Gravity

Sandra Bullock is into goldfish role-play

Sandra Bullock is into goldfish role-play

Imagine you dislike cucumber. Maybe you do, maybe you don’t, but for the sake of this, you really dislike it. In your mind, it’s essentially flavourless and makes everything around it soggy, so while, in and of itself, it isn’t an issue, it makes everything around it that bit worse. Then imagine a friend cooks you a meal. They’re a really good cook and you trust that whatever dish they prepare for you will be delicious. They mention that a key ingredient is cucumber and you think about objecting before saying to yourself, “you know what, I trust my friend as a chef”. The meal is a revelation; you have rarely eaten anything so delicious. You have to acknowledge that the meal probably wouldn’t be quite so good without the cucumber. The cucumber is a vital part of this meal. It’s like Lebowski’s rug – it really ties the meal together. This is not to say that you like cucumber, this is to say that your friend’s cooking is brilliant. He is a brilliant chef.

3D cinema is cucumber, while (here’s the big reveal) Gravity is the meal and Alfonso Cuaron is my friend, the excellent chef*. The fact that Gravity is such a great film and is enhanced by the 3D doesn’t mean that 3D is a good thing in general. Generally speaking, in fact, it gets in the way and distracts you from the main event. Look, I even wrote a blog about it ages ago. In fact, as I can’t trust you to go back and re-read my old pieces, let’s excerpt the relevant passages here:

“It is something often (seemingly) ignored, but when you look at a film as striking as, say, Far From Heaven, the use of colour is used to emphasise emotion, to fill the audience with warmth and enables us to further empathise with Julianne Moore. Compare this to the stark, cold blues in Gattaca which give the whole film a cold, clinical, detached feel which serves to distance the viewer. 3D doesn’t – or hasn’t yet – been used in such a way to draw in or distance the audience. If someone works out a way to do this, that gives the film an additional emotional core not available in 2D, I will happily become a 3D convert…

…It may well be that it takes a true artist to unleash 3D in a way which will truly exploit its potential…

…The test will be whether artists like Mallick, Paul Thomas Anderson, Martin Scorsese and the Coen Brothers start using the technology and what they do with it.”

Cuaron is the artist that 3D cinema has been waiting for, someone who understands how to use 3D as a tool to help his story-telling, rather than purely as a novelty that gets in the way. And that brings us to a simple fact. Gravity may be the most beautiful looking film you will ever see. The visuals are stunning, but more than that, the directing is stunning. There is a certain majesty to the manner in which the camera floats weightless around the screen, performing an intricate dance with the actors and objects. You feel both that you are there in the midst of space alngside Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, and you feel the effortless glide of the story pulling you along.

Ah yes, the story. This is very simple. A crew are repairing the Hubble telescope. George Clooney is the veteran astronaut while Sandra Bullock is a rookie making the repairs. They are struck by some space debris and things go wrong. Can they survive? You don’t need more than that. It is a B movie concept, cut to B movie lengths – a slim 90 minutes – and that’s all it needs to be. It has no pretensions and it understands that epic is something you are, not something you become by bloating a script.

The film is crafted to slowly ratchet up the tension, to draw the audience in, to make you hold your breath. The 3D is used to bring the weightlessness to life, to help the audience live this nightmare along with the cast. It’s subtle. Not so subtle as you ignore it, but not obvious enough to truly notice it. It allows you to become part of the film.

Beyond that there’s nothing else to say, except you have to see this film. And if you can, you should see it in IMAX 3D – the biggest and best way to see it.

Well what are you waiting for? Go. Now.

A

Film length: 90 minutes – Feels like: 90 minutes

*Disclaimer – Alfonso Cuaron is not actually my friend. I cannot testify to his skills as a chef.

Life of Pi Review

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There are two ways to look at Life of Pi, and in one of them it excels. In the other, unfortunately, it leaves me rather tepid. Let’s start with the good, shall we?

This film looks incredible and features the best 3D I have seen so far, not that that 3D increases the emotional impact of the storyline, just that it looks beautiful. Ang Lee is a masterful filmmaker and, even when he fails, his films are shot with incredible style. Witness his Incredible Hulk movie which, generally, was poor, but was shot through with incredible style, most notably in the way it transitioned from scene to scene by replicating the style of the comic books from which the film was drawn.

