2013 has been full of directors’ sophomore efforts, like any year, only none of these films are living up to their director’s previous works.
After seeing The Spectacular Now I started to think about directors having a “sophomore slump.” The term is thrown around in many different realms of entertainment (music, film, books, sports) and its validity is an argument many have had over the years. Some people flourish in their second attempts, some greatly improve over an average first effort, some people turn out “disappointing” works because their first film set a high bar for fans and some people turn in genuinely worse material that second time around.
The 2013 film calendar has a number of directors releasing their second directorial efforts, but The Spectacular Now got me thinking; I haven’t really liked any of these second films as much as their director’s first works. I thought it would be interesting to look both backward and forward at this strange phenomena and what a better film to start with than The Spectacular Now?
Well, actually, it isn’t a good place to start. The Spectacular Now is actually Scott Ponsoldt’s third film; after Off the Black and Smashed. Having just seen Smashed recently, and given the subject matter of the two films, it seemed like the perfect place to start for this discussion, but the little seen Off the Black threw a wrench in all of that. If you are curious about my thoughts on those films be sure to check out our dissection of The Spectacular Now.
The Indie Guys
So where to start? How about Derek Cianfrance? Now, I know he has three feature length films to his credit as well, but his “first” film, Brother Tied, was never given a release outside the festival circuit. So on a technicality, I am only counting The Place Beyond the Pines and Blue Valentine; or else I wouldn’t be able to talk about either of the first two filmmakers that popped into my head for this article.
The Place Beyond the Pines is the sophomore slump film in question for 2013 and is the follow up to one of my favorite films from 2010, Blue Valentine. So yes, we have a bit of expectation coming into play here and I by no means think Pines is a failure of a film as a whole, in fact I would call it good, but I think it falls well short of Cianfrance’s “first”* effort.
(*) I know, I know…
If you haven’t seen Pines, the film is broken into three segments spanning over a number of years that tracks the families of two men in upstate New York. If Pines had kept engrossing me the way it did over the course of the first segment then I would never have called the film a slump, even if it fell short of Valentine, but sadly the film is never able to recapture the spark that Ryan Gosling’s staring segment had for me. The opening portion of the film felt like a fresh and original take on the crime genre, the second act is a very well executed take on the corrupt cop story and the third act, well, I don’t know what happened. A film is supposed to build towards its ending and Pines delivers diminishing returns.
Cianfrance’s direction and work with his actors doesn’t take a step back in Pines, and while some actors are underutilized (Rose Byrne and Eva Mendes) there isn’t a bad performance in the film outside Bradley Cooper’s character’s son, Emory Cohen; he might be terrible. Cianfrance has a bigger budget on Pines than he did with Valentine, and while he made the most out of what he had shooting the tragic lovers of his previous film he crafts some amazing shots in Pines that brought tension and energy to the film. Pines’ opening single shot and the culminating chase scene of Gosling’s segment are two of the year’s best sequences, so how did this qualify as a slump?
It’s that protracted time line of Pines and its diminishing story that keep this film from the same greatness of Blue Valentine and I might be being overly kind to Pines based on my love for the opening segment. Cianfrance is no stranger to multiple story lines, Valentine has two spread out over a number of years itself, but the execution varies wildly between the two films. It’s not that the epic storytelling couldn’t work, in Pines it just didn’t. The opening segment was the only portion of the film that felt fully fleshed out and realized. The second sequence, as I mentioned earlier, works as well, but it instantly feels too familiar considering how fresh the film started. The third act is the kicker though as I couldn’t buy any of the lead characters’ motivations believable and the film loses its sense of natural flow that makes parts of Pines, and almost all of Blue Valentine, work so well.
