Saturday, 16 January 2016

2015 Retrospective (Part 2 of 2): Old Dogs, Same Tricks, New Stories

In my review for Bridge of Spies, I talked about how at a certain point, the filmmakers we revere as visionaries, tend to devolve into embarrassing caricatures of their past selves. As much as that might be true for people behind the camera, it certainly tends to be the case for the people in front of it. Actors seem to have a shelf life on their talent, more than any other artists. This can be due to a lot of things. It can be physical, as their looks and voice start to wane, or it can just be that they just seem completely out of it, unable to find that spark that made them the greats they used to be.

You've never seen this movie. There's a reason for that.

Of course, since this article is being written, you know that that's not always the case. Someone who was in danger of this phenomenon happening to them is acting giant Robert De Niro, but just 3 years ago, he was nominated for an academy award for best supporting actor in 'Silver Linings Playbook'. Although the Academy isn't always the best indicator for quality, it's not gonna nominate someone who does an impression of his character from 30 years ago, like De Niro did in Little Fockers.

This past year saw some of it's own exceptions, mostly in the latter part of the year. First off is Sylvester Stallone as Rocky Balboa in 'Creed'. After an embarrassing number of films that seemed to simply showcase Stallone's age and botox addiction, Stallone has given what some are calling his best performance in years. He's already won the Golden Globe for it, and he's been nominated for an Academy Award. It's a performance that no one expected from the near 70 actor who hadn't had a good gig since...well the last time he played Rocky.

Stallone surprises audiences yet again, not just for taking a punch, but for giving a knockout performance

If you looked at Stallone alone, you might think that's the key. Picking a role that you're familiar with from your prime. Harrison Ford gives credence to this theory, with him returning to the role which made him who he is, Han Solo. Which is all the more perfect because Han Solo is exactly the way Harrison Ford is right now in real life. He's grumpy, and tired of young people asking him about how great it was to be Han Solo. Aside from that, Harrison Ford is great in the new Star Wars because...he seems like he gives a damn.

The old saying, you can never go home again, seems not to apply to actors, unless of course you consider Harrison Ford himself in 'Kingdom of the Crystal Skull', where he just seemed tired half the time. Of course, that movie had problems beyond his performance, and Ford had another incentive to give his all in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, but maybe it's a combination of both. Maybe it's not just putting an actor into something he knows, but presenting it in a way that not only makes him care about it, but makes the audience say, "Yes, I'd like to see this senior citizen portray a character I saw him play 40 years ago".

But remember, that's RARELY the case

Look some roles should stay dead. No one wants to see John Travolta come back and rev up Grease Lightning for one last ride. Okay, I want to see it but I don't think anyone else would. Unless it was the right idea. In this age where film is becoming more and more derivative, taking cues from older films or just flat out remaking them, there's something to be said for filmmakers like Ryan Coogler who grew up with a story and want to see it continued. Otherwise, you get Bruce Willis running around yelling that he's on vacation 80 times in the latest 'Die Hard' movie.

Rocky is actually a perfect example of the older actor being great again. In Rocky III Balboa loses to Mr. T's Clubber Lang because he's no longer hungry for the title. He's gotten soft. So, he goes through a montage with someone who saw him in his prime, Apollo Creed, and suddenly he's imbued with new purpose and wins the fight. Basically what I'm saying is every actor that's called a hasbeen needs a Rocky like trainer who verbally abuses them and makes them remember what made them great again so they can climb those art museum steps.

Have I mentioned how much I love the shit out of 'Creed'?

Friday, 8 January 2016

2015 Retrospective (Part 1 of 2): The Majesty of 3D Movies

As a kid, I was very much enamoured by 3D movies. I got giddy at the idea of reaching my hand out to touch the T-Rex whose teeth would appear above my head in the cinema. As I grew older though, I saw 3D as what it was which was simply a gimmick. Something to appeal to that part of me that wanted an extra level of interaction with my film. It never serviced the story and the effect was a cheap gag that made me go "Cooooool" but ultimately didn't mean anything for the overall film and is mostly for the cinema as an amusement park event.

