Friday, July 10, 2009
installment of the Ice Age franchise. The prehistoric heroic trio, consisting of mammoths Manny (voiced by Ray Romano) and Ellie (Queen Latifah), and saber-toothed tiger Diego (Denis Leary), embarks on a journey to save their sloth friend Sid (John Leguizamo) after an angry mama T-Rex captures him. Sid earns the theropod's wrath when he takes her eggs and attempts to raise them as his own. This and other disruptive behavior, we learn, is prompted by the impending birth of Ellie and Manny's new baby mammoth. Soon, a rescue mission unfolds in the land of dinosaurs, and we meet series newcomer Buck (Simon Pegg), a one-eyed scavenger weasel, who incites most of the film's humor ("Time to get buckwild!") and becomes an indispensable ally in navigating the perilous tropical getaway. Dawn of the Dinosaurs lacks the magic of the first Ice Age, but its story is more compelling than the inane but well-intentioned global warming-themed second installment, The Meltdown. One hopes, however, that parents won't use this film, in which dinosaurs live among Ice Age mammals, for educational purposes.
Courtesy of Independent Weekly.
Saturday, June 20, 2009
After working three years for Margaret (Bullock), a Type-A uppity control freak, and hating every minute of it, Andrew (Reynolds) decides to marry her so she can keep her job and he can, thereby, keep his. The newly engaged couple travels to Alaska for a 90th birthday party for his grandmother (Betty White) in order to keep up the ruse for Mr. Gilbertson, the immigration officer (Denis O’Hare) set on exposing them. Mr. Gilbertson informs Andrew that he risks $250,000 in fines and five years in prison. Andrew is undeterred: Clearly, facing jail time is nothing compared to the fear of being jobless in this economy. Nonetheless, Andrew and Margaret persevere with their scheme. And wouldn’t you know it, a weekend with Andrew’s family warms Margaret’s frozen heart, completely revolutionizing her outlook on life and her misguided values. Still, there are several moments of broad comedy, however, that may amuse some viewers, as when Oscar Nuñez performs a bachelorette striptease, or when Betty White feels up Bullock’s breasts, or the accidental naked encounter between Bullock and Reynolds. Although some of this shtick succeeds, the film fails to bring something truly original and clever, which is the crux of the problem for the entire film. It’s hard to dislike Bullock in any role that she plays, and Reynolds brings ample sex appeal, but in this film their chemistry is forced and unbelievable—a problem that seems to run deeper than being merely a function of their 12-year age difference. (Bullock, by the way, puts women half her age to shame by nearly baring all). After such recent comic dreck as Miss Congeniality 2: Armed and Fabulous and Two Weeks Notice, one wishes that Bullock would give up this genre and return to more dramatic roles of the sort that she excelled at in Crash and 28 Days. Here’s a proposal: Skip this film and use your money to rent While You Were Sleeping, the romance that solidified her as a leading lady 15 years ago and remains one of her best.
Monday, March 30, 2009
In this sequence Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth are at a ball in Netherfeld, the country home of Mr. Darcy’s best friend Mr. Bingley. At this point in the story, Mr. Darcy has just asked Elizabeth to dance. She consents even though Elizabeth despises him because of his arrogance and treatment towards Mr. Wickham, a former acquaintance of Darcy and recent love interest of Elizabeth’s. The sequence begins as they both line up to dance at 38:45 minutes of film time and ends at 41:18 minutes, consisting of five shots.
As the film cuts from shot 1 to shot 2, the music, Dario Marianelli’s “A Postcard to Henry Purcell,” begins. Shot 2 reveals what the men were gazing at with a row of female dance partners bowing and shown at a medium oblique angle. This shot seems to be the opposite of shot 1, thus paralleling the differences between men and women. Instead of a line of men, we have a line of eight women, including Elizabeth and her sister, Jane, in profile facing right. All of them are dressed in white with their hair perfectly coifed. Unlike shot 1, the shot widens from left to right and focus narrows from right to left perfectly onto Elizabeth. Similarly, however, the characters next to Elizabeth are shorter thereby drawing attention to her. What’s more, a very similar mise-en-scène can be seen in this shot to that of shot 1. This shot, too, is brief, lasting only three seconds.
