Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Flight of the Na'vi-gator

Not sure if the title makes any sense, but I just had to sorry. A couple of little tangential things before I get stuck into Avatar:

(i) If there were any doubts in my mind as to whether this film would take off at the box office, they were destroyed by the crowd that got up before 9am and wandered into IMAX theatre on Queen Street on a SUNDAY MORNING. That's what you call pulling power. That's KEEN. I was one of them - but I got lucky at the last minute finding one decent seat for that screening; the sessions this week were all chock full, and unless you don't mind cranking your head upwards the IMAX screen, you weren't going to get a seat with a reasonable view (and for this film that means everything). But yeah, Avatar is currently performing peachily all over the world.

(ii) SkyCity Cinemas really need to look at their quality control, at least the one on Queen St. These days I'm never surprised if something goes wrong with the projection there. The volume might be too low, the bulb too dim, the wrong lens is on, the framing is off, etc. At this particular Avatar screening there was a 5-minute gap of nothing between the gazillion ads that played and when the film started (we were told the volume needed adjusting; hello let's do it before people arrive...). And the box office didn't open until after 30 minutes before screening, and the kiosks weren't turned on so those who booked tickets via EFT-POS can't pay there and had to queue up, speaking of which, how about clearly delineating where booked tickets can be picked up? There were a bunch of people queuing up on the left, when it turns out you can pick up your booked tickets at the normal ticket counter. Anywho, rant over. Call me a crank, but I just like a consistent standard of service for the $20 ticket I shelled out for. Having said all that - I am very thankful for their new user-friendly website.

Now Avatar. It's hard to not be affected by hype of this scale. It's the most expensive film ever made. It's going to revolutionise cinema. It's James Cameron's first film in 12 years. So for those who say "forget about the hype": I can't. When words are that big, it's impossible not to judge the film based on expectations produced by such grand proclamations. I don't think it's unfair. I'm not saying it's a good or bad thing - I certainly wouldn't expect any less from a guy who declares he's the "King of the World" upon receiving his Oscar for Titanic - but simply: if you talk big, we're going to expect big. Any less, well, we're going to pick at it.

I'll get the good stuff out of the way first. I think James Cameron is a terrific action filmmaker, one of the best in Hollywood. He knows how to make a killer B-movie with A-level materials (Terminator 1 & 2, Aliens). In Avatar's climax, it was refreshing and invigorating to watch complex action choreography involving numerous elements - flying creatures versus battleships, arrows versus machine guns, and an eye-full of background detail - shot and cut in a way that every moment made sense spatially. After ADD headaches like Transformers 2, Avatar restores your faith that more classically conceived action sequences are still possible today, even with the added assistance - and busy-ness - of CGI (which generally tends to make filmmakers lazy). If anything, the muscular fluidity of Cameron's filmmaking remains in the memory more than any of its technological advancements.

I'm a bit torn about the film's visuals. The natural habitat of the Na'vi mostly looks fabulous, pretty, especially the greenery, and those floating mountains. The hardware - the mecha-suits, the giant tractors - are superbly rendered too if you like that kind of stuff. As for the Na'vi themselves, I don't think any amount of photo-realistic CGI is going to get rid of the fact they look a bit goofy. This is a purely subjective thing of course - I know heaps of people buy into these tall, lanky blue beings - but they are a bit too fantasy-fan-art-ish for me, and just, er, at the end of the day, not that cool-lookin' aye. A few Na'vi tribe scenes also brought back memories of that notorious rave scene from Matrix: Reloaded, which is definitely not a good thing. And I can't remember where I read it, but someone described Avatar's look as a Yes album cover come to life, which I have to laugh in agreement.

Much has been made about the film's "immersive quality" due to Cameron's trailblazing 3-D work. Though I can certainly say the film does have that "immersive quality" in spades, I can't say if it would be any less immersive in 2-D having not seen that version to compare. It's bizarre though, 'cos Avatar's 3-D is one of the least 3-D films you'll see. This isn't like seeing Beowulf in 3-D. The subtleties of Avatar's 3-D do contribute to the viewer's immersion into an alien environment, but it's not the only thing that's doing that, or even necessary. Use the fanciest 3-D you want without a competent grasp of basic tools like absorbing characters, story, etc. and no one's going to be immersed in your "world" no matter what. The "flatness" of Avatar's 3-D also begs the question, "why even use it in the first place?" I was immersed in Aliens without 3-D. I was immersed in Jurassic Park without 3-D. What other level of immersion do you need to enjoy a film??

