(Don’t) See it Again?

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Typically I try and only share films I like and try and convince others to like them, too. So what gives?

I’ve read a number of articles about Arrival and they all say something similar — this is a great movie. Most people who praise the film are saying things along the lines of “This is smart science fiction for people who are tired of explosions.” I am assuming this is targeted at the recent release of the Independence Day sequel (among other films).

One review in particular focused on the fact that this story is about a woman who uses her brain to save the world. What is not to like about this premise? A woman uses her brain (and no weapons) to save the world from an alien invasion! I wanted to love this move and sing its praises. Upon watching the film I had the depressing thought, “Did I just watch what everyone else did?”

I feel there are two major failings of Arrival.

Reason Number One: The premise of the film is excellent: aliens arrive, we make contact and realize we have to figure out how to communicate with them. Call in a linguist (with a scientist in tow) to figure out how to communicate before trying to ask the important questions. It’s a wonderful approach and makes sense and I’ve never seen it done in a film about aliens before.

Where the film falls apart, and the opening makes this clear, is that this movie is not about the interaction with the aliens. It is not about this process of learning to communicate, it’s not about the aliens at all, really. This is a movie about time travel.

When things go wrong and the world is on the brink of war/destruction/something bad our heroine is given the entire language of the aliens to decipher. In doing so she learns that understanding their language changes how a person perceives time. She no longer perceives time as linear but is able to move in and out of moments of her life. Effectively her consciousness is now able to travel through time.

So, and this is such incredibly lazy storytelling that I am amazed at the praise for this film, in order to save the day our heroine’s consciousness travels forward in time to ask General Shang what she did in the past to convince him from starting WWIII (I don’t mean to be flippant with that term, the stakes are global so I feel the term is not far off the mark). General Shang then tells her (in the future) what she did in the past to convince him to cease and desist so that her past self can then do this very thing. That the climax of this film boils down to “I just have to remember what I did in the future and do it now” should have had reviewers sharpening their knives.

Time travel doesn’t have to be overly complicated and burdened with quantum theory and paradoxes — because this is a movie. That being said when time travel is treated only as a means to move the plot forward it often feels unnecessary and unrewarding. The way it is used in Arrival is one step removed from employing the trope of “and then she woke up”.

Reason Number Two: The story being told is of how our main character, due to this change in her perception of time, is able to experience her future. What troubles me is that she makes an emotionally and morally complex decision about having a child with the knowledge of everything that will follow. What she does not do is inform her soon to be (husband?) romantic partner of this choice and that it will entail watching their only child die from an untreatable disease, until after they have had the child.

The father is not in any of the scenes from the future where the teenage daughter is dying in the hospital, or any scenes for that matter, so in a way he is spared this. I assumed that he was not in any of the future scenes because they are shown at the beginning of the film and therefore would give away the story — since everything hangs on the viewer thinking that her daughter dying happened before the events of the movie unfold. Perhaps this is not the case. Perhaps the character is incapable of living through what he knows is coming. Neither scenario seems tolerable.

Perhaps if you aren’t a parent this withholding of information is a minor issue. But imagine for a moment that you are in the shoes of Jeremy Renner’s character and try to imagine your significant other telling you that the child you had together is going to die of a terrible disease and that they knew this before you conceived the child. And now, when the child is seven or so, they have decided to tell you all of this. Perhaps I am overly sensitive but for me this turns Amy Adam’s character from a hero to something of a villian. This is an unforgivably selfish act, especially since this film is not concerned with rules pertaining to time travel (whether or not things can be changed — so that there is no debate as to whether her knowledge actually changes anything).

The voiceover in the beginning that only makes sense at the end of the film, that the aliens coming wasn’t an ending but a beginning…it all sounds really great and clever until you look at how she handles this information.

For me these were two major sticking points that took an interesting concept and turned it into an unpleasant and unrewarding experience. Forest Whitaker is criminally underused in the film. I was thrilled to see his name on the poster and upon seeing the film understood why he was in so little of the trailer. Jeremy Renner is in substantially more of the film but I’m not sure many have noticed as he is stuck firmly in second position.

Arrival has a great atmosphere and a unique premise. Ultimately using a storytelling device to cheat the audience of a proper resolution and handling the morally complex idea of having a child with someone and not telling them of the (known) horrors to come, makes this an unrewarding film.