As the ladies rise from their bows, the film cuts to shot 3. At first cinematographically it appears the same as shot 1 but then continues on as a long take, running about two minutes without any cuts, of Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth dancing. In this shot, the camera is somewhat static, only moving laterally as the characters’ dancing gives the impression of a figure eight. Only Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy are in focus. This is the first shot that has dialogue spoken and our two protagonists seem to dance around each other through biting banter just as much as they do via actual dancing. It starts off with small talk as the music plays softly and smoothly. However, as music begins to slowly swell the banter becomes more sarcastic as Elizabeth responds to Mr. Darcy’s inquiry of whether she speaks as a rule while dancing with “No, I prefer to be unsociable and taciturn.” Furthermore, the circles and turns of the dance increase with the sarcasm of the dialogue. The music of the violins soars as Mr. Darcy finally loses his cool and stops to confront Elizabeth when she asks about losing Mr. Wickham’s friendship. Through clenched teeth he retorts, “Why do you ask such a question?” This is were the tension between the two characters is at its highest. Both are battling with their desire to loathe and love the person standing before them.
Suddenly the director cuts into shot 4 as the music reaches it’s crescendo and Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth begin to dance again. However, the mise-en-scène of this shot is devoid of people. The people from the ball disappear and all that can be seen is the two of them dancing. They are fixed so intensely on each other that everyone else has disappeared from the dance. In fact, their stares are so powerful that the sexual tension can be felt through the screen. The camera in this shot becomes less stagnant and it seems to move around the two protagonists unlike it had before. This gives an otherworldly impression that they are flying and are not constrained to the floor.
Shot 4 seems more prominent and significant than the other shots not only because of the changed mise-en-scène but also because of Wright’s editing. According to Graeme Turner in his book, Film as Social Practice, he notes that a director “can use the timing of their cuts either to enhance the energy of the action, or to slow it down” (88) and in moments of action, cuts increase the drama. Because shot 3 had been so stagnant and fixed, as well as long, the cut to shot 4 was more apparent and jarring. This edit conveys the importance of shot 4 and thus the magnitude of its contents: the sexual tension between Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth.
The last cut occurs when the music ends and Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy bow to each other. Shot 5 resembles shot 2 with the ladies all in line except now they are in the same position the men were in shot 1. The sequence finally ends with Lizzie glaring off-screen, presumably to Mr. Darcy, and the other ladies clapping.
Based on this sequence, the camera seems to follow Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth without ever giving the spectator a real clear indication of who is watching, an important question that Daniel Dayan brings up in his essay “The Tutor-Code of Classical Cinema.” Once that question is posed the spectator becomes aware of the mechanics of film and "[the film] must hide its operations, 'naturalizing' its functioning and its messages in some way" (126) in order for that impression of reality to work. Conventionally, in order to prevent this questioning of "who is watching" is to use “the shot/reverse-shot” and thus to suture “the hole opened in the spectator's imaginary relationship with the filmic field by his perception of the absent-one" (128), with the "absent-one" being the off-screen character that is viewing the scene unfold.
Because of this lack of suturing we are forced to identify with the camera’s viewpoint, as Christian Metz coins in his essay “Identification, Mirror,” as our primary identification. With no identification of who is looking, “the spectator can do no other than identify with the camera, too, which has looked before him at what he is now looking” (804). Our voyeuristic pleasure in this case is purely derived from just watching as the camera does. This is voyeurism at its most primal. Director Joe Wright purposely does this in order to increase the spectator’s viewing pleasure and enjoyment of the romantic sequence.
This dance sequence is one of the more beautiful scenes in the movie. Wright navigates the camera through it as smoothly as the music playing in the background. He wonderfully conveys, via film narrative, what Jane Austen tried to demonstrate in her beloved work of so many years ago, creating a visually pleasurable sequence for the spectator.
Friday, March 27, 2009
While watching Yimou Zhang's film, Hero, I had this very idea in mind. First, I must say, this film was perhaps one of the most visually stunning movies I have ever seen since Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. The mise-en scene in this film is spectacular and is meant to invoke visual pleasure for the spectator's wandering eyes. The spectator is mesmerized by the gorgeous colors, costumes, and settings, not to mention the acrobatic insanity that ensues for most of the film. All of these elements help to enhance the story and make it more pleasing to that ever-fickle moviegoer.
