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Entries in Cinematography (165)

Tuesday
Dec022014

Team FYC: The Homesman for Cinematography

Editor's Note: For the next ten days or so as awards season heats up, we'll be featuring individual Team Experience FYC's for various longshots in the Oscar race. We'll never repeat a film or a category so we hope you enjoy the variety of picks. And if you're lucky enough to be an AMPAS, HFPA, SAG, Critics Group voter, take note! Here's Manuel to kick things off. 


Rodrigo Prieto is one of the best cinematographers around. From the gritty urban landscapes of Amores Perros and the color-coded visual triptych that is Babel to the painterly tableaus of Frida and the kinetic Iranian vistas of Argo, Prieto has been slowly amassing quite the filmography, working with the likes of Alejandro González Iñarritú, Spike Lee, Martin Scorsese, Pedro Almodóvar, Oliver Stone, and Ang Lee. It was the first collaboration with that two-time Academy Award winning director that netted Prieto his first Oscar nomination for capturing the breathtaking mountains that shepherded the tragic Western romance of Jack Twist and Ennis del Mar in Brokeback Mountain.

He’s back in contention this year for another twist on the Western with Tommy Lee Jones’ The Homesman. The film focuses on Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank) and George Briggs (Jones) as they make their way from Nebraska to Iowa in hopes of delivering three unstable women to the care of Altha Carter (Meryl Streep) whose husband runs a church that cares for the mentally ill.

A patient and meditative film, The Homesman showcases Prieto’s great gift for making (in this case mid-) Western landscapes look sublime in the Kantian sense of the word. The barren lands Cuddy and Briggs traverse are grand, vast and majestic; “nature considered in an aesthetic judgment as might that has no dominion over us" as Kant would say. Much of The Homesman depends on the awe-inspiring and terrifying notion of that ever-receding horizon, at once limitless and infinite; promising evermore possibility while denying ever attaining it. In The Homesman, nature is both desolate and beautiful, something Prieto’s endless painterly frames evoke throughout Jones’s film. But while it’d be easy to attribute Prieto’s accomplishments to capturing the natural beauty of the Nebraskan wilderness, what struck me about Prieto’s lensing is the way his static frames both boxed these characters with a relentless indifference that indexed the harsh wilderness around them while also lighting them with a warmth that honed in on where the film’s empathy for the five travellers lies.

This is nowhere more apparent than in the way Prieto recycles seemingly clichéd images of a silhouetted lonely horse-riding figure lit by a brazen, fiery light: man framed against a godforsaken world. They’re two small moments that show Briggs and Cuddy succeeding over man and nature alike; both beautifully-lit and framed by Prieto, making use of an ever-receding natural light in one and of a blazing fire in the other. They’re striking, yes, but they also beautifully illuminate these characters’ resilience even as they’re being swallowed whole by the wilderness around them.

Can Nebraska make it two in a row in the cinematography category, after Phedon Papamichael’s nomination last year? The big push for Jones’s film seems to be in the Best Actress category, but I’m hoping that as voters queue this up for Swank’s wonderfully realized performance, they’ll also give props to Prieto, who’s overdue for a return trip to the Dolby.

Thursday
Nov132014

AFI Fest: Weta Digital Celebrates 20 Years with New Technology

Anne Marie here at the AFI Fest with another special event. Weta Digital, the pioneering VFX company behind some of the biggest blockbusters, including the Marvel franchise, Avatar, and The Hobbit, is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. In  “State of the Art: The Evolution of Weta Digital," Visual Effects Supervisor Dan Lemmon gave audiences a peek behind the digital curtain of Weta Digital’s latest film, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, to show how the company develops performance capture to assist and augment cinematography.

