Tag Archives: Orson Welles

Side By Side – Evolution or revolution?

Let's get digital, digital: Keanu Reeves and Martin Scorsese

Let’s get digital, digital: Keanu Reeves and Martin Scorsese

The revolution will not be televised, it will be projected. That’s the message of Christopher Kenneally’s documentary Side By Side, which shows in great detail the effect digital filmmaking has had on the industry, beginning life as a budget-friendly side-show, before becoming the medium of choice for almost all the big players in the film business.

Briefly sketching the early history of filmmaking, Side By Side goes on to chart the rapid rise of digital cinematography since the release of the first feature-length movies shot on digital in 1997.

Hosted by actor Keanu Reeves, in conversation with a massive who’s who of contemporary filmmakers, Side By Side certainly covers most of the bases, but never quite qualifies its comparisons.

Amongst the interviewees are digital devotees such as James Cameron, George Lucas and Danny Boyle, while new converts include David Lynch and Martin Scorsese, who until only a few short years ago seemed steadfast in his support for traditional film stock. Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson, both major digital converts (although Spielberg shot 2011’s War Horse on film), are noteworthy in their absence from the doc.

Only Christopher Nolan is steadfastly opposed to shooting on digital, with even his cinematographer Wally Pfister unwilling to rule it out entirely in future. Elsewhere actor John Malkovich praises how digital allows you to continue shooting, and acting, without breaks for changing the magazine every 10 minutes, allowing continuous performance like in theatre. Actress Greta Gerwig counteracts that by saying how exhausting the non-stop-ness of digital filmmaking is, which David Fincher backs up with an unfortunate anecdote about Robert Downey Jr. on the set of Zodiac.

Aside from film directors and actors, a large number of cinematographers are interviewed, including Pfister (The Dark Knight, Inception), Vittorio Storaro (The Conformist, Apocalypse Now), Michael Chapman (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull) and Anthony Dod Mantle (Festen, 28 Days Later, Slumdog Millionaire), offering some fascinating insights. Side By Side also investigates the effect of the digital era on other aspects of the production process, from visual effects to editing and colour grading, providing an outlet for some less-sung heroes of the cinema to have their say. Recent developments such as Higher Frame Rate technology, 3D and 4K+ resolution are briefly touched upon.

Darth Innovator: George Lucas discusses digital in front of a scene from the best film he never made

Darth Innovator: George Lucas discusses the digital revolution in front of a scene from the best film he never made

While the interviews are Anglophone-centric, with only a brief trip to Denmark to interview the Dogme 95 pioneers of digital filmmaking, Kenneally and Reeves have gone out of their way to track down a far more representative selection of female filmmakers (including cinematography Ellen Kuras and director Lena Dunham) than similar documentaries have done in the past. The documentary should be lauded for these efforts.

The use of footage from representative films is mostly exceptional, although there are some poor choices along the way. When Steven Soderbergh mentions the “revolution” in filmmaking, Side By Side shows us a clip from Che, his digitally shot biopic set in revolutionary Latin America. It’s one of the few times this film patronises.

Where Side By Side fails is in giving film a fair hearing, other than defending it with a “it worked for 100 years, so why change now?” No one discusses the crispness of photochemical film imagery with any of the passion of your average muso down the local record shop defending vinyl over CDs. Keanu can’t quite get anyone to explain to him why film would be preferable to HD. When Soderbergh attacks the dirt that appears on traditionally projected film, no defence of it is offered up. Side By Side works brilliantly as a history of the digital revolution, but in terms of laying film and digital side-by-side, it is found wanting in regards the former.

The film leaves no doubt in the end that the death knell has been rung for film, and digital cinema is most definitely ruling the roost now, but does not manage to answer whether or not this is a good thing. To quote Orson Welles: “It’s pretty, but is it art?”

3/5

(originally published at http://www.filmireland.net)

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The Master – How to make an American cult

The Master is good, the Master is great, we surrender our will as of this date…

In many ways The Master is Paul Thomas Anderson’s biggest film yet. It may not have the vast landscapes of There Will Be Blood, or a fraction of the characters of Magnolia, but it is shot in many more assorted locations and its themes about faith and belonging are as enormous as any in his previous films. Despite this, however, the previous film of Anderson’s that The Master most brings to mind is Punch-Drunk Love, his small, quirky 2002 romantic-comedy-drama.

The connection is due solely to the two films’ lead characters; both frustrated outcasts with fractured ties to their families, prone to violent rages and uncontrollable crying fits (which they both deny). But unlike Punch-Drunk Love’s Barry Egan, there is little solace or redemption for The Master’s Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix). His attempts to calm his anger and find himself lead him down a very strange rabbit hole.

