Thursday, April 17, 2014

I'm way behind #19: Ms. 45 (Abel Ferrara)

I stopped mentioning my admiration of Abel Ferrara's films in the company of friends and acquaintances years ago. Too often, the simple mention of his name elicited groans, while my favorite Ferrara film, Bad Lieutenant, was dismissed with a single phrase ("Ugh! Harvey Keitel's penis!"), and I took it personally. (I always take it personally. My shit list is longer than twelve Bibles.) I can understand some of the resistance. Ferrara is not afraid to be uneven, messy, embarrassing, indulgent, pretentious, filthy, naive, silly, and, on rare occasions, boring. Even my favorite Ferrara films have awkward scenes, cringe-inducing moments. But just as often, Ferrara's films are full of memorable images, wildness, freedom, beauty, committed performance, intensity, transcendent strangeness, faith, humor, energy, thoughtfulness, and a fragile stillness. Ferrara's strengths and weaknesses share internal organs and blood. You can't separate them from each other, and the embarrassment you'll sometimes feel is just the fee required to take the ride. These are honest films, made by a guy who doesn't lie about himself. He may exaggerate, he may digress, he may go down some dead ends sometimes, but he doesn't lie, and he doesn't condescend. He's right there with his characters and locations, not above them, not below them, not laughing at them, not talking down to them, not using them to make arguments about how we should or shouldn't live our lives. He gets his hands dirty.
Ms. 45 is Ferrara's second feature film (he directed several shorts and a porn film before making features), released in 1981 and out of print for years on video. Drafthouse Films restored and rereleased the film, first in theaters, then on Blu-ray and DVD. I'm glad more people have the chance to see it, because I think it's one of Ferrara's strongest, most consistent, most fascinating films and maybe his most successful marriage of exploitation and art, with a pretty amazing central performance from the late Zoe Tamerlis, or Zoe Lund, as she was also often billed.
Like another volatile New York cocktail of art and exploitation, Taxi Driver, Ms. 45 is a marriage of sensibilities between four strong personalities: a director, a screenwriter, an actor, and a composer. In Taxi Driver's case, it's Martin Scorsese, Paul Schrader, Robert De Niro, and Bernard Herrmann (who died the day he finished the score). In Ms. 45, Ferrara's compadres are Nicholas St. John, screenwriter on almost every Ferrara film between the years 1971 and 1996 (the year he left movies behind to purposefully disappear into anonymity -- Internet rumors find him as either a Catholic monk or an eighth grade teacher in the New York City public school system), Zoe Tamerlis/Lund in the leading role (her first), and Joe Delia, supplying the tense, punky, saxophone-heavy score.
A feminist response to the cycle of rape-revenge and vigilante films then in vogue, Ms. 45 maintains a consistency of purpose, tone, mood, and atmosphere while doing such varied things as parodying and critiquing the Death Wish and I Spit on Your Grave-style series of films, attacking the way men treat women as commodities, sexual objects, and fragile figurines, creating a visually expressive study of a sympathetic but disturbing character, capturing an impression of the alluring seductiveness, exotic strangeness, and sleazy, menacing hellscape of early '80s Manhattan, and satisfying its entertainment requirements as a grindhouse thriller. Ferrara's second film, it looks and feels more personal and accomplished than the more conventional handful of features and TV projects he completed in the nine years immediately following it, until 1990's King of New York saw him back at peak dreamy strangeness.
(SPOILER WARNING: I'm going to be talking about some important scenes in the movie, so if you don't want any story details spoiled, you may want to step off the train here.)
Tamerlis/Lund is Thana, a mute seamstress in a wannabe high-fashion firm in Manhattan. People make mistaken assumptions about her, condescend to her, and feel the need to protect her because she can't speak for herself and because she's shy, but she's a far more complicated, interesting person than her peers and boss notice. The movie does a great job in the first ten minutes of connecting the audience to Thana, creating a convincing, complex work atmosphere, and fixing the routine of her average day, its various locations (work, grocery store, apartment) and their spatial relationships. On her way home from work one day, Thana is grabbed from behind and pulled into an alley by a masked rapist (played by Ferrara). The rape scene is far from exploitative. While other rape-revenge films dwell on the act, relishing it and getting off on the sexual violence while pretending to be horrified, Ms. 45 keeps the scene short and focuses almost entirely on Thana's face, never letting the camera take the rapist's or leering observer's point of view. Instead, the audience shares her fear, pain, and trauma.
After her attacker flees, Thana slowly regains her composure and walks home. She surprises a thief who has broken into her apartment while she was at work. The thief, unaware of what just happened to her, takes advantage of the situation and attempts to rape Thana. Facing her second sexual assault in a matter of minutes, Thana gains control of the situation, murdering her assailant when he lets his guard down. Thana cuts up her attacker's body in the bathtub, placing the parts in garbage bags she stores in her refrigerator, and keeping his .45. Though suffering from nightmares and hallucinations about her first attacker, Thana takes the gun and hits the streets, murdering lechers, catcallers, sexist creeps, and potential rapists. These scenes have a darkly comic edge, with Ferrara and St. John populating New York with only terrible men, no good ones, and Tamerlis/Lund gender-reversing the Charles Bronson role in meting out justice to as many of them as she can. Tamerlis/Lund's expressive face, gestures, and movements fill the screen, her charismatic, dialogue-free performance creating a fuller, more complex character than most movies where the leads never shut up.
As the film progresses, Thana's actions become more troubling, creating a rift between viewer and character and a critique of our desires as an audience for violent revenge. Thana begins targeting all men indiscriminately, no longer giving them the chance to prove themselves misogynists, and she slowly changes from avenger to predator. In a spectacularly cinematic finale that skillfully marries performance, image, sound, and formal technique, Thana opens fire on every man at a Halloween costume party while dressed as a nun. The surviving men jump for cover, run, and hide, and it's a woman who ends Thana's descent into murderous revenge.
Ferrara's film is carefully composed and grandly expressive, raw and strange, an articulation of anger against the dehumanizing effects of violence, misogyny, and revenge that nevertheless understands the visceral thrills inherent in screen violence and the anticipation of violence, a film that is equal parts funny, horrifying, exciting, and painful. It still looks brand new.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

