12.29.2010

Keeping Up

Wow, where did the time go?! Two days from 2011 and I find the site to be a an empty hall filled with the ghostly echoes of months old posts. It certainly was not for want of trying, but maintaining a blog--particularly a blog about films--is daunting work. That word is emphasized on purpose. I have countless articles bookmarked and/or saved on my RSS reader that were meant to be subject matter for posts here, but the furious pace by which film news can gestate only meant that the ever growing swell of bookmarks would ultimately become too many to manage or even warrant attempt at diminishing. It is here that I must capitulate to the wave that crashed on me, holding me down and immobile in its undercurrent as I struggled for breath. I can now only hope to wash up on some distant shore, battered and bruised, but alive. And like Robinson Crusoe, the goal is to make the best of the situation.

What that means for this blog is perhaps a rethinking of its purpose. Originally envisioned as a place to offer commentary on film news and trailers as well as the occasional review, perhaps this mission needs to be boiled down to its bare essence. I can not keep up with news or take the time to track down trailers for obscure films from distant parts of the world. That endeavor takes an effort I do not think I will have time for in 2011. As such, I think the site will become a place to feature the films that catch my attention; films or filmmakers that are worthy of a well-written and thought-out post. In other words, I think it is best that the site provide features rather than news bites.

So, as we head in to the new year, please expect to see fewer updates on the site. However, what posts are made will hopefully offer much more meaningful and deeper insight into films and/or their filmmakers.

Now with this new mission in mind, I wish to bid whatever reader who happens upon this isle a Happy New Year. I wish you all the best for 2011 and hope you will drop by for a visit.

-- Chief Insomniac

9.30.2010

The Warrior's Way Redux



Well, looky here. A casual check of what's new at Apple Trailers reveals that Rogue Pictures picked up The Warrior's Way and released a new trailer. Actually, this is the first true trailer for the film as the footage from the previous post about this film was actually a promo reel used at film markets. What's important to note here is the apparent change of tone of the film, at least from the marketing standpoint. Let's leave aside the awful rock soundtrack of the trailer and concentrate on the fact that the relationships Jang Dong Gun's character has with the townspeople appears to have changed. The previous promo reel had this viewer believing that Geoffrey Rush's character was the main foil in that plotline, but the trailer sells a more "partner-in-crime" type relationship and it is he who might be narrating the the story throughout. Gone, also, is the slightly romantic connection between Kate Bosworth's character and there seems to be little remaining of the "freak show" of interesting characters that make up the wayward town.

As trailers go, this is trying to sell a rather straightforward action picture, removing much of the Eastern philosophy that was prevalent in the promo reel and turning the main character in to a "hero" where the original promo reel sold a slightly more ambiguous, repentant "anti-hero." It will be fascinating to see if there will be a different edit for the film internationally as well as how the marketing is handled. For now, however, it is good to finally get a clear glimpse of the visuals which remain gorgeous and engaging. With the troubled history of this production, however, what truly needs to be seen is whether or not the story actually works.

The official site can be found here.

9.27.2010

True Grit



The Coens are doing it again. Such an excellent teaser to what is sure to be a film that could bring back the Western. I'm certainly all for that. The fact that this is a new adaptation of the Charles Portis novel certainly has not prevented the Coens from reminding us of the iconic imagery from the John Wayne film (above photograph). View the effective teaser at Apple here.

9.12.2010

Hereafter



Clint Eastwood brings humanity and depth to the theme of psychics and the paranormal so often misused as a horror genre when it could be much more. Using eerily familiar disasters as lynch pins, this film seems to be delving into the human need to understand tragedy, to touch "the paranormal" as a way of making sense of and deal with our mortality. Outstanding cast and the usual, understated but powerful direction of Eastwood. View the trailer at Apple here.

