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Side By Side review

Keanu Reeves wouldn't be everybody’s choice to front a documentary about the relative merits of film and digital cinema.

Then again, having played both time-travelling history student and virtual-reality saviour on screen, he makes a strangely apt guide for Christopher Kenneally’s comprehensive exploration of the medium’s past, present and future.

Reeves brings passion and experience to ask the right questions on an issue that has polarised Hollywood, and his stardom grants him access to an enviable cast of expert witnesses.

Practically every major talent of recent times is here, from digital pioneers and converts (James Cameron, Danny Boyle) to hold-off sceptics like Christopher Nolan and his regular DoP Wally Pfister, who huffs, “I’m not going to trade my oil paints for a set of crayons.”

As the title suggests it’s an even-handed affair, and part of the pleasure is guessing which format these legends prefer - and why. David Fincher gleefully recalls how Robert Downey Jr., caught short by digital technology’s longer shooting lengths, found a radical solution to relieving himself on the Zodiac set.

Tech-heavy discussions admittedly make for a niche affair, but it’s a geekgasm for those fascinated by such behind-the-scenes exotica as colour timing or dynamic range. It’s also an exhilarating history of the tumultuous decade-and-a-half from Dogme 95 to Avatar .

What’s most palpable is the rapid acceleration of picture quality.

As the film lists cameras used to shoot a host of recent releases, it’s obvious that digital now passes the ‘taste test’ to all but the most eagle-eyed. As Reeves asks his final, killer question - “Is film dead?” - he admits to pangs of regret at the loss of cinema’s communal vibe to the Netflix/iPhone generation.

Even so, the film can’t help but take the future’s side by itself being shot digitally.

As Steven Soderbergh puts it: “I feel I should call film and say, ‘I’ve met someone.’”

With film labs closing down and new formats springing up all the time, this is a timely stock-take of 21st Century cinema.

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