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.

Below the Line

Trailering Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close

Posted on by Bill Desowitz in Below the Line, Books, Events, Movies, Oscar, Trailers | Leave a comment

OK, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close (opening Christmas Day) could be the Oscar wild card to challenge The Artist and War Horse. Judging by the second trailer and everything I’ve read, it’s tailor-made for the Academy (especially the all-important acting branch) in this 10th anniversary of 9/11. Tom Hanks plays a sensitive father killed in the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, and the bittersweet story directed by Stephen Daldry and scripted by Eric Roth revolves around his “gifted” son (Thomas Horn) scouring Manhattan in search of the lock that corresponds to the key he left behind. You see, before his death, Hanks and his son played a little game in which the boy collected relics from every decade of the 20th century.

Meanwhile, the anger and grief are eating away at widow/mother Sandra Bullock, and the boy befriends a mysterious, mute stranger (Max Von Sydow, a strong Best Supporting Actor contender) with his own tragic past. Together they go on a mad quest to find meaning and salvation. If the execution works, we could have another Best Picture contender.

Jack Fisk Climbs The Tree of Life

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In my latest TOH column for Indiewire, Jack Fisk discusses The Tree of Life and and his special collaboration with Terrence Malick, which goes all the way to Badlands in 1973. He is certainly the architect of Malick’s cinematic playground, and says Malick, who has completed one film since The Tree of Life and is prepping two more back-to-back, has never been happier making movies.

Meanwhile, to help stir some more Oscar heat, Fox Searchlight will bring back The Tree of Life to LA (Dec. 9-15 at the Music Hall). There will be Q&A discussions with producers Dede Gardner, Sarah Green, Nic Gonda, cinematographer Lubezki (who also took NYFCC honors), editor Mark Yoshikawa, costume designer Jacquie West, and supervising sound editors Craig Berkey & Erik Aadhl. These will occur after each 8:00 pm screening and on the 10th after the 5:00 pm and 8:00 pm screenings.

The Artist Director Speaks

Posted on by Bill Desowitz in Below the Line, Cinematography, Costume, Movies, Music, Oscar, Production Design, Tech, Trailers | Leave a comment

At a recent junket for The Artist, I got the chance to ask director Michel Hanazavicius the following questions:

What was your approach to the acting?

The movie has been done in the ’20s so, of course, it’s the course of acting in the ’20s, not of the silent movie. So it’s not about acting silent; it’s just acting. And I think the silent part, to me, in the writing process, is how to create images that will tell the story. It’s the same confusion that people have about silent movies. They think that silent movies are old. But they are not old because they are silent; they are old because they were made in the ’20s.

How did you design and conceive a silent movie in black-and-white with today’s technology?

Well, the technology’s exactly the same as it was in ’20s: you have a camera, you have actors. You are not forced to use 3-D and to use digital. You can do what you want with technology. To me, it’s not a technical challenge, this movie. The technology and the technique are very simple, except maybe for the writing once again. It was very difficult and challenging for me because the most complicated thing is to make it simple for the audience. They want character and they want a story: they don’t want to see a performance; they don’t want to see how difficult it was or how clever it is. At least this film allows you to make a very specific story. You can go to some poetry that you usually don’t see in other movies. And I think it’s part of the promise of that movie because you say, ‘I won’t use dialogue.’ That means you use something else — you use images. I think unconsciously people want to have so many images that you don’t see in other movies. For example, when she goes in the dressing room and she puts her coat on the coat rack, usually you don’t that in a normal movie because it’s a little too much. But you can do that in a silent movie because it’s part of the promise. Or when a character is arguing with his own shadow. You don’t do that unless you’re a director like Fellini or Almodovar or Tati. What was difficult for me was to find the freedom. What is freeing during a silent movie and doing it?

Why use Bernard Herrmann’s love theme for Vertigo for the climax, which I understand was a temp track?

For people it’s a little bit shocking to have the music of another movie. When I saw Casino, Martin Scorsese used the music of Le Mepris from Jean Luc Godard and for a few seconds I questioned it. Finally, I accepted it. So we had two options: I asked the composer to compose on the same structure but with our own thing, and I did not have that feeling of something special from the last movement. And also this theme is so beautiful, so perfect, so sensual that, finally, I decided to keep it. And this movie is not just a tribute to silents: it’s wider than that. It’s a tribute to all the classical Hollywood movies. That track had legitimately to be here and anyway you can find Herrmann, the music is so beautiful.

It’s About Time: The Artist and Hugo

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

The Artist and Hugo are truly miraculous bookends that should be studied in introductory film courses: Michel Hanazavicius pays tribute to Hollywood silents and the classical golden age in a very old school approach, and Martin Scorsese delves into the magical world of Georges Méliès while soaking up the experimental French sound films of the same period, only pushing 3-D to new depths of dynamic immersion with the latest digital tools.