Discharged from the US Navy following World War II, Freddie flits restlessly from job to job, seeking women to satiate his sex addiction and gulping his own brand of moonshine to appease his alcoholism. Lost in a new America, he stumbles onto the yacht of Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), an enigmatic, suspiciously over-qualified writer with an original take on the meaning of life, the universe, and everything. Freddie soon finds himself sailing to New York with Dodd’s family and cadre of followers, and is rapidly indoctrinated to Dodd’s teachings, called “The Cause”.

In little time we can be certain that The Cause is nothing more than a cult built up around Dodd’s increasingly bizarre creations – claims of past lives, a trillion-year-old universe and the threat of a sinister “invader force” from beyond. But Freddie, disillusioned and uneducated, does not see it as such, or chooses not to, or chooses to overlook it; so eager is he to find somewhere to belong. But as The Cause grows in strength and numbers, how poor a fit Freddie is for The Cause, and The Cause is for him, becomes ever-more apparent.

Clearly taking its start-off point from Scientology and its founder, L. Ron Hubbard, The Master has no interest in attacking that religion, and is far more concerned with the personalities behind it; of those who build it, those who are seduced by it and those who cannot be. As much as Freddie thinks he needs The Cause, Dodd needs him. He needs him to prove he can brainwash anyone to his beliefs, but he also needs him because at a base level Freddie cannot be won over. As the success of The Cause skyrockets, Dodd’s Frankenstein’s monster spirals out of control, and Freddie remains his only anchor to humanity, and his only potential escape. It is Dodd’s wife, Peggy (Amy Adams), who sees this element to Freddie, and keen for there to be no limit to her husband’s greatness, observes Freddie and Dodd’s relationship suspiciously.

Absolute madmen: Rami Malek, Amy Adams, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix

As Freddie, Joaquin Phoenix gives the strongest performance of his career to date. Hunched in posture and speaking always out of just one side of his mouth, he effortlessly portrays Freddie as the damaged goods he is. His shell-shock, disillusionment, and regret all combine to form this bubbling kettle of frustration that Phoenix holds together throughout the film. He shows Freddie as a man incapable of believing the things he is told, but like a good solider willing to fight to the death to defend those same (dis)beliefs. The film’s two most intense sequences both detail Freddie’s indoctrination to The Cause, first as a mere member and later as an acolyte. In the first instance, Dodd breaks him down psychologically by asking him personal questions in quick succession, with the only rules being Freddie may not stop to think or blink. If he blinks, they start over. Shot in a series of unflinching close-ups of the two men, the scene is exhausting and difficult to watch, but brilliantly defines their relationship. For the next tier of his indoctrination, Freddie is forced to walk back and forth endlessly across a room, describing his sensations at each end. Part of a seemingly unending montage, Phoenix brilliantly captures Freddie’s escalating frustration at not being able to achieve or feel what is needed. Unable to look away, we can understand what he is feeling.

Hoffman plays off Phoenix beautifully, as his mentor and father-figure. Channelling Orson Welles’s greatest monsters, Hoffman makes Dodd larger than life in public while showing his all-too-human doubts in private. Dodd could be the love-child of Daniel Plainview and Eli Sunday from There Will Be Blood, fusing those characters’ ruthlessness, devotion and passion for corrupting others. But behind every great man there is a meek but terrifying woman, and Amy Adams steals much of the film as Mrs. Dodd. Her natural shyness and sweetness come across as wholly menacing here, and there are few moments when it is not clear how much power she is actually wielding.

Anderson’s script and direction rarely falter, and he manages to keep the drama building and the audience’s attention throughout the film’s 140-minute runtime. Somewhat disappointingly, The Master is not as breathtakingly pretty a film as one might expect, especially in the wake of There Will Be Blood. Robbed of his regular cinematographer Robert Elswit, Anderson has here teamed up with Romanian D.P. Mihai Malaimare Jr. The photography is crisp and the camera is wielded finely throughout, but there are none of the visual flourishes of the Anderson/Elswit union. With the exception of one beautiful, oft-repeated shot off the back of a boat, representing Freddie’s constant drifting from life and responsibility, The Master never overwhelms with its imagery. This of course lets the characters be the real focus, but fans may find themselves less than pleased with this film’s look.

