Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Discs from the 3-D Film Archive: 3-D Rarities, Cease Fire, Gog, September Storm, Those Redheads from Seattle

I bought myself a fancy new TV a couple of months ago, not so much because there was anything really wrong with my old one - that Toshiba projection model still shows a nice, clean 1080p picture - but in large part because I like 3D and noticed, while browsing electronics stores and storefronts (as I do on occasion), that the newer models were dropping 3D support. I don't think there's much reason, technologically, to do so - if your TV is already capable of a high frame rate and has a Bluetooth chip in it for the remote control, it's got what it needs in terms of tech to support 3D (it would require the purchase of a set of glasses or two).

Unfortunately for those of us who like the format, there was a ton of short-term thinking when Avatar became a hit - what had in many cases had been a surcharge of as little as $1.50 to cover the cost of the glasses soon became a $5 addition to the price per person, and it became less worth it; within months, the wonders James Cameron had created were pushed back in the public eye by hasty conversion jobs done on the likes of Clash of the Titans and filmmakers who were indifferent-to-hostile (Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland featured effects rendered in 3D which clashed with the flat-looking human performers). Soon, many people felt 3D was such a bad value that, even though including it in a new TV set might actually have negligible cost, it would be seen as wasteful, a bell or whistle increasing the price , especially if one figures it's a feature that will never be used. That's a big shame for two reasons.

First, what these new displays can do is amazing. I've got a Sony UBP-X800 BD player hooked up to a Samsung UN65JS9000, along with some after-market glasses (the ones included with the TV are lightweight but flimsy, and use a watch battery rather than charging via USB), and once the motion smoothing and such are turned off, they display amazing 4K images. I'm not sure how much upconversion is being done on these discs that are "merely" high-definition, but it's impressive as heck, even if I will probably choose UltraHD discs over 4K for most current movies if I must.

Second, the people at the 3-D Film Archive (and elsewhere, but we'll get to them in later posts) are doing some fantastic work finding old 3D movies, restoring them, and putting them on disc so that the audience can get a sense of what they originally looked like. Many of the 3D films of the 1950s haven't been seen that way in fifty years, and those that have are often presented in anaglyph, in a setting that positions them entirely as kitsch where looking kind of scruffy is part of the "charm". The movies I've looked at haven't been great, but they're at the very least interesting in the way people feeling out what they can and should do with new tools is. Indeed, they're more exciting than the 3D movies being made with a lot more resources now and I think that part of this is because there's a certain hierarchy to how people make 3D films, and there has been for a hundred years.

At the bottom, you've got the folks who don't actively want any part of it, even if they're not actually hostile. They're going to make a 2D movie, and if the studio wants to run it through a computer so that they can charge more money, well, whatever (sixty years ago, they would basically not pay any attention to the fact that there were two cameras on the rig rather than one). Most 3D movies today are basically like that, and it's hard to fault the filmmakers for thinking that way; not only do lots of people want the 2D version, but its post first-run life is going to be flat. It's a pretty practical position to take, even if it does become a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy: People make 3D movies that don't use the capabilities much at all, audiences think 3D adds nothing, gravitate away from it, and there's less reason to put effort into that part of the presentation.

But, sometimes, you get people who seem to enjoy the challenge, results, or process, and want to play with it. Martin Scorsese making Hugo, for instance, or Robert Zemeckis making The Walk. J.J. Abrams seemed to fit here with Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and Alfonso CuarĂ³n's Gravity may be the best case scenario for these people trying to make something that can live comfortably in the flat world but also be something special in 3D.

And then the guys who, reasonably or not, think this is the future of movies (or, at the very least, this movie) and dive in accordingly. You look at some of the really early test materials on the Rarities disc, for instance, and you see people excited with possibilities even if they haven't come close to figuring out what to do with them yet. Some of the generally weak 1950s movies have creative staging, from well-placed windows to scenes cluttered in a way that would seem dense in a regular movie but less so when the spaces in front and behind objects get to take up some space rather than be compressed out of existence. It had a later resurgence with James Cameron as he built Avatar and Robert Zemeckis during his "weird motion-capture movies" period, and Jeffrey Katzenberg was enough of a true believe for a while that DreamWorks had a lot of thought into how to make 3D work for an audience.

It's easy to laugh at that last group now, especially since very few cases saw a chance to evolve from figuring out how to obviously remind people they're watching a 3D movie to figuring out how to use it, especially since impressive use of 3D is not necessarily just more realistic - it's ominously placing something a little bit too far or behind something else to set it apart, or having Sasha Baron Cohen's face slowly push out of the screen in Hugo, or how Those Redheads from Seattle or Kiss Me Kate becomes more obviously shot on a soundstage but that somehow allows it to embrace how musicals are fantasies even more.

