Monthly Archives: June 2013

What is… a Dolly Zoom?

A dolly zoom is a camera effect that distorts an audience’s regular sense of visual perception. It is created by zooming in or out whilst the camera physically moves (dollies) in the opposite direction. For example, the camera would zoom in whilst dollying away. This keeps the subject of the frame roughly the same size throughout the effect, whilst the background moves closer or further away, depending on the direction of the zoom/dolly.

The invention of the effect has been credited to Irmin Roberts, a second-unit cameraman at Paramount, and was made famous by Alfred Hitchcock in Vertigo. Most film fans will be aware of the moment in Vertigo in which a dolly zoom is used and the effect it creates…

A dolly zoom creates a feeling of disorientation for the viewer. It is not an effect that the human visual system is used to seeing and can therefore be jarring and unsettling. It might be used to create a sense of height, as in Vertigo, unease, a sense of urgency or danger, or may show a sense of dawning realisation in a character. An example of this is in Steven Spielberg’s Jaws, where Brody realises that they do indeed have a shark munching on swimmers. See below…

Just some of the alternative names for a dolly zoom include:

  • The “Hitchcock zoom” or the “Vertigo effect”
  • “Hitchcock shot” or “Vertigo shot
  • Triple Reverse Zoom
  • Reverse Tracking Shot
  • Back Zoom Travelling
  • Telescoping
  • Trombone shot
  • Stretch shot
  • Reverse Pull
  • Contra-zoom

For more entries in the ‘What is…?’ series, click here and (hopefully) learn a little bit about deep focus, chiaroscuro, German Expressionism, and more.

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Film Review: Before Midnight

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Nine years after Celine (Julie Delpy) tracked Jesse (Ethan Hawke) down in Paris during his book tour, the couple are still together and are holidaying in Greece with their two children. However, the course of true love never did run smooth, and with Jesse being unhappy at being apart from his son and Celine debating whether to take a new job, some harsh truths come to bear.

When we left Jesse and Celine in Paris nine years ago, they were about to embark on a romantic and happy life together, or at least that’s what we were allowed to imagine. Before Sunset left us the ability to add our own happy ending, but with Before Midnight, we’re back to see exactly how their relationship is panning out. This means that a lot of pressure is heaped upon the shoulders of Before Midnight; it could ruin the whole saga for people or it could elevate it to a new level. For me, I’m glad to say it was the latter.

One of Before Midnight‘s biggest achievements is bringing Jesse and Celine into the real world. In Before Sunrise & Before Sunset, they seemed to exist only in their own little fantasy world, one where their whirlwind romance blocked out the outside world almost entirely. Now, despite being in a picturesque Greek village that easily rivals Paris or Vienna as a setting, the two of them are now very much experiencing the real world and all the problems and responsibilities that come with it. We also actually have some other characters this time around, which although plays with the regular ‘Before’ format a little, also helps to make Jesse and Celine that little bit more real as we see them engaging with other people besides each other.

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Whilst there is some change in format over the previous two films, everything that makes them special is still present. We still have the in-depth, deep and meaningful conversations perfectly delivered by Delpy and Hawke, the script as tight as ever, with wonderful long takes as the characters bounce back and forth off one another. There is still a slight pretentiousness that envelopes the entire piece, but as one of the couple’s friends actually calls Jesse out on his own pretentious attitude, the film almost feels a little self-knowing in this respect, and therefore it becomes less of an issue.

However, it’s in its final act that Before Midnight really shows what’s up its sleeve. As Jesse and Celine prepare for a rare evening alone without the kids, we see their souls laid bare. We see these characters for what they really are: real people with real conflicts. Up to this point in the saga, we’ve been led to believe that these two are the perfect couple, destined to spend a blissful life together. Here we see a whole other side to Jesse and Celine; a side that highlights their personal strengths but also, and more interestingly, their weaknesses. The whole scene is set in a rather bland hotel room; there’s nothing here but the two of them and an outpouring of repressed feelings. It’s so simple but is as intense as anything else you’ll watch this year.

This brings us to the film’s ending, which is sure to be a bone of contention for some, whilst being the perfect denouement for others. Like both Sunrise and Sunset before it, Before Midnight leaves us in slightly ambiguous fashion, unsure of exactly how Jesse and Celine’s life will pan out. But maybe that’s the point. Maybe we’re supposed to be left with a feeling of no matter what happens, no matter who we meet or fall in love with, you never really know what the future holds. All we can be sure of is that Jesse and Celine’s journey thus far has been an absolute pleasure to be a part of.

