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Up & 3D Cinema

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I saw Pixar's latest film, Up, last Friday. It is the first full length film I've ever seen in 3D, or DISNEY DIGITAL 3D as it pronounced itself.

The film itself is one of Pixar's best. It certainly shows a new found maturity to their filmmaking, bringing my wife and (presumably) a good proportion of the rest of the audience to tears. I, on the other hand, am a Northern English bloke hardened by a childhood working 28 hours a day down the mines, bricks for breakfast, living in a puddle, etc - therefore no film has ever had that effect on me (either that or I'm just emotionally stunted). The fact that a frankly surreal story idea works so well is testament to Pixar's excellent storytelling craft.

As for the 3D effect - I'm not completely convinced it's anything other than a short lived gimmick. It certainly works - the form of objects is realised surprisingly well and the circular (as opposed to linear) polarisation seems to negate the headache I was fearing. However, I kept finding myself distracted by the 3D effect and wasn't able to completely absorb myself in the film. Perhaps this impression will fade if 3D cinema becomes more commonplace.

Another problem which the film mostly avoided is a perceived lag that happens when there is a camera cut. Pixar seemed to be vary careful to keep the amount of parallax on the focus of the image roughly constant between cuts, but the editing on one of the trailers beforehand (some 3D CGI space thing) was jarring. Far too many fast cuts causing a noticeable delay whilst my eyes locked onto the new parallax. Maybe younger viewers are able to keep up better, but I'm a 30 year old boy - surely my eye muscles are still good!

Reading this post back, I've noticed that I haven't (yet) mentioned the graphics in the film, despite being a graphics geek and indeed a graphics programmer. Suffice to say they're so good you barely notice them - the few times I did think about it I saw flawless lighting, shading, the works. Sometimes I envy film effects people in that they have a lot more processing time at hand as opposed to games aiming to have everything rendered within 16⅔ or 33⅓ milliseconds depending on whether we're aiming for 60 or 30 frames per second.

Another technical oddity I noticed is that at the end of the credits (I hung around in case there was any extra bits at the end), there was a message saying that all final rendering had been done on Intel processors. I'm mildly surprised that Pixar aren't using any GPU technology such as NVIDIA's CUDA or OpenCL to accelerate things - perhaps because the cost and time required to port over their existing rendering software is prohibitive, despite the gains, so simply throwing more processors at the problem is a cheap way to improve rendering performance.

There will be a few spoilers in this review - you have been warned!

I have to say I was more than a little disappointed with this film. The first one was great in my view - they kept the cast to just a few of the more famous robots and concentrated the action to a few huge set pieces - it had good pacing and built nicely to the climax. This time however, they appear to have a higher budget and have used it to increase quantity rather than quality.

There are a huge number of CG driven fight scenes in the new film. Watching giant robots beating the crap out of each other is all well and good, but for two solid hours it begins to wear a little thin. Michael Bay appears to have forgotten that you need quiet moments to appreciate noise.

There are also a huge number of new characters introduced - some of whom appear to be completely new (the constantly bickering twins whose names I didn't pick up) and others seem to be put in for fan service (Arcee for example). Most of the new characters are completely throwaway and get only a few lines at the most. The only really good new character is JetFire - the grumpy old transformer who has spent a long time as an aircraft exhibit in the Smithsonian Museum. Hearing a giant robot grumbling away and shouting "Oh bollocks" when he's groggily bumping into things after being awoken was possibly the highlight of the entire film. It's a real shame he's dead by the end of it. Soundwave was also quite cool - updated from a tape recorder to a modern communications satellite.

The Fallen himself seemed a bit of a lame threat really - he barely appeared in the film and was easily dispatched by Optimus Prime at the end. His giant "sun-harvester" weapon was more laughable than threatening.

Also, this film suffers from the same hyperactive camera work of the first. I could understand it a little in the first film, as the fast moving camera meant that motion blur could be liberally applied enabling less detail in the effects to keep the budget down, but this time that excuse doesn't seem to be the case - it's just a poor artistic choice in my opinion.

Still, despite its shortcomings I did enjoy this film and now that the Matrix of Leadership has been introduced we could well be seeing a remake of the 80s cartoon film in a few years time. I think Unicron nomming his way through the galaxy could well be the film that Michael Bay was born to make - so long as he can temper the pacing.

