29 April, 2008

I'm in the hi-fidelity first class traveling set

So here's the thing.

I'm waiting at the supermarket tonight, looking at the DVD stand they have standing by the checkouts. And I don't really understand their selection. Sure, they have a lot of new and newish releases - some films good, some not. But if they're going to sell DVDs, those are the titles they would have on sale. They have a number of classic films - some of the great Disney films, for instance, or copies of the new 2-disc version of 2001. I'm okay with those - especially the Disney films, since people take kids shopping, kids see 101 Dalmatians and want a copy, so I can see that the supermarket would sell those. (Plus, the more kids that grow up watching classic Disney films the better.) But they had a number of films that were old releases, films that had been available for years, films that aren't great (or even good films) just sitting there as part of their selection. And I can't ever see these stores selling these films. They're a waste of space. I mean, really, even if they are selling it for $12.95, is anyone going to see a copy of Men In Black 2 and pick it up it as an impulse buy? Let alone enough people to sell the multiple copies of Mrs Doubtfire they had in stock. Incomprehensible. With a limited amount of space for DVDs, why would you decide to fill the space selling titles like those?

And one other question. This is not a slam on Pink Floyd - I love Pink Floyd, and personally (as a person that never listened to rock music) found Dark Side Of The Moon to be completely revelatory regarding rock's potential as an art form. So I have no problem with supermarkets selling Dark Side Of The Moon, which is an incredible album. But why is it that every supermarket I go to is selling that album, and it's always a copy from Asia, with track titles listed in some Asian characters rather than English. None of the other albums they sell have any indication of being sourced from Asia (one time I actually checked every other CD they were selling), it's just this one album that seems to be being sold at every supermarket I go into. Strange.

You don't like poetry, do you?

So here's the thing.

One of the things I have found interesting about starting this blog is that suddenly you become very nervous. Are people reading the blog? Or am I just spending hours writing posts that are just ignored? If people are reading the blog, are they interested? Do they enjoy reading what I say? Or do they mock me behind my back over things I wrote? (I will confess that there is one post that I wrote, posted, revisited the next day, decided I wasn't happy with it and entirely rewrote from scratch, revisited the following day to write from scratch the third version of that post - I'm still tempted just to entirely delete that post everytime I see it, just because I'm completely mortified by it and hate to think what others think about it.)

Anyway, I never would have expected to have this reaction, but I did. The need for approval is apparently very strong, and the thought that I'm wasting my time, or worse, holding myself up for public ridicule (except when I openly invite it), terrifies me.

Which I think is why the Basic Instructions comic below appeals to me. Mostly because I sympathise with the poetry-writing friend nervously asking whether Scott had visited the website. (Click on the comic to see the larger version that should actually be possible to read.)

Incidentally, I'm a big fan of the Basic Instructions strip. I came across it last year, after Scott Adams (the guy behind Dilbert) talked a lot about the strip on his blog. You can generally rely on it to be very funny - especially since each strip contains four seperate jokes, the odds of some joke succeeding are greatly increased. One of the things I find interesting about the strip is that a lot of it is apparently true - the main character is actually Scott, the writer of the strip. The wife, the friend, and the various other characters are apparently all representations of the real people. For example, in this strip, apparently that particular friend actually does have a website where he publishes his poetry. I can't help feeling like this appropriation of people he knows is a bit cruel, but in a fun way. And at least he gives his friends a right of reply. Anyway, it's a good strip, and worth checking out.

The UNIT dating problem, resolved

So here's the thing.

In this week's episode of Doctor Who, we had a definitive answer to the vexed question of dating the UNIT years. When encountering the modern UNIT operation, the Doctor explained that he used to work for them:

"Back in the 70s. Or was it the 80s?"

It's times like this, when not only do I pick up on in-jokes like this, but I actually laugh out loud at them, that I realise I'm a bit of a geek. And of course, the logical thing to then do is draw attention to this by writing about it in my blog, so that everyone can know just what a geek I am.

28 April, 2008

I'm at a place called Vertigo

So here's the thing.

