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Thursday
Feb102011

Open Thread, Oscar Topics?

With just slightly over two weeks until Oscar night, I'm wondering what golden statuesque topics y'all would like to see covered here on the blog and/or discussed on the podcast? More than most years, many of the big topics felt played out by nomination time and The Social Network vs. The King's Speech even feels worth shoving aside. That's one reason that the Melissa Leo story blew up: it didn't have a lot of competition for conversation.

What's on your mind? Don't be shy.

P.S. Over the next couple of weeks we'll also bring back the regular movie series (Hit Me With Your Best Shot, etcetera...) and move on from 2010. Nearly dunzo!

Thursday
Feb102011

The Bening Considered

Nick Davis, my personal friend, podcast mate, and true rival in deeply committed actressexuality, has written a thoughtful consideration of Annette Bening's career as part of his extensive, brilliant, but unfortunately snail's paced evaluation of the entire spectrum of 83 years of Best Actressing. It's a wonderful read whether you love The Bening or have mixed feelings about her imperious theatrical verve, as I know some readers do.

"Am I supposed to be interested in this?" The Bening in BUGSY (1991)

My favorite parts of the piece are a convincing argument as to how Virginia Hill in Bugsy (1991) became the template of her screen persona and a detour into the underseen Valmont (1989) which was her first important screen role, one that had the misfortune to follow Glenn Close's nearly Oscar-winning take on the same character in Dangerous Liaisons (1988) into theaters. About which he writes...

Bening's the kind of actress, in technique and in unabashedly scholastic bent, to whom one could plausibly say, "I want to route 18th-century France through a prism of that sly mordancy of Eastern European theatre," and she'd know exactly what you mean, and be able to do it.

It's hilarious because it's true.

Unfortunately the thought-provoking essay has made me sad in advance. I don't relish seeing The Bening lose again at the Oscars. And if, by some miracle, she dethrones Natalie Portman, I don't much relish the beating she'll take online in this age of Portman-mania. [They're both on my Best Actress ballot.]

It's interesting to me that the AMPAS is, as a collective, a known anglophile; the Academy relishes and rewards classically trained Brits from Mirren to Dench to Firth (soon) and many before them. But when it comes to American stars, Streep aside, classical training, intellectual heft, and true range don't seem to interest or fascinate them much. Don't you think Annette Bening would have won the Oscar by now if she were British?

Dame Annette Francine Bening.

As a related aside: If you haven't yet read it here's an interesting piece on the education and training of the current Oscar nominees.

 

Thursday
Feb102011

Jane + Mr. Rochester. TLA?

First clip from the new Jane Eyre starring rising star Mia Wasikowska and the already-obsessed-over-by-cool-people Michael Fassbender.

I think rinnyp said it best on twitter when she said "fan your privates".

My memory has gone entirely blank on the Jane Eyre plot. Here's to cultural literacy! My only memory of the book at this point is that my mom loves it. It's quite an unexpected follow up to Sin Nombre as Cary Fukunaga's sophomore feature, don't you think?

Thursday
Feb102011

Interview: Roger Deakins, The Man With the Golden Light

Sometimes when prepping for interviews you can jot down film titles and pick a few key bits to ask about. Every filmography will yield a few rich areas for potential questions. But what to do when the filmography is so imposing. To read Roger Deakins filmography is to become lost, not in titles and potential avenues of discussion, but in images. It's hard to concentrate when your mind's eye flies from the white snow of Fargo to the shadowy menace of A Beautiful Mind's paranoid bits, to the rich color of Kundun, to the desolate dusty beauty of both Jarhead and WALL•E and on through hi recent string of westerns. And that's just scratching the surface of the images that the filmography calls to mind. In cinematography, Roger Deakins has few peers.

