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Entries in Cinematography (131)

Wednesday
Jul172013

Best Shot: Mary Poppins Makes Your Heart Feel Light

Let me make one thing perfectly clear: Mary Poppins never explains anything! That's true of both the character and the film, actually. There's no back story (Hallelujah!) and no fussiness about the how and why of her "magic". (Sadly, this movie would never be made today when the mystery is drained from everything). More surprising for a family film there's very little overstating of its message (though Dick Van Dyke does a little bit of singing it directly to Mr. Banks just to make sure he's clear). If you don't believe me, really watch it again. Despite the imposing length (2 hours and 20 minutes) it's structurally smart and so light on its feet that it simply blows in on the East wind and then floats away when the super nanny's mission is accomplished. Like its heroine, the movie is practically perfect in every way.

"Cheeky" - my favorite shot of Julie Andrews in the film

I'll do my best to emulate her and keep my "best shot" explanation brief -- if only I could sing it! though it's a bittersweet task since, if I was choosing a different shot, I'd get to talk at length about how brilliant Julie Andrews is in the movie. Her Oscar win is one of the most unusual choices the Academy ever made for a Lead Acting trophy (no histrionics, no "clips", nothing one might define as Oscar-Bait) and one of their smartest, too. But I'll have to wax rhapsodic about Julie another time and jump right to my choice for Best Shot.

When I was a kid my favorite song in the movie was "Jolly Holiday". I'm not sure if it was because I wanted to dive into the chalk paintings or if I just found it catchy or if I just loved that incredibly funny moment when all the barnyard animals get solo lines and they each sound EXACTLY like a singing version of that animal should. As an adult I still love the song mostly because its such an accurate description of how one feels in Mary Poppins presence: light and grand... your heart starts beating like a big brass band.

Best Shot -- I wish I could see this on the big screen!

But, as anyone familiar with Mary Poppins know, there's a beautiful melancholy undercurrent to the plot and the feeling which is why I'm choosing this moment, right after the chalk painting adventure when Mary and the children have left Bert in the park. It's gray and stormy now but Bert's mood is unaltered. He keeps dancing in the rain, still enjoying the imagined holiday as the colors lose their shape but glow like memories.

This visual motif with a man in near silhouette with a telling splash of color is repeated again (only more empathically) in both the showstopping "Steppin' Time" number (blue) and when Mr Banks is fired from his job (red) but here is where it most beautifully summarizes the film's smart disposition (both firm and truthful but  loose and magical) and the color Mary brings to people's lives.

When the day is gray and ordinary
Mary makes the sun shine bright!

Mary Poppins warns us over and over again -- though not in hamfisted redundant ways -- that all things are temporary. One day childhood will end. Very soon the chalk paintings will wash away. As soon as the wind changes Mary herself will vanish. Mary Poppins would never say anything as mundane as "seize the day" but in her cheeky way she's making sure that we get that each day counts. She recommends feeding birds, flying kites, and a spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down.

Best Shot Steppin' Time
Antagony & Ecstasy - on Julie Andrews' brilliant star turn
Allison Tooey - the feeling it gives
Encore Entertainment - Mary Poppins needs you to get your act together
Entertainment Junkie - on magical realism
Film Actually - defying logic, physics, and gravity
The Film's The Thing - a familiar silhouette
Manuel Betancourt - Julie Andrews Steppin' Time
Stale Popcorn - actually hates the movie!
Serious Film - praises David Tomlinson's Mr Banks
Victim of the Time - the measure of a woman
We Recycle Movies -on childhood nostalgia

Thursday
Jul112013

Best Shot: Dead Ringers, Conjoined in Shadow

Hit Me With Your Best Shot happens each Wednesday night and usually spills on over into Thursday morning. Next week (July 17th) we're all looking at the practically perfect "Mary Poppins." This week: David Cronenberg's masterpiece...

