Film Reading Exam – Scene Analysis: Panic Room (2002)

Intruders break into the house.

We see Jodie Foster in a medium shot. She wears glasses, as all people seem to in films if they are reading a book or using a computer. It shows she is concentrating. It also hints that she is a professional person. She manages to switch on a bank of monitors. This is her new security system. It shows her massive house, she is a professional person.

The fact that several monitors show room after room and staircase after staircase gives a sense of her isolation in the house. Though there is no sense of threat yet.

She gives up on the instruction manual, hinting that she does not know how to use the system, or it is not fully functional yet. She tosses her glasses down, and we get a close up of her glasses and some water.

Another character observation from the scene in isolation is the photo of her daughter, who we see later in the scene. Also an empty wine glass next to the bed, which may be why she is drinking water.

Director David Fincher has given the scene a very green tinge, which hints at a documentary style, while the cinematography and choice of shot is very fluid and high tech, which is an interesting juxtaposition.

The rain pours down outside, which, with the green tone, gives a sense of greyness and loss. An almost clinical feel. This is a house, not a home. The minimalist decor hints at a ‘just moved in’ look.

We get our first elaborate tracking shot, zooming out from Foster in the bed, going down two floors and looking out onto the street. Suspicious music and suspicious characters outside. Looking in through the window. We follow one to the front door where the camera zooms into the lock, the break-in attempt fails and the camera moves to the front of the house. As we speed through a coffee maker handle we see the house is laden with boxes, Foster has indeed just moved in.

We track to the back of the house where another would be intruder tries a jimmy in the patio doors. This also fails. We track up through the floor and look through more windows, the intruders are taking stairs and ladders to climb up the house. There is the feel of insects swarming and crawling over a carcass as they move around the outside of the building, and the tension begins to ramp up. It is clear that these people are not chancers, they are determined to get inside this building.

We briefly see Fosters bed, but not her, clever sound design means that we hear a sleepy breath and know that she is still in there.

The insect metaphor is fully realised as we track up to the skylight: A spiders web. Foster is caught in the web. Forrest Whittaker walks around the skylight and looks down. He can see her, he has the position of power and the low angle of the shot confirms this.

This is followed by a clever mis-direction, we appear to be heading through the open door, and all of the tracking shots have flowed up to this point, instead we take a quick turn and head into the partially open storage room. We witness the hatch being forced. A quiet bleep and a the flash of a digital display shows us that Section 19 has been disabled, but no alarm is triggered. Jodie really should have read those instructions. Instead we see her sleeping.

Whittaker walks through the house, going down the stairs his eyes are drawn to the child’s bathroom nightlight. They are drawn to it because it is red and everything else is green. It stands out. It is clear that this is not part of the plan from his surprised reaction, and there is clever use of shots to communicate this, without resorting to him speaking on a radio to the rest of his crew. We also see that Foster is awake at this point, taking a swig of water. He looks almost fatherly as he opens the door of the daughters room.

The fatherly-ness disappears however as he stands framed, but out of focus in Fosters bedroom doorway, Foster looks the other way and her eyes are open as the camera rotates ninety-degrees going from a horizontal to vertical shot of her close up as she lies in bed. She looks like she has something on her mind. If she looked the other way she would have. The tension is rather dampened in this scene by the fact that Whittaker has already looked in on the daughter, and not harmed her.

There is a sense of the camera as character, especially during the fluid and flowing tracking shots. We can see whats going on, the shots are showing us that, but is the camera benign? It it watching indifferently? There is also a sense of the house as a character. More so than the camera. It does not feel protective or nurturing, and is as cold and grey as the weather outside.

Film Reading Exam – Scene Analysis: The Shining (1980)

“All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.”

We see the open expanse of the halls of the Overlook Hotel. Wendy (Shelly Duvall) looks small in the space. There is a sense of the surreal as she walks, calling out the name ‘Jack’, whilst carrying a baseball bat. Her footsteps and her voice echo, emphasising her alone-ness in the enormous hall. There is the occasional sound of orchestral instruments almost tuning up. This adds an edge to the uneasy scene. There are no sounds from outside. The hotel is isolated. At this point in the film we also know the hotel is physically cut off from the outside world due to snow storms.