See it Again – Jupiter Ascending

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What You Should Know

This film fits into many categories but “Space Opera” seems to work the best. How do we define “Space Opera”? Wikipedia gives us:

Space opera is a subgenre of science fiction that emphasizes space warfare, melodramatic adventure, interplanetary battles, as well as chivalric romance, and often risk-taking. Set mainly or entirely in outer space, it usually involves conflict between opponents possessing advanced abilities, futuristic weapons, and other sophisticated technology. The term has no relation to music, but is instead a play on the terms “soap opera” and “horse opera“, the latter of which was coined during the heyday of silent movies to indicate clichéd and formulaic Western movies. Space operas emerged in the 1930s and they continue to be produced in literature, film, comics, and video games.

This definition, as most definitions of genres, is fairly judgmental. Which is not to say it is incorrect. Jupiter Ascending features everything listed above. Does this have to be a negative? Jupiter Ascending is a – repeat after me – enjoyable film to watch. Feels weird doesn’t it? Especially in this age of superhero films that are often not enjoyable to watch.

The Wachowski’s once again made a science fiction film that delivers in terms of story and special effects. One of the things they do so well is to make special effect heavy movies that don’t call attention to the special effects (Not every time, I am aware!).

Case in point, Channing Tatum’s character wears special boots that effectively allow him to speed skate on air. This may not sound interesting or good to you, but it’s fun and if your inner child doesn’t stir while watching him glide on the air then your inner child is either stunted or boring.

Why You Should Reconsider

This film, much like Cloud Atlas suffered from negative press. I cannot point to a specific example where it was obvious but I believe this was, in part,  because of the directors personal lives’. People were very quick to judge Jupiter Ascending based on the character’s names, the basic concept, a complicated (or convoluted) plot – without seeing the film. All of which could be leveled at “The Matrix” and yet upon watching the films you see that they are incorrect.

This film is enjoyable, it is interesting and it has a heart. Notable criticisms from the online group Screen Junkies with their “Honest Trailer” focused on how the story ends. I won’t spoil the ending but to dislike and take issue with the ending is to not understand the story and what it was trying to achieve.

The acting in the film is good, it is what it should be. Characters that are supposed to be somewhat larger than life are and the everyday “normal” people are just that. Mila Kunis’s extended family feels real, which given the material is very impressive.

Which brings us to two aspects of the film I do not normally discuss, costumes and special effects. “Jupiter Ascending” is lavish, it’s lush. They created worlds and cultures and races. The things that people praised Neil Blomkamp for regarding Elysium seemed to fly over everyone’s head regarding this film. The film has moments of gritty reality and overdone pomp and they all work. They are appropriate and do not pull the viewer out of the story. The effects sequences are as seamless and perfectly integrated as those in the first Matrix. In short (if Cloud Atlas hadn’t come first) this is a return to form for the directors.

Misconceptions

I’ve stopped reading reviews for the most part so all I can glean is that people thought this would be a more straightforward story. That it would be less “Space Opera” and more…space story? I don’t know. Channing Tatum’s character is strange as other other characters in the film but given that the film addresses other life in the universe it makes sense. If we can accept this idea with Star Trek can’t we do so with a film like Jupiter Ascending?

Back when we rented our films from video stores I recall a particular phrase was used often to promote new films. Either on the box or the poster or in the trailer for a film they would say, “If you loved _______, you’ll love ______”. Which if you think about it is a pretty great way to sell a film. If I were going to use that line to promote Jupiter Ascending I would say, “If you loved The Fifth Element, you’ll love Jupiter Ascending.”

Film and Digital – Operation Avalanche and Workflows

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Today I read an article on the Filmsupply blog – https://blog.filmsupply.com/articles/operation-avalanche/9

It is mostly an interview about the film, Operation Avalanche, that delves into the technical aspects of how they made the movie. I won’t spoil those details here other than to say their workflow was unusual. In order to properly emulate the look of 16mm film from the 1960’s they shot on digital cameras and did a transfer to 16mm film that they then degraded.

To answer the obvious question – why not just shoot on film? The answer is cost.

Why am I sharing this? Let me post an excerpt from the interview below:

Do you think it will ever be possible to achieve the full effect in digital without the 16mm intermediate?

JR: We tried. Honestly, I think if we could do it, then we would have done it. There’s something that happens — is it the uncertainty principle? It’s that thing you can’t predict. We could have given it to Conor, and he could have re-created exactly what happened in that shot from earlier in the movie. But those mistakes never happen twice — the way the colors shift in an unpredictable way, the way the highlights go a certain way.

AA: The way a hair would lie on the scan. You can’t design for that.

