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Oscar predictions from Robert Horton

This year, a coronation will be held during the Academy Awards ceremony. It happens periodically: An actor has waited an eternity to win an Oscar, and then a year comes when his or her performance is so undeniable (and, maybe, the competition not as strong as usual), and suddenly it’s the moment.

That’s why King Leo the First will be crowned at Sunday’s Oscar event. For years now Leonardo DiCaprio has worked his keister off in a variety of ambitious, ultra-serious roles. He’s been a pretender to the throne before, nominated for The Wolf of Wall Street, The Aviator, and a couple of other roles. But his physically exhausting stint in The Revenant will likely put a statuette up on his mantelpiece.

Aside from that sure thing, there are some toss-ups in the Oscar race this year. Best Picture remains a tantalizing guess: Will the Oscars go with the momentum of The Revenant, or reward the social-issue punch of Spotlight? Or does the political satire of The Big Short catch the mood of the moment?

Continue reading at The Herald (paywall alert)

It can’t happen there: film (non)publications in the land of the frogs

[Originally published in Movietone News 34, August 1974]

Please forgive me if I begin with a rather farcical personal story, which will hopefully illustrate a point. A little over a year ago a friend and teacher of mine, the French critic Raymond Bellour, asked me to redo a piece (on a Howard Hawks film) which I had once written for him for a book on the American cinema he was to edit. It was to be an anthology on American film with a special section on close analysis of representative films, generally from a semiotic point of view. (I must apologize again; textual analysis of film is more or less my specialty—I have no excuse for this except that I find it rather interesting.) After much trauma and typing I produced a version of my text which, with a final set of revisions, was ready for the book—then almost a year behind schedule due to a particular disease known well among writers, procrastination. Most of the other people to contribute (the rest of them writing directly in French, hence burdened with fewer problems than I) were in various stages of work on their pieces when we all received a cheery little photocopied note from the publisher: due to economic difficulties the book would not, after all, come into being.

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Oscar, You’re Breaking My Heart (but you always do)

I have no proof whatever that when the final ballots were tallied, late at night at the Academy, and the prospect of a second year of the dreaded hashtag #OscarsSoWhite hung over the room, considerable thought was given to The Messenger of this news. Messengers.

I do know that it was really nice to see that Guillermo Del Toro and Ang Lee were given the first swath of nominations to read. The second list was handled by redoubtable Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs and John Krasinski.

It was a gallant show of inclusiveness, before the truth was out and hellfire rained down from every side.

– Sylvester Stallone but not Michael B. Jordan? So, who was Creed about, an old, slow white guy from Philly?

– Idris Elba nowhere in sight, unless you count Netflix ads.

Straight Outta Compton? Not exactly the screener that . . .ummm, mature Academy voters bring out to share with poker cronies.

– Women? Don’t start. Freud said it best, “My god, what do women want?”

– Spike Lee? Maybe no one could pronounce Chi-Raq. In any case, he just got an honorary Oscar. . . in November, at one of those ceremonies that happen way, way off-stage. Check out his speech, every last minute of it.

Don’t even want to think what he’s saying today. No, actually, I do.

Continue reading at Critic Quality Feed

A note on journalistic malfeasance – ‘The Tamarind Seed’

[Originally published in Movietone News 35, August 1974, from the TRACKING SHOT column]

Parallax View doesn’t usually reproduce MTN ephemera such as the catch-all column “Tracking Shot.” Howsomever, this note of mine regarding the brief passage of Blake Edwards’s The Tamarind Seed through town engages an issue which, sadly, is anything but ephemeral. –RTJ

In the lead article of this issue, Kathleen Murphy confesses to some presuppositions that disposed her against The Tamarind Seed before she went into the theater. She did go into the theater, which a lot of generally intelligent and discerning filmgoers aren’t even considering as an option, given the plethora of signals surrounding the movie—the casting, the advertising, some of the damning-with-faint-praise “favorable” reviews.