8.06.2010

Atami no Sousakan



This is my new favorite series of the summer season. Yes, that is Odagiri Joe and Kuriyama Chiaki (aka Go Go Yubari) playing detectives in what I can only describe as the Japanese version of Twin Peaks. Created and directed by Satoshi Miki, a veteran stage producer who has created unique TV series often with Odagiri Joe in the lead, he is also an accomplished film director of comically poignant films such as Adrift in Tokyo and Instant Numa. Is this latest series as weird as Lynch's creation? No. But it is odd in a characteristically Satoshi Miki way and in so being, resembles Twin Peaks because it is clearly its creator's offspring.

7.21.2010

Inception

Inception at its core is a heist movie and in this it follows procedure dutifully. There's the hardened veteran, his right hand man, an estranged love with unclear loyalties, the crew of assembled regulars, the wild card, and of course the inductee. Delve deeper into the formula and even more archetypes and familiar plot points appear. The only real originality in this ensemble is "the score" and the setting it resides in.

But what a setting.

The big caper, the "one last job," goes down in a dream. A realm both intangible but wholly realized. The dream has it's own rules, regulations, caveats and threats. The goal of the heist adds an extra layer of clever, the gang is charged to place something instead of taking. When looked at from afar, it all remains incredibly simple, which heaps the weight of its success onto the execution.

But what an execution.

Christopher Nolan has upped his game by taking a genre that is well loved (and often well represented) into a cinematic experience as fresh and exciting as ever. Watching Inception play out is a reminder of why we love movies. The base premise is interesting enough, invading dreams with the ability to manipulate and control the world around oneself is plenty to set anyone's fantasies afire. But it's the story that is so goddamned well crafted that the viewer is drawn into it just as deeply as the characters themselves. The concept remains simple, but storyline quickly becomes terribly complex as newer and more radical concepts are introduced. We are eased in, one concept at a time, and just as the stakes are raised, so too become the tiers both the players and the viewer must navigate. By the time Inception is entrenched in its own plot the film is working on a dizzying number of levels, all wrapped around themselves and spinning pure story magic. Dreams are happening within dreams within dreams, timelines of each compounded and compressed. It builds and unfolds like origami from an invisible hand of a master craftsman and it is all immensely entertaining.

Every cliche is spun sideways as they cause their own twists and ripple effects in the dreams they inhabit. A car chase in one dream affects a fight scene in another. Nail-biting minutes on one level translate into precious seconds on its predecessor. Action and drama are presented in pop-corn chomping awe with imagery that will be pretty hard to forget in today's love 'em and leave 'em tentpole onslaughts. This is high praise, although the truth is it's hard to ignore when it's all up on screen.



The cast of actors is just as refreshing. DiCaprio's Cobb anchors the film with a deserved leading man maturity, but his supporting cast lights up around him, even alongside Nolan's oft-featured stable of go-to's. Standouts include Ellen Paige's portrayal of dream architect Ariadne, who covers the role of leading viewers around the world while maintaining a smart and insightful determination of her own. Most fun to watch is Joseph Gordon-Levitt's Arthur, Cobb's number two who is given more than his fair share of weight to pull. Aurthur's shining moment comes in a hotel hallway fight scene that is one of those "gotta see it" experiences, a display of brute force amid freefall interwoven throughout the film's climax.

The hard science behind much of Inception's dream-wrangling is glossed over, seemingly a non-detail vehicle that allows the characters to traverse an incredible landscape. In writing and directing, Nolan chooses his battles to give the audience the most bang for the buck. A see-saw of delivery, at times exposition can be spooned with as much grace as a toddler's meal, only to be followed by sophisticated mind games relentlessly piled on top of one another with barely a breath between. The dream worlds warp and transform around all of it, the characters swim between them in search goals both tangible and nebulous. What's created is a great, great movie. Although with acclaim coming in steady streams, there is still the voice of opposition that demands to be heard in our age, as if no film is deserving enough to just be labeled as "good." In fact it's not entirely easy to lay it on as thick as what's been written here without some introspection, yet the thrill of leaving the theater after the credit roll still lingers. The La Times positions that Inception has polarized critics, citing multiple views confusing the overall effect of the film. Quoting Newsweek's David Ansen, "We live in an era when there's a tendency to overvalue anything that's even slightly good. In another era I don't know if we'd see gushing enthusiasm." Dear lord, it's baffling how much that statement cannibalizes itself given the state of Hollywood today. Inception is a superbly crafted, genre-bending watermark now-- "in another era" it's hard to think of the impact such a film would have had!

