I hadn’t been to the theatre (movies) for over two years. So last night I did a double-header movie: Revenant and Star Wars: The Farce Awakens (oops, did I spell that wrong?). I have to wonder if there is any future at all for quality movies from Hollywood. Quality as in story line, character development, believability that comes from small but critical details, the judgment to not overproduce scenes, and so on. To use an analogy: tabloids vs literature. They give awards for this stuff? The pre-show movie previews pretty much nail that coffin shut: shut off your brain at the movie theatre.
For Star Wars: The Farce Awakens, I sat in the vibrating D-Box seats, in part because I wanted to try it, and in part because those seats can be reserved and are in a good location. The seat vibrates in distracting ways, helping to startle at loud noises and such. Or to disrupt the viewing experience at inappropriate times. For most movies, this may be perfect: stimulate the senses even more, since all intellectual functions are presumably disengaged or the viewer would not be there. I turned the vibrating function on and off several times to test my reaction—it’s definitely not something I want in my movie experience. And the seats are not good for slouching.
I went to see Revenant* for one reason only: the cinematography. A reader had emailed to tell me that the wide open spaces and use of natural lighting reminded him of my still photography, and indeed that was so.
Its forte is the cinematography and visual grandeur of the scenery, and I can relate to many of the locations. At one point I thought to myself “Lundy Canyon”—and a moment later my daughter voiced aloud that same thought—funny!
Revenant was shot on the Alexa 65 in 6K with Hasselblad prime lenses: huge sensor and long focal lengths for wide angles are not quite view camera feel, but mighty impressive in visual impact (the big screen needs at least 8K IMO). I loved the wide angle views on the large format. Fantastic stuff; it is a tour de force of modern digital cinematography, particularly the dark forest and dusk scenes. Impressive scenes (and there are many) are the “river escape” sequence and the knife/hatchet fight scene late in the movie: a gentle dawn sunlight creeps up the hills as the fight progresses, beautiful and a nice symbolic touch too.
One visual defect marred it for me: the presence of lateral chromatic aberration (red/cyan fringes) was distracting: the moon had an obvious red fringe, edges of shadow and snow had mild red/cyan fringing, and much worse, the white lettering in early scenes had quite strong color fringing. Was this the source material? That would not explain the color fringing on the white lettering, so I’m all but certain that the theatre projector optics were off somehow. I considered complaining, but the thought of the blank stares that would result dispensed with that idea.
Ignore the predictable story line, the paper thin veneer of character development, and the collection of physical absurdities that should be self evident to any outdoorsman or doctor—focus on the visuals, which are spectacular.
Mini review: I can’t recommend the plot or character development or acting or anything else about Revenant, it’s a depressing story that lacks any intellectual or emotional rewards that a great movie offers. Perhaps most damning for a movie about suffering, it falls completely flat in emotional power, stringing together a series of contrived and shopworn cliches that just don’t go anywhere successful. It doesn’t even offer credibility, a huge failure for a film like this. For example the improperly-strung toy-store bows lacking any recurve that unerringly shoot arrows deep into tree trunks or bodies like an 80-pound-pull compound bow. It’s beyond idiotic for a former bowhunter like me. Then there are the single shot rifles, but dual-shot pistols (or was it three shots at times?). The self-fueling fires: apparently our hero and surviving native not only can start fire with flint and steel from damp grass, but they carry gasoline or some accelerant to make small branches of bushes flame in roaring wind for quite some time, an unseen helper always keeping ample wood on the fire which blazes like it was kiln dried and force fed with an oxygen tank, with no smoke. A bearskin from a huge bear that ought to weigh 100 pounds somehow reduced to the size of a jacket: it sprouts a neat poncho-style hole. Hyper-fast infection-free wound healing suitable for a superhero. Hypothermia or even shivering never an issue. A sweat lodge made of flimsy aspen branches and covered with (now grown very large) skins in a 50 mph wind; our hero awakes refreshed and warmed from a few stones after a few dried herbs are sprinkled on his body. Fish badly wanting to be caught with bare hands (I have caught trout with my bare hands and I know just how it’s done). Then there is the starvation diet while burning 8000 calories a day with the body healing up at warp speed: upon arrival at the fort, our shirtless hero is looking nicely filled out to the point of flabbiness, and in eminent health aside from scars.
