Hit Me with Your Best Shot: VMA Noms

So last minute change Nathaniel over at Film Experience has decided to switch things up for our Hit Me with Your Best Shot movie club.  Instead of our normal watch a movie and pick a shot, the assignment is to watch each of the nominees for best cinematography at the MTV Video Music Awards and pick a shot from each of them.

I have to say going into this I am really only a fan of one of the songs.  Not that they are bad just not my taste (I’m not much into hip hop).  I’m also not that up on the current music scene so take my opinion with a grain of salt.

But here goes.

1. The first video is the song Never Catch Me by Flying Lotus featuring Kendrick Lamar

Even for hip hop fans I don’t really get the appeal of the music but the video is nicely done.

This video starts out with a community grieving the loss of a boy and girl at a funeral.  But the children wake up out of the caskets and proceed to dance.  I think this is supposed to mean the exuberance which is lost to violence.  I really liked these 2 kids dancing so that’s why I picked this shot.

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2. The next song is Thinking Out Loud by Ed Sheeran- a bit of a slinky costume on the dancer on this one.  Just warning.

Not a whole lot to this video but a very pretty dance number and I like dance so that’s great.  This is actually the only song of this group I like and own.  I think Ed Sheeran has a nice tamber to his voice and the song has a very good hook.  They could have done I think a little bit more with the song, been a little more creative but it’s a nice number.

I thought this moment with the lighting and the splits of the dancer was beautiful (sorry I don’t know the technical terms).  They should get this dancer on Dancing with the Stars.  She’s great.

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3. Next is Taylor Swift Bad Blood featuring Kendrick Lamar.

I actually like Taylor Swift (I know it is for some reason cool in certain circles to hate on her) but for a pop songstress I enjoy her tunes.  This song I’m not crazy about probably because of the hip hop elements but the music video is pretty cool and certainly ambitious.

There was a lot of cool shots to pick from this video but I went with a shot of the 2 boxers because I think boxing is empowering and have enjoyed doing some of it myself.  I think it is a particularly awesome trend for women- get all that angst out!

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4. Next is FKA Twigs “Two Weeks”

This song I really didn’t care for and I wasn’t a big fan of the video either.  I don’t know who this singer is but I think you have to be a Beyonce or Mariah Carey to pull off this kind of diva Cleopatra kind of video.

But at the end we get an image of someone (the queen I guess?) under water and that was beautiful so that’s my shot.

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5. Lastly, we have alt-J “Left Hand Free”

I have heard this song and it is an okay even if I can’t understand a single word he says. It feels very derivative of other artists like Cat Stevens but most in this genre probably does.  The video sure looks like they are having fun!  I need to hang out with these folks.

As an open water swimmer I particularly enjoyed the scenes at the river.  I wish I could be at that river floating down that gorgeous water!!  (Well I kind of was last weekend at Bear Lake!).  But it looks really fun, so that’s what led to my shot.  I wonder where this mysterious river is with the rope swing we always see in movies and TV? Looks fun!

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Hit Me with Your Best Shot: Sunset Boulevard

sunset17This weeks choice for Hit Me with Your Best Shot movie club is the classic Billy Wilder directed and written film Sunset Boulevard.

If you haven’t seen it the film stars Gloria Swanson and William Holden in a film noir drama about a struggling writer who gets involved with a delusional star from the silent movies named Norma Desmond.  Most movies are about not giving up hope and achieving your dreams (even if it ends tragically).  Sunset Boulevard on the other hand is a bit of a cautionary tale of when those dreams become obsessions and keep you from living a full life. Great Expectations is mentioned in the beginning and in many ways they are similar.  Both stories have a male protagonist who dreams of greatness and women who can’t let go of lost dreams.

Today watching Sunset Boulevard reminded me of a guy I knew when I was about 25.  He believed he was destined to play in the NBA.  He actually had a vision from God that it was his calling.  Unfortunately he had not been good enough to make the college team at UofU.  Nevertheless, he would give these motivational speeches about the power of a dream and all.  It not actually happening didn’t seem to phase him much like Norma Desmond. On one hand this kind of vain ambition may seem charming but on the other it seems like a lot of wasted energy when new perhaps better dreams could be fulfilled.

Anyway, in classic noir style the film tells you the grim results of the crime with brooding narration at the onset.  This allows us to focus entirely on characters because the plot has already been spelled out.

