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5. Marie Antoinette

Director: Sofia Copola

Production Designer: K.K. Barrett

In 2006, young Sofia Copola (Lost in Translation) brought to the table of cinema a very different portrayal of one of history’s most notorious characters in a world of pastels, gold, pastries and excess. Marie Antoinette, starring Kirsten Dunst in the namesake role, is a cinematic treat both for the eye and for the soul. Namely because it is one of the first and only sympathetic portrayals of the young French monarch, Marie Antoinette, and her arranged marriage to the equally young, equally naive Louis Auguste XVI. Criticized largely for its historical inaccuracies (despite being hailed by many in France as one of the better portrayals of Antoinette and winning multiple palms at the Cannes Film Festival in 2006) as well as for its long-winded second act, Marie Antoinette was only a moderate success at the box office, but visually, it is a treat unlike any other. Granted the privilege of being one of the few films allowed to shoot at the Palace of Versailles, the film has an insane oppulence to it that is scarcely seen even in period pieces. This is partially because of the palace/grounds itself and the historical scope it offers, but it is also attributable to Sofia Copola’s vision to purposefully deviate from history and interject colors, styles, motifs, palettes, music and language that admittedly would never have existed (or at least allowed in royal court) in late 1700s France. This clash of the historical and the modern, specifically in a period piece, creates such a subconsciously juxtaposed visual that it is hard not be awed by the sheer magnitude of what Copola is presenting. Add insanely designed pastries to boot and you’ve got a film that is as visually yummy as it is long…

3 Scenes to watch:

Copyright Columbia Pictures 2006

(Left: The Coronation, Middle: The Birthday Party, Right: The Hand-off)

Copyright 20th Century Fox

6. Alien

Director: Ridley Scott

Production Designer: Michael Seymour, Roger Christian (uncredited) and H.R. Giger

“In Space…No One Can Hear You Scream”

Alien. The 1979 science-fiction, low-budget horror film that arrested the minds and the hearts of theatergoers the world over. It’s almost ludicrous to even describe the plot it is so well known in modern culture…and for good reason. The story revolves around the towing ship Nostromo and its ship board computer “mother” that wakes up the crew from cryo-sleep with months until they reach Earth so that they will, according to protocol, investigate a distress signal sent from LV-426, a desolate planet devoid of life.  Aided by last-minute crew addition Ash, the doomed crew lands on LV-426 where they trace the signal to an abandoned, behemoth spacecraft. Yet, while 3 members of the crew search the derelict ship, they discover a massive, fossilized alien, named the “space jockey”,  whose ribs have been blasted open from the inside out, while all the while, back on the ship, Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) has been decoding the original message only to discover that it is, in fact, a warning to stay away from the planet. Ash convinces her that it is too late to warn the other crew members and she believes him, the crew aboard the ship searching the cavernous recesses of the craft only to find a chamber of leathery eggs that respond when a layer of protective mist is disturbed…the egg unravels, a hideous arachnoid creature attaches itself to the face of one of the crew and hours later, an alien xenomorph explodes from the chest of the doomed crew member…the rest, as they say, is cinematic history. A history it owes to the claustrophobic and nightmare inducing designs of the production designers and they’re inspiration, HR Giger. From the hyper-sexual design of the Alien itself and the derelict space ship to the claustrophoic, dark corridors of the Nostromo, the entire film is a psychologically visual mind game.  Playing on the human mind’s psychosexual nature and the primal fears of the hunter versus the hunted.

Whether it be the wondrous cyberpunk interiors or the heart pounding, beacon filled, steam ridden finale of the Nostromo self-destruct sequence, Alien is a creature-feature unlike anything the world has ever seen and to this day, it still, despite many attempts, has yet to be duplicated…

3 Scenes to Watch:

Copyright 20th Century Fox

(Left: Derelict Spaceship, Middle: Nostromo Self-destruct sequence, Right: Nostromo Cryo wake-up)

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Courtesy of IMDB.com

3. Casablanca

Director: Michael Curtiz

Productions Designer: Carl Jules Weyl

This 1942 cinematic legend proves that while color can certainly help the visuals in a film, black and white can be just as stunning. The visuals in this film draw their impressive quality not from CGI (which of course didn’t exist), elaborate sets or even abnormally inspiring costuming (although the costumes are beautiful), but rather from the simple way it is filmed and how it tells the romantic tragedy of the two most famous lovers in cinematic history. As with most films of the time, the camera movement is slow, but calculated and unlike today, every single shot is used to convey some aspect of the story line, with the care taken to establish the frame and actors in each scene apparent from the very beginning. All this considered, you don’t see many films like this today with the level of visual excellence and production design of Casablanca. Yes, it is slow, yes, it is black and white, but if you can put away your cinematic inhibitions for a bit, you may just be surprised by Casablanca‘s abnormally modern look and feel, especially considering when it was made.