I think it's going to be a while before the masses are going to buy into the so-called "3-D revolution". For starters, it's EXPENSIVE (normal ticket prices are already making us cry). Secondly, until the technology is tweaked and fine-tuned so that it's "friendlier" to our vision, we're going to continue to hear of audiences throwing up or getting headaches or just not wanting anything to do with it to avoid such unpleasant occurrences. Bottom line, I'm still of the mind that it's a gimmick that won't replace 2-D film in the near future. It can be great when used well, but I also hate having to wear an extra set of glasses when I'm going to the movies.

Anywho back to Avatar: it's a thuddingly simplistic and badly, none-too-imaginatively written movie. Cameron desperately needs to unload that duty to someone else with an ear for dialogue and an ability to create characters and plotting beyond stock. I understand there's always been that musty B-level cheese element in Cameron's work, but c'mon dude, you've spent enough on this movie to fund a dozen charities for a lifetime, why not scrub up on the writing? Allegorical references to the Iraq war, Vietnam war, 9/11 and Native American history go down like ton of bricks (did I mention Wes Studi is here too?). It is Dances with Wolves all over again. And every other film where a white outsider enters a native tribe, learns their ways, shacks up with their hottest member before they find out he's working for the other side. There are zero suprises in this film. No twists. Not even a shade of grey. Everything plays out EXACTLY as you think it will.

The performances are serviceable, everyone carries their role with as much dimension as the script allows them, which is too say not that much. Zoe Saldana walks away with the most soulful part as the Na'vi babe Worthington falls for; Lang the most beefy, one-dimensional jarhead villain you can think of (look at that nasty scar on his head - you know you're going to hate this guy's guts from the first instance you see him).

If you think I'm unduly harsh on this film and think that I should just relax and check my brain at the door, well, I think Avatar deserves better than that. I don't think Avatar is your average Bayhem monstrosity that gets rolled out annually. There's SUPREME high-end artistry at work here than cannot be denied. I'm ready to appreciate Avatar as an auteur piece. I can even accept it as some kind of Bizarre, Insanely Expensive Art Object Thing. Cameron's heart and soul is all over this thing. But it's no mind-altering masterpiece. It may be technologically revolutionary, it may be startling to look at occasionally, but in all other respects it's awfully familiar, trapped in age-old cliches which it unfortunately doesn't quite transcend. The game hasn't changed.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Sam Raimi Gives Youtuber $30 Mill to Make Feature

Do we really need another giant robot/alien invasion pic? Obviously Sam Raimi and his production company Ghost House Pictures do - in a story with echoes of District 9's inception, a Uruguayan filmmaker by the name of Fede Alvarez has caught the eye of Hollywood execs after posting his short film Ataque de Panico! (Panic Attack!) on youtube. Claiming to have made the 5-minute film, which features slick, heavy-duty CGI work nearly on par with War of the Worlds or Cloverfield, for only $300, Alvarez will get $30 million to make a feature-length movie based on the short.

Call me skeptical, but I honestly doubt it was made for a few hundred bucks. Great marketing story though. Have a look-see and tell me what you think:

Friday, December 18, 2009

The Morgan Freeman Chain of Command

Hats off to whoever created this piece of genius:

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Top 10 Films of the Decade REDUX

I hate making end-of-year lists with a passion. I tend to do them out of occupational obligation, or some strange personal necessity to challenge myself, but I'm never satisfied with how they turn out. The damn thing never looks right. So out of this "personal necessity" I'm going to attempt picking my top 10 films of the 2000s here. But I'm also doing this partially to set the record straight that the list which appeared in Real Groove's December issue doesn't reflect my tastes accurately (The Royal Tenenbaums wouldn't even crack my top 50!), but is the result of tallying votes from all the RG contributors who sent in their lists. Just felt like I need to clarify this, since I've had quite a few people come up to me wondering what IS up with that list... it probably wasn't made clear enough in the copy, but anywho, things happen - now onto the Real List (or as real-as-can-be-at-this-point-in-time, i.e. meaning "will regret once posted").

(Robert Zemeckis, '00)
I'm no Tom Hanks fan, but this is probably his greatest performance to date. The first two-thirds is pure incredible. Stranded on an island. Volleyball. Large stretches of no dialogue. Some of the Zemeckis' best, bravest work.

(Bong Joon-ho, '06)
The best monster flick of the last decade came from South Korea. Stylish and funny, superb effects, a Jurassic Park for the new millennium.

(Andrew Bujalski, '03)
I'm not going to call to this mumblecore - the much-derided term given to the movement this film help kickstart; Bujalski's debut is just a fresh, raw, smart, unaffected "small film" that rings true. A genuine independent gem.

(Hayao Miyazaki, '01)
I think Miyazaki might have peaked with this film. Spellbinding MAGIC.

(Kinji Fukasaku, '01)
Surprised to see this not getting mentioned more in end-of-decade lists around the web. Timely, blood-soaked, hyperkinetic action movie with a brain.

