Talking Movies

July 28, 2019

“My business … repeat customers!”

Regular readers will be aware that repetition and novelty have been a recurrent topic here recently, and it’s time to think about the value of repetition as a business model.

 

Not all customers are created equal. This is a lesson that Hollywood seems to have forgotten. It’s said that Viennese cafes tolerated artists buying one cup of coffee and lingering for hours over it, taking up space they required for other purposes, because they knew they could sell the same artist a cup of a coffee a day for the next thousand days, whereas if they gave said artist the boot in favour of a newcomer that newcomer might buy two cups of coffee that day and then never return. Empty vessels make the most noise, and the internet over time has become a plaything for empty vessels deafening everyone else. Think on Snakes on a Plane, if you will. The jokes, the memes, the rewrites online by fans, which led, via internet buzz, to actual rewrites and reshoots to give ‘fans’ what they wanted: and these ‘fans’ then didn’t show up in cinemas. It’s easy and free to hit like, and make a comment, and josh about with strangers in a thread; it’s harder and costly to get out of the house and go see a dumb movie that has been made just as dumb as you calibrated it.

Customers are the ones who pay in to cinemas. President Bartlet declared that decisions are made by those who turn up. And yet Hollywood seems to be tacking away from that. Let’s take Star Wars. I saw each film in the only original trilogy on its re-release with my Dad. When the prequel trilogy came out I saw each movie twice with different circles of friends. When Disney took over Star Wars I was dragged kicking and screaming to see Han Solo go for coffee, the only time since Jurassic Park I’ve kept my eyes closed during a scene in the cinema; and not from fear but from displeasure – the whole reason I didn’t want to see the film was the blinding predictability of JJ Abrams not knowing how to get into the third act without killing a beloved character. And that was the end of me and Star Wars. From repeat customer to not at all customer. And the same thing happened with the Hobbit movies. I saw each Lord of the Rings instalment in the cinema at least twice. I didn’t see any of the Hobbit movies in the cinema. From repeat customer to not at all customer.

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June 11, 2019

It’s Jeff GoldBLUMSDAY, again

Yes, it’s back for a third iteration, to use a word that Ian Malcolm would relish, Jeff GoldBLUMSDAY returns to the Lighthouse on June 16th.

Sure, some people will be dressing up in Edwardian boater hats and cycling around town pretending they’ve either actually read or read and liked James Joyce’s Ulysses. But some people will be dressing up in whatever feels right to celebrate the hesitations and mumblings of one cinema’s most famously uh-ing actors. Screen 1 is taken over for the day to showcase the charisma of Goldblum as supporting actor, leading man, and glorified but glorious cameo. Last year saw an unmanageable 5 films, but this year it’s much easier to sit in the same seat for 8 hours and Goldblum thrice.

Thor: Ragnarok

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Thor and Loki come up against their long-lost sister Hela, and get their asses kicked. She takes over Asgard with literally contemptuous ease. And so Thor finds himself pitted against the Hulk in gladiatorial combat on a strange world presided over by an even stranger dictator: The Grandmaster. Is his character name a joking reference to Goldblum’s prowess at chess in Independence Day? Definitely not. But Goldblum is clearly enjoying himself as part of the parade of rambling, improvised tangents as Maori magician Taika Waititi produces the funniest film Marvel Studios have ever permitted released.

Jurassic Park

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Sam Neill and Laura Dern are the palaeontologist heroes, but Goldblum steals scene after scene as mathematician, sorry, chaotician, chaotician Ian Malcolm; who pours cold water over the idea that the genetic power unleashed by Richard Attenborough’s genial proprietor can be controlled. It’s almost like he saw writer Michael Crichton’s 1973 movie Westworld about a theme park that can’t control the digital power it’s unleashed… John Williams provides a score of stirring majesty, Stan Winston provides incredible animatronic dinosaurs, and ILM provide sparingly used and therefore magnificent CGI for Steven Spielberg’s perfectly paced monster movie.

Jurassic Park: The Lost World

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Goldblum becomes a sardonic leading man as Richard Attenborough convinces him to go to a second dinosaur-infested island, Jurassic Park’s B site. There he will find his girlfriend Julianne Moore already researching the terrible lizards along with Vince Vaughn and Richard Schiff. What could possibly go wrong? Apart from corporate malevolence dispatching Pete Postlethwaite’s great white hunter to bag a T-Rex and transport it to the mainland. Spielberg has disparaged his own work as Godzilla homage, but he deliriously appropriates a trick from Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps for the introduction of Goldblum.

