Getting More Immersed with Indiewire

  The Penske Media purchase of Indiewire has resulted in an expansion of my role as crafts and awards season contributor.  Beginning this week, I begin Emmy coverage of below-the-line contenders along with my usual Oscar season crafts reporting, working closely

Immersed in Blu-ray: Hitchcock and Bogart

The WB Archive Collection gets Hitch and Bogie on Blu-ray and they've never looked better for home viewing. In Kent Jones' indispensable doc, Hitchcock/Truffaut, he reminds us that Truffaut was on a mission to correct misconceptions about Hitch as a lightweight

Immersed in Books: Farber on Film

For the first time, the complete writings of film critic Manny Farber is available from Library of America, edited by Robert Polito (Savage Art: A Biography of Jim Thompson). Manny Farber (1917-2008) was the first modernist film critic to write like a modernist.


Immersed in Blu-ray: War Horse

Posted on by Bill Desowitz in Below the Line, Blu-ray, Cinematography, Clips, Home Entertainment, Movies, Oscar, Tech, VFX | Leave a comment

Steven Spielberg’s War Horse is now on Blu-ray (Disney Home Ent.), where it absolutely shines in HD for its old-fashioned virtues, combining elements of John Ford with Gone with the Wind and Paths of Glory. Spielberg’s joyous experience making The Adventures of Tintin seems to have carried over to this love story about a boy and his horse in the trenches of World War I.

“The reason I made the movie, beyond the fact that the play moved me so deeply when I saw it in the West End of London, was that here we have an animal that brings human beings together,” Spielberg told me last year,  “at least in a détente of sorts, and the idea that an animal has the power to be able to bring these two warring sides together for a brief respite. And I also felt that it was very, very important to show the lengths to which a young man will travel in order to retrieve an animal that has meant so much to him and his family, that has basically saved the lives of his family by saving their farm, and that there had to be a happy conclusion.”

War Horse even brought out a warm, sentimental side to cinematographer Janusz Kaminski. His imagery has never been so elegiac, as in the early Quiet Man-like moments. Even the détente-like moment with the barbed wire in “No Man’s Land” is memorable for its transcendent humanity.

War Horse was also the latest in a personal journey for production designer Rick Carter, who’s made a series of war-themed films since 9/11 (mostly with Spielberg).  He calls it “the nature of conscience and the Goya-esque disasters of war.” According to Carter, “some of them are light and have a joyous, wish-fulfillment to them. But there’s also a darkness that has to be overcome and so [Spielberg's] touching quite a wide range of movies, and, as I get older, I admire that.”

Their latest journey into the nature of conscience is Lincoln. I can’t wait to delve into how they built a movie around the extraordinary Daniel Day Lewis.

Avengers Press Conference Highlights

Posted on by Bill Desowitz in 3-D, Animation, Below the Line, Books, Cinematography, Clips, Movies, Tech, VFX, Virtual Production | Leave a comment

The recent press conference for The Avengers (opening May 4) was noteworthy for some of the following comments:

Mark Ruffalo on being The Hulk:

I met with Joss Whedon, and he said he really liked The Incredible Hulk TV show and what Bill Bixby did with him. So I rented those with my 10-year-old son. And after the third episode, he turned to me and said, “Papa, he’s so misunderstood.” And I basically based my character entirely on my 10-year-old boy, who has all of the force of nature, like, screaming out of his body while at the same time having everyone around him telling him to fucking control himself.

Robert Downey Jr. on where Iron Man fits in with the group:

Um, well, that he didn’t really set out to do anything noble, but, uh, so he’s kind of in transition. And so there’s something kind of a little more Han Solo than, uh, than Luke. And also the fact that he can pull off wearing a Black Sabbath T-shirt for the better part of the film.

Samuel L. Jackson on the importance of The Avengers:

I just like the fact that Nick Fury believes that these unique individuals deserve the love and admiration of the world, who, uh, we pretty much owe everything to because there are things out there greater than us.

Joss Whedon on tracking information that’s important:

You want some things to be inferred.  It’s fun to see a movie that has texture beyond what you understand necessarily that you know. Like, when I watched Wall Street, I didn’t know what they were talking about, but I was very compelled by it. It clearly mattered a lot. Or if I watch any film about sports, I feel the same way.  [If] you feel that there’s a life outside the frame, then, you know, you feel good about it, so you don’t necessarily have to lay everything out, but organizing that was the most exhausting part of the film because the stuff between the character, that’s just candy. That’s just booze and candy all day.

