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.


Letteri Talks Tintin and Apes

Posted on by Bill Desowitz in 3-D, Animation, Clips, Movies, Oscar, performance capture, Tech, Trailers, VFX, Virtual Production | Leave a comment

In my latest TOH column at Indiewire, Weta’s Joe Letteri compares The Adventures of Tintin with Rise of the Planet of the Apes, overcoming the Uncanny Valley with authentic and detailed facial muscles, Weta’s new fur and lighting design, which altered performance as well. Spielberg, in fact, served as the film’s lighting consultant, switching to a film noir look for interiors. The new virtual camera’s ability to shoot on location with the other actors (along with these other refinements) will definitely improve Gollum’s performance in the new Hobbit film as well. You can listen to an audio Q&A with Letteri at the Autodesk Area site!

Top 10 List: Adapt or Die

Posted on by Bill Desowitz in Movies, Oscar, Tech, Trailers, VFX | Leave a comment

One glance at the movies of 2011, in the 10th anniversary of 9/11, and it was obvious that it was the year of coping with dramatic change and having to shift gears to survive. We were all Scrooge with time running out to embrace humanity. My top 10 list  (which is still in a state of flux, fittingly enough) certainly reflects this, and I will delve more deeply into the thematic threads after the Academy announces its best picture nominees.

1. Hugo

Martin Scorsese looks back and forward at the same time with this love letter to French film of the early sound era, the forgotten and embittered George Méliès, 3-D, and film preservation (with a little Michael Powell thrown in for good measure). A dreamy, Dickensian fairy tale with game-changing 3-D and emotional catharsis.

2. The Artist

Michael Hazanavicius looks back and forward at the same time with this love letter to Hollywood, silent films, the forgotten and embittered silent film star George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) who can’t make the transition, and black-and-white. A dreamy, Victorian fairy tale with anachronistic techniques and emotional catharsis. Like Hugo, though, The Artist reminds us that movies remain timeless, in spite of changing technology.

3. The Tree of Life

Terrence Malick’s summation film about nature and grace and the need for emotional connection and creative expression. A philosopher’s view of life, told in fits and starts, and wrapped around childhood memory and adult regret. Oh, yes, there’s emotional catharsis.

4. War Horse

The antithesis of Jaws in which an unstoppable beast unites people rather than destroys them. Steven Spielberg, coming off Tintin, is like a child again with this fable about love and hope between a young man and his horse. Like Gone with the Wind, The Quiet Man, and Ryan’s Daughter, the land is everything, which is never more apparent after the waste of World War I. The essence of Spielberg’s classicism applied to another story of conscience.

5. Moneyball

Bennett Miller follows Capote with another literate and mournful biopic of a creative iconoclast on a life-changing journey. Only in this case, Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane (Brad Pitt at his most fascinating and charismatic best) is spiritually adrift because baseball has broken his heart (he blew his chance as a player). But that doesn’t prevent the driven and resourceful Beane from reinventing himself with a revolutionary way of evaluating players with computer analysis, which rekindles his life of life and baseball.

6. The Descendants

No one does irony better than Alexander Payne (a latter day Mike Nichols), and he gets the best out of George Clooney in this melancholy tale of an emotionally barren land baron in Hawaii confronted with death and betrayal, who gets a second chance at fatherhood and proud land owner as a descendant.

7. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

John le Carré’s insightful Cold War dissection gets reinvented by Tomas Alfredson, and Gary Oldman carries it off as a quiet, pensive George Smiley. There’s a Soviet mole at MI6 and Smiley slowly weeds him out among a cast of characters at “The Circus” (including Colin Firth, Tom Hardy, and Mark Strong), but not before reflecting on his own failings. Lovely layers of authentic ’70s textures with compositions emphasizing claustrophobia and paranoia. Espionage was never chillier.

