Sometimes you see a movie -- even a big-time Hollywood movie -- that has a surprising amount of depth and subtlety. A movie that favors insight into human relationships and psychological motivations over tits and explosions. A movie driven by finely crafted characters. Not surprisingly, such movies are often created by directors who have made a career out of producing quality films. Sidney Lumet had 12 Angry Men at the start of his career, Before the Devil Knows You're Dead at the end, and classics like Serpico and Dog Day Afternoon in between.
Al Pacino, pre-"hooo-AH!"
But sometimes, quality movies spring up from directors you would never expect. Maybe it's because their earlier work sucked so hard. Or even if it didn't suck, maybe their other films just led you to believe that they were only good for certain over-the-top, popcorn, mass-entertainment movies. Whatever the reason, here are four directors who made movies that were more deeply felt and observed than anyone ever expected.
Best Known For: Money Talks, Rush Hour 1, 2 & 3, coming off as a creep in interviews.
Brett Ratner has directed Chris Tucker four times. That's right, all three Rush Hours and Money Talks!Although, in fairness, we can't blame him for Tucker's Fifth Element performance
But Then There's This: Red Dragon
In 2002, Ratner directed Red Dragon, which was the second time Hollywood tried to film the first book in the Hannibal Lecter series. First, a brief history about the books: The first was Red Dragon, in which a jailed Hannibal Lecter helps brilliant FBI profiler Will Graham catch the Tooth Fairy serial killer. In The Silence of the Lambs, a jailed Hannibal Lecter helps young FBI cadet Clarice Starling catch the Buffalo Bill serial killer, and then escapes prison. In Hannibal, an escaped Hannibal Lecter does lots of terrible things to people for hundreds of pages and it's supposed to be interesting or enjoyable, for reasons that are unclear to anyone without serious mental disorders.
Michael Mann directed Red Dragon in 1986 and called it Manhunter, which tells you a lot about why the movie sucks. For example, the prison that holds Hannibal looks like this:
Because in the '80s, murderers were sentenced to shopping malls.
In 2001, Ridley Scott gave us Hannibal by taking the highly flawed book and changing it just enough to include different, brand new flaws. But hey, Ray Liotta eats his own brains, so there's that.
Good luck unseeing that!
Ratner may have an unholy allegiance to Chris Tucker, but he knew better than to mess with the classic Silence of the Lambs movie that Jonathan Demme made. He kept the look of the prison, and he kept the feel of the shoot. But he did more than merely ape Demme, because Red Dragon features a serial killer every bit as distinct and terrifying as Buffalo Bill. Ralph Fiennes' portrayal of Mr. Dolarhyde, the tormented murderer with a cleft palate, is startling and flawlessly captured. So Brett "Rush Hour 3" Ratner did something neither Michael Mann nor Ridley Scott could do: make a good Hannibal Lecter movie.
How Did That Happen?
First off, it happened because I must have somehow sold Ratner short. But he also had some help. Ted Tally, who adapted Silence, also adapted Red Dragon. He stayed pure to the book, and addressed a problem: There's far less Hannibal in the first book, Silence made Hannibal a star and audiences demanded more of him. Tally expertly balanced additional scenes for Anthony Hopkins that stayed true to the spirit of the book and worked with the story. Then you had great performances from Fiennes, Emily Watson and Philip Seymour Hoffman. Also, Edward Norton hadn't quite started sucking yet.
Best Known For: The Evil Dead, giving the world the glory of Bruce Campbell.
I LOVE SAM RAIMI. Let's make that clear. I love the Evil Dead series, and before Chris Nolan and Joss Whedon, he showed the world you could make a great comic book movie. Spider-Man 2 is still one of the greatest superhero movies ever made, and Evil Dead II is one of the greatest anythings of ever. Sam Raimi is not on this list because he sucks.
But Raimi has always made the kind of movies he's wanted to make. And the movies he made at the beginning of his career were big, brash, over-the-top, partly retarded and completely fantastic. If you haven't seen Evil Dead II, kill yourself, because there's no reason to keep living, because you clearly suck at it. But then become a zombie and buy the movie so you don't miss scenes like this, where our hero's hand is possessed by the evil forces in the woods:
So yeah, Raimi is awesome, but I used to think he was only awesome at stuff like the above.
