in the neck

Equally belated, three recent technology interviews:

A way to take high-resolution 360-degree panoramic images and video, developed as a way to beguile potential house-buyers, duly clobbered by the recession in that sector, now re-tooled as a high-tech item for military and security uses. Its output has been accepted as evidence in a murder trial, which could be a turning point.

Imaging living cells without using lenses; not a new idea, not easy, but the algorithms are getting better all the time.

The exact way in which the artery in your neck pulses can indicate the beginnings of cardiovascular disease, and a cheap laser triangulation could be an easy way of spotting the effects. The principle is simple; the execution probably a bit less so.

made in monaco

Preposterously belated completeness-only mention of two reviews by me at Critic’s Notebook:

Grace of Monaco, a key text in the current phase of impotent biopics which dares to subvert the limitations from within; or proof that there’s nothing to be done with real people in narrative cinema any more. You decide.

The Young and Prodigious T. S. Spivet, which might be the moment at which, after many years scowling at each other in the kitchen, Jean-Pierre Jeunet and I are through.

a cave dweller

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This year’s Edinburgh International Film Festival produced the following:

An attempt to parse the British narrative feature programme for Little White Lies. The moral is that the supply and demand equation is out of whack, no doubt putting UK-based festivals in a very difficult position. But the time when they just acquiesce passively to the situation must surely be coming to an end.

Reviews at Critic’s Notebook for:

A Most Wanted Man, in which Anton Corbijn and John le Carré admire each other to a standstill.

The Green Inferno, in which Eli Roth admires other films to a standstill; but if you have a talent in this world and that’s your talent, then let it fly.

The Skeleton Twins, which made a lot of folks very happy but felt to me like dead weight.

Snowpiercer, in which correctly spotting the roots of the Tilda Swinton character was apparently a function of age and time spent under the Harold Wilson government.

Far weirder than anything dreamed up by Bong Joon-ho was the debacle around Welcome To New York, two screenings of which were shoved into the festival programme later than the last minute and got roughly zero promotional push. The first screening duly unfolded before a desultory handful of people, although those sofas in the middle of the Dominion’s auditorium were as comfortable as I remembered. The second screening was the subject of whispers suggesting a truncated cut of the film at the insistence of a potentially-attending Gérard Depardieu, who then cancelled anyway.

Was the Edinburgh International Film Festival really preparing to show a drastically sawed-off version of a film to full-price ticket payers without a peep of warning or comment or explanation? Are there any witnesses to this mythical short version, since judging by the radio silence that followed it seems possible that not a single person actually went? Is this going to be the tale that film festival programmers tell their children at bedtime while urging them to take up respectable trades such as plumbing or merchant banking instead? Rarely can the circumstances of a film festival screening have been swept under the nearest available tapis more tout suite.

(pictured: Bruce LaBruce’s transgender version of Pierrot Lunaire, which drags Arnold Schoenberg back to the future and then some.)

mutant and loud

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i.  Bryan Singer’s X-Men: Days of Future Past would have needed to split the actual atom to truly return to the glory days of 2003 when he made X-Men 2, and it can only get two-thirds of the way there. But two-thirds of X2 is more than enough to batter most recent superhero films with a large plank, a reminder of the uncinematic blind alleys that the Disneyfied end of Marvel has diligently created by making characters deliver dialogue to some outside jury of cool cats rather than each other. (DC has even bigger problems).

ii.  The shortfall is all down to the weird chain of dominoes that puts as innately specialised a director as Singer in charge of one of the biggest film projects going, alongside the eleven years of accumulated genre obligations. There must be time travel tropes, and a night-time storm-clouded dystopia that’s duller than dirt, and Sentinels with unfolding fiery faces who could all be related to New Gort. Characters must contort themselves to deliver dialogue which nods to things they’ve said in other films. How terrified of novelty we are, addicts all.

iii.  And more prudish. For a film ostensibly aimed at a similar audience as X2, there’s now zero chance of anything close to the queasy transgression of Magneto exsanguinating a hapless prison guard by the pint while Ian McKellen gives the poor bastard a catty side-eye.

iv.  Now you mention it, I miss Pervert Mystique too. DOFP makes all the right noises about Mystique being a swift and evil hellion, but Jennifer Lawrence looks as unhappy as she did in First Class, unlikely to manifest the easy-going kinkiness that a life on the catwalk gifted Rebecca Romijn before she ever climbed into the paint-spraying booth.

v.  Even $225 million still can’t buy digital compositing where the joins don’t show, or a watertight set of plot points. There’s an ugly night sequence with Michael Fassbender on the roof of a train which looks like it’s wandered in from Doctor Who, and a shot of Beast at the end for which the cameoing actor in question could have been wearing a clown suit and a tinfoil hat, so blatant is the photoshopping. I couldn’t care less that a character may have magically changed from Bill Duke into Peter Dinklage since 2006, largely since that gets funnier the more you think about it. But not bothering to line up with your own post-credits sting from The Wolverine only last summer is just bad staff work.

vi.  With a franchise of almost infinite malleability, there’s no real excuse for lack of gender parity. The film puts all its chips on Mystique, and sidelines other distaff characters by fair means or foul. Shackling Ellen Page to the mind-meld table is a waste of actor and character, especially since in the original comics she’s the one doing the time-travelling. And where exactly did she get this godly gift anyway? Even Chris Claremont knew he had to invent a new character rather than rely on arm-waving to get the job done.

vii.  As noted by everyone, the Quicksilver section works, but the instructive question to ponder is: why? It’s built on comedy rhythms very different to both Joss Whedon’s collegiate banter and David Goyer’s weary pastiche, and manages to depth-charge both of them simultaneously.

