Friday, 18 December 2009

Avatar - A Cinematic Breakthrough

OK then, once again I have singularly failed to write a 1,000 word or fewer review for the Sci-Fi channel. o for those who like to know a little more I'm putting the full monty on here. A little short of 2,500 words, I wrote this immediately upon my return from one of the most important films in cinema history,and fortunately one of the best too. So a sprawling, rambling middle of the night attempt to convey in poor, pathetic words just how different, how awe inspiring and how emotional this film is. Virtually nothing looks anything other than real and there are nothing but excellent performances throughout.

Anyway here it is.........

All of this has happened before? No, it hasn’t.

Kick Ass, hella cool, ill, sweet, wicked, sick, dark, quality, Stunning, amazing, dope, the shi*, off the hook, or just plain bloody good stuff. Pick your superlatives, your adjectives, your colloquialisms, your slang and just plain made up words that sound good, for shizzle. They are all useless, redundant and not fit to lace the boots of the person who cleans James Cameron’s toilet. The man is a cinematic genius. Unparallel in his ability to convey visually and through complete and utter total Mise-En-Scene. You have not seen anything like this before; ever.

I'm writing a review but feel that I can't do it justice on one pitiful viewing. I’m insulting the film, insulting the readers and perhaps showing a little hubris in thinking that I’m going to be able to sum up and appraise the work of YEARS, work that took 47 hours per FRAME to bring to life in a few short paragraphs; having seen, no having experienced this event just once. I feel I should be doing what I had to do for G.C.S.E Media studies or A-Level film studies; that I should see the film 2, 3 or 4 times before I dare to write it up. I wrote a fairly decent essay on Cameron’s The Abyss, a criminally underrated movie, for Media Studies.

I’d already watched the film umpteen times but watched it again several more, taking notes and I even screened in the common room at college and observed people’s reactions to the film. I did the same for the classic Western “The Searchers”. I was certain I was going to hate the film but fortunately I loved it. I watched the film several times and wrote several thousand words about it. Sure it was work I needed to do for academic reasons as opposed to a movie review but I’m not just reviewing a movie here. It’s an event, a pivotal moment in cinema history at least on a par with “The Jazz Singer (1927) the first feature length “talking picture” with Synchronised sound in several scenes. How about the first full length Technicolor films, or watching the Wizard Of Oz for the first time and seeing the Sepia tinged “black & white” world of Kansas disappear and get replaced by a stunning vivid primary coloured world?

 In the film the character Quaritch, played to absolute perfection by Stephen Lang, states “You are not in Kansas anymore”; almost as if to remind the viewer that a jump has been made in this film too. It may not be as obvious as going from sepia to colour, the entire film is in glorious yet invisible 3D, (stereoscopic 3D for the nitpickers), but a nudge in the direction that whilst what you are looking at may not seem too different from the 2D film you saw last week with “only” the depth of field to remind you at first, no spears or yo-yos flying into your eyes saying THREE DEE, look we’re in THREE DEE! But the whole experience is just, better because of it. Sure you can watch Star Wars & Star Trek or Goodfellas, The Godfather or Crouching Tiger on an old style 24 inch CRT TV set; the films are still good, well acted, well made but you’re in no way going to enjoy the experience or get close to what was intended visually as much as you will with a 40 inch plus 1080p HD TV with digital 5:1 or 7:1 surround sound. You just aren’t.

Avatar is filmed in a way no other film comes close to. Not Beowulf, not Coraline, certainly not the soulless “Disney’s A Christmas Carol”. Everything is just that bit more real, that extra bit more thrilling or heart breaking. Here is the use for 3D. All movie making tools, like tools in real life, can be used well or used poorly. The reverse Zoom remains one of the most potent and useful tools in a directors armoury. Though it may as yet never have had a better use than in Jaws when poor Chief Brody sees a shark in the water and that magnificent reverse zoom draws the background in close and keeps his face in close up focus is movie legend. In the hands of a lesser director, Roland Emmerich please step forward, it gets wasted, not only because it is used more than once in quick succession completely taking away the impact of the technique but also because it was poorly paced and, in one case, cut partway through. The green screen colour shenanigans of Sin City and 300 are central to the success of those films but, sadly, a complete waste of space in The Spirit. Cameron is a master for sure and he has shown what can be done if 3D is used as a means to further the story, to better tell a story in a visual medium with the best, most immersive visual tools available.

