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Anonymous and Other Major Director Change-Ups

by Ethan Alter October 25, 2011 12:13 pm
<i>Anonymous</i> and Other Major Director Change-Ups

The last filmmaker you'd associate with an Elizabethan-era drama exploring the identity of the "real" author behind the work of William Shakespeare would be Roland Emmerich, the director of such spectacle-driven, explosion-filled entertainments as Independence Day, The Day After Tomorrow and 2012. And yet, there's Emmerich's name in the credits for the already-controversial Anonymous, which opens in theaters on Friday. It's a daunting departure for Emmerich, but he's far from the first director that's attempted to upend his image by accepting an assignment that seems well outside of his comfort zone. Here are some of the other biggest directorial change-ups from within the past decade or so.

Kenneth Branagh
Usually Makes: All-star movie versions of famous Shakespearean plays.
The Change-Up: Thor (2011), a big-budget comic-book spectacle that sends the Marvel Comics hero from the halls of Asgard to the wide-open desert of the American Southwest.
Did It Work? In terms of box-office, yes; the film was one of the summer's highest-grossing entertainments. But creatively, it's all over the place and Branagh clearly struggles with the large-scale, effects-filled action set-pieces. The film's just barely held together by Chris Hemsworth's charismatic performance in the title role.

Wes Craven
Usually Makes: Generation-defining horror movies that are then remade by other people twenty years later.
The Change-Up: Music of the Heart (1999), an inspirational drama starring Meryl Streep as a violin teacher that attempts to school a class of underprivileged kids in the importance of music.
Did It Work? With its schmaltzy storyline and cutesy kid antics, Music of the Heart is pretty horrific in completely unintentional ways (although it did net Streep her 12th Oscar nomination, which she lost to Hilary Swank's star-making turn in Boys Don't Cry). Craven promptly returned to the horror genre, where he's stayed ever since.

Marc Forster
Usually Makes: Tony art house fare that often wins the movies' lead actors awards attention.
The Change-Up: Quantum of Solace (2008), the 22nd film in the James Bond series and the second to star Daniel Craig as the secret agent, sending him in pursuit of the men that killed his lover, Vesper Lynd.
Did It Work? Not really; Quantum was a big letdown after the fine franchise relaunch that was Casino Royale, largely because Forster didn't bring the same kinetic energy to the picture that more experienced action director Martin Campbell lent to the earlier film. Still, Forster is admirably trying to live by the maxim, "If at first you don't succeed, try, try again." He just released Machine Gun Preacher starring Gerard Butler and is currently filming the post-apocalyptic zombie flick World War Z with Brad Pitt and Matthew Fox.

Michel Gondry
Usually Makes: Offbeat, low-budget dramedies that hipsters and film buffs love and everyone else mostly ignores.
The Change-Up: The Green Hornet (2011), a potential blockbuster franchise starring Seth Rogen as the semi-obscure crime-fighter from a '30s radio series and a '60s TV show.
Did It Work? While far from perfect, Gondry's Green Hornet is a light, silly spin on the usual superhero fare. The director's preference for practical effects over computer-generated wizardry (the "Kato vision" stuff excepted) also works in the film's favor, grounding the humor in a recognizable reality. Although the movie wasn't a smash hit, it performed above expectations, which may earn Gondry another shot at a studio vehicle if he wants it.

David Gordon Green
Usually Makes: Slow-paced indie dramas about life, love and, occasionally, death in small-town America.
The Change-Up: Pineapple Express (2008), a raucous Seth Rogen stoner comedy that plays like Cheech and Chong-meets-Lethal Weapon.
Did It Work? Yes, thanks mostly to a cast that includes James Franco (giving one of his best-ever performances), Danny McBride, Craig Robinson and Gary Cole. The success of Pineapple also launched Green on a whole other career trajectory as he's directed nothing but comedies ever since, from episodes of McBride's HBO series Eastbound & Down to this spring's fantasy spoof, Your Highness. Next up is a Jonah Hill vehicle, The Sitter, due in theaters in December. The change has left some of Green's early fans (like Roger Ebert, who wrote a vicious pan of Your Highness) flummoxed, but the director himself seems perfectly content.

Peter Jackson
Usually Makes: Gonzo horror movies with lots of blood, guts and depraved puppets.
The Change-Up: The Lord of the Rings Trilogy (2001-2003), three majestic films based on J.R.R. Tolkien's seminal fantasy epic.
Did It Work? Did it ever. Although Jackson had never directed a film -- let alone three -- on the sheer size and scale of Lord of the Rings, he threw himself into the project with a showman's eye for spectacle and a fan's passion for getting it right. The trilogy immediately vaulted him onto Hollywood's A-list and got him the green light to direct his dream project, 2005's King Kong.

Spike Lee
Usually Makes: Provocative, emotionally charged dramas about social issues, particularly race, that are designed to push the audience's buttons.
The Change-Up: 4 Little Girls (1997), a wrenching documentary about the bombing of an African-American church during the civil rights movement.
Did It Work? Most definitely; in addition to being one of his finest films, 4 Little Girls received an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary and led Lee to start a second career helming such excellent non-fiction features as The Original Kings of Comedy and When the Levees Broke.

Robert Rodriguez
Usually Makes: Over-the-top action movies that blend broad humor and insanely violent gunplay.
The Change-Up: Spy Kids (2001), a kid-friendly thriller about a pair of tykes that save their parents (and the world) from an evil villain with the help of some nifty spy toys.
Did It Work? Rodriguez's youthful energy and love of slapstick always made him a natural fit to direct a kids movie. And the first two Spy Kids outings are tons of fun, with wildly inventive set-pieces and deliberately cartoony effects. Unfortunately, his recent kiddie fare like Shorts and the fourth Spy Kids outing has been increasingly grating and obnoxious. It may be time for him to go back to playing with the grown-ups for a while.

Kevin Smith
Usually Makes: Raunchy comedies about pop-culture obsessed overgrown adolescents that nevertheless wind up having a sweet center.
The Change-Up: Red State (2011), a bloody thriller about a radical fundamentalist Christian sect that squares off against the heavily-armed army of ATF agents stationed outside the walls of their compound.
Did It Work? Yeah, kind of. Red State is a messy movie, but for the first time in a long time, Smith didn't seem on autopilot behind the camera. We'll see if that renewed energy lasts...

Andrew Stanton and Brad Bird
Usually Make: Animated movies about robots, missing fish and families with superpowers.
The Change-Up: Both members of Pixar's celebrated brain trust are poised to make their live-action debuts in the next few months, Stanton with the intergalactic adventures John Carter and Bird with the fourth Mission Impossible film, Ghost Protocol.
Did It Work? We'll have to wait and see. The team dynamics of The Incredibles should prep Bird for putting Tom Cruise's IMF outfit through their paces and Stanton got a crash-course in spaceship action via Wall-E. But the transition from animation to live action can be a tricky one -- after all, for every Tim Burton, there's a Jimmy "Jonah Hex" Hayward.

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