31 Days of Oscar Blogathon: The Crafts – Cinematography in Black-and-White and Color

Introduction

When I looked at the 31 Days of Oscar Blogathon announcement for this year what came to mind as a good idea for crafts would be to examine Cinematographers who were at the Oscars for work in black-and-white and color cinematography. If I decided to just feature those who had won in both it’d have been a smaller club (60 cinematographers are in it by my count). However, as I say with my own awards: the process is more about what’s nominated.

Furthermore, as my motivation was for the last posts on actors and defunct categories I wanted to learn in the process of writing and chronicling all the cinematographers (most past but thankfully a few present) who have been honored for chromatic and monochromatic work alike.

The Cinematographers

One thing that was surprising to learn is that there are many cinematographers who have gotten tons of nominations. There are 10 who have each had more than 10 each. Granted in the more than quarter-century where color and black-and-white photography were honored separately that’s well in excess of 260 potential nominations (there have been loose limits on total number of nominees in the past), but if you look at actors only five (Streep, Hepburn, Nicholson, Davis and Olivier) have reached that mark.

It makes more sense when you also include that working behind the scenes more often a cinematographers images speak for themselves.

Below you will see those who have been nominated in both and the occasional notes about it.

Please note:

-Some titles appear multiple times because early Color cinematography was often a team endeavor.
-This list was assembled manually so if I am missing a name, or am incorrect about the color palette please let me know in the comments.

1. Ernest Haller

Jezebel (1938, Warner Bros.)

ColorGone with the Wind, The Flame and the Arrow
Black and WhiteJezebel; All this and Heaven, Too; Mildred Pierce, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, Lillies of the Field

2. Freddie Francis

Glory (1989. Columbia)

ColorGlory
Black and WhiteSons and Lovers

3. Joseph A. Valentine

Joan of Arc (1948)

Black and White – Mad About Music, First Love, Spring Parade,
ColorJoan of Arc

4. Karl Freund

Blossoms in the Dust (1941,

Black and WhiteThe Good Earth, The Chocolate Soldier
ColorBlossoms in the Dust

5. Leon Shamroy

Cleopatra (1963)

Black and WhiteThe Young in Heart, Ten Gentlemen from West Point, Prince of Foxes
ColorDown Argentine Way, The Black Swan, Wilson, Leave Her to Heaven, David of Bathsheba, Snows of Kilamanjaro, The Robe, The Egyptian, Love is a Many Splendored Thing, The King and I, South Pacific, Porgy and Bess, Cleopatra, The Cardinal, The Agony and the Ecstasy

6. Joseph Ruttenberg

Mrs. Miniver (1942)

Black and WhiteThe Great Waltz, Waterloo Bridge, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Mrs. Miniver, Madame Curie, Gaslight, Julius Caesar, Somebody Up There Loves Me
ColorGigi, BUtterfield 8

7. Robert Surtees

The Graduat (1967)

Black and WhiteThirty Seconds Over Tokyo, The Bad and the Beautiful
ColorKing Solomon’s Mines, Quo Vadis?, Oklahoma!, Ben Hur, Mutiny on the Bounty, The Graduate, Dr. Doolittle, The Last Picture Show, Summer of ’42

Won in each medium.

8. Conrad Hall

Road to Perdition (2002, DreamWorks, 20th Century Fox)

Black and WhiteMorituri, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Day of the Locust, Tequila Sunrise, Searching for Bobby Fisher, A Civil Action, American Beauty, Road to Perdition
ColorThe Professionals, In Cold Blood

In Cold Blood nomination was after Black-and-White cinematography after category ended.

9. Arthur C. Miller

How Green Was My Valley (1941, 20th Century Fox)

Black and WhiteThe Rains Came, How Green Was My Valley, This Above All, The Song of Bernadette, The Keys of the Kingdom, Anna and the King of Siam
ColorThe Blue Bird

10. Harry Stradling

Some Like It Hot (1955)

Black and WhiteThe Human Comedy, The Picture of Dorian Gray, A Streetcar Named Desire, Some Like it Hot, The Young Philadelphians
ColorShe Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Hans Christian Andersen, Guys and Dolls, The Eddie Duchin Story, Auntie Mame, A Majority of One, Gypsy, My Fair Lady, Funny Girl, Hello, Dolly!

11. James Wong Howe

The Old Man and the Sea

Black and WhiteAlgiers, Abe Lincoln in Illinois, Kings Row, Air Force, The North Star, The Rose Tattoo, Hud, Seconds
ColorThe Old Man and the Sea, Funny Lady

12. Charles Rosher

Sunrise (1927, 20th Century Fox)

Black and WhiteSunrise, The Affairs of Cellini
ColorKismet, The Yearling, Annie Get Your Gun, Showboat

13. Burnett Guffey

From Here to Eternity (1953, Columbia)

Black and WhiteFrom Here to Eternity, The Harder They Fall, The Birdman of Alcatraz, King Rat
ColorBonnie and Clyde

14. Haskell Wexler

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966, Warner Bros.)

Black and White
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
ColorOne Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Bound for Glory, Matewan, Blaze

15. William C. Mellor

The Diary of Anne Frank

Black and White
A Place in the Sun, The Diary of Anne Frank
Color Peyton Place, The Greatest Story Ever Told

16. Hal Mohr

A Midsummer Night's Dream (1935, Warner Bros.)

Black and WhiteA Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Four Poster
ColorPhantom of the Opera

Only write-in nomination for cinematography, back in the wild early days of the Awards.

17. Charles Lang

Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969, Columbia)

Black-and-White: The Right to Love; A Farewell to Arms; Arise, My Love; Sundown, So Proudly We Hail!; The Uninvited, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir; A Foreign Affair; Sudden Fear; Sabrina; Queen Bee; Separate Tables; Some Like it Hot; The Facts of Life
Color:One-Eyed Jacks, How the West Was Won, Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, Butterflies are Free

After 14 nominations for black-and-white cinematography was nominated for color in the following years and for the following films: 1961 One-Eyed Jacks; 1963 How the West Was Won; 1969 Bob & Ted & Carol & Alice
1973 Butterflies Are Free

18. Victor Milner

The Furies (1950)

Black-and-WhiteThe Love Parade, Cleopatra, The Crusades, The General Died at Dawn, The Buccaneer, The Great Victor Herbert, The Furies
ColorNorth West Mounted Police, Reap the Wild Wind

Six black-and-white nominations before 1940.

19. George Barnes

Rebecca (1940, Selznick)

Black-and-WhiteThe Devil Dancer, The Magic Flame, Sadie Thompson, Our Dancing Daughters, Rebecca, Spellbound,
ColorThe Spanish Main, Samson and Delilah

Four nominations in first ceremony; Six total before 1945 The Spanish Main.

20. Joseph LaShelle

How The West Was Won

ColorHow the West Was Won, Irma La Douce
Black-and-WhiteLaura, Come to the Stable, My Cousin Rachel, Marty, Career, The Apartment, Fortune Cookie.

Six nominations before 1963 How The West Was Won.

21. Ernest Laszlo

Judgment and Nuremberg (1961, United Artists)

Black-and-WhiteInherit the Wind, Judgment at Nuremberg, Ship of Fools,
ColorIt’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World; Fantastic Voyage, Star, Airport, Logan’s Run

Third Nomination in 1963 It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World was first in color.

22. Daniel L. Fapp

West Side Story (1957, WB)

Black-and-WhiteDesire Under the Elms; One, Two, Three
ColorThe Five Pennies, West Side Story, The Unsinkable Molly Brown, Ice Station Zebra, Marooned.

23. Tony Gaudio

The Letter (1940)

Black-and-WhiteHell’s Angels, Anthony Adverse, Juarez, The Letter, Corvette K-225
ColorA Song to Remember

Final nomination of six in Color.

24. Milton Krasner

Anne Baxter in All About Ever (20th Century Fox)

ColorAll About Eve, Three Coins in the Fountain, An Affair to Remember, How the West Was Won
Black-and-WhiteArabian Nights, Love with a Proper Stranger, Fate is a Hunter

1950 Second nomination was in Black-and-White for All About Eve.

25. Harold Rosson

The Wizard of Oz (1939)

ColorThe Garden of Allah, The Wizard of Oz
Black-and-WhiteBoom Town, Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo, The Asphalt Jungle, The Bad Seed

Third nomination was his first in black-and-white (Boom Town, 1940).

26. Janusz Kaminski

Schindler's List (1993, Universal)

Black-and-White Schindler’s List
Color – Amistad, Saving Private Ryan, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, War Horse, Lincoln

First nomination in black-and-white.

27. Joseph Valentine

Joan of Arc (1948)

Black-and-WhiteWings Over Honolulu, Mad About Music, First Love, Spring Parade
ColorJoan of Arc

Fifth nomination was his first for color. (Joan of Arc, 1948).