Seeing stuff like this, how these first-wave 3D movies worked visually, is proving to be a real treat, although just as I had to buy last year's model of TV to get the hardware, I'm buying a lot of discs just in case they stop becoming available, since I know this is kind of a niche hobby. Still, I'm having a good time with it, and would really dig some local spot trying another 3D Film Festival - I think the Coolidge's last one was over ten years ago, and it'd be neat for someone to do another one - not only did those shows sell tickets, but there have things been restored since then plus new 3D classics to mix in. Ironically, this probably wouldn't do as well in 2018, because theaters and studios have devalued the experience, but it's something that's well worth giving another look.

3-D Rarities

Seen on and around 9 September 2017 in Jay's Living Room (random, 3D Blu-ray)

Though the Archive tours with this show - it actually played the Bright sometime in the last year or so - I suspect it must be a different sort of thing from the experience of watching the disc, which has a number of nifty short subjects but just runs them together, leaving the viewer to consult a booklet or jump around. The chronological presentation does not necessarily make a great 3D mix tape.

Also, a lot of the later material is likely available after having lapsed into the public domain because it wasn't worth renewing copyright. That's not always the case - some of the 1920s 3D test footage from the "Plasticon PIctures" is doubly astonishing considering that it had to be separated from anaglyph prints, a newsreel of the controversial Rocky Marciano/Jersey Joe Walcott fight is a nifty curiosity, and the documentary "Doom Town" is kind of amazing: A melancholy meditation by a reporter covering an atomic-bomb test that shifts from almost too-crisp monochrome into horrific color when the actual event takes place.

A second volume is planned for 2018, and I hope they've either found a lot more (because they were kind of scraping the bottom of the barrel here) or they play a little looser with the format to come up with something a bit easier to sit through.

Cease Fire!

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen on 3 December 2017 in Jay's Living Room (watching 3D things, 3D Blu-ray)

Cease Fire! highlights its authenticity to an almost painful extent as it starts, opening not only with on-screen titles reminding us that what we are seeing is a recreation shot on the actual locations with the people who were there, but there's a good five minutes or so with a real person in authority talking about the heroism and tragedy of the men who served during the then-recently-completed Korean War and the need to fight communism on every front. Filmmakers have enhanced the production values of such things since and grown better at inserting them into the actual action in a way that makes this look stiff, but one look at the trailer for that new horse-soldier movie suggests its mostly polish rather than anything else.

It's a weird opening to what will be a weird movie, as a cast of non-actors is seemingly in over their heads as they try to have personal subplots and play like a cast of characters, although it's possible that vets may call this especially authentic, that they're just guys trying to do a job and go home, not types or guys with a special narrative purpose. It's hurt a bit by the fact that they are non-actors struggling with just delivering lines, but the soldiers probably have it better than the reporters at Panmunjom, where talks for a cease-fire are progressing even as the GIs are still fighting - they've got to wax philosophical and play out an entire arc by talking about how they got to that point while their co-stars are actually doing something.

It's in that doing that the movie impresses, as director Owen Crump shoots the film like a documentary, not going for a lot of different set-ups and cuts that would betray the sense of realism, something that plays out especially well when the unit he's following must cross a minefield and the audience gets a feel for how the methodical approach is just boring enough to disguise the tremendous danger, at least until it comes time to defuse that mine and he mostly just keeps rolling, making it all part of the same process. He uses the 3D camera well, often shooting a bit closer to the ground than usual to place full bodies on screen and giving a feel for the mountainous terrain. The crisp black-and-white picture finds the midpoint between a war film from the period and a documentary.

Much of Cease Fire! feels awkward and amateurish enough at points that it's definitely for the best that it only runs 75 minutes - long enough to do some interesting things, not much longer than it takes for the novelty to wear off.


* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen on 4 December 2017 in Jay's Living Room (watching 3D things, 3D Blu-ray)

Terry Nation is credited with creating the Daleks on Doctor Who to the point where he gets a credit (and apparently royalties) when they appear, but watch this movie and tell me that the robot of the title (and another one of the same model, "Magog") didn't inspire them: Rolling base, tapering body, eye on a stalk, specialized arms. The big difference, arguably, is that the four waldoes on Gog appear to actually be useful!

Robots that need refining to attain truly iconic form aside, there's a lot that's familiar about this movie, in which a series of strange deaths at an underground scientific institution brings forth an investigator who only finds the situation accelerating. It's a techno-slasher that comes too early to make the kills genuinely gruesome (although one or two were a bit nastier than I expected for a 1950s-made film), but there's a sense to it that producer Ivan Tors and screenwriter Tom Taggart actually found the science exciting even as they were making it into deathtraps; the characters spend a lot more time talking about the exciting potential than they necessarily need to do if the only point is planting seeds for someone to get killed later.