Great for a fun experience. Not great for film analysis.

Nowadays, 3D is more legitimate but it hasn't gotten over that "gimmick" classification. Sure the technology is better and it's easier for a filmmaker to use but no one really uses it. Most of the movies that come out in 3D these days are actually worse for it. Not only are 3D glasses annoying to use but they inhibit the film. The scenes look darker than intended and suddenly you're watching a movie through tinted windows on a secret service SUV. Not to mention 3D tickets are double the price of 2D which altogether makes you think maybe you don't want to go to the movies anymore when it'll be available in HD in a few months.

All that said though there are a few exceptions, some of which were in 2015. Of course everyone always points to Avatar, which utilised 3D to bring its virtual world of Pandora to life, and the Dreamworks movies like How to Train Your Dragon and Despicable Me were able to make 3D work to their advantage and service the humour and action. However 2015 included two movies that surprised and astonished me in that they weren't popcorn movies, they were both movies that could easily be nominated for best picture.

The first was The Martian. By itself, the Martian is visually stunning, and the script alone is engaging and captivating, but it's actually the effect of 3D that ties the narrative with the visuals which is what film is all about. Mark Watney is stranded on the desolate planet of Mars and the movie somehow doesn't lose it's pacing when it's just him talking to himself, and while Watney keeps the movie light by making jokes about his situation, the film is shot in a way that emphasizes his loneliness, playing with depth perception which is enhanced by the 3D filming.

'The Martian' is filled with shots like this that come to life with 3D. 

The 3D gives you a sense of scale for whenever Mark is outside his facility on Mars and pushes forward the idea of how hopeless his mission of survival is, despite his optimism. Not to mention there are numerous moments where the 3D brings your attention to the tiniest details like specs of dust floating around Mark. This not only makes you aware of how different Mars is from Earth but it's also in line with Mark's character of a scientist whose job it is to notice.

The second was The Walk which is the most immersed I've ever felt in a theater. Just as my younger self felt glee at 3D's interactivity, so did my present day self feel dread while watching The Walk. The story follows Phillippe Petit as a wire walker who has an insatiable desire to walk in between the twin towers of The World Trade Center. In it he describes pure exhiliration at the idea of wire walking and can think of no other way to feel truly alive. He also recognizes his insanity and the ultimate lack of rational thought that goes with doing such death defying stunts, and experiences real fear for his own life in the film.

All these ideas and the mentality of the character are portrayed to the viewer but it's not until the final scene of the wire walk itself that it truly starts to  register. The 3D brings the stunt to life and plays with depth and scale to make you feel as though you are with Phillippe on the wire. As it goes on, the visuals make you feel dread and then it's transformed into an understanding and appreciation of why this man felt the need to perform this stunt.

Here, it's a cool shot. In the movie, it's an immersive juggernaut.

Both movies took the effect of 3D and made it not only enhance their visuals, but incorporated it as a storytelling device. The 3D makes you understand the characters and the conflicts of the film and helps to bring across what the movie is trying to say. It was the first time I'd seen 3D be used to bridge the gap between the visual and the narrative in that it used the visuals to explain the narrative.

At the end of the day 3D is no more than a visual tool and should be used as such. Most movies don't take the time to let the 3D service their stories or even craft a visual gag that makes you go "Cooooool". Certain visual effects like the explosion has reached the point of oversaturation and have little to no effect on viewers anymore, but others like motion capture still blow people away. Last year didn't make me think 3D was going to be the saviour of modern cinema, but it did remind me that when it's done right, it's kick ass.

P.S One other movie that utilises it's 3D but more for a creature effect than anything is 'Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter'. The vampires in that movie have glowing eyes, but when you watch it in 3D, the irises are on a different plane than the rest of the film and seem a lot closer than the creature they belong to. It's very effective and makes the vampires in that movie seem scarier than the premise allows for.

This is the first of four articles to be released every Friday that'll be looking at the year of 2015 and the things in it that were my own personal impertinent perceptions.