Dead Ringers (1988)

For the uninitiated Dead Ringers (1988) is the 'Saga' of 'The Fabulous Mantle Brothers,' twin gynecologists Beverly (Jeremy Irons) and Elliott (Jeremy Irons again) and the 'destructive force' Claire (Genevieve Bujold) that separates them. I've put the air quotes in the synopsis since that's how Elliott, the more theatrical and dominant twin, and the elder by a few minutes, describes the movies from its insides. I don't want to spoil the movie if you haven't yet seen it but if you haven't (*cough* 25 years later) get on that! If you ask me Jeremy Irons deserved the Oscar he wasn't nominated for for this career topping performance(s). 

My earliest favorite movie was The Parent Trap (1961) which I watched on television countless times as a child. Though I realize it's hardly a unique fascination, twins have always done it for me. There's so much to explore and even more to never understand about the possible psychologies of two distinct people who are, genetically, the same person. Though I've seen David Cronenberg's Dead Ringers about four times now I confess that I usually have trouble differentiating Beverly and Elliott. But not this time. Visually, the clarity of their separateness, even though they're loathe to experience it as such, was riveting. Even the old trick of dividing the same actor on two sides of a clearly divided frame doesn't even feel like a sad necessity but the point.

Cronenberg's direction is so assured that you can pick a corker of a shot in virtually every scene as the Best Shot participants have done. Any number of shots will reveal top notch production design (also robbed of Oscar attention) by turning half the spaces into something out of a medical illustration, with intricate lines, weirdly sterile immobility and sleek curves and flat color. But this time through the shot that resonated most was simpler. And I don't even feel like it's cheating that I've chosen twin shots, one of Elliott and one of Beverly, which I've displayed in reverse chronological order. 

These shots are close in proximity in the narrative and each features one of the Mantle Twins reacting to Claire talking to him about the other Mantle Twin. Elliott (up top) is angry that Claire has entered the picture and attempts to intimidate her and seduce her but she won't be cowed. Nevertheless he's too cool and too controlled to lose his composure. The shadow only augments his sinister handsomeness, like a flattering accomplice in seduction and plotting. But Beverly, more emotional and more fluid, who so yearns for separation that he hides Elliot from Claire until this very scene, is also terrified by it. In this simple but brilliant shot he has been found out. Claire has uttered Elliott's name. This shadow neither conceals nor flatters; it merely wipes out his identity. Who is he without Elliott anyway?

For 12 other takes on this movie, please check out the rich array of articles provided by this week's Best Shot club in the visual index

Wednesday
Jul032013

Visual Index ~ American Graffiti's Best Shot(s)

Where were you on 7/2? Hopefully watching American Graffiti (1973) to better appreciate today's edition of "Hit Me With Your Best Shot", our collective series in which we invite anyone who loves movies  'round the web to select their favorite image from a pre-selected movie. [Next Wednesday we'll be discussing the brilliant and disturbing Dead Ringers (1988) so do not miss that.] This week we return to simpler times...

1962 by way of 1973, in point of fact, courtesy of George Lucas's first Best Picture nominee, the very fine nostalgia fest American Graffiti which we thought an appropriate choice for the 4th of July Holiday. more...

Click to read more ...

Friday
May312013

Visual Index ~ Hud's Best Shot(s)

I know it's my own fault since I failed to post on Fantasia last week but I was a bit sad that we had a lower than usual turnout for Hud for this week's "Best Shot" selection (the last of our weekly viewing assignments until the series returns in July for the second half of Season 4). If only so we could all enthuse together about one of the all time great taglines...

the man with the barbed wire soul

...and how it's not false advertising.  

I wish this fine western drama from Martin Ritt had a reputation as humongous as, oh, the one enjoyed by Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? which I reference primarily because it's also a electric quartet-powered black and white masterpiece from the 1960s and just as worthy of obsessing over.

The following shots, chosen by our wee club this week [more...]

Click to read more ...

Thursday
May302013

Cold Eyes and Weary Bodies in "Hud"

For this week's Hit Me With Your Best Shot we're celebrating Hud on it's 50th anniversary

Though I readily concede that its my own prejudices as a Yank and a cityboy that get in the way, I rarely associate nuanced feeling with the western genre or artful dialogue with a Texas twang. So Hud (1963) plays like a miracle to me, a major one. This adaptation of Larry McMurty's novel (he would later write screenplays including Brokeback Mountain, which plays like a distant cousin to this 1960s masterpiece) never feels anything less than authentic in its Southwestern reality and yet its pure poetry. Consider this callous but perfectly sculpted line of dialogue from Hud (Paul Newman in arguably his finest hour) to his nephew Lon (Brandon deWilde) who is worrying about Homer's (Melvyn Douglas), the paterfamilia's, waning health. 

