keskiviikko 2. huhtikuuta 2014

Uses of Color in Movies

Wonderful use of color in movies!

War of the Worlds (1953)
The use of color is celebrated a bit on the audio commentary with Joe Dante (an enthusiast of the movie) and others.

Hercules in the Haunted World (1961)

Kill Baby Kill! (1964)
One of Mario Bava's chief personal touches seem to put together vividly saturated and pale colors, creating a weird feeling of the image being breezily hot.

The Torture Chamber of Dr Sadism (1967)
The lovely production design is the real star of this film, though the ghoulishly garish colors are lend a hand.

Invaders From Mars (1953)
Suberbly colored surreal visuals and heavy film grain to boot!

maanantai 10. maaliskuuta 2014

The Sequels That Are Better Than The Original Xperiment

Oh, oh, oh. The few sequels that can be said to top the original films. The title that is always brought up when this is discussed seems to be The Godfather Part 2. You won't find that here - that one has tons of beautifully made individual moments, but seems seriously to lack focus. It almost feels like a work-print than a finished movie. And how can it possibly be better than the first one without Brando? Come on. But here are some other choices, many often mentioned when this topic is covered, and some not so much.

Quatermass 2
Beautifully tense and atmospheric sequel to the Hammer science fictioner, one of the early films that put the company towards a path of producing cinema of imagination (later Hammer scifi was mostly absent). The industrial facility which the aliens' base is an absolute knockout as a creepy milieu. Oddly, also the third installment, the fascinating Quatermass and the Pit beats the first part, the beautifully titled but merely watchable Quatermass Xperiment. The first sequel too was a pioneer in the titling department -- not many of 'em were numbered like that before the practice was popularized by... you guessed it, that darn Godfather Part 2. Behind-the-scenes stories of drunken lead Donlevy's (who plays Quatermass as the most tough guy gangster-like of scientists in all of cinema history) wig flying in the wind are legendary.

Brides of DraculaDracula Has Risen From the GraveTaste the Blood of Dracula
And more Hammer...! The big three classic monster films the legendary company made in the late 1950's, Horror of DraculaCurse of Frankenstein, and The Mummy, feel like prototypes - full of fabulous stuff, but still merely meat-missing skeletons. Perhaps because their function is laying the basic stuff out, these films seem to lack a true kind of individuality. Much more than Hammer's Frankenstein films, their Draculas are more than just autonomous flicks as part of a larger movie series, and thus can be counted (pun intended) as bona fide sequels - they at least have story continuity around the fate of the Dracula character, and even provide footage from the previous entries as prologues several times over (only a couple of Hammer's first Frankenstein movies bother with any kind of narrative continuity). First there's Brides of Dracula, the first sequel that actually lacks Christopher Lee's goo' ol' big D altogether, but features Peter Cushing's Van Helsing, plus beautifully atmospheric color images. Risen is a very solid entry, perhaps the single Hammer Dracula film that most holds together. The gory, brilliantly iconoclastic steak-to-the-heart -scene is very memorable. Taste brings a hysterical mood and an excitingly novel occult tones to the series, and makes Dracula some kind of twisted anti-hero. Dracula's grandly cinematic resurrection sequence is the single greatest moment in any Hammer film. And that baffling WhatTheHellJustHappened metaphysical climax! The follow-up Scars of Dracula has some memorable individual scenes, like the absolutely howlingly ridiculous opening showing Dracula coming back to (un)life, and the vicious stabbing scene that probably has no equivalent in any other Dracula film as to the count's unusually psychopathic behavior. Satanic Rites Of Dracula is an absolute let-down despite intriguing story elements -- it has that lame, apathy-like aura of lousy late Hammer films in it. The Legend Of The Seven Golden Vampires is slightly better, but fails truly using the exciting combination of martial arts and horror, and of extending the dimension of vampire myths from Europe to the Orient (there is totally unnecessary, badly tacked-on story content of Dracula as a prologue and epilogue, who's not even played by Lee).