Need to cut through it?

"Inception is awesome."

Okay?

6.29.2010

Rango

Leave it to Gore Verbinski to create a CG animated film that, at least to these eyes, finally rivals what the folks at Pixar are doing. As you watch this trailer, the fact that it is CG immediately fades behind the efficacy of its irreverant mood, skillfully dressed in sub-genre trappings that puts the sharp comedic wit front-and-center. This is not selling the CG. And is barely selling Depp's involvement which is even difficult to gauge with the one clear line delivered. It's selling story... Officially looking forward to this one.

6.22.2010

Dark World

Another fine example at some of the impressive genre filmmaking coming out of Russia. There is a unique skill at mixing fantasy elements with contemporary settings on display here that it would not be so much exaggeration to say that at this moment, Russia are the masters of this type of genre film...perhaps carving out a new sub-genre as they progress.

Dark World is centered around a group of college students on an anthropological expedition in Karelia who awaken dark, ancient magic; a few become agents for these mystical powers while others set out to fight against their now possessed colleagues.



Once again, the level of visual style on display is certainly one to rival the biggest of Hollywood's tentpole films. However, there is also that intrinsic "Russian" quality to the art direction that sets this and others previously mentioned apart from their tinsel town rivals. For some reason, the setting, the language, the faces all seem to fit this type of fantasy so perfectly that no matter how "improbable" the situation, it just works. Looking forward to seeing more of Dark World as the release draws closer.

6.20.2010

Gallants

Wow, the first entry of June and it's almost the end of the month! Apologies for the lack of updates, but time has been a commodity in short supply recently. However, I had to post this very cool opening title sequence for the recent film Gallants which is a throwback to classic Shaw Brothers film, starring some of the studio's most well-known stars, and giving us fans of old school Hong Kong films a knowing nod that could only bring out smiles. Enjoy!



Find out more about Gallants by clicking here

5.24.2010

Palme d'Or Winner

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives by Apichatpong Weerasethakul (SYNDROMES AND A CENTURY, TROPICAL MALADY and BLISSFULLY YOURS) is the first Thai film to take home the top prize at Cannes. It is a poignant film whose themes are elevated by it's fantastical concept reinforced by the effectively still, moody direction.
Suffering from acute kidney failure, Uncle Boonmee has chosen to spend his final days surrounded by his loved ones in the countryside. Surprisingly, the ghost of his deceased wife appears to care for him, and his long lost son returns home in a non-human form. Contemplating the reasons for his illness--he feels his illness must be related with his bad karma. He has killed too many communists--Boonmee treks through the jungle with his family to a mysterious hilltop cave, the birthplace of his first life...



Weerasethakul's acceptance speech was no less poignant, "I'd like to send a message home: This prize is for you." Perhaps this milestone victory in Thai cinematic history will bring a bit of unifying pride to a currently fractured populace. A class act and well deserved win for Weerasethakul.

5.05.2010

Machete

Happy Cinco de Mayo from Robert Rodriguez, Danny Trejo, and all the fine purveyors and supporters of B-movies! The cast list is quite eye opening if not jaw-dropping, but it is good to see such caliber talent coming along for the fun. Without further ado!

4.20.2010

Reign Of Assassins Footage



The sales trailer for the John Woo (Co-)directed feature starring Michelle Yeoh as well as a promo poster. The official title has also been set as Reign of Assassins.



courtesy of MichelleYeoh.info

3.30.2010

Tron (1982) Trailer Reboot

Apologies for making March an unintended "Tron" month, but the final entry for the month just had to go to this expertly recut trailer for the original Tron using today's marketing sensibilities ala my previous post. When you watch this and compare it to the trailer for the Tron Legacy, you start getting a very real sense of what the sequel is lacking...at least in terms about what it is about, or what they want us to know about it.

