Tag Archives: How to Train Your Dragon 2

The Best 3-D of 2014

httyd Dragon Thief

by Vanessa Tottle & Gabriel Valdez

Making movies in 3-D is still more of a science than an art. Most films get the basics done and nothing more: create a few planes of depth for characters to exist on; poke the audience in the eye with something during an action scene; and if you’re post-converting, blur the detail out of anything in the background in a horrific attempt to emulate depth-of-field.

The best 3-D is native, meaning it’s filmed as 3-D instead of being filmed in 2-D and converted later. Native 3-D retains detail and movement qualities that post-converted 3-D does not. When offered a post-converted 3-D film, the 2-D version may actually be more visually impressive.

When we talk about the best 3-D of 2014, we are talking about the visual fidelity – how realistic it looks – but we’re also talking about its artistic use. How much does it contribute to the story and the visuals. 3-D is still new enough that no one’s yet to establish its visual language. There are very few “new shots” that only 3-D can accomplish, and there’s no one pushing 3-D visual language the way Orson Welles once pushed deep focus cinematography.

Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity did this in 2013 by fusing its 3-D, visual effects, and POV sequences together, but this had more to do with cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki’s already established language of the edited long take than with anything extraordinarily new.

Martin Scorsese is the director who’s come closest to writing new cinematographic language using 3-D. In 2011’s Hugo, he treats his scenes as if they’re taking place in dioramas. He resurrects long-forgotten silent film techniques and develops 3-D analogues, most notably replacing the vignette (when characters’ faces are overlit and the corners of the frame darkened) with a 3-D protrusion (when characters’ faces lean unnaturally close to the viewer and the corners of the frame are softened).

Unfortunately, there’s nothing in 2014 that comes close to these two examples. The best 3-D belongs to one film alone, but there are three that stand out:

httyd sheep racing

HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON 2

Animation can take advantage of 3-D in two ways. Firstly, it’s easier to convert and play around with on a computer, since the animation isn’t live action. Adjustments can be made to the actors themselves in order to take advantage of 3-D, before a scene is even finalized. Secondly, the audience is already practicing a visual suspension of disbelief because they’re watching a stylized cartoon. Animations need to do more than just use 3-D to add depth then, and How to Train Your Dragon 2 creates some iconic and mythological moments. That half the film takes place flying through the sky certainly doesn’t hurt 3-D’s ability to play off of our depth perception and kneejerk panic reaction when we’re suddenly dropping through clouds.

(Read Gabe’s review)

Edge of Tomorrow

EDGE OF TOMORROW

Edge of Tomorrow, also known as Live. Die. Repeat., makes excellent use of 3-D, especially in its action scenes. It uses all the gimmicky tricks – throwing dirt in your face during a battle scene, having objects speed toward you – but this all plays into the movie’s throwback sense of what action should be. The techniques aren’t abused and there’s enough creative use of 3-D, especially in terms of background and edge-of-frame action, to not have to rely on gimmicks.

(Read Gabe’s review)

Exodus how does this bow work

EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS

Here’s your winner. There’s only one film that really did something brand new with 3-D this year, and that’s Exodus: Gods and Kings. The movie itself is taxing, overlong, and ultimately pointless, but the 3-D is sumptuous. As Moses treads through the desert, sand kicks up and – rather than flying in your face – it shimmers in the evening sun as it drifts back down to the ground. The waters of the Red Sea glitter along the horizon. As the shadow of death falls across Egypt, it travels at unavoidable speed, yet the vastness of the landscape means it still takes its time. This creates a truly visual sense of creeping, impending doom while still giving it the feeling of weight and force.

Whatever other mistakes Ridley Scott made in directing Exodus – and there are many – the 3-D is a resounding success. He uses it to create gorgeous details, especially in the foreground, where filmmakers are often too nervous to place much 3-D.

There are more traditional uses of 3-D in the film, too: crocodiles eating people, teeming hordes of insects and frogs, rock slides, the kind of pomp we’d expect. This is all done well, but it’s really how the 3-D is used in the film’s most quiet and transitional moments that evokes a sense of place and makes us wish the whole film had been about the people and the setting instead of the mythology and the melodrama.

(Read Gabe’s review)

Exodus white christmas

It’s admittedly thin pickings for truly exceptional 3-D this year. The technique isn’t always as solid a selling point at the box office as producers anticipate. As we’ve seen with Interstellar, some major directors just don’t want to accommodate it. Until a pioneering director really starts to create a visual language unique to 3-D, the popularity of the technique will continue to ebb and flow without really taking hold.

