April 13, 2014

The Cinematography of Chinatown (1974)

I am writing my first review on The Paxton Configuration since January but thought I'd finally post something and do a Cinematography Of post for the film I'll be reviewing, Chinatown.

The cinematographer on this film was John A. Alonzo who was also the cinematographer on one of the most underrated films in regards to visual flair, Star Trek: Generations. Alonzo was nominated for an Oscar for his work on Chinatown but kind of flew under the radar for the rest of his career (in fact, he wasn't even the first choice for Chinatown; he was a last second replacement).

I consider Alonzo to be one of the greatest cinematographers in film history for the simple fact that his lens work on Star Trek: Generations is one of the reasons I got into film in the first place. But let his view of 1930s Los Angeles in Chinatown show you his skill.


Director: Roman Polanski
Cinematographer: John A. Alonzo

*click on the images for a larger view

January 23, 2014

The Cinematography of Haywire (2011)

Make Sure to Check Out the Steven Soderbergh Blogathon Over at Seetimaar

I'm not sure if I will be contributing anymore pieces to the Steven Soderbergh Blogathon but, at the very least, I had to do a Cinematography Of … posting for Haywire, which had some beautiful images. Great cinematography can be frantic and kinetic … but I like to also pause a film and see if it can stand alone as an image with a story in itself.

Haywire might have a more rudimentary plot but the scope of its images is immense. I love how Soderbergh focuses on nearby objects (like posters on a wall or the details of a trash can) but allows the details to stretch out into the background. The nearby objects are just as close as the buildings, landscapes or vehicles 500 feet away. There is a kind of hallway vision going on here … you can see everything up close in great detail while still seeing clearly that which is 'just down the hall', if you will.

I dunno. The above might sound like a bunch of over thinking bullshit. It is hard to put into words. Just enjoy the pretty pictures.

I got the below screen caps from the epically dense collection of Shadow of Reflection. Much appreciated Lady Manson. If you have any problem with me using your caps, please let me know.


Director: Steven Soderbergh
Cinematographer: Peter Andrews (a.k.a. Steven Soderbergh)

*click on the images for a larger view

January 19, 2014

Haywire (2011)

Make Sure to Check Out the Steven Soderbergh Blogathon Over at Seetimaar


Well this is unprecedented! I finally getting around to reviewing a Bill Paxton flick on The Paxton Configuration! And Haywire is, secretly, all about Bill Paxton. I've already written the fanfic … er … screenplay in which Paxton's character of John Kane was really a super spy who found Haywire's main character Mallory Kane abandoned in a poppy field in Vietnam while he was undercover, infiltrating a joint CIA-Viet Cong stronghold. He sets off a nuke and everything, It's great. Paxton.

Okay. Well, maybe Haywire isn't about Paxton at all. Damn it. But it is, indeed, about a secret agent, of sorts, in Mallory Kane. Steven Soderbergh, once again treading unfamiliar ground in terms of plot and setting, goes further against the grain by casting MMA fighter (and super duper rookie actor) Gina Carano as our hero Mallory, an extraction specialist (ex-marine, pretty much a kill machine) who ends up being betrayed by a handful of parties and is marked for death.

Though Soderbergh does have questionable taste in casting choices at times (his continued obsession with Channing 'Less Dimensional Than Particle Board' Tatum still amazes me; dour sourpuss Rooney Mara, etc.), Soderbergh has one objective in this stylish but to-the-point action pic: have Carano fascinate your eyes with her unique and fresh looks and her no-nonsense fight moves.

Mr. and Mrs. Smith tried to make a man and woman fighting kind of a goofy, 'wow, isn't this different?' set piece … Haywire makes it a brutal, no fluff, every day event for Mallory Kane. In fact, the film opens with a scene in which Mallory is unexpectedly attacked, briefly vulnerable, and beaten severely by an acquaintance (played by Channing Tatum). She quickly recovers and lays a beat down of her own … but for a moment there, it seems like the 'stronger' man is going to easily take out the 'weaker' woman. And when Mallory is done breaking Tatum's arm in pieces, a precedent is set. A man will not hesitate hitting this woman … but this woman will not hesitate taking the hit and coming back twice as hard. Finally, women get a hero who is not attached to any trope!

Carano is best suited keeping away from dialogue … she comes off as stilted at best, robotic at worst … but Soderbergh's throwback approach to the film (a mixture of older Cold War espionage thrillers brought back to popularity with the Bourne films and something knocking on the door of a 007 film) requires little actual to be said. His objective is to show what happens when people who can kill each other turn against each other. Unlike the more grandiose action films we see, this film tries to make it blue-collar, quick, fierce and sort of uncomfortable. I mean, in the end, when is it fun to actually see people die outside of a popcorn flick that doesn't take death seriously?