4 and a half pigeons

4.5/5 pigeons

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Film Review: Dead Man’s Shoes

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Richard (Paddy Considine) returns from the army to the village where he grew up to find that his mentally handicapped brother Anthony (Toby Kebbell) had been abused by a gang of local drug dealers. Richard decides to take the law into his own hands to exact revenge on each member of the gang.

You’ve got your Locks Stocks and your Snatches and other similar films that are constantly held up as shining examples of British filmmaking. However, whilst those films often collect all the plaudits, Shane Meadows’ 2004 thriller Dead Man’s Shoes easily stands shoulder to shoulder its peers and very much deserves to do so.

Whilst the revenge-orientated story of Dead Man’s Shoes is a relatively simple one, its narrative is really quite clever, never really letting you settle on your opinion of any of the characters until the very end. We are shown in flashbacks throughout the film what the gang did to Anthony, each helping to paint a picture of what happened. Some of the flashbacks make Richard’s actions seem somewhat extreme, whilst by the end, we’re left in no doubt as to his motivations for revenge.

But therein lies some interesting questions about morality and retribution. Do these people deserve to die? You’ll probably change your mind several times throughout the film and probably still struggle to come to any kind of conclusion. Pretty much everyone in the film (aside from Anthony) is abhorrent and repulsive in their own way; it’s difficult to know which side of the fence to fall on, which makes the film rather unsettling to watch.

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The narrative is supported by a really strong script, co-written by director Shane Meadows, star Paddy Considine and Paul Fraser. It’s not a glossy script; it’s vicious and biting, but it’s absolutely perfect for the story. It’s also rich with dark humour, which is superbly offset against the violence in the film. The hapless drug dealers have some hilarious dialogue, which gives the film some much needed light relief. However, it’s Paddy Considine as Richard who really shines. We never find out what happened to Richard when he was at war, but this is clearly a damaged man, and Considine delivers every line with conviction, spit and bile. One particular altercation with gang leader Sonny, whilst the rest of the gang huddle inside an old Citroën 2CV is impossible to look away from.

Throw into the mix a fantastic soundtrack and some clever editing, particularly during a scene in which Richard drugs the gang, and you have a film where almost every single element comes together perfectly. It might have been nice to know a little more about Richard, but you could argue his clouded past actually makes the character more mysterious. The film clocks in at just under 90 minutes, but its runtime is absolutely spot on for the story. It’s tight and concise; no shot is wasted nor does it feel like it’s lacking in any particular area.

Some may find the whole experience somewhat shallow, but Dead Man’s Shoes is a prime example of how to tell a story on a relatively low budget. It’s violent without being excessively so, and in such a short space of time effectively creates characters that are funny, hateful, frightening, and those that you sympathise with. Film making in its purest form.

4 and a half pigeons

4.5/5 pigeons

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Quickie: Headhunters

Headhunters_Movie_PosterRoger Brown (Aksel Hennie) is Norway’s most successful headhunter, but he’s also an art thief. Having stolen a hugely valuable painting from executive and former mercenary Clas Greve (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), Roger becomes embroiled in a deadly game of cat and mouse that tests him to the limit.

Headhunters, based on a novel by Jo Nesbø, continues the outpouring of gritty films and TV shows from Scandinavia and is another lesson in how to make a tight, well constructed thriller. It wastes no time whatsoever in getting to the point of the story and has virtually no scenes that are surplus to requirements. Almost every scene is important and plays some role in either developing the characters or progressing the narrative. There’s little to no meaningful backstory here, and whilst that does mean it’s slightly shallow, it allows you to focus purely on what happens over the film’s runtime.

Unlike some of its contemporaries, the film has a dark vein of humour running throughout, although whether this is intentional or not is unclear. This may enhance the film for some who love a bit of dark humour, but it may derail it for others who prefer a straight up thriller.

Aksel Hennie is very good in the lead role, perfectly portraying Brown’s cockiness that soon turns to despair and fear. Nikolaj Coster-Waldau is also very good in his apparently customary smug arsehole role. Headhunters isn’t revolutionary or particularly original but it has pretty much everything you could want from a thriller: tight, intelligent and well thought out. The Scandinavians are really rather good at this.