 Weta Digital is probably best known for its motion capture process (dubbed “performance capture” by James Cameron "because they also capture emotions"). Dan Lemmon explained that this evolved from Andy Serkis filming scenes as Gollum twice for The Lord of the Rings, into a sophisticated system called a “Capture Volume,” a cube of space surrounded by infrared cameras that record the actors’ movements. For Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, director Matt Reeves wanted to shoot the apes on location, so a new “portable” version was developed. The result had a profound effect not only on the technology of performance capture, but also on the look of the film--both digital and real.

Serkis in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Since Avatar won the Oscar for Best Cinematography in 2009, each subsequent winner has been a VFX-heavy film, so the unspoken question was how Weta Digital interacted with Michael Seresin, the cinematographer of Dawn. Shooting on location allowed Seresin to light the ape actors as he would real characters. Then, Weta Digital could match that lighting on the pixelized primates. In addition, Seresin and Reeves developed a look book, pulling images from The Godfather and grittier 70s films. Dan Lemmon explained that Weta’s job was to mimic Seresin’s intentions, for instance digitally creating the vertigo-inducing helicopter shot for the climax. However, Lemmon also proudly pointed out how Weta Digital improved on Seresin’s vision, whether it was by manipulating the light to capture a digital ape’s eyes, or by adding fake “flaws” to the helicopter shot in order to make the synthetic image more real. 

The result of Weta Digital’s collaboration with Seresin is undoubtedly remarkable, and pushes VFX to be accepted as an art, rather than a gimmick. Still, Weta's additions to Seresin's work mark a definite change in the visual landscape of moviemaking. As VFX are integrated from pre-production to filming to post-production and digital effects get clearer, the line between cinematography and visual effects is going to get increasingly muddy.

Wednesday
Oct292014

'Nightcrawler' and L.A. in the Digital Age

Glenn here to offer a rebuttal to my own work.

 

When I reviewed David Cronenberg’s Maps to the Stars at the New York Film Festival, I was highly critical of the film’s look. It’s the ugliest film of 2014 so far and will likely remain a recurring staple of my anti-digital rants for some time to come. Fair is fair, however, and lest I get the reputation of somebody who is strictly against digital, I wanted to sing the praises of Robert Elswit’s work on Nightcrawler. Neither a horror film as befitting its Halloween release date, nor a superhero film like many people have thought due to its title. Yet, in spite it this, the film works as both an unsettling work of urban and moral decay and a portrait of a man who, in his own eyes, is a bit of a hero.

Nightcrawler is a film that has a visual point of view, finding interesting compositions to tell a story that in the grand scheme of things is fairly conventional in its narrative beats and structure. It takes the familiar image of Los Angeles and twists it into a city where at night it becomes a muddy-skied haze. This is a film that is both gorgeous to look at and repugnant to the eye at the same time. The Los Angeles of Nightcrawler seethes and creeps and Elswit’s camera shows just what can be achieved with the medium.

Directed by Dan Gilroy - not to be confused with brothers Tony Gilroy (the film's producer and director of Michael Clayton) or John Gilroy (the editor) - it's certainly very much inspired by the form-pushing work of Dion Beebe (Team Film Experience’s Top Ten Greatest Working Cinematographers) and Paul Cameron on Michael Mann’s Collateral. I don't consider this much of an issue given that film had perhaps my favourite cinematography of the '00s, and what’s the point of groundbreaking work in the industry if it can’t be adapted and played with by future filmmakers? In a way it's the same as how another Jake Gyllenhaal film, End of Watch, appropriated the look made famous by found footage horror and supplanted it onto the streets of gangland L.A.

Despite what some people may think, I am very much capable of falling head over heels for digital camerawork. I just appreciate it when filmmakers do something with the format that you otherwise can’t with film. What’s the point of the conversion if not to do something unique that sets it apart? I have no doubt celluloid would have worked amazingly for Gilroy's film, and in fact he did film the daytime sequences on 35mm highlighting how different the two mediums can be. I enjoyed watching that disparity taken advantage of, an aesthetic choice that entirely works for Nightcrawler as it captures Gyllenhaal’s sunken face as he films the aftermath of the city’s violence, pawning his footage to bottom-of-the-barrel TV networks. Leaving my screening and I couldn’t help but think of what Maps to the Stars could’ve been if they’d had anything close to resembling Nightcrawler’s keen sense of craft. That the film is partially about the alarming ease that we can capture the world within which we exist, it makes it incredibly relevant piece of work, too.

