Saturday, March 14, 2009

A Survey of Film History, Parts XX-XL

I realized today that I haven't done one of these in over four months. This time the movies range from 1936 to 1956, and include everything from film noir to romantic comedies to musicals. There are far to many for me to do a thorough review of each and every one, but I'll add comments where I can, and hopefully will keep up with this better in the future. I am pretty much officially out of the 1940's now; after Adam's Rib, which I have not yet watched, there are seven movies still in my queue from prior to 1955, but they are all listed as "unavailable" or "very long wait".

The Very Good:
  • Midnight (1939) - I found this movie thoroughly entertaining; great characters and very funny.

  • Suspicion (1941) - My queue (in addition to today's post) features a disproportionate number of Hitchcock movies, because I haven't seen very many before. This movie should probably be in the next category down, and would be except for what I learned from the DVD special features about the plot of the original novel. Consider this movie to be in the "Very Good" category for what might have been, rather than for what is.

  • To Catch a Thief (1955) - This Hitchcock film is an example of a mystery done right. It features interesting characters, sufficiently surprising twists, and is overall very satisfying.

The Good:
  • Sabotage (1936) - This Hitchcock film had some pretty tense scenes, but very little in the way of compelling characters.

  • All About Eve (1950) - well acted and, consequently, a captivating story; however, not the kind of story I'd like to watch over and over again.

  • Pat and Mike (1952) - a charming romantic comedy, entertaining as most of Kathryn Hepburn's movies are. It simply lacks the spark that made Midnight such a standout.

  • Dial M for Murder (1954) - another Hitchcock film; great tension, but with a somewhat anticlimactic ending, and told with a sense of detachment that made it hard to relate to the characters. (See below for further, semi-related discussion.)

  • Rebel Without a Cause (1955) - James Dean knew melodrama. It's a fairly unremarkable storyline made compelling by the storytelling.

The Merely Bland:
  • The Awful Truth (1937)

  • Road to Morocco (1942)

  • Lifeboat (1944) - yet another Hitchcock film. Too homogeneous in its pessimism to be interesting.

  • Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House (1948)

  • State of the Union (1948)

  • The Third Man (1949)

  • Stage Fright (1950) - Hitchcock again; a compelling story brought down by a disappointing ending.

  • Singin' in the Rain (1952) - I prefer the kind of musical where the music is organic to the story. This movie is an approximation of that kind of musical, being that it is about Hollywood stars making a musical movie, but the songs are trite and the storyline is weak. One extremely bright spot is Jean Hagen's hilarious portrayal of Lina Lamont.

  • Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954) - Here's an example of the wrong kind of musical: the kind where people pause and burst into song and dance for no apparent reason (except perhaps to cover up a weak plot). Howard Keel's vocal performance is a pain point for me too.

  • Moby Dick (1956)

The Bad:
  • Spellbound (1945) - one last Hitchcock movie. As much as I like Gregory Peck, I couldn't stand his performance in this movie. An overdone performance in a movie that offered little else of interest.

  • Harvey (1950) - I can't figure out if this movie is portraying a serious psychological condition as a heartwarming farce, or doing a very poor job of telling the story of a magical creature mistaken for insanity. Whatever the case, I could not wait for this movie to end, mostly because of Jimmy Stewart's clumsily earnest performance.

    The most interesting thing about this movie is that Jimmy Stewart's invisible friend Harvey was the inspiration for the naming of the neural clone of Scorpius that existed in John Crichton's head in Farscape, a name that was first used by fans in online message boards and later adopted by the show's producer's and written into the script.

  • Sunset Boulevard (1950) - The worst kind of story reveals its awful ending at the beginning, and then forces you to sit through two hours of unredeeming story. This is a prime example.

An interesting fact about Dial M for Murder (1954) is that it was originally filmed in 3D. What makes that notable is that the film is in no way a "spectacle" or gimmick film, as were most movies that were being filmed in color, widescreen or 3D. I only saw the 2D version of the movie; I'd be interested to see the 3D version to see how it came out. This was the time of the rise of in-home television, and color, widescreen formats and 3D were the features that still made the movie theater distinctive from free television. Color and widescreen eventually became commonplace and are now artistic decisions rather than economic ones, but 3D all but disappeared due to the limitations of the technology. A format couldn't be produced at the time that was comfortable for extended viewing without headaches and eye strain.

A 3D image requires some technique of delivering different input to each eye. The most common technique is the well-known red and blue glasses, or the more recent brown and blue variation (Intel's in-home ColorCode variation of their InTru 3D technology; go to the link and click the "3D HP Showroom" link on the right). This technique, used recently in a Superbowl commercial as well as an episode of Chuck (reported to be the first ever full-length TV series presentation in 3D), is basically unchanged since the 1950's and is the only method of 3D presentation that can be used on standard in-home equipment. Other new techniques involve using electronic glasses with lenses that flicker in sync with a high-speed projector that displays a frame first to one eye and then the corresponding frame for the other eye, or RealD Cinema, the similar but reportedly more natural-seeming technique of using glasses with differently polarized lenses to view two differently polarized images projected by a high-speed projector (this display technology is utilized by InTru 3D and claims to eliminate the eye strain caused by previous techniques). Neither of these techniques can be implemented in the standard household, which means that movie theaters once again have the advantage of being able to present an experience that cannot be found for free at home. This advantage, combined with the relative ease of converting computer animated films to any available 3D format and the widespread availability of in-home high definition large screen content, may explain the recent increase of 3D movie theater presentations. According to the InTru 3D web site, "DreamWorks Animation has committed to producing all of its feature films using InTru 3D technology beginning in 2009."

At this point however, 3D is still little more than a gimmick. It provides to the viewer a unique viewing experience, but that in itself is not enough to give the technology from eye-candy to valuable tool. This has been seen before with film technology innovations like the bullet-time effect created for The Matrix, and computer-animated movies in general. Much like the flurry of 3D movies in the 50's, both of these technologies had an innovator, followed by innumerable followers who used the technology simply because it was the next cool thing. However, if the movies that used these technologies were memorable, it was not because they used those technologies — it was because there was something distinctive about the story, the characters, the filmmaking or, for the best, all three. If the popularity of 3D continues to grow, as it looks like it will thanks to easily implemented comfortable technology, masses of filmmakers will jump on the money-making bandwagon (there are currently 37 movies scheduled to be released using the RealD technology in 2009-2013). What the technology is truly waiting for, however, is for a filmmaker to use the technology to do something other than throw objects at the audience.

I'm going to take the first opportunity I get to see an InTru 3D movie to see if the technology is as groundbreaking as they claim. However, the first truly great 3D movie will be the movie where the filmmaker uses 3D technology as a medium and as a true component of the cinematography rather than as a gimmick; the movie where the audience forgets that they are watching a 3D movie, and is simply captivated by a story told in a way that was never possible before. That movie is the one I am truly looking forward to.

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