January 31, 2018

He Got Melody or How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Just Love John Williams Again

It was while I was watching this John Williams BBC Prom at the end of last summer that I realised I had done him wrong.

John Williams gets stick in austere musicological circles for his tendency to write theme after theme with the same rhythm. And it’s certainly true that Star Wars, Superman, Indiana Jones, Jurassic Park and E.T. all pomp along on more or less similar rhythmic lines. Well, so what? Danny Elfman writes interesting, varied, and energetic rhythms, and has barely written one melody in his entire career. What is his Spider-Man theme? Can you hum his Batman theme beyond the first five notes where the rhythmic variations kick in? You can’t really hum a rhythm without a melody, but, be the rhythms e’er so simple, everybody can hum any number of different Williams melodies. It was happenstance that I watched the John Williams Proms shortly after watching Neil Brand’s BBC documentary on the evolution of film music. As he got to the present day, let’s call it the Age of Zimmer, the all-pervading influence of modern synthesiser and digital programming and recording revealed the paucity of actual music written for actual instruments, as opposed to programming in a swathe of sound; a trick that works well for strings, brass, and percussion, hence the now trademark Hans Zimmer sound, but works less well when applied to woodwind instruments. Either you write a melody for the clarinets or you don’t, but you surely don’t need to throw 40 clarinets at a purely rhythmic ostinato developed from Zimmer at keyboard. And noticeable from early on in the John Williams Proms was woodwind instrument solos, everywhere.

I mentioned austere musicological circles, and I had in mind a particular academic faculty; but also a broader critical tendency. Discovering the Minimalists Glass, Reich, and Adams on BBC Radio 3 in the last five and a half years has been a joy, but has also left me retrospectively incredulous that my music theory education ignored them. I was taught that melody was debunked, Cage and Stockhausen were the heirs to Schoenberg, any other approach was Canute in staves, and that was that. Well, not quite, as it turns out. That tendency, to regard melody as an affront to modernity, is particularised in distaste for Williams’ scores. Jerry Goldsmith gets more love in such circles because he subscribed to their agenda of atonal experimental serialist dissonance. To a point, that is. And the point is interesting. Goldsmith wrote the immensely hummable themes for The Man from UNCLE and Star Trek: The Next Generation (first used for 1979’s The Motion Picture). He wrote a sinuous oboe for Basic Instinct, overpowering choral harmonies for The Omen, and a rambunctious march for Gremlins. But it is because he so often chose to write mood music not hummable melodies; prioritising dissonance over harmony, atmosphere over leitmotifs, and prepared percussion over woodwind solos; that he is esteemed a better composer. One might nearly say a more virtuous composer, because the valorisation is almost more ideological than it is aesthetic. And the result can be seen in a quick, easy, and telling contrast with John Williams.

Let us take some sci-fi classics. Goldsmith scored Planet of the Apes and Alien. Williams scored Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Having heard Williams’ Close Encounters of the Third Kind suite in the National Concert Hall I can attest it is largely dissonant mood music that isn’t particularly rewarding detached from the accompanying Spielbergian imagery. It is therefore probably the closest Williams in large scale came to the more critically valued Goldsmith model. And yet it contains a five note melody that is hummable seconds after you first hear it. If I show you a still of Francois Truffaut at Table Mountain regarding the gargantuan UFO mothership and ask what music you associate with it, you should instantly, without thinking, hum those five notes. If I show you a still of Mark Hamill regarding the twin sunsets of Tatooine and ask what music you associate with it, you should instantly, without thinking, start humming a swelling string melody. But if I show you a still of Charlton Heston regarding the Statue of Liberty on a beach and ask what music you associate with it, you should hum and haw, and mutter there was some business with horns and drums earlier in the chase sequence. If I show you a still of John Hurt regarding his Chinese dinner with unusual indigestion and ask what music you associate with it, you should be stumped, and mutter there was something slow, eerie, and atonal in space at the beginning.

