Hit Me With Your Best Shot: Ghostbusters (1984)

Screen shot 2016-03-04 at 11.51.01 p.m.

It’s a moment of both joy and lamentation, as Hit Me with Your Best Shotthe fabulous series conducted by the great Nathaniel Rogers- starts its sixth, and final, season. Lamentation because I’ll miss participating -and checking out other participant’s picks. Joy because, like I just said, participating is fun. 

Now, on to talk about the actual movie. This season opens with Ghostbusters, a movie -I must admit- I had never seen before last night. You will have to forgive me if you are one of those people who swear by the movie, but I was quite underwhelmed by it. I wouldn’t call it bad or anything, just merely ok. And maybe it’s one of those things where you had to encounter the movie as a child to love it, or maybe it’s the fact that people built it up for me too much, but the reality of the situation is that Ghostbusters = an ok movie.

But Best Shot has always been about appreciating cinema, even if what you’re seeing isn’t as engaging as you would hope, and especially when what you’re seeing doesn’t strike you as particularly great cinematography. The way this series works, of course, is you pick what you think is the best shot of a particular movie. How do you pick the best shot of a movie whose photography isn’t particularly interesting to you? Those are the challenges that make this so much fun.

That being said, I wouldn’t say that I found the photography in Ghostbusters to be bad. I mean, it’s no Tree of Lifebut it doesn’t need to be. What impressed me the most about director Ivan Reitman and cinematographer László Kovács’s work were what I’m calling their “frontal” compositions (sorry for my lack of cinematic vocabulary). What I mean by that is all the many shots in Ghosbusters that are shot with a wide lense, and position the action right in front of the camera, as if we’re looking straight ahead into a painting, or a window. You know, the kind of shot that is all over Wes Anderson’s movies.

To put this into context, here are a couple examples from the movie:

It’s no secret that I’m a huge Wes Anderson fan, but I response to his aesthetic for a reason. These “frontal” wide shots are not only elegant, but they can be very effective, especially in comedy. First of all, because they set up a spacious world (thanks to the deep focus of the lense) that the director can build upon by adding, subtracting, or moving elements within the frame. Second, because it’s fun to see things pop in and out of frames, especially when the frames are static. It’s almost like seeing a painting being disturbed, or a magic trick where something unexpected enters the equation of the expected. It’s also undoubtedly reminiscent of newspaper comic strips.

All of this brings me to my favorite moment in the movie. One that, is shot this way, and one that uses elements going out of the frame in a very smart way, but is not a comedic moment. I’m talking about the moment when Sigourney Weaver is attacked and possessed in her apartment. More specifically, about the moment when demons pull her -sitting on a chair- toward their brightly-lit portal. Sigourney -and the couch- fly by right in front of us on screen, and then, they disappear. One minute you see her, and the next you don’t. The language of cinema can be simple like that.

Screen shot 2016-03-07 at 1.16.26 a.m.

I know. This would’ve worked better as a GIF, but I couldn’t find one. And I’m not technically savvy enough to make one myself.

Hit Me With Your Best Shot: Chicken Run (2000)

Screen shot 2015-08-01 at 3.28.26 p.m.

I’m assuming that our friend Nathaniel‘s pick for this week’s Hit Me With Your Best Shot is tied up to the U.S. release of Aardman animation’s Shaun the Sheepwhich brings me to evaluate my perhaps unpopular opinion that the British claymation studio has always been best suited to short-form narratives. That is not to say that their features are anything but really good movies, it’s just that they present certain flaws that are simply absent from the studio’s short subjects.

Chicken Run was the studio’s first theatrical feature, and a pretty big critical hit, earning rave reviews and a Golden Globe nomination for Best Motion Picture – Comedy or Musical back in the days before animated films had their own category. For most of the American public, who tend not to watch many animated shorts, this was their introduction to the work of Aardman creatives Peter Lord and Nick Park, and a pretty good one at that.

Chicken Run is an escape-from-prison movie, only instead of violent criminals, our protagonists are a group of chickens trying to escape the horrors of the Tweedy Chicken Farm. And even though a brief 84 minutes are enough to feel the filmmakers trying to stretch their premise to feature length, Chicken Run is an incredibly solid, and somewhat daring movie. It is also, like I said, a very good introduction to the works of Aardman, especially in its blend of madcap silliness, clever humor, and sincere emotional core.

