Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Hit Me With Your Best Shot - The Matrix

Thanks to Nathaniel R. at The Film Experience for choosing one of teenage me's favorite films for the finale of this season of Hit Me With Your Best Shot!

I remember so much about going to see The Matrix for the first time. I was 15 years old, and was wholly entranced by the unbelievably cool marketing campaign: "What Is The Matrix?" all the ads asked, accompanied by the coolest WTF-did-I-just-see visuals anyone had seen (you could make a case for 1999 as the greatest year for movie marketing ever, between this and The Blair Witch Project, and I'm sure there's more). My best friend and I were pushing really hard to go, and finally our parents relented. Except that the theater wouldn't let my mom just buy the tickets for us, she had to actually go in and watch it with us.

This should have been mortifying, but my mom stuck herself in the back row and didn't bother us one bit. When the movie was over, all of us - even my mom - walked out with our mouths open, the only words coming out being, "THAT WAS SO COOL!"

The Matrix then became the unlikeliest of bonding experiences for me and my mom. We went to see both sequels in the theater together (despite the diminishing returns, although I still argue that Reloaded is one of the best action films of the past twenty years), something that previously had only been the realm of Star Wars. Which is fitting, I guess, because in many ways The Matrix was like Star Wars for my generation. The Gen-X philosophizing, the black trenchcoats, the very concept of "the matrix", "I know kung fu", and of course, the stylistic flourish that the film is probably most known for today: Bullet time.

I keep trying to remember when I knew that The Matrix was special, a film that I would love for quite a long time, and I'm pretty sure it's in that very first scene. Very few films open as strongly as The Matrix, with a mysterious phone call as we watch a trace program locate the phone number, followed by police agents moving in on a mysterious woman.
Carrie-Ann Moss is so incredibly badass as Trinity - even in this first shot of her face when she's raising her hands in surrender. You know right away that this is NOT someone you want to piss off, someone who you engage at your own risk. It's an incredible performance, made even better by the flashes of panic and doubt Moss allows to creep in to her statue-like face at various points later in this scene - she paints a remarkably full character portarait in four minutes with almost no dialogue. And then, after Hugo Weaving tells us exactly what we've already suspected of her, this happens:
Best Shot Runner-Up
It's the film's first use of bullet time, but in this context you wouldn't recognize it as such. In fact, it took me a couple of viewings of The Matrix to even realize that the camera isn't moving around a frozen image - Trinity's legs keep rising throughout the shot. It also comes out of nowhere, before any real action has even started. It kicks the movie into high gear and delivers the first of many iconic images from cinematographer Bill Pope. There's even a bit of mystery to it - is she stopping time? Is she supernaturally strong and fast? Who is this badass, black-leather-clad women?

But that's not the moment. Not for me.

For me, the moment that most excited me, that made me go "HOLY SHIT" first, was this one:
I mean, COME ON. She jumps in slow-motion, from roof to roof, ACROSS A CITY STREET. Like I said: BAD. ASS. It's also perfectly set up earlier in the chase sequence, when we see Trinity, the Agent chasing her, and the police officers following him all jump over a much smaller space between rooftops, from the bottom... and one of the cops almost doesn't make it. This is the moment that first scene has been building towards, even though it continues for another minute or so and ends with another iconic image: Trinity in a phone booth, hand against the glass, as if pushing away the truck coming barreling toward her.

After 15 years and countless rewatches, The Matrix still excites. That the (Oscar-winning) visual effects still hold up is a huge reason why; bullet time may have been over-spoofed in the years since, but it hasn't ever been as effective as it was here. Plus, it's not the only trick The Matrix has up its sleeve. The superb construction of its action sequences, the simple yet effective world-building, and the easy yet serious performances all contribute. For me, anyway, this movie's luster hasn't faded one bit.

