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Essential 3D, but an Inessential Story: A Review of Gravity

Grade: B-

As a viewer who hasn’t quite jumped aboard the 3D bandwagon, there are times when 3D works and Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity is one example. All too often, 3D it’s just an excuse to create some buzz and hike up the ticket prices. It needs to have a function. Did the three-dimensional iceberg in Titanic in 3D create more suspense? Not really. Did Andy giving his toys away in Toy Story 3 hit you harder when the box he’s packing them away in protrudes from the screen? No. It’s unnecessary. It does nothing to support the story. 3D, if it’s used to tell a story, needs to have a function. 3D has a function in Scorsese’s Hugo (read my Hugo review here). It coincides with the enchanting, snow globe of a world that Scorsese wanted to create—a world you need to feel like you are inside to understand. More importantly, this 3D world needs to be felt and seen in order for Scorsese to use it to preach to the power of cinema. In a movie that so lovingly tells the tale of film in its very silent, black and white beginning, 3D was a way to show exactly how far cinematic-storytelling had come.

Until Gravity, Hugo was the film I pointed to when I needed to show 3D done correctly. The difference between the two films is that Hugo could’ve survived as a film without the 3D element, Gravity absolutely could not.

3D has never been more necessary in a movie than it is in Gravity, but it’s necessary in a different way than in Scorsese’s Hugo. It isn’t for theme. It isn’t to mirror lessons taught in the story, but it’s used to enhance the entire experience and plant you firmly in the chilling mise-en-scène. In order to feel for Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) as she’s left entirely alone in outer space, you have to sense what it must feel like to be that alone. To feel it, we have to see it. Being lost in space is not a situation that the average human is privy to. Despite being separated from your parents as a child in an amusement park, or lost alone on a dark highway, or on a small boat in the middle of the ocean, we’ve never been as lost as Ryan is in this film. We can’t begin to imagine how she feels. To experience her fear and desperation, we have to get as close to her eyes as we can, we have to see what she sees.

Black. Bleak. Hollow. Nothingness.

3D helps achieve that sensation better than 2D ever could. We feel like we’re in outer space.

That being said, where the film strays is in its story. The film’s characters are lacking, and the filmmakers know it. They know it and they know they don’t need it. It’s not necessary to make George Clooney’s character, Matt Kowalski, well developed. We know so little about him. We know he’s a natural leader, we know he’s calm in crisis, we know he likes to tell his tequila-tales of debaucherous nights past, but apart from that we know nothing. Sandra Bullock’s Ryan Stone is no different. We know she lost a child, we know she likes to drive at night to escape the pain from that ordeal, but is this enough to make us like her? Are a few jokes cracked by Matt back to Houston enough to make us root for him? Is this enough to make us care whether he lives or dies? It isn’t. But it’s George Clooney. That voice we’ve known since ER, that face, that grin, that silver hair. We see him, we hear him, and it doesn’t matter what he’s saying—we’re rooting for him. The only problem is we’re rooting for George Clooney, not Matt Kowalski, but we trick ourselves into thinking they’re one in the same. Can you blame us? We’re protective. We don’t want anything happening to our George. Why worry about a multi-dimensional character when your audience will like him no matter what as long as he’s played by the right actor?

What would we have if the character wasn’t played by George Clooney? What about Matt Kowalski would make us remain as invested if he was played by some nameless actor? Nothing. The story is too sparse. And mirroring the setting’s bleakness to the plot, I’d argue, was not the filmmakers’ intention. There just isn’t enough there. Especially not with the characters, and not with the plot either.

The whole time I was watching Gravity, I was thinking how the story would function so much better as a short story. I know that contradicts my “necessary 3D” claim, but plot-wise, the short story medium would make the plot more acceptable. There are conventions we accept for film and there are conventions we accept with literary fiction. When we’re watching a movie with two blockbuster stars, we expect certain things. We expect a “happy” ending. We expect a resolution. We expect a grand, action packed, race to the finish. I’d never dream of knocking cinema, but there are certain things that a written story can get away with that a film cannot. Call me a cynic, but I didn’t want a “happy ending.” I didn’t want a resolution. I wanted a true, brutal lesson about the bleakness of space, about the different levels of loneliness, about desperation. I wanted them to make bad luck appear somehow poetic with subtle back story, inner monologue, and a strong sense of what’s going on in the character’s heads. But I didn’t get that. A short story could’ve provided that without the audience feeling gypped by the ending. Do I appreciate that they allowed the audience to fill in the blanks, that they didn’t bombard us with backstory? I do. But then they had to go and get conventional. They had to make us chant “Girl power!” at Sandra’s success and leave the theater feeling like we, too, just battled for survival and won. They had to take us on a ride. They had to give us that Hollywood ending. And I was left shaking my head, awed by the 3D spectacle, sure, but wondering if a smaller, bleaker story, with richer characters (and without Clooney and Bullock) might have given the film more of that lasting punch it so desperately needed.