It’s this emotional core that I want to talk about, because the strongest aspect of Chicken Run, and perhaps the most important element in comedies aimed at children, is the intensity of its emotional core. Featuring imagery reminiscent of the Holocaust, Chicken Run can be a very bleak movie. This is, after all, the story of a group of life-long prisoners who will die a horrible death if they don’t escape their prison. Not only does the movie take the plight of its characters seriously, but it presents the horrifying elements of their lives in terms that can be digested and understood by children.

If that weren’t enough, the movie does all of this while being consistently funny, and every once in a while, engaging in some surprisingly dark humor. My pick for the “Best Shot” is one such moment, shortly after the chickens learn the Tweedys have decided to stop being an egg farm and kill the chickens in order to bake them into pies. The shot below shows Babs -a naive Irish hen who spends most of the time knitting- crocheting a noose. It’s an incredibly crude gag that works precisely because it’s not meant to make you laugh. Sure, the filmmakers are showing how clever they are, but they are using that cleverness as a gut punch, exemplified in Bab’s vacant stare at the possibility of her untimely death.

That’s the great thing about Chicken Run, it is a very traditional movie in terms of plot mechanics, but it becomes something much more sentimental and endearing by telling this story from the perspective of a group of claymation chickens. It would be ridiculous if it weren’t so emotionally effective.

Screen shot 2015-08-01 at 4.11.46 p.m.

Hit Me With Your Best Shot: Safe (1995)

Screen shot 2015-07-20 at 1.44.13 a.m.

Usually, when a great movie I hadn’t seen before is picked for Hit Me With Your Best Shot, I thank blogger extraordinaire Nathaniel Rogers for giving me the perfect excuse to finally catch up with it. However this time, because I’m doing my own 1995 Project, I was already going to watch Todd Haynes’s Safe no matter what, so instead, I will complain to Nathaniel for picking one of the best directed and photographed movies I have ever seen. How the hell am I supposed to pick just one shot from this masterpiece of a movie?

Not only is practically every shot in Safe as beautiful as you could ask it to be, but they are also essential to the movie’s message. As far as the art of cinematography is concerned, I don’t think you can ask for more than a beautiful looking movie whose photography is carefully designed to enhance the message of the plot. On that note, kudos to DP Alex Nepomniaschy for helping Haynes in crafting one of the greatest movies of the nineties.

The precise beauty of the compositions, and mostly static camera give away the bigger metaphors of the plot. Julianne Moore stars in one of the best performances of her career as Carol White, a L.A. housewife who starts to believe she is allergic to her surroundings. The fact that every shot in the movie is as beautiful as to be framed makes us aware of the screen as a canvas, a box. Thus, the frame becomes a symbol for Carol’s imprisonment. She is trapped in a sterile world as meticulously designed as the photography of the movie.

On that note, my pick for best shot is a very literal representation of this metaphor. Carol thinks she will find a cure to her ailments in a remote New Mexico commune. She is overwhelmed on the day she arrives, so she ends the day retiring to her cabin and crying her heart out. With time, she will start to believe that this facility is giving her the freedom and health that her previous life was lacking, but in this crying moment, the movie gives us a hint of the true nature of this “salvation”.

Haynes and Nepomniaschy put all of the cabin in frame. Seeing Carol cry inside is like seeing her in a prison. She’s come to regain her freedom, her health, her sanity, but she is just entering another box. Safe has a number of moments of heavy symbolism like this, and in that sense, it reminds me of Mad Men. Both use very obvious symbolism in the sense that is easy to spot what elements of the narrative are meant to be allegorical, while the meaning of the symbols is much more complex. It’s a mix between clarity and opaqueness that I enjoy. That’s why Mad Men is my favorite tv show of all time, and Safe one of the best movies I’ve ever seen.

Screen shot 2015-07-21 at 7.43.32 p.m.

Hit Me With Your Best Shot: The MTV Video Music Awards

In this episode of Hit Me With Your Best Shot, our dear host Nathaniel throws us a curve-ball, and instead of watching our regular movie, he makes us pick our favorite shot from the five music videos nominated for Best Cinematography at this year’s MTV Video Music Awards.