As further evidence of what is keeping people from giving a chance to a film we frankly regard as singularly fine, we quote the following throwaway from a film potpourri column in a recent number of the new Seattle Sun: “The pathetic return of Julie Andrews (who sometimes wears a slip) and Omar Sharif (who always wears a smirk). If there was a prize for bad directing, Blake Edwards would win it with this.”

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Oscar Upsets

Set out to write about Academy Award upsets and right away the ground starts shifting under your feet. Oh, some neck-snappers we all remember—like Jack Nicholson coming out to present the award for best picture of 2005, opening the envelope, and saying, “Whoa.” Moments when the title of the movie everybody figured to win suddenly wasn’t the one being read aloud.

But those are ya-hadda-be-there moments. Looking back over Oscar history, you encounter what we might call upsets-in-reverse—instances when a movie or a performance that has long since become part of the racial unconscious did not, in its day, win proper recognition. Then you find yourself in a sort of “What did they know and when did they know it?” situation. How could they have been so blind? We’ve collected some of that kind of upset as well.

Upsets come in all valences, triumphant and appalling. Truly the ways of Oscar passeth understanding. But that needn’t spoil the party.

1939
It was Hollywood’s golden year. StagecoachMr. Smith Goes to WashingtonNinotchkaThe Wizard of OzOnly Angels Have WingsYoung Mr. LincolnWuthering HeightsOf Mice and MenGunga DinMidnightDrums Along the Mohawk … Love Affair … The Four Feathers (OK, made in England, but still). Yet it was the making of one movie that obsessed fans all year long, and when it ended up with a then-record 13 Oscar nominations, no one doubted that David O. Selznick’s nearly-four-hour Technicolor megaproduction Gone With the Wind would take the brass ring. A lot of brass rings, including best director for Victor Fleming despite the fact that some half-dozen directors (preeminently George Cukor and Sam Wood) had worked on the film. Most of the major players were nominated (including Thomas Mitchell, albeit for Stagecoach, not GWTW); newcomer-to-Hollywood Vivien Leigh won best actress as Scarlett O’Hara, and Hattie McDaniel edged fellow cast member Olivia De Havilland for best supporting actress. Yet what was wrong with this picture? Although novelist Margaret Mitchell had written the book visualizing Clark Gable as Rhett Butler, Gable had to settle for a nomination merely (best actor went to Robert Donat for Goodbye, Mr. Chips; we’d have given it to Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith, Jimmy Stewart). The King took it like a man, of course. But watch GWTW today and try telling us all that Selznickean flapdoodle would be tolerable without Gable’s movie-star gravitas to center it.

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The ‘Alt’ Oscars: The Silent Years

The Academy Awards were born in 1927, the brainchild of MGM’s Louis B. Mayer, a studio head whose original idea for an organization to negotiate labor disputes and industry conflicts evolved into the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences. The awards themselves were an afterthought and initially more public relations gimmick than egalitarian celebration of the arts. Every member of the Academy (then as now an exclusive organization where membership is by invitation only) was involved in nominations but a committee of five judges picked the winners and Mayer, of course, oversaw it all. If he didn’t actually handpick the winners, be surely put his thumb on the scales. By 1929, Academy members were voting on the final ballots themselves and in 1934 the ceremony moved from November to March. Additional categories were added and other refinements made over the years (Foreign Language Film got its own statue in 1957) but otherwise the Academy Awards as we know them today were born: a glitzy event that brought the stars out and handed out trophies.

That leaves practically the entire silent movie era out of Oscar history. Hollywood had reached a zenith in terms of craftsmanship, glamor and ambition when The Jazz Singer was released before the first awards were handed out. By its second year, sound films dominated the awards.

‘Metropolis’

Let’s imagine an alternate history where the Academy Awards had been born earlier and (as long as we’re dreaming) with a more egalitarian purpose from the outset. What kind of winners might you have in an era when movies were more international and there was no such thing as a “foreign language film” when credits and intertitles were easily replaced for each region? What landmarks leading up to that first ceremony, where the twin peaks of populist blockbuster and artistic triumph—Wings and Sunrise—represented the Best of Hollywood, might have been chosen in the golden age of twenties cinema, or the birth of the feature film in the teens, or even the wild days of experimentation and rapid evolution in the decades previous?

