Talking Movies

March 28, 2014

The Baz Aesthetic

THE GREAT GATSBY

I’ve considered myself a fan of Baz Luhrmann for a long time, but after Australia and The Great Gatsby, I’ve become sceptical that the ‘Red Curtain’ trilogy was really a deliberate trilogy – I think all of his films reveal the Baz Aesthetic; and it’s being imposed on increasingly unsuitable material.

Deleted scenes are often the most revealing features on DVDs. Baz Luhrmann deleted the scene in The Great Gatsby in which Jordan and Nick’s romance ends. He shot it as Nick taking the phone away from his ear, and hanging up on Jordan. Because in the book it says Jordan’s voice faded away and then they weren’t talking anymore. I always thought that Nick spaced out thinking about Gatsby’s fate and Jordan hung up on him, because that seems far more in character – but Baz went with what is a very literal interpretation. It transpires Luhrmann also cut Gatsby’s famous line “Her voice is full of money”, because it complicated a scene – but only because Luhrmann had put the line in a different scene to begin with… So this is an adaptation in which the text is taken literally, but all the meaning and nuance lost – not unlike Zack Synder’s worst missteps with his Watchmen.

But it is also an adaptation in which Luhrmann’s particular aesthetic is mercilessly imposed upon a text for which it is radically unsuitable. Why does Nick Carraway suddenly want to be a writer? Duh, so that the film can be framed, like Moulin Rouge!, with him depressed, and then, by writing his story, redeemed by art at the end with his completed manuscript representing his salvaged personality. But … what was wrong with F Scott’s original novel that it needed to be Moulin Rouge!’d? Nothing, that’s just the Baz Aesthetic… How else could one justify transforming the small smoke-filled restaurant that Gatsby and Nick dine with Wolfsheim in into a raucous Jay-Z booming speakeasy with black strippers twerking onstage? How else could one explain turning the grand piano in Gatsby’s mansion into an organ that would look outsize in the Albert Hall? How else could one excuse ditching the actual glorious popular music of the 1920s for terrible anachronistic Jay-Z drivel, and replacing the fiendishly complicated dance moves of the Charleston (which are quite the spectacle when choreographed en masse) with pathetic ‘raise your hands in the air’ hip-hop stylings? How else could one make sense of using so much unnecessary CGI that you feel like Avatar had more of a sense of physical reality, and of deliberately ditching the iconic flapper look of the 1920s for more cleavage because ‘sexiness’ is all that matters?

The Baz Aesthetic is excess – everything has to be excess. And that’s fine as an aesthetic; when it synchs with the material, but here it doesn’t. Gatsby gleefully tosses his shirts down a floor to Daisy leading to her tears over the shirts, and Nick adds a helpful line to tell the audience her line about the shirts is stupid – but in the novel Gatsby is distractedly tossing shirts about because he’s in a trance, and Daisy cries because she can’t articulate what she feels and she says a stupid line knowing it’s a stupid line. Baz Luhrmann doesn’t do subtlety or nuance, and that’s not a problem for Moulin Rouge! But if you’re going to shoehorn every property into the template of Moulin Rouge! then that is a problem.

April 23, 2012

NetFlix Killed the Video Store

In this blog’s first cross-over episode Think About IT’s Gerard Healy joins Talking Movies‘ Fergal Casey to discuss the arrival of NetFlix in Ireland.
 
1. What is NetFlix?
 


GH: So, NetFlix is here. What aspect of it should we discuss first?
FC: How about, “What is NetFlix?”
GH: “No one can be told what NetFlix is, you have to see it for yourself,” you mean?
FC: No, genuinely, what is NetFlix? I don’t understand this streaming business.
GH: (sighs) Fine… NetFlix allows you to stream movies and TV on your laptop, tablet or games console. Basically, it’s on-demand TV and films to a computer of your choice.
FC: How?
GH: It’s very much like YouTube. It’s essentially a website (or App in the case of Xboxes, iPads, other non-PC/laptop devices) that streams to your computer, except that it’s a paid service.
FC: So, they don’t post you DVDs in cute red envelopes?
GH: Initially NetFlix offered a “direct to your door” style service when it launched in the US, and it even extended into Canada, but NetFlix are yet to offer anything like this in Europe, and it seems unlikely we’ll ever see it as they’ve been trying to pull the service.
FC: Aw, but if they don’t do that then Netflix guilt is a thing of the past!
GH: I’m not familiar with this concept, but I gather you’re once again lamenting advances in technology, like when you moaned about the death of the cassette tape. It raises an interesting question about the future of physical media, which I’d like to discuss later.
FC: And we will, but damn it all I must lament this advance in technology! I’d rather looked forward to people I know having super-pretentious movies sitting around on top of a red envelope on their television for months on end. The same way people have Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance on their shelves, but really they’re reading the latest Dan Brown…
GH: What’s wrong with Dan Brown?! His books are being made into well-paced, action-packed cinematic adventures. Speaking of which, what do you think of it from a cinematic perspective?
FC: I think Dan Brown movies are definitely not well-paced. Oh, you meant NetFlix! Hmm, well I think perhaps, perhaps, it increases the likelihood of people seeking out offbeat movies simply because it will be so much easier. I think it’s also likely to lead to an increase in dual cinema and online releases as has happened with Werner Herzog’s latest documentary Into the Abyss. But… as much as I’d like to think that people will hunt about in the scrub for interesting stuff now that it’s easier to do so on Netflix, really, to continue shamelessly plagiarising a quote from Brian Eno, I think most people will remain content to stay on the train-tracks of the mainstream. When it comes to physical distribution I think it might well prove to be the death knell for cinema releases for a certain class of films. Into the Abyss for instance doesn’t seem to have as many showings as I’d expect at the IFI, and that could well be because it’s available simultaneously on Volta. It might also act as the final nail in the coffin of film over digital, Christopher Nolan’s IMAX rampaging notwithstanding.
 