4 pigeons

4/5 pigeons

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Film Review: After Earth

After humans evacuate Earth for distant world Nova Prime, they encounter a race of aliens known as Ursas that hunt humans by literally smelling their fear. However, General Cypher Raige (Will Smith) has developed a technique to control his fear, rendering himself invisible to the Ursas. After crash landing on Earth, causing Cypher to break both his legs, his son Kitai (Jaden Smith) must trek through dangerous forests, pursued by an Ursa, in order to reach a distress beacon and save his father.

Cast your mind back to the turn of the millennium and director M. Night Shyamalan was a director on the lips of many after bringing us The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable. However, since then he has gone on to make some of the most widely derided films around and has now become somewhat of a laughing stock amongst film-goers and critics alike. Such is the fall of his reputation that barely even notice his name attached to After Earth. Instead, it is very much a Will & Jaden Smith production, although the results are equally as unremarkable.

It’s been almost impossible to escape the Smith Machine over the past couple of months as the two of them have appeared in pretty much everything you watch/read/look at/dream about, showcasing that ‘cool guy’ Smith persona everyone apparently loves so much. Which is odd, as absolutely none of that whatsoever shows up in the film. Will Smith spends the entirety of the film sat in a chair being an emotionless hardass towards his son, which does nothing to endear you to him whatsoever. Equally, Jaden Smith spends much of the time being a whiny little brat, and so you don’t really warm to him either – not the best character traits for your two leading roles. The most touching moment of the whole film comes from a giant eagle, which says it all really.

The actors aren’t helped by their script, either. The whole thing feels like a ‘get from point A to point B and kill some monsters on the way’ computer game, whilst the script is full of cliched monologues and soundbites that seem custom written for the IMDB ‘quotes’ page. And these just take away from the most interesting thing in the film – its setting. Yes it’s on Earth, but it’s an Earth abandoned by humans and reclaimed by animals that have evolved to kill humans. Imagine the possibilities to create interesting evolution of Earth’s creatures and fauna. Except we never really get to see many of them. We see some kind of tiger creature, a jumping snake and the aforementioned massive eagle. But that’s about it. We never really feel that much has changed since the humans left.

After Earth isn’t a complete write off, however. Some of the action sequences, although largely ‘by numbers’, are reasonably exciting, and what we do see of the environment is pretty impressive; we just don’t see enough of it. There are also glimpses throughout the film that suggest Shyamalan clearly wanted to make a different film from what he has done. There are a few moments that wouldn’t be out of place in a horror film, which do make for a darker and more interesting film at times, but it just screams of the director trying to make himself heard over the engine of this Smith created vehicle.

After Earth isn’t really going to harm Shyamalan’s reputation but it’s in no way going to enhance it and the same goes for The Smiths. In fact, this film isn’t really going to do much for anyone. It might provide a bit of mindless entertainment for some for a couple of hours, but expect it to disappear without a trace pretty quickly.

2 pigeons2/5 pigeons

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Film Review: Let The Right One In

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Twelve-year-old Oskar (Kåre Hedebrant) lives in a suburb of Stockholm with his mother and is bullied at school. He strikes up a friendship with Eli (Lina Leandersson), a girl who has recently moved to the area and the two develop a close relationship, talking to each other using Morse Code through their apartment walls. However, their relationship takes an unexpected twist when it transpires that Eli is, in fact, a vampire and the recent murders in the area are down to her.

In a time when vampires now sparkle and find themselves in love triangles with werewolves, it’s sometimes nice to remember a little about the true folklore of Transylvania’s favourite exports. Let The Right One In does just that, exploring the tradition that vampires cannot enter a dwelling without first being invited to do so. However, it takes it a little further than just the literal interpretation and looks at the effect it can have when you let the right person, not just into your house, but also into your life.

The film exhibits a certain melancholia, a bleakness that has become a hallmark of recent Scandinavian film and television output. Here we have two seemingly ill-fated children, not living but merely existing in the claustrophobic concrete jungle of a suburban tower block estate. As you’d expect, we rarely escape the clutches of darkness (it’s probably quite handy for a vampire to live in Scandinavia) and there’s a very oppressive atmosphere that envelopes the whole film. However, underneath all that is a story of hope and acceptance when there seems to be none left. Both Oskar and Eli are outsiders who find solace in one another irrespective of (or maybe because of) the prejudices that others hold (or may hold) against them.

