Monday, August 27, 2012

Thoughs on Side by Side and film vs. digital

I watched Side by Side with very mixed feelings - not because the movie falls short, but because it captures a moment in time better than any documentary about movies that I have seen.

Side by Side showcases the debate between the merits of digital filmmaking versus analog filmmaking. More and more these days, films are neither made nor shown via actual film.

While I'm not sure that digital cameras have outpaced film cameras in moviemaking, digital is surely catching up. Three movies made predominantly or entirely with digital cameras, Slumdog Millionaire, Avatar and Hugo, have won cinematography Oscars. And digital projection has clearly taken over the movie theater too. Almost every theater in the Dayton area shows movies via digital projectors.

Side by Side allows some of our most prominent moviemakers to extol the virtues or decry the drawbacks of digital filmmaking. George Lucas and James Cameron are nothing less than evangelists for all things digital. Converts include such directors as David Fincher (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) Steven Soderbergh (Magic Mike)  and Danny Boyle (Slumdog).

Meanwhile, firmly on the pro-film side are Christopher Nolan (the Dark Knight trilogy) and his DP Wally Pfister, who insist that film offers the superior picture. Nolan went so far as to point out in the credits of The Dark Knight Rises, that it was "shot, edited and finished on film."

While Side by Side gives good weight to the analog angle, it's worth noting that there aren't more pro-film advocates like Steven Spielberg, Quentin Tarantino or Paul Thomas Anderson, who shot his latest movie, The Master, in 70 millimeter. That's a format very few theaters can even project anymore.

That's telling. And I don't think it's because all these directors believe film is better looking than digital. For many of them, it's more convenient. I noticed that most people on the pro-digital side weren't talking about the quality of the image. They were talking about technological innovations. Boyle talks about being able to get certain kinds of shots with small digital cameras. Soderbergh talks about he he didn't have to lug heavy cameras around mountains when shooting Che. Fincher loves not having to wait for dailies to see how his movie looks. And really, who's more of a visual fetishist than David Fincher?

Here's where my own viewpoint comes creeping in, and it surprises me. I love my gadgets. I love digital. Rather than carry bagloads of CDs around, I have my iPod touch. Instead of heavy books I have a light Kindle. And digital projection is fantastic. No more beat-up prints or film melting. Mo more witless teenagers looking at me funny when I tell them they've got the wrong lens on the projector.

And yet, I still find myself drawn to real film. Here's a major case in point: The Artist, my favorite film of last year. Each time I saw it, it was digitally projected. It looked beautiful, but at the same time, it felt ... "wrong," considering it evoked Hollywood's golden age. I got a similar feeling going to the classic film series in Dayton and Columbus - there was a certain comfort in knowing I was watching film of the old stuff.

So leave it to Martin Scorsese, my favorite director, to reflect my own split-down-the-middle feelings. Scorsese used digital beautifully in Hugo and yet expresses a reticence to leave film behind.

And I don't think it will be left behind - not entirely, anyway. There is absolutely no doubt digital will  dominate. But remember how in the 80s people went on and on about CDs and how vinyl would go away? Well, vinyl did go away for awhile, but these days it's making a comeback as kind of a premium audio format. I think something similar may happen with film - it will become something of a "boutique" item - abandoned by many but cherished by few. (The documentary makes a very good point that in the end, film is still the most reliable way to store films.)

Whatever medium is chosen, as Scorsese himself says, "The issue is, it's different. How is it different and how do you use it to tell a story? It's up to the filmmaker."

Side by Side is available, fittingly enough, in video on demand

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

REVIEW: The Bourne Legacy

Cast: Jeremy Renner, Rachel Weisz, Edward Norton,

Director: Tony Gilroy

Writers: Tony and Dan Gilroy

When I saw it: August 15, 2011

Where I saw it: Rave Cinemas at The Greene

Why I saw it: It's a Bourne movie. Duh.

When Universal announced plans to make a Bourne movie without Matt Damon, many people cried foul. But the problem with the underwhelming Bourne Legacy isn't that Damon is missing - it's that precious directors Doug Liman (Identity) and Paul Greengrass (Supremacy, Ultimatum)

On the surface, handing the reigns to Tony Gilroy made sense. He had a had in writing all the previous Bourne movies. He's shown himself a very capable director, with his excellent first film, Michael Clayton scoring Oscar nominations, and a win for Tilda Swinton. My only concern was that Gilroy wasn't proven as an action director.