2. What impact is it likely to have on the home film market?

FC: I’d say minimal to be honest for the immediate future. The catalogue just isn’t strong enough. The problem is that the new films aren’t new enough, the old films aren’t good enough, and there aren’t enough films to hide this problem. If you were to join this you’d probably get less choice and quality than browsing the catalogue and then reserving titles from your local council library. And that’s before we mention the fact that if you’re on an Eircom broadband package or using 3G mobile broadband you’ll get about three movies watched before you hit your monthly limit for usage of the internet in its totality, and then pay thru the nose to watch additional movies to the tune of maybe your entire monthly NetFlix fee for accessing just one of their films.
GH: Is that scarifying factoid courtesy of The Weckler in The Sunday Business Post?
FC: What do you think?
GH: (sighs) Sometimes I wonder if he said The Matrix was now operational would you just believe him without thinking twice… We’ve already seen the death of Zavvi and Blockbusters on their knees, not to mention Game’s recent demise. I can only see this trend continuing. HMV need to be worried and Amazon might need to be as well. While they’ve innovated with their cloud computing platform (EC2), they are still dependent on their on-line retail, of which DVDs and Blu-Rays form a cornerstone.
FC: I remember when HMV was all music, then downloading destroyed that, then it became all movies, and now that’s changing too… This will hammer HMV when NetFlix get their act together.
GH: I think we should revisit this at the end.
FC: Agreed.
 
3. Why is its catalogue so poor compared to the US equivalent?
 
FC: So, before we address the threadbare quality of NetFlix’s catalogue I think we should first applaud their political integrity.
GH: Because they help stop piracy without needing a SOPA law?
FC: No, because they are, uniquely in the Irish political spectrum, beholden to no special interest group.
GH: What are you on about, Fergal?
FC: Click ‘Special Interest’ on the catalogue.
GH: Okay. (beat) Ah! I see what you mean. They have nothing in this category.
FC: A less charitable person might say this was ineptitude that summed up the whole catalogue, but I see what it really is – a proud statement of their political ethics.
GH: So, the catalogue is different from America because of tedious legal reasons involving individual contracts with studios, distributors, and copyright laws and clearances?
FC: Basically I think it’s the hold-up in getting Spaced released in America writ large.
GH: You actually don’t know do you?
FC: No, I thought you were researching this.
GH: Lucky for you, I did. Looking at it from the outside, NetFlix appears to be struggling to get all the necessary studies and TV networks to sign-up and publish their content. The likes of Sky and Apple have stolen a march on NetFlix, seemingly signing exclusive deals for the territory. Add to that the unclear and generally untested nature of internet copyright law in the UK and Ireland; it can only make the studios more hesitant. The NetFlix catalogue is clearly suffering badly as a result.
FC: Can I step in?
GH: To slate the catalogue?
FC: Yeah.
GH: Fire away.
FC:  The best thing about the catalogue is the action genre. It’s just fun, and heavy on the Statham which I approve. Recently added films, which pretty much sink the whole enterprise for many people, are running about a year behind the cinema with Blitz, The Mechanic and Drive Angry heading the films. The front page promises material that doesn’t show up when you browse the selection: Nurse Jackie, Torchwood, 24, Dr Who, Dirty Sexy Money. When you browse you merely find good stuff like two seasons of Dexter, a whole collection of South Park, and cancelled shows like Heroes, The InBetweeners, Prison Break, and The 4400. There’s no sign of recent essential shows like True Blood, Game of Thrones, or Boardwalk Empire.
GH: Well, we were warned not to expect ‘recent’ recent stuff.
FC: Ah, yes, but it gets worse. Horror is a mixed bag of cult classics, awful shlock, the Saw movies…and the Scary Movie movies. Scary Movie is a horror of a film but it’s not a horror film…
GH: You mean that it’s a car crash, right?
FC: Not quite. I can definitely look away. Sci-fi has some decent films and again a huge amount of genre confusion. Ditto Romance, Bitter Moon and Tokyo Decadence square off with rom-coms. Documentaries can’t tell the difference between genuinely good work and the tendentious conspiracy stuff David Aaronovitch mocks in Voodoo Histories. And then there’s the simply bizarre. Gay cinema hilariously omits Milk and Brokeback Mountain, and Indie consists of unsuccessful British films and good American indie films. The thriller section features Hard Candy (yay!) but it’s sadly sub-par as a section, saving old classics like Pulp Fiction and The Usual Suspects, while British films was so empty after tossing all the UK tripe into Indie they had to resort to dragging in TV like BBC miniseries The Day of the Triffids.
GH: My God, are you finished carping?
FC: Yes.
GH: Moving on!
 
4. Has Hollywood universally accepted NetFlix?
 
FC: Well, kicking and screaming is usually the way big businesses adapt to change. Not for nothing does Forbes advocate Blowing up the Enterprise as a leadership lesson to learn from Kirk. Nokia finally did it, and maybe Hollywood will too.
GH: What do you mean blow up the Enterprise?
FC: Get rid of something you love in order to compete with something new.
GH: What on earth has that got to do with David Lynch?
FC: Lynch said “Now if you’re playing the movie on a telephone, you will never in a trillion years experience the film. You’ll think you have experienced it but you’ll be cheated. It’s such a sadness that you think that you’ve seen a film on your f****** telephone. Get real.”
GH: That’s an interesting point.

FC: President Bartlett said “Decisions are made by those who show up”. Films are for people who go out, and NetFlix is for people who stay in. Lynch should be a bit less precious about new forms of viewing movies because I think generally his audience would be the type that stays in. Who knows, eventually NetFlix might start to fund auteur film-makers to produce his kind of content for them.
GH: But will people really look for films on NetFlix if they haven’t heard of them from the marketing push of a cinema release first?
FC: Let’s not over-state the power of a marketing push, apparently a 100 million dollar marketing budget for Marvel Avengers Assemble isn’t enough to avoid confusion with a TV show that started in 1961 and ended in 1970…
 
5. Will NetFlix see an end to piracy?
 


FC: If you believe The Weckler in the SBP placing a legal option next to an illegal option always withers the illegal option. I think the internet has kind of tutored people to expect content for free, like it’s a divine right. Indeed I read a very interesting piece on that last year. I’m sceptical that Irish people will download legally rather than illegally just because they now easily can. I think there’s a certain ingrained lawlessness in the Irish psyche that regards the law as an unjust imposition, and that any way to get around it is always worth exploring; I could at this point instance the entire nation apparently waiting to see how many people might not pay Phil Hogan’s household tax before deciding whether to pay it themselves. Having said which Moonshiners would seem to indicate the same mindset in America too so who the hell knows? Unless we get silly and suggest that Appalachian dwellers are suffering from a post-colonial hangover too.
GH: Sometimes I think you watch too much Discovery Channel.
FC: Wait till you see the series of Bear Grylls blogs I have lined up…
GH: I agree there will always be a hard core that will always pirate but I don’t think it’s as big as you give it credit for. You really have to start by looking at Google, Apple and Amazon. Once they properly enter the legal streaming sphere, things might really get interesting. That said, faster broadband is key to services like this surviving.
 
