Tag Archives: 3D

Hugo and The Artist

In the past week and a bit, I’ve seen two films which both act as loving tributes to early cinema: Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, and Michel Hazanavicius’ The Artist. I enjoyed each one to a large degree, yet there’s something small but significant missing from both.

There’s an obvious difference between the two: The Artist is a silent film (or almost), produced in a manner that makes it look like the movies of the time in which it is set. Hugo, though steeped in visual references to the works of the 1920s and earlier, is in up-to-the-minute digital 3D. And while The Artist appears to take it as read that the audience will be broadly familiar, at least on some level, with the narrative conventions it adopts, Hugo functions in part as Scorsese’s introductory lecture on film history for kids.

Hugo is an adaptation of Brian Selznick’s book The Invention of Hugo Cabret, with which I am unfamiliar. It is set in a snow-covered, romanticised Paris between the wars, where orphan Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield) lives in the walls of the central station; he spends his time winding the clocks, dodging the station inspector who is determined to pack him off to an orphanage, and stealing parts for the automaton he was trying to repair with his late father. This brings him into conflict with the grumpy old man who runs the station toy shop, who turns out to be – spoiler alert! – silent cinema pioneer George Méliès (Ben Kingsley). Bitter after the loss of his films and public following after the First World War, Méliès has kept his work secret from his goddaughter Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz) who teams up with Hugo to discover his secret.

Though it’s being promoted as a family adventure, Hugo contains relatively little adventuring beyond the children scampering around the station hiding from adults. Not a problem in itself (though judging from the audience numbers at the multiplex where I saw the film, the distributors have miscalculated in releasing it on the same day as Happy Feet Two), but the film unfortunately comes grinding to a halt once Méliès’ true identity is revealed. This plot twist allows Scorsese to share a potted biography of Méliès, introduce his best known works, and indulge in some regrets about how much early cinema has been lost forever. I found myself wondering whether the handful of children in the audience grasped that the character on screen was based on a real person.

The story ends with lots of people watching a film, which is probably the happiest ending possible in Scorsese’s book. The lack of an actual villain (even the Inspector is treated sympathetically) means the stakes never feel particularly high, and the second half of the film ambles to its conclusion. But despite that, there is plenty to enjoy – the production design creates a delightful version of the Gare Montparnasse criss-crossed with the labyrinth of hidden passages in which Hugo makes his home. Butterfield and Moretz play their parts with plenty of wide-eyed charm, and the supporting cast is full of welcome faces – it’s always a pleasure to see Christopher Lee.

It also has what is possibly the best use of 3D I’ve seen to date. In virtually all other modern 3D films – even Avatar – I’ve found myself become accustomed to the effect by the half way mark, only noticing it thereafter if something is very obviously stuck out of the screen at me, whereupon it becomes a distraction from the narrative. This reduces the effect to the level of a gimmick; fine for something like Final Destination 5, but an irritant when it comes to storytelling. In this case, I was conscious of the 3D throughout the film. Though it felt unnecessary in one or two places – a shot of three people talking in a room doesn’t require this kind of technical trimmings – for the most part it satisfyingly added to the world Scorsese and his team were building. He takes every opportunity to place objects in the foreground – lights hanging from the walls, Hugo’s hands as he winds a clock. At one point, Sacha Baron Cohen’s face looms menacingly from the screen. Yet Scorsese saves the best ‘til last, working in some 3D renderings of vintage Méliès films that present these familiar images in a thrilling new way.

The Artist is perhaps less concerned with saluting the pioneers of film than it is with showing audiences a good time, something it does quite successfully. Told largely in the language of silent films, it does have a few jokes that play to the modern audience’s expectations of soundtracks. They are far too much fun to spoil, but I’ll mention the opening sequence, which takes place at the premiere of George Valentin’s (Jean Dujardin) latest drama. The hero is being questioned by the enemy agents who have captured him: “I will never talk!” he assures them in the intertitle. (The gag is repeated later when his wife tells him, “We have to talk.”) As the screening ends, we see Valentin behind the screen listening for the audience’s reaction. To us it appears non-existent, until a shot of the audience reveals what the character could hear – they are all applauding wildly.