3.09.2010

Tron Legacy



There is a new trailer for the film which calls itself Tron Legacy. I say "the film which calls itself Tron Legacy" because if the word "Tron" were not part of the title, one may certainly not think it had anything to do with the classic film from the 80s set in the world within circuitry and microchips. Though the trailer is rather vague about the story, intentionally so as this is just a teaser trailer, the obvious point of the footage shown is to sell the world of Tron. In this regard, all visuals seem to say that the creators have missed the mark. The attempt to deliver a more realistic interpretation of the Tron-verse only betrays the nature of the film itself. Can the audience be transported to a unique world when so much of it is so similar to the one they occupy? The production design is certainly exquisite...for an extrapolated vision of the future, but does not necessarily lend itself to what Tron is (or should) be. Sadly, the trailer gives a glimpse of characters in obviously rubber suits with lighted trimmings; of light cycles kicking up rain rooster tails in the night; of Recognizers that appear to be futuristic construction equipment; of a "Tron car" creating billows of smoke as it performs burn outs; of characters riding up fiberglass-like elevators to the game platform; of a Tron apartment decorated with very familiar looking furniture; of a girl lounging on a sofa with a trendy off-the-shoulder outfit. This is not Tron. They may want you to think it is, but it is not. The film may have Bruce Boxleitner and Jeff Bridges, playing both an old & young (the film's best special effect) Flynn, but it is not Tron.

Tron is a world of light, data, apps, programs, electricity, bytes, bit streams, etc. The audience need not, and should not, connect to the real world. Our physics do not apply there. Our mechanics don't work there. Our textiles and materials do not belong there. Unfortunately, the filmmakers have decided to bring Tron closer to the film-goer's imagination, instead of taking them to a place beyond it, which is what a film like this should be doing. Right?

3.04.2010

Bay Rong (Clash)



Bay Rong is the second film by Vietnamese-American director Johnny Nguyen in which he takes the concept similar to Mr. and Mrs. Smith and exploits it as it should have been in the Hollywood version. This is a high energy martial arts crime thriller pitting two ex-cons and would-be lovers against the gangs that had put them in prison. Nguyen's previous film, The Rebel, has also been highly praised and very well received in Vietnam and Bay Rong has built up on that momentum exponentially. Reports suggest that at least domestically, Bay Rong, has been the hands down box-office hit of 2009. Below is a new 2010 trailer, which seems to hint that Nguyen and his film are ready to tackle the international markets after dominating it at home.



Impeccably well shot, the intense and kinetic fight scenes seem to balance nicely with the character work as well as the overall plot line. That final line also suggests a good bit of humor can be found as resting points between the fist-a-cuffs and fireworks. Let's hope this gets picked up internationally soon.

3.01.2010

The Karate Kid (remake)



I'll be upfront, despite misgivings, the above trailer sells a solid-looking film. Certainly another film in the long line of remakes that are being manufactured by the Hollywood machine, but one that at least does not repeat the original version's cues verbatim. The transfer of the setting makes sense with regard to making this about Chinese martial arts rather than Japanese, thus necessitating the casting of a familiar face in the mentor's role. I think without Jackie's involvement, this film might turn out less impressive, at least at the sales stage.

That being said, I won't participate in the net controversy over the title. Some points are valid, others not so. They can call it whatever they like, justify the reasons for it, but if the film does not deliver, then what does it matter. However, what I have been struck by is the surprising level of negative comments the original film is taking. Charges of "corniness," "lameness," "eye-rolling," etc. to describe memories of watching the film and justifying anticipation for this remake had me scratching my head after watching the trailer. The charges leveled on the original seem superfluous considering this remake is hitting all the thematic beats of the original. The bullied lead seeks a way to strike back at his tormentors, seeks the advice of a humble man who turns out to be more than he seems, learns from him that martial arts is not about fighting, but is begrudgingly allowed to display what he's learned to his tormentors in a proper venue that will satisfy both characters' curves. Many familiar scenes seemed to have been creatively transposed to China & Chinese philosophy, and all that remains to be seen is how far they will let Jaden Smith's character "fail" or "lose" before the ultimate "feel good" ending.

