Sunday, June 26, 2011

Looking at Curtis Hanson

Just watched "8 Mile" (2002) which brings my films watched by Curtis Hanson total to a whopping five films. Hanson produced one of my favorite films in "Wonderboys" (2000) and made one of the moviegoing public's favorite films of the 1990's with "LA Confidential" (1997).

In addition, he also made one of the few chick flicks I would consider a great film with the 2005 "In Her Shoes" (starring Cameron Diaz, Toni Collette and Shirley MaClaine). Lastly, the only film of his I have seen that I consider kind of a drag is the gambling film "Lucky You" (2007) that starred Eric Bana, Robert Duvall, and Drew Barrymore.

Overall, he's a very strong filmmaker that has worked magic on genres that I would otherwise not be interested in. Even his noble failure, "Lucky You", shows the same traits as his other entries. Here's what I would consider to be Hanson's style: (note: I'm going to use abbreviations WB, IHS, LY, 8M, LAC)

1. Plots that move at their own pace-In WB,the protagonist english professor is about to lose his job for killing the president's dog and/or impregnating the dean's wife, he's just lost his manuscript, and he has until the end of the weekend to decide whether to abort his love child with his dean's wife and try to win her love. Yet despite this frantic crisis, most of the movie shows him in a melancholy state hanging around with his eccentric editor playing parlor games, getting high, and showing his even-more-eccentric student the time of his life. In LY, the protagonist risks his fortune and more with every bet he makes and even as he continually finds himself more and more in the red, an air of panic doesn't really set in there either. Similarly, IHS has one of the two protagonists, a lawyer, either quitting or losing her job and it seems insignificant.

2. Somber visual tones-8M plays into this because it's in the rust belt of Detroit and the harsh life of that town manifest themselves all around. LAC is a send-up to film noir so Hanson thrived on the dark interior spaces. The interior spaces (in Philadelphia and not Florida for the latter) in LY and IHS were pretty similarly shady and dark.

3. Strong Emphasis on Parent-Child Relationships-All five films have strong parent-child dynamics although I'm not entirely sure whether thematically they line up in any way. Let's see:
-A key plot point in LAC is that Ed Exley (Guy Pearce) has to decide whether to be like his father and be an honest cop. He ends up rejecting his father's methodology.
-Rabbit in 8M is trying to cope with a mother who hasn't gotten her life together. His poverty is a result of her but his emotional instability is also a result of her. As he succeeds in rapping, he is able to fix his mother and their relationship.
-In WB, Professor Grady Tripp is trying to decide whether he's a stable enough person to take on fatherhood and his salvation comes through that decision. He breaks into the home of his in-laws to save his hide, but the encounter with his father-in-law shows a paternal relationship there. He also takes on his most talented student as a surrogate son.
-The two sisters in IHS are damaged as adults because of the lack of a mother. They did grow up looking out for each other, however, but when that relationship is damaged, it takes a mother figure (they're grandmother) to repair them. Their salvation also comes through learning the truth about their mentally ill mother.
-The protagonist in Lucky You continues to make ill-advised risks because he's trying to live up to the card player and gambler that his father once. In the middle of the film, one of those ill-advised risks is playing his father directly and losing.

In all these films, people are defined by their parents or the lack thereof. The characters all deal with their parental relationships and in some cases take substitutes. The sisters in IHS use each other for support. Grady Tripp might be missing the guidance and separated from the father-in-law since he's divorced so he takes on a surrogate son, and when he's ready, he takes on an actual son.

4. Slow Secondary Courtships-In 8M, LY, IHS and LAC, there's a courtship that occurs during the movie. The characters meet during the movie so we see the relationship take place in its entirety. In the case of IHS and 8M, the characters also are leaving behind worse relationships that we don't see from the inside out so much. The relationships take place rather naturally and they're not the most important thing about the film but they do drive the film along.

5. Weary Characters alongside more excitable characters-Bud (Russell Crowe) from "LA Confidential" surely fits the bill. His colleague Jack (Kevin Spacey) is very much the opposite. Jack is eager to do his job and tackle a lead and is even eager to spread his legend, so to speak, by advising for a cop show. The bubbly Drew Barrymore is a counterpoint to Eric Bana in LY as is Horatio Sanz's character. WB has Tripp and his married lover as the weary ones. Tripp is balanced by his carefree editor.

"In Her Shoes" has the weary/excitable character dichotomy in three places: Between the two sisters (although the film's reveal is that younger sis is hurting underneath), between Toni Collette's choice of two lovers (one is unfaithful because he reveals a past where he was constantly rejected by girls whereas the other is optimistic, commanding and looking forward), and the grandmother and her circle of friends. The grandmother straddles the divide (although she hasn't necessarily dealt with her daughter's death and her alienation from her grandchildren) and is less eager to jump into love than her friends and suitor.

With the exception of LY, the carefree characters are all painted negatively: Jack is doomed by his eagerness and Bud's fate turns out better because he knows not to trust anyone. Grady's editor is seen as a nuisance and a bad influence on him. In IHS, the younger sis is the drag on her older sister.

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