Tag Archives: fantasy

Beautiful Wickedness

Nothing much happens during “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” Judy Garland leans against some hay, then walks, leans against this wheel, walks some more, then sits down. Five shots, about two and a half minutes, and that whole time we’re listening rather than watching because hers is the most wistful voice in all of human history. But minimalism or no, this shot is still surprisingly dense. It’s cut in half diagonally by Judy’s arms and by that wheel, whose arc across the frame guides our eyes toward the upper right—the same off-screen space Judy’s gazing at and singing about. Furthermore, the wheel gives her something sturdy to rely on as she sings her heart out, and its spokes work with the fence in the background to make her look especially imprisoned by Kansas farm life. But of course, like my favorite shot in Easter Parade, this is all about Judy’s eyes, and the sepia is even lightest around her head to accentuate them. Yes, The Wizard of Oz (1939) is this week’s pick for “Hit Me With Your Best Shot,” and this is one of my three favorite images in the movie.

This is another of them, though about as far removed from Auntie Em’s farm as you could get. It’s a matte shot of the Wicked Witch’s castle that’s only onscreen for about two seconds, yet can have a colossal impact on the psyche of a child watching it. The Wizard of Oz overflows with marginal details that suggest sprawling, untold stories: What was the Witch of the East like? Where did the red brick road go? What exactly are the Winkies chanting, and why? Similarly, this shot suggests an impossibly tall fortress sprouting out of a chasm that threads its way around a mountain range, none of which ever actually existed. It’s just a single painting by the uncredited Warren Newcombe that nonetheless arouses the viewer’s curiosity and imagination, with reverberations that are tangible decades later in fantasies like Star Wars and Lord of the Rings. This shot is visual magic, expanding the film’s already epic scope. (Speaking of camera tricks, I was surprised to realize on this rewatch of Oz that several of my favorite shots involve lap dissolves.)

Finally, sticking to the Witch’s castle, here’s my favorite shot. I really love Margaret Hamilton’s somewhere-over-the-top performance in this movie, and although she’s facing away the camera right now, she’s still oh god so terrifying. Here she’s at the height of her magical authority, screaming “Fly! Fly!” and gesturing broadly to whole squadrons of her simian slaves. This is one woman giddy with unbridled power, using it to exact revenge for her sister’s death. Like that matte painting of the castle, this shot suggests a gray vastness beyond the Witch’s fingertips, but here it’s framed within a picture window. Here we’re privy to the Witch’s war room, whose foreground is dotted with objects—vulture statue, candle, crystal ball, gyroscope—that call to my mind Hans Holbein’s painting The Ambassadors. This shot is an intimate portrait of evil, the kind the Witch herself might hang on her wall, with the camera stationed on the inside and gazing out. It’s a vantage point scarier than any lion, tiger, or bear.

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Bird or Beast

Pity the poor Ladyhawke (1985). Saddled with the most ’80s of scores, a wisecracking Matthew Broderick, and even a slow-motion “NOOOO!” at its climax, it initially comes off as chintzy and dated. But at heart, it’s an old-fashioned swashbuckling adventure coupled with a tragic romance, parceling out its plot’s mystical secrets between swordfights and thrilling escapes. Its pleasures may not be especially subtle or sophisticated, but they are elemental and manifold. (And, truth be told, the talkative Broderick is actually quite believable as a 13th century pickpocket.)

This impassioned throwback kicks off Season 3 of The Film Experience’s “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” series, a blogging tradition in which I’ve often proudly participated. Its challenge is to pick your “best shot” and, for me, the image above comes close. It showcases three of Ladyhawke’s strongest attributes: 1) the photography by Vittorio Storaro, as mythic as anything drawn by Frank Frazetta; 2) the mountainous Italian countryside that cradles the film; and 3) the film’s supernatural conceit—that Navarre (Rutger Hauer) and Isabeau (Michelle Pfeiffer) are cursed to be “always together, eternally apart,” he a wolf by night and she a hawk by day.