28. Robert Burks

Strangers on a Train (Warner Bros., 1951)

Black-and-White: Strangers on a Train, A Patch of Blue
Color: Rear Window, To Catch a Thief

Three of four nominations in Hitchcock films.

29. William H. Daniels

The Naked City (1948)

Black-and-White
: Anna Christie, The Naked City,
Color: Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, How the West Was Won

30. Lee Garmes

Shanghai Express (1932, Paramount)

Black-and-white
: Morocco, Shanghai Express, Since You Went Away
Color: The Big Fisherman

31. Loyal Griggs

Shane (1953, Paramount)

Color: Shane, The Ten Commandments, The Greatest Story Ever Told,
Black-and-White: In Harm’s Way

32. Ernest Palmer

4 Devils (1928)

Black-and-White: Four Devils, Street Angel
Color: Blood and Sand, Broken Arrow

33. Karl Struss

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931)

Black-and-White: Sunrise, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Sign of the Cross
Color: Aloma of the South Seas

34. Sam Leavitt

Exodus (1960, MGM/UA)

Black-and-white: The Defiant Ones, Anatomy of a Murder
Color: Exodus

35. Lionel Lindon

 Around the World in 80 Days (1956, All Rights Reserved)

Black-and-White: Going My Way, I Want to Live!
Color: Around the World in 80 Days

36. Arthur E. Arling

The Yearling (1946, Disney)

Color: The Yearling
Black-and-White: I’ll Cry Tomorrow

37. Joseph F. Biroc

Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964, WB)

Black-and-white: Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte B & W
Color: Towering Inferno

38. Robert Elswit

Good Night, and Good Luck (2005)

Black-and-White: Good Night, And Good Luck
Color: There Will Be Blood

39. Paul Vogel

The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm (1962, MGM)

Black-and-White: Battleground
Color: The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm

40. George J. Folsey

The White Cliffs of Dover (1944, MGM)

Black-and-White: Reunion in Vienna, The Affairs of Cellini, The Gorgeous Hussy, The White Cliffs of Dover, Executive Suite, The Balcony
Color: Thousands Cheer, Meet Me in St. Louis, The Green Years, Green Dolphin Street, Million Dollar Mermaid, All the Brothers Were Valiant, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers

Four nominations before a color nomination; no wins.

41. Roger Deakins

The Man Who Wasn't There (2002)

Black-and-White: The Man Who Wasn’t There,
Color: The Shawshank Redemption, Fargo, Kundun; O Brother, Where Art Thou?, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, No Country for Old Men, The Reader, True Grit, Skyfall, Prisoners

42. Edward Cronjager

Heaven Can Wait (1943, Fox)

Black-and-White: Cimarron, Sun Valley Serenade, The Pied Piper
Color: To the Shores of Tripoli, Heaven Can Wait, Home in Indiana, Beneath the 12-Mile Reef

Fourth nomination was first in color.

43. Joseph F. Seitz

Double Indemnity (1944, WB)

Black-and-white: The Divine Lady, Five Graves to Cairo, Double Indemnity, The Lost Weekend, Sunset Boulevard, Rogue Cop
Color: When Worlds Collide

Sixth nomination in color.

44. Russell Harlan

To Kill a Mockingbird (1962, Universal)

Black-and-White: The Big Sky, The Blackboard Jungle, To Kill a Mockingbird,
Color: Hatari!, The Great Race, Hawaii

Fourth nomination in color .

45. Ruldolph Maté

Cover Girl

Black-and-White: Foreign Correspondent, That Hamilton Woman, The Pride of the Yankees, Sahara
Color: Cover Girl

Fifth and final nomination in color for Cover Girl. Shared.

46. Franz Planer

The Children's Hour (1961, United Artists)

Black-and-White: Champion, Death of a Salesman, Roman Holiday, The Children’s Hour
Color: The Nun’s Story

Fourth nomination in color.

47. Charles G. Clarke

Hello, Frisco, Hello

Black-and-White: The Magnificent Ambersons
Color: Hello, Frisco, Hello, Green Grass of Wyoming, Sand

Second nomination in color, shared.

48. Joseph Walker

You Can't Take it With You (1938, Columbia)

Black-and-White: You Can’t Take It With You, Only Angels Have Wings, Here Comes Mr. Jordan
Color: The Jolson Story

Fourth nomination color The Jolson Story.

49. Bert Glennon

Stagecoach (1939, UA)

Black-and-White: Stagecoach
Color: Drums Along the Mohawk

50. Ray June

Arrowsmith (1931, UA)

Black-and-White: Arrowsmith, Barbary Coast
Color: Funny Face

Final nomination in color.

51. Joseph MacDonald

The Young Lions (1958, 20th Century Fox)

Black-and-White: The Young Lions, The Sand Pebbles
Color: Pepe

52. Ted D. McCord

The Sound of Music (1965, 20th Century Fox)

Black-and-white: Johnny Belinda, Two for the Seesaw
Color: The Sound of Music

Final nomination was in color.

53. Sol Polito

Sergeant York

Color: The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, Captains of the Clouds
Black-and-White: Sergeant York,

Sergeant York black-and-white second nod.

54. Michael Chapman

Raging Bull

Black-and-White: Raging Bull
Color: The Fugitive

55. Edward Colman

Mary Poppins (1964)

Black-and-White: The Absent-Minded Professor
Color: Mary Poppins

Both Disney films, the second famously being a live-action/animation hybrid.

56. Philip H. Lathrop

Earthquake (1974)

Black-and-White: The Americanization of Emily
Color: Earthquake

57. J. Peverell Marley

Life With Father (1947)

Black-and-White: Suez
Color: Life with Father

Second nomination in color, shared.

58. Sidney Wagner

Dragon Seed

Color: Northwest Passage
Black-and-white: Dragon Seed

59. Gordon Willis

Zelig

Black-and-White and Color: Zelig
Color: The Godfather Part III

60. Robert Richardson

Kill Bill: Vol. 2 (2004, Miramax)

ColorPlatoon, Born on the Fourth of July, Snow Falling on Cedars, The Aviator, Hugo, Django Unchained
Partially Black and WhiteJFK, Inglourious Basterds

All-Color in the Split Era

Just a footnote that the following cinematographers earned ONLY color nominations in the Split Era.

Leonard Smith
Allen M. Davey
Joseph Planck
William V. Skall
W. Howard Greener

All 10 nominations in color cinematography

Oddities

Sven Nyqvist

Persona (1966)

No black and white nominations. WTF?

The Godfather Part II (1974, Paramount Pictures)

Gordon Willis wasn’t nominated for an Oscar for the Godfather, The Godfather Part II or Manhattan. What?

Conclusion

Clearly many cinematographers have proven themselves adept in both styles. Perhaps this will keep black and white occasionally kicking every so often when needed.

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31 Days of Oscar Blogathon: The Snubs – Defunct Categories

Introduction

Oscar Envelope

Film is an ever-changing artform, so it stands to reason that the awards that Hollywood created to help celebrate the industry should evolve. It’s more apparent when you realize that the Oscars began when the industry was in flux as sound was in its infancy.

Film has twice adapted itself in competition with other media arts. Synchronized sound came on the heels of the popularity of radio and a shift in aspect ratio, away from 1:33 to widescreen formats was introduced to distance itself from television. The same competition with television helped push films away from black and white film and towards color. With just these technical changes its natural that some award categories would fall in an out of favor over time, some aren’t so obvious. Some, surprisingly, should have never left. I will discuss the categories that are no longer around.

Best Picture, Production and Best Picture, Unique and Artistic Production (1929)

Sunrise (1927, 20th Century Fox)

The Academy Awards began with two different iterations of Best Picture. In 1929 the winners of these two respective categories were Wings (Production) and Sunrise (Unique and Artistic). My interpretation of these trophies is that one is more akin to a PGA (Producers Guild of America) award. Whereas, the logistics, accomplishments and merits of the production are highly impressive and well-executed even if the picture mat not be the best overall. Unique and artistic would then be a more narrative-award with special emphasis on creativity. This is a distinction that could’ve proved highly useful in later years. Imagine if it had been around in 1998 (the first year that jumps to mind) give Production to Titanic and Unique and Artistic to As Good as It Gets or L.A. Confidential or Good Will Hunting. Or earlier maybe How Green Was My Valley could get Production and Citizen Kane can get Unique and Artistic and everyone can leave the former alone already, and stop hating it for something that’s no fault of its own.

Ultimately, I understand how the two awards would forever cause confusion and why they needed merging, but it is interesting to consider.

Best Director, Comedy Picture and Dramatic Picture (1929)

Frank Borzage

The Golden Globes still have Comedy/Musical and Dramatic categories for Films and Actors, but not directors. The directing job is highly different in both aspects. Are comedies far too overlooked when it comes to award shows? Yes. Does each year really merit having both categories? Probably not, and surely enough it was not a category the following year.

