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Tuesday, 15 May 2012

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Saturday Mrs Plews and I took in a matinee of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. It is highly recommended. That and the fact that you can now get The Descendants on DVD make this a nice week for grownups.

Police Lieutenant: "Well, Denham, the airplanes got him."
Carl Denham: "Oh no, it wasn't the airplanes. It was beauty killed the beast"
-the rest is film history-
TOP rocks... thats for my daily dose!

Couldn't agree more about real films. If I get fed up with the CGI stuff I watch the Three Colours trilogy (or Colors for you guys) or slide in a DVD of Days of Heaven. Great photography and superb performances matched together. And if I want something that really speaks about great human values - friendship, loyalty, endurance - with it's straight to Toy Story 1, 2 and 3!

It doesn't matter how its done as long as there is real integrity in the the vision and not just a lazy chasing of the buck through the whizz bang of special effects and hackneyed character and story! It's the same with photography in many ways. If I have see another milky seashore at sunset again I'll scream. It's a cliche. It's not good photography.

The bigger issue in my mind is the battle between digitally-generated effects and those done with more traditional methods. I'll be curious to see how Prometheus matches up with Alien and Blade Runner--same director with an eye for compelling cinematography, but different technologies. Blade Runner was a tour de force of analog filmmaking, with all effects being done in camera. To my eye it looks better than the Phantom Menace. Moon was recently shot with analog effects and it's a gorgeous film.

"I've actually actually bought certain DVDs, such as The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, just because he was the cinematographer"

The night train robbery scene in that movie ranks as one of my favorite pieces of cinematography, ever. Absolutely brilliant.

I enjoyed "Avatar" and "Winter's Bone" ... I guess that makes me fickle ... confused ... or just "content" oriented. It's all about what ya put up on the wall (screen), not how you produced it :)

Mike,

"Between juvenile and puerile", that's an excellent definition! Because of that I stopped watching movies altogether.

Recently, however, I have discovered a new "new wave" of cinema in France, represented by such directors as Oliver Assayas and André Téchiné. Now I am catching up with what's been made in the past years. Their work is great.

The way I see it, movies are to distract you from the world. Cinema is to connect you with it. What are you after?

I think there is a connection with still photography. I see it in so many garish landscape works that present fantasy constructions rather than any examination of what is there. The same escapism, the same dislike of complexity and inability to provide for contemplation beyond a moment. Special effects, and I find I can't suspend disbelief.

"The Assassination of Jesse James..." is indeed beautifully shot. I want to point out that Ron Hansen's book of the same name, on which the film is based, is an incredible work, really beautifully written. The two works do each other justice.

A beastly battle, at best.

Find most such films are far short of the reality of our existence and too much
of the swirlings in some demented cinematographer's mind.

Then again what is sensible and honest today?

T.O.P. for starters

I used to love the old Tarzan movies. The scenes where Tarzan would wrestle the alligators was always sort of blurry and speeded up to fast motion, but still, in a way, sort of believable to a kid. On the other hand, the old Japanese Godzilla type movies always disappointed because the monster was so obviously fake. I did like Jurasic Park.

cfw

Mike, I think you put it well as to why I lost interest in movies. I know there are some good ones still being made but you have to search too much to find them. The wife and I saw "Doubt" last year sometime. It was one of the last movies we ordered from Netflix. Our gift subscription to Netflix expired month ago after several months of inactivity on our part. We decided some TV series were as well made or better than most of the films we saw.

After watching about 10 minutes of "Avatar", I decided the storyline was better done in the film adaptation of Peter Matthiessen's novel "At Play In The Fields Of The Lord" well over 20 years ago.

From a purely cinematographic point of view, you might like to watch the 2010 Western Meek's Cutoff, if you haven't already. Apart from its marked narrative idiosyncracy and, to my mind, intelligence, it is interesting for consciously reverting to the antiquated 4:3 aspect ratio - I think I read that the director's intention was to suggest, via the constrained format, the narrow world view of the protagonists.

