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Posts Tagged ‘3-D’

Bluer Than Blue

January 12th, 2010 No comments

The first trailer for Avatar left me convinced that James Cameron’s $300 million comeback film would be a titanic flop. It stunk of Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, the 2001 Japanese flick which burned bags of money to create a photorealistic, computer generated sci-fi world that absolutely no one cared about.

The next trailer was more promising, yet what it promised was Dances with Wolves. It was the traditional white man’s guilt fantasy: white man meets noble savages (who, inevitably, use every part of the buffalo), goes native, and ultimately leads a revolt against his former people.

Bonus: it also looked to be a heavy-handed eco fable featuring a literal “mother earth.” James Cameron was back, and he would speak for the trees.

I was unimpressed. Pretty to look at, I thought, but this was what he’d spent the last fifteen years developing? I was certain that only the Cameron faithful would show up on opening weekend. The Avatar toys infiltrating big box stores nationwide would be buried alongside those for Dragonball: Evolution and Astro Boy: The Movie.

Okay, so I was wrong about that. (But not about Dances with Gaia.)

Despite my lack of enthusiasm for Avatar, I felt that I really ought to see it. Sure, I was intrigued by the technology. I’m also a sucker for good 3-D. But in the end, I think that what I wanted most was to be able to bitch about it with authority.

Last weekend I drove up to visit my dad (who is conveniently located near an IMAX theater), and plunked down my $12.50.

The verdict? Pretty much I expected. Gorgeous and groundbreaking. Pity about the script.

Briefly, Avatar is the story of a paraplegic soldier transported to the planet Pandora, his mind transferred into an artificially-created copy of the indigenous population. The Na’vi are ten-foot tall, blue humanoids who literally link to their environment via a tendril/hair thingy. These plug-and-play Smurfs (who are 30 apples high) live in a hollow tree sitting on the largest known deposit of unobtanium (no shit, that’s what they call it), an isotope of mcguffinite so valuable it can buy entire cities. (And yet, the local mining company official keeps a chunk of it on his desk. Really?)

Avatar leaves no doubt that there are no longer limits on what can be depicted on screen if one has the money and computing power. While I’m not sure that Cameron’s in-camera animatics (which allowed him to see digital characters in a virtual set while directing the live actors) will change the way that movies are made, it will certainly change how very expensive movies are made.

I was impressed by his advanced technique for capturing facial movements, allowing the performances of Zoe Saldana and Sigourney Weaver to shine through their digital makeovers. Cameron seems to have emerged from the “uncanny valley” that made Robert Zemeckis’ computer-generated Tom Hanks and Jim Carrey so unsettling. However, I wonder how many sins are covered by the blue, cat-like features of the Na’vi. The real test, I think, would be to create a realistic duplicate of the actor’s own face.

Much was made of Cameron’s attempt at world-building, but I didn’t find it so remarkable. Several years ago, the crew of Peter Jackson’s King Kong similarly created an entire ecosystem for Skull Island.

I did, however, appreciate the believably* alien flora and fauna, and wasn’t surprised to see that artist Wayne Douglas Barlowe (whose seminal work Barlowe’s Guide to Extraterrestrials sits on my bookshelf) did an early design pass on them. The use of phosphorescence was a clever way of tying together the Pandoran biosphere**.

*Not so sure about the lizard whose defense mechanism was to turn into a tiny helicopter and helplessly rotate six inches from where it had been sitting. Dangling food is still food.

**Curiously, most of the animal life was six-limbed, yet the Na’vi had only two arms and two legs. Did they originate elsewhere?

Unfortunately, Cameron spent far less time on the script that he did on the production design. I might have forgiven the “seen it all before” plot if each of the story beats hadn’t been equally telegraphed. Was there any doubt that Jake would reclaim his standing with the Na’vi by taming that family-sized pterodactyl, or that Mother Nature would listen to his plea* and assemble her horde of uintatheriums and displacer beasts to save the day?

*And just why was Jake so much more Na’vi than the Na’vi anyhow?

Having seen Cameron’s Aliens a great many times, I couldn’t shake a feeling of déjà vu when the evil military commander climbed into a mechanical suit and threatened Jake’s ferocious warrior girlfriend Neytiri. I half-expected Jake to shout, “Get away from that bitch, you bastard!”

Wired magazine’s recent feature article about Avatar explained what inspired James Cameron to become a filmmaker: a fit of jealous pique after seeing the original Star Wars. Star Wars, it said, “was the film he should have made.”

Since that didn’t happen, he settled for producing a space western in which a technological empire is defeated by bow and arrow-wielding primitives, and all life is connected by a mystic energy field. I hear that his next film will be about a globe-trotting anthropologist.

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Ebert vs. Monsters vs. Aliens

March 28th, 2009 No comments

If I am occasionally hard on Roger Ebert, it’s because I expect more from him. Unfortunately, his review of Monsters vs. Aliens is what I’ve come to expect from latter-era Ebert, in that he spends half his alloted verbiage railing about something tangential to the film itself. In this case, Roger hates 3-D for being a gimmick that sullies his pristine, silver screen. Oh, no! Movies aren’t made the exact same way they were the first time he saw Lawrence of Arabia! I can imagine a ’40s-era reviewer similarly bitching about these new-fangled moving pictures having color and synchronized sound.

