Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Hit Me With Your Best Shot - The Bad And The Beautiful

This post will be brief only by necessity, as I'm in rehearsals right now and am just flat exhausted. But this week's selection for Hit Me With Your Best Shot was on TCM last weekend, when I actually had a moment to breathe, so I watched it and just had to write about it.

This was the first time I had seen Vincente Minnelli's The Bad And The Beautiful, and I enjoyed every delicious, Hollywood-insidery moment of it (I don't know what Gloria Grahame was doing winning an Oscar for a glorified cameo when Jean Hagen was digging up comic gold right and left in Singin' In The Rain, but the Academy's shocking disdain for Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly's masterpiece is neither here nor there). The whole thing is a movie-lover's wet dream, with Lana Turner being fabulous, Kirk Douglas being despicable, and tons of backstage so-THAT'S-how-they-make-movies tidbits and stunning tracking shots following the filming of tracking shots.

But as much as it is about the making of Hollywood films and the making (and un-making) of Hollywood careers, what the film was really about, to me, was the pull of artistic genius. In my life in the theater, I've come across my fair share of brilliant people who exert this strange pull on all those around them. You can't quite describe it, except to say that they could talk you into doing just about anything, despite the fact that you know there are invisible, potentially dangerous strings attached. No matter how many times they burn you, you keep coming back when they call, because they bring something out of you that no one else does. It's very much like a disfunctional relationship with a toxic lover - you know they're bad for you, but the sex is so good that you can't stay away.

Anyway, that's part of why the final shot of The Bad And The Beautiful seemed so perfect to me. While Kirk Douglas's defeated asshole of a producer pitches his new film idea, the one that will bring him back from poverty, to his old partner, the actress, director, and writer he burned along his way to glory listen in, going from this:
to this:
Come ON. That is a perfectly lit and composed shot. And, as each of them slowly comes into the light, it mimics the film's trifurcated structure. It also shows the irresistible pull of those damned artistic genius assholes. Even when your better judgment is begging you to leave them alone, there's always that little voice inside you, nudging you ever closer to their orbit, stroking your ego if only to prepare it for the inevitable crash to earth. For all the fun this film is, that's a pretty powerful note to end on.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Mary Poppins - Step In Time

This week's Hit Me With Your Best Shot is Mary Poppins, and I desperately wanted to participate, both because I haven't done so at all in the second half of this season (much less blogged at all), and because I have always loved Mary Poppins. But, lo and behold, I find myself incapable of truly doing so! You see, so many of my favorite parts of Mary Poppins, the parts I really want to talk about, didn't really include any shots that made me sit up in my seat and take notice. It's a remarkably well-constructed film, one that actually gets better as it goes along, but most of the cinematography is unremarkable, except for some stunning nighttime shots of the London roofscape...
"A trackless jungle!"
...which I largely suspect to be matte paintings.

I really wanted to go with something from "Feed the Birds", the most haunting lullaby Disney ever produced, because it always exerted a strange hypnotic pull over me when I was younger. Those shots of the cathedral, blurred around the edges, with the almost see-thru birds flying around it are incredibly affecting, but not a single one of them really summed up the number.

Mary Poppins is quite sneaky that way, bringing in some things quite radical for a children's film. For one, there isn't really a plot, for another, there are several ballads (like "Feed the Birds") that threaten to put kids to sleep but actually deepen the film and the characters. And for another, it's very anti-establishment: Mrs. Banks is a suffragette, at one point making sure that her maid put rotten eggs in her bag so that she can throw them at the Prime Minister in Downing Street, and Mr. Banks is a banker at quite possibly the creepiest bank ever in the history of the world:
And I so love how little Michael starts what must be a total economic meltdown after he tries to take back his tuppence from the greedy Bank President (who, let's be honest, basically stole it from him anyway). A surprisingly prescient moment, teaching children how silly adults get about money. But again, there are no really great shots in that bank melee.

So, I am forced to instead talk about one of the greatest dance numbers ever filmed, "Step In Time". And even here I find myself at a loss for words, except that I adore the way choreographer Marc Breaux (whose next project was Julie Andrews'  next film, The Sound of Music) uses absolutely everything you could conceivably find on a rooftop, having the chimney sweeps dance on railings, climb up and down smokestacks, dance over and balance on the lip at the edge of the roof... it's ingenius, fun choreography, and takes a very silly, overly simple song and turns it into a major production number entirely worth it's eight-minute length. It's filmed really smartly, balancing mid-shots, long shots, and close-ups quite well, letting us in on the fun while still letting us see the dancing as much as possible (although there are probably a few too many reaction shots from the kids, who are, shall we say, not the greatest actors Disney ever found). Yes, now that I'm older I can see the seams show when Julie Andrews jumps up in the air for her multiple tours, but when I was a kid, my jaw always dropped. The performances of Dick Van Dyke and the rest of the ensemble help greatly, too - they make it infectious. Seeing this number, you would think it would be great fun to be a chimney sweep, no?

And I love when the soot-stained crew travels down the chimney into the spic-and-span Banks household, possibly even more than the rooftop shenanigans, as they flip the maid, chase the cook, march for women's rights with Mrs. Banks, and leave a befuddled Mr. Banks shouting "What's all this?!?" over and over and over (David Tomlinson never fails to make me lol when he gets frustrated). And that final shot of them all dancing, jigging, and backflipping down the street is a glorious fade-out to the number.