Joss Whedon on the Harry Dean Stanton cameo (SPOILER ALERT):

Seamus [McGarvey], our DP, was actually shooting a documentary about Harry Dean and spending a lot of time with him, and I sort of got him stuck in my head and I was like who is more accepting than Harry Dean Stanton?  And, so I got to write this weird little scene, which when I wrote it was not little, it was about 12 pages long, and I was like, oh, this is great. Bruce Banner falls into a Coen brothers movie, and the fact that they even let me keep that concept and that we actually landed Harry Dean to play it was very exciting. But the idea was to put him in a slightly surreal situation with somebody who clearly had no problem with what he was, just to make that little transition without milking it too much. And, besides, you know, to work with Harry Dean and to quiz him about Alien and The Missouri Breaks, what a privilege.

Sonnenfeld Talks MIB 3 in 3-D

Posted on by Bill Desowitz in 3-D, Animation, Below the Line, Cinematography, Movies, Tech, Trailers, VFX | Leave a comment

Comedy in 3-D is a rarity, and I discover why in my discussion with Men in Black 3 director Barry Sonnenfeld for my TOH column on Indiewire. Sonnenfeld, who prefers post 3-D conversion rather than shooting natively, is all about the physicality of the performances and using the space outside the screen.

“It’s not for a visual gag but to get the audience more involved,” he contends. “Remember, the old dolly/zoom from Hitchcock’s Vertigo? We’re doing things like that you wouldn’t be able to do if you’re shooting native 3-D unless you converted one eye. So I really embraced 3-D.”

Skyfall Videoblogs Second Unit in Shanghai

Posted on by Bill Desowitz in Below the Line, Cinematography, Clips, James Bond, Movies, Tech, VFX, Videogames | Leave a comment

The latest Skyfall videoblog from focuses on the exotic second unit work in Shanghai with comments from second unit director Alexander Witt, first assistant director Michael Lerman,and production manager Angus More Gordon. Of particular interest are the blue neon-lit highways and skyscrapers, which provide an ultra-modern vibe to the action-centric drama helmed by Sam Mendes and digitally shot with Arri Alexa by Roger Deakins.

Meanwhile, Activision announced the autumn release of the 007 Legends video game on PS3 and Xbox 360, which ties together six classic plot lines (including Skyfall) in honor of the 50th anniversary. Touts new maps, weapons, and characters and a multi-player experience.

Remembering Chinatown

Posted on by Bill Desowitz in Below the Line, Cinematography, Festivals, Home Entertainment, Movies, Oscar, Trailers | Leave a comment

Chinatown came out on Blu-ray two weeks ago (Paramount Home Ent.), and while it looks great in HD (the color seems right as witnessed by Gary Tooze’s screen captures at DVD Beaver), I have to agree with Bob Harris that it deserved better. It’s certainly a crown jewel worthy of the lavish attention given The Ten Commandments or Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

However, Paramount sent me the following info about the Blu-ray mastering: Chinatown was scanned from the original negative, but to significantly improve the image, several short sections where the original negative was missing were replaced with digitally combined separation master scans: “This gave a previously soft, compromised image quality a sharper more integrated look, especially in the ‘orange grove’ scene.”

Final color correction was overseen by Oscar-winning screenwriter Robert Towne; the SD transfer was approved by Alonzo, who helped ensure that it remained true to the “scorched landscape” look of the original movie, which was one of the last printed in dye transfer by Technicolor.

Meanwhile, the 5.1 audio remix was done from an original mono multi-track recording. Audio expert Bruce Botnick oversaw the work and had a close working relationship with composer Jerry Goldsmith.

“When I first saw the movie, years and years ago, just before it was released, all I could think of was everything that was missing from the movie,” recalled Towne a few years ago when we spoke by phone about the last DVD. “And with the passage of time, those memories of what’s missing have faded and I can see the movie as a moviegoer––and it seems to me to hold together very well.”

Towne was especially proud of the fact that it never breaks from Gittes’ POV: “Not even The Maltese Falcon can say that,” he offered. “But Chinatown faithfully sticks to the point of view of the detective, which is a pretty difficult thing to do, because if there is nothing to cut away to, you have to keep telling the story strictly from his point of view. The tone of the piece is really consistent.”