In the navy: Joaquin Phoenix, disillusioned and out cold

Johnny Greenwood’s assorted score is similarly incohesive, with each piece of music sounding like it comes from a different soundtrack. This has a brilliantly disjoining effect, and allows for a great variety of instruments to come to the fore: frazzled strings, pulsating bass, the joyous tinkling of a piano.

The Master is an easy film to admire, but a difficult one to love. The portraits painted of Feddie and Dodd are hugely impressive, but it is a struggle to find anything in either character to relate to. Still, full of sharp dialogue and energetic scenes, and with three astounding central performances, it is not an easy one to forget. It is one viewers will find themselves wanting to revisit, whether they even liked the film or not. Like The Cause itself, The Master is a strange seducer.

4/5

(originally published at http://www.filmireland.net)

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The Dark Knight Rises – The long goodbye

The Dark Knight returns

Has it really been only four years? The Dark Knight was such an enormous success on its release in 2008, both critically and popularly, that it upended the common perception of the summer blockbuster as infantile or mindless. Already a regular on many film fans’ favourite movies lists, it has even repeatedly permeated somewhat hyperbolic lists of the “best films ever”. Regardless of negative opinions some might have, there is no denying it was a step above the Hollywood machine’s average output, and, to borrow from the Joker, it changed things.

So expectations were high, probably too high, for The Dark Knight Rises, the “final act” in Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy. Following on from the remarkable success of The Dark Knight (and the director’s popular, inspired, flawed Inception), the loss of that film’s breakout star (Heath Ledger’s Joker is perhaps the most iconic villain of the past decade) and the need to conclude a saga that, in many ways, had only just begun, have proved to be too much for Christopher Nolan and his brother and writing partner Jonathan Nolan to live up to. But while The Dark Knight Rises is the weakest film in the trilogy that started with the brilliant but overshadowed Batman Begins, it does not let the side down and brings the story to an acceptable, if premature, close.

We pick up eight years after the events of The Dark Knight. Bruce Wayne is still physically and emotionally damaged from his encounter with Harvey Two-Face and the death of his beloved Rachel. He has not put on the cowl in that time, but the myth of Harvey Dent as a hero has allowed for the streets of Gotham to be kept free of scum by strictly legal means. Wayne, now a Howard Hughesian shut-in, is led back down the path of the Batman after an encounter with a cat burglar, Selina Kyle (the traditional Catwoman, though never named as such in the film), who is discovered to have links to a conspiracy within his own company and, worse still, connections to a vicious, hulking terrorist known as Bane.

World-weary Bruce and Alfred

The film opens with an impressive if over-elaborate Mission: Impossible­-style airborne action sequence, but slows down rapidly after that, taking its time to reintroduce to us to a very different Gotham, as well as a few new characters. It’s not until the 45min mark that Wayne is back in the Batsuit, chasing Bane and evading the police. The film becomes quite gripping from here on, as Batman tackles Bane and his henchmen, with a little help from the slippery Selina, before the revelation of Bane’s masterplan brings the film to a screeching halt. Dragging out the penultimate half hour with a bloated, convoluted and frustratingly unauthentic city-under-siege scenario, it is only in its final action sequence – a massive street brawl and a pulse-pounding chase sequence – that the film fully recaptures the viewer’s attention and excitement. One can’t help but feel there was just too much story for one movie here, and the scale was simply too big for the subject.

Despite a handful of surprisingly predictable plot twists in the final act – hardly believable from the men behind Memento and The Prestige – the story is strong and the dialogue is tight. The Nolans have done a good job returning to the themes of the previous movies – identity, justice, chaos – and extending them through this film, although they touch upon little new. The simplicity of the Joker’s master stroke in The Dark Knight – bombs on two boats with the triggers in the hands of the passengers of the alternate boat – is here echoed and extended to ludicrous proportions, dragging out the sense of terror and chaos. An earlier scene where Bane detonates a bomb at a sports stadium and threatens the spectators with more to come creates far more panic and horror than what actually follows.

Linking Bane to the League of Shadows, the terrorist guild from Batman Begins, helps to bring the story full circle, and Wayne’s character arc comes to a well-executed conclusion. Perhaps The Dark Knight’s greatest flaw was taking the focus away from Wayne and Batman, but here his struggle is once again at the forefront of the drama. Christian Bale continues his restrained performance as Wayne/Batman, though has little new to show off that he didn’t in the first film. His only real challenge is in the romantic subplots, balancing attractions to femme fatale Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway) and charitable billionaire Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard). These subplots don’t run smoothly, but Bale captures something of a man who desperately needs to be loved but cannot admit it.