Because it is so character driven a movie like Sunset Boulevard depends entirely upon the strength of the actors for its success.  Luckily in this case Holden and especially Swanson are up to the task.  It’s a cliche to say but Swanson is mesmerizing in every scene.  One gets the impression Norma Desmond would be proud of the leading lady portraying her!

That’s not to take anything away from Wilder or cinematographer John F Seitz because their work is very strong. What they do enhances the great efforts of the actors making it all work together nearly flawlessly.

For example, one thing I noticed while looking for a shot is the way Wilder makes Norma feel both large and small depending on the moment.

Gloria Swanson it turns out is only 4’11” (William Holden is 5 ’11” which would normally be short but a foot taller than his costar in this case).

When he needs Norma to feel powerful over Joe she has buns in her hair or they are sitting.  Here are some examples:

sunset3 sunset13 sunset14 sunset15But when Norma is losing control we see her being looked down on or seeming as tiny as Swanson really was.

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All the doors in the house are massive and dwarf Norma.
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Norma looks so tiny next to this giant ship bed
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All the reporters looking down on her as she makes her grand exit.

sunset7 sunset11 sunset12Before I give my shot I will say that Sunset Boulevard is one of the few classics I would love to see a remake on.  The reason why is I love the musical version by Andrew Lloyd Webber (definitely his most underrated).  The music is very strong and I can see Meryl Streep eating up the part of Norma Desmond.  (Norma’s only 50 after all!).

Glenn Close is also iconic in the role as can be seen in one of the best songs

Can’t you just see that being a great movie?

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In this shot Joe is finally leaving Norma.  He spills the beans on all that Max has been doing to prop up her delusions of grandeur but she seems to be oblivious to all he is saying.  He is telling her “there is no shame in being 50 except when you are trying to be 25”.  Instead of paying heed she is giving a performance almost as if there is a spotlight over her head.  Look at the way her hands are at her throat like a Shakespearean actor doing Hamlet.  It’s almost as if she expects applause.

sunset18Then she says “I’m the greatest star of them all”.  He leaves and says goodbye and she says “No one ever leaves a star.  That’s what makes them a star”.  Once having tasted the greatness of being adored and loved Norma mentally cannot handle being small (she even says ‘I’m big. It’s the pictures that got small’).

Madness for Norma is a better alternative than being abandoned.

Hit Me with Your Best Shot: The Red Shoes

It’s time for my third entry in the Hit Me with Your Best Shot film project done by Nathaniel over at the Film Experience

I’m really excited about this project because it is kind of like a book club- in that it is interesting to see what other people think about the same movie, all watching it at the same time.  Plus, it introduces me to new films I might not have discovered on my own.  I won’t be able to review every movie because of content (as last week’s Magic Mike selection demonstrated) but the one’s I can I’m very enthusiastic about.

red shoes4This week’s choice is The Red Shoes which is a film made in 1948 by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger (known as The Archers) .  It is a movie I admit I had never heard of before but of course it is a classic (so  many of those it’s hard to keep track of all of them).  And it is fortunately a classic for a reason.  It is a stunning movie about passion, work, love and dance.

Frequent readers to this blog will already know one of my favorite topics in film is work. Why we work? How we balance work?  When have we over-worked?  How do you know what work to do?  What is passion and what is too much?  What about the doldrums when we are miserable at work?  I love comedies, dramas, even cartoons about work.

Well, in The Red Shoes you have a woman that has an unusual job- she is a prima ballerina.  At the beginning I was a little bit confused about who all the characters were and what was going on.  If this happens to you stick with it.  It all gets explained.  The ballerina in question is named Victoria ‘Vicky’ Page (Moira Shearer) and through an aunt of hers she is introduced to Boris Lermontov (Anton Walbrook).  He is an eccentric strange man who’s obsession is having the greatest ballet company in all of France.

As the director he ends up giving Vicky a shot when his ballerina gets married and is fired (there is no option of a working woman in this film).  Vicky’s first role is as the lead in a ballet called The Red Shoes based on the Hans Christen Andersen story.  It is written by the conductor Julian Craster (Marius Goring) who is new to the ballet company like Vicky.