*               *               *

This post could be retitled "An Appreciation of Carrie-Ann Moss! I didn't plan on writing almost exclusively about Trinity when I started writing this, but she's the first character we meet in The Matrix, and she makes an indelible impression in one of the film's best sequences. And it's a really great performance.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Hit Me With Your Best Shot - Under the Skin

Despite the fact that I have no time (because I'm dancing too much), I couldn't not participate in this week's episode of Hit Me..., since I'm pretty sure it was me (right here) who inspired Nathaniel to choose Jonathan Glazer's uniquely unsettling mindfuck Under the Skin for the series. It's a film that has refused to leave my mind ever since I saw it in April (with my man, who declared it even worse than "that one about the creation of the universe", referring to Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life, which I dragged him to and lost movie-choosing privileges for a month as a result). I'm not sure if it's a great film or not, but it's certainly unforgettable, and probably the first film I've seen in a theater that can honestly call itself a true "art film".

It's a simple enough film to describe - Scarlett Johansson is a presumably-alien something in a human body who picks up Scottish men to do... something... to them, who slowly but surely becomes more and more intrigued by humanity, even as she is seemingly destroying it. But Under the Skin is so much more than that description, and each time I return to it in my memory, it becomes something different, ever shape-shifting into a completely different film although all its elements remain the same. The film defies categorization in a way entirely unlike anything else I've seen. Is it a parable of female empowerment? A moody science fiction noodle? A fable of "the other"? It is none of these, all of these, and more. On this most recent viewing, it became an existential horror film, the scariest film of the decade. Jean-Paul Sartre, of the "hell is other people" play No Exit, would have loved it.

But, just as when I first saw it in that darkened cinema (absolutely the ideal way to see Under the Skin, and I am so glad I did), what hit me hardest was the film's unbearably, uncomfortably creepy sound design. I will hear the strings of composer Mica Levi's stunning score (which, in a perfect world, would win every award in the known universe) in my nightmares for decades to come. The cinematography is entirely on point (thank you Daniel Landin!), but it's that damn score that really got under my skin... Worse than nails on a chalkboard, every beat of it makes me want to curl into myself, to somehow go beyond the fetal position until I am literally just a ball of humanity.

The images often help with this feeling, though. The opening sequence perfectly sets the mood (and caused more than one person at my screening to walk out), almost completely inscrutable in its presentation of circles and dots converging and and coalescing eventually into a giant eye. It never lets up from that moment on, but by far the most viscerally terrifying sequence (if not the most horrific) is when we see what actually happens to Scarlett's victims. It begins in the above image when her most recent victim reaches out to touch the previous one, and something just at the edge of the frame is not quite right - the skin of a young man shouldn't wrinkle like that, should it? And then, we see it all ripple away, in a simple, perfectly framed and lit shot.

What is left of this man? Just his skin, the rest of him having been drained away, stolen somehow by the inky black void this seductive alien woman led him to. What does it all mean, what does it symbolize? We could debate for hours, days even. But this shot gets at the deepest fear of all human beings, one that our alien protagonist comes to feel all too well by the end of her journey: What makes us human? What is under our skin?

The answer, as posed by this shot? The most frightening idea of all:


BUT, the shot is held for so long that it stops being grotesque and starts becoming beautiful. It hits that meeting place of horror and beauty known as the sublime, and hits it hard. It's also held long enough to give you space to think, to let your mind wander (there are many such moments in Under the Skin, and they're quite possibly the film's greatest strength). Watching this dancing ribbon human skin I started thinking about death, about nothingness - can death, can the very lack of life, something we normally think of as something to hide from sight, be beautiful? I'm not sure, but in this film (here in this shot and again at the very end), director Jonathan Glazer comes up with a pretty good piece of visual evidence that it might be.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Hit Me With Your Best Shot - 3 Women

I have a deep and abiding affection for Shelley Duvall (due to far too many viewings of Faerie Tale Theatre when I was young), Sissy Spacek (due to Carrie), and Robert Altman (due to Gosford Park), so it was a given that I would eventually make my way to 3 Women. It sits in an interesting place in all three of their filmographies: Altman had recently done Nashville, Spacek had just done Carrie, and Duvall was about to do The Shining. Spacek, for one, certainly comes into the film looking quite a lot like a resurrected Carrie White:

She's watching you!
All buttoned-up with those big, innocent eyes taking everything in with a keen curiosity - and perhaps a slight bit of malevolence.

