Monday, November 12, 2012

Trailer Talk: Jurassic Park 3D

While I don't want to go in to whether or not it's a "good idea" to re-release Jurassic Park in 3D, I think there's something to be learned from seeing that trailer in a movie theater.


Last night, at an IMAX screening of "Skyfall", I got to see some very familiar images from a movie I must have seen nearly a hundred times. The trailer for the 3D re-release of "Jurassic Park" included some of the film's iconic images, including that of the T-Rex roaring between the two stalled tour cars (at around 1:23). Of course, the experience was very sentimental for me -- those images came from a film that inspired me to pursue a career in cinema. Before I studied any other movie, I studied Jurassic Park. But the T-Rex image gave me pause. 

There it was, a beautiful, clean projection on an enormous IMAX screen. And it looked different -- not that it was different than what I remembered, but it was unlike any of the other previews. In fact, it was unlike most of the big, effects-heavy adventure films I've seen over the last few years. There was something huge and magnificent about the image, about the way it was shot, the way it was framed, and the way it was finished. On that screen, the shot was life-sized, and almost had a tangible depth to it. This was not a 3D screening, but "Jurassic Park" wasn't made for 3D, and doesn't need it.

 I've been thinking a lot about why that shot (and, in fact, most of the trailer) struck such a chord with me, and I think I've narrowed it down to two things:

1) Increasingly, the small-screen aesthetic informs big-screen movies. Lately, Hollywood has been churning out big special-effects films to try to lure movie lovers back to theaters. Unfortunately, the very filmmaking process is no longer a big-screen process. Movies are shot digitally, reviewed on small screens, edited on small screens, and make much of their money on small screens (TV and digital). The effects can be grand, but there is a grand theatricality that is missing from most newer films. "Jurassic Park" has that grand theatricality, the kind of showmanship that DEMANDS the big screen, and that fills that screen from edge to edge. There were elements of that showmanship in "Skyfall", but only in two or three scenes (fight/action scenes, shot beautifully and with surprising artfulness by Roger Deakins)

It's hard to pinpoint exactly what this showmanship is, or how it emerges. In the case of the T-Rex shot, it's a combination of camera angle, blocking, lighting, and probably a half-dozen other elements that make for not just a moving image, but a portrait of the event. It's magnificent.

2) Digital special effects have yet to master the tangibility of practical effects. Although the T-Rex in the shot is digital, there's much more reality in that shot (and in the film) than virtual-reality. Most of what we see was there to imprint on celluloid. I think digital effects can achieve this, but only if that's a priority for the filmmaker. For the most part, it seems to me that the filmmakers of current special effects films are more interested in the freedom to achieve the impossible than in the effort of making the impossible seem real and present in the film.

There's a part of me that's a little disappointed that this 20th anniversary release of Jurassic Park is a 3D release, and not simply a 2D re-release of the original film. It could teach us so much about what we should be doing with the special effects miracles at our disposal.


Musing Pictures: Lincoln

I was struck, as I drove away from the theater after seeing "Lincoln", by how few "point of view" shots were used.  In fact, it has taken me hours to find the one moment in the film where the POV shot becomes central to the visual narrative scheme.  Although there are a couple of other scenes that may include POV shots, it's just as likely that they're simply close angles -- there may only be one point of view moment in the entire film!

Steven Spielberg is not one to shy away from POV shots.  In fact, some of his most famous moments (such as the shark attack at a crowded beach in "Jaws" or the rearview mirror shots in "Duel", "The Sugarland Express", and "Jurassic Park") feature POV shots.  As I've written elsewhere, Spielberg uses these in combination with what I've termed "point of thought", camera placement and movement that evokes a character's mood or feeling, rather than literal point of view.

Spielberg's treatment of "Lincoln" relies heavily (and unsurprisingly) on this "point of thought" approach, but it's not Lincoln the character whose thoughts we're invited to join.  The most iconic and memorable images of Lincoln (played brilliantly by Daniel Day-Lewis) are all from behind him, from over his shoulder.  He would be in profile, but he's looking away, looking forward, to the future perhaps.  We see the back of Lincoln's head, and sometimes a sliver of his profile.  This isn't necessarily how others in the room see him, but it's how they feel about him.  To those around him Lincoln is a dreamer, always looking forward, away, to the future.

Since Lincoln is presented to us in the way that those in the room feel about him, we have a sense of general mood or general attitudes, but not necessarily a strong allegiance to any one character's point of view.  It's part of the film's attempt to present the story without too much mythology.  It contemplates Lincoln the man, rather than Lincoln the legend.

But Lincoln the man becomes Lincoln the legend, and the transition happens as he leaves the White House, headed for the inevitable at the Ford Theatre.  As he walks away, his black servant watches.  And it's the black servant whose point of view we see:  Abraham Lincoln, lanky, iconic, walking alone down a long hallway.  In other words, we can never understand Lincoln fully without glimpsing him, even briefly, through a black man's eyes.