Best Title Writing (1929)

The Private Life of Helen of Troy (1927, First National Pictures)

To be quite honest considering that the industry was already in flux awkwardly transitioning from silent to talkie I’m a little surprised this was a category at the first awards. Granted some were trying to dismiss synchronized sound as a fad, but it was clear it was coming. Some categories held on longer, but silent films in the end virtually vanished quite quicker than black-and-white fare or 4:3 aspect ratio films.

Yes, titles were crucial in the silent era, and silents did win Oscars, but it’s slightly unusual that this was actually a category for one year.

Best Cinematography, Color and Best Cinematography, Black and White 1936-1939 (Special Achievement) 1940-1966

Psycho (1960, Universal)

This split became a mainstay of the Academy for 27 editions of the Awards. This is quite a long time and indicates that despite the business-related impetus for color cinematography the necessity of occasionally going into more ethereal monochrome remained and undeniable siren’s call for filmmakers for many years to come.

As wide as the gap between color productions and black-and-white ones have become they are not extinct as recent films like Ida, The Artist and The White Ribbon indicate. Yet, color cinematography in unquestionably ubiquitous enough such that the split no longer makes sense. It most definitely did at one time: color and black-and-white are two different ways of seeing the world. The reason for splitting the two was due to that and the fact that they were fairly equally split. With little equality superlative black-and-white films do have to compete against chromatic ones be it fair or unfair; it’s just a reality.

Best Effects, Engineering Effects (1929)

Wings (1927, Paramount)

The awards for Special Effects were ones that had many names an iterations before becoming a mainstay. A category for “Special Effects, Engineering Effects” existed at the first ceremonies. They returned in 1938 with and Honorary Award. From 1939 to 1962 Visual and Sound Effects shared an award titled Special Effects. In 1963 Special Visual Effects took over. From ’72-’77 it was awarded under Special Achievement Award. The current Special Visual Effects title debuted in 1995.

However, going back to the original trophy it puts me in a mind that perhaps the Academy does need to encourage and reward different kinds of effects work. Maybe split it between practical and computerized. It actually would encourage creativity and be fair. For example many of the most impressive feats in Inception (like the spinning hallway) were done practically. This could highlight those creative moments but still reward highly-creative, ever-evolving computerized effects work.

Best Writing, Achievement 1930

The Patriot (1928, Paramount)

This was the category introduced for the 2nd Annual ceremonies and for that year only. It was an attempt to transition away from three categories (Original, Adaptation and Title Writing) to just one. The only other award I ever saw merge all screenplays into one category was my own for a while. However, adaptation and original screenplays are games with similar rules but different approaches and need different skills. They should be separately awarded and this change is one that was needed.

The Juvenile Award (Awarded intermittently from 1935-1961)

The Window (1949, RKO)

This is an award I’ve already written about at length here. In that post I chronicled those young people who were honored by the Academy. I also followed-up on that by listing who since 1961 would have earned the honor, or could have, if it was still something awarded. Since my personal BAM Awards have started offering parity (meaning the same categories for mature and young performers) I have become convinced the Academy could fill a roster of five nominees a year for a category with this same concept. The term juvenile may be dated, and have poor connotations now, but the idea is one worth revisiting.

Best Short Subject, Cartoons (1932-1957) Short Subject, Comedy (1932-1937), Short Subject Novelty (1932-1937), Short Subject Color (1937-38) Short Subject One-Reel (1937-1957) and Short Subject Two-Reel (1937-1957)

The Dot and the Line (1965, MGM)

You can almost always look to the Academy for some kind of indication as to what the state of the art at least in terms of trends. One thing that would be apparent to someone looking solely at the Oscars with no other film knowledge would be that short films used to be a much more integral part of Hollywood films than they are now. For six years Live Action films were split into Comedies and Novelties, which featured, as the name implies varied subjects and approaches. Starting in 1937 animated films (then referred to as Cartoons by the Academy) were split off and Live Action films were bifurcated by length either one-reel (about 10 minutes or less) or two-reel (about 20 minutes or less). In 1958 Live Action was introduced as the only short subject category for live action, Cartoons still the term used, and the category changed to Best Short Subject, Animated Films in 1972. It is notable that serials never had a category somehow. Maybe because Poverty Row and “lesser” majors specialized in them.

Best Assistant Director (1933-1937)

Imitation of Life (1934, Universal)

Assistant Directors back at the beginning of the film industry had a far different role than they do as the industry and art evolved. There used to be far more directing for assistant directors. First ADs now are far more administrative and keep the production running, most of their direction geared at background performers. Therefore, its interesting that the Academy once underscored the greater level of responsibility this job had with an award.

Best Dance Direction (1936-1938)

Show Boat (1936, Universal)

There are a few instances of the Oscars highlighting the elevated place that the film musical once held. This category specifically aimed at choreography on film is one.

Best Art Direction-Interior Decoration Black-And-White and Color 1940-1966

Christmas in Connecticut (1945, Warner Bros.)

This is the second of three categories that for year offered two prizes owing to the unique challenges and distinct differences in working in black-and-white and color. In simplest terms in color there are temperature, palette and tone considerations but in monochrome there is a transliteration of actual colors to gray tones for desired effect that must be considered and calculated by all department heads.

Best Music, Scoring of a Drama or Comedy (1946-1957) Best Music, Scoring of a Dramatic Picture (1942-1945) and Best Music, Scoring of a Musical Picture (1942-1957)

 

bernard-herrmann5

Here’s one more testament to the potency the musical once hand in the cinematic landscape of Hollywood’s output. In 1958 the distinction in scoring ended. For 16 ceremonies musicals were a category apart. They were so prevalent, significant, and thought to be so different that it had its own category for scoring.

The issue with genre-splitting is: where does it end? Comedy was excluded for three years, and then added. If musicals had stayed at their zenith would further scoring splits have occurred? Unlikely, but it may have been clamored for. Clearly, the loss of a category did not shut the door on the musical winning Best Score, The Sound of Music jumps immediately to mind, but it’s fascinating that it was a class apart for years.

Costume Design Black and White and Costume Design Color (1948-1966)

Jezebel (1938, Warner Bros.)

If there’s one thing that you can laud the Academy for it’s that there was uniformity in when categories stopped being subdivided by color and black-and-white. In all cases when there was such a division, either from the inception of a category like costume design, or later in the game like with cinematography, that split ceased after the 1966 Awards.

Similar to Cinematography and Art Direction costuming for both media is a different game. Black-and-white requires a more abstract understanding of colors and textures and how they’ll read when exposed. Thus, its a bit more intuitive, at times counterintuitive, and far less literal than working in color. Again the time had surely come for the category to merge due to ubiquity but the task is by no means an easy one in monochrome.

Conclusion

 

Oscars (AMPAS)

In most of the these cases it is just interesting and important to note how far the artform and industry have come. It’s important in aesthetic appreciation to note some things that used to be taken for granted and to acknowledge different trends and forms of the past. However, in some of these cases these categories could still be highly useful and be brought back today.

61 Days of Halloween: Die Farbe (The Color Out of Space) (2010)

Introduction

For an introduction to the concept of 61 Days of Halloween, and a list of previously featured titles, please go here.

Die Farbe (The Color Out of Space)

As I have discussed in two prior posts, the 61 Days of Halloween features on both The Curse and Die, Monster, Die!; H.P. Lovecraft’s The Colour Out of Space is not only a great horror story but also a tremendously malleable one. When I happened upon this title at a Second and Charles (a secondhand media retail chain) I just had to jump at the chance to see it, and I’m very glad I did.

The malleability of the tale again shines through as in this rendition while the tale begins in Arkham, Massachusetts; the protagonist is in search of his father who vanished in Germany after World War II, and that is where he will spend most of his time. As he arrives in his last known whereabouts he meets a man who starts to tell him of the strange events that had occurred in that town. These events make up a bulk of the short story.

Now the film being transplanted to Germany is already a bold decision that works out quite well. The next emboldened choice is that the film is predominantly in black and white. It’s a great choice for Lovecraft’s antiquarian style, but also aids in selling a majority of the effects work that is needed to render this tale. Yet, in a tale about color it is further brave – and without putting to fine a point on it, does serve a purpose.

There is some English dialogue in the film, but a vast majority of it is in German, and due to that performances are usually spot on. Both the cinematography and the edit do tremendous things to build the atmosphere of outre and foreboding that is one of Lovecraft’s hallmarks. Things in this tale are slightly askew and on a precipitous decline leading to one earth-shattering moment and it moves there almost unerringly.

The workmanship in this tale rivals what the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society has been able to do with its films. It really is quite a work and proves that The Colour Out of Space is what I would refer to as one of the great stories, meaning that I can view many renditions of it and revel in the tweaks an modifications each brings to the table.

What’s odd is that apparently this film was released on video in the US in August of 2012, however, I never heard of it until the day I found it, so I think I will enter it into the mix for this year’s BAM Awards. It is available to stream free for Amazon Prime members and on DVD and Blu-Ray.