Once again it is a must see film. Whether the story appeals to you or not, whether it is the kind of film you would normally watch or not it is simply a film that anyone who has any idea that they are a film lover simply must see.

To take it back to film studies I had to study a film called “The Birth Of A Nation”. It’s an infamous film for two reasons. Firstly the film is about the birth of the Ku-Klux-Klan. It portrays them as brave heroes banding together to protect the poor white Southern belles who were left behind whilst their husbands, brother and sons went off to war with the slave freeing North. The ladies all being at the mercy of the nasty, savage lusty Negroes. All important black characters played by white actors in black make up of course. The other reason is because it is simply a magnificent film. So many of what we still take for granted in film lore was showcased in that film. Cross cutting with dramatic music from one set of characters racing to get somewhere and another set being attacked, or setting up an ambush. A horrible film, but very important. What has this got to do with Avatar? It’s just a reminder that you don’t always have to like something, or what something has to say to appreciate its significance or that it is a genuine milestone. You may find the film’s nature VS technology storyline isn’t to your tastes, being a huge Miyazaki fan I loved it, but you can still appreciate the sheer beauty of the film and the way that the 3D enhances the genuine three dimensional feel of the film. Swooping up and down Pandora, through Pandora is just so much more vital, kinetic and real because of the enhancements of the 3D filming.

There were tears at the screening I went to, from several people. I don’t know if it’s because I went to the film with women, and there were several others around where I sat that made it seem to have more of an emotional resonance with the audience than it actually did but yes there were tears. I found myself in the bizarre situation of feeling sad about the death of a tree. A tree “dies” in this film and it is tragic, heartbreaking I dare say as tragic as any death I may have seen in any film. A TREE! That’s how good this film is. It is so well directed, so well written, so well performed AND with an amazing motion capture system that translates the facial expressions, the nuances and most importantly the eyes of the actors. You get a genuine performance here and it serves to make the Na’vi look even more real than the fantastic FX guys could have dreamed. James Cameron gets everything right here, including the dialogue. The perfect use of two simple words “my Jake” shows as much. Still a master of banter, see Aliens & The Abyss for a refresher course, Avatar is sprinkled lots of subtle jokes and a decent share of laugh out loud moments to counter balance the many themes and allusions. From both Gulf wars, in particular the treatment of wounded or ill soldiers, to the dangers of losing sight of nature through the support of ever better technology, the pursuit of money at all costs; The displacement of “weaker” species and the assumption that we are smarter than everyone else. The film is not, by any means, anti technology, here Sigourney Weaver and her colleagues are using cutting edge tech to learn and enhance mankind’s knowledge and understanding. Like Star Wars before it this film draws on many others; from Last of The Mohicans to The Princess Mononoke and Castle in The Sky, the story of Pocahontas, The Mission and more. Once again Cameron takes social commentary and hides it in a spectacular film.

Here’s where I get to the problem. You see I liked Iron Man. I thought it was lots of fun and very well made. I have been looking forward to the trailer for Iron Man II and have high hopes for it being even better than 1. But here in Avatar we’ve had flights on the back of “Dragons”, taking us in all 3 dimensions. Again it isn’t the fact that we get a lot of objects thrown in our faces, it’s the depth of field, the way that the makes the action come alive. In a way that 2D just cannot replicate. So no matter how good it looks or how fantastic the action it will be it won’t be in 3D. It won’t have that extra thrill that bit of good old movie magic.