8. A Dangerous Method

David Cronenberg conjures a fascinating rivalry between Michael Fassbender’s romantic Carl Jung and Viggo Mortensen’s rigorous Sigmund Freud. But A Dangerous Method is really about the woman that comes between them: Keira Knightley’s tortured Sabina Spielrein, who’s a brilliant psychoanalyst in her own right. Human nature doesn’t change, and you can’t hide from it. Cronenberg’s spare visual style pulls us into the sly narrative without us even realizing it. He’s like a skillful psychoanalyst.

9.  Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2

Our favorite boy wizard completes his harrowing rite of passage in this action-packed finale directed with operatic flair by David Yates. It was worth the journey just to see Harry and his pals fight for Hogwarts and his surreal encounter with Dumbledore. But, most of all, the sublime payoff with Snape (the very reason you cast Alan Rickman in the first place) and his secret tale of unrequited love provides an unexpected twist that makes you want to watch it all again from the beginning.

10. Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close

While all the other films deal with 9/11 metaphorically, Stephen Daldry’s fable confronts it head on. In fact, it’s a little like Hugo, in which an overly sensitive boy (newcomer Thomas Horn) sets out to unlock a secret left behind by his deceased father (Tom Hanks) and settle unfinished business. Along the way, he encounters a mysterious old man (Max Von Sydow) in need of repair and redemption. And like War Horse, sentimental yet powerful.

Immigrant Song Video Propels Dragon Tattoo

Posted on by Bill Desowitz in Below the Line, Clips, Movies, Music, Oscar, Tech, VFX | Leave a comment

David Fincher directs this video of the howling, sadistic, cyberpunk, oil-drenched cover version of Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song” by Karen O, which is used in the opening credits of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Featured on the three-disc soundtrack by Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross, it’s wild, creepy, and sadistic: it’s like Maurice Binder on acid and brings back memories of Se7en.

Spielberg Talks Tintin, War Horse

Posted on by Bill Desowitz in 3-D, Animation, Books, Clips, Movies, Oscar, performance capture, Tech, Trailers, VFX, Virtual Production | Leave a comment

In my latest TOH column for Indiewire, Spielberg tells me why he went performance capture with The Adventures of Tintin and the importance that War Horse holds for him. Later in the week, I will post my complete conversation with Spielberg.!

Immersed in Blu-ray: St. Louis, West Side Story

Posted on by Bill Desowitz in Blu-ray, Home Entertainment, Movies, Music, Oscar | Leave a comment

Vincente Minnelli’s masterful Meet Me in St. Louis (Warner Home Video) arrives on Blu-ray just in time for the holidays. It’s my favorite of Minnelli’s musicals (the first of the movie genre to dramatically integrate music into the emotional fabric of the story). The Technicolor looks stunning in HD, as we progress throughout the seasons, going from the heat of summer and the beauty of spring, right on through spooky Halloween and chilly Christmas. It all coincides with the emotional ups and downs of the middle class Smith family and culminates with Garland singing the melancholy “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” to the scene-stealing Margaret O’Brien.

Then something miraculous happens, of course, when O’Brien, in a fit of rage, decapitates her snowmen because the family’s relocating to New York. It’s brilliantly shot in close-up from her innocent point of view. But there’s no place like home and the 1904 World’s Fair arrives as the harbinger of a new beginning. The circle of life, indeed.

By contrast, the arrival of the Oscar-winning West Side Story in a gorgeous and 50th anniversary Blu-ray set (Fox/MGM Home Ent.) represents a stylization of a different sort, in which both song and dance express emotional states of mind in this Romeo & Juliet of the street.

I still think The Sound of Music is Robert Wise’s musical masterpiece, but this comes a close second in a powerful and poetic adaptation of the Bernstein/Sondheim Broadway smash. The loss of innocence circa 1960 in New York City anticipates the violent destruction that would rip the hearts out of a nation coming to grips with race relations. Jerome Robbins’ choreography steals the show, though, in this large-format sensation that sounds as great as it looks in the home theater. It captured the zeitgeist of the era and certainly has its roots in hip-hop and beyond. Natalie Wood and Richard Beymer have no right to be as good as they are, and best supporting Oscar winners George Chakiris and Rita Moreno are unforgettable.