Despite having been created to highlight the music, music videos are more often than not built entirely around visuals, which makes it kind of hard to determine exactly what the VMAs consider to be good cinematography. The “Video of the Year” category seems to be reserved for the most popular and successful songs, and the “Best Director” for the videos with the more impressive or unique visual styles. Judging by this set of nominees, I think the VMAs are approaching cinematography mostly from a lighting perspective.

Anyway, here are the nominees, and my picks:

FKA Twigs – “Two Weeks” (Photographed by Justin Brown)
Being that this video is made of basically one continuous and fairly static shot (the camera just slowly zooms out for the duration of the song), and given the fact that its Egyptian composition was most likely achieved mainly through computer effects, it find it very weird that it was nominated for a cinematography award. One could see the lighting of the different “characters” in it as the achievement, but even then the green-screen work is pretty obvious. It was also very hard to pick a favorite shot, since the video only has one of those, but my favorite moment is when a little FKA Twigs drinks water that’s bizarrely flowing from the main big FKA Twigs’s fingertip.Screen shot 2015-07-21 at 9.35.17 p.m.

Flying Lotus feat. Kendrick Lamar – “Never Catch Me” (Photographed by Larkin Sieple)
“Never Catch Me” is not only the best video of this bunch, but also features the best cinematography job. Especially if we focus on lighting as much as the VMAs seem to be doing. This is actually a pretty great video, so I’ll let it speak for itself. It’s all built around one subversively fantastic conceit, my favorite moment of which is the surprise of the first visual of the two little kids stepping out of their coffins and dancing in the middle of the funeral.

Screen shot 2015-07-21 at 10.03.51 p.m.

Ed Sheeran – “Thinking Out Loud” (Photographed by Daniel Pearl)
Forget the whole Taylor vs. Nicki feud, the real controversy should be the fact that this snooze-fest somehow got nominated for Video of the Year. This one is not just one take, but it is confined to one room, a conceit that seems to have cinematographer Daniel Pearl shooting from every possible camera angle in order to make things as dynamic as possible. I guess the appeal of the video is seeing Ed Sheeran do an actual choreography, so kudos to him for pulling it off without major help from the editors. My pick from this video highlights the “reality” of the choreography, as we see how dirty the sole of the dancer’s foot is after dancing for a while.

Screen shot 2015-07-21 at 9.45.09 p.m.

Taylor Swift feat. Kendrick Lamar – “Bad Blood” (Photographed by Christopher Probst)
And speaking of the Taylor vs. Nicki feud… The video for “Bad Blood” got a lot of publicity for having lots of celebrity cameos and expensive visual effects, but that’s pretty much all it has going for itself. It is a pretty bad video that plays on scenes and tropes that we’ve seen in recent action and science fiction movies but fails to become an eventful “narrative” video, it’s just a bunch of “cool” referential images one after the other. And as far as cinematography is concerned, it often looks pretty horrendous. I mean, look at this nightmare of a shot:

Screen shot 2015-07-21 at 9.53.45 p.m.

The one thing I like about the video is the gag in which Taylor Swift is betrayed, falls from a roof seemingly dying by smashing into a parked car, and we cut to her body lying on top of the car and singing the song while looking directly at the camera.

Screen shot 2015-07-21 at 9.50.48 p.m.

Alt-J – “Left Hand Free” (Photographed by Mike Simpson)
I’m only somewhat familiar with Alt-J’s previous album, and this song sounds very unlike it. This sounds more like a blues-y Black Keys type of band. This is just a video of people hanging out and doing dumb stuff like riding four wheelers and lighting up fireworks, so I’m assuming it got nominated for looking like a vintage home movie/instagram picture? I didn’t like it very much, so I just went with this cute picture of a swimming dog.

Screen shot 2015-07-21 at 9.56.12 p.m.

Hit Me WIth Your Best Shot: Sunset Boulevard (1950)

Screen shot 2015-07-11 at 9.56.41 p.m.

By picking Sunset Boulevard for this week’s Hit Me With Your Best Shot, our dear Nathaniel unknowingly helped me get rid of one of my most embarrassing cinematic blind-spots. That’s right, I had never seen Billy Wilder’s classic melodrama about the cruel afterlife of Hollywood celebrity. But that’s not all, in order to make things even more interesting, he made it clear that we were not allowed to pick the film’s iconic last shot, which as he wisely put it, is one of the most iconic final shots in the history of the medium, and no one wants to see all of the participants picking the same damn shot.

