The Oscars Honor The Future

March 9, 2010 § Leave a comment

By Lars Trodson

The most significant event of Oscar night was not Kathryn Bigelow winning an Oscar as Best Director. The fact that this happened in 2010 is not something to be celebrated as much as it is something to be slightly embarrassed by. A woman wins an Oscar for making a movie 90 years after she gets to vote? Wow, America, don’t go crazy.

“The Hurt Locker” wasn’t my movie anyway. I liked it, but I thought it was a series of sketches — it had no narrative thrust, which is what a movie is supposed to do. James Cameron, with “Avatar”, proved once again he can keep a huge piece of machinery chugging along without leaving the audience behind, which is what a good director should do. But my movie was “A Serious Man”, which I think was basically shut out from any wins.

To me the bellweather event of this year was the cinematography award handed to Mauro Fiore for “Avatar.” This was a movie that was largely created inside a computer, with live action shots serving as props. If the movie had any beauty, it wasn’t in the lighting or the composition, it was in the fact that, more than ever, CGI effects could approximate the movements and idiocyncracies of shooting a movie on film. In one CGI shot in “Avatar”, as the camera panned the Pandoran landscape at sunset, a flare shot across the “lens.” I remember feeling ambivalent about what this tiny bit of movie razzle dazzle actually foretold.

Now that this “flare” has won an Oscar, what it represents is a firm but narrow leap into the future, which is how the Academy tends to do things. It takes the Academy years to recognize just how fast movies change, so they tend to give innovative filmmaking a nomination (“2001: A Space Odyssey”) but give the win to something more traditional (“Oliver!”). It’s been too much for the Academy to leap in to the future with both feet, even though the audience obviously has.

Just last year and the year before,  the cinematography branch of the Academy was honoring films that were actually shot and made to look beautiful by the choices the director of photography made. Last year it was “Slumdog Millionaire” and the year before it was “There Will Be Blood.” Even “Pan’s Labyrinth” from 2007 was more traditional craftwork than a bold new jump into the future.

But the Cameron/Fiore “Avatar” is a whole new animal. I suspect the voting members understand where the future is headed – even more conventional movies like “It’s So Complicated” and “The Bucket List” are so shined up with effect shots that they’re more of a hybrid than we tend to think. So if that is where you think you are headed, you might as well honor it, because that may be the only way you’ll be honored yourself.

Now that this choice has been made, that is, an Oscar actually given to new technology, I suspect you will see a gradual acceptance of other innovations, such as roles largely caught by “performance capture” nominated in the acting categories.

But I don’t suspect any one way of filmmaking will take over. In the 1950s, when Hollywood was also turning to fantasy and special effects to combat the competition, there was still a balance. In 1959, when “Ben Hur” swept the Oscars, its competition included “The Diary of Anne Frank.”

This year “Avatar” became the highest grossing film of all time, but it was beat out by “The Hurt Locker”, an independent that was essentially about three men in war.

So there will always be a balance. But at the Oscars this year, the future arrived, in baby steps.


Is ‘Avatar’ Our ‘Titanic’?

December 27, 2009 § Leave a comment

Is the little handmade film with real people finally a thing of the past?
By Lars Trodson
The question about whether James Cameron’s “Avatar” is the future of movies shouldn’t be framed in terms of its technical achievements but in terms of what audiences will now expect in order to be entertained.
Are the only movies that will truly transport an audience are those made by thousands of people with a $300 million pricetag?
Critics are hailing “Avatar” as not only a great entertainment but the very future of the medium. The idea behind this prophesy is a little demented. They’re all saying that with enough money, time and computer technicians, you can create a similar movie. No, no — you NEED to create a similar movie. Otherwise you’ll just have made a little talky thing with people moping about. And no one will care.
Which means that the technicians may finally have won.

