Archive: film

Blade Runner 2049’s visuals can’t escape character and pacing issues

Blade Runner 2049 stands up well to the 1982 original on a surface level. The film has an immaculate sense of place; DP Roger Deakins captures future L.A. in all its neon, rain drenched glory. The production design is stunning. Yet amazing visuals can’t overpower 2049’s thin supporting characters and pacing issues.

(Major spoilers ahead for Blade Runner 2049.)

Joi (Ana de Armas) – K’s (Ryan Gosling) futuristic mashup of Stepford wife and manic pixie dream girl – encapsulates Blade Runner 2049’s character problems. She starts the film with promise; Joi opens questions on how AI intersects with love, mobility, and even societal rank (Joi is technically a slave for another artificial slave.) And in a later memorable scene, Joi uses sex worker Mariette (Mackenzie Davis) as a physical substitute for herself. Joi tries to “sync” to the movements of Mariette; the unsettling imagery of this Joi/Mariette “hybrid” making out with K has implications for identity and even future-scape pornography.

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Spectre: uneven movie, great cinematography

With Roger Moore’s passing, I’ve been revisiting Bond movies. Catching up with Spectre wasn’t part of the plan. It’s overly long, with a convoluted plot, some slack action scenes, and a miscast villain. Yet in terms of camera work, Spectre is stellar. I’d rank it second only to Roger Deakins’ outing on Skyfall.

DP Hoyte Van Hoytema’s lensing gives the film a different look than other Bond films. Visually it’s romantic and elegant. Yet as with Van Hoytema’s other work (Let the Right One In, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Interstellar), Spectre has a dark tone. He deepens what’s an often lightweight picture with more thematic weight. (Mild spoilers for Spectre to follow.)

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Moonlight: personal, humanistic, and warm

All stills are property of their respective owners and are used here strictly for educational purposes only. Several shots are combined into a grid format – click or tap to enlarge.

It’s easy to see why Moonlight is the most critically acclaimed film of the year. Everything just works as a complete package, with stellar acting, direction, and screenplay. Its humanistic story is memorable, emotionally complex, and subverts racial stereotypes.

Among such skill, it’s Moonlight‘s striking visuals that left the biggest impression on me. Though it has been months since my last viewing, I can recall certain shots as though I saw the film yesterday. With strong saturated colors and high contrast, Wong Kar-Wai is a clear influence. Yet interesting changes in angle, perspective, and a heavy reliance on handheld give this movie its own unique character. (Mild spoilers for Moonlight ahead.)

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La La Land: balancing modernism and classicism

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From the moment I heard La La Land talked up as a “modern” musical, I got worried. Updating older genres and tropes is en vogue these days, but it’s easy to mess up. Balance is key. Some films follow the rules of the past slavishly, making it hard for audiences to connect. Others cheat, creating an entirely modern film with a few half-hearted old school references.

Thankfully La La Land is an exception to this rule. Much of that credit goes to the film’s impeccable costuming, choreography, music, and direction. But I can’t imagine the movie fully gelling together without the skill of DP Linus Sandgren.

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Sicario: tension and realism

All stills are property of their respective owners and are used here strictly for educational purposes only. Several shots are combined into a grid format – click or tap to enlarge.

Last year’s drug war thriller Sicario was universally praised for its cinematography. Much of that credit goes to Sicario’s DP Roger Deakins, one of the most respected cinematographers working today.

One of Sicario’s standout scenes follows FBI agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) on a van convoy to pick up a drug kingpin. It’s a vehicular sprint from the U.S. to Juarez, Mexico and back again. Tensions rise as threats loom around her and the rest of the convoy. The camera work conveys disorientation, claustrophobia, and the increasing threat of the Mexican drug cartel as Macer and her allies race through the streets. (Spoilers follow for the film’s first 30 minutes.)

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A Most Violent Year: beauty within decay

NY skyline, cars

All stills are property of their respective owners and are used here strictly for educational purposes.

J.C. Chandor’s A Most Violent Year is the rare crime drama that balances epic and intimate themes well. Chandor’s screenplay makes big statements on capitalism and the American dream. But it’s also microcosmic in its scale, a character study of Abel Morales’ (Oscar Isaac) struggle to protect and grow his heating-oil business.

Abel built his company legitimately, and he takes pride in the righteousness of his decisions. Yet given external threats to his company, AMVY asks how much Abel will give into gangster-like behavior to stay ahead.

As underlined by the title, time and place is key to Abel’s predicament. New York City in 1981 had record high crime rates and was in the midst of a recession. Capturing the city rests on DP Bradford Young. His cinematography is authentic and realistic; rough edges, industrial sprawl and graffiti abound.

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Nightcrawler: shots that create empathy

Jake Gyllenhaal as Lou Bloom

All stills are property of their respective owners and are used here strictly for educational purposes only.