Here are my picks for a few key awards in the imaginary Oscar history.

1928Metropolis
Best Picture, Cinematography, Production Design
Released in January of 1927 in Germany and two months later in the U.S., this landmark was just too early for consideration in the inaugural awards (handed out in May, 1929). So I’m giving this early 1927 release a clear playing field with its own Oscar year: Academy Awards Year Zero. Sure, science fiction isn’t a big player with the Academy, but otherwise it has all the hallmarks of an Oscar favorite: epic canvas, astounding sets, visionary visual design and the timely theme of man struggling to find his place in the rapid spread of technology and machinery, all under the firm control of filmmaker Fritz Lang. Hollywood had never seen anything like it before. The film was soon edited down for and the original cut was lost for decades. The 2010 restoration restores scenes, characters and story lines unseen since opening night and confirms just how grand Lang’s vision was.

Continue reading at Keyframe

Wait, wait! First the Golden Globes, THEN the Oscar nominations.

I know, I know: old and slow. My only possible defense is that we have either been guests or had guests since December 23rd, a sojourn involving passports, dear distant family, dear semi-distant friends and a last emotional good-bye at the airport yesterday. The cats barely know what lap to turn to, while I’m summoning up all my reserves to turn up in two matching shoes.

To get to those Globes: they were just Sunday and I know I’m behind on the newspapers, but where’s the outrage? Or even the irony over the results of the Globes TV Movies or Mini-series category? I’m talking about the sublime Olive Kitteridge, anchored by the unsparing eloquence of Frances McDormand, being beaten by the TV show Fargo. Let’s be honest, the initial good will of  Fargo-the-miniseries would never have existed without our collective infatuation with McDormand’s singular character in, ummm, Fargo-the-film. (Just the memory of the actress’s back, squared in rectitude as she marched up to get her Fargo Oscar in 1997 is enough to kick off a smile.)

Continue reading at Critic Quality Feed

NYMPH()MANIyakking: Thoughts Prompted by Lars Von Trier’s ‘Nymphomaniac, Vol. 1’

Kathleen Murphy: Plunging into the first volume of Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac, we’re drowned in cloacal darkness, straining to identify initially faint metallic sounds that rise in volume, odd plinks and whines and scrapes. When von Trier finally lets there be light, it’s dim, dirty looking, oppressive. Narrow passages cut through a maze of worn brick walls and rain-smeared pavement. Impossible to imagine that any sky overarches this dank “underground,” or that there’s any way out of these claustrophobic environs.

Von Trier then snapshots the “instruments” — an industrial fan, its turning retarded by rust; a loop of metal banging brick; a garbage can lid percussed by raindrops — in what we come to recognize is a symphonic overture, composed of the strange “musical” notes we could hardly hear in that original dark. Suddenly, heavy metal chords and grinding vocals erupt, the bellow of some cosmic machine. When the camera frames a closeup of a bloodied hand, outflung on wet pavement, the color comes as a shock. We hadn’t considered that flesh might exist in this dead world.

What a visual/aural downer, you may say — but undeniably exhilarating as well, in its masterly movement and design. Nymphomaniac begins in a post-apocalyptic cul-de-sac, as though its world has already ended. (Didn’t that happen in Melancholia?) But this is the embarkation point of a movie ostensibly about the sexual odyssey of a child-then-woman committed to nonstop, indiscriminate fornication. What does von Trier’s meticulously composed overture signal about Nymphomaniac’s itinerary and destination? Where can we go from here?

Richard T. Jameson: An admirable keynote, on your part as well as von Trier’s. You don’t mention that that opening “shot” of total blackness must last a couple of minutes (I resisted reaching for my iPhone to check). How typically perverse yet surprising of von Trier to start off by denying us anything to look at, at the outset of a movie where we expect to be voyeurs.

The first thing we see is a view of snow falling straight down — a shock cut to beauty and, after all that cacophony, utter silence. The view looks (we assume) out of the alley where that bloody hand with body attached lies. It’s of a courtyard or a street, empty of people. Then there’s one person, a man (Stellan Skarsgard), on his way somewhere with a dainty little shopping pouch. And when he comes back, he appears to pass the alley without seeing the body. But something stops him just out of frame, and he comes back, and he looks, and after a minute he enters.