Carano's credentials as a thespian aren't really a problem no matter what because Soderbergh taps into his Rolodex and grabs a bunch of his buddies to come hang out (the fact that Brad Pitt and George Clooney don't make a cameo is a bit of a shock). Michael Douglas appears as a vague government official. Antonio Banderas gets to live up to the stereotype of his voice by speaking as if he is encased in shadows as a foreign shadow conspiracist. Ewan McGregor puts on the smarm as Mallory's boss-cum-enemy. A pre-Shame/Prometheus Michael Fassbender shows up as a greasy fellow operative who has to work with Mallory. Channing Tatum is a former associate of Mallory's while the lovable, hammable Bill Paxton plays Mallory's dad.

There really isn't a whole lot to Haywire despite the beautiful cinematography, the great supporting cast and some well done (though oddly edited) fight choreography. The film certainly has style but I don't think it really has anything to say. So despite being entertaining, the movie does have an 'empty' feeling to it. You watch it, you enjoy the goings-on, you praise Paxton for being Paxton, but then you move on.

But it isn't written somewhere that every film has to be a dramatic masterpiece and there is more to movies than just dialogue written on a page. Blu-Ray players and high definition computer monitors will appreciate the eye candy on display and Haywire's refreshing female lead and the sort of by-the-numbers but certainly not dumb storyline will make the viewing experience worthwhile.

January 15, 2014

Out of Sight, Then and Now

 Make Sure to Check out the Steven Soderbergh Blogothon Over At Seetimar
Make Sure to Check Out the Steven Soderbergh Blogathon Over at Seetimaar

In the year 1998, the movie world was quite a different place. Remember that Titanic movie that came out in 1997? No? Well, it stayed in theaters for ten entire months. It was the number one film in these United States for 15 straight weeks … this was, of course, after narrowly beating Tomorrow Never Dies in its first week fourteen weeks earlier.

The sail of the Titanic led to an unsinkable box office theme: films reaching $1 billion on a regular basis for the next decade or more. Nineteen Hundred and Ninety Eight was the beginning of a new kind of tent pole film. Movies didn't just try to make money … they tried to make the most money … ever.

What else was going on in 1998? Well, George Clooney was just a TV star. Funny that there used to be a time when there were movie stars and TV stars and never shall the twain meet. George Clooney was not just any TV actor though … he was the next David Caruso. There used to be a thing in the late 20th century called 'pulling a Caruso'. That was when an actor tried to abandon television and become a movie star too early.

Yes, George Clooney was once compared to David Caruso without a tongue planted in a cheek. George Clooney was, in 1998, kind of box office poison. From 1996 to 1998, in the midst of his very popular run on ER (admittedly, a very TV popular run), George Clooney starred in four movies. These four movies grossed $220.4 million in the US … not bad … but $107.3 million of that was (inexplicably) from Batman and Robin*. Overall, these four films cost around $219 million. Though Batman and Robin grossed a lot … it lost a lot domestically. From Dusk Till Dawn made back a few million and the rom-com One Fine Day doubled its budget but The Peacemaker and Batman and Robin were flops domestically.

Plus, well, you just read the list of those films. From Dusk Till Dawn has some cult value but the other three were not critical darlings. Hell, one of them is considered one of the worst films of all time. Add meager box office and the stigma of television and 1998 was the year George Clooney was the next Caruso. Remember, Titanic ushered in the new tent pole. If Clooney couldn't bring in the big bucks … was he worth having around? Let him get his Jade out of his system and re-sign on ER with egg on his face. Right? The year was 1998. Only sixteen years ago.

In 1998, a young actress was rising the waves of multiple types of popularity. Coming to the screen with a singeing sexiness but with raw (and potentially amazing) acting chops to boot, Jennifer Lopez was on the edge of becoming one of the biggest stars in the cinema world. Having dipped her toes in indie films, mainstream action and heart felt bio-pics, Lopez wasn't exactly a box office draw but attention was given … and deserved. When you saw Lopez on screen in 1998, the word, the term, the essence of sexy was there.

Also in 1998, a promising filmmaker was on the edge of obscurity. Steven Soderbergh, then 35, had made six films, five of which no one but the most dedicated film buffs knew existed. After starting out with a splash in 1989 with the revolutionary sex, lies and videotape, Soderbergh's next five films (from 1991 to 1997) grossed a total of $2.78 million dollars. Despite having unique viewpoints, non-traditional settings/plots and great actors (like Jeremy Irons, Peter Gallagher, Elisabeth Shue, Ian Holm to name a few), no one went out to see Kafka, The Underneath, King of the Hill, Gray's Anatomy or Schizopolis.

