Friday, April 24, 2009

Shaking bad cinematography.

Remember the first time you ever held a camera as a kid? Some adult was probably hovering over you giving you instructions... "look through the viewfinder, make sure you see everyone, don't put your finger in front of the lens... HOLD THE CAMERA STILL".
Just when was it exactly that film school forgot about that last part? Yes, they're moving pictures - that's because the things in the movie MOVE. That doesn't have to include the furniture, the wall hangings and the floor. It doesn't mean the camera should make actors shake, jitter, jump and generally go spastic - though that seems to be the job of the cameraman nowadays. On at least some sets, the most inaptly named piece of movie equipment today is the Steadicam. "Steady" doesn't even enter into it. All the work that was done to develop a stabilized handheld camera rig and all anyone seems to do with the damn thing is deliberately shoot nauseatingly wobbly pictures. Welcome to Water World where the movie screen floats and bobbles like a toy boat.

I get the hand held video camera, handi-cam schtick. I hate it, but I get it. If you want to make clever movies that ape technique from the likes of The Blair Witch Project, you can be just like Brian DePalma who made a whole 65 grand from his camcordered Redacted. (Which I'm sure anyone involved would love to have redacted from their resumes.) In the meantime, most of us would like to sit down in a movie theater and expect that for our ten bucks, we'll get to see a movie made with equipment we can't wander over and try out in our local Best Buy. What's worse is when the gear is first rate and the shaky lenses are obviously just a cost cutter for lazy filmmaking (0r abominable direction), and it becomes a signature of the picture.

Case in point - This past week's new release State of Play. From the earliest moments of following reporter Cal McAffrey (played in nearly emotion free one note by Russell Crowe), to a crime scene in downtown DC, we get jittering motion and near car sickness. Following a vehicle through city streets, gritty street scenes, news-like camera footage, I'm tolerating the cliches waiting for things to settle in. Except they don't. Even when the gear goes all dollies, cranes and Chapman/Leonard on me, director Kevin McDonald can't seem to resist having his cinematographer (Rodrigo Prieto) keep inching the camera one way or another as if it's trying to play hide and seek with the on screen cast. Annoying doesn't begin to describe constantly being reminded that I'm watching through a lens. The effect becomes so troublesome that a half hour in, I move eight rows back and to the side wall, just to gain a little distance from the quake zone.

None of this should be surprising as Rodrigo Prieto was also the cinematographer for Babel, 21 Grams, 8 Mile, 25th Hour, Original Sin, and Alexander, all of which, to some degree, suffer from the shakes. That's one helluva list of credits (with 25th Hour a personal favorite). Some excellent films that share the glaring flaw of being shot by filmmakers who can seem obsessed with ripping an audience away from a story by calling attention to the fact that they're using lots of movable hardware to make a movie. State of Play, not a great film but a fair one, jumps onto the list as being on the high side of annoying.

Lots of years ago, sitting in a darkened theater completely dazzled by the first run showing of Apocalypse Now, I was immersed, completely inside the movie, witnessing, spellbound, the finest helicopter attack sequence ever put to film. Francis Ford Coppola had somehow, on retrospect seemingly impossibly, orchestrated an extended aerial attack on a Vietnamese village to Wagner's Ride of the Valkyries. At once, as an audience, Coppola put you inside the helicopters, on the ground, running desperately over bridges and even into a bombed chopper, all while feeling like you were dodging bullets and mortar fire in your theater seat.

Then, inexplicably, as a landing boat hits a beach and soldiers pour out, racing into action, the shot is full on of a film director shouting at the soldiers not to look into his camera. Except, the director is being "acted" by the very recognizable Coppola and we're no longer there. We're seated in a dark movie theater, watching an talented director's creative brain fart, playing himself as if no one will get the "inside" joke, shouting at extras in wardrobe who now look nothing like soldiers. We are completely and utterly removed. We've been slammed back into our seats and electro-shocked back into the reality that we're watching flickering light on a movie screen. It is a godsend for both Coppola and his audiences, that Robert DuVall's iconic portrayal of Lt. Colonel Bill Kilgore almost immediately rivets us back into the story with the simple flips of death cards on corpses and his character's fascination with surfing a "hot" beachhead under fire. Within minutes, Duvall nails his immortal line and the smell of napalm as a description for the horror of war is cemented into cinematic history.