Roger Deakins and True Grit, which won him his ninth Oscar nomination

So, if I struggled for questions, it was still a treat to talk to a living legend. We started at the most logical place, his collaborative relationship with the Coen brothers. True Grit is their tenth film together. Since they began working together Deakins has rarely been absent (Burn After Reading was shot by Emmanuel Lubezki).

Nathaniel: You've been working with the Coen brothers since Barton Fink (1991). Obviously that's been a fruitful partnership. How did it start? 

Deakins: I met with them in London before Fink and their regular cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld had gone off to directing so they were looking for somebody.

Nathaniel: What convinced them then?

Deakins:  I think they'd seen Sid & Nancy and 1984. I think the variation in what I'd been doing was something they noticed, that they responded to.

[Note: Deakins career began with documentaries but by the mid 80s he was working in British features, often with the director Michael Radford. The Coen brothers weren't the first directors to monopolize his impressive visual gifts.]

Nathaniel: How early do the Coens bring you into each new project?

Deakins: Usually quite early but it depends on the project. In some cases i've been working on something else right up until they start shooting. For instance with The Big Lebowski, I didn't have much prep at all because I was off in Morocco doing [Martin Scorsese's] Kundun. Usually I like a lot of prep.

On True Grit we were scouting quite a lot before shooting. The more time you spend -- especially scouting and looking at locations and talking about the script -- it's time well spent. You get to understand what the director is really after.

Nathaniel: Obviously the relationship with the director is prime but what about the art directors. Do you have input into the sets? How much back and forth is there?

Deakins: Quite a bit, absolutely. It's a discussion really. Sometimes you need some adaption on a set. Even if it's a simple set, like where Rooster (Jeff Bridges) was bedding down in the back of the grocer's store. I just wanted a certain kind of light in that set and Jess Gonchor [nominated for Art Direction] came up with the idea of that type of window we used. It was cobbled together to facilitate the lighting that I wanted in there. It's a collaboration really to figure out how it's done. I have been on films where I've been on a set with no windows. You go well… [indicating frustration] There's no reason. It wasn't an aesthetic choice. The designer just didn't put any windows. That's restricting.

Nathaniel: One of the showiest bits in True Grit, in terms of your work is the courtroom scene early in the film. Do the Coens decide everything about camera placement and you're just working on the lighting?

Deakins: It does depend. The Coen's storyboard everything so actually the camera placement is worked out [before shooting]. But we've discussed it in prep and then they storyboard it. And we walk through the locations and talk about which angles might work and I talk about the way I can make the light feel in the room.  I remember in the courtroom we had this  discussion about where the witness stand would be and where the jury box would be within that space and it had a lot to do with the lighting that  I could bring to it for the final image.

Nathaniel: You've done quite a few westerns lately: No Country For Old Men, True Grit, The Assassination of Jesse James. Was that a conscious direction? Is it a genre you respond to visually?

Deakin: [Happily] It's a lot of luck! When Joel and Ethan were saying they were writing a script for No Country 'If we like it we might direct.' I said 'You've got to, you've got to!' I just thought it was such a wonderful piece and then to get the chance to do The Assassination... after that? I was really lucky.

Nathaniel: The Assassination of Jesse James is so focused on its images, too. Far more than your average movie.

Deakins: That was much more of a poem, a meditation on the period and character. A very different kind of movie. It came from the book. It's a historical book, a piece of history, but it's done in a lyrical way.

Nathaniel: When you get a project like that as a cinematographer, do you just start salivating? [Laughter]

Deakins: Kind of, yeah. When I read the book,  the original material -- Yeah absolutely, you die to do a film like that. The moods you can create, the mood it's demanding you create in the visuals. Andrew Dominick had such a firm idea of where he waned to go with that visually, how far he wanted to push it. It was quite a challenge and an exciting challenge.

Nathaniel: The movie is stunning. I'm curious about working with actors. Are they props to be lit or do they have input in how they're shot.

Deakins: Well I mean in terms of blocking and how the camera is recording what they're doing and interpreting, there is to and fro. It depends on the actor and the director and the feel of the set, the way that set works. It can be a collaboration.