Maltin On Movies

Posted on by Bill Desowitz in Books, Movies, Oscar | Leave a comment

The 2012 edition of Leonard Maltin’s invaluable Movie Guide (as strong as ever in the digital age with 17,000 capsule movie reviews and 300 new entries) is definitely worth a holiday purchase as a $20 trade paperback (Plume) or $9.99 smaller paperback version (Signet). And for a great double-bill, the historian has also updated his Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide: From the Silent Era through 1965 ($23, Plume).

“The book expands different eras now and predates cable TV, home video, the internet, but the function of the book hasn’t changed, just the technology,” says Maltin, whose favorite film this year is The Descendants (which took the LA Film Critics top prize) because of its humanity.

Indeed, the 2012 Movie Guide is more important than ever, you could argue, because movies have never been more accessible and on such a multitude of platforms for our viewing pleasure. The trick is getting a younger generation interested in the classics. I was mystified earlier this year when meeting a waiter who said he wasn’t interested in movies made before he was born.

“The poet Cicero once said, ‘Not to know what happened before you were born, is to forever remain a child,” Maltin counters.”It’s a very immediate form of entertainment: they just announced that they’re going to bring the Harry Potter attraction from Orlando to Universal City, but it’s going to take several years to clear the land and construct it and execute it. And I’m thinking to myself, wait a minute: in a five to 10 to 15 years, will the children and adolescents of the next decade have the same interest in Harry Potter now that the series is over? What about after the Twilight movies are over? These are strains of pop culture that you and I can’t predict because young people tend to be fickle.”

Maltin, who is constantly reevaluating his relationship to his favorite movies, not surprisingly, lists Casablanca as his all-time favorite, and recommends such holiday fare as the melancholy Meet Me in St. Louis and the charming Remember the Night (scripted by Preston Sturges).

“At some point some in your life, not your parent and maybe not a teacher, will say, ‘Did you ever see Casablana? Or have you ever watched Singin’ in the Rain? You gotta see this.’ And that’ll lead people to more mature and broad-based view of the world and of continuing pop culture.”

Golden Globes Gets Animated

Posted on by Bill Desowitz in 3-D, Animation, Clips, Events, Movies, Music, Oscar, performance capture, VFX, Virtual Production | Leave a comment

Grabbing Best Animated Feature nominations today for the 69th Golden Globe Awards are the five studio films you could count on: Steven Spielberg’s The Adventures of Tintin from Weta Digital (Dec. 21); Aardman/Sony’s Arthur Christmas; Pixar and John Lasseter’s Cars 2; DreamWorks’ Puss in Boots; and Gore Verbinski’s Rango, the front runner and ILM’s first animated feature. Gnomeo & Juliet’s “Hello Hello” from Elton John and Bernie Taupin was nominated for Best Original Song.

What does this mean for Oscar? I think it’s a race between Rango and Tintin with the other two or three spots wide open. But don’t be surprised if one of the 2D indies sneaks in, such as A Cat in Paris.

“To make a movie so far afield from the norm was very gratifying,” admits Hal Hickel, Rango’s animation supervisor. “It’s hard to buck the trend but we’re so thrilled to be getting such a great response. And it was a great fit for us to work in a world that had such a photographic and textured look. The freedom not to be in that live-action box was new and exciting and it was helpful having Roger Deakins come in and show us that we had all these lighting options. We looked at There Will Be Blood, and liked the solutions they came up with for those hot, dusty exteriors.

“Where do we go from here? We’re dying to do another one, with or without Gore. In fact, I’d prefer to do something else that’s completely original. We can do so much more.”

