Top Ten Directors – Part Two
For Part Two of our tour through my favourite filmmakers, I turn to that great divisive figure who attracts adoration and revilement in equal measure; he who has pushed the boundaries of film technology and created some of the most indelible images of recent cinema history; he who has been the target of great scorn and derision for his crass and offensive cinematic crimes against humanity. I refer, of course, to David Cronenberg. Sorry, wait, David Cameron. No, no, that’s wrong – James Cameron. Got there in the end.
James Cameron is probably the director whose work I enjoy most consistently. It is very hard for me to pop in a DVD of any Cameron film just to watch a bit of it, because I end up watching more, and more, and before you know it I’ve watched half the film (more if the scene I particularly wanted to see was early on). I think this is central to why I love his work – the flow of images and continuity is so fluid that I want to be carried along with it. For me, that is one of the chief joys of cinema. Cameron has (not unreasonably) attracted much criticism for his simplistic plots, archetypal characters and (apparently) bad dialogue, suggesting that he is not a sophisticated writer of stories. He is, however, a superbly cinematic storyteller, demonstrated by his constantly roving camera, smooth editing and highly detailed mise-en-scene. As I’ve mentioned before, plot, character and dialogue are not major concerns for me – I am an intensely visual cinematic consumer and if the visual elements work for me, I am a happy viewer. I won’t say that Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) in Avatar is a three-dimensional character, or that Jack Dawson’s (Leonardo DiCaprio) line “you’re the most amazingly, astoundingly, wonderful girl, woman, that I’ve ever known” is the height of romantic poetry (but then again, Jack isn’t exactly a poet, he’s an uneducated street artist, so at least his dialogue is consistent). But these are not problems for me – Cameron makes absolutely gorgeous films that explore themes which interest me, including gender, vision, technophobia/philia and age-old questions of identity and humanity.
Picking my favourite Cameron film would be tricky, and I have posted on both Titanic (1997) and Avatar (2009) previously (twice in the case of the latter), which I adore and admire in equal measure. Therefore, if I were to introduce a newbie to a Cameron film, where to start? Despite his prominence, Cameron is hardly prolific, having directed only eight films in a career spanning over thirty years. Nor is he happy just directing, as Cameron has written all of his films and produced most of them as well, as well as editing a few. As his career has progressed, the budgets as well as the box office receipts of his films have expanded exponentially, and this has led to sometimes justified descriptions of his films as baggy, bloated and excessive. This started with The Abyss (1989), and continued through Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991), True Lies (1994), Titanic and Avatar. While Cameron’s films have steadily progressed in terms of technological innovation and jaw-dropping spectacle, it is easy to be cynical about such grandeur. Therefore, as introduction to Cameron’s oeuvre, I would pick the film he regards as his debut, having disowned Piranhas 2: The Spawning (1979). The introduction Cameron film is, of course, The Terminator (1984).
Shot for a mere $6.5 million, The Terminator is a lean, mean entertainment machine, that delivers blistering action sequences and a stark, tech-noir vision. It is also unremittingly bleak, which also makes it unusual in Cameron’s oeuvre. From The Abyss onwards, hope and optimism is a recurring theme, and even Aliens (1986) is a (just about) successful survival story. But in The Terminator, there is no escape, the trope of relentless pursuit extending beyond the eponymous cyborg. Brad Fiedel’s electronic score continually returns to the ‘Terminator Theme’, its percussive bass line ostinato expressing the relentless advance of omnipresent technology. Most tellingly, the theme returns in the final scene of the film, after the Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger) has itself been terminated. Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) is really the central character, around whom the entire narrative revolves, pursued across time by both the cybernetic assassin and her saviour/lover Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn). But even after their deaths, Sarah left with John Connor growing inside her, the relentless pursuit continues, the Terminator theme playing as Sarah drives towards storm clouds. These represent the coming apocalypse, the war between humans and machines which is still coming, relentless and unstoppable. Subsequent instalments and Cameron’s career may have provided more hopeful futures, but The Terminator remains as pitiless and remorseless as its eponymous character, truly the nightmare that won’t end.
I recently had a conversation with a friend about recent films that we had different responses to, Kick-Ass 2 (Jeff Wadlow, 2013) and The Wolverine (James Mangold, 2013). I found both of these disappointing and my friend thought they were alright. In the case of Kick-Ass 2, my fellow conversant knew that it would not surprise or shock them like the first, and that the only way it could have done would be to change the style of the film. Therefore, the film was enjoyable as an extension to the first, but nothing more. The absence of Big Daddy (Nicolas Cage) was felt, and my friend commented that the story did not have enough suspense, unlike Matthew Vaughn’s original.