However, those same acrobatic feats are what make the movie suspend reality and introduce skepticism into the spectator's mind. The action in this film is so unbelievable and magical that the spectator wonders exactly how these amazing shots could be made. For example, the scene on the lake (shown below) is incredible.
Jet Li (Nameless) and Tony Leung (Broken Sword) share an epic battle while practically defying gravity as they fly over the water. Not only that, but the water itself serves as a balancing board for them to regain their battling composure. It's stunning! Yet as soon as the spectator starts questioning how the shot was made the illusion of the story is gone and discourse comes to the forefront. Therefore, the supposed reality of the film comes into question and the pleasure derived from self-identification is somewhat lost. Pleasure can be derived from the amazing visuals, but it is not as intense as primary identification would be.
On the other hand, if there are an abundant amount of gravity defying stunts in the film, there are just as many close-ups. I believe that is where the true pleasure of the film comes from and thus when voyeurism is at it's highest. The spectator is not only watching these characters and objects, but he/she can see also them in detail. In her essay, "The Close-up," Bela Balasz explains close-ups "radiate a tender human attitude in the contemplation of hidden things, a delicate solicitude, a gentle bending over the intimacies of life-in the miniature, a warm sensibility." It is this sneak peek into a previously "hidden thing," as Balasz says, that we enjoy in film. (Hidden in the sense that it is not as defined or able to be seen in detail in long or medium shots.)
In the first ten minutes of Hero alone there are at least 15 or more close-ups showing the spectator a hidden secret, hidden object, or hidden emotion that could not have been seen in a long shot. Throughout the film there are numerous more and each one provides a hidden insight. When they are all combined in the final product, the spectator can derive far more voyeuristic pleasure from the close-ups then he/she could from the discourse-revealing gravity defying acrobatic fights. It's possible that by juxtaposing these two opposites it enhances the visual pleasure even more.
Perhaps I am a bit biased since I was watching the film under the pretense of finding some kind of meaning in order to write this blog or to have something to say about it in class. If I was just going to see the movie in theaters maybe I wouldn't be focused on any of the technical aspects but would rather just be amazed by the extravagant beauty of the movements, settings, and costumes. Who knows? Maybe by studying film itself we are more attune to the discourse and often forget to just enjoy the story.
Sunday, February 22, 2009
Here are the winners:
Actress in a Supporting Role - Penelope Cruz (Vicky Cristina Barcelona)
Writing (Original Screenplay) - Milk
Writing (Adapted Screenplay) - Slumdog Millionaire
Animated Feature Film - Wall-E
Short Film (Animated) - La Maison en Petits Cubes
Art Direction - The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Costume Design - The Duchess
Makeup - The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Cinematography - Slumdog Millionaire
Short Film (Live Action) - Spielzeugland (Toyland)
Actor in a Supporting Role - Heath Ledger (The Dark Knight)
Documentary Feature - Man on Wire
Documentary Short - Smile Pinki
Visual Effects - The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Sound Editing - The Dark Knight
Sound Mixing - Slumdog Millionaire
Film Editing - Slumdog Millionaire
Music (Score) - Slumdog Millionaire
Music (Song) - "Jai Ho" (Slumdog Millionaire)
Foreign Language Film - Departures
Directing - Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire)
Actress in a Leading Role - Kate Winslet (The Reader)
Actor in a Leading Role - Sean Penn (Milk)
Best Picture - Slumdog Millionaire
Congrats to all the winners! 3 out of my 5 predictions is not bad...
Friday, February 20, 2009
Roman Polanski's 1974 Chinatown, by far one of my newest favorite films, is carefully scrutinized by John Cawelti in his essay "Chinatown and Generic Transformation in Recent American Films." He argues that despite the likeness to film noir, the movie is actually very far from this tradition siting that "Polanski carefully controls his spectrum of hue and tone in order to give it the feel of film noir, but it is nonetheless color with occasional moments of rich golden light" (499). However, by examining and concluding that the film's narrative structure is not in line with film noir, he fails to realize that film noir cannot be examined via its narrative, but rather it must be by its visual style.
