Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Two Authors, One Story: A Clockwork Orange

In terms of plot, structure, and language, Stanley Kubrick’s 1971 film A Clockwork Orange is nearly identical to the 1962 Anthony Burgess novel on which it is based. But from the first frame, the movie is distinctly authored by Kubrick. Alex, the story’s protagonist, tilts his head down and gazes upward, directly into the lens – the recognizable, maddened Kubrick stare of Jack Torrance in The Shining, Private Pyle in Full Metal Jacket, and many others in the great filmmaker’s body of work. The opening shot starts in close-up and zooms out slowly to reveal the world around Alex and to provide context for a glance or situation – and it keeps us focused on our protagonist even as we pull away. Kubrick consistently does this in his films to provide us with information. Not only does he open the film in this manner, but the visual trope continues into the next scene, starting on a close-up of a homeless man’s legs and an empty alcohol bottle before zooming out slowly to reveal the towering shadows of Alex and his droogs darkening the homeless man’s tunnel right before they close in to beat him up.

The movie tells its story through a clearly demarcated narrative split into distinctly different chapters – wild, raucous violence to imprisonment and institutional struggles to “freedom” at a price. Though A Clockwork Orange lacks the overt title cards that separate chapters of The Shining or Barry Lyndon, it is still structured in clear, meticulous acts that are made evident through shifts in pacing and tone and setting. Kubrick retains Burgess’ whimsical, wholly original language through sardonic narration – a storytelling technique that he would repeat in Barry Lyndon and that he did before in Lolita.

Kubrick focuses intensely on creating worlds in his films, and he uses the camera for us to see things as a cold observer to fantastical scenes. Violence is rarely but poignantly accentuated in slow motion – like Jack Torrance lifting himself into frame after brutally killing a hotel chef, or the blood pouring out of the elevator in The Shining, Alex beating up his droogs by a river and later getting a milk bottle smashed across his face are accentuated and made all the more horrifying – horrorshow like – by slow motion.

And then, again typical of Kubrick, there is great use by the filmmaker of classical music. As classical music sweepingly ties together the disparate sequences of 2001: A Space Odyssey and as Handel’s “Sarabande” gives weight to Barry Lyndon, sweeping classical music serves as a glorious counterpoint to heighten drama and create conflicting emotions in the audience during scenes in A Clockwork Orange, such as in the fight between the droogs and Billyboy’s gang at the beginning, during the sped-up threesome sex scene, and as Alex beats up his droogs by the river in slow motion.
All of these elements display a truly unique, genius cinematic artist at work telling a previously-published story, and differentiate Kubrick’s film from the narratively (almost) identical book by Burgess.

Where the two works of art – the Burgess novel and the Kubrick film – differ most is partially due to a publisher’s edit and partially due to a difference in interpretation, and a different message that the artist wanted to convey. Burgess, a Catholic and a devoutly religious man, wrote A Clockwork Orange to stress the importance of free will. There is a famous scene in both the book and the movie, near the start, in which Alex and his droogs break into the home of a scholar, a writer, for fun – and beat him, smash personal belongings, and rape the writer’s wife. In this movie, this scene is horrifyingly portrayed as just another in a long series of Alex’s horrifyingly sadistic and awful acts of violence. No weight is given to it, except in that narratively it comes into play again far later in the story. But it is in this scene that Anthony Burgess, in his novel, states his intent. Alex, during this scene, reads the writer’s manuscript before his violent acts – the writer is writing a work called “A Clockwork Orange,” which Alex regards as “preaching goloss” – and it turns out to be an impassioned piece of literature about the importance of free will. If a man does not have the free will to choose to be evil or to be good, then he is no longer a man. Goodness cannot be imposed upon us and controlled and still be good and human; it must be a choice. Choice and free will make us human. This is Burgess’ message, and it is clearly stated in this scene.