Both of us agreed that Hit Girl/Mindy McCready (Chloe Grace Moretz) was the best thing in Kick-Ass 2, so for me, it was disappointing that she was underused and spending time becoming a ‘regular girl’, only for her to abandon that and re-embrace Hit Girl. It is a common trope in superhero narratives that heroes renounce their super identities (see Superman II [Richard Lester, 1980], Spider-Man 2 [Sam Raimi, 2004], The Dark Knight Rises [Christopher Nolan, 2012]), but it tends to be more traumatic and a crisis of identity. Had Kick-Ass 2 focused on that element, it would have been more effective, even as an identity crisis within high school. High school is fertile ground for dramas about identity and finding oneself, so a high school action comedy about Hit Girl would have a lot of potential.
Unfortunately, with Mindy/Hit Girl side-lined, Kick-Ass 2 lacks not only suspense but emphasis, wavering between Dave Lizewski/Kick-Ass and his ongoing ambition, as well as Colonel Stars and Stripes’ (Jim Carrey) Justice Forever band, and the increasing villainy of Chris D’Amico/The Motherfucker (Christopher Mintz-Plasse). The film therefore lacks focus and a coherent theme, essentially trying to play off the original’s feature of having superheroes swear and get badly hurt. But in Kick-Ass, that was a point rather than a gimmick. In Kick-Ass 2, it’s just a gimmick. There are some good sequences, including the final battle and indeed most scenes involving Mother Russia (Olga Kurkulina), and I liked the suggestion of a romance between Mindy and Dave, but overall, the film felt lightweight and uncertain of its meaning.
It used to be the case that sequels were never as good as the originals. Superhero films especially buck that trend, with Spider-Man 2, Blade II (Guillermo Del Toro, 2002), X-2 (Bryan Singer, 2003), The Dark Knight, maybe even Fantastic 4: Rise of the Silver Surfer (Tim Story, 2007) improving what came before. Sadly, it seems that Kick-Ass 2 is what we used to expect from sequels.
The Wolverine is another matter. The X-Men franchise has been very patchy, at its best striking a balance between personal dramas, thrilling action and wider ramifications. The wider ramifications was the major missing feature from The Wolverine, as it is the most intimate and personal film of the franchise thus far. Director James Mangold has a talent for intimate, down-to-earth drama, whether that be the biopic melodrama of Walk The Line (2005) or the terse psychological thrills of Identity (2003). The Wolverine demonstrates that he can still deliver the necessary action spectacle (although perhaps that should be credited more to second unit director, editor and the special effects team), but despite the bullet train sequence and the final battle with Silver Samurai, The Wolverine is remarkably unremarkable, because there seems to be little reason for what is going on. It is essentially the further adventures of Logan, revisiting an old friend, making new ones including a requisite new romance, and I was left thinking ‘So what?’ The spectral presence of Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) was unconvincing, and the most moving moment was Logan’s early communion with a wounded bear. It could have been refreshing to see Logan more vulnerable, like those mentioned above it is an instance of the superhero losing their powers, but the trope of him having to adapt to being hurt was not given enough variety, swiftly becoming repetitive.
To make matters worse, the villain of The Wolverine was very uninteresting, Viper (Svetlana Khodchenkova) little more than a mutant riff on the vicious beauty, which was done far more interestingly with Mystique (Rebecca Romijn/Jennifer Lawrence) and Emma Frost (January Jones) in previous installments. Perhaps if she had been in a position to fight Logan herself, like Lady Deathstrike (Kelly Hu) in X-2, it might have been interesting, but instead she is far from a worthy adversary. The final clash between Wolverine and Silver Samurai was flashy but felt more like an obligation than an organic development, while the sudden reappearance of the bone claws was overly convenient.
Overall, The Wolverine felt lightweight, nothing attached to what was going on. For me, the X-Men films have been most enjoyable when the stakes are high, which they have been previously:
X-Men – the irradiation of the world leaders
X-2 – the death of all mutants and, subsequently, the death of all humans
X-Men: The Last Stand – the ‘cure’ for mutation
X-Men Origins: Wolverine – more personal, but still a campaign against mutant-kind
X-Men: First Class – the Cuban missile crisis and World War Three
The Wolverine – dying man wants to live forever and will steal Logan’s ability to heal so that he becomezzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz
The stakes of The Wolverine are too low and, therefore, the film lacks drama. Ironically, the biggest problem with The Wolverine is the best thing in it – the mid-credits sequences featuring Professor X and Magneto. I had read that Patrick Stewart was going to cameo, but I was not expecting Ian McKellen to show up as well. In addition, the foreshadowing of Trask Industries is another nice detail, demonstrating economic storytelling and raising expectations. I eagerly anticipate X-Men: Days of Future Past (Singer, 2014), combining the elements established in earlier instalments into something both new and familiar. But when the best thing in a film is a scene with no connection to what went on before, then the film as a whole is clearly doing something wrong.