So, I don't really understand how folks could be excited about this while disparaging the original. At least to my eyes, this remake seems to be successfully adapting the original's themes to a new era and a new location. If you thought it was "corny" then, then you will probably be rolling your eyes to this one as well....

2.16.2010

A trailer reboot?

Here is an interesting experiment by a rather industrious individuals in response to the increasing amount of remakes/reboots Hollywood is producing: recut the trailer of the original Clash of the Titans and The Wolf Man using today's marketing aesthetics. As you can see below, it's quite effective and it posits the interesting question: if younger audiences were marketed older films with contemporary sensibilities, would it build an interest in viewing older films? I would certainly be for such an endeavor as an appreciation for older material only builds a more sophisticated and savvy audience.





Then again, that's not what the whole remake/reboot trend is all about, right? If people watched older films and demanded newer ones, studios would actually have to develop original ideas. I think it would be safe to say that that well is certainly almost dry—in terms of the majors anyway.

2.03.2010

The Warrior's Way



Here's one of those interesting projects that seems to be flying under the radar, despite what appears to be solid potential behind the scenes. Once called Laundry Warrior, the film now known as The Warrior's Way is an ambitious melding of East and West, literally. The film revolves around "a swordsman from the Far East who flees from his past to the American badlands where he meets the town drunkard, and a circus knife thrower both of whom harbor powerful secrets" that may throw the town into chaos...
It's a simple enough premise, one that lends itself to high concept genre imaginings. However, a premise alone is just the first step. Information has been scarce, but the staff list goes something like this: it is written and directed by NYC Film school teacher Sngmoo Lee, who has partnered with Barrie Osborne of Lord of the Rings to produce the film. "Fight choreography is by SHIMOMURA Yuji, a protoge of Donnie Yen, whose credits include VERSUS and ARAGAMI, while stunts will be overseen by Hollywood veteran Augie Davis (The Water Horse)"*. In front of the camera are the likes of Geoffrey Rush as the Drunkard, Kate Bosworth as the Circus Knife Performer, Tony Cox, and JANG Dong-gun (Taegukgi: The Brotherhood of War, The Coast Guard) as the Warrior. With Osborne's involvement, Weta Digital is sure to provide some effects for some of the ambitious set pieces.
And that's where the information stops. A single promotional image (above) floated around the net for a while, but the August 2009 release date set by the film's press release has come and gone sans film. However, back in June of 2009, a promo reel did emerge, most likely out of Cannes, for the film and gives the only glimpse into the film's stylish visuals, setting, and atmosphere.



As one can see, there is some incredible potential in this reel; certainly not something to judge the final film by, but a enticing glimpse into how the estimated $50 million budget is being (or has been) spent. So, what could be the cause of the delay? With a cast and staff that should by all accounts "sell itself" why has the picture not been picked up for distribution? Have there been cost overruns? Production problems? Or is the film just not working as hoped? The lack of information through official channels certainly undermines confidence in the film. Yet, just seeing the footage presented so far is more than enough to strongly hope that this Wuxia-Western will ultimately see the light of day.

(*source: Kung Fu Cinema)

1.26.2010

Merantau



Martial arts films have in the last couple of decades been largely dominated by Chinese style martial arts, namely some form of Kung Fu, either in theme, content, or just action choreography. As I have written before, Kung Fu photographs well, especially the very dramatic kicks and aerials that can be performed. It captures the audiences imagination, and delivers easy to comprehend impacts. This is due primarily to the popularity of Hong Kong films, with Bruce Lee at that popularity's vanguard. The problem is that there are as many types of martial arts as cultures. Does anyone remember what the karate film looks like? Can modern audiences even tell the difference any more? Muy Thai style boxing and mixed martial arts have started to become popular and films featuring these fighting styles, Ong Bak for example, are opening up the door for films utilizing something other than Kung Fu for their action.