The Mummy Returns
Continuing on the subject... sort of. This sequel which is a part of Stepher Sommers' project of converting classic Universal movie monsters into popcorn action adventures is far more watchable than oddly boring and un-energetic first one. There is also a couple of individual scenes that are actually memorable, while the first one had none. Don't agree? Well... I actually kinda liked Sommers' Van Helsing. Agree with THAT?

Empire Strikes Back
I don't think the original first Star Wars is that good, the story seems to drag, and the excitement just is not there sufficiently - or maybe I just don't like films that take place in the desert. On Empire, there is more of a sense of adventure, we care more about the characters, the nuggets of wisdom are more convincingly delivered, this time by Yoda. I myself was one of those fortunate who did not know the twist at the end prior to my first viewing.

Baby Cart at the River Styx
Another instance of a movie that maybe is an autonomous entry in a film series rather than an actual sequel per se. What, you don't see me mentioning Goldfinger here, do you? Oh... I just did. But I'll let this one slide anyway. The best in the entire fabulous Lone Wolf and Cub movie series and one of the greatest samurai/ronin pieces of cinema ever. Footage from this was mostly used to create the as-great-in-its-own-weird-way Roger Corman concoction Shogun Assassin.

The Bride of Frankenstein
The secret of Bride is that how it brings variety to the previously simple monster mayhem. Not only do you get some interesting narrative dimension by having a prologue with Mary Shelley narrating (played by Elsa Lanchester who nicely is revealed also to be playing the monsteress in the end), and having a new deliciously wicked character in the form of Dr Pretorius (the camp Ernest Thesinger). It's also quite astonishing how make-up expert Jack Pierce could design the landmark visage of the monster for the first film, and then create an equally memorable appearance for the monster's mate in the sequel -- both designs go utterly unmatched by any Frankenstein film since... though the monster design in the Branagh film was quite good, even if the film as a whole wasn't).

Batman Returns
The first Tim Burton Batman is a mess. The story is aloof, and lacking dramatically, Jack Nicholson has potential but is all over the place, and Kim Basinger is appalling. The production design and make-up are wonderful. The sequel is marginally better, though the narrative seems to have no central character - it at least isn't Batman, who's remarkably absent during the first thirty minutes. Taking the Penguin-runs-for-mayor plot from the 1960's television series, this one is darker and more tough than the first one, and continues the filmic tradition from Batman: The Movie of having multiple villains in the story. The casting is spot-on: even if Danny DeVito (playing the Penguin as a seedy sexual pervert), Christopher Walken and Michelle Pfeiffer are not even doing their utmost in their parts, who else can you images for those roles in this particular product? The Batman character is wonderfully lit.

The Testament of Dr Mabuse
Ah, our old friend is better than the first one, Dr Mabuse the Gambler, on just about every department, even though the original was not half bad itself. This very well might be Fritz Lang's greatest work - it is one of the greatest sequels ever without a doubt. Contains numerous stunning images! Great use of b/w and sound. Maybe a little self-consciously made, but so full of delights you can easily forgive and forget. Tough-as-nails picture, which is a beautiful genre hybrid: crime, horror, scifi, drama...

And now, what you've all waited for, folks. Possibly the greatest sequel ever. No, it ain't gonna be da Godfather. Instead the winner is:

Seul contre tous (I Stand Alone)
Yes, Gaspar Noe's shatteringly nasty CinemaScope experience is a sequel to his 40-minute Carne, which was excellent, but not close to the power of the feature-length sequel, which began as a project to expand Carne, but evolved into becoming its very own film. Noe's next film Irreversible can't be considered a third installment, even though the butcher character from the director's previous work makes a nice little cameo.

Honorable mentions:

Dawn of the Dead
Back to the Future 2
Wayne's World 2
Naked Gun 2 1/2 & 33 1/3

Plus: Missing in Action 2: The Beginning
Well, I would have gladly included this flick, one of the best Chuck Norris films, and overall one of the diamonds in the Cannon Group b-action film library. Far better than the first Missing in Action, this one actually is not a sequel, but as the title implies, a prequel, showing colonel Braddock's back story of escaping from a POW camp in Vietnam, only verbally mentioned in the first film. The explosive third installment, a real true sequel this time though it rewrites the history of the previous ones a tiny bit, is also superior to the first.

keskiviikko 26. kesäkuuta 2013

The Most Brilliantly Photographed Movies

A list hopefully enjoyable to the reader of those films I judge to be some of the most sublime in their photography. This more than likely omits some crucial films, to that I bring my sorries, but these titles are just those that first came to mind. In today's digital climate the visual success of movies can depend on many more people than the director of photography, such as digital post-production artists. So this list is dedicated more to the celluloid era.