Goldsmith’s opening titles for Alien are strongly influenced by a piece of music by, I think, Bartok or Shostakovich (I have aggravatingly misplaced my scribbled note). But the ur-text for Williams, especially for Spielbergian japery, is, I would argue, the 4th movement of Prokofiev’s 5th Symphony. And that is crucial. As a child Shostakovich was forbidding and austere to me, whereas Prokofiev was the beloved creator of Peter and the Wolf. (Shostakovich indeed has only truly come to life for me in the last five years.) And while Bartok and Shostakovich have the spiky rhythms and dissonant harmonies that make one modern, Prokofiev, like Gershwin, was held in less regard because of his continued devotion to melody; a mere melodist, not a serious composer. But that is why Peter and the Wolf works, because Prokofiev is effortlessly able to create memorable, instantly hummable melodies for each of the characters in his story. Leitmotifs – much like Williams’ old-fashioned approach to scoring character in action. When you hear Prokofiev’s music you can see in your mind’s eye the action the narrator interjects. And those melodies take on a life of their own beyond the production, in the same way that Williams’ melodies take on a life of their own beyond the cinema screen; appearing as ringtones, programming in classical concert halls, and literally hummed by people to one another at appropriate moments – much as people do their best screeching Psycho strings whenever a situation parodically calls for Bernard Herrmann’s equally screen-transcending moment.

As Neil Brand’s sweeping outline of the evolution of film music had it, everything begins with Korngold; bringing to Hollywood the leitmotifs of Wagnerian opera with an extra lush string-laded Romanticism. Bernard Herrmann introduced serialism, dissonance, and experimentation, but could equally effortlessly pen the frenetic and melodic North by Northwest title music. Jazz and atonal dissonance broadened the spectrum of sonic colours available; together in the case of David Shire’s music for The Taking of Pelham 123 in which the inimitable great rolling funk bass and percussion provided the mother of all propulsive and hummable hooks over which jazz trumpets blared in serialist sequence. And then the synthesiser began to take hold and film music became technological and thoroughly modern. … Until the biggest film of the decade, Star Wars, abjured all this for a return to Korngold. John Williams, then, was a titan, who forcefully and singlehandedly redirected film music back to the melodic orchestral track. A brief side-note: having previously thrown around the word ideological in the placing of Goldsmith over Williams it is meet to note here that Stockhausen himself was a man of self-regarding dogmatism, to the extent that a Hungarian composer stormed out of one of his fabled workshops volubly cursing that Stockhausen’s insistence that any return to melody and harmony was … counter-revolutionary … sounded all too unpleasantly familiar to someone who had lately run from Soviet tanks. But Williams’ counter-revolution would never have succeeded had he not had so many damn good melodies.

John Williams is 85, and still scoring the occasional movie for Spielberg or Lucas (sic). It is important that we treasure him while we can.

December 13, 2015

Speed-reading towards illiteracy

Mad Max: Fury Road director George Miller gave an interview recently to BBC Radio 4’s The Film Programme, which poses some intriguing questions about how new cinemagoers experience the medium.

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Miller cited Kevin Brownlow’s The Parade’s Gone By as a seminal text; the entire language of cinema was defined pre-sound. Miller was intrigued by the notion that there was a pure film language not reliant on the spoken word, and he decided to tell stories through that language; going so far as to describe Mad Max: Fury Road as a silent movie with sound – what matters is that one shot leads into the next shot to a purpose. As Miller notes this kind of cine-literacy is an acquired language, and a recent one; but it is one that can be mastered, in all cultures, before we’ve got a handle on actual literacy. But it’s his remark that we’re now all speed-reading stories (backed up by some statistics), that is a lit match tossed into a powder keg… Mad Max 2 had 1,200 shots, Mad Max: Fury Road had 2,900 shots, while Miller was told Jurassic Park had 950 shots, and Jurassic World by his estimation had more than triple that.

If we’re speed-reading stories, are we speed-reading into illiteracy? Back in 1997 Woody Allen and Martin Scorsese bemoaned the cine-illiteracy of young audiences:

ALLEN: I was talking to some college kids the other day, and they were bright kids who were going to a good college, and they had no idea about great directors. These bright college kids have no knowledge whatsoever of Truffaut’s films or Fellini’s films. And yet the universities do encourage them to read Mark Twain and Flaubert and Melville. … So many film students are film illiterate. They’re not unsophisticated. They probably know more about steadicams and special effects than the average audience. The guy who drives your cab will use those terms when talking about a film, but they’re illiterate in terms of —

SCORSESE: The lineage.