The work by Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams never feels false in Blue Valentine and as easy as they make falling in love look in the flashback sequences, Cianfrance and his stars make the crumbling apart look just as natural in the film’s present. Drama arises from a simple act, the loss of the family dog, and all the following tension, anger and struggle comes from the fully realized characters dealing with the emotion that has been building up inside them about a million other things. Pines tries to find that drama more through plot than character and its third act suffers the most for it. Cianfrance tries to mask the weak plot turns in Pines‘ third act with supposed character development, but there isn’t enough groundwork for us to believe the depths at which Dane DeHaan’s Jason is willing to go. Pines actually builds a resounding case against the direction Jason goes, he has a seemingly great and loving family that he’s openly rejecting for no known reasons. Cianfrance seems more interested in the symmetry of father and son than what works naturally for the story.
The Place Beyond the Pines is a film I quite enjoyed for part of its run time, loved portions even, but the film’s weakened footing as it goes along keeps it from coming anywhere close to Blue Valentine.
The East was the highly anticipated sophomore release from Sundance’s darling duo of Zal Batmanglij and Brit Marling, and while it’s certainly an original tale it never can hook you like their cult thriller Sound of my Voice. The Eco-terrorism of The East is a subject matter rarely, if ever, dealt with in a narrative film and Marling & Batmanglij’s script takes us deep into that world. The film’s finger is firmly pointed at many modern day corporate polluters as The East is capable of being critical without being preachy, while often being entertaining as hell along the way. Like the aforementioned Pines, The East even has one of my favorite scenes of the year, a gripping surgery scene and we will leave it at that, so how does it fail to reach the heights of Batmanglij’s debut effort?
The execution and story falter as the film nears its conclusion, and right about the time that aforementioned surgery scene ends the film loses its way. Yeah, you could maybe argue that is sort of the point as the group crumbles around this event, but it tries to shoehorn in a romance to fuel Sarah’s, Marling’s character, decision to betray her company and I never really buy it. And to get the film to its ultimate conclusion Batmanglij and Marling take a dramatic leap of intuition by the group’s leader, the very good Alexander Skarsgard, “How do I know you work for these guys? Because the film needs a conclusion dammit!” To make matters worse, the film’s credits play over an epilogue which could have served as an excellent third act for the film. The premise of the epilogue could have also easily folded Skarsgard back into the picture in a more natural and thoughtful way.
Batmanglij does show some technical growth with a bigger budget in The East and the film cements him as a director to watch going forward; even if I enjoyed his earlier effort more. The guy has a great eye behind the camera it is just a shame Batmanglij’s writing let him down here. His name actors that lend themselves to this picture all deliver some good work too, but the weak links stick out like sore thumbs compared to the reasonably balanced cast of Sound of My Voice.
Even with it being only their second produced effort, it still seems odd that Marling and Batmanglij had such a hard time ending The East when Sound of My Voice was so sure of its storytelling. Voice relentlessly drives towards its conclusion. Its ending might be ambiguous and open ended, but it tells its story with excellent tension and then gets out of there at the perfect moment. Surprise is a powerful tool that Voice wields wonderfully, but even with that sense of discovery gone the film only gets better with multiple viewings. The clumsiness of the storytelling at the end of The East really hampers its overall success and one hopes Batmanglij has all his ducks in a row before shooting his next one.
Like Cianfrance, Batmanglij shows a lot of promise on the technical side of things, but his storytelling isn’t quite as sharp in his second effort. Is this because with more money for their second feature some directors tend to get lost in other duties instead of making sure the story really sticks? I don’t know, but I could certainly see that being the case, no one wants to waste the money.
The 100 Million Dollar Guys
Oblivion from Joseph Kosinski is a sophomore effort, only this time both of his films were 100 million dollar productions. Whereas the previous directors were working with bigger budgets on their second films, Kosinski’s actually shrank after a somewhat disappointing gross from TRON: Legacy. Now a lot of you might be asking, “TRON: Legacy? Oblivion is at least as good or better than that film, right?” Well, I am in that small camp of people that actually likes TRON: Legacy, especially after a fresh viewing of the original film right before it.