For Towne, Chinatown is really about “the futility of good intentions.” “When I got to the end and the significance of the title and everything, I realized that was the basic, underlying truth of that particular story––deeply pessimistic but honest. It’s all too often a truth about humanity.”

He recalled a memorable line from The Seventh Seal: “No matter which way you turn, your ass is always in back of you.”

Towne, who wrote Gittes for his good friend Jack Nicholson (a consummate collaborator), described Gittes as “a naïve adolescent.” Towne has also long since gotten over his disagreements with director Roman Polanski: “I don’t think anybody ever worked harder than Roman. He’s exacting and I can’t imagine in retrospect that there could’ve been anybody but Roman. The two great elements that made the script work so well were Roman and John Huston. I think it was as convincing a dramatization of evil as any actor was liable to give you; Huston had the power, the patina of grandfatherly good nature, and the malevolence that was needed.”

Immersed in Blu-ray: A Night to Remember

Posted on by Bill Desowitz in 3-D, Below the Line, Blu-ray, Cinematography, Festivals, Home Entertainment, Movies, Tech, Trailers | 1 Comment

Before James Cameron’s monumental Titanic (released theatrically this week in a costly and painstaking 3-D conversion), there was Roy Ward Baker’s A Night to Remember (1958), which is currently out on Blu-ray from the Criterion Collection. Elegant, restrained, and gripping come to mind, and for many this remains the key movie to watch about the Titanic disaster. (Next Saturday, of course, marks the 100th anniversary and the TCM Classic Film Fest has the U.S. premiere of the restoration at the Chinese at 9:30 pm.) Scripted wonderfully by Eric Ambler, A Night to Remember (starring Kenneth More and featuring Honor Blackman and a very young David McCallum) is a study in “nobility under pressure,” as film critic Michael Sragow reminds us in his enlightening Criterion notes.

Geoffrey Unsworth’s black and white cinematography is sumptuous once again, thanks to the ITV Studios Global Ent. restoration (carried out at the Perivale Archive). Deluxe 142 partnered on the digital picture restoration, scanning the original 35 mm camera negative on an ARRI Laser Scanner at 2K resolution.

“On A Night to Remember, … there are two important features — both associated with the film’s maritime location – which needed to be taken into consideration, explains Deluxe 142′s David Collard. “First, dancing highlights on water meant that you couldn’t automate restoration on these sections of the film because the highlights might be identified as dust and removed. Second, use of the automated stabilization tools would be an issue on sections of the film featuring lifeboats because they would attempt to correct the natural rolling of the boats. Image Systems’ Relativity and Clarity were used to soften the grain build up, which you inevitably get when you go from first to third generation film stock.”

According to Fiona Maxwell, restoration project advisor, “Another challenge was to put the film back to its original full length, as there was a scene which was originally removed for the release. This was the scene where Kenneth More helps a survivor holding a baby out of the water. He checks to see if the baby is breathing but, sadly, the child is already dead. The shot of a child being lowered into the water by Kenneth More was absent from the original release negative.”

Trevor Brown, the colorist at Deluxe 142, explained: “ Due to the censor cut we had to reinsert the missing shot and to cover the nasty join on the cut negatives. We inserted a fade down and up in DI. We had to do a little bit of an edit on this because of some negative damage but it’s in the original film.”

Immersed in Blu-ray: Redux

Posted on by Bill Desowitz in Below the Line, Blu-ray, Cinematography, Home Entertainment, Movies, Oscar, Tech | Leave a comment

There’s been some welcome double-dipping lately with two best picture Oscar winners: Warner Home Video has given us a 70th Anniversary remastering of Casablanca that’s worth singing “La Marseillaise,” and Fox Home Ent. has provided a more accurate rendering of The French Connection, thanks to the participation of cinematographer Owen Roizman.

Not that the earlier Casablanca was disappointing. But the new 4K scan and MPEG-4 AVC coding looks superior to me: inky blacks, higher contrast, and a more pleasing grain structure that amounts to a starker image. Overall, the intrigue going on at Rick’s place seems far more mysterious thanks to the more pronounced chiaroscuro effect.