6. What parallels can be drawn between the challenges that NetFlix presents to cinema and previous challengers TV and VHS?
 
FC: I don’t think it’s quite the same as those two challenges, especially not TV.
GH: Do you not think there’ll be a flood of epics or innovations?
FC: No, because I think the rise of CGI devalues the production values that were behind the 1950s epics. A cast of thousands back then was a big deal, now it’s just blah because people presume they’re all CGI. That’s why flipping a truck in The Dark Knight had an impact, because it’s become so rare to bother doing something physically rather than digitally. Also I don’t think that HD and 3-D are the magic bullets dragging people into multiplexes they were initially thought to be. 3-D has proved to be a chore as far as most people are concerned, just look at how easy it is to see films in 2-D versions; and in many cases cinemas continue to run those versions after dispensing with the headache-inducing 3-D version. I’m still to be convinced that HD is actually a good idea because it tends to take the filmic sheen off of films. If you can see the make-up on the faces of the actors you’ve actually innovated to the point where the technology has become self-defeating.
GH: True, but one has to wonder what value the average consumer actually places on filmic sheen. The largest draws always tend to be the blockbuster and the best example of that in recent time has to be Avatar, which is an epic and an innovation.
FC: I think NetFlix actually poses a more essential challenge in that it might interrogate the medium itself. Is cinema something that’s visually driven story-telling, shown on a big screen, and viewed en masse? That’s a definition Hitchcock or Spielberg would recognise. NetFlix if it becomes too dominant might make it hard to tell the difference between cinema and television. If you’re watching NetFlix rather than cinema-going, and you’re watching what we’ve talked about earlier, the more personal movies, then at what point does a one-off story of a certain length, with a visual kick to dialogue scenes with high production values, that’s shown on a small screen, become indistinguishable from HBO? What would distinguish two episodes of Whitechapel back to back from a really good British crime movie?
 
7. NetFlix: the future/passing phase?

GH: So, is NetFlix the future or a passing phase?
FC: The revolution will not be televised, it will be streamed.
GH: Are you actually going to be serious now?
FC: Yes, I don’t think it’s going to affect things in Ireland until the catalogue ramps up – which apparently could take as much as a year or two. Right now NetFlix resembles a bookstore that’s opened with half-empty shelves. Yes, it will get better, but why open if it’s not ready yet? But I gather you think different about its potential effect.
GH: I think it’s the start of a revolution. I think it’s going to kill DVD and Blu-Ray stone dead. People will either go to the cinema, or stream films, and–
FC: Can I just cut in here and sort of agree with you in a tangential manner?
GH: Yeah…
FC: Jeffrey Katzenberg said a few years ago that in the future all tent-pole movies would be 3-D, and there would still be 2-D films, but that they’d be small personal projects. I think I’d agree with you that people will either go to the cinema or stream films, and I think they’ll go to the cinema for blockbusters where the mass manipulation of the emotions of the audience and the big screen wow factor is crucial, and they’ll stream smaller films which are more cerebral and demand close attention.
GH: And I think that DVD collections will become a thing of the past, something that’s solely for true enthusiasts like vinyl obsessives building a collection. Novelty box-sets will likely last for a short time before the DVD/ Blu-Ray itself eventually becomes the novelty. This could spawn a generation of DVD/ Blu-Ray enthusiasts like John Cusack in High Fidelity. Even now, I can imagine Nick Hornby drafting notes on High Definition.
FC: I stopped collecting DVDs when Blu-Ray appeared. I just thought “I will never watch most of these movies enough to justify the expense, and when I’ve got my collection to a nice point some new technology will just make it obsolete”. But the whole concept of a DVD collection left me cold. The idea of a bad film being worth buying purely for the extras, or the existential crises over differences in boxes between regions, or special editions with different cuts; it all made about as much sense to me as buying a rubbish book for the sake of a nifty introduction and a cool cover.
GH: Didn’t you read One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest for an introduction by Chuck Palahniuk?
FC: Yes. But I think the true equivalent would be a Dan Brown with a foreword by Paul Bettany explaining how he used the role of Silas to make a feature audition tape for the role of the Joker…
GH: I think NetFlix is the vanguard of Google, Apple (and possibly even Amazon) domination of the streamed media sphere. Google TV and Apple TV seem to only be a few months away, maybe a year.
FC: The idea of Apple TV terrifies me, Google TV a little less so, but Apple TV… (whistles) It just seems like something out of a dystopian novel the idea that Apple control so much of your life, how you listen, how you read, how you communicate, what you watch, on and on and on.
GH: I think I’m not well known for my love of Apple fanboys so let’s not get into a nodding contest here about how scared we are by Apple TV. Do you think the concept will take off?
FC: Yes, purely because those companies have so much power that if they want to synchronise things I think they can synchronise things.
GH: I think that you’d really have to see what they can come up with. Certainly anything that Google and Apple touch at the moment seems to be turning into gold. However, both Google and Amazon are yet to enter the market, and Apple is barely dipping its toes. True, Google owns YouTube, but it’s simply not positioning it in the same market as NetFlix.
FC: So it’s safe to say that this is the beginning of a revolution?
GH: Yeah, I think so. There’s a lot of industry weight behind it and user interest seems genuinely strong, and besides, these things only getter better with time. The real measurement of success is how many studios and TV network sign up.
FC: Can I ask you a strategic question about all of this? Do you see a connection on the macro scale between cloud computing and NetFlix – the idea that we’re moving from the need for constant and often unutilised physical possession to just paying for something in the ether when we need to actually use the service?
GH: Cloud computing is a hefty enough topic, and I’ve covered it at some length. It’s mainly a concept aimed at the smaller business, a way of offering high-end solutions (servers with high up time or premium applications) on a much lower cost basis. Rather than paying for server hardware, data centre storage, server engineers, server licensing, clustering, etc, users simply pay a per-usage rate. Like for hosted email, you might pay for each mailbox for each month of use. So in that sense, pay as you go usage, they are some similarities.
FC: Huh, perhaps Tyler Durden got his wish after all. We’ve rejected the basic principles of western civilisation, especially the importance of material possessions.
GH: I don’t think Fight Club is on NetFlix…
FC: (groans) The revolution will begin once NetFlix have got their bloody catalogue together.