Yes the state of the art has improved people and it’s going to be a while before we see the likes of Avatar again. It will be interesting to see if the Screen Actors’ Guild finally gets over their fear of being supplanted by Synthespians and look at the performances here. The eyes the facial expressions as well as the body language has been masterfully captured and transferred, unerringly to the CGI Na’vi and Avatars. If you’ve ever seen Sigourney Weaver act you can see that her Avatar, her young mid 20s looking Avatar, is a perfect transfer of her performance. Zoe Saldana gets a larger role than she had in Star Trek but delivers another excellent performance. Here she acts as well as any other actress I’ve seen this year and there is a real chemistry between her and Worthington’s Jake Sully. A chemistry that transcends the CGI rendering of their performances. Whilst Saldana had the privilege of being in another good Sci-Fi film this year, playing Uhura in Star Trek, Worthington had the misfortune of being one of only about 3 good things in the poorly written and poorly realised Terminator Salvation. He has remarked that he’ll have to take a much closer look at his scripts in the future to make sure the quality of film he is in better in the future. Well I doubt he thought twice when offered the chance to be in a James Cameron film and there’s a whole universe of difference in the calibre of Avatar as compared to Terminator Salvation. Of course this is again there’s some irony here given that Cameron created the Terminator and his writing and directing skills have been sorely missed in parts 3 & 4 of that series. I cannot overstate how “real” everything looks. Whilst talking about the film on the way home we were all talking about how much we’d like to live there and how we’d love to live there as Na’vi.

So there you have it as spoiler free as it can be. I know it meant I spent a lot of words on things not directly to do with Avatar itself but I really wanted to put the film into a proper context, to show why it is the most important film at least 30 years and to convey that despite what has been sinfully dubbed as a “tree hugger” storyline we have a film that without 3D would go down as one of the most exciting AND best Sci-Fi films of the 21st century and of all time and that may, in the fullness of time and repeated viewing, Join a few of Cameron’s earlier films in the list of best films of all time.

Golden Globe nominations for best film and Director are sure to be replicated come Oscar nom time, the only question remains will any of the actors will make it. Some of them deserve to, I’ll let you make up your own minds as to who they are when you watch the film. I haven’t seen a better film this year, although I have yet to see “Up in The Air” or “Invictus”. There have been several comments made about the film’s ability to surpass Titanic as the biggest film of all time. Such talk is daft and putting way too much pressure on the film.....

Not because of the quality of it compared to Titanic but just because that film was such a freak in modern movie going times. Making more money every week then dropping tiny amounts in it’ weekend grosses for weeks then months at a time. In the era of huge openings then large drop off Titanic performed like a film from the golden age when TV was still a novelty and black & white there were no video games and going to movies was a way of life. It certainly has the quality to make a LOT of money and to do so for a long period. Having seen it in 3D many people will want to go IMAX, people will watch this film again and again, especially as there will be no way to own this movie in True 3D, at an affordable price, for some time yet.

I have to go but I’ll say it again. A tree “dies” and people in the audience cried. A film has made me feel an emotional tie to a TREE. That’s how good it is.

You are the resistance.

See this film, see it again in IMAX show Hollywood that whilst popcorn movies are fun this, this is our kind of film and we want more please. Clone Cameron now!

Thursday, 17 December 2009

Avatar. Too good for words.

I'll get a real review up soon.I was blown away. Simple as that.

Saturday, 12 December 2009

Avatar: The Weight of Expectation | Sci Fi UK

Avatar: The Weight of Expectation Sci Fi UK

Avatar: The Weight of Expectation | Sci Fi UK

I wrote this this very afternoon. Well i suppose yesterday afternoon and it pretty much got edited and on site straight away. The latest in a soon to be exhausted line of Avatar articles. It could well end up being the film the decade. In fact in several, technical, ways it already is.

Avatar: The Weight of Expectation Sci Fi UK

Wednesday, 9 December 2009

I'll be back..............................

Sorry people, I know I've been away for a while. Long story short I've been really ill and truth be told had a lot of bad news on a family level.

