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Only Five Episodes Left - HIT ME WITH YOUR BEST SHOT

❝I don't want to be presumptuous, but could this (UNDER THE SKIN) be the best collection of visuals from this series?❞ -Andrew E.

❝Very cool line-up! Glad you're splitting GONE WITH THE WIND even in two parts it will be hard to pick just one shot each.❞ -Joel6

THE MATRIX is actually an unexpectedly awesome choice for this series❞ -Mark

 

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« Distant Relatives: The Bicycle Thief and The Road | Main | Open Thread »
Thursday
Mar222012

Hit Me With Your Best Shot: "Ladyhawke"

Time for Season 3 of Hit Me With Your Best Shot. Wednesday evenings.

from left to right: Goliath, Navarre (Rutger Hauer) and Isabeau (Michelle Pfeiffer's stunt double)

I thought we'd kick off this season with a personal favorite from the 80s. I use the word favorite emphatically because in many ways, Ladyhawke (1985) is a movie with a confusing relationship to objective quality. It's both great and bad, the score arguing that it's a feature that absolutely should not exist outside of 1985 while the mythic story fights for timelessness. The sound (Oscar-nominated) has wonderful details, maximizing the earthly details of fluttering wings, wolf howls and horse hooves while also embracing the transcendently romantic voices (Rutger Hauer and Michelle Pfeiffer) but it's marred by jarring score cues that take you out of the action and weird post-production "comedy" vocal work from extras. It feels, at least for its first half, like it's a movie with several authors and endless studio interference from people who didn't believe in a romantic fantasy epic in a time long before fairy tales were hot commodities and sword and sorcery epics were the furthest thing from bankable. So, would you laugh at me if I claimed I thought it was thisclose to being a classic? People are always reediting the Star Wars prequels to try to make them into the movies they should have been but the fantasy with the easiest fix to nudge it from punchline to greatness is Ladyhawke.

The one area where Ladyhawke can lay legitimate claim to greatness without lengthy conditional explanations is in the cinematography of three-time Oscar winner Vittorio Storaro (most famous for Apocalypse Now and various Warren Beatty epics). Many films throughout history have used sunsets and sunrises for their sheer beauty but Ladyhawke's reliance on light is more than vanity; it's storytelling.

Pfeiffer's beauty and Hauer's pain after the jump

Ladyhawke tells the tormented love story of the former captain of the guard Etienne Navarre (Rutger Hauer, then at the peak of his gifts) and his lady love Isabeau (Michelle Pfeiffer, then a rising fresh face). The secret lovers were cursed by the furiously jealous and evil Bishop of Aquila (John Wood) to remain apart even when together. Each sunset Navarre becomes a wolf and each sunrise just as he's human again, Isabeau becomes a hawk. The lovers are inseparable, roaming the world with their beloved animal companion, but can never touch in the flesh.

Due to the nature of the story Isabeau is very nearly the last principle character we meet. This is her famous entrance in the picture turning into the light of the moon, shrouded in a black cloak.

It's the single shot from Ladyhawke that I've never been able to shake it's so completely burned into my moviegoing brain. It marked my big screen introduction to the woman who would become my favorite actress (I may have seen her in Grease 2 on TV first... I can never remember. But if I did, she didn't stick.) I saw Ladyhawke twice the week it opened and was so hypnotized I completely understood the Bishop's obsessiveness and Etienne Navarre's unshakeable romantic devotion.

I struggled to choose a "best shot" though, because there are so many. One of Ladyhawke's great strengths is its actual reality despite a fantastical story. Consider the hawk's wings touching water, the sunlight, and the way the actors are interacting with real stone and wood and the great outdoors. I miss trained animal actors and real location shoots both of which have been replaced by CGI and green screens. Ladyhawke's grand romantic gestures would never work today if you replaced this physicality with weightless special effects. Paradoxically it needs the grounding to feel as heightened as it does.

My choice for best shot comes from the film's most heartbreaking moment when time slows down for a strange transformation. We watch the lovers almost touch until Isabeau is gone and only her bird form remains; a real bird casting real shadows by real sunlight across Rutger Hauer's face. The shot is both entirely beautiful and filled with quiet sorrow, like Isabeau herself. Navarre is rendered momentarily catatonic, unable to process the pain of this morning ritual though it's a sight he's been seeing daily for years.

The sheer patience of the shot with its slow zoom and fluttering shadows stuns. Director Richard Donner and Storraro find a perfect visual representation of this beastly magic war between night and day and they play it right across their star's face. Day wins the war as it always does taking Isabeau away from Navarre. The hawk will lift off and the captain of the guard will scream, collapsing with agony in the snow. Who wouldn't howl and weep for the eternal loss of this woman?

Best Shot Players
Antagony & Ecstasy world building and new star advertising
The Film's The Thing the theatricality of a good hood
Serious Film transformation in your imagination
Pussy Goes Grrrr bird, beast and supplication
Film Actually an unexpected kiss
Sorta That Guy the hawk struck, the beauty luscious
Okinawa Assault escape from mother's womb

Next Wednesday
Drive into a hail of bullets with another pair of cursed lovers in the indisputable masterpiece Bonnie & Clyde (1967) starring Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway. All you have to do is 1) choose your favorite shot 2) Post it on your personal webspace and 3) let me know and The Film Experience links right up. And stay tuned for more Warren Beatty classics all next week as we celebrate the Hollywood legend's 75th birthday.