April 16, 2012

The World Will Be Watching

I feel that I’ve been quite mean to Sam Worthington of late, so I’d like here to put forward a theory of his acting which applies equally to Kristen Stewart.
 
I was watching Conan a few weeks ago and Sam Worthington was on, promoting Man on a Ledge. I was amazed to see a relaxed, funny, and charming Worthington. I scratched my head wondering how such an affable screen presence could fail to carry over into his movie persona. The answer is I think related to what might be dubbed a cinematic version of stage fright. I came across Worthington in a pre-fame Australian crime comedy late one night and he was quite watchable. Yet reviewing Act of Valour I dubbed Worthington the baseline of competency in film acting, and reviewing Man on a Ledge I noted that he was an adequate leading man, and not much more; with his ever wavering American accent a constant distraction. Where did this divide between affable actual Worthington and stiff screen Worthington start? I think it was Avatar, where I noted that he wasn’t a particularly charismatic presence. I think the constant duel to the death he’s engaged in with his American accent is a major factor; he’s concentrating so hard on not slipping into Aussie vocal strains that he has barely any mental capital left to spend on emoting in a given scene; but I think Avatar is also the first time that he had to think seriously about the prospect of far too many people seeing his work – and so arrived the cinematic version of stage fright. Stage fright on an epic scale, though, because rather than freezing at the thought of stepping out in front of 300 people it’s cinematic stage fright at the prospect of being judged by over 100 million punters (a very rough approximation of 1 billion in ticket sales at 10 dollars a ticket) that one could expect a Cameron movie to pull into movie theatres.
 
I think this idea of freezing in front of a camera when fame hits applies equally to Kristen Stewart, and has been commented on far more in her unfortunate case. I don’t think Stewart has relaxed in front of camera in any of the Twilight sequels, simply because she is now painfully aware of how many people will be watching her, and picking hyper-critically over every detail of her performance; down to making sarcastic YouTube videos of how many times she bites her lip. Her original turn as Bella Swann was a sterling performance that masked the flaws in the original writing of Stephenie Meyers’ bafflingly anaemic heroine (the super-massive black hole at the heart of the Twilight phenomenon, whose passivity, immaturity and self-pitying and self-destructive nature would drive Sarah Connor, Ellen Ripley, Scarlett O’Hara and Veronica Mars around the bend) by virtue of pure charisma and charm… Pre-fame Stewart was quite a competent performer, from Panic Room to Into the Wild and on to her superb performance in Adventureland, but now she’s incredibly wooden at her worst moments; sadly frequent these days. I think a performance like Adventureland is now impossible, purely because, like Worthington, she knows that whatever she does will be scrutinised by millions of people. Her performance in The Runaways wrung substantial emotion from the weak material but it’s dispiriting to think that a talented actress is going to be reduced to ferreting out roles in un-commercial movies purely to get away from excessive destructive scrutiny.


Excessive destructive scrutiny naturally leads us to Keira Knightley. I think Knightley suffered this cinematic stage fright at a later stage in her career than Worthington or Stewart, and also is afraid not so much of ordinary cinemagoers as vindictive critics. I’m thinking here in particular of the ridiculously personalised savaging that greeted her West End turn in The Misanthrope. Knightley’s early roles were characterised by a delightfully disdainful cockiness (The Hole, Dr Zhivago, Bend It Like Beckham, Pirates) but by the time she’d renounced blockbusters after Pirates 3 I’d started to look out for what in reviewing The Duchess I dubbed brittle acting. Joe Wright seems to be the only director who can now be guaranteed to coax a truly confident performance from Knightley and her performance in The Duchess suffered from comparison with Fiennes and Atwell as in some scenes you could almost visibly see a lack of self-belief flutter across her face. Knightley seems to have taken the Stewart escape route of small movies like London Boulevard, and in Never Let Me Go chose the smallest role of the triptych as the villain and excelled as she regained her dash. Hopefully Knightley’s Anna Karenina will also swagger.
 
Which brings us to the great Jennifer Lawrence, who, like Ellen Page, doesn’t freeze in front of a camera when fame hits. Lawrence dominated Winter’s Bone, which she could safely have expected no one to see. She skilfully portrayed an arc from contempt to compassion in The Beaver, which she could safely have expected not that many people to see. She was affecting as Mystique in X-Men: First Class, personalising the clash in philosophy between Xavier and Magneto and evincing real terror, in a film she could safely have expected everyone to see. And now she’s equally assured as she’s been in all those movies in carrying The Hunger Games, a film which she could safely expect at least 80 million people to pay in to. Lawrence has the self-confidence that Worthington, Stewart and Knightley lack. It doesn’t matter to her that the whole world will be watching: Bring it…

April 5, 2012

Titanic 3-D

James Cameron’s watery disaster epic returns to cinemas but it turns out that making it three dimensional was not the secret to making it good…
 
First off let’s be clear that the 3-D doesn’t add anything, in fact it’s very distracting. Not only do out of focus objects continually annoy you in the foreground, where they were clearly never meant to be the centre of attention of the shot, but the 3-D also renders many scenes hilariously fake; people might as well be standing in front of a painted backdrop at the port in France. And that’s before we get to the completely CGI tracking shot swooping over the ‘digitally recreated’ ship, which was so revered at the time. I was unimpressed then; owing to the fact that it was a boat, we’d all seen boats, and this one didn’t look particularly realistic; but now I can only hoot in derision as the 3-D enables you to note that passengers wobbling about look as realistic as if Morph from Take Hart was taking a stroll.
 