But it’s not about technology or technique: it’s about the primacy and poetry of visual storytelling — pure and simple. Both directors and their crews return to square one to rediscover the past and reclaim the present. Their films are about loneliness and the search for identity, artistic expression, and the longing to lose oneself in the cinematic dream world of the movies to escape the harsh realities of life. They are also about the importance of dealing with change, which is timeless and timely, given the precariousness of our global situation. The Artist and Hugo are not unique but they are sustaining.

This is important not only for jaded cinephiles but also for filmmakers struggling to find their way in the new digital paradigm and a new generation of filmgoers that has no use for the past. Earlier this year, I met an amiable waiter who admitted that he has no interest in movies made before he was born. I found his lack of curiosity shocking. Surely, he read books written before his time. Yes, he admitted, only when it came to movies they seemed foreign and dated. Well, perhaps he’s not alone and perhaps The Artist and Hugo will make the cinematic past come alive and help connect the dots to the present.

In speaking with Hanazavicius and three of his crew, they were certainly liberated by their back to basics journey: learning for the first time how to construct a monochromatic world in keeping with the rise and fall of screen star George Valentin (the marvelous Jean Dujardin, who’s like a cross between Doug Fairbanks and Gene Kelly), and emphasizing a more abstract form of expression without the use of dialogue. Hanazavicius said simplicity was the most difficult challenge.

The same goes for Scorsese and his team on Hugo, a film about forgotten dreams, memory, and time. That sweeping opening that takes us through the Paris train station and into the eye of a hidden child is a marvel of CG and practical effects, something that Méliès would’ve applauded. And the stereoscopic brilliance is part of the narrative, pushing the depth beyond any previous 3-D movie, including Avatar. It’s fulfilling the promise of House of Wax and Dial M for Murder, thanks to more advanced technology. But the technology is merely serving the needs of the storytelling. We are there with Hugo and experience the storybook world right along with him. When the drawings fly around the room and animate like flip books, it’s magical. When Ben Kingsley as Méliès addresses the audience at the premiere, he extends into our space to address us intimately. Scorsese and his colleagues conceived and executed the movie entirely in 3-D. 2-D was an afterthought. No wonder James Cameron told Scorsese that it’s the best photographed 3-D movie he’s ever seen.

Revisiting Hollywood’s Silent Age with The Artist

Posted on by Bill Desowitz in Below the Line, Cinematography, Costume, Movies, Music, Oscar, Tech, Trailers | Leave a comment

In today’s TOH column at Indiewire, I discuss the challenges of making The Artist with production designer Laurence Bennett, costume designer Mark Bridges, and composer Ludovic Bource. What’s amazing is how liberating it was for them to return to the roots of Hollywood and classical filmmaking at a time when we’re on the cusp of technological change once again.

Oscar Potential for Potter Finale

Posted on by Bill Desowitz in 3-D, Animation, Below the Line, Home Entertainment, Oscar, Production Design, VFX, Virtual Production | Leave a comment

Just as the Oscar race starts heating up, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 came out on Blu-ray last week (Warner Home Video), bolstered by a compelling FYC trailer (see below). As expected, the exciting and sublime finale looks and sounds spectacular in the home theater. Director David Yates wanted to end on a stirring operatic flourish in 3-D and he succeeded. The question now becomes: What are the Oscar chances for the most successful film franchise?

Well, as I’ve already commented for TOH, Part 2 is a definite contender for VFX (supervised overall by Tim Burke). It’s the culmination of superlative work that put the London industry in Soho on the global stage, and is worthy of the highest honor. From the first-time CG Hogwarts by Double Negative (demonstrated nicely in the Blu-ray’s “Blowing Up Hogwarts” in Maximum Movie Mode) to the thrilling Gringotts break in and escape on a sullen dragon (also Dneg), to the Room of Requirements escapade with fire creatures (MPC), to the Hogwarts battle (Dneg and MPC), to the ethereal encounter with Dumbledore (Framestore), and the final confrontation with Voldemort (MPC).

“Environments, especially, have been a breakthrough, says Burke.” It’s all HDRI, and that way of photographing textures has given us incredibly detailed shots and the ability to relight things. It’s all based on the proprietary tools to stitch this stuff together and make it work.”

The biggest achievement, in fact, was Hogwarts, which was computer-generated for the first time both for budgetary and artistic reasons. “Basically, we were able to design and execute shots right up to final delivery,” Burke adds. “It gave us a lot of flexibility. We were able to render things quickly without fussing around. It seems to me that we can turn around iterations so much quicker than ever before.”

Since the ongoing war takes place at Hogwarts throughout the second-half of Part 2, it was essential that the battleground display sufficient detail and dynamic compositions, particularly since the final film is the first in 3-D.