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This is all explored with a deliberate slow pace, a brooding that, whilst not without its chilling moments, doesn’t aim to scare or shock. We’re not subject to the cheap scare tactics employed by far too many horror films, which succeeds in allowing us to become that bit more invested in the characters rather than being torn from the narrative by an ill-timed jump scare. It’s a very visual film that relies on the atmosphere it creates more than anything else. Dialogue is kept to a minimum and yet there’s rarely need to question what’s going on; it’s really rather straightforward in its construction.

That’s not to say it’s without its flaws, however. Certain parts of the story don’t feel quite as developed as they could and it almost feels as if certain storylines have either been abandoned or tacked on as an afterthought. Oskar’s relationship with his mother, for example, is hastily touched upon whereas it could have done with fleshing out a little more. Similarly, Hakan, the man with whom Eli lives, is an intriguing character who perhaps isn’t afforded enough depth, whilst the plotline of Eli unintentionally turning a local into a vampire also feels a little rushed.

Let The Right One In is a story of young love, friendship and acceptance, which may sound like it treads close to Twilight territory, but it couldn’t be more different. It feels more like a traditional vampire tale made relevant for today’s audiences, with themes of longing and sadness plucked straight from Bram Stoker’s original novel. It may be a little on the slow side for those expecting a straight-up horror film, but that’s because it isn’t a straight up horror film. Let The Right One In is a horror film that dispenses with tropes and cliches to transcends its genre and deliver a character piece that’s touching and tender.

4 pigeons4/5 pigeons

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Film Review: My Neighbour Totoro

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Satsuki and Mei move to an old house in the Japanese countryside with their father to be closer to their ailing mother in hospital. Satsuki starts a new school, whilst Mei struggles to adapt to the move. However, whilst exploring the surrounding area, Mei stumbles upon a giant, fantastical creature she refers to as Totoro.

At its heart, My Neighbour Totoro is a children’s film, but it doesn’t shy away from dealing with some mature issues. The illness and potential loss of a parent is a topic that some may feel is a little too much for children to fully take on board, but this film tackles it head on, unafraid of asking children to deal with more adult concepts. In fact, examining the way children cope with such issues is at the very core of the film. Are Totoro and friends real, or have the children just created these creatures as a way of coping with their difficult situation? This isn’t an unusual idea; Alice in Wonderland is probably the most famous example of this (Totoro actually has a very ‘Alice’ feel at times), whilst Pan’s Labyrinth is a more recent film that plays with the same idea. However, whilst Totoro feels like a much more child-friendly experience than the aforementioned examples, it exhibits a charm and kindness that can be appreciated by viewers of any age.

Where it does differ from the usual format of children’s films is in its story – as in, there isn’t one. That might be slightly unfair, but there is very little to speak of in terms of discernible plot or conflict for the characters. Some may be put off by this and find the film a little uneventful, but that’s actually part of Totoro’s charm. It doesn’t need to be bogged down by layers of plot; it just exists in its own world and we’re being treated to an insight into that world. It’s not flashy; it’s not complicated; it just is.

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As is immediately evident, the animation in Totoro is simply delightful. It’s unmistakably Japanese but feels much more accessible than some of the other Anime or Manga that comes out of Japan. It is beautifully drawn and the colours jump off the screen; every shot is a visual treat and it’s difficult to believe this was made back in 1988 as it still feels so fresh, original and relevant. The odd scene might show its age a little but some (the rainstorm scene in particular) are as beautifully drawn as anything I’ve seen before or since.

Just as the art-style is ‘very Japanese’, as is the film’s culture. It deals with spirits and magical creatures in a very casual way, as if their presence is no big deal. The soot sprites, a fictitious type of supernatural spirit (or yōkai to give them their proper Japanese name), are a prime example of this, as Satsuki and Mei are more intrigued than scared by them, something that wouldn’t likely happen in a Western film of the same nature. The fact that the Japanese have a particular name for these creatures shows how a part of their folklore they are, and whilst it was fascinating to experience a bit of that, it felt as if I was missing out on so much purely because I’m not Japanese. Having said that, I would actually argue that the film didn’t have enough of the weird and the wonderful. Totoro and friends don’t show up nearly as often as they probably should and it would be nicer to see them have a slightly larger impact on the children’s lives rather than too often being nothing more than creatures of fascination.

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Totoro is a magical film that champions the imagination and the wistful innocence of children whilst refusing to shy away from more complex issues. It might be slightly slower paced than one might expect but it was a real privilege to experience something as meticulously crafted and full of heart as this.

