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2015 In Film: Part 2 – Franchises, Cinematography and More

March 2, 2016

In case you missed it, here is 2015 In Film: Part 1 from last week.

Zack: I will turn the reins to you at this point with a bit of a leading remark. Yes, I just mentioned The Force Awakens, and you’d alluded to it earlier. Franchises had quite an interesting 2015. Plenty of sequels, plenty of first entries, plenty of spinoffs. All to various outcomes. Let’s talk franchises: favorites, despised, anything.

Tony: Franchises? Woo boy. I don’t know where to start, so I guess I’ll declare that I’ve seen 12 such films so far from 2015. I’m leaving Inside Out, The Man From U.N.C.L.E., and Jupiter Ascending off the list at this point.

I’ll start by pointing out one I liked and one I didn’t. Mad Max: Fury Road clearly lived up to the hype. I covered it at length back when I saw it, but suffice it to say that this was the best action movie I saw in 2015. The story was compelling and left me interested in what might come next. If you set out to make a sequel or franchise film, the least you can do is leave the audience wanting more. Mad Max accomplished this.

mad max fury road poster

Poster courtesy Warner Bros.

Avengers: Age Of Ultron, Marvel’s 2015 headliner, did not accomplish this. I don’t want to disingenuously shovel dirt on this movie. It was big, and loud, and fine, and I loved that James Spader voiced Ultron. But it did not leave me particularly excited for Infinity War: Part I. Perhaps Captain America: Civil War will do that, bit Ultron felt like a placeholder. It was that thing you need to do before you can do the next thing you need to do. Next to Mad Max, Ultron was a chore.

Zack: Over the past several years, I’ve grown wary of the franchised factions of the movie industry. For every one stellar mid-budget studio drama (Her, Inherent Vice, Prisoners, etc.) that wasn’t typical Oscar bait, there seemed to be a dozen franchise-minded spectacles (many of middling quality) shoved into theaters at an alarming clip. But this is a cause I stumped for last year. So I digress.

This year, I found myself admittedly joyous a handful of times with these kinds of theater trips. Before I detail a few of those, I’ll get out of way the dreck I endured within this framework: Fantastic Four, Entourage, Fifty Shades Of Grey, Kingsman: The Secret Service, and Pitch Perfect 2. (And, to your point, I didn’t love Avengers: Age Of Ultron, but I wouldn’t put it in the same category as these.)

All that said, Mad Max: Fury Road, given the context of everything around it, may be the most impressive sequel I’ve ever seen. So I’m with you there. I tend to think we’ll discuss this one even more in depth later.

Two other sequels not called Star Wars I found delightful in 2015 are movies with quite different pedigrees.

Furious 7 is a movie that I shouldn’t like. It’s not even a movie I’d typically acknowledge. But I made the strange decision just before its release to marathon through the first six entries into the series to get myself into an adequate headspace. I unashamedly loved the first and second movies back when they were initially released; I made my parents rent them at Blockbuster (R.I.P) on what was probably a weekly rate. But then I became wholly disinterested. I started to resent the movies for the levels of camp and wastefulness, not to mention the gratuitous explosions and fetishization of the automobile. However, for reasons I don’t totally understand, I surrendered to the very things that put me off and started to view them as complete positives as I went through the series. Each film attempts to top the one that preceded it, and there’s something weirdly charming about how ridiculous the whole thing is. Furious 7 has more of the same. And there’s a huge emphasis there on “more.” More explosions, more chases, more Ludacris, more FLYING CARS. In terms of mindless fun, I’m not sure any film topped Furious 7 this year.

Furious 7

Poster courtesy Universal

Tony: I’m glad You brought up Furious 7. The franchise has really carved out a fascinating place in pop culture. It’s basically James Bond crossed with The Avengers by way of Point Break (the one with Keanu). It was exceptionally fun and the Paul Walker tribute was about as close to tears as any movie got me in 2015.

Zack: You’re telling me you didn’t well up during Inside Out? Monster.