Viewing Titanic in retrospect it’s hard not to see a good deal of Revolutionary Road’s Frank and April Wheeler in Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Rose (Kate Winslet); from their baffling insistence on inserting each other’s name into every second line of dialogue, to Winslet’s whingeing about the stifling nature of prosperity. ‘Poor little rich girl’ is indeed an apt term as Cameron never rises beyond the social and gender politics of a music video, or indeed the aesthetics; Exhibit A, Rose running thru the engine room’s beautiful steam in her white dress. This is fantasy, not history. It is embarrassing to sit thru a movie from the writer of the quotable Aliens and Terminator 2 that suddenly displays an absolute cloth ear for dialogue The painful Freud and Picasso gags render the already dreadfully hammy Billy Zane and his retinue absolute pantomime villains by making them preening, ignorant, sexist snobs.
 
The best moments are dialogue free; the moving silent montage as the quartet plays ‘Nearer My God to Thee’, Bernard Hill’s captain mutely deciding to go down with the ship, Victor Garber’s devastated shipwright waiting for his flawed design to buckle. It’s nice to see members of the Cameron repertory company Bill Paxton and Janette Goldstein appear in small roles, but they hammer home that while Cameron’s sinking is an impressive technical achievement, it’s too little too late. It’s impressive because the huge set gives it alarming reality, but unlike Avatar there hasn’t been enough action to hide the flaws leading up to it. I’ve always suspected that this movie was Too Big to Fail and that’s why the MPAA, subconsciously mindful of collapsing a studio, rated it PG-13 not R in spite of Winslet’s nude scene being dubbed by her character’s narration “the most erotic experience of my life”. With great budgets come great responsibility, and Cameron seems to have decided that a very stupid across the tracks romance was the only way to get Titanic financed. He might well have been right. Unfortunately, that unbearably idiotic story is what sinks the film.
 
If you want a more satisfying experience of what Cameron might originally have had in mind then watch 1958’s A Night to Remember and the last hour of Terminator 2
 
1.5/5

November 25, 2011

Miscellaneous Movie Musings: Part II

As the title suggests here are some short thoughts about the movies which aren’t quite substantial enough for each to merit an individual blog posting.

Deja Vu
I’m finding it impossible to work up any enthusiasm either to read Kathryn Stockett’s best-selling novel The Help or to see its very successful film adaptation. The reason is that The Help is what I like to call a ‘self-evident proposition’ work.

JEFFERSON: Isn’t liberty a great thing?
ADAMS: Um, yes. Were you expecting a different response to that question?
JEFFERSON: No, I just wanted to check that it was indeed a self-evident truth.

Having seen trailers, clips and interviews I feel like I’ve already seen the movie and read the book.

THE HELP: Wasn’t racism in the Deep South in the 1960s awful?
AUDIENCE: Um, yes… obviously – got anything else to add?
THE HELP: Isn’t inter-racial class-divide-crossing female empowerment just swell?
AUDIENCE: Get out…

I praised Emma Stone when I reviewed Superbad for InDublin in 2007 but I’m not about to watch predictable platitudes just to boost her to a well-deserved A-list status. Especially not when the platitudes are wrapped in another faux 1960s package, hot on the heels of Mad Men, Pan Am and X-Men: First Class. I’m a bit of sick of people caricaturing a decade they weren’t around for to make themselves feel enlightened.

The Horns of Desolation
I had the misfortune to stumble across the final scenes of Troy some weeks ago. My Delaney sketches can be traced back to one colour piece in the 2004 Christmas issue of the University Observer where I poured as much scorn as 908 words could hold on Troy. A poorly scripted mess that is stunningly disrespectful of one of the founding texts of Western literature and brought to botched life by a mixture of hammy or simply ill-judged performances Troy is a film that few people will ever watch again willingly. Which leads to the intriguing idea that any work wasted on it could be salvaged for use elsewhere. James Horner scores the fall of Troy with blaring horns and trumpets that bespeak desolation and the fall of an ancient civilisation, and I knew the melody they were playing very well. But I hadn’t seen Troy since 2004 so I couldn’t know the music from Troy itself. I seemed to associate the music with another film entirely but oddly also particularly with just such a scene of a culture being traumatically destroyed. And then it hit me, it’s the music from Avatar! The assault on Hometree and then the final battle – it’s the same horns of desolation. Horner, by association of ideas genuinely composed the same melody and orchestration again, or, (as I hope) directly lifted music he’d composed and foolishly thrown away on a much loathed film and re-used it on a much loved film.

January 28, 2011

Top 10 Films of 2010

(10) Whip It!
Drew Barrymore’s sports comedy-drama about Ellen Page’s smart high-school girl rebelling against her conservative mother’s ideal of beauty pageants by joining the riotous Texas Roller Derby is an awful lot of fun. Filled with sparkling turns from a female comedic ensemble, and some well-choreographed and bone-crunching stunts, the creaking of the plot mechanics does become a bit audible in the second act, but the third act is pleasingly subversive on two counts.
(9) Avatar
This is closer to the Cameron of Aliens than we could have hoped for. The script appears to have been generated by the same computers as the impressive bespoke special effects but, Worthington aside, the actors sell it well, aided by the fact that Cameron remains a master of emotionally manipulative action sequences; with the 9/11 style destruction of Hometree genuinely upsetting while the final half-hour is pulse-poundingly emotive and well orchestrated.
(8) Kick-Ass
A little gem of ultraviolent comic-book capers from the imagination of Mark Millar this faithfully follows the origin myth template but without PG-13 imposed morality; Batman would be feared by criminals because he acted like Big Daddy, gangsters would react like Mark Strong’s exasperated Don. Matthew Vaughn’s script improves on its source material in mining an unexpectedly deep vein of emotional pathos in the Big Daddy /Hit-Girl relationship.
(7) Let Me In
Matt Reeves follows Cloverfield with an incredible stylistic switch but retains his stark vision. This intimate horror features a number of nail-biting suspense sequences and improves on the Swedish version by making Abby scarier and more manipulative, with Owen more complicit, and by re-instating moral horror into this coming-of-age story. Reeves upsets everything we know about Americanisation by taking an over-rated film and making it bleaker and more affecting.
(6) Iron Man 2
A fine and very fun film with excellent cleverly counterpointed performances from Downey, Cheadle, Rourke and Rockwell as a consulting villain and a real villain, and a responsible hero and a drunken hero. The first act moves at an insane pace verbally and is full of wonderful comedic touches. So what if Nick Fury solves the plot for Tony Stark, my gripe is with the inconsistent relationship between Pepper and the poorly used Black Widow and the déjà-vu action finale.