Enough viewers also become uncomfortable, nauseous, or develop headaches because of 3-D, that it will take a major technological leap before it threatens to become our primary way of watching movies. If you do experience a negative physical reaction to 3-D, listen to your body. 3-D tricks your brain into interpreting depth on what is still a 2-D surface. People are built differently, and not everyone’s brain is built to cope with 3-D. In very rare cases, it can have adverse effects. If you don’t like 3-D, there’s nothing wrong with you. It’s still a rudimentary technique at this stage, and rudimentary techniques are rarely suited to all.

In the lead-up to the Oscars, we’ve named several other Best of 2014 Awards. These include:

The Best Diversity of 2014

The Best Original Score of 2014

The Best Soundtrack of 2014

The Most Thankless Role of 2014

Before Oscar Season — The Top 10 Movies (So Far)

Dawn lead

by Gabriel Valdez

Oscar season is upon us, and that means one thing – everyone’s opinion is about to change. When many of the best films of the year are held until the holiday season, top 10 lists will completely transform by January. Earlier movies will be seen a second or third time and will climb or fall down lists accordingly. As was the case with my top two films of 2013, The Place Beyond the Pines and The Grandmaster, I’ll even catch up with smaller or foreign films on DVD.

On the cusp of Oscar season, let’s do an experiment. I’ll list my top 10 films today and we’ll check back in with the list come January:

httyd Dragon Thief

10. How to Train Your Dragon 2

The list is rounded out with big-budget fare that’s more ambitious than the average summer blockbuster. How to Train Your Dragon 2 might be the best American animated film since Pixar’s sadly passed golden age, but it’s not just about kids and their dragons. It possesses an epic visual streak rare in animation and speaks to the dispossessed of our society – children of broken families, the disabled, and war veterans alike.

Captain Inquiry

9. Captain America: The Winter Soldier

This is our best (non-Batman) superhero film in a cinematic era overrun with them. Like many blockbusters of the last two years, it’s incredibly socially-minded, using comic book tropes to deliver a sharp critique on the oxymoron of a marriage between the Pentagon’s mandate for freedom and the rise of private military contractors.

Dawn of the 1

8. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

For all its visual effects wizardry, this boasts one of the best-told stories of the year. It also challenges Noah for number of Bible references, posing original sin, Cain-and-Abel, and Jesus conceits against the backdrop of civil war in what’s effectively a third-world country. It’s rare that you could take away an action movie’s bigger setpieces and still be left with one of the best films of the year.

Noah gaze

7. Noah

Noah is just on the outside of the top tier looking in. I’m big on its style and message, which were enough to make me forgive its unwieldy stretches on first viewing. I’m still a huge fan of its screenplay, which conflates various cultures’ flood myths, the entirety of the Old Testament, and a very meta approach to film narrative into a single story. That’s no easy feat. Darren Aronofsky’s “story of creation” is the best three-and-a-half minutes on film this year, and reveals that the film is better viewed as a postapocalypse fever dream than a direct religious adaptation. It tackles so much that I’m still putting it above much tighter films, but its unevenness can’t help but detract when we’ve had so many off-kilter masterpieces this year.

Nightcrawler Gyllenhaal

6. Nightcrawler

I just recently wrote on this film and, if you read on Monday how personally it struck me, you’ll accept my apology if I’d rather not write more on it for the time being.

Gone Girl

5. Gone Girl

I don’t know if this is Gone Girl the movie so much as it’s David Fincher the movie. Rarely has a film been so precisely directed. You get the feeling that if there were a fleck of dust out of place on set, it would be moved into position before the camera rolled. It’s an accomplishment to be sure, and Gone Girl says a lot with a wry smile.

It’s a perfect film, essentially, but it knows it a little too much. It’s still pretty secure in the top 10, and I suspect it may move up once I see it again, but is it as important as some of the other films here? No. ‘Important’ doesn’t necessarily equal ‘good,’ but it can add a certain weight to a film. Gone Girl is an artistic triumph, but it’s also like looking at a date who’s a little too perfect. Like its protagonists when they meet, there’s no messiness there, and you get the sense their personality is a put-on. It’s intriguing and you might see where it goes, but really you’re looking for someone who’s more willing to make a mistake or embarrass themselves.

The Raid 2 prison

4. The Raid 2

What the hell’s a martial arts movie doing this high? Imagine if Stanley Kubrick had ever designed the sets for a martial arts film with a gangland story told by Martin Scorsese and choreography that harkens back to the riskiest stunts of Jackie Chan’s youth. That might be a mess for a film without a motive, but The Raid 2 is a tight gangster story that reflects Indonesia’s frustration with powerful organized crime.

