producer Todd Haynes and Larry Fessenden’s Glass Eye Pix, in addition to her recurring collaboration with producers Neil Kopp and Anish Savjani.

Nevertheless, WENDY AND LUCY’s production marks a substantial leap forward for Reichardt, boasting the support of additional production company Filmscience as well as a $200,000 budget that blows OLD JOY’s $30,000 endowment clear out of the water.  While still a relatively paltry number in the context of even the most low-budget studio film, $200,000 nevertheless compounds Reichardt’s artistic cred to a degree where she’s able to cast her first “name” actor in Michelle Williams.

In the first of several subsequent performances throughout Reichardt’s filmography, Williams imbues the titular character of Wendy with a scrappy, desperate pathos and an androgynous appearance that serves to further highlight her marginalized position on society’s fringes.

A drifter from Indiana on her way to Alaska in hopes of work, Wendy hits a major roadblock in her journey somewhere on Portland’s outer fridges, where the city starts to bleed into the smaller surrounding towns. Her only companion is her dog, Lucy, played by Reichardt’s real-life pet of the same name (and all-around good girl).

Together, they make the best of a bad situation after Wendy’s beater of a sedan suddenly dies on her, effectively stranding them in an unfamiliar land with a meager supply of cash that dwindles by the hour. In giving the entirety of herself over to Reichardt’s vision — to the point that she even slept in her character’s car as part of her preparation — Williams delivers an authentic, well-worn performance that pulls its nuance from her grief over the sudden death of her partner, Heath Ledger earlier that year (1).

With her grungy cut-off shorts, unassuming blue hoodie and boyish dark haircut, Williams is practically unrecognizable, to the point that bystanders would completely ignore her when they came up to talk to the crew (1). She bears the burden of carrying the entire film on her shoulders, as the story is told so singularly from her point of view that we never leave it.

Supporting characters serve as avatars for the various ways in which people either help or hurt a stranger in need.  Will Oldham’s hipster nomad or Will Patton’s cold-but-fair mechanic showcase a pragmatic empathy while still keeping Wendy at arm’s distance.

John Robinson, who we haven’t seen much of since his breakout performance in Gus Van Sant’s ELEPHANT (2002), uses his character as an aggressive bagboy who busts Wendy shoplifting to display our easy tendency to dehumanize strangers, especially when they can be viewed to belong to a lower economic class than us (it’s no accident that a huge cross dangles from his neck… an ironic sigil of his distinctly un-Christian lack of compassion).

Fessenden cameos in WENDY AND LUCY’s scariest sequence: a genuinely terrifying encounter in which Wendy camps out in the woods only to wake up with a menacing man standing over her and delivering a profanity-laced monologue.  His character represents the gravest danger of Wendy’s situation: the unpredictable and hostile forces that share her marginalization.

Beyond her trusty Lucy, Wendy’s only friend in this intimidating new place is Wally Dalton’s security guard, a kindly, paternal man who should be sitting on a porch somewhere in blissful retirement, but must stand on his feet all day guarding the parking lot of an exurban Walgreens.  Despite a contentious first encounter, he becomes an unlikely beacon of comfort for Wendy as her situation grows more dire; he’s always around to offer a helpful tip, or even slip her a little cash like he does at the end of the film.

The fact that it’s only five or six dollars speaks volumes about his own empty wallet; he pushes the cash on Wendy with a gentle force that implies this gift is not to be taken lightly because it’s a lot of money to him.

With OLD JOY, Reichardt debuted a formal — albeit minimalist — aesthetic, one whose seeds were evident in RIVER OF GRASS but took many years to take root, let alone blossom.  WENDY AND LUCY builds upon that foundation, perfecting the earthy, organic look that has come to define her subsequent work.

Working for the first time with cinematographer Sam Levy, Reichardt shoots the picture on Super 16mm film to create a soft & grainy realism.  A preference for natural light gives WENDY AND LUCY a warm, sunny aura that runs counter to the dim grey that blankets Portland’s skies ten months out of the year.

It’s a very different story at night, where bastard-amber streetlamps and flickering fluorescent tubes smear Wendy’s surroundings into a lurid industrial nightmarescape.  Reichardt and Levy frequently opt for locking off their 1.85:1 compositions, creating an observational aesthetic that’s amplified by placing various abstractions in the foreground of the shot.

The effect is furtive, or inconspicuous; like watching something we’re not supposed to see. Dolly-based tracking shots or handheld moves are reserved for key moments, making their arrival all the more impactful and underscoring Wendy’s increasing desperation.  Reichardt once again serves as her own editor, opting for the patient, contemplative pace that marked OLD JOY.

Interestingly, Reichardt as editor takes the opportunity of WENDY AND LUCY to make a drastic adjustment to one of her artistic signatures, using frequent closeup cutaways to the surrounding environment— but not to highlight the beauty of nature, as her previous films did.  Instead, these shots of train tracks, intimidating freeways, and sprawling parking lots suggest the oppressiveness of industry when experienced at eye level.

WENDY AND LUCY also eschews her previous work’s use for music, save for an uneasy tune that Wendy frequently hums to herself throughout.  By abstaining from a conventional overscore, Reichardt reinforces the harrowing realism of her approach with a natural dramatic urgency.

By not instructing her audience how to feel about Wendy’s journey through musical prompts, Reichardt manages to capture our genuine sympathies and concern, stoking further reflection on our own sense of responsibility towards our fellow person— stranger or otherwise.

WENDY AND LUCY resonates as one of Reichardt’s best works precisely because of its harmony with the director’s artistic and narrative interests.  Wendy is the archetypical Reichardt protagonist: a life lived on the fringes of mainstream society, marginalized by her environment.  She belongs to the working poor, perhaps one of the most invisible castes in American society.

She straddles the razor-thin line between lower-middle-class comfort and outright homelessness, tracking every single penny that comes in or goes out while she sleeps in an old car that’s one engine light away from the scrap heap.  And yet, one wouldn’t know it to look at her— she could easily pass as just another young person happily playing with her dog in the park.

Her economic invisibility cloak is precisely why she’s stuck in a dangerous position, her independence undermined by a sudden reliance on the kindness of strangers. Lucy is her only tether to society, keeping her grounded and visible.  Once that’s gone, she’s a ghost— and ghosts can be easily ignored.

The downward trajectory of Wendy’s journey strikes to the core theme in Reichardt’s work to date: the constant clash between the everyday realities of blue-collar, working-class Americana and the romantic aura of gritty, up-by-your-bootstraps, frontier-trailblazing myth frequently ascribed to them (often at their own peril).

Reichardt’s characters find themselves under immense pressure to conform to this narrative, which has always been a false, impossible one spun less by their own kind and more by patronizing politicians who have no further use for them after their votes have been counted and the election night confetti has been swept away.

WENDY AND LUCY stands as a quiet, yet forceful comment to two aspects of this broken myth, the first being that stubborn old chestnut that says America is a land of endless opportunity where one can always reinvent oneself in another town or city.  However, real life bears out a pathetic irony: those most in need of self-reinvention are often the least able to relocate or escape.

