Tag Archives: 3D

Gravity (2013)

(In Theaters, October 2013) I’m going to take a break from reasoned movie criticism and indulge myself in a few freefall back-flips about Gravity: This is a movie I’ve been waiting a long time to see, at least ever since I wanted to be an astronaut while growing up.  Alfonso Cuarón’s latest film takes us in orbit for 90 minutes, and I loved every moment of it, jaw hanging open in astonishment for much of that time.  The narrative setup couldn’t be simpler (accident in space; astronaut wants to go home), but the execution is almost perfect: Seen in 3D, Gravity is the definition of an immersive experience.  From the impressive 17-minutes-long opening take, this is a film that attempts something ambitious and manages a delicate balance between showing something new while trusting its audience to follow along without excessive dumbing-down.  It’s not scientifically impeccable (the orbital mechanics are simplified, the plot armor a bit thick at time) but most of the compromises are conscious ones made in good faith so that the story can work on a more emotional level.  Sandra Bullock is spectacular as the quasi-civilian thrust in an impossible situation, while George Clooney is his usual charming self as an old-school “Right Stuff” veteran doing his best to keep the situation under control.  But it’s writer/director Cuarón who earns most of the praise here, because Gravity is an insane gamble that works: A technically-complex film that features grand thrills, thematic depths, beautiful visuals and new ways of telling a story on-screen.  There are a few remarkable moments in this film, from seamlessly going to-and-from subjective perspective, soundless mayhem, zero-gravity fire and strong emotions conveyed without histrionics.  It’s both a science-fiction film (despite the lack of speculative elements, it’s a classic “Analog story”) and a memorable thriller, and it arrives in theaters as an invigorating antidote to the kind of cookie-cutter moviemaking that big studios seem all too eager to present.  It’s worth seeing in 3D, and it’s worth seeing in theaters: how many other films can claim the same?  Assured of a top-ten spot on my year’s end list, and most likely headed straight to the top spot, Gravity isn’t just a great movie: it’s one that makes it worth feeling excited about movies again.

Piranha 3D (2010)

(In theaters, August 2010) I can appreciate a good monster film despite not being much of a gore-hound, but Piranha 3D caters far too much to that latter crowd to feel like an entertaining experience for all.  Oh, it starts out promisingly enough: The first half-hour sets up a light-hearted monster movie in purely classic fashion: A few plucky heroes, a town threatened by monstrous creatures, the promise of plentiful T&A and a tone that lets you know that this is all going to be awesome.  The pacing may be a touch too slow, but the direction is sure-footed and the genre’s plot structure is faithfully followed.  Where Piranha 3D is a bit more explicit than usual is in its exploitation factor: Viewers are treated to an artful underwater Sapphic interlude (in three dimensions, no less) and promising portents of doom at the intersection between Spring Break bacchanalia and flesh-eating monster fish.  Self-aware and unrepentant, it initially feels like a good old-fashioned monster feature, good for a few shocks and plenty of blood.  Ironically, it’s what Piranha 3D does too well that kills it: When the Big Scene comes around to show the piranhas attacking the spring break students, the result is so bloody, so gory and so mean-spirited that the cumulative impact of the ten-minutes sequence is more stomach-churning than horrific, let alone entertaining: It put me in the frame of mind of seeing a documentary about a massacre rather than an unpretentious monster film, and enjoying the film after that moment became an exercise in futility: the fun of Piranha 3D had been leeched out as soon as people started being gutted, scalped or gnawed to the bone.  (And that’s not even saying anything of the pacing let-down of the film’s last act.)  But, to repeat myself, I’ve never been a gore-hound –and I’m aging out of that market segment no matter what.  Despite recognizing a good chunk of the film’s up-to-the-moment soundtrack (it even features Hadouken!), I’m getting far too old for gore-fests such as Piranha 3D –and if this is the kind of nihilistic meat-grinder “entertainment” that I’m going to be “missing” from now on, I’m looking forward to old age.


