Wednesday, 30 December 2009
Tuesday, 29 December 2009
After a very, very long time coming, the most hotly anticipated film of recent memory has finally landed. 14 years gestation and awaiting the technology to sufficiently catch up to him, James Cameron has unleashed his “Dances with Smurfs”, amid a climate of fear and trepidation that the hype had outrun the reality of the project, and that this would be Ferngully with thundercats. The screenings of sections of footage in cinemas around the world a couple of months back did little to allay people’s fears, instead fuelling the fire and the backlash to fever point, before anyone had even seen the finished product; in many peoples books Avatar looked set to be the biggest cinematic misstep of all time. Me though, I never had a doubt. Not a one! And my blind faith/stubbornness has been vindicated by what I saw in my local Imax cinema, and indeed again in a regular cinema later on. Avatar is mindblowingly impressive. Brain scramblingly beautiful. Thought shreddingly groundbreaking, and many other hyperbolically italicised plaudits. While it’s not going to be getting any awards for its script, or in places, it’s acting, it undoubtedly sets the bar ridiculously high in terms of what’s visually possible in cinema. An utterly compelling alien world is up there on screen for us to marvel at, and is so detailed, so convincing that you will want to take your holidays there. Even if you’re not much of a sci-fi fan, you really should give serious thought to entering the world of Avatar. Some spoilers follow..
It’s 2154 and Sam Worthington’s Jake Sully is finding a new lease of life. After an apparent run of fairly abysmal happenings; he is a marine in a wheelchair after an injury, and his twin brother has just been murdered, he is offered a unique opportunity for a new life. His brother you see, was a scientist involved in a very special project – an attempt at diplomatic relations with an alien species. Earth, referred to in passing as a dying world, is undertaking a mining mission on a distant planet’s moon, where the impossibly valuable and dubiously monikered, 'unobtanium' is abundant, and there the alien natives are causing bother for the intrepid miners. The air is toxic and every attempt to relate to the tree dwelling savages has pushed them further away, making Pandora the most hostile environment in the universe, with the exception of Oxford street on Christmas eve. The less than immediately obvious solution is to grow human/native hybrid bodies, the titular Avatars, which can then be remotely controlled by a human ‘pilot’ from the safety of a pod back at base. Because the Avatars are both hugely expensive to make, and need to be a grown from your DNA – Jake is a perfect fit for his dead brother’s which would otherwise have gone to waste. With not a lot else on his plate, off he jets on a six year cryo ride to the other side of the galaxy, and Pandora.
Despite a chronic lack of training or knowledge, Jake drops into the programme with aplomb – Sigourney Weaver’s Grace is the project task master and is none too pleased about having a trigger happy marine on her team- her protests fall on the deaf ears of the big cheese at the top, the fastidious Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi) who views Sully as a lucky save. “lucky he had a twin who wasn’t a dental hygienist” he remarks, making fairly good sense. So in his new avatar body, and by various mishaps in the jungle, Jake quickly finds himself among the natives who, thanks to several dubious ‘signs’ from the local deity, agree to teach him their ways. Specifically, he is set to be taught by the chiefs daughter who found him, the confusingly hot Neytiri. From here on it’s all learning local custom and the deep connection (literally) they have to the forest, while at the same time reporting back to the evil human taskmasters. For Jake has in secret agreed to feed tactical information to the mad marine Colonel Quarritch and Ribisi that can help bring down the creatures when the time comes, these villainous types having a totally separate, and uniformly evil, agenda to Sigourney et al, who remain firm Naaviophiles. If you’ve seen the trailer, you know where this is going – it’s no surprise to learn that by the final act, Jake has firmly switched sides, fallen in love with the chiefs daughter, is fighting the increasingly aggressive and encroaching invaders and generally being heroic and alien, flying about the place on his alien dragon-steed. Most of the final act is one of the more spectacular extended battle sequences committed to film, but will Jake and the natives be able to fight off the technological terror of the humans with their shock and awe attacks? Ahem. What do you think?