3 Scenes to Watch


Courtesy of IMDB.com

4. The Golden Compass

Director: Chris Weitz

Production Designer: Dennis Gassner

The Golden Compass, based on the book The Northern Lights by Phillip Pullman, the first installment in the His Dark Materials series of books, is one of those rare exceptions where few liked it, but those who did, LOVED it (myself included). It failed financially (domestically) due to heavy protesting by American conservative Christians and a dramatic, fatal last-minute edit by New Line, who feared the film was too dark and that the ending was too sad for a film aimed at children. The result is a film that is too short for the subject matter, disjointedly edited and wholly unfinished feeling at the end. If you don’t know how it ends, I won’t ruin it for you, but suffice to say it takes about 30 minutes longer than the film currently ends, the bad guys get away, a main character dies and Lyra is left in a situation that to say is bleak would be a horrible understatement…and no, that is not giving away much at all. Visually though, the film is probably the single most impacting of any on this list. A mixture of steampunk, art nouveaux and victorian aesthetics make this fantasy a visual piece of candy. Mix this with CGI (particularly the Magisterium zeppelin, the Alethiometer and Iorek Byrnison) that is mind boggling and some of the coolest costumes ever seen in a movie (designed by Ruth Myers) and you are set for an experience, that while not emotionally fulfilling, will leave your brain’s occipital lobe abuzz.

3 Scenes to Watch

(Left: Any Scene Involving the Alethiometer. Center: The Sky Ferry/London Sequence. Right: Lyra in Oxford)

Casablanca and The Golden Compass, and their images, are the property of Warner Bros. Pictures and New Line Pictures respectively.

What are your most visually stunning movies of all time?  Leave a comment and tell me below!

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Poster Courtesy of Warner Bros.

Ah, Summer.

The sun, the warmth, the flowers, the fun, and of course…the movies.

Every year I find myself dizzy with anticipation as the summer grows closer for two reasons, one: I love warm weather, even excessively warm weather is good, and two: I love summer blockbusters. Now, every single one of the last eighteen years of my life has served a generous, but perfectly portioned amount of Hollywood entertainment during the months of May through August. However, the year 2008 has not been so pleasant, as we, the American public have encountered a tragic epidemic: Blockbuster-itis.

Blockbuster-Itis:(Noun) A profound illness with symptoms of entertainment apathy and boredom due to an unhealthy inundation of expensive, exciting, and flashy filmmaking resulting in skewed reviews, angry patrons and empty wallets. Avoid at all costs.

I classify a “Blockbuster” as any film costing more than 50 million dollars to make with hopes of generating at least 50 million or more in box office returns. This is normally a GREAT thing. During the Spring and Fall we all feel the lag in quality film as Hollywood spews out its “buffer” films (i.e. the romantic comedies, low-budget horrors, off-beat animated, parody comedies and ‘artistic’, independent films). That is why summer is so great, because beyond the short window of the Thanksgiving-Christmas movie showdown period, summer is the only time when we actually get some worth-while fare. And, in truth, Summer 2008 has been full of said fare. So what is the problem? Here it is: THERE ARE TOO MANY MOVIES. Yes, I said it. And no, I am not the only one. Hollywood is already feeling the financial pressures of the cinematic flood as the American and International public cannot keep up with demand from the studios to see their films. In May ALONE, we had the following:

Posters Courtesy of Comingsoon.Net

Iron Man-May 2nd, Speed Racer-May 9th, Narnia: Caspian-May 16th, Indy Jones: Skull-May 22nd, Sex and the City-May 30th.

That is one MAJOR Blockbuster EACH and EVERY weekend!! No wonder we can’t keep up! With nationwide gasoline topping $4 dollars a gallon and movie ticket prices sky-rocketing to offset cinema expenditures, the Global movie market is simply unable to comply. Let me illustrate this. Look at the schedule above, now using even trace amounts of logic, listen to this:

Opening Weekend goals: Iron Man- $50 million, Speed Racer- $35 million, Narnia- $75 million (no joke), Indy Jones- $100 million, Sex and the City- $30 million.

Now guess how many actually met those? Only 3. Iron Man exceeded all expectations, Indy made money but tanked critically (I loved it), and Sex and the City had the highest rated-R opening ever, only to make next to nothing in week two.

The real Loser here: Speed Racer.

I don’t include Narnia because quite frankly it was not very good and Disney knew better than to release it in such close proximity to other films. Shame on you Disney. But Speed Racer is a true gem that simply fell through the cracks. Plagued by Iron Man pandemonium, this wonderful and artistically nuts family delight with great morals and some of the most entertaining moments I’ve seen on film in years went largely unseen by the public. But how can you blame them?

That’s just it. You can’t.

Most of the movie going public are lower-middle to upper-middle class citizens ages 10-40. And yet, this is exactly the demographic most negatively impacted by the rising cost of living in today’s world. It makes me wonder just how out of touch the critics, as well as the entirety of Hollywood, are with the very people who pay their salaries. If I had been the studios, I would have aimed to only have a one major movie come out every other weekend ( I do realize this would greatly decrease the volume of films, which is the point). And yes, they do fight like cats and dogs over release dates, so the studios knew exactly what they were doing when they assigned them this close together. Secondly, I would have moved Caspian to Christmas 2008, and Speed Racer to August 15th to end the summer with an upbeat and exciting bang.

Needless to say Hollywood is panicked. New Line Cinema just recently went belly-up and Warner Brothers has since liquidated two of their studios (Picturehouse and WB Independent). How could they expect a recession-ridden economy to be able to support these films? And, better yet, how did they believe the critics could tolerate so much crammed into so little time only to be slammed by them purely out of desperation?

With the summer still young and more of the same inundation to come it makes me wonder: What was Hollywood thinking?

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