However, Kubrick intentionally omits this, making this heinous scene just another carefree, violent act of Alex’s aggressive youth. The element of free will being the focus is left very much out of the movie in this regard, at least compared to the book – and by the end, after witnessing the dystopian, right-wing government of the movie try to brainwash Alex and recondition him and commit atrocities against this atrocious person only to have Alex break through and revert back to his old, twisted ways, the movie really becomes about something far different: about the evils of government control. It becomes a fable about the horrors of brainwashing and, yes, it is a movie stressing the importance of choice and free will in keeping us human – if you can call Alex in the movie human – but it does not drive this point home nearly as clearly as the book.

The final distinction between them is in the movie’s exclusion of the book’s final chapter, which is in large part due to the American publisher of the book omitting the final chapter against Burgess’ wishes. The book ends with a final chapter of Alex seeking redemption, renouncing his old ways, and hoping that his son grows up to be better than he was. There is hope for the future, and Alex has made a new choice to be good. However, the movie ends with Alex picking right back up again with his old, twisted, violent, sadistic ways – there is no hope of redemption. Where there is hope and faith in humanity in Burgess’ novel, there is bleak cynicism in Kubrick’s film. And in this, it fits in with much of Kubrick’s work. There is a coldness to it that fits in comfortably with Full Metal Jacket, or with Eyes Wide Shut. And though A Clockwork Orange the movie is very much a faithful adaptation of Burgess’ book, it is also a film that is distinctly Kubrick.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

"There's no good reason, there's no bad reason to live or to die."

"Take comfort in knowing you never had a choice."
Collateral (2004)

The streets of Los Angeles in Michael Mann's Collateral are deserted, and the lonely streets of this sprawling, disconnected metropolis form a melancholic backdrop for the film's lonely, disconnected protagonists. The entire movie takes place at night - LA is more visually beautiful at night, with the lights of its many buildings sparkling, palm trees silhouetted along highways. But it is an empty night, and it is the setting for a night of killing.

Jamie Foxx plays the best cabbie in Los Angeles - he knows all of the best routes to every place, the light and traffic patterns, and he keeps his cab clean and full of friendly conversation. The film begins with him flirting with a female passenger. There is obvious chemistry. Both are interested. But when he pulls up to the curb to drop her off, he doesn't ask for her number. When she comes back and gives him hers, he never plans on calling her. He doesn't go after what he wants - he dreams of owning a limousine business, but he is all talk and no action. He's been driving his same cab for 12 years, hoping one day for the "right moment" to take charge and do what he always wanted to do. But he is scared and complacent. As Tom Cruise's character calls him out: "One night you will wake up and discover it never happened. It's all turned around on you. It never will. Suddenly you are old. Didn't happen, and it never will, because you were never going to do it anyway."

Foxx picks up Cruise, a skilled and nihilistic assassin, shortly after dropping off the woman at her law firm. Cruise pays Foxx a few hundred dollars to drive him around to five places during the night "to make deals," and then to take him to LAX at 6 AM. Cruise tries to convince Foxx that he is making overnight real estate deals and then leaving the city in the morning. But a mistake at the first location reveals his real purpose, and Foxx is swept up in a dangerous killing spree.

Mann is an exciting action director, and there are numerous sequences in Collateral - a shoot-out in a Koreatown club, an intense chase and shootout in the law firm at the end, a chase through a LA metro train - that are pure, conventional, adrenaline-charged bits of action cinema. But Mann also subverts cliche action filmmaking: note how he shows us the effects of violence at some moments (the murdered guard of the law firm building) instead of the actual shooting, and note how during the scene in which Foxx speeds through a red light, there isn't a crash when we expect a crash. And when we expect a character to reflect, pause, and give a lengthy plea or speech before shooting another, there is no cliched hesitation before he pulls the trigger.

The images of Collateral are grainy, early-digital - odd colors are picked up by the sensor, and there are many greens and yellows on the palette. But the film is still polished and slick, typical of Mann's work. The best sequences in the movie occur when Mann pauses the action to linger on a moment - when Cruise and a future victim discuss jazz music over drinks, and Cruise's momentarily remorseful flinch after shooting him in the head; when Cruise and Foxx stop in the middle of a street as two wild coyotes pass by - mesmerizing, ferocious creatures entirely out of place in the environment (like Cruise's character, the lonely hitman Vincent).

