Rear Window (1954)

Alfred Hitchcock was no stranger to the optical point-of-view shot, inserting a camera into the heads of his characters in nearly every film throughout his career. The Master of Suspense knew that this shortcut to conveying a character’s experience could be a powerful tool if used artfully. In Vertigo, this artfulness resulted in one of the greatest POV shots of all time, the discombobulating push-in-zoom-out (technically a “dolly zoom”) that simultaneously suggests our hero’s unbalanced frame of mind. More importantly, Hitchcock routinely tied these POV shot choices to significant narrative moments. In Vertigo this served to heighten the most intense action scenes by placing us directly in the action; elsewhere, the POV shot served to convey vital information, revelations, twists and — you guessed it! — suspense:

With Rear Window, Hitchcock structured an entire film around this single technique. It may not register on first viewing just how much of the movie is comprised of true POV shots, mostly because there’s a consistent pseudo-POV gaze out of Jeffries’ (Jimmy Stewart) apartment toward those of his neighbors. Insofar as such a thing can (or even should) have one unwavering, concrete definition, this analysis will define a “POV shot” as one that is truly mirroring the vantage of the character. There are a number of sweeping pans during Rear Window in which we see much the same thing Jeff is seeing, but many of these end up incorporating Jeff into the shot and are therefore technically objective, “false” POV shots.

Continue reading Rear Window (1954)

Advertisements

Mission: Impossible – Fallout (2018)

If you’re a connoisseur of modern helicopter cinema, then Mission: Impossible – Fallout is the event of the season. Not since Black Hawk Down has the Neo-Copterism movement asserted such a well-defined visual aesthetic, such elevated narrative and tonal language, such awesome fucking explosions. Everything a refined and learned copterhead cinephile could possibly desire finds fresh life here. There is an absurdist, Lynchian quality infused into the rhythmic weaving of two whirlybirds; there are rarefied, Brechtian attributes present in those characters left on the ground. There is a continuation of the leitmotif established in the first Mission: Impossible‘s chopper-chase finale. When read through the lens of the tenets of cinéma vérité, Fallout delivers a powerful indictment of those who don’t actually know how to fly such a machine. And, in a move sure to receive recognition come awards season, auteur director Christopher McQuarrie playfully inverts the male gaze by literally flipping Tom Cruise upside down in a helicopter.

…whoops. Sorry, folks. Had my Snobometer set to High. Still, the fact remains that if there’s any Mission: Impossible movie able to withstand a level of actual criticism, it’s probably Fallout. Here, for the first time, Ethan Hunt is challenged to question whether he should choose to accept every mission that comes his way; maybe those self-destructing messages are actually destructive to Ethan’s self. That’s already a higher-level starting point for this character than any of the previous five films cared to put forth, content instead with wall-to-wall action and death-defying stuntwork.

Continue reading Mission: Impossible – Fallout (2018)

Face Off: Westworld (1973) and Westworld (Series)

Each Motion State Face Off pits two films, franchises, or television series against each another for no reason other than because we can.

In hindsight, Michael Crichton’s 1973 film Westworld was an uncomplicated affair. Sure, the premise required a bit of explaining — there’s a Wild West theme park staffed by lifelike robots, offering full immersion for wealthy tourists looking for romance or violence — but the plot was deceptively simple and the characters were drawn without a trace of ambiguity. The humans were the heroes and the malfunctioning robots were the villains. As we’ve detailed in our Writer Series on the works of Crichton, lots of good science fiction operates in exactly this way: classic stories playing out in strange, unfamiliar settings or time periods. No matter how unsettling the concept, how futuristic the design, how far-off the entire experience feels, Westworld is still a movie about a killer robot. And this is hardly groundbreaking, even in 1973, considering that the very first robot in cinema (from Houdini’s 1918 silent serial The Master Mystery) was already wreaking havoc on its human overlords:

In some ways, Killer Robot Cinema (evermore an acceptable genre classification on Motion State) has progressed a great deal since 1918. The murderous machines went from stacked-and-spraypainted cardboard boxes to sleek metal automatons to, finally, looking just like humans, which is presumably the pinnacle of droid design both in fiction and in real life. In some ways, though, killer robot cinema has hardly moved an inch. Humans are still playing God, still inventing advanced A.I. in robot form, and those robots are still turning around and killing them for it.

Continue reading Face Off: Westworld (1973) and Westworld (Series)

The Sting (1973)

This article first appeared as a part of the Brattle Film Notes commentary series, presented by the Brattle Theatre in Boston, MA, for a special screening of The Sting. Slight edits have been made from the original posting.