I'm way behind #18: Bastards (Claire Denis)

While skimming a few recent interviews with Claire Denis on the Internet, I was probably more shocked than I should have been to read that the writer/director was 67 years old. I knew her career trajectory. I knew that Denis didn't direct her first film until she was in her early forties, in the late 1980s, and I knew she'd been an assistant director and occasional casting director for 15 years before making her own films. (She was the casting director on Andrei Tarkovsky's The Sacrifice and worked as an assistant director for Dusan Makavejev, Eduardo de Gregorio, Costa-Gavras, Clive Donner, Jim Jarmusch, and Wim Wenders, among others.) Her age shouldn't have jumped up and bit me so fiercely, but there are a few reasons why it did. Generally, her films have so much energy, creativity, curiosity, and openness to experience they feel like the work of someone much younger (minus the naivete). More personally and selfishly, her age made me realize there will be a finite number of Claire Denis films, and a finite Claire Denis. She is at or near the top of my list of favorite living filmmakers, and I want her to keep making films forever, or at least as long as I'm still breathing.
Denis has astonishing range, but her body of work is cohesive, connected, and recognizably hers. Though the films are quite different from each other in subject matter, genre, tone, mood, and intensity, they share common structural and narrative traits, particularly their elliptical narratives and an emphasis on character over plot. Denis often begins her films in the middle of the action, thrusting the audience into the characters' lives before we know who they are, how they are related to each other, and why those relationships are important. Denis often ends scenes before giving her audience a firm grasp on them, and she plays with chronology without the typical markers viewers rely on for navigation when a director plays with the timeline. This can be initially disorienting, with a narrative that can be fragmentary and slippery, but an open-minded, active viewer will be rewarded in ways beyond conventional filmmaking's limited pleasures. I find myself more engaged and invested in Denis' films and characters than in the work of most other contemporary filmmakers, and I'm endlessly fascinated by their enduring mysteries. I leave the theater energized, alive with the possibilities of cinema and never drained, even when her films are emotionally distressing or disturbing (and Bastards is most definitely both of these things).
I'm afraid my description of Denis' films in the previous paragraph may make them sound like work, like a chore, or like that horrible phrase writer Dan Kois coined to describe his own limited imagination, "cultural vegetables," (i.e., art that is good for you but not pleasurable). Denis' films are full of pleasures, the pleasures of faces, bodies, landscapes, music, movement, light, shadow, vivid color, human behavior, storytelling, acting, and the ways these elements interact with each other. She knows how to look, really look, at almost everything, and her films value sensuousness and detached, careful, nonjudgmental observation over the sentimentality, bombast, easily defined characterizations, and manufactured emotions of mainstream filmmaking. Denis' characters are white, black, old, middle-aged, young, straight, gay, male, female, wealthy, middle class, poor, immigrants, colonizers, natives, rural, urban, leaders, subordinates, abusers, abused, open, withdrawn, violent, and kind, and Denis watches them all with the same detached, detailed understanding. I can't think of another director so capable of creating and observing so many different lives without a false note or a blind spot.