Thanks to this curse, Pfeiffer has relatively little corporeal screen time; more often than not, Isabeau is streaking across the sky or perching on Navarre’s arm. But it hardly matters because this is the breathless, sylphlike Michelle Pfeiffer. In the shot above, she’s sprawled out on a monastery floor, an arrow in her breast. Broderick’s Philippe has just asked her, “Are you flesh, or are you spirit?” She murmurs back, “I am sorrow.” She seems so detached from the physical realm, so consumed by her spiritual pain, that it’s easy to believe her. She is sorrow.

Hauer, meanwhile, is equally anguished but is instead tied to the earth, to revenge against the bishop who hexed them, and to what Hamlet would call his “too too solid flesh.” When Philippe spirits the wounded Isabeau to the monastery, he’s left alone at the site of his latest battle. Thunder rumbles in the distance as he kneels next to his treasured sword, leading to my favorite shot.

The shot only lasts for a few seconds, and he only utters a single word, “Please…”; this brevity gives it unexpected power. It gets right at the film’s raison d’etre, which is that “so close, and yet so far” relationship. The way Navarre loves and protects Isabeau, yet can never truly be with her. As he subordinates himself to the film’s medieval God, Hauer looks tiny against a hazy backdrop of field, mountain, and sky. It’s a stunning image of supplication in the name of love.

As any Blade Runner fan knows, Hauer enhanced potentially generic roles a mix of good looks, bravado, and intellect. Those are all in play during Ladyhawke, and Navarre is by turns intimidating, stubborn, and totally vulnerable. Whatever 1980s tics and poor judgments may mar the film, it’s still plenty fun and melodramatic, and it still has Hauer and Pfeiffer illuminated against Storaro’s centuries-old Italy.

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Link Dump: #46

This week’s kitty is from the ’80s horror classic Night of the Creeps, which gave us Tom Atkins as a zombie-killing cop with an unforgettable catchphrase (“Thrill me”). If you’ve seen the movie—or, really, any horror movie—you know that misfortune awaits this kitty. So let’s just appreciate its brief, non-undead appearance here. And then appreciate some links:

We had one outstandingly weird search term this week: “Чарли Кауфман пьессы,” Russian for “Charlie Kaufman pessy.” Yeahhh. I don’t know what to make of that. But it’s weird.

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The Key to the Fourth World

This week’s pick for The Film Experience’s Hit Me With Your Best Shot series is a film that’s rapidly creeping up on my list of all-time favorites. It’s a keenly observed tale of adolescent love, loss, and resentment that doubles as a sensationalistic true-crime drama and is dripping with bizarre fantasy elements. It’s Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures, which for my money is better than Dead Alive or any individual piece of the Lord of the Rings saga. Like Jackson’s zombie movies, it’s got a charmingly disturbed sense of humor, and like LOTR, it’s visually powerful, exploiting everything his native New Zealand has to offer.

Best of all, though, these skills are put in the service of a small, human, well-written story. Jackson and co-writer/wife Fran Walsh took the real-life tragedy of the Parker-Hulme murder in unexpected directions, letting us see the world through the wide eyes of Pauline (Melanie Lynskey) and Juliet (Kate Winslet)—two romantic, volatile girls with an unquenchable passion for Mario Lanza, James Mason, and each other. Heavenly Creatures is overflowing with memorable images, but one shot captures this descent into the girls’ shared universe especially well. This is my best shot:

This arrives at the end of a delirious, gorgeous sequence in which the landscape morphs around the two girls to suit their narcissistic fantasies. It’s when, as Pauline explains, they realize that they’re not just “genii,” but also princesses of the Fourth World (a land which is, naturally, imperceptible to the commoners around them). In this image, Jackson draws the viewer into their folie à deux and we see the sheer, naïve beauty of their fantasy. We see them as they see themselves: symmetrically positioned at the center of rich, private world, one which encompasses all the natural grandeur of the New Zealand coast and then piles on a Weta-animated majesty of its own.