Believe it or not (and I still have a hard time believing this), Sissy Spacek and Shelley Duvall were the same age when they filmed this: 28 years old. It seems even more impossible when watching how they act opposite each other, especially when they're in a bar and Sissy's Pinky Rose (née Mildred) adds some salt to a beer to make more foam, blows it off, and then drinks the whole damn thing. Or better yet, just compare the above image of Spacek in this film to the below of Duvall's Millie (née Mildred):

"I'm good enough, I'm pretty enough, and doggone it, people like me!"
They have similar body types - long and willowy with huge eyes, but I never in a millions years would have guessed they were both EXACTLY the same age.

Also, just to digress slightly for a bit, but someone needs to tell me how Duvall's Millie Lammoreaux isn't the biggest goddamn gay icon in the world. First there are the FABULOUS yellow ensembles (like the above which she puts on for a dinner party), then there is the CONSTANT chatter with anyone around without a care for whether or not they're listening, and the OBSESSION with women's magazines and throwing dinner parties with "fancy" food and just fabulosity in general, and FINALLY, there is the tragic downfall, complete with AMAZING cry-face:

Claire Danes could never
Let's face it people: Shelley Duvall's Millie Lammoreaux is a lost gay icon, and we need to bring her back.

But anyway, back to the issue at hand: Picking the Best Shot.

I had not seen 3 Women before this, and it was somehow both more conventional and far weirder than I had been led to expect. It's certainly enigmatic, as I suppose befits a film that was based on a dream the director had and adapted to a treatment which he planned to shoot without a script. It also contains one of the most stunning dream sequences ever put on film. But it's all pretty straightforward until the last scene, which is so ambiguous that even the director claims to not know what it means. It's almost a prototype version of Single White Female, with Spacek as the girl who becomes obsessed with Duvall enough to take over her life, but it's also not that at all, really. It seems to me to be more about identity itself than the stealing of it.

Actually, the film it reminded me most of wasn't Single White Female, or Persona (which it has also been likened to, perhaps more accurately), but rather Jonathan Glazer's recent Under the Skin, in which Scarlett Johansson is an alien trying a human being on for size. Even as she is focused on her task of seducing men to do... something... to them, she shows a genuine curiosity about her prey and the race to which they belong. For the first half of 3 Women, Spacek gave a performance that felt very much like that, observing the actions of everyone around her, trying to understand what they mean, and trying to imitate them for a bit. She becomes fascinated by a pair of twins, wondering out loud if they switch roles each day and what it must be like. In my pick for best shot, she follows them as they leave work for the day, maybe a little too closely, and eventually starts walking exactly in step with them.

Best Shot
This is what it feels like to be a twin - to be exactly the same as someone else. She tries it on for size, decides she's gotten enough, and goes on her merry way. And then later on she decides (or perhaps she has already decided) she wants to be exactly like Millie - or does she? The film plays it coy about whether or not Pinky "becoming" Millie is a plot or if Pinky is just suffering from some kind of head trauma, but it's unsettling to watch nonetheless (not as unsettling as Under the Skin, mind you, but still...), and Duvall nails the feelings of fear, depression, and being lost that comes with the potential loss of identity.

(The film also gains a lot of horror from the casting, as Carrie White is pretty much the last person anyone would want obsessing over them - who knows what she'd do if you pissed her off?)

I'm not sure the film has a "titular" three women, although the ending would suggest it's Pinky, Millie, and Janice Rule's Willie. But there are many combinations of three women in the film, including plenty of shots of one woman reflected/refracted into three... and not to mention the women in the striking, haunting murals Willie is always painting. But this was the shot of three that stood out to me the most, and that is most likely to have an effect on my dreams.

BONUS: I don't usually post my "runner-up" Best Shots, but I just have to mention this shot of Janice Rule, which shook me to my core:

The still frame doesn't do it justice, but in motion, there was something about it that was absolutely haunting... and again reminded me of Under the Skin (I'm sorry - I saw that thing a month ago and it has taken up permanent residence in my brain. I still can't shake it - Nathaniel, can we PLEASE do it for next season of Hit Me With Your Best Shot?).

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Hit Me With Your Best Shot - Mean Girls

I liked high school.

I did.