So the plot is no great shakes, but it’s in the telling that Cameron has excelled. The Avatars themselves are simply extraordinary creations, and an incredible achievement of visual effect and performance capture. Each avatar looks like the actor portraying them, but are patently not them. For a start they’re about nine feet tall – the scenes where they’re depicted alongside the humans are quite startling, and for second, they’re bright blue and have pointy ears and tails. The amount of expression captured in each face is quite remarkable, and was achieved through pioneering techniques developed by Cameron, they are utterly convincing and convey emotion like no other CG creation ever seen – you may think Gollum was pretty good, and he was, but this is a whole new level we didn’t know was there, and the scary thing is it’s only going to improve. Zoe Saldana's Neytiri is particularly spellbinding - her face so full of emotion and expression I ended up wanting a nine foot tall blue girlfriend.
The other star of the show is Pandora itself, and in many ways is even more of an achievement than the avatars. The forest planet is essentially one massive rain forest, full of fantastical plants and creatures, but to think that it has all been created from scratch is simply incomprehensible. Impossibly high trees tower overhead, huge mountains float above the surface, by night the forest is alive with spectacular bioluminescence, the world is simply beautiful in its every detail. The creatures inhabiting it are no less impressive, from the massive rhino like creatures to the airborne pterodactyl-alikes, each one is extremely convincing in its execution, exhibiting perfectly plausible evolutionary traits, even if they are a bit too close too earthbound animals in some instances. Throw in the 3-D and you have a world that’s amazing to behold that you are right in the middle of, and that you will scarcely realise as you’re watching it, that each part of it simply doesn’t exist anywhere except on screen - it's only afterwards on thinking it through that the realisation hits - none of that was real? Impossible! Only marginally less impressive is the human side of the coin, with their mechanised walkers and huge flying aircraft carriers – each piece of hardware is as carefully designed as we’ve come to expect and looks amazing in action, particularly during the latter half of the film when they really get to strut their stuff.
There is however, no getting round the fact that the story is thin. It’s criticism of humanity, technology vs the environment and even parallels to the Iraq war are all barely disguised, and are on paper at least, supremely corny. The villains of the piece, the bad militaristic/capitalist humans, are more 2 dimensional than their CG opposite numbers, being incredibly simplistic comic book baddies, hell bent on exploiting the uneducated tree dwelling native idiots. It's almost insulting to suggest that after such vast leaps forward in technology that society would have advanced so little morally to leave Ribisi so unable to comprehend what the native's problem with him tearing up their home might be. The Naavi meanwhile are portrayed as wise, spiritually rich and morally unimpeachable, and Jake abandons his old human life with zero consequence or regret. It’s a typically guilt laden white man self flagellation, the alien nation here impossibly romanticised into examples of a perfect existence.
But then, as it is an alien nation, it can be romanticised as much as Cameron likes – it’s not really native Americans, it’s not really Iraq, it’s a bunch of blue aliens in a tree (we love tree houses around here after all), and what Cameron has achieved is to be able to put you there unlike any previous attempt to immerse you in an alien world, and it’s a place you will want to visit again and again. You could argue the corniness of the plot almost enhances the experience, as anything more complex in terms of whose side we should be on might have lessened or connection to the world. I wouldn't personally argue that, but you could if you wanted to. What is certain though is that the amount of emotion Cameron manages to wring out of you as we watch Jake delve deeper into the culture is immense – the learning to fly sections in particular are simply breathtaking, and you will feel the outrage and the despair as the humans tear down the beloved trees though which the people speak to their dead ancestors. Oh yes you will. The fact that Jake’s real body lies helpless somewhere else while he’s off leaping though the jungle is also nicely exploited to dramatic effect, giving rise to some great nail biting moments, and the battles when they kick off are just amazing. But Cameron delights equally in the quiet moments, the plants of the forest, some little insect fluttering by, a raised eyebrow of a curious native - all so impeccably realised, how can this not be a documentary? Whether or not this will stand up to scrutiny at home is to be seen, but I want that DVD if just to see how the hell it was all done!