It’s garish and even tacky, yes, but that befits a pair of swooning teenage girls in the 1950s. It looks like a book cover, and in a perverse way it’s the dark counterpart to, say, Dorothy’s first entrance into Oz, or the Pevensies’ first glance at Narnia. But for Pauline and Juliet, it’s their first step on the road to mental illness and murder. (Oddly enough, this “best shot” is more or less the teenage equivalent of my favorite from A Streetcar Named Desire.) My second-favorite shot from Heavenly Creatures also showcases Jackson and D.P. Alun Bollinger’s extremely stylized cinematography, along with that gleefully disturbed sense of humor:

This is probably the most indelible shot in the whole movie. Who could forget the distorted, unflattering extreme close-up on the psychiatrist’s mouth as he ominously utters the word “HOMOSEXUALITY”? It feels like Jackson’s playing a cinematic prank on this quintessential Old White Guy, a man who pretty effectively embodies the widespread bigotry and intolerance of the 1950s. In a lightly satirical way, this puts a fear-mongering representative of the medical establishment in an ugly light, and makes his professional opinion look similarly grotesque.

However much Jackson may mock this psychiatrist, though, Heavenly Creatures doesn’t totally side with the girls, and that’s what makes it so great. It empathetically details their dreams and desires, but never loses sight of their immaturity and selfishness. Juliet’s family may be dysfunctional, and Pauline’s parents may be simple, unambitious folks, but they always have the girls’ best interests at heart. Honora Parker is, above all, a good, loving woman who doesn’t deserve to die. By juxtaposing fantasy and reality, Heavenly Creatures seeks to understand the girls without absolving them, and it gets that much closer to the truth.

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T&A & Spaceships in Heavy Metal

An animated sci-fi/fantasy anthology film, Heavy Metal (1981) is the perfect salute to its namesake magazine. It’s about as deep as a paper plate, and consists of seven mediocre stories that end at arbitrary points; it embraces the laziest genre clichés and emphasizes T&A over dialogue or characterization (or, well, anything). At the same time, it’s full of gorgeous, imaginative art that more than redeems its needlessly gratuitous violence and pitiful attempts at comedy. It may be the ultimate treat for stoned teenagers, but it has a few nuggets for the rest of us, too, in the form of spectacular alien vistas and good-on-evil battle royales.

Does this make up for Heavy Metal‘s many weaknesses? That’s contingent on the viewer. Can you endure its casual sexism and total disregard for good storytelling in exchange for the occasional eye candy? I only have limited experience with the comics magazine it’s loosely based on, but watching Heavy Metal: The Movie is a lot like browsing through a yellowed back issue on a musty store shelf. You get the general ideas, you understand that the creators had a deep affection for Golden Age sci-fi or Robert Howard-style sword-and-sorcery, but you don’t have time to linger; eventually, you have to stop browsing and move on.

In the movie, there’s nothing much to linger on. It’s just a blaze of sensory impressions—some awesome, others lacking, a few infuriating. The weakest segments, for example, are probably around the middle: “Captain Sternn,” “B-17,” and “So Beautiful and So Dangerous.” Each of them has only a single idea to sustain it, whether slightly funny or slightly scary, and also has no story arc to speak of. In theory, yes, zombies running amok on a B-17 in World War 2 is cool, but that’s all there is here. Similarly, aliens, robots, and a naked woman on a spaceship sounds like a promising set-up… but “So Beautiful” sucks nonetheless, because it’s nothing but that set-up, realized with the voices of Second City Television alumni.

The more successful segments are “Harry Canyon,” “Den,” and “Taarna.” Although their stories are raw homage with little to no original thought, they’re still lovingly rendered, hinting at the kind of bizarre worlds that can come to life when underground comics meet adult animation. “Harry Canyon,” probably the best of the lot, takes place in a dystopian New York of the future, as the titular cab driver reckons with gangsters and a femme fatale. As usual, the writing is negligible, but the segment’s urban hellscapes are brimming with life and untold stories. The animation’s rarely perfect, but it’s still cool and inventive.

Overall, that’s pretty much the only reason to watch Heavy Metal. It’s an hour-and-a-half-long genre fiction wet dream that screams, “Hey! Look at this groovy dragon I drew! Wanna see it eat somebody? Also, TITS!” To be fair, both “Den” and “Taarna” have some groovy dragons, and the film as a whole has occasional moments of utter weirdness or inspiration, all delivered in the most grandiose of tones. It’s far from the thrilling something-for-everyone epic it makes itself out to be, and it’s also not really “adult” animation; adolescent animation might be a better label. But you wanna see some dragons, tits, and spaceships? Heavy Metal will not disappoint.

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