Setting aside the Denis films I haven't yet seen (No Fear, No Die; U.S. Go Home; The Intruder), I'm left with an amazing body of work: Chocolat (not the Johnny Depp movie), a semi-autobiographical, leisurely paced, sun-baked drama about a French girl's childhood in colonial Cameroon, with an emphasis on her interactions with the family's houseboy and its parallels and dissonances with France's colonial relationship to Africa; I Can't Sleep, a strange, exciting blend of eccentric ensemble drama and thriller about several different lives in Paris converging due to their mutual connections to a serial killer (or killers) of elderly women; Nenette et Boni, a love letter to Paris and young people with elements of drama, comedy, and suspense about a young man's reconnection with his estranged teenage half-sister after the death of their mother; Beau Travail, an avant-garde adaptation of Melville's Billy Budd with a complex visual structure that combines Denis' female-gaze aesthetic appreciation of the male figure's physicality and movement, the homoeroticism underpinning masculine ritual and macho conflict, the ghostly process of decolonization, and the complexities of male friendship and respect with one of the most incredible, unexpected, and ecstatic final scenes I've had the fortune to witness; Trouble Every Day, a violent, bloody, confrontational, and very physical take on the vampire myth and the horror movie, full of memorable, beautiful images; Friday Night, a deceptively light comedic romance about Paris, music, traffic jams, first dates, new attractions, and lust; 35 Shots of Rum, a finely detailed character study of the friendship between a widow and his adult daughter and the fellow apartment building residents, on-again/off-again romantic partners, and coworkers that dip in and out of their daily lives, inspired by the great Japanese filmmaker Yasujiro Ozu; and White Material, another look at the messy end of French colonialism in Africa, this time in the guise of a violent, neo-noir thriller. I love every one of these films.
Which brings me to Bastards. This may be the toughest Denis film to love, because what it shows us is so painful and dark, and because it denies us any light. Denis has called this film a response to the parade of films in which characters commit terrible acts of violence, abuse, and atrocity but find redemption in the end. Denis says redemption is an invention of the movies, and she wanted to make a film that challenged that trope. Oh man, is Bastards that film.
But before these ideas even took shape, Denis just wanted to work with actor Vincent Lindon again. Denis is loyal to collaborators, often using Agnes Godard as her cinematographer and the British band Tindersticks as the composer of her films' scores (they return for Bastards), and she's amassed an impressive troupe of returning actors (Alex Descas, Isaach De Bankole, Beatrice Dalle, Michel Subor, Gregoire Colin, Vincent Gallo, Alice Houri, the late Yekaterina Golubeva), but until last year, Lindon was on the equally impressive list of actors Denis has only worked with once (Isabelle Huppert, Denis Lavant, Ingrid Caven, Francois Cluzet, Christopher Lambert, Jean-Claude Brialy, Aurore Clement). Lindon was the co-star of Denis' lightest film, Friday Night, along with French pop singer Valerie Lemercier, and he's the sympathetic center of Bastards, Denis' darkest. 
Lindon plays Marco, a sailor called back to Paris for a family crisis. His younger sister's family is falling apart. His brother-in-law has committed suicide, and his teenage niece is in the hospital after suffering a sexual assault that saw her drugged and wandering nude in the street. His sister tells him the family business has fallen apart, thanks to unscrupulous behavior by an investor and partner named Edouard Laporte (Michel Subor), a powerful businessman with political connections. Marco has vague plans for revenge and moves into the same apartment complex as Laporte's mistress and illegitimate son. He begins a relationship with the mistress, Raphaelle (Chiara Mastroianni), and does some digging to find out what happened to his niece, his brother-in-law, and the family business. What he discovers is dark, terrible, and close to home.
Bastards is sometimes hard to watch and harder to shake and should be approached with caution if you or a loved one have ever been the victim of sexual abuse, but I have no reservations about calling it a great film. Denis is working at her peak formally and stylistically, and I can't find words that will do her images justice. The film, though difficult and at times emotionally disturbing, is also dreamy and seductive, haunting and menacing. The actors commit to their parts honestly and intensely. Tindersticks come up with one of their most successful scores, finding a sonic correlative to the film's contradictory powers of seduction and menace, unease and allure. Not even a pinhole of light pushes through this time, but Claire Denis has made another vital, living film.