I would like to go to a U2 concert some day. Not that I'm a huge U2 fan - I own a couple of albums that I picked up cheap, and while I like them, I would probably at best only know the chorus to even their best-known songs. I know which one Bono is, but would have difficulty even remembering the names of the other three without looking it up, let alone recognising them or knowing who plays which instrument. But I do enjoy their music when I hear it.

No, the reason I would want to go to a U2 concert is basically because it's a U2 concert. And U2 have an incredible reputation when it comes to mind-blowing concerts. Basically, from what I hear, they basically seem to put on the best rock concerts of any band. Unfortunately, it's pretty much impossible to get tickets to a U2 concert, so I'm just resigned to never seeing them perform live.

But tonight I got the next best thing. Reading are showing U2 3D this week (and, I am told this week only). It's basically a filmed concert, recorded over nine concerts on the Latin America leg of the band's Vertigo tour in 2006. And it is an experience. There is an immediacy to watching something in 3 dimensions, everything just becomes more real, there is no distance between the screen and the viewer. And with a film like this, for 90 minutes you're up so close to the band as they perform, it really is incredible. I've already written one brief post about 3D movies, (which, now that we've moved beyond red-blue to the polarised 3D technology that doesn't destroy colours, I am very excited to see coming forward as a medium for filmmaking), and this film really shows that the strength of 3D isn't in throwing things at the camera. There are a couple of moments where band members do point at the camera, but mostly they're focused solely on performing to the crowd. And it is those moments where the 3D really shines, because they stop being images on the screen, and become real solid people, and you're not just sitting in a cinema seat, you're really there, with Bono standing right there. I know that's the point of 3D, but the experience is still sufficiently new to me that it still blows me away.

The other great thing is that you're watching the film in a cinema, with cinema sound. It's loud, it's big, it completely envelops you. And with a music film, that's what you want. It's a great experience, one that I can't imagine ever being replicated at home (no, Daryl, not even with your setup).

The point of this post - if you get a chance to see it, seriously, see it. If you need to travel to see it, it is worth it. The only thing I regret is that I wasn't able to see it on the IMAX screen. That would have just made it that much better.

A few other thoughts:

* Watching the credits, it amused me to see listed a "Band Assistant" and an "Assistant to Bono". Why does Bono get his own assistant and the other three have to share? Although really, you're bloody U2, you can afford to hire an assistant each.

* Is it just me, or does it seem weird that a film like U2 3D would be released by National Geographic?

* The depressing thing is, this film was released a week or two after the Hannah Montana/Miley Cyrus 3D concert movie (in fact, the release of the U2 film was delayed after the Hannah Montana run was extended). Guess which one made more money. According to the IMDb, U2 3D has grossed $US7.5 million. Hannah Montana has grossed $65 million. That is just wrong.

* Looking at the Sky City Cinemas website, I see the Martin Scorcese-directed Rolling Stones concert film Shine A Light is out next month. I've heard good things about it, and of course Scorcese does love the Rolling Stones. It's not in 3D, but that should be interesting to see as well.

* They showed the trailer for the Brendan Fraser-starring Journey to the Centre of the Earth 3D movie, which is ... lacking. I haven't read the book since intermediate, and from what I remember it was a rather absurd book (really, dinosaurs roaming a giant underground cavern?) that was alleviated by (what seemed to the 12-year-old me to be) some imaginative writing. But this film? Looks horrible. My main hope is that they have a good reason for the existance of a giant underground rail car track in the centre of the earth, because that really strains credibility.

* Everything I see of Wall-E makes me more excited about that film. And we've got an interesting- and promising-looking set of summer movies coming up - Speed Racer, Narnia, Iron Man. Not to mentioning the fact that we are less than one month away from a new Indiana Jones film. One month.

25 April, 2008

I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together

So here’s the thing.

I see that the film Across The Universe was released last week – and is currently showing (in Wellington) at the Embassy no less. This is very convenient, since I was already planning on writing a post about the film. You see, Across The Universe was the second of the World Cinema Showcase films I saw the other weekend and, like In The Shadow Of The Moon, I keep returning to the film. My feelings about the film are very complicated. On the one hand, I really did enjoy it, and definitely recommend it. On the other hand, it has some serious flaws that are difficult to overcome.