Kosinski’s two films are actually fairly similar in structure as they sort of ebb and flow through their narratives at the same pace. Both films’ openings are their strongest segments, before taking a slight turn to overly long exposition sequences and then picking up the action towards the end. But while they might flow similarly, the returns for each film is what sets Legacy apart from Kosinski’s follow up. Both films are visual feasts of the sci-fi action genre, but TRON: Legacy has the superior action, production design and feels like a more creative film overall. Those opening sequences of Sam entering the grid are breathtaking and thrilling as the gauntlet he has to go through in the Games is just some amazing direction by Kosinski. Oblivion doesn’t have any scenes that can match this sequence, let alone TRON: Legacy’s lesser set pieces.
Another couple issue for Oblivion is its derivative nature and it not being a direct sequel. TRON: Legacy is technically a derivative work of the original TRON, but since it’s a sequel to that film it was encouraged that Kosinski try to expand and improve upon that formula. In fact, Legacy doesn’t get nearly enough credit for being a great sequel to TRON. Go watch those films back to back and you will see that not only do they work great as a double feature, but that Legacy really expands on the themes laid out in the first film. Oblivion wears all of its sci-fi influences right on its sleeve, and while I would never tear down the film for doing so, it’s hurt by the fact that it never really matches any of the material that inspired it. Oblivion is a very watchable film, Tom Cruise is always compelling, but like I’ve said Kosinski’s film is beautiful to look at. The problem is Oblivion doesn’t make you go “Wow” the way TRON: Legacy can.
Neither of Kosinski’s films are going to win a medal for their stories, but again Oblivion lacks compared to its director’s predecessor. Both films try to deal with some higher level ideas, Oblivion with identity and compliance, TRON: Legacy with racism and evolution, but ultimately both give themselves over in an attempt at popcorn entertainment. Tom Cruise might be a more compelling actor than Garrett Hedlund will ever be, but TRON: Legacy has the father/son hook that really helps carry it towards its finale. I never fully connected with the characters of Oblivion and this is a real problem when you are supposed to be concerned for the fate of humanity. It also doesn’t help that neither of the films handles women particularly well. While it’s nice that TRON: Legacy’s Olivia Wilde is a bad ass, she ultimately becomes a damsel in distress with little character depth beyond her origin; which is mostly there for plot in the first place. Oblivion’s female leads don’t fare any better as Andrea Riseborough is marginalized to the jealous wife, while Olga Kurylenko is this film’s damsel with not much else to do.
Also, Daft Punk’s work in TRON: Legacy is one of the all-time great scores and it elevates that film to a level that it couldn’t have reached without it. Kosinski wasn’t able to capture lightning in a bottle twice, and on Oblivion he brought in the electronic group M83 to try and give that film a fresh sound; the results were rather unmemorable. I know it was a high bar to clear if you were to match Daft Punk’s work on Legacy, but it wasn’t even close.
While both of Kosinski’s films have their weaknesses, I think Oblivion qualifies as a step back when compared to TRON: Legacy. A visual feast that doesn’t really excel anywhere else in particular, Oblivion could have used some of Flynn’s “bio-digital jazz,” man.
Iron Man 3 is probably my favorite of these sophomore slumps (it’s a very good, fun comic book film), but it is unfortunately going up against Shane Black’s predecessor; the fantastic Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.
The pairing of Black and the Iron Man franchise is a perfect pairing and you could argue he is the reason the franchise is what it is today. Without Kiss Kiss Bang Bang Robert Downey Jr. might not have ever been offered the part of Tony Stark, hell, he might not have even had the kind of comeback he’s had. Maybe the Marvel franchise doesn’t take off like it did, maybe Marvel can’t attract the talent it does, maybe we don’t get The Avengers. There is a lot of what if’s in there, but you could make the argument that Kiss Kiss Bang Bang was the spark that made this all happen.
Kiss Kiss Bang Bang’s worldwide box office gross was less than Iron Man 3’s midnight screenings in the US, but Kiss Kiss is the better film by a mile. Kiss Kiss features a Downey Jr. performance that is as good, or better, than any of his turns as Tony Stark and Black’s work behind the scenes proved he was ready for an ultra budget picture like Iron Man 3.