I've embedded my favorite piece of Tindersticks' music from the film, their transformative cover of Hot Chocolate's disco-pop song "Put Your Love in Me," below because I think it does a better job of capturing the feel of the film than my fumbling attempts to describe it.

Sunday, March 02, 2014

Alain Resnais 1922-2014

Alain Resnais, one of the youngest 91-year-olds ever, is gone, leaving just Jean-Luc Godard, Agnes Varda, and Jacques Rivette standing as the last of the French New Wave filmmakers still making vital art (if I'm forgetting anyone, please correct me). Like a lot of my favorite filmmakers, Resnais' work was difficult for me to enter into upon first contact, and I found his two most famous films, Hiroshima Mon Amour and Last Year at Marienbad, easier to admire than enjoy. Exposure to more of his films turned that admiration to full-blown love, and once again I have to get used to a world where all my heroes are dying and being replaced by superficial, materialist careerists afraid of imagination, ideas, and emotion. (I've renewed my love affair with pessimism in recent weeks. Talk to me several months from now, and I may retract the previous sentence, or at least qualify it.)

Recommended:
Night and Fog (1955)
Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959)
Last Year at Marienbad (1961)
Muriel (1963)
Stavisky... (1974)
Providence (1977)
Mon oncle d'Amerique (1980)
Same Old Song (1997)
Wild Grass (2009)

Any omissions above are absent only because I haven't seen them yet.