Magic Mike XXL, however, takes its predecessor and weaves that film’s underlying pathos with something of a full-on buddy-road-trip comedy, which maybe shouldn’t work at all. But what’s spawned is a sometimes-subtle, sometimes-bombastic journey. And it’s a ridiculous romp, replete with fully formed minor characters that support and accent our main troupe. And it’s just a blast. Magic Mike XXL, like Magic Mike before it, also benefits from its moody tableau created through the lens of Steven Soderbergh (under his cinematographic pseudonym Peter Andrews).

magic mike xxl

Poster courtesy Warner Brothers

Tony: Soderbergh is the bomb. He should write, direct, edit, shoot, score, and star in his next film, and make up a different pseudonym for each of his duties.

And I did well up toward the end of Inside Out, but not noticeably more so than with Furious 7.

Zack: And it’s just one instance of great camerawork in 2015. We had more exceptional work from heavyweights like Emmanuel Lubezki and Roger Deakins, along with formiddable accomplishments by the likes of Robert Richardson, Maryse Alberti, and Ed Lachman. What left you visually stunned this year?

Tony: It seems that cinematography inspires some of the more spirited conversations one can have about movies. Lubezki, “Chivo” as I like to call him, is always one to watch. I actually felt he was too showy in The Revenant. There were a few shots toward the beginning that seemed needlessly complex. That said, flaunt it if you’ve got it.

carol

Poster courtesy The Weinstein Company

I’m going with Carol as my favorite piece of cinematography, with Edward Lachman as the DP. I can’t recall a favorite single shot, but every frame may as well have been a painting. It was glamorous and romantic, as if a veneer for the complexities of the characters, which actually worked in lockstep with the film’s themes of suppression and restraint. Lachman captured the look of the times exquisitely (or what I imagine those times were like, but yeah). I’m also a sucker for great snow photography (Editor’s Note: Naturally, this point wouldn’t preclude appreciation of The Hateful Eight or The Revenant).

Who’s cinematographs were worth the most of your words?

Zack: There’s a lot to be said for cinematography as a whole in 2015. Take all five Oscar nominees. I’m not suggesting we should base our entire opinion on how Academy voters feel, but in another year, every single nominee, taken separately, could have been a frontrunner.

For me, it’s Lachman, Robert Richardson, or Roger Deakins.

Lachman’s use of Super 16 to create an aura of period accuracy rendered me nostalgic for an era several decades before I was even alive. The tone of Carol was fasincating and pure on its own, but his camera work elevated and emboldened it. In a film where the flinch of a corner of a mouth could mean everything, those visuals were paramount.

Maybe no movie’s visual aspects were more discussed in 2015 than The Hateful Eight. Quentin Tarantino is indulgent, yes, but he’s servicing a niche audience of which I’m a member. He championed the idea of a roadshow, a special see-it-a-week-early affair, his new film presented in full 70mm format with extra footage and an intermission. I was game, of course. But a spectacle is only worthwhile when properly pulled off. Robert Richardson employed a lens that hadn’t been used in almost half a century, the Ultra Panavision, and found gigantism within the small moments of what amounts to a one-room film. The vistas and exteriors are gorgeous without seeming fake. Richardon’s cinematography here is intimate and sweeping all at once.

But then there’s SicarioEmily Blunt washing the blood from her hair. Benicio Del Toro approaching a dinner table from blurred obscurity to terrifying closeness. The overhead trail of a paramilitary convoy through the busy streets of Mexico. Roger Deakins provided such stunning visuals throughout Sicario that I could craft a list of the ten best single shots of the year where he might appear two or three times. He conveys so much tension across the frames, from hyper-closeness to an almost antiseptic remove. It’s a film that’s gripping on its own, but there’s a master behind the lens creating a specific atmosphere and purview that gets it there. Just staggering.

Tony: Well said. I seriously doubt I can add anything to that. Carol, The Hateful Eight, and Sicario were each astonishing achievements in their own right, and it sounds like we are in agreement on our three favorites.