(Gus Van Sant, '02)
Don't care if Van Sant was shamelessly riffin' on Bela Tarr. This is my favourite of his "Death" trilogy. Beautiful head movie to zone out to.

(Shane Carruth, '03)
Ultra-cerebral low-budget sci-fi screwed my mind and I loved it. Nothing quite like it.

(Lodge Kerrigan, '04)
Remember seeing this at the Melbourne Film Festival and being blown away and emotionally shattered. Why isn't Damien Lewis more famous? This is a performance for the ages. Kerrigan should be making more films.

(David Fincher, '07)
Finally Fincher is married to material that's worthy of his perfectionism and obsessiveness. Mystery with no solution. Devil is in the details. Masterpiece.

(Kiyoshi Kurosawa, '01)
If the 2000s felt somewhat apocalyptic - Y2K fears, swine flu, Bush, recession, etc - Pulse seemed to prefigure, and perhaps now in a way encapsulate, this prevading ominous mood that we've been experiencing in the past ten years. As a horror film, it pretty much closed the chapter on the post-Ring J-horror boom, and for my money, it's one of the scariest, creepiest and most haunted movies ever made.

Films for one reason or another couldn't be squeezed into the Top 10, in no particular order:

L'Intrus (Claire Denis, '04)
Read My Lips (Jacques Audiard, '01)
Yi Yi (Edward Yang, '00)
Demonlover (Olivier Assayas, '02)
Session 9 (Brad Anderson, '01)
Werckmeister Harmonies (Bela Tarr, '00)
Ong Bak (Princa Pinkaew, '03)
Grizzly Man (Werner Herzog, '05)
Ratatouille (Brad Bird, '07)
4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days (Cristian Mingiu, '07)
Oldboy (Park Chan-wook, '03)
Gosford Park (Robert Altman, '01)
Adaptation (Spike Jonze, '02)
Femme Fatale (Brian DePalma, '02)
Apocalypto (Mel Gibson, '06)
The Triplets of Belleville (Sylvain Chomet, '03)
A.I. Artificial Intelligence (Steven Spielberg, 01)
Dancer in the Dark (Lars von Trier, '00)

Missing lots no doubt. Next up? Top 10 of 2009. Gahh.

Eastwood vs Pixar

Another genius Youtube trailer mash-up: Gran Torino meets Up! Enjoy...

Monday, December 14, 2009

Avatar Not Blowing Everyone Away

Avatar reviews are popping all over the web right now, the majority of them raving and singing praises about James Cameron's long-awaited-years-in-the-making-sci-fi-epic-that-will-change-cinema-forever. But there are also a handful of reviews that are a bit more cautious, and less outright blown-away, usually pointing towards a crappy script as the film's chief failing. So being the annoying contrarian and cynic* that I am (I'm gonna go into the film with low expectations...), here are a few examples of mixed reaction reviews that I've come across to balance out all the positive ones:

9 First Impressions of Avatar - S. T. Vanairsdale's piece for Movieline is the loosest, wittiest one I've read so far weighing up the pros and cons of the film.

Epic Filmmaking, Epically Bad Dialogue - from, David Chen laments the script, which he says he can't describe as "anything but terrible".

Cinematical's Avatar review - well-written, even-handed review by Todd Gilchrist who says "it's neither the worst or best film of the year".

Chicago Tribune's Michael Phillips, on his Talking Pictures column, says the first 90 minutes are terrific, and "the other 72 minutes, less and less terrific".

Owen Gleiberman of Entertainment Weekly gives Avatar a B rating, claiming "as a movie, it all but evaporates as you watch it".

The always-amusing Mike D'Angelo tweeted: "Avatar ('09 Cameron): 51. Pretty evenly divided between engaging and stupid. Cool concept, lame script, some stunning F/X, I still hate 3-D."

Keith Phipps' review on his Celluloid Heroes blog wrote, "It never took me further than James Cameron’s laptop".

It's kind of ironic then that Cameron's toiled so much over the advancement of technology when his writing skills are - if what these reviews are indicating - rudimentary at best. Which is unsurprising I guess, coming from the guy who wrote Titanic. Anywho I'll reserve judgement until I've seen the film...

(*seriously though, I like reading a good take-down, especially if it makes you think twice about the film. And variety is the spice of life and all that jazz...)

Sunday, December 13, 2009

For the Star Wars Fan with Everything... #5

Believe it or not, once upon a time David Lynch was in the running to direct Return of the Jedi. In this clip, he tells us, in good humour, why he turned it down (can you even imagine a Lynch version of Jedi??):

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Inglourious Basterds: The Comic?