ALLEN: They’ve never seen any of these films. I think they have a different attention span. [My italics]

I admit my culpability in having that different attention span Woody Allen fretted over. I saw Scream as a teenager and was blown away by it. When I subsequently saw Hallowe’en I was inevitably bored by its slow pacing compared to its younger rival. I knew that without Hallowe’en there would be no Scream, I understood the lineage, I respected the execution, but I couldn’t stop myself wishing Carpenter would hustle things along a bit. As a result I’ve never re-watched Hallowe’en, while Scream remains one of my favourite and oft re-watched films. In 1997 Scorsese bemoaned his inability to be influenced by younger film-makers: “The young people today are the 21st century. I’m 20th century, I can’t help it. It’s hard to let new stuff in.” And there’s an equal generational problem in film criticism. The New Hollywood has been so valorised by audience that Bret Easton Ellis and Quentin Tarantino bemoan the 1980s to each other as the nadir of American movies. Whereas Back to the Future Day demonstrated the impact that decade’s movies had on their audience.

Miller extols the virtues of Buster Keaton and the montage technique of Sergei Eisenstein’s Strike, but will the youngsters who lapped up Mad Max: Fury Road delve back into cinema history to watch the movies that inspired Miller’s visual storytelling? No. If you are used to 2,900 shots a movie something that’s less than a third of that will bore you senseless. What was already a problem in 1997 is only going to get worse. ‘Jurassic World is a mere inept retread of Jurassic Park’ howl we who saw the original in the cinema. But, like a dead owl, the kids going to Jurassic World don’t give a hoot. They probably haven’t watched Jurassic Park all the way through because they find it unbearably slow-moving. This might explain the Russos’ baffling belief that the execrable Captain America 2 deserved an Oscar for casting Robert Redford and throwing 1970s paranoia shapes.

1970s paranoia was an organic cinematic response to the mood engendered by Watergate and Vietnam, and, like all movements that begin organically, when it became a commercial affectation it died a horrible death. The idea that Captain America 2 in rehashing a trope that was valid and original 40 years ago somehow itself becomes pertinent and (coughs in disbelief) original is as absurd as Gareth Edwards believing that his 2014 Godzilla is a good parallel for the trauma of Fukushima. If Sion Sono’s 2011 Himizu can react almost instantaneously to Fukushima in a valid and original cinematic fashion what makes Edwards think that Hollywood rehashing its interpretation of a 60 year old Japanese response to an entirely different national trauma is anything but a crass attempt to attach spurious relevance (via some extremely patronising cultural voiceover work) to the commercial imperative of rebooting a dormant franchise. But here’s the kicker – it doesn’t matter. None of the fulminations of film-makers or critics or punters of a certain age matter. My complaint that Jurassic World is not as good as Back to the Future doesn’t matter. Logic doesn’t even matter. The 12 year olds who go to Captain America 2 and Godzilla will likely never watch All The President’s Men or The Parallax View or Gojira because they’re too slow-moving and boring. 2045 will see Jurassic World as fondly remembered as Back to the Future is now, and all us haters will be so many Bret Eastons moaning that the 2010s were the nadir of American movies.

Perhaps we’re not speed-reading into illiteracy so much as into an eternal kinetic present. The past is a foreign country, they edit films boringly there.

December 3, 2014

Trailer Talk: Part III

In another entry in this occasional series I round up some trailers for some of next year’s most anticipated films.

Jurassic World

Jurassic Park is now a heritage title. This is like launching Jaws: Feeding Frenzy in 1997, with Jaws III in 1983 having been the last instalment. A whole generation has gone without a Jurassic Park release. They have no loving nostalgia for the original (especially its extensive model-work), or partial fondness for its sequel (“Oh yeah. Ooh, aah, that’s how it always starts. Then later there’s running and screaming” and Spielberg’s delirious appropriation of Hitchcock’s 39 Steps scream), or bad memories of the final barely-scripted disaster. Chris Pratt’s hero seems to be combining the personae of Goldblum and Neill, which is an interesting move, and velociraptors running disinterestedly past him in their desire to escape the new hybrid dinosaur recalls a Whedon line about when scary things get scared… But, Bryce Dallas Howard’s career hasn’t lived up to her assured lead debut in The Village, and there’s a tough act to follow in Richard Attenborough’s Richard Hammond as orchestrator of the madness; not least as the swooping shots of the park (which I swear are the same as in The Hunger Games and The Phantom Menace) make plain that the original’s grounding CGI in tactile reality is passé.