The only thing that pushes Wendy through a series of mounting economic misfortunes is the promise of plentiful work in Alaska.  This, of course, is it’s own unique myth— the golden glow of a faraway promised land waiting to receive economic refugees as a reward for the harrowing journey they must undertake to get there.

This is the foundational promise of America itself, fueling immigrants across endless oceans or covered wagon convoys across bone-dry deserts.  Naturally, these people found a whole new set of problems when they finally arrived— and there’s no reason to believe anything else is waiting for Wendy up in Alaska. The second truth that Reichardt seeks to illuminate lies in Dalton’s kindly security guard character.

He’s of the hearty, working-class stock one might expect to see watching over a Walgreen’s parking lot, but thanks to his age, he’s certainly in no shape to chase after any shoplifters.

Reichardt’s decision to cast the character as a grandfatherly benefactor allows Wendy a brief respite from the ambient hostility of her situation, but his presence as such implies a darker socioeconomic truth: runaway inequality has made retirement and financial security increasingly more uncertain for the middle class, even if they’ve been steadily working for decades.

With its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival, WENDY AND LUCY marks Reichardt’s entrance onto the world stage as a filmmaker of international renown.  The film’s warm reception earned Reichardt a nomination for the Un Certain Regard award, while Lucy won the festival’s unofficial fan-favorite prize, the Palm Dog.

Thanks to a smart distribution strategy on the part of Oscilloscope, WENDY AND LUCY sustained that golden Cannes glow through its theatrical run, earning near-universal praise from critics and Independent Spirit Award nominations for Best Feature and Best Female Lead.  Crucially, the film also saw healthy financial success at the box office— no small feat considering its limited engagement at scattered arthouse theaters.

A worldwide gross of $1.1 million — against a production budget of $200,000 — would not only make a powerful statement about the benefits of economic, back-to-basics filmmaking, but it would also prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that Reichardt had a sizable, active audience following her work.

So many new filmmakers deliver brilliant, promising films, only to fizzle out because their audience was too small to sustain, but the success with WENDY AND LUCY virtually eliminated that problem for Reichardt.  It had taken fourteen years, but Reichardt finally achieved a platform for herself upon which to grow her career in the direction she deemed fit.

This is hard enough to do as a man in the studio world, let alone a woman in the independent one— and she did it without caving to style trends or adapting a property with a built-in audience.  Simply put, Reichardt’s success is 100% hers; a testament to her DIY fortitude as well as an inspiration to countless up-and-coming filmmakers looking to blaze their own trails.


MEEK’S CUTOFF (2010)

The Oregon Trail holds a venerated place in the annals of American myth, buoyed by a pioneering spirit as well as its status as a cultural touchstone for every Millennial who played the iconic computer game.  The actual journey, however, was far from some game or romantic adventure— it was a grueling, sluggish trek across an endless expanse of desert prairie broken up only by a treacherous mountain pass.

The hostility of the terrain was matched by the conflict they encountered with the various native populations that inhabited it— a conflagration fueled by the settlers’ deep mistrust and contempt for an alien culture they did not understand.  The voyage was one filled with hard choices, where the moral standards of civilization could easily be sacrificed to the needs of survival.

Despite its relatively high historical profile, there are surprisingly few films about the Oregon Trail, and even fewer that capture the gritty uncertainty of the pioneers who made the trek.  Director Kelly Reichardt’s MEEK’S CUTOFF (2010) asserts itself, then, as the definitive film chronicling this fascinating chapter of American history.

The piece is at once a return as well as a departure for Reichardt: a return to Oregon, to the subversion of genre that informed RIVER OF GRASS (1994), and to the fruitful collaborations with executive producer Todd Haynes, writer Jon Raymond and producers Neil Kopp & Anish Savjani that resulted in both OLD JOY (2006) and WENDY AND LUCY (2008).

Beyond just the change in scenery, its departures take the form of additional producers Elizabeth Cuthrell & David Urrutia and its central conceit as a period piece— Reichardt’s first.

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As a story set during the last, harrowing leg of the Oregon Trail in 1845, MEEK’S CUTOFF was always going to deal in the visual and narrative grammar of the Western, but Raymond’s script muddies the black-and-white clarity of the genre’s entrenched moral code with the grey shades of a simmering thriller.

A caravan of covered wagons faithfully follows their feral guide, Stephen Meek, across the arid eastern Oregon desert. Played by a nearly-unrecognizable Bruce Greenwood, Meek’s wild mountain man appearance and raconteur affectations inspire a wary confidence that he is the right man to lead these homesteaders into the promised land of the fertile Willamette Valley.

The journey goes roughly as well as could be expected, until they capture a lone native who’s been silently tracking them. Played by Rod Rondeaux as a stoic prisoner who betrays no emotion about his sudden captivity, The Indian (as he’s called in the credits) splits the fragile unity of the wagon party right down the middle; some believe he’s secretly communicating with his tribe and inviting an ambush, while others find themselves growing distrustful of Meek’s increasingly-prejudiced judgment.

Michelle Williams, in her second consecutive performance under Reichardt, leads this insurgent faction as the pragmatic, observant Emily Tetherow. As the group’s paranoia escalates, Emily asserts herself as the cooler head that must prevail, lest the bickering and infighting between the men cloud their sense of reason (a standout moment finds Emily stitching The Indian’s moccasin back together for him— but not out of the goodness of her heart, but because she wants him “to owe her something” should he unexpectedly gain the upper hand).

This central conflict allows an opportunity for nuanced performances from other members of the wagon party; most notably from Paul Dano and Zoe Kazan as a younger pioneer couple prone to anxiety, and WENDY AND LUCY’s Will Patton as Emily’s husband.

Typical of Reichardt’s narrative inclinations, MEEK’S CUTOFF eschews the grand theatrics of physical conflict in favor of  the compelling subtleties of characterization; the simmering tensions don’t build to a resolution in the conventional sense, but rather serve as an avenue for Reichardt and company to explore the psychological wear and tear that can result from the friction between an extreme scenario and our most basic human impulses.

MEEK’S CUTOFF’s “anti-western” approach extends beyond its narrative framework, encapsulating the whole of its aesthetic design and execution.  Reichardt’s starting point is the aspect ratio, which eschews the widescreen vistas typical of the genre for a confining 1.33:1 Academy frame.

When asked about this decision in press interviews, she has stated she chose this narrower aspect ratio to evoke “the view from inside a bonnet”, eliminating our peripheral vision while dropping us directly into the story’s feminine perspective.  The effect is an appropriately claustrophobic one, made all the more remarkable by virtue of the story taking place entirely outdoors.

MEEK’S CUTOFF also finds Reichard upgrading from 16mm to 35mm film, with the higher gauge giving eastern Oregon’s dry desert scrub and gentle slopes a striking clarity.  Cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt proves instrumental in the evolution of Reichardt’s aesthetic, retaining her preference for natural light and minimalistic camerawork while boosting contrast levels for a moodier look.