It’s worth noting that due in large part to movies like The Force Awakens, The Hateful Eight, and some of our 2014 favorites like Inherent Vice and Interstellar being shot on film, Kodak’s film department is back on the track to profitability. This would have been unthinkable just a few years ago. Growing up in Rochester, N.Y., I can’t tell you how many people I know who used to work there. “Used to” being the key, because Kodak is basically unrecognizable compared with what it was in its heyday. Good news for Kodak makes me feel warm.

Let’s keep the good feelings rolling. In a way, we’ve already started talking about some of 2015’s surprises, but so far, it’s been more of a conversation about disappointments. How about surprises of the pleasant variety? What were some films that arose from less-than-inspiring beginnings (or even out of nowhere), that somehow ended up in a deluxe apartment in the sky?

Zack: Long live celluloid.

Positive surprises. Let’s see.

Did you happen to catch Slow West? I think it slipped by unnoticed by many. It has the strange distinction of being bought out of Sundance by both DirecTV and A24, fostering something of a dual release on VOD and in theaters.

slow west

Poster courtesy A24

Anyway, seeing the DirecTV attachment did not, admittedly instill much confidence. But, shoot, I was a little bit blown away. Michael Fassbender continues to be one of film’s most varied and competent talents, a sizable force regardless of role. And Slow West is something of a slow-burn western. A simmer, really. There’s so much underneath: a history we don’t quite know, a setting of near-impossible bearings, and a uniquely American atmosphere that’s at once unstoppable and serene. Look, anything Ben Mendelsohn takes on is a must-watch for me. And once you see his fur coat, you’ll be a disciple.

What about you? Give me a few surprises.

Tony: I did not catch Slow West, but I’m with you completely on Mendelsohn and Fassbender, and I will take the recommendation to heart.

Coincidentally, the first surprise I want to share appears to have several parallels to Slow WestBone Tomahawk is another western that received an extremely limited release. It’s an oxymoron, but I would consider this a slow burner with a wild, dangerous side. Despite the western trappings, this is pure genre pulp. After the abduction of a woman from town, a posse goes hunting for Troglodytes, a vicious nonverbal cave-dwelling tribe of Native Americans. Last year, Whiplash was the best non-horror horror movie. Thie year, I feel Bone Tomahawk takes that title. The script by writer-director S. Craig Zahler is extremely punchy. It comes off a bit precious at the beginning (think Tarantino), but the characters are so well drawn that the heightened dialogue melts into the scenery after a while. (Editor’s Note: This is a script that successfully manages to use the words “troglodyte” and “somnambulist” unironically.) Patrick Wilson and Matthew Fox are perfectly cast, respectively, as a desperate husband and an abrasive sophisticate. Kurt Russell, as always, is a treasure. A thick sense of dread sets in and only increases as the group closes in on the caves. Then, there’s the little matter of “the scene.” If you don’t already know what “the scene” entails, I’ll just leave it as “scalping-plus.” It was the mos gruesome thing I was all year—not for the squeamish. That said, Bone Tomahawk is powerful filmmaking that will stick to the ribs of any fan of genre cinema.

crimsonpeakposter

Poster courtesy Universal

That was almost an essay, but allow me one more. I think this is as good a place as any to mention Crimson Peak. 2015 turned out to be a pretty great year for genre pics. It probably shouldn’t be shocking that a Guillermo Del Toro flick was good, but to be honest, I didn’t know anything about this project until I started seeing trailers on TV. (Editor’s Note: Frankly, Del Toro is always rumored to be working on so many different projects at any given time that it can be hard to keep track until it’s finally upon you.) This is another one I’ve written about before, so I’ll be quick in saying that Del Toro fashions a thrilling ghost story and goes all in on creating a sumptuously designed visual feast. It’s a horror-fantasy-period piece, and while it doesn’t take as much onto its plate as something like Pan’s Labyrinth or The Devil’s Backbone, it does pay homage to such bygone classics as Wuthering Heights (1939) and The Haunting. I’m chalking this one up as a mild surprise, considering I very nearly skipped it altogether and saw Black Mass instead.

Check back next week for the third installment (out of four… I think) of the series in which Zack and I discuss auteurs, unpopular opinions, posters, honorable mentions, and more!

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