Sunday, 27 November 2011

The Conversation.

A while back I wrote a post about J.J Abrams' tribute to Steven Spielberg, Super 8. After watching the film and reading my post, here is how my dear friend Simon Overton imagine the conversation between J.J and Steven went:  

[Phone Rings]
Uh, uh, hello?
Hi JJ, this is Steven here, Steven Spielberg.
Oh, uh, wow, hi Mr Spielberg, I...
Listen, JJ, just before we get into all that, I just want to check, you are jewish, aren't you?
Uh, uh, yes, I am, I mean...
Good, OK, let's see. So, I watched your film, Cloverfield. It's a pretty rough cut, huh?
Uh, well, actually, I think the edit's pretty much locked. You see...
JJ, my son, my son, a film is never finished, only abandoned. Now, now, I've seen the rough cut and I have a few suggestions.
OK, but I really think, uh...
OK, here we go. First of all, it's about four twenty-something-year-olds. They're almost in their thirties in fact! What if, instead of four adults, you made it about four... kids! Or five, that would be even better, especially if one of them was a fat kid.
Oh, well, you see, uh...
OK, and how about, instead of the main character sleeping with his best friend of so many years and going off to Japan, how about he's a little boy who has a difficult relationship with his father! Now there's cinematic gold for you!
Well, uh, I'm not sure...
Oh, come on now! It's worked for me in almost every movie I've made!
Alright then. Now, instead of New York, why not set it somewhere nice and suburban?
And instead of running about the place, maybe they could get around on bikes.
Yeah, but...
And that ending? It's too miserable. You really need to have a blossoming romance between the two leads (not consummated, of course), and everybody getting on with their fathers again. Hey, there's an idea! Why not have *both* the main character *and* the love interest have difficult relationships with their fathers! It's like, I dunno, two Indiana Joneses!
But listen...
And the monster. Oh the monster. I'm really not sure. Monsters? Hmmm. What if it were an alien from outer space? Not something terrestrial. And those black eyes have got to go. Let's have nice, friendly eyes... and maybe some kind of moment that involves breathing or sneezing... something nasal, you know?
Well, I really think...
And, instead of it killing everyone without any apparent moral sense, why not - and I'm just brainstorming here - why not make him a kind, good-natured kind of alien that just wants to get home.
Home? But...
Yeah, he can take off in a big spaceship with everybody gathered around. There can be lights, and characters watching while they hold hands with their until-recently-estranged fathers, and a nice rising orchestral score...
By John Williams?
What? No! Don't be silly! You can't have my John... Something *like* John Williams, but not *actually* John Williams. So, JJ, what do you think?
Well, they're neat ideas Mr Spielberg, but, uh, what you're talking about is a completely different movie.
Ah! Now you're talking. A completely different movie! I tell you what, I'll produce it for you. You'll barely notice I'm involved, just like Gremlins or Back to the Future.
Well... gosh, that really would be swell. You know, I always wanted to make a film about Super 8 film.
Super 8, eh? Well, it's a good jumping off point. You probably won't need that idea after the first act, you know, once you've got into the father figures and the aliens and things. OK then, I'll be in touch. Bye!
Errr... OK, bye.

Thursday, 17 November 2011

How I Stopped Being Afraid and Learned to Hate Avatar.

James Cameron was to me what George Lucas, pre Star Wars’ revival frenzy, was to the boys of my generation. His mind-blowing, groundbreaking technologies were an exciting part of what made his films sweeping spectacles and great fun to watch. I admired his film-making ways as much as I enjoyed watching his films and used to eagerly await to be wowed by his latest one. Often described as part scientist part artist, James and later his brother Davie, who builds cameras, Cameron's technological inventions always fascinated me much more than Lucas’ ever did. 

I had a bad feeling about Avatar from the first moment I heard that this is going to be its title. I didn’t, and still don’t, like this name. Imagine if The Social Network was called The Facebook… While The Social Network, in and out of the film's context, is open to a wider range of meanings, which frees the film from facebook,  Avatar, arguably, is a misleading title, and regrettably not in a clever and interesting way. I for example, knowing nothing about the film other than its title as I sometimes do with films, expected a Total Recall kind of film, which I think was a fair assumption considering Cameron’s history with Schwarzy and technology. I wish it was that kind of film instead of what Avatar turned out to be. Alas my pleas have fallen on deaf ears, James can be a stubborn man, and he was determined to stick with the name.