The film is about a bunch of friends in the 1960s. The main character, a Liverpudlian named Jude, travels to the USA to meet his father, an American who had been stationed in the UK during the war. While there he meets a student called Maxwell, falls in love with Max’s sister Lucy, and moves to New York where they live in a shared apartment with a sexy singer named Sadie, where they live a bohemian lifestyle, coming through bathroom windows, using silver hammers, and going on a drug-fuelled bus tour. But then someone is drafted to Vietnam, others get caught up in the helter-skelter of the anti-war protest movement, relationships breakdown, before it is all resolved in a rooftop concert performance of “All You Need Is Love”.

Sorry, I forgot to mention that it’s a musical.

Sorry again, I forgot to mention that it’s a musical where all the songs are Beatles songs. I probably should have mentioned that.

I don’t know much about the Beatles. Most of the Beatles songs that I actually know are the ones we sang in primary and intermediate school – Yesterday, Hey Jude, Let It Be, and the like – plus obviously I know many other songs from use in movies or TV shows. I recognise the Beatles were an incredible band, and from what I know of their work they fully deserve their reputation as the greatest band ever, but for some reason I’ve never really listened to them. Although after seeing Across the Universe, I’ve started to change that.

But even I, with a very limited knowledge of theBeatles, was able to sit in the audience thinking “Lucy, Jude, Sadie, Maxwell (with a silver hammer)? Beatles reference. Someone refers to being 64? Beatles reference. Rooftop concert? Beatles reference.” And there were a lot of references I know I didn’t get – it was only the audience laughter that told me the line “She came through the bathroom window” was a song title. The film so often seems to be contrived to force in reference after reference, sometimes to the damage of the film. The story seems to meander into some plot developments just find a reason to sing certain songs. Characters appear and disappear according to who is needed for the songs – one character, Prudence, does sing a couple of songs early in the film, but her main role seems to be to justify the song “Dear Prudence”. She vanishes shortly after that sequence for quite a while, before they stumble across her having joined a circus(!) with Eddie Izzard as the ringleader (!), and presumably she comes back with them although we don’t really see her again until the finale.

And yet there are the songs. Great songs. Some are played in a very obvious literal way – “All My Loving” sung as a promise by Jude as he leaves, or “With A Little Help From My Friends” sung by Maxwell and his college mates. But at other times, the songs are radically reinvented – “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” is normally a happy song about a nervous new relationship where even the promise of holding hands is a thrill, but the performance in the film makes the point that the song is heartbreakingly sad when you’re never going to be able to hold that hand. That was the moment, about 10 minutes into the film, that announced that, for all its faults, there was something special about the film. That they had attemptewd at least to find something new to say with these songs.

The film was directed by Julie Taymor, and while I missed her first two films (Titus and Frida), I knew to expect something visually (she does have a reputation for spectacle – she is, after all, most famous for directing the incredible stage version of The Lion King). But for the first half of the film, it all seems fairly straight-forward, understated, and realistic, as far as musicals go.

Until one character is drafted and sent to Vietnam to the song “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)”. Suddenly the film goes crazy – a giant Uncle Sam poster reaches down to grab the character, hundreds of recruits are caught in an elaborate medical examination/dance with hundreds of identical Army officers with Bruce Campbell-chins, before being sent on a conveyor belt to a 6-inch-high miniature Vietnamese jungle that they walk across dressed in their underwear while carrying the Statue of Liberty. And however you’re trying to visualise the sequence right now, it’s ten times more insane than whatever you’re imagining.

Suddenly, it’s all go for incredible spectacle. The acid-inspired bus tour of “I Am The Walrus”. The almost hand-drawn animated circus of Mr Kite. The surreal underwater love scene. A violent painting scene juxtaposed with Vietnam violence for “Strawberry Fields Forever”. “Happiness Is A Warm Gun”, sung by injured soldiers in a hospital tended by five sexy nurses that all look like Selma Hayek. It’s brilliant, spectacular, absurd, and one of the most enjoyable cinematic experiences I have had in a long time.

