Midway through Nicolas Winding Refn’s new Netflix series Copenhagen Cowboy, I was thoroughly bored. The repetition was annoying: another neon-drenched set with stilted dialogue and glacial plot development. Then, in a shot that probably lasted no more than a minute, the series’ protagonist moved upwards in an elevator as a synth score kicked into overdrive. The brief scene’s immaculate construction ended up burrowing in my brain for days.
That small example underlines how Refn and fellow art house helmer Gaspar Noé are some of the most stylistically dazzling directors working today, to the point I regularly seek out their work. Yet I struggle to recommend almost any of their films. They provide memorable moments of stylish brilliance that clash against sophomoric writing, turgid dialogue, and nihilistic, sadistic violence. It’s frustrating because both could produce fantastic work with the right writers and collaborators.
Admittedly it can take a lot of work to group these two directors. Noé’s and Refn’s most famous films derive from different genres, if not at times, entirely different worlds. Noe’s 2002 Irréversible is messy and heavily improvised, a French extreme horror revenge tale whose reverse narrative structure feels in conversation with Christopher Nolan’s Memento. Refn’s 2011 Drive is a slick, minimalist crime thriller that meshes late 70s Walter Hill with 80s synths and a stoic turn from star Ryan Gosling.
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Portrait of a Lady on Fire was the last movie I saw in theaters before COVID-19 landed stateside. While I’m sad that watching movies on the big screen won’t be an option for a while, at least it ended on a high note. Portrait is an astounding film with unimpeachable craftsmanship, from acting to script and cinematography. And now, with the film’s availability on Hulu, it’s also a great film to enjoy at home. For this post, we’ll look at how the camera — its distance from subjects, characters in the frame, where, and for how long — can convey growing intimacy between characters.
What follows is light on spoilers. We’re only covering content from the first thirty or so minutes of the film, glossing over dialogue and plot developments. That said, some setup is in order: Marianne (Noémie Merlant) is commissioned to paint a portrait of a young woman Héloïse (Adèle Haenel) on an island in Brittany during the late 1700s.
All stills are property of their respective owners and are used here strictly for educational purposes only. Click or tap to enlarge.
A great opening scene grabs the audience’s attention while establishing setting, tone, and key characters in the story. Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive does all of this while memorably defying our expectations of the action genre. When I reflect on my favorite films from the 2010s, Drive ranks high, and its opener is a significant reason why.
However, eight years removed from Drive’s debut, subverting action conventions isn’t the film’s legacy. What lingers for many is Cliff Martinez’s electronic score and Refn’s 80s visual pastiche punctuated by bursts of graphic violence. So while the general critical consensus on Drive is positive, many critics write the film off (if not Refn’s whole filmography) as self-suffocating style over substance. It’s an unfair rap because beyond the synth-heavy music and neon-drenched L.A. setting, Drive has superb craftsmanship that makes it unique and compelling today.
All stills are property of their respective owners and are used here strictly for educational purposes only. Most shots are combined into a grid format – click or tap to enlarge.
Bright is a flat out bad movie. Its screenplay has too much sophomoric dialogue and tonal whiplash. Unresolved plot threads abound. Any charisma from leads Will Smith and Joel Edgerton rarely registers above the film’s mediocrity.
Bright is also an action film with a ninety million plus budget, yet the shootouts are barely comprehensible. Fights lack a clear sense of continuity, editing, and direction. To examine how and why that is we’ll break down a single action scene midway through the film (watch the scene on Netflix; it starts at 1:01:36.)
Ken Adam is a legendary, British production design designer, most famous for his innovative work on early James Bond films (e.g. Dr. No, Goldfinger, Thunderball). Later in his career, Adam was the production designer for The Spy Who Loved Me. To quote the Youtube video:
One of the sets included the villain’s secret lair that was located inside of an enormous tanker ship. Adam struggled with lighting the massive set, and called in a favor from his old boss…Stanley Kubrick. Under an
agreement of total secrecy, Kubrick was snuck onto the empty set, where he spent 4 hours setting lighting and advising Ken Adam.
Wonderful, exhaustive look at David O. Russell’s career by Steven Hyden of Grantland. One smart observation:
Russell makes movies about families — some bound by birth (The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook), others by circumstance (Three Kings, I Heart Huckabees, and American Hustle). But they’re always loud, frayed, self-destructive, and yet somehow functional units.
I thought I’d move past linking to more Gone Girl articles, but here we are; it’s that strong of a film. DP Jeff Cronenweth talks about Fincher’s preferred visual style:
I think that, for the most part, the camera is never in a position that would be a typical shot. There are no shots that are ever taken for granted. There’s a purpose behind everything — without getting crazy; obviously certain situations allow you a lot more freedom than other situations, but it always intrigues me that it’s slightly not normal, or not traditional, rather. The camera tends to stay lower; we’re always looking at people in an observational way that allows you, really, to study them and give them an opportunity to express whatever turmoil’s going on in their heads that then reflects in their performances. The camera has movement but nothing is ever moving for the sake of movement, you know? There’s purpose for everything, as opposed to filling in a void in content or our energy by deciding to make some interesting camera moves. The camera moves have a reason.
Considering Gone Girl was just released it’s an apt time to review director David Fincher’s filmography. There’s surely a lot of other good video essays out there, but this recent analysis by Every Frame a Painting is excellent. It’s devoted to a technical breakdown of Fincher’s preferred shot composition, supported by many examples from his entire filmography (with Gone Girl of course, exempted.)
An informative video by Tony Zhou that outlines the techniques director Michael Bay resorts to again and again throughout his filmography. As Zhou illustrates, it’s distinctive, at times visually impressive, but overblown and overused to the point of exhaustion for the audience.