“David wanted to create these fantastic, big shots that link different parts of the action in different areas, going from outside the school to inside the school,” Burke continues. “And all of the development that we’ve done and the extra high-resolution that we’ve corrected for have allowed us to fly around [immersively] during critical moments of the battle, and has made the whole experience very visceral.”

Aside from VFX, though, there’s plenty of other below-the-line Oscar potential, including sound mixing and effects. But Stuart Craig’s production design has progressed brilliantly throughout the franchise. Indeed, the eccentric retro wizard world has been a continuing character: Hogwarts, Diagon Alley, Gringotts. Plus the safe haven of the Weasley home, the Burrow, and, toward the end, the heavenly visit with Dumbledore at King’s Cross Station with white mist (also Framestore).

Finally, Alan Rickman’s mournful performance as Snape is a revelation along with Daniel Radcliffe’s ascension into manhood. Aren’t they Oscar worthy? And while Best Picture seems a long shot, we’ll have to wait and see how the nominations turn out.

Scorsese on Hugo and 3-D

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

After a screening of Hugo earlier this month at the Regal Stadium 14 in LA, Martin Scorsese proclaimed in a panel discussion moderated by director Paul Thomas Anderson that the experience was an “enjoyable headache…a discovery with each shot.” But in the excitement of “going back to square one,” he came away convinced that 3-D is now part of the toolset. He said “every facet of it was a redesigning of how to make pictures.” It was also a “recreation of a boy’s memory of where he was in the past.”

Thus, Hugo is a bridge. It’s like watching Antoine Doinel trapped in a clock with a rear window view of Scrooge, who, in this case, is forgotten French film pioneer Georges Méliès. And to soak up the period of Paris from 1929-1931, Scorsese studied such surrealist films as René Clair’s Le Million and Under the Rooftops of Paris as well as Jean Vigo’s Zero de Conduite and L’Atalante.

But recreating the legendary films of Méliès (including the recently restored A Trip to the Moon) as well as his glass studio gave Scorsese “a great deal of enjoyment.” It took nearly a year to pick and choose what to use with the final decisions coming about four weeks before shooting.

Scorsese, who was joined by production designer Dante Ferretti, cinematographer Bob Richardson, composer Howard Shore, editor Thelma Schoonmaker, and VFX supervisor Rob Legato, underscored the vital influence of the whole transitional period from silent to sound, right down to the autochromatic look of the cinematography.

“He couldn’t trust using colors so he painted the sets — the sets were done in black-and-white,” Scorsese explained. “And most of the costumes were in black-and-white. The rest he borrowed from the theater and those were in color. A lot of the makeup was heavily done a certain way: in some cases, people painted gray with black lips. Because until panchromatic film came into existence, it was very difficult to get the true grays and blacks and whites, so this became interesting on set.”

Ultimately, Hugo is a valentine to the history of cinema and its crucial preservation, and should be required viewing in every introductory movie course.

But it’s the future that Scorsese addressed in his final comments on 3-D, which he has managed to use creatively like no other filmmaker yet in this stereoscopic renaissance. Riffing on the theatricality of House of Wax and Dial M for Murder, Scorsese uses depth to frame his sublime story and to make every object a character. But it’s “a heightened expression of reality” that goes beyond theater and 2-D.

“For me, it’s just another element to tell a story,” he explained. “Most people have stereo vision so why belittle that very important level of our existence? There’s gotta be a way to find, for all our technical expertise, a comfortable way of dealing with [it]. The cameras are getting smaller, the issue of glasses is being worked on. If everything moves along and there are no major major catastrophes, we’re headed towards holograms. Why can’t you have 3-D where Hamlet comes out to the middle of the audience and says, ‘To be or not to be?’ I mean, they do it theater. Why can’t you have it in a movie theater or at home? You have to think that way. Don’t let fashion inhibit you if you’re being creative.”

J. Edgar and Rosebud

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

Friday night’s LACMA screening/Q&A of J. Edgar hit home the Citizen Kane analogy for Clint Eastwood’s biopic. The absolute corruptibility of power; the yearning for a love unfulfilled; and sublimating those urges to wield power. In this case, J. Edgar blackmailed the powerful through their sexual indiscretions (Eleanor Roosevelt, JFK, Martin Luther King) to make up for his inability to express his own sexuality.

Arguably the most powerful figure of the 20th century, J. Edgar shrewdly set up the FBI and created his own law enforcement empire for nearly half a century, pioneering the science of forensics, cunningly promoting his image, and manipulating the media. In this regard, the snapshot of the Warner Bros. gangster film and its shifting emphasis from Jimmy Cagney’s gangster in Public Enemy (1931) to his lawman in G Men (1935) is fascinating and pure Eastwood.