In the meantime von Trier has allowed the alley entrance to accrete architectural and textural complexity, become almost organic looking, acquire several layers of walls and angles lighted by the kind of ineffable glow that might seep out of a snowflake. Is it the most complex and beautiful setting we’ll see in this two-hour movie?

KM: Only an aesthete cursed by chronic despair could create beauty and complexity out of that stoneworks. But Nymphomaniac is the third entry in von Trier’s Depression Trilogy.

Pretty soon, the battered owner of that bloody hand (Charlotte Gainsbourg) is, Sheherazade-like, storytelling us and her sympathetic rescuer-cum-confessor Seligman (Skarsgard) out of the drear of those alleys and his drab apartment. Recounting colorful (in action and palette) and often very funny stories of her “shameful, sinful” life, Joe insists she’s a “bad human being.” Sipping restorative tea, Joe begins: “I discovered my cunt when I was two.” It’s not exactly “Call me Ishmael” or “Dorothy lived in the midst of the great Kansas prairies,” but Joe’s opening line recalls innumerable fictions about youngsters “lighting out” for adventure, finding, sometimes losing, themselves on the road — Candide, Tom Jones, Huckleberry Finn, Stephen Dedalus, et al.

RTJ: We can’t continue this palaver without noting that, in addition to von Trier regular Charlotte Gainsbourg (Antichrist, Melancholia), Joe is played by several actresses at ages 2, 7 and 10. At age 15 Stacy Martin takes over, and she’s the main show whenever Gainsbourg and Skarsgard aren’t on screen. French-English, she was 22 at the time of filming, and this is her film debut. Von Trier insists he didn’t notice she bears a strong resemblance to Gainsbourg’s mother Jane Birkin at a comparable stage in life.

Gainsbourg’s fellow travelers include Shia LaBeouf, Christian Slater, Connie Nielsen, Uma Thurman, Saskia Reeves, Bond villain Jesper Christensen, Subspecies‘ slobbering bloodsucker Anders Hove … and in Vol. 2 we are promised (wait for it!) Udo Kier.

KM: Stellan Skarsgard’s Seligman, Joe’s enthusiastic audience, seems a gentle soul, clearly late-middle-aged but strangely childlike in countenance, his faded features unmarked by experience. Joe may prefer an Old Testament reading of her sexual escapades, but Seligman’s some kind of secular humanist, consistently excusing, contextualizing, intellectualizing, and aestheticizing her sexual exploits. He frequently interrupts her flashbacks with learned allusions, empathetic observations. Is there something a little off about this Good Samaritan? (I admit I flashed back to Pandora’s Box and Jack the Ripper!)

RTJ: Cut him some slack, his son’s a thousand-year-old vampire stuck in Louisiana … but I digress.

One of the things that fascinate me about Nymphomaniac is that we can’t guess what we’re going to be looking at next. I don’t mean the varieties of sexual experience. I mean … well, the most startling and exhilarating scene in the film involves a character whose entry into the mix about two-thirds of the way in could not have been anticipated, and who proceeds to own the movie for what in olden days would have been a reel. An amazing performance, both the character’s and the actor’s, whom I will not name for the same reason I won’t say what the sequence is about: we don’t do spoilers here (unless I spoiled that cut to the snowfall — my bad).

Point is, there’s this dynamic tension in Von Trier, between near-minimal production resources and radical lurches into deeper, richer, more multivalenced, envelope-pushing reality than would have been possible in a conventional film, one with more sets and more breathing room in the cutting.

KM: Dynamic tension charges almost every aspect of the movie. As Joe begins Chapter One: The Compleat Angler, she claims that her tale is a “moral” one. Though this is a girl who (presumably) just wants to have fun — that is, unlimited sex — her experiences are relentlessly mechanical, boring, sometimes just plain funny. For a sexually explicit movie, full of screwing and sucking and galleries of male members, Nymphomaniac (so far) never seems prurient or particularly erotic (Skarsgard remarked to an interviewer that it would make a lousy “wanking” movie); the contes never come off as morality plays. Joe might as well be a sexual anthropologist testing a host of subjects, or an angler testing the efficacy of many different flies.