On the other hand, after experimenting with a Moby Dick-like digital desaturation for the initial 2009 Blu-ray release of The French Connection, director William Friedkin has pacified his outraged cinematographer, Owen Roizman, by reverting to the gritty, if erratic, look of his acclaimed thriller. The two apparently kissed and made up during their earlier Exorcist Blu-ray collaboration. Thanks to for this stunning screen capture. I’m still uncertain if the night scenes are dark enough but if Roizman is pleased, I have no complaints. Still, I think I’ll go back and re-watch the revisionist version just for fun. Let’s hope this Best Buy exclusive gets a wider release sooner than later.

Immersed in Blu-ray with Hitchcock and Preminger

Posted on by Bill Desowitz in Below the Line, Blu-ray, Books, Cinematography, Home Entertainment, Movies, Tech | Leave a comment

Now that the Oscar season’s over, I’ve had a chance to catch up on some recent Blu-rays. What’s caught my eye? Alfred Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief (Paramount Home Ent.) and Otto Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder (Criterion).

There’s been a flurry of Hitchcock activity on Blu-ray lately with more to come from Universal and Warner. Criterion released The Lady Vanishes, which epitomizes his British period of wit and suspense; Fox/MGM then followed suit with prime Selznick: Rebecca, Notorious, and Spellbound, which showcase his early American period, which is deeper and richer but not without its wit. To Catch a Thief serves as a leisurely respite — Hitch literally on vacation on the French Riviera with Cary Grant and Grace Kelly — before embarking on his most inspired work. It looks ravishing on Blu-ray in VistaVision — the colors pop in hyper real fashion. No wonder cinematographer Robert Burks won an Oscar. No matter that it’s lightweight: it fittingly evokes the mood and setting like a souffle. Archivist Robert Harris explains the particulars about the wonders of Kodak’s 5248 stock and why the movie looks so fine.

Meanwhile, Anatomy of a Murder is one of my favorite films and arguably the best courtroom drama ever made. Preminger was the master at constructing ambiguous behavior within institutional settings that could crumble at any moment, and here he subversively took on the judicial system. Nobody is what he seems. Every viewing deepens my understanding and appreciation and the Blu-ray is a technical marvel to behold, from the mutilated graphic design motif of Saul Bass’ opening credits (very similar to his work on Psycho around the same time) to the velvety shades of gray in Sam Leavitt’s black and white cinematography to Boris Leven’s lived in quality to the sleepy town of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula to Duke Ellington’s jazz score (Thanks to Sony’s Grover Crisp for overseeing such a great restoration/remastering with a new fine grain struck from the original camera negative).

Anatomy marked a turning point for Jimmy Stewart after Vertigo in which he no longer played romantic leads. He comfortably slid into senior character types, but still utilized his folksy charm to great effect and never more sly than here. Stewart plays as a former prosecutor-turned defense attorney in a murder case involving flirty Lee Remick and her volatile husband, Ben Gazzara, who passed away two weeks before the release of the Blu-ray. Naturally, I paid particular attention to Gazzara, whose army lieutenant is on trial for murdering a local tavern owner after he supposedly raped Remick. Gazzara’s Manion is a study in pretension and manipulation. You underestimate him at your own peril. But then the same holds true for Stewart’s jazz-loving backwoods lawyer. You marvel at every character turn, including Arthur O’Connell’s once glorious attorney turned drunken disgrace, Eve Arden’s wisecracking bookkeeper, George C. Scott’s slick Lansing prosecutor, and Joseph N. Welch’s plain spoken judge. Welch is the wild card: the famed Boston attorney from the Army/McCarthy hearings, who grounds the film in pragmatism.

Special Godfather 40th Anniversary Screening

Posted on by Bill Desowitz in Below the Line, Blu-ray, Books, Cinematography, Home Entertainment, Movies, Oscar, Tech, Trailers | Leave a comment

Paramount Pictures is presenting a special 40th anniversary screening of The Godfather today on 55 Cinemark XD auditoriums across the country.  The film was meticulously restored using 5.1 digital surround sound and re-mastered using state-of-the-art technology, then transferred to files making it available to be seen on Cinemark XD screens.