Being completely honest, I don’t know if I’d had chosen that final shot of faded silent star Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) enchanting the camera as she relishes in the close-up she is suddenly ready for, but there is no denying the tragicomic nature of the image, which ends the film with a haunting yet melancholic period. Because let’s be honest, we might be entering the movie’s world through William Holden’s character’s point of view, but unlike him, we *are* here to see Norma Desmond. She is what the movie’s reputation has promised, and she is what the movie delivers.

Truly, Swanson gives one of the best performances in history in the way she seamlessly fits into the acting style of the fifties while filtering her performance through the mannerism of silent movie acting. One of my favorite touches is how she uses her mugging and overreacting to milk as much comedy out of the situation as she possibly can, which in turn brings in the necessary pathos to make Norma’s story even more tragic.

Needless to say, my pick for the best shot revolves all around Norma Desmond. It comes from somewhere in the middle of the movie, when our writer protagonist and the movie star sit down to watch one of her classic movies. Norma is transfixed by her own acting. She can’t understand why she’s no longer the biggest name in Hollywood. Of course she is such an outsized personality that one gets the feeling she ends all the screenings of her movies the same way she does this one, which is by jumping off her seat and promising in true Scarlett O’Hara fashion, that she will be up there again and show these stupid producers what a real star looks like.

Seconds after making this forceful promise, she turns around, and bathed in the light of the movie projector, we see Norma Desmond. The high contrast shadows, the expressive face, the pointed chin and nose. It’s the taste of greatness that has swallowed up this woman’s life. These are the remains of what Hollywood thinks she’s lost, but she so painfully clings to. Now we see what all those fans saw. Now we see the profile of a true movie star.Screen shot 2015-07-11 at 10.44.13 p.m.

Hit Me With Your Best Shot: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)

Screen shot 2015-07-06 at 7.27.52 p.m.

The great thing about writing, talking, and reading about movies is that there are usually countless opinions and hundreds of things to notice and analyze in a single film. Every once in a while, however, I find a movie that everybody seems to love for the same reasons. This week in Hit Me with Your Best Shot, our dear Nathaniel has picked Ang Lee’s wuxia epic Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and I feel like any praise I could give the film will sound like what people have said over and over again.

As far as the claim of this being a wuxia film created to cater to western audiences, I haven’t seen enough Hong Kong productions of the genre as to pronounce myself on either side of that debate. What I can say is that Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon stands out among most action movies I’ve seen by infusing its fighting choreography with an unusual level of lyricism. One of the cliched things to say about the movie is that it treats action like a musical treats musical numbers. This might be a cliche, but it’s absolutely true. Long, great essays have been written under that premise, and they show how Lee and choreographer Yuen Wo-Ping use action as an extension of character. To fight, in the world of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, is to work through your emotional problems much like Broadway divas do once they start belting.

There are countless examples of the Oscar-winning cinematography by Peter Pau complementing the choreography in revealing the inner workings of the characters, but they obviously include lots of movement that cannot be captured in a single screen-grab, which is kind of the conceit for this whole “Best Shot” shenanigans. Lucky for us, the photography in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is not only outstanding because it’s so beautiful, but it uses color, lighting, and composition to reveal character just like the ethereal fighting sequences do.

There are two emotional centers to the movie: the repressed love between Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun-Fat) and Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh), and the battle over Jen (Ziyi Zhang) -the young aristocrat who wishes to escape her restrictive life and find her true identity. We are introduced to Jen as a virginal young woman waiting to be married, but she is quickly revealed to be a magnificent fighter capable to stand in battle against either of our master heroes.

The truth is Jen has had quite an exciting life for someone who was raised to be an aristocrat. She was trained in martial arts by the villainous Jade Fox (Cheng Pei Pei), and she longs to be reunited with Lo (Chen Chang), the bandit she fought, and later fell in love with while stranded in the desert. She is a woman whose ever desire -be a martial artist, eloping with the man she loves- stand in opposition to the life that is planned for her.

That Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon focuses on the traditionally Chinese conflict between reason (li) and emotion (qing) is unsurprising, the way the movie expresses the conflict through images, however, is anything but. What’s more, in contrast to our Western ideals, the notion of one of these two elements being “good” and the other “bad” is far more unclear than you’d expect. Consider this moment, shortly after Jen has freed herself from Lo (who she believes to be her captor). The knocked-out Lo lies in shadow, while Jen and the horse she will use to escape is illuminated by the desert sun.

Is the light/dark dichotomy suggesting that Jen should run away from there? That reason tells her to go back to civilization, to escape and never look back on this desert bandit? Or does the shot reveal what’s going on through Jen’s head at that moment? Because she will collapse of thirst once she escapes, and will be saved by the very man she is trying to escape. At this point in Jen’s life, everything is light or dark, good or bad, right or wrong, it won’t be until after her adventure in the desert is over, that she will understand the nuances and complexities of her role as a woman, and the balancing act that comes with each of our life decisions.

Jen ends the movie by diving into an infinite fog, an abyss where vapor blurs the edges of everything it touches. She will embrace the nuance; she will accept the bargain. At the pivotal moment presented below, she is still in a rigid world. A simple world that can only be destroyed by life and adulthood.

Screen shot 2015-07-07 at 3.39.00 p.m.

Hit Me With Your Best Shot: The Red Shoes (1948)

Screen shot 2015-06-23 at 12.26.24 a.m.

It seems to me that I’ve had a predilection for shots that break the fourth wall during this season of Hit Me with Your Best Shot. This week, our friend Nathaniel picked the Powell and Pressburger classic ballet saga The Red Shoes (which I had never seen, but am really happy I finally caught up with it) and I predictably chose the most obvious moment in which the movie uses visual iconography to to speak directly to the audience. Although in my defense, there are many moments in which the movie uses symbolism and winking visuals to let its audience in on the themes it is going for.

But let’s get into it. I don’t know if you will need a lot of context to appreciate the shot I picked. The movie is the story of a young woman who dreams of -and dances her ass off- in order to become a successful prima ballerina, and the conflicts that come with her strive to be successful and great on her own right. A metaphor for women’s taste of the self-actualization of professional work thanks to the labor shortage of World War II, perhaps? Or a tale of the prize that comes with success? Perhaps, but that would be an incredibly reductive way of looking at the movie. There is so much to unpack in this tale of conflicting passions, and the fact that the movie is so often indirect about what it’s about makes it all the more intriguing.

Now, that last sentence might sound like a contradiction after I said the movie uses symbolism to clarify its themes. Well, there are many levels to this movie. The first level is, as with most movies I’ve seen, the text. The second level is a level of subtext the film is comfortable letting us know about. It’s the level that lets us know what is going on inside the characters minds, and very often the one that hints at the fact that this is, in its core, a tragic story. The third level is what the movie is actually about and what it wants to say about society, which is the one that is most unclear, and the one I’ve been thinking about.

My pick for Best Shot plays off those two levels of subtext. It comes at the end of the movie’s standout sequence, the “Red Shoes ballet”. To say it is a great piece of filmmaking would be an understatement. I was expecting a great movie, but in that middle section, I encountered one of the very best pieces of filmmaking I had ever seen, and a contender for the best dance sequence in all of cinema history. Ok, that should cover my hyperbole quota. Let’s get back to it. The surreal ballet is based on the eponymous story by Hans Christian Andersen, in which a young woman puts on some magical red shoes that won’t let her stop dancing until she dies. The ballet also ends with the female protagonist dying, but as she breathes her last breath, the Shoemaker takes the red shoes off her feet, and returns to his shop…

Once there, the Shoemaker dances around with the shoes, and right before the curtain goes down, he holds them up to the camera, not only offering the shoes just like he offered them to the unfortunate woman, but daring us to take them.

Going back to those levels of subtext, and taking into account the fact that this is a tragic story, I assume that this is the filmmakers trying to warn the audience through temptation. However, not knowing exactly what the movie is trying to say beyond the sacrifices that come with success, I don’t know what I am being warned against. It’s this underlying uncertainty that makes this the most troubling and stirring moment in a tragic and complicated movie.

Screen shot 2015-06-23 at 7.20.33 p.m.