Best Shot: The Force Awakens

Speaking of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, this week’s Hit Me With Your Best Shot over at The Film Experience concerned J. J. Abrams’ entry into the franchise, and last night on Twitter I belatedly chose this image as my favorite from the film:

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It’s part of my favorite sequence in the movie – the one introducing Daisy Ridley’s Rey. Following the opening action, these are the film’s first quiet moments, in which we get to see Rey’s routine of scavenging, cleaning, and selling Imperial scrap to maintain a hardly glamorous living on the desert planet Jakku.

Accompanied by John Williams’ lovely “Rey’s Theme,” few words are spoken throughout the sequence (none by Rey herself), instead the character and her surrounding circumstances are introduced to us through the visual. We learn of her routine, but we also quickly grasp that she doesn’t belong on that barren planet, and that she has aspirations far greater than selling garbage for food.

Like Rey, her makeshift home, the rusty, run-down insides of a broken down Armored Transport, is given depth by showing us small, tangible details that serve not only to give depth but also ground this fantastical story (we’re on a desert planet in a far away galaxy, after all) in a reality we can relate to. It’s not all lasers and spaceships and strange creatures. For Rey, at least, it’s also a flower – withering, maybe, but not dead, yet – in an improvised flowerpot.

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J. J. Abrams did something very similar a few years earlier in that other franchise reboot/sequel, Star Trek Into Darkness. Again following the hectic opening action scene, the tone shifts one hundred eighty degrees to a quiet, slowly paced montage of a married couple waking up in their very much un-futuristic London apartment and visiting their terminally ill daughter at the hospital. Without any spoken exposition, the images and Michael Giacchino’s beautiful score alone tell us everything we need to know about the Harewood family’s desperate situation, and why the film’s villain, introduced at the end of the sequence, is able to use it for his own evil scheme.

We only spend a few minutes with them, but like Rey in The Force Awakens, we can relate to the Harewoods because amid all the science-fiction and fantasy elements, they feel like real people. People decorating their houses with flowers. Or people who, like some of us, have to get up at 5:00 in the morning.

Werner Herzog: The Force Awakens

“There is a rocky island, far out in the sea. And a second, smaller island. They lie on the far edge of the inhabited world.”

If these words, spoken by the great actor Josef Bierbichler at the end of Werner Herzog’s 1976 drama Herz aus Glas (Heart of Glass), bring to mind the final shots of a certain, recent episode of the Star Wars franchise, it’s because the actual islands Herzog filmed to bring Bierbichler’s character’s vision to screen are the Skellig Islands off the southwestern coast of Ireland.

Herz-aus-Glas_Skellig-Islands

Herz aus Glas (Werner Herzog, 1976)

“I see a man on top of the rock. For years he stood alone, looking out over the sea. Day after day, always in the same place.”

They are same islands that J. J. Abrams, some forty years later, used to shoot the closing scene of Star Wars: The Force Awakens. And it’s not just the location that connects both of these final scenes: from the establishing shots to the almost identical images, filmed from a circling helicopter, of a lone man in long robes at the top of the rock, staring out into the sea, the similarities are striking.

Coincidence? Probably. I’ve read and listened to a handful of interviews with J. J. Abrams over the years, and I don’t remember him ever talking about Werner Herzog. And an out of the blue homage to a relatively obscure German drama set in 18th-century Bavaria doesn’t exactly strike me as something Abrams would do. But I sure would love to ask him about it.

Best Shot: Ghostbusters

Ghostbusters_Best-Shot-14.png

When Nathaniel asked us to pick the best shot from Ivan Reitman’s Ghostbusters, I immediately knew which one I’d post. And anybody who ever watched the film with me will know it, too, as I always make sure to point out just how much I love it.

It comes at the end of one of the film’s quieter, sweeter scenes, and probably my favorite, too. Euphoric from his conversation with Sigourney Weaver’s Dana Barrett outside New York City’s Lincoln Center, Dr. Peter Venkman (Bill Murray) does a celebratory spin, imitating one of the street performers (seen on the left side of the frame).

It’s a small, wonderful, human moment in a film that, despite its fantastic premise and elaborate effect sequences, is actually full of humanity, and arguably has endured as a beloved cult classic this long precisely because the people in it are so full-heartedly human.

More shots from that scene, including Murray’s direct glance towards the camera that I don’t think I’ve ever consciously noticed before today:  Continue reading

My 2016 (2015?) Oscar Picks

I have opinions!

And for once they’re actually sorta, kinda, informed opinions. Somehow I’ve managed to free enough time these last few months to watch 96 out of the 106 feature films nominated for Academy Awards (or “Oscars,” as those in the know call them) this year. 20 of them even in the theater. One of them three times in the theater!

In the past we did these “Will win / Should win / Should’ve been nominated“-style, but I’m gonna forgo “Will win” because who cares. And why confront disappointing awards outcomes any sooner than you have to?

Full list of nominated films and people is here. My picks are here in this blog post that you are reading right now. (Good job, you!)