More than anything, I was left with an unanswered question—Who is Ryan Stone? It’s a question I should never have to ask. It’s a question the filmmakers surely didn’t want the audience to have to ask. We just need a little bit more.

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Scorsese’s Snow Globe of Film History: A Review of Hugo

Grade: A

The first movie I remember seeing in the theater was Aladdin. And although years later, after countless views of my family’s VHS copy of the Disney classic, I grew obsessed with the story and the characters involved (I seriously donned a Jasmine T-shirt nearly everyday for a three month period of my childhood), that first viewing was about something different. It wasn’t about my new favorite “person” Jasmine. It wasn’t about the love story, or the Jafar’s evil plot or the character’s quest for validation and adventure. For a three year old with popcorn butter on her fingers, what engrossed me was the spectacle. A larger screen than I’d ever seen was projecting colorful images of dancing middle easterners, personified monkeys and tigers, and a genie who would grant three wishes. I was hypnotized by the magic—by the soundtrack I’d be humming for days to come, by the size of Aladdin’s face projected on the cinema screen, by the magic sweeping carpet ride through the city. I didn’t understand the story beyond the basics, or the plot’s homage to past classic stories, or the fact that Scott from Full House was the voice of Aladdin, but the movie-experience alone of sitting in that cineplex chair before my feet could touch the ground, wide-eyed and enthralled by simply the sights and sounds I was experiencing was enough to hook me for life.hugo-martin-scorsese-and-ben-kingsley-review

What struck me while watching Hugo was Martin Scorsese’s ability to capture young viewers’ imaginations again. In the same way that I was swept up in the color and magic of Aladdin, a new generation of movie-goers would be hooked with the enchanting snow-globe of a world Scorsese had created. They wouldn’t understand the, at times, slow moving plot in its entirety. They couldn’t understand the blatant and subtle references to the silent film era from the Méliès classics being filmed, to Buster Keaton’s name printed on the movie theater marquee, but they could understand the magic and the spectacle of a mechanical man, movie-magic, and the 3D snow falling in front of their eyes. They would be swept up in Hugo’s run through the frozen city wearing shorts, and Isabelle’s love for books, and the intricacies of operating the clocks at a train station, as well as the wonder of living amongst them. The children would be swept up in the adventure.

But Hugo is not just a children’s movie. In more ways, it feels like a cinephile’s movie. It’s an opportunity for someone well-versed, or even casually-versed, in film history to completely geek-out and marvel at how far cinema has come. Perhaps Scorsese is the Méliès of our generation—his vast film library and accolades surely put him in the running—but “Hugo” doesn’t so much serve to applaud the artist behind the film, but instead admires the way that film history itself has unfolded.

The story follows Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield), an orphan who lives in the clocks of a train station and masters running them. But his real passion lies in getting an old and rusted mechanical man, who works much like a clock, operating again. It was a project he shared with his late father and Hugo is certain that a message from his father lies in the metal and shifting gears of the mechanical man. But a crotchety old shop owner (Ben Kingsley) stands in Hugo’s way until his sweet granddaughter Isabelle (played by the precocious Chloe Grace Moretz) befriends Hugo and helps him on his journey. What they uncover is nothing short of cinema-magic, past and present, as it becomes apparent that the shop owners’ famous name is Georges Méliès and that he’s spent the second half of his life trying to hide his past and the fact that he was the most applauded screen “magician” of the silent film era.

From the opening sequence until the final “fade-to-black,” the film spends every second teaching the audience, and ensuring that anyone who may have lost sight of the wonder and escapist qualities of the cinematic experience will jump right back on the movie-bandwagon, as the film provides, in plot and style, a crash-course in film history.

So where do you start in this lesson on film history? Of course, you start where it all began—the silent film era. And Hugo’s opening sequence is a perfectly crafted and subtle homage to the feel of silent film. The first five minutes before the film’s title appears on the screen is very quiet. There is little dialogue and a simple score as the viewer is asked to voyeuristically (another aspect of early cinema—capturing life as it is) observe life at the train station through Hugo’s eyes. We are introduced to several minimal, and a few trivial, plot points in this sequence. Much like silent film’s penchant to introduce multiple ensemble plots and characters such as in D.W. Griffith’s silent-epic Intolerance (1916), Hugo does the same—introducing a woman with a dog who frequents the station and the older man’s crush on her, the classically sweet woman who sells flowers from a cart, and the diabolical station inspector with a squeaky leg brace. This entire sequence has the feel of silent film—from the outlandish physical gestures of the characters to make up for their lack of dialogue, to their minimal subplot purpose and voyeuristic qualities, and their transition to the plot-point we know will carry the most weight—Hugo’s interaction with the toy shop owner, George, who accuses him of being a thief. These storylines reference the early days of film before narrative worked its way in, before movie stars were staples. It was about the pleasure of watching life on the screen—watching a 30-second reel of a baby laughing, or a man play a prank with a hose. In the early 1900’s, pleasure in film was achieved by observing the everyday, and Scorsese’s opening sequence acknowledges that.