What’s most impressive is its cinematography. Quiet, emotional moments barely move, as if trapped in a snow globe. Yet you never see the most impressively choreographed stuntpeople – the ones holding the cameras, who weave in and out of the action with as much exacting complexity and artful nuance as the actors themselves. For martial arts films, this doesn’t just create a new way of filming fight scenes, it creates new opportunities for telling more story through them.

The Rover lead

3. The Rover

Capturing the sensibility of a short story in a feature length film is incredibly difficult. In The Rover, it requires a narrow focus on character and something shrouded and immaculately protected in their souls. You feel compelled to learn more, to stick with disgusting characters because you need to know what it is that drives them toward a task so meaningless and without consequence. What makes it personal?

In a postapocalyptic world, following a character who couldn’t care whether you live or die, what makes his journey important at all? Something does, you get the sense of it haunting every moment Guy Pearce holds the screen like some cornered, wounded animal, vicious and feral about protecting himself yet already given up to the idea there’s no point left in living. Then there’s Robert Pattinson, playing the dull-witted boy who makes up his mind to be like Pearce’s nameless drifter, play-acting the part of wounded animal. Both are performances for the ages in as sparse and unforgiving a film as I know. It’s a film that – once it finishes – makes you thankful for stepping into the sunlight and hearing the noise of cars and seeing planes in the sky. The Rover is a masterpiece of what it’s like to be desolate not just in the world around you, but inside yourself.

Fury Brad Pitt

2. Fury

And then there’s Fury. Like The Rover, it presents us with a young man (Logan Lerman) being trained to survive through developing a skill for hatred. In fact, many films this year – Nightcrawler, the villain in Maleficent, and even Lerman’s role in Noah – give us characters who demonstrate the hatred created through uniquely male pressures. These characters are taught to find strength through layers of domination, learning to abuse the “lesser” violently and sexually in order to secure a role in society. None of them communicate it like Fury, however, its metaphors stripped to the bone in as stark a depiction of war as has ever been put to the screen.

Under the Skin

1. Under the Skin

A Scottish art film in which each artist – sound designers, composer, cinematographer – was allowed to go wild when creating their own, unique perspective of a central vision, edited into a horror film about identity and sexual consumption. Scarlett Johansson plays an alien in human form whose job is to capture and digest human beings. She does so by luring drifters and other lonely men away from the public, tempting them with sex, and consuming them in some of the creepiest visual metaphors you’ve ever seen.

What Under the Skin does best is tricking us into viewing the narrative through the perspective of a sexual predator, and later using nontraditional means – inverted lighting schemes and Pavlovian musical cues – to coldly bring us out of it and make us consider what we’ve seen. It’s a mad, pulsating, unnerving film you don’t always know what to do with, sometimes frustrating but always captivating. What’s most impressive is that it doesn’t organize every artist’s contribution beneath a single directorial vision, which is usually better for a film – each perspective and artistic layer can still be seen in the final product. In truth, it’s the only way a film like this could have worked so well, as a rarity that can be viewed from so many different angles.

Earlier this year, I had the chance to interview Michel Faber, who wrote the novel on which Under the Skin is based.

What will change by January? Probably a lot, even though I have a very hard time seeing those very top films unseated. Hopefully, I’ve inspired you to go check out one of them. Is there anything I’ve missed that you feel strongly about?

The Half-Year Awards for Film — The Final Tally

Last week, I listed the most outstanding performers, writers, directors, and designers we’ve seen in film so far this year. Consider it a sort of six-months-in Oscars. This is a recap and a final tally – click on the links themselves to read the reasoning behind each decision. These aren’t Oscar predictions, they’re one critic’s opinions on the best we’ve seen in film this year.

httyd Dragon Thief

First, we ran the technical and design awards:

Best Sound Design
Johnnie Burn, Under the Skin
Best Musical Score
Mica Levi, Under the Skin
Best Art Direction
The Raid 2
Best Make-up
Kumalasari Tanara, The Raid 2
Best Stunts
Yayan Ruhian, Iko Uwais, Bruce Law, The Raid 2
Best Costume Design
Michael Wilkinson, Noah
Best Visual Effects
Industrial Light & Magic, Noah
Best 3-D
Edge of Tomorrow
Best Animated Film
How to Train Your Dragon 2
Best Cinematography
Daniel Landin, Under the Skin
Best Editing
James Herbert, Edge of Tomorrow

The Rover lead

Then, we ran the awards for the best acting we’ve seen this year:

Best Supporting Actress
Jennifer Connelly, Noah
Best Supporting Actor
Robert Pattinson, The Rover
Best Actor
Guy Pearce, The Rover
Best Actress
Scarlett Johansson, Under the Skin
Best Ensemble
The Monuments Men

Noah gaze

Finally, we finished out with the big awards, for writing, director, and best film overall:

Best Adapted Screenplay
Darren Aranofsky, Ari Handel, Noah
Best Original Screenplay
Joel Edgerton, David Michod, The Rover
Best Director
Jonathan Glazer, Under the Skin
Best Film
Under the Skin

Under the Skin lead

So what’s the final awards tally?