Iron Man 3 feels like a Shane Black movie from the opening moments, but you have to imagine the very forgiving “shackles” of Marvel and Disney kept the film from being exactly what he wanted it to be. A film like Iron Man 3 has to hit certain check marks when you have two previous entries, a Marvel universe and a budget of that size to attend to, but Black does a pretty good job regardless. It’s really weird to qualify Iron Man 3 as a slump, but for almost everything Black gets right in Iron Man 3 he does slightly better in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.
Both of Black’s scripts here take plenty of twists and turns and are full of surprises, but Iron Man 3’s comic book beats are a bit more familiar and predictable than the noir elements that fill Kiss Kiss. Iron Man 3 might have the best twist of the two, The Mandarin reveal, but Kiss Kiss keeps them coming all the way through to the ridiculous, knowing return of Val Kilmer. Both scripts have dialogue as sharp as a knife, but again I have to give the edge to Kiss Kiss as the R rating allows for a lot weirder, darker and more adult script. Iron Man 3 might be the funniest comic book film outside The Avengers, but it just can’t quite match the magic of Black’s debut.
The action might be more epic in Iron Man 3, but I would argue the climactic set piece of Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is just as, if not more, thrilling than the giant multi-suit battle that fills the last chunk of IM3. I also think I will take Gay Perry’s Derringer trick over any of Tony Stark’s improvised Iron Man suits any day of the week. Iron Man 3’s action serves to be cool (and a lot of it is) over functional, but Black makes the action both fun and functional to plot and character development at every turn in Kiss Kiss. You might get more bang for your buck with Marvel’s flagship superhero, but Black makes the absolute most out of his noir thriller.
I feel bad for sort of picking on Iron Man 3, it is a really solid blockbuster, but I still think it fits the sophomore slump criteria as I’m recommending Kiss Kiss Bang Bang over IM3 any day of the week. Shane Black has a pretty good problem in that his weakest effort is still pretty great, but I certainly look forward to his next work that doesn’t have the baggage a giant Marvel movie does; even if he makes a good Marvel movie.
Elysium wasn’t the first film that came to mind for this article, but it is, sadly, the best fit for the sophomore slump. District 9 was a widely praised, and deservedly so, sci-fi tale that uses real world issues to tell an entertaining romp that was a technical marvel on top of it all. Featuring effects work in nearly every scene, usually in the form of the film’s alien “Prawns”, District 9 is a look at racism wrapped up in an action spectacle that is entertaining from nearly start to finish; Elysium is not. The biggest reason Neil Blomkamp is getting categorized as a slump is that he didn’t really do anything new or original with Elysium while falling spectacularly short of the heights he reached in District 9.
How does a seemingly talented director and storyteller like Blomkamp get more money, more freedom and yet crash so hard on his second attempt? A big issue is that Elysium feels like it is hitting all the same beats that District 9 did. It almost felt like he was going down a list while writing the script to match the two. Political allegory, check; big sci-fi hook, check; cool looking kills, check; mech-like suit technology, check; all he was missing were some aliens and this would have been close to a carbon copy of his first film. And you know what, that would have been fine if it had actually executed these ideas at the same level as he did the first time.
I’ll give him this, the human carnage tops that of District 9, but with the surprisingly small scope of Elysium it’s a shame most of that carnage is reserved for nameless lackeys and robots. Sure, Copley takes a blast to the face, but I didn’t even know what happened or if he was the one who was hit until his buddies rolled him onto the magic machine.
Copley is my favorite part of Elysium, but that’s more because he is so crazy and out of control that he sticks out from the dullness around him. By contrast, Blomkamp had us hooked and ready to take every step along the way with Copley as Wikus in District 9 before the opening title card. Elysium never comes close to capturing that sort of connection with any of its characters and most of the film’s issues fall in line behind that. A bare bones story can work if all pieces around it are elevating it, but when you have no characters to connect to that isn’t a good start.