Watch any Mike Leigh movie, especially "Secrets and Lies" or "All or Nothing".

The popular movie culture seems to want to infantilize us to the point of insult. It's a puzzle why since older adults tend to have money to spend, so why annoy us? I figure all of Hollywood must use the same 2 or 3 consultants, the way they repeatedly keep making the same movies.

And have you ever noticed that when one studio releases a movie in a certain genre that hits the media in a big frenzy, within a few months another studio does the same. How can that be?

Hollywood must use some standard formula, a plot-generating app maybe, because my brother and I can summarize what will happen in some movies after watching the first minute or two of the film. And get it mostly correct.

Maybe it's like fast food. People in this culture (north america) don't seem to like surprises in their burgers or their movies. Funny because one thing our culture likes to pride itself on is our freedom of choice.

Most people work hard to avoid thinking.

I'm not a big Hollywood blockbuster fan- although there are times when I do imbibe. I used to love special effects as a kid, only wanting more. Now many movies, such as Men In Black exist only because of them, and they're torture to watch. When they're put to good effect with a good storyline however, I love being blown away just like the next guy- can't wait for Prometheus!

But mostly I like smaller films that bring it on home on a real level- loved Winter's Bone. You may also want to check out: Biutiful (sic), The Secret In Their Eyes, Fish Tank, The White Ribbon (beautiful, sparse, B&W cinematography) and The Baader Meinholf Complex...

You should switch to European or at least to Non-hollywood movies.
Regards from The Netherlands

Kili

You seem to be at the far end of a 'fantasy---reality' scale. I'm glad to be more in the center of that scale, but my lines of demarcation don't seem to be so solidly set. I agree, to use your examples, that Winter's Bone is a far more compelling film than The Avengers. I have zero interest in seeing The Avengers. My reason, when recently asked, was that i just don't like 'all those digital effects.' Yet, at the same time, i couldn't be more excited to see Prometheus. I'm fully aware that it will be no less effects-laden than The Avengers. But, somehow, sci-fi, for me, is a different animal, when done right, and the details and nuance make the difference.

The other thing is that i seemed to have embraced 'effects' more back in 'the day,' when the starships and planets and explosions were real. Real models, rather than digital renderings. There's nothing less involving than seeing computer images fight and explode. It is, as you said, and as i've been used to saying, like watching a cartoon. Which brings me back again to the exceptions. When they're done right, by people with that sort of sensitivity, they work. And, then, there's the matter that some people (Lucas) may have 'gotten it' at one stage of their careers, and then lost it later. I specifically recall a scene in one of the 'new' Star Wars digital films where there was a battle of digital robots. They were designed (incidentally, i hope) to look like slender vacuum cleaners. And, the fight was huge. But, i couldn't understand how Lucas thought he could get us to care about the result of the fight. A fight against non-existent vacuum cleaners.

[Mr. Plews: I'm an adult - at least chronologically - and i HATED The Descendants. I love Clooney. I've written a screenplay and a half intended for him. Maybe i wasn't paying close enough attention to the marketing, but i felt completely misled. That wasn't the movie i was sold. Same with The Big Year. Awful. And, i like everyone in it....]

Apropos "special-effects-based cinema strikes me as being as mannered, ritualistic and codified..." you will no doubt love David Foster Wallace's essay "F/X PORN" from 2001. Personally, I love it. I just watched The Avengers and will watch Prometheus, the new Batman, the new Spiderman and probably rent John Carter of Mars. Of course, I also loved The Artist, L'Avventura, Caché (Hidden), and The Cranes are Flying so please don't think me an uncultured swine...

http://www.smallbytes.net/~bobkat/waterstone.html

as regards your missing The Atlantic Monthly, it (The Atlantic) publishes just 10 issues a year, taking the summer months off. Which is odd, because that means the editorial offices must actually be staffed in the summer, and everyone else who can, has left Manhattan to avoid the annual Heat and Humidity Festival.

