For Your Consideration: Nov. 7, 2014

One of the year’s most hotly anticipated titles, Christopher Nolan’s “Interstellar,” finally drops today – or, if you’re lucky enough to live near one of the handful of theaters around the country that managed to hang on to their old film projectors, perhaps you’ve already seen it in early release. Nolan and Paramount’s decision to make “Interstellar” available two days early to theaters with 35mm and 70mm projection has caused quite a stir, not to mention a lot of whining from many theater owners (who, in fairness, were more or less forced by studios to abandon film and convert to digital projection five years ago when “Avatar” was released). But, after $1.5 million in Tuesday and Wednesday screenings alone, it seems fair to say that “Interstellar” is going to do all right; and while Nolan isn’t going to keep Kodak in business by himself, it’s nice to see the public’s attention drawn to the behind-the-scenes technology that makes moviegoing possible.

To celebrate the history of 70mm (which you can read a nice little summary of here), this week we’re picking out three of our favorite films that were filmed in the super-widescreen format. It really pains me to put streaming options next to these ones. Just….try and put them on the biggest screen possible, yeah?

– Ethan

“Ben-Hur” (1959)

Cast: Charlton Heston, Stephen Boyd, Jack Hawkins, Haya Harareet, Hugh Griffith, Martha Scott, Cathy O’Donnell, Sam Jaffe, Finlay Currie, Frank Thring

Available to rent or purchase from Amazon Instant and iTunes, on disc from Netflix

If ever there was a movie made for the big screen, it’s “Ben-Hur.” The first movie to win still-unbeaten record of eleven Oscars—a feat unrivaled for almost four decades—this epic set in Biblical times is so grand the screen doesn’t feel big enough to contain it. The story of a friendship gone sour between a Jewish prince and a Roman commander, it is at times ludicrous, a soap opera sheathed in classical dress—with a side plot featuring Pontius Pilate and Jesus Christ. But it’s an exhilarating spectacle that pulsates and dazzles for the length of its 212 minutes. The nine-minute chariot race is one of the most famous sequences in cinema history, setting the blueprint for every competitive race or car chase in the movies since (“The Phantom Menace” is a prime example). To top it all off, it’s the only Hollywood film to make the Vatican’s official list of approved religious films.

– Elaine

“Mutiny on the Bounty” (1962)

Cast: Marlon Brando, Trevor Howard, Richard Harris, Hugh Griffith, Richard Haydn, Percy Herbert, Tarita Teriipaia, Henry Daniell

Available to rent or purchase from Amazon Instant and iTunes, on disc from Netflix

Based on the 1932 British novel, “Mutiny on the Bounty” has been remembered more for star Marlon Brando’s on-set antics than for its own merits. But this battle of wills on the high seas features a very fine performance, not from Brando, but from Trevor Howard. Howard, his voice gravely and his lip perpetually set in a curl, outshines his counterpart as Captain William Bligh, a cruel, conniving man whose brutality finally drives his men to mutiny.

As in any odyssey, we yearn for the sight of land, and the movie’s visuals deliver spectacular vistas of Tahiti and the ocean from which it rises. Thanks to the luscious cinematography by Robert Surtees, who won an Oscar for his work on “Ben-Hur,” when the Bounty finally reaches her destination, we, like the sailors, believe that we have made it to paradise (for all its problematic imperialist overtones).

– Elaine

“2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968)

Cast: Keir Dullea, Douglas Rain, Gary Lockwood, William Sylvester

Available to rent or purchase on Amazon Instant and iTunes, on disc from Netflix

Yeah, so it’s really not like “Interstellar” needs another pre-emptive “2001” comparison. But even unseen and un-dissected (by me, anyway), the comparison is kind of unavoidable when it comes to the film’s technical specs. Wouldn’t you know it, there’s just something about space that attracts directors to a sense of scope (select scenes – yes, you can probably guess which – from “The Tree of Life” were shot in equivalent 65mm). In some ways it’s almost counter-intuitive: why do you need extra image detail and color quality to convey the black nothing of outer space? But then you watch Kubrick’s masterpiece and you realize you can count the stars on the screen just like you can pick out the thousand flecks of the Milky Way on a quiet country night, or that the radiating visions of Dave’s descent into Jupiter are practically burning themselves on to the surface of your eyes – and that’s the reason some directors choose to go big.

– Ethan

Review: Gravity

Sandra Bullock faces the elements (of an extraterrestrial order) in Alfonso Cuarón’s stunning “Gravity.”

There are movies, and then there are movies. The former capture our attention, be they on laptop or even cell phone screen; the latter demand it, leaping out from the biggest theater possible and throttling our senses. The immersive experience alone catapults the film to rare air. Sometimes the same film can fall into both categories: no matter how much shade has been thrown its way (including, admittedly, by yours truly), “Avatar” in the theater was a movie; on a dinky flatscreen TV, it’s just a movie.