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Reader Comments (16)

Did u get the blu-ray of "Ladyhawke" as well? It has been done beautifully in full HD form and the images look crystal clear! What a amazing job they have done to a 1985 movie!

March 22, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMorrissey

I hadn't seen the movie before this morning, so thanks for making that happen. It's pretty damn great, and I'll cop to even liking the score a (very) little bit; it's intrusive and weird, but other than the main credits theme, it adds a sort of heightened loopiness that I liked.

Where I will agree with you, though, is that the post-dubbing of comic asides from extras was infuriating - I found out right before starting it that it had been nominated in the two sound categories, and every time one of those lines was piped in, I found myself wondering anew what the hell was wrong with the sound branches that year.

March 22, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterTim

My Gmail's saying server error so here's my entry http://okinawaassault.wordpress.com/2012/03/21/best-shot-escaping-mothers-womb/. And the soundtrack reminds me of College.

March 22, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterPaolo

Nat, great write-up as always. I haven't seen it for YEARS, only once on tv, and you hit on what I thought at the time about the tone - what type of movie was it trying to be? What the heck was Matthew Broderick doing in this? Ferris Bueller, cast in a medieval fantasy, breaking the forth wall and making jokey asides to the audience. (Although I do remember the line he said while squeezing through the tunnel at the very beginnng, so there's that I suppose.)

But it was the love story at the time that really made the movie stick with me, the performances of the leads and the way they sold it so convincingly. (Had the internet been around at the time I'm sure that this movie would have launched a thousand fanfics.) So I have no trouble thinking that, had they stuck to their guns and had the courage of their convictions, this would have been a truly great film.

And I'm with you on missing the sense of weight and reality that only real objects, animals and people in real space can give. That was actually one of the best things about the film, to me, was that sense of reality. Also that it was dark, gritty and dirty, without any golden glow of "nostalgia" for a past age; something I wasn't accustomed to at the time as a teenager, but that fascinated me. it was worlds away from films set in a "medieval" period that I was aware of at the time. I know that other films were looking back at the past in a similar way (Boorman's Excaliber, I think? Which I haven't seen but my memory of the marketing was that it was considered very "new" in it's treatment of the Arthurian legend); I'm not sure exactly when this started in movies? (Actually about the time of Bonnie and Clyde, perhaps?)

March 22, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJanice

Nat quick question off-topic: I went onto your old site accidentally this morning (something I do every so often) and noticed that someone (MIchael C??) gave a terrific write-up of the swordfight in Rob Roy on 3/15 - wondered why it ended up on the old blog and not here? (Although this one was terrifically busy on that date anyway.)

March 22, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJanice

I loved it too (even the score, confused tone and all). Glad to see I wasn't the only one.

March 22, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterKitC

Whenever I think of Ladyhawke (which, admittedly, is not as often as it should be), I think of two things: How truly terrible Matthew Broderick is in it, and that stunning first shot of Michelle Pfeiffer turning into the moonlight, which is so beautifully captured here. It really is a good-looking film, much better than you'd expect given its overall quality, but that's the shot that has stayed with me since I first stumbled across this on cable some years ago.

March 22, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterdenny

Janice - this was actually my bad. I posted that one back in Sept. 2010 but I corrected a typo I noticed in it on 3/15 (yes I am just that anal) and accidentally changed the date. I have changed it back to its correct date.

At any rate, glad you liked it.

March 22, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMichael C

Absolutely one of my all time favorite movies. Wouldn't it be great if got a re-release in the cinema's? But that will never happen of course.

March 22, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJohn

Michael - it somehow seemed to go well with this post on Ladyhawke, although the two aren't exactly in the same genre. It's nice to rediscover those "old" essays I may have missed the first time.

March 22, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJanice

My first Pfeiffer experience too. Oh Nathaniel, we're twins!

March 22, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterPeggy Sue

I didn't have the time to write my entry. But I love this series.

My favorite shots are actually the transformation shots. I miss that time in which ingenuity in filmaking was paramount, in contrast with today's "we will fix it in post-production with CGI". This is ilustrated in those transformation shots, which were filemd using limited visual effects.

As you stated, Nathaniel, that sense of being there, of actuality, is lost in most of today's movies, for shame, due to the weightlesness of CGI.

March 22, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterPedro

I suddenly want to pick another favorite shot now that your entry reminded me of it... The hawk flying above the water, its wings making contact with the water surface, was absolutely breathtaking. I actually rewound it to see it again.

March 22, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterRyan T.

i'm actually kinda surprised that this is the film that inspired your life-long pfeiffer adoration. while she is beautiful in the film (despite the butch haircut), there's not a lot asked of her. she kinda just looks forlorn and screams a lot when she's in trouble. you must have somehow seen the brilliance that was yet to come.
can we just do all pfeiffer films for this season? in chronological order–the evolution of an actress...

March 23, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterabstew

What is with the Blu Ray being so hard to buy. Lame.

March 23, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSean

abstew -- well it got the ball rolling. Up until Fabulous Baker Boys she was just "one of..." my favorite actresses. I was a Streep/Turner/Sarandon man until then ;) ... not that I've given those other ladies up !

sean -- i know. this film has never gotten the proper american home viewing treatment. I wish its reputation were stronger since I'd love to see a great version. the current dvd has a letterbox option but the image is really small boxed in on the sides as well so it's a miniature rectangle within the screen. annoying.

March 23, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterNATHANIEL R
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