Star Trek

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In a change from my usual reviews, I'm not going to avoid spoilers in this one, so read on only if you don't want to know what happens in the film as there are some big plot points ahead. You have been warned!

I've been a fan of Star Trek since The Next Generation first graced our screens in the late 1980s. The quality has varied over the years, but most Trek has been watchable apart from the frankly awful Star Trek: Nemesis.

So the new Star Trek film has recently arrived to much hype, and I did find it surprisingly good - perhaps not so surprising given it was made by Bad Robot, the team behind the excellent Lost and Cloverfield. The new flick is the best Trek film since First Contact, but it is also utterly infuriating (like Lost sometimes).

I think the most annoying thing for me was that this was billed as a reboot of the franchise - a clean break to tell new stories with the same characters. This would have been fine, but instead they felt it necessary to write in the old Spock (presumably to keep the die hard fans happy), so it became a clich�d "person travels back in time, changes some key event and creates a parallel universe" story, which is indicative of lazy writing to me.

There was also some very dodgy and inconsistent physics involved. A black hole was able to safely transport both the Romulan ship and old Spock's ship back in time, but destroyed the planet Vulcan and then destroyed the same Romulan ship at the end of the film.

Another unexplained oddity is the redesign of the Romulans themselves. In the older series they were very similar in appearance to Vulcans (which fitted in with their shared ancestry), but with ridge on the forehead and bridge of the nose. In the new film they're all bald and covered in tattoos. Also the ship design has radically changed. Far from the iconic birdlike green ships of the past, the Romulans now seem to fly around in metallic black spiky ships that looks like a strange cross between a Borg ship and a Shadow vessel from Babylon 5. If the film had been a pure reboot this wouldn't have mattered, but because of the nature of the "alternate universe" type story, this Romulan ship ought to have been from the Trek universe we're all familiar with.

Transporter technology seems to be capable of a lot longer range than in the past. Previously in Star Trek it has never been possible to transport from much further than from orbit to a planet's surface, or between ships within visible distance. The Star Trek: The Next Generation Technical Manual quotes transporter range at approximately 40,000km (from memory - I'll check when I get the chance). However, here in the new film is is somehow possible to transport from a planet to the Enterprise travelling at warp some unknown but huge distance away, and also from Titan's orbit to a ship orbiting Earth.

Regardless of all this, it is still a good film that's worth seeing. Funny and fun is a hard thing to pull off in an action film, but this manages to press all the right buttons if you can switch off your "WTF?" response.

Elizabeth: The Golden Age

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...or not as the case may be.  This film is good, but is just missing something that would make it great. It's historically inaccurate on many counts, though that doesn't necessarily make it a bad film.  What lets it down for me is that it slowly builds and builds towards a massive climax, but it doesn't ever get there.  It's the film equivalent of a Coldplay song. Cate Blanchett is a superb and subtle actress who's worth watching in anything, though none of the other performances really stand out. The directing is adequate, and tries to be like Lord of the Rings in places, but just doesn't come close.  The pacing is all over the place too, and it feels like there's a lot cut out to make it fit in two hours. For me however, the definitive Elizabeth I is Miranda Richardson in Blackadder! Overall - could do better.

xXx 2

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Saw this the other night on Channel 5.  Surprisingly, I found myself enjoying it, despite it’s total ludicrousness and disregard for any realism. The reason I found this surprising is that I hated the first one when I saw it.  Ah well…

Transformers

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As part of my superb stag weekend celebrations, we went to see the new Transformers film. I wasn't expecting much. Michael Bay's films are generally average at best (apart from the superb The Rock), but I was pleasantly surprised to find Transformers is a superb action flick. It's funny, you care about the characters, and the effects are so gobsmackingly good it's like watching the bullet time stuff in The Matrix for the first time. I left the cinema thinking "Wow!". My only criticism is that the Decepticons are mostly the same dull grey metal colour so it was sometimes difficult to tell them apart in the middle of a battle. The Autobots were all distinct bright colours. Earlier in the day, I had dug out my old VHS copy of the old cartoon film, and watched it for the first time in about two decades. It's not as good as I remember it, though the cheesy rock sound track is still a treat. If the excellent new film gets a sequel, bringing Unicron and Galvatron back would be fantastic (though Rodimus Prime is the worst name ever for a Transformer). Transformers: The Movie (80s cartoon version) - 6/10. Transformers (00s live action version) - 9.5/10.

