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Chris Knipp
11-07-2004, 02:38 PM
A pull toward convention

A teenage boy smashes his would be girlfriend’s window and gets chased by the cops. He leaps out of a barn and lands on a plank driving a long nail through his foot – but surprises us by keeping on running, howling with pain, plank and all. When he’s taken to jail he’s patched up and released and given the plank back. When he gets home he carves it into a birthday present, a toy airplane for his little brother. This is how this movie begins.

Undertow takes place in an unnamed rural part of Georgia near water where at first we meet two boys, Chris and Tim Munn (Jamie Bell and the young Devon Alan) who live on a small isolated pig farm with their moody father, John Munn (Dermot Mulroney), a widower who’s buried himself in this far off place because he can’t deal with his wife’s passing. The action hinges on a set of gold coins that have an almost fairy-tale significance, and the Brothers Grimm were an influence on the story.

Yes indeed: the story. This new movie by much admired young American director David Gordon Green arouses disappointment in some of his fans who miss the quirky, stylized meanderings of his George Washington and All the Real Girls, because Undertow moves squarely into the more conventional world of plot and action. Others who like myself admired almost everything about his earlier efforts but their lack of a strong narrative line are glad that this time there is one. But no doubt it comes at a price. There's a tug of war between the old Green and the new one going on.

Suddenly John’s brother Deel Munn (Josh Lucas) unexpectedly appears, just out of jail and full of anger and envy. Deel’s arrival at the farm is electric in its effect. From then on the scene is nothing but tension. Mulroney and Lucas, if we discount the too-perfect hunkiness, make a good pair of brothers. Both are big, physical, attractive men whose faces aren’t unalike. Mulroney has sullenness about him; Lucas is edgy and aggressive. It turns out John’s late wife was Deel’s girlfriend first, and John stole her away from him, so the fraternal conflict was truly primal. Their confrontation makes you realize how successfully violence conveys a sense of structure in any story.

Green’s earlier movies fell flat for me -- George Washington was singular and engaging but went nowhere, and All the Real Girls had more character development but suffered from bad casting and embarrassing dialogue. At its worst moments, which tended to stick in the mind, both movies seemed like Hallmark cards for rural retards.

But Undertow does not disappoint, despite its flaws. It retains the distinctive style. But because it’s successfully plot-driven from very early on, the meanderings -- having a firm foundation in action and character -- come to seem engaging digressions rather than mere self-indulgence.

“Despite a few narrative confusions," Jonathan Rosenbaum has written of Undertow, “I found it pure magic.” You could be cynical and say it would take magic to justify the confusions. But Rosenbaum isn’t far wrong. For whatever faults it has, Undertow really sings.



COMPLETE REVIEW: http://www.chrisknipp.com/writing/viewtopic.php?p=363#363

arsaib4
11-07-2004, 10:43 PM
I found George Washington a peculiar effort also, but the kind which makes one excited about what's next! Some have spoken against the fact that it leaves too much to contemplate for the viewer without establishing any parameters for them to do so and that's not an invalid point, however, how often do you see that in American Cinema. The film is nicely complemented by the lucid camerawork and its characters, whether white or black, simply blend into the background. But even after studying the film from every angle, it still comes off as a collage of beautiful sequences which only looks good from afar.

David Gordon Green certainly delivers with his next I believe, with All the Real Girls, and I think we have a disagreement here. I didn't exactly see the film recently so I'm gonna do my best with specific detail. I thought the performance by Zooey Deschanel was award-worthy. Originally seen as a naiveté -along with what Paul Schneider’s character sees- her portrayal of entering "womanhood" is with a certain authority. We later see her being appreciated for her true worth. Deschanel's Noel moves back from a bigger city so we don't see the same mannerisms that we see in other girls and she's hasn't done enough films to be an "indie pinup queen."

One the other hand Paul Schneider's performance leaves much to be desired; he's a lesser actor than Deschanel and it clearly shows. Although I wasn't expecting his character to be similar to his friend and Deschanel's brother - the more masculine, rugged, slightly dangerous (the kind Green apparently has in Undertow according to you) - but I didn't buy him as a womanizer either or someone who would be best friends with her brother. I can't imagine what a better actor would've done with some of the sequences in the film which demanded him to act after the realization that Deschanel has a certain authority over him and he's powerless to do anything about it (People who have been in love know exactly what I’m talking about). The most brilliant of those sequences occurs after Paul finds out that Noel has lost her virginity in a one-night-stand to someone she doesn't even know and the exchange between the two is untamely ferocious. It's one of the most pure and honest sequences I’ve seen in recent films and it deserves to be ranked with the best of Pialat, who was a master of creating such emotional set-pieces.