Step Up 3D (2010)

(In theaters, August 2010) There are times when I find myself in a movie theater with no clear idea of why I have chosen to see the film in front of my eyes.  This wasn’t one of those times: Despite my scepticism for the 3D movie craze and my complete lack of knowledge in the field of dancing, the trailer for Step Up 3D mesmerized me as much as it made me laugh.  But what it promised more than anything else was an experience: Dance films have a physicality that approaches that of action movies, and the thrill I get from seeing good dance cinematography isn’t dissimilar to that of a well-mastered martial art sequence (also see; parkour).  I also suspected that many of the self-conscious devices characterizing 3D movies wouldn’t be half as annoying in a format halfway between a film and a concert.  I was proven right on almost all accounts: Step Up 3D is an exhilarating time at the movies for what it shows as soon as the music starts.  As a narrative experience, it’s as basic at it can be with paper-thin plotting, amiable characters, a few stereotypes and no surprises whatsoever.  But never mind the story as long as it strings along the dance sequences: that’s when Jon Chu’s direction takes flight and the film soars.  While the film’s three showcase sequences are the dance battles between rival groups, Step Up 3D also has time to sneak in some ballroom dancing and a number that could have been lifted straight out of a classic musical comedy.  Other highlights include a waterlogged dance sequence and a mesmerizing robot-rock performance by “Madd Chadd” Smith (Go ahead, watch it on YouTube).  But the sequence that really sold Step Up 3D to me is a sweet and charming street-dancing sequence taking place in long uninterrupted shots, a sequence so full of joy that it does what countless other serious movies have failed to do: make me happy to be human and to live in a world where such scenes exist.  There’s a primal joy in seeing other people move in extraordinary ways, and for once my lack of knowledge in a field paid off as I saw the film’s dancing from an unprejudiced eye.  I half-expected to like Step Up 3D; I didn’t expect that I would like it that much.  The 3D, for once, helps a lot in correctly putting us in the universe of the film: the artificiality of 3D efforts pays off when the dancers are purely playing to the camera, waving their hands in our faces.  For once, I’m not sure if the film will be as effective in 2D.  No matter, however: I don’t think I’ve enjoyed a theatrical experience as much since Grindhouse.

The Last Airbender (2010)

(In theaters, August 2010) I haven’t seen the original anime series, so I can only judge the film on its own merits rather than as an adaptation.  By this yardstick, The Last Airbender is a mess of breathless mythmaking, indifferent characters, repetitive CGI, terrible dialogue, fuzzy motivations and sometimes-spectacular visuals.  It’s practically impossible to care about a film that spends so little time fleshing out its lead characters that a romance is established by voice-over narration.  (And that’s saying nothing about the blank hole of charisma that is the film’s titular protagonist.)  The story jumps frantically from one scene to another with minimal transition, never giving life to any lasting interest in what’s happening beyond the special effects.  Even by the climax of the film, it’s still explaining what we need to know in order to understand what’s going on.  It’s inept film-making with a stunning budget, but even in describing how much The Last Airbender doesn’t work, it’s hard not to notice that a few things do: The world-building is intriguing enough to make me me interested in the original series, whereas for all of his increasing faults as a writer, M. Night Shyamalan still has a few skills left as a visually ambitious director.  Some of the lengthier battle shots, in particular, are almost wonderful.  But little of this matters once the Typical Fantasy Big Battle is over: By the time The Last Airbender sets up a sequel, all that’s left to viewers is a dull shrug of the shoulders.  As far as hopeless first-instalment-in-planned-fantasy-trilogies go, this is barely above Eragon and quite a bit worse than even The Last Compass.  I saw the film in 3D by accident (no, really: who knew the local dollar theater had more than one 3D screen?) and not only does it add absolutely nothing to the experience, but it may even be taking away some of it.