As the sole writer on Elysium, Blomkamp is completely on the hook for what’s up on the screen and while I’ve already mentioned my struggle with the characters, the story is just as bad. A destined hero’s sacrificial journey, the complete short cutting of science at every turn and an all too familiar “one last job” crime narrative will keep your eyes rolling as I had just as hard a time getting pulled into the story as I did connecting with the characters. The political message doesn’t resonate like it does in District 9 and I would have loved to have had more background on the world of Elysium and what the divide was that sent the rich out of our atmosphere and what destroyed everything under it. I’m all for focusing on how the social and economic divide of our society, but Blomkamp seems less concerned about getting into those ideas and more interested in using these basic themes to jumpstart his plot.
Blomkamp tries his damnedest to give the film a visual sense of awe and wonder, but for every beautiful shot of Elysium gliding over Earth we are a forced to watch three times as much shaky cam action. What happened to the visually coherent and epic gauntlet of action that fills the final third of District 9. I counted two set pieces in Elysium, the raid on Carlyle and the final chase/fight, and the later one consists of mostly running around in generic corridors. The big human shredding moments are perfectly well executed, but once you see someone shredded to pieces once how many more times is it going to be nearly as effective? Blomkamp also tries a couple of weird camera tricks here that pop up sporadically and bring nothing to the table. A digital camera pan and an odd full body Steadicam pops up on a couple of occasions and they are neither well executed or particularly inspired, they are distracting and pull us out of the film. All this said, I haven’t lost hope in Blomkamp as a visual storyteller (I still eagerly anticipate his next film), but I would love to see him get some help on a script level.
Blomkamp isn’t going to get thrown in director jail for Elysium, but for the director of District 9 it’s surely a step in the wrong direction. If Elysium was just a disappointment because it didn’t quite meet the level of District 9 that would be one thing, but overall it’s a regression of craft on a project the director was given more resources and a ton of freedom on. Maybe Blomkamp needs Peter Jackson looking over his shoulder, maybe it was just a fluke, but he only can go up from here; at least I hope.
The Sole Survivor (or not)
One other director had a second feature this year and that was Shane Carruth with the surprise release at Sundance of Upstream Color. I am an ardent supporter of Upstream Color, but even if you didn’t love the film like I did, it’s still clearly a technical step up from his first feature, Primer. Primer was a micro-budget film and Carruth made the absolute most out it, but the modestly budgeted (Carruth never shared the exact number) Upstream Color is one of the most beautiful films of the year.
His camera is inventive, his compositions could be hung on your wall and he moves his film along almost exclusively through visual storytelling. The imagery that he throws up on the screen is not only gorgeous, but it is often something you have never seen before. Where Primer is engaging through it’s intricately written puzzle of a script, Upstream Color can be just as complex and it does so with barely a lick of exposition. Upstream Color works as a puzzle similar to Primer, but where that film will create conversation over one definitive answer, Color allows for a more diverse and contemplative mystery that is open to many interpretations. Upstream Color’s characters also feel more real and less like ciphers for plot as in Primer, with Amy Seimetz delivering one of the best performances of 2013 as the lead Kris.
Beyond the visuals, Upstream Color is also one of the most aurally impressive films I have ever heard. Carruth’s score is an incredible piece as a part, or separate from the film and the sound design in the picture is also one of the most impressive I have ever heard. Carruth barely had anything to work with in this department on Primer, but as he pares down on the dialogue in Upstream Color he messes with the sound design to keep things interesting for all of our movie going senses.
Carruth ups his game in almost every area on Upstream Color as he crafted one of the best sophomore efforts I have ever seen. You can see his growth from Primer to Upstream Color and we can only hope more directors show the kind of growth Carruth did between his first two works.
All Is Lost has made Shane Carruth no longer the Sole Survivor and its kind of funny that it’s J.C. Chandor’s film about a sole survivor that joins him on this list.