NB – I watched the dubbed English version of the film, the 2006 Disney version with Dakota and Elle Fanning as Satsuki and Mei respectively. Dubbing non-animated films is largely (always?) horrendous but it works reasonably well with animation and the dubs didn’t really bother me. However, I would definitely like to re-watch it again with the original Japanese language track, as I believe that is how the film was intended to be appreciated.

4 pigeons

4/5 pigeons

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Film Review: The Skin I Live In

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Following the death of his wife, surgeon Robert Ledgard (Antonio Banderas) threw himself into his work and developed a new form of prosthetic skin, much tougher than regular human skin. Ledgard performs his experiments on Vera (Elena Anaya), a young woman held captive in his house, but as we learn more about her and why she’s there, the shocking truth behind Ledgard’s experiments are revealed.

It’s difficult, maybe impossible, to really identify what kind of film The Skin I Live In (La Piel Que Habito in its mother tongue) is. Without a doubt, it has its roots in films such as Hitchcock’s Vertigo and Franju’s Eyes Without a Face, but it uses so many different elements from other films, that it only really keeps a company of one. At times it feels like a body horror film, whereas it could be argued that it’s a love story deep down. It’s also part mad scientist film, whilst there are undoubtedly surrealist elements mixed in – guy dressed as a tiger, anyone?

Similarly, the film explores a wide range of themes, including control within relationships, coping with grief, sexuality and gender. There’s an awful lot going on but it never becomes overwhelming; these themes are laid out in front of you but are never shoved in your face at the expense of the story. When Vera watches a wildlife documentary showing a cheetah toying with its prey, it’s a clear metaphor for Ledgard and Vera’s relationship. Similarly, Ledgard also enjoys ‘straightening’ bonsai trees in his spare time, another sign that he loves to manipulate nature’s design. Both simple but very effectively portrayed.

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As is the film’s aesthetic. It has a minimalist look about it that is stylishly shot, with almost every scene being perfectly framed. The cinematography is almost meticulous in its execution and the vibrant and clever use of colour sometimes make the whole thing feel like an art exhibition, which, again, appropriately fits the themes the film presents.

Narratively, The Skin I Live In is a very clever film. Early on we naturally make judgements about the characters and their actions, but through flashbacks we are shown what led them to be where they are in the present and this (will likely) drastically change our opinion of them. As such, it ends up being almost a completely different film to the one at the beginning. The ending is perhaps the film’s weakest moment as it is slightly predictable and a little underwhelming (it also should have ended about 20 seconds sooner), but it’s still a fitting denouement nonetheless.

Of director Pedro Almodovar’s other films, I have only seen Volver, but there seems to be something truly fantastical about his work. Both these films seem almost fairytale-esque, rooted in the impossible yet managing to feel grounded in reality. I can imagine his films not appealing to everyone, and The Skin I Live In isn’t for those who don’t completely buy into a film’s story. You definitely get out what you put into it. Fortunately, I was completely invested in it and am now eager to check out more of the director’s work.

4 and a half pigeons

4.5/5 pigeons

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What Dya Mean You Haven’t Seen… Eraserhead?

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Finally, I have seen a David Lynch film. This was one of the biggest gaps in my film knowledge (although there are countless others); I’ve seen so many comments along the lines of ‘this reminds me of David Lynch’ or ‘those scenes were very Lynchian’, and I had no idea what they were talking about. So I finally decided to check out his work and thought I’d start at the beginning with his 1977 work Eraserhead.

Jesus Christ. I was not prepared for this.

Plot: Harry Spencer (Jack Nance) is invited to dinner with his girlfriend, Mary X (Charlotte Stewart), and her family. However, when he gets there he’s informed that Mary has had a baby, although she’s not sure if what she’s given birth to is human. The pair move in together but Mary soon leaves when she can’s deal with the baby’s incessant crying, leaving Harry to deal with it all by himself.

And that’s about all I can say about the plot. Not because I don’t want to, but because I genuinely don’t know how to describe any more of it than that. It’s a virtually impossible film to explain; it’s hugely surrealist and good chunks, if not all, of it are up for interpretation. You may well find some Dali and Buñuel influences in there. Lynch has also clearly been influenced by German expressionist cinema; the chiaroscuro lighting, themes of madness, angular cinematography are all there in abundance. Even the ‘Man in the Planet’ character (Jack Fisk) feels like he’s been taken straight from an expressionist film.

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