Thankful for World Cinema: The White Ribbon

The White Ribbon is an incredible film that, if you have read reviews, is most definitely deserving of the resoundingly positive reviews its gotten. It is a film that knows there are never easy answers and trusts its audience to fill in blanks. Of course, this happens more often than not with foreign films but when one is so accustomed to being spoon-fed it is always refreshing when you are invited to engage in the story and try to piece things together and aren’t handed everything.

The cinematography in this film is absolutely stunning. It is in what can only be referred to as glorious black and white, and shows you all the flexibility and the marvels that monochrome can bring to a film whether it be blinding snow, sharp silhouette, haunting chiaroscuro, high contrast and perfect underexposure. The thought of color in this film is quite literally repulsive. It’s the kind of feat that causes the American Society of Cinematographers to essentially say “Union allegiance be damned this is the best work of the year” by awarding it top prize. It informs the film and enhances it and never makes itself the center of attention.

It’s hard to discuss a film of this caliber without lauding a cast whose depth of talent is beyond reproach and whose ability runs so far down the supporting scale that it’s mind-boggling. As the scenes unravel themselves, and you meet the characters, you are consistently left wondering “Who is that?” after particularly well-played scenes. Especially Berghart Klaussner, The Pastor, who is chilling in a Bergmanesque fashion; Leone Benesch who in one scene perfectly plays the impossibly contradictory actions and emotions as indicated by the voice-over narration; Janina Fautz as Erna, the Steward’s daughter, who in the end is the overlooked and in a certain regard the reviled hero; Susanne Lothar as the dependent and taken-advantage-of midwife, and the entire young cast, including Maria-Victoria Dragus and Leonard Proxauf; believe it or not this list could go on.

It is a narrative tapestry that pulls together five narrative strands and slowly but surely you start to see how they all intertwine and how the fates of each family unit affect the other. You ultimately get what director Michael Haneke was in search of which is an examination of the psychological landscape that existed in the children of Germany on the eve of The Great War, the same children who would grow up and bring war to the world again.

It is a film which seeks to leave its impact through certain minimal elements. For example, there is no score the only music we have are the Baroness and the Tutor rehearsing, and more lastingly there is the once repeated haunting hymn of the children’s choir in the church. The minimal visual treatment exemplifies itself when there is a beating we hear it and sit watching the door. Instead of seeing what goes on behind the closed door, we are haunted by only the sound.

This film is immensely watchable and the kind of tale you can watch unwind for much longer than it does run, which is impressive as it already runs a hefty 144 minutes. Needless to say this film is expertly paced and keeps each strand of the story equally compelling such that you want to keep going to see what happens in one or the other.

The edit both visually and in terms of sound is fantastic. Narratives are juggled deftly and kept in order and there is one audio cut from a piece of farm equipment droning to a pig mid-squeak; the cut is also visual but is especially inspired in terms of sound.

Not only is this a film whose writer, also the director Michael Haneke, juggles many storylines but he does something which seems so much easier for the foreign filmmaker which is to make a film heavily featuring kids which isn’t a kid’s movie but a serious drama. It is also an interesting piece because it sets you up to not get all the answers because you see early on that the narrator doesn’t have many, if any at all, as he has limited omniscience and when he does have an idea he doesn’t push hard enough.

The White Ribbon is not only a great film but an important one. It is one that will cause you to discuss it for quite a bit afterwards and is the latest great work in a very accomplished career for director Michael Haneke. It’s the kind of foreign film that should most definitely be making more of a dent as its appeal is universal and should not be kept to the arthouse set.

10/10

61 Days of Halloween: Vinyan

Most holidays worth their while encompass entire seasons, such as Christmas, for example. However, as you may have noticed there is a corporate push every year for us to think about the next holiday even sooner. While this has many negative side effects I figure I may as well embrace it.

Since Labor Day is really only good for college football and movie marathons cinematically it is as significant as Arbor Day, which means the next big day on the calendar is Halloween and we can start looking toward it starting now.

Daily I will be viewing films in the horror genre between now and then and sharing the wealth. Many, as is usually the case, will not be worth it so for every disappointment, I will try and suggest something worth while as well.

Vinyan

Vinyan was an unknown horror-drama film to me before picking it up at Best Buy one day. This film is an absolute success visually and there are myriad reasons why. Students of cinematography should watch this film because rarely if ever have I seen so many different techniques employed in a single film so naturally, and effectively. It was most certainly not what Hitchcock would’ve called “pictures of people talking” but rather “paintings in which people moved.”

A second, solid bonus is the performances of the two leads. Emmanuelle Béart especially is fantastic as usual and definitely gets to flex her muscle as she slowly loses her bearings over the stress of thinking she has seen her long lost son. Rufus Sewell’s performance is no less complicated. He is strong and must get angry, impatient, and sympathetic. He must also try to deal with the possibility that Béart is right, and try to be the grounded one, while he is just as stressed.

While the inciting incident, first act and first plot point are very strong the film does sort of lose a little bit of its momentum after the idea of the Vinyan is introduced. Aside from being onlookers they never assert themselves as a presence psychologically or physically and that is what ultimately leads to this film falling short of greatness that and the herky-jerky pace of act two.

The ending’s disturbing nature, and rightness in timing, doesn’t quite make up the squandered potential the film shows. The visual variety ultimately save it some examples are: a shot of foreground colored differently than the background, the red lighting in the rain, the use of an overhead shots, POV of a man being buried, shafts of sunlight through the trees, fog, fog and light through the trees; a silhouette and more. If only it had closed the deal narratively speaking and accompanied the visuals better.

7/10

61 Days of Halloween- House (1977)

House directed by Nobuhiko Obayashi is a film which makes one glad simply because of how inventive it is – even if it’s not great. Never have so many cinematic techniques been crammed into one small film: still montages, wipes, irises, superimposition, distortion, black and white; the list is seemingly endless. It not only uses them but uses them correctly, well and never without some justification.

The second technical thing of note to House was that as the film was about to start it became clear by the side masking sliding in that the film was shot in 4:3. This is an interesting and effective decision for a number of reasons. It’s interesting because with the advent of Cinemascope shooting full-frame quickly became passé but this decision is incredibly inspired as it gives you a myopic glimpse into a kinetic world that holds your gaze completely.

The tone of this film is an interesting one. While it is great that it does build up the protagonist, and we get to know her and her friends, the tone shifts radically many times which shift focus away from her character later on. In terms of differing tones, there is a very tender scene between the protagonist and her father, several slapstick portions reminiscent of silents, comedic portions in the open and Kung Fu; then as they arrive and stay at the aunt’s house it will stay mainly horror but blend all that came before in and more. While the tale is one of witchcraft and occasional gore, it’s never what you would call terrifying but always entertaining even if predictable in terms of its end result.

It’s ultimately a very fun movie to sit and watch, even if you’re not in to counting techniques. It is, however, better if you are not thrown by things which come out of left-field because almost everything does.

To watch this film you will also need a very high tolerance for bad pre-1980 effects work because there are times you can taste the green screen so much it’s nearly nauseating, but in a way it adds to the charm of the film because it never seems to take itself too seriously.

However, if you like great cinematography this film is definitely for you. The aforementioned conversation between the daughter and father alone is nearly worth the price of admission with the supernaturally saturated background and the shots through the glass. The camera work is always appropriate for the tone at current, as is the lighting.

Ultimately, the greatest treat was in being able to view a previously unseen film in the States on the big screen where it belongs. Any film disappearing from public knowledge or not being known is a sad thing and kudos to Janus for finding a genuine original and putting it on display for the world to see.

House which was originally released in Japan in 1977 slowly made the theatrical rounds here in the U.S. and is available from Criterion on home video.

8/10

Horror Films and Stephen King (Part Five)

Note: What follows is a full analysis of the entire film, all other parts of this essay are fairly spoiler-free with regards to the film but this is not. You’ve been warned.

Maximum Overdrive begins with a title insert basically stating that the earth will be stuck in the tail of a rogue comet for about a week. The insert seems a extraneous to me and takes away from the story to a certain extent, however, King may have stated his reasoning in an earlier writing “…any horror film (with the possible exception of the German expressionist films of the teens and twenties) has got to at least pay lip service to credibility” (Danse, 156). One will note that even Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street give their slashers traumatic pasts they must exorcise. In this film the explanation comes early and removes a necessary suspense element I feel would’ve helped the story out. One may also notice that the picture of the earth used in this sequence is backwards meaning Egypt now looks out on the Atlantic. I don’t know how no one caught that.
    

The film is set in Wilmington, North Carolina for the duration of the story. The only other time King set a tale in the south was The Green Mile. He’s set tales in Nevada, Pennsylvania and had a few go across some states but usually relied on atmosphere or people he could sketch reasonably well, which is Maine. The characters in this tale while are sometimes sketched and drawn out by King, to the extent he could with the limitations of the film but they’re acted like caricatures in most cases.
 (Note: This geographic note was correct upon the original writing. Since then King has taken to wintering in Florida, thus his fiction goes there sometimes too).    