And yeah, I know the silhouette of the dancers dancing on the chimneys is a beaut, but my favorite shot has always been this one, which immediately precedes that iconic shot:
It's an ever-so-slightly vertiginous shot, totally selling that this entire number is actually taking place on the rooftops of London and not on a soundstage somewhere, maybe 5 feet off the ground. With the added danger of dancing over a hole! One foot wrong and down you go!

Down you go, step in time!
Down you go, step in time!
Never need a reason,
Never need a rhyme!
Down you go, step in time!

Dammit, now I'm never going to get that song out of my head. Ah well, the movie's been in there for years, and it's quite delightful to have around.

Favorite moment: walking on hands between the rooftops, then dropping down, hanging on only by the feet
Length: approx. 8:10
Number of cuts: 96

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Hit Me With Your Best Shot - Fantasia

Curse you, Nathaniel!

Choosing a best shot from Fantasia is (as I mentioned earlier), a fool's errand, even when you're allowed to pick one shot from each sequence. Not to mention the fact that I haven't seen the film since I was a child, and even then I tended to fast-forward through the entire middle (the entirety of Rite of Spring and portions of Pastoral Symphony, both of which have exciting moments but are far too long for a child's attention span). On top of that, the purpose of choosing Fantasia is to celebrate the centennial of Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring", which has always been my least favorite section of the movie.

And on top of all that, I have been super busy this week.

But rewatching some of the sequences over the past week, I've been reminded just how freaking gorgeous Fantasia is. Practically every frame is a work of art, even in the sequences I dislike. I mean, Disney itself has marketed just about every frame from The Sorcerer's Apprentice in one form or another, and for good reason. It's possibly the most iconic piece of animation in the Disney canon. Which is exactly why picking anything from Mickey's big moment would be way too easy. But upon watching the sequence again, I was struck by this moment:
Foreshadowing the last sequence in an anthology film? Has any other anthology film ever done that? Because, come on. Even if Yen Sid (heh heh) is conjuring a butterfly, in the beginning it totally looks like the malevolent terror Chernabog, the mountain/demon star of Night on Bald Mountain and scourge of countless childhood nightmares.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Fantasia - Dance of the Hours

For this week's Hit Me With Your Best Shot, Nathaniel has chosen Disney's Fantasia, which poses a near-impossible task. Whole sequences of Fantasia are true works of art - how can you choose just one shot from the whole film as "best"? I haven't seen the whole film in years (since I was a kid), but I remember a lot of it vividly. Given the nature of this blog, it should come as no surprise that my favorite sequences are the Nutcracker Suite and this one right here:
I defy anyone to hear "Dance of the Hours" and not instantly see those dancing ostriches, hippopotamuses, elephants, and crocodiles. What I love about this sequence is how the animators constantly play with expectations. The piece starts with the ostriches, who are appropriately light and graceful, but far more flexible than you might expect. Next come the hippos, and boy do they not move according to expectations, even if all that effort tires them out. The elephants are like the hippos, only more playful. But it's those kooky crocs who steal the show. Much as I love this piece, it never really captures my attention until they show up, with their silly capes and mile-wide mouths. They should be the villains of the piece, but because of their goofy grins, they end up being far more funny than menacing, to the point that you're never sure if they want to eat the hippo or romance her.

Animator John Hench apparently resisted working on this segment because he knew nothing about ballet, so to appease him Walt Disney gave him season tickets and backstage access to the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. The end result is a perfect blend of ballet technique and animalistic movement. Little things like the way the ostriches walk, the literal shifting of weight in the hippos and elephants, and the way the crocodiles slither and curl up all speak to the real-life animals that inspire them, but are incorporated seamlessly into how they dance.

Taking full advantage of the possibilities of animation, the laws of physics are given a big ol' heave-ho, allowing the lead ostrich to be thrown up very high in the air very quickly, and then float down with enough time to do at least a hundred changements. It also allows the crocodiles to lift the hippos in any number of different, exciting, sometimes funny ways, like just using their tails!

Fantasia has lots of dance in it, but this is the only sequence that really uses dance (ballet specifically) as its driving force. It's also arguably the most fun, which should quiet all those people who decry ballet as boring. There are plenty of comic ballets, just as there are comic operas. Plus, if you picture people performing this instead of animated animals, it's still pretty great. Actually, seeing as how the whole thing is even structured like an actual ballet (the various ensembles each dance separately, followed by a pas de deux, then a grand finale with everyone dancing together), I would love to see some adventurous ballet company attempt this. They'd need some wires and some crazy costumes, but it could be a lot of fun.

Favorite Moment: the crocodiles' entrance, at first menacing, until they throw back their capes and have the silliest look on their faces - in perfect unison, of course (at 7:50 in the clip); and hippo's run-and-jump onto the croc, who attempts to catch her (at 9:10 in the clip) - because some (poor) partners really do feel like that when you try to lift them.
Length: Approx. 11:50

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Hit Me With Your Best Shot - Summertime

Hello. My name is Daniel and I am a hopeless romantic.