Disappointingly, the refocus of attention on Wayne comes at the expense of the minor characters, Alfred (Michael Caine), Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) and Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman). All three were given brilliant, short, simple character arcs in The Dark Knight, but here are reduced to their basics. With the exception of one emotional scene with Bale, Caine’s Alfred is little more than a butler. Gordon, now one of the few devotees of the cult of the Dark Knight, offers unconditional, undramatic support – although Oldman gets a chance to have some fun during the final action sequence. Fox is once again just black Q.

Anne Hathaway shows off her safe-cracking figure

Thankfully the Nolan brothers have found something special in their interpretation of Selina Kyle. Treating her as a Robin Hood-esque thief who believes the rich should sacrifice all their belongings, but still wants to keep the good stuff for herself, the pair have written a strong, feisty female role that it is both witty and sexy, and Anne Hathaway pulls it off with ample aplomb. Christopher Nolan has often (and justifiably) been criticised for the weak female characters in his films, so his Selina is a welcome addition, and the strongest woman to feature in a Nolan film since Memento. The fact that Hathaway kicks plenty of ass in a skin-tight catsuit with serrated stilettos makes her fanboy gold.

More problematic is new character John Blake, a rookie cop whose smarts soon raise him to the rank of detective, and who becomes a close ally of Gordon and Batman. It’s not that he is a weak or thinly drawn character, but that the story forces him upon the viewer. Before we’ve had a chance to get a sense of the character he rattles off a story about his childhood that screams “Like me! Like me! I’m an important character!” You can feel the hand of the writers at work, and it’s disconcerting. In the hands of a lesser actor it would have been a disaster, but, portrayed by the immensely charismatic Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Blake is elevated and carried through the story. It was a close call, though.

Featuring the top half of Tom Hardy’s head as Bane

And then there’s Bane. Played by a beefed-up Tom Hardy, the massive enemy has impressive screen presence, but not much more. With his face half-covered by a breathing device, and his voice echoing like a less-sleepy Orson Welles from Transformers: The Movie, Hardy’s performance can barely be seen. His mouth is completely cloaked, so it is his eyes and hands and body that do the acting. He is never quite dull, but he is truly limited, and many of his lines, laced with Nolanesque menace, are inaudible in the troubled sound mix. In many ways this Bane is little more than the previous cinematic incarnation of the character, as a grunting henchman in the lambasted camp farce Batman & Robin.

“BAAAAAAAAANE!!!”

Production values are as high as one has come to expect, and Nolan’s camera never misses a chance to show off the glossy grit on display. The choice to film an undisguised Manhattan as Gotham is an odd one, however. Several famous landmarks can be seen in wide shots as bombs go off, including the half-constructed new World Trade Center. The illusion is briefly shattered. But the action scenes are gloriously paced and captured, particularly the high-speed chases. The fight scene choreography is a bit lax, and one punch-up between Batman and Bane is out of focus for a disappointing amount of the time. CGI is well used to show the scale of Bane’s warpath, but one longs for an on-set demolition, like the hospital in The Dark Knight.

Editing is quick and clean, although Nolan relies too heavily on flashbacks, particularly to the less-seen Batman Begins, to make sure that everyone is up to speed. Further patronising can be witnessed when a minor character is killed and the camera whips in to a close-up on their body and lingers there until people who aren’t even watching the movie have all understood that yes, this relatively unimportant character is now dead. “Have you got it yet? They’re dead. Right? Yes? Let’s move on.”

What the film lacks in balance it makes up for in style and scale, and there is so much to enjoy here, despite its exhausting length. Much of the wit of Batman Begins lost in The Dark Knight is back this time round. There are more one-liners, with two of the film’s finest lines delivered by an unexpected but well-chosen character. Wittier than The Dark Knight though it is, it takes itself even more seriously, if that can be believed. Hinting at issues such as class struggle and the Occupy movement is all well and good, but you need to back them up with conclusions that are absent here.

Still, while Nolan has delivered the weakest film in his trilogy, he has still delivered a fine third instalment, and this trilogy will be immortalised for his incredible efforts. Rises is a better film because of the films that have preceded it; the characters already developed, the music carried over, its brilliant look and dramatic style. It brings little new to the table, but it repackages the old things with a sizeable punch. While its climax is overly predictable and oddly familiar, it is a suitable denouement.

Batman’s new Batwing the Bat

Nolan’s Batman may have finished his work, but the inspiration this series of films has provided audiences with will linger, and we will no doubt see the character again soon, in this guise or in another. The bar has been set for all future Batmans, and thanks to The Dark Knight Rises it is still an imposing height to reach.

3/5

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