We first see the way that the comet affects machinery on the streets of Wilmington.  First, we see a news ticker over a bank that constantly displays the phrase “Fuck You.” Then we get the early King cameo in which, he’s a bumpkin who’s called an “Asshole” by his ATM machine, this is humorous but nowhere near as good as his role as Jordy Verrill in Creepshow.  These small details may add a bit of eeriness to the beginning but as is the theme throughout this film we get a lot more humor than fright. In this sequence all the laughs are intended.

After this we get what might be one of the more frightening sequences of the film, unfortunately no one really escapes this scene unharmed. There is no protagonist who makes their way out of this wreckage and moves on to where a bulk of the action takes place. Instead, what we get is quite an effective crash scene that shows that all machinery can now think and the drawbridge lifts even though all the cars got the green light. The bridgemaster and his assistant look befuddled and the bridge is a disaster area. Everyone is stuck at the base of the lifted bridge. A motorcycle rider flies off the edge, this is the source of the big continuity error one man slides of his motorcycle and we see him seemingly go in two directions, and also go out the gap which hasn’t opened as big as camera angles would have us believe later. This huge mistake is also surprising considering Evan A. Lottman, who edited The Exorcist and Sophie’s Choice worked on this film. This scene is somewhat freaky but is also a little extraneous.
    

We then cut and see the Happy Toyz truck, it’s adorned with a huge demon face on the grill and has a slogan emblazoned across its broadside (“Here Comes a Load of Joy,” King’s ability to come up with clever and humorous slogans is uncanny). It is driven by Andy (J. Don Ferguson) who stops at the Dixie Boy Truck Stop. We get our first good shot here it comes when Andy’s talking to one of the gas jockeys, it’s a medium from the inside of the truck and we get a hint that soon there’s going to be some trouble.
 

We’re introduced to our protagonist next, Billy played by Emilio Estevez in his first role outside of “The Brat Pack.” Someone should have told Emilio that it is very difficult to flex your acting muscles and make a name of yourself from one horror film. Inside the Dixie Boy we now see that the pinball, coffee and cigarette machines are going crazy in the game room and we get a bad performance out of Videoplayer (Giancarlo Esposito) who is quickly killed off.

The first act’s pace is relentless as soon after Duncan (J.C. Quinn) is outside filling the Happy Toyz truck and the pump has mysteriously stopped. He removes the nozzle to check what’s going on and gets sprayed in the eye with diesel. At this moment we get our first sample of the score, the true score and not any sort of source music. While the score like so many is reminiscent of Hermann’s Psycho we only get this stabbing music on a few rare occasions. A few old AC/DC songs were used for this film along with a new one entitled “Who Made Who?” I happen to know that Stephen King is a big fan of AC/DC but I feel that he knows enough about horror to not have left most of the music track in this film dead. There is a lot of silence and it wasn’t very effective at all. AC/DC provided the wrong kind of mood with their high to medium Heavy Metal riffs. It makes me wonder if most of the budget wasn’t diverted towards pyrotechnics and Emilio’s salary further taking away from the film’s quality.
    

We’re later introduced to Bubba Hendershot (Pat Hingle) who shows himself to be the human villain in this tale. He is unscrupulous and uncaring. His character is quite well played. Then we see King’s first big touch when we see a headline about the comet. Prior Duncan and Joey (Pat Miller) had been talking and it was more subtle and many people won’t realize that the “Mickey Mantle” they were referring to is Deke (Holter Graham), Duncan’s son. In this film King had a little more than 90 pages and too many characters to deal with in that allotted time.
 
   
Our next two mechanical attacks work in different ways and introduce two more characters. A hand-held electric saw attacks the waitress Wanda June (Ellen McElduff) gets her forearm sliced into this is quite a gross moment and also establishes Billy as the protagonist. Then we cut to the baseball field and Deke’s team has just won and the coach is attacked by soda cans shot out of the vending machine. There is some great makeup work in this scene and it’s also pretty funny along with a shocking steamrolling shot that literally made my jaw drop. There are more characters to get to though.
    

We are in a car and getting a radio report about the odd occurrences a la Night of the Living Dead, but more subtle, and are introduced to the Bible Salesman (Christopher Murney) and Brett (Laura Harrington) a hitchhiker he has picked up. The Bible Salesman actually ends up being quite a good hypocritical character in this tale carrying a briefcase with has gold leaf on it and has “The Holy Bible” scrolled across it. Brett is going to be the love interest and this party like Deke are heading to the Dixie Boy. Laura Harrington should have gotten an Oscar…thrown at her, she was so terrible in this film. As a matter of fact the casting in this movie for the most part is rather weak; I wonder why in the closing credits the Casting Director got top billing. A director should know his actors limitations and should have reworked his characters accordingly.
  

Staying in the mode of less than satisfactory acting we switch over to Curt (John Short) and Connie who are a newlywed couple. Connie (Yeardley Smith) who went on to make a name for herself on The Simpsons as Lisa, is so annoying in this role it is nearly impossible to sympathize with her. John Short is one of the actors who ruins some of Stephen King’s great dialogue by having no idea how to deliver it. This is where King should have stepped in and altered the dialogue. It does pain a writer to change effective and intelligent dialogue for simple, pedestrian dialogue but it should be done when the actors sound stupid saying these lines.
    

Along Deke’s journey on bike to the Dixie Boy we see the wrath of the machines has left many dead bodies splayed all over the place. We get an eerie feeling again with a guitar riff for each corpse that is found. If there is one thing that can be said for this film is that all the effects are well done; as we see the trucks maneuver, drive and terrorize people. When these vehicles are on the move on their own they even drive better than real people in film they did quite an admirable job in that respect.
    

Perhaps the best dialogue King has to offer us in this film is when the Bible Salesman is trying to sell some editions in the Dixie Boy. This is also where we see Wanda June start drinking it may be the most well written scene of the film capped off by the salesman saying “This Bible has everything from the creation of this beautiful world to the fall of mankind.” This is the closest we come to seeing the implications that King had intended to impose, aside from a painting of the Last Supper we see for a few seconds, in the short story and there isn’t enough emphasis placed on this scene in my opinion. I also feel it’s a humorous commentary on how the salesman doesn’t know his scripture because all Bibles, regardless of denomination, include those tales.
    

Right before Duncan goes out to be killed we see how the blood has escaped his burned eyes. It’s a rather creepy shot that reminds me of one of King’s favorite films X – The Man with X-Ray Eyes. This death occurs in minute 32 and already we’ve seen so many characters. The Bible Salesman is later sent flying into the sewer after he charged the truck that smashed his car. King, being one who doesn’t believe in any one Christian doctrine, throwing a Bible Salesman into a gutter is a great touch. The truck that decks him also rolls over his Bible briefcase which I liked. When the body is returned to the truck stop we get another good piece of dialogue Bubba says, “He’s dripping all over my floor.” to get the people moving.
    

Stephen King also usefully employs the sewer in the attempted rescue of the Bible Salesman who we find many minutes later is clinging to life in the gutter. This provides the film with it’s only truly good looking and dark cinematography. John Short also displays his inability to deliver a great off-color line written by King in the sewer sequence (“What happened to the people who peed in this?”). The salesman we see is ultimately not worth saving when Deke finds him and the salesman says “Help me or I’ll kill you,” very Christian.
     

Just after the trucks smash a phone booth, we assume in order to effectively isolate them, and begin to angrily circle the truck stop instead of attempting to build some tension we cut away to Curt and Connie, who are chased by an eighteen-wheeler, it’s literally a cut to the chase situation. King had the opportunity to have a situational and somewhat atmospheric film but I feel that was robbed from him by producers looking to imitate many of the 80s poorer films.
    

The way in which these massive hunks of metal are fought most of the times is through gunfire, this is aided by the fact that Hendershot has a huge armory in his basement, which seems to hold everything from AK-47s to Bazookas. The only way in which the special effects fail in this film, being no ballistics expert I’m not sure, but the bazooka’s missiles are never seen in flight we only see the truck exploding. With something that big I’d go to the optical lab and add it even if it is technically inaccurate. 
    

King touches upon the flying airplane mentioned in his short story but this also comes out as comical. Once again we have a nice shot from the inside of the plane and can see the plane operating itself. It is turned humorous by the employment of Wagner’s “Flight of the Valkyries.”
    

