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5 Great & 5 Disappointing English-Language Debuts By Foreign-Language Directors

by The Playlist Staff
February 28, 2013 11:01 AM
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"Dark Water" - Walter Salles
"Dark Water" - Walter Salles (2005)
Brazilian director Walter Salles, known primarily for art house smash "The Motorcycle Diaries," decided to make his English language debut with "Dark Water," a moldy horror movie based on a Japanese film directed by Hideo Nakata, who made a similarly unimpressive domestic debut with "The Ring Two" (see above). "Dark Water," ostensibly about the terror that befalls a young single mother (Jennifer Connelly, in another disastrous post-Oscar dud) and her young daughter (Ariel Gade) after they move into a shady apartment building, plays like a laundry list of things that are laughably not, at all, in any way scary: mold (well maybe this is scarier if you have allergies), puddles, Roosevelt Island, and John C. Reilly. The central mystery, about a young girl that went missing from the same apartment building years earlier, never builds appropriately and Salles, who has a more impressionistic style than the story demanded, poorly handles the suspense, even with a cast of solidly weird character actors/red herrings (among them: Tim Roth, Dougray Scott and Pete Postlethwaite). Glacially paced and muddily photographed, "Dark Water" was one of a host of Americanized Asian horror tales (others included "The Grudge," "The Uninvited" and the instantly forgettable, one-time Wes Craven project "Pulse") that mistook a vaguely menacing, eerie atmosphere for actual scariness, poorly grafting a Western sensibility onto things that worked much better in their original, Eastern form. No wonder that, after some short film noodles, Salles would return with the beat generation tale "On the Road."

"My Blueberry Nights" - Wong Kar-Wai
"My Blueberry Nights" - Wong Kar-Wai (2007)
Coming as it did from one of the most acclaimed filmmakers alive, the man behind "In The Mood For Love," widely regarded as the best film of the 2000s, excitement was obviously high ahead of the premiere of "My Blueberry Nights," the English-language debut of director Wong-Kar Wai. It starred singer Norah Jones, in her acting debut, as a woman who's traveling through the country to try and recover from a love affair, meeting various lonely figures, including Jude Law's Mancunian-in-exile cafe owner, David Strathairn's alcoholic cop and Rachel Weisz as his estranged wife, and Natalie Portman as a broke poker player (Chan Marshall, aka Cat Power, also features in a small role). On paper, it looked like pretty much the best thing ever, and there are things to like it about it -- it looks typically gorgeous, even though Kar-Wai had split from regular DoP Christopher Doyle in favor of Darius Khondji, and Strathairn's performance in particular is excellent. But something is lost in translation; the film feels like the product of a film student smitten by Wong's earlier work, rather than the real deal, and lacks in any real substance. The emotion and dialogue feels false even in the hands of talented actors, Jones is something of a blank at the center, and it somehow feels like the filmmaker's heart isn't quite in it. The film picked up poor reviews when it premiered at Cannes, and Wong returned home for his long-in-the-offing martial arts opus "The Grandmaster," which finally hit cinemas in China last month.

Honorable Mentions: On the good side of things, while Francois Truffaut's "Fahrenheit 451" doesn't stand with the best of his work, it's a pretty solid first (and only) attempt at English-language cinema. Further back, Fritz Lang didn't skip a beat when he came to America to make "Fury," while Luis Bunuel's "The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe" is worth checking out too, although perhaps not one for the canon. We adore Roman Polanski's English-language debut "Repulsion," but we've written about it a lot of late here (the same is true of Ang Lee's "Sense & Sensiblity"), while Werner Herzog's "Where The Green Ants Dream" is better than its reputation. Milos Forman's "Taking Off" is underrated, as is Ingmar Bergman's "The Touch," while more recently, Alfonso Cuaron, Susanne Bier and Tomas Alfredson made impressive English-language films with "A Little Princess," "Things We Lost In The Fire" and "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy."

On the less happy side of things, as we've already seen, remaking your own work is never a good idea, as George Sluizer, Ole Bornedal and Danny and Oxide Pang demonstrated with "The Vanishing," "Nightwatch" and "Bangkok Dangerous." Like Wong Kar-Wai, Chen Kaige got lost in translation with "Killing Me Softly," while Fassbinder's "Despair" is far from his best work. And more recently, Thomas Vinterberg and Oliver Hirschbiegel both dropped the ball with "It's All About Love" and "The Invasion."

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  • cirkusfolk | February 28, 2013 3:37 PMReply

    Oh comon. Where is Mimic and Alien Resurrection? The two most notorious.

  • wes | February 28, 2013 1:02 PMReply

    Agree with everything, but Hard Target and Constant Gardner should be swapped. :)

  • Ville | February 28, 2013 12:45 PMReply

    "Breaking the Waves" was not Lars von Trier's english language debut...his first film, "Element of Crime" was also in english...bad research! BAD RESEARCH! :)

  • yer | February 28, 2013 12:26 PMReply

    My Blueberry Nights is truly awful. I'm glad there hasn't been an attempt at some sort of revisionist history because he's such a popular director.

  • Tom | February 28, 2013 12:06 PMReply

    I know that Fear X was a box office failure, but I really liked it. So I wonder where The Playlist places Refn's English debut?

  • Tobi | February 28, 2013 11:58 AMReply

    Thank you for mentioning 'The Constant Gardener,' I love that film, and I keep getting shit for it from everyone I know. The rest of Meirelles' catalogue though, like mentioned, I don't know what happened there and it's brutal.

  • Ras | February 28, 2013 11:51 AMReply

    Breaking The Waves is not Trier's first English language film. Both Element of Crime and Europa are in English.

  • Ras | February 28, 2013 11:49 AMReply

    Breaking The Waves is not Trier's first English language film. Both Element of Crime and Europa are in English.

  • Eds | February 28, 2013 12:40 PM

    We took some creative license there. They're not all in English, (at least not Europa), but I see your point and will amend.

  • RC | February 28, 2013 11:40 AMReply

    "...but you can feel every cut and meddling hand, like a bullet to the head."

    Nice touch, hahaha.

  • Marie | February 28, 2013 11:20 AMReply

    The constant gardener is one of my favorite movies, awasome, perfect! I loved the book too.

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