It's still basically a b-movie, so while it's got an amiable pair of bantering leads - Richard Egan as the government investigator and Constance Dowling as his undercover compatriot (who, naturally, has a much more custom-tailored jumpsuit than the rest of the staff) - the bulk of the cast is either wooden or likely to pick up on one obvious trait. Director/editor Herbert L. Strock has trouble with the pacing, too - it's not exactly a long 83 minutes, but the dry exposition can make it feel that way, and a forgettable effort to extend the danger outside of the base doesn't really create the higher stakes that the filmmakers are going for.

The 3D effects are often kind of neat, starting from an opening gambit that uses an automatic wiper to both emphasize that there's this plane that has people behind it and that it's lethally cold on one side. The filmmakers don't get much chance to emphasize the cave-like nature of the spot they're in - for an underground facility, most rooms are pretty spacious - but they get to point cameras at people in centrifuges or simulated zero-gravity and get cool imagery that way. It makes for a better-than-average B-movie that uses the visual medium fairly well.

September Storm

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen on 8 December 2017 in Jay's Living Room (watching 3D things, 3D Blu-ray)

September Storm comes very close to breaking the rule that you can make any thriller more exciting by putting it on a boat, in large part because it's just not that thrilling to begin with. It's got a lot of things that could be plenty of fun, but it spends the half of the movie that comes after intermission looking for a main source of conflict. You'd think a group of treasure-hunters on a "borrowed' pleasure craft ready to stab each other in the back and compete for the company of the one woman on board would have that in spades, but instead, the script seems to try out everything, like it should have been revised on the set when they discovered who actually had chemistry. Or maybe they did, and it just comes off as sloppy.

Still, they are on a boat, and eventually diving both for pleasure and plunder, and underwater sequences are one of the better uses of 3D photography you can find. The filmmakers not only shot it in 3-D but widescreen, and not only are the shots of La Cygne out at sea gorgeous, but they either shot during a genuinely dangerous-looking storm or did some excellent special-effects work - the sequences of the boat being battered don't have any of the usual telltale signs of fakery other than nobody being visible on deck. They use this combination of a wide and deep image to do a nifty job of getting across the cramped quarters on the boat, too - it highlights the narrow passages, or how compartments need to be hidden behind things and fit snugly together.

The two top-billed actors - Joanne Dru as a vacationing model and Mark Stevens as a sea rat who knows where to find a cargo of Spanish dubloons - are pleasant enough, and Robert Strauss (as a more coarse first mate) and Asher Dann (as the handsome young Majorca local trying to impress the girl) are a little less smooth even for guys in a film that's not about subtlety. It's almost as if the idea is not to have them upstage the visuals, even if it does sometimes amount to just shrugging where the plot is concerned.

Those Redheads from Seattle

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen on 12 December 2017 in Jay's Living Room (watching 3D things, 3D Blu-ray)

Watching the supplemental material for Those Redheads from Seattle is informative not just for the bits on the restoration of the film - as you might imagine, it's as difficult to restore either half of a 3D film as it is a normal movie before you get to trying to reconcile them - but for watching the previews which highlight that this 1953 movie features four singing sensations: Teresa Brewer! Guy Mitchell! And The Bell Sisters! Popular as they may have been sixty-five years ago, that fame has eroded down to almost nothing today, and it makes the moments where this movie stops to give them a song or three that doesn't particularly advance the story kind of a drag. Sure, it gets leggy Ms. Brewer into a variety of appealingly skimpy Edith Head costumes, but it slows the movie down and feels like a diversion.

And unlike a lot of the other 3D films I watched in this mini-binge, it doesn't really need them. It's got a capable cast headed by Rhonda Fleming, Gene Barry, and Agnes Moorehead); a story with just the right heft for this sort of musical comedy (wife and daughters of reformer venture up to the Klondike to join him, only to find him killed and that the man responsible worked for their new friend, become more independent); plenty of jokes; appealing if forgettable musical numbers; a spot or two of action. It's exceptionally lightweight, and even for that sort of film, could use a bit of polish, falling a bit flat every now and again.

It's lively and good-looking, though. 3D can be kind of a rough combination with Technicolor as the polarized glasses mute the bright colors a bit, but the red hair and bold outfits still pop, and there is some frenzied fun throwing stuff at the camera later on. What I kind of love, though, is how 3D really highlights the artifice or lack thereof of the different ways they shoot it. There are some outdoor scenes, for instance, that are clearly done on a soundstage, and 3D makes the limits of it clear, but it kind of works - it suggests a stage, making it feel more like a play, letting things get more broad. Inside Johnny Kisco's Klondike Club, there is set decoration and blocking that is way too crowded for a 2D film, but it feels busy and bustling rather than just confusing in 3D. And when they finally do get to doing some location shooting, the great outdoors becomes suitably vast.

It's a fun little movie, probably the best to watch without 3D in the group but also one of the ones that uses it in interesting ways.

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