Still here I am and late or not Sci-Fi Channel have finally put up my New Moon review. It's meant to be a lead in to a few more articles about the anti-Twilight fervour and Vamps and Werewolves in the 21st Century. It went on a bit as the website articles have a word level of 900 - 1100 words max and my review came out at around 2,200 words. I did put in a break point so there was a chance to split it in two but it's ended up as a shortened 1 piece instead. That's fine and it still reeads well but I'm putting up the full, unedited version here. Like Twilight, loathe Twilight, it's all up to an individual reaction, but regardless of that I just don't buy into the idea that it's somehow inferior and devoid of meaning. As you can see here.......

Does this make them look fat?

Buffy, Blade and Twilight in the underworld.

New Moon. Vampires do NOT exist!

OK I’m a little late with this as far as the release of New Moon goes but I have my reasons. By now you should have read the two, differing, reviews of New moon here;

This time last year was at “war” with the usual internet bad boys over on such sites as Aint It cool News. War is their term not mine I assure you. You see there was the film, which none of us had seen based on a book I’d never heard of called Twilight. I’d seen the trailers and marked it down as film that looked worth 2 hours of my life. But you see apparently these film was aimed at female viewers, Cardinal sin number one and it had a slightly different take on what a Vampire is, Cardinal sin number 2. There was also a lot of stuff flying around about the books being Mormon Propaganda. Again as I’d never read it I couldn’t speak to that point but as for the rest I couldn’t have cared less. I’ll get into that whole thing in the next part of this series but the thing that amused me the most was that for a few minutes I allowed myself to get into a debate as to what vampires can or can’t do, or should or shouldn’t do. Then my inner voice did a roundhouse kick on my brain and reminded me that Vampires DO NOT EXIST (as far as we know) so it doesn’t matter what any author says they can or can’t do. It’s with that point in mind, and extended to Vampires and other mythical creatures that this review is written. I can’t go into the borderline sexists, borderline misogynistic fervour that surrounds reviews, commentary and so called banter re: Twilight without first reviewing New moon.

So let’s crunch the numbers

According to Variety a little over two years ago when Twilight was being offered to non-US distributors there had been a little over one million copies sold. By last week that had risen to over 84 million! That’s a pretty impressive jump by any standards! It probably goes some way towards explaining how New Moon took the opening midnight ($26.3m) and opening day ($72.7m) records in the US; both taken from The Dark Knight. Even more impressive the film had a global opening weekend take of $266.9m with $142.8 from North America and $124.1 from the rest of us. For those that care we little ol Brits contributed $18.7m to that total.

So why all the borax Ev? Well I just needed to point out how insanely popular both the books AND the films are; there’s also the exit polls giving the movie an A- rating and mostly good vibes from the majority of people who went to see it. (As far as exit polls can tell anyway). Better yet the get out clause for the “haters”, that it’s all just mindless, insipid teen / tween, (who else hates that word? TWEEN bah!!), girls watching these films. Well the percentage of patrons under 21 may have increased since Twilight but there’s still 50% of the audience over 21. In other words there are more people like me, adults 18 or over, watching new Moon than there are screaming girlies.

Now I’ll be fair there is plenty here for screaming girlies to well scream at if they want. The slow motion shirt removals of Edward, (Robert “pasty” Pattinson), or the near permanent shirt off style of the far better looking Jacob, (Taylor “I’m only 17 you lusty M.I.L.Ks” Lautner.) But there’s plenty to pay attention to story wise as well. Now I’ll not try to pretend otherwise here I’m a werewolf man. Pure and simple ever since I was a little kid I knew that if I had to become a supernatural creature then a werewolf was what I would be. Bizarrely enough I even remember praying that I could become a werewolf as a replacement for a fancy dress costume for a junior school party. I was so sure God was going to answer that prayer! So when we get to the description of the Cullen’s life in Forks I screamed out in a whisper,” The native Americans are Werewolves!” I’ll admit, even though I was enjoying the film it jumped up 100 points in my excitement scale as soon as that scene finished; all the more so at the end when Jacob delivers the warning. Now I don’t want to get all Harry Knowles pre Underworld, but Vampires and Werewolves a woo hoo & hoo. Bring on new Moon I thought. When I heard Summit were going all Back to the Future pts 2 & 3 with the Twilight movies I decided not to read the books until I’d seen the first 3 films. 19 months wasn’t too long to wait I thought.