Will we eventually learn that Nymphomaniac turns on the tension between storyteller and audience, the play between Joe and her enigmatic father confessor? Flashbacks — of both her and his childhoods — are embellished with playful animations, live-action, split screens, and a passel of screen superimpositions, invoking Peter Greenaway’s stylized “reinventions” of cinema. Von Trier accounts for Joe’s premeditated, ultra-mechanical defloration through superimposed addition: “3 [vaginal humps] + 5 [anal humps],” which in turn prompts the learned Seligman to note that these are Fibonacci numbers. In this bent take on “My Night at Maud’s,” consider the tension between posited morality and the banal couplings we actually witness, not to mention the whimsy and outright hilarity of some of Joe’s adventures. Then there’s the tale-spinner’s deadpan, know-nothing seriousness, so frequently countered by Seligman’s delighted digressions into metaphors of fishing, mathematics, science, mythology, religion. Joe’s readings of reality are largely narrow, unimaginative, while Seligman sees sex as a trampoline from which one may leap into humankind’s headiest creative endeavors.

RTJ: Yes, I was surprised by that — that the title character, as embodied by Gainsbourg in the present-tense parts of the movie, isn’t the saucy minx one might have anticipated beforehand. Of course, we don’t yet know what brought her to her abject state of mind and body at the film’s beginning. But you’re right, of the two, Seligman is the antic spirit bringing the film to unexpected life. Will he somehow succeed in doing the same for Joe?

KM: Or will he somehow be the death of her?

Just can’t resist fishing in one of Seligman’s/von Trier’s down-the-rabbit-hole streams of consciousness: During that Compleat Angler chapter, Seligman compares a “nymph” fly to Joe, who “runs the river” as she nets a train full of men; we’re even treated to live-action fishing scenes along with superimposed shagging scorecards. Keep running this river and you’ll surely free-associate from Izaak Walton (author of The Compleat Angler) to Isaac Newton, then remember that the fall of an apple famously helped Newton to “discover” gravity; Joe’s chapter is about a falling Eve, banging her way through a train for a bag of sweets. For further brain teasing, pursue the significance of Fibonacci numbers, the ash tree Joe’s dad loves so much, and medieval polyphony, a resonant metaphor for promiscuity and Nymphomaniac itself.

Whatever I expected of Nymphomaniac, Vol. 1, I didn’t anticipate its wonderful sense of play, the persistent pleasure derived from following this picaresque pilgrimage. More predictably — this is, after all, von Trier territory — there’s horror, and the film’s penultimate chapter, Delirium, provides that in spades. In this episode, Joe loses her mostly affectless reaction to love and pain and sex; and images of screwing to exorcise death and the awful decay of flesh deliver a gut-punch of meaning — perhaps the climax of the countless mostly passionless couplings that came before. I think it’s wildly off the mark to pretend that Nymphomaniac is about a woman’s sexual liberation, any more than that awful architectural dead-end at the beginning of the movie offers a room with a view. Rifling through a grabbag of genres, Nymphomaniac explores everything — genital lubrication and the Golden Ratio, the power of storytelling and ugly reality, Yggdrasil and Bach’s “Little Organ Book”— but we won’t know definitively where we have been or where we are going until Joe’s pilgrimage concludes in Nymphomaniac, Vol. 2 (due for April release).

RTJ: Assuming we know it even then. The wonderful and maddening thing about von Trier is that you never quite know what his game is. People harp on his misogyny, for instance, and yet how many — how few — filmmakers have imagined such transfiguring journeys for female protagonists to be on: Emily Watson’s character in Breaking the Waves, Bjork in Dancer in the Dark, Nicole Kidman in Dogville, Kirsten Dunst in Melancholia. Are his stylish embellishments, such as what you’ve called the Greenaway superimpositions here, just child’s play or means of hinting at a whole other dimension to what we’re watching? I still remember my astonishment, sustained throughout the film, at his feature debut The Element of Crime — this blasted black-and-white world served up in curry-sauce monochrome, with an obviously English detective making his way through an obviously not-English city trying to solve a series of crimes — a climate of crime, really — which as I recall never did reach any identifiable conclusion. And yet the calm arrogance of the film’s creator inspired a kind of faith.