The film is set at the end of the silent era, as film studios start switching to sound (much as they would start enthusiastically converting everything to 3D decades later). Valentin dismisses sound as a gimmick, and refuses to even try it (what seems like a baffling attitude is neatly explained in the final scene). Consequently, his star does not fade so much as implode overnight, while Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo), the starlet who adores him and played a small role in his last major feature, becomes a sensation.

While there’s no denying the success of the storytelling, but the actual story of The Artist is pretty weak. Valentin is not a particularly sympathetic, or even interesting, character; Dujardin’s broad playing is reminiscent of his lead role in the 0SS comedies, but The Artist is not a spoof. Peppy, though aptly named, is just as two dimensional. While I greatly enjoyed the film’s ingenuity and homages to a bygone age, I would have liked to have become emotionally invested in the story as well. I wonder what impression modern audiences, those unfamiliar with the breadth and artistry of the best silent films, will make of the form; Valentin’s swansong is, after all, a pretentious melodrama which seems to deserve its box office failure. Hugo, on the other hand, has its young leads sneak into a cinema to watch Harold Lloyd in Safety Last – a film which definitely still works as a crowdpleaser today.

It will be interesting to see whether either film helps spread an interest in early cinema, particularly among young audiences who may not yet have seen a silent film – which do still have showings across the country, albeit sporadically in most cases. I would say Hugo, with its more appealing characters and modern gloss, has the better chance of doing this; The Artist is more likely to find itself preaching to the converted, no matter how many Oscar nominations it ends up with. Either way, it’s good to see cinema’s history being celebrated so warmly by two such enjoyable films.


The silly bits of Shark Night 3D

It’s not that I went into Shark Night 3D expecting anything particularly intelligent, obviously.  I was just looking for something entertaining about pretty people being eaten, and that’s what I got.  So I’m not complaining here, you understand; I enjoyed the film.  But despite that, I did come away with rather more than the usual number of nagging questions.

Some questions are pretty trivial.  For instance, did our heroine Sara (Sara Paxton) never once think that now might be a good moment to pop upstairs and put some trousers on?  I don’t mind that she didn’t; I was quite happy for her to spend about three quarters of the film in her bikini (left).  It just struck me as odd. 
I was rather more concerned with the details of the villains’ evil plan (and the spoilers start here).  Their plan really is pretty stupid, even for stupid villains in a stupid film (and one that comes from the director of Snakes on a Plane, so he’s not without form when it comes to films with implausible plots); it’s so stupid that you wonder if the characters (or the writers) have really bothered to stop and think it through.
Essentially, three men (I suppose they could have further partners who we don’t meet during the film) have decided to put lots of sharks into a salt water lake in order to create snuff films to be sold online – the logic being that Shark Week on TV is popular, so some people must be prepared to pay to see the real thing.  Now, even if we avoid wondering too hard about how they got hold of all these sharks and put them in the lake, and what is happening to the lake’s ecosystem as a result, this plan seems riddled with holes.  First of all, assuming the target market even exists (they don’t appear to have done any actual research), how do these rednecks expect to deliver the product?  Sure, they’re savvy enough to attach cameras to the sharks and get footage of their kills.  But where’s their website? How will they take payment?  How many customers do they need before they can even cover their start-up costs?
One villain, while explaining his evil plan to the tied up hero (thereby giving him time to escape in the traditional manner), points out that Faces of Death “can be downloaded by any 8 year old, for free!”  Without seeming to realise it, he has hit on a major problem for their potential business, one that should be factored into any film distributor’s business plan: the threat of online piracy. 
The snuff movie angle makes the film sound a bit like a late arrival to the torture porn bandwagon, but it’s a bit too lightweight for that – anything too nasty, that might have cost the film a lower certificate, is carefully avoided.  This does mean credibility suffers further (and I realise that discussing the credibility of a film like this is a pointless exercise), as the redneck villain who leers over the female victims in the early scenes then simply throws them to the sharks.  I’m certainly not bemoaning the absence of an attempted rape scene, least of all in a ‘fun’ b-movie like this; just regretting that the film bothers to set up an implied sexual threat, but then acts like it doesn’t exist.
A further question (one that also kept popping into mind during this year’s FrightFest): how the hell do these fuckwits expect to get away with it?  They’ve filled a lake, which people do appear to visit, with dozens of sharks.  Will none of the locals notice?  Are they all in on the plot?  And clearly, they will need a steady supply of fresh victims in order to keep their potential customers coming back for more.  This kind of killing spree only seems credible if the location is so incredibly remote that a huge search could conceivably fail to find the missing people (as in Wolf Creek, or Wrong Turn).  How many vacationing college kids can they throw to the sharks before someone takes notice? 
I enjoyed Shark Night, despite what the above might suggest; if you like this sort of thing, it’s worth a watch. I’d even accept that its barefaced fuckwittery added to the entertainment, in a way.  But given that it’s sillier than Shark Attack 1, 2 and 3 put together, watching it in an actual cinema rather than on DVD seemed wrong somehow.