6 — Under the Skin
4 — Noah
3 — The Raid 2

3 — The Rover
2 — Edge of Tomorrow
1 — How to Train Your Dragon 2

1 — The Monuments Men

You can read all my movie reviews for this and last year right here. Enjoy!

Half-Year Awards — Film Design and Technique

The midpoint of the year is a fantastic time to highlight the amazing films we’ve seen so far, many of which have passed hidden underneath the bigger event films of the summer. Let’s get on with the design portion of our Half-Year Awards:

Under the Skin sound studio

Best Sound Design: Johnnie Burn, Under the Skin
Best Musical Score: Mica Levi, Under the Skin

Eavesdropped conversation on the downtrodden streets of Edinburgh, Scotland. The digestive system of an alien beast. Wind bending the pines. The raging ocean and the cry of a child. Feet racing through falling snow. The back of your jacket rubbing mossy bark off a fallen tree.

And Mica Levi’s score over all of it, spare, atonal, discordant, threatening and yearning, relentless yet lost, pulsing, an organic system all its own, a sound that exists before you walk into the theater and stays with you long after you walk out. She may even hijack the movie’s conclusion through a shift in musical cue, perhaps one of the most important musical moments since Jaws.

How do you portray the remorseless sociopathy of a rapist in music? How do you communicate the aching you feel in your chest on witnessing the beauty of nature, the hard stone in your stomach on spying its unfeeling violence? This is the score you’ve felt in your bones when you look at the dark woods under a bruised sky and feel like all the menacing possibilities of your imagination lurk in those shadows. This is the soundtrack you’ve felt all your life when chills run up your spine. Mica Levi gives our most basic impulses and fears notes to play by.

The Raid 2 prison

Best Art Direction: The Raid 2

This could just as easily be The Monuments Men, but The Raid 2‘s production design isn’t quite as piecemeal; it comes together to form a more cogent whole with its other elements. The Indonesian film’s red-walled dining hall is straight out of a Kubrick film, its vibrant night clubs would feel at home in a Nicholas Winding Refn piece, and its snow-draped alleys speak to Zhang Yimou’s influence on martial arts production design. To design a movie at once gangster, drama, spy, war, and martial arts film demands an eclectic mix. To bring it all together into a whole that feels part of a singular world is nothing short of breathtaking.

The Raid 2 heartbreak

Best Make-up: Kumalasari Tanara, The Raid 2

With a core cast that becomes progressively more bruised and bloodied over the course of the film, and dozens of extras sliced and diced along the way, The Raid 2 separates itself from other martial arts films by taking its technical elements the extra mile. Director Gareth Evans doesn’t want your basic henchmen, though. He wants each to have their own story, so that one man’s victory is always another’s tragedy. In this way, he crafts an incredibly bloody film that’s simultaneously anti-violence. Evans often tells these smaller stories through Tanara’s make-up design, which allows lengthy fight scenes to develop their own emotional pulse free of the choreography.

The Raid 2 chess match

Best Stuntwork: Yayan Ruhian, Fight Choreographer;
Iko Uwais, Fight Choreographer;
Bruce Law, Stunts Coordinator, The Raid 2

There are basic rules about fight choreography that are there to keep directors from biting off more than they can chew. Director Gareth Evans breaks most of them. The more difficult the choreography, the more impractical his shot selection. Ruhian and Uwais’s choreography is presented in long, unbroken takes, much like dance choreography is. In one fight, dozens of fighters are filmed in a space so narrow that cameras barely fit. In another, 30 combatants wage war in a muddy prison yard. Choreography in thick mud is already ill-advised – shooting it with overhead crane shots that show every fighter at once is next to impossible.

A later sequence involves three fighters in a narrow hallway. Most films would cut back and forth, shooting the fight from behind one side and then shooting it from behind the other. Here, the camera is choreographed with the actors, swinging in between and under them as they fight. The fight choreography itself is already top-notch, but nothing like the intricately choreographed camerawork in The Raid 2 has ever been done before. It’s too impossible a task. Or at least, it used to be.