Sunday
Oct192014

Review: Birdman, or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

An abridged version of this review was originally posted in Nathaniel's weekly column at Towleroad. It is reposted here, with their permission.

 

A card in the bottom right hand of the star's mirror reads:

"A thing is a thing. Not what is said of that thing." 
-Susan Sontag

Which immediately complicates or maybe simplifies celebrity and art, two major themes (among a handful) of Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu's one of a kind new film experience. It's destined for major Oscar nominations and you should see it immediately. The movie has the simple and then complicated title of Birdman, Or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) as befits its duality perfectly. This quote is never addressed in the film but it's always stubbornly lodged there in that mirror, defying or playfully encouraging conversation about what this movie actually is. And what is film criticism or its more popular cousin, after-movie conversation over dinner drinks or online other than conversation that attempts to interpret and define?

Critics are often treated with petulant hostility in movies about show business, as if the filmmakers have an axe to grind and need to do that with grindstone in hand while their critical avatar/puppet hangs there limply, waiting to be struck with the sharpened blade. Birdman is no exception, immediately insulting its formidable theater critic Tabitha (Lindsay Duncan) as having a face that 'looks like she just licked a homeless man's ass,' before she's even spoken a line. But Tabitha is a slippery mark, portrayed as a voice of integrity in one scene and then a vicious unprofessional monster in another. This calls into question the reality of her scenes altogether

... which is not unusual in Birdman.

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Saturday
Oct042014

NYFF: Mike Leigh and Dick Pope Begin Oscar Preparations with 'Mr Turner'

It wasn’t just the obvious reasons relating to being a fan of William Turner that made Mike Leigh want to make Mr. Turner. No, what it essentially boiled down to for the British director and his long-gestating passion project was that, essentially, Turner was a clear-cut case of “a Mike Leigh character”. Hearing Leigh describe the famed artist this way actually made me go back and think about the role given that Turner, as portrayed by Timothy Spall in his Cannes-winning performance, hardly comes off as from the same working class terrain of Leigh’s most famous films like Secrets and Lies or Another Year.

I’m still not entirely sure how the statement holds, but the press conference that followed Friday afternoon's screening of Leigh’s lush, gorgeously produced 150-minute biopic did allow for some typically keen insight from the man and his cast and crew who will surely be out there campaigning for the film throughout awards season hoping to crash an already strong roster of British biopics with style and grace typical of a Leigh movie.

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Monday
Sep292014

NYFF: Seeing Isn't Believing in 'Maps to the Stars'

The New York Film Festival has begun. Here's Glenn taking an alternative look at David Cronenberg's divisive Cannes winner 'Maps to the Stars', now a confirmed 2014 contender.

Digital filmmaking has a lot to answer for – much of it good, but a lot of it bad. Its biggest crime, however, may be eradicating David Cronenberg of style. It’s as if the transition of celluloid to digital, which coincided with his swing away from merely a cult name-brand director to one whose films, at least briefly, appeared to be targeting a somewhat more acceptingly mainstream audience (A History of Violence and Eastern Promises certainly), weakened his eye for visual storytelling. Not only is Maps to the Stars a surprisingly ugly film in terms of its garish lighting, messy blocking, and lethargic, bulky transitions, but it’s a distressingly amateur in one in terms of simple camera placement and editing.

Much was made of Matt Zoller Seitz’s plea for film writers to discuss form in more detail. “Form is not just an academic side dish to the main course of content”, he said last year, and while I am not sure what Seitz’s opinion is on Maps to the Stars I can’t imagine he would be too thrilled.

more... 

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