Lead actors Cruise and Foxx - as well as Javier Bardem, Jada Pinkett Smith, and Mark Ruffalo in supporting roles - give excellent performances in Collateral, and the movie is full of adrenaline-rushing action scenes mixed with quiet, reflective moments woven together at an entertaining pace. You don't necessarily like the characters, but you can sympathize with Foxx, and there is even a sadness in Cruise's character's fate and final moments that cause you to pause as the credits begin to roll. Like Mann's opus Heat (made a decade earlier), Collateral is much more than a cop-and-criminal crime thriller, and its complex characters and Mann's penchant for lingering not only on action but on quiet, human moments elevates it above many similar films.

"He'd kill us if he got the chance."

"We'll be listening to you."
The Conversation (1974)

It struck me more than anything else re-watching Francis Ford Coppola's The Conversation that this film, about ethics and surveillance, is perhaps even more relevant today than it was at the time of its release. Coming two years after the Watergate scandal, Coppola's opus of professional eavesdropping was a social commentary on the morality of listening in (and then acting on what was meant to be private exchanges). But today, the movie's paranoia - Harry Caul tearing apart his San Francisco apartment board by board, smashing his statue of the Virgin Mary out of fear, keeping his front door not only doubly locked by dead-bolted and alarmed - resonates with scary veracity. In an age when the United States government can listen in to anybody anywhere through any medium, The Conversation retains a social importance likely unexpected upon its creation.

Made in between Coppola's two Godfather masterpieces, The Conversation is a quieter, perhaps even more personal film. It takes place in lonely, nondescript San Francisco streets, and is about a lonely man who is a master of his craft. Harry Caul, played by Gene Hackman in one of his very best performances, is incapable of revealing any personal detail about himself. A haunting scene sees him leave his lover's apartment, never to return, simply because she pressures him into vulnerability. The two times in which Caul reveals something about himself, he is painfully betrayed. This leaves him constantly on edge.

Caul is devoutly religious and painfully reserved. He is the best at what he does - he goes to a convention and fellow surveillance experts want him to take pictures with their products in order to increase sales - but he has one major personal fault that gets in the way of his success in the most important cases he tackles: because he cannot connect with people, he has no understanding of motivation.

The Conversation contains masterful sequences about loneliness packed within the loose shell of a thriller that plays out on the periphery. And the movie's main plot unravels into one of cinema's greatest plot twists - the change of inflection of one word in one sentence spoken in a secret conversation and recorded by Caul completely diverts the plot into a wholly opposite direction. The twist is logical, simple, and elegant, but entirely unravels the film and turns it into something completely unexpected.

The Conversation is one of cinema's most deceptive movies. It is a brilliant film about paranoia and loneliness, and even though it poses as a thriller, it is more a character study than anything remotely conventional. However, in spite of its eschewing of traditional plot tropes, in the end, it has one of the great twists. Coppola's film is directed with stoic control - it is not as flashy as the Godfather films, but it remains meticulously crafted. It is a film of great performances - particularly by Hackman - and is tied together by a truly beautiful, lonely, lilting piano score.

And its message about privacy being impossible and easily invaded, in private and in public spaces, is something perhaps even more relevant today than in 1974.

"Mrs. Brown says that in London everyone is different, and that means anyone can fit in."

"They will not have forgotten how to treat strangers."
Paddington (2015)

There is something irresistibly charming about a tiny little bear trying to act like a proper little Englishman. Paddington makes us laugh when he switches out of his perfect English accent to teach a teenage girl how to speak bear, and charms us even as he lays waste to the bathroom of a London townhouse (in this family movie's most hilariously drawn out slapstick gag). He manages to drastically screw up a task as simple as taping things together (he gets himself covered in tape instead), but when he is dragged through the streets of London to unwittingly stop a wallet thief or when he misinterprets a sign on the London Underground and carries a puppy proudly under his arms to ride an escalator, Paddington bear is a rockstar.