The Hole

Here’s something I’ve been anticipating ever since seeing director Joe Dante’s talk at the Edinburgh Film Festival last year (I got my photo taken with him afterwards). The Hole is a pleasingly old fashioned horror(ish) film for kids – and by old fashioned, I mean it’s reminiscent of 80s favourites like Dante’s own Gremlins, Fred Dekker’s The Monster Squad and the TV series Eerie, Indiana. There’s even a Dick Miller cameo.

Dane (Chris Massoglia), his mom and his kid brother (Nathan Gamble) move into a new suburban home, where the kids – along with Julie (Hayley Bennett), the hot girl next door – find a mysterious, heavily padlocked trap door in the basement. Naturally, they open it, to find an apparently bottomless hole. It seems to be empty, but before long some of their greatest fears are getting out, and are coming to get them…

The scares are strictly 12A-level. There’s a fair bit of creepy atmosphere-building at first, as odd things start to happen; though only those who share Lucas’s fear of clowns will be disturbed by his scenes, we also get a little ghost girl as disturbing as anything from the J-horror pantheon. (It’s very hard for a scary film to go wrong with little dead girls in my book.) Dane’s nightmare (of his violent father, currently in prison) is a little underwhelming by comparison, and leads to the climax being the film’s weak point. That’s unavoidable, given the film’s message about facing your fears – the threat is inevitably less scary once you look it in the eye than when it’s lurking in the dark. So although Hayley theorises that it’s a bottomless pit to Hell (quite correctly adding, “and that’s really cool,”), The Hole doesn’t go anywhere as nasty as that. I wouldn’t have minded a few more shocks, but that’s being selfish – I certainly wouldn’t wish to keep this film from the young audience it’s aimed at.

Dante also enjoys himself with the 3D, and wants to make sure the audience does too. A fan of the format from way back when, he has no qualms about throwing in every attention-grabbing coming-out-of-the-screen moment he can come up with. The plot lends itself easily to plenty of shots of people looking into, and dropping stuff into, the bottomless pit; rather charmingly, there’s even a shot of a kid on the bed, repeatedly tossing a baseball up toward the camera. It’s like Friday the 13th part III hadn’t happened. While the best bits will hold up fine in 2D, this is a pleasing example of form and content complementing each other.

I hope there’s space in cinemas for The Hole to settle, between the likes of Despicable Me and tween stuff like Twilight. It’s a well-crafted crowdpleaser which will entertain anyone with fond memories of the 80s fantasy/adventure films that generally had Dante and/or Steven Spielberg’s names on. And, if they’ve any taste, it’ll please their kids as well.