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“The Look of Silence”

Best Documentary

Should win: Joshua Oppenheimer’s “The Look of Silence.” I liked all of the films nominated in this category, but like its companion piece “The Act of Killing,” this one explored and laid bare the depths of human nature in a way that needs to be seen, needs to be studied, and needs to be awarded already.

Should’ve been nominated: I would have loved to see “Going Clear” get a nomination, if only to see who’d end up boycotting the ceremony because of it and to find out who they’d get to fill in for John Travolta’s awkward presenter duties.


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“Crimson Peak”

Best Achievement in Visual Effects

Should win: “Mad Max: Fury Road,” mostly because it doesn’t feel like a “visual effects” movie at all, but then you watch some of the making-of stuff and realize how much great work and effort went into every single frame of it. (I’d be pretty happy if “Ex Machina” took this one, too.)

Should’ve been nominated: “Crimson Peak,” for its (literally!) fantastic ghostly creations.


Best Achievement in Sound Editing/Sound Mixing

Should win: As much as I want “Sicario” to win as much as it can, “Mad Max: Fury Road” did sound better than anyone last year.

Should’ve been nominated: I watched “Inside Out” with a friend last night, and the first thing she said after it was over was how much she loved the sound of it. Wouldn’t have been the first thing on my mind, but she’s right. Those Pixar folk are very good at creating compelling worlds, and the sound contributes to that just as much as the visuals.


Best Original Song

Should win: “Earned It” from “Fifty Shades of Grey,” because it’s a legitimately great song among a bunch of forgettable (or, in Spectre‘s case, downright terrible) ones.

Should’ve been nominated: Any of the other eligible songs from the “Fifty Shades of Grey” soundtrack.

Continue reading

Show and Tell

Yesterday, I saw “Crimson Peak” and “The Last Witch Hunter” back to back. I enjoyed them both very much – for completely separate reasons. I wouldn’t dare compare or rank them, but seeing them so close together, I noticed that one of them did a particular thing a lot better than the other.

Mia Wasikowska in Crimson Peak

A scene in “Crimson Peak,” which is set around the year 1900, shows a character opening a door to a pantry, where she discovers a box of wax cylinders. We know that they are wax cylinders not just because we get to see a close-up of the objects, but because upon seeing them the character says the words “Wax cylinders!” out loud. She is not speaking to another person in the scene, as she is completely by herself. The out-loud-description is solely for our benefit. And I can understand the motivation behind that. Wax cylinders are hardly household items these days, so not every viewer can be expected to immediately recognize them.

But there’s more. Later in the film, the same character makes another discovery: “A phonograph!,” she exclaims to no one, as she and we see just such a thing. I always cringe at moments like these. Not only do they undermine the character speaking the exposition, they pull me right out of the movie by blatantly reminding me that this is a movie, and I the audience, apparently presumed too dumb to figure out things for myself – or too fragile to be content with leaving some things unknown.

Even watching the movie in the theater, my immediate thought was, If they want to me know what these objects are, why don’t they just show me how they are used? Instead of “Wax cylinders!” and “Phonograph!” just give me a scene where she actually plays the cylinders on the phonograph!

And then exactly this happens. We do see her play the records. Which made the earlier exposition even more furious to me. Oh, so you couldn’t let the audience live with the excruciating angst of possibly not knowing what these things were for ten minutes?

Rose Leslie in The Last Witch Hunter

A different scene in a different movie: Early in “The Last Witch Hunter,” a character is introduced who we quickly learn to be magically inclined. A witch! Upon meeting her, another character notices a small vial of potion and recognizes it as (and I’m going off of memory here, I’m sure the actual words were slightly more elegant) “anti-fear serum.”

“What are you afraid of?” he quips. I can’t remember her exact response but it’s something quick-witted, like “Rent control” or “dying alone” or something. It’s a quick, funny back and forth. The film doesn’t dwell on it, but the attentive viewer gets some information out of it, without knowing (or needing to know) its context, yet.

In a later scene, we see the character asleep in her apartment. It’s night time, but it’s not dark inside. Some dim lamps are softly lighting the room. When she is woken up by a sudden noise, the first thing she does is turn on a large light fixture. Amazingly, she does so without stating out loud, “Oh, no, I better make sure it’s bright in here, as I am afraid of the dark, you know” while winking to the audience.

Lucky Number Slevin wallpaper

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After watching one of my favorite films, Paul McGuigan’s Lucky Number Slevin (2006), the other day, I was looking online for pictures of some of the many amazing wallpapers featured in it, but came up empty. So I made this:

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(Click on the image for 1920×1080, or here for 720×1280.)

It’s not perfect but it’s supposed to be kinda faded and off anyway, so it’ll do. It has already replaced the Sleeping Beauty wallpapers on my desktop and phone.

MCU Rewatch, Part 1

Speaking of the Avengers, a few nights ago I started rewatching all the Marvel Cinematic Universe films. I had seen all of them before, but it’s been a while for some, especially the early ones. Five movies in, I am having a blast revisiting these, and watching them close together definitely helps me appreciate the “connective tissues” between them. (I’ve been so bad at paying attention to the story of the Marvel films that I had forgotten all about the Hydra stuff from last year’s Captain America by the time they “resolved” it in Age of Ultron.)