I didn't love it or anything, but it was generally an agreeable time of my life, when I wasn't stressing over GPAs and SAT scores. See, my high school was the largest in the state of Connecticut, and at one point while I was a student there, our ethnic make-up mirrored that of the United States exactly - it was literally a microcosm of the world we lived in. I had my group of friends, and all of us were able to go through our day without being bothered by bullies - the bullies being too busy hanging with their friends and/or getting into gang fights (on and off school grounds) to bother with us.

I was one of those kids who always genuinely liked going to school, which made me extremely uncool for a long period of my youth, but in high school, all of my classes were with kids who also liked school, or at least who took it seriously, so I was good. I was never popular, but I did the annual school musical, was in the band for one year, and was also on the mock trial team, the literary magazine, and the yearbook staff (I was Editor-in-Chief my senior year - which means absolutely nothing now but I still love to brag about it), so I knew a lot of people who mostly seemed to like me. Oh, I'm sure some people said mean things behind my back, because I was that type of kid, but all the mean girls and boys were too focused on other things to waste time taunting me to my face.

While I liked The Breakfast Club and Heathers and Clueless as much as anyone else, but I never felt like any of those movies really got what high school was to me. And when Mean Girls came out in 2004, when I was in college, I was expecting another Hollywood High School Movie. One that didn't match my experience of high school at all. I did not expect it to hit home, but the first half of it did. BIG TIME. And not in the way I expected.

Because, you see, middle school?

Middle school, for me, was AWFUL.

And the worst part of middle school was lunch. I didn't really have friends in middle school, so on the all-important first day of each year, I would always try to be among the first in the cafeteria so I could stake a claim to a table and not be subjected to the awful, awful sensation of standing all alone and asking people who either didn't like me or whom I didn't know if I could sit with them - and then have the possibility of being rejected, not just for that day, but for an entire year.


But, a few months into every year, a sort of reprieve would come. In sixth grade I was accepted into our middle school's steel drum band. (What, your school didn't have one?) Since it was an after-school thing, the band director would allow us to get the key to the steel drum room (what, your school didn't have one?) so we could practice during our lunch period. I liked it in the steel drum room. It was big and quiet, and I could do pretty much whatever I liked. But mostly, I liked it because I didn't have to be around other people who might tease me for forty-five minutes, or interact with people for long periods of time when all I wanted to do was read. I could be by myself and eat my lunch in peace. Sometimes, those were my favorite lunch periods in middle school. Other times, they were the worst, because it just reinforced my feelings as a loser who was all alone and had no friends.

So imagine my shock when in the first reel of Mean Girls, Lindsay Lohan can't find a place to sit in the cafeteria, and instead eats lunch in a bathroom stall.

This has always been my favorite part of Mean Girls, moreso than the incredible, iconic comic lines and performances, because I so get what that feels like. But what's even better than that first scene, is this later one, my pick for Best Shot, which has actually accrued more meaning over time as we've watched what has happened to the actress it contains:

Cady was popular, until she wasn't. And all the pretty clothes, hair products, and makeup in the world couldn't cover up the fact that she was still "Africa" - the girl who had been raised and educated by her parents in a non-social setting. And so when everyone has turned on her, where does she go to eat lunch? Back to the bathroom stall. It's crushing. And the shot is perfectly designed. between the blue walls and the blue lunch tray, Cady is almost completely boxed in. Add in the blues in her shirt and it makes an already cramped space downright claustrophobic. And Lindsay, at the peak of her talents, lets out the most perfect sigh - she is scared, sad, lonely, nauseous... and maybe even a tiny bit relieved.

It used to be that Lindsay was too cool for us - we couldn't sit with her. But now, in one of those weird twists of schadenfreude that seemingly only happens to female former child stars, she's the one who can't sit with us. Looking at Lindsay now, I bet that at her best, most insightful moment (which I admit might not ever occur), she would also pick this as the Best Shot in Mean Girls. She might even look at this shot and feel the same way I do - that it speaks to that awkward, lonely teenager inside us better than any other moment of any other Hollywood High School film.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Hit Me With Your Best Shot - Pocahontas

I know.

I suck at blogging.

I haven't even posted anything dance-related in... well, let's just say way too long and leave it at that. I guess that's what comes from actually having to work at teaching dance; I spend all my free time choreographing and planning lessons now.