The film however is less than perfect, especially when it doesn't have the two of them together. The dialogue between Paul and his mother played by Patricia Clarkson (at her most annoying) is contrived and the whole clown-business doesn't belong in this film. The film is an emotional tug of war that truly captures the feeling of being in love and when at it's best, it's as exhilarating as Linklater's Sunrise and Sunset. I'm a bit surprised that you used the words "rural retards," apparently because of the pace the film and its characters inhabit as they live with a certain rhythm, which belongs to a certain part of this country.

While other "indie auteurs" are sticking with their usual tricks and turns (plot contrivances, excessive dialogue etc,.) Gordon Green has enough confidence in himself to leave his characters somewhere out there in their lonesome, simply staring at each other.

Chris Knipp
11-08-2004, 12:28 AM
Great comment.

I'm interested in what you have to say, but the arc of my discussion relies on reference to Undertow. I may seem unkind to Green's first two efforts, but look, what I'm saying is that this is probably one of the best movies of the year. The first two disappointed me more than they did you, at least the second one did (we seem in agreement on the first), but they nonetheless were indeed of a promise and originality to make one excited about what would come next, and this promise was confirmed by Undertow. It seems to be you acknowledge most of the faults of Green's first two movies, you just choose to like the second one more than I did.

I would have been disappointed if"Indie pinup queen" and "Hallmark cards for rural retards" didn't get a rise out of anybody. The mechanic in Undertow addresses his sidekick as "retard" and "retardo." True, Deschanel isn't old or experienced enough to be a "queen." Let's say "indie pinup girl," okay? She's one of the prettiest and most charming young actresses in indie film and as such she shines too brightly next to the lackluster Schneider, apart from his being an unconvincing Casanova (as you agree). I stand by most of what I said about All the Real Girls in my review of it http://www.chrisknipp.com/writing/viewtopic.php?t=138. There, I referred viewers to the film Tully in which Anson Mount has a similar role to Schneider's character but is much better cast and hence more convincing. You yourself say of All the Real Girls that elements "leave much to be desired" and the whole is "less than perfect." I hope you like Undertow as much as I do.


While other "indie auteurs" are sticking with their usual tricks and turns (plot contrivances, excessive dialogue etc,.) Gordon Green has enough confidence in himself to leave his characters somewhere out there in their lonesome, simply staring at each other.

You make him sound like some kind of rural Beckett. Undertow is quite different.

arsaib4
11-08-2004, 06:49 PM
Thanks for the link, I had no idea that you reviewed it. You're right about the fact that we have similar views on some of its shortcomings, however, I certainly appreciate the film's other aspects more than you do.

When you say, "Undertow is quite different," it worries me a bit. Obviously because I am looking for more of the same . If Green has compromised his vision in any way just so it can fit the mold of a revenge drama then it's worrisome. It's a bit premature to comment any further without having seen the film.

Here's a interesting interview of Green:

http://www.indiewire.com/people/people_041025green.html

Chris Knipp
11-08-2004, 10:47 PM
When you say, "Undertow is quite different," it worries me a bit. Obviously because I am looking for more of the same . If Green has compromised his vision in any way just so it can fit the mold of a revenge drama then it's worrisome. It's a bit premature to comment any further without having seen the film.I'm afraid you're going to go to see Undertow with the mindset of "I'm not going to like this, he's changed too much." And that's a shame if you do. But our mindsets don't always prove true. You may like it anyway. You, like many young idealistic film buffs, are far more pure than your idol, here. We can't really expect a director to keep making the same films over and over; only a few successfully do. If you admire him, why not trust him to do something different and still be good? I don't think you should feel that if your young cinematic poet learns more about how to make a conventional movie, he will somehow be ruined and corrupted. Incidentally, what's "the mold of a revenge drama"? Sounds like something out of the Elizabethan theater. I'm not sure there is such a mold, or that if there is, it affected Green in Undertow. The mold, if you want to call it that, is that he has a plot that pulls everything together, but as I've said, that doesn't keep him from his usual amiable and eccentric meanderings and observations or from his very keen and idiosyncratic sense of southern places.