Set in 1937 in Los Angeles amidst the water drought, Chinatown tells the story of J.J. "Jake" Gittes (Jack Nicholson), a private investigator, who stumbles upon a conspiracy when the wife of Hollis Mulwray (Darrell Zwerling), the Water and Power Department's Chief Engineer, asks him to find out if he is cheating on her. After photographing Mulwray in the arms of a young girl and starting a scandal by having the photos published in a newspaper, the real Mrs. Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) shows up threatening to sue Gittes if he does not drop the falsely acquired case. This plunges Gittes into a "complex web of deceit involving murder, incest, and municipal corruption all related to the city's water supply" (IMDB).
According to Cawelti, Chinatown differs from the classic noir not only in appearance, but on three narrative points central to the "hard-boiled detective" stories that are found in noir films. First, the characters played by Nicholson and Dunaway "echo the archetypal hard-boiled duo in a superficial way" and "play characters which are very different" (501). Dunaway's toughness in the movie, he argues, is merely a facade for her neuroticism and anxiety rather than the actual strength and independence found in Lauren Bacall's character in The Big Sleep. What's more, Nicholson as the hard-boiled detective and "his attempt to be the tough, cynical, and humorous private eye is undercut at all sides" (501). Cawelti even asserts that by virtue of his name, Gittes, the character does not follow the traditional strong detective name, such as Sam Spade, which connotes "hardness and digging beneath the surface" (502).
Secondly, Gittes inability to expose or punish the guilty in the film reveals a "depth of evil and chaos so great that he is unable to control it" (502). This gloomy portrayal is atypical of noir, which sees that the good guys are rewarded and the bad guys punished. Also, he does not save the girl, but rather helps to cause her death and the triumph belongs rather to the power of Chinatown. Lastly, the "erotically potent figure" of the detective's sexuality is undercut when faced with the incestuous and perverse figure of Noah Cross (John Huston), Mrs. Mulwray's father. Cross's "overpowering sexual, political, and economic power" (503) tragically creates a sense of impotence for Gittes.
According to Thomas Schatz in Hollywood Genres, "A genre film, like virtually any story, can be examined in terms of its fundamental narrative components: plot, setting, and character" (646). From this perspective, Cawelti is dead on in his examination. But what Cawelti fails to realize is that he is analyzing film noir as if it were a genre film when in reality it is more of a visual style, as Paul Schrader in his essay "Notes on Film Noir" explains. Film noir, as he specifies, is not a genre and is not defined "by conventions of setting and conflict, but rather by the more subtle qualities of tone and mood." In this regard, Chinatown can mostly definitely be labeled as film noir.
Narrative aside, the film follows many of the stylistic conventions of film noir delineated in Schrader's essay. First and foremost, the scenes in film noir are always lit darkly and when light does come in it is oblique and vertical rather than horizontal, creating a mood of instability and restlessness. For example, in Chinatown, we can see in the scene where Gittes is first talking to the supposed Mrs. Mulwray mirrors a scene from a classic noir film, Double Indemnity. In this photo still of Chinatown we see the rays of light obliquely cut by the Venetian blinds and thus cut across Gittes's face.
The same technique can be seen used in this still from Double Indemnity, just in classical black and white instead of color.
The use of color in Chinatown is the difference between the two stills, the tone is still the same. If Polanski had chosen to do the film in black and white rather than color, the same use of light and shadows could be seen within the film that was typical of noir. The fact that it is in color does not detract from the dark shadows that the characters and the setting have. The "fatalistic hopeless mood" that shadowy lighting creates, according to Schrader, can be seen extensively throughout the film.
Additionally, "a typical film noir would rather move the scene cinematographically around the actor than have the actor control the scene by physical action" (Schrader), which is how most of Chinatown is filmed. In the clip below (starting at about 2:56 until about 3:28), the camera begins to move before any action occurs, thereby creating the action via the camera movement.
The use of the close up and the shadow of Gitte's face coupled with the slow panning of the camera create a terrific tension and foreboding mood that is vital in film noir.
Furthermore, the most important noir themes, fear of the future and a sense of haunting from the past, are both present in Chinatown. Gittes is haunted by his past as a cop. Having worked in Chinatown he ended up hurting a woman he so desperately tried to prevent from getting hurt. When Mrs. Mulwray asked what he did in Chinatown, Gittes responds with "As little as possible" because to do anything would have meant people would get hurt. It is this past that keeps haunting Gittes and fueling him to prevent someone he cares about, Mrs. Mulwray, from getting hurt. It is also what creates a mood of hopeless and unease.