What’s notable about the 3D here is that it is the opposite of almost all of the 3D I have seen so far – it is subtle, offering mild degrees of tone and depth to the scene rather than being in your face as most 3D attempts. There were plenty of occasions where I had to remind myself it was in 3D, but that’s a sign of something I have raised before – if you’re not aware of the 3D, what is the point? The real beauty here is in the construction and composition of the shots, not in the 3D that has been added to them. While I won’t be going back to see the film in 2D, I don’t believe that it will lose anything. However, I do fancy that it’s a film that benefits from being seen on the big screen. Once again, Lee glories in creating images that really wash over you (pun semi-intended) and that’s just not possible at home, certainly not to the extent that is possible in the cinema.

One note, my partner found herself seasick for a good portion of the film, so the big screen may not be ideal for all. Unless this was the result of the 3D.

In addition it’s worth saying that both the acting and the visual effects are uniformly excellent. Of particular note is the tiger, Richard Parker, who I still can’t decide as to whether he was real, green screened, or completely created inside a computer. Every aspect of his behaviour seemed so utterly true, and yet it seems so impossible to have actually filmed that it must have been computerised, in which case, hats off to the technical guys. It appears we have crossed the uncanny valley…

Unfortunately we now have to come onto the more negative aspects of the film, and I feel a little cruel raising them. I have absolutely no doubt of the sincerity of Ang Lee’s intentions behind the messages of the film (or those of Yann Martel the author of the original book and co-writer of the screenplay), but I just wasn’t buying into the philosophy behind the story.

Early on, Pi tells us (in the form of audience surrogate “The Writer”, played by Rafe Spall):

I will tell you a story that will make you believe in God.

But while this is a story of a boy and his endurance, combined with his faith, it was not a film which made me think about my own beliefs. Perhaps I am not the ideal audience, not being a spiritual person myself anyway, but given these are the film’s own lofty intentions, I feel it shouldn’t really reflect badly on me. There are moments of beauty, moments of terror, moments of levity dotted throughout but ultimately I felt that I was being spun a yarn which lacked a true heart, a true emotional pull that I could latch on to.

There are two notable comparators here – both of which I have only seen once, and some time ago at that, so forgive me if I misremember some details – and they are Castaway and Big Fish. Castaway is the logical parallel being a film about someone who is shipwrecked alone and has to survive against the odds but where the enormity of Tom Hanks’ endurance is heightened by the stark honesty on display in the film, here the nature of the story-telling lessons the fight put up by Pi in his battle to make it back to humanity.

WARNING – MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS (not directly but you may infer the ending from the details below)

The link to Big Fish, on the other hand, is the regarding the nature of tall tales and what they mean to the audience. In Big Fish, a father on his deathbed is castigated by his son for never telling him the truth about his adventures – how could the son ever know his father if his father never told the truth? But there I felt we went through an emotional joinery – the tall tale told by the father carries an emotional truth which hits home in shared moments with his son and allows them both to cope with the father’s forthcoming demise. I remember it as a beautiful film about life and death and what we tell ourselves to cope with these.

In Life of Pi the emotional truth is kept too distant. We are told the story of Pi’s battle with Richard Parker but it’s never clear what this is supposed to signify. This is always a tricky tightrope to walk – you don’t want to spell things out for your audience but equally if you don’t give the right clues your audience won’t connect. Clearly many people are connecting, but for me this wasn’t there. Add this to the fact that during the resolution a reinterpretation of the events you have seen is very clearly spelled out in just a few minutes of screen time – an interpretation which merits considerable emotional weight but is just tossed off with nary a care.

That’s not to say the film is a failure, but it would be wrong to call it an outright success. Few filmmakers would be capable of bringing a film of such beauty to the screen and if 2013 can bring something to the screen that looks even half as good, we’ll have a visual treat on our hands. However, for me, it just doesn’t have the humanity to be considered a great in the way many of been portraying it.

6.5/10 (4 stars)

Journeys Into The Third Dimension


When I was 10, one of the biggest playground status symbols it was possible to have was a watch. The fancier the watch, the better. But fancy when you’re 10 means something different to when you’re in your 30s. Where now it’s design that matters, at 10 it was all about the functions. The most impressive watch to show off to other 10-year olds was the calculator watch.

I have no idea if the calculator watch would still be the draw that it was 20+ years ago, but I can imagine that if a kid did show up with one it cause a certain amount of wonder for a short while, at least. There were, of course, draw backs. The buttons were tiny and nigh-on impossible to accurately press and the moment you fell over – which 10-year olds do with alarming frequency – the buttons were scuffed and scraped and left flush with the surface of the watch. So basically, they were rendered useless after around half an hour in the playground.