The juxtaposition of the worst of human nature set amid the best of wild nature is jarring, and presumably intentional—so much so that this film’s metaphysical sense of life bludgeons the viewer: the story is utterly depressing. Just as with still photography, greatness must come from visual power and a keen story, but this story has no balance, no opportunity for the viewer to participate intellectually, no nuances or ambiguities to mull, not even a good twist to the plot. All the required correct viewpoints of white man vs native, man vs man, man vs nature, the futility of existence are duly passed upon, and this transparent and heavy-handed treatment robs Revenant of emotional or intellectual power to move. When the credits rolled, I remembered it not as a compelling and nuanced story, but a series of loosely-related vignettes of predictable violence strung together, albeit with gorgeous photography. Revenant is a tired cliché, and as noted above, does not even offer the satisfaction of believability.
* Present participle in French of revenir (“to return”); even my rusty French skills knew that after many years.
Elaine D writes:
I much prefer the original movie “A Man in The Wilderness” with Richard Harris. I haven’t seen the new movie, but from your review, I kind of figured it would be as you have written it as not being accurate in many ways. You should watch the original movie, which the everyone seems to have detoured around by stating this is from the book, “The Revenant”. It is, but no one has made the connection to the same movie made before it back in the early 70s I believe. I grew up and saw the first movie and it made such an impression on me back then that I keep re-renting it from Netflix to watch it.
Star Wars: the Farce Awakens
I like the core storyline of Star Wars, but I have always been deeply disappointed in how badly its potential has been mangled. Sadly, Star Wars: the Force Awakens puts a huge spike into the coffin for the potential of the series in the sense of being compatible with anything of adult interest. Teenagers will love it, and it will no doubt make a lot of money for the next 18 episodes or so.
Virtually every scene or idea is recycled from past episodes. Refried beans. The galaxy is really small in Episode VII; hop to any planet seemingly in minutes. It feels disjointed; there is no time continuity.
Han Solo and Leia apparently could not get their shit together enough to stay together but their son becomes the Really Bad Guy (Kylo Ren). Plump and matronly Leia bores us to tears (no wonder Han left her), and Han seems wilted at best. At the urging of Leia, Han is naive enough to let his son Kylo Ren skewer him with a light saber. The father/son thing again. How original. But it looks like Leia slept around, because the son bears no resemblance to the father. No wonder they split.
The Death Star in Episode 6 was destroyed, but there is a new peril which is the same type of weapon, only far worse. How many of these things are they gonna make? The resistance needs to hold a bake sale or something, because their uniforms and fighters are the same crappy ones in Episode IV. Can’t they at least steal a few decent ships and fighters after a few decades?
Luke has disappeared for many years, pouting because his prize pupil Kylo Ren becomes a powerful Really Bad Guy prone to temper tantrums and sniveling, and worshiping his father, Darth Vader. So Luke hangs up his jockstrap and retires to a little island to wear a hoody and go fishing for a few decades. Apparently Luke did not bother to train any other Jedi, and Leia didn’t think it worthwhile to bother. Alrighty then.
Enter Rey and Finn. Fortunately, the beautiful new female hero Rey is a quick learner, picking up The Force in a few hours and expert light-saber skills in minutes, maiming Kylo Ren*, presumably so he can fulfil his destiny in a newfangled Darth Vader style pant suit in episodes eight through 23. Finn is maimed by Kylo Ren, but likely to recover. Teenage boys are gonna really dig Rey, and girls too: what’s not to like? And to give the actress credit, no one else is half as interesting or alive in the film. But Finn needs to grow somehow, otherwise he's a dud. In the end, Rey heads over to Luke’s island to see if sushi is better than her powdered fare.
* Plain names just don’t cut it for me for the bad guys. The Darth thing worked.
Last fall I wrote about 4K television and streaming in Impressions of 4K Television. See also Sony 4K Television: Wow! and 4K UltraHD Fascinating Visually, Selection Needs to Expand.
I’ve been evaluating 4K video some more, a fascinating study for me that I started last September—akin to how I first started assessing still imagery, but this time with years of experience studying hundreds of lenses and dozens of camera. My 'eye' is now well tuned enough to be a distraction: I can’t watch 4K video or even go to the movies without seeing all the visual flaws. 4K video is fascinating in its own right because unlike all previous formats, it gets close enough to real to be interesting for the visuals alone (and since nearly all Hollywood movies made today are dreck in terms of plot or character development, that’s a key point).