But Gilroy stages the action very well, especially the climactic motorcycle chase. Unfortunately, there's too little action and too many plot threads, turning the first half in particular into a muddled mess. Gilroy's Achilles heel as a writer-director is that he's too fascinated with making his stories into puzzles. There are so many subplots, diversions and reversals that they obfuscate and diminish the story. That flaw kept Duplicity from being as good as it could have been, and it kept the Bourne Legacy from being as good as it should have been.

This is not to say that The Bourne Legacy is a bad movie, but I can only give it the slimmest recommendation. What keeps it afloat are the action scenes, and the performances by Jeremy Renner, Rachel Weisz and Edward Norton. All of them hold the screen extremely well, and when the relationship between Renner and Weisz finally comes to the fore, the movie finally comes alive.

At the same time, I wished that the movie were as good as that trio. I'd like to see them in another Bourne movie - hopefully with a director who is more disciplined.


Cinematographer: Robert Elswit, who is especially skilled with action, having shot Tomorrow Never Dies, Salt and Mission: Impossible Ghost Protocol

Aspect ratio: 2.35: 1

Runtime: 135 minutes



Wednesday, August 08, 2012

REVIEW: Hope Springs

Cast: Meryl Streep, Tommy Lee Jones, Steve Carell
Writer: Vanessa Taylor
Director: David Frankel (The Devil Wears Prada)
When I saw it: Aug. 7, 2012
Where I saw it: Rave Dayton South
Why I saw it: Love the two leads.

Quick. Think about two people older than 60 having sex.

What was your reaction? To giggle? To grimace? To understand? Or to know?

Whatever your reaction might have been, Hope Springs just might  surprise you. It certainly did me. It pulls off something even more trickier than a Christopher Nolan plot: It talks a lot about sex with people who have a lot of birthdays - and takes it absolutely seriously.

The trailer for this movie make it look like a breezy, light romantic comedy. It doesn't exactly lie - the movie is often light and breezy. But just as often, it's dramatic, moving and even revelatory.

When most movies feature older people in a sexy context, it's usually for cheap laughs, whether it's the horny grandmother in Runaway Bride or the sight of Terry Bradshaw's bare ass in the aptly named Failure to Launch. But Hope Springs is a refreshingly different animal.

Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones star as a couple nearing retirement age. There's nothing really wrong with their marriage. They don't fight, they're not harboring deep, dark secrets, and they're well-adjusted to being empty-nesters.

And yet, at the same time, everything is wrong with their marriage, because whether they're willing to admit it or not, Jones and Streep are miserable. One day, Streep finds a book about how to put "that spark" back in your marriage, and she resolves to take the author's therapy, much to Jones' dismay.

It all sounds like the setup for easy, predictable laughs - oh, look, the old couple is embarrassed to talk ab out sex. Ha-ha. But as the movie goes on, it only becomes more serious - and more impactful.

This is due in no small part to the stellar cast. It's no surprise that Tommy Lee Jones and Meryl Streep can act the hell out of a scene. What is something of a surprise is to watch them do it without their usual affectations. For once, Street isn't putting on an accent, prosthetics, or a giant attitude. Jones doesn't try to get laughs just by being deadpan. Both of them are playing utterly normal people - and that only makes their performances more engaging. The same, too, must be said for Steve Carell, who has a knack for playing button-downed, stressed out geeks. Here, he plays the role of the doctor absolutely straight - and is wonderfully empathetic as a result.

I was only sorry to see Elisabeth Shue playing such a tiny, inconsequential part as a barmaid. Considering her stature, it was disappointing to see her in what amounted to a walk-on role with only about four lines. I can only guess that her role must have been downsized in the editing room. Considering how well the movie turned out, I wanted to see more of her.

It's also gratifying to see the screenplay not resort to all the old cliches. There's not a tearful confession about some heretofore untold sins of the past. There's no scene with the grown-up kid being the wise old sage. This is a movie about two people trying to learn to love one another again and finding out that's easier said than done.

One could argue the movie ends a little too neatly, but regardless, this is a sleeper that's bound to wake more than a few couples up. In an age where sex talk is reduced to sniggering over 50 Shades of Grey, it's nice to see instead men and women of many more shades.


Cinematographer: Florian Ballhaus, son of Michael Ballhaus, whose credits include Goodfellas and The Departed
Aspect ratio: 2.35: 1
Runtime: 100 minutes
MPAA:  PG-13, which is a little surprising considering the sex talk is rather frank.