My worry isn’t really with the Hollywood people. They’ll have enough time and energy and computer programs to create whatever kind of entertainment they want and think we need.
But I wonder how this will challenge the other end of the filmmaking spectrum; that is, us little guys on the bottom of the food chain who still think the story is the most important thing and that drama ought to be created between people trying to work their way through regular life.
That idiom now seems so unimaginably quaint — as far as the movies are concerned.
How do filmmakers with no money or no interest in special effects approach our craft? Do we give in, and try to make a little four-minute extravaganza for the next film festival in order to get noticed?
Our little company recently submitted a short film called “Tuesday Morning” to the Sundance Film Festival. This film takes place on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001 and the only special effect in it is the beauty of the two performances in the movie. We recently showed the film in Portsmouth, and after two showings the small crowds stuck around to talk about the film for more almost an hour. Other people who have seen it have also thought it was a truly remarkable little movie.
We did not make it into Sundance, but a short film called “TUB” did, and that’s about a guy who masturbates in his bathtub and impregnates it. I’m never going to write a film like that, and I don’t think I ever wanted to write a film like that.
Am I jealous? Sure, of course I am. I’m also frustrated, and perhaps I’m a little melancholy. I’m beginning to think that I’m too old fashioned, my sensibilities too out of date to try to cut through the CGI glitter.
And maybe the folks who are in charge of the film festivals will think so, too, and I guess that is what causing me this angst. Maybe the one place that I thought filmmakers such as myself always have a home, the film festival, aren’t going to be so hospitable any longer.
It could also be they won’t get the kind of film I make much longer anyway. Now that Roger Ebert and almost every other critic have defined “Avatar” as the benchmark against all other cinematic entertainment, then that assessment is almost certainly going to filter down to the films that young artists decide to make. If I was younger, and just thinking about starting to write and direct my first film, I’m not sure my model would be Orson Welles. It would be Steven Spielberg, James Cameron, Robert Zemeckis and Michael Bay.
After all, everytime there is a small, character driven film released to theaters, it almost invariably has attached to it the story about how hard it was to get financed, how the actors had to work for nothing, and how it was released in a few theaters at awards time only to go straight to DVD. What fun is that?
I don’t want to give up hope — and maybe I shouldn’t. After all, it’s not even as though I dislike Cameron. I don’t. I think he’s amazingly talented. But I do, quite suddenly and with more finality than I ever have ever felt before, feel like the story ideas I have are the dramatic equivalent of the buggy whip — do we need them? Why would anybody want one?
I suppose we will keep trying — those of us who, even though we use a computer, save successive drafts of a script or a story because that’s what we used to do when we typed on paper.
We’ll keep trying because that is what we do. There is always the possibility that those of us who ride bicycles on the digital highway can still make a showing.

Clash Of The Remakes: Do We Need Another ‘Excalibur’?

December 15, 2009 § Leave a comment

By Mike Gillis

We’ve commented before on the growing and aggravating trend in Hollywood to remake perfectly good movies, sometimes for no other reason than to shift from black and white to color (“Psycho?”). Movies from a few years to a few deacdes old now get the makeover regularly.

Two recent entries into what I like to call the repeat genre remind me how barren the well of creativity in Hollywood has become. What’s more, both remakes are themselves based on works hundreds of years old. And in both cases, I suspect, they serve no other purpose but to road test new and improved digital effects.

Bryan Singer, who leveraged the critical success of “The Usual Suspects” to carve out a career as a mediocre, big budget director, is now tackling a remake of John Boorman’s “Excalibur.”

According to various accounts, Singer secured the rights, along with Warner Brothers, by agreeing to conditions laid out by Boorman, presumably that the story not deviate from the original.

It’s odd for a host of reasons, not least of which is that “Excalibur” was based on Sir Thomas Mallory’s “Le Morte d’Arthur,” if not in scope, certainly in mood (excepting a bit of explicit sex stripped from the PG version for schools). And I don’t think one needs to buy the rights, since Mallory has been dead for five centuries. So, I’m guessing Singer and Warner Brothers bought a name more than a story.

What’s worse, though, is that “Excalibur” is actually a fine movie. It may suffer a bit from the lingering hippie prism of the 70s (the film was released in 1981) but it’s a showcase of solid acting (a young Gabriel Byrne and a mesmerizing Helen Mirren) and thoughful and calculated directing. Better than that, it’s a movie built from the ground up, without heavy-handed special effects or digitally enhanced set pieces. The locations are real, and as in the original story, presented as characters. There are no sweeping battles between legions of computer generated soldiers here, only the brutality of medieval melee. (The battle scenes owe some gratitude to Orson Welles and “Chimes at Midnight”; see our review of ‘Chimes’ here.)

It’s a shame that Boorman even shopped it around, if that’s the case, and that we’ll likely end up with X-Men go medieval.

Another remake, already complete and ready to hit theaters is “Clash of the Titans” (see the trailer below). I guess this one at least makes some sense. Personally, I’m a childhood fan of the original, which featured the stop-motion magic of Ray Harryhausen. Stop-motion animation, of course, has long since been supplanted by digital FX, but I have yet to be convinced, for all the advances in digital cinema wizardry, that we’re closer to lifelike illusion. And, no, I don’t think James Cameron’s “Avatar” gets us there, either.

But at least “Clash of the Titans” is simple mythology — well, an amalgamation — and no matter how it’s wrapped up, it’s still an old story that’s told again and again. The remake, which again seems to be only an attempt to commandeer a popular title, is aiming for a new generation of computer gamers and VFX aficionados. The original may have been campy, but it was slick camp that pushed some technical boundaries. The remake? Not so much.

If you don’t agree with me on these, how about these remakes in the works?

“They Live”
“Creature from the Black Lagoon”
“Angel Heart”
“Last Tango in Paris”
“Near Dark”
“The Rocky Horror Picture Show”
“The Dirty Dozen”
“Conan the Barbarian”

See the trailer for “Clash of the Titans” here:

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