Scarecrow Video – The Home Video Palace at the End of the Yellow Brick Road

Scarecriw25On Friday, December 6, 2013, Seattle’s Scarecrow Video celebrates its 25th Anniversary.

It’s been called the greatest video store in the country. Bernardo Bertolucci not only frequented the store while shooting Little Buddha in Seattle, he praised the store and its cinema treasures to a sold-out audience at the film’s Seattle premiere. Bertrand Tavernier explored the entire laserdisc section and gushed over the selection of Cy Enfield and William Whitney tapes with store employees in his 1997 visit. Quentin Tarantino, a video store veteran in his own right, paid tribute by walking from downtown Seattle to the store’s University District location: his personal pilgrimage to the video Mecca.

And in addition to stocking a magnificently curated rental library of movies on home video, Scarecrow in its heyday brought such guests as Wim Wenders, Werner Herzog, John Woo, Monte Hellman, Nicolas Roeg and Seijun Suzuki to Seattle for glorious retrospectives.

Continue reading at Cinephiled

And the Oscar goes to … who, us?!

Yes, we’re past the point when anything more needs to be said about the 84th Oscars, and yet I’ve seen no mention of the most wackily wonderful moment of the evening. It afforded a look inside Academy ritual, and an instance of late-blooming justice being done against considerable odds. So please indulge one last Oscar commentary.

It was around mid-show and the category about to be announced was Best Editing. Four of the five films in contention were Best Picture nominees, which is typical, and understandable: surely a picture’s putative Best-ness has a lot to do with the excellence of its various elements? So Editing would just be part of the politics, the gamesmanship, the emotional rollercoaster of the night. Hugo had taken the lead with two wins right out of the gate, Cinematography and Art Direction—would Editing further hint at an upset of frontrunner The Artist, with Martin Scorsese’s editorial right arm Thelma Schoonmaker adding a fourth Academy statuette to her mantel (she’s won for Raging Bull, 1980; The Aviator, 2004; and The Departed, 2006)? The other Best Pic contenders whose editors had been nominated were Moneyball (those wonderful boardroom schmoozes! Brad Pitt working the phones!) and The Descendants (uh, OK). The fifth slot had gone to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, a much-ballyhooed Christmastime release that hadn’t exactly flopped, but neither had it inspired brushfire enthusiasm among critics or ticket-buyers. An “It’s an honor just to be nominated” entry if ever we saw one. Your seats are way in the back, guys.

Then The Girl won. And as co-editors Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall were making their way down the aisle, you could read the mutual WTF body language and expressions plain as day. When they got to the podium they made it explicit: we weren’t expecting this, we have prepared nothing to say, but thank you David and, er, yeah. Exit, pursued by a chuckle.

“David” was director David Fincher. At last year’s Oscar ceremony Baxter and Wall had collected the selfsame award for editing his The Social Network. Back-to-back wins are rare. That, even more than The Girl‘s overall also-ran status among 2011 films, was why they weren’t expecting to be called to the stage again on this particular night.

But they belonged there, because their editing has a lot to do with why Fincher’s movie is going to find more and more favor over the years. People will stop worrying that there was a 2009 Swedish film rendering of the Stieg Larsson bestseller because, with the exceptions of leading actors Michael Nyqvist and Noomi Rapace, it doesn’t hold a candle to the American version. Fincher’s movie runs only a quarter-hour longer than its predecessor but encompasses much more of the material, atmosphere, and teeming gallery of characters (including the Vanger dead) in Larsson’s 600-page tome. Steven Zaillian did the adaptation, a heroic task, but it’s Fincher’s visual and aural detailing and the at-times-subliminal editing by Baxter and Wall that set it before us and make it play, laminate past and present with breathtaking translucency.