After the incident with the film’s title, things were beginning to sour between James and I, but I still wanted to believe our relationship could be saved. I remembered Titanic, the two Terminators and Aliens and suppressed the memory of the crisis we had after I watched The Abyss, I wanted things to go back to how they used to be; and so I went to see Avatar full of hope and good intentions.

For glasses wearer such as little old me, there is nothing like 3D for the obliteration of the illusion and my alienation from the film. I can’t wait until Hollywood gets over this trend. Since my relationship with Cameron on the line, I invested more than I normally would when it comes to 3D, and went to see it in the IMAX cinema. I must take a moment to mention the IMAX 3D glasses, which turned out to be the heaven of 3D glasses for glasses wearer. Big enough to cover my own glasses without gaps on the side, for the first time I was able to experience 3D without blurry reality penetrating my field of vision throughout the film. You may think this a bit of an over excitement over such a discovery, but those of you who wear glasses and either can’t or won’t wear contact lenses, I think will understand. Moreover, I am sorry to say that the 3D glasses revelation was the most exciting thing to have happened to me in that first viewing of Avatar

Look how big they are!
As I am writing these words now, nearly two years later, I still can’t believe it, but while I was watching Avatar for the first time, I dosed off. A strange experience in 3D. Not only is this a rarity for me in general film watching, and I have soldiered through some hardcore hard to watch films in my film watching life, but more so, this never happened, and never should have happened, to me in a James Cameron film. How could it? I blamed myself. It was a late screening and I was over excited about the glasses and that must have taken all my energy. To add to my guilt and sense of shame, everyone loved it, when I say everyone I mean people whose opinions mattered. I immediately came to the inevitable conclusion: I watched it all wrong. I vowed to watch it again, and be better at it!

For the second viewing of Avatar I went during the day, after a good night sleep and the novelty of IMAX 3D glasses out of the way. There was no way I would even think of dosing off this time, I was sure of it. A few 3 dimensional Nav’i later and I was once again struggling to keep my eyes open. I made it to the end of the film awake, but exhausted from all the effort that went into staying that way. There was no escaping the truth: James Cameron has pulled a Lucas on me. 

The banality of the script, its political hypocrisy, its lack of self awareness, self irony. its pompousness and lack of any kind of humour would all have been forgiven if it was in any way, visually or other, an interesting film. As it were, Avatar turned out to be a glorified National Geographic film. There are many reasons why I don’t like National Geographic type of films, which is a whole other kind of Pandora’s box, but regardless to my personal taste, to be teased with a James Cameron film and end up with this… well… that’s too upsetting; and for someone who is as passionate about cinematic visuallity (yes, I intend to coin this term) as I am, Avatar was damn right insulting.

Unlike most people I know, I didn’t find the Pandora interesting or appealing in any way, especially not visually. I was more impressed by the parts of the film that were shot in the spaceship. It could be because I am an indoor type of person, but I think it's more likely because while in the spaceship the camera was dynamic and fluid, the use of 3D was more innovative and clever and the framing and play with perspective beautiful. In Pandora the camera, together with the story, have left the building, and the visual, and I suppose the emotional, impacts were left at the hands of the virtual scenery that was the amazing creative achievement of the film. 

Visually stunning in the spaceship.
Since the interest of the film has shifted from the story to the location, which doesn’t have to be a bad thing, particularly when the story is as dull and chewed as that of Avatar, I would have preferred a different location to Pandora. To start with, like Raj from The Big Bang Theory, I find the Nav’i’s relationship with their mythical animals a bit suspicious. Moreover, if I was lucky enough to travel in space in a search for other planets and civilizations, or alternatively could invent a virtual planet with virtual life forms, it is unlikely that I would have chosen planet which represents the concept of native culture as it is portrayed by white guilt. A certain time lords’ planet, for example, would be a direction I would be heading towards.