Their use of available light — the unrelenting blast of high-noon sun, or the dim glow of magic hour — takes on a kind of hostile beauty, as if the wagon train has ventured into a forbidden realm. Reichardt and Blauvelt take an even-bolder approach come nightfall, choosing to render said sequences almost entirely in blackness save for the practical light of a campfire or the use of a single china ball lantern to simulate the wan glow of the moon.

It’s a very tricky prospect to deprive the audience of a picture — the fundamental building block of the medium — for an extended period of time, but the effect as executed here ably communicates the suffocating blackness of night in the desert. It also forces us as the audience to lean in close to listen to the fervent whispering between these would-be pioneers as they try to make sense of a shaky situation.

MEEK’S CUTOFF anchors its recreation of the Oregon Trail outside of Burns— a small town of just under 3,000 people that butts up against the Burns Paiute Indian Reservation.  Gone are the lush forests of the Willamette Valley to the west; this is a very different rendition of Oregon, albeit one more in line with the state’s geographical majority.

The sparsely-populated setting provides a somewhat-colorless backdrop — various shades of brown against gradient skies — but production designer David Doernberg leans into the challenge with an authentic historical recreation that’s as imaginative as it is realistic.

The caravan of covered wagons reads true to the mythos of the period, if only slightly smaller than what we tend to imagine. The monochromatic backdrop affords Doernberg and costume designer Vicki Farrell to use color to striking effect, most notably in the dresses worn by the pioneer women.

The boldly-colored garments feel almost obscene; a needlessly-extravagant luxury in the face of such a hostile and barren environment. In the wide, they almost resemble exotic birds who have inadvertently flown too far away from another world. This refusal to yield their femininity in the face of the elements speaks to Reichardt’s artistic embrace of grit and stoicism as character traits not exclusive to men— a conceit that also manifests via the director’s longtime practice of performing editing duties herself.

One could argue that she gets away with her minimalistic approach to coverage because she has direct foreknowledge of how it will be assembled in the edit. As such, Reichardt’s editing sensibilities often echo the observational, patient nature of her characters and camerawork.

Considering MEEK’S CUTOFF’s spare deployment of dolly or handheld setups in favor of locked-off compositions, the edit naturally takes on a plodding, yet determined, pace that reinforces the long, grueling journey onscreen.  A mysterious, ambient score by composer Jeff Grace turns the desert into an experiential abstraction; the settlers might as well be traversing the surface of Mars.

With his work on MEEK’s CUTOFF, Grace joins Reichardt’s roster of close collaborators, his having come to her attention likely due to his work for the films of fellow Larry Fessenden / Glass Eye Pix acolyte, Ti West.

If OLD JOY and WENDY AND LUCY established the core conceits of Reichardt’s thematic agenda, then MEEK’S CUTOFF reinforces them with a narrative that touches on those key tenets.  Reichardt’s films are inextricably tied to her feminine, left-of-center perspective— even in OLD JOY, where the two male leads subvert the masculine trope of “venturing into the wilderness” in favor of a soulful and sensitive reconnection.

In this regard, Williams’ character of Emily Tetherow provides a compelling window through which to observe the story as MEEK’S CUTOFF unfolds.  Already marginalized by dint of her womanhood in a time where women had no place in seats of power, Emily is forced to stand on the sidelines and watch as the caravan’s menfolk let their vanity and ego overpower their grip on an increasingly-tense situation.

She possesses the fortitude and grit required of a pioneer— much more so than Meek, even — but yet she can’t rise above the restrictions of her gender until the social compact breaks down entirely. While she’s ultimately victorious in asserting herself and bringing the conflict back from the brink of chaos, her win is a small one: she simply replaces her husband’s vote when he’s incapacitated.

The production of MEEK’S CUTOFF also affords Reichardt the opportunity to deconstruct the romantic myth of The Oregon Trail in a fashion similar to her sobering depictions of America’s working class in previous work.  The “frontier myth” is a potent narrative that drives our cultural character, especially in the West; after all, what could be more American than the idea of pulling up your bootstraps and forging the life you want for yourself in a plentiful landscape?

It’s easy, then, to forget what had to happen in order to make such a dream possible in the first place— the uprooting and decimation of an entire civilization that had already called that land “home” for centuries. Beyond simply reminding us that the journey westward was far from the glamorous or romantic adventure that the Anglo-Saxon view of history makes it out to be, MEEK’S CUTOFF uses its spare narrative to challenge the supposed “righteousness” of Manifest Destiny.

The pioneers were told that it was their moral duty to expand the American experiment across the continent, giving them a deluded justification to invade foreign lands with total disregard for the locals.  In this context, MEEK’S CUTOFF gains a timely resonance despite its period trappings, drawing a firm line from the philosophies behind Manifest Destiny and the uniquely American brand of imperialism that drew us into a “pre-emptive” war with Iraq.

Reichardt makes this connection very subtly, refusing concrete allusions in favor of allowing the audience to organically infer and absorb MEEK’S CUTOFF’s political sentiments.  By stripping the romantic glow of myth from her narrative, Reichardt reveals how small these figures actually are— dwarfed by a landscape that never needed them to begin with.

That Reichardt made MEEK’S CUTOFF in 2010 when the Obama Administration was laboring to roll back the damage of the Bush Doctrine only reinforces her message; much like how the pioneers had ventured too far to turn back and go home, our haste to bring “democracy” to a distant, oil-rich land had entrapped us in an inextricable quagmire.

MEEK’S CUTOFF premiered at the 67th Venice Film Festival before going on to a limited theatrical engagement typical of its indie status.  While the film’s slow, deliberate pace may have turned off those looking for more of a rousing experience typical of the western genre, many critics responded to it with appreciation and admiration.

Beyond her artistic expansion into a historical period outside of the present, Reichardt has also diversified her cinematic portrait of Oregon from the Willamette Valley to include its vast eastern deserts, adding another entry into what has become a comprehensive chronicle of the Beaver State’s varied cultural geography and complicated history.

With her three Oregon-set films, Reichardt had done the heavy lifting necessary to restore her creative momentum after a long period of stagnation– and with their success on the international stage, she had empowered herself with the freedom to manifest her own destiny as a trail-blazing pioneer of rugged, soulful filmmaking.


NIGHT MOVES (2013)

The state of Oregon boasts a long and proud history of eco-activism, be it as simple as routine composting and recycling at the individual level or as sweeping as governmental efforts aimed at preserving our natural resources.  The beauty of nature knows no politics; our lush forests and bubbling streams of fresh mountain water inspire conservative and liberal alike to maintain the sanctity of our environment.

Of course, any movement or cause is going to have its fringe fanatics— extremists who refuse to recognize nuance (and sometimes even reason) into the conversation, committing themselves to the politicization of issues that we all should theoretically be able to agree on.  In this time of runaway climate crisis, they might argue, the cost of inaction is too high to ignore. Desperate times call for desperate measures.