After the death of his father figure - Paddington is another in a long tradition of children's movies with orphaned protagonists - the little bear is sent on a boat with only several dozen jars of marmalade to his name and arrives after a long journey to London, a city which he has romanticized his entire life. The little bear from Peru grew up listening to old vinyl recordings about London, learning the English language and British manners and etiquette. When the bear gets to London, he expects to be immediately adopted by a loving, caring family, but when he sits down in the Paddington train station, he quickly discovers the significantly less friendly realities of big city life. But even at his lowest moment, this optimistic little bear shares his marmalade sandwich with a poor little pigeon... and everything turns out to be okay due to a kindhearted woman and her family, who agree to let him into their home. The man of the house is against the idea and immediately calls to increase his home insurance policy, rightly expecting the bear to cause havoc. But the bear's cute demeanor, impeccable manners, and optimism in the face of adversity win them all over in the end.

Paddington is hunted by the vengeful daughter of the explorer/hunter who refused to kill his family on behalf of a museum years earlier. Nicole Kidman's character is a cliche villain, fairly one-note and one-dimensional. But the added stakes of the hunt bring the family at the film's heart together, and Kidman seems to be having fun here - so I have no real complaints with this.

Paddington is a cute, funny, warm-hearted film, funny and enjoyable for the whole family. For all of his silliness, there is something to be gained by paying attention to Paddington's optimism, humility, and boldness. And though London turns out to not be the welcoming metropolis paradise that he imagined it to be, there is something beautifully resonant in his final summation of the place: "In London, everyone is different, and that means anyone can fit in."

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Predictions for the 87th Annual Academy Awards

Here are my predictions for the 87th Annual Academy Awards, which will be broadcast tomorrow (Sunday, February 22, 2015 at 7 PM EST):

Birdman (or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

Richard Linklater, Boyhood

Eddie Redmayne, The Theory of Everything

J.K. Simmons, Whiplash

Julianne Moore, Still Alice

Patricia Arquette, Boyhood

How to Train Your Dragon 2



Emmanuel Lubezki, Birdman (or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

Adam Stockhausen and Anna Pinnock, The Grand Budapest Hotel

Milena Canonero, The Grand Budapest Hotel

Bill Corso and Dennis Liddiard, Foxcatcher

Tom Cross, Whiplash

Wes Anderson, The Grand Budapest Hotel

Graham Moore, The Imitation Game

Johan Johannsson, The Theory of Everything

"Glory" by John Stephens and Lonnie Lynn (from Selma)


American Sniper



The Dam Keeper


Wednesday, January 7, 2015

My 14 Favorite Movies of 2014

Whiplash is an electrifying film that moves from scene to scene without breath or wasted beats. We start and end with a dolly in on our protagonist drumming frenetic solos on his kit, but the circumstances and the stakes surrounding him could not be more different. Sharp writing and powerful acting bring to life ruthless characters in their harried pursuit of greatness, and the film pulsates with the same level of energy that causes the main character to drum up literal blood, sweat, and tears.

In the great 1948 Technicolor Powell & Pressburger classic The Red Shoes, the relentless instructor of the film's dancer protagonist says, "You cannot have it both ways - a dancer who relies upon the doubtful comforts of human love can never be a great dancer," and goes on to explain that "a great impression of simplicity" in art "can only be achieved by great agony of body and spirit." Whiplash is the gritty, jazzy modernization of The Red Shoes set in the grit and competitive grime of modern day New York City. While The Red Shoes is pure tragedy, Whiplash does something truly remarkable - it serves as both a tragedy and an inspiring success story, for reasons which I will not elucidate here for fear of ruining the plot for those who wish to see this powerful, energetic film. Take from it what is cautionary from the tragedy and encouraging from the success. Revel in J.K. Simmons' scary, visceral screams; the film's unexpected violence, both emotional and physical; and the passion and persistence onscreen complimented by the film's electric craftsmanship. You won't regret it.

Boyhood is a remarkable cinematic experience and no small feat of craftsmanship; though it was shot over the course of 12 years with the same cast and crew, the film retains a consistent tone and style from the first frame to the last. Given the duration of the shoot, the long breaks between dates of production, and the changes in technology over time, this is a remarkable feat. The movie itself is elegant in its simplicity: nothing extraordinary happens in the film, and yet Boyhood hits so purely at the truth of growing up in a way never really before seen in the cinema.