In the finest of stream-of-consciousness traditions these are presented in no particular order:

The Oscar-winning cinematography of Black Narcissus by Jack Cardiff is awe-inspiring in its metaphysical color and light. The Oscars are given via democratic vote, so it comes to no surprise that too often mediocrity is triumphant, but this film certainly provides an exception to the rule.

Fellini's classic was lensed in crisp black & white by the best-cinematographer-you-haven't-heard-of, Gianni di Venanzo. A sublime example of cinema photography which is spellbindingly brilliant without drawing too much attention to itself.

No unpretentious film buff can give a list of finely photographed films without mentioning Mario Bava, master of macabre imagery. While Bava's Black Sabbath is a better film, the phantasmagorical images in his Kill Baby Kill! are just terrific in their saturated colors and peculiar camera-movements. The spiral staircase visual motif used in such films as Antonioni's Identification of a Woman and the Francis Bacon bio Love is the Devil makes a dazzling appearance here. Kill Baby Kill! is one beautiful Imagi-Movie, to quote Forrest J. Ackerman's term.

The visuals in Carl Theodor Dreyer's silent classic The Passion of Joan of Arc when viewed on a big screen look like living supernatural sculptures carved out of marble. Rank among the most unusual film images I've witnessed. Thank Dieu for the Blu-ray.

This list had to have at least one example from the work of Sacha Vierny, who had one of the strongest signature styles of any cinematographer. The son of a jeweller, his style is to make the pale images shine to the point feverish overexposure. The one I've chosen is Peter Greenaway's Prospero's Books. Vierny was given carte blanche to go all out with this one. Pretentious as hell, but includes glossy, at times grotesque imagery to the point of exhaustion. The image above is a spot-on example of Vierny's way of lighting faces.

One of the most stunning (long) takes on black & white photography, Mikhail Kalatozov's propaganda film I am Cuba features a long array of intoxicating images and acrobatic how-did-they-do-that camera movements, which much later inspired Gaspar Noé's Irreversible. The endlessly experimental d.p. Sergei Urusevsky at times uses an ultra-wide 8mm lens, which gives a hallucinatory near fish-eye effect.

One-of-a-kind near-masterpiece from Antonioni, L'Avventura possesses a hard-to-explain style of reflecting and commenting on the psychological states of its characters through the visuals. In interviews Antonioni himself took the most credit of the film's visual success. Who are we to blame him.

tiistai 6. marraskuuta 2012

The most surreal bruise in Motion Picture history

Aw Gaaawd... It's time for a look of the Ed Wood-scripted Orgy of the Dead, that recently aired on Finnish state television. Praise God for socialism. To give some kudos is to say that the picture is by far the greatest stripper-horror film I've yet seen, the same way James Cameron remarked that his Piranha II is the greatest film ever about flying piranhas. Orgy is mightily awful to be sure, but its plotless ghoulishness, paired with painfully prolonged stripping sequences sink the viewer into a kind of vomitous hypnotic state.

And the tagline? Ooooooooh man, Orgy of the Dead has one of the pleasurable ever: "Are you heterosexual?". Good God.

The plot has a wholesome couple -- a horror novelist and his wife -- stumble upon a nightly graveyeard, where the mighty Criswell himself -- reciting lines from Wood's then-shelved Night of the Ghouls (the finest Wood picture in my view) is a sort of deity - like a sinister version of the benign Pull ze stlink!-Bela Lugosi character from Glen or Glenda? He is there with a sidekick, a Vampira knock-off called Booborel-- er, Ghoulita, to view candidates for damnation performing striptease acts, and suffering their sentence henceforth. Into the mix are thrown the most delightful characters in the film; a werewolf and a mummy duo, who act as a sort of twisted Greek chorus to this whole delirium (the mummy mostly does the talking, while the werewold nods his head and howls).