This sentiment has given rise to a movement of renegade eco-activists; fringe militants who actively desire (and attempt) to sabotage our energy infrastructure in the name of a cleaner planet.  Their mission, however, is something of a paradox— to be a responsible steward of nature is to care for all the living things supported by it.

Blowing up a dam to restore natural water flows isn’t necessarily evil, per se, but it does cause a criminal amount of damage and could put the local population in danger.  It also doesn’t make a good look for other environmentalists trying to enact change through legitimate means.

Nevertheless, the psychology behind such a character that can claim absolute righteousness within such a slim grey area of morality makes for compelling drama. It is precisely this scenario that director Kelly Reichardt explores in her fifth major feature, NIGHT MOVES (2013).

Written by her scripting partner Jonathan Raymond, the film is structured as a simmering thriller about unintended consequences and the emotional fallout from a deed you can’t undo.  In many ways, NIGHT MOVES represents the most “conventional” film of Reichardt’s career, diving further headlong into subversive genre storytelling after the success of her anti-western MEEK’S CUTOFF in 2010.

The end result, funnily enough, loses some of the resonance of Reichardt’s particular artistry in its reach towards a more-commercial profile.

That said, NIGHT MOVES nevertheless finds Reichardt spin an idiosyncratic and effective yarn about the compounding effects of guilt and desperation.  Set in the southern part of Oregon around the town of Ashland, the story concerns Jesse Eisenberg’s Josh: a quiet, pensive and slightly-schlubby eco-activist who is about as far off the grid as one can get in the modern era.

He lives in a little yurt on an agricultural commune, along with a group of other like-minded people that includes Alia Shawkat and Katherine Waterston in very minor roles. Whereas his fellow commune dwellers have more harmonious dreams for a sustainable lifestyle, Josh harbors grander —if not more destructive — ambitions.  He links up with an ex-Marine named Harmon, played by Peter Sarsgaard with a deceptiveness masked by his laidback charisma.

Harmon shares Josh’s dream for radical action, and has the know-how to build a bomb with available materials; he just needs Josh’s help in procuring the raw materials for an explosive and a boat to use as the delivery device.  With the help of Dakota Fanning’s Dena — an emotionally fragile young woman who compensates with a wry sense of humor — Josh purchases a small boat from a clueless rich suburbanite and begins converting it to a floating bomb.

The mission is successful enough; the trio are able to blow up a dam under cover of night and evade the police. For all their best laid plans, however, they fail to account for the human factor.  The explosion causes a flood, which is their expected result, but it also claims the life of an innocent person camped downstream.

The merry little band of eco-terrorists instantly fractures when the news breaks, causing a crisis of grief and guilt that slowly builds to an unexpected conclusion that asks a complicated question: how far would you go to save the earth, and how much farther would you go to cover it up?

On a technical/craft level, NIGHT MOVES asserts itself as a transitional work in Reichardt’s career.  Creative continuity is retained through her recurring partnership with executive producers Todd Haynes & Larry Fessenden and producers Neil Kopp & Anish Savjani. A handful of additional producers — Saemi Kim, Chris Maybach, and Rodrigo Teixiera — quietly complement Kopp and Savjani’s work, fashioning NIGHT MOVES as a comparatively slick (but not over-produced) film within Reichardt’s otherwise rough-hewn filmography.

NIGHT MOVES’ big aesthetic departure lies within its digital cinematography, marking the first time that Reichardt has worked with the format.  The film was shot in the 1.78:1 aspect ratio on an Arri Alexa camera, but she and returning cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt manage to avoid the sterile flatness that tends to plague digitally-acquired films.

The look of NIGHT MOVES is decidedly earthy, employing what appears to be a post-added film grain effect to create a soft, pleasing image that approaches the organic warmth of celluloid.  Reichardt and Blauvelt harness the diffuse, soggy light of the Oregon cloud layer to capture a naturalistic and autumnal color palette. A combination of locked-off static compositions and deliberate dolly movements create an observational, minimalistic tone on par with Reichardt’s previous work.

Reichardt once again performs her own editing duties, creating a simmering slow burn that’s reinforced by returning composer Jeff Grace’s brooding score, which mixes ambient electronic textures with guitar and piano to evoke the haunting rural environment and Josh’s inner grappling with his moral decay.

For all its affectations of “commerciality” or mainstream appeal, NIGHT MOVES nevertheless doggedly refuses to abandon Reichardt’s artistic principles.  Her thematic fascinations continue to inform the perspective of her storytelling, with NIGHT MOVES serving as an opportunity to convey her worldview to a much wider audience.

In a filmography populated by people existing along the margins of society, NIGHT MOVES presents a particularly interesting subculture— those who actively choose to detach themselves from the modern world’s infrastructural grid.  Josh, his fellow conspirators, and his friends at the agricultural commune have chosen to sacrifice a life of creature comforts and convenience in the name of environmental purity and sustainability.

It’s an extreme view, admittedly, but it’s also one that’s surprisingly common throughout Oregon and the greater Pacific Northwest region. As admirable as it is to lead a sustainable life and reduce your carbon footprint as much as possible, it’s also impossible to adhere to with 100% success without some degree of delusion.

Just because Josh and the commune live outside of industrial society doesn’t mean they have escaped it entirely— they still rely on industry for essentials like clothing and, I’m assuming, water & power. This means they must participate in the mainstream economy, which means they need money, which means, at the very least, they must sell their harvest at local farmer’s markets.

To do this, they must transport these goods to and from the farm via gasoline-guzzling pickup trucks. They are caught in a feedback loop whereby their efforts to combat pollution must actively contribute to it. They have to turn to ever more-drastic measures if they wish to break the loop, embracing ideas and principles that align closer to violent extremism than the harmonious pacifism they pay lip service to.

The film’s message, then, is quite clear: the individual cannot simply live by a righteous environmental purity in this day & age.  The industrial revolution has created a force that’s too powerful and too pervasive; total abstention is impossible. Reichardt hammers home this sentiment with the film’s ambiguous, open-ended conclusion, whereby Josh attempts to evade suspicion by dropping right back into the grid he despises.

Forced from the commune that had been his social and economic cocoon, and with nowhere else to turn, Josh applies for a retail job at a local outdoor supply chain. The final shot speaks to Reichardt’s minimalist sensibilities, using a static closeup of a relatively mundane image — a ceiling mirror reflecting a woman texting on her cell phone — to convey his ultimate imprisonment within the consumer-surveillance state; he may or may not get away with his horrible acts, but he’ll always be looking over his shoulder.

He’s learned that the myth of the valiant ecological crusader is simply that— a myth. The reality is far more sobering & uncertain, leaving him further marginalized as he compromises his principles in exchange for his freedom.

NIGHT MOVES premiered to a warm reception at the Venice Film Festival, and even took home the Grand Prix award at France’s Deauville Film Festival— an increasingly-vital event for doggedly independent international cinema.  Reichardt’s play at larger, more-conventional audiences stateside wasn’t quite as successful as its festival campaign, failing to crack $300k at the domestic box office despite positive critical notices.