Aside from the seemingly incessant presence of the comedy in this film we are also pestered by the lack of darkness; we are bombarded by light. “The dark, it goes without saying, provides the basis for our most primordial fear.” (Danse, 182). Cinematographer, Armando Nannuzzi, had done plenty of films in Italy for years on end and had most recently done quite an admirable job with King’s Silver Bullet. The nighttime footage in that film was effective in deemphasizing the low-budget werewolf but he seemed to thrive on the use of daylight to make some of his more impressive shots in Maximum Overdrive. In all fairness, Maximum Overdrive is a bright, pretty to look at film with sporadic good shots but it’s not quintessential horror. With the positive affect of darkness being so obvious one must wonder if budgetary concerns or perhaps weakness in the lighting department played into it. Even though much of the story is at day time in prose King must have realized he’d need more nighttime scenes for the film. He also knows that not only is it needed but the dark and night time is often heavily used in certain films. “All but approximately eighteen minutes of John Carpenter’s Halloween are set after nightfall.” (Danse, 186). Whereas after sunset we have but 17 minutes in the dark, and then we also have the interesting situation in which most of the human deaths occurred in broad daylight. In this film, the first scene to be set in a darkened place is in minute 48 and the sun only sets three minutes later more than halfway through the movie. Later on in the sequence, the truck stop also loses its power but this is not used in any sort of dramatically moving way and it comes back on before ever having taken any sort of toll on the story. And we are made well aware of it by a beautiful shot of the sunset.

Afterwards, we get the weird green effect in the sky which is larger in some areas of the sky than others. It was used at the beginning to symbolize the comet’s tail. In a poorly acted moment yet again provided by Laura Harrington, in the role of Brett, assumes the comet must be causing all this. It’s in a way also King’s most unfortunate piece of writing because the title card shown from the beginning is practically reiterated for the audience.  At night it seems that only Wanda June and Deke have been affected negatively. Billy is courting Brett, all others are unmoved by the celestial oddity. It’s very unusual that King with the understanding of character he has wouldn’t have gotten on these actors and told them they weren’t driving home the suspense and claustrophobic elements that should have been what was carrying the film.
    

Billy and Brett dominate this section of the film with their nighttime romance which I can only describe as filler. While I understand people can cling to each other in such a situation there was too much focus on the romance for my liking while I do applaud King for not being afraid to implement it. Wanda June dies an overacted death, she was completely drunk and yells the lines I least liked from King’s short story “We made you.” and if a film such as this can have a subtext she just blurted out part of it and she made this little speech more than once.

    
Another thing which constantly plagued this film was that it was very heavy with incident in the beginning and towards the middle of the film the action begins to taper off. The story becomes diverted to an extent.
    

Many times we are shown that Deke is the best drawn of all the characters. In the beginning we see him check on his injured coach, he’s then scared off by the salesman. He breaks down upon hearing about his father’s death, then the next morning has apparently regressed and is blowing bubbles. Not only that but when the trucks start beeping he not only realizes it is Morse code but translates it. What would have made this a better film was some more focus. At the end, when the great exodus of the Dixie Boy begins, we see eleven characters running, three of which I don’t think ever had their name uttered in the film but were perhaps named in the script.
    

The Morse incident is where the trucks admit that they need to be refueled. Billy’s reasoning eventually wins out. They pump gas for the truck because the dried out ones might call for one or many that can destroy them. A few more vehicles do show up including what appears to be a mini-flatbed with a machine gun set on a tripod, which in the end seems a little too beatable. During this sequence Emilio Estevez’s performance, which was nothing earth-shattering to begin with, also slips when we see him yelling at the truck, the Happy Toyz one with the Green Goblin face.
    

Towards the end we get an escape. The truck stop blows up. The Evil Truck which has been harassing the people and is the villain gets a bazooka in its open mouth. This moment is somewhat effective as we think for a moment maybe that one can’t be beat but then it explodes. We end with another annoying title card with a sappy finishing touch and some odd Soviet involvement in destroying a “weather satellite.” And the film closes on a comedic note with the last line of dialogue being Connie saying “Ooh, I think I’m gonna whoops my cookies.”
  
 
Maximum Overdrive is a film that has a few shocking and jaw-dropping moments. All the effects are well done and the cinematography is well-composed. What King ends up providing is a movie that ends up being a pretty good comedy/adventure, which is probably why he didn’t like it all that much. He should definitely give it another go because despite the bad casting there were some good performances in this film most notably those of Holter Graham as Deke and Pat Hingle as Hendershot. One thing King can be thankful for is that his film doesn’t ever tread into the so bad it’s good region.
 

Mini-Review Round-Up June 2012

I had quite a review drought to end 2011 so I think the remedy for this kind of post would be to have the post be cumulative monthly. Therefore, after each qualifying film a short write-up will be added to the monthly post. The mini-reviews will be used to discuss Netflix and other home video screenings. Theatrical releases will get full reviews.

For a guide to what scores mean go here.

Piranha 3DD

A film like Piranha 3DD always prompts the question: “Well, what did you expect?” Whether this question is asked in sincerity or sarcastically it is a valid one, as I always strive to judge a film on what it’s trying to be and whether or not it succeeds in that aim. Due to this fact, I have no problem giving disparate films the same grade without ever questioning whether one is better than the other. After all, if you think on it Jurassic Park and Citizen Kane might be two films you like, but no one will ever confuse them with regards to their aims.

So what did I expect from Piranha 3DD? It may be easier to explain what I didn’t expect first. I did not expect anything remotely like Piranha (1978). I didn’t expect to need to have seen the new incarnation of this series to follow this. I expected the film to be silly and strive to land in the so bad it’s good realm based on its premise. I did expect a passable horror story regardless of said fact. Considering that John Gulager was attached, and that I did like Feast, I had some hopes to see this film achieve these aims.

What unfolds instead is a film that you laugh at not with. It’s a film that wants badly to fall into an exploitation mold but it more frequently is an uneasy mix of attempts at such, mainly sex and star exploitation. Both aspects are so poorly handled the film more closely resembles a softcore porn/vanity press hybrid. Yes, the silly, poorly-animated piranha take a backseat in this film to implants, David Hasselhoff and sorry, lazy comedy, which works all too infrequently, especially considering some of the people they wrangled into being in this thing.

Speaking of the people they got in this thing: Christopher Lloyd deserves a medal for being the only redeeming quality this sorry excuse for a film has. In all honesty they would’ve been better served turning the camera on him for 83 minutes and allowing him to improvise, with no rehearsals and no editing. Lloyd is a truly gifted actor and why he ends up in films of this ilk these days baffles me to no end.

What I was expecting, in all honesty, was not nearly as bad as I got. As silly and ill-conceived as the oh-so-thin plot is it also lacks focus. It contains no flair or verve that gives me any cause to forgive it its sins. The key to good exploitation is that the subject matter is the only thing being exploited. This film also exploits its audience, and I was actually very surprised and disappointed that it was the worst thing I’ve seen this year to date.

2/10

Beautiful Wave

I quipped, with a lack of anything of real significance to say, after having seen Beautiful Wave that it was “neither beautiful nor a wave” in my best Linda Richman voice. However, the Mike Myers character-inspired jab may have been the most succinct way to put it. This is a film which seems like an excuse for a surfing film. I haven’t seen every surfing film, but I honestly can’t remember it being almost incidental to the story, as it is here.

Sadly, the protagonist is also rather incidental. Very little of her conflict is externalized and ultimately the film feels like it’s about everyone around her rather than her. I’d critique the pace if there was any discernible pace to criticize. The film telegraphs its climax and denouement very early on making much of the film transient.

As you can tell the issues are mainly structural but there are a few decent to good scenes along the way. I can’t fault the performances of the three main players Aimee Teegarden, Patricia Richardson and Lance Henriksen. It’s just so inconsequential.

Why she’s jettisoned to California just occurs as this forced inciting incident, which really has no impetus aside from the narrative necessity placed upon it by the makers. Somewhere in its running time there’s a perfectly innocuous, enjoyable albeit nebulous short film, but it really ought not be a feature. This is essentially Soul Surfer almost entirely devoid of pathos.

3/10

I’m Not Jesus Mommy

Here’s another one of those movies you just happen upon and then you look into it and you realize that the idea is so outlandish, and could end up being either brilliant or a disaster, and based on its premise that you absolutely have to see it.

Perhaps what’s most unfortunate about the film is that both in its title and in its synopsis it divulges what is truly revealed in the third act, however, intimations to the fact in question are made well before the revelation.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about this film is despite a rather flat, blank performance by its lead actress and clearly video cinematography is that it has a strong first act. It mixes in some themes that I don’t necessarily expect to see touched upon at all and rather well. Then there’s a time jump, now this is where the excessive amount of restraint comes into the mix, where the plot really begins plodding. There’s some sort of plague about, the world is a really crazed place. However, vague allusions as to why are all that’s ever made. Similarly, visual motifs come into play that are also unclear, but the real issue is that the near cessation of incident.

Unlike some who have seen it, I have no issue with the fact that this film handles what is potentially such a polemic, sacrilegious premise with utmost seriousness of tone. The issue seems to stem from, at least in part, a bit of reticence to fully commit and it’s a shame.