If you want to see a beautifully photographed, grown-up watchable movie, I can't recommend last years' Mysteries of Lisbon highly enough. And as a rental, its a bargain, clocking in at 4 hours, 30 minutes. Another wonderful film from last year that might appeal to those who appreciate the visual arts is The Mill and the Cross. The film is hard to describe, but it is roughly about the painting On The Road to Calvary by Pieter Bruegel (sp?) and largely takes place within that painting. Not much in the way of plot, but that doesn't hinder the film.

Patrick

This is a great article. So much of cinema today is mediocre remakes of classics (The Thing), cashing in on my generation's childhood (Transformers/any comic book movie), or adaptations of superior Asian films. Asian cinema is where it's at. Apparently there are still stories to tell on the other side of the world that don't require caped crusaders and green-screen goblins.

Quite a few good ones stateside as well, but the industry has fallen even further down the slope of profit over conscience. And/or we've become dumber in our consumption of movies.

While I agree with you that a lot of modern cinema is lacking in character (I recently watched (the newer series of) star wars and was amazed at how poor some of the acting was), do not think that cartoons are devoid of character.

Pixar is the classic example of this, their stories are up their with some of the best (at least within children's films), and their characters are complex and believable too.

However, my absolute favourite film in this vein has to be Amélie. The film is bursting with the details of human existence. It's simply exquisite :) (Although I should add the disclaimer that the title character is so very similar to me that I may be biased)

I couldn't agree more. Being assaulted by the 100 dB Dolby™ sound blitz and CGI impossibilities of something like Avengers is a completely different experience from watching a traditional movie. I have no problem with folks enjoying Avengers (though I draw the line at something as ghastly as the "Transformers" franchise), as long as someone's still making movies for adults. And I don't mean porn.

FYI, if you liked Winter's Bone, you'll love Frozen River. Same vibe, set in destitute rural upstate NY instead of Arkansas, but similar pitch-perfect performances by relative unknowns dealing with real life. Instead of space aliens.

We are just experiencing technological transition in a typically human way, just like we have done since the beginning of the industrial revolution.

Yes, yes, yes. But I am so looking forward to Prometheus.

I recently saw The King's Speech and found it refreshing to see an intelligent movie that relied on character development and narrative rather than whizz-bang synthetic efffects.

There is another movie called Monsters. It uses CGI in two places, but otherwise the sense of realism exceeds that of The King's Speech. Watch the movie, then watch the making-of docos and you'll be amazed.

A lot of actors in the whizz-bang genre have poor acting skills, as shown by their lack of subtle facial expressions that skilful actors (such as those in The King's Speech) use to communicate with the audience. This means that the audience perceives the actors as two dimensional and has reduced emotional connections with the characters. The result is an emotionally sterile adrenaline fix. A good example of this genre is I, Robot.

The similarity with still photography arises when photographers move from the subtractive paradigm that is photography to the additive paradigm of the other arts (this happened long before computer editing came along). There's nothing wrong with the additive paradigm, but, as with synthetic special effects in movies, it's not my cup of tea.

I previously explained the two paradigms here.

"Might even have something to do with still photography, on some tangent or other"

Interesting. In terms of commercial or editorial photography, anyway, there seem to be certain subjects and contexts where we're more, or less, likely to encounter film. More broadly, certain areas of commercial photography have embraced--shall we say the "malleability"?--of digital (e.g. car ads). While other areas have stuck to a more "straight" aesthetic (food photography comes to mind). Generally, it makes sense within the given context, and, as you say, neither side has to "win".

The birth of anything new is almost certainly painful. The current hot topic is on how video-like The Hobbit looks (at 48fps). It's a new diet - take it or leave it.

Whether it be film or digital, telling a story is not child's play. One can't do it with all the money in the world. It comes from within - the without bit is unfortunately given more prominence because it does cost quite a bit of money to make a movie.