Enter Merantau, a film produced and shot in Indonesia. In it, the main character, Yuda, is a practitioner of Silat Harimau, the regional martial art. Playing Yuda is Iko Uwais, a true Silat disciple and instructor. He was noticed by director Gareth Evans when making a documentary about Silat. Both agreed to produce a film that would elevate Silat to the world stage. The premise of the story is effectively basic. Yuda leaves his quiet village in the countryside as part of his "Merantau," a century's old rite-of-passage carried out by young men that aims to mature boys into men by setting them out to face challenges away from home. Yuda goes to the capital city of Jakarta where his idyllic sense of righteousness collides head on with the underbelly of the bustling metropolis. During the production, Evans, Uwais, and the stunt crew intentionally conceived of screen friendly fighting techniques and a shooting style that would enhance the onscreen dynamics of Silat apart from its real world application. If the trailer below is anything to go by, they have certainly succeeded:



Merantau has been making the festival rounds to very good reviews; it has been picked up in several territories. Be sure to keep your eyes on your local listings for the debut of a new martial art style to the cinematic vocabulary. You can find a link to the official site at the footer of this website.

1.20.2010

Sasori



This is one of those films that stayed under the radar for almost its entire production and release. News of a Hong Kong remake of the classic Female Prisoner #701 Scorpion starring the incomparable Kaji Meiko (the original Princess Snowblade on which Lucy Liu's Oren Oshii is modeled) leaked onto the internet quite a few years ago. One picture from the production managed to be released (the one above) and then silence. No one was sure whether the film got made or not. Then there was word that distributor Eastern Light, a division of Arclight Films, picked the film up, where it then languished unseen for sometime. The film finally was released in Japan last year to very little if any fanfare despite its pedigree and the talent behind it. The key role is played by Mizuno Miki to whom some will be familiar through the Bayside Takedown series. With a rather popular and reasonably accomplished leading woman, it makes the underwhelming way the film was supported even that more perplexing. Joining Mizuno are the likes of Simon Yam, Sam Lee, Lam Suet and other familiar faces across Asia—certainly not a "marketing nightmare."
Joe Ma's take adheres fairly closely to the original's basic foundation. The original series was one of the quintessential works in the "women in prison" films being made in Japan in the 60s & 70s, paralleling similar exploitation genres found in the U.S. and Europe. The central appeal to the Female Prisoner films is the sight of women in engaged in violence toward one another as well as seeking vengeance on the men who wronged them. Being a Hong Kong film, Sasori certainly does not shy away from the action. It helps that Mizuno is a trained martial artist and stunt woman who belongs to KURATA Yasuaki's (Fist of Legend) Kurata Action Club as she is able to convincingly give and take the punishment required by the genre, probably one of a very tiny few who could and still look alluring in the interim.
The trailer below is for the DVD release. As one can see, it promises nothing more than what it is selling: action and the darkest of man's (and woman's) instincts. One would think that the success of Kill Bill should have lent some momentum to Sasori in theatrical release, but be as it may, Tarantino's film is only being used in an associative--"the series that inspired..."--manner.



It can be said that timing is everything. Whatever delays or inside politics led to Sasori missing the Kill Bill boat not only hurt it, but perhaps similar projects as well. Let us hope that someone will have the courage and force of will to revisit this type of film, anything to ease the deluge of forlorn love films that have outworn their welcome.

1.04.2010

Avatar

If a director of unheradled success takes a nearly a decade off before his next offering, that offering has little choice than to be Avatar. Spectacle, epic, love story, parable, technological achievement, Avatar is all these things with not an apology in sight. It is what is in sight, the mind-numbing array of hyper-realized visuals and staccato surround-sound action, that makes the film memorable. You can't help it. You don't have to even like it, but Avatar is throwing things at your eyeballs that your brain barely has time to process, and aren't soon to forget.

As both director and storyteller, James Cameron gives us something wholly his own, under his direct command, for the first time in his career where there are no limits. This is where Avatar is above all things a Cameron film, the flora and fauna of Pandora his fictional stage upon which to set his (literal) star-crossed lovers and white knuckle action sequences. And each is done to exacting specification-- no stone un-rendered, no dramatic expense spared. The story of a crippled marine who's given a chance to see the world as an alien creature and experience its profoundly naturalistic culture... is there any question from the first minute what his destiny is? As such it is too easily dismissed as a plot point, which perhaps ironically is to Avatar's benefit.