The music, the lack of dialogue and the edit set the stage but there’s virtually no show upon it. I would see another work by Vaughan but what is most aggravating here is that it seems there was the courage and commitment to take a potentially ludicrous idea, treat it seriously and make it a film. However, the follow-through to make the film as shocking and effective as it could be doesn’t seem to be there. The film does become somewhat memorable for the previously alluded to fact but that’s rather dubious.

4/10

Playback

This is a film that has a formula shared by quite a few films in the horror genre: A town with a scarred past that comes back to haunt it anew. However, what this film attempts to is to double said formula. There is the now local-legend of a mass murder in a house but that fuses with a completely fictitious legend about the birth of cinema that borrows more than liberally from a few other films. I certainly cannot knock this film on the ambition front. However, where it does falter are in a few ways: first, the leads are very much in the dark about the famous case, which is an issue. We the audience don’t know the information and need it, but it seems unrealistic that most know nothing or care nothing about it. Second, I appreciate the attempted misdirection, however, the decisions about the paths the leads take also somewhat derails the story. Next, there’s a bit of inconsistency in the divulging of information. In certain cases it’s overly-expository and certain people know too much, yet in others certain aspects keep a little mystery. It’s a difficult balancing act, but it’s botched here I feel. Lastly, the ending does offer a resolution but it’s another one of those unsatisfactory shock cuts that puts a damper on the film when it had grown, just a bit in the last third.

The elements for Playback are all there for it to work in hindsight but they’re either mismatched or mishandled in some way such that the center doesn’t hold.

4/10

Found Memories

This film is a perfect example of a translated title that doesn’t quite do the film in question justice. If you were to translate the Brazilian title of Found Memories literally it would be Stories That Only Exist When Remembered. Granted that is more of a mouthful but it gives you a better sense of the kind of film you’re getting I feel, because as I watched the film I realized there was perhaps one of the more subtle Magical Realism tales I’d seen, one with with extreme emphasis on the the realism. Yes, there is a rather mundane, repetitious nature to certain scenes but the equation is skewed as the film progresses by a newcomer. The framing of many shots is wonderfully precise and as the story unfolds you are taken in both by the stories being told by the characters themselves as well as the ones being told about them by the film, which in many cases are parallel but not identical. Found Memories is a tremendously subtle, yet at times rapturous, look at small town life in a Brazilian town that should still be able to play anywhere and I highly recommend it.

9/10

Review- Snow White and the Huntsman

Snow White and the Huntsman is such an odd case. Based on the way it handles the oft told legend it has a lot of promise, however, this film has a weird handling of its two titular characters inasmuch as it seems to run from them both. At the start, yes, it is the hunstman (Chris Hemsworth) who is doing the voice over for the necessary backstory segment that kicks the narrative off, but there are a few unfortunate things about it: first, this is one of the higher points of the film and it’s a brisk, but not rushed beginning portion. Second, after this part the Huntsman is lost for a while until the queen commissions him to retrieve an escaped Snow White. Which brings us to the young princess, her dialogue is sparse throughout, her involvement until her escape is minimal and she drifts into the background more than any would-be protagonist in recent memory.

Is it just sloppy plotting and writing or is the fact that the film wanted Kristen Stewart involved for box office appeal, but didn’t want to hitch their wagon to her alone? She has a moment here and a moment there, but the big military speech falls short of what it should be and her physicality issues persist. No actress on the face of the earth has a mouth so persistently agape for no discernible reason as she does and few emote so little facially, at least in the roles I’ve seen. I’m not going to avoid seeing something merely due to her presence, but I have yet to see this other side of her that her staunch supporters keep citing.

However, as I said, the film is rarely about either of its two named characters, at times this is a good thing and at other moments it’s a failing. Charlize Theron is broad in her role as the evil queen as if she just fell out of an old Hollywood melodrama. I think that’s something most of us can agree on. I, for one, absolutely love her performance and find nary a misstep in it. At the very least someone, is bringing energy and commitment to this film, and more often than not I found her scenes rather chilling.

Much of the conversation has been about the performances thus far because there is little else holding this precarious piece of work up. The pace of the film is decent up until about the midpoint when the dwarfs are introduced and then the film gets a bit unfocused, lost and extraneous. The narrative does pick up again eventually but never recovers from this unfortunate area. This section also introduces the odd production choice of having average size actors be the faces of the dwarfs. I’m really not sure why it’s deemed necessary, and it is a distraction.

The cinematography, scoring and production design of the film were all really quality components that could’ve truly elevated this film to its potential had the narrative it was supporting been up to snuff. The beginning of the tale works best because it’s in storybook mode and frames the queen as much more of a power-hungry madwoman than say, Disney did. The stepmother queen in either tale is motivated, it’s just that this film explains the motivation a bit more. Where it develops her plot and psychology it works, but little else is substantial here at all, which is not the case of the animated version, or even some others for that matter. Where it sets up Snow White’s initial struggle it works, but it loses her along the way, as it not only fills in blanks but colors outside the lines, so to speak, and adds running time and trivially valuable sub-plotting with the love triangle that evolves. The richness it builds is soon watered down by excess.

Snow White and the Huntsman
starts with a few clear objectives but then becomes occluded and can no longer see the forest for the trees and like many travelers in this imaginary world gets lost in a dark forest, and all hopes of its being a quality piece of work perish.

5/10

Mini-Review Round-Up May 2012

I had quite a review drought to end 2011 so I think the remedy for this kind of post would be to have the post be cumulative monthly. Therefore, after each qualifying film a short write-up will be added to the monthly post. The mini-reviews will be used to discuss Netflix and other home video screenings. Theatrical releases will get full reviews.

For a guide to what scores mean go here.

From Time to Time

Kwayedza Kureya, Alex Etel and Eliza Bennett in From Time to Time (Freestyle Digital Media)

This is a film that I saw a little bit ago and I struggled with whether I’d qualify it for this year’s BAM Awards or just leave it in the Gray Area. Typically, I go by US release date (so long as I had a legitimate chance to see it), should a film have not had a US release date (namely only released overseas, or seen in a festival, etc.) it’s qualified in the year viewed. With regards to From Time to Time, I knew that its actual vintage was a few years old and it was released in the UK some time back, however, it only his US home video very recently. Technically, that is is its US release since it didn’t have a theatrical run, so there you have it.

This is a very interesting ghost drama, which has a few interesting things going in its favor: first, it cuts through time with great facility and creates a British gothic tale with the ease of Magical Realism. This stripping down of the typical pretensions of supernatural tales making the acceptance of these other-worldly facts commonplace allows the film to dwell in a more dramatic and intriguing milieu. Second, as clearly intimated above this film deals in two periods but makes them both intriguing and vital and blends them wonderfully. Lastly, this film features very strong performances most notably by the under-utilized Alex Etel, last seen by me in Sea Horse; Maggie Smith, whom at this point could benefit any and every film in creation and Carice Van Houten, whom viewers of Game of Thrones may recognize.

This is an intriguing film that is worth looking for on Netflix or other home video resources.

8/10

Chronicle

Dane DeHaan in Chronicle (20th Century Fox)

Since I viewed this film on a plane it was easy and not distracting to take notes on an iPhone, but I will try to keep these comments brief as the review is supposed to be “mini.” Having said that, this was a film I heard a lot about and I love the fact that it is divisive. I had a lot of stumbling blocks to overcome in this one, but seeing elements enacted as opposed to just hearing about them are two completely different things.

This being a found footage film there are “cheats,” inasmuch as it’s not always the same source camera providing the footage, but as events escalate you’ll see why it’s possible, you just get no hint as to who put it all together. That’s a minor concern regarding the handling of technique.

In fact, the only other quibble I have has to do with Casey (Ashley Hinshaw) who is a blogger, thus she too obsessively records things. It’s a bit convenient but mostly the film works in the found footage milieu because it remains tremendously reflexive, and it has to. Andrew (Dane DeHaan) feels compelled to record his life due to his abusive father (a wonderfully malignant villain with few parallels), it clearly continues after the mysterious inciting incident.

Perhaps what is most brilliant and moving about the film is that it creates a sense of identification immediately and it builds from there. It’s not a case of likability but rather understanding. It gives characters powers, and inherently responsibilities, they’re not necessarily equipped to cope with and shows you what they do.

Yes, there is a slightly Jackass, slight YouTube voyeuristic quality to certain scenes inherent in the found footage approach but things to do come back that seemed as if they didn’t fit, and the seemingly frivolous is sublimated quickly. Through it all it remains a character study. It’s a film that does not get overly-concerned with its technique to the detriment of its plot or personages.

Clearly, the performances need to be really strong for a film of this kind to work. That is the case with Michael B. Jordan as Steve, who convincingly plays the winning, popular, untouchable jock but also conveys some hidden depths when allowed to. However, the true standout is Dane DeHaan who is asked to deal with far more range in a film of this kind than you’d expect and is magnetic and captivating in all facets of his character. The scripting shows a certain amount of restraint in many of his scenes and intonation and expression have to convey a lot and he does.