This is not to say that NIGHT MOVES is a failure, however— its distinct appeal as a crossover work more than justifies its existence, and the budget was likely low enough that any losses were comparatively minimal.  More importantly, the film stands (for the time being) as the last panel in Reichardt’s complex cinematic portrait of Oregon and the sympathetic freaks and fringe folk who call it home.

One of the very few filmmakers to understand that the state is much more geographically diverse and historically-complicated than the heavily-white, progressively-minded hipster utopia of its largest city, Reichardt has managed to weave a comprehensive, deeply-humanist tetralogy of stories that are uniquely and singularly Oregonian.

Having traveled to the Rose City to visit Todd Haynes during the tail end of a major creative slump in the early 2000’s, she found the fertile Willamette Valley to be a promised land of artistic reinvigoration and limitless potential— utterly free from the industrial constraints or intimidating business expectations of distant epicenters like LA or New York.

Her subsequent immersion in its creative community established her as a pioneer of contemporary American independent cinema, and a key voice in charting the course towards new frontiers.


CERTAIN WOMEN (2016)

As an ideological or sociological construct, The West looms large over the American psyche.  Far more than a physical, geographical region, it has come to represent a state of being that embodies our foundational values: freedom, fortitude, and persistence.

Ever since the film industry dropped into California to escape Thomas Edison’s tyrannical enforcement of his cinematograph patent, this mythical land of cowboys, natives, and pioneers has figured prominently within the medium of cinema.  While we’ve long regarded The West as a place of reinvention where one can build a better life, the economic policies of the late twentieth century have made that dream all but impossible for most.

The creeping isolation of our social media-obsessed, hyper-connected lifestyles has compounded this new reality, creating a paradox in which endless open skies become suffocating ceilings, pushing relentlessly downward onto the horizon.

Director Kelly Reichardt understands the self-defeating consequences of our national attachment to pioneer myths, bringing her cutting insights and quiet compassion to bear on a handful of features about regular folks marginalized by their own environment.  Until presently, the stage of play had been the soggy forests and arid desert scrub of Oregon, the destination point of our westward expansion.

Over the course of four films — OLD JOY (2006), WENDY AND LUCY (2008), MEEK’S CUTOFF (2010) and NIGHT MOVES (2013) — Reichardt has drilled down into the fallacies of the Western narrative, exploring the emotional and psychological fallout that occurs when destiny fails to manifest; when the political interests of the elite few subvert the well-being of the honest, hard-working masses who wish to simply keep to themselves as they pursue their own modest vision of life, liberty & happiness.

Oregon may be a large state, but it’s not so large as to sustain a lifetime’s worth of creative exploration. Indeed, after the completion of NIGHT MOVES, Reichardt felt that she had sufficiently “shot out” the Beaver State, and began looking towards alternate vistas as the backdrop for fresh inspiration and a rededication to aesthetic minimalism.

Reichardt would find this fresh backdrop in the state of Montana— more specifically, in the vision of Montana as rendered in the prose of author Maile Meloy.  Until this point, Reichardt and Portland-based novelist Jonathan Raymond had been inseparable collaborators, but Meloy’s ruggedly delicate voice seemed to suggest that Raymond wasn’t the only one plugged into Reichard’s artistic interests.

After reading Meloy’s various collections of short stories, Reichardt found herself drawn to three in particular, and began the tricky process of adapting them to screen without the benefit of a writing partner (perhaps in deference to her relationship with Raymond).

The end result — 2016’s CERTAIN WOMEN — would mark a dramatic leap forward in her artistic development, subsequently revitalizing her position at the forefront of American independent cinema with a soft-spoken, yet incisive, triptych about the sociological fallout that still lingers a century after the closing of the frontier.

The quaint small town of Livingston serves as something of the capital of CERTAIN WOMEN’s emotional geography; it is a hub that connects the disparate narrative strands, if only through psychological means rather than physical.  Like many small cities in rural America, the fundamental makeup of Livingston’s character is changing, having undergone a cultural renaissance as the creative class and families alike remake it to better resemble the hip urban centers whose high cost of living they fled to escape.

One might call it gentrification, although the displacement occurring here is — for now, anyway — mostly existential. CERTAIN WOMEN cuts a wide swath through this setting to arrive at a cross-section of its distinct economic classes.  Rich, poor, or everything in-between, it seems nobody is spared by the ennui that occurs when modernity intrudes on a community otherwise removed from time.

The film’s first section features Laura Dern as Laura, an aggrieved Livingston lawyer battling the below-grade misogyny of a client who doesn’t accept her evaluation regarding the merits of his workplace injury case until he hears it from a male consultant.

Jared Harris plays Fuller, the said client, as emblematic of the perceived victimhood of the rural white working class, masking his inability or unwillingness to adapt to a world he no longer recognizes with a stubborn, unbending, and exclusionary pride. Harris’ sense of victimhood stems what he views as a bureaucratic injustice perpetrated by uncaring corporate interests, even though the insurance papers he signed clearly state that he forfeits his right to sue for additional damages the moment he accepts his workman’s comp.

His world now in shambles, Fuller lashes out with the only action he feels will finally make him heard: breaking into his former employer’s office with a rifle and holding a security guard as his hostage. It falls to Laura to enter the building and defuse the situation, leading to a moment of wounded understanding between two exhausted people, worn out by swimming upstream all their lives.

Dern‘s lived-in performance brings it home, emerging in Fuller’s eyes as the lone voice of reason in a world gone mad. Her wary empathy speaks to the profound truth behind this vignette: we dismiss the maladies of the working class at our own peril— not just because they might seek refuge in desperate, violent acts, but also because the cancers of late capitalism will inevitably metastasize to consume the middle class, too.

CERTAIN WOMEN’s second story finds Reichardt once again collaborating with Michelle Williams, who had previously delivered indelible performances for the director in WENDY AND LUCY and MEEK’S CUTOFF.  Williams’ Gina is cut from an entirely different cloth from those characters, illustrating the particular travails of Montana’s privileged class.

She, her rebellious teenage daughter, and her husband, Ryan (James Le Gros), seem to live an idyllic life of rustic comfort; they’re currently building their dream home, and on the weekends they voluntarily choose to “rough it” in a surprisingly-lavish tent on the land they’ve bought, complete with a television and a queen bed frame.

Of course, money can’t buy happiness, and each spouse has their own secret coping mechanism— cigarettes for Gina, an affair in the city with Dern’s character for Ryan. In a narrative conceit so wispy and interior it would barely even qualify as “narrative” to most audiences, Gina attempts to sort out her ennui by fixating on a pile of sandstone that an elderly neighbor has accumulated on his front lawn.

This isn’t any old sandstone, however— this is authentic sandstone from pioneer days, and nothing less will do when it comes to the materials that will make up their new dream home.  The neighbor ultimately agrees to give it to her, but not without initially exhibiting some resistance.

