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A look at super-stylized films

  • Keira Knightley in a scene from Wright’s “Anna Karenina.”

LOS ANGELES: Joe Wright’s ambitious adaptation of “Anna Karenina,” set almost entirely within the confines of a decaying 19th-century theater, inspires this week’s list: five movies that are so super-stylized, their artifice is part of the art.

Movies by people like Zack Snyder (“300,” “Sucker Punch”) and Tarsem Singh (“The Cell,” “Immortals”) can be incredibly cool-looking but often that’s all they are. These are movies that are cool-looking AND provocative. They may even have something to say, which takes them to a whole other level of cultural significance that makes them groundbreaking:

- “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” (2004): From the mind of screenwriter Charlie Kaufman comes this wildly imaginative and deeply melancholy story of love, loss and longing.

Jim Carrey plays against type as an uptight, jilted lover who tries to have flaky ex-girlfriend Clementine (Kate Winslet) erased from his memory.

As a decidedly low-tech medical crew (Kirsten Dunst, Mark Ruffalo and Elijah Wood) enters Joel’s brain to hunt down his memories, he realizes too late that he wants to keep them.

Individual visual moments are stirring in director Michel Gondry’s film as he explores the hazy area between what’s real and what’s imagined: a flooded house, a frozen pond at night, an empty, snow-covered beach.

- “The Wizard of Oz” (1939): For that moment alone when it shifts from the sepia-toned idyll of a Kansas farmhouse to vibrant color as Dorothy and Toto enter the land of Oz.

The transition was so dramatic and so unprecedented. Most films were still being shot in black and white back then so seeing this major transition must have been extraordinary for viewers.

Of course, we’ve all seen it a million times by now but that first shot, when Dorothy hesitantly opens the door after the tornado, still provides a thrill.

- “Synecdoche, New York” (2008): Another from Charlie Kaufman, only this time he directs for the first time as well as writing the intricate script.

I don’t love this movie the way a lot of people do – Roger Ebert declared it the best film of the decade – but I can’t deny how much I admire the ambition of its structure and its willingness to challenge its audience.

Philip Seymour Hoffman stars as a theater director whose latest production morphs into a theatrical manifestation of his life.

Actors stand in for him, his family and his colleagues, with other actors eventually playing those actors. Sets get built and then expand into eternity. A physical rendering of an existential crisis, one that’s painfully dreamlike and wistfully surreal.

- “Sin City” (2005): A comic-book adaptation that dares to do more than simply recreate the panels of a comic book; rather, it immerses you in a highly stylized world and makes you feel as if you’re living inside of it.

Robert Rodriguez took his inspiration from three of Frank Miller’s books and even went so far as to share directing credits with the author. Together they created a vivid dystopia of severe black and white with dramatic splashes of color.

Created entirely on green screen, it features 1,800 effects shots, many of which are extremely, cartoonishly violent. But while “Sin City” is dark, it’s also funny, and certainly never dull.

- “Zentropa” (1991): The first Lars von Trier film I saw and one that wowed me with its bold visuals.

So many of the Danish director’s films would fit into this category, from the minimalist “Dogville” and “Manderlay,” which resemble plays on film, to the artfully cruel “Melancholia.”

“Zentropa,” about an American working as a sleeping car conductor on a train line in post-World War II Germany, is constantly calling attention to its structure with bold juxtapositions – a mixture of stark German expressionism and flashes of color.

An overhead shot reveals a wave of red blood swelling against a black-and-white door, for example. It’s both hallucinatory and startling but always strangely beautiful.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on November 19, 2012, on page 16.
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