Yet it’s the tender love story between Leonardo DiCaprio’s oppressive J. Edgar and Armie Hammer’s loyal lieutenant/partner Tolson that transforms the movie. Ironically, this could well be Eastwood’s most beautiful love story. During the Q&A, the celebrated director said he was attracted to the notion of exploring the secret behind the myth. I asked him afterward at the reception if he saw any connection between Hoover and Dirty Harry as law enforcement officers driven over the edge, and he just smiled and said that Dirty Harry came out at a time when attention was paid to victim’s rights.

For screenwriter Dustin Lance Black (Milk), “it’s a cautionary tale” tied to our post 9/11 fear of terror. As for the notorious cross-dressing scene, he said it was crucial to find an emotional hook: Hoover’s mother. Eastwood said he’s particularly proud of the way it was handled: “It’s his way of bringing himself closer to his mother [during such a vulnerable moment].”

I asked Hammer which was more challenging, the brutal lover’s quarrel fight in a hotel suite or the quiet moment of emotional reckoning at the end? He responded that it was the latter because of the emotional complexity and the physical limitations of the makeup and his character’s stroke. Fortunately, it was the last scene that they shot.

Both Hammer and DiCaprio rejoiced in the famed Eastwood method of no rehearsals and one or two takes. DiCaprio even wondered if maybe Eastwood did more takes than usual since they often did four or five. I asked Eastwood if he altered his method and he replied, “No, I always do a few takes but make sure I get lots of coverage.” Why no rehearsal? “I want to see the moment of discovery in their eyes and get the actors to trust their instincts, and I want to get it on film.”

Bond 23 is Skyfall

Posted on by Bill Desowitz in Below the Line, Books, Cinematography, Costume, Editing, Events, James Bond, Movies, Production Design, VFX | Leave a comment

Better get used to the title Skyfall for the 23rd Bond film (Nov. 9, 2012). Like Quantum of Solace, it apparently refers to Bond’s troubled state of mind. “It has emotional context which will be revealed in the film,” promises producer Barbara Broccoli.

But there was precious little revealed at today’s London press conference, amid speculation about the return of Blofeld and the possibility of M’s shocking demise. Fittingly, today also coincides with Sean Connery’s announcement as Bond 50 years ago.

Yes, Javier Bardem plays the super baddie, no doubt a new breed of grounded Bond villain; Berenice Marlohe plays the seductive and enigmatic Bond girl, Severin; but Naomie Harries plays a field agent named Eve, not Moneypenny; and Ralph Fiennes and Albert Finney have not yet been confirmed as friend or foe (although it has been suggested that Finney plays M’s boss).

Speaking of M, according to the official announcement, Skyfall is about how “Bond’s loyalty to M is tested as her past comes back to haunt her.  As MI6 comes under attack, 007 must track down and destroy the threat, no matter how personal the cost.”

Meanwhile, director Sam Mendes (who was first approached for Die Another Day, but it understandably wasn’t the right fit) suggested that Skyfall will offer a return to classic Bond action and is first and foremost an audience film and not a high-brow experience, as 007 travels to Istanbul, Shanghai, and Scotland (his ancestral home). How ironic that both Mendes and Craig first got hooked on Bond through Live and Let Die, and that their association on Road to Perdition has serendipitously taken them down this road to Bond’s maturity.

Make no mistake: Skyfall is our first glimpse of Craig’s fully-formed Bond and will likely define his legacy as 007. Speaking of Craig, he came to the press conference with very short hair and some stubble on his face. All he had to say was this was going to be “Bond with a capital B.”

The crew includes director of photography Roger Deakins (Jarhead and Revolutionary Road, who will be using the Alexa); production designer Dennis Gassner (Quantum of Solace, Road to Perdition, and Jarhead); editor Stuart Baird (Casino Royale); costume designer Jany Temime (Harry Potter); second unit director Alexander Witt; stunt co-ordinator Gary Powell; SFX supervisor Chris Corbould; and VFX supervisor Steve Begg.

Go Deeper into Hugo with Featurette

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

Martin Scorsese provides a brief but stirring glimpse into Hugo (Nov. 23) in this featurette, which is much more illuminating than the trailer. He sets up the story of the eponymous orphan (Asa Butterfield) living in the Paris train station, trying to fix the mechanical man left behind by his late father, and embarking on an adventure. There are beautiful glimpses of the inner world of the station (everything is imbued in blue) and the connections with magic and the cinema, and how it all emotionally resonates with the powerful presence of Georges Méliès (Ben Kingsley), the father of special effects. Even though it’s flat, we get a wondrous sense of the depth and the great visuall possibilities of 3-D, with vertiginous Hitchcockian shots and mysterious echoes of House of Wax.