I can't help it. I live for a very specific kind of romance in films: Love that comes unexpectedly, burns bright for a very short amount of time, and cannot, must not last. Star-crossed lovers who don't end up together, for whatever reason. I can't help it. Casablanca, In the Mood For Love, Brief Encounter, Before Sunrise... these films are like crack to me. And one of my favorites, one that has kind of sadly fallen through the cracks of history a bit, is David Lean's Summertime.

I was thrilled when Nathaniel announced this Katharine Hepburn-Rossano Brazzi picture, because I first saw it about a year ago and haven't seen it since. I was eager to give it a revisit. It is swooningly, heartbreakingly romantic in the best way, and it takes place in that most captivating of Italian cities (at least for me), Venice. And while Summertime is certainly a beautifully-shot film in a very beautiful place, every single shot I thought about choosing for this piece was just of Katharine Hepburn.

This is one of The Great Kate's Oscar nominations, and it's well-deserved. I'd even go so far as to say she should have won the Oscar for it. I can't count the number of shots in this film in which she amazes me with her ability to show that her heart is blooming and breaking at the same time. She's the main reason why Summertime works as well as it does. It could very well have worked with another actress (Bergman, say, or Bancroft), because, hey, it's pretty damn hard NOT to fall head over sensible heels for Rossano Brazzi (SWOON). But I can't think of another actress that could have made Jane Hudson work as well as Hepburn, solely because the character runs almost completely contrary to our thinking about her - or at least, to the image she tried to cultivate of herself.

When we think of Kate, we mostly think of Tracy Lord, or Eleanor of Aquitaine, or Amanda Bonner, or Susan from Bringing Up Baby, or any other number of strong, forceful women. We may think of her as a romantic, but not in the sad, shy way of Jane Hudson. We do not think of her as someone who has never taken a vacation abroad, and certainly not as someone who would have trouble calling a waiter in a café. But Jane Hudson is all of these things, and Hepburn plays her as someone who resents that she is those things, even as she half-heartedly struggles to overcome them. She may laugh off her falling into a canal while wearing a white dress, but the second men start trying to dry her off, she finds the little boy who has attached himself to her and tells him to get her the hell out of there. Jane does not like attention. Perhaps being in her forties she has gotten used to not having it, and any time she gets it she finds it a strange, unnerving experience. Why would anyone pay attention to her? Why should they?

Well, they would because she looks like Katharine Hepburn, and even at her meekest, Kate has a presence about her. She just does. There's no hiding it or glossing over it. Perhaps this is what attracts Rossano Brazzi's Renato to her. That presence combined with her silence. She may be in her forties, but in many ways she is still an awkward teenager, amazed that such a beautiful, suave Italian man would take an interest in her, and not entirely sure if she wants it. There are very brief moments when you can see Kate rebelling against Jane - when Jane gets angry at herself for not being strong enough to do something she wants, that's clearly Kate - but it actually works in the character's favor. In the great scene when she tells Renato she is leaving later that day: She begins to cry, and Kate turns her head away from the camera, not willing to let the audience see her this weak, this sad. But at the same time, that makes the scene play much more interestingly than it might have, with Jane instead turning to the camera, or shaking her head back and forth. It's a simple motion that adds interest to the character where there really isn't on the page, and Hepburn's performance is filled with moments like that.

Which brings me to my Best Shot. It's from the final scene, one that has played out on the silver screen since time immemorial: Jane is getting on the train that will take her away from Venice, away from Renato. Will he come for her or not? This type of film is dependent on this scene to work. If this scene doesn't work, the film doesn't - it falls flat on its ass. As usual, the one leaving told the one that is being left specifically not to follow them, not to come after them, even though they really wanted the opposite. Even as she gets on the train, you can see the hope in Jane's eyes that Renato will disobey her. She wants him to; she doesn't want him to. She hates her self for wanting him to; she hates herself for hating herself. She must leave; she can't leave. She will leave.

And then, as usually happens, Renato does show up. With a gift. Just as the train is departing. She sees him. Even from very far away, she knows it's him. He runs with all his might to try and get the gift to her, but man is never faster than locomotive. So, standing at the end of the platform, he throws open the box and holds up the flower that was inside for her to see.

And then, this happens:

In six seconds, Kate goes from being down in the dumps to walking on cloud nine. Screenshots don't do it justice (sorry, I'm good with Photoshop but suck at making gifs). In motion, it's wondrous (you can see the whole scene here). This one shot made the movie for me the first time I saw it, and the second time it was the same punch to the gut. That's great acting. But more than that, it's great filmmaking. For a film like this to work just as well (if not better) the second time around, it has to hit some pretty deep emotions, and hit them well. Summertime, thanks to Katharine Hepburn, does just that.
*     *     *
I feel like I'm understating the importance of Rossano Brazzi in all of this. He is perfectly swoon-worthy as Renato, and he is personally on my list of Top Ten Sexiest Male Stars of All Time. Great as Kate is, this type of film doesn't work unless BOTH the leads are easy to fall in love with, and he is. OH, he is.

David Lean, too. Was there are an auteur as versatile as he? Great Expectations, Brief Encounter, Blithe Spirit, Lawrence of Arabia, Bridge on the River Kwai and this? The guy mastered practically every genre.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Hit Me With Your Best Shot - A Star is Born

Written as part of The Film Experience's "Hit Me With Your Best Shot" series.