So now I’m studying 4K on the Sony X930C, which has a fabulous picture. While OLED TVs are just starting to appear, the X930C supports the new 4K HDR standard and so when source material starts appearing, it should gain another bump up in visual impact. OLED-based 4K TVs will be even better in picture quality, but the X930C is stunning right now, and way beyond really good.
Both the Sony 4K TVs mercilessly reveal limitations of the source material, and limitations are legion: depth of field, noise and posterization, focus errors, dynamic range, flare. And that’s best case: compression of streamed 4K material can at times deliver ugly tonal transitions, stuff that in a still image I’d eviscerate in a review, such as noses on human faces. There can also be network issues that sporadically reduce streaming 4K quality to sub-HD levels, and the pixellated result is not pleasing. If it doesn’t look good, it may just be the streaming quality, so keep that in mind (hint: unplug the TV and/or internet router if quality problems persist).
- High quality 4K is a whole new experience visually; I can’t go back to standard-res TV. Really good HD material can be quite satisfying on 4K also, and indeed better than mediocre 4K material, particularly movies originally shot on film (e.g., The Bourne Identity). Still, 4K TV cries out for high quality source material, and there isn’t a lot of that yet.
- 4K is as much about dynamic range and color gamut than resolution. Just as with still image photography! All three have to be there in proper measure: resolution, color gamut, dynamic range. The dynamic range component is now standardized and with support starting to arrive in TVs like the Sony X930C; perhaps confusingly for still photographers it is called HDR.
- Noise (film or digital) is a limitation with all sorts of 4K material shot in low light (Jessica Jones and Breaking Bad, show high levels of noise and sometimes posterization). Sometimes posterization is seen and sometimes pronounced: there is no magic bullet just because it’s video instead of still. Some recent movies are shot digitally on huge sensors (e.g, Revenant in 65mm anamorphic); I saw no such defects in Revenant, so large sensors apparently help tremendously.
- The moving frames of video hide serious image quality defects as can be seen by pausing any 4K movie or show and examining any static details.
- 4K footage that fully utilizes the resolution for more than a small fraction of the show is hard to find; movement, focus, lighting all reduce actual resolution. Ungraded 4K video at 100M/30p right out of the Sony A7R II or Sony A7S II makes a laughingstock of 4K streaming. UltraHD BluRay (due out in March 2016) should help a lot. The iMac 5K with 100M/30P 4K at actual pixels or at 5K looks fantastic, showing that 8K has serious potential for future 8K home TV (pixel density relates to believability of the image). Bandwidth is the main problem.
- BluRay upscaled to 4K looks acceptable to very good, depending on the content. Blade Runner on BluRay cries out for a 4K remaster, but my guess is that the source material will have a lot of limitations. Plain DVD video is almost cartoonish in its coarse details, but old original Star Trek episodes on DVD work out just fine given the strong story lines; those were never about special effects.
- Viewing distance matters. Anyone familiar with high-fidelity audio knows that listening position matters a lot. The same is true with video. I experimented with my preferred viewing distance to the 64.5" Sony X930C: 52 inches from the screen ±5 inches). Closer is too wide an angle for viewing comfort, farther feels out of the scene. This is one reason why most movie theatres suck: there are perhaps 6 optimal rows for seating (distance) and only a few seats in the middle (centered).
4K beats the theatre?
Having just seen two movies last night, I would say this: the theatre experience is challenged by the potential of high-grade 4K. The theatre image quality is not necessarily better than a high quality 4K movie on a high quality 4K TV. For starters, the theatre resolution is not commensurate with screen size: if seated too close then the image is less than sharp, and farther away the eye cannot necessarily discern any more than with a 4K TV. And that’s assuming the best seats in a good theatre.
More impressive in favor of the 4K TV experience (with future 8K and/or OLED becoming unbeatable): the reflected light of a projection system cannot compete with the rich blacks of the Sony X930C (or similarly with stills or video, an iMac 5K). Coming OLED screens will only widen that contrast gap: the black level of a movie theatre itself is not at all black (for starters), but reflected vs transmissive is like print versus screen. Get an iMac 5K and see the light. Now there may be specially-endowed theatres in which things are better than my local ones—so I’ll set that possibility aside. But I can get a better experience right at home on 64.5" 4K than at the theatre. What does this bode for theatres? I’d much rather see Revenant and Star Wars on 4K at home, assuming high quality UltraHD BluRay source.