In 1998, these three forces came together to challenge the status quo of what actors could be, what directors could do with limited budgets and vision, and how movies that weren't the next Titanic could create their own niche and cut a new, alternative path in Hollywood that could coexist with the box office juggernauts that would pump out of the factory every year.

The result was Out of Sight.

It would be ridiculous to say that there weren't cool, stylish films that existed alongside smart storytelling and that won the hearts of critics before Out of Sight. But in 1998, at the tender age of 16, Out of Sight was a breath of fresh air and to me, my first cool, stylish and critically successful film. I started to get that films could still look cool but actually be good too. And though Out of Sight didn't take the world by storm at the box office … I think it was its own kind of anti-Titanic tent pole film.

For one, it showed that critical acclaim can be all that is needed to raise a 1990s television actor into a movie star. George Clooney won respect for his role as Jack Foley in Out of Sight. Though he tried playing superheroes, action heroes, horror anti-heroes and love interests, Jack Foley showed Clooney's strengths: charm and his old school style of sexy.

Out of Sight, being a down and dirty crime thriller/comedy, allowed the subterfuge to be dropped. Clooney didn't have to be in a costume, flexing his muscles against Russian terrorists or pretending he has badass tattoos and even more of a badass attitude … he could be a shade of himself. Out of Sight also didn't require him to be three dimensional. His natural, old fashion good looks, intriguing mannerisms (head nods, facial tics, swagger), and born-with-it dry comedy all came out for the first time in Out of Sight … and a new star was born. Not a former TV actor. Not a movie star. Just an actor? It might of taken a bit longer but Clooney, thanks to Out of Sight, bridged the gap.

Meanwhile, Jennifer Lopez was making her first mainstream 'prestige' film, as it were. Like Clooney, she had tackled various genres of film making but this was her chance to be a headliner. And she showed that sexy was more than the short skirts, nude scenes and skimpy award dresses she had to work with before. There was a sexy nature to Lopez in 1998 when Out of Sight was released but the film, like Clooney's status as an actor, bridged the gap.

Out of Sight, if memory serves, has Lopez, in all but one scene, wearing semi-professional wear, hospital gowns, over sized sweaters and cold weather gear. Soderbergh showed that it wasn't necessarily the appearance that was sexy, but the existence of sexy … the presence in the actress. In no film since has Lopez staggered the male mind with her sexual presence. She doesn't have to do anything but exist on the screen to exude scalding sexuality. For my 16 year old mind, this was more then seeing a hot actress. I was seeing a woman at the peak of her attractive powers. And let's not forget … Lopez acted in this movie! And she had chemistry with Clooney, a man who was finding his own sexiness and acting voice. I figured the sky was the limit for Lopez. Then again this was, after all, 1998.

As for Steven Soderbergh, he tread familiar ground as he did in 1989 just with a higher budget. His unique take on the crime genre, his ability to create such a diverse world of both grit and sexual energy, and his visual flair made Soderbergh, once a nomad in the film wilderness, a sought out helmsman of films looking for a cool yet serious edge.

And now we're in 2014. George Clooney is now considered one of the most charismatic actor/director/producer/writer success stories in all of Hollywood. No one remembers that in 1998, Out of Sight was his last chance at movie legitimacy. With eight Oscar nominations (two wins) and 12 Golden Globe nominations (three wins), and many box office hits to his name, Clooney is at the top of the heap.#

Steven Soderbergh is just as influential and popular. Much like Clooney's acting journey since Out of Sight, Soderbergh has directed award-season Oscar bait Best Pictures, produced all sorts of genres, and tried to change the way films are made, produced and presented. People still want to work with him and his films always draw interest, if not always money.

Then, of course, there is Lopez. After Out of Sight, she commanded her own pictures as a headliner for close to a decade. But she also became a pop star and the movies she starred in became more money-making, plot-lite romantic affairs. Her love life made the papers and her acting choices, already thin, became more and more dire. As of February 2014, she is a judge on American Idol. Still beautiful … but not quite sexy. Definitely not the effortless sex bomb she was in Out of Sight.

Things have changed since 1998.

And what of Out of Sight? It is still an amazing film to watch. Funny, violent, grim, romantic … and yes, my word of the day … sexy … but also revolutionary. It might not be recognized for it. But it's true. Thankfully, whether 1998, 2014 or 2084, Out of Sight is a testament to film and the people who helped make it.

*believe it or not … in 1998, before Titanic had finished raping the box office and changing the expectations of what a movie could make, $100 million used to be a benchmark.

#hell, just looking him up on imdb brings me to huge banner ads of his next motion picture … which is considered a 'prestige' film that he is starring in and directing.