What Avatar does not do is herald some new age of film, science fiction or not. The core audience is just too old, those who've likely seen hundreds if not thousands of movies. Every sci-fi trope is thrown at us with abandon, almost insistence, as if Cameron had a checklist he wanted to put out one more time. The script is rife with clich├ęd one-liners, the absolute minimal techno-babble, and overwrought with mother-earth preaching among zero-subtlety politics. But if one were to put cynicism aside, there still exists that magical time in a young person's life where they haven't "seen it all," and it is this narrow window that will captivate untold viewers like all of our favorite movies once did in the past. And it is that very same notion that Avatar will successfully tap into with everyone else, delivering each multi-genre example of itself with the precision of a sledgehammer. Be it geekery, romance, exploration, fantasy, or explosions, Avatar delivers each with enough blunt force to bring any audience into submission long enough for Cameron to see his story through. At times that story is just plain weird, for every visual "wow" moment there seems to be palpable "WTF?" story element. It's unknown wether to berate or smirk at these choices, but it doesn't matter since the film is constantly bombarding the viewer with all things fantastic to re-draw attention, likely by design.



Regardless of how well or haphazardly the above is delivered, what Avatar does do is present a fully realized fictional world unlike any before. Pandora cannot be denied in its visualization on screen, and the sheer scope of its screen time is staggering considering the endeavor involved in making it come to life. The technical achievement is arguably here and not with the blue, nine-foot feline humanoids that run through it. Every plant, leaf, rock, stream, insect-- you name it -- is there and it is alive. A mixture of fantasy ideals from both film and literature ride the line between wholly believable and somewhat plausible to outright dream imagery in motion. The culmination of this is seen in the night scenes of the bioluminescent forest, a dark-light mind-trip cradling the electric life force that is Pandora. Surely the impact and breadth of Pandora is a prominent, if subliminal, element for the audience to attach itself to, which makes its foreshadowed destruction all the harder to watch when the evils of mankind must rear its ugly head.



Mankind is at its ugliest in Avatar, opening Cameron's floodgates for that which he does best, balls-out action. In the battle between marines and aliens, there is no scenario Cameron leaves untouched in the ultimate game of, well, cowboys and indians. The Earth-sanctioned military employs massive drop shops and mech-warrior battle suits, the alien Navi hurl poison arrows and fly dragons. Soldiers plow down acres of forrest with round after round of heavy ammunition, only to be trampled by building-sized, prehistorically-styled rhinoceri. The dragon-like Banshee tear into VTOL copters, ripping engines apart like paper and flinging them into the floating cliffsides that each navigate with perilous speed. These sequences can barely contain description, at their breakneck pace and relentless onslaught of in-your-face hostility. To say Cameron is in his element here gleefully rides distinct understatement.



Amongst all the flight and fancy, the 3D experience is negligible for some, a necessity for others. For Avatar to be the "make or break" movie to bring the current technology to a mass audience, there simply isn't enough to set itself apart from the regular experience. Arrows flying at the audience have pretty much the same effect on Earth as they do on Pandora. Ultimately the audience will create itself out of moviegoers who genuinely enjoy the gimmick, because films of the budget, breadth, and balls of Avatar will be few and far between. As much talk as there was by theaters, technicians, and studios that would wager wether or not Avatar would re-define the moviegoing experiences of the future, how could any of each accommodate or even expect Avatar-level films on a basis regular enough to fulfill the prophecy? For the price of one Avatar, a dozen slasher or kiddie CG pics could be made and draw the same audience. And a small reminder on 3D box office receipts: 3D films average at a $14 ticket and up, way up for IMAX, which significantly tweaks audience/ticket sales reports.

Third dimension aside, Avatar puts itself forward and predominately succeeds in everything it claims to be. It needn't deliver on all counts no matter the effort employed to do so, for each part of the whole is at a level high enough to satisfy expectations low and high alike. For the seasoned cinema goer it holds an undeniable awe be it in genuine appreciation or sarcastic disbelief. Among the far more numerous popcorn chompers Avatar crowbars its uniqueness with no small amount of bravado. Any focused inspection could certainly begin to de-weave the haphazard series of events and CG magician-ship, but it would remain far beside the entertainment brought by the flamboyant pageantry. In Avatar's case it is more than enough.