But enough! That's all for the storyline. The main thing about this movie for me is that weird blue color blob on the horror novelist guy's forehead. See it...? It comes on-screen every once in a while, when you've watched another twenty minutes of apathetic stripping. Wha da hell iz that? Some guy push the wrong button during the color timing process? Indeed - the movie generally has a weirdly saturated color scheme, so the thought of it being simply some reflection of color gel light came to mind... for sure. Only on the second viewing recently when I catched it on television, did the ghoulish realisation dawn on me - IT'S SUPPOSED TO BE A BRUISE! Aaawww gosh.

I would like to take seize this opportunity, and nominate this particular one as the most interesting bruise in cinematic history.

But seriously fellas - the pleasures of camp films is usually seen as merely in low production or artistic values, resulting in the viewers having their giggles. This view is a far too superficial one. The attraction might more truthfully lie in the widly inconsistent aesthetics that these pictures have. This issue is suprisingly rarely even pondered upon, let alone succesfully - Pete Tombs' book Mondo Macabro is a commendable exception.

You gasp in wonder while watching Teenagers from Outer Space, when suddenly -- for no reason whatsoever -- in a fire fight with the police, the coppers' guns start to give out animated (? [?]) muzzle flashes. And -- it's also when seeing Orgy of the Dead; yeah, the werewolf and mummy are terrific, sure, the strippers are dandy ... but it's all ' bout that colourful, wildly surrealistic, gorgeous Salvador Dali-ish bruise.

Monsters to be pitied...! Monsters to be despised...!

keskiviikko 18. heinäkuuta 2012

Nor Man or Mailer, But...

Norman Mailer (born in 1922, died in 2007) was the greatest, most fascinating and puckish cultural personality of the 20th century. The bulk of his work was being a writer: a novelist, journalist, essayist (producing brilliantly unusual social criticism), and sometimes poet and playwright. Mailer was a celebrity, a fixture on talk-shows, who had a significantly sized ego and a wonderfully mischievous style that was forcefully sincere to the horror of many a politically correct and puritan. The slightly less-known aspect of his ouvré was his career as a movie director, producing three autobiographical avant-garde features in the 1960's and one camp classic for the Cannon Group (!) in the 1980's.
The Cannon film Tough Guys Don't Dance -- the only one of his cinematic works that's based on one of his novels -- is easily through MGM - the campy outing features many enjoyable moments of the characters uttering mailerisms; the three underground features have only been available on dvd thus far from France, released by the Cult Underground label. These discs have been hefty in their price and hard to find. Now to set the record straight, The Criterion Collection is releasing Mailer's underground trilogy on their Eclipse dvd label. They have touted the forthcoming release quite lovingly as follows:

Norman Mailer is remembered for many things— his novels, his essays, his articles, his activism, his ego. one largely forgotten chapter of his life, however, is his late-sixties kamikaze-style plunge into making experimental films. These rough-hewn, self-financed, largely improvised metafictions are works of madness and bravado, all starring Mailer himself and with technical assistance from cinema verité trailblazers D. A. Pennebaker and Richard Leacock.

Mailer saw the world through his one-of-a-kind, spiritual, existentialist prism that's hard to define; endlessly provoking with his sometimes painfully sincere and unashamed remarks, which refreshingly lacked any rigid ideological ties and politically correct puritanism.

In addition to his artistic career, Mailer ran twice for the office of Mayor of New York, first in the early 1960's during the time that his infamous wife-stabbing incident happened, and later more famously in 1969. The economist of capitalistic libertarian persuasion, Murray Rothbard (the unofficial initiatior of anarcho-capitalism) lauded Mailer's campaign, and Norman became the first political candidate endorsed by Rothbard's newsletter The Libertarian, which normally did not dare to commit such acts.

Mailer defined himself politically first as an anarchist and a libertarian socialist (and as a Marxian anarchist, which is a contradiction in terms) during the 1940's and 50's; then he described his views as a far-flung mutation of Trotskyism, and starting from the 1960's, he used the label "Left-Conservative".