As film gimmicks go, 3-D is nothing new. While not technically the first stereoscopic movie, 1952’s Bwana Devil is credited with kicking off the 3-D boom of the mid-century. It’s come and gone over the years, but the big difference between, say, the original House of Wax* and Monsters vs. Aliens is that nowadays the 3-D effect works really well. Thanks to modern digital projection systems–which Ebert also railed against, even though they seem to have virtually eliminated framing and focus problems at the local multiplex–3-D is now every bit the eye-popping experience the innovation originally promised.

As for the portion of his review which actually addresses the film, I honestly don’t know what movie he saw, but it wasn’t the one that unspooled in front of the audience with which I sat this afternoon. (Actual Ebert line: “I suppose kids will like this movie, especially those below the age of reason.”) Judging by the laughter, both kids and adults found it very entertaining. I know that I laughed hard and often at both the silly sight-gags and the many, knowing winks to sci-fi films of ages past. (Among my favorites was a take on the giant hypodermic needle gag from The Amazing Colossal Man.)

Ebert attempts to make a point about “wit” by trying to be ever so clever, but in his haste to line up his bon mots, incorrectly identifies the film as a Disney product. I doubt Unca Walt (or Unca Spielberg, for that matter) will appreciate that.

Now look, in terms of storytelling, this is by no means a Pixar-level film. (Though I’d argue that it’s easily the equal of Cars.) It just wants to be spectacular and silly, and it succeeds admirably at both. There’s also a welcome dose of Girl Power that so far Pixar has largely overlooked in its male-centric tales.

You won’t encounter many surprises in the plot, but the jokes come fast. Most of the best lines are courtesy of Seth Rogen as the clueless, charming B.O.B., a brainless blob who at one point hits on a dish of Jell-O. I was also very fond of Dr. Cockroach, with his pencil-thin Vincent Price mustache, and the pop-eyed, enormous Insectosaurus.

And 3-D might be a gimmick, but if the reaction of the kids in the audience was any indication, this time it’s here to stay. Every time something blew toward the screen, they ooo-ed, aah-ed, and howled with delight. Just as the movies went widescreen in the ’50s to combat television, the motion picture industry will continue to embrace 3-D and IMAX as experiences that aren’t easily duplicated at home.

*House of Wax gets its own reference in Monsters vs. Aliens, when an early scene duplicates the paddle-ball-in-the-face effect from the old Vincent Price flick.

Myths and Fairy Tales

November 26th, 2007 No comments

I’d been jonesin’ to see Enchanted the moment I first heard about it. The high concept–a romantic comedy involving a typical Disney princess thrown out of her animated world into modern-day New York–was so brilliant that I was surprised it hadn’t already been done. And happily, they didn’t screw it up.

Enchanted reminded me most of Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, even though there’s very little mixing of animation and live-action. However, Amy Adams’ character Giselle is like Roger Rabbit in that she continues to operate by her own cartoon rules within a real-life setting, including the traditional Disney princess’ ability to gather the local wildlife to help with the chores. Giselle’s initially one-dimensional personality could’ve become very annoying, but Adams makes her endearing, with perhaps her best moment the giddy delight she expresses after becoming angry for the very first time.

Enchanted avoids other obvious missteps. With several scenes set in the Times Square theatre district, it’s amazing that it avoided the banal corporate synergy opportunity of sending the characters to one of Disney’s Broadway shows. I also appreciated that the losing members of the plot’s romantic quadrangle weren’t spiteful obstacles to be overcome, but likable characters who, despite their good qualities, simply weren’t “the ones.”

My only complaint is that there wasn’t enough of Susan Sarandon, who steals the show’s final act as the villainous Queen Narissa. I would’ve enjoyed seeing more of her adventures in the modern world. Still, I suppose it’s another sign of restraint on the part of the filmmakers that they didn’t pad out the flick with extraneous scenes of Sarandon’s wickedness. (Indeed, the highest praise that could be given Enchanted is that not once did Vic declare “This film needs a good editor!” She felt that, unlike most movies these days, it ended precisely when it should’ve. I agree.)

An entirely different take on myth and fantasy was the CG animated Beowulf, which I saw the weekend prior to Thanksgiving. While I would’ve preferred to see it in IMAX, the closest such theater is a two-hour drive, so I settled for the local cineplex, which at least did offer digital 3D. (I have long been a complete sucker for 3D; I still have my glasses from Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare.)

Honestly, I don’t know why this film was done entirely in CG; it didn’t seem that anything within it couldn’t have been achieved with the mix of live-action and computer wizardry employed by the likes of Peter Jackson. On one hand, the almost photorealistic representations of Anthony Hopkins and Angelina Jolie were stunning, but surely the real people would’ve worked even better? That said, I appreciated that the hideously misshapen, rotting, pustulant monster Grendel still managed to vaguely look like Crispin Glover.

The main problem with Beowulf (and not having read the original, I have no idea whether this is an issue of the source material) is that I didn’t like any of the characters. Beowulf is a braggart, a liar and a jerk. The king is a drunken wretch. His queen is a cipher. Grendel screams a lot. (Though you would too if your eardrums were on the outside of your head, or if you vaguely looked like Crispin Glover.) The only one who comes off at all well is Jolie’s mother of monsters.

Plus, I got to see far more naked Beowulf than I cared to, to say nothing of digital Anthony Hopkins in a side-less toga. Shudder.