For director Chris Miller, Puss in Boots provided an opportunity to do something totally different from the Shrek world and was a liberating experience. “It’s reflected in the movie,” Miller adds. “Guillermo [del Toro] came aboard at a great time for us. It was fated in a way. It was surreal when he asked to participate and helped us achieve the story we wanted to tell. We’ll see if there’s an appetite for the cat to come back.”

“I’m just delighted that the brilliant craftsmanship, hard work, and dedication of the team who made Arthur Christmas has been honored by a Golden Globe nomination,” remarks director Sarah Smith. “Thank you to the HFPA; we hope the movie gives Christmas pleasure!”

The Golden Globes will air live on Sunday, Jan. 15, 2012 at 5:00 pm PST on NBC.

Richardson Talks More Hugo

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

Cinematographer Bob Richardson went back to square one in shooting Hugo in 3-D. As he simultaneously studied the films of Méliès and the photographic works from that period, he began evaluating the Alexa.

“I did not attempt to measure digital capture against film capture,” he explains. “I went into this experience as producing a digital 3-D product against a fair amount voices asking for a different approach. Meaning that most prefer to use digital capture to emulate film. After speaking with Marty, we both agreed that first and foremost we were creating a 3-D experience and that would require digital cameras. Thus, whatever color space the Alexa’s provided was to be the one we worked within and to place the 2-D film presentation in a secondary position.

“Immediately I learned that one should not take one’s previous ‘film” experience and lay that flatly atop 3-D digital capture without questioning previous patterns of behavior. I realized very early on that I needed to be schooled by a master: Vince Pace was my first teacher; Rob Legato was my constant teacher and companion; and then practice brought a comfort zone.”

The next step was to determine how to take the data and manipulate it. An onsite lab and theater facility was built at Shepperton in London and Greg Fisher was hired to color correct the dailies. “Vince had his team stereo correct our dailies and Marty wanted us to develop a lut for autochrome [a red-orange, green, and blue-violet system, which the Lumière Brothers experimented with in the early 20th century in conjunction with 3-D] for the flashback sequences, which was developed by Rob Legato and Greg Fisher.

“Unfortunately, we were unable to duplicate the exact look but in the process of attempting to create an autochrome feel we came up with what is now the primary base of the film, and the [predominant] blue hue is a direct result of that lut. I found that the blue in the autochrome lut needed a base blue on set. I talked with my gaffer and we set the overhead lights that were currently tungsten with full blue gel. That was often used in combination with white light on the floor to light the actors. The autochrome picked up on the blue and shifted it toward what you see in the film. The sense of depth was enhanced by a combination of cool and warm. We tested shooting sequences with one tone and the result was not as strong a sense of depth as when we mixed cool and warm. Within the film we used that piece of knowledge to our advantage. Certain sequences went completely blue or white with no mixture. That can be seen in the second sequence between Hugo and Méliès at the toy store. A cooler base with little mix of white or warm was used.”

Aside from conveying a hyper reality with tremendous layers of depth and particulate matter that leaps off the screen, Hugo’s 3-D also brings us closer to the characters and actually influences the direction of the performances. “I agree with you completely here — the 3-D gives a sense of intimacy that is not as evident in 2-D,” Richardson suggests. “I must admit that it is somewhat of a mystery to me, why, with some, it works better than with others. I felt that Christopher Lee [as the compassionate bookstore owner] took to 3-D in a phenomenal way. His medium shots and close-ups bear his soul to the audience. The same can be said for the Ben Kingsley close-ups as Méliès in and around the toy store. When an actor is in the zone, the 3-D enhances that performance.”

Bennett Discusses The Artist

Posted on by Bill Desowitz in Movies, Oscar, Production Design | Leave a comment

Production designer Laurence Bennett became immersed in the silent films of Lang, Murnau, Vidor, and von Sternberg to prepare for The Artist. It turns out that von Sternberg’s Underworld was a particular revelation.