Starting from his breakthrough book, The Naked and the Dead, at age 25, Mailer created a prolific creative career through the help of his hard work ethic -- writing almost every day, sometimes for twelve hours straight, and treating himself as a working stiff with his own punched cards. Mailer's The Spooky Art, a guide to a writing career (containing about half new material, and half recycled old stuff, as many of his late books intended to do), contains many a intriguing trivia on his basic working habits.

Mailer wrote about politics, criminals, hipsters, grafitti, Picasso, boxing, poker, and Hollywood, amongst other topics. His novel An American Dream, overflowing with brilliantly self-indulgent metaphoric language, was characterized by one Finnish literary critic as the worst novel any major American writer has done, but it's a rather enjoyable package, filled with the kind of pseudo-deep remarks that a person high on pot could spew from his mouth - the only minus is that the story never rises to the level that it exhibits during its first 60 pages.

During the 1960's, in his own words, in an attempt to attack the nature of reality, Mailer started to create his underground features, all starring himself. These were the crime films Wild 90 and Beyond the Law, both shot in newsreel-like black & white 16mm film. Beyond the Law receives a wildly overblown movie review by Mailer himself in his chuckle-filled 1968 non-fiction novel The Armies of the Night, which features a cameo appearance by Noam Chomsky who ends up in the same holding cell with Mailer after the huge peace demonstration at the Pentagon that the book details.

Maidstone, Mailer's most ambitious underground effort, shot on color 16mm, features him as an arthouse-porny movie director Norman T. Kingsley running for president, with the supporting cast featuring a jumbled ensemble consisting of Rip Torn, some of Mailer's ex-wives and family, and Andy Warhol's starlet Ultra Violet (who can also be seen in the flashlight-horror flick Simon, The King of Witches). It's a heady and at times tedious mix of a John Cassavettes-style improvisation exercise, a hallucinatory avant-garde trip and a very narcissistic home movie. It sort of climaxes with the bare-chested Mailer lecturing his cast and crew about his aesthetic theories and approaches to the making of the film, and the brutal real-life fight between him and Rip Torn (now a YouTube favorite, thanks to the great Don Alex of Subterranean Cinema) ends things on a grave and suitably confusing manner. Speaking of Torn, one positive thing when the Great Man passes away might be that numerous Facebook updates will read RIP Rip.

Mailer's unique worldview makes, for me, him seem like a kindred spirit. Even those who detested him for his ego should acknowledge that he had no pretensions about this -- he was the first to admit it, and lampoon himself for it. Mailer has to be greatest in the art of both of glorifying, and making a fool of himself - on occassion, doing both at the same time.

sunnuntai 24. kesäkuuta 2012

A5p3ct Rat105

When tracing the origin of many a cinematic technique, Abel Gance's landmark 1927 epic Napoléon makes an entrance - this is also the case with the subject of film-makers operating with more than one aspect ratio in their films. Napoléon had the most of the movie in 1.33 ratio, but the finale expands to three cinema screens (Polyvision), which show three seperate images side by side, and at times one single very wide visual.

 CinemaScope is generally excepted to have arrived on the movie scene in 1953; this however ignores not only the early scope films of the early 1930's (The Big Trail and The Bat Whispers among others), but such unexcepted exceptions as William Dieterle's 1948 haunting, slightly boring ghost tale Portrait of Jennie. Most of the film was in full frame 1.37 aspect ratio and in black & white, but the final shot was in color. Ditto the color suprise (similar to The Picture of Dorian Gray movie released three years earlier),  some special theatres gave the storm sequence finale a green tint (restored for the DVD) and had a wider screen ratio of 2.18 (not restored on the current DVDs).

In the 1950's, to underwrite the way that a painter creates in many shapes of the frame, Henri-Georges Clouzot used two aspect ratios for his documentary The Mystery of Picasso (see previous blog entry on distorted visuals). Kubrick filmed Dr Strangelove using two aspect ratios (full frame 1.37 and 1.66) with in-camera mattes, which take turns during the movie to a little bewildering effect - the initial DVD release preserved this, but the anamorphic release changed the film visually to 1.66 only.