A Star is Born must be one of the most durable properties in Hollywood's archives, having been made first in the 30s (with Janet Gaynor and Frederic March), then in the 50s (with Judy Garland and James Mason), and then in the 70s (with Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson). There was even talk recently that Clint Eastwood of all people wanted to do a new version with Beyoncé (of all people). Each version has its ardent fans, but when people talk about A Star is Born, they're usually talking about Judy Garland - at least in my experience.

And it's with good reason. This is Judy at her Judy-est, digging deep within herself and coming up gold right and left. There isn't a single scene here where she isn't on fire. It's not just a great performance, it's Judy Garland at her absolute peak, giving the kind of performance that would define any actress with a less-impressive resume than Garland's. Judy's "Mrs. Norman Maine" is everything you want and expect from Judy Garland, dialed up to eleven.

Director George Cukor knows from well-crafted women's pictures, so the entire enterprise is well-shot and perfectly pitched (if a little long). Picking a best shot should be difficult, but it isn't. At all. There may be other more beautiful, more meaningful shots, but there is only one shot that matters in A Star is Born, and I will not hear anything otherwise. The shot comes at about a minute into the clip below.

Jesus Christ, but has there ever been an actress who can get to such deep emotions so purely, not to mention so easily?

Yes, Judy is amazing here, but this isn't the best shot of A Star is Born just because of her. Literally every single thing about this shot is perfection. Even though she's constantly moving around, Judy is always in the center of the frame, because Cukor is so in tune with the (ridiculously high) artistic level she's working on that he knows just when she's going to move, and where to, and how far. And he knows exactly when to zoom close and when to pull back. It's incredible.

Shooting a solo musical number is a tricky, tricky thing, and this one is aces not just because of the performance (which earns its legendary status about a hundred times over), but because of the directorial decisions involved. Other directors would have cut to Norman watching her at least once during the number, and given how good James Mason is, that might have worked. But Cukor knows that when Judy Garland is singing like this, you don't cut away. You keep the band mostly in shadow, you keep her in mid-frame except for the big moment when she comes right at you, you pull back to let the audience catch their breath, and then you pull in again ever so slightly for the quiet end. It's the movie in miniature, it's a brilliant performance, and a master class in how to stage, light, and shoot a solo musical number. Brava!

Monday, April 15, 2013

Flashdance - The Audition

Ah, Flashdance! Dance movies made a comeback in the 1980s, and it started right here 30 years ago today. Well, dance movies never really went away, I guess, but Jennifer Beals certainly got more people interested in seeing dance on the big screen. Pity she didn't do most of the actual dancing. Flashdance also pretty much set the template for every dance movie that followed: You can see all the story beats and pretty much this exact sequence in Save the Last Dance, Center Stage, all the Step Up films, and others.

Not that I'm complaining, exactly. Formulas wouldn't become formulas if they didn't work, and Flashdance works really well. It even holds up a lot better than you might think. I'm just glad that later films did a better job of capturing the actual dancing.

The one precedent Flashdance set that I'm not at all happy about is the editing style. In just over two minutes there are thirty-three cuts in the dance, and they aren't used in the best ways. The best parts of the dance are when the camera follows Beals's Alex as she dances. In fact, director Adrian Lyne nearly ruins this final sequence, Alex's big audition, with countless cutaways to the panel of judges' reactions, which run from silly facial expressions to cigar-smoking to toe-tapping to nose-blowing. Trust me, no one cares about them. We just want to see Alex tear it up on the dancefloor.

And tear it up she does. Jeffrey Hornaday's choreography might include a few too many of those punch-the-air-and-kick moves for my taste, but Beals (and/or her body doubles) looks so fantastic doing them that I don't really care. This a truly go-for-broke audition piece, throwing everything in the dancer's arsenal on the floor in the hopes that the panel will see not only technique, but the raw passion present in all the greatest dancers. It's also incredibly of its time. You can see this mostly in the technique; the arms closed in tight when pirouetting, the height of the battements (high kicks), the style of the jetées (leaps) - these are all indicative of 80s technique. If a dancer were performing this piece today, you would see much higher battements, rounded arms in the pirouettes, and straighter legs in the jetées. The gymnastic and breakdancing elements are also very 80s, but in a more fun, cultural way.

Lyne also throws pretty much every editing and camera trick in the book at this sequence to maximize how cool it looks. He films the pirouettes from three different angles to make it look like she's doing far more than she actually is. He zooms in on the really cool moves (almost as if to say, "look at how cool that is!"). He shoots her in silhouette against the light from the windows (a callback to the first dance sequence when she dances in silhouette). He films her flying leap in slow-motion and from angles which emphasize how high and how far she jumps. He shoots just her feet to emphasize the footwork (a trick which I particularly hate, as it leaves out the rest of the body entirely).

This last trick works far better in the beginning of the sequence, before the dance actually begins. The set-up of the scene does a great job of building tension - following Alex's feet as she walks through the room, a slow pan across the people behind the table, and my favorite bit, the close-up of Alex's trembling hand as she puts the needle on the record player. (For the record, I would be unbelievably nervous about dancing to a record. What if it starts skipping?) And then, she falters. It almost looks like she's going to continue, but instead she gets up, excuses herself, and starts again. Forget that this would likely never happen in any real audition situation, but it's really effective and setting up both the people auditioning Alex as well as the audience. Even though we know what Alex is capable of, will she be able to hold it together and win over the old fuddy-duddies?