Musing Pictures: Skyfall (2012)

I didn't think I'd be writing about plot holes when writing about "Skyfall", but some comments on plot holes by Sean Quinn (who I only know as @nachofiesta on twitter) got me thinking.

Here's the background:  Scott Feinberg (@scottfeinberg, who I know from Brandeis) got in to a bit of an exchange with Mr. Quinn on Twitter after noticing this:

@nachofiesta: Another movie that's complete shit is Marathon Man. God damn that's a terrible movie.

When Feinberg pressed Quinn for an explanation for this surprising assertion (since Marathon Man is sacred ground to many cinephiles), the response was very specific:

@nachofiesta: So many gigantic plot holes.

Well.  A plot hole does not a lousy movie make.

I think back to films with plot "issues" that are considered great films.  "Batman Begins" has a thirty-minute climax that makes no physical sense (wouldn't a giant microwave boil people, too?).  "The Big Sleep" famously doesn't seem to have much of a coherent plot altogether, and it's downright canonical.

Now, I think plot holes do have their impact, but only if the films are weak, or lack narrative conviction.

Plot holes are a kind of continuity problem.  With visual continuity, we expect to see visual elements play themselves out in a natural, uninterrupted, contiguous way.  A lit cigarette should get shorter and shorter with every shot.  If it's a little shorter in one shot, then long again in the next, the discontinuity can be distracting, and can remind us that we're watching a film -- a construct (and if we can see the seams, it's not a very good one, is it?)

But we often miss these continuity "mistakes", especially when they're in great films.  My favorite example is in Jurassic Park, during the fantastic T-Rex attack sequence.  It starts with a T-Rex walking through a fence, and it ends with a car being pushed off a cliff.  Trouble is, the T-Rex entered the scene from exactly the same spot where the car plummets at the end.  It's complete spatial nonsense, but many people don't see it, even once it's been pointed out to them.  The scene is extremely engrossing, made with conviction, so we don't spend time looking for the seams.  We're absorbed, enthralled, lapping it up.

Unlike spatial continuity, plot holes can be much more forgiving.  Usually, plot holes are moments where certain decisions or opinions or actions don't seem to make sense in the context of a character or story.  They don't indicate a violation of hard-and-fast rules, but rather critical omissions.

Here's where this connects to "Skyfall".  Not far in to the film, James Bond is shot at by a bad guy.  The bullet breaks up, and he's hit by fragments.  A while later, with MI6 in jeopardy, Bond gives them some of these bullet fragments to analyze.  The results of the analysis are very new to MI6, and allow them to quickly narrow down their search for the bad guy.  But of course, in the big scene where Bond is shot at, the same bad guy fires off hundreds more rounds.  MI6 couldn't trace one of those hundreds of bullets?

Here's how we forgive plot holes:  We get the facts of the story that are presented to us, but we know there's more to the story than what we're getting (at least, that's the way movies work these days -- we get a selection of shots that show us a scene, then another scene, then another, with sometimes vast gaps of time and space between them.  We know there's more to the stories.)  When we find a gap, we fill it in.  "Plot holes" are just a little more difficult to fill in.  In this case, I'm sure I could come up with reasons why MI6 didn't trace the bullet fragments.  Maybe they were busy with other stuff?  Who knows?

Who cares?

Ultimately, THAT's what does it.  If you come across a plot hole and you care enough that it distracts you from the immersive experience of the story, it'll rip you right out of the film.  But if you'd rather the story continue, you let it continue and ignore the discontinuity.

It's like when you're dreaming, and it's morning, and you're kind of waking up, but the dream is so good, so you keep sleeping.  Sure, you're kind of awake, so the dream isn't really a dream any more, but if you like the dream, or if you care about where it's going, you'll do whatever you can to stay in that dream world just a little longer.

So, when it comes to Sean Quinn's experience of "Marathon Man", I think something very sad happened.  Whereas most people who saw that film found the experience engrossing enough to lose themselves in it despite the plot holes, Quinn couldn't overcome the realization that the story doesn't come together enough.  It's sad because ultimately, we're all looking for that transportive experience.  Sometimes, if you watch films too closely, too analytically, they can lose their magic.

And what about "Skyfall"?  I think I was lucky.  I caught the silly moment in the plot, and I considered letting it bother me, but I really wanted to enjoy this film, and so much of it had thrilled me already, so I let it go.  On the drive home from the theater, I mulled the possibility of writing about the cinematography, or the unusually "artsy" action set-pieces, or any of a number of other topics.  The "plot hole" was far from my mind minutes after the scene ended, and wouldn't have re-entered my thoughts had Sean Quinn not gone on about plot holes.


Friday, November 09, 2012

Musing Pictures: A Hijacking (2012)

I caught this wonderful Danish film at the tail end of the 2012 AFI film fest.  It is what it claims to be: a film about the hijacking of a Danish ship, and about the subsequent negotiations between the pirates and the company's CEO, Peter Ludvigsen (played stoically by Soren Malling).