As with all of Kubrick’s work, there is a tremendous amount of symmetry. The tracking shot of Wendy ending at the desk gives us a view of her underneath the balcony, dead centre of the twin staircases.

The huge windows of the hotel let in a hazy light, which gives a dream like quality to the scene. The mise en scene is one of order. Everything in the hall is meticulously arranged. The sofas, the tables, the photos on the wall – all perfectly straight. This contrasts with the disorder and insanity of the character Jack (Jack Nicholson), and the growing terror of Wendy, his wife. The colours at this point are extremely apparent, the tone is brown, beige and grey, desaturated. Like the life has been sucked out of it. It is ordered and symmetrical, but lacks any vibrancy. It has a morgue like quality.

After the long tracking shot of the frightened Wendy we come to the typewriter. Wendy is framed in a medium shot behind the typewriter looking down at the type-paper. We cannot see what she is reading, but her growing sense of terror tells us that it is not good. Strings begin to build, adding even more suspense.

We switch to a close up of the typewriter, again, perfectly symmetrical. Wendy’s POV. This shot answers the ‘What was Wendy looking at?’ question. The strings come in at higher notes.

There is a zoom in on the manuscript, a shot that seems of its time and slightly unnecessary now, and can appear comical.

Again we have first person POV as Wendy goes through the manuscript. The music at this point is bizarre orchestral hits, mimicking the insanity of what Wendy is reading. This is a long take, and necessary to show just how far Jack has gone. All the time he has been ‘writing’ this is what he has been doing. The whole point of taking the winter care taker job at the hotel was to allow him to write, now, Wendy falls to pieces as her world comes apart. She knew Jack was crazy, she now knows just how crazy. There is a sense of denial as she claws her way through the manuscript. Almost as if she thinks she will find some real work, and she does not want to believe this is what her husband has been doing all winter. Wendy looks like she is about to vomit, which is a much underused realistic shock reaction in films.

And so we switch to a pseudo POV long shot, peeping out from behind a pilar, then seeing Wendy hunched over the desk from behind. The shot is voyeuristic and creepy. A normal person would not walk up behind someone without saying something. Jack looms into the frame in the foreground, a huge silhouette looming over the much smaller Wendy. A not so subtle metaphor for the power dynamic in that situation.

The intensity of the music drops at this point.

Jack strides, confident and relaxed. He drapes a hand over the chair and puts the other in his pocket. He nonchalantly flicks through his manuscript. He comes across as calm and composed, asking Wendy ‘How do you like it?’, Wendy is terrified. She’s the one that looks insane, when the opposite is true.

The contrast in costume is also interesting. Wendy fits in to the rest of the mise on scene, beige, grey and creams. Jack is more vivid, a striking red jacket and blue jeans. He thinks he’s the cool cat. To Jack, Wendy just isn’t hip.

And now a masterpiece in editing, a tracking shot alternating in both characters POVs. Jack moves towards Wendy as she backs away. Not true POV, as they are not looking directly into camera, but almost POV mid shots of each character. Jack is powerful and dominant, advancing on the hysterical Wendy, mocking, patronising and mimicking his wife. She seems on the verge of collapse. It’s difficult not to mention Kubrick’s  alleged treatment of both Duvall and Nicholson at this point. Nicholson becomes extremely agitated and manic, which is how Kubrick wanted him, and Duvall seems on the point of collapse, the bat very heavy in her hands, which is how Kubrick wanted her.

As they mention Danny we cut to their son. Clever use of sound (their voices seem ‘underwater’) and a close up of Danny in a trance like state shows us that he can hear them but he is not there. The famous REDRUM and Lift shots are briefly cut to. Things are not looking good for Danny and his family.

Wendy begins to back up the stairs, this is the first time since the desk that they are both in shot. Jack is now manic, his ranting about order and responsibility is reflected in the grey, dour but perfectly organised hotel. His talk about order also contradicts his current mental state, which is somewhat disorganised.

We get an OTS shot behind Wendy as she swings the bat at Jack, the angle of the shot gets higher and higher as they head to the top. Again the symmetry of the twin staircases behind Jack is impossible to ignore. The light at the top of the stairs is orange, and gives Jack a demonic red tint. When we cut to Wendy, the light fitting behind her head forms a sort of halo. Though I think by this point we know who’s side we are on.