So with no idea how the story would flow, everyone else I was with had read the books and swore not to spoil anything for me, I immediately settled into feeling sorry for Jacob. Sure they didn’t force him to keep his terrible extensions for too long but it seemed to me that the movies are Vampire centric. Therefore poor old 16 year old wereboy was headed down friendship road straight to unrequited lovesville. Worse yet Bella’s love is something Jacob despises, instinctively. You see I saw several themes running through this “simple” film. One of them was the issue of love, real or imagined and its effects on both adults and teenagers. Now for the simple folk in the audience this theme was spelled out in large flashing lights onscreen with the appearance of Romeo and Juliet. Still somehow considered to be one of the most romantic books of all time one of its triumphs is having Romeo be a complete and utter idiot. You see he spends all of his spare time moaning about how he’s in love with some woman he really has no true feeling for at all. E has no idea of what love is, but he thinks he does. Then he meets Juliet and suddenly he knows, feel to the very deepest core of his body that he’s been an idiot, that he has had no idea what country love was in, let alone what it actually was. Now he knows, now he knows true love, that thing that you cannot imagine existing without, that thing that makes every single second of your past life simply a means to bring you to this point, to this person. That your life doesn’t belong to you anymore, but to that he or she you are now in love with. There’s a theory that flies around pretty much every adult that teenagers do not know what love is and are hence incapable of being in love. This stems from the contradiction of parenthood that you don’t want anyone fooling around with your kid (daughters especially!) and that you want them happy and married with dozens of kids. To me this film tackles that head on.


Turning 18 at the movies start, Bella is technically and adult, but is she really in love? Truly, madly deeply? Or just that teen approximation that feels oh so, so important, but as Romeo discovered is not the real thing. Edward knows of this, stuck at 17 but with a century’s wisdom he knows that as 18 turns to 21 to 23 that love turns out to be just an intense liking mixed with lust and hormones. This is why he keeps asking Bella for time. Jacob is only 16 with an almighty crush on an older woman, even if it’s only a couple of years older, and a terrible, X-Men like puberty issue making whatever he does feel somehow exponentially greater. His is most likely to be that teen love that burns hard and bright but oh too fast and all too soon is gone. I maybe wrong there as far as the books go, but I think Chris Weitz does an excellent job here, no doubt drawing on his good experiences with American Pie and About a Boy, to take the three paths of discovery and run with them, never quite giving away the final destination. Edward is definitely in love, Bella and Jacob think they are and we are there to see if they do and what it means.

So there I am feeling sorry for Jacob identifying with that whole teenager feeling so much for that girl that you got to just a week, a day an hour too late. Still friends and forever thinking if I’d only asked her out yesterday! Seriously that happened to me. Asked a girl out at 9 in the morning when the other guy had been smart enough to ask her at 7pm the day before! Aaaarrrggghhh!!!