This instills a twinge of guilt on Gina’s part, making for a hollow victory that forces her, if only for a brief moment, to consider the emotional costs of her crusade for material perfection.  There’s not enough sandstone in Montana to imbue her marriage with the same authenticity she seeks for her home.

Lily Gladstone and Kristen Stewart feature in CERTAIN WOMEN’s third story, which concerns the rather awkward, heavily one-sided friendship between a lonely rancher and a beaten-down night school teacher.  Gladstone delivers a resonant, if subdued, breakout performance as the rancher, who spends her days working in total isolation save for the ranch’s horses and a couple dogs.

On a lark, she follows a group of people inside a local school and unwittingly sits down to a continued education course on teaching for working instructors. The class is taught by Stewart’s Elizabeth Travis, who shuffles in looking frazzled and preoccupied, and proceeds to address the class with a fumbling incompetence.

She’s a recent teaching graduate herself, and this is her first class; she’s so anxious that she has to speak from a stack of pre-prepared notecards. The rancher finds herself oddly enchanted by the gangly, pale Elizabeth, and invites her out to a nearby diner afterwards, where she learns that Elizabeth lives four hours away in Livingston and has taken on the staggering commute despite already working a full-time gig in the city.

In an inspired casting choice, Stewart uses her slouchy frame and weary gaze to her advantage, evidencing a profound wariness of the rancher’s gentle, if obsessive, kindness. Reichardt implies a romantic bent to the rancher’s overtures (Meloy’s original story cast the character as a man), but roots it in a sweet innocence— she’s just looking for a friend, whatever form that might take.

The comparatively-urban Elizabeth, on the other hand, defaults to a lack of interest, if not a profound distrust, of strangers; besides, there’s no time for friends when you’re barely scraping by.  Their unlikely friendship exists in a bubble, floating within the confines of the classroom and the diner.

This bubble pops when the rancher, upon hearing of Elizabeth’s resignation from the night school gig, takes the bold step of driving down to Livingston to visit her unannounced. The resulting display of one-sided, unrequited interest, while supremely awkward to witness, serves to reinforce the special aura of the moments they shared in the diner— moments that Elizabeth is likely to soon forget while the rancher will treasure them forever.

After dipping her toe into the waters of digital filmmaking with NIGHT MOVESCERTAIN WOMEN finds Reichardt rededicating herself anew to the warm grit of Super 16mm celluloid.  Working once again with cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt, Reichardt leans into the earthy grain inherent to her format of choice.

There’s a distinct weight to every 1.85:1 frame, rendered in gloomy autumnal light that casts a somber glow over minimalistic yet thoroughly-considered compositions.  Observant, patient camerawork takes on something of a painterly quality, especially in wide landscape shots that dwarf any human figures therein.

From the early image of Dern and Le Gros’ characters getting dressed in separate, non-adjoining rooms after their illicit tryst, to the closing one of the rancher quietly going about her work, each frame is designed to emphasize the claustrophobic loneliness of the former frontier.

Big Sky Country isn’t liberating so much as it is constricting, with the weight of a sprawling horizon bearing down on inhabitants who are too busy making ends meet to absorb the rugged beauty that surrounds them. Returning composer Jeff Grace echoes this sentiment with his spare original score, limited almost exclusively to the strumming of a melancholy guitar during the end credits.

Reichardt’s decision to forego score for the bulk of her edit reinforces the dull ache at the heart of CERTAIN WOMEN’s story— there is no respite from the cold grind on display, dramatic or otherwise.  There is only the brutal beauty and weathered grit of hard country.

In many ways, CERTAIN WOMEN plays like a definitive work within Reichardt’s career, optimizing the strengths of her particular artistic voice.  Her core support system remains intact, boasting the participation of longtime producing partners Neil Kopp, Anish Savjani and executive producers Larry Fessenden and Todd Haynes.

Bolstered by the kind of creative symbiosis that’s fostered over five films and two decades, Reichardt confidently deploys her spare aesthetic towards the further deconstruction of blue-collar Americana’s mythmaking.  Rooting our perspective on the sidelines of mainstream society is critical in this regard.

It’s tempting to label Reichardt as a feminist filmmaker on account that she is a woman herself who makes art sympathetic to that aim, but upon closer inspection one might recognize the broader humanist bent of her worldview— although it does suggest something rather profound about the state of American sexual politics that the exploration of marginalized populations often requires a feminine paradigm.

Rural communities tend to reinforce this dynamic, driven by conservative ideologies that celebrate the domestic traditions of womanhood at the inadvertent expense of a fuller personhood. CERTAIN WOMEN certainly nails this conceit in regards to the central characters played by Dern, Stewart, and Gladstone (and to a lesser extent, the more-liberated Williams), but Reichardt’s political sensitivities allow her to sketch a much broader picture with the slightest of strokes.

Even seemingly-throwaway shots — like a pair of Native Americans from the nearby reservation, decked out in full traditional regalia while ordering Chinese from a mall food court, or Gladstone’s character wandering the lively streets of Livingston after dark and looking in on a boozy economic prosperity she’s been locked out of — resonate with a profound understanding of the constant friction between the classes.

CERTAIN WOMEN speaks to the hard truth at the core of Reichardt’s artistic agenda: the celebrated “timelessness” of rural, blue collar America is rapidly eroding, consigned to the reliquaries of the 20th century in the wake of globalization, industrial automation, and runaway income inequality decimating the middle class.  The promise of the American dream has been replaced by the cruel reality that it is no longer available to all.

The aura of melancholy surrounding CERTAIN WOMEN only deepens as the credits roll, with a dedication to Reichardt’s beloved, now-departed dog Lucy.  One gets the sense that this is a major development in Reichardt’s career— after all, Lucy’s carefree, loping gait had been such a charming and integral aspect of both OLD JOY and WENDY AND LUCY.

Indeed, CERTAIN WOMEN clearly marks the beginning of a new chapter for Reichardt.  The first film of hers to return to Sundance since her debut with RIVER OF GRASSCERTAIN WOMEN also stands as the first of Reichardt’s films to crack $1 million at the box office (it’s almost inconceivable that Reichardt’s profile is so high when her films financially perform so low, but that’s a conundrum better left to the bean counters— we should be grateful that art is so clearly prevailing over commerce).

Despite the clear line of stylistic continuity running through her earlier work to now, CERTAIN WOMEN nonetheless feels different: more assured, more mature.  Granted, her work has always felt mature, but now Reichardt seems to be refining her artistic persona with the weathered patina one typically accumulates over the span of a lifetime.

As such, her films are older & wiser — but their politics haven’t strayed from her progressive roots, even as she masters the cinematic capture of rural, working-class American’s heart and soul.  Her unique strain of soulful, gritty sensitivity is set to continue— at current, she’s working on a new film called FIRST COW, which reportedly will see Reichardt return once more to her (and my) beloved Oregon.