The brutal thud of the bat hitting Jacks head and the clever cut to the stuntman falling down the stairs is as seamless as it is horrific. This scene viewed in isolation could leave the viewer with the impression that Jack is dead, if be didn’t cut immediately to Wendy dragging her babbling husband into the freezer.

Bad choice. She should have finished him off with the bat. At least it would have saved that psychic Chef. Psychic? He didn’t see that axe in the chest coming.

Robocop (2014)

robocop-movie-first-look-poster-2013-2014Cyborgs were pretty big in the eighties. And ninjas. And cyborg ninjas (I’m looking at you, Cyber-Shinobi). Of all the movie efforts at capturing the robot obsession of that decade, there are two stand-outs: James Cameron’s The Terminator (1984) and Paul Verhoeven’s Robocop (1987). Robocop went on to have several less intelligent, and less successful sequels and spin offs. The 2014 re-boot was the first serious, big-budget attempt to re-launch the franchise. The production was beset with problems, director Jose Padilha reportedly described it as ‘hell.’ Key actors leaving the project, producers rejecting 9 out of 10 of his ideas, and the pressure of delivering a film that would appease the originals fans took its toll, and Padilha may be reluctant to take on such a big project in the future. Everything pointed to the film being a disaster.

So what did we end up with?

Robocop (2014) is a very intelligent, well made and interesting film. The strain of creative differences is apparent in places, and the writing is sometimes inconsistent, but overall this is a good, solid movie.

The film can be seen as a (very direct) metaphor for examining Americas role in the world, the use of drones in conflict, and the constant, sometimes vitriolic, debate between liberal and conservative America. The film also touches on the nature of free-will, and the use of technology in the modern world. These are themes that are not often explored in blockbuster movies. I can see where Padilha would have liked to have gone further, but the fact that he managed to get so much of this stuff in is impressive.

Samuel L. Jackson shines as an ultra right wing political talk show host and Michael Keaton is on great form as the super rich villain of the piece. Gary Oldman does his best with some at times clunky, and repetitive dialogue, but still manages to add something as the morally conflicted Doctor, the ‘creator’ of Robocop.

Where the film falls down a little is Joel Mckinnon’s  Alex Murphy, the films protagonist. Comparing him with Peter Weller, who played Murphy in the original is unfair, but difficult not to do. Weller played the role with nuance and finesse. He felt like an everyman, a tragic hero. Mckinnon’s Murphy is one note: A tough detective. It’s not McKinnon’s fault, the character is written as a tough-guy. But he seems at odds with the black humour of the movie, and the deeper themes Padilha is toying with. He has some good moments, but these are too few to save the character from being just another action hero.

I tend to forgive films if I can see what they are trying to do, and they are trying to do something cool and different. If you can forgive Robocop its flaws then it is an enjoyable action movie with more to say than most other movies in the genre.

 

Definitions of Art: Why “De Niro on the Death Star” is better than the Mona Lisa

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Not bragging, but I’ve seen the Mona Lisa. In Le Louvre. It was a small sad painting of a lady with a half smile. It was surrounded by tourists. It did nothing for me.

The above picture, “De Niro on the Death Star,” is the creation of fellow undergraduates Kelvin Peakin (Director, Haunted 2016) and Jacob Topen (Writer, spec script, Roboshark 2 – The Squeel 2016). It is far better than the Mona Lisa, for these reasons:

  1. Robert De Niro is laughing. There is no ambiguity about this. You don’t have to waste time wondering what he’s thinking, like you’re supposed do when looking at the Mona Lisa. He’s enjoying himself. He’s saying: “I’m having a great time. Why don’t you?”
  2. Darth Vader is smoking a cigar. He’s relaxed. He’s enjoying ‘Bobs’ company. It’s good to see Vader relaxed, he’s usually so uptight.
  3. If you want mystery, which some people do, take a look at Grand Moff Tarkin. What is he thinking? What’s behind that stern glare? That’s mystery for you.
  4. Every one knows who Robert De Niro, Darth Vader and Peter Cushing are. No one even knows who the lady in the Mona Lisa is. What’s all that about? A painting of someone when nobody knows who they are? Ridiculous
  5. There is a poster of Abba on the back wall of the Death Star. That’s great.