I hadn't seen an interview with Green before. I'm interested in how new some of the basic techniques were to him, because he works outside the studio system and has made his own kind of (his term) "ruminative" movies.
One thing that was different is that a lot of the technical elements in the movie were new to me. Doing stunt work and doing more makeup, and using soft focus because the blood gags look fake, and being really particular about the color of blood. It's just a lot of logistics trying to execute stuff like that, action sequences and trying to make it safe. People did get hurt [nails in feet, broken ribs] and that's not good -- everybody was getting beat up and attacked, not only mother nature and the environment but by each other. It was a bonding experience. Had he begun in B pictures or horror movies like Demme or Cronenberg he'd have had this background. In fact there's one shot when an object is picked up and looked at and it's got that greasy wet fake blood look, and time has passed, and real blood would have dried. But this interview shows how hard they all worked, especially since it was a low-cost production in rough locales. Of course, the list of Seventies drive-in movies was useful. I haven't seen them. Arguably not all great influences, e.g. the freeze-frames, but it gave him a tradition to transcend in his own way.

Also liked hearing how Jamie Bell clicked for Green and even seemed like the sort of person he himself was at that age. Bell clicks in the movie as I've said: he's perfectly cast. He sounds American but there's hardly any southern accent, probably desirable for Green who mentions he hates hearing fake southern accents (as do I, having grown up partly in Virginia myself).
iW: Do you want to do bigger budget films?
Green: Yes, I definitely want to do bigger budget projects.
Watch out! If you think he's been corrupted in this one, wait till he gets a bigger budget. I foresee a trajectory like Demme's. He'll be great when he gets bigger budgets and more access to known actors. He'll make his Melvin and Howard and his Married to the Mob and his Something Wild. And then he'll make his Silence of the Lambs and his Philadelphia and it'll all go dead. It'll be interesting to watch though. I'm surprised he's writing for Sydney Pollack and a "high concept studio comedy" for Seann William Scott. The dude's not so pure after all! He's obviously not working in a void in the bayou.

arsaib4
11-09-2004, 02:16 AM
Originally posted by Chris Knipp

I'm afraid you're going to go to see Undertow with the mindset of "I'm not going to like this, he's changed too much." And that's a shame if you do. But our mindsets don't always prove true. You may like it anyway. You, like many young idealistic film buffs, are far more pure than your idol, here. We can't really expect a director to keep making the same films over and over; only a few successfully do. If you admire him, why not trust him to do something different and still be good?

You've taken my comments way out of context. I used the word "IF" and then didn't go any further since I haven't seen the film. But should I be surprised that YOU who didn't like his first two films (mainly because of what they were), gave a favorible review for his latest and in this case should you be the proper person to judge his path so far?

He's not my "idol" and I might be young but I'm not an "idealistic film buff." Malick's third effort after a 20 year hiatus was a big budget war film but how long did it take you to realize that it was HIS film? Same goes for Jarmusch and Tarantino, and that was what I referred to by "more of the same," but perhaps my choice of words was wrong and I should've explained myself further.

Films with 20M dollar budgets starring the likes of Jim Carrey and Robin Williams being directed by a Mexican or a Brit now pass for American Independent Cinema. Jarmursch made his debut in 1980; Soderbergh, Linklater and Tarantino were products of late eighties early nineties boom, but what has happened since? Almost nothing. There are always interesting "debut" films but then we see them making a buddy comedy or a comic-book adaptation. Is this why I'm being conservative? perhaps....and I think many people who care, are.

Green is naturally talented, he has a keen sense of behavioral patterns, like Malick he can make any shot no matter where, transcending, and you don't learn that in film school. I just hope if he's more comfortable making films in-and-about where he is then that's fine with me. We've seen that the same holds true for the likes of Scorsese and Mann among others.

Chris Knipp
11-09-2004, 04:44 PM
You seem to be negatively prejudging a film you haven't seen on the basis of what I've said in praise of it. An odd form of flattery.

But I understand your reservations. Sure, new directors sometimes quickly move into studio system predetermined jobs, though it doesn't happen necessarily right away.