But that doesn't matter, because I really like writing for The Film Experience when I can, and I especially like participating in Nathaniel's Hit Me With Your Best Shot series. It's fun, and when I've seen the chosen film and had to agonize over which shot to choose, it's more interesting to see what other people chose. It's a sense of community that I just love.

Anyway, this week's selection is Disney's Pocahontas. Not exactly the strongest film of the so-called "Disney Renaissance", but probably the most underrated. Coming as it did immediately following The Lion King, it was probably going to feel like a let-down anyway, but Disney does not have the best track record in dealing sensitively with other cultures (Peter Pan), so the choice to tell the story of the Native American Pocahontas and British explorer John Smith was probably not the best choice of story for them. And honestly, at it's best, Pocahontas feels more like a dry run for the much better Mulan than its own fully-formed film. Even so, I remember first seeing the trailer for Pocahontas when I was a young boy of about 10 and being kind of awed by it. The trailer was basically just the full "Colors of the Wind" sequence, but it was strikingly different from anything Disney had done before and in one spectacular moment, downright breathtakingly gorgeous:

THAT. Is so fucking gorgeous that you momentarily forget that the phrase "can you paint with all the colors of the wind" is maybe the most ridiculous lyric Stephen Schwartz has ever written (which is saying something). I don't think there's ever been a moment that impressionistic in a narrative Disney feature film before or maybe even since. It's completely singular, instantly recognizable, and bordering on iconic, a high-water mark for the film's animation. But it's not my choice for the best shot.

I certainly thought it was going to be when I sat down to watch the film, but that's the way these things usually go, isn't it? You think you remember a film, and then you watch it after many, many years, and you learn things you never knew you never knew.

Or, you know, you just see something that completely passed you by the first time. Whatever.

Anyway, my choice for Best Shot is contained in what is in my opinion the film's best song, "Savages". In it, the British colonists and the Native Americans each prepare to do violence to the other group, and sing a song with remarkably similar lyrics, prompting the (perhaps obvious) question of who the real savages are. It sounds a bit obvious, but it's a very mature theme for what is clearly a children's film, and the film doesn't shy away from it, coming up with some striking imagery of guns and cannons replacing the bodies of the colonists and of the Native Americans putting their warpaint on.

The best moment comes at the end of the number. As the two sides prepare, fires in both camps send streams of smoke up into the air, reflecting the growing shadows of their soldiers. The shadows get stretched and distorted almost beyond recognition as the clouds of war continue to expand, and they meet, like this:

followed immediately by a crash of lightning and the end of the number. It's one of the best images of a vision of war I think I've ever seen, and it's something that couldn't really be done in a live-action film. There are more painterly shots in Pocahontas (which certainly isn't the prettiest of Disney films), but I think this is the most meaningful, the most multi-faceted, and perhaps the most adult. It's dealing with big themes that kids don't think about and visualizing them in a way that kids can understand at every level: it's clear not only what's happening, but that's what happening is wrong, and both sides are equally to blame. That's probably the best theme Disney was ever going to get out of telling this story, and this shot encapsulates it perfectly.

. . .

There's also room for a totally dirty interpretation of this shot that amuses me, even though I don't subscribe to the whole "Disney movies were totally dirty and made to fuck up kids without them knowing!" thing.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Hit Me With Your Best Shot - Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

This will be a post of confessions.

Confession #1: I haven't blogged a single damn thing for far too long. I wish I could say that it's because I've been too busy, but honestly, I was only really busy while I was performing in January-February and then back in September-October.

Confession #2: I can really only do this sort of thing on a deadline. If I see something that I feel REALLY compelled to write about, then I have to do it right away or it will never get done, but that rarely happens with something that would be appropriate for this particular forum...

Confession #3: ...which is why I am able to participate in Nathaniel's Hit Me With Your Best Shot series whenever it's happening. There's an assignment and a deadline. It's just like being in college again! Only with a WAY cooler professor.

Confession #4: I haven't seen Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind since the first time I saw it in 2004. I haven't watched it for several reasons. Because I wanted to preserve the memory of that first, magical viewing. Because I was dreadfully afraid that it would not have the same impact on me on another viewing. Because I was dreadfully afraid that it WOULD have the same impact on me on another viewing. Because it so burned itself into my psyche upon that first viewing that I actually haven't needed to watch my DVD copy in order to watch it again. It's one of very few films that I constantly carry around in my memory, completely intact.