Nathaniel: You read a lot of Old Hollywood stories about stars demanding to be shot in certain ways.  Like they're very invested in how they're shot and from only certain angles.

Deakins: I'm afraid I'm not very tolerant of that sort of thing! [Thinking about it...] It's a matter of trust. I think a big part of the cinematographer's job is creating a space where the actor feels comfortable to do their work. I don't want an actor to think i'm filming them in a ugly way. You do the best for them, there's trust both ways. They need to be able to trust you.

Nathaniel: How about more actor-focused films?  I'm thinking of films you've shot like Passion Fish or Dead Man Walking, those are very much performance pieces. Do you have to do more tests with the actors on films that are so focused on faces? Do you have to approach that differently?



Deakins: No, not really. I seem to remember we did quite a few tests with Sean Penn on Dead Man Walking just to get his look right and stuff. But it's not different. It's always about the performance. To me that's the most important thing. You have to give the actor space to do that. If you haven't got a performance you haven't got a film. It doesn't matter how pretty the images are, they mean nothing. It's really important.

And especially on something like Dead Man Walking which is a very intense piece you do really want to be in the background, in terms of the crew and how much you impose on the scene. It's a delicate balance really. It's still a visual medium so you have to do your part.

Nathaniel: I'm wondering if you enjoy a minimalist aesthetic?  To me, True Grit and Fargo both feel...

Deakins: It's interesting how minimalist True Grit is, isn't it? It was quite a complicated piece to do, really. It comes across as very simple in terms of composition and carmera movements.

Nathaniel: But do you personally like it sparse?

Deakins: I like simplicity but that whole idea  comes more from Joel and Ethan than from me. It's fueled by the script and their approach to it. The nature of this piece is the idea that it's this young girl's story. That's why it's so minimalist.

[Considering...] i think in terms of the development of what Joel & Ethan havebeen doing, the films have become more minimalist camera wise. Certainly more minimalist than what we were doing on The Hudsucker Proxy. It's not immaterial but the camera was much more a character within it. Whereas … well it's the material. You don't want the camera to be a character in something like True Grit. It really is in the background.

Nathaniel: What about Fargo? Was it hard to shoot snow since it's so reflective?

Deakins: The hard thing about Fargo is we didn't have any snow! A lot of the snow had to be manufactured. It was a really cold winter but it was one of those winters that was so cold that it didn't snow. Arctic air. It was frustrating.

Nathaniel: Lately you've had this little diversion into animated films. You've been consulting...

Deakins: Yeah, it's interesting isn't it? It's becoming a bit more than a diversion, actually. It's a full time thing I do now. Between doing live action films i'm actually working at Dreamworks. It came about first -- Pixar asked me do a couple of seminars about lighting. It sort of developed. Andrew Stanton asked me to get involved in WALL•E . That was only really at the beginning just conceptually talking about it and, how to bring the feel of live action movie to the film, the way the camera moves and interprets the action. I talked to them about lighting and the mood of the thing. After that Dreamwoks, asked me to get nvolved in How To Train Your Dragon. I was involved in that all the way through for 14 months going up there regularly.


Nathaniel: I guess my choice of words was way off, then. It's not a diversion.

Deakins: It's not, really. It's a really interesting aspect of what I can do. It really is that I'm a visual consultant. They do it all but I go in and talk to them and exchange ideas. It's really fun. The two disciplines of animations and live action do seem to be colliding. You look at something like Avatar or whatever: How much is live action and how much is animation? You can't really say that's a live action film.

Nathaniel: I do wonder that about your profession. I've noticed in so many movies lately, not yours in particular, but in general that the image looks really processed.

Deakins: A lot is. You'd be surprised how many shots in True Grit were actually retouched or something digitally: a road in a landscape you have to take out, when Mattie was in the tree cutting down the hanging man, there's all that wire removal. Not big things like the creation of whole cities or something but still a lot of digital tweaks.

