Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Revisiting 1999: The Top Ten Films of the Year, #4 --- Three Kings (David O. Russell)

Sorry this one is so short and more like an outline. I just knew that if I didn't get this posted soon I never would. So here's some brief, and somewhat unorganized, thoughts on one of my very favorite films of the 90's. Here's where I've covered so far in case you've forgotten:

The Top 10 Films of 1999:
5- The Insider (Michael Mann)

1999 was the revival of American cinema. It marked a new age, a revolution spear-headed by the likes of Spike Jonze, Paul Thomas Anderson, Wes Anderson, and David O. Russell. It was also a revival for their masters like Martin Scorsese, Terrance Malick, and Michael Mann. This mix of young and old reminds one of the 60's and 70's, a time in film history that most consider being the acme of filmmaking. These two signposts of film history show filmmakers taking Hollywood films, and conventions, and turning them on their ear. David Russell, director of the brilliant Three Kings, was one of the most impressive to come out of this movement.

What made Three Kings so memorable was the way Russell took 60's/70's filmmaking sensibilities and turned them into a wry look at Gulf War 1. This film is essentially a slapstick social commentary mixed with a little "moral-of-the-story" type drama for good measure. And it's impressive that Russell, an infamously difficult director to work for, was able to pull off all the varying tones he asks of his actors, and visual motifs he and his crew attempt.

What's most memorable about the film is its style. Russell washed out the look of his film to evoke a sense of being out in the desert. What seems like a simple parlor trick is actually quite affective as Russell and his cinematographer constantly give us scene after scene of something we've, visually, never seen before. For example you have the fantastic lesson on what a bullet does when it enters the body. Instead of simply telling us or showing us stock footage off of some old science medical video, Russell takes us inside the body, with the bullet, as George Clooney's character tells what happens and why. It's probably the most memorable part of the film.

Another interesting thing about the film, and one of the reasons it still stands out to me, is the fact that Russell slows things down during the battles. Long before this was the norm for action films Russell was playing with the conventions of the action film. Consider the scene that is the catalyst for the three kings (Clooney, Spike Jonze, Ice Cube, and Mark Whalberg) to not just go on their personal mission to steal Saddam's gold, but to actually help the people being held captive. There's no political grandstanding here, and even though the American soldiers end up helping the Kuwaiti refugees, Russell doesn't let you forget that they were initially there to steal gold. When one of the refugees is shot, a shootout breaks out, and Russell – in visceral fashion – slows the shootout down to show the bullets hitting people, and how confusing something like that be as the camera zip pans from one person to the next getting shot.

Russell's social commentary is right-on, too. His film opens with someone asking "are we shooting?" And as an Iraqi soldier waves a white flag a jumpy, trigger happy American soldier played by Mark Whalberg takes his head off. From the onset Russell is telling us how confusing, unorganized, and altogether boring that war was, and that people would do anything for some "action". Like a more action-packed version of Cacth-22, Russell's film takes a hilariously satirical look at the monotony of such a war.

Three Kings is a film where frame is alive with something that pops off the screen. Russell gives us scenes of exhilarating action, hilariously spot-on satire, beautiful cinematography showcasing the starkness of the desert, and interesting POV shots of bullets entering stomachs or people watching as they operate them. I think it's safe to say that Russell really popularized the washed out look after Spielberg used it in his Saving Private Ryan a year earlier, and made such action clichés as zip pans and slow motion interesting to watch, instead of the passé tropes they've become today. It's rare for a film to feel so alive, even ten years later. Here's a film that made even bigger stars out of all three of its leads, and solidified Russell as one of the premier members of the new wave of American filmmaking. In the 70's you had Spielberg, Coppola, Lucas, De Palma, and Scorsese; and in 1998/99 you had Wes Anderson, P.T. Anderson, Spike Jonze, and David O. Russell. I think American film is in good hands for at least another 30 years.

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