Regarding mythical characters - I can't think of many man vs man scenarios passed on from ancient times. The great epics are larger than life - comics are larger than life - politicians and pop stars are larger than life - in a small town, the local cop or grocery store owner is larger than life. The King's speech is about a king (how different is a king from batman?), and the winter's bone is about a girl who is larger than life. How many stories are there where the protagonist actually fails? I have seen a few, and boy, they are not popular! The key word is 'popular'. The movies that tend to be called 'art' also have to be popular. Then why not popular in the greatest number?

As for me, I have never been more drawn into a world and its characters than when I am watching movies by Pixar - the amount of detail, characterization, control and background information is astounding. I have only seen glimpses of how this machine is run, but as far as story-telling machines go, Pixar is by far history's greatest. Not only is it popular and consistent, but its characters are designed to look normal but are larger than life, too.

What about those of us who get both The Avengers and Winter's Bone, Avatar and The King's Speech?

I admit that as I sit here and think about it, Winter's Bone left the deepest mark on me of the four you listed by quite a long way but that might be because, having grown up in rural Tennessee, the authenticity of the movie touched something deep in my experience.

1) Every technology changes the perspective. Ray Harryhausen's 1950 effects were just as spectacular then as James Cameron's are today.

2) What took you so long, I saw that in Cramer versus Cramer. And I saw a future Oscar in Michelle Williams "Dawson's Creek" performance as well.

3) It is a plotline that makes a movie and I would not like to compare the plotline of Avatar to the plotline of The Avangers. Avatar could have been staged in any South American jungle as well, and be shot without the special effects. That would be difficult with the Avangers wouldn't it.

4) Convincing CGI is an artform. I think there are two men who understand that and get away with it. Those men are James Cameron (and his team) and Wolfgang Pedersen (and his team). In these guys movies CGI is used to tell a story not a story created to use CGI.

5) What the you know what was Miss Johansson thinking when she ruïned her carreer and credibility by participating in a movie like that. Nicolas Cage never recoved when he turned himself from a brilliant actor, think "Leaving Las Vegas" into an action hero.

Greetings, Ed (who is kneedeep wading through panorama software and starts to understand words like "nodal point" and "nadir").

The digital camera era has made photography cheaper and easier, closer to the people and less elitist. That's basically a good thing. It has also increased the noise which annoys me, but I can also see interesting trends within that noise. Then again, I can always ignore the noise and look for traditional photographers whenever I want to.

I describe modern movies in the same way.

What do worry me, more than the content, is a kind of bread-and-games idea. Forgetting your own life as culture, art and entertainment gets more and more accessible ...and by the way -- I haven't had a TV since 1995.

“Hardening of the categories causes art disease.”

- W. Eugene Smith

Y'all.

My own comment about a lot of current Hollywood films . . . is that I spend a lot of time watching films on Turner Classic Movies.

I love it when the the three parts all match: a great story, told well, great acting/directing, and great cinematography. There are certain movies I just love to watch . . . could turn the sound off and still be very happy visually.

It's amazing in the 'Old Days' how they had to move these huge cameras to make a shot work. I always think of the John Wayne / Otto Preminger WW2 film, 'In Harm's Way': There's this long moving-camera shot as Wayne's character, relieved of command, walks off his damaged ship at night, in a refit yard: The camera follows him across the deck, down the gangway, he stops at the foot of the gangway to give it just one last look, and he walks away down the pier, welder's sparks and heavy equipment being craned up to the ship, all one camera. Amazing.