viii.  The return of Singer means the return of Newton Thomas Sigel as cameraman. I knew this film and I were going to get on when Sigel adopted a 1970s colour palette for the period scenes, or at least as close as the current digital work flows can get him. Let’s assume that the murky cloud-filled weather-plagued Matrix dystopia is the result of similar in-jokery. The proof comes at the end, when shiny happy 2023 is the colour of corn fields and rose gardens; a certain resurrected character leans nonchalantly against a door jam, lighted by the amber light of the gods, red hair practically on fire.

ix. The return of Singer means the return of John Ottman, whose editing is still as occasionally challenging as it was in 2003, and whose name on the score ensures music which dares to toy with a character’s interior life, as it’s supposed to do. The music editors get away with murder though, with the opening punch-up between disposable new mutants (all still better than Last Stand's dweebs, mind) acquiring Ottman's magnanimous recycling of Henry Jackman's Magneto theme from First Class, which the composer clearly meant for the much later moment when Ian McKellen gets stuck in. A double insult, if you happen to think that Jackman thieved a motif Ottman had intended for Wolverine in the first place.

x.  Mostly the return of Bryan Singer just means the return of that voodoo that he do and Brett Ratner don’t do and Joss Whedon can’t do.

The complete witzend.

the talented mr mortensen

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I took a look at The Two Faces of January for Critic’s Notebook, a Patricia Highsmith adaptation which confirms that age is gifting Viggo Mortensen with the kind of screen presence unavailable in packets. His character though is off-the-shelf. Unfair to drag everything back to the ubiquitous Mr Ripley, but there are reasons why that character is open to screen interpretations as varied as the preening dandy tried on for size by John Malkovich in Ripley’s Game, or the collection of nervous tics answering to the name of Dennis Hopper in The American Friend, both of which feel positively electrified in comparison with January's small-time scoundrels. Take the foetid humidity and age of anxiety out of Highsmith and you're left with something much less interesting.

graphics in the mist

More technology stories: Google Glass, Oculus Rift and the other near-eye projection platforms use LEDs as their light sources, which involves a few compromises. The image’s contrast ratio in particular can take a hit, thanks to unwanted spontaneous emission by the diode getting in the way. An actual laser source might be better, if you could design one that doesn’t exhibit spontaneous emission in the first place. EpiCrystals in Finland think they’ve made the laser for the job, so I asked them about it.

And: projecting images into mist or fog for PR purposes isn’t novel, but using a fog curtain as a virtual desktop for user interface purposes might be. A group at Bristol University has designed a prototype, so I paid them a visit and played with it.

critical perspectives

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"Robert Bly, who’s done his share of thinking about the heroic narratives of childhood, has called ours a ‘sibling society,’ and called our lives ‘horizontal’ - allowing for neither transcendence nor descent into shadow, valuing neither authority nor compassion. There can be no sadder symbols of that than today’s superheroes." - Gerard Jones in The Comic Book Heroes, 1997 edition.

For Critic’s Notebook I reviewed The Amazing Spider-Man 2, a pre-fab artefact that ploughs horizontally through a whiteboard’s worth of narrative bullet points drafted by committee. Simple escapism is in short supply; Bly’s transcendence is pretty much out of the question.

Everything is connected. This is what happens when superhero films become consumable items, and this is what a consumerist interaction with art looks like. The endless rinse-and-repeat cycle of a fantasy film’s over-anticipation, release-day analysis in a swoon, and vague disgruntled disappointment in the rear view mirror isn’t just a question of critical faculties; it’s a matter of biochemistry, of low-level addiction to mild legal highs and the nature of the following comedowns. And this cycle isn’t some accidental by-product of a corporate business model; it is the business model itself. It’s what creates franchises out of single discrete works, the goal of boardrooms everywhere. It’s not rocket science.

Neither is film reviewing in theory, although the job can make heavy weather of the simple things - like spotting that reviews of superhero films are as culturally necessary as reviews of chocolate bars, and must draw their agency from something other than a vague impulse to Warn The World. That way lies irrelevance.

Film criticism on the other hand is the dialogue between a film and the culture it enters on release, and is more relevant than ever. But its practitioners need to keep a firm grip on the handrail when those films are the culture incarnate. Lose sight of whether you’re looking at the cart or the horse and things can get sticky. A shortage of broad inclusive cultural perspective is the Achilles’ heel in a lot of film criticism most days of the week; gently incubating such a thing would be a step in the right direction. So would fewer films as horizontal as The Amazing Spider-Man 2.

tiny stars

More technology stories:

Adaptive optics gets better all the time at sifting out noise and interference from beams of light, as the actuators and sensors involved become more responsive and the number-crunching gets faster. But after getting itself established in large-scale sciences like astronomy, where firing lasers into the upper atmosphere to create temporary guide stars isn’t a novelty any more, AO is starting to turn up in applications at the opposite end of the scale.

Last month I spoke to a team at Oxford University who are using AO in super-resolution microscopy, a technique which already tweaks the optics to peer more closely at a specimen than the physics normally allows, and which might soon be able to peer even harder.

And in Maryland, a group at the medical research institute founded by Howard Hughes is applying the astronomers’ macro-scale approach to fluorescence microscopy, creating guide stars only a few microns across in the brains of live zebrafish embryos. An idea to conjure with.

down the tubes

A review for Critic’s Notebook of Pioneer, Erik Skjoldbjærg’s conspiracy story set at the start of Norway’s economic miracle in which deep-sea diver Aksel Hennie gets on the wrong side of history. The thriller aspects require the odd car crash and hallucination, although none of that stuff is as interesting as the bits involving actors climbing in and out of decompression chambers in ratty knitwear, looking suitably harassed. Stephanie Sigman turns up, an intriguing piece of casting that the film makes no effort to turn into anything at all; but she wisely opts not to climb in and out of anything,