Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Entertainment in Three Dimensions

I will state upfront that I have generally been uninterested in 3D movies. Used to be they were mostly schlocky horror movies that used the technology simply to scare viewers by throwing axes at the audience. That has changed. Not to say that there aren't a number of movies that still use 3D as a scare tactic, but it's found more mainstream support over the last few years. Still, I have consciously avoided the 3D versions of movies I've wanted to see.

Over the last year, it seems that every animated flick or adventure movie was released with a 3D version. It had become such a 'must have' thing that Clash of the Titans, originally shot in 2D, had 3D bolted on after the fact. According to some reviews, the result was lackluster, but then most didn't seem charitable about the movie itself either. Until this last weekend I had only seen one major motion picture in 3D and that was Ice Age 3. I only saw the 3D version of that because I was going along with others. If it had been my choice I would have seen it in 2D instead. As the number of movies released in 3D increased I did find my curiosity peaked and wondered about seeing one in 2D then again in 3D, but I never really got around to it. Partly this was not being excited enough about most of them to want to see them twice in the theater. Partly it was the roughly $3 premium the 3D versions commanded. Not a huge sum of money, but added to the regular ticket price and something from the concession stand begins pushing even a matinee towards $20.

This changed for me last weekend. I was in a blah mood and figured a movie was a good idea, so I checked the listings. While scanning the current releases I found myself drawn to the Avatar re-release that was supposed to include additional scenes. Seemed like a good choice. I'd seen it in 2D back in December, so I would have some means of comparison, and there's no doubt that it's a visually impressive movie. After a brief debate I figured 'why not?' So I ponied up over $9 for a matinee show, grabbed some snacks and my 3D specs and headed in.

For some reason I was a little surprised to see the previews in 3D, though I'm not sure why it should have been unexpected. I settled into my usual spot down front and as close to center as possible. My usual preference is to be close enough that the screen pretty much fills my vision. Feels more immersive somehow. Soon after the movie started however I realized that this wasn't ideal for 3D. Why? The glasses have pretty small lenses and I found that sitting that close meant that I was often turning my head a little to see things clearly towards the edges of the screen. I could have moved, but ultimately didn't. The place was just full enough that I wouldn't have gotten a good center seat without going to the back of the theater. After a little time I got used to it and only occasionally noticed the lens issue.

As for the overall experience, I was not overwhelmed. Certainly some scenes were more spectacular and visually stunning in 3D, but I didn't feel that it was enough to overcome the price and the requirement for bulky glasses. In fact I often felt like I was watching the movie through a tube. As long as I looked straight ahead, it was OK. But if I looked down at my drink or snack, what wasn't a fuzzy mess was partially blocked by the heavy frames of the glasses. It really yanked me out of the experience. Another issue was the feeling that the lenses were not very clean. The edges seemed fuzzy to some degree. I didn't think to look closely when I left to see if that was true or if it was just the nature of the small lenses.

In the end, I still feel little if any desire to go 3D. The bulky glasses, with such small lenses make it very easy to be distracted and taken out of the action. They often felt like a barrier, as if I was watching the movie through holes in a wall. If they were lighter and could be made with a more 'Oakley' style wrap-around design it would make a huge difference. However I suspect that one reason the lenses are as small and flat as they are is due to limitations in the current technology. As long as glasses are required it seems to me that 3D is little more than an interesting gimmick. While it can make the visuals pop at times, overall these occasions were not enough to sell me on it. I want to be able to lean back and get lost in the film, not keep shifting my sightline and wondering if the glasses are dirty or not. And it's obvious that I would have been better off farther back, despite my preference for sitting closer. In the end I felt that the limitations of 3D pulled me out of the movie far more than it immersed me in it. This isn't to say I'll never see another movie in 3D, but it's not my first choice. Once the technology finds a way to deliver 3D with no eyewear required, then it will be much more interesting to me.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

A Book Review: War

The war in Afghanistan conjures up many things for Americans. But unless we've got a loved one in harm's way or have lost someone there, we usually focus on the larger political issues. We think about the Taliban, Al-Qaida and the 'terrorist connection' or maybe about Pakistan's tepid response to extremists operating out their side of the border. What we don't think about is what it's like to be an infantryman, spending 15 months in one of the tiny outposts scattered about Afghanistan's frontiers. That's what Sabastian Junger's book 'War' is all about.

Sebastian Junger is a journalist who's written a number of books, including the book that was adapted into the movie 'The Perfect Storm'. This book was put together from five trips Junger made, often with photographer Tim Hetherington, into the Korengal Valley over the course of 2007 - 2008. He was embedded with a US Army unit, the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team, occupying several outposts in a six mile long valley that accounted for a fifth of all the fighting in Afghanistan. As he puts it in the introduction, he was "totally dependent on the military for food, security and transportation." He often went on patrols with the men and, in one instance, was nearly killed by an improvised bomb that went off under a Humvee he was traveling in.

Much of the book takes place in the area around an outpost called Restrepo, named for a medic who was killed in the valley. This book doesn't address the grand points of strategy or politics, but instead focuses on a small group of soldiers and their daily experiences of boredom, terror and exhilaration. Most of these men are in their early 20's and sent to fight on the far side of the world. Junger introduces you to many of them individually and gives a glimpse into the stresses we, here in the States, can only imagine. Making foot patrols in 100+ degree heat in full body armor and loaded down with weapons and ammunition. Hiking through terrain that is so steep and difficult in places that even hardened infantrymen are left gasping and exhausted. Sudden bursts of gunfire and the latent fear of being overrun.

The book is neither Pro nor Anti war. Its focus is so close and narrow that the causes or goals of the war at large are barely even acknowledged. It's a book about camaraderie and trust at a level that only someone who has been in combat could probably really understand. Junger shows the strange world these soldiers inhabit where the boredom can become so oppressive that some almost hoped for an attack. He also gives us a glimpse into the aftermath of spending months in this environment. In one instance Junger relates how one of the soldiers, when he returned home, instructed his mother on the only way to wake him. He told her to touch his ankle and call his last name. This was how he was always awakened for guard duty. Anything else could mean they were being overrun.

This book shows very well the hardships and the toll this sort of experience exacts on young men under fire. But more than probably anything else, we see love. The kind of love that transcends the simplistic view of whether you like or dislike the guy next to you. Either way, you know that you'll risk your life for him and he for you. It's not a matter of bravery or courage in the Hollywood sense. It's a matter of love and trust. These men are driven, not out of some desire to be heroes, but by a soul deep determination to never, ever let the others down. I think this book is a 'must read' whether you support or oppose the war in Afghanistan.