(5) Scott Pilgrim Vs the World
The comedy of the year is deliriously nonsensical, filled with joyous touches, played perfectly by the youthful ensemble (aided by insane cameos), and is chockfull of superb visual gags. It is, like Wright’s Hot Fuzz, a bit too long but this is as crazy and original as big studio films get and, like (500) Days of Summer , characters break-up not because of dastardly secrets but because they’re as fickle as Ramona with men or as shallow/cruel as Scott dumping Knives after two-timing her.
(3) The Bad Lieutenant
Werner Herzog’s ecstatic madness finally returns to his dramatic features in an examination of the bliss of evil. He drags a barnstorming performance worthy of Klaus Kinksi out of Nicolas Cage and plasters the insanity of his recent documentaries onto what is structurally a solid police procedural, before you add iguanas and drugs, and nonsense, lots of nonsense. This black comedy towers above Ferrara’s portentous original aided by a surprisingly reflective ending.
(3) A Single Man
Colin Firth’s stunning performance is only one of many dazzling elements in a heart-breaking film punctuated by outstanding moments of black comedy and shot with an amazing eye for style, sartorial and visual. Director and co-writer Ford has managed to transform a forgotten Christopher Isherwood novel into a compassionate meditation on human relationships and the crushing nature of bereavement and grief which is also sprinkled with hilarious lines.
(2) The Social Network
The founding of Facebook was played out with amazing scenes, lines, and ideas and gripped like a vice with a constant unnerving tension surrounding the actions of central villain Mark. There were echoes of Fincher past in Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ rumbling beats, especially underneath Sean’s first meeting with Mark and Eduardo, and Sean was in a way the Tyler of this tale, whose rejection leaves no happy ending. Sorkin’s script has witty repartee but its emotionally raw opening scene sets the movie’s tone. Favouring Fincher’s pessimism over Sorkin’s optimism makes this an uneasy masterpiece.


(1) Inception
Nolan wins not just for the tremendous redemptive emotional kick the whole movie builds to, when you read the film on its most superficial level where it’s too neat structurally for its own good, but because once you look deeper you realise that this is a puzzle piece worthy of a UCL English graduate; it supports many contradictory readings, none of them definitive. See a loose thread and pull and the garment does not unravel, it changes pattern and remains coherent. ‘Ellen Page’s character is too obviously an expositional device’. Yes, unless her insistence on talking through the plot with DiCaprio’s character is because she’s a therapist hired by the rest of the team to exorcise Mal from his memory… This is a blockbuster rubik’s cube of a caper movie combined with sci-fi thriller, which exploits the ability give physical reality to subconscious emotional scars, in order to dazzle both eyes and mind with spectacle, ideas, and meaty drama.

March 11, 2010

Not Adjusted for Avatar

Following on from the last entry on the malign influence of the sensational reporting of box-office returns not adjusted for inflation, we look at Avatar – its slow-burn success, broad brushstrokes approach in the history of cinema, and its possible heralding of the future.

Avatar has done one unquestionably positive thing – it has firmly thrashed the media and studio obsession with opening weekends. It started slow, not breaking any records as is now obligatory, and was about to be dismissed as a failure for that, when its takings didn’t fall off a cliff after the opening weekend but instead remained constant and then kept making money at the same level week after week. It has since made money for longer than nearly any other film in recent memory. However you can rest assured that this will not be enough to change the ways of the media, which have been reporting Shutter Island as the most successful opening weekend of Scorsese’s career, and then also trumpeted Tim Burton’s Alice fiasco as the biggest opening ever for a 3-D film… Deep sigh.

Marketing can generate enough buzz to generate the opening box-office needed for a lazy headline. Conversely Avatar did not make enough money on opening for a lazy headline and so the focus was, pleasingly, thrown on to its craftsmanship – or lack of it. Perhaps because he was painfully aware of how much money he’d been given for his dream project Cameron opted for the broadest brush-strokes possible to generate maximum return, and it worked so he’s a genius to Hollywood, whereas if it hadn’t worked they’d be more exercised about the lazy derivativeness of his story even if his basic skills at manipulating emotions work. But then isn’t emotional manipulation the core of cinema? Graham Greene said that cinema was a series of images arranged in a certain order to generate a particular emotional effect, Stephen King wrote that American cinema was idiotic as far as communicating ideas went but that for sheer emotional impact its use of imagery was masterful, and Hitchcock’s explanation of the power of cross-cutting in ‘pure cinema’ explicitly prioritises using images to manipulate an audience’s response on an emotional level. I think there’s more to be said about Avatar and so, once I finally figure out what my point is, I’ll be returning to it again in coming weeks. But here, let’s note that its broad brushstrokes approach has a precedent in past stellar successes.

Peter Biskind’s grand narrative (mentioned last time) which prioritised the licentious New Hollywood of the 1970s over the Golden Age of Hollywood seems to assume that there is something fundamentally compromising about reaching a large audience. One would think that an artist would want to reach as large an audience as possible but Biskind’s ideology insists that an artist loses their integrity if they make a film suitable for all rather than narrowing the size of their audience, so that, for instance, Christopher Nolan jettisoning sex and language to get a PG-13 for The Dark Knight compared to an R for Insomnia represents self-censorship and a cheapening of his talent. I would argue that helming a blockbuster in such a way as to make it distinctively a Nolan film is more challenging and it is precisely the ingenuity exercised in the over-coming of arbitrarily imposed limitations that makes it a greater artistic success than the rather ordinary thriller for adults with which he paid his studio dues. It could be argued that the same difficulty involved in working with the Hays Code was responsible for the Golden Age, and it ties in with Stravinsky’s dictum that true artistic creativity needs rules and restrictions, which he frequently imposed on himself arbitrarily to replace the lost discipline of classical tonality, not total freedom. There will be another article in the coming weeks about the most successful films of all time (adjusted for inflation) but it is dominated by films everyone could enjoy. It’s easy to make your friends laugh, it’s harder to make strangers laugh, and Biskind’s idols largely fall into the first category of connecting with a small audience – and then sneering at more popular works as being artistically compromised.