Happens to everybody - horses, dogs, men; nobody gets out of life alive

But I'm not really here to talk about the rough beauty of the dialogue in Hud -- though it's never far from my mind -- but the language of the eyes and the body delivering it. And, I rush to add, the award-winning cinematography and composition which package the unimproveable ensemble up so potently. Look at the shadows and the way Newman, bathed in light, become a handsome devil (essentially the truth of his character) his famous blue eyes less like inviting pools of water than icy death. 

But we'll return to close ups shortly. Much of Hud is shot in medium and long shot and everywhere you look, limbs are dangling and swaying and whole bodies are sneaking brief moments of rest, perched on porches, settling into chairs, or suggestively refusing to leave their beds. Melvyn Douglas and Patricia Neal, as the family's housekeeper Alma, both won deserved Oscars for their inspired work, and they beautifully capture not just the details of their characters but the physicality of people who've worked their bodies every day of their lives whether cattle rustling or scrubbing dishes. The younger characters Lon and Hud, are less exhausted, though there's still a kind of future arthritic effort to their jerky performative posing. 

runner up for best shot. Hud is a big deal

Lonnie: I'll go with you Hud.
Hud: What big deal you got lined up, sport -  a snowcone or something?"

Take one of the best scenes in Hud on the porch of the family house while the characters eat peach ice cream and enter and exit the frame without the camera following them (though Hud is quite cinematic, this particular scene is blocked like a play). Lon and his granddad have a fascinatingly evasive exchange about Hud's dead brother (Lon's dad) and why Homer dislikes his only living son "He knows. You don't need to." Douglas delivers each line with evasive though never rude gruffness, his cards held tight to his chest. When Hud enters the scene and announces a run into town, Lon shifts his attention to the uncle he idolizes but doesn't understand. There's this exquisitely telling funny shot of him mirroring Hud's pose -- while Hud mocks him but invites him to tag along anyway. How brilliant that it takes a second to even figure whose shadow is thrown onto the wall.

The withholding father and his ungrateful child finally  have it out in the film's centerpiece, a truly seismic emotional clash (the first hour being foreshadowing tremor and the second cruel aftershock) which Hud believes is entirely about his dead brother - the son Homer adored - which Homer denies. The righteous father tears into Hud as a man without principle, without empathy for his fellow man, without care for the world around him. Hud listens with silent hostility (he knows it's true) in one of the most gloriously lit and perfectly acted close-ups in all of cinema - my choice for best shot - as water from the well drips down his angry face. That's the closest he'll ever get to human tears in the film though Hud may have once shed them for the mutual loss that ripped them apart 15 years earlier. His cool eyes shift with a cruel smile as the room falls silent until he finds an unexpected nonsequitor to hurt both of them, and shoves the dagger in.

his mamma loved him but she died

My mamma loved me but she died."

This scene never fails to tear me up inside and deeply impress me for myriad reasons but precisely for the writing, the lighting, blocking and precise direction by Martin Ritt (Norma Rae, Cross Creek, Sounder) and the peak moment of Newman's indelible cold, cruel star turn.

Frank Langella the actor recently dissed Paul Newman's acting reputation in his memoir "Dropped Names: Famous Men & Women as I Knew Them" saying that while he was a great movie star he was not a great actor. His reasoning was that Newman lacked the one thing that Langella figures all great actors have - danger.  I can only surmise that Langella never saw Hud. For Paul Newman was both a great movie star and a great actor and Hud is the proof of it. Even if his career had ended there he'd still be legendary. There's enough danger in his hostile beauty in Hud to scar everyone in his orbit. 

Hud: I don't usually get rough on my women. Generally don't have to. 
Alma: You're rough on everyone. 

Other "Best Shot" Must-Reads on Hud For its 50th Anniversary