1.02.2010

Battleships, Monkeys, & CG--oh my.



The first post of 2010 brings some potentially exciting news.

For anyone who grew up on animations of the late 70s and 80s, one should have memories of a series called Star Blazers, the Americanized version of a Japanese anime series "Uchuu Senkan Yamato (Space Battleship Yamato)." It was one of my first exposures to Japanese anime and I still have clear memories of the impact it had on me because of the grown-up nature of the story. It was far far different from "Tom & Jerry" or "Looney Toons." The series has a strong following to this day, especially among men in the late 30s and early 40s—an important demographic for the film industry.

When word broke that a film adaptation of the anime was in the works, I naturally had my misgivings. The story of the series is long and complex, yet its timely message of Earth at a environmental crisis with a group of people heading out to space in a last ditch effort to save it would make a natural draw to contemporary theater-goers. However, there are reasons why anime adaptations have always been difficult; how do you boil down a 24 episode or more storyline down to 2 to 2.5 hours? It is no easy task. What will the filmmakers keep? What will they cut out? What will they add? Peter Jackson proved that an adaptation can incorporate edited, added, and reorganized elements and still hold true to the original source, but he, Fran Walsh and Philipa Boyens spent countless hours writing and rewriting the script, and refining it during the production. This is a practice not found in Japan where the first draft is what usually goes in to production. If they were planning a trilogy of films, I could feel some sense of comfort, but as of this writing, Space Battleship Yamato is a standalone with sequel possibilities depending on box office. I believe this will ultimately affect the quality of the story.
However, some doubts were alleviated with the choice of director: YAMAZAKI Takashi, the man behind SF cult hits Juvenile & Returner as well as the Always: Sunset on Third Street period family drama series. Yamazaki is an expert at subtle uses of CG as a tool to bring the world of his films to life; he is the antithesis of KAZUAKI Kiriya. At least visually, the focus wouldn't be on the FX, but on how the characters live in a world brought to life by SFX. Over the weekend, the first preview CM (commercial) for the film aired:



The production design seems well done, possibly borrowing from the design philosophy of the "Battlestar Galactica" series in the practical realization of the technology. Then there is the CG. On Youtube, it might look fine, but on a 15 foot screen, there is the potential for this space adventure to look immensely artificial. Japan, despite all its technology, is not adept at CGI effects, mainly due to the lack of investment by production companies in the proper equipment and software or to set a portion of the budget to outsource CGI effects to internationally recognized effects houses. In order to save money, producers usually gather a staff using largely off the shelf equipment and software for the duration of the production. In the case of Yamazaki, his production company is also a CGI effects company so he has a slight advantage, but comparisons to even second-tier Hollywood effects houses are not even possible.

Recently, news on the Chinese film news site MonkeyPeaches.com, brought word of a project entitled Da Nao Tiao Gong (Uproar in Heaven), which will be a new live-action film based on the "Journey to the West" fantasy novels. The most important point in the press release is the decision by production company, Filmko Pictures, to contract Weta Digital to animate the Monkey King and deliver other CGI effects. Unlike their Japanese counterparts, Filmko Pictures recognizes Weta Digital's leadership in the type of CG that would be required to bring their film to reality and have decided to earmark a budget to add Weta's expertise to the team.

I have always been of the opinion that Japan could be a leader in CG effects and visualizations. Their long tradition of visualizing fantastic characters, situations, action and effects from manga would be greatly sought after by filmmakers around the world. Sadly, there is no one in Japan's film industry who has vision and courage to invest in creating the infrastructure, training, and environment for CGI effects services. To this day, there are no specialized effects houses in Japan's film industry. There are companies like Yamazaki's, a film production company with a CG department, but a Weta or ILM type company does not exist. This remains one of the Japanese film industry's wasted opportunities...