So guys, what are you cutting in 2012? —RTJ

War of the Rings: Is the new “Lord of the Rings” Blu-ray the One True Edition?

Has Sauron struck again? From the furious debates playing across DVD/Blu-ray forums, where some the most passionate fans and exacting collectors can be found registering their praise and displeasures with upcoming and new releases (often in hyperbolic dimensions and a hostile tone), you might assume that there’s a new war brewing over the fate of the One Ring on Blu-ray.

Warner released the theatrical editions of the The Lord of the Rings trilogy on Blu-ray last year but held the Extended Editions for 2011. Not just some longer version with deleted scenes cut back in, the Extended Editions were painstakingly reedited for home video by Peter Jackson with new special effects, a reworked score by Howard Shore to match the new rhythms of the narrative and some lovely scenes that were cut for time in the theatrical version of the film but add depth to the characters and the scope of the epic. They were released on DVD years ago. For Blu-ray release, Warner returned to the film’s original 2K digital intermediate files (the final digital edition before striking film prints for theaters) for the source of the Blu-ray master.

Here’s where it gets complicated. While the masters of The Two Towers and Return of the King were completed digitally, The Fellowship of the Ring was partly digital master but mostly completed on film, where it was color-timed photochemically rather than digitally. For the theatrical release on Blu-ray, Warner used a digital master taken from a release print, but for the extended edition, Jackson wanted to rescan the original elements to get the most visual detail and clarity, and them retime the color for home viewing, adjusting the brightness, intensity and hues to best effect on TV monitors. So while The Two Towers and Return of the King were mastered from the same source as previous release, The Fellowship of the Ring was not.

That’s the simplified version of a very complex, but the upshot is that the Fellowship of the Ring: Extended Edition Blu-ray looks different from all previous incarnations (film, DVD and Blu-ray) of the film.

Continue  reading on Videodrone

‘Shrinking Man’ reputation grows

It’s always gratifying when a favorite film is discovered—or rediscovered in a way that creates a fresh perspective .

Such is the case with 1957’s The Incredible Shrinking Man, which was enthusiastically received in its time but continues to grow in stature. Last year, it joined the National Film Registry of significant American films. In late August, it will be released by Universal as a single-disc DVD.

The latest reappraisal may have begun in 2005, when Time magazine’s Richard Corliss and Richard Schickel listed it as a top guilty pleasure and proposed that “it is long past time for a cult to form around its director, the late Jack Arnold, an efficient maker of B-pictures.” While similar 1950s films dealt with insects turning into monsters because of nuclear misadventures, Time pointed out that “this radical variation on that theme was (especially if you are a kid, eager to grow up, not down) scarier and more profound than the competitors.” Around the same time, Steven Spielberg, in a Turner Classic Movies special called Watch the Skies, singled out the film’s “message about not outer space but inner space, and about the soul and where does the soul go, and what is infinity? Is infinity out there or is infinity in here?”

Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide had always given three out of four stars to The Incredible Shrinking Man. But recently Maltin added half a star and included a mostly new write-up: “Intelligent, serious approach, exceptional special effects for the period, and a vigorous leading performance (by Grant Williams) result in a genuine sci-fi classic, unsurpassed by later attempts.”

For years, the movie had been carried on DVD by only one chain (Best Buy), which included it in a couple of DVD collections of 1950s sci-fi movies, some of them directed by Arnold. Even the new disc will apparently be a bare bones release. Surely a Criterion release is in order.

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2010 Academy Awards: finished business

Last week I told a friend I wasn’t anticipating Oscar night all that much this year. Then I immediately emended that: No, I was anticipating Oscar night all too well. There was little room for doubt who or what was going to win, and the outlook wasn’t prepossessing.

As I wrote here several weeks ago, the triple crown victory of The King’s Speech in the Producers Guild, Directors Guild, and Screen Actors Guild awards gave clear indication where Hollywood’s heart lay and confirmed that film as the favorite to win the Academy Award for best picture. By showtime Sunday night, most partisans of the heretofore presumptive frontrunner, The Social Network, had conceded the field and pinned their hopes on a best-director victory for David (“99 takes!”) Fincher over The King’s man Tom Hooper.