Which makes it seem like I'm just responding to big absurd spectacle. And yet there are smaller moments to – “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”, a small moment of reflection following Martin Luther King’s death. “Across the Universe” (certainly the most beautiful Beatles song I know of) accompanying a moment of pure regret and loss, before continuing on while a harsh “Helter-Skelter” is introduced to accompany a violent anti-war protest/riot. I've never really liked "Let It Be", but the song's accompaniment to a funeral is terribly moving. And while the final rooftop performance is almost too obvious a Beatles reference, even for this film, it still somehow works emotionally.

The main thing about the film is that it just is what it is. It's completely frustrating, but regularly achieves heights of brilliance and imagination that boggle the mind. It's absolutely incredible. I may feel compelled to qualify my recommendation of the film, warn people about the clunky story and inability to avoid a Beatles reference where one presents itself, but I still recommend the film wholeheartedly. I'm going to try and catch another screening while it's on at the cinema, and I'll probably even pick the Blu-Ray disc up so that I'm ready when I have a BD player and HDTV. Because this film will be stunning in high definition.

And, as far as Beatles musicals go, at least it has Joe Cocker and Bono, rather than the Bee Gees.

24 April, 2008

Turning a half century of rock-and-roll history on its head

So here's the thing.

Chuck Berry has revealed shocking new information about where he got the idea for his song, "Johnny B. Goode". And the true story completely changes our knowledge about the origins of rock-and-roll. For more details, read this article.

18 April, 2008

A supercharged sense of reality

So here's the thing.

I just wanted to quickly point to this interview with James Cameron where he talks about the recent rise of 3-D in movies (he's made a number of 3-D documentaries for Imax screens, and his new film, "Avatar" is also 3-D), and the potential for the technology. It's a fascinating interview, technical at some points, but still very accessible. It's well worth reading.

I found these comments particularly interesting:


When most people think of 3-D films, they think first of the gimmick shots -- objects or characters flying, floating or poking out into the audience. In fact, in a good [3-D] movie, these shots should be the exception rather than the rule. Watching a [3-D] movie is looking into an alternate reality through a window. It is intuitive to the film industry that this immersive quality is perfect for action, fantasy, and animation. What's less obvious is that the enhanced sense of presence and realism works in all types of scenes, even intimate dramatic moments.

Right now, 3-D is pretty much being used for films that have some spectacle in them, whether it's "Journey to the Center of the Earth" or "U2 3D"; nobody's talking about using it for domestic dramas. But there are people wondering whether it will actually enhance the impact of character-driven stories. What are your thoughts on how 3-D changes the experience of watching actors act?

I plan to shoot a small dramatic film in 3-D, just to prove this point, after "Avatar." In "Avatar," there are a number of scenes that are straight dramatic scenes, no action, no effects. They play very well, and in fact seem to be enhanced by the stereo viewing experience. So I think this can work for the full length of a dramatic feature. However, filmmakers and studios will have to weigh the added cost of shooting in 3-D against the increased marketing value for that type of film.


A few years ago, a cinema here showed a couple of 1950s era 3-D films - one was the Vincent Price "House of Wax", which was a typical throw-things-at-the-audience 3-D film. But the other one was Hitchcock's "Dial M For Murder". That film only features one such moment - the pivotal scene where Grace Kelly is being strangled, and her hand lunges out towards the audience, straining to reach for a weapon. Most of the time, Hitchcock used the three dimensions in a more subtle way, giving prominance to particular objects or characters, or just creating an environment that just feels more immersive, more real.

So I like the idea of trying to show the potential of 3-D for telling normal stories. I'm a bit worried about Cameron doing it - because he is a spectacle director, not a small story director. (Thinking recently about Titanic, I realised my main problem with the film is the first 100 minutes - once the boat hits the iceberg, it is a brilliant film, and the only reason I don't feel any real compulsion to watch the film is because of the clumsy love story that comes first.) But it's still a nice idea, and an experiment I hope works. I'm certainly looking forward to seeing it.