Its story unfolds as life unfolds: as a series of milestones and moments. As we craft meaning in our own lives through setting and organizing our lives into milestones and memories, so does the film. Boyhood moves forward genuinely and nostalgically without becoming bogged down in sentiment. The movie is simple and elegant, honest and pure. There is nothing fancy about it (besides its 12 years of production), and that is a large part of its charm. Even if your own story of growing up (or raising a child) does not exactly match the story beats that the movie follows, I imagine that you can find something universal within Boyhood to reflect nostalgically upon and enjoy. Richard Linklater has made a funny, touching, simple, elegant film about one of the only truly universal things in life: the milestones, markers, and convoluted emotions of growing up.

Interstellar's critics may fault it for attempting to be both an intimate family drama and a soaring, expansive science fiction epic, but that is precisely what I find so remarkable about Christopher Nolan's latest (and arguably most ambitious) film. Stunning visual effects - from massive tidal waves to scientifically accurate black holes - and a transcendent, meditative score work in tandem to make Interstellar the most powerfully visceral mainstream film of the year. Beyond being visually stunning, Interstellar contains quiet moments of human drama that run the thin line between sentimentality and emotional truth with such delicacy and earnestness that I was won over in spite of myself. Nolan's poetic cross-cut ending intertwines sequences that plow through the movie's narrative shortcomings and loose ends, which I can forgive in light of the movie's sheer visceral might. Its thematic reach may exceed its grasp, but Interstellar more than delivers on an emotional level. Enjoy the ride and here, more so than in any other film this year, you can experience genuine awe.

The movie's one-shot look is indeed an impressive feat of filmmaking craft (and an appropriate tactic to make the real-life actors, starring in the film as theatre actors, treat their roles as theatre), but Birdman is more than its impressive Steadicam camerawork, thoughtful blocking, and sly editing. No film this year uses its stars better - Keaton and Norton both play characters that are heightened versions of their own reputed selves - and the film's biting humor conveys thought-provoking ideas about art, social relevance, and celebrity. Birdman is quirky and always a treat to look at, and from it finds time for both extravagant moments of ridiculousness - Keaton running in his underwear through Times Square - and quieter moments of contemplation - Norton and Emma Stone's chats on the theatre rooftop, Keaton's dressing room talks with his wife. Stone's rant about social media and staying relevant in today's society is poignant and, in the context of the story, heartbreaking - but far from being a depressing drama, the filmmakers also take time to make us laugh and make us soar along with Birdman even as Keaton's character comes crashing down.

This full-throttle, exceptionally entertaining science fiction action movie was criminally under-seen and underrated. Edge of Tomorrow features Tom Cruise - one of our last classic Hollywood movie stars - at the top of his game and Emily Blunt as an exceptionally badass leading lady fighting ferocious alien invaders throughout Europe. The film eschews unnecessary exposition and tactfully avoids a sappy romantic subplot between its leads, instead focusing on delivering edge-of-your-seat action, gritty and exceptionally high-quality special effects, and snarky humor. Edge of Tomorrow is an intense mainstream thriller and a smart, refreshing example of a sci-fi action movie done well. The film is one of 2014's most entertaining cinematic experiences.

Everything is awesome. The Lego Movie drives this idea home with such earnestness that by the time a crowd of construction workers breaks out into song to let us know, we're convinced without them having to even tell us. This animated film works on so many levels that it truly does have something for everyone. Refreshingly self-aware and genuinely good-humored, The Lego Movie is one of the most, well, awesome movies of 2014. The best animated film of 2014 and the most fun that I had at the movies this year.

After watching Wes Anderson's The Grand Budapest Hotel, I wrote that it was "the motion picture equivalent to chocolate cake or a colorful plate of macaroons." It zips from scene to scene with rarified wit and charm, held together by a suave, composed, sardonic performance from Ralph Fiennes. Much of your time watching the film is spent admiring the gorgeous design of Anderson's hotel and fictional world - The Grand Budapest and its surrounding environments are among the most whimsically and imaginatively decorated in all of modern cinema. The Grand Budapest Hotel is gorgeously designed and full of inventive humor, as most of Anderson's work is. It is also a surprisingly touching and reflective coming-of-age story, which makes Anderson's latest film work as more than just a fun, aesthetically-pleasing time at the movies.