Despicable Me (2010)

(In theaters, July 2010) Seeing Despicable Me a bit too soon after Toy Story 3, I can’t help but notice how thin it feels compared to Pixar’s instant classic: It’s much simpler visually and even more simplistic from a story standpoint.  The backgrounds feel empty, and the scatter-shot writing seems all too ready to sacrifice tone and continuity for cheap gags.  (Seeing that much of the film was developed in France, I wonder if some of this inconsistency is a cultural artifact.)  Fortunately, Despicable Me finds its worth in earned laughter: Some of the most absurd slapstick is ridiculously funny, while the entire film is so good-natured that it’s easy to keep a smile in-between the laughs.  I’m never too fond of kid characters, but the three girls who (very) gradually come to change the mad-scientist antihero’s mind are surprisingly likable, which makes the overused “bachelor finds his inner parenting abilities” sub-plot far more bearable than you’d expect.  The same goes for the minion creatures, who hold up far better than their “let’s have an iconic toy” origins may suggest.  Much of the 3D is unobtrusive to a 2D audience, at the exception of end-credit sequences that feel tacked-on after a rush decision to re-render the film in 3D.  Despicable Me may not be much of a classic, but it holds its own as an entertaining feature for the entire family.


How to Train Your Dragon (2010)

(In theatres, April 2010) There really isn’t anything new or all that innovative about How to Train Your Dragon, at least from a first glance at the script: The story about a teen outcast discovering inner reserves of courage along with secrets about a terrible menace will feel intensely familiar to anyone over the age of ten.  But it’s all in the execution, and once the end credits roll, the film feels like a satisfying success.  While the film takes a while to accelerate, and too-often passes its time treading over familiar sequences, everything becomes better once we’re in the air along with the dragons.  Jay Baruchel’s creaky voice performance adds a lot to the lead character; while the 3D is so well done that it looks fine even in 2D.  While one may quibble about the pro-dragon propaganda, or the traumatic use of an amputation trope, this “boy and his pet dragon” is slight but competently made.  Older viewers may not remember much of How to Train Your Dragon after a few days, but they’re not its target audience… and they’ll tolerate repeat viewings well enough.

Alice in Wonderland (2010)

(In theatres, March 2010) The good news with Tim Burton is that he is guaranteed to put a vision on screen.  Alas, it may not be the vision you would prefer.  So it is that this loose sequel to the classic Alice in Wonderland is an affront to my aesthetic preferences: At the exception of the oh-so-cute Cheshire Cat, I found the film’s artistic choices ugly.  This is partly intentional; after all, the point of this follow-up is that Wonderland has grown tainted; the magic has fled the land and been replaced by corruption.  {Insert heavy-duty genre fantasy narrative schematics inspired by John Clute here.}  No wonder everything is so repulsive.  The showy use of 3D makes moments of the film look even more incomprehensible and overdone to 2D audiences.  But as hard as it is to ignore Alice in Wonderland’s visuals, the real snore comes from the plot, which feels as Alice filtered through the Lord of the Rings plot template that has informed almost a full decade of genre cinema fantasy by now.  It’s dull, and the overdone shot of the two armies running to clash together has become almost parody.  Alice in Wonderland becomes duller as it goes on, and not even Johnny Depp’s increasingly active Mad Hatter (or Anne Hathaway’s regal presence, for that matter) can do much to redeem the rest of the picture.  It’s a middling fantasy film at best: when “dull” and “ugly” crop up in the same review, there’s little room for favourable quotes.