“My father was born the year after the Wright Brothers...”

So here’s the thing.

The other weekend I went to the movies to see a couple of films in the World Cinema Showcase, a film festival they always hold this time of year. And I've found that both films have really stayed with me over the past two weeks, I find myself returning to the films, pondering them. So I decided to write a couple of posts about the films. The first film was a documentary called In The Shadow Of The Moon, the story of the Apollo missions and the moon landings, told by the astronauts themselves. Really excellent fascinating film.

But one thing I found really interesting was that, when I mentioned that I was seeing this film to a friend, the first thing he said to me was “So, what do you think? Do you think it actually happened?” And when he asked me that, it staggered me for a bit. Because I’ve heard the conspiracy theories about the moon landing being faked, I’ve read the emails, seen the documentaries. And I thought they raised some interesting questions, but I never doubted that the moon landings happened, if only for one reason. There would have had to be thousands of people involved in the faking of the lunar missions. And as far as I am aware not one person has come out in the last 40 years to say “It was faked”. Does that seem likely? Watergate was broken because of one person that decided to leak the details, and everyone manages to keep it secret that one of the most important milestones in human achievement didn't happen? In the last part of the documentary, the astronauts talked about the radical effect that their experiences had on them and the way they saw the world - some became passionate about the environment, and so on. Two of the astronauts apparently because Christians after their lunar experiences caused them to see the world, the universe, and the possibility of a creator in a new way. And yet they sustain a lie about the single most important event in their life for 40 years? So no, I don’t think the moon landings were faked, and the film just reinforced that belief.

But more than that, the film actually made me made me sad about the “faked landing” conspiracy theory. Up until now, it never really bothered me – people can believe it was faked what they want, it doesn’t really matter, it doesn’t make any difference to the truth. But when the subject of the moon landings comes up and the first question out of my friend’s mouth is “Was it faked?” And then you see the film, and you realise how incredible the accomplishment was, it starts to bother you that in the minds of many people, this achievement is diminished, dismissed as having never happened. And that’s sad.

I was born 8 years after the moon landing. It has always been a part of my world, one of the many things that mankind has achieved. It’s one of those things that I’m aware of, but you just take for granted. Which is extraordinary, because it was a stunning achievement. Easily the greatest achievement by humanity in our entire history. One of the astronauts made the comment in the film that his father was born the year after the Wright Brothers flew. Which means we went from first flight to the moon in two generations. That’s just incredible.

And pretty miraculous. JFK established an remarkably difficult challenge when he announed that man would walk on the moon by the end of the 1960s, and the pressure that that created in NASA was intense. We see the early test rockets, blowing up, crashing, generally just failing. We hear about the crew members in Apollo 1 that died in a fire during training, the impact that that tragedy had on the program. We learn about how the race to make it by the end of 1969 was so great that they had Apollo 11, Apollo 12, and Apollo 13 all trained up simultaneously and scheduled to go 2 months after each other. We hear the speech that had been pre-written for Nixon to deliver in the event that Armstrong and Aldrin failed to leave the moon. We discover that the astronauts themselves were heavily involved in the design of the spaceships. And in one of the most fascinating moments, you hear Michael Collins talking about how, once Armstrong and Aldrin had left in the Lunar Module for the surface, he was left to orbit the moon alone in the Command Module, the most lonely person ever - he says he wasn't bothered by it, that he had tasks to do to fill his time, but it's an eerie thought to think of. And all this drives home that this was a dangerous and scary project to be working on. Exciting, radical, historic, yes, but also bloody terrifying.

