Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Hit Me With Your Best Shot - A Star is Born

Written as part of The Film Experience's "Hit Me With Your Best Shot" series.

A Star is Born must be one of the most durable properties in Hollywood's archives, having been made first in the 30s (with Janet Gaynor and Frederic March), then in the 50s (with Judy Garland and James Mason), and then in the 70s (with Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson). There was even talk recently that Clint Eastwood of all people wanted to do a new version with Beyoncé (of all people). Each version has its ardent fans, but when people talk about A Star is Born, they're usually talking about Judy Garland - at least in my experience.

And it's with good reason. This is Judy at her Judy-est, digging deep within herself and coming up gold right and left. There isn't a single scene here where she isn't on fire. It's not just a great performance, it's Judy Garland at her absolute peak, giving the kind of performance that would define any actress with a less-impressive resume than Garland's. Judy's "Mrs. Norman Maine" is everything you want and expect from Judy Garland, dialed up to eleven.

Director George Cukor knows from well-crafted women's pictures, so the entire enterprise is well-shot and perfectly pitched (if a little long). Picking a best shot should be difficult, but it isn't. At all. There may be other more beautiful, more meaningful shots, but there is only one shot that matters in A Star is Born, and I will not hear anything otherwise. The shot comes at about a minute into the clip below.

Jesus Christ, but has there ever been an actress who can get to such deep emotions so purely, not to mention so easily?

Yes, Judy is amazing here, but this isn't the best shot of A Star is Born just because of her. Literally every single thing about this shot is perfection. Even though she's constantly moving around, Judy is always in the center of the frame, because Cukor is so in tune with the (ridiculously high) artistic level she's working on that he knows just when she's going to move, and where to, and how far. And he knows exactly when to zoom close and when to pull back. It's incredible.

Shooting a solo musical number is a tricky, tricky thing, and this one is aces not just because of the performance (which earns its legendary status about a hundred times over), but because of the directorial decisions involved. Other directors would have cut to Norman watching her at least once during the number, and given how good James Mason is, that might have worked. But Cukor knows that when Judy Garland is singing like this, you don't cut away. You keep the band mostly in shadow, you keep her in mid-frame except for the big moment when she comes right at you, you pull back to let the audience catch their breath, and then you pull in again ever so slightly for the quiet end. It's the movie in miniature, it's a brilliant performance, and a master class in how to stage, light, and shoot a solo musical number. Brava!

Monday, April 15, 2013

Flashdance - The Audition

Ah, Flashdance! Dance movies made a comeback in the 1980s, and it started right here 30 years ago today. Well, dance movies never really went away, I guess, but Jennifer Beals certainly got more people interested in seeing dance on the big screen. Pity she didn't do most of the actual dancing. Flashdance also pretty much set the template for every dance movie that followed: You can see all the story beats and pretty much this exact sequence in Save the Last Dance, Center Stage, all the Step Up films, and others.

Not that I'm complaining, exactly. Formulas wouldn't become formulas if they didn't work, and Flashdance works really well. It even holds up a lot better than you might think. I'm just glad that later films did a better job of capturing the actual dancing.

The one precedent Flashdance set that I'm not at all happy about is the editing style. In just over two minutes there are thirty-three cuts in the dance, and they aren't used in the best ways. The best parts of the dance are when the camera follows Beals's Alex as she dances. In fact, director Adrian Lyne nearly ruins this final sequence, Alex's big audition, with countless cutaways to the panel of judges' reactions, which run from silly facial expressions to cigar-smoking to toe-tapping to nose-blowing. Trust me, no one cares about them. We just want to see Alex tear it up on the dancefloor.

And tear it up she does. Jeffrey Hornaday's choreography might include a few too many of those punch-the-air-and-kick moves for my taste, but Beals (and/or her body doubles) looks so fantastic doing them that I don't really care. This a truly go-for-broke audition piece, throwing everything in the dancer's arsenal on the floor in the hopes that the panel will see not only technique, but the raw passion present in all the greatest dancers. It's also incredibly of its time. You can see this mostly in the technique; the arms closed in tight when pirouetting, the height of the battements (high kicks), the style of the jetées (leaps) - these are all indicative of 80s technique. If a dancer were performing this piece today, you would see much higher battements, rounded arms in the pirouettes, and straighter legs in the jetées. The gymnastic and breakdancing elements are also very 80s, but in a more fun, cultural way.

Lyne also throws pretty much every editing and camera trick in the book at this sequence to maximize how cool it looks. He films the pirouettes from three different angles to make it look like she's doing far more than she actually is. He zooms in on the really cool moves (almost as if to say, "look at how cool that is!"). He shoots her in silhouette against the light from the windows (a callback to the first dance sequence when she dances in silhouette). He films her flying leap in slow-motion and from angles which emphasize how high and how far she jumps. He shoots just her feet to emphasize the footwork (a trick which I particularly hate, as it leaves out the rest of the body entirely).

This last trick works far better in the beginning of the sequence, before the dance actually begins. The set-up of the scene does a great job of building tension - following Alex's feet as she walks through the room, a slow pan across the people behind the table, and my favorite bit, the close-up of Alex's trembling hand as she puts the needle on the record player. (For the record, I would be unbelievably nervous about dancing to a record. What if it starts skipping?) And then, she falters. It almost looks like she's going to continue, but instead she gets up, excuses herself, and starts again. Forget that this would likely never happen in any real audition situation, but it's really effective and setting up both the people auditioning Alex as well as the audience. Even though we know what Alex is capable of, will she be able to hold it together and win over the old fuddy-duddies?