Avatar (2009)

(In theatres, December 2009) Expectations ran high for Avatar, James Cameron’s first fiction film since 1997’s blockbusting Oscar-winning Titanic.  Promises of revolutionary 3D technology and one of the biggest budgets of all times did nothing to calm down fans and foes.  Fortunately, the film lives up to most of the hype.  If it isn’t quite a revolution in the film business, it is still an unprecedented and astonishing piece of work on many levels.  First and most impressive would be the world-building shown in the film: up until now a pleasure left to written-SF fans, Cameron manages to produce a completely new environment in a film with no media tie-ins: Much of the stuff on-screen actually holds together at a glance, which is more than most other “Science Fiction” films manage to do.  The immersion into the world is helped along by innumerable small details that reinforce the tactile reality of the world, and by a fully mature use of 3D cinematography: Cameron simply moves his camera through 3D-space and tickles our sense of place rather than repeatedly poke us in the eyes.  The production design of the entire film is a source of wonder, and so is the confident way in which Cameron directs the action: After years of shaky-cam confusion, here’s a film that does it right, maintaining our sense of space while delivering the action and explosions.  Every single dollar spent on the film is on-screen, and the result is as good as blockbuster entertainment can aspire to be.  Visually, it’s irreproachable.  Which makes the relatively simplistic nature of the story a bit harder to tolerate: Gleefully adopting the overused “contemporary stand-in learns all about the noble savage” plot template, Avatar usually feels obvious and unsurprising –especially when the characters start talking.  (Where to start?  The human caricatures?  The new-age pablum spoken by the Na’Vi?  The way our hero become The Leader rather than An Advisor?)  It’s not an entirely bad script (structurally, it’s competent to a level that would leave less screenwriters crying) and it does manage to make the most of what it’s given as premise, but it is a tired and sometimes-exasperating plot template.  But story is less important here than spectacle, and so there’s more to see here than a single viewing can appreciate, which is just as well, because Avatar looks destined to do brisk business and earn a solid place in genre film history.  There’s a lot more to say about the film and how it works, but the conclusion seems unavoidable: Avatar is one of the best SF films of the decade, a remarkable visual achievement and a movie experience so comforting in its professionalism that it raises the bar for everyone else.

Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs (2009)

(In theatres, September 2009) In the crowded field of computer-animated 3D movies for kids, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs is worth a look.  A relentlessly imaginative and fast-paced fantasy that will appeal to younger audiences as much as it will amuse their older chaperons, this is a film that fully exploits the possibilities of computer-generated animation: The art direction strikes an ideal balance between believability and whimsy, while the visuals shown on-screen wouldn’t be possible (or pleasant to see) as live-action.  How else, after all, do you make a movie about a scientist who invents a machine that makes food rain down on his town?  Much of the film is a series of delightful moments in which the premise is milked for maximum laughs, at a relentless pace that will ensure a second viewing.  The smaller surprise of Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs is the nerd-friendly characterization, in which a few courtship traditions are upended and pure geekiness eventually saves the day.  It’s hard not to like a movie that has a hero with a wall poster about “Nikola Tesla –ROCKSTAR SCIENTIST”, and even harder not to like a film in which the female love interest is said to be more beautiful after she starts wearing glasses again.  (Plus, hey, nice use of Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power”.)  So it’s unfortunate that Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs eventually damages itself with a number of ham-fisted emotional scenes that are too long and too obvious compared to the rest of the film.  But overlooking those moments isn’t difficult when contemplating the inventive imagination that powers the film’s set-pieces.  Now that there’s at least one computer-animated kid film in theatres per month, I’ll grudgingly suffer through one or two Igor if it means that I get a Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs in exchange.


The Final Destination [Final Destination 4] (2009)