Avatar aims at the widest possible audience but its archetypal story-structure is the zenith of a recent trend towards deeply predictable films – even a charmer like Whip It has audibly whirring plot mechanics in its second act before unexpectedly subverting expectations. That refreshing unpredictability is unnecessary if people can write each scene in a three-act structure with a spark so that you’re too captivated by the content to notice the scaffolding but of late, especially in rom-coms, films seem less to be written than generated by software programs. Arguably cinema attendances are at historic lows because of boredom at this formulaic approach. Hollywood thinks the solution to declining interest in cinema is to trumpet 3-D technology and increase ticket prices but wouldn’t the sensible solution be to make better films? When I saw the trailer for Alice in Wonderland I thought “That looks pretty stupid”, but when I saw the trailer in 3-D I thought “That looks really stupid”. We need to ruthlessly insist that the box-office gross of Avatar be discounted for inflation and its 3-D mark-up because chances are it’s not even dented the All Time Top 10 (adjusted realistically). And if that’s the case then we need to ask hard questions about what Hollywood is doing so wrong at this present moment to have led to such a historic disconnect with audiences, and the answers will not be stories we could write ourselves from seeing the trailers, presented in gimmicky 3-D.

February 25, 2010

Adjusted for Inflation

Filed under: Talking Movies — Fergal Casey @ 5:29 pm
Tags: , , ,

Avatar will be discussed in this blog next week but the coverage of its success inspires this related and very simple question – why is it that every blockbuster that’s released seems to break a new box-office record?

Who could forget what summer 2007 felt like: “Shrek 3 has the biggest ever opening weekend, beating the previous record-holder Spiderman 3, which beat the previous record-holder Pirates of the Caribbean 2”. Notice something suspicious here? How it seems that nearly all the records were set by recent blockbusters? Suspect that there’s an unholy alliance of lazy journalism and cynical PR operating? It’s a painfully easy headline to just rehash the press release from a studio boasting that its latest masterpiece has just “broken the record for the most takings between a Tuesday and a Thursday, before the 4th of July weekend, EVER!” It saves having to think about the quality of the film and its importance, if any. But box-office returns do not a classic make…

There are legions of now revered films from Citizen Kane to Fight Club that did disastrously on release. Critics and studios fought on for them though as prestige movies, and, over time, quality prevailed as their reputations soared while bad films that were more commercially successful were forgotten. Cameron Crowe almost anticipated that his excellent film would do badly at the box office by inserting Gonzo rock journalist Lester Bangs into Almost Famous in a fashion that says as much about film criticism as it does about rock journalism. Art, this fictionalised Bangs argues, is where the uncool can hide their ugliness and transcend themselves. Artists hide behind their work, but rock stars have to be beautiful – they are always centre-stage. In the sphere of rock music the only place the uncool can hide is behind the byline. The journalists are the true custodians of something pure and high-minded that gets lost out there in the hype of tours and record sales. When the sales figures are forgotten enough journalists hammering on about artistic integrity and how something neglected really was great can provide a weird afterlife, like that of The Velvet Underground, who couldn’t give records away and have now entered our consciousness as a pivotal and important 1960s band. So it is that film critics can hammer home the virtues of neglected works and chip away at popular trash.

The obsession with opening weekends, which sees a film sink or swim by whether it can make enough money to be an easy headline for Monday’s papers, is not just a betrayal of this function of journalism it is lobotomising cinema. Quality is not important, as 2007’s summer of the threequel proved. If you throw enough eye candy and CGI at the screen it can, combined with a huge PR push, generate a staggering opening weekend. Once word of mouth gets out it’ll collapse precipitously but who cares? It’s not like you’re crafting anything of lasting value, certainly not a sleeper film that will make money for months on end like When Harry Met Sally did as more and more people heard about its charms.

The banner headlines about record-breaking opening weekend box-office grosses become hilarious if you do the unthinkable and adjust the figures for inflation. Titanic is the only film from the last 15 years that appears in the list of Top 10 Films of all time once you adjust their box-office gross for inflation. No Spider-Man 3 or Shrek 3 trouble the Top 10 despite shrill protestations of their record-breaking popularity. Odd, huh? But this note of reality destroys not only tabloid journalism but recent serious journalism. Peter Biskind has created a grand narrative that 1960s Hollywood was losing money precipitously because it was making films like The Sound of Music instead of Easy Rider. Well Easy Rider‘s box office isn’t worth a bucket of warm spit next to that of The Sound of Music. This grand narrative, which is almost an origin myth for sex, violence and drugs equating to serious drama and less explicit fare being censored triviality, falls apart as the figures prove that when given a choice audiences went to polished escapist crowd-pleasers over bleak grimy slices of nihilism. Star Wars was greeted as the Second Coming after a decade of films like Taxi Driver and Chinatown which critics revered but audiences, reeling from Watergate, Vietnam and stagflation rightly regarded as downers. Spielberg, derided by Biskind as a mere entertainer, has two entries in the Top 10 Films of all time!!

All of which raises questions that will be dealt with next week in discussing Avatar. Adjusting for inflation raises uncomfortable questions about what appeals to audiences by suggesting that people now are in fact historically disinterested in cinema-going despite sensational headlines about record box-office business. So let’s remember, it’s called show-business. Let’s have a little more focus on the show and a little less on the business. Leave the opening weekend financial statistics where they belong, on the back pages, of the Hollywood trade papers…

September 15, 2009

Third Time Lucky for 3-D?

So, Avatar is allegedly going to change the future of film-making, but is the third time really going to be the charm for the adoption of 3-D technology?