Living in LA-LA land and having a son who helped make some of the movies you don't like (he's finishing the Spiderman prequel next week, worked on Transformers 3, Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland, etc.), I do have a different point of view.
The movies have always been about fantasy, and the type of fantasy is certainly one of personal preference. Your's might be drama or history (taking you into history - eg the Kings Speech - is just a fantasy - being a peeping Tom on past events), but others' fantasies may be science fiction and fantasy or some other genre.
But surely you are aware of the works of Georges Melies, who developed "special effects" a century ago (did you see/like Hugo last year?) or Harry Harryhausen's animated features on ancient mythologies - not to mention the original Star Wars, Alien, Titanic, etc. that led the charge into the new genreations of animation. Is that all bad?
Inside the industry, the controversies are about moving to all digital production (making digital video look like film, for example), higher frame rates for better images and more realistic 3D, and some other very technical issues that mostly refer to how the final product looks to viewers. And the biggest controversy is how to reduce the cost - digital production, esp animation, is unimaginably expensive.
Fortunately, there are thousands of films made every year and online availablility is providing a wider distribution base so more of what you want to see is becoming available.

All theater and movies are just illusion – for our entertainment. So I would put it to you that it's but a matter of taste whether one likes or dislikes CGI, &c. And there's really no call for discussion: De gustibus non disputandum est. Sitting in a darkened room and watching the shadows …

Want a lesson in lighting? Watch Carol Reed's 1949 movie, The Third Man.

Mike,

you probably already know that Roger Deakins was for a short time the photographer for the Beaford Archive in Devon, a job that was later filled (to perfection) by James Ravilious.

I think the point is in the George Lucas quote: "...the digital process democratizes the whole thing." That's what digital has really done, across the board, in every field. When I hear so many people moaning about how photography/film-making/music has been debased by digital and gasp! the Internet, I tend to think they are in fact rebelling against the opening of their playground to the public. Digital generally means more access; and with it more crap, but more good stuff as well.

Also, it's possible to like steak AND hot dogs. It's possible to be dimissive of every story that's not completely and utterly belieable and based in the real world, but I think that throws a lot of even classical theater out; I'm pretty sure Shakespeare was a soap opera writer in his day. I have no way of gauging whether an actor in Hamlet is playing a believable human being, but I suspect not, and definitely not to me. This is really the same philosophical argument as to whether a pleasant looking bit of digital graphic art, is in fact art, or something else.

I vote art. I give no bonus points for a faithful depiction of reality in what is ultimately 2 hours of escapism. If I wanted reality, I've got, well, reality. All the free reality I want. And if I feel like paying for reality, I've got documentaries, where I'm getting some form of actual reality, as opposed to the simulated reality of a drama. So I could care less if it's an unrealistic Danish prince, or an unrealistic dude wearing his underwear on the outside of his clothes; give me internally consistent spectacle and some snappy dialog. Cecille B. Demille would have loved a moviegoer like me, and this type of technology. As a comic book geek (I'm going to go out on a limb and assume you're not Mike), this is kind of a golden age for movies, with fairly faithful versions of characters being brought to screen in a manner that just now approaches the inventiveness and epic scope that the writers and illustrators of an earlier age created for their worlds. Stuff like the superhero movies or the Frank Miller graphic novels, or Tolkien, basically would have been unfilmable at any reasonable cost just a few years ago, before digital. While presumably none of that stuff was worthy of being filmed, I'll at least mention that the best examples of the genre involve faithfully rendering a character with 40+ years of visual and personal lore and backstory, who inhabits an established (relatively) coherent world radically different than the real one - as opposed to a character encapsulated within a two hour script or based on a thousand page book with a large chunk of the story not needing to be written because it happens in a recognizable reality. It's a different artistic challenge. To me at least, Nolan's 'gritty' re-imagining of Batman is ultimately a failure because he attempts to move it into "reality" yet fails to address the first question of the Dark Knight's persona; Why not just kill the Joker? Just because a character comes from a comic (yeah, please don't call them cartoons) doesn't mean you can skimp on character development, and the problem is when special effects becomes a crutch used instead of story, versus and aid to telling it. Looking at you, "Avatar".