Maybe Lyne lays it on a bit thick here - we're already on Alex's side, and the stakes have been set well enough in the previous hour and a half - but it still works as a shock. Alex is human. She can falter. This might just be too much for her, like it was for her friend Jeanie (who falls in a skating competition earlier in the film). But she rallies. And that makes all those punch-the-air-and-kick moves feel even more triumphant. My favorite critical line on Flashdance comes from The Guardian, which called the film "a preposterous success," which is just about a perfect description. The characters and plot are preposterous, as are many of the directorial choices, and yet Flashdance does nothing but succeed. The whole thing is greater than the sum of its parts, because... well... because what a feeling it leaves us with!

Favorite Moment: The flying leap into the backspin. Isn't that everyone's favorite part? It's certainly the red-headed judge's favorite. I love how ballsy it is.
Length: approx. 2:15
Number of Cuts: 33

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Hit Me With Your Best Shot - Jurassic Park

I was nine years old when Jurassic Park was first released in 1993. I'm pretty sure all of my classmates saw it in theaters at least once, being young boys and all (is there anything that young boys love more than dinosaurs?), but I never did. I was a fragile little thing, and deathly afraid of anything even remotely scary. So while I loved archaeology and really liked dinosaurs, the movie was rated PG-13, and was thus too scary for me (plus, the raptors in all the ads were terrifying). I ended up watching it at a youth group sleepover maybe a year or two later on a really, really small screen, and I enjoyed it (and didn't close my eyes even once!), but didn't love it in the way all the other kids seemed to. I've maybe seen it once since then.

So, thank God for 3D re-releases and weekends with nothing to do, because if there's one thing Jurassic Park 3D proves, it's that this fucker demands to be seen on a big screen. Because the entire thing is pretty goddamn majestic.

And also, it's weird.

Seriously, this may be the weirdest blockbuster of the 90s. First, there's the cast. When you think of smart action heroes, even now your brain does not automatically gravitate towards Laura Dern and Sam Neill, let alone Jeff Goldbum (who hilariously spends as much of the movie's second half as possible posing for a beefcake calendar). And there's Samuel L. Jackson, just along for the ride (seriously, how is it possible for one man to be in so many iconic films?!?), and Wayne Knight, as a greedy bad-guy tech wizard. And throw in BD Wong, just because. And then, there's the opening sequence, which is kind of incoherent, and makes a point of not showing the creature in the box. Come on, Steven Spielberg. We know the movie's about dinosaurs - it's on your goddamn logo! In fact, we don't even get to the island until a third of the way in, and when we get there, after the initial establishing shots we see very little dinosaur. And it's SLOW. And Jeff Goldblum tries to explain chaos theory while simultaneously trying to seduce Laura Dern, and it's all very weird and heady (but apparently not nearly as heady as Michael Crichton's novel) and not at all blockbuster-like.

But then, once that storm hits and the power goes out and all hell breaks loose, Jurassic Park lets loose with some fantastic action and suspense pieces. And the cinematography is a key part of that. Dean Cundey really uses the entire frame, often placing important pieces of information in the background, ever so slightly out of focus, and there are a whole bunch of really fun camera angles (like when the kids and Sam Neill are climbing the electric fence). And they really take advantage of the power going out, too, using the play of light and shadow to make the dinos look even more other-worldly. The thing is so well shot, actually, that I had a really hard time picking out the "best" one.

Going in, I was pretty sure it was going to be one of three iconic shots: the first ridiculously majestic shot of the dinosaurs in the park, the water cup on the dashboard of the van, or the final shot of the T. Rex (you know the one). And it was really hard not to pick that last one. It's iconic for a damn good reason. The T. Rex looks (and sounds) awesome, and the banner falling down is a perfect visual joke. When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth, indeed.

But seeing Jurassic Park again, this time as an adult, I was struck by just how prevalent the science talk is throughout. I mean, what blockbuster (even today, let alone in the 90s) even attempts to engage in conversation about chaos theory when there are dinosaurs just waiting to stomp into frame and eat someone? And there's a lot of science talk. A LOT. But, on the other hand: Man, that T. Rex looks AWESOME! So in the end, it came down to two shots in the running, with one emerging the clear victor. The runner-up is the first time the T. Rex almost nonchalantly stomps into frame - a really chilling moment that even now made me bounce up and down in my seat. But the victor, which knocked me on my ass when I saw it this time, is pretty much the perfect shot to encapsulate all that Jurassic Park is (and could have been more of):

In that moment, the logistics of how the DNA strand is being reflected onto the raptor don't really matter. Neither does the plight of our main human characters. This shot is representative of the true fight at the heart of Jurassic Park: Science versus nature. Modern technology versus good old-fashioned survival of the fittest. That raptor may have been created in a test tube and engineered to be female, but she (or he - who knows?) is in charge now, and she will do what she must in order to survive. We can "create" a dinosaur in the modern day, but once it's here, there's no telling what it will do. And that possibility makes this scary/beautiful image that much scarier.

Plus, it instantly reminded me of another great 90s movie, Gattaca. Yay, nostalgia!