If only! But some crafty artist has gone and created these beautiful covers in the style of Jack Kirby. There's definitely potential for the film to make a great-looking comic series.

Inglourious Basterds is out on DVD and Blu-ray a week from now!

Friday, December 4, 2009

Kung Fu Dream Team Soon to be a Reality

So it appears this guy... going to star in a film with this guy...

...and also this guy...

I'm less enthused about the third guy, but otherwise, what can I say? BOOM. Bring it on. I was actually just thinking about this recently after watching Ong Bak 2. Tony Jaa and Donnie Yen staring each other down. Trading blows. Kicks. Elbows. Pummeling each other. It's every kung fu fan's dream movie. Twitch has reported that this Hong Kong production, called Vanguard, is to start shooting in April.

Take a look at these clips and imagine these two fighting together:

If that isn't the definition of "bad-assery" I don't know what is.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Wild Thing, I Think You Move Me

There was a lot of expectation riding on this one, a LOT. Since the first trailer dropped maybe a year ago, Where the Wild Things Are became my most anticipated film of 2009, though not for the same reasons as others might have, i.e. the childhood love of Maurice Sendak's children's book which the film adapted. I never read it as a kid so I have no emotional attachment to the source, so it was probably down to these things: the promise of watching something truly wondrous and magical hinted at in the trailer (the mix of the Arcade Fire's "Wake Up" and those creatures really did wonders - a stroke of marketing genius!); an eagerness to see what Spike Jonze, whose previous two films I dug (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation), would do next. Let's put it this way: there was a sense that cinematic alchemy was at work in the trailer.

I caught a screening last night but it's taken a long five years to get here. The production history for Wild Things is tumultuous to say the least. Warner Brothers were displeased with Jonze's original cut - apparently a lot bleaker - and to produce something they could agree on, he had to commit to a massive overhaul and reshoot, reshoot, reshoot. Factor in the time to augment the animatronic creature suits - initially the only way Jonze wanted to do it - with CGI, and you have an unwieldy production that's grossly over-budget and potentially a disaster waiting to happen.

Thankfully, while imperfect (and I'd give my spleen to see the original cut), the final film isn't a mess bearing all the seams of post-production hell. It's actually quite a beautiful, lovely piece of work. It still lingers in the mind. There's a voice in my head telling me I should see it again (always a good sign in my book). But it is dark, deeply melancholic, and obviously not a "kid's film" in the traditional sense. The Arcade Fire trailer is a great sell, but also shrewdly misleading; despite the song's strains of sorrow, its heart-thumping, surging progression made the film look more joyous and uplifting than it actually is.

One of the saddest, most rueful films about childhood in recent memory, Where the Wild Things Are is ostensibly about being a raging 9-year-old: the stormy emotions, the restless imagination, hell - the restlessness. One minute you're playing with snow, the next minute you're biting your mum, and the next you'll be sailing off to an island where there are dopey giant furry creatures whom you can reign over and hang out with. After that's over you'll just want to go home again.

The notion of nightmarish or 'adult' themes in children's literature or cinema isn't new. From The Wizard of Oz to Watership Down, kids have long been dealt subject matter that'll upset or confuse them. But Wild Things does an interesting, brave, polarizing thing: it doesn't feel the need to graft these themes - nor its fantastical elements - to a "story". The plot meanders. There are no elaborate backstories. Motivations are left ambiguous. It's relatively unexciting. Have a kid compare it to Toy Story or something and they'll think it's like watching paint dry. But that it's not made directly for children is not to say that children, given their appropriate age and parents discretion, cannot glean something from it. What Jonze has done really is create an experience from which viewers can take what they will from it. It's not an easily pigeonhole-able movie - it's open-ended, without solutions - and in mainstream cinema, that's a freakin' unique achievement to pull off.

I have to echo NY Magazine's David Edelstein's comment that it's "a fabulous treehouse of a movie". I love the woodsy, primitive, minimalist feel of the film, the combination of the Dreamy and the Tactile, from the scrappily scrawled title card freeze frame of the opening sequence to the creatures themselves, whose CGI facial expressions are among the most convincing and human I've seen so far. And I like that Jonze avoided embellishing the creatures or locations with any more CGI than necessary. Everything in this world it felt authentic, every element in place as it should be. Except maybe Karen O - I could've done with less of her songs, or even just gone with a straight Carter Burwell score. Not that they're bad or anything, but they're a bit obvious, and as some reviews have noted, too keenly pandering to the indie crowd.

Wild Things might bum you out at the end, but it'll also make you reflect, on the film, yourself, your childhood, or your children - maybe all of the above - which is more than you can say for the dozens of disposable family entertainments churned out by Hollywood every year. I know I'm still thinking about it.