And there's the impact of the flight on the rest of the world. We've all heard about how the Earth stood still to watch Neil Armstrong take his first steps, but one of the stories I found most fascinating was hearing how the Apollo 11 went on a worldwide tour after they returned. And everywhere they went, it wasn't "You did it", or "The Americans did it". Everyone had the same reaction - "We did it." This wasn't an achievement for the United States, this was an achievement for humanity. Only 24 people have ever orbited the moon, only 12 people have ever walked on the surface of the moon. And yet there is something about this event that made everyone have a sense that they owned that moment. It was a moment quite unlike any other in human history, and that was the exciting thing about the film - that it really brought that moment, that story, that event to life in a way that nothing I had previously seen about the moon landings had achieved. And that was what I found special about the film. Strongly recommended.

17 April, 2008

ATTN: Joshua

So here's the thing.

If you ever have trouble with unruly inmates, this is how you should handle them.

16 April, 2008

Nine Old Men

So here's the thing.

Looking on the CNN website today, I see an article with the headline, "Legendary Disney animator dies at 95". Clicking the link brought confirmation - Ollie Johnston has died. It wasn't a surprise - he was 95. But there was somthing a little shocking about it. Ollie was the last of the Nine Old Men, the animators that were working with Disney back when they were making Snow White. He joined Disney in the mid 30s, working on a few shorts before Snow White, and staying with the company, working on almost every major Disney movie (with the apparent exception fo Dumbo) up until 1981's The Fox and the Hound. Here's his list of film credits, from the website he shared with fellow Old Man, the late Frank Thomas. And there is some extraordinary work there that they created, individually and as partners.

Today we're so used to animation that it's easy to forget how radical their work was. I don't know whether it's true, but I remember reading that, when they put out Snow White, some people seriously believed the human mind could not process animation running for the full feature-length running time. But that's a nice illustration of how significant Disney and the Nine Old Men were. They in effect invented animation as an art form, and worked hard to push the limits of the art's potential. That's one of the things I love about early Disney - yes, Snow White, Pinocchio, Fantasia, Bambi, are all brilliant incredible movies in their own rights, but there is a sense of daring in the films as well, a sense of excitement, a sense that the film makers don't know whether what they are trying will even work, but they push ahead regardless. They changed animation from creating broadly-drawn quickly-identifiable characters for five-minute shorts, to subtle nuanced emotional performers working within the longer movie form. It's exciting to watch.

Today, traditional 2D animation is considered old-hat, and even Disney abandoned it for a while in favour of exclusively CG animation production - a decision that thankfully has been reversed. But I've long since lost my patience with CG animation - it's become the new fad. I'm not interested in Ice Age 2, or Shrek 3, or Surf's Up. They're all much the same - superficially well-made but with little substance, substituting already outdated pop culture references rather than any real substance, and all presented with a slightly artificial plastic sheen. But with a new Pixar film, I'll be there opening weekend, I'll buy the DVD on release day. And that's because they've inherited the legacy of the Nine Old Men. The focus on characterisation, on creating real, subtle performances, and on stretching and developing the boundaries of the new CG-animation art form, all seem to me to be characteristics of the classic work the Nine Old Men did. And it's wonderful to see that legacy maintained.

With the loss of Ollie Johnston, we lost one final link to a remarkable era in film history. And it's sad to think about that.

My condolences to all who knew him.

05 April, 2008

Legen ... wait for it ...

So here's the thing.

Earlier today, I was looking at this post on What's Alan Watching, where Alan Sepinwall posted a bunch of YouTube links to some very funny TV scenes - including a couple of great scenes from How I Met Your Mother (the "Let's Go To The Mall" music video and Marshall's awesome "You Just Got Slapped" song). I was happy to see these again, since I'm a big fan of How I Met Your Mother. In fact, I would argue that it's probably the best comedy on television right now. A lot of that is the writing, which really is exceptional, but it also has a seriously great cast.

Anyway, someone posted a link in the comments to this video, from the Megan Mullally talk show, in which Neil Patrick Harris and Jason Segal sing the Jean Valjean / Javert Confrontation song from Les Miserables. And it is awesome. I'm not sure why - perhaps its just the incongruity between the setting (two guys in casual clothes sitting on comfortable sofas) and the performance (which is strong, angry, and passionate), and the absolute commitment of the two performers, but it really is a lot funnier than anything on the Megan Mullally Show should ever be. Enjoy.