JR: You could intentionally do it, but you’d just be copying something you’d seen before. People are wired to pick apart images now. We spend all day looking at images and thinking about how they originated. We’ve developed a powerful vocabulary for seeing an image and knowing where it came from and who took it. That’s in our lexicon now through how much we learn by looking at images all day long. People are savvy to the point where they can subconsciously tell — whether they know it or not — if they’re looking at something from a certain era or a modern thing that’s trying to be that thing from a certain era.

Stranger Things is a great example of that. It has the look of an ’80s movie through and through, but you know it’s not an ’80s movie because you’re not watching it on film. Film does all these weird things that look like mistakes, but you can’t plan them. Through this process, we discovered that if you want something to look like it’s on film, the only way to get that look consistently is to actually use film.

What they say here, especially at the end, is of interest. As much as shows like “Halt & Catch Fire”, “The Americans” and “Mad Men” (the later seasons) achieve a film look – there are moments where the audience knows, somehow, that these shows are made differently than works shot in the 1980’s (and 60’s). This inherent knowledge is interesting and while it does little to settle any arguments about what format you should capture your work on it does speak to another concern which is distracting your audience from the story. If the audience is thinking about how your movie looks like film but isn’t film while they are watching then you have to wonder if it is worth attempting this trickery.

Take a look at the interview, it is an interesting, albeit technical, read.

See it Again – Inglourious Basterds

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What You Should Know

If, like me, you have been avoiding this film based on the following criteria:

1) It is a Tarantino film and the posters/things you heard have lead you to believe that this film is nothing more than “Jewish revenge porn” and/or

2) The trailer for the film gave you the sense that the movie largely consists of Brad Pitt and a group of men running around Europe killing Nazis, you need to reconsider.

Why You Should Reconsider

Aside from the last twenty minutes of the film if you were able to come across this movie knowing nothing about it you would never guess the director. The first section of the movie is unlike anything I have every seen from Mr. Tarantino (as an aside I have since seen Django Unchained and I expect The Hateful Eight fit neatly into this category as well). The locale, the pace, the dialog none of it feels like anything I have encountered from this director before.

This is due partly to the look of the film, which is very rich but subdued. The first section could be referred to as being pastoral. It’s partly due to the dialog which is much more “natural” and devoid of pop culture references and (aside from Brad Pitt) guys trying to talk tough. The pace is also quite slow so that even in sequences where there is tension concerning possible death and violence, the usual uncomfortable claustrophobic atmosphere I typically associate with Mr. Tarantino’s films is pleasantly absent.

Which is not to say that people do not die, or that the dialog isn’t snappy. Lots of people die and the dialog is certainly snappy at times. I would be hard pressed to put my finger on what, exactly, is different about this film from Mr. Tarantino’s previous efforts but there most certainly is something. Call it maturity, call it scope but what you get from this film is more rewarding and interesting than what has come before.

Misconceptions

As previously stated the trailer and reviews for this film gave the impression that this was Reservoir Dogs meets World War II. There are some wonderfully rich characters in this film, who I found myself genuinely caring for.

The sections containing Brad Pitt feel to me very much like the Tarantino we all know and love/hate/whatever you feel. Yet Mr. Pitt and his men are in very little of the film. Couple that with a significant portion of the movie not being in English – and that we spend time with some fantastic actors like Christof Waltz, Michael Fassbender and the true star of the film Melanie Laurent.

This would be a great film to show someone who has given up on Mr. Tarantino and I think for someone who has never seen one of his films. It builds on his previous works and adds new components to deliver an interesting, satisfying film. Give it a chance, I think you might like it.

Favorite Film

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If there is one question I have struggled with it is, “What is your favorite film?” Granted, this question is nowhere near as important as: “How do we achieve world peace?” or “How do we stop global warming?” but then people never seem to ask me either of these.

So recognizing the proper ranking of the importance of this question let me now try and address some of the assumptions being made regarding movies.

First – that all movies are alike and are comparable. I touched on this briefly in another post when I mentioned comparing Cliffhanger to Citizen Kane. What I was attempting to show with this comparison isn’t that one film is lesser but that different films are made to satisfy different conditions. Cliffhanger needs to be exciting in order to be successful as an action film. The stakes in a film like Cliffhanger are life and death and therefore the story being told has to make the audience care whether the characters live or die. We need to worry when they are in peril, cheer if they manage to evade death and feel satisfaction when the villain (unless it is the Earth which is tricky) gets his due.

The same isn’t true for Citizen Kane. I don’t need to spell it out, different kinds of films have different rules, have different problems and different goals. So while we can attempt to compare them in terms of the overall experience there are still many cases where this is a fruitless exercise.

So in thinking about awards like Best Picture and answering the question of “what is your favorite movie?” I cannot help but dwell on these differences because they do matter.