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Hit Me With Your Best Shot - Jackie Brown

I've missed the past couple of weeks of Nathaniel's Hit Me With Your Best Shot series over at The Film Experience because I've been too busy to do it, but Quentin Tarantino is one of my favorite directors and Jackie Brown is one of his best, so I forced myself to stay up late and do this one.

Say what you will about Quentin Tarantino, but whatever else he says or does, one thing is always true above all else: The man loves movies. Any and all kinds, especially maligned genres. It's this love that guides pretty much everything he does. At his best (Kill Bill, Vol. 1, if you ask me), this leads to some deliriously fun, often subversively smart films. At his worst (the "Director's Cut" version of Death Proof), this leads to some serious cinematic masturbation and sprawling, messy films. Jackie Brown, his third feature, is definitely one of his best. I remember at the time, the standard line on it was that it was just a repeat of his prior success, Pulp Fiction - resurrecting a fallen star from the 70s (Pam Grier taking over for John Travolta) while playing on their history and revealing previously hidden depths to their talent, hyper-literate gangsters in a catchphrase heavy underworld, a pleasingly obscure anachronistic soundtrack, and even Samuel L. Jackson coming in to steal the whole damn thing out from under the purported leads.

It's hard to be a woman in Hollywood, much less a woman of a certain age, much less a woman of color of a certain age. Pam Grier had worked pretty steadily since her heyday as Coffy and Foxxy Brown, but hadn't had a real lead role worthy of her talents until Jackie Brown (of course the name harkens back to her previous success). But it's more than just a great part, written with her in mind. Jackie would be the role of a lifetime for any actress, but for Grier, it's one of those parts that takes not just her well-known screen persona but her whole life and adds extra resonance. Like Darren Aronofsky did with Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler as a more recent example, Tarantino uses Grier to allow us to have an instant connection to Jackie, and to make her final triumph all the sweeter.

It should have netted her an Oscar nomination, and most likely would have if she had been a man.

But enough with all that. This is Hit Me With Your Best Shot, after all. And, as is typical for a Tarantino film, Jackie Brown has a surplus of wonderful shots, so many that picking one seems unfair. So I'm going to do what I hate to do with these kind of things and go with the very first shot of the film.

It's such a sweet moment for an actress to reemerge onto the screen decades after her last big triumph, blow everyone else off the screen, and not only own but earn that opening "above the title" credit. So few women even get the chance to headline at all, much less take top billing when the likes of Robert DeNiro, Samuel L. Jackson, and Michael Keaton are also in the movie, and even less in a film like this one: A crime thriller directed by a young upstart auteur who is coming off of a Palme d'Or-winning, Oscar-nominated, standard-setting instant classic.

Of course, that introduction wouldn't be complete without its sister shot, the last shot of the film.

The same music is playing, and it's another long take, but she's fully in control now. She's behind the wheel, not being moved by an unseen conveyor belt. And she's singing along, taking in the lyrics along with all that's happened, feeling the simultaneous joy and sorrow that come from finally breaking free.

You go, girl.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Debbie Reynolds and Donald O'Connor - Where Did You Learn to Dance?

I'll be honest: I don't think Debbie Reynolds is a great dancer. If I ever decide to post about "Good Morning" from Singin' in the Rain here (which I'm sure I will, it being my favorite film of all time), I will probably point exactly when she starts cheating her steps. That's probably unfair, given the circumstances surrounding the shooting of that number, but I am what I am; I just can't help it!

I will say, however, that I find her so gosh-darn likable that I hardly ever actually care about her dancing. Even when she's putting all her effort in to getting the steps just right, she never betrays how hard she's working. She's just downright delightful to watch all the time. And that's doubly true here, in this number with Donald O'Connor (one of my favorites) from 1953's I Love Melvin (the song starts at about a minute in to the clip above).

Both Debbie and Donald are just a joy to watch here, easily navigating Robert Alton's busy choreography on and around a carpet, a table, a chair, and a sofa. I've not seen the film, but this is apparently the only dance number the two of them shared, a year after Singin' in the Rain (and even still, I'm very interested in seeing it after watching this number). Debbie's tapping is far better here than it was in their previous film, even though quite a bit of it soft-shoe on the carpet. She even manages to out-mug Donald O'Connor at one point (I love the man, but he was a ham of the highest order)! There's a lot going on here, but the choreography somehow never seems too much. Given that this is a story about a model and a photographer, it makes sense that Debbie would be posing a lot, but there's more than a few points where she's posing on every. single. beat. for bars on end. It should come off as choppy or schizo, but it somehow doesn't. The pair of them are in constant motion - when they're not moving their bodies, their eyes do the dancing for them, something probably only these two performers could pull off without seeming stupid. In fact, I can't think of a single performer of this era other than Debbie Reynolds that could have pulled off those precious poses while wearing that skirt (which spins quite fantastically), without coming across as completely juvenile. Such is the power of Debbie Reynolds: She's cute, but there's a maturity somewhere in there that cuts through the sweetness. In fact, I'm far more annoyed by the moment where the carpet gets in the way of Donald's tapping than by anything Debbie does throughout the whole number.

Like I said: She's just so gosh-darn likable!