There is, of course, a reason that these watches only sell to children (unless anyone knows of an adult who still has a calculator watch on his wrist, I will maintain that these are essentially toys), and that is that children haven’t yet built up the critical faculties to work out that having a calculator strapped to your wrist for those all important and all-too-regular mathematical emergencies is a waste of time because all important and all-too-regular mathematical emergencies don’t exist. Of course, as an adult, if a mathematical emergency – important and frequent or not – did arrive, my phone will leap to the rescue.

But the point of all this is that despite my peers wide-eyed wonder at the Casio strapped to my wrist all those years ago, not all innovation equals progress and that just because you can add something to something else, doesn’t mean you necessarily should or that it should be regarded as anything more than a novelty. All of which is a roundabout way of saying I saw Avatar in 3D earlier in the week and, having discussed with numerous people, it is now time to have my say in some kind of official forum. And until I get my own TV show, that official forum is here, where it is, undeniably, all about the Benjamin.

Now, the more astute among you may have worked out my opinion from that intro, but to say I am not a fan of 3D wouldn’t quite be bang on the banana. First off, let me say that I have seen three 3D films, Coraline, Up and Avatar, and for each of those films, I have not seen the 2D version to compare*. As such, I am aware of the possibility of not being able to draw a 100% fair conclusion. That’s not going to stop me, however.

So why am I not sold on 3D? Don’t get me wrong; the 3D visuals are very impressive and I have to admire the work that has gone into the production of these films and the visual effects that have resulted. However, I don’t think they have enhanced my cinematic experience in any way that is significantly different from the novelty effect, and in some respects I would say they have had a negative impact.

I suppose the first thing to establish is what I am looking for from a visit to the cinema, because that will go some way to defining the ways in which any new technique may affect my experience. First and foremost I will typically be looking for an engaging story featuring believable characters (within the context of the film). There are exceptions to this, a key one of which I will return to later, but ultimately, therefore, I go to the cinema to lose myself in a story.

So if cinema is about story, what can 3D offer to it, or at least, what has it managed to offer so far? On current evidence, very little. The thing that a number of 3D evangelists will do is compare the introduction of 3D to the previous introduction of colour way back when but that, I believe, is a false argument. Colour offers the director a new palette. It is something often (seemingly) ignored, but when you look at a film as striking as, say, Far From Heaven, the use of colour is used to emphasise emotion, to fill the audience with warmth and enables us to further empathise with Julianne Moore. Compare this to the stark, cold blues in Gattaca which give the whole film a cold, clinical, detached feel which serves to distance the viewer. 3D doesn’t – or hasn’t yet – been used in such a way to draw in or distance the audience. If someone works out a way to do this, that gives the film an additional emotional core not available in 2D, I will happily become a 3D convert.

There are two things that 3D is excellent at doing to get an emotional response from a viewer, and they are two sides of the same coin. The first is essentially vertigo-inducing – making the back of the screen tumble away from the audience. Where Hitchcock altered the depth of field in Vertigo as James Stewart clung on to the edge of the building to give the impression of height, 3D can take it one step further. However, as we are sat in our seats and can feel gravity pulling us down into them, we still don’t feel as though we could be sucked into the screen. Would James Stewart’s situation feel any rawer in 3D? I personally doubt it. Hitchcock produced a masterful film that manages to convey Stewart’s mental weakness brilliantly, though I think Vertigo might be a good shout for a remake now the technology is apparently here to stay (not that I would endorse this).

The second thing that 3D does very well could be considered the opposite of the first – things flying out into the audiences face, be it a thrown knife, a fired bullet or someone pointing a finger. There is no doubt that this provokes an immediate and visceral response and, if done properly, will cause a good proportion of the audience to jump out of their seats. However, this is a momentary response and mere equivalent to a theme park ride**. No doubt it will work well in horror movies and the like, and I didn’t get to see the 3D instalment of the maligned but (for me) enjoyable Final Destination series which may have gone some way towards proving this.