“There is no greater iconic film than The Godfather, states James Meredith, VP of marketing and communication at Cinemark. “It has set the standard for story-telling, launched a generation of great actors, and provided movie-goers an unparalleled experience. Cinemark is excited to give fans of this movie the opportunity to now see it like never before in our extremely popular XD auditoriums, which offer a complete entertainment environment featuring enormous wall-to-wall and ceiling-to-floor screens, plush seating, and custom JBL sound systems with higher end components and 7.1 capable digital surround sound.”

The Coppola Restoration of The Godfather 40th Anniversary Edition as a project began in 2006 between Paramount Pictures and the director. Archivist Robert Harris joined the project, followed by the original cinematographer of the film Gordon Willis, to complete the team who worked arduously on the film for over a year going through the original prints, re-release prints, and negatives, shot by shot, foot by foot, frame by frame and even sprocket hole by sprocket hole.

Cinemark plans to also show The Godfather Part II on XD screens on April 19. A full list of participating Cinemark XD locations, advance ticket purchases and show time information can be found at

Backstage at the Oscars with Hugo and Rango

Posted on by Bill Desowitz in 3-D, Animation, Below the Line, Cinematography, Events, Movies, Oscar, Tech, VFX | Leave a comment

Here are some backstage comments gathered from Hugo’s cinematographer Bob Richardson and VFX supervisors Rob Legato and Ben Grossmann (pictured above with Alex Henning [l]) along with Rango director Gore Verbinski:

Can you talk about working in 3-D? This is not the first 3-D film to win, but it’s unusual to get recognized with 3-D.

Bob Richardson: You’re right. I think the odds of winning are extraordinarily small. I was the crystal ball didn’t work this way. I know it worked that way for Mark Wahlberg, but for me, I didn’t see it.

Where do we go now, dramatically, with 3-D now that you’ve paved the way?

BR: That’s a huge question, but I don’t think there’s any limits for it. 3-D is a very solid step. I believe it’s 15, 20 percent, give an arbitrary percentage. The advantage is a tool towards what filmmakers can use, if used, as just that, as a tool, not as a gimmick. There’s an end. I do believe it will alter that, but, technically, I don’t believe we can go into that here, ’cause I could go on for an hour…

This was a marriage of visual effects and 3-D. Talk about that marriage.

Rob Legato: What we are trying to do with the 3-D of the movie itself is to basically extend the art form of cinema by using the depth that you get and every shot was designed to take advantage of the depth that we would enhance the model of the story. So, every shot was literally made to be in 3-D and designed to give you some depth or emotional response from it.

Ben Grossmann: And there’s a lot of science behind it, but we try to take the science and distill it down to something that is so simple that it doesn’t interfere with your instinctive creativity, so you can hear Marty or Dante or Bob, and say what they feel the shot should emote.

What does this win mean about the state of visual effects and the appreciation of visual effects at least by the Academy?

RL: There’s a perfect blend and ours does not stick out but assists that and becomes part of the art form that the Academy sort of growing up with the visual effects world, and saying, we are now going to also appreciate the art of what you tried to achieve, what’s literally on screen.

Talk about the unorthodox approach of putting all the actors in one room.

Gore Verbinski: I don’t know any other way to direct actors. I want them to act and react. I suppose it I think it made it feel like it was occurring and we encouraged line overlaps and we encouraged people to be out of breath. So we really were kind of paranoid of the computer making things clinical, and it so lends itself to perfection. So suddenly you had the feeling I guess in the soundtrack that there was a tortoise talking to a lizard, because Johnny was talking to Ned Beatty and they were actually playing the scene together. So I think there’s there’s something in there. There’s some sort of DNA underneath it all. But ultimately it was just a fear of having somebody sit with a bit of text in front of a microphone. I mean, I haven’t done that since I was selling sugar water, Budweiser, you know, or whatever, doing commercials, but that’s so distant from getting a performance.

What is the take away now that you’re back to live action?

GV: They’re two completely different hats. I suppose underneath all of it it’s just finding a story you want to tell in the same way you would if you were sitting around a campfire or something. But completely different. I mean, there are no gifts in animation. We have to fabricate everything, including the anomalies, and yet now I’m two days into shooting a live-action picture. I actually go back tomorrow to shoot, and there’s chaos and you can’t orchestrate things exactly how you want them, but when events happen, they’re set in stone and you’re done. I don’t know how else to explain it. It’s just every aspect of it is so different.”