The film ends with a hopeless and fearful look into the future. Gittes looks on despairingly at Mrs. Mulwray's dead body and is pulled away by his associates. With a final look and Walsh's, his associate, reminder of "Forget it, Jake. It's Chinatown," Gittes loses all hope. This last line finally solidifies the bleakness of the present and the inability to change the future.
Although this ending in not typical of noir, I think it pushes the tradition forward into a new phase that is even darker than the one before. One in which there is no hope for the future in a present that is so rife with corruption, despair, and inutility. In the end as Walsh says, "It's Chinatown" so there is no point in fighting.
This film is both, I believe, a furtherance of and homage to the noir tradition. Conventions aside, it is beautifully lit and portrayed, as well as directed. And despite its gloomy ending, Chinatown excellently romanticizes the hard-boiled detective narrative. Almost makes you want to visit.
Monday, February 16, 2009
The film centers around Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Cristina (Scarlett Johansson), two friends off to stay in Barcelona for the summer with some distant relatives of Vicky. Vicky is a serious and levelheaded graduate student of Catalan identity and hopes to further her research in Barcelona. Cristina, on the other hand, is looking to escape the end of her latest relationship and the dissatisfaction of another film project. The girls agree on most matters in life, except love, of course. While Vicky desires seriousness, stability, and commitment from a man, Cristina esteems the exact opposite and all-consuming passion.
Insert Spanish hottie Javier Bardem. Bardem’s character is charmingly deadlier in this film with just a look than he ever was with the cattle gun in No Country for Old Men. Bardem plays Juan Antonio, a talented artist who is perhaps best known for his steamy and tumultuous relationship with his brilliant artist ex-wife, Maria Elena (Penelope Cruz). Their marriage came to a screeching halt when one night Maria Elena stabbed Juan Antonio in a crazed rage. Juan Antonio’s insertion into the Vicky and Cristina mix creates a delicious pie of steamy lust that only becomes steamier when Maria Elena is added creating a perpetual “ménage a quatre.”
The entire story is punctuated by our omnipresent fifth character’s (Christopher Evan Welch) sarcastic narration. Not only does he provide necessary exposition allowing the story to progress, but he does it in a way that is subtly funny, increasingly ironic, and slightly neurotic. It’s as if Woody Allen himself were speaking to his audience via the narrator.
All the actors play their parts beautifully. Hall manages to make negative and stern Vicky lovable; Johansson charms the audience as Cristina; and Bardem turns the Latin lover Juan Antonio into more than just a caricature and cliché. Nonetheless, it is Cruz’s portrayal of Maria Elena, the tempestuous, jealous Latin woman, that stole the show and nabbed her that Oscar nomination. Her fiery portrayal is believable and impossibly charming. Where as anyone else would have been contemptuous, Cruz is real and sympathetic. Plus, listening to Bardem and Cruz spew Woody Allen’s neuroticism in Spanish is by far the most amusing aspect of the film.
Of course, who could forget Barcelona itself, which is as much a character than our foursome? The romanticized city brings the characters closer and watches over them, providing the audience another visual perspective. It is always, as the repeated main theme song by Guilia y los Tellarini explains, “poderosa.” The power of the city is hypnotizing.
Beware, watcher. If you are expecting a typical Woody Allen film, you shall be sorely disappointed. The quintessential neurotic-New Yorker-director/writer/artist-type character that you might be keen on seeing is devoid in this film. Woody has grown and developed away from the typical neurotic New Yorker, but not completely since we do see some hints of it. Do not fear, though, there are some of Woody’s other favorite maladjustments: jealousy, cowardice, and infidelity.
Woody Allen is easily one of Hollywood’s most underrated directors. He has brought us so many Hollywood and cult classics (Hello Annie Hall, Manhattan, and Crimes and Misdemeanors) that you’d think it’d be impossible to be this prolific and talented. With Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Woody Allen’s cherry on top of a huge mound of ice cream film, you’ll want to jump right into this tragically comedic story for some Spanish guitar and wine.