Take for instance the different between comedy and drama. Forget subcategories for the moment. The comedy wants to make you laugh. It wants to make you happy. The drama usually wants to make you feel some deep emotion like sadness or longing or ennui or some other wonderful thing. I am being unfair but the truth is not far off. Comedy seeks to entertain you and make you happy, the drama usually attempts to make you experience some unpleasant emotions, possibly entertains you or it tries to teach you something.

This distinction is important and why you rarely see a comedy being nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards. For some reason we have decided that this is okay. That Comedy as a category does not compete in the same realm as Drama. Okay.

Yet, if you were to poll most people concerning their favorite film many would name a comedy. So what gives? The second distinction: is this a film you watch once in your life or never again?

We have all seen amazing, life-changing films that have moved us in ways words cannot properly express. Yet once seen we have no desire to ever see these movies again. Not in a Usual Suspects kind of way where once you know the story watching the film becomes less interesting. This is more that you have had an incredible experience and are glad to have had it but the thought of going through it again, even if it were somewhat lesser holds no appeal for you. A good example of this is Schindler’s List.

Then we have the other category, the film you can watch repeatedly and it is always enjoyable. The film that when you are sad or sick or just looking for a nice night on the couch you know will give you what you need. These films are usually comedies of some sort. For me the best example is The Philadelphia Story but I could list dozens that fit this bill.

So we have comedies and dramas. We have one-offs and we have endlessly watchable films. With just these four categories I find myself at a loss. How do I pick a favorite? What are we talking about? Pure entertainment? Something that helped shape who I am today? It becomes impossible for me to make any kind of choice because I need to explain the criteria involved in making that choice.

So, yes, this is not the most important decision a person will ever face. In fact, it is somewhat silly. Yet, and this is why I bothered to write all of this out: when I try and pose these questions to others I always find them puzzled at my response. “Why can’t you just pick one?” I can’t help but feel that when it comes to the awards that are given out that this must be the attitude of many who do the voting. Something must be chosen, so just pick one. They are only movies, so what does it matter.

Awards Season

 

As we find ourselves in the middle of yet another awards season let us take a moment and reflect on why we, people who have nothing to do with these damn things, care? And let us also add another item to this mental exercise – acquisition formats.

In the past three months the number or articles, tweets, posts, messages and smoke signals I have seen about films like Carol, The Revenant, The Hateful Eight and, yes, even Star Wars has been so staggering that even my daughter, who does not use the Internet has become familiar with several of them.

Although she has not asked me if this will be Leo’s year to finally win the Oscar I cannot help that it is not far off. She goes to school now and the things from popular culture that already filter down to a Kindergarten student are somewhat astounding. So while Star Wars has made its way to her the debate of film vs. digital has not.

Which again makes it even more apparent that many of these discussions and debates are just advertising and marketing and promotion and nothing of much value. The number of reviews and comments I have seen about The Revenant that say much of anything of value I can count on one hand. More has been said about the acquisition format of the films I have listed than about the qualities of the films or the actors or even whether people like them.

As someone who is interested not only in watching films but also in making them I find I am interested in these aspects but even still only up to a point. That The Hateful Eight is being presented in 70mm in some locations is less interesting than the “roadshow” aspect of these presentations. Which are not one and the same. Yes, it will look different but that the film will have an intermission, that there will be a printed program, that the filmmakers are making an active push to say, “This is why you should see this film in a movie theater and have a shared experience with your fellow human beings,” is much more interesting.

Yet all anyone can say is, “boy the frame is really wide!” and “he did it for interior scenes” because “it makes the blocking really noticeable!”. Which is all well and good from a technical point of view but very little is being said about whether the movie is any good. Or whether people are finding the movie-going experience to be interesting, new, rewarding, worthwhile or anything else. Very little is being said about this aspect, which is what we should all be talking about.

The same is true of The Revenant. The experience is “immersive”, the bear attack is “realistic” and shooting only with natural light is “neat-o”. But then all of the comments concerning the film itself are either snarky and flippant, to one writer being thankful to have made it through the film (which is clever because their experience seems to mirror that of the main character…dear lord) or just that most in general found the film to be difficult to watch and grueling. Because, of course, when you watch a film that is about one man’s incredible tale of survival against all odds you expect it to be light and chipper and float on by.

Because, of course, The Revenant is not trying to offer a unique filmgoing experience with anything other than the film itself. Which is not to diminish the film, the filmmakers or what they have achieved. But you cannot help and see that although these two films, which have in a way become pitted against each other (one for resurrecting not only a forgotten acquisition format and the other for being the first to make use of a cutting-edge technology) are getting attention for parts of their productions that are perhaps not the most interesting thing about them. That they were acquired under harsh conditions using these interesting technologies maybe isn’t what we should spend all of our time talking about.