Doggedly independent to the very last, Reichardt stands poised to further bridge the emotional divide between Blue and Red ideologies during a time of great communication breakdown.  In the process, she’ll undoubtedly continue to carve out her growing legacy as a soft-spoken storyteller whose voice nonetheless reverberates across the cinematic landscape.


Author Cameron Beyl is the creator of The Directors Series and an award-winning filmmaker of narrative features, shorts, and music videos.  His work has screened at numerous film festivals and museums, in addition to being featured on tastemaking online media platforms like Vice Creators Project, Slate, Popular Mechanics and Indiewire. To see more of Cameron’s work – go to directorsseries.net.

THE DIRECTORS SERIES is an educational collection of video and text essays by filmmaker Cameron Beyl exploring the works of contemporary and classic film directors. ——>Watch the Directors Series Here <———

Ultimate Guide To Sam Mendes And His Directing Techniques

AMERICAN BEAUTY (1999)

Some directors share their development with the public over the course of a lifetime.  More rare, however, is the director who arrives on the scene fully formed, seemingly coming out of nowhere.  Sam Mendes is just such a director, and in twelve short years, he has already cultivated an impressive body of work that will live on in the cinematic consciousness for quite some time.

My first experience with a Mendes film was 2002’s ROAD TO PERDITION.  I sought out the film after seeing a trailer for it in the theatre, having been incredibly compelled by its imagery and tone.  I remember being enamored by the artistry and mastery of craft on display, and had no idea it was only Mendes’ second feature.

My awareness of Mendes as a director wouldn’t mature until college, when a freshman creative writing class had 1999’s AMERICAN BEAUTY on the syllabus.  It was only after seeing that film that I realized Mendes was a significant force to be reckoned with in cinema.

Filmmaking comes as something of a second career for Mendes, who already had an impressive body of work under his belt in the English theater scene.  A graduate of Peterhouse, Cambridge, Mendes became known as an accomplished stage director, helming productions like CABARET, OLIVER!, and GYPSY, while attracting seasoned and highly-respected stars of the stage and screen.  It was only a matter of time until cinema came knocking.

Due to his background in the theater, there’s a distinct “stage”-y character to his film direction, as if the edges of the frame were just another proscenium wall.  Character and story are front-and-center, with the immediacy of theater’s live performance, but with none of the showboating or exaggeration.

His films are intensely personal, subtle, and delicate, yet strong in their convictions and dramaturgy.  It’s hard to discern exactly who his cinematic influences are, if only because it’s clear that he draws on a entirely different set of influences from another medium to inform his direction.

Stanley Kubrick and Mike Nichols seem like safe bets, but only because he draws from them almost unilaterally for very specific projects.  His own style is more formalist, understated, and classical.  Like Kubrick, Mendes is very precise and economical.  Like Nichols, he revels in character and the natural humorous moments that occur, in addition to the serious stuff.

Mendes is one of the lucky few filmmakers who was lauded with the highest industry honors on his first time out.  He had previous experience in directing for the screen, helming television adaptions for CABARET (1993), and COMPANY (1996), but 1999’s AMERICAN BEAUTY was his first legitimately cinematic excursion.

Springing from the mind of screenwriter Alan Ball, AMERICAN BEAUTY is many things.  It’s a phenomenon hailing from humble beginnings.  It’s a dark satire on American suburban ennui.  It’s a coming-of-age story about the loss of innocence.  It’s a cautionary tale about the dangers of temptation.

It’s a brooding murder mystery.  There’s a lot of themes at work, but Mendes masterfully blends it all together into a tone that’s appropriate and cohesive.  For me, the most resonant theme in the film is the regression of traditional masculinity.

The film was part of a growing chorus that bemoaned the cultural castration of man during the late 90’s; films like David Fincher’s FIGHT CLUB (1999) and Mike Judge’s OFFICE SPACE(1999) featured similar working stiffs experiencing a radical reawakening of manhood.

The threat to conventional notions of what it means to be a man are present everywhere in the story: a sexless marriage, repressed homosexual desires, the impotence that comes with having to be a role model, the gay couple just trying to live a normal life next door.  AMERICAN BEAUTY , for me personally, is about the loss and reclamation of masculinity in all its forms.

Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) has been in a state of sedation for as long as he can remember.  The highlight of his day is his daily masturbation session in the shower.  The quality of his day spirals downward from there, from his soul-crushingly bland sales job, to his increasing invisibility to his wife and daughter at home.

He sleepwalks through life, having accepted the fact that this is his life now, and his best days are behind him.  However, he experiences a radical midlife rejuvenation through his sexual fantasies about his daughter’s seductive friend (Mena Suvari), and the freedom he feels after being fired from his job.  The story is framed by Lester’s voiceover narration, which provides a wry commentary on the proceedings as well as gives the film its narrative urgency when he announces that he’ll be dead in a year.

Indeed, it’s the post-death point of view that is one of the film’s most striking and soulful elements.  The film strives for a realization of the beauty that exists just beyond the veil of reality, beyond what we can see.  It’s hinted at in one of the film’s most infamous sequences: video footage of a plastic bag dancing in the wind while a young man remarks at how it’s the most beautiful thing he’s ever seen.

Sure, it’s been mocked within an inch of its life in the 10+ years since its release, but it’s hard not to be haunted by the quiet intensity of the moment.  This invisible, yet tangible, grace and order to the seemingly chaotic universe is the heart of the story, evidenced by the film’s tagline: “look closer…”

Mendes is known for getting career-best performances from his actors, and AMERICAN BEAUTY starts off very strongly in that regard.  As the emasculated, burnt-out Lester Burnham, Kevin Spacey took home the Oscar for Best Actor.  The character is very much a Willy Loman, DEATH OF A SALESMAN-type who expresses regret over the life he’s lived.

His redemption lies in a recapturing of youth and all its trappings: rebellion, sexual obsession, drug use, etc.  Lester’s journey is incredibly compelling to watch, and Spacey’s performance is one for the cinematic history books.  As Lester’s wife, Carolyn, Annette Bening is the spitting image of the frustrated suburban housewife.

As the family’s primary breadwinner, she feels a lot of pressure to succeed in her job as a real estate agent.  Every inch of her, from her pantsuits to her Hilary Clinton-style haircut, exudes the powerful late-90’s woman image.  However, despite her projections of success, she has incredible doubts about herself that have taken a terrible toll on her marriage.  Bening makes Carolyn sympathetic, despite a role that frequently calls for her to be “the bad guy”.

The supporting cast is filled out with veteran character actors who all threaten to steal the show in their own right.  As Lester and Carolyn’s teenage daughter Jane, former child actress Thora Birch is adolescent anxiety incarnate.

This was her first real “grown-up” role, and she embraces it entirely by laying herself bare before the audience (sometimes literally).  Wes Bentley is haunting as the reclusive, aggressively insightful Ricky Fitts.  His role is crucial to the movie, as it is the fulcrum on which both Jane and Lester’s character arcs pivot.