Noah lead

Best Costume Design: Michael Wilkinson, Noah

Noah wins this by default. There just haven’t been a lot of strong entries so far this year. However you feel about its story, its technical elements are brilliantly executed, and its costuming is very detailed.

Noah birds

Best Visual Effects: Industrial Light and Magic, Noah

Darren Aronofsky uses a number of techniques that are inherently broken or hopelessly dated in modern cinema. The quick montage. Stop-motion. Time lapse. BodyCam. Shooting in silhouette. Yet he translates all of them into his own cinematic language, and for Noah that means implementing visual effects.

It’s not just about the rock giants and the mythical Great Flood Noah depicts, it’s also about how Aronofsky uses visual effects to enhance and emulate his other cinematic techniques, to create a big-budget version of his particular views of religion and philosophy. For me, visual effects aren’t just about fidelity, but also about how they are used, and few films use visual effects so effectively and experimentally as Noah does.

Edge of Tomorrow beach

Best 3-D: Edge of Tomorrow

Like it or not, 3-D is here to stay. It’s unlikely it will ever overwhelm 2-D film – people work on a visual level in too many different ways, and until we can take the burden off the human eye and put it on the technology itself (read: a big step forward in holographic tech), 3-D will remain too uncomfortable and unhealthy for too many people.

That said, it can be fun for some. In terms of 3-D, no film takes full advantage of it this year quite like Edge of Tomorrow does. Is it as revolutionary as Gravity? No, and we’re not going to see 3-D used as well as Gravity used it every year. But there were moments when I’d move a hand to wipe incoming debris from my eye only for my brain to check myself and remind me it was only in the film. That’s the measure of 3-D for me – how well can it trigger kneejerk physical responses in ways that 2-D can’t. Edge of Tomorrow wins that comparison handily.

httyd Dragon Thief

Best Animated Film: How to Train Your Dragon 2

I look for an animated film not just to be beautiful, but to communicate meaningful themes to adults and children alike. How to Train Your Dragon 2 has a lot to say about growing up, trusting oneself, and taking responsibility, but most big-budget computer animated movies do that. What puts it in a class all its own is what it has to say about betrayal and forgiveness, about divorce, about death and loss.

Combine this with its bright color palette and phenomenal mythic imagery that speak to legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins’ consultancy on the film, and – despite being a cameraless film – you have no idea how tempted I was to suggest How to Train Your Dragon 2 for this next award as well.

Under the Skin lead

Best Cinematography: Daniel Landin, Under the Skin

There’s something in the cinematography of Under the Skin that’s like looking at Winslow Homer’s “Wild Geese in Flight.” In the painting, those geese are being cut down by something unseen as they fly in. Countless more are on their way. We don’t know what’s killing them. In Homer, the perpetrator is out-of-frame. In Under the Skin, the perpetrator is largely silent. In both, the artist imitates your perspective well enough to make you believe it’s your own, and so that pile of dead animals becomes a weight on your conscience. Except here, while death of nature is still the subject, it’s not geese being shot – it’s sexual assault, acts of possession and consumption.

This is fused together with an approach that highlights bright figures in dark surroundings during the film’s first half, only to switch to dark figures in frames only edged with light in its second part. In many ways, the visual approach shifts us from a documentarian beginning to a narrative end, while also reflecting the powerful predator’s burgeoning confusion as she begins to identify with her prey and their natural environment.

Edge of Tomorrow Blunt

Best Editing: James Herbert, Edge of Tomorrow

Edge of Tomorrow is nothing particularly new. On paper, it falls into the gimmicky column that thousands of other action movies inhabit. But this is a film that lives or dies in the editing room, and I’ve rarely seen a film edited so tightly. If it were beef, it’d be 99.999% lean, and that sounds fricking delicious. So it is with Edge of Tomorrow. You’ve tasted this movie before in Aliens, Predator, Terminator, (oddly enough) Groundhog Day, and Saving Private Ryan flavors. But Edge of Tomorrow does it all so well that it ceases to matter – it puts its own stamp on things and it does it through editing.

Moreover, it’s a throwback breed of action movie that’s not all that heavy on action – visual effects used to cost tons of money, and that meant you had to have a lot of character. While Edge of Tomorrow isn’t short on visual effects, it harkens back to the days when an action movie’s intensity relied on caring about its characters first and foremost, and the action was secondary. I’m glad I caught this in the theater, and I intend to watch the crap out of this movie once it’s streaming. I highly recommend you do the same.

I’ll publish my choices for Half-Year Awards in acting tomorrow, and for screenplay, director, and film on Thursday.