There’s an air of mystery to the story even after the inciting incident as you learn with the characters but are still not overly-inundated with facts.

The sound mix is rather effective especially as it counterbalances with certain moments of dead silence paired with powerful images. The visual effects aren’t as flashy as some other films but very strong.

I tend to try and avoid things that can be construed as pull quotes but the film did get quick a few visceral, nearly unconscious reactions from me I laughed, I was was on the verge of tears a few times and my jaw literally dropped at least once.

I have the few small reservations mentioned above but many prejudices I had coming in vanished entirely and I came away resoundingly impressed with this film.

9/10

Corpo Celeste

Yle Vianello in Corpo Celeste (Film Movement)

I have previously discussed the benefits of programs like Film Movement. This film is their most recent offering.

What is most interesting about Corpo Celeste is that it comments through its narrative or visuals on any number of topics but always does so in an interesting, thoughtful and compelling way it is never didactic, pedagogic or heavy-handed. This is key with themes such as coming of age, religion, politics, family and nationalism (to name a few) being discussed. Most of the reason the film can do this is that all of these things are discussed personally and visually. They barely need to be elucidated. When dialogue is employed to convey the touched-upon themes it is used sparingly and tightly.

The personal approach keeps a film that might be overly aloof rather cool and connected. One of the more interesting things about it is the approach the film takes in bringing its protagonist to the fore. The first few images, scenes even you rarely see Marta alone, she is in crowd scenes and crowded dinner tables and gatherings. Our knowledge the story is to be about her allows us to get a glimpse of her world and her not really seeing a place in yet, hence she’s coming of age. She soon comes further and further into focus and in some way identification is already established.

The film features a tremendously natural performance by Yle Vianello, which enables you to connect to the film not only through her character but through any facet you see fit. The two major ways to connect to the film are either as a coming-of-age tale or a spiritual journey. Many of us have been through either, if not both, so closely examining these two major journeys in one protagonist makes it quite effective.

This is a really good film that is worth your while. The DVD also features the Academy Award nominated short Raju, which I saw earlier.

8/10

Hick

Chloe Grace Moretz in Hick (Phase 4 Films)

Hick is a resoundingly disappointing experience on a number of levels. One reason this is so is that Derick Martini, the director of this film, crafted a wonderful film a few years back entitled Lymelife. It was one of my favorite films of the year in question, while some of those same motifs and actors that made that film work are back in this film there’s little else that binds the two. Part of the issue with this film is it’s a case of novelist acting as screenwriter backfiring, it can be a wonderful thing, but here it’s a detriment. The film does not move well; the denouement is massive; the amount of coincidence; the lack of clear motivation on the part of certain characters; seemingly extraneous elements, and awkwardly staged situations are some of those reasons. The lead in the film is Chloe Grace Moretz, who as previous honors have indicated is very talented, yet even her excellent performance cannot salvage this film.

What it reminded me of was Leolo gone wrong. You have a very strange home life and an adolescent seeking to escape. The world isn’t very firmly established neither is the protagonist’s desire, not at first. She clearly is haunted by the loss of a sibling but that’s not clear imemdiately. She has a goal but it quickly becomes clear she’ll need a new one, and how she finds it and why is underdeveloped and is a tremendous example of deus ex machina. The pace of the film is also off and it feels a lot longer than it is. Hick is one worth avoiding.

4/10

First Position

Gaya Bommer Yemini and Aran Bell in First Position (Sundance Selects)

I can’t claim to be an aficionado but I am a fan of dance. Through my production company I sponsor a dance competition, so while not an insider I do know my fair share about the world this film describes. What I was somewhat fearful of was that this film would serve as a glorified infomercial for YAGP (Youth America Grand Prix), which is the world’s largest youth dance competition.

All those fears are soon allayed. The necessary information is divulged such that the layman understands the enormity and the gravity of the competition and the controversy regarding any competition is vaguely hinted at, but mostly the film is an introduction to just how competitive the world of dance is, and also a glimpse into how dedicated these artists must be from a very young age.

Yet any film can only get so far on the facts alone. Where First Position succeeds is that it profiles dancers from diverse ethnic and economic backgrounds and also with varying aesthetic philosophies. The film is structured very dramatically such that the performances with the highest stakes appear latest in the cut and the flow from performer to performer is just right and well-ordered.

What starts as an informative, introductory doc soon turns quite the emotional experience that gets you very invested in the outcome. It’s a great film sure to please fans of film and dance alike.

10/10

Citizen Gangster

Scott Speedman in Citizen Gangster (IFC Films)

This an interesting story about a man, Eddie Boyd (Scott Speedman), in post-WW II Canada who frustrated with his job and trying to get by embarks on a career as a bank robber. The film interestingly has a quick and effective genesis. The pathology and inspiration is properly established in a short time such that through the course of the film you follow the protagonist further and further past the point of no return. It’s the case of an anti-hero plot in as much as it does at least create a sense of identification if not sympathy.

The film also has a tremendous amount of technical prowess that helps create the world of the story. The cinematography offers a tremendous balance between stark, pale sunlit exteriors and blown-out interiors. When you combine this with the production design which was very concerted on white interiors with one accent to break up the monotony.

When you consider some of the scoring and performances there is quite a lot working for this film. The only thing that really holds it back in anyway is that from about the mid-point on the pace does become very stilted, which is especially noticeable towards the climax and denouement. Having said all that, this is a film that should be getting more notice and I’m glad to have seen it. As indicated above, it’s especially strong in compartmental areas but is intriguing enough in its narrative, especially for those unfamiliar with the details of the story upon which it is based, to sustain interest.

7/10

Hospitalité

Kanji Furutachi, Bryerly Long, Kenji Yamauchi, Kiki Sugino, Kumi Hirodo and Eriko Ono in Hospitalité (Film Movement)

Comedy just may be the most culturally specific genre of them all. In my experience, each culture has their own precepts it brings to comedy. Granted there are some things that are universally embraced as funny, but cinematic aesthetics, narrative constructs and indigenous commonalities often color how these tropes are conveyed. Which is a very roundabout way of saying that certain films purported to be comedies have struck me with confusion, surprise, and consternation on occasion. American comedy being typically rather broad is rather accessible; British comedy being somewhat dry and witty I’ve always been drawn too and being Brazilian I have a grounding there in where the jokes are coming from.

Hospitalité is a Japanese film, which is quite funny at times simply because it relies almost wholly on situations, characters and the element of surprise to deliver its humor. Where it loses a bit of its steam is that it could use a bit of tightening up in length and towards the end. The power plays exhibited are necessary but perhaps a bit drawn out there too. In essence, the dramatic elements of the narrative are overplayed as there isn’t a lot of follow through.

You may find it more funny than I did, and to be fair there are effective dramatic elements and pieces of commentary being made, but as it is a situation that is seemingly simple and does follow the house-guest-from-hell mold rather there’s just a certain deliberateness and gravitas to it all that drains it a bit.

6/10

Michael

Michael Fuith in Michael (Films du Losange)

I generally remain vague about plot descriptions in my reviews. Philosophically I believe that if you happened upon my review you know enough about the film and you’re just looking for some further information. With a film such as Michael one does need to be forewarned: while not sensationalistic or exploitative this film does chronicle about five months in the life of a pedophile. You will be disturbed and affected by it: I guarantee it. What is most effective is that the film does so almost exclusively through implication.

The film edit of the film is tremendous and much of the dialogue on reflection implies so much more than is said. One example of how the film communicates horrible consequences while doing little is a simple visual: Michael and Wolfgang, the child he has captive, are setting up a bunk bed in his room. That scene has made its point and hits you in the gut.

What makes the film most harrowing is the humanistic portrait painted of Michael. With an act as awful as child abuse, whether of a physical or sexual nature, some films overplay their hands. Meaning they feel the need to make the antagonist over-the-top and borderline cartoony as if to re-emphasize the inherent villainy and cruelty of their actions. Yet more often than not that kind of writing takes a viewer out of the moment. This film takes things as mundane as decorating a Christmas tree, talking to a neighbor or a haircut and tinges them with malignancy and implications that belie the simplicity of the line spoken or the action taken.

You also have in this film two performances that make this film work and they are those of Michael Fuith, who used his awkwardness to endearing effect in Rammbock, but here is intimidating, frightening, awkward and charming as needed. Then there’s also David Rauchenberger, who while not in the film a tremendous lot, has the unenviable task of playing the victim who as times dour, at times detached, at times a child and also rebellious.

The craftsmanship of the film is what truly makes it work. There’s one scene that really doesn’t jibe with the restraint, and the ending is one I stewed on but decided it is earned, as a whole other film would start had it continued.

8/10