The fruits of Cameron's four year labour in terms of creating a living breathing world are onscreen for all to see, this film grabs you by the eyeballs, and sucks you straight into its world and keeps you there for 3 full hours - you'll be there at the end, cheering and shaking your fist at the screen, ready to sign up to the next freighter that will ship you out to Pandora. But, then you remember, we don't really have space travel yet and you're stuck on this drab little planet, and realise you have no choice but to go back to the front of the queue and buy another ticket to get back that wonderful place. Is this the game changer we had been promised? - absolutely - we are now at the point where technology can deliver things we've genuinely never seen before, and I for one am very excited to see where this takes us next. For now though, forget small steps, Avatar is one giant leap for mankind.
Out of this world
Monday, 14 December 2009
Since I recently found myself in the greatest city in the world, I’ve taken a page out of S1nner’s book and gone nuts with a camera. While I make no claim to have an iota of talent or photographic knowledge, and my tools were, by most’s standards, basic (yet arousingly svelte), I did very much enjoy snapping away at every inch of that amazing town, and still have Rhapsody in Blue reverberating around my skull. So here then is a small selection of the almost embarrassing number of images I indiscriminately digitised, a little love letter to my favourite city on earth. Its quintessentially New York.
Is there a place in all the world that oozes such self assurance, such nonchalant hipness? Everywhere you go, you simply cannot move for something amazing, be it a fantastic view, an easy going bar, an exceptional restaurant (reviews coming up. Oh yes). No, London gets a lot of kudos for being a great city, and it is, in it’s own mean spirited, selfish kind of way – London you have to grab by the throat and squeeze the good stuff out of, make efforts to seek out the juicy, squishy delights lurking beneath a soggy batter of mediocrity. In NY, the goods throw themselves at you at every turn. And then if you delve a bit deeper, you find the really good stuff. Of course it’s easy to romanticise such a place, especially when decked out in it's festive trappings, but if ever there was a city worth romanticising it’s this one.
People say New Yorkers are tough, surly, mean. Balls. What a lovely, cuddly downright adorable tribe they are. Ok so we didn’t spend an awful lot of time in the Bronx, but generally speaking, the man on the NY street is about a gazillion times more likely to offer a lost tourist a hand than you would find on the poshest London street. And in the bars and restaurants? fuggedaboudit, the level of service borders on the ridiculous. Recommendations, honest advice, what not to have or do, all are more forthcoming than the endless coffee refills, and all are spot on. Sure there's a tip waiting for them with the bill, but hey, you gets whats you pays for. In every side street lurks a little slice of greatness, an energy and creativity that pervades the most meagre diner, the most unlikely looking tavern. If ever there was a place I could slip into like a fatman into plate of pancakes, it’s the Big Apple, if just to sit and watch the day unfold.
Do you New Yorkers ever get tired of your town? Is it possible? Sure maybe when you're not on holiday, wandering the streets in a silly hat taking pictures of doorways, and are actually say, making a living or something, it might become a little less striking, but really, does it? Can it? I really can't see it!
Thursday, 3 December 2009
It was never going to be easy, bringing this one to the silver screen. McCarthy’s America is one where nothing grows, no birds sing, no squirrels gather nuts and the sun never, ever shines. The causal event of such devastation is only hinted at, here by subtle flashback – a nuclear war? A tumultuous natural disaster? Who knows. What is clear is that the world is dead. No animal save for man walks upon the earth, and humanity is its death throes. Those that remain some ten years after the event survive as they must in the brutal ash covered landscape. And it is here that our protagonists known only as the man (Viggo Mortensen) and the boy (newcomer Kodi Smit-Mcphee), travel south in search of, anything. Along the way they scavenge and survive, and occasionally run into other survivors – typically tense affairs when the majority of strangers want to eat your legs – and that is literally the entirety of the plot.