If I was hard on David Gordon Green before, it's because he's so talented. With mediocrities one doesn't bother. I saw his first two films as showing promise that wasn't yet fulfilled, promise that is fulfilled in Undertow. Why does that disqualify me from judging his work? If you look at your own remarks in this thread, you acknowledge plenty of faults in the earlier work. We live in an imperfect world, but Green is a unique talent. It would be surprising if he went the way of big names like Scorsese and Mann* or drifted into buddy pictures with $20M stars. He has not strayed from his milieu in Undertow. On the other hand, you like Ozon, who reinvents himself with each new film. Green might manage some reinventing without ceasing to be good.

_________________________
*I don't know about Scorsese, whose work I've never really liked, but aren't Mann's Ali and The Insider fine efforts even if they're outside his home area?

arsaib4
11-09-2004, 11:06 PM
Well, we'll have wait and see the kind of choices Green makes in the future. Having a good rapport with Malick can only help.

One doesn't necessarily has to like Scorsese's films to acknowledge his strong associations with a certain time-period in the greatest of cities (I love his mid-late 70's/early 80's work but it hasn't been the same since). As for Mann, I believe Heat is his best by far, followed by Thief, I haven't seen 'The Insider' yet.

Chris Knipp
11-09-2004, 11:55 PM
What about Collateral? I thought you would be referring to that, which is taken as a return to what he does best, though it's of course a bit different from either Heat or Thief, if only much more concentrated in time. I think (since you asked) that Collateral is as good as Heat, but Thief is more of a character portrait than the other two.

I await your response to Undertow.

oscar jubis
11-14-2004, 02:25 PM
For a variety of personal reasons, I haven't had time to visit the site, let alone post my thoughts. My scarce leisure time completely invested in watching films lately. So here's a brief post about Undertow, the third film from a strong candidate to my favorite American director to emerge in the past 20 years.

I've written extensively about my love affair with George Washington and All The Real Girls, both of which placed in my year-end Top 10s. I'm quite likely to disagree with any criticism leveled at them. I've posted extensively about why I like them so much so I won't repeat myself.

The credit sequence/chase scene of Undertow should be all the evidence needed to convince anyone that Mr. Green is supremely talented. This is the first time he has resorted to genre cliches to hook a potential audience (the bag of gold coins and the Evil Uncle are nothing but genre staples). The latter is by far the least interesting character in a Gordon movie. I hope that Green views the plot as an excuse to show a milieu and characters rarely depicted in films (I haven't had time to read reviews and director interviews). I like Undertow because of the chance to meet characters like the childless couple that feed the kids chicken pot pies in exchange for doing a few chores. I like the film because of its pacing, because of the variety of punctuation devices used by Green and his DP, because of the rust, mold and grime of its locales, because of Jamie Bell's performance...
I couldn't honestly care less about the gold coins, and the monster uncle, and the color of blood. This "pull toward convention" worried me, as a DGG fan. But there's plenty here of what made me devoted to his cinema in the first place.

Chris Knipp
11-14-2004, 02:57 PM
That is encouraging, and you didn't say "in spite of" anything, accenting the positive -- except for the "evil uncle," as you call him. Do you like the father, then? I could be a troublemaker and say you're trying to ignore elements of Undertow in order to like it. The coins are not discountable (no pun intended). They are a central plot element. You have avoided the issue of plot, and this time more than before that is a central element too. But I'm simply glad you liked it, because I did, while not having been satisfied (or in love with anyway) David Gordon Green's two previous movies. I don't want his previous fans to abandon him one by one (and some of him have expressed disapproval of this new one). I like your idea of a "genre* hook" and your praise of the opening sequence, which is brilliant. And it's basically an action sequence, not something he went in for before.

*There's more than one genre, wouldn't you say?