He is also the conduit for the film’s central theme of “beauty inherent in the mundane”, and monologues that can potentially come off as pretentious are performed with a wide-eyed wonder.  As the seductress Angela, Mena Suvari gives herself entirely to the admittedly silly sexual fantasies Lester has about her.

She pulls off a balanced blend of the naive innocent and conceited sexual manipulator.  She’s clearly living in an overcompensating fantasy of her own making, but even she reclaims her innocence in the end.  (And in a strange connection to 1999’s AMERICAN PIE, which Suvari starred in, look for a silent cameo appearance by a pre-fame John Chu as a prospective house buyer.)

Any film with Peter Gallagher in the cast is a blessing, and AMERICAN BEAUTY features this exquisite lion of a man in spades.  As the silver fox “Real Estate King”, Buddy Kane, Gallagher effortlessly captures the confident masculinity that Lester had been so desperately grasping for.

His hysterical sex scene with Bening is one of the standout moments of the film, but underlying the humor of his character is the very real notion that oftentimes the image and projection of success belies a very empty, unrewarding core.  That said, Gallagher’s Buddy Kane is probably my favorite character in the entire film.

Of course, any discussion about AMERICAN BEAUTY’s cast wouldn’t be complete without the powerful turn by Chris Cooper as Colonel Frank Fitz, a hardass military man with repressed homosexual longings.  His character is fascinating to watch, as he at first literally trembles with a vitriolic hate towards gays.

We’re quick to write him off as another homophobic right-wing dinosaur, but like the film’s tagline implores, when we look closer at him, we find that his homophobic rantings are an expression of the crippling shame he feels towards his own urges.

His character arc is compellingly rendered in a vulnerable moment with Lester– a moment that will have fatal consequences for them both.  It was a career-making performance for Cooper, and he continues to be one of the most compelling character actors working today.

Despite such a strong cast delivering career-best performances, the star of the show here really is Mendes.  With a subtle, understated direction evoking the dark corners of a Norman Rockwell painting, Mendes crafts a haunting experience that lingers in the mind.

Working with legendary Director of Photography Conrad Hall, Mendes conjures up a midcentury aesthetic in the trappings of modern culture (it could be argued that the suburbs as an institution are an idyllic distillation of 1950’s sentiments about lifestyle and the American Dream).

The filmic, Anamorphic image utilizes a natural level of contrast, with even, neutral tones and a saturated color palette.  The color red is used to striking effect throughout the film, acting as a visual metaphor for vitality and passion.

This can be seen in the roses around the house, in Lester’s fantasies about Angela, Carolyn’s dress in the final scene, the garage lights, and finally, in the blood dripping from the bullet wound in Lester’s head.    It should be noted that the film’s title refers to a specific breed of rose famous for its bold, alluring color as well as its tendency to reveal an underlying rot upon closer inspection.

It’s a fantastic metaphor for the suburbs as a dramatically relevant setting, as well as the crippling decay underneath fake smiles and friendly waves. However, Mendes and Hall don’t stick exclusively to this visual look.  Lester’s fantasy sequences are rendered in a more stylized contrast, with natural lighting that’s slightly more intense, and colors that are slightly more concentrated.

These sequences allow the film to revel in some truly arresting imagery, like Suvari lying naked amongst a bed of roses on the ceiling.  The film also switches to black and white towards the end, as Lester reminisces on happier times in his life that have long since past.  It’s a poetic, evocative rendering of that old “life flashing before your eyes” yarn, and strengthens the emotional catharsis of the film’s denouement.

The camerawork is precise and mechanical, observing the action with an objective gaze that places the focus on the performances.  Mendes and Hall keep the camera confined to a tripod, mainly utilizing a dolly whenever the camera is moved.  The dolly shots are well thought-out and gracefully executed, bringing a subtle power to the subjects of the shot.

Composition is traditional, balanced, and artful– at many times, evoking a proscenium-style staging (such as the dinner scenes).  Mendes utilizes composition as an overt, as well as subtle, storytelling tool throughout.  The scene where Lester is fired comes to mind– Mendes frames the shots as a way to silently communicate power dynamics.

Lester’s boss is shot close-up and from below, giving him an authoritative presence, while Lester is seen from above, almost dwarfed by the scale of the room.  No flashy techniques here, just good, old-fashioned visual storytelling.

It should be noted that the camera only goes handheld during certain instances– namely, when Ricky’s video footage is cut into the story.  Thankfully, Mendes uses actual, interlaced video and embraces the flaws of the format to make the presentation more realistic.

The film opens with such a sequence, throwing the film into mystery when Thora Birch’s character addresses her desire to kill Lester to the camera.  Of course, we later learn that in the context of the moment, she was joking playfully, but it’s a compelling way to start a film and shows a great degree of confidence on Mendes’ part.

The music of the film is as iconic as its story and performances.  Composing legend Thomas Newman provides a minimalist, percussive score that’s extremely haunting in its simplicity.  Working primarily with xylophones and piano chords, Newman allows the music to complement the visuals without ever overpowering them, yet at the same time creates compositions that linger in the mind.

During the film’s fantasy sequences,  Newman utilizes an arrhythmic clash of cymbals to create a seductive, otherworldly-aura.  AMERICAN BEAUTY also includes a variety of source music that reads like a survey of popular twentieth century music.

Carolyn is defined by her love for Frank Sinatra and his ilk, which she plays repeatedly during family dinner time in a bid to project some semblance of wealth, success, and sophistication.  Conversely, Lester experiences his reawakening to the sounds of classic 80’s rock like Rick Springfield.  The film closes with Elliot Smith covering The Beatles’ “Because”, which brings everything full circle in a contemplative tone.

When AMERICAN BEAUTY was released in 1999, it was showered with accolades, most notably the Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Original Screenplay, and Best Cinematography.  Twelve years on, the film has aged well, despite it being firmly rooted in the post-corporate, dotcom boom days of the late 90’s.

Alan Ball’s dialogue comes off as on the nose at many points, but it can be argued that it works within his satirical intentions.  Indeed, the film is very, darkly funny in both overt and subtle ways.  For instance, Carolyn drives an SUV– but why?  She only has one kid, and driving around the suburbs isn’t exactly “off-roading”.

It’s a great jab at that late 90’s/early aught’s notion that driving a big SUV projected success and status.  I saw it firsthand myself when I was growing up, as even my own family fell prey to the SUV hysteria.  Ball’s satirical intentions are also present in Angela’s character-summarizing line: “There’s nothing worse in life than being ordinary”.

In theory, I agree with the sentiment, but the film is about finding the extraordinary within the ordinary; Angela is too focused on surface beauty to see it.  Understandably, it’s obscenely rare to knock a masterpiece out of the park on your first time at bat, but Mendes has managed to do just that.

AMERICAN BEAUTY is the kind of film that many directors work their entire life towards making, and most never even come close.  Mendes’ debut is a bold character piece that implores its audience to actively engage in the philosophical debate at the heart of the story.

It hooks us with the