Jake Gyllenhaal's smooth, repugnant, ambitious, sociopathic character in Nightcrawler is both terrifying and unexpectedly humorous - in a moving-a-dead-body-on-a-highway-to-get-a-better-shot kind of way. His is probably the most overtly creepy performance of 2014. Nightcrawler's dark, seedy nighttime drives through Los Angeles and Gyllenhaal's dialogue power plays with co-star Rene Russo make for captivating cinema, and though the plot never escalates quite as far as I wished it would go, the ending sequences are still appropriately horrifying. Nightcrawler is a stylish, well-crafted thriller.

Steve Carell, Channing Tatum, and Mark Ruffalo are unrecognizable as the three stars of Bennett Miller's powerful, brooding Foxcatcher. Prosthetic makeup, subtle mannerisms, and transformative acting turn these three stars into John Du Pont, Mike Schultz, and Dave Schultz. Foxcatcher unfolds at a slow pace, but so much is said in subtle gestures and in shot compositions and blocking - doors as metaphorical as well as physical barriers between characters, characters small in wide frames, and so on - that if you allow yourself to be fully engaged in the film, it can be one of the year's most powerful and thought-provoking movies. Smartly, methodically directed, Foxcatcher is one of the year's most impressive displays of craftsmanship across all aspects of filmmaking, from acting, directing, production design, wardrobe/hair/makeup, cinematography, to editing.

Benedict Cumberbatch shines as Alan Turing in a performance of timid confidence - his character struggles to look anyone in the eye, yet radiates steadfast confidence in himself. It is a performance of control that grounds The Imitation Game, one of the year's most entertaining "serious" films. The Imitation Game is a movie about many things, not least of which being that we are all unique and think differently, and tolerance and collaboration is key, lest we fail. The film is a beautifully designed and shot period period that integrates historical archival footage smoothly as montage transitions to get context out of the way quickly so that we can instead focus on this fascinating man and his puzzle. The Imitation Game is full of romance, humor, and high-stakes drama while remaining focused as a character study.

Joon-ho Bong's Snowpiercer is the craziest movie that I've seen all year; it is a harsh, funny, over-the-top dystopian sci-fi kung-fu movie. First and foremost, the movie is social commentary - poor people are in the back of the train, rich in the front, with "everybody in their place" and violence, intentional mistreatment, and fear keeping them in order. There is rampant inequality on the movie's train, and it is satirized in the most ridiculous ways with the most ridiculous fight sequences that when the train's conductor says at the end, "It is easier for people to survive on this train if they have some level of insanity," we cannot help but agree. Tilda Swinton's weird, eccentric performance - "Passengers, this is not a shoe. This is disorder." - is one of the most memorable villainous performances in recent memory, and the movie is designed to look like an '80s sci-fi film. Loose storytelling breaks all of the rules, and crazy over-the-top fight scenes transition the movie from car to car of the train of inequality. If our rampant, unfair inequality continues, there will be enough discord to derail the train - a cautionary warning. Beyond all of this, Snowpiercer is one of the funniest movies that I have seen all year. In a totally ridiculous way, of course.

Darren Aronofsky's liberal adaptation of the story of Abrahamic prophet Noah is likely the most maligned movie on my list - but from its opening moments, with its thundering, dramatic score by Clint Mansell tying together images of space and title cards telling the Biblical story of Creation in Genesis, Noah had me hooked. Aronofsky manages to take the short, succinct Biblical narrative and expand its world - he shows us the corruption that so upset God, he creates convincing dramatic conflict between Noah and his family, and he takes characters from other Abrahamic narratives and places them within the story to make it feel more developed, more whole. Some of the choices may be questionable - particularly in the use of the film's primary villain after the start of the flood and other action movie cliches that don't quite work - but at its best, Noah succeeds as both an arthouse film (in its creatively edited flashback/storytelling sequences) and gritty drama (in Noah's survivor's guilt at the film's end, and when we linger quietly in the ark, hearing the cries of the men and women screaming hopelessly for days at the waves of the flood). Noah may have narrative shortcomings, but its creative, fairy tale-like storytelling, visual splendor, earnestness, and reverence won me over. Aronofsky's latest is a film worthy of critical reconsideration.