Friday, February 28, 2014

I'm way behind #17: Nebraska (Alexander Payne)

Nebraska is Alexander Payne's best and most satisfying film since 1999's Election, and his most visually expressive. I've enjoyed his other four features (Citizen Ruth, About Schmidt, Sideways, The Descendants), with reservations both minor and major depending on the project, but Nebraska, like Election, strikes me as an almost wholly successful marriage of content and form, character and story, and personal point of view and its visual expression.
While Nebraska sees Payne return to the familiar territory of his home state (and mine), in most other ways the film is a step away from his comfort zone. It's his first film in black and white, his first to be shot digitally, his first film not based on a novel since his debut (Citizen Ruth) in 1996, and, perhaps most importantly, his first film without a credit as one of the screenwriters. (His first four films were written with Jim Taylor, and his last with the team of Nat Faxon and Jim Rash.) Though it may seem an odd statement coming from a guy who prefers directors who also write their films, I sometimes think filmmakers can benefit from taking a step away from the writing process once in a while as a way to change stale patterns, take on new challenges, and devote more time to the visual, structural, and performance aspects of their work. Payne made huge strides as a visual stylist with The Descendants, but the screenplay was mushy. Here, working from an original screenplay by fellow Nebraskan Bob Nelson, Payne reconnects with the foundational aspects of his body of work and its subjects and obsessions.
A father/son road trip movie that takes its two leads from Billings, Montana to Lincoln, Nebraska but spends most of its time in the fictional rural town of Hawthorne (several small towns near Lincoln provide locations), Nebraska is either a comedy made from the parts of drama, with the humor coming from nearly every character playing the straight man, or a drama carved out of the inherent comedy of human wants, needs, and behavior. Payne's actors nail the tone, and they actually look and sound like people from the Great Plains chunk of the Midwest (well, some of them really are). Payne was pressured by the studio to put big movie stars in the film and make it in color, which would have turned it into a cartoon. He stuck to his plan, though a color print was also struck to keep the studio off his back. (Payne says he hopes that version never sees the light of day.) Instead of bright, shiny movie stars and their gigantic personality machines, Payne's leads are veteran character actors Bruce Dern and Stacy Keach, given deservedly meatier parts than they've had in years, and comedic actors Will Forte and Bob Odenkirk in straightforward, serious performances where the laughs mostly come from their practical responses to ridiculous situations. Payne also brings back June Squibb (About Schmidt), a stage actress whose film career primarily consists of bit parts, as Dern's foulmouthed wife. A mix of character actors and nonprofessional locals make up the smaller parts.
The fictional town of Hawthorne, in size, demographics, and conversational preoccupation, is very much like the rural Nebraska town where I spent the first 18 years of my life and very much like the nearby town where my father currently lives. So much of what I see, and never see in movies, when I go back home is depicted accurately in this film. A scarcity of young people, a handful of businesses, distrust of foreign cars, conversations about how long it takes to drive to different places and quibbles over mundane details about fellow townspeople past and present in front of television sets, newspapers run by elderly couples, bars full of people in their forties, fifties, and sixties, the simple pleasure of sitting in the front yard watching cars go by, the inflated value placed on exaggerated hypermasculinity by the young men who stay in the town, restaurants with no decor, the cordially friendly distrust and mutual suspicion between Catholics and Protestants, the ghosts of prosperity and the small-farm era, the uneasy balance between gossip-fueled judgment and kindhearted neighborly community, the unadorned beauty of the country.
I've read critics from large cities and both coasts who think Payne is laughing at the expense of his characters, and I can understand that misconception. As someone intimately familiar with what Payne (from Omaha, but interested in the entire state) and screenwriter Nelson (from South Dakota, but raised in rural Nebraska) are showing in this film, I don't see that condescension or elitism. There is a sadness, an unintentional humor, a dignity, a pettiness, and a ridiculousness all sharing space in the lives of any human being, but small, rural towns have their own highly specific version of this combination. Payne nails it visually, and Nelson writes it as only a native could. It's almost never captured on screen, and the fact that it has been captured here is valuable to me, and I hope to others who share my background. Small towns in films are usually depicted as havens of cornball virtue, backwoods horror shows full of inbred cretins, or conventionally strange suburban-sanitary fantasylands populated by harmlessly "quirky," nonthreatening eccentrics. This one rings true.
If the film were just an accurate portrayal of a segment of small-town life, I wouldn't be praising it quite so highly, but it's equally impressive in its visuals and narrative structure. Payne here has captured some of the feel of a black and white John Ford film in a modern context, as well as Peter Bogdanovich's Ford-influenced black and white 1970s films, The Last Picture Show and Paper Moon. (Before any cinephiles jump all over me, I'm not suggesting an equivalency. John Ford is a master and Payne is simply a really good director, but if the reputation of William Shakespeare can survive all the comparisons to Oliver Stone (gag, vomit) when Nixon was released, the reputation of Ford can handle a comparison to Payne's film.) Ford's films often portrayed uncertain journeys undertaken by stoic men of few words, with deceptively simple shots and camera movements that contained great thematic weight and visual expressiveness. In Payne's 2013 update, the journey is uncertain, the men only say what they have to say, and the camera is deceptively simple yet expressive and tied to the narrative, but Ford's wagon trains, army camps, shanty towns, Monument Valley rock formations, teepees, rivers, and Western towns have been replaced by cheap apartments, small Midwestern houses, a speaker store in a strip mall, bars, pickup trucks, and nondescript restaurants and karaoke bars, and his outdoor vistas and horizons have been replaced by the faces of Dern, Forte, and Keach. And in using Dern and Keach and echoing Bogdanovich's echo of Ford, Payne also reminds us of how influential the key American films of the 1970s have been on his own work, and how that influence haunts the current cinema's CGI/teenage boy fixation like this film's setting and characters are haunted by their pasts. Dern and Keach never went away, and always do great work when they get the chance, but they got their best opportunities in the last decade when mainstream American films took chances and went after adult audiences: the '70s. (Since The Sopranos, television has since picked up the slack.) That history is all over their faces, and it adds a layer of authenticity, lived experience, thematic weight, and authority to what was already a very fine film.
 