But Then There's This: A Simple Plan
A Simple Plan is a 1998 movie starring Bill Paxton and Billy Bob Thornton as a pair of brothers in rural Minnesota who find stolen money and decide to keep it. Nothing about this movie is extreme. It's filled with countless powerful, small moments that are painfully real. You feel Paxton's quiet desperation for something more than his job at the mill, and Billy Bob Thornton's portrayal of his somewhat dimwitted brother is tender and painful.
How Did That Happen?
Well, it happened because Raimi can do anything. And I guess I always knew that. I mean, he's buds with the Coen brothers and even co-wrote their film The Hudsucker Proxy, but I kind of assumed that if Raimi had wanted to make a "real" movie, he would have. I thought that unless heads were exploding and chainsaws were roaring, he'd get bored. I'm not surprised that he could make A Simple Plan so much as the fact that he did.
Best Known For: Point Break, being James Cameron's ex-wife, height.
Unlike Brett Ratner, no one ever called Kathryn Bigelow a terrible director or accused her of having a small penis. No one had unkind words. No one really had any words. Wikipedia refers to her "trilogy" of works Blue Steel, Point Break and Strange Days, but I'm pretty sure most people have just seen Point Break, and I'm even more sure that most people have no idea who directed it. The movie is known for many things, but the distinctive signature touches of a director/auteur is not one of them. Instead, people think of utterly awful-of-awesome lines like these:
Another hero has disabled embedding, but the link is above. Also, I totally just copyrighted "awful-of-awesome" as a word.
But Then There's This: The Hurt Locker
The Hurt Locker was probably the best-reviewed film of 2009, and it won Bigelow an Oscar for best director. The movie tells the unconventional story of a bomb disposal team in wartime Iraq. It was shot with hand-held cameras, had relative unknowns in the lead roles and had no clear bad guy. And despite it bucking conventional wisdom, everyone loves it. Check out the power of this scene, in which the unit suffers a sniper attack:
How Did That Happen?
I'm not sure. Maybe Bigelow just had the resources, the backing and the time to make a movie she believed in. Maybe Hollywood didn't require a Keanu Reeves in it to suck it up. Also, I think you have to give some credit to Chris Innis and Bob Murawski, who edited the nearly 200 hours of footage from multiple hand-held cameras to form a coherent and immediate movie.
Best Known For: St. Elmo's Fire, Flatliners, Batman & Robin, sucking at everything all the time.
I'm not sure why I have such disdain for Mr. Schumacher. I mean, I hated him before Batman & Robin. I think it's because he was the first director I noticed making choices that were just wrong. Take Flatliners, for example, a movie about medical students who find a way to spend time in the region between life and death. Not surprisingly, the netherworld is creepy and bathed in blue light. But guess what? Lots of stuff in the movie is bathed in blue light. And lots of normal stuff, like the medical school itself, is needlessly creepy and gothic, so the differences between life and death, scary and not scary, are blurred from the beginning. Nice try, but no. And all the false profundity that mars St. Elmo's Fire can't hide that it's a dressed-up nothing without even the insight of a Sixteen Candles.
Ultimately, the scariest things in Flatliners were the haircuts.
But Then There's This: Falling Down
Falling Down is one of my favorite movies of all time. It's Schumacher's best film, it's Michael Douglas' best performance and it's like few movies ever made. It tells the story of a divorced unemployed former contract worker as he makes his way through LA to his ex-wife's house for his daughter's birthday. Hollywood sold the movie as mere wish fulfillment for angry white men everywhere, but it was so much more than that.
What makes Falling Down such an amazingly rare movie is that it's one of the few times on film where you have a protagonist who correctly finds fault with everyone, and yet is still wrong. Short of a Franz Kafka story or Barton Fink, that's virtually unheard of in art. Douglas is not just a mere antihero like some Clint Eastwood cowboy; he is a virulent social critic who speaks the truth about the ills of the world. He correctly identifies every single bad guy in the movie, but is completely oblivious to his own faults. The trailer embedded above is a lie. Douglas takes no vindication from his rampage. He's simply out of ideas. Nothing he believes in exists anymore, including the man he thought he was.
How Did That Happen?
I have no idea. I have never seen Schumacher show such depth in any other film. The screenwriter's only subsequent credit was a reboot of Car 54, Where Are You? A better man would say I've misjudged Mr. Schumacher, but I've seen his Grisham movies, 8MM and Flawless, so better men must have bad taste in movies.
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For more from Gladstone, check out 5 Satirists Attacked by People Who Totally Missed the Point and Was 'Arrested Development' A Remake of a 70s Sitcom?.
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