(In theaters, September 2009) By the fourth entry in this horror franchise, we already know what we’re going to get: a nihilistic string of Rube-Golbergian mechanisms of death, with a side order of dark humour.  The Final Destination may struggle to present anything distinctive, but it certainly delivers the bare minimum of what the audience is expecting.  As a piece of carnography, it’s assembled with skill and a willingness to keep things moving at a fast clip –within the confines of slick B-grade teenage horror, that’s already not too bad.  Of course, it never comes close to escaping the confines of its own expectations: The plot is the same as the first three instalments (albeit with even less justification), the nihilism is even stronger, the gore just as excessive and even when the film seems to display an attempt at wit, it never bothers going the extra step forward.  The filmmakers will want you to believe that the 3D conception of The Final Destination somehow put it apart, but aside from the requisite impalements and things-through-your-eye (non-horror 3D movies love to throw things at your face; horror 3D movies love to throw things through your face) the film is going to be just as bland on 2D-DVD.  Film geeks will spot a number of references to the other entries in the franchise (including a 3D CGI gallery of the previous three film’s “best-of” deaths, along with a nasty little coda in the same style), but little approaching real effort: even the meta-finale, taking place in a movie theatre where they’re showing a 3D movie, seldom bothers to go beyond the superficial.  The characters are bland, some deaths feel perfunctory (readers of Chuck Palahniuk’s “Guts” will chuckle at one) and the lack of evolution in the series’ mythology reinforces the creative cash-in nature of this sequel.  But don’t worry: The Final Destination may be pretentiously titled, but there will be another one in a year or two… and chances are that you can already figure how it’s going to go and how it’s going to end.


Coraline (2009)

(In theaters, February 2009) There are two big reasons why this film is worth seeing, but the most obvious one is the visual polish of the piece, which blends flawless stop-motion animation with computer-generated enhancements and, if you’re lucky or rich, can even be experienced in showy 3D. Yes, the 3D thing is a gimmick: There are a number of shots in the film that make little sense in 2D, although director Henry Selick is smart enough to avoid the old unsubtle poke-the-audience-in-the-eye shtick. 3D aside, though, Coraline is a gorgeous piece of visual imagination, with enough spectacular design to keep you coming back to the film even on a 2D screen. That, in large part, is due to the second big reason why you should see Coraline: The quality of Neil Gaiman’s oddball imagination, which (despite a few changes from the original novella) powers the unusual fantastic elements of the story. It’s familiar without quite being like anything else seen before, and this originality is what separates it from so many run-of-the-mill juvenile fantasies. It’s not an unimpeachable film (dig a bit, and plenty of vexing thematic problems arise), but it’s different, confident and competent. Too bad that the technology won’t allow 3D projection on small screen for a few years: Unlike many other examples of the genre so far, Coraline earns some extra credits with another dimension, even while it’s perfectly good in 2D. But don’t wait or fret: just see it.

Journey To The Center Of The Earth (2008)

(In theaters, August 2008) The best thing I can say about this film is that it’s a pretty good roller-coaster ride, especially if you see it in 3D. Otherwise, well, there just isn’t much left for discussion. The plot mechanics are serviceable, the situation improbable, and the actors unmemorable. A very loose adaptation of Jules Verne’s work (a copy of which is used as a guide by the characters), this film isn’t much more than a technology demonstration for the polarized “Real 3D” process installed in so many theaters lately. It exists to feed the screens that have been adapted to show this type of film, but like most technology demos, it’s likely to be baffling to those who don’t have the equipment to see that the fuss is about: I actually question the value of seeing this on a non-3D setup. In terms of adventure, it’s weak stuff, and the plot is just a thread between 3D showcases. I don’t give it much of a life on DVD, as people with even the fanciest home theater setups will be wondering why the actors keep poking things at their faces. Hey, at least there are a few references to Ottawa, Canada.


Beowulf (2007)