In many instances a film is like a con: it wants to hook you, it wants to make you personally invested in the outcome, and it wants you to walk away with a smile on your face and slightly less in your wallet. If the endeavor is a success, there will always be enough to suggest that the artist — the film artist or the con artist — knows a truth that you do not. If the endeavor is unsuccessful, the feeling of being cheated will linger and frustrate.

If we apply this analogy to today’s film industry, of course, then the Marvel Cinematic Universe might be considered the most ambitious long con in Hollywood history. But things weren’t as complicated in 1973, and that year produced arguably the least-complicated Best Picture winner ever in George Roy Hill’s The Sting. A complex plot, high stakes for hardnosed characters, themes of friendship and honor amongst thieves — these elements are all there, but they’re intentionally deployed to the background of a filmgoing experience that’s less concerned with a moral message than a good time.

Continue reading The Sting (1973)

Big (1988)

In Big, 13-year-old Josh Baskin wishes his way into a 30-something-year-old grownup version of himself. The trope of a mind-body mismatch was certainly nothing new in 1988, and in fact the late ’80s had a whole slew of movies featuring this exact same plot. These are heedfully chronicled by Mike Ryan here and include the likes of Vice Versa, Like Father Like Son, 18 Again! and Dream a Little Dream, all released within the approximate span of a single year; the other point of commonality those films share, of course, is that they’re all pretty crappy. Big is the outlier in that regard. I was about the same age as Teen Josh when I first saw the movie, and I found myself enamored with the possibilities of instant adulthood, getting a job with a toymaker and renting a sweet NYC penthouse and flirting with someone who would eventually and inexplicably agree to become my girlfriend. Teen Me was most likely motivated by this last point.

Today I’m closer in age to Adult Josh, and now Big almost seems like an entirely different movie. From a kid’s point of view, looking forward to finally attaining that brand of independence reserved for grownups, Penny Marshall’s sophomore directorial effort rings true in almost every frame. It has the wide-eyed wonder and the sentimental disillusionment that all kids experience to some degree. In a sense all movies are accelerated versions of life experiences, condensed down to two hours and designed in an arc so as to bring the viewer along for the ride with the characters on the screen. From a kid’s point of view, Big works because that acceleration is literally a part of Josh’s experience: he goes from kid to grownup and back again in a short amount of time, and so do we.

Continue reading Big (1988)

Avengers: Infinity War (2018)

One of the things that soured Age of Ultron, the second Avengers outing, was all of the hard work apparent in the film. Pretty much every movie you watch is the result of hard work, of course, but in Ultron all of the moving and shaking afoot in the past and future of the Marvel Cinematic Universe severely impacted the present, i.e. the actual movie you’re watching right now. Excepting the occasional moment of levity (the Mjolnir party game) or well-drawn action scene (Hulk vs. Hulkbuster), it felt like hard work just to get to the end of Ultron as a viewer. Director Joss Whedon never struck the same natural flow he found in his original Avengers movie, and he seemingly left the MCU because he’d rather work from a place of inspiration than from a blueprint strategy designed to perpetuate a larger narrative. In our original review we posited this as no coincidence when the Avengers themselves begin referring to their superheroism with workplace terminology, to their “jobs,” to the “endgame;” Ultron even has an absent-husband subplot featuring Mrs. Hawkeye that seems a better fit in Death of a Salesman than a Marvel flick.

But Ultron‘s in the past, right? We’re here for the new one, Infinity War, featuring everyone who was in Ultron and everyone who’s had a solo Marvel outing since then, plus a few new characters, plus an occasional cameo from the MCU’s ever-expanding backlog. As such, the first order of business (more workplace terminology!) is to issue a SPOILER WARNING to anyone who has not yet seen Infinity War. Motion State assumes no liability in your reading past this paragraph!

Continue reading Avengers: Infinity War (2018)

Casino Royale (2006): You Know My Name

Our Take Two column offers second opinions and alternative angles on films and TV series reviewed elsewhere on Motion State. Head here for our original review of Casino Royale.

We’ve done a fair bit of writing about James Bond here at Motion State. From the wonky “continuity” to an increasing need to indulge a wider audience to shitty henchmen to the way writers get away with writing the same damn movie all over again, 007’s bases are more or less covered. Heck, we even spun a conspiracy theory about Bond and Star Wars that only broke recently, now that the tables are turned and Star Wars is suddenly the more prolific franchise of the two. Double heck: we even wrote about Never Say Never Again, the “unofficial” Bond adventure featuring a plot primarily involving deep tissue massage and jazzercise. Despite the advice of the title, I’m supremely confident saying never again on that one.