Deleting memories

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Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind was on Channel 4 last night. It's a great film, but I'm not going to review it. The film (rightly for the story it is telling) ignores a lot of practical issues in deleting the memory of a relationship, but it does leave me thinking... What would it take to actually delete a relationship from someone's memory and not have them figure it out afterwards? I'm going to assume for the point of this discussion that the technology exists to selectively delete memories, and no amount of hypnosis, surgery or other therapy could restore them. What else would need to happen to effectively delete the relationship? In the film, family and friends were given cards saying "Don't mention this relationship to the person", and a well meaning friend told Joel why Clementine couldn't remember him. With the best intentions, this method isn't likely to succeed (just as it didn't on film), so for the purposes of our thought experiment the memories of all your friends and family would also need to be modified, along with their friends and families to whom your relationship was mentioned. Then comes the practical stuff. What if the couple lived together and you found yourself either homeless or paying mortgage/rent you can't afford on your wage? Joint bank accounts would have to be deleted, along with anything else set up in joint names. Any writing or photographs showing you both would need to be destroyed, etc. I imagine junk mail in the name of your ex would be OK though as it would be simply ignored or returned to sender. The magnitude of changes that would need to be made just becomes greater and greater the longer the relationship had gone on. I imagine deleting a single one night stand wouldn't cause too many problems, but deleting a long term close relationship would be a lot harder. If you'd been married for years you could end up modifying the memory of thousands of people. This leads us to another thought. What state would you be in after the operation? Would your personality revert to it's state before you met your ex, or would you have all the psychological changes it would have caused (but without the concrete memories to back them up?). My instincts tell me this would lead to great depression. Human memory is fairly fuzzy, so how would your mind fill in the time gaps? I doubt many people can remember what they have had for dinner every day for a month, but there would be a lot of significant events you would have to cover for. Anyway, this has been a pretty rambling post, but it's an interesting thought. Incidentally, this is my 50th blog post!

300

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My latest cinema trip was to see 300. The plot is rather simple. 300 Spartan warriors versus oodles of Persians - you can guess the rest. What is lacking in storytelling is more than made up for by the feast of visual treats. It is certainly a film of style over substance, but the style is so prevalent that it really doesn't matter. It's a film to be enjoyed on the basest level. The inevitable battle scenes are incredibly impressive. The stand out moments are the "hero" sequences. Each one a continuous shot lasting a couple of minutes which follows a single Spartan take out dozens of enemies in a mixture of slow and fast motion. It's reminiscent of the Burly Brawl in Matrix Reloaded, but far better executed. The film uses CG extensively, but it is so well integrated with the live action that it never becomes visually jarring (unlike the Matrix sequels!). It also sets a new standard for the use of colour grading in film. I wouldn't choose this as a date film as it's far too gory (unlike the similarly themed Gladiator), but otherwise I'd highly recommend a viewing.

Belleville Rendez-Vous

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This is a charming French animation I watched last night.  If you've not heard of it, it tells the story of a young boy who becomes a Tour de France rider, gets kidnapped by the Mafia and eventually rescued by his grandmother and ever loyal dog Bruno (who in some ways is very badly treated). The story is told entirely visually with very little speech (part English, part French - though I didn't bother with the optional subtitles on the DVD).  The protagonists are very well fleshed out, with their visual look emphasising their character. The art style is beautiful, and the direction sublime, with several laugh out loud moments. I think I'll watch this one again in the near future.

Burning Ring of Fire

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I saw Walk the Line on Saturday, which Katherine bought on DVD after Christmas and we just got round to watching. It tells (some of) the tale of Johnny Cash, how he got his first record deal, how he met and fell in love with June Carter, got addicted to prescription drugs, sorted himself out and eventually persuaded June to marry him. Joaquin Phoenix put in a great performance and had the voice pretty much spot on from what I could tell (though I'm no Johnny Cash expert), though the whole film felt disjoint as it seemed massive chunks of the story were missing as though it had been sanitised to keep the Cash family estate happy. There were some great moments, like when playing to the prison audience, but the film ended leaving me feeling unsatisfied.

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