Focusing on Pandora did help distract from the leading actors trying new kind of acting; none. Sam Worthington’s lack of any acting talent or charisma and Zoe Saldana’s over the top romanticism and so called depth, cancelled each other out, and all that was left were the villains and Sigourney Weaver, who was also the only one who supplied the one moment of Aliens related humour, in the film. It was hard for me to believe just how seriously Avatar took itself, considering how much banality and how many clichés have been piled upon it.

After salvaging the very fragile glimmer of story that got lost in the disco forests of Pandora, it was hard for me not to put my hand to my forehead and shake my head in despair. One could point out all other films that told a version of the Pocahontas story; the only one I saw was Terrence Malick’s The New World, and none of which really attracted me, but I rather direct my frustration at the bigger picture. How can such and aggressive film that takes so much pleasure in the display of violence, preaches pacifism and why? This probably wouldn’t have bothered me as much if it wasn’t joined by the trendy and tedious fascination of the white western world with the latest non white religion, philosophy and way of life. When it’s not the Far East, the Asian Indians or the African tribes, it is Native Americans. I will try and keep my political rage at this so called enlightened perception of the culture the white men used to oppress, kill and destroy, to a minimum, but I feel the need to express just how repulsive I find this glorification of the non western non white cultures.

The Nav’I are so perfect and magical, they are one with the universe and clearly not only have they figured out the meaning of life, but it is a wonderful one and it is the right one. They don’t need books, television, alcohol, drugs or rock n’ roll, they don’t have sex they only make love and everything is romantic and wonderful. They clearly don’t need clothes because their blue skin and artistic body paintings is all they need to keep warm, they haven’t got any money problems, emotional pain or moral dilemmas no wonder I got bored. The Nav’I and their perfect ways are so flat they probably wouldn't even hold my interest as a painting. Isn’t it great that the Cameron brothers had a western education and white money to to create the illusion, based on their own white guilt perception, of the most perfect, better than humans, yet most boring species in the universe? At least the evil people with the guns brought some excitement into the film and saved me from the having to stare at more shiny black lit flowers, trees and birds.

There was however, one very curious aspect to Avatar that prevents it from being a complete disaster and even, against my better judgement and the title of this post, makes me hate it slightly less. Avatar, in a way, is a victory for the spectacle and the pure cinema. Not only has it brought “the people” physically back in to cinemas, but I believe it made a point that would make 57 (or more) film academics punch the air. In the case of Avatar, the story is not only not everything, but is altogether unimportant. Even if you disagree with me and think that the story of Avatar is the greatest story ever told, unlike Titanic, which I will write about in my next post, it is not the story that brought the people to the cinemas, it was Pandora. That. to me is a remarkable and an incredibly interesting achievement, and despite my disappointment and deep aversion towards Avatar and the idea of its sequels, I still can’t turn my back on James Cameron.    

Friday, 11 November 2011

A Celebration of Tintin

I wanted to open with an apologetic confession about my ignorance of Computer Generated Imagery; a quick internet investigation made it clear that my confession and so my apology will have to stretch a little wider and bear a deeper regret, because it was revealed that I am not entirely sure what exactly does the evasive umbrella of CGI cover.

Since in confession we deal, I should probably also mention that Tintin was not my childhood hero. I was aware of his existence, after all I am half Belgian, and I may have even read a book or so as a kid, but my strongest memory of Tintin is that I called him Tuntun and disapproved all other pronunciations. Neither Tintin, nor Tuntun, were a huge part of my life. I was more of a Garfield kind of gal. Phew, that’s a weight off my shoulders.
Tintin himself is not clear about the definition of CGI

When The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn ended I had no doubt in my mind that I will watch it again and at the same time I felt a strong urge to revisit the books with better attention this time. The love and respect the film has for its original was infectious and I got carried away with it, wanting to say hello to Tintin and see what he's been up to since we last met. It was the film’s visual richness and Spielbergism that made me want to go back and watch it again.