Ida is a still, quiet, pondering film. There is almost no camera movement, and shots linger for a long time. Dialogue is sparse. Emotions are conveyed in subtle gestures. The film plays out with a remarkable level of control. Everything seems to be preordained. Each long, drawn-out shot of Ida is elegantly, artfully composed. This Polish movie may feature the most aesthetically beautiful lighting and cinematography of the year. The movie feels slow and deceptively simple as we watch it, but it is a movie that lingers in the mind. Ida tells the story of a young woman searching for her identity and preparing to take her vows to become a nun, set against the landscape of post-WWII Poland and startling revelations about her family history. She must determine the answer for herself to a poignant question: does our ancestry make us who we are? Or do we craft our own identities for ourselves? Ida is about many things, but this question is key. The movie is thoughtful, and anyone who appreciates the craft of cinematography needs to see this film immediately for its elegant, beautifully lit compositions.

The crashing seas and lush, green countryside of Ireland provide a meditative backdrop for this thoughtful - yet biting and darkly hilarious - story of forgiveness. Calvary was written and directed by John Michael McDonagh (the filmmaker behind The Guard and brother of In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths filmmaker Martin McDonagh), and as is to be expected, biting dialogue is one of the film's strongest qualities: "I've always felt there's something inherently psychopathic about joining the army in peace time." Brendan Gleeson gives a wonderful, humane performance as the film's protagonist, a priest who is told in a confessional booth that he is going to be killed in a week and who has to make peace with the notion of that while attacks are made on his church. The movie is beautiful to look at, with sweeping Irish vistas and memorably designed interior locations setting the scenes. Calvary is a smart, humane, comedic drama.

Honorable Mention:
Frank | Directed by Leonard Abrahamson
Gone Girl | Directed by David Fincher
Under the Skin | Directed by Jonathan Glazer
Big Hero 6 | Directed by Don Hall & Chris Williams
Into the Woods | Directed by Rob Marshall

A Few Movies Missed: A Most Violent Year, A Most Wanted Man, The BabadookThe One I Love, American Sniper, FuryForce Majeure, Selma, Mr. Turner, Two Days One Night, Big Eyes, Still Alice, Unbroken, Locke, Leviathan, Jodorowsky's Dune, The Judge

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

GONE GIRL: Exposure, Lighting, and Depth of Field Choices

Each of director David Fincher’s films exhibit a high level of control over craft; his latest, Gone Girl, is no exception. Fincher and his long-time director of photography Jeff Cronenweth make every shot contribute to the story, each exposure motivated by the drama. When there is contrast in an exposure, it is for dramatic effect; when there is movement, it is motivated by the story; and lighting patterns and the manipulation of shadows within a frame as they fall on faces are intentional and always at the service of telling the story.

The story told in Gone Girl shifts from one point of view to another, misleads the audience and then redirects them, and changes our opinions about characters over time. Much of this shift is subtly, cinematically accomplished through careful manipulation of light and shadow. Fincher and Cronenweth employ a low-key lighting design throughout the film, particularly in interior scenes in which characters are unsafe, suspect, or at risk at night of arrest, betrayal, or murder. This often leaves half of a character’s face in shadow with the other half more brightly exposed – characters in the film are often hiding something, and the shadows on their faces convey this by literally hiding part of their face.

During the first act of the film, we are not meant to trust Ben Affleck’s character, Nick Dunne; we do not know if he did or did not murder his wife, or at least play a role in her disappearance. When we see Dunne in these opening scenes, his face is often masked in shadow. We see, in an early flashback, the first time that Dunne met Amy, his future wife; in this meeting, there is shadow on his face, but hers is consistently and fully lit. Through the design of these individual lighting sources – her light being more high-key, his being more low-key – we get to know her more openly than we get to know him. When we see the couple flirt in a bookstore, though we see them in profile in one wide shot, his face is shadowed, and hers is not. The pattern continues. The shadows that cover Nick Dunne’s face in the first scene in which he talks to his sister in The Bar about his marriage problems on the morning of his anniversary (the day of Amy’s disappearance) are in the darkest zone of the exposure; the window behind him, by contrast, run nearly into the shoulder of the dynamic range. Normally, you would expose – according to a normal zone system – skin tones in the middle of the exposure for the best preservation of detail, but here, Fincher and Cronenweth often plunge their characters’ faces into the shadows for dramatic effect.

