Sunday, May 29, 2016

Lowering the (Amena)bar

And hence my streak of including director names in the titles of my posts this week continues.

Alejandro Amenabar has presided over some of my favorite movies of the last 20 years, but what's been most impressive is the variety of the Spanish director's output. Working in reverse order, his 2009 film Agora was a thinking person's sword-and-sandal epic that tackled no less than all the complexities of science and religion. It was my fourth favorite film of 2010 (the year it was released in the U.S.), and it's a film I've already seen three times. The Sea Inside, a drama about paralysis, knocked my socks off in 2004 (I didn't see it that year, but that's the year it came out). I didn't like 2001's The Others, a ghost story period piece, all that much when I first saw it, but access to a DVD copy of it compelled me to revisit it, and I kind of loved it the second time -- as discussed in this post. Probably my least favorite film of his is his 1997 debut, Abre Los Ojos (Open Your Eyes), but it's still quite a good film, and it holds an especially dear place to me as it inspired Cameron Crowe to remake it as Vanilla Sky, one of my favorite films. (Checking wikipedia, I see that Amenabar had a film in 1996 called Thesis, but I'd never heard of that, so I will stubbornly and inexplicably continue to refer to Open Your Eyes as his debut.)

Well, I guess everyone is eventually due for a little regression.

Or a lot.

For Amenabar, that comes in the form of Regression, which I guess you could call a psychological thriller about satanic cults. So it's yet another distinct area of focus for the director, probably closest genre-wise to The Others -- but really, not very close. Alas, it's also a distinct level of quality, in that it is distinctly bad.

The fact that it was available for 99-cent rental on iTunes such a short time after its nominal theatrical release should have been a dead giveaway. But Amenabar has never steered me wrong, so I decided to invest that buck even though I knew nothing about the movie other than the director and its stars (Ethan Hawke and Emma Watson, each promising in their own right).

But when a director loses it, he really loses it. Though some would argue the decline has been more steady. It's been more than six years since Agora, a film that was terrifically directed by never got much traction with audiences and remains under the radar to this day. Those who didn't like it did have some issues with the direction, as I recall. It's been twice that long since The Sea Inside, which won best foreign language film at the Oscars (and which I was quite certain yielded an Oscar nomination for Javier Bardem until I looked it up and found it not to be so). So I guess for most people, Amenabar hasn't done much since 2004, struggling to get movies made and losing small bits of his ability along the way.

His ability to direct actors seems to have vanished almost entirely. Hawke and Watson have both been good plenty of times, but they are stiff and turgid here. Genre material is somewhat familiar for Hawke, but I tend to think of Watson as a person who makes good choices. Maybe they both saw Agora and liked it as much as I did. But if so, they couldn't bring a lot to help Amenabar's dull and hammy script.

I won't tell you a lot about the story, because I'm not trying to sell you on it (obviously) or even really give it a proper review. It basically involves a girl (Watson) who has been abused by her father and possibly also a cult of satanic worshippers practicing ritual sacrifice. Hawke is the detective who seeks justice and likes to grab people by their lapels. The movie has what I think is supposed to be a surprise turn in the third act, but it's a surprise turn for the boring, and leads to an incredibly unsatisfying payoff that I think the movie thinks is supposed to be profound.

What I'm really here to do today is to mourn the profound dropoff in quality from Amenabar. But instead of just piling on this movie, I'd rather take a look at the factors outside his control that may have led to it. Looking at what seems to have happened (without delving into the particulars that are probably available on the web), Amenabar spent a long time trying to get a very ambitious, expensive pet project -- Agora -- off the ground. When that film was not a hit outside of Spain (where it was one of the highest grossing films of all time and swept the Goyas), it left Amenabar in no position to take another risk. So he was left (I imagine) scraping together funding for something with no ambition or aesthetic distinction of any kind, a weak idea weakened further by the fact that Amenabar's lack of enthusiasm for it oozes from every pore. It's not shot well, it's not acted well, it's not edited well, and it doesn't even look particularly polished. In short, it's an anonymous thriller that any hack could make, and it got essentially the equivalent of a straight-to-video release.

What can you do to help restore Amenabar to his former glory? To raise the (Amena)bar?

For starters, go watch Agora. It's streaming on Netflix now and it stars Rachel Weisz, Max Minghella and (perhaps best of all nowadays) Oscar Isaac. It's a feminist epic that looks fantastic and has nothing less than the debate between science and religion at its core. Maybe its attacks on both Christians and, to a slightly lesser extent, Jews made it a hard sell in a country like the U.S. But these should be selling points for someone who feels skeptical about organized religion, and the grand set design, camerawork and sword-and-sandal trappings should be a selling point for everybody else. I think I might watch it again (for the fourth time) myself in the next few days ... even if only to get the taste of Regression out of my mouth.

And Netflix pays attention to its numbers. If enough of you watch it, perhaps Netflix will get Amenabar's career going again by offering him some kind of deal, a deal where he can get back to doing what he wants.

A deal where he can be great again.

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