The thing we’ve somehow avoided discussing is the music of the Bond franchise. Excluding franchise themes written by John Williams — Star Wars, Jurassic Park, Indiana Jones, Harry Potter, etc. — Bond is arguably the film series in which the theme music is most inextricable from the mere notion of the franchise itself. You pick the theme out in an instant and you wouldn’t mistake it for anything else. When I hear the words “James Bond” the first thing I think of is this:

Continue reading Casino Royale (2006): You Know My Name

You Were Never Really Here (2018)

There were a number of factors that prevented me from rushing out to see You Were Never Really Here on opening night. First was the weather, which is not really an excuse at all if you’re a New Englander like me. The second factor was the review snippet plastered on the poster that referred to the film as “Taxi Driver for a new century.” Do I enjoy Taxi Driver? I do. Do I enjoy “modern updates” to ’70s classics like Westworld, for example? Occasionally, yes, I do. But this kind of explicit tailcoat-riding is either lazy marketing or inadequate criticism or, likely, both. I don’t think I saw Interstellar because people said “it’s 2001 for a new generation!” and I didn’t see Annihilation because people said “it’s 2001 for a new generation!“, but I do know that I enjoyed those movies primarily for how not-2001 they both were.

But this, too, is a weak excuse. Two big preventatives: firstly, in a move most unforgivable and piteously ironic for someone who purports to point out “inadequate criticism” in the first paragraph of this very review, I had never before seen anything directed by Lynne Ramsay. People had gently suggested this oversight as something I should reconcile tout suite. “Start with Ratcatcher,” they said, recommending Ramsay’s feature debut. “Start with We Need to Talk About Kevin,” they said, recommending her 2011 effort. I’m a bit of a completist in this regard, watching one movie by the Coen Brothers and then suddenly finding myself rewatching them all. Maybe my appreciation of You Were Never Really Here would be heightened if I first paid my dues to Ramsay’s previous films, no?

Continue reading You Were Never Really Here (2018)

Annihilation (2018)

In the climactic finale of Annihilation, there is a moment in which a shape-shifting alien bioclone with burning arms lovingly embraces a charred corpse in a lighthouse that has been struck by a meteor and overtaken by a mutated blight that threatens all life as we know it. Go ahead and read that sentence again if you have to. I dare you to try to come up with something so outlandish, so unsettling, so straight-up weird, much less deploy it at a crucial moment in a multimillion-dollar motion picture production. We live in a time where pretty much every sci-fi film with a budget this size (about $40 million) ends one way: explosions. The scripts all contain the same line: Big CGI Thing bursts into CGI flame. Heck, explosions probably typify the finale of most Hollywood films, sci-fi or otherwise, and the scripts for their inevitable sequels all contain the same line: Bigger CGI Thing bursts into bigger CGI flame.

But Annihilation goes a long way to assuaging the bitterness now associated with what the Hard Sci-Fi genre has threatened to become, and writer/director Alex Garland might just be the beacon of hope in this regard. It was already clear that Garland’s a formidable painter, but it’s still special to see a wider canvas filled with such vibrant colors. His debut directing gig Ex Machina knocked it out of the park (and is in some senses a superior film), but with Annihilation he gets more characters, more locations, more visual effects and more freedom to tell the story his way.

Continue reading Annihilation (2018)

Jessica Jones – Season 2

For better or worse, the most apparent quality of the first season of Jessica Jones was how out-of-place it felt amongst the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe continuity. If you’re accustomed to (or numbed by) Marvel’s breezy stories of superpowered do-gooders quipping their way to a city-leveling, CGI-fueled finale, then the first thing you notice about Jessica Jones has to be how unconcerned this superpowered character seems to be with doing any do-gooding at all. Maybe that’s the second thing you notice. First, you probably notice that the Jessica Jones theme song starts off as a pretty cool slinky-smooth avant-garde noir-jazz piece before veering off inexplicably to become a prog-rock dumpster fire. The thing’s an absolute mess. I happen to like both John Coltrane and Steve Vai, but not in the same span of two minutes.

Anyway, here’s a somewhat interesting quote from our review of the first season of Jessica Jones:

The latest entry in Marvel’s grand scheme has more inherent push/pull to the interconnectedness thing than any other installment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and that includes the Netflix predecessor Daredevil. On one hand Jessica is about as far away as you’re going to get from Captain America, and maybe that marks trouble for an inevitable crossing-of-paths — either the dark tone of Jones would be compromised to accommodate Cap or the other way around.

Continue reading Jessica Jones – Season 2