All Is Lost is an entirely different beast than Chandor’s first film, Margin Call, but it is compelling to see Chandor show off his talent in an entirely different arena of film. Mostly a dialogue free film, All Is Lost is still a master class in tension and shows off Chandor’s power through visuals after Margin Call showing off his power through words. All Is Lost can be beautiful one minute and terrifying the next and a ton of that credit has to go to Chandor’s script and direction here. Redford is great in the film, essential to the film’s success, but to see Chandor go from wrangling this giant ensemble cast to crafting this powerful one man show is an impressive feat.
I enjoyed both of Chandor’s films about equally, but they are almost impossible to compare. Regardless of which one I like more though, the film is clearly not a sophomore slump. It’s a giant step forward for Chandor, a showcase of his diverse talents, and has me eagerly anticipating his next effort which is bound to give him a budget to do just about what ever he wants to.
The Wait and See’s
Richard Ayode’s Submarine seemed like a film that was primed for my eyes based on everything I heard, but I was rather lukewarm on it overall. That said, I am very excited for his follow up The Double. It has already started screening at the fall festivals and word is that Ayode might be able to join Carruth in avoiding the slump. Jesse Eisenberg and Mia Wasikowska are two of my favorite young stars and the more bits I hear about this, the more interested I am in seeing it. I hope to be able to write it up under the survivor label whenever I’ve finally laid eyes on it.
Scott Cooper’s Crazy Heart will mostly be remembered for winning Jeff Bridges an Oscar (will always think Colin Firth should have won for A Single Man this year and Bridges should have beat Firth in The King’s Speech the following for True Grit) and Colin Farrell sings country music. An affective film that was very well made, Cooper marked himself as one to watch even if Crazy Heart wasn’t a very substantial work. His follow up, Out of the Furnace, seems to be a much grittier and darker tale. After the disappearance of the lead’s younger brother, we follow the older siblings search for what exactly happened. With a cast that includes Christian Bale, Casey Affleck, Zoe Saldana, Woody Harrelson, Forest Whitaker, Sam Shepard and Willem Dafoe and that subject material, I would say Cooper is primed to pass his previous work along with Ayode and Chandor.
John Wells’ The Company Men was a timely and well acted drama around the financial crisis, but it was held back by being less biting than it could have been and asking for sympathy out of a bunch of rich white guys going broke. Wells and his cast do find some sympathetic ground, but his stamp as a director wasn’t really there. With a TV background I hope Wells evolves his visuals for his second feature, August: Osage County, because another strong ensemble, like Cooper, might have him avoid a slump as well. Look at this cast; Benedict Cumberbatch, Abigail Breslin, Ewan McGregor, Julia Roberts, Meryl Streep, Juliette Lewis, Dermot Mulroney, Sam Shepard (again!), Chris Cooper, Julianne Nicholson and Margo Martindale. Wow. We will see come Christmas which club Wells joins.
Ralph Fiennes’ debut, the modern Shakespeare adaptation of Coriolanus, was one I appreciated more than I enjoyed, but Fiennes certainly seemed more than capable behind the camera. His follow up effort, The Invisible Woman, finds him playing a very famous Charles Dickens who takes up a secret romance with a young woman for the remainder of his life. An adaptation of the very well received biography, The Invisible Woman: The Story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens, sounds like an intriguing premise and Fiennes assembled a nice cast of women to help bring it to life. Felicity Jones, Michelle Fairley and Kristin Scott Thomas are all bound to be good in this period piece and Tom Hollander rarely disappoints when he pops up in any picture. Hopefully Fiennes is able to bring a modern flair to this period romance and if he does I will most likely be very susceptible to being won over by it.
Thanks for reading this, exhaustive?, look at the year’s sophomore directorial efforts and if I missed anyone be sure to let me know and I can add them in. Let’s hope this year has just been an anomaly and that the remainder of 2013 and beyond brings us more promising improvements from our sophomore filmmakers.