Posts Tagged ‘Skyfall’

The debate between the advantages of shooting on digital and celluloid is now at the forefront of the film world’s psyche. Filmmakers do not agree on which medium yields the most benefits – Roger Deakins is beginning to favour digital, while Christopher Nolan’s preference for film remains unchanged. While the aesthetic advantages of each format are hotly debated, most agree that digital’s role within the industry will continue to grow. The advantages held by the digital format in economy and practicality are vast, which would seem to suit the studios perfectly – as Martin Scorsese says, “anything cheaper and faster makes sense for the businessman.” However, the champions of film will not be swayed.

Christopher Nolan and his director of photography Wally Pfister assert that digital technology is not yet advanced enough to exceed the visual quality of film, and they are technically right – there is no medium which yields a higher resolution than 70mm IMAX film, which was used in Inception and The Dark Knight Rises. However, filming in 70mm is incredibly costly. Its use is only justifiable in productions with stellar budgets, and even then it is limited to certain scenes. 35mm is still the predominant medium in feature films, and its quality is far more comparable to that of digital. David Lynch and Roger Deakins both consider digital to be equal or superior to 35mm film in its aesthetic, and Deakins even underlines the visual edge the Alexa Arri camera has over film. He explains that the film speed of the Arri allows far greater versatility in extreme light conditions, whether bright or dark. Deakins also believes that the deciding factor in Sam Mendes’ decision to film Skyfall in digital was the clarity that the medium gives the characters’ eyes. Skyfall is among the hot favourites for the Academy Award for cinematography, and if Deakins is successful the tenth time around, it will be a huge achievement for the digital format – three of the last four winners of the award will have been filmed digitally (Avatar and Hugo being the other two).

It would seem, then, that the issue of visual quality is unresolved. Everyone can agree that film and digital stock are vastly different media, and some go as far as to argue that only celluloid constitutes real cinema due to its full, organic look. They certainly have a point: if we reimagine some of the masterworks of cinema in digital – Once Upon a Time in the West, for example – instinct tells us that the result would not be as richly satisfying. Digital is, for now at least, best reserved for certain kinds of projects, whether that be the homemade feel of Cloverfield or the modern, night-time cityscapes of Drive and Collateral. The use of digital in The Hobbit, however, gave the film a sharpness and gloss which felt wrong – film is undoubtedly more suitable for period and fantasy pieces.

Aesthetics are only one of several issues which are central to the debate. The fact that filming in digital is more practical and cost-effective is near undisputable. However, the related issue of the “democratisation” of the filmmaking world is a more contentious one. While the ease of production allows people to create films who would previously have been unable to access or operate the technology, we need look no further than the music industry to see that, once a product becomes too easily produced, it also becomes easily digested and disposed of. There are worries within film circles that democratisation leads to popularisation of the ‘lowest common denominator’. The most viewed filmmakers on YouTube use silly special effects in daft action sequences – and the audience seems to lap it up. On the flip-side, however, a culture in which so many people have the means to produce a film must surely nourish the highest quality of art. Many of the most promising films in this year’s festival lineups were filmed digitally, and it is a fair assumption that some of them would never have been produced if not for the advancement of digital technology.

What must be understood is that film and digital are two entirely different media, and each one can communicate its message in a different way. While the look of celluloid has a certain magic to it, digital cinematography has begun to yield some fantastic results. Selecting the right medium is an artistic choice, and one that directors will hopefully continue to be afforded. The fact that digital technology gives opportunities to a whole new world of filmmakers can be construed in different ways – while it may be too early to tell, it would seem that the democratisation process will simply widen the gulf between true art and mass entertainment. Should we pick sides in what has been called the “battle between digital and film”? Not necessarily – above all we should support intelligent decisions on which medium is most suitable for conveying a particular film’s message.