Most critical attention on 2014’s Nightcrawler centered on Jake Gyllenhaal’s lead performance. It’s understandable; Gyllenhaal’s character actor eccentricities gel together in a way we’ve rarely seen before. He’s intense and deeply unsettling as lead character Lou Bloom.

However, it’s smart cinematography that underlines his performance and sets the film’s dark, gritty tone. DP Robert Elswit forces the audience to empathize with Lou’s own sociopathic worldview.

Nightcrawler chronicles Lou’s growing career in L.A. crime journalism. Along the way we get a handful of conventionally filmed conversations with Lou at diners, cars, and TV stations. But crime scenes are the heart of the film and push the story forward. It’s also where Elswit makes many strong and unconventional shot choices.

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The Blu-ray dilemma

I love Blu-rays. They’ve got great visual quality and serve as a counterpoint to the high prices, loud audiences and endless ads at mainstream theaters. But Blu-rays are dying in the rental market with à la carte streaming taking its place, a more limited and often inferior substitute.

I’m aware that a defense of any disc media can appear shortsighted as tech shifts to mobile and the cloud. Streams clearly have several big advantages, most notably their convenience. But for the cinephile in me, Blu-rays for now are an unparalleled experience. There’s fewer artifacts or compression and no visual stutter from a bump in your internet connection. Almost every Blu-ray soundtrack delivers 5.1 surround. Also Blu-ray color depth and saturation trounces the content I stream from Amazon and iTunes.

Yet Blu-rays feel virtually inaccessible for rental. Netflix queue times are laughably bad; I’m averaging about two months from the time a new release movie is available for download or Blu-ray purchase, and when I get it from Netflix. I live in New York, a worldwide film hub, yet most local video options are long gone. Nearby self-service boxes from Blockbuster and Redbox have little selection.

This no-win situation is probably exactly what studios want: pony up $20 or more for an outright Blu-ray buy or suffer inferior quality (and no special features) at $5 for a 24-hour download rental. We deserve better.

Unfortunately, there’s no signs of the trend changing course. The studios set the rules. Distribution patterns for physical media take forever to change. If anything I’d expect more unskippable trailers and less content on rental Blu-rays to make the situation even worse.

So Blu-ray as a rental format appears dead, but movie streams and downloads don’t have to suffer the same fate. Hollywood has the chance to prevent a lot of problems (while cutting piracy) with a few changes in its download and streaming content:

Provide higher end streaming options that offer less compression and more special feature tie-ins. When I have to play a guessing game or run Google searches to find out if your “1080p HD” version is butchered by artifacts or other shortcuts, I’m out the door. Even at a slightly higher cost, I’d happily pay a $1 or $2 premium for an enhanced stream.

All films get 5.1 surround where available. It’s true if you listen from your laptop or mobile device, this doesn’t change much. But home theater packages have bumped up their quality in recent years at lower price points. Surround tracks can make a huge difference, and not just with blockbuster action films (e.g. the atmospheric surround touches in “Mulholland Drive” are pretty masterful.)

Cut the price of HD back catalog titles by at least $1 or $2. Why is the classic comedy Planes, Trains and Automobiles only a buck less than a new release on iTunes? I know the “one simple price” mantra is popular for Blockbuster and the iTunes music store. But this is a very different market; a movie rental stream is a watch once, low investment impulse buy (just look at the popularity of Netflix’s instant streaming.) Tap into that by keeping the back catalog priced low.

Online delivery is clearly film’s future. Yet that medium, much like we’ve seen with music, has the ability to disrupt the Hollywood studio system. It won’t kill it, because they still hold most of the content (i.e. why the same few studios have ruled films for decades.) This, combined with growing frustration by consumers on increasing content restrictions along with pirated torrents being easier to access, can significantly harm Hollywood. If the studios don’t adapt and change, the market will force them to.

A Danish film primer: three films, three genres

Danish film can be a hard starter for many; mainstream moviegoers harp on the usual “downsides” applicable to foreign film: subtitles, unorthodox plotting, and no recognizable stars. Even art house veterans can find it hard to dissociate Denmark’s output from the well known (infamous?) director Lars von Trier, who’s films run cold, experimental and arguably misanthropic.

There’s more out there. What follows are three very different Danish films in three varied genres, all personal favorites of mine and a starting point for learning more about what Danish (or for some, just plain foreign) cinema has to offer.

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Ruining the movie experience: progress bars

Netflix progress bar

As more and more people watch film in ways different from the “traditional” formats of the theaters and DVDs, the progress bar, a indicator that shows exactly how far into a film the viewer is, has become commonplace. While instinctively it’s a great device to help navigate back and forth through a movie, I’ve got serious problems with the device, as it can completely kill the enveloping effect of a movie.

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