The Avengers: Age of Ultron

Well this trailer carries bizarre echoes of The Dark Knight’s teaser at this time of year in 2007… Talk of how a superhero how has changed things, even if he doesn’t want to admit it, and how the supervillain will show him something – even James Spader’s voice slurs into Heath Ledger’s Joker delivery. Just like the original’s trailer, a city-wide apocalypse is some broken windows, flipped cars, and screaming people. A major let-down in The Avengers was its inability to depict an all-out onslaught, but nobody else cared – so here we go again. I found The Avengers pretty damn dull. It wasn’t the laugh-fest it was vaunted as; Guardians of the Galaxy is far funnier; it delivered only moments of memorable action, and balancing all the characters’ screen-time was tragic given that (prior to the Hulk-out) it only took flight when Robert Downey Jr was onscreen. The Person of Interest season 2 finale just aired on RTE 2, and Jonathan Nolan’s parade of awesome comic-book moments there shames not only the pedestrian Agents of Shield but also Marvel’s films which are becoming increasingly joyless as they become ever more obviously formulaic franchise-connecting CGI-laden corporate exercises.

Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens

Andy Serkis narrates some vague mumblings; because this is a teaser trailer; and the internet explodes with the idea that Benedict Cumberbatch has stowed away in the Millenium Falcon. He’s not. The internet is torn into two between the usual illiberal liberal lynch-mobs on Twitter and Star Wars fanatics trying (quite logically) to comprehend how John Boyega can be a Stormtrooper if Temuera Morrison was cloned to be the genetic exemplar for all the Stormtroopers. The prequels are no longer canon (thank God!) perhaps? All that needs to be said about the 60-second trailer is that it looks like more like a Star Wars film than the last three Star Wars films. If Abrams is throwing the prequels into the dustbin alongside every novel since 1983 it’s all to the good – the prequels showed what happens when everyone knows what happens. Indeed his own Star Trek sequel showed how paralysing the fear of total originality can be in this corporate climate. I’m still terrified that one of the big three returning characters is going to be offed as a plot point (par Blake Snyder), but I can live with threat for the pause after “and the light…” and the subsequent John Williams orchestral blast for the Millenium Falcon roaring over Tatooine. Fun has returned.

September 8, 2011

Troll Hunter

Since the 1970s there has been only one man in all Norway who dares to fight in the Hall of the Mountain King, who possesses the strength and skill to defeat the Tosserlads and Jotnars. He is Hans – the Troll Hunter!

Three kids from Volda College try to make a documentary about a series of unusual bear deaths but things get wildly out of hand when they try to surreptitiously film a man they suspect of being a bear-poacher… There’s a healthy feel of Cloverfield in how one actor is unseen for most of the ‘found footage’ as he’s stuck behind the camera filming events, and how despite nightmarish encounters the need to ‘document’ overcomes the need to survive. There’s also a solid three act structure to be retrospectively found in the ramshackle series of events, with an amazingly logical maguffin unveiled at the end. The moment when the students are surprised by the panicked ‘poacher’ running past them shouting “Troll!” is reminiscent of the episode of Supernatural where the Winchester brothers explode into the home-movies of amateur occultists filming their own terrible pilot Ghostfacers! And just as the Winchesters took the Ghostfacers (!) under their wing to fight scary monsters, Hans allows the students a peek behind the curtain.

Be forewarned that first glimpse of a troll is a bit disappointing after some truly wonderful sound effects, but as the film proceeds the trolls become scary because of how large and stupidly vicious they are. The battle with an aggressive Ringelfinch on a bridge is a supremely scary encounter, complete with a Jurassic Park homage as the troll-hunter uses a goat for bait to the dismay of the vegetarian boom-operator. Otto Jespersen is wonderful as Hans, equally battle-weary and stoically efficient. The scene-stealing character though is Finn Haugan, the hapless bureaucrat (with a curiously Irish sounding name) heading the Troll Security Service whose unenviable job is covering up Hans’ activity, with the help of extremely dodgy Polish bear-hunters (who cause more problems than they solve) and nonsensical press releases.

Writer/director Andre Ovredal make wonderful use of pseudo-science in explaining how trolls turn to stone when exposed to sunlight or the rig of UV bulbs our hero keeps on top of his car and is quite remarkably adept at mixing comedy and horror. A wonderful running gag utilising the legend of Trolls being able to smell the blood of a Christian man becomes intensely suspenseful, even as it satirically skewers the tyranny of Dawkins and his ilk in removing religion from ‘liberal’ public discourse. The finale has an incredible sense of peril as our heroes attack the 200 ft giant Jotnar with a jeep as robust against this creature as the mosquito in the opening credits is against Dexter.

Troll Hunter isn’t on wide release but its mordant horror deserves the widest possible audience.

4/5

December 22, 2010

Spielberg’s Swansong

Steven Spielberg is now 64 years old. Can he buck the tradition of age withering great directors?