What the book, and to a less successful extent the film, try to gauge, is the capacity of man for good and evil. The man and boy are the self professed “good guys” – who would never eat another person no matter how hungry they were – but of course each encounter with another party, a punctuation in the monotonous silent crawl south, explores how good the man really is, and what lessons he is passing onto his son. An early encounter with a rather mad-max-esque hick ends abruptly with a bullet to the head in the name of protecting the boy – fair enough you might say, but later run-ins see a harsh punishment doled out to a would be thief (watch out for an overly-chubby-for-the-role Michael Kenneth Williams Omar fans!) and the man’s fury tempered by the merciful son – has he learned good lessons? I don’t know, I’d say he wouldn't last five minutes with such a trusting nature, honestly has he learned nothing?? But then that's the point, the morality on display in extraordinary circumstances; we’ll all come away with a different take on how we might believe ourselves to behave in such a position.
But the trouble is, the book is good for such reflection, for such melancholy daydreaming, but the film is something else. A book you can put down, or look up from and surround yourself with the warmth of reality. Here we are locked in the barren grey silence of it all for the duration. And this would be no bad thing, if it weren’t so slavishly tied to the book's content. Of course it never really had a choice in the matter – fans of the novel would be liable to self immolation if an additional sentence of spoken dialogue or scene with a shopping mall were added, so it can’t be held at fault for it, but the fact remains this is a very slender narrative. As the pair make their way south, the man’s health gradually declines, and the ultimate question of what will happen to our offspring we leave behind us raises it’s ever present ugly head. It is an interesting conundrum, and makes for some genuinely tense moments during some particularly grisly encounters with the logical conclusion of life at the end of days, but can’t sustain itself into what we might consider a cinematic plot.
It falls then to the acting, and fortunately, this is where The Road triumphs. Viggo is, as ever, hypnotically great. Appearing half dead for half of the film, he brings a natural sensitivity to the role of the doting father, carefully tutoring the boy in methods of survival, while simultaneously marvelling at how little he understands, born as he was at the start of the “event”, about the world before the devastation. “You think I’m from a different world don’t you?” he croaks at one point, as indeed he is. He treads the finest of lines throughout the film between morality and brutality, motivated to good and bad only by his boy, his emotional and physical decline throughout is both touching and painful to watch. The boy meanwhile is also excellent, although the “look Papa!” wore thin after about five minutes. Supporting cast members, thin on the ground as they are, are all very well played, especially a brilliant turn from an almost unrecognisable Robert Duval as the old man, and a buck toothed cameo from Hilcoat favourite, Guy Pearce.
Speaking of which, The Road is a difficult proposition to quantify. While being on the one hand superbly made, diligently shot and impeccably acted it is simultaneously grey, flat, depressing and dare I say it, a little boring. Obviously one does not expect action adventure from such a movie, yet there is so little life in the lens that it fails to excite on a fundamental level. The barren stills of There will be Blood never failed to capture the imagination, no matter how little was happening in the frame, same for other “quiet” movies like Walkabout or Flash Gordon. But the Road is as drained of passion as the picture is of colour – it feels as tired as it’s ailing protagonists, who while excellent in themselves never really feel connected. That sense of disconnection may well be deliberate, but it only serves to undermine our relation to the characters. The clipped, dry dialogue of the book is retained here, and off the page feels cold and distant. Do I really give a monkeys if these two don’t make it through the relentless bleakness? Why delay the inevitable? Of course, this again is a central tenet of the story, as is nicely illustrated by Charlize Theron’s rather harrumphy exit from their lives some years earlier, did she have the right idea in saving herself all this greyness?
Despite all the ambiguity, I would recommend the Road to those of a reflective and melancholy nature as it does provide a morbidly-emotionally gruelling couple of hours. To those of you of an excessively exuberant and effervescent disposition, you should probably see it too as you’re pissing us all off with your relentlessly cheerful attitude. I wouldn’t recommend it to you however if you’re expecting Mad Max or Dennis Hopper with an eyepatch, there are no gyrocopters here. What is here is a thoughtful and tender meditation on life and death, in a realistically stylised vision of the end of days. An essayist's study of what it means to be human, and after everything has passed, what it means to be a good human, all told through a brown lens with the odd cannibal thrown in for good measure.