Howard Schumann
11-15-2004, 10:29 AM
UNDERTOW

Directed by David Gordon Green (2004)

"I wanted to make men that were funny and sad and angry and happy all at the same time, to try to make a more complicated emotion out of it." - David Gordon Green

In Undertow, the third film by David Gordon Green (George Washington, All the Real Girls), two young brothers, Tim (Devon Allen) and Chris (Jamie Bell), flee their home in rural Georgia after their father (Dermot Mulroney) is murdered by his convict brother Deel (Josh Lucas). Co-produced by Terrence Malick, Undertow has aspects of a conventional thriller but it bears Green's unmistakable languid, dreamy style, though many are comparing it to Terrence Malick's Badlands and Charles Laughton's classic Night of the Hunter. Using an abundance of yellow, brown, and red tones, Cinematographer Tim Orr effectively captures the atmosphere of the poor South with its abandoned spaces, junkyards, urban rot, and backwoods pig farms. Green has a feel for the way people talk and the dialogue achieves a rare naturalism but it is not a film in the neo-realist tradition. Its lyrical tone puts it in more in the land of Huck Finn and Robinson Crusoe, territory reserved for myth and poetry.

Using freeze frames, slow motion, color manipulation, and transitional fades, the opening sequence captures Chris's escape from his girl friend's menacing father after he accidentally breaks a window trying to alert her of his presence. Impaling his foot on a board and nail, he stumbles home with his foot bleeding severely and later uses the board to make an airplane to give to his 10-year old brother, Tim. In a subplot makes us aware of the eccentricity of the characters, Tim has some strange stomach problems, and eats paint and dirt to induce vomiting, a condition, according to the director who suffered the same malady, called pica brought on by malnourishment. The early pace is leisurely but things heat up when Uncle Deel shows up. Recently out of prison, he harbors resentments against his brother for marrying his sweetheart and taking part of his inheritance of Mexican gold coins. Oddly, his brother invites him to stay at the farm but we can tell that he's there for more than hominy grits and southern fried chicken.

Resentment soon turns to violence and the boys, threatened by the wounded uncle, escape on foot seeking out food and shelter wherever it is available. On the run, they undertake a nightmarish journey through forests and swamps, on freight cars and foot, spending time with people living on the margins: a friendly black couple and some runaway girls who Chris is drawn to out of loneliness and fear. As Uncle Deel closes in, the film becomes less about the chase and more about the characters and the relationship between the brothers. Jamie Bell, the English actor who played Billy Eliot, turns in a magnificent performance as Chris and Josh Lucas is convincing as the deranged uncle. Utilizing a haunting score by Philip Glass, Undertow gradually builds its low-key tension to a power that becomes riveting. In spite of some repetitive chase scenes and a few superfluous camera tricks, it is Green's best film and deserves more than a limited release.

GRADE: A-

Chris Knipp
11-15-2004, 01:21 PM
Great review and very well written as usual, good on the techniques, comprehensive yet brief. Good point to mention Robinson Crusoe. My only differences would be failure to mention that Chris was taken to the police station and didn't go straight home as you imply, and your choice not to relate this film specifically to Green's other two or contrast it with them in any way (which of course was my main interest and I think a very important thing). But impressive effort in descrbing the film so thoroughly in so few words.

Howard Schumann
11-15-2004, 01:39 PM
Originally posted by Chris Knipp
Great review and very well written as usual, good on the techniques, comprehensive yet brief. Good point to mention Robinson Crusoe. My only differences would be failure to mention that Chris was taken to the police station and didn't go straight home as you imply, and your choice not to relate this film specifically to Green's other two or contrast it with them in any way (which of course was my main interest and I think a very important thing). But impressive effort in descrbing the film so thoroughly in so few words. Thanks very much. It's much appreciated.

cinemabon
11-16-2004, 06:04 PM
Ebert's take:

http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20041021/REVIEWS/40923002/1023

Chris Knipp
11-17-2004, 03:48 AM
Ebert is overrated (by the general public) and often underrated or ignored by the serious film buff. This review is a little gem, unpretentious and postiive, offering something both to the Green fan and the newcomer.
[David Gordon Green] has achieved what few directors ever do: After watching one of his films for a scene or two, you know who directed it. His style has been categorized as "Southern Gothic," but that's too narrow. I sense a poetic merging of realism and surrealism; every detail is founded on fact and accurate observation, but the effect appeals to our instinct for the mythological. This fusion is apparent when his characters say something that (a) sounds exactly as if it's the sort of thing they would say, but (b) is like nothing anyone has ever said before. I'm thinking of lines like, "He thinks about infinity. The doctor says his brain's not ready for it." Or "Can I carve my name in your face?" I don't know if such dialogue illustrates such a fusion, but it's a comment that might relate Undertow with George Washington and All the Real Girls and neatly pulls together some of Ebert's best observations.