Alfred Hitchcock made 5 films after he turned 64 but none of them equalled his achievements in his previous decade (Rear Window to The Birds). Billy Wilder made only 4 films after he turned 64 and only two are remembered, as curios. Martin Scorsese is heading down that cul-de-sac with follies like Shutter Island and The Cabinet Imaginarium Invention of Dr Caligari Parnassus Hugo Cabaret 3-D. Indeed Quentin Tarantino, blithely ignoring Antonioni’s last work, equated ageing directors’ loss of creative drive with impotence… Spielberg had a decade to rival Hitchcock’s autumnal golden spell, in quantity if not quality, with A.I., Minority Report, Catch Me If You Can, The Terminal, War of the Worlds, Munich, and Indiana Jones 4. Some were harshly judged and will grow in stature. Others will attract more opprobrium as people fully digest their awful finales.

A.I. has some chilling sequences but overall it is a disastrous mess, but for the opposite reason than what is usually cited. It is awful because it is too in thrall to Stanley Kubrick’s aesthetic of inhuman detachment, which negates Spielberg’s greatest gift. Minority Report is a thrilling, dark vision of Philip K Dick’s paranoia and philosophical conundrums with uniformly excellent acting and effects, but is undone by its prolonged third act, which resists ending on a typical Dick moment and instead shoe-horns in multiple happy endings. Con-man ‘comedy’ Catch Me If You Can was lauded, bafflingly so, but its lustre has faded and its simplistic psychology and deeply uneven tone will only hasten that decline. The Terminal by contrast only grows as, like Field of Dreams, it’s a script that runs down cul-de-sacs before continually changing direction, and manages to undercut rom-com clichés while achieving a warm conclusion. War of the Worlds re-staged the traumas of 9/11 in a number of bravura sequences including an unbearably suspenseful manhunt by Martians in the basement, but its dubious ethics and inane HG Wells’ ending remain flaws. Munich was punctuated by a number of viscerally taut action sequences but was undone by Tony Kushner’s reluctance to devote dialogue to the Israel/Palestine conflict, and the infamous juxtaposition of Eric Bana and the terrorists’ slaughter simultaneously climaxing. Indiana Jones 4 has been pointlessly vilified. It zips along breathlessly for a superb first act and there’s an awful lot of fun to be had with the Amazon action sequences and new villain Col. Spalko. Lucas’ Maguffin disappoints. Epically…

Spielberg starts the decade with a trio of projects. Liam Neeson has regrettably been ditched from the long-gestating Lincoln biopic in favour of Daniel Day-Lewis, and apparently the script is now based on 2008’s book of the moment Team of Rivals. Will it be as magisterial as Schindler’s List even without Neeson, or as boring as his other film showcasing an American President, Amistad? More importantly does the fact that Spielberg’s filmed his Tintin instalment and West End favourite The War-Horse (with a 5th Indiana Jones movie in development) indicate a willingness to avoid ‘important’ projects in favour of ‘mere’ entertainments? I subscribe to Mark Kermode’s view that critics have it precisely wrong and that Spielberg, in listening to them, has self-defeatingly attempted ‘big, important pictures that will win Academy Awards and be taken seriously dammit!’, resulting in disastrous messes, Munich, or utterly forgotten movies, The Colour Purple. Spielberg in directing popcorn films with sublime skill exploits, not just his God-given talents but, in connecting with people’s hearts rather than their minds, the true nature of the medium to its utmost.

Jean-Luc Godard may complain that Spielberg is sentimental but so was Dickens, and the attempt by one school of critics to demote Dickens in favour of George Eliot has demonstrably failed; people still quote his dialogue, reference his characters, and can sum up a whole world by uttering the word Dickensian, whereas George Eliot’s first name must always be included to avoid confusion with old possum himself TS Eliot. Spielberg’s unlikely friendship and collaboration with Stanley Kubrick has only highlighted an existing aesthetic contrast that the Biskind critics liked to sharpen their claws on, invariably to Spielberg’s disadvantage, but cinema is an emotional medium. If you want to connect with people’s minds write a novel or a play, but if you want to toy with the world’s biggest train-set to make crowds of people laugh, cry, jump out of their seats, or sit rigidly with their hearts racing, then cinema is what you want. And for that reason Spielberg’s swansong may decide his critical reputation: he can go out as the supreme entertainer or an intermittent auteur.

All hail the greatest living American film director! Talking Movies hopes he goes out unashamedly entertaining us as he has for forty years.

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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