The two examples I have given demonstrate a more visceral emotional response, and perhaps this is where we should spend our time looking for the value of 3D. Avatar, in particular, has ample opportunity to get stuck into various action sequences to show off what the process can give a scene, be it attacks in and racing through the jungle or mass battles on ground and in the air. These were all sequences that would look impressive in two dimensions anyway, so what did 3D add? Again, it was a remarkable spectacle, but I don’t think the tension or excitement of the situations was increased by the added depth. They also, occasionally, provoked additional issues. Action sequences in general demand quicker cutting and moving cameras, all of which adds to the urgency and tension, but when the screen has added depth it increases the workload on the eyes and there were times that I found I my eyes were straining. I was refocusing so frequently it hurt. While the issues this potentially presents might, finally, get Michael Bay to calm down his directing and editing style for the inevitable Transformers 3D, it is still far from perfect that ‘the saviour of cinema’ is potentially causing eye-strain.

Early reports about Avatar had also presented motion sickness as an issue for the audiences and it was certainly true that early on there was some handheld camerawork when Sully first arrived on Pandora that was jarring and queasy. I can only hope that the next Bourne film is in 2D only given the number of people who complained of feeling sick from watching the most recent two.

But these weren’t my only concerns with the implementation of 3D, though this may be more of an issue with James Cameron’s direction than the effects themselves. In some sequences, practically everything was in focus at all depths allowing the eye to wander around the screen. In others, areas were left out of focus, leading the audience to look at only the levels that remained in focus. Of course, this is standard practice in traditional filmmaking, you draw the viewer’s eye to the area of the screen you want them to see. In 3D, however, this presents a problem. If the background is left out of focus to ensure the viewer watches what the director wants, what is the point of having things in 3D in the first place? If everything is in focus, enabling the viewer to pick and choose what element of the screen they wish to focus on, your audience risks missing things through being distracted. Given the weak story and script in Avatar, being distracted probably helps it seem that bit more fun than it has any right to be, but that’s by-the-by. The point is, it places a dilemma on the director, and it’s a dilemma I don’t know how you solve.

Also, the 3D is far from perfect. In many scenes it feels too much like diorama, i.e. a number of flat surfaces at different depths, rather than everything being truly contoured. By this I mean that a face at the front of the screen may be discernibly closer to you than the wall behind it, but the face itself looks flat. Ultimately, rather than looking 3D, it often merely looks like a number of 2D objects/films, working in parallax.

I would imagine that, as with any new technology, it will take time to understand it and implement it to its best – that is only natural – and it may well be that it takes a true artist to unleash 3D in a way which will truly exploit its potential. I mentioned earlier that there are exceptions to my rules on seeking out storytelling and I think a prime example of this would be the work of Terence Mallick, director of, Badlands, The Thin Red Line and The New World. Mallick has often been described as a visual poet and with good reason. It may take someone with his talent and vision to fully realise what 3D is capable of and define what the next generation of cinema is all about. But until that happens, I think that the groundswell of opinion supporting 3D as the future (in artistic terms rather than merely factual) is being taken in by the novelty factor. It is true that 3D is the future – more and more films will be produced in 3D as more and more cinemas are installing 3D projectors and more and more people go to see films in 3D. However, as far as I am concerned, as yet it offers nothing new; 3D films are no more immersive than their 2D counterparts. As I said, the test will be whether artists like Mallick, Paul Thomas Anderson, Martin Scorsese and the Coen Brothers start using the technology and what they do with it. These are men who know how to use visuals in genuinely creative ways and if they find a reason to add a new dimension, I will be first in line to see what they do.

One final word of warning. The industry may look on 3D as a way to combat piracy, the idea being that, as you can’t get the 3D experience at home, more people will head back to the cinema. Right now, I can see this being the case. Screenings for Avatar are selling incredibly well, but if every film over a summer were in 3D, people won’t pay to see all of them. As they do right now, they will pick the headliners, the one or two films they must see from the listings, and see those in the cinema while still downloading the rest. It is a fallacy that it will stop piracy in the same way as the idea that if we got rid of piracy, everything that currently gets pirated would get bought instead is a fallacy. That’s not how it works. If you really want to draw people back to the cinema, the equation is simple, make better films.

*The selection of films I have seen in 3D was made on the following basis. Coraline – I wanted to see a 3D film and this seemed like the best option of those out there at the time. Up & Avatar – if anyone could do something impressive and worthwhile with 3D I felt that Pixar and James Cameron would be those people.

**In fact, both examples are little more than a theme park ride and, it could be argued, started out as such. In the summer of 2001 I visited Paramount Canada’s Wonderland in Toronto with a good friend and they showed a Stan Lee created 15 minute film using this 3D technology. It was impressive for 15 minutes but had no story to it. It was all novelty. I am surprised, given that the technology was up and running back then, that it’s taken so long to go mainstream. Perhaps the costs of producing the films to show was too prohibitive back then.