I don’t want to give too much away because I went into this movie completely fresh and I’m glad.  Basically it is about Vicky’s battle between her love or personal life and her passion for dance or career.  There is an extended ballet sequence which is a stunning surrealist masterpiece.  I loved this shot from that dance.  You can see both the home and the dance reaching out to Vicky.

red shoes 3There is also a great scene towards the end where Lermontov tells Vicky ‘you cannot live two lives’ and she must choose what she wants. (I have to admit I was a little bit let down by the ending but given it was 1948 it is kind of understandable). Even in modern times most working women will tell you ‘you can’t have it all’.  Something is always sacrificed whether it is work, family or both.

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But my favorite shot from The Red Shoes is from the ballet.  One of the things I noticed is whenever Vicky is dancing she is always smiling. You can tell she is so happy and perhaps that is the best litmus test of all?  Whatever makes you happy than try do as much of that as you can…It may not be your career but make it the thing you work for.

In a way watching her dance reminded me of the movie Ed Wood (I know strange comparison but hear me out).  He is so happy making his terrible movies.  The smile on his face never leaves.

So rarely is great passion matched with talent, so especially in Vicky’s case she should embrace what gives her that big smile. That’s why I picked this shot.  I love the dancing, red shoes and the smile.

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Hit Me With Your Best Shot: Citizen Kane

For months I have enjoyed viewing my blogging buddy over at Coco Hits New York Conrado Falco’s posts called Hit Me with Your Best Shot.  It’s part of a series of posts sponsored by The Film Experiment which is a blog/podcast on movies.  The idea is you post the best shot (or sometimes 2) that exemplifies a classic film.

The reason these posts excite me is because I have a great love for photography as my grandfather, father and brother are all professional skilled photographers. My brother Ben Wagner is now the founder and CEO of Poler LLC clothing but he has done both film and still photography for all kinds of publications.  Anyway, photography was a big part of my family and I think that is why I love movies and in particular looking at the stills of a movie and how they all work together to evoke a particular mood or moment in the film.

On Conrado’s last Hit Me post he invited me to participate and I figured why not?  Well, of course the first one I do has to be Citizen Kane!  Only the greatest cinematography ever in a movie.  Widely argued as the greatest movie ever made, it is tough to argue that it is the best crafted movie with cinematographer Gregg Toland creating a work that has yet to be topped.  Literally almost every shot in the movie could be used for this project!

citizen kane6Most people know Orson Welles was given free rein in Citizen Kane directing himself in the story of Charles Foster Kane who is widely seen as a sub-in for newspaper baron William Randolph Hearst.  Kane starts in obscurity but rises to be the richest most powerful man in the world.  And yet on his death bed he is practically alone and his one word is Rosebud.

Then for the rest of the movie a reporter named Jerry Thompson seeks to find out what Rosebud means and who Charles Foster Kane really is.

I love this movie but I am out of my league attempting to give any kind of professional analysis of the shots.  I know some things that impress me but I am sure there is much more a truly skilled technician would be able to tell you.  I highly recommend listening to the Roger Ebert audio commentary on the blu-ray.  It’s fascinating.

So the 3 shots I picked are…

citizen kane4Here’s a man who runs a newspaper, a tabloid no less, but what does he have going into the eternities?  Nothing but himself. He is infinitely alone.  citizen kane3After he insists Susan Alexander really is a singer he forces everyone to like her and forces her to sing just to prove he is right.  This image of the light bulb, his face and the newspaper with the headline about Susan is basically his life in one shot. He is exuberant, bright, sad, staring, and causing furor where ever he goes.

citizen kane5This is a shot from the beginning when Thompson gets his assignment to research Rosebud.  They have just finished watching the Kane newsreel about the great man’s life and all the reporters are nothing but shadows.  How apropos for someone about to find out the ‘hidden meaning’ of a word and a man’s life.

The lighting Toland and Welles achieve is astonishing.  The way shadows are used and light reflecting off of people in not just one interesting way but many in one shot is mind blowing.  He has many shots with a person that is blacked out facing the characters on the screen.  All we see is like a police outline and can look at the light and the reactions of who they are talking too.  Here is another example.

citizen kane2I guess that’s 4 shots then.  Give me a break.  It’s Citizen Kane for goodness sakes!!

What do you think of my shots?  It’s really a rite of passage for any film lover and I have the Citizen Kane boxed set collector’s edition which I highly recommend.  You’ve got to see it!