The same can be said for Carol, for different reasons and even the new Star Wars. Article after article has been written and shared about the formats chosen, the reasons why and what wonderful results have been achieved. Except, of course, the results we should be focused on are the films themselves. Not excluding the lighting and the look and grain structure but absolutely not limited to these aspects either.

I am ranting now and I try not to do that with strangers so forgive me. I have been paying more attention that usual to the state of film, largely because all of us are (I believe). What I find odd is that I am not sure what is being presented (the end is nigh) reflects that actual state of things. When The Walking Dead, Carol and fifty other well known television shows and films are making use of the super 16mm format is it really dead or about to be? When Kodak announces the release of a new, hybrid super 8mm camera are we living in the end times?

I know that many filmmakers are currently being asked to weigh in on the future of film and that is why the endless articles are appearing but it would seem, and forgive me if I am wrong, that the timing of this is about two years too late. Filmmakers and studios bonded together to give Kodak a reprieve. Now, indie filmmakers who had previously embraced low budget technologies to inexpensively make their films are choosing to make their new movies shooting using actual film.

Perhaps it is healthy that this issue is near constantly mentioned. That unlike two years ago when few were speaking or reading about it and the future of this format was truly in jeopardy now people are paying attention. I do not know.

What I do know is that so much attention is being paid to how the movie was acquired or how it is viewed but so little is being said about how people like or dislike the movie.

Perhaps that is what this award season is good for, with categories for the technical achievements as well as acting, direction and things like costumes it allows us to filter and sort through these different aspects. I am not sure.

What it feels like, as does nearly everything these days, is that it is just another marketed aspect of movies. Because we don’t talk about whether Carol is a better film than the new Star Wars. We don’t compare them for so many different reasons. I used to think this made sense. Cliffhanger should not be pitted against Casino, they are different kinds of movies with different aspirations. Yet we lump Carol with Tangerine and Sicario because of their budgets or subject matters or who the filmmakers are behind the films and, obviously, that makes much more sense.

See it Again – Bottle Shock

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In honor of Alan Rickman’s passing I am doing this “extra” See it Again. I have been meaning to write about Bottle Shock for some time and sadly it took his death to properly motivate me.

What You Should Know

This is a small film with an amazing cast telling a (mostly) true story. It is about wine, snobbery and growing up. I think Technically Chris Pine is the lead of the film but watching the film I think you would be hard pressed to agree with that statement. This is an ensemble film with a cast that plays their parts and does not try and outshine one another.

Why You Should Reconsider

My guess is you never heard of the film. Like so many smaller, comedy/somethings these get widely ignored. They don’t win awards or set the box office afire. What they do is provide interesting, satisfying stories with moments of levity.

Alan Rickman is perfection in this film (as always). Cast, I think, as an Englishman living in Paris who operates a wine store/school that is widely ignored. It is perfect casting as you get to experience all of the wonderful shades of Mr. Rickman – contempt, scorn, snobbery, weakness, compassion, loyalty and passion.

His friend, fellow business owner and advisor, played by Dennis Farina is yet another piece of perfect casting and their scenes together are terrific. Evenly matched, perfectly off-balance, like so much of this film, there is a never a sense of watching a formulated story.

I won’t go into detail about the rest of the cast but everyone delivers and they do so in unexpected and interesting ways. The casting is well done, as the familiar faces bring comfort to the viewer but to unfamiliar roles.

Misconceptions

I imagine the idea of a wine comedy does not appeal to many. The film, though portraying a rather snobbish character, is anything but. It is a centered, earthy movie that lacks pretension and strives for naturalism rather than being “artistic”.

Some of the actors involved come with their own baggage, especially now with people like Mr. Pine. I think this, along with the film Stretch, is a great film to see if you wish to change your perception of him. The characters in this film are not paper-thin, yet this is a comedy, so while there is some misery and drama the touch is light and confident.

I am writing about this today, as I said, because of Mr. Rickman’s passing. There are several films he is well known for and sadly this is not one of them. It is a shame because in this role he is allowed to present several different sides of this character and he does so brilliantly. There is something very human, touching and real in this performance that helps elevate this film without shifting the focus to land squarely on him.

If, like I imagine many people are right now, you find yourself wanting to watch something with Mr. Rickman in order to remember him I would recommend giving Bottle Shock a try. It is a rich, rewarding film filled with unexpected moments and ultimately a warm, full heart.