Nathaniel: Which film would you call your most challenging job?

Deakins: I don't know. They're all challenging really. Even the simple ones you kind of want to push to some extent and it suddenly becomes challenging. You think 'Oh this will be a nice little summer shoot and suddenly you find out  'ohmygod', you know?  Everyone was saying 'True Grit. Three characters on horse back riding throughout the west.' You think, well, 'oh nice summer shoot in Santa Fe' and then you realize that half of it is interiors and that half of the exteriors are at night! It's actually really complicated. And horseback -- people charging on horseback. 

The hardest thing really in recent memory was doing that whole sequence with the horse Blackie galloping through the night.

Nathaniel: And that scene makes the movie.

Deakins: It's quite emotional really, isn't it? But the idea of how do you do a tracking shot of a horse at night and the horse just happens to be black [Laughter] It's kind of tricky. [Indicating directive]  'A galloping horse at night. And he's black.' And I'm kind of 'What else can you throw at me?'

Nathaniel: How about your next film? It's called Now (2011). From Andrew Niccol of Gattaca fame. That film was so interesting visually. Will this film have a similar aesthetic?

Deakins: I know Gattaca quite well. I think it's got elements of Gattaca in a way. It's sort of similar in mood and feel and being a futuristic parable.


As we closed up our conversations I wanted to broach the topic of Oscar, which I immediately sensed was a topic he's always asked about. In truth he seems more at peace with it than his fans. His long history of nominations without wins is well known. What's less well known is that he is one of only twelve men to ever receive so many nominations in the category and he's the only living member of that frequently honored club. Only one of those men before him went Oscar-less. That was George J Folsey who shot classic musicals like Meet Me in St. Louis and Seven Brides For Seven Brothers was nominated an apparently unlucky 13 times. Folsey, like Deakins, even managed a double nomination. (Deakins double came for the 2007 duo: Jesse James and No Country, Folsey managed it twice but in the years of two separate cinematography categories for color and black and white films.) But hope springs eternal and many believe that with his gorgeous stark vision in True Grit his winning time has finally come.

Nathaniel: Are you exhausted by people wishing you well each time you're nominated. Or saying "it's your year!"?

Deakins: [Laughter] No, it's kind of all right. It's fun.

Nathaniel: Have you been to the Oscars each and every time?

Deakins: [Thinking...] Yeah, I have actually! [Laughter] So I'm quite used to sitting there. It's all right. The film is still the film. It doesn't make any difference.

Nathaniel: I'm always saying that: Great films are their own rewards.

Deakins: They absolutely are.

[want more interviews?]

Wednesday
Feb092011

Heroes & Villains: From Hiccup to Hailsham

More Film Bitch Awards coming at'cha. The Snow White casting news last week got me to thinking of heroics at the movies. Snow White isn't really an active heroine is she? She's more like a pretty pretty princess waiting to be rescued.

None of my choices for hero of the year waited for rescue -- not even Rapunzel in Tangled --  though a few of them did need to be cajoled into action.  I can relate. Hero, rescue thyself! But in the end, it doesn't matter how you get to your heroics, so long as you eventually get there. The top ten in no particular order. [Edited to add: TOP ELEVEN. I forgot to list one of my intended medalists. An excel error!]