“When I realized he was shooting Underworld on the back lot of Paramount in 1925, and that’s the same real estate that we were using for some of the same facades that we were using to shoot downtown Los Angeles for The Artist, it was a remarkable opportunity.  When you only have tonal contrast and pattern and solids for separation to define planes, it’s quite a challenge. One of the things we took as a basic for our film was stage sets that we created that were part of the ‘real world’ and the film sets that they were working in, which we did in black-and-white.”

“We wanted to get a little closer to the stylistic decisions of various periods during the course of the picture. For example, film sets from the premiere of A Russian Affair, the first film we see George in, borrows heavily from Fritz Lang’s Spies. And when you get down to the set that Peppy is in when she reads the news that George has been injured in a fire. That was a Cedric Gibbons style set from MGM in 1932. I tried to get some stylistic and historical progression.”

Director Michel Hazanavicius and Bennett talked a lot about trying to evoke the period with authenticity without being slavish to it. Hazanavicius quoted Clint Eastwood when making period pictures: “These are not documentaries. We’re trying to make living, breathing environments for these characters to walk around in and dance in.” He therefore wanted it to be emotionally accurate.

“The contrasts are great,” he continues. “The house that Peppy lives in when she’s successful was a place where Mary Pickford lived for four years. That was one of these magical bits of synchronicity. We found this little house in Freemont Place and the bedroom in which George is convalescing was Mary Pickford’s bedroom. It doesn’t get any more special than that. I have to laud Michel and producer Thomas Langmann for holding out to make it in Hollywood. He wanted to pay homage on the ground where it happened. It fed everyone creatively and informed their work.”

Meanwhile, when George is down on his luck and moves into an apartment in 1931, even though it was built as a stage set, it was a marvelous opportunity to do a distillation of all the things Bennett likes about LA architecture from that era. “It has a slight Spanish revival aura, and, ironically, the plaster work in all the gorgeous Spanish revival houses in Los Angeles in the ’20s was only made possible because the plaster had been imported from Italy to Hollywood to work on the DeMille productions, which is a nice, odd circle,” Bennett observes.

Revisiting KFP2 on Blu-ray

Posted on by Bill Desowitz in 3-D, Animation, Blu-ray, Clips, Home Entertainment, Music, Oscar, Tech, Trailers, VFX | Leave a comment

With this week’s release of Kung Fu Panda 2 on Blu-ray/DVD (DreamWorks/Paramount), featuring stunning picture and sound and plenty of great bonus features (“Animation Inspiration” and “Animator’s Corner”), it’s time to revisit the work on display for Oscar consideration.  As director Jennifer Yuh Nelson has revealed in my interview, this cried out for a sequel that is more epic and intimate than the original.

“It’s more epic, it’s more emotional, and, graphically, it goes beyond the original in so many ways,” asserts Rodolphe Guenoden, supervising animator and fight choreographer. “And the original had a pedigree that was not such an easy task.”

For the sequel, the dramatic stakes are also raised with Po discovering his origin and how it relates to the conflict with Lord Shen (Gary Oldman).

“It was great seeing her be a part of the entire animation process because before she was part of the upstream departments with storyboards and visual development,” Guenoden adds. “But to actually have that collaboration in animation was [valuable]. She never lost track of the story she wanted to tell.”

This character arc is clearly evident in the fight sequences, according to Guenoden. “The scale and tone of the fights are different,” he says. “For the first battle sequence when we see Po in action, we wanted him to perform in the same way as his dream in the original movie. So it had to be slightly fantasized, and then each one after that had to reflect the story point that Jen wanted to emphasize.

Guenoden also enjoyed finding a different way for the Lord Shen to fight, and was assisted by new R&D for feathers from the technical department. “I took a lot of inspiration from rhythmic gymnastics as well as traditional assault forms,” he explains. “I wanted him to be very graceful, and I wanted him to be original and super flexible and unpredictable. I looked at a lot of videos of girls jumping around and doing incredible flips.”