Iron Man posterIron Man (2008)

First thing that struck me was how dated the film looked. Not in a bad way, but this is a movie that’s seven years older then Avengers: Age of Ultron, and so naturally it looks different. It’s a weird thing to say because it’s in no way specific to this movie, but the last time I saw it (around the time it came out) it looked… new. And now it doesn’t. Just another reminder that time isn’t gonna stop or slow down any time soon and death is inevitable. Thanks, Iron Man!

The film-making between this and the last couple of MCU entries has changed a lot, too. It was kinda refreshing to see how much of Iron Man is scenes of actual, real people having long, uninterrupted conversations in real, physical locations. These days any given frame in one of these movies could be a composite of a dozen different elements: one actor’s head put on some computer-generated body talking to another actor who filmed his part months earlier in a different country, all inserted into some virtual rendering of Middle Earth or what have you. I’m not saying it’s a bad thing, necessarily. It kinda is, though.

It’s nice to see Jeff Bridges play something else than the various versions of Jeff Bridges they have him play in most of his recent stuff. Ebediah (is that his name?) makes a good villain because you can see where he’s coming from. His motivations make sense, to a point, even if you don’t agree with them. Some of my favorite scenes are when he’s talking to Tony, before he goes all Iron Monger. He’s genuinely concerned, more about the business than Tony, but still.

Gwyneth Paltrow is great, too. There are probably a million ways a character like Pepper Potts could fall flat on screen, but she gives her just the right attitude.

I had forgotten how much they play up Tony Stark’s more, shall we say, asshole-y tendencies. And even after he denounces the weapons trade because he’s seen the harm his business is doing in the world it’s not like he’s a nice guy all of a sudden. He’s doing good as Iron Man but Stark is just as arrogant and irritating as ever.

The final, big action scene didn’t work for me, which is a trend that will continue through most of these movies. I like the characters and the actors that play them so much that I always lose interest once they’re basically replaced by cartoon versions flying around, flipping cars and blowing each other up. Unfortunately it’s those scenes that have gotten bigger, louder, and longer as the series went on.

mcu02_hulkThe Incredible Hulk (2008)

Love how the opening titles get the origin story out of the way. Let’s hope Marvel remembers that approach when they’re doing the new Spiderman in a few years. God knows we’ve had his backstory spelled out to us more than enough.

For the first 30 or 40 minutes this Hulk movie is pretty awesome. It all goes somewhat downhill once Bruce gets back to the States, but it’s still a decent film. Better than I remembered, anyway. Edward Norton’s Banner is more interesting than Mark Ruffalo’s, but maybe that’s just because we get to spend so much more time with this version. They don’t really feel like the same character at all, and the Hulks even less so. The one in this movie seems to be much more aware and in control of his rage, especially by the end. Guess he kinda forgot all about that when he changed into Ruffalo, just like he forgot about Betty, apparently.

Tim Roth joins the league of fine actors getting to ham it up as Marvel villains. I had just watched Reservoir Dogs the other day and thought Roth’s performance was the best part of that, so it was fun seeing him fully commit to the Cockney/Russian mercenary type. William Hurt could have played General Ross a tad louder, I thought, but maybe he’ll have to do that amid all the noise in the third Captain America next year, anyway.

Iron Man 2 posterIron Man 2 (2010)

Watching Iron Man 2, and these early MCU films in general, I was reminded, and bear with me on this one, of getting the first seasons of The Simpsons on DVD, back in the early aughts. By that time the “new” episodes (seasons 13 and 14 – they’re up to 26 now!) were already pretty awful so I was thrilled to go back to the show’s better days. My main complaint about the more recent episodes was that they were full of graphic violence and crude jokes and I just didn’t care for those because apparently I was an old man even by the time I was 20. Sure, the early episodes had edgy jokes, as well, but they were just that: on the edges. Not spread out flat over everything. But then I started listening to the writers and producers talk on the DVD audio commentaries and (I’m slightly exaggerating but you’ll get my point) they were all, “Here we wanted Homer to slip on a pile of horseshit and crack his head open on the pavement and slowly bleed to death while getting raped by a panda, but back then the network didn’t let us do that kind of thing.”

So what I’m saying is that sometimes, when creating content, restrictions can be a good thing. And the reason I thought of this was that when you’re looking at the first two Iron Mans, especially in contrast with the more recent films in the series, it’s clear that they (they as in the studio, not the individual directors, necessarily) wanted to do a lot more “cool stuff,” with the flying around and the CGI monsters and the punchplosions, but they were limited by the technology of their time so they had to settle for only a handful of big action scenes and stretch out the rest with boring conversations and character development and, you know, plot.

Anyway. I like Iron Man 2. Last time I saw it I wasn’t as high on it, but watching it within the context of this series I enjoyed it a lot. Don Cheadle’s Rhodey is a huge improvement over Terrence Howard’s. The whole cast’s great, really. The movie does a nice job of expanding the universe and introducing new characters without ever feeling too crowded. Well, I guess the final battle is. A dozen cartoon robots flying around blowing shit up made me miss the first movie when there were just two of ’em. Oh, well.

To be continued…

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