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Harold Ramis 1944-2014

Caddyshack and Groundhog Day are very different comedies. One is anarchic and silly, the other tightly constructed and emotionally serious. Both always make me feel better, and both never lose their rewatchability. Harold Ramis wrote and directed both of them. He also had a hand in Ghostbusters, National Lampoon's Vacation, National Lampoon's Animal House, Meatballs, Stripes, Back to School, and SCTV as writer, director, actor, and/or producer. He somehow figured out how to make popular, mainstream films that appealed to huge audiences without betraying his empathetic, original, and personal point of view, and Hollywood is much poorer for his loss.

Monday, February 17, 2014

I'm way behind #16: Pretty Poison (Noel Black)

A difficult film to see until its recent DVD release, 1968's Pretty Poison is a cult dark comedy that lacks a strong visual point of view but is fortunate to have a clever Lorenzo Semple Jr. screenplay and two immensely likable leads in Anthony Perkins and Tuesday Weld. I thoroughly enjoyed the movie when I first watched it on bootleg VHS a decade ago, but a second viewing on the big screen dampened my enthusiasm somewhat.
Pretty Poison is an odd duck in director Noel Black's filmography. Primarily a director-for-hire of some of the most conventional, mainstream television series and TV movies of the last 40 years, Black is the film's weak link. His shot compositions and visual approach to the narrative structure are pedestrian, more suitable for generic, family-friendly network TV fare than the oddball humor and darkness here. The story and cast are distinctive and unusual and would have benefited from a director with a personal, visual style and point of view.
The director may be lacking, but the casting director deserves an award. Anthony Perkins and Tuesday Weld carry the film, providing its momentum, charm, humor, heartbeat, and indefinable cinematic essence. Perkins plays a mentally disturbed but friendly young man who has just been released from an institution, where he was being held for his propensity for arson. He's a compulsive but hilarious liar who works unhappily in an oppressive factory assembly-line job, but his life becomes much more interesting when he meets a teenage girl played by Tuesday Weld. He tells this seemingly naive girl-next-door type outrageous stories of his life as a secret agent, and she pretends to believe him, for dark purposes of her own. They begin a strange romantic relationship in which each person thinks he/she is manipulating the other. Both are seeking relief from the intense boredom and lack of freedom in their daily lives, Perkins from his soul-deadening factory job and the social worker checking up on his every move and Weld from the daily indignities and monotony of high school and a controlling mother jealous of her daughter's vivaciousness. Both are play-acting characters they will into being, characters that take over their own personalities, and things get really dark. The screenplay is strong but lets the characters down in the final third when Weld is turned into a more conventional femme fatale, but Weld and Perkins give great performances throughout. Worth seeing if you're as big a fan of the two leads as I am.