Whether or not they're your cup of tea, I like having a grand scale movie that is much more faithful to the creator's original vision that the miserable movies of the genre from past decades. And I like the fact that in my sleepy little suburb I was able to see "The Avengers" and "Jiro Dreams of Sushi" this last weekend. Digital film-aking is largely responsible for both of those.

Maybe in Europe the issues you describe are not so immediately apparent, if only because European and Asian cinema is undergoing something of a renaissance and access to excellent movies (in a variety of languages) has never been easier. Just try watching some foreign films.

I don't think it has anything to do with technology. The Hollywood machine has always been commercially minded, just like the music industry. Doesn't mean there is no good jazz, just that you have to know where to find it.

I am not convinced that the film/digital debate is relevant in terms of the lack or otherwise of good movies. Just that new technology often requires big budgets and big risks and can, sometimes, become an end it itself. Does not have to be so.

But it's just evolution. The artistic eye adapts to new possibilities just as the technology becomes better at capturing traditional aesthetics as time goes on.

The referred Atlantic article contains a mistake: In describing the digital resolution of the camera systems, "5K" in this context refers to the number of available pixels along the longer side of the frame, not "vertical lines" along the short side. "Vertical lines" is a term from conventional television.

You mean movies aren't real?!

(With tongue firmly in cheek!)

"Of course, real acting performances—like Meryl Streep as Sister Aloysius in Doubt—can never be replaced, because they require acting genius."

Why couldn't an animator (or whatever term will eventually be used to refer to the creative person involved) be a genius at creating a digital Meryl Streep and programming her to act just as well as the real Meryl Streep? The "acting" would be his choices; But on screen, there's no reason you'd ever realize it wasn't actually her.

I've just been watching Con Air, on BBC iPlayer. I didn't watch the last quarter or so, as I'd had enough of cliches. I'm off up the pub (It's bike club night tonight) It may not be that exciting, but it's the real thing with real people and it is not totally predictable.

It's not very relevant for theatrical releases but for me the appeal of digital would be the lack of the crushing expense of film and processing.
I've only shot two films, but I clearly remember my reluctance to burn up film. And I was only shooting 16mm. I think my 30 minute documentary was shot at about 6:1, a ridiculously low ratio without a script. It came out OK but I would love to have just let the camera roll.

On the subject of the acceptability of rendered simulations - I believe the CGI industry itself came up with the wonderful term "uncanny valley" by which to categorise the fatal experience of straying outside storytelling, into the realm of impersonation. Creepy, unsettling terrors infest the awkward terrain that separates these (step forward, Polar Express, and all on-screen clowns and mimes ever filmed - except, perhaps, those filmed by Fellini). You have to get completely across this valley or else not attempt it. By steering clear, the most transparently artificial proxy - a shadow puppet, a stagey acting performance, the traditional storyteller, a Pixar-style artfully cartoonised rendering of a person... lets us relax, put the artificiality-detector faculty on standby, and get caught up in some kind of an unwary response.

I wonder whether this "not-a-normal-human" visual alertness, may originate in an evolutionarily useful faculty, to detect when someone is subtly unhealthy?

Just two problems, Mike. You (and I) are twice the age of the prime movie-going demographic, and we know English well and appreciate its forms. For most movies, the biggest box office come from international distribution. Foreign audiences won't appreciate the King's speech impediments if they don't know how English is supposed to sound. But they can appreciate the antic kinetics of Spiderman and other comic book superheroes. Likewise, killers are characters unfortunately easily understood in every culture.

You might enjoy the new (on DVD) release of Chronicle, a sort of gritty super-hero story about a disturbed Seattle teen growing up in less than ideal circumstances. The movie is very much in the "not what you expect" vein, from plot to the photography. And it has good special effects. : )

Funny ending to this post Mike - as I liked Avatar, The Avengers, The King's Speech, and Winter's Bone. They all were directed at different audiences and in turn they were all directed toward my quite varied taste.
Cheers!

I love Deakins a well

If we could just get the CG folks to stop adding lens flares, I'll be pretty happy

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