When Nick discovers the broken table in his living room – the scene of the crime – his face is darkened again while the lights outside in the world shine bright; his face runs into the darkest zone of the exposure once again. The lighting makes it unclear if we are to trust him. This pattern of misleading contrast and shadow culminates at the end of the act, in which he is accused by the police of killing his wife and he tells them that he never wants to speak with them again without a lawyer (his face is cast half in deep shadow), and a subsequent scene in which his sister and he stand at the bottom and the top of a set of stairs, respectively; he asks her: “Are you asking me if I murdered my wife?” Her face is fully exposed. His is shrouded in shadow, illuminated only after she leaves by the bright flashes of paparazzi cameras coming in through the windows.

This pattern of contrast changes, however, as the audience gains more and more information about the characters. Shadows are cast on Amy’s face deeply for the first time in a flashback in which Amy and Nick begin to have marriage troubles; and once we learn that she staged her entire disappearance to ruin her husband and goes on the run, particularly in the cabin scenes, the contrast ratio on her face increases significantly from the earlier pattern, in which she had been more brightly exposed.

Meanwhile, when Nick goes to New York to get a lawyer, and as his innocence becomes clearer and clearer, the contrast ratio on his own face becomes more high-key; the shadows are far less prevalent on him. His face is only shadowed into the darker zones of the exposure once again near the very end of the film, when his wife returns into his life, and he is threatened, and must make difficult decisions out of fear. The shadows this time convey not his suspicious nature, but his own internal conflict. All of this is at service to the shifts in the story.

The visual style of Gone Girl favors lenses of wide to normal focal lengths; the camera is an observer. We see characters most often in a shallow depth of field. This isn’t just for visual flair: all of the characters in Gone Girl are in some way isolated. Nick Dunne does not know whom he can trust. Margot, his sister, cannot make things right and feels helpless. Amy is lost inside her own wicked mind. Even the two cops are at odds with one another. Shallow depth of field is a powerful tool for isolating characters and separating them from one another.

One of the best employments of shallow depth of field in Gone Girl comes at a moment in which Amy is narrating that she is afraid of her husband, that she believes that he will hurt her, that she had went on Valentine’s Day to buy a gun for self-protection; as she says these things in voiceover narration and lies alone in bed, the camera slides alongside the bed to follow Nick in the background as he slowly walks toward the bathroom, wearing black, menacingly out of focus as the camera stays statically focused on her, shadowed in fear. Shallow depth of field also highlights a characters’ emotions and reactions when used in close-up, as the usual distractions of a deeply focused frame are not present in such a composition; note the close-up in which Fincher finally gives Nick Dunne power to shift the story as Nick speaks to his lawyer in New York; the close-up on Tyler Perry’s lawyer character in which he says, “We need to realign the public’s perception of Amy…” and the following close-up on Nick Dunne’s reaction blur out the background. The moment focuses on them as they shift the story, for the time at least, in Nick’s favor.

This type of aesthetic – plunging characters’ faces into the lower zones of the exposure, while the background (especially windows) goes into the highlights – would have been almost impossible to realize 15 years ago with digital cameras, as the dynamic range of sensors in the late 1990s/early 2000s would have blown the highlights well into the shoulder and crushed the blacks, erasing the detail in faces shrouded in shadow. With film, it would have been possible, but would have had a grainier look on the faces in lower exposures. As I said earlier: all of these aesthetic choices are in service of the story, and the exposure and lighting choices and overall low-key lighting design convey the shifts in the narrative appropriately. All of this is at service of the themes, of the abuse of trust in a long-term relationship, and of the darkness of these particular characters. The lighting design is in perfect harmony with the film's story and themes.