Favorite Moment(s): Debbie's leap off the table and Donald's cartwheel over it
Length: approx. 3:20
Number of Cuts: 4

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Busby Berkeley - Dance Until the Dawn

Sometimes it's the dancers that are famous, sometimes it's the choreographer. Busby Berkeley was in all likelihood the first choreographer to fully recognize the potential of film as a tool to showcase dance in new ways. "Dance Until the Dawn" is from the 1931 musical Flying High, with Bert Lahr and Charlotte Greenwood. It wasn't first Hollywood production Berkeley choreographed (that would be 1930's Whoopee) and it certainly wasn't the last. Most of his signature moves are all here: the chorus girl "parade of faces", the synchronized precision line dancing, and of course the hypnotic bird's-eye-view kaleidoscope shots.

It's interesting to note that Berkeley wasn't credited as a Director on any film until 1933's She Had to Say Yes, despite having served as choreographer on 11 films before. He was apparently given a degree of independence in the direction of his musical numbers; they always have a very distinct style almost completely separate from the non-dance scenes in those early films. Did Berkeley's style come from the directors of those early pictures, or did it come from within? The general consensus seems to be that it all came from him, and I find it hard to disagree. The man was a genius. He was a visual artist using human bodies in motion to create a living work of art in a way that had never been done before.

This is from one of his earliest films, so some of it is a little rough (the dancers are notably not as tight as usual for Berkeley), but it's still hugely enjoyable in a way that only Busby Berkeley numbers are. He really showed off as much of the work of putting the film together as he could - look at those costumes on full display as the chorines enter, and later when they spin around! look at that multi-level set! look at each of these girls' faces! - which makes him even more unique among choreographers, who really do tend to be all about the movement.

Not that Berkeley didn't care about movement as well. Quite the contrary. After establishing the ensemble, the costumes, and the set, he goes about creating some great images - images that audience members couldn't possibly see if this number were performed on stage in a theater. I'm not just talking about those famous bird's-eye-view shots, either. There's one moment in particular (it comes at around 2:41 in the clip) that would be almost completely lost on theatregoers, and might have even been lost on the cinema patrons of 1931. While that line of men coming through the wheels of girls may have evoked gears to most, and might have received applause onstage as such, looking at it from this angle - one much higher than even the balcony seats in the theater - it's near-impossible to not see the sexual subtext.

Can't un-see it now, can you?

But moving on to those kaleidoscope shots. They really are unlike anything else on film. Pure poetry. You'd be forgiven for thinking it was special effects - completely animated, or each layer shot separately - but it's all done for real, in camera. There is something about bodies moving in unison that never fails to evoke wonder and amazement in human beings. It's one of the reasons why the Rockettes are still getting standing ovations for their kicklines after nearly 90 years. It's sublime, really.

If I can get a little serious, in intellectual circles "the sublime" is defined as the terribly beautiful. Watching a large group of human bodies in complete synchronization is beautiful, wondrous, even, but also unnatural and scary - we are creatures of free will, after all! Think about it: Other than chorus girls, what group of people most often march in strict, synchronized formation? Soldiers.

But enough with the serious, high-falutin' stuff. Busby Berkeley numbers are eye-popping in a way you just don't see anymore. Using the human body and the camera in perfect harmony, he created some of the most amazing sights you'll ever see. He really was the first person to conceive of dances almost exclusively for the camera, and even our greatest choreographers (Gene Kelly, Jerome Robbins, Bob Fosse) couldn't match his ingenuity with a lens. What he did was so singular, even those later geniuses knew not to touch it. Dance on film has come a long way, but there's still nothing like a Busby Berkeley extravaganza!

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Hit Me With Your Best Shot - The Wizard of Oz

(Written as part of the "Hit Me With Your Best Shot" series over at The Film Experience.)

In my Junior year of High School, we had to do something called "The America Project". We had to pick something - an idea, a place, a person, a thing - and present a portfolio explaining why that something is American. I, of course, picked the movies. The final product wasn't very good, for a lot of reasons, but I was a good enough writer to still get a B on it (although, to me, that was as good as failing. I'm serious). In my Senior year, I wrote my final research paper in Advanced Placement US History on L. Frank Baum's The Wizard of Oz as the first American fairy tale. Clearly, that idea came one year too late. Because is there anything more American than MGM's 1939 film of The Wizard of Oz? I mean, besides apple pie and baseball?

It’s hard to think of another movie as well-known or as well-loved as The Wizard of Oz. It's so much a part of our collective DNA that it feels like we are all born into this word knowing the story, the songs, and the performances. In reality, Oz was just another film from one of Hollywood's Golden Years, until it became the first Hollywood film to be shown in one evening, uncut, on a commercial network. For many years between 1959 and 1980 (the years when it was shown on television as an annual special event), 49% of American households watched it. Nearly half of America tuning in to watch the same movie, for years on end. When people make the claim that Oz is the most-watched film of all time, it’s easy to believe it. It’s also easy to say that television made Oz what it is today. Without those yearly airings, would it be as popular as it is?

My instinct says yes. Because it’s not just nostalgia that makes people love Oz so much. It’s a really well-made movie, yes, but it’s more than that, too. It’s the magic of the movies, pure and simple.