Once established, the film quickly moves to reference the next era of film—the talkies. As Hugo’s story becomes more complicated and we begin to  understand  his back-story, motivation, and conflict, the film represents  the transition to more narrative-based and character-driven storylines. Suddenly, dialogue is crucial. Isabelle is a character whugohose entire being is wrapped up in what she says. Her character is intelligent and confident—spouting vocabulary words like “clandestine” and “superlative” from the countless books she’s read. You believe her adoration of literature in the way she talks about the books, in her tenor of voice, and the syllables she stresses. If we were asked to understand this passion for books by reading title cards as she expressed her love, we wouldn’t get it. Isabelle is dependent on her dialogue—it’s a facet of her character. When she recites by heart a Christina Rosetti poem, we believe her. We believe that someone so in love with words and stories could be the granddaughter of a film artist equally enthralled by the transformative qualities of film. Sound in film is critical at times. We need to hear George’s voice bellow through the train station when he calls for the station master. We need to hear the clank of the wrench that Hugo accidentally drops from the clock near the station master’s feet that terrifyingly risks unveiling his secret identity. The film represents the critical move from silent film to talkies.

But not only does the film represent the ways in which sound has evolved, but storytelling as well. It shows how acting has evolved—from outlandish gestures, to subtle break-downs. In a silent film, George Méliès’ emotional crumble as he recalls his past would be shown with exaggerated sobs, but in modern cinema, his subtle emotional collapse is more effective. The film shows how acting has evolved, how the camera has developed. It’s now free to sweep and dance across a set whereas before the camera was mostly stationary. It showcases the power of close-up—now in 3D, and the importance of reference and homage, and artistic backlighting like the beautiful shot of Isabelle and Hugo sneaking into a theater and watching a silent film. What is marveling about the film is the way in which the elements of film past and present occur simultaneously—the old gentleman with the crush continues to pursue the woman with the dog in a silent film style, even as Hugo and Isabelle continue on their adventure with rich back-story and modern visuals—papers fluttering in a whimsical array, snow falling, the view of the city from Hugo’s dangerous hiding spot along the outer ledge of the clock. It’s a mixture of styles, but it all comes together in a seamless way, possibly because each style originated from the same place. Hugo shows the evolution of the filmic experience, but each element came from the same initial piece of celluloid back in the early 18th century. It’s all cut from the same cloth.

hugo-moonBut the magic ingredient that makes Hugo a lesson in how far cinema has come is the fact that the film is in 3D. The same train that made early viewers duck as it came into the station towards them, now literally pops from the screen. If the first viewers found the magic of a jump cut exciting, imagine how they’d experience 3D movies today. Scorsese doesn’t just use the technology because it’s there, he knows how, and it’ll hike up the ticket cost, but he uses it because it’s a perfect representation of where cinema is in 2012. It makes sense that a movie applauding the life of film and its roots would be shot in a way that showcases the entire spectrum—we went from stuttered still frames in kinetoscopes, to sound, to Technicolor, and finally to a 3D pop up world. Hugo is like a snow globe that the viewers are allowed to shake and shudder as the story unfolds in their hands. The viewers are reenergized, they’re recharged by cinema. In the same way that the first viewers marveled at the simple images, or even the way I was once captivated by the color and music of Aladdin, we’re left to experience the newest element of film in its relatively early days with wonder and enchantment that 3D visuals can provide. And all the while, the wonder of the medium brings to life the old classics—the pleasure of watching Méliès’ A Trip to the Moon come to life in Scorsese’s retelling is fascinating. Viewers who may have never encountered Méliès films are asked to respect cinema’s roots with films they’d likely never had the opportunity to see, in the same way that film students forced to watch countless Méliès’ shorts in the first  week of every film history class, can now appreciate the spectacle of early cinema so much more just by seeing it through Scorsese’s modern lens. Scorsese keeps film past and present alive. He keeps us marveling at its art and craft. And he guarantees that we dream of the endless possibilities of where cinema could go next and what it can accomplish.