Confession #5: I wasn't going to watch Eternal Sunshine again for this because I already knew the shot I would choose.

Confession #6: Because I hadn't seen the film in ten years, I figured I owed it to Charlie Kaufman, Michel Gondry, Jim Carrey, Kate Winslet, Elijah Wood, Mark Ruffalo, Kirsten Dunst, Tom Wilkinson, and cinematographer Ellen Kuras to watch it again before choosing.

Confession #7: This was going to be my pick for Best Shot

Confession #8: This is my actual pick for Best Shot

Confession #9: Apparently, I didn't remember Eternal Sunshine quite as well as I thought I did. Some things actually hit me harder this time around (the way Carrey whispers "This is the last time I saw you"). Some performances struck me as far slyer than I originally gave them credit for (just how much does Mark Ruffalo know about Dunst and Wilkinson's relationship?). And Kate Winslet was even more wondrous, partially because on this viewing I realized that Clementine is not nearly as clearly-drawn in the script as she is in Winslet's performance. HOW did she lose the Oscar for this?!? And while I remembered Jon Brion's score almost note for note, I had gone so long without associating it with these images that it completely stunned me how perfect (and oftentimes counterintuitive) it was. The sound in general, actually, was far more effective than I remember.

Confession #10: As someone who has taken the train to work from CT to NYC for the past six and a half years while living with someone, Joel's entire opening monologue struck me in a way that I was not prepared for. So much so, that I saw the film almost completely differently this time around. Joel and Clementine's relationship suddenly meant so much more - I understood it on a level I definitely do NOT recall from the first time around (when I was still in college). Commuting to work does weird things to you - you become a slave to not just your work schedule, but to the train timetables. It saps most (if not all) of your energy - you don't want to go out in the city because you just want to get home, and you don't want to go out at home because you just spent all day "out". Having someone to come home to is such a wonderful thing, but commuting puts a weird strain on relationships - you simultaneously want to spend more and less time with your partner because time alone becomes more precious of a commodity. Your life feels more part of a machine that keeps grinding you down than if you were driving to work (especially for a short distance), and free time is something that suddenly only becomes available to you on weekends - if it isn't completely taken up by errands. And if your partner doesn't commute - they just don't get what it feels like, the toll it takes on you. So, yeah, Eternal Sunshine hit me right where I live.

Confession #11: I had completely forgotten about the shot I ended up choosing, but MAN it hit me like a ton of bricks on this viewing. The one I had thought I was going to pick still made me gasp (it just comes out of nowhere, so otherworldly), but this one, which comes almost immediately after, wrecked me. Everyone knows and loves the beautiful first shot of Clem and Joel on the ice (next to the gigantic crack - the one that was on all the posters and DVD covers), and this shot is designed to recall it - and actually does a great job of recontextualizing that first shot. In the first one, Clementine and Joel are pretty happy. The crack in the ice represents the ugly, imperfect parts of their past (forgotten) relationship. In this shot, Clem is gone, and so is the crack. The ice is perfect. Joel should be happy - this is what he wanted - but he's not. Life should be perfect without the pain - and it may look that way - but it's not. In trying to protect ourselves by erasing or avoiding emotional scars, we end up becoming our own worst enemies. There's a handful of great quotes in Eternal Sunshine, but for me the one that best sums it up goes unsaid: 'Tis better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved at all.

Confession #12: As a commuter, I was tempted to choose the shot where people keep vanishing from Grand Central Terminal as the Best Shot. OH how often I've wanted that to happen as I'm running to catch the train home!

Confession #13: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind hasn't changed at all in the ten years since I first saw it, but I have. I thought I remembered it perfectly, and maybe I did, but the emotions I experienced during this viewing were completely different than what I remember from the first viewing. I reacted to different scenes, and some scenes hit me in different ways. That's the funny thing about memory. While what happened is always the same, they way you remember it changes over time. And I love that this film about memories - how they affect us, and how we can affect them - proves to be a perfect example of that.