Though I can and have been impressed by CGI and animation effects in the past, I can’t say I ever went to any film with extreme CGI/animation/SFX anticipations. The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn was no different. My expectation were primarily Spielbergians in nature, but after seeing Steven Moffat and Edgar Wright’s names in the opening credits, a combination that surprised me as I read nothing about the film prior to watching, and confused me because it would have never occurred to me to match those two together, I was ready to spontaneously combust. A MoffWrightian symphony, which Spielberg would fabulously conduct in perfect harmony, was the form my expectations took. With the greatest respect to Joe Cornish, whose radio career I still prefer to his cinematic début, for me it was all about the two Steves and the Edgar, and boy what a delicious combination that was.

I have read and heard quite a few complaints that claim the script was weak. I think the complainers and I must have watched different films. In the Tintin film I watched there was action, a thrilling adventure that took the characters and the viewers all over the world, which I think is an essential part of a basic Tintin story, a friendship was formed, there was great humour, great characters and the most amazing dog, and I'm actually a cat person. 

More expressive than a real dog!

Some accusers of bad script, thought that Tintin talking to himself, describing his actions, was silly and annoying. I would like to point out that technically he talks mostly to his dog, Snowy, and only occasionally to himself. You could argue that Tintin's dog is another aspect of his personality and therefore dog or not he is essentially talking to himself, but that's a whole new cat in a sack. I utterly loved Tintin's narration of his life, whether to Snowy or himself. This simple device served two purposes: it helps the film transfer the feel of a comic book and it uncovered another sadder side to Tintin's character.

No other comic book based films I watched, good or not so good, managed to capture a comic book experience. They may be cinematically brilliant, tell a great story and have wonderful meanings and insights, whatever they do they would remain film experiences, independent from the comic reading experience.There was something about Tintin talking to himself/his dog that captured, in my view, something of the comic book feel, like the artificial extra dimension a comic book creates when writing BANG or my old favourite KARRANG. Tintin's external/internal monologues portrayed that better than Edgar Wright's attempt in Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, in which he added the noise effects words to the film. In addition Tintin’s conversations with self and dog shines a gloomy light on his character: with all the adventures he’s been through and all his popularity, at the end of the day Tintin is lonely and has no one to talk to. When friendship with Haddock happens the self and dog chatter disappear. It reminded me of this brilliant website called Garfield minus Garfield that does exactly what its title says. Jim Davis himself was, pleasantly I should say, surprised at how dark, manic and depressing Jon Arbuckle becomes when his beloved cat was taken out of the comics. I did say I was a Garfield fan and a cat person. Ho... if only it was Spielberg that made the Garfield films... 

They say it’s possible to have too much of a good thing, but in The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn the combined forces of Wright, Moffat, Spielberg and even Joe Cornish produced a gorgeous outburst of fun and joy.

The wow effect of Tintin, however, has to be visual perfectionism of it. It wasn’t the technology, though it is an impressive one, and it wasn’t the special effects, though they too are quite impressive, for me it was the unbelievable and accurate attention to details, the beautiful framing and the camera, or whatever the parallel to camera that was used, movement and fluidity. Indeed it was an overwhelming technology that made it happen, but it was its result that took my breath away, and it did it without pulling focus (an industry pun intended) from the film. Unlike other films (cough, Avatar, cough), the spectacle was not there to cover up for a bad story, lack of it or anything interesting to say. The visuallity, so beautiful I had to invent a word, of the film joins everything else in the film to create a celebration of Tintin.
I won’t mention the opening credits and the following opening scene, I believe every person that wrote spoke of or simply mumbled Tintin to themselves or their dogs, has referred to that fantastic opening, but the opening, as openings often are, is only the beginning. From a brilliantly expressive Snowy, whose expressions were so precise and comprehensive, I could hardly take my eyes of him, to the obsessively detailed edge of frame and background action, which as I understand was done in the comic books’ spirit, and were so eventful and dynamic they could be made into Pixar shorts, watching The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn was like looking at a picture of Van Gogh. All one can do at the sight of such art is bow with awe (rhyme was not intended but I'm going to pretend it was). That was all I could do.