(In theaters, November 2007) Hollywood can make dumb mincemeat out of everything, and classical English literature is no exception. High School teachers everywhere will be devastated to see one of their favourite form of Olde Englishe torture defanged forever by an adaptation that reaches for low comedy, high action and cheap 3D effects. That last item, incidentally, is why the movie is best seen on an IMAX 3D screen: Director Robert Zemeckis is so naively obsessed by the technology that he crammed his film with arrowheads, spires and people being flung at the (virtual) camera, all of which look silly on a regular 2D screen. But they’re far from being the silliest element of a film that borrows from Austin Powers in order to present a naked hero fighting a monster. Yet little of this is as annoying as the not-quite-there quality of the CGI actors, which suffers from the Uncanny Valley cliché as they stutter without grace from one mo-capped pose to another. Pieces of the second Grendel battle are so jerky that they look like a deliberate homage to Harryhausen stop-motion claymation. But if we’re going to list all of the bone-headed ideas of this film, we’re going to be here a while: What about Angelina Jolie’s kinda-naked scene, complete with high-heeled feet and Transylvanian accent? Perhaps the biggest disappointment of the film is the way John August and Neil Gaiman’s script ends up feeling silly, clumsy and forced: Their intended mythical gravitas ends up swept under the carpet of a generic fantasy film with 3D effects. The only enjoyable part of the film comes late, as the elderly Beowulf fights off one of the finest dragons yet seen on-screen: the action beats are numerous, well-designed and completely thrilling. But then the 3D effects kick in again, and the film flops on a series of meaningful glares that leave us uncertain as to whether the film was supposed to be a comedy or not. In any case, it’s miscalculations upon miscalculations for a film that has more value as a technical showpiece than an actual plotted story.

Spy Kids 3: Game Over (2003)

(In theaters, July 2003) As a confirmed aficionado of Robert Rodriguez’s entire oeuvre, you won’t catch me saying anything overly negative about this last instalment of the Spy Kids trilogy. But it’s certainly not a betrayal if I simply state that this is the lesser film of the series and that its interest mostly lies in its 3D gimmick. As someone who wasn’t around in theatres in the early eighties for the previous revival of red-blue 3D glasses, there’s a definite curio factor in seeing such a film. Thanks to modern advances in computer animation technology, Rodriguez can essentially do an ultra-cheap CGI-packed 3D film for the pure fun of it. While the story in interesting enough in its typical Rodriguez hyperactivity, the cool CGI and unbeatable sense of fun are no match for the energy and heart-felt nature of the first two films. Oh, it’s good enough, no doubt about it: Ricardo Montalban and Daryl Sabara turn in good performances, we get to see Salma Hayek in 3D (with pigtails! woo!), Sylvester Stallone doesn’t embarrass himself, there is a great opening sequence with Juni as a private investigator and just about every Spy Kids character of note is back for the finale. The fun is infectious; the movie works rather well, but please, Hollywood, don’t use this as an excuse to make other 3D movies. One each twenty years is more than enough. As a 3D technology, red-blue glasses have to be the cheapest and the muckiest. Unless you’re willing to use polarised glasses, don’t bother.

(Second viewing, On DVD, April 2004) Definitely the lesser of the Spy Kids trilogy, but certainly not an uninteresting film. Hailed more for its single-handed revival of 3D in theatres than its actual plot, Spy Kids 3D is still a great action film in its own right. Sure, the plot (and even the cinematography) is meaningless without the 3D. Or is it? One of the many qualities of the DVD edition is to present a colourful 2D version of the film, and it still holds up as a piece of entertainment without the silly glasses. Aficionados of writer/director/auteur Robert Rodriguez already know that his DVDs contain plenty of supplementary content and this one is no exception, with a consistently interesting audio commentary, plenty of documentaries and yet another amusing “ten-minute film school”. Fun, fun, fun.

Friday the 13th Part III (1982)

(On VHS, May 2002) The shocking -shocking!- thing about this series is not how every damn film in the series is a carbon-copy of itself as much as how it wouldn’t take all that much wit or talent to make something special or interesting out of it. (Hey, that explains Kevin Williamson’s Scream after all…) How many time do we have to suffer through the same stupid screaming, running, tripping? Gaak. Not much new to report in installment #3: The composition of some shots is peculiar… until you realize that the film was meant to be shown in 3-D. The disco-biker gang is rather amusing, perhaps signaling the series’ descent in auto-derision. (The hockey mask also makes its first appearance) The frickin’ three-hour-long climax is once again ridiculously drawn-out. Does this series ever improve? It’s not looking like it.