3-D first appeared in the 1950s and despite Alfred Hitchcock utilising it in Dial M for Murder it’s remembered best as a gimmick used for shlock horror films like the original House of Wax, ironically directed by a Hungarian Andre de Toth who only had one eye but memorably explained “You only need one eye to look thru a viewfinder”. Right now we can witness something of the same dynamic – brilliant directors like James Cameron, Peter Jackson and Steven Spielberg are all working with 3-D motion capture technology, but the cheap and cheerful shlock horrors will always outnumber the quality pieces. Which begs the question that’s always dogged 3-D, is the technology a brilliant film-making tool to more accurately depict the world as we experience it or just a flashy gimmick?

Once upon a time painters discovered perspective and so rendered the world more accurately than it had previously been depicted. Should we regard the coming of 3-D as the same leap as that between religious icons and renaissance painting? It’s not as if cinema is currently badly lacking a sense of perspective and volume, as anyone who clung to their seats for fear of falling down the abysses of the cityscapes in the IMAX Dark Knight will attest. Is the ‘need’ for 3-D as spurious as wanting to see the Mona Lisa in 3-D? Or is 3-D is to be compared with the innovations of sound and colour? The coming of sound while derided initially as a gimmick in truth merely got rid of the freakish aberration cinema had introduced of silent acting. The coming of colour was also a gimmick at first, something to make Gone with the Wind look even more spectacular or to convey the difference between grey Kansas and magical Oz. If you want proof of the slowness of adopting colour just look at Hitchcock’s career. Between arriving in Hollywood in 1940 and making I, Confess in 1953 Hitch made just two colour films. Between 1954 and 1976 he made just two black and white pictures. The move from glorious technicolour to more realistic colour certainly added this process, the ability to use colour as magisterially as he did in Vertigo helped, but the threat posed by TV in the 1950s was probably the deciding factor. The advent of TV saw cinema do epics, extras, wide-screen and colour – anything in fact to distinguish itself from what the goggle-box could offer. It also saw the first wave of 3-D films but 3-D technology fizzled out.

The second wave of 3-D came at another time when cinema was considered in peril, the 1980s, and this time TV’s cousin the video was the villain. So 3-D films again appeared, I have childhood memories of one film which one involved the hero getting into peril in various burning houses so that flaming rafters could fall towards the audience. I may have missed some of the subtleties of its plot. Actually, no, I don’t think I did. Once again cinema survived, and 3-D did not. Now here we are with cinema under threat from this generation’s big bad, online piracy. And the saviour is something that can’t be recreated except in a cinema, it’s…digital 3-D. Hmm. 3-D has been rejected as a gimmick each time it’s been fan-fared where other innovations have endured.

I lean towards the belief that 3-D has been rejected each time while other innovations have been adopted because it is essentially a gimmick, and for this reason. 3-D films currently being released tend towards two camps. There’s films where children reach out their hands towards the screen to touch the characters (Monsters V Aliens, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs) and films where teenagers squirm at the dismembered body-parts and pick-axes flying off the screen towards them (The Final Destination, My Bloody Valentine). In both cases 3-D seems to be a blank cheque for abandoning serious effort on the script in favour of shallow special effects moments. When the trilogy of heavyweight directors arrive, they will bring a wave of PG-13 thrill-rides like Avatar, but can you conceive of anyone filming a serious thoughtful drama like Good Night, and Good Luck in 3-D? Until the answer to that question is yes, then 3-D will always remain gimmick.

September 9, 2009

15 Minutes of Avatar

If Sigourney Weaver wasn’t in the cast you’d have the horrible suspicion that the writer/director behind this film was not James Cameron but George Lucas…
 
Cameron’s return came with not just a trailer but world-wide screenings of 15 minutes of scenes from the first and second acts of Avatar, chosen to give a taste of the film without revealing spoilers, as he explained in his introduction. They should then give a good flavour of what to expect from the 3-D CGI animation/live-action mash-up extravaganza that is Cameron’s first film since Titanic, but the taste is sweet and sour.
 
The first scene showcased was a briefing about the extremely hostile inhabitants of a planet the military was trying to colonise (how very Aliens) but as you paid more attention you realised with a shock that this wasn’t bad motion-capture CGI but actual actors, 3-D had somehow made flesh and blood look oddly unconvincing compared to the CGI animation that followed. The next scene where Sigourney Weaver explains the preposterous plot to Sam Worthington improves on that unsettling experience dramatically but most of the film will obviously be the CGI animation adventures of Sam Worthington in his alien avatar body goofing around on the planet. And the plot is preposterous. Worthington, a crippled military hard-man, has his mind inserted into the big blue body of a humanoid alien inhabitant of the planet, and ends up closely resembling Joshua the dog-man from Cameron’s TV show Dark Angel.
 

Is Terminator: Salvation’s star really the right choice to carry such a huge film? For a long time I thought it was Sam Huntington (sublime as Jimmy Olsen in Superman Returns) who had got this part, which would have made for a funnier contrast between avatar and human rather than the pathos Cameron is aiming for, but arguably also made us root for the hero more. Worthington’s not that charismatic a presence in the footage screened and he’s not helped, as he blunders about shooting at various ill-tempered beasties, by a script packed with very obvious punning which recalls The Phantom Menace painfully at times. Zoe Saldana’s sexy tough as nails native alien love interest comes right out of the Ripley/Sarah Connor stable of Cameron heroines but her accent is right from the Jar Jar Binks School of Racial Stereotyping.
 
As for the 3-D, if you like seeing shell-casings fly towards you or fronds sweep around as the camera tracks then the 3-D is great, and scenes of night-time phosphoresce are stunningly beautiful. However the action depicted feels very, very familiar – in one scene Worthington has to tame what is basically a pterodactyl and then fly off on it to, oh who cares? And ow! why do my eyes hurt? Avatar has all new glasses for the latest refinement of the technology but (leaving aside the fact that since 3-D’s first appearance in the 1950s an ever-increasing percentage of the population has to put 3-D glasses over glasses) 3-D is still at best a draining experience, and at worst a painful one, which is why most 3-D films in this latest wave have been around 80 minutes long. Avatar will probably march towards the 150 minute mark, and, combined with action that’s distinctly déjà-vu of Jurassic Park, Star Wars, et al, that’s a hard sell…

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