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1) ONCE UPON A TIME IN ANATOLIA (DIR. NURI BILGE CEYLAN, TURKEY)

Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s study of the emotional lives of men is both a both an astute meditation and a cinematic spectacle. In its sweeping portrayal of a police procedural in the Turkish steppes, the film brings to mind the road trips of Abbas Kiarostami and the ecstatic natural world of Tarkovsky. Ceylan’s towering poetic achievement eloquently tackles the fascinating existential question: How do we live in a world where beauty and horror co-exist?

2) MARLEY (DIR. KEVIN MACDONALD, USA)

Kevin Macdonald gives Bob Marley well deserved biographical treatment in this superb and emotionally engaging documentary. Marley narrates Marley’s life story, while looking intelligently at his impact on a socio-political level. The film questions Marley’s role as a husband and a father, while examining his desire to help the public at large. The film is particularly keen in its take on Marley’s mixed race heritage, helping us to understand his broad appeal, which transcends race to offer a redemptive quality and a profound sense of joy.

3) SIGHTSEERS (DIR. BEN WHEATLEY, UK)

It is often assumed that Britain is too small to accommodate for the road movie genre. Not so, for up and coming director Ben Wheatley, who’s Sightseers traverses the north of England from the Tram Museum in Crich to the Ribblehead Viaduct. The story, which begins as a mere caravanning holiday, ends up in a bloody massacre to rival True Romance; the results are as hilarious as they are sickening. As well as great performances and cinematography, the soundtrack is the best of the year, with artists ranging from Frankie Goes To Hollywood to Popul Vuh.

4) LE HAVRE (DIR. AKI KAURISMAKI, FINLAND)

In spite of its melancholic exterior, Le Havre was the most heartwarming film of 2012. Picking up the story of Marcel Marx from director Aki Kaurismäki’s 1992 film La Vie de Bohème, the film sees the ex-bohemian turned shoe shiner help a young African boy immigrate illegally to London. Despite being set in France, the film exudes Kaurismäki’s authentic Finnish style, with immaculate set decoration, high contrast lighting and perfectly timed ironic humor.

5) HOLY MOTORS (DIR. LEOS CARAX, FRANCE)

While not necessarily the most subtle film of the year, Holy Motors was the most original piece of work. Recalling the most hilarious of Luis Buñuel’s features, Holy Motors is riotous surrealist fun. Denis Lavant’s performance is an extraordinary feat of physical acting, showcasing his vast emotional range. Kylie Minogue and Eva Mendes feature in radically unusual cameos, while the director himself appears at the beginning, to usher in his wild cinematic dream.

6) THE RAID (DIR. GARETH EVANS, INDONESIA)

Tackling screen violence with the upmost craft, Gareth Evans’ The Raid was a brutal showcase of the Indonesian martial art Pencak Silat. With expert martial artists Iko Uwais and Yayan Ruhian as the opposing forces of good and evil, Evans choreographs his camera with a poetic, yet ultraviolent eye. Through pure physicality The Raid transcends the action genre and digs sincerely into the human impulse for discipline and mastery, be it violent or otherwise.

7) THE MASTER (DIR. PAUL THOMAS ANDERSON, USA)

Paul Thomas Anderson’s provocative sixth feature included the finest performances from not one but two of Hollywood’s best actors in 2012. Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman portrayed each other’s ying and yang, as the PTSD sufferer Freddie Quell (Phoenix) and cult leader Lancaster Dodd (Hoffman). As well as the fine performances The Master was perhaps the greatest technical achievement of the year’s art-house releases, with Anderson shooting the film on 65mm film, for stunning projection on 70mm.

8) MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE (DIR. SEAN DURKIN, USA)

One of the most striking debut features out on general release in 2012 was Martha Marcy May Marlene by Sean Durkin. Durkin honed his filmmaking skills with his company Borderline Films, where he produced features for his colleagues and directed shorts and music videos. His experience paid off, as Martha Marcy May Marlene exhibits a skillful handling of dual narratives and a distinct shooting style, making superb use of natural light. The film also features a beguiling and career defining lead performance by Elizabeth Olsen.

9) BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD (DIR. BENH ZEITLIN, USA)

The low budget Beasts of the Southern Wild was perhaps not the most perfectly formed film of 2012, but it had a rough edged mystical quality that hints at greatness. The film’s rough edge almost recalls Werner Herzog’s Aguirre: Wrath of God, as a Delta river community attempt to survive a colossal storm. Quvenzhané Wallis stars as six-year-old Hushpuppy, the young girl at the center of the drama, with an utterly sensational performance that spans reality and fantasy.

10) SKYFALL (DIR. SAM MENDES, UK)

With so called ‘left-field choice’ Sam Mendes at the helm, Skyfall became the best James Bond film in decades. The film looked to Britain to establish high-stakes on Bond’s home turf, while also allowing for stunning action sequences (particularly in the London underground and Scottish highlands.) Mendes’ decision to cast the acclaimed Javier Bardem as the villain gave Craig’s bond a heavyweight opponent with which to spar. Lensed by industry leading cinematographer Roger Deakins, the film is a rounded, politically conscious and artful piece of popular entertainment.

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Daniel Craig’s transition to the role of James Bond caused quite the stir back in 2006 with Casino Royale. While stoking debate over whether it was appropriate or not to cast a blond Bond, the film also attempted to apply some timely revisionism to the overly familiar formula of the Pierce Brosnan films, which had become reliant on increasing ridiculousness.

Casino Royale downplayed the reliance on gadget heavy action and increasingly cringe worthy quips, replacing them with a more muscular, gritty style closer to the Timothy Dalton Bond films. The results were mixed as some beloved Bond ideas were diminished (genuinely clever gadgets, larger than life villains and truly smart dialogue), making for a Bond film that wasn’t really Bond.

With Skyfall however, things have changed for Craig’s Bond. Running (to an extent) with the Bond revisionism, director Sam Mendes adds a genuine Bond fandom to proceedings. Bringing the drama to the heart of Bond’s world, Mendes’ film sees an attack on MI6 by an elusive terrorist cell, headed by the creepy Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem). As the head of MI6, Bond’s boss M (Judi Dench) finds herself in danger.

Mendes is an English director long known for his work in America, but with Skyfall he brings refreshingly British considerations to his take on Bond. Britain is the centre of the drama, despite hops to Shanghai and Turkey, and Mendes makes particularly good use of subterranean London. Even more welcome is the sprawling, expressionistic landscapes of Scotland, essentially the heartland of the Bond family.

Mendes does well to improve on elements of the Bond legacy that the earlier Craig films did less well. Gadgets are here and they are pleasingly realistic, the Bond girls are better cast (particularly Naomie Harris as Eve) and Craig’s Bond feels more valid and interesting here than he had before; Mendes looks into his scarred psyche à la Bruce Wayne. Mendes even takes the film on a particularly fun jaunt into the Connery era with the surprising appearance of an Aston Martin DB5.

Ironically though it is perhaps the back referencing that makes us realise that, in spite of its overall quality, Skyfall doesn’t have a great deal to say about the contemporary world. There is an attempt to explore how modern society is troubled by faceless peril, via internet terrorism, yet the treatment is muzzled somewhat when Bardem’s larger than life (even camp) villain Silva arrives.

But are real world issues too much to ask from a series twenty-three films long and five decades old? When Bond attempted to step into the modern world during the Brosnan era, the approach was snared by the superficiality of gadgets and gizmos. At least by looking to the past Sam Mendes has created a Bond film that feels genuinely at home with itself.

Ultimately Skyfall marks the point where James Bond could finally go out with a bang. It could be an appropriately reverent swansong to the spy who first hit the screens in 1962 with Dr. No, though inevitably the words ‘James Bond will return’ appear on the screen at the end. Perhaps it is against my better judgement, but I am glad that Bond will return again; maybe to match the quality of Skyfall one day.

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