On Sunday night, Fincher lost; Hooper won. And that moment, well into the third hour of the awards ceremony, was when a reasonably pleasant evening turned glum.

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Tear sheets

In the age of Netflix, when just about any film made anywhere can be summoned painlessly to your mailbox [or streamed to your flatscreen], we do well to remember that once upon a time there were only a handful of independently operated movie theaters in the United States dedicated to showing foreign-language cinema. Prints were few, sane distributors fewer, and even as the beleaguered exhibitors struggled to build an audience for “movies you had to read,” often as not they had to fight off local censor boards, right-wing xenophobes, and self-appointed arbiters of morality and decency. Jim Selvidge was one of these cultural heroes (if you can feature a hero in horn-rimmed glasses heavy enough to tilt the Titanic). Singlehandedly at times, he championed Bergman, Godard, Buñuel, Kurosawa, et al., put the Seattle Censor Board out of business, founded the Seattle Film Society, and enticed his community to take the first decisive steps toward acquiring a reputation as one of the savviest movie towns in the country. It’s an important story.

I wrote that blurb for Bergman, Fellini, Kurosawa: The Foreign Film in America, James N. Selvidge’s memoir of a couple decades as a Seattle film exhibitor. Chances are the name doesn’t ring a bell – unless, perhaps, you’re into horseracing. That’s the field Selvidge went into bigtime in the 1970s, after U.S. interest in the foreign-film scene shrank drastically, and he rode those horses a long way. In fact, his website is named horsestalk (though I’m not sure whether that’s “horses talk” or “horse stalk” … never mind).

Non-horse people knew the name when I arrived in Seattle in autumn 1965. Selvidge had made major contributions to the local scene, not just culturally but also politically. His activist stance in the previous decade had been key to delivering a potentially world-class city from the provincial constraints of a film censor board, and his profile was high enough that right-wingers circulated the rumor (and probably believed it) that you could get into Selvidge’s Ridgemont Theatre for free if you whispered the letters “ACLU” through the box-office window. Good times.

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This is Not a Watchman Review

[published in conjunction with the blog seanax.com]

The world doesn’t need another Watchmen review. Everyone with access to a preview screening and a web page has already done one. The world is not short of opinions and the web doesn’t seem to differentiate between considered responses and emotional reflex put to words, though you can find some of the better ones here (thanks to David Hudson at The Daily @ IFC.com for wading through the onslaught to pick out the more interesting responses).

So this is not a Watchmen review. It’s a consideration of what the film is and how it got that way: perhaps the most faithful cinematic replica of a comic book experience every accomplished.

Here is my question: why would anyone want that? I have the graphic novel. I’ve read it a few times and can pick it up anytime I want to.

Nite Owl and Archie
Nite Owl and Archie

I go to the movies to be immersed, impressed, awed, engaged. Zack Snyder’s Watchmen feels like a film made to deliver a sense of comfort that everything is exactly as you remember from the graphic novel. The character stories and arcs are all there, along with the complex backstories and the alternate history of America. The signature images from the comic books are all on display: the marvelous costume designs (which in some cases evoke comic-book silliness and garish impracticality of yesteryear costumed heroes), Doctor Manhattan’s Mars Fortress of Solitude, Archie the Nite Owl’s ship. In an interview Alan Moore gave to Wired Magazine, he complained that no film could get the texture of Dave Gibbons’ artwork. Maybe, but I can’t image anyone getting closer.

Yes, Snyder streamlined the story and judiciously edited out certain subplots and side-stories (notably the “Tales from the Black Freighter,” which will be released on a separate DVD later this month and is promised to be returned to the DVD release – though fans of the comic will notice that the news agent and the comic-book fan are present in a few shots). And he even dared to change the details of Moore’s original ending, twisting it with an insight so perceptive that one wonders if Moore would have done the same had it occurred to him, so beautifully does it wrap itself within the self-contained mythology and the character dynamics.

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