Thursday, February 06, 2014

I'm way behind #15: Gravity (Alfonso Cuaron)

The marketing hook for this film is that you haven't really seen it unless you've seen it in IMAX 3D, or at least regular old 3D, so I may have missed some of the full impact, having chosen to see it in 2D on a conventionally sized theater screen. It certainly looks like a film where 3D was an aesthetic choice and not just a marketing gimmick and a way to bump up the ticket price, but I wear glasses and hate putting 3D glasses on top of them, and 3D gives me a blazing headache within a half hour of the film's starting time, so I rarely see a film in 3D. Life is in 3D, and I appreciate film as a 2D medium.
That caveat aside, my opinion of Gravity is largely positive, with some major reservations. This is a film that uses its large Hollywood budget and FX-driven story for good instead of annoyance. I find major, effects-driven Hollywood films almost unwatchable since CGI largely took the place of handmade effects and stuntmen. I've made my complaints known multiple times before on this site, but CGI has led to a uniformity in style, a disconnect between the camera-filmed and computer-generated parts of a film, and a narrative structure that is spatially incoherent and exhausting. Mainstream big-budget genre films are now just one noisy climax after another with a cluttered frame and an ignorance of the preceding century of fundamentals.
Gravity is refreshingly different. Here is a film that dramatically unclutters the frame and uses it for composition, space, and movement, not the jarring, crowded clusterfuck of bombardment we're mostly getting from recent box-office hits. Cuaron's compositions are gorgeous, quiet, meditative, and, in scenes of high action, coherent and thrilling. The setting no doubt helps. Turns out, space has lots of space, which is why we call it space, so cluttering it up with a bunch of nonsense was not really an option. Cuaron, though, has proven he can handle very different canvases masterfully, exploring the space between the frames with expertise in this and his previous three films (Children of Men, his Harry Potter movie, and Y tu mama tambien). Whatever the merits and weaknesses of his varied work, the shot compositions and expressive movements of the camera are always positives.
My problems with the film are mostly related to its screenplay. Though both big stars (Sandra Bullock and George Clooney) acquit themselves nicely, any time the conversation gets away from the specifics of their job and toward their personal lives, the dialogue is cringingly sentimental, forced, and full of Hollywood cliche. It gets even worse when Bullock cranks out a couple of monologues and tries to communicate with a space station. This pulled me out of the nice meditative thing I had going for the bulk of the movie.
I know it's bad form to criticize the movie I wanted to exist rather than the one we have, but I'm going to get unfair and talk about my fantasy version of the movie. I would replace Clooney and Bullock with unknowns. I didn't have a problem with their performances,but I'd prefer two actors who are less sparkly, less People cover, more mysterious, and more anonymous to match the film's setting. I'd remove almost all of the dialogue, including everything personal, and a lot of the score, focusing on silence and the sound of machines and tools. I'd keep everything else. Of course, I'd ruin the film's commercial potential, and what studio would want to distribute my version?
Despite my qualms, I encourage Hollywood to make more films in this vein, to get back to classic Hollywood fundamentals, to use the vastness of the frame in ways other than trying to cram as much shit in it as is humanly possible, to bring back wonder and eliminate bombardment.   

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