The act of using numerous screen shapes does rise its head from time to time, such as in director Alejandro González Iñárritu's cancer drama from 2010, Biutiful, which utlizes both the 1.85 and scope 2.35 ratios. Cartoon series like Samurai Jack push the concept of changing aspect ratios to self-consciously absurd extremes. IMAX productions have an endemic tendency to use numerous aspect ratios -- from a tiny square to utilizing the entire picture space that at its best fills the viewer's entire field of vision.

A film that is usually missing from the discussions on movies with multiple aspect ratios is Orson Welles' confusing noir The Lady from Shanghai - the lauded and much-copied (Enter the Dragon, anyone?) mirror finale has the film mutating to a letterboxed ratio of about 1.66, slightly wider from the full frame 1.37 that the film is in. According to Peter Boghdanovich, Welles' inspiration for the different aspect ratio -- done with in-camera mattes, was D.W. Griffith, and how he masked the image with the iris in his silent productions.

The finale of Lady from Shanghai however is not the only scene which dissents from the 1.37 ratio that the rest of the movie possesses -- the funhouse sequence earlier on instead goes the other route - an aspect ratio which was narrower, of about 1.19, conjuring up memories of early sound films which employed this particular shape (which was praised by Sergei Eisenstein for its dynamism), such as Fritz Lang's M and the excellent The Testament of Dr Mabuse (below), along with Carl Theodor Dreyer's Vampyr.



SFX maestro Douglas Trumbull's 1983 movie Brainstorm is a proto-Strange Days tale of technology that records human sensations for others to experience. The narrative scenes are in 1.85 while the sensorial tapes shot in POV widened the screen to scope (2.20 in 70mm, and 2.35 in 35mm prints). The sensation recordings are reminiscent of amusement park contraptions, where people would go standing in a dark room, and POV footage of rollercoaster rides and such was blasted on a big screen - they had these as long as still during my childhood in the early 1990's. The widescreen video releases of Brainstorm faithfully preserve the screen sizes, but here the letterboxing gets bigger in the sensation recording sequences due to the wider aspect ratio, causing the image aperture to actually diminish - not exactly what the film-makers originally envisioned.

Update: There's a Blu-ray disc of Brainstorm out now -- it is presented in 2.35 ratio, with windowboxing for the narrative scenes to maintain the smaller aspect ratio - while this accomplishes that the disc stays faithful to the fact that the picture indeed widens for the Xperience-O-Helmet shots, it comes with the cost of a tinier image and lower resolution, which make for most of the movie. This decision of presentation seems to have gathered mostly negative reactions thus far from film buffs.

Hiroshi Teshigahara's arthouse horror The Face of Another (Tanin no kao) from 1966 is one tough, neat film. It's a situation where the director seems (m)eager to take creative risks at seemingly every corner. The movie centers on a facially sca(r)red businessman, who receives an astonishingly life-like mask, which gives him a reneissance in identity.

Speaking of those creative risks I mentioned before, halfway through the story, we are apruptly introduced to a sub-plot, which is parallel tale of a woman suffering a fate similar to the main character. The jarring narrative quality is enchanced by the sudden shift of aspect ratio (!) from full frame 1.37 to about 2.00, which lasts for a brief time.

Teshigahara's film is a must-see, in both of the screen formats it deploys.

Ending on a light note, a Video Nasty that should be on your to-see list is the campy (!!) concentration camp and war turkey The Beast in Heat - the sic-happy on-screen title during the lonesome opening credits actually is The Horrifing Experiments of SS Last Days. Above is the Dutch tape from the appropriately named video label - the (w)hole pride and glory(hole) of my VHS collection.

I don't have a clue about how the DVD releases of the film handle it, but the VHS has at least three different aspect ratios at work. This eclectic quality about screen formats goes to pretty absurd measures during the silly war sequences that stand in for the dubious finale - at times almost every single shot seems to be in a different aspect ratio - it's a true conflict on a meta-cinematic level as well, it seems.