That miserable cry of self pity leads me down the road to another theme I saw in New Moon; Emotional instability, the infamous scourge of the hormonally charged teenager. I’ll start with Bella. I’ve read a lot of reviews, a LOT of reviews that don’t seem to like Bella’s reaction to effectively being dumped. Now I haven’t gotten the scholars at Manchester University to start researching this but I’d guess most people have had the misfortune / fortune to be dumped at least once in their life. Generally it isn’t a good feeling. When you’re a teenager it sucks like a Dyson on turbo. If you’re in love? How did you react? Bella’s night terrors very effectively set the scene not only for how deeply she feels and THINKS she is suffering but also gives us a reason to believe throughout the rest of the film that the nice, friendly shirtless pretty boy she spends all her time with remains just a friend. Without such an extreme reaction, the director / writer go to the trouble of having her dad tell the audience that it isn’t normal, we wouldn’t really believe it. We should also consider the fact that Bella appears to be more than human herself, as such who knows what could happen to her. Forget the teen issue I’ve know plenty of men and women who seemed entirely unable to function when they lost their husbands / wives / partner. So why should Bella be any different? I know of a person, around 18 years old who attempted suicide over a boy who wasn’t going to be her boyfriend. They weren’t even dating, so my personal tolerance for an 18 year olds reaction to losing someone they think they love is pretty high. Break ups / rejection are still considered to be key reasons for teen suicides too; I would imagine that would be all the more likely in people with low self esteem to begin with. Bella is clearly seen to be completely nonplussed by Edward’s interest in her.

So Bella loses emotional control and her life basically ends as a result, this is nicely depicted in camera rotation that takes us around and around Bella’s depressed figure as the months roll by. Edward continues to fight his instinctive desire for Bella’s blood but better than that even harder is his self control in leaving her so she will not be endangered by the dark side of his world. His Romeoesque lack of control when he assumes Bella is lost to him leads everyone down an ever more dangerous road.

The films actual heroes are the werewolves. We’re given several frightening insights into the dangers of their world. None more so than when we meet Emily, fiancĂ©e of the Wolf pack leader Sam. A terrible scar, which oddly reminded me Quaritch’s in Avatar, stands as a constant reminder of the dangers of the Werewolves losing their temper. A reviewer remarked that a scene where Jacob warns not to make him angry was reminiscent of The Hulk in a bad way. Oddly enough it isn’t Bruce Banner gets mad and Hulks out it is bad news for sure but he’d never harm Betty. Angering the young Werewolves is very dangerous as they are prone to spontaneous and uncontrollable transformations. As in the case of Emily and Sam and the close call Bella has whilst she bravely, but mistakenly attempts to stand up for Jacob. Releasing their excess energies by cliff diving the Werewolves have been keeping people safe from rogue vampires, spectacularly demonstrated in a Peter Jackson style chase through woods. It was obvious that Victoria was meant to survive for future appearances but having gone to the trouble of advising us that the werewolves were faster than Vampires it should have been a wee bit trickier for Victoria to escape. Having seen a similar scene in Avatar where ducking and weaving only take Jake so far and he is twice caught by his pursuer, escaping by the skin of his back by diving into water. A little wolf style surprise attacks from the sides would have been cool too. The effects were certainly better than in the Ultra low budget Twilight, although they hardly made a big increase here, $50m for a movie of this size is miserly and Chris Weitz’s experience, good and bad, from The Golden Compass appear to have served him well. The Black Werewolf is pretty poor but the others are pretty impressive and neither the budget nor Summit’s ridiculously tight schedule have helped the filmmakers here. An extra month or two of rendering time can work wonders, just ask James Cameron re Avatar or better yet Stephen Sommers about his experience with a studio’s tight schedule and a certain Playstation 1 Scorpion King. It was almost as bad as the “snake” in the latest Orange Wednesdays ad! Sci-Fi Wire were pretty brutal in their description of the lighting in Twilight. They make it seem as though it hasn’t been considered at all. It just looks like the director / cinematographer decided that the only way they could make the daywalker angle really fly was if they made everything seem very dull. I get that choice and I’m sure many directors would have made the same one. Weitz doesn’t necessarily have that problem as the Vampire scenes in Forks are minimal. His lighting better reflects and highlights the ever shirtless Werewolves and also serves to visually highlight the world minus vampires. Cinematography is excellent here and yes, it does look better than twilight.

Next a look at some of the different Vampires we’ve been treated to in the 21st century and why are so many fan-boys up in arms over the Twilight Vampires and the Twi-hards.