When I'm at the movies, the very most I can hope for is to be transported into a great story. Nothing can piss me off faster than having the director decide to keep reminding me that I'm watching a movie. Hold the damn camera still. Make camera movement subservient to story. When there are characters I'm trying to follow, let's not block them out of the shot with walls, furniture or the back of some other character's head. If you want to be creative with camera movement, have Skip Foose design your dolly cart. Please, let's stop all the extraneous shaking and slow motion dollies & pans and just shoot the story. It seems to me, as obvious as reminding a child to keep his finger off the lens.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Will you pay to see this movie? The Hurt Locker.

Here's a little box-office reality - in 2008, war movies didn't sell. For that matter, they didn't sell in 2007, or 2006. You get the idea. Regardless of big stars, popular directors and talented writers, war movies didn't make life easy for any studio's marketing department. Here's just a sample of the audience rejection for movies with stories based on the current Iraq and Afghanistan wars and the policies and politics that surround them.
Lions for Lambs (Nov. 2007) - directed by Robert Redford with a "serious" cast that included both Meryl Streep and Tom Cruise. More of a talking heads discussion of the war and American politics, the film portrayed Cruise as a politician, Streep as a journalist and Redford as a college professor. Though the dialogue was for the most part smart, the message was perceived as heavy handed and boring. (You can check what we said after seeing it by clicking here.) Lions for Lambs ran it's course making only 14.9 million at the US box-office, but interestingly, made another 48 million worldwide.

Rendition (Oct. 2007) - Boasting stars Reese Witherspoon and Jake Gyllenhaal (and Meryl Streep), "Rendition", the practice of apprehension and "extrajudicial" transfer of an individual to another country/state as a suspected terrorist, formed the basis of a dramatic and emotional story of an American, pregnant housewife desperate to uncover what has happened to her Egyptian-born husband. In spite of the controversial topic and the star power, Rendition managed only 9.7 million in the US and added just 20 million more worldwide.

In the Valley of Elah (Sept. 2007) - Starring Tommy Lee Jones and Charlize Theron, Paul Haggis directed this film from a story written by Mark Boal (the screenwriter for The Hurt Locker). Set entirely in the US, this film is essentially a murder mystery that hovers on a critical indictment of the lack of attention paid to the psychological damages soldiers suffer in war. The first rate cast included Josh Brolin, Susan Sarandon, James Franco, Barry Corbin and Jason Patric but made only 6.7 million in the US and added only 17.7 more worldwide.

Redacted (Nov. 2007) - Shot mostly with annoying hand-held cameras (part of the films "soldiers-eye-view" gimmick), director Brian De Palma tried desperately to raise anti-war controversy to sell his movie, while also bringing the word "redacted" into the American lexicon (but briefly). His efforts could only muster the worst showing of any war based film since toppling Mr. Hussein (or perhaps, ever) by registering a mere $65,000.00 at the US box-office. There were no foreign sales to add to that total. The film ranked number 466 for 2007's top films.

Stop-Loss (March 2008) - Another film that introduced a military practice that most non-military types knew nothing of. This time, Ryan Phillippe was the soldier returning from Iraq, in one piece and at the end of his scheduled tour, only to discover that he was being stop-lossed, or in layman's terms, forcibly re-upped for another tour of duty. Though those of us without military service in our backgrounds were agreeing with the "how the f--- can they do that" part of the story, no one showed much interest at the box-office. Stop-Loss could only muster 10.9 million here in the states and barely touched overseas audiences for just over a 1/4 of a million more.

It's 2009, and in June The Hurt Locker will try again. The story puts us on the ground in Iraq amidst the number one killer facing our troops, IEDs - improvised explosive devices. We see the story through the eyes of Staff Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner of ABC's new cop show The Unusuals), a bomb disposal expert and, from the looks of things in the trailer, a bit of a lone maverick.

The trailer makes it clear that though the camera work and lighting seem to be going for a documentary like feel, the story is full-on action and suspense. That may suggest treading a fine line between telling an exciting and compelling story and using the realities of war for exploitation. In Sergeant James, there may be a truly interesting character to reveal, or an unrealistic depiction of a cliched lose cannon with a hardened self destructive bent. In the right hands, a great action flick set in a war zone. In lesser hands, another lost effort in finding a fitting vehicle for telling a contemporary war story.

So will you want to go see The Hurt Locker? Have you had enough of today's war movies parading desert camo'd grunts rocking out to blaring anthems while commanding the latest in US weaponery? Are you saturated with violence, politics and policies? Or is there a great war movie waiting to be made? Is personalizing the cost of war through a soldier tasked with confronting, close-up, one of it's deadliest weapons, a great plot device to tell a broader story?

Take a look at the trailer first, by clicking any where in this sentence and jumping to Pulling Focus at After you've watched as may times as you like, click the link next to the trailer and jump back to leave a comment. Will you pay to see The Hurt Locker? Let us know what you think.