  • Sally Hawkins as "Rita O' Grady" in Made in Dagenham
  • Dany Boon as "Bazil" in Mic-Macs
  • Colin Firth as "King George VI" in The King's Speech
  • Angelina Jolie as "Salt" in Salt
  • "Hiccup" in How To Train Your Dragon
  • Hilary Swank as "Betty Anne Waters" in Conviction
  • Jennifer Lawrence as "Ree Dolly" in Winter's Bone
  • "Rapunzel & Flynn" in Tangled
  • Mark Wahlberg as "Mickey Ward" in The Fighter
  • Hailee Steinfeld as "Mattie Ross" in True Grit
  • Michael Cera as "Scott Pilgrim" in Scott Pilgrim vs. The World

There was less to choose from as villains go even if you get creative. Do you cite the financial institutions in Inside Job. I mean, come on, they were SCARY... like scarier than Jason or Freddie.  But I decided that was too diffuse to be a single entity... Sometimes though, if you narrow the lens, system do work as symbolic primary villain:. Hailsham haunts in Never Let Me Go

Elsewhere in 2010 villains were just no match for the heroes. I normally love Josh Brolin and Barry Pepper but True Grit was totally unbalanced; the villains had no performative spark in comparison to the heroes. I didn't like Kick-Ass but even there the villains didn't measure up the heroes. It takes two to make beautiful battle. Is it too much to ask for great heroes and great villains simultaneously?  I think only Tangled managed that this year. Finally, I was about to cite Jacki Weaver's wicked "Smurf" in Animal Kingdom but in the end the villain of the piece is really the family. Smurf is but a henchwoman, to use superhero vernacular, who fills in when the bosses are on vacation (i.e. jail, six feet under, etcetera). The top ten:

  • "Gru" in Despicable Me
  • "The Cody Boys" in Animal Kingdom
  • "7 Evil Exes" in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World
  • Helena Bonham Carter as "The Red Queen" in Alice in Wonderland
  • "Mother Gothel" in Tangled 
  • Hailsham in Never Let Me Go
  • "Lotso Huggin' Bear" in Toy Story 3
  • Niels Arestrup as "César Luciani" in A Prophet
  • Mickey Rourke as "Whiplash" in Iron Man 2
  • Justin Timberlake as "Sean Parker" in The Social Network

 HERE ARE THE NOMINEES & WRITEUPS

Which heroics thrilled you and which evil deeds made you grip your armrests last year?

Wednesday
Feb092011

Best Pictures: The Hit Parade of 2010

Let's test your memory. Do you recall those annual articles that popped up every single year decrying “The Academy is Out of Touch!” because of neglected blockbusters? No? Well, neither does the media. This year's Best Picture lineup is quite a popular field, but nobody is congratulating the Academy voters by writing reversal articles like “The Academy is Totally Relevant Again!” Sometimes you have to feel for the Academy. The truth is that people just like to complain.
 
Journalists lazily hit that "Out of Touch!" button each and every January until just recently. The hostility peaked two years ago when The Dark Knight (2008) and the classic Pixar WALL•E (2008) both performed spectacularly with audiences and critics, but were left out of Best Picture in favor of traditional Oscar bait like political biopics and Holocaust movies...

Read the rest at Tribeca Film...

In honor of The Fighter, I divvy up the Best Picture nominees into weight class divisions. Did you add to these theatrical grosses in the theater or were you stingy with your ticket purchasing?

Wednesday
Feb092011

Interview: The Editors of The Social Network

Meet Angus Wall and Kirk Baxter of The Social Network. They were my own gold medalists this year for Best Editing and they're Oscar nominated together for the second time for David Fincher's riveting classic. You won't know their faces but they've contributed significantly to major moviegoing pleasures in the last few years: their assembly skills kept all the difficult pieces of Zodiac's mosaic rubbing together; their attention to detail augmented those complex setpieces in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button; their sense of rhythm and performance shaping kept The Social Network racing along without running roughshod over its dramatic soul. In short, they're quite a gifted team. 

Left: Angus Wall. Right: Kirk Baxter

Herewith some highlights from our conversation. 

When I spoke with them last week, they were on a wee break from working on the day's footage for The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

Nathaniel: David Fincher has been shooting The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo during the awards season madness. How is this even possible? It must be exhausting.

Have you had any time to enjoy the accolades yourself or does Fincher keep you both locked up in the editing bay?

[read the whole interview]

Click to read more ...