I particularly loved the work of the sound department, Morten Green and Oskar Skriver, who introduce auditory elements that are at once very real, and very new to cinema.

There are quite a few scenes in which the Peter speaks on the phone with the man claiming to be the pirate's "negotiator", a shrewd manipulator named Omar (who, as yet, is not credited on IMDB, which only lists a cast of six, although there were at least a dozen speaking roles in the film).  These conversations are had on a speaker-phone, so the rest of the response team in Denmark can listen in, and presumably, so that we can listen in as well.  They are tense, of course, and they look pretty much standard, as far as tense hostage negotiation phone calls go.  But they sound very different.

This is a long-distance call, probably via satellite, to a ship in the Indian Ocean, and we hear that vast distance.  The calls are full of pops, whistles and static.  Most notably, every time Peter speaks, he hears his own echo a second later (something we may be familiar with as an occasional glitch with our cell phones, or with Skype).  The absolutely amazing part of it, though, is that we can still understand what Peter is saying.  The choice of sounds, and the way they're mixed together make it so that despite the noise, the voices are clear.  This, to me, is a major accomplishment for the sound team, and something I've never heard in a movie before.  Usually, voices are clear and there isn't much noise, or the noise is apparent and it's hard to make out the words being spoken.

Be nice to see what the director, Tobias Lindholm, comes up with next... I hope he keeps the same sound team!


ADDED 6/25/2013: I wrote an additional musing about "A Hijacking" around the time of its US theatrical release, published at Musing Pictures' new home, MaxIt Magazine:

Thursday, November 08, 2012

Trailer Talk: "World War Z"

The recently released trailer for "World War Z" utilizes a similar musical motif to that used by "Promethius", but not to the same effect. First, the Prometheus trailer. Listen, particularly, to the music in the final 20 seconds:


Next World War Z, listen at 1:50:

No, it's not the same sound, but they're definitely imitating.

When the Prometheus trailer hit theaters, the web buzzed with anticipation, and much of the talk had to do with that primal, primitive, scream-like sound used in the trailer's music.  People bought the soundtrack before seeing the film, hoping to get that haunting, frightening score, but as it turns out, it was just a music track the trailer-editing company dropped in to the trailer, and did not come from the film at all.

I think the "World War Z" trailer is clearly imitating the effect used in the "Prometheus" trailer, but whereas the "Prometheus" effect sounds like a weird, alien scream, the musical effect in the "World War Z" trailer just sounds like a slightly upset whale.  I don't think it works here -- at least, not nearly as powerfully or viscerally as in the "Prometheus" trailer.

That's not to say that "World War Z" doesn't look exciting.  But if you're going to "borrow" a creative impulse from an earlier source (and let's face it, much of art requires this kind of "borrowing"), make sure it works in the context of what you're doing!

Frankly, with the ant-swarm-like imagery, I think something more in-line with the snake-pit music from "Raiders of the Lost Ark" might have been creepier...

What do you think?

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Musing Pictures: The Rules of the Game (1939)

I was fortunate to catch Jean Renoir's 1939 classic, "The Rules of the Game" at this year's AFI Film Festival.  They showed a very watchable, newly restored print of the French film.  I say "very watchable" because many earlier prints were in very bad shape (including those from which VHS and early DVD copies were made.)  The film itself has a unique and unusual story -- it was thought to be lost when the originals were destroyed during allied bombing in World War II.  After the war, bits and pieces of the film were reassembled from partial copies and fragments, often with Renoir's explicit feedback.  It added a layer of magic to see a film that was really a re-construction of itself.  There's no way to know how close the re-construction is to the original.  Would we think Frankenstein's monster was a human if we had never seen a human?

I wonder this, too, because I can't imagine an artist, given the opportunity to tweak his own work, would re-construct it (or agree to its re-construction) without tinkering here and there.  I know that if I were to re-construct any of my own films, they would all certainly take on slightly different forms.  Some scenes might be cut short, others might be re-arranged.  And it's not always the best thing for the movie.

We see this, in a different way, with re-releases of certain films.  When Lucas restored "Star Wars" in the '90s, he re-released those films with significant changes.  What we got to see in theaters weren't merely restorations, but updates -- films that contained scenes and effects that never came close to appearing in the original.  As a result, some of the power of "Star Wars" got somewhat drained out of the film: Han Solo's famous shot in the Cantina is somehow fired in self-defense, the creatures of the film which were once so tangible (because they were puppets) are now ethereal (because they're CGI animation), etc.  When Spielberg restored and re-released ET, we were presented with some cute scenes that weren't a part of the original film.  Also, the police officers who had been toting guns originally, were now holding walkie-talkies.  The sense of jeopardy just isn't the same.

How can we know that Renoir's re-constructed film is true to his original creation?  Frankly, we can't.  The original is lost, and was actually seen by very few to begin with.  In this particular case, it's the re-construction itself that is the masterpiece.