“Gravity,” the long-awaited thriller by preternaturally gifted Alfonso Cuarón, thoroughly belongs to the cinema of spectacle. See it in the theaters. See it in 3D. See it in IMAX. This is a film that relies on space, in both the literal and punny senses of the word. When it eventually drifts out of the cineplex and on to home video, it will remain, unlike it’s pulpy cousin twice removed “Avatar,” an engaging (though heavy-handed) parable of survival and struggle, an extraterrestrial take on Jack London. But it will not retain the visceral, inescapable impact of the big screen. As the image towers over the audience, we can empathize quite physically with a protagonist dwarfed by the elements.

The narrative setup is elegant in its simplicity: two astronauts, a rookie mission specialist (Sandra Bullock) and a veteran commander (George Clooney), find themselves adrift in space after their mission to repair the Hubble Space Telescope encounters catastrophic damages. Their lives depend on their own ingenuity, determination and about five thousand leprechauns’ worth of luck. You could call this science-fiction, for several reasons: first, the setting in an apparently alternate universe where the US space shuttle program remains operational, and second, the story bears more than a passing resemblance to Ray Bradbury’s stunning short story “Kaleidoscope.” Perhaps it a sign that we are indeed living in the future that nothing about the film struck me as especially implausible, despite the extraordinary measures depicted (and Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s twitter feed to the contrary).

The inherent tension of the situation keeps “Gravity” pulsing along even in its few quiet moments. At a breezy 91 minutes (including credits), this is a fabulous example of a film delivering on his premise, no more, no less. A less confident director might’ve felt the need to pad out the suspense with even more contrived complications, but Cuarón is savvy enough to know that one problem is enough when you’re talking about surviving the vacuum of space.

That is not to say the film doesn’t have its embellishments. The screenplay, co-written by Cuarón with his son, Jonas, is riddled with pseudo-spiritualism and emotional revelations that feel disingenuous considering its distraction from the urgent, moment to moment task of just staying alive. Sandra Bullock’s protagonist in particular is weighed down by a backstory clearly calculated to heap on unnecessary and redundant sympathy. It would be one thing if “Gravity” were actually interested in engaging with the quandaries of what motivates us to live (if it were, say, “The Grey”), but this is a film too focused on raw, sensual impact to accept much in the way of philosophical ambiguity.

The character is saved, though (in a meta sense), by Bullock’s surprising performance. “Gravity” is not the sort of film we would expect to star the likable, sharp comedienne, but the strain of such a challenging and restricted role has brought out some of the best work of her career. Other, younger actresses such as Natalie Portman and Scarlett Johannson were in the running for the lead role before Bullock proved herself a steady box office draw in middle age; we can be thankful for that, as a slightly older performer entirely changes the complexion of the Dr. Stone present in the script. Bullock is not reliant on that overburdened backstory to make her plight resonate – she has a certain world-weariness to her from the start that makes her choices along the journey that much more significant.

And with “Gravity,” it really is all about the journey, in quite an immediate way. Emmanuel Lubezki, the groundbreaking cinematographer who worked with Cuarón on “Y Tu Mamá También” and “Children of Men” (as well as with Terrence Malick on “The New World” and “The Tree of Life”) has created some of the most fluid, liberating camera movements in cinematic history, using the film’s combination of digital and practical effects to his full advantage. On the one hand, it seems disappointing that “CGI-infused epic” seems to be the automatic way to an Oscar for a cinematographer these days, but films like “Avatar” and “Hugo” were unable to exploit digital technology in the same way Lubezki does here. In extended long takes and invisible transitions from third- to first-person perspective, this is one of the first films ever that really feels like it takes place in a completely 3D, 360-degree perspective world. The camera merely floats through space, capturing images freely and recklessly.

These craft elements, which may signal the start of a new era of free play for filmmakers, belie the director’s extraordinary control and precision. No one would mistake Cuarón for Kubrick, but there’s a quiet shot here of Bullock, hovering inside a space station, looking like nothing more than a fetus, that I think is a deliberate homage to “2001: A Space Odyssey” and Kubrick’s star-child. The ending of that sci-fi classic is troubling: the triumphant evolution of David Bowman is complicated by the cyclical callbacks to the horrors and violence of progress in the film’s famed opening sequence. As witnessed by the finale of “Children of Men” (which departed significantly from P.D. James’ source material), Cuarón is a fundamentally a much more optimistic filmmaker. “Gravity” is just another of his visually arresting, gut-punching tributes to the resilience of flawed, stubborn, beautiful hot-mess humanity.

Now playing in theaters.

Verdict: 3 1/2 out of 4 stars