Obviously, Grand Moff Tarkin is not smoking a real cigar, it’s just a clumsily drawn brown line. Kevin and Jacob only had an hour. Whoever painted the Mona Lisa probably had ages. And he didn’t even bother to have her smoking a cigar.

De Niro on the Death star delivers on so many levels, and is a work that I feel will endure.

 

Reality Bites: The Dangers of Revisiting the Magical Movies of Your Childhood

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When I was a boy, I repeatedly watched Superman (1978), Superman II (1980) and Superman III (1983). I regarded these films as masterpieces and could not see anything in them except good. I often watched them while dressed as Superman, and my parents have photographic evidence of this. I had Superman wallpaper in my bedroom. While I no longer dress as the Man of Steel, and my walls a little less garish, I remain a massive comic book movie fan-boy. And so, having not seen the original movies in a long time, it was with a sense of excitement that I talked my long-suffering wife into watching them with me. Superman was good. Not quite as good as I remember – the clownish version of Clark really jarred with me, among other things. I could happily accept such minor irritations as a ‘different interpretation of the character from my preferred model.’ I found myself choking up when Clark flies to save Lois by grabbing the helicopter. All in all it was okay. No childhood memories destroyed. Superman II did that. The movie is a comic farce, having much more in common with Batman ’66 then any comic book movie adaptation of the last decade. Hammed up performances, cringe-inducing comic set-pieces, inconsistent (and baffling) super-powers – memory loss kiss? Telekinesis? Teleportation? Big plastic ‘Super-shield’?? I barely made it to the end of the film, and had to endure a barrage of derogatory comments from my poor wife, who’s usual standard review of even the worst of movies is: “I thoroughly enjoyed it.”

So, what’s changed? Not the film. The film is exactly the same film I repeatedly watched all those years ago. The film I loved. And I did love it. So, with that in mind, the film cannot be the problem. I’m not going to go into the production problems associated with Superman II, that’s not the point of discussion, interested readers can click here for that story. I’ve changed. My expectations and the things I enjoy and expect from a comic book movie have changed. My sense of humour and artistic sensitivities have changed. And I cannot stand Superman II. It is irredeemably awful.

Hold on a minute. But I love Superman. And I love Batman. What got me into Superman and Batman? That’s right: The Christopher Reeve Superman movies and the Adam West Batman ’66 series. Versions of characters that may not appeal to me now, but valuable versions of the characters none the less. With that in mind I am able to make peace with Superman II. Maybe love it from a distance, or something like that. Appreciate it for what it was and what it meant to me. But not watch it again. Or Superman III. And definitely not the other one. Nuclear Man?

Okay, so that will work for iconic characters that still mean a great deal to me; What about films I loved featuring characters that have all but disappeared from my consciousness? Recently, having recovered from the Superman II burning, my wife and I settled down to watch Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). “It’s Spielberg,” I confidently reassured her, “and Harrison Ford. The Indiana Jones movies are great fun.” No. They were great fun. Indiana Jones is not the roguish, swashbuckling boys own hero I remember him to be. Here was a different ‘Indy’; a mysogynist, racist, thieving murderer who can apparently kill natives of foreign lands without any consequence. Raiders was painful. “It’s Spielberg, it will be okay” the angel on my right shoulder kept telling me, “Yeah, with George Lucas” hissed the devil on my left. Note: The devil on my left always uses expletives, which I have omitted for the more sensitive of readers. So, with the words ‘Shark Sandwich’ frequently coming to mind, we limped on to the end of the film, by which we had both developed a kind of thousand yard stare.

I can’t be a Raiders apologist. It’s wrong on so many levels. Yes, I know Lucas was obsessed with recreating the films of his childhood (so we are really watching a 50’s film made in in the 80’s).  And I know they were different times. Okay. Maybe I can settle for the ‘different times’ angle. Maybe that’s enough to make peace with Indy. Put him in the 50’s box and be done with it. But not watch it again. Or the other ones or the new one or the new one they’re making.

Thanks to Alyn for suggesting this post.