In every frame, The Wizard of Oz shows us what movies can do that no other medium can. It can transport us, break the fourth wall in ways that theater, music, and dance just can’t. No matter how many times you see it, every time Dorothy opens her front door onto this new, strange, colorful world and surveys Munchkinland, it feels like the first time. Everything, the camerawork, the effects, the crafts, and the music, put you in that place. Everyone becomes a kid again in that moment, whether or not they watched The Wizard of Oz regularly as a kid. This is something that can really only be done in the movies, and even then only a select few do it as well as The Wizard of Oz (Star Wars and… The Lord of the Rings? Avatar?).

Given the collective love for the land of Oz, and all its inherent beauty, it may come as a surprise that my favorite shot is from the Kansas portion of the film. But then, if those opening scenes weren’t so great, we wouldn’t care about Dorothy’s journey. The decision to tint those scenes sepia is so smart. For a long time, the Kansas scenes were shown on TV in black & white, and I have to imagine that robbed the film of a lot of is beauty – the sepia makes Kansas feels not just drab, but a bit dusty in a way B&W does not, and in a way that enhances the feel of those scenes (and to the nostalgia of those watching, I imagine). But whether in sepia or in black & white, I think my favorite shot stands out.

It comes right after the timeless “Over the Rainbow”, easily one of the most beautiful songs ever written. Whenever I watched The Wizard of Oz as a kid, this shot had a really strong hold on me. It was an oasis, always prompting a contented sigh. For a little boy who so desperately wanted to go over the rainbow to Oz, through the looking-glass to Wonderland, or into the wardrobe to Narnia (or later, through a fake wall to take a train to Hogwarts), this was the epitome of everything I ever dreamed of. The ultimate escape. Even though it’s in sepia tones, to me, it was always in colors as bright as they are in Oz. Come to think of it, it's actually the first shot of that land beyond the moon, behind the rain:

Just as with that first scene in Oz, it isn’t the image alone that makes this shot work. The dimming music cue, the sound of birds, and the look on Judy Garland’s face in the shot immediately before it combine to give this image a huge impact. If you've ever dreamed of something better, of being something greater, of doing something more with your life, this shot speaks to you. And if you're a nerdy little boy who loves reading books more than anything, who always gets picked last in gym class, and who only has one friend in the world that isn't a stuffed animal or an action figure; who wants nothing more than to make friends and go on adventures... well, that one shot offers more hope than a whole lifetime of "It gets better"s. That's why The Wizard of Oz endures. That's the power of the magic of movies.

Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers - Pick Yourself Up

Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers are maybe the greatest duo to ever dance together on the silver screen. They're certainly the most prolific - ten films together, no small feat! Top Hat is their best-known film, and many say it's their best, but the final number ("The Piccolino") is a dud, and it's always left a bad taste in my mouth whenever I watch Top Hat. No, my favorite Fred & Ginger film has always been Swing Time, if only for the songs: "Never Gonna Dance", "The Way You Look Tonight", "A Fine Romance", and this one right here, "Pick Yourself Up," which is unfortunately presented as a pure dance number - just an instrumental with no lyrics.

But who needs singing when the dancing is this great? The story is that Fred's character, dancer and gambler Lucky Garnett, must make $25,000 in order to marry the gal he's in love with. While in New York, he gives his last quarter (which just so happens to be his "lucky quarter") to Ginger's Penny Carroll. His friend Pop steals it back for him, but Penny thinks it was Lucky. He follows her to her work. Naturally, she's a dance instructor, and naturally he apologizes for what happened by taking a lesson from her, and naturally he pretends he's terrible. When her boss fires her, Lucky professes that she actually taught him a great deal, and they launch into this, the first musical number of the film.

It's all in one take, and they use the whole space - even going over the barrier around the dance floor. It's often been said that dance in the Astaire & Rogers films was akin to sex, but this is all innocent fun. I particularly love how Ginger is marking (or, if you're inclined to be less charitable, faking) the tap steps, and how she spins like she's out of control, waiting for Fred to catch her and lead her, since this number really is his show. At the same time, though, they still feel like equal partners. It's just pure bliss - as most of their dances together are. I'm not sure this is my favorite dance of theirs (it might not even be my favorite in this film), but it's up there.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Dancin' Dan On Film

Welcome to the wonderful world of dance on film!

Dance is both a form of artistic expression and a form social interaction. You can learn a lot about people by watching them dance. Choreography or no, how people move says a lot about them and what they are feeling in a given moment. I love watching great dancing almost as much as I like to dance.

I started dancing at the age of ten, after seeing Singin' In The Rain with Gene Kelly and Donald O'Connor. I remember turning to my mother after it was over and proudly proclaiming: "I want to do THAT!" I competed nationally for eight years in tap and jazz, and performed with a professional company in college. I've also choreographed for children's theaters, community theaters, and professionally. So I know and love creating dance as well as dance itself.

Choreography on film can be much more dynamic than it is on stage. It isn't always, but my favorite pieces of dance on film use the medium to make the dance more than what it really is. Watch any episode of So You Think You Can Dance and you will see at least one number where the camera circles around a couple, making a piece of the dance far more interesting and/or exciting than it would be when seen from the front (they tend to overuse this trick, but when it works, it works).

I hope you like dance, too. And I hope you will enjoy exploring it with me. This blog will mostly be just posting my favorite dances - mostly from films, but some from stage shows and some just performances that happened to be captured on film - with only occasional insight. Because dance is so much more fun when just enjoyed, don't you think?

 -Dancin' Dan