Maybe Lyne lays it on a bit thick here - we're already on Alex's side, and the stakes have been set well enough in the previous hour and a half - but it still works as a shock. Alex is human. She can falter. This might just be too much for her, like it was for her friend Jeanie (who falls in a skating competition earlier in the film). But she rallies. And that makes all those punch-the-air-and-kick moves feel even more triumphant. My favorite critical line on Flashdance comes from The Guardian, which called the film "a preposterous success," which is just about a perfect description. The characters and plot are preposterous, as are many of the directorial choices, and yet Flashdance does nothing but succeed. The whole thing is greater than the sum of its parts, because... well... because what a feeling it leaves us with!

Favorite Moment: The flying leap into the backspin. Isn't that everyone's favorite part? It's certainly the red-headed judge's favorite. I love how ballsy it is.
Length: approx. 2:15
Number of Cuts: 33

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Hit Me With Your Best Shot - Jurassic Park

I was nine years old when Jurassic Park was first released in 1993. I'm pretty sure all of my classmates saw it in theaters at least once, being young boys and all (is there anything that young boys love more than dinosaurs?), but I never did. I was a fragile little thing, and deathly afraid of anything even remotely scary. So while I loved archaeology and really liked dinosaurs, the movie was rated PG-13, and was thus too scary for me (plus, the raptors in all the ads were terrifying). I ended up watching it at a youth group sleepover maybe a year or two later on a really, really small screen, and I enjoyed it (and didn't close my eyes even once!), but didn't love it in the way all the other kids seemed to. I've maybe seen it once since then.

So, thank God for 3D re-releases and weekends with nothing to do, because if there's one thing Jurassic Park 3D proves, it's that this fucker demands to be seen on a big screen. Because the entire thing is pretty goddamn majestic.

And also, it's weird.

Seriously, this may be the weirdest blockbuster of the 90s. First, there's the cast. When you think of smart action heroes, even now your brain does not automatically gravitate towards Laura Dern and Sam Neill, let alone Jeff Goldbum (who hilariously spends as much of the movie's second half as possible posing for a beefcake calendar). And there's Samuel L. Jackson, just along for the ride (seriously, how is it possible for one man to be in so many iconic films?!?), and Wayne Knight, as a greedy bad-guy tech wizard. And throw in BD Wong, just because. And then, there's the opening sequence, which is kind of incoherent, and makes a point of not showing the creature in the box. Come on, Steven Spielberg. We know the movie's about dinosaurs - it's on your goddamn logo! In fact, we don't even get to the island until a third of the way in, and when we get there, after the initial establishing shots we see very little dinosaur. And it's SLOW. And Jeff Goldblum tries to explain chaos theory while simultaneously trying to seduce Laura Dern, and it's all very weird and heady (but apparently not nearly as heady as Michael Crichton's novel) and not at all blockbuster-like.

But then, once that storm hits and the power goes out and all hell breaks loose, Jurassic Park lets loose with some fantastic action and suspense pieces. And the cinematography is a key part of that. Dean Cundey really uses the entire frame, often placing important pieces of information in the background, ever so slightly out of focus, and there are a whole bunch of really fun camera angles (like when the kids and Sam Neill are climbing the electric fence). And they really take advantage of the power going out, too, using the play of light and shadow to make the dinos look even more other-worldly. The thing is so well shot, actually, that I had a really hard time picking out the "best" one.

Going in, I was pretty sure it was going to be one of three iconic shots: the first ridiculously majestic shot of the dinosaurs in the park, the water cup on the dashboard of the van, or the final shot of the T. Rex (you know the one). And it was really hard not to pick that last one. It's iconic for a damn good reason. The T. Rex looks (and sounds) awesome, and the banner falling down is a perfect visual joke. When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth, indeed.

But seeing Jurassic Park again, this time as an adult, I was struck by just how prevalent the science talk is throughout. I mean, what blockbuster (even today, let alone in the 90s) even attempts to engage in conversation about chaos theory when there are dinosaurs just waiting to stomp into frame and eat someone? And there's a lot of science talk. A LOT. But, on the other hand: Man, that T. Rex looks AWESOME! So in the end, it came down to two shots in the running, with one emerging the clear victor. The runner-up is the first time the T. Rex almost nonchalantly stomps into frame - a really chilling moment that even now made me bounce up and down in my seat. But the victor, which knocked me on my ass when I saw it this time, is pretty much the perfect shot to encapsulate all that Jurassic Park is (and could have been more of):

In that moment, the logistics of how the DNA strand is being reflected onto the raptor don't really matter. Neither does the plight of our main human characters. This shot is representative of the true fight at the heart of Jurassic Park: Science versus nature. Modern technology versus good old-fashioned survival of the fittest. That raptor may have been created in a test tube and engineered to be female, but she (or he - who knows?) is in charge now, and she will do what she must in order to survive. We can "create" a dinosaur in the modern day, but once it's here, there's no telling what it will